Our first Hilton stay: the redesigned Resort in Santa Barbara

Our first Hilton stay: the redesigned Resort in Santa Barbara

Article and photos by Scott S. Smith

The entrance to the recently remodeled Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort

The first Hilton my wife, Sandra Wells, and I ever stayed at was the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort (633 East Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara, California 93103, +1 805 – 564-4333, text +1 805 – 465-9770, fax +1 805 – 564-4964, reservations 800/879-2929, https://www.hiltonsantabarbarabeachfrontresort.com/) in June 2019. In 2018, it had undergone a $15 million redesign and renovation. It had previously been a Double Tree, a Hilton brand, part of its 30-year partnership with the family of actor Fess Parker. The location was where a roundhouse for the Southern Pacific Railroad was built in 1911 and demolished in 1982 to make way for the resort, opened in 1986 (hence, the name of the hotel’s breakfast room, The Roundhouse).

The initial view of the hotel was striking: it had three levels and was spread out over 24 acres with large lawns, with a pale exterior and red tile roof, a design inspired from the Spanish heritage of California. Santa Barbarans like their buildings to fit into the environment, rather than being tall monuments to corporate egos that demand the highest possible viewpoint. The hotel was within easy walking distance (about one mile) of Santa Barbara’s quaint downtown.

The lobby was open, airy and spacious with white and pastel colors.

Our check-in went smoothly, with well-informed and courteous associates trained, as general manager Chris Inman told us, “to get to know our guests so we can provide exceptional service with sincerity and authenticity.” Because we were two hours early for the hotel’s 4 p.m. check-in time (for an extra charge it was possible to book a room as early as 7 a.m.) we had to wait an hour while the staff completed the cleaning of Room 336. It was a King Bed Resort View Balcony in the Gardenia building connected to the lobby, priced at $335 that particular night. It came with a Daily Resort Charge card listing amenities, such as a two-hour bicycle rental ($30 value), basic Internet access for two (worth $12.95 and premium was available for an extra $15.95). Standard WiFi was ubiquitous throughout the hotel. Our room rate also included two bottles of bottled water in the room (a $7 value). Self-parking cost $25 a day (valet parking was $35). Shuttles provided complimentary transport from the Amtrak station and the Santa Barbara International Airport from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. There was an electric vehicle charging station.

The view of East Beach from the Rotunda outside the lobby

The lobby was open, airy and spacious with white and pastel colors, perhaps an appropriate entry for a destination renowned for its mild climate and sophisticated, artsy culture. The hallway walls and carpets also were in subdued hues of turquoise, gold, gray, white with seascape paintings on the walls of public spaces and our room (the hallway walls were bare). The design was meant to provide a feeling of being in a calming oasis from the turbulence of the outside world, according to promotional materials.

Beyond the far doors of the lobby was the 20,000-square-foot open-air Plaza del Sol, suitable for dining and dancing, with stairs to the second level Rotunda, providing views of East Beach just beyond the lawn and highway (on the other side of the property are the low and lovely Santa Ynez Mountains).

Our spacious (450 square feet) Hilton room

Some of the furniture in our room

In the lobby was the Fess Parker Wine Tasting Room with a self-service wine dispenser. At The Set restaurant there were photos from Parker’s career on the walls. He is best-remembered as the star of Disney’s Davy Crockett mini-series on ABC in 1955-56 (he was discovered by Walt himself and in 1991 was named a Disney Legend); and portraying Daniel Boone in an NBC series 1964-70. He bought hotels and a winery, which now has 1,500 acres of vineyards. His son and daughter run the company. He passed away in 2010. The logo on their bottles is a golden coonskin cap, a reminder of his most famous roles. The winery appeared under another name in the movie Sideways.

Partial view of the fitness center

The main floor had: business desk with a computer and printer, ATM, car rental desk, concierge, gift shop, fitness center, and salon and spa. The resort was pet-friendly. There was a $50 non-refundable cleaning charge per pet.

Our room was 450 square feet in size with an open design. It had the following security features: an automatic door closer, electronic locks, a secondary locking device, a thumb dead bolt, a wide-angle door viewer, and a hidden safe. We found the king-size mattress and pillows comfortable. We requested that our room not be cleaned during our overnight stay. We dispensed with the turn-down service, and noted the commendable policy that unless otherwise requested, linens were changed every three days to minimize impact on the environment.

Furnishings included beige oversized loveseat sofa bed, armchair, desk with chair, and large chest of drawers. In the closet there was an iron and full-size ironing board. Among the amenities was a landline with speaker phone and voicemail. In addition to the empty mini refrigerator, there was a bucket for the ice machine in the hallway next to the elevator. The flat-screen TV was a 55 inches LG LED with HBO, ESPN, and other premium cable channels. It was easy to use and turned on quickly.

