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My Year In Cities: 2011

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Image via Visual Complexity (not my actual flights)…

A good tradition, looking back before I look forward. Where did you go in 2011?

* indicates cities visited multiple times on non-consecutive days.

Vancouver, Canada*

Whistler, Canada

Sydney, Australia*

Melbourne, Australia

Munich, Germany

Davos, Switzerland

San Francisco USA

Los Angeles, USA*

Long Beach, USA

New York City, USA*

Salt Lake City, USA

Sundance Utah, USA

Palm Springs, USA

London, England*

Seattle, USA*

Florence, Italy

Jackson Hole, WY USA*

Shanghai, China

Beijing, China

Dalian, China

Tokyo, Japan*

Hakone, Japan

Kyoto, Japan

Abu Dhabi, UAE

Dubai, UAE*

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Jakarta, Indonesia

Johannesburg, South Africa

Austin, USA

Boulder, USA*

Denver, USA

Gion Hatanaka: Kyoto, Japan

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Situated in the wonderful Gion District of Kyoto, Gion Hatanaka is easily one of the best city Ryokan experiences I’ve had in all of Japan.

To begin, Gion is a magical part of Kyoto– the setting of the novel Memoirs of a Geisha. It’s a place to see Geiko’s (the local term for Geisha) walking from appointment to appointment, and explore the winding an beautiful stone streets of Kyoto. It’s walking distance to Yasaka Shrine, Gion Corner and Maruyama park. It’s totally convenient to the city, but inside the Ryokan’s walls you feel secluded and tucked away. Quiet and peaceful.

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We stayed in a Kamogawa room– a basic but gorgeous spread. Each room uses ancient Japanese building principles in both the internal and external structure. As most of my trips to Japan have reminded me, things in Japanese hotels and Ryokan’s just seem to work. The layouts are smart, the outlets and switches are all in the right places.

Also, I love the Tatami mat flooring in Japanese Ryokan’s, so I felt right at home.  The smell is divine!

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There is a bath at the Ryokan (separate for men and women) in the lower level. It’s a traditional ‘koyamaki‘ wooden bath which gives off a wonderful pine aroma. It’s great after a long day of walking around the city and hiking in the mountains. It wasn’t until after staying there that I read this has been rated the best bath in Kyoto. I can see why! The water isn’t mountain onsen hot spring water, but it sure felt great after the long day.

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I absolutely adore the clean lines and geometry in this picture.  Japanese simplicity in design is very soothing to the mind.

For dinner, prepare to have your mind blown with traditional Kyoto kaiseki (Kyoto is known for this). Incredible Matsutake Mushroom soup, Seafood Nabe, and other traditional Kyoto specialities!

Some of my favorite dishes from the meal are below.

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Ikura on white fish has never tasted so good.

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Yes those are delicious little fried fish!

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Time for a feast. It was course after course just like this.

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Everything was looked delicate in presentation and preparation.

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Plum wine with flower petals. I can still taste this one, incredible.

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Although Kyoto isn’t known for sushi, this was as good as anything I’ve had anywhere else!

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A vegetable dish with yuzu citrus on top.

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A rabbit mochi (sweet pounded rice) treat.

Gion Maiko

Although we didn’t experience the maiko evening with our dinner– from the pictures and reviews we read, it is definitely on the list for our next visit!

Rates vary depending on the season. Booking ahead is highly reccomended, and can be secured through our friends at the Ryokan Collection.  Thanks to Gion Hatanaka for taking care of us and the incredible visit.

Yama No Chaya: Hakone, Japan

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Anyone that knows me knows one of my favorite places in Japan is Hakone, the mountainous hot spring town outside of Tokyo. It’s hard to explain why it’s so special because on paper it just looks like a total tourist trap– but it’s really one of the most magical places I’ve discovered in my many trips around Japan.

Luckily (and one of the reasons I like it), it’s very convenient to get to. It sits only 45 minutes from Tokyo by train or 2 hours by car which makes escaping there for a night or two even more appealing.

My American friends who haven’t been don’t get it though. They say, what’s so good about a volcanic mountain town? Why would you want to go there every time you’re in Japan when there is so much else to see? I just tell them one word: Onsen. To them it just sounds like I’m talking about a “hot tub”, but it’s not just a hot tub. It’s so much more.

Onsen is an ancient tradition, and if you ask me I think the volcanic waters of Hakone carry magical healing powers that have to be felt to be believed.

