MSC’s new Loyalty Match program

MSC Cruises has announced a new Loyalty Match program as part of its Voyagers Club past guest program. If you have not yet sailed on MSC and you belong to a loyalty program with other cruise lines, tour operators, or hotel chains, MSC will welcome you to it’s MSC Voyagers Club by matching your status with another loyalty program.  You will get the benefits of MSC’s program at the level defined by your other program, before your first voyage. You can do this only one time, so choose your program with the highest benefit level.  Apply for membership at MSC Cruises Loyalty...

Starwood Boston hotel tour

On July 21 I had the pleasure of touring four Starwood Hotels in Boston, hosted by Edwin Philips, Starwood’s Boston Metro account manager. Our small band of travel professionals saw a range of hotels and room categories in these beautiful and charming hotels: Sheraton Boston, the gateway hotel to Boston’s historic Back Bay, is the largest hotel in New England with the largest pool in the city. Walking distance to Fenway Park, Newbury Street, Boston Common, the financial district, Washington Street, and the Charles River, it also has indoor connections to the shops at the Prudential Center, the Copley Place Mall, and a plethora of dining options. The Sheraton recently emerged from a $75million transformation of its 1,220 guestrooms, which include their celebrated Sweet Sleeper beds, flat-screen TVs, ergonomic work spaces, Shine bath amenities, and views of the Back Bay or the Charles River. A full-service spa, along with a variety of places to mingle in the huge lobby area, let you relax and socialize in comfort. The in-house convention space, as well, has undergone a $20 million transformation of its 50 meeting rooms and 7 ballrooms. The indoor passageway to Boston’s city-center Hynes Convention Center complex makes it the most convenient place to stay when attending conventions. The Sheraton is where you want to be if you want to be in the middle of it all. Westin Copley Place, nearby in the Back Bay, offers a more relaxed, sensory experience with mood-lifting botanicals, atmospheric lighting, and soothing music. All Westin hotels worldwide focus on health and well being, wanting you to relax, revive, and experience renewal with six...

A Taste of Piedmont, Oct 12-19, 2013

We are delighted to be partnering with WineNot Boutique and Tour de Forks to offer a 7-night guided wine tour to the finest wine region in Italy: Piedmont. Along with its superb wines, Piedmont is the birthplace of the Slow Food Movement and is famous for its white truffles, creamy cheeses, and rich chocolates. It boasts picturesque hill towns, elegant cities and stunning mountain vistas. We’ll visit opulent baroque cafes in Turin, shop at bustling produce markets, hunt for truffles in Alba, meet wine makers, and cook up some of the regional specialties.  Highlights Include • A visit to the historic Cafés in Turin: Caffe Platti, Mulassano, Baratti Milano • Wine tastings at Scagliola, Malvira, Contratto & Fontanafredda • A private visit to the University of Gastronomy and the Wine Bank of Italy • A workshop about the Langhe with tastings of premier cru Barolo and Barbaresco • A truffle hunt in Alba • A hands-on cooking class preparing Piedmontese specialties Our group of 14 excited guests is almost full, but we will create a wait list. Review the itinerary at the link below and contact me if you’d like to be part of this fabulous trip. Don’t wait to secure your spot! See the details here:...

Sweatin’ to be 2013 Garlic Chef

Who will be the next Delray Beach Garlic Chef?  That’s the question that kept a good crowd of us watching and waiting at “Garlic Chef Stadium,” a large tent at the 2013 Delray Beach Garlic Festival.  The occasion was the Garlic Chef competition, Delray’s version of a Food-Network-style contest featuring chefs from popular local restaurants competing for the coveted title of 2013 Garlic Chef. This year the festival organizers decided to open the contest to Delray chefs only, to keep it down-home.  This town has no shortage of quality restaurants.  The Downtown Delray Beach web site lists 111 of them, in just the downtown vicinity.  The contest did have a fun, down-home feel.  While the chefs and their teams were working hard in the (hot) stadium kitchen, the atmosphere was casual, jovial, and even playful.  Emcee Executive Chef Michael Giletto, an import from NJ & California (he commutes coast to coast), kept the spirit light with his ongoing reports from the kitchen and give-and-take with the audience. It was nice to watch an intense competition in a casual, friendly setting.  The fact that the chefs and judges know and like each other ensured that they wouldn’t take the rivalry too seriously.  I enjoyed being able to walk around at will, taking close-up photos of the chefs and their creations, meeting the judges, chatting with audience members, volunteers, and the official photographers.  One person I spoke with, a chef from another restaurant who came to root for one of the contestants, told me that many of the chefs and restaurants have loyal followers (a good many of whom were in the audience cheering for their favorite chef),...

Fun times at a big stinky party

This weekend the city of Delray Beach, Florida,  is throwing its 14th annual Garlic Festival, “The biggest stinkin’ party in town.”  I went yesterday to check out the festivities. A festive day it was, celebrating all things garlic.  Garlic?  Who’da thought? The festival is a fund raiser for many local non-profits that support education and arts for youth.  Hundreds of young people were on hand volunteering many hours for their organizations.  Volunteerism is huge in this town.  “Mr. Garlic” was jovial in his new costume (the old one had worn out) as he mingled with the crowds.  The grounds were jam-packed with vendor tents, food and drink booths, entertainment stage and covered lawn, amusement rides, “Garlic University” arts & crafts area for the kids, and “Garlic Chef Stadium,” where all-day cooking competitions and demonstrations were held.  New this year was a garlic kissing booth. Garlic lovers were finding a feast of garlic-laden foods along “Gourmet Alley.”  Offerings included pizza, chicken in various forms, sausage, mahi-mahi, fish tacos, nachos, paninis, bruschetta, shrimp scampi, london broil, stuffed portabellas, crab cakes, chili, funnel cakes, ice cream (a favorite), and local specialties: conch and gator fritters.   Beer, wine, and margarita stands did a booming business, as did juice and smoothie booths.  Vendor were selling out of their wares.  Musicians and bands kept the party lively all day and evening.  Kids and families were having a great time on the rides. I spent much of the day in “Garlic Chef Stadium” watching local chefs compete for the coveted title of 2013 Garlic Chef.  More about that in a separate post. Delray is always...

The saga of the phantom cooking lessons

One of the activities I had planned to do a lot of while in Mexico was to take cooking classes and learn more about different traditions of Mexican gastronomy. Although I didn’t travel as far and wide as I had hoped, I did get around quite a bit. Most of my stay was based in the Yucatan peninsula, including the states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and a couple of days in Campeche. I spent two months in Merida with numerous day trips,  a week in Mexico City, including side trips to Taxco, Guanajuato, Delores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, and Queretaro, and a week in the city of Oaxaca, which I loved. For my last two weeks I jouneyed down the glorious Caribbean coast between Cancun and Tulum. Soon after my arrival I started contacting cooking schools. In Merida, I hoped to take classes at Remixto culinary salon and Los Dos cooking school, two distinguished establishments. Unfortunately, classes at both were on hold for several months. Construction on the new home and teaching kitchen of Remixto was not yet finished. Los Dos suspended classes when the chef had to turn his full attention to health issues. I also requested a class at the beautiful boutique hotel Rosas & Xocolate (pronounced ro-