The walls, ceiling, and carpet in our room adhered to the resort’s color scheme of white, beige, tan, gray, and turquoise. We liked that drawing the drapes made the room dark for sound sleeping (we had to cover the lighted clock when we were not using it as a night light). There were copies of USA Today and Santa Barbara Magazine in our room. There was a complimentary welcome tray with nuts, dried fruit, and cheese.

 

Our bathroom

The sink was deep and wide (9 inches x 14 inches), the water turned hot immediately, and there was plenty of counter space. The toilet flushed strongly. I found the bathroom lighting fine, while some hotels try to be sophisticated by setting it too soft. Sandra felt it was too bright and would have liked to have a magnifying mirror for makeup. The shower was easy to use (unlike some at top hotels that are annoyingly complicated), powerful, and the water came out hot quickly. Sandra would have preferred a wider spray option. The hairdryer was the powerful Conair 1875. The shampoo, conditioner, and soap were Crabtree & Evelyn. We forgot to bring toothbrushes, toothpaste, and a nail file. It would have been helpful to find those amenities in our room.

The pool view from our balcony

From our private balcony, furnished with a small round table and two chairs, we had a partial view of East Beach on the Pacific Ocean. The 85 feet by 50 feet swimming pool, was by far the largest we have ever seen at any hotel we have stayed at. The pool was open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. We had to delay our normal bedtime to 10 p.m. because the noise from the pool was so loud.

According to promotional materials, the hotel complied with the guidelines of Americans with Disabilities Act in guest and public areas from the restaurants to the fitness center. There was a handicapped lift for those who needed help entering the pool. Our room had a 32 inch clearance width; there were Braille room numbers and closed-captioning on TV; we understood that flashing lights would accompany the sound of fire alarms in public areas.

The Set was a bistro-style restaurant and full bar (featuring Fess Parker photos on the walls), with a patio for al fresco dining overlooking, in the background, the sea, and ever-burning outdoor fire pits. It was open from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., including a Yappy Hour at 4 p.m. when pooches received complimentary dog biscuits (Happy Hour was 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.). The food was locally-sourced and inventive. The restaurant did not accept reservations. Because we were on a tight schedule, we had pre-ordered some menu items. We arrived early and changed our order. Anthony Fanella, director of food and beverage for the resort, ensured our new choices were prepared on time (he answered some of our questions about the hotel in general and introduced us to the Rotunda, which we might have overlooked, the perfect vantage point for a photo of East Beach).

Al fresco dining

We shared a delicious and Tomato Soup au Gratin with aged cheddar ($12). We also tried the Tomato and Peach Salad, with Burrata mozzarella, pickled cherry tomato, arugula, mint, preserved lemon, olive oil, and aged balsamic ($17). I had the Kobe Burger with the plant-based Hungry Planet patty. I found it to be a perfect knock-off of a beef burger ($20). Sandra ordered the Quinoa Fricassee, with toy-box tomatoes, olives, caramelized onions, haricots verts, carrots, cauliflower, preserved lemon, piquillo peppers coulis, and thyme ($19). Our wait-person, Jay, was friendly and helpful. She had only been there a week and came from a popular high-end restaurant. We had a tasty and pleasant meal.

We shared a delicious Tomato Soup au Gratin with aged cheddar.

For breakfast we had the buffet in The Roundhouse ($58 for two plus tax and tip). I liked the Royal Coffee, while Sandra liked the chamomile and green tea blend. She enjoyed a custom-made vegetable-and-cheese omelet. She found the toaster too slow, yet it could suddenly burn, if not watched carefully. I liked the organic granola blend and honey milk, the granola and berry yogurt parfait, plain Greek yogurt with honey, and something I had never tried, overnight oats, which had been soaked in milk. We also sampled some of the ripe fruit and juices.

In the morning we had the buffet in The Roundhouse.

The property was a promising introduction to the new Hilton brand because the location and design were matched to support a relaxing and enjoyable experience with friendly and helpful staff, rather than formal and purely reactive, as at some top hotels. We are eager to try out some of the many other types of properties within the brand and the amenities we did not have an opportunity to experience this time.

New Zealand cottage in serene, pretty surroundings

New Zealand cottage in serene, pretty surroundings

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

A panoramic view of the cottage and its grounds (click to see full size)

During a recent trip to the South Island of New Zealand I spent two nights at Ferry Mans Cottage, part of the 40-acre Birds Ferry Lodge and Ferry Mans Cottage (163 Birds Ferry Road, Westport, New Zealand, +64 21337217, birdsferrylodge.co.nz, info@birdsferylodge.co.nz) luxury boutique lodge established in 2004 by Alison and Andre Gygax. They had embarked on the development of the property relying on Alison’s love of cooking and her degree in hospitality as well as Andre’s 15 years of experience as a South Island tour guide.