But a good Onsen isn’t complete without a great Ryokan to stay in. In it’s simplest form, Ryokan’s are Japanese style inns that serve you dinner and breakfast in your room. In Hakone, Ryokan’s are known for their incredible cuisine and of course, wonderful hot springs you can use throughout your stay.

On one of my most recent trips to Japan, I checked out a very special and hidden Ryokan called Yama No Chaya in the mountains of Hakone, right on the rushing Hayakawa river. The name literally translates to “mountain teahouse” and has been a friendly place where people can drop in for tea for more than 50 years.

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The property is built into the mountainside on the other side of the river from the road. It’s quiet and secluded from everything. You arrive after crossing a one-way suspension bridge (awesome) and driving up a a steep stone driveway.

We arrived during a huge rain storm, so we couldn’t wait to get inside!

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Beautiful bamboo trees growing everywhere, welcoming us to our home away from home.

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Getting good photographs of the outside of Yama No Chaya is tricky. The Ryokan (probably by design) almost camouflages into the hillside.

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After arriving into the first part of the building here you remove your shoes (and say goodbye to them for the rest of the time you’re inside), and then you enter a land of tatami mats. Socks or barefoot only please!

You’re immediately hit with the distinct and wonderful and unique smell of the tatami and wood structure of the Ryokan.

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We were led upstairs to this beautiful lobby like lounge area with a bar that had a great view of the trees and river below. It was here that we met our host, the Okami. She was essentially the ryokan manager and she checked us in and introduced us to our Nakai, who would be our room host serving us meals and taking care of us during our stay for the couple nights we were there.

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We were led to our room upstairs– we stayed in what was called a Tsukimidai style room. It was very basic and almost Zen like. It was simply made up of tatami mats and a table in the daytime. At night, the table was pushed aside and buckwheat futons with luxurious down comforters were put in it’s place after dinner.

Tsukimidai literally translates to “moon-viewing deck,” and these specific rooms have all been designed with this in mind. Great big windows and comfortable lounge chairs face outwards towards the sky from the comfort of your room.

Yama No Chaya has 15 rooms in total, and 7 different types to choose from. Some have balconies, some have private open air hot spring baths, while others (like the one we stayed in) had no private bath but a nice view of the mountain, river and sky (and an incredible sunrise reflecting on the trees). They also have one room which has Western style beds if sleeping on futons on the floor isn’t your thing (it’s mine, and we loved it!).

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After settling in, we headed to check out the baths before dinner. There were 5 different baths sprinkled throughout the property. 4 of them were open to the outside, which was extraordinarily beautiful. The fresh air comes right at you as you’re sitting in the most amazing setting. Above is the curtains hiding the entry to the female baths.  Red is for women, blue is for males!

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A beautiful lamp hanging in front of bamboo groves leading to the baths.

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The water comes from the Tonosawa hot spring which was discovered in the Nara period (710 to 794) and became known as one of the seven great hot springs of Hakone. The crystal clear boiling water is pumped up to the hotel from 300m below, temperature controlled, and then released into the baths, like the one here.

Part of why I love the Onsen experience so much is you must spend a good amount of time cleaning yourself before you get into the baths. Right outside of this photo is a line of faucets and stools for cleaning yourself.

Onsen’s are deeply peaceful and reflective places, so it’s a good time to check in with your body, clean between your toes, behind your ears, and really scrub yourself free of dirt, grime and even negative feelings.

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A shot of a private bath connected to one of the rooms.

The public baths are separated by gender, and then cleaned and switched throughout the day so you get to experience all the different types of atmospheres the baths create.

There are no swim suits allowed, and you don’t bring in any soap, shampoo, or contaminates into the water. So it’s crucial that you get extremely clean and make sure all the soap is off your body before you enter. If you book a room with your own bath, like this one shown here, you can share it with your partner anytime– but you still clean before you get in as if it were public. It’s also possible to book a bath for one hour privately in advance to share the experience with your family or partner.

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The indoor bath.

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This water is as crystal clear and healing as it gets.

I’m not a scientist, but the volcanic nature of the water in Japan means the water is packed with incredible minerals that heals skin defects, helps aches and pains, and turns your whole body as soft as the day you were born. One minute in a Japanese Onsen and you’ll be hooked, I promise.

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After Onsen we headed back to our room as our nakai was getting our room ready for dinner. Dinner is served Kaiseki style in a ryokan, which means a traditional multi-course dinner. It’s a pretty long affair and you’re given tastes of everything you can imagine.  One word of advice: Pace yourself.  It can go on forever!

