Luxury Travel Review
Luxury Travel Review

New Zealand glowworm cave rafting more fun than I expected

By Elena del Valle
Photos courtesy of Underworld Adventures*

We rode a small train for two kilometers to reach the Metro Cave in the Paparoa National Park in the South Island, New Zealand.

I had been looking forward with a bit of trepidation to Underworld Rafting, a hiking, glowworm viewing and river rafting experience in the Metro Cave Te Ananui Cave of the South Island of New Zealand since Veronika Vermeulen, owner of Aroha New Zealand Tours Ltd. (539C Key Road, RD1, Kinleith, Tokoroa 3491, New Zealand, +64-21-890 611, https://www.arohatours.co.nz/, info@arohatours.co.nz) and my guide in New Zealand, recommended it for inclusion in my custom itinerary. She said if I was open to new experiences and able to hike a short distance in the heat of summer I would like it. I trusted her judgement and agreed to go. When the day arrived I applied liberal amounts of insect repellent to protect me from the New Zealand sandflies as well as sunblock and set aside any concerns. I was glad I did because it was outstanding.

From start to finish the four hour soft adventure within the 430 square kilometer Paparoa National Park in the West Coast was far more fun (and at times more challenging) than I had expected. Following a short drive from Birds Ferry Lodge and Ferry Mans Cottage, where I was staying near Westport, Veronika and I arrived at Underworld Adventures (State Highway 6, Charleston 7892, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand, +64 3 7888 168, www.caverafting.com, contact@caverafting.com) in the late morning.

Wearing wet suits we hiked 131 steps to the cave entrance carrying a tube like the ones in the photo.

Mira Schwill, co-manager with Ray Moroney, greeted Veronika warmly. Following introductions we sat at a table in the Underworld Adventures and Café, a sunlit space with a towering ceiling that was the home of Underworld Adventures, to complete our sign-in on a digital tablet. Minutes later we descended to the lower level of the building, where we changed into wet suits and met Peter, our guide. The staff handed each of us a helmet with a light. Although Veronika and I were on private tour with Peter we had to make our way to the cave and back with a tour group. We saw them in the changing area, but they spoke no English and kept their distance when we greeted them. While we waited for the tour group to join us Peter, an energetic and enthusiastic young man who liked to surf as a hobby, outlined our activities and easily answered all my questions.

Once everyone was ready we climbed aboard a weathered van with a small European family. The tour group went on a second van. Ten minutes later most of us boarded a small train with two engines, one gas and another diesel. I later learned the engines, called Dorothy and Cecil, had been built for the company in 2002.

We covered two kilometers with the train. Its leisurely pace allowed me to admire the rain forest vegetation along our path. From the platform we walked about one kilometer along a well marked uneven path to the cave entrance. On the way we picked up large tubes, which while lightweight (they weighed between two and a half and three kilos) were awkward to balance while walking on the slippery ground. This was especially true in the steep last section of 131 steps to the cave entrance and inside.

Some of the thousands of stalactites and stalagmites we saw that day

While it had been too warm to zip our wet suits on the way up during the walk inside the cave we could see our breaths in the light of our helmets. It was the only light within the cave. Although I was glad for protection the helmet provided my head It fit loosely and shifted around constantly. We only walked one and a half kilometers of the nine kilometers of the cave. It was slow going due to the low light, pebble strewn uneven surface of the path, shifting helmet, varying height of the cave ceiling and tubes we carried. More than once we were forced to crouch down, while negotiating our balance with the large tube in tow and the helmet moving to an fro.

When we exited the cave we floated on our tubes along the Waitakere Nile River.

Inside the cave it was silent and filled in places with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. There was no sign of the tour group. Peter showed us the cave formations and told us about the man who had discovered the cave. In the serenity of the cave it was as if we were the only ones there like the man who first discovered them carrying matches to break the deep darkness of the unknown within.

Peter watched our slow progress, describing the noteworthy sections of the cave, and offering assistance in particularly tricky segments. After a while I heard the soft sound of moving water. It was almost disappointing because I knew we would soon depart the wondrous world of the cave.