A sign by my cottage door

One of two bedrooms at Ferry Mans Cottage

From the main house it was a short stroll to my two-bedroom one bathroom northwest facing 1,200 square foot (estimated) cottage. Although at night the road that connected the cottage with the lodge was rather dark during the day it was an easy sunlit walk. On the first night I had dinner in the lodge with other guests and my tour guide. I enjoyed a refreshing pinot noir on offer along with several cheese filled dates Alison prepared. Dinner was a set menu.

Another bedroom

The well equipped kitchen included a washer and dryer.

Andre and Alison served snacks and drinks at 6:30 p.m. sharp to everyone together before we dined at a shared table in the lodge main room. Because in the evening there were mosquitoes and sandflies, when we stepped out on the terrace to admire the sunset we were invited to apply repellent. At the conclusion of the meal, two guests climbed into the lodge hot tub in the back porch. I returned to Ferry Mans Cottage.

A view of Ferry Mans Cottage from across the manmade pond

The night of my arrival the owners explained that a photography team was scheduled for the following day, asking if I would mind if they photographed my cottage while they were there. That meant making myself absent from the cottage during the only full day I would spend at the property (check out was at 10 a.m. the following morning). I got the impression the photos were important to them so although it was inconvenient I agreed, ensuring my belongings remained packed before I left for breakfast at 8 a.m., earlier than I had planned to go out. Later I found out the photos were necessary because the property was for sale. The “Business will sell as a going concern and we will be involved in the handover to ensure all services and standards remain,” Alison replied by email when I asked about the listing.

Alison and Andre Gygax in the Birds Ferry Lodge kitchen

Inside Ferry Mans Cottage, including the dining table, fireplace, sofa, bathroom and kitchen

The main course at dinner

Perhaps my favorite feature of the handicapped friendly cottage was its serenity and its views to the onsite rain forest from the back, and to an expansive lawn and a pretty manmade pond from the front. Cottage amenities included WiFi (limited to 500 megabytes), television, fireplace, homemade cookies, fruit bowl, and well equipped kitchen, including a washer and dryer. I was strongly urged to hang my clothes on an exterior clothesline instead of using the dryer to conserve energy. Since they didn’t want to photograph the cottage with my clothes hanging from the clothesline the owners agreed to hang the clothes at the end of the photo shoot. When I returned that evening they were damp and crumpled in the hamper.

One of the many pretty flowers in the lodge’s kitchen garden

Children and “well behaved pets” were welcome in the cottage. Cottage guests could prepare their own dishes in their private kitchen or request meals in advance from the lodge. Alison used as many fruits and vegetables from her garden and ingredients from local producers as she could in the meals, she explained later. Breakfast consisted of continental options as well as cooked to order pancakes or eggs and sides.

Alison used as many fruits and vegetables from her garden and ingredients from local producers as she could in the meals.

On request it was possible to visit the kitchen garden and the rain forest. I visited the garden in the morning while the photography team was in my cottage. In the early evening, Andre guided me through the rain forest until we were caught by rain showers. He pointed out scented orchids, sterile moss, berries, rimu and beech trees.

During the day, the road that connected the cottage to the lodge was an easy walk although at night it was rather dark.

One of the property features I liked was that the owners were kind to the environment, recycled whenever possible, including plastic, metal, glass, cardboard and paper. They fed kitchen scraps to their chickens, harvested their own water, used solar water heating, and relied on a chemical free cleaning system.

At Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge excellent game viewing

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Watching the sun come up with the Southern Pride was one of the highlights of our trip.

On a recent safari trip to South Africa we stayed at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge and Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge (Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Wildtuin, Mpumalanga, South Africa, lodge +27 13 7355-656, Sabi Sabi head office +27 11 447-7172, www.sabisabi.com, res@sabisabi.com). The two five star properties, members of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, were family owned and located within the 6,000 hectare Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, which is within the Sabi Sand Reserve. It in turn is a Big Five reserve adjacent (without fences) to the famous Kruger National Park. At Bush Lodge we stayed in comfortable and spacious rooms, and we especially enjoyed the game viewing in a private vehicle and spa massage.

Our beds had color coordinated mosquito netting, a change from the customary white netting

Our spacious bathrooms had a bathtub as well as indoor and outdoor showers.