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Mouth watering Sashimi.

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More incredible sashimi. So photogenic!

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Every meal in Japan comes with pickles of some type, beautifully prepared.

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A salad with tuna and radish and fruit.

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Yep, that’s fish head in some type of stew and it was delicious.

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I don’t remember the Japanese name for this, but it was a unique potato.

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Grilled fish with miso.

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Two pots of rice, cooking at our table!

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One of my most favorite dishes in Japan is this soup stock made with yuzu citrus and matsutake mushrooms. Incredibly delicate, warming, and a unique taste I’ve never been able to find or replicate anywhere else in the world.

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Tuna with fresh wasabi.

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This is a creamy chestnut-like concoction. If I could have it everyday, I think I would.

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Some pumpkins and a piece of mackerel with horseradish.

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Tofu topped with ikura and wasabi.

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Lightly fried vegtables with fresh salt.

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Fish with baby corn, peppers and Japanese pumpkin.

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Rice, ready now!

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And finally, a berry-jello like desert that I’ll never forget. A refreshing way to end a long kaiseki style meal!

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And here’s what breakfast looks like the next morning. Some pickles, eggs, and other delicacies.

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And the best part ever, tuna lightly cooked by pouring hot water on it over a bed of rice. I can’t tell you how delicious this was at eight in the morning!

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After dinner drinks at the bar. Beautifully illuminated Sake bottles look great with the lighting.

Incredible facilities, wonderful staff and a truly special dining experience– Yama No Chaya was a treat, I highly recommend visiting if you make it to Japan and want an easy and luxurious side trip out of Tokyo!  The staff were careful of our dietary restrictions and allergies (you’ll see, no beef here), and were there with for us whenever we needed them.  I’ll be back!

The best way to book Yama No Chaya is through our friends at the Ryokan Collection on their website or directly by email to enquiry@ryokancollection.com

September and October Travel



I’m back in the USA for a few days after an incredible time in China and Japan.  I’m here for about a week before I head off again to Abu Dhabi, Oman, Japan, and then South Africa and Mozambique.  I was trying to find a good way to show the travel I’ve done over the past two months and found this nifty little site called Tripline.  You can watch my flights like a movie now.

Nest: Shanghai

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Is there sustainable design in Shanghai? I didn’t think I’d find any, but I stumbled upon a fantastic place. Nest Shanghai is a ‘design with a conscience’ brand concept.

Nest where the sum is greater than its parts: Nest is a design collective created to provide a fulfilling shopping experience through products with substance.

The shop is full of interesting products with high quality craftsmanship and responsible manufacturing. Clearly someone saw what was happening in China and had to take a stand.

If you’re ever in Shanghai I recommend a visit– it’s a welcome reprieve from the crazy fast fashion consumer culture on the main streets.

Hotel Villa San Michele: Florence, Italy

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I never thought I’d like living in a 16th Century monastery until I visited Florence. In fact, if I had it my way, I would have moved into Hotel Villa San Michele for the whole summer.

I pulled up in our rented Fiat 500 in style, slipping in beside a handful of Ferarri’s. Besides feeling inadequate about my rental car for a brief second, I was ready to not drive again until we left what looked like the gateway to a palace.

The hotel (or castle, depending on your vantage point) is set in one of the most memorable locations in Italy– tucked right up against the hillside with long views over the city of Florence. There are 45 rooms located in both the main building (the original monastery) and a few small buildings (including a 16th century chapel) scattered on the hill were all lovely, classic Italian luxury.

I guess that Michaelango guy was a pretty decent designer after all. Yes, I’m not joking. The façade is attributed to Michelangelo himself. Most of the original artwork from the monastery is now housed in the various museums of Florence, but a number of pieces can still be seen inside the rooms of the building including the 17th century fresco of the Last Supper by Nicodemo Ferrucci in the halls once used as the Monks’ refectory.

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Upon arrival we did what made most sense on a hot Italian day and slipped on our suits and went straight into the incredible pool, set up on the hillside above the hotel.

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A beautiful voyeuristic view of the courtyard behind the hotel. Open day and night. We were able to see fireworks here our first night, serendipitously Saint Fiesole was being celebrated. Really, just a good excuse for more prosecco.

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Many suites are hidden behind walls over greenery, like these shown above. The privacy coupled with the long views is certainly unmatched in Florence.