Glowworms in the cave ceiling in the Paparoa National Park in the South Island, New Zealand

But, the glowworms stole the show. We lay atop our tubes, turning off our lights and staring up at the ceiling, which moments earlier had appeared bare. As my eyes adjusted to the dark I began to notice pale worm shapes a few feet above us. When we turned the lights back on I examined the arachnids with interest. From there we walked to the water’s edge and climbed aboard our tubes, making our way past thousands more of the glowing creatures. It was unexpectedly moving.

Sun filtered through thick greenery where we floated out of the cave in our tubes.

Peter, our guide, and Charlie, who guided the tour group

I was thankful for the wet suit, which kept the chill of the water from cooling me down too fast. The sound of water grew louder and before long we were back in the early afternoon sunshine. The hot sun felt good. I was glad I had sunblock. Around us the river was clean, the water clear as I ran webbed mittens, too large for my hands, in an inefficient yet effortful attempt at steering over the rapids. Peter reminded us to take care as the current carried us one kilometer down the small rapids to our exit point. I was tired and smiling when I walked out with my tube in hand, glad I had followed Veronika’s advice.

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Veronika on her way down the small rapids

Our guide had received company training and worked as a guide for three seasons. Underworld Adventures, established in 1987, was owned by Geoff Schurr, Ray Moroney, Stue Berendt, and Graham Howard. It employed nine staff during the off season and fourteen during the high season.

I would recommend Underworld Rafting to my friends who are steady on their feet (there were numerous places were it would have been easy to twist an ankle or loose my footing) while carrying a three kilo tube and a helmet on their heads and in good health. Emergency aid inside the cave could take one to two hours to arrive. Having shared space with a stand offish group during part of the tour I particularly appreciated that mine had been a private tour.

At the conclusion of the tour Underworld Adventures made the photos from that day available for download free of charge. They also provided me with two small printed souvenir photos in an Underworld Rafting sleeve.

*Because I wore a wet suit and didn’t have a waterproof camera I left my camera at the cottage. Additionally, an uneven path and low light conditions in the cave meant special equipment and extra time were necessary for publication worthy photos. Our guide took photos with company equipment during our adventure. The folks at Underworld Adventures kindly allowed us to publish them here along with other photos taken on other dates.

Why we liked understated restaurant near Champs Elysees

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The front door of Le Chiberta

Years ago what first drew our attention to Le Chiberta (3 rue Arsène Houssaye,75008 Paris, France, +33 1 53 53 42 00, http://www.lechiberta.com, chiberta@guysavoy.com) was that it was a Guy Savoy restaurant (see Le Chiberta, a restaurant find near the Champs Elysees). The well known chef had a world class reputation thanks to his eponymous Paris restaurant. Le Chiberta’s location a stone’s throw away from the famous Champs Elysees was another plus.

The walls were decorated with modern art by French artists.

While the original restaurant opened in 1932 the current fine dining restaurant, owned by Guy Savoy and Thierry Belin, dated to 2004. The 200 square meter restaurant with 15 employees could accommodate 80 people. Under the direction of Stéphane Laruelle, executive chef, and Belin in the role of restaurant manager and sommelier, the restaurant delivered gourmet dining minus the luxury amenities of the top rated fine dining restaurants and their accompanying exorbitant prices.

A light course to stimulate our appetite

Subtle neutral colors dominated the room, beginning with wall to wall charcoal carpeting. Track lights from the high ceiling provided ample light in the windowless room. Decorative features included wine and champagne bottles, oil paintings, white tablecloth covered dining tables, and Michel Wilmotte dinnerware. The single stall bathroom was spotless. The contemporary decoration was by Jean-Michel Wilmotte with paintings by French artists. According to a restaurant representative, the name Chiberta is Basque, and refers to a place next to Biarritz.

Duck foie gras with sweet spices

During our most recent visit in the fall of 2018 to the one Michelin star venue our neighbors, a mostly middle-aged crowd, appeared to be having a business lunch. There was a three course Lunch Menu for 49 euros and a seven course Degustation Menu (Tasting Menu) for 110 euros. We liked that the meat and fish served were of French origin and the vegetables were organic. All of the dishes served were made from fresh (not frozen) ingredients. The restaurant offered WiFi, valet and taxi services.