During our visit, Stefan Schoeman, general manager lodges, Sabi Sabi, assisted us with camera related issues with speed and ease. We were glad to have our cameras in good working order since we saw the Big Five at Bush Lodge. On our first of two game drives we saw four of the Big Five. We drove around in an open Toyota LandCruiser in search of wildlife and interesting natural features to observe. We were delighted to have the game vehicle and Francois Rosslee, ranger, and Dollen Nkosi, tracker, to our selves. We have found that private game drives enhance our bush experience. So it was at Bush Lodge. Francois, a friendly man fond of his job, had been our ranger at Earth Lodge, where we had shared the vehicle with two other guests. That facilitated our arrival and check-in at its sister lodge.

The main deck had several lookout points over the dry river

Francois was a Full Trails Guide Level 2 of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) with six years of experience and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy. Dollen had attained a FGASA Tracker Level 2 and had been with Sabi Sabi for nine years.

Our ranger Francois Rosslee (right) horsing around with Lawrence Mkansi, assistant lodge manager and head ranger

At Bush Lodge we saw the following mammals: buffalo, common duiker, dwarf mongoose, elephants, hippopotamus, kudu, leopard, lion, scrub hare, side-striped jackal, spotted hyena, tree squirrel, vervet monkey, warthog, waterbuck, white rhinoceros; insects: African monarch butterfly, Broad-bordered grass yellow, blue pansy, scarlet tip; trees and shrubs: jackalberry, knobthorn, leadwood, buffalo-thorn, silver cluster-leaf, large-leaved rock fig, greenthorn, and tamboti; and plants: wild cucumber, fannel weed, feather-top chloris, herringbone, and thatching yellow.

We saw or heard the following bird: African fish eagle, African grey hornbill, African scops-owl, bateleur eagle, Burchell's starling, Cape glossy starling, Cape turtle dove, crested barbet, crested francolin, dark-capped bulbul, emerald-spotted wood-dove, fork-tailed drongo, go-away-bird, greater blue-eared glossy starling, green woodhoopoe, magpie shrike, rattling cisticola, redbilled oxpecker, southern yellow-billed hornbill, spotted thick-knee, Swainson's spurfowl, laughing dove, Flappet lark.

One of the lions

Approaching a sighting in progress

The 25 room family friendly property owned by Hilton and Jacqui Loon had two swimming pools, an amply stocked boutique shop (branded clothing, jewelry, coffee table books, art, accessories), Amani Health Spa, and EleFun Children’s Centre. Although the game reserve and lodge opened in 1979, during 2015 and 2016 the public areas and rooms were completely refurbished.

Our rooms had a sitting area, desk and small outdoor patio facing the dry riverbed.

Our 80 square meter well appointed Luxury Suites faced a dry riverbed. They were comfortably furnished (I especially appreciated the large pleasantly firm bed), quiet, cool when it was hot outside and warm when it was cold. Like its sister property it had a number of amenities such as coffee machine, mini refrigerator and perfume scented Charlotte Rhys toiletries as well as thoughtful touches like a convenient location for electric plugs on the desk and pre-stamped postcards.

We had excellent closeup sightings of Cape buffalo, one of the Big Five.

A young kudu male with horns just developing

Stefan Schoeman, general manager, was a gracious host.

Meals were buffet style, with a made to order station, in an open air dining room in the main area. We sat at the table of our choice, where staff took our beverage orders. We enjoyed a delicious dinner, including Lamb neck, grilled meat and venison (gemsbock) in the boma (African open air enclosure).

The pool deck had a view of the river

One of my favorite activities was a massage treatment with Tarren, the spa manager and Francois's girlfriend. Had there been more time I would have explored the spa menu further. The excellent Big Five game viewing and spa treatment made our stay at Bush Lodge special. I would return and recommend it to friends seeking a family and group friendly stay in the Sabi Sand Reserve.

Affordable luxury at The Berkeley Hotel in Richmond, Virginia

Affordable luxury at The Berkeley Hotel in Richmond, Virginia

Article and photos by Scott S. Smith


View from the top floor of The Berkeley Hotel in the restored tobacco warehouse district of downtown Richmond, Virginia

My bride, Sandra Wells, and I wanted to take our April 2017 honeymoon somewhere we could indulge our interest in history. We had never been to any of the sites related to the American Civil War and looked for the best place to learn more about that darkest of periods in our history. Atlanta had surprisingly little to offer, Gettysburg and most other battlefields were remote and focused just on local events, while we wanted to get a good overall understanding of the period. We came to realize that by far the best destination for this was Richmond, Virginia, around which dozens of battles were fought, since the capital of the Confederacy was just 109 miles south of Washington, D.C.