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Let there be wine. To say we indulged on the local grapes would be an understatement. But when in Florence, I did as I was told.

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The exterior of the hotel (Michelangelo’s touch) houses The Loggia Restaurant where we had one of the more decadent lunches of the trip. If you like truffles and ravioli, you’re waistline is in big trouble here.

Our new friends at the hotel took us in and ordered for the table– and we were entertained and blown away by the knowledge of Giulio Gentile (a gentle man, indeed), the marketing director for the Orient Express hotels, which of course include this property.  Giulio was even kind enough to drive us nearly half way to our next destination in the hills of Tuscany.  Without his wise navigation we probably would still be lost today.

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Inside the restaurant. At night the piano was playing and Italian charm turned on high.

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The view from the pool over Florence. Gorgeous greenery, flowers, sunbathing. I could have stayed here all day had I not wanted to explore downtown Florence just as badly.

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Finally, we were able to visit The Limonaia Suite, which was easily one of the most dramatic and special places on the grounds. It can be reserved as a one, two or three bedroom villa. It’s actually the 17th century Limonaia, or former orangery of the convent. With a private plunge pool, it is truly a private villa inside the Villa San Michele.

If you’re planning a trip to Florence and have the money, stay here. If you’re trying to impress someone you love, see above. If you can’t stay here, swing in for lunch or dinner, or even just a drink. You will not regret seeing it. Chalk it up as a history lesson, it’s not every day you get to visit– let alone stay at a place with history, style and luxury as rich as this.

The hotel is an adventurous 15 minute drive from the Florence airport. Get a GPS, you’ll need it.

Villa San Michele
Via Doccia 4
50014 Fiesole
Italy

Most photo credits here belong to Greta Eagan.

Ithaa Undersa Restaurant: The Maldives

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On my most recent trip to the Dubai I had some extra time for a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of travel life and headed straight south to experience the magic that is the Maldives. I had the distinct pleasure of staying at couple resorts – one of which was the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island where I successfully checked off one of my life long dreams: Dining underwater. Yes, as close to that as I could get without drowning.

I had actually written about Ithaa, The Worlds First Undersea Restaurant in 2005, more than five years prior to the visit I made.

To say the restaurant itself is unique would be an understatement of the century, and surely it is the crown jewel of the New Zealand based MJ Murphy Design Group’s portfolio.

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Their deep understanding of aquarium design and construction made them a very qualified partner for the job– but as you can see from their own journal, balancing a 175 ton acrylic restaurant 16 feat below the oceans surface was no small task. The story of construction alone is amazing.

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The entrance is set above sea (disappointingly you didn’t have to swim in).  A door is setup on a small nondescript thatched pavilion above the ocean with an overwater path to the beach. If it weren’t for the buoys lined up around the waters surface in the distance you would hardly know what you were getting yourself into.

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After a spiral staircase you’re welcomed into what is best described in picture. It is indeed just like you’re sitting at the bottom of the ocean as schools of fish fly by and inspect the 14 people dining just on the other side of the clear acrylic encasing.  It’s a little bit like sitting inside a clear bullet laying in the sand.

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Being down there it took a few minutes to get used to how bright it was. I went for lunch at high noon and they actually had a tray of sunglasses to choose from if you forgot your own. The water acts as a magnifying glass and the intensity of the light is almost unbearable without shades on.

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Food wise, it was a set lunch menu paired with a refreshing bottle of wine.  The AC was pumping down there, but the sun was still very hot.  As you can imagine, food wise the seafood was as fresh as it could get, likely caught only earlier that morning.  My date and I enjoyed a piece of seared line-caught barrier reef fish, palm heart and fresh coconut. But while the eating was good, it was hard to pay attention to the meal– the view you’re sharing with only a few other lucky souls under the ocean was just too incredible.  We spent most of the time pointing and laughing as fish and undersea life passed right before our eyes every minute.

Ironically, eating here turned our to be my early inspiration to go ahead and get my scuba diving certification the next week, as it was a taste of the serenity and beauty the undersea provides.

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As we were leaving the restaurant our host reminded us that for a mere $11,000 a night we could spend the night. Too rich for my blood, but wow– what an offer.  The space has also been rented out for weddings.

Reservations for Ithaa are required far in advance of your visit to the island, and if you’re even considering a trip to the Maldives, it’s a must see, a great meal and worth the visit.

*Some of these photos were obviously pulled from around the web to illustrate the construction process.  Others were taken by me.  It was surprisingly hard to photograph under there!

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