Artichoke soup with a slice of black truffle, a favorite

Lunch began with Emmental cheese puffs, moist inside and with sesame and poppy seeds on top, and vintage champagne. Seaweed butter and a choice of two types of bread (whole wheat and crunchy white) arrived soon after the bubbly and bites. The courses were: Marbled duck foie gras with red wine and sweet spices; Velouté of artichoke and black truffle; Turbot from Normandy coasts natural salsify, stuffed razor clam, shellfish juice; Duo of veal roasted rump and glazed breast, pumpkin, chestnut, autumn mushrooms; Brie de Meaux cheese, mascarpone walnut; Pre-dessert exotic and coconut; and Crispy praline chocolate almond biscuit, chocolate-praline sauce.

Turbot with razor clams

The meal was served with Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2009 Extra Brut; Maury Mas Amiel Vintage Réserve 2012; Macon-Lugny 2016 Joseph Drouhin; Chateau Castera 2010 from Medoc; and Jurancon Ballet d’Octobre 2016 Domaine Cauhapé. More than once during the meal we commented on the smooth pairing.

Roasted veal rump and breast

We liked the lentils in the Jerusalem artichoke, they added texture to the dish. The turbot was lovingly prepared with the clams subtly accentuating the fish. The veal, served with mushrooms and pumpkin, was outstanding. We had no need of the pepper mill and sea salt with which it arrived. The creamy brie with mascarpone and truffles was the perfect transition to our first sweet dish, a mildly tart exotic fruit blend of mango, passion fruit and meringue we much enjoyed. The dessert proper was crispy and light. Cheese cake and fig and financiers were served with coffee. There were also chocolates caramels and chocolate nougat.

The chocolate desert

As soon as we entered several staff members approached to welcome us, take our wet coats and guide us to a cozy table for two in the rear dining room. They spoke English with fluency, translating dish descriptions with ease and providing an English language menu. As the hour advanced the dining room filled up yet we never lacked anything or found ourselves in search of a server. Somehow they were always table side at the perfect moment, friendly without being intrusive.

Stéphane Laruelle, executive chef, in the kitchen at the conclusion of our meal

Our attentive server and Thierry Belin, co-owner and manager

From arrival to departure the staff looked after us with a warm and detail-oriented attitude. Our seven course tasting menu with wine pairing was well prepared, artfully presented and delicious. Given the location, good service and gourmet meal it was an excellent value in a city of many choices. We would return with pleasure, especially if we were staying in or near that neighborhood.

A gluten free tasting in Paris

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The seasonal holiday chestnut cake (not gluten free)

I have shopped in more bakeries in Paris, France than in any other city I have ever visited, but it wasn’t until my most recent stay that I noticed gluten-free products, mainly in restaurants and only a few. Eric Kayser (www.maison-kayser.com) bakeries stood out for their limited selection of gluten-free products. Having been to a handful of the company’s 240 bakeries in 27 countries and liked some of their products I wondered what the gluten-free line would be like.

The gluten free bread had sesame seeds on top and other seeds inside. 

We sampled three gluten-free items and several regular products at home, most from two locations on the rue Monge (14 rue monge, 8 rue monge) near the boulevard Saint Germain on the Left Bank. We liked all three of the gluten-free products: two loaves and one moist chocolate brownie cookie. They were Pain Mendiant San Gluten made with rice and buckwheat flour, apricots, raisins and apples (550 grams); Pain Aux Cereals San Gluten with sunflower and sesame seeds (600 grams); and Indecent Au Chocolat (90 grams). From the other products we liked the following especially: seasonal holiday chestnut cake, sesame seed and poppy seed baguette (by special order), and chocolate financier with chocolate chips.

The gluten free date and raisin loaf was a good match with foie gras pate

The gluten-free products were baked from 100 percent fresh ingredients at a dedicated location elsewhere in Paris (not where we picked them up). The ingredients were 90 percent organic for bread and 40 percent organic for gluten-free pastries, according to a company spokesperson.

The gluten free chocolate cookie was moist and chewy and had a rich chocolate flavor.

In addition to the flavor and texture we liked that the gluten-free loaves kept fresh for several days in contrast to regular baguettes, which generally go stale within a day. We enjoyed the fruit and nut loaf with duck foie gras and seeded loaf slices made a good base for avocado toasts. The chocolate brownie cookie was moist and had a deep rich chocolate flavor.