After consulting reviews and talking with experts in local tourism, we decided to spend two of our four nights at a 55-room luxury boutique hotel in the restored historic tobacco warehouse district in downtown Richmond, The Berkeley Hotel (1200 East Cary Street, Richmond, Virginia 23219, 804-780-1300, 888-780-4422, www.berkeleyhotel.com, info@berkeleyhotel.com). Downtown is just nine miles or 15 minutes from Richmond International Airport. It was built in 1988 by the Dobbs Family and prices were remarkably low for a four-star property (discounted because of ongoing renovation).

The Berkeley was set on the western edge of Shockoe Slip, whose cobblestone streets were a reminder that it was where the city started, and near the Central Business District. The hotel was an easy walk to the James River, where the American Civil War Center was located, and to the State Capitol, where the hemisphere’s oldest active legislature met (Richmond became the colonial capital in 1780; five years before, in a nearby church, Patrick Henry had given his speech with the famous phrase, “Give me liberty or give me death”).


The bed in our King Terrace View Room

The hotel assigned us a 300 square feet (27.8 square meters) King Terrace View Room on the top (sixth) floor. It had a balcony furnished with chairs to look out over the restaurants and stores that had breathed new life into the historic district. I’m not one to notice much about room décor, but there were lovely framed prints of flowers on the walls. We soon learned that many guests like to return to see how their new room is decorated because each was designed differently from all the others in carpeting, wallpaper, furniture, and even shape (there was a photo gallery on the website to compare some examples). The air conditioning and heat controls were easy to use and effective. The closet contained two terry cotton robes, an iron, and ironing board. There was a safe at the front desk.

The bed was very comfortable, with 100 percent Frette Italian linens, while the pillows were filled with down and feathers. The room was clean and we allowed cleaning once during our stay (it was normally once a day) and refused turn down service. We agreed to the hotel’s default policy of reducing impact on the environment by changing the linens every three days. Rollaway beds were available for an extra charge.

The bathroom in Room 604

There was a combination bathtub and shower with a powerful hydromassage showerhead. Like virtually every other luxury hotel we’ve been in, it had a makeup mirror with moderate (inadequate) lighting. There was a single sink, with toiletries from Gilchrist and Soames and cucumber and acai berry soap on the counter. The most unusual item was dental rinse (not something we normally have seen and helpful when dealing with flight liquid restrictions). There were two telephones, by the toilet and by the bed (local calls were free).


The desk and television side of the room

There was a coffee maker in the room, but we preferred to go to the lobby at 6:30 a.m. weekdays for fresh-made coffee, 7:00 a.m. on weekends (sweeteners included the best alternatives to sugar, stevia and erythiritol, which we have not seen often even in top hotels). There was also a desk and a 32-inch flat-screen LG television with cable. On the other side of the room there was a sitting area with stuffed chairs and a small round table.

There was complimentary high-speed wireless in the room and some public areas. There was no mini-bar or refrigerator, but ice machines were one floor below and elevators were fast (in a small hotel, that made transfers to other floors almost instantaneous). Complimentary health club privileges were available at the nearby Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Children were welcome and the hotel was pet-friendly, charging $50 per stay, one per room up to 25 pounds.


Our bed in the Governor’s Suite

Any hotel can create a nice environment with upscale carpets, décor, and furniture. Under normal circumstances, adequate training may produce good service. But a crisis highlights staff's ability to balance conflicting demands from customers. On our first night at The Berkeley, we were asleep when around midnight we were awakened by a party next door. We asked them to keep it down, but when people get drunk they have a hard time judging whether they might be disturbing others. We finally called the front desk and within minutes a security representative invited us to move to Room 608 before he dealt with our neighbors. This seemed prudent: in our experience, most hotels prefer to start by asking guests to not disturb others, which usually just drags out the resolution. We had barely unpacked, so it was an easy move down the hall.

We were surprised when the new room turned out to be the Governor’s Suite, a pair of rooms behind a set of doors separating them from the rest of the top floor. The bedroom was 600 square feet (55.7 square meters) and had a 37 inch flat screen Philips television. Next to it was a Keurig coffee maker with Royal Cup and Green Mountain options. A three-panel full-length mirror stood in one corner. There were several sofa chairs around a low glass table and plenty of room for a small group to visit after a wedding (which is what the Suite was often used for, as well as for birthday celebrations and other special events; the adjacent room we just peeked into was for the reception or a dinner). The four-poster bed had two mattresses, which made for comfortable sleep. The Suite was rented the next night, so we returned to 604 in the morning.


The bathroom in the Governor’s Suite

The bathroom in 608 was larger than 604, the single sink had more counter space, and the décor was nicer (large gold-trimmed mirror and lights). There was also a large walk-in shower, rather than the small tub-shower combo in 604.


The view from the Governor’s Suite

There was a balcony with chairs outside 608 and a sculpture of a fish-headed, Egyptian-style god. The view was of the Central Business District.


Artwork in one of the hotel hallways

The rooms and hallways were decorated with prints of paintings from the colonial era and old maps, which made it seem a place of Southern elegance from a bygone time. Many on the 60 staff of the hotel spoke Spanish. The ones we spoke with were knowledgeable about the city when we asked questions.

William Price III, chef, The Dining Room


The Dining Room at The Berkeley

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served on the ground level in adjacent rooms, with a bar in the middle at the main restaurant, The Dining Room. William Price III, the young and friendly chef, had studied at the Pennsylvania School of Culinary Arts and Le Cordon Bleu Institute’s Pittsburg campus.

The Dining Room’s Amuse Bouche

A salad at The Dining Room

 The chef's Signature Southern dish

We enjoyed our breakfast, including the Signature Farmers Market Quiche, grits, a three-egg omelette with aged cheddar cheese, onions, and sautéed mushrooms, the Southern specialty fried green tomatoes, and a salad. There wasn’t a vegetarian option on the dinner menu. While Chef Price was whipping up a meatless experiment he had been working on, we amused our palettes with the Amuse Bouche, an appetizer of grilled French baguette, pimento cheese, and pickled vegetables, with sorghum balsamic vinaigrette, an apple peach crisp, and bread pudding. The chef’s Signature Southern, a tentative name, was a delicious concoction with five green tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and sautéed spinach risotto.

We only had time to see the top priorities on our list in three days, including the Virginia Fine Arts Museum, the American Civil War Center, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the Black History Museum and Cultural Center (we also recommend the RVA Tour of the city over alternatives because of their extremely knowledgeable guides). Richmond was rich with culture, so we definitely want to return, and would stay at The Berkeley because of its location, comfortable beds, food, service, and price (we hope it remains a relative bargain when the renovation is complete).

Highlights of our Black Forest Highlands visit

Highlights of our Black Forest Highlands visit

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

A typical dreary day during our visit

A typical dreary day by Lake Titisee during our visit

We planned our week long trip to the Black Forest Highlands in Germany months in advance with the expectation that a spring itinerary would reward us with dry and sunny weather. Instead it our visit in June 2016 was far wetter, colder and foggier than we had anticipated. It rained on and off most of the day every day during our whole stay in the area, forcing us to revise our plans entirely. In lieu of trekking on mountain tops and cable cars we spent our days in our hotel room waiting for the rain to stop or remained indoors, dining, in museums, and churches for the duration of our visit.

The clock museum featured displays of clock history

The clock museum featured displays of clock history

Tools used to automate the creation of the gears and wheels were featured

Tools used to automate the creation of the gears and wheels were featured

We replaced nearly all our outdoor activities with indoor ones. The two lane mountain roads, slick from the rain and filled with impatient drivers, did nothing to improve the situation. In the end, we made the most of the situation, exploring as best as possible in moments of respite from the constant showers. We seldom encountered English speakers or materials in English, making it necessary for us to rely on our guide frequently to translate menus at restaurants and information sheets at attractions.

The Parkhotel Adler

The Parkhotel Adler in Hinterzarten was a favorite for its luxury facilities and spa

From the airport we drove to the Parkhotel Adler in Hinterzarten. It was the most luxurious of the properties we visited that trip. I spent time at Hoffmann Beaute & Physiontherapie, its serene spa. Because of the cool temperatures and showers I was thankful for the property's underground hallways that connected its facilities and provided us indoor access to the hotel spa and restaurants in adjacent buildings.

Seecafé in Schluchsee

The lake fronting Seecafé in Schluchsee

Black forest cake, strudel cake and cappucinno

We had Black Forest cake, strudel cake and cappuccino by the lake

The first attraction we visited was the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum (German Clock Museum at Robert-Gerwig-Platz d-78120 Furtwangen, +49 7723-920 2800, deutsches-uhrenmuseum.de) northeast of Freiburg. It was a fun way to spend the morning and learn about the history of clock making in Germany.

Treschers Schwarzwald Romantic Hotel

We spent the weekend at the popular Treschers Schwarzwald Romantic Hotel

One afternoon, to satisfy our sweet tooth we stopped at the Seecafé (Im Wolfsgrund 26, 79859, Schluchsee, +49 76 56/98 88 97), where we indulged in hot beverages and huge slices of regional specialties such as Black Forest chocolate cake. Despite the chilly temperatures we enjoyed the Schluchsee lakeside setting and terrace seating until a steady flow of raindrops forced us to leave.