The seasonal chestnut cake, coated with a lightly sweet syrup, was moist like a rich pound cake

The chestnut cake kept fresh for several days and was a good accompaniment to coffee. We also paired it with loose leaf fragrant vanilla red tea at any hour of the day. It was important to wrap it in a plastic bag to keep it from drying out.

The gluten free bread was a good base for avocado toast

Staff were friendly and helpful at two of the three locations we visited. They were friendly and spoke English of their own accord when they heard us speaking English at the shop on the popular rue de Montorgueil on the Right Bank. Product information on the wrappers was listed in French and English. Kayser was a native of Alsace and the grandson and great-grandson of bakers. He owned most of the chain’s shops with the exception of those at train stations and airports.

Outstanding guitar concert at handsome new concert hall on outskirts of Paris

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

La Seine Musical

On our most recent trip to Paris, France we discovered La Seine Musicale (Ile Seguin, 92 Boulogne-Billancourt, France, www.laseinemusicale.com, + 33 1 74 34 53 53), an events venue opened in 2017 on the outskirts of the city.

The venue is on an island in the center of the Seine River just outside Paris.

The building, situated on the Seguin Island, has a distinctive architectural design. Inside natural lit filtered past wood and glass walls, drawing us our gaze across the river. The high ceiling gave the building a sense of space.

There was a huge sculpture of a thumb in front of the building.

We attended a one hour and fifty minute guitar performance by Liat Cohen accompanied by tenors Rolando Villazon and Charles Castronovo, soprano Sandrine Piau and the Orchestre Pasdeloup. They performed works by Joaquin Rodrigo, Enrique Granados, Jules Massenet, Gabriel Faure, Francisco Tarrega, Isaa Albeniz, Manuel de Falla, Fernando Sor, Tomas Barreras, Rafael Calleja and Tomas Breton. They were fresh from recording Paris-Madrid, an album, that year. It was available for purchase outside the concert hall. Liat’s guitar playing was excellent, earning her repeated applause. It was my favorite part of the show.

The stage minutes before the start of the performance.

According to her biography Cohen earned First Prize at the Paris Conservatory, graduated from the Schola Cantorum and the École Normale de Musique de Paris; and was the first guitarist to have received the Nadia Boulanger Prize from the Foundation of France.

The seats were comfortable and solid.

Our seats (Category 1, E8-10) were comfortable and the view to the stage was unobstructed. Due to photography restrictions we were unable to take photos once the musicians began playing and singing.

The backs and arms of the seats were blonde wood.

I had read in advance about La Seine Musicale’s rooftop garden, but despite several attempts on arrival and departure it was impossible to visit the garden. Once inside the staff said we couldn’t reach the garden and weren’t allowed to exit and re-enter. At the conclusion of the afternoon show the staff member I spoke with indicated the roof garden was closed.

The walls and ceiling of the theater were covered with a variety of textures and materials.

The theater had two halls with a maximum capacity of 6,000 during 150 shows and an approximate annual attendance of 350,000. The name was derived from the River Seine and the French name for stage, Scène. It was a public private partnership owned by STS Evenements, a joint venture between TF1 and Sodexo.

The interior of the dome looking out through solid wood supports

The greatest challenge was that from the Left Bank in central Paris it took us about one hour to reach La Seine Musicale. For a worthwhile performance I would attend a concert there again and recommend it to friends.

Central Florida restaurant focused on southern cuisine with modern twist

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

The Tennessee Truffle in Historic Downtown Sanford, Florida

Breakfast at The Tennessee Truffle (125 west 1st street, Sanford, Florida 32771, thetennesseetruffle.com, +1 407-942-3977) in Historic Downtown Sanford, Florida was fun and tasty. We were among the first patrons to arrive on a low season Saturday morning. It was quiet inside the 2,000 square foot restaurant established in 2016 by Nat Russell, owner and chef, as “a family restaurant using sustainable ingredients to make southern cuisine with a modern twist.”