Our first sunny afternoon from the patio at Boutique-Hotel Alemannenhof

We were delighted with our first sunny hour from the patio at Boutique-Hotel Alemannenhof

In the Lake Titisee area we stayed at two family owned properties. We spent the weekend at the popular, lake fronting Treschers Schwarzwald Romantic Hotel (see Our weekend stay at Black Forest lake front hotel with spa) with a spa in the highly touristy town of Titisee. When our rental apartment plans fell through the friendly owners and staff at the charming and lovingly built Boutique-Hotel Alemannenhof squeezed us in at the last minute without hesitation. The hotel, the Drubba Monument Shopping stores on the pedestrian street in Titisee, and the Hofgut Sternen hotel and adjacent shops were the property of the enterprising Drubba Family. It was at one of their shops where we watched a demonstration about the making of the famous cuckoo clocks. At another we caught the end of a glassblowing demonstration. Their hillside property was a favorite for its Lake Titisee views and foodie orientation.

hand-carved carnival masks at Holzmasken Stiegeler

One of the hand-carved carnival masks at Holzmasken Stiegeler in Grafenhausen

In Grafenhausen, we liked the hand-carved carnival masks at Holzmasken Stiegeler (see Black Forest shop carried on with wood carved mask tradition). In Grafenhausen-Rothaus, we visited Hüsli or small house (79865 Grafenhausen-Rothaus, Am Hüsli 1 im Naturpark Südschwarzwald, + 49 77 48/212, www.hüsli-museum.de), a folk art museum dating back to 1912 when actress Helene Siegfried built a summer home from second-hand materials. We also toured the Rothaus (Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus AG, Rothaus 1, 79865 Grafenhausen-Rothaus, +49 7748/522-0, www.rothaus.de, info@rothaus.de) brewery museum, a modern facility with self-guided tours, where we sampled locally produced beer and bought souvenirs at the small shop.

St. Blasien Cathedral

St. Blasien Cathedral, a lovingly maintained structure 36 meters wide and 62 meters high

The cupola in St. Blasien Cathedral

The interior of St. Blasien Cathedral

The cupola in St. Blasien Cathedral

The St. Blasien Cathedral cupola

We visited several churches while in the Black Forest Highlands. Salient among them for sheer size and the determination of its builders was St. Blasien Cathedral, a pretty and lovingly maintained structure 36 meters wide and 62 meters high. The early classical cupola is the largest of its kind north of the Alps.

Hotel Adler in Häusern

Our final nights were at the Hotel Adler in Häusern

Our last afternoon in the Black Forest got sunny

The sun made an appearance on our last afternoon in the Black Forest

Our final nights were at the Hotel Adler in Häusern, where we dined at the hotel's gourmet restaurant (see Dinner at Black Forest Highlands gourmet restaurant). We would recommend the Black Forest Highlands to friends who speak German or don't mind seeking translations, like moderate luxury in a heavily touristy area with authentic regional cuisine, enjoy mountainous landscapes and the outdoors, and are able to change plans in a hurry if the weather turns ugly.

Florida beach house’s outstanding location offset by issues

Florida beach house’s outstanding location offset by issues

Limefish from the beach

Limefish from the beach

Although we loved our Holmes Beach rental house's beachfront location, its outstanding views of the water across lush sea oats and sea grapes from the open porch as well as from the single contiguous air conditioned living, dining and kitchen room, we were disappointed with a number of aspects of the luxury rental house. Holmes Beach is one of three municipalities on Anna Maria Island on the west coast of Florida. In addition to its outstanding beachfront place the house was on the north end of Holmes Beach, which after some exploration became our favorite part of the island along with the town of Anna Maria. It was also conveniently one block away from a complimentary island trolley stop, and within walking distance to the main shopping streets in the town of Anna Maria.

The living room featured a great view

The living room featured an outstanding view of the beach

Limefish, a 1,500 square foot colorful three bedroom three bathroom house, faced the beach. The pool was on the north side and included a shady covered open air area with a propane grill, two lounge chairs, outdoor dining furniture with seating for eight and two showers. Indoors the air conditioned house was painted in bright colors. It had a master bedroom with a king bed and small en suite bathroom, a second bedroom with a queen bed and standard en suite bathroom, and a third bedroom with four bunk beds and an adjacent bathroom convenient for guests. The living area had two loveseats, a brightly painted coffee table and a built-in entertainment wall.

The pool area was inviting day and night

The private pool area was inviting day and night

We liked the quiet, especially indoors, and sense of privacy the home afforded us although it was sandwiched between other houses on two sides and an empty lot adjacent to a busy public beach access with parking. The muted sounds were the result of double-paned windows and a well tended garden with a narrow path that led from the back porch straight to the beach some forty feet away. The distance from the crowded beach and the garden seemed to serve as buffers. We also liked the large private heated swimming pool, an uncommon amenity in rental beachfront houses in town based on an informal tally, and the spacious parking area, which included three spaces under cover.

The bedrooms looked out on the driveway

The bedrooms looked out on the driveway

On the beach, many people walked by at a quick pace. Others set elaborate groupings of chairs and umbrellas, bringing babies, children and dogs (although the beach was supposed to be dog free). Because the water was chilly few went swimming. Once we spent time on the crowded beach we particularly appreciated having private space to ourselves where we could retreat anytime and enjoy beach views in quiet seclusion.

The second bedroom

The second bedroom

Although the company website made the rental properties look inviting there were significant errors. When we began our search for a vacation rental we encountered a number of red flags. First, there was limited information on the company website. One property appeared to have never been rented and the second one had had no reviews in more than a year. The most recent review we found said the house needed a facelift. We were unable to find details about the properties, such as terms and conditions, and availability on the rental company website. It also did not indicate when the photos of the house had been taken.

The kitchen was spacious and had a nice view

The spacious kitchen also had a beach view

After an initial email reply, the real estate agency woman was slow to respond. When reached on her mobile number she was unable to provide additional information. The first time she answered she explained she was grocery shopping. The next time she said she was visiting her daughter. Then she said she was a realtor and busy selling houses. Unlike every other person we spoke with on the island who answered questions easily and with a pleasant demeanor, her attitude seemed somewhat condescending and dismissive to us. A conversation with a second woman at a United Kingdom location was fruitless.

The dining table

The dining table

After some effort and contradictory information the company representative explained that they had made a mistake listing the first property, the one we preferred. It had a more upscale location and features. After some back and forth communication the representative said the listing with an elaborate video had been in error and the property was not for rent at all. Although it appeared for rent on the company website and was vacant they would not honor the advertised rental. The second property, she prompted, had been renovated and was available at a significant seasonal discount.

Outdoor chairs were shady in the morning

The deck and outdoor chairs were in the shade in the mornings.

We swallowed our concerns about the realtor and the property and took the bait. On arrival, the good news was that the property location was excellent. The house fronted the beach and had outstanding views from the back porch, and interior common areas. The pool, on the side of the house, was as we expected. There were however a number of disappointments, mostly the house was in a less than optimum state of repair and the amenities were of a lower quality than we had anticipated for a luxury property. We were surprised to read in the booklet with information on the house that if any equipment broke during our stay there would be no discount, only the agency's assurance they would try to fix it.

The master bathroom

The master bathroom

One of the things we disliked most was the six human hairs strewn in varying places (bed covers, bathroom sink, shower, facecloth, extra blanket) and the smelly mold on the washer door. The towels were mismatched, some stained and very thin. The kitchen towels were synthetic as were the pillows and bed covers. The sheets were of low thread count. The washer soap dispenser was dirty. The dryer didn't work well at first (we discovered accumulated lint that might have caused the difficulties). The spare blanket smelled strongly of women's cologne.

Cheerful colors gave it a summer feel

Cheerful colors and bright sunlight gave the house a summer feel.

With some effort the repetitive noise of the dining and living room fans subsided. Such was not the case with the loud washer and dryer. The dishwasher door was broken. It had to be latched in place or it would fall open every time we opened it to load or unload items in the appliance.

There were four bunks in the third bedroom

There were four built-in bunks in the third bedroom.

The colorful outdoor furniture made of synthetic material didn't overheat, making it possible to sit on the chairs at any time of the day. But because the chairs were in a fixed position they became less than comfortable after a few minutes. There were no cushions on the chairs, which also made then less than ideal for extended lounging. There were only four beach towels for the three bedroom house, which meant if we wanted clean towels after a day at the beach we had to run the noisy washer and dryer.

The sunsets were lovely about half the time

The sunsets were lovely about half the time.

By the pool there were only two adjustable lounge chairs without cushions or tables (we had to place books and beverages on the floor) and no umbrellas for shade. The lack of umbrellas or cover from the sun made it difficult to enjoy the beach facing porch in the afternoons when sunlight shined directly on that part of the house. No kitchen curtains meant sunlight covered and heated parts of the kitchen (as well as the dining and living areas) during most of the afternoon. The air conditioner and fans struggled to cool the house.

The beach was busy every day

The beach was busy every day.

We enjoyed our time at Limefish as well as our first stay in Holmes Beach and Anna Maria, despite the high density of visitors during our shoulder season visit, and would consider returning. Perhaps by then the property owners and managers will have given the beachfront house some tender loving care or we can find another rental beachfront home.