Inside the 2,000 square foot restaurant

Art on the walls of The Tennessee Truffle

From the breakfast mains we had Biscuits & Gravy and French Toast. Both were well prepared and presented. They were worth ordering on a second visit should I return to Sanford and recommending to friends who like southern cuisine. The smoked maple syrup in the French Toast gave the dish a pleasant if unexpected savory flavor. From the sides menu we ordered Grits with sorghum and crushed pecans; and pan seared Duroc Bacon, a 12-day house-cured bacon, which was more like ham. While grits are not a favorite dish in general I enjoyed those. To wrap it all we shared an order of Popcorn Brulee made with three forms of popcorn, ice cream, powder and brulee.

Plants grew next to the window in elevated wood planters

Our server was patient, friendly and helpful. When she didn’t know the answer to a question she found out and returned with the information.

Biscuits & Gravy

Partway through our meal when the chef came out to bring a dish he graciously answered questions and posed for photos. “We are a restaurant using as much local produce and protein as possible,” Russell, said by email later when asked about sourcing for the restaurant. “I believe in using the best product. If that’s from Sanford great but I won’t compromise flavor or freshness just to be local. If it’s from the area all the better!”

Grits with sorghum and crushed pecans

He went on to explain that everything they use is organic, about 50 percent of produce is from Florida, about 80 percent of the fish served is local, and 100 percent of the beef and beer is from Florida. A Culinary Institute of America graduate Russell, Memphis born, is former executive chef of Winter Park’s Café de France in Florida.

Smoked maple syrup on our French Toast gave the dish a savory flavor

When asked about the name of the restaurant he said, “ In the Appalachian mountains the first thing to pop out of the ground in the spring is the ramp. They call this the Tennessee Truffle I love this story. So, I stole the name and the rest is history!”

Duroc Bacon, a 12-day house-cured bacon

I liked the chef’s light touch. The dishes I sampled had seasoning that allowed the ingredient’s natural taste to shine. I appreciated his flair for surprising and unexpected flavors and textures such as the smoked maple syrup in his French Toast, the crunchy pecans in the grits and the three textures of popcorn, (powder, creamy brulee and ice cream) in the Popcorn Brulee.

Nat Russell, owner and chef

The restaurant’s light filled dining room was inviting and relaxed, the chairs comfortable. I wondered if the chef had used any of the herbs growing in pots between our table and the street facing window in our breakfast. The pleasant setting, warm and efficient service and lovingly prepared dishes made me want to return.

An afternoon workshop at Paris jeweler

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox and Elena del Valle*

The exterior of the Maison Tournaire shop steps away from the famous place Vendome

It was a chilly and clouded Friday afternoon when I arrived at Maison Tournaire (7 place Vendôme, Paris, France, +33 4 77960884, www.philippetournaire.com, mathieu.pallay@philippetournaire.com), a stone’s throw from the famous Place Vendome in Paris, France for a small group half-day workshop in French. Perhaps because of the well-known venue and crowded streets it was the kind of activity I suspect most tourists never know exists. It had been raining on and off all day. Despite rushing I was five or ten minutes late. As soon as I entered the boutique the staff made me at ease, explaining the workshop had yet to start. While I was still near the door another attendee arrived, distressed at being late. She had been circling the area in search of a parking place for a long while, she explained, making me feel better about my own tardiness.

The meeting room where the workshop took place

The interior of the shop was well lit and populated with jewel filled glass cases. It was elegant without being intimidating, adult yet youthful. Marie, one of the two staff members, put away our wet raincoats and umbrellas, offering us welcome hot beverages in exchange.

Some of the tools and materials we used during the workshop

After greetings from our host Mathieu Tournaire we climbed one floor upstairs where we sat at a conference table. Mathieu and I had an opportunity to chat earlier that day when he explained everything the company makes is Tournaire-ized. “We don’t just make jewelry, we tell stories,” he told me with a serious expression in between private appointments with clients. The clean shaven jeweler had a quiet confidence that bellied his youthful appearance and the easy manner of a salesman.

We initially discussed a ring design that could include my yellow and orange sapphires and possibly a large house stone.

Some 15 percent of Tournaire sales were custom orders, he explained. He and his father, Philippe Tournaire, were the creative engines of the firm and both lived outside of Paris. In addition to the Paris location there were stores in Lyon (4 rue Childebert) and Savigneux (2 rue des métiers), where they lived. Whenever he was in town his calendar was full of client appointments.

Stones Mathieu selected for the ring

More than half of the attendees had cancelled their workshop reservations because of the soggy weather or the ongoing Yellow Vest demonstrations that riddled France for weeks and peaked on weekends so in lieu of the original nine we were only four. The small group and easy manner of the other attendees made the workshop intimate, allowing each of us to hold tools, rough stones and gemstones in our hands, and observe them with loopes.

Mathieu demonstrated the use of a device to test diamonds

Mathieu held up a tablet to show us photos, discussing weights, measures, gemstone classifications, varieties and hardness, diamond colors, cuts and facets and demonstrated how to test a diamond with an electronic device. He explained that in France only diamonds, emeralds and sapphires (including rubies) are precious stones. He also discussed opals and star sapphires in passing. Time flew and before I realized it the workshop had ended. At its conclusion we each received a stamped certificate or Certificat de Participation as a souvenir.

Tournaire 3D

An image of the 3D model for the ring Mathieu designed (*courtesy of Maison Tournaire)

The ring setting Mathieu designed without stones, just the yellow gold part

Once the workshop was over Mathieu spent private time with several of the attendees. Earlier in the day he and I had discussed an idea for a custom made ring. He had drawn a Tournaire-ized concept on a piece of paper and shown me some small gemstones for possible inclusion (diplomatically rejecting my own stones). If all went well, he would share a 3D design via email before making a ring to show me before I left France.

Outside it was dark, but at least the rain had slowed to a drizzle. I didn’t mind the rush hour crowds and wet pavement so much as I walked back to the rue de Rivoli and south toward the Left Bank remembering my fun afternoon.

Mathieu Tournaire, artistic director, Maison Tournaire

Maison Tournaire was founded by Philippe Tournaire, a self taught jeweler, in 1973. Mathieu, the artistic director, joined the team in 2008. Maison Tournaire creations were designed to be easily recognized. I had an opportunity to see several of the lines and try on some of the pieces at the shop such as Engrenage (Mathieu wore a distinctive ring of that line), Alchimie, Pensée Sauvage, French Kiss, and Architecture. The ring he created reminded me of the Marélie line, a favorite along with French Kiss.

I liked that Tournaire products were made 100 percent in-house and in France. I appreciated the warm authentic service and efficient follow through. Where attendants at other shops I visited in the place Vendome area were solicitous their welcome was superficial, their demeanor stiff and cool. For example, an eager saleslady on the rue de la Paix offered tax free processing, but could not answer simple questions about the treatment or provenance of her gemstones. Mathieu answered my queries quickly and candidly. One overly inquisitive vendor at a nearby luxury boutique promised to email me information about items they expected to receive, but I never heard from him. In contrast Mathieu and his staff were helpful and responsive without ever being pushy. After the workshop he followed up promptly with the drawing and 3D design we had discussed. Likewise Marie was in touch promptly to schedule a new appointment.

The stones resting on the setting allowed us to see how the finished ring might look.

Two weeks later when Mathieu returned to Paris he brought a 12 by 15 millimeter 18 karat yellow gold ring to show me. It weighed 8 grams and was priced at 3,900 euros. The stones he selected were: 5 millimeter tourmaline rubellite (a red tourmaline), 3 millimeter round red sapphire, 3 square millimeter orange sapphire, two color diamonds of 0.06 carats each, and a white 0.04 diamond. The ring was unfinished, but by placing the gems in their settings it was easy to imagine what it would look like. I especially liked that the diamonds were slightly elevated to protect the other stones. As the hardest stones diamonds would take the brunt of any impact if the wearer banged the ring by accident.

The ring was temptingly pretty. It reminded me of a friend’s redesigned and repurposed wedding ring after her divorce. Every time she looked at it her eyes sparkled with delight. Despite my interest by then my budget had already been fully allocated. Who knows, the next time I am in Paris and have a milestone to celebrate I might pop into Tournaire and say hello. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the workshop to friends with an interest in French jewelry wanting an off the beaten track experience in Paris. I would also recommend the shop to those in the market for the brand’s distinctive style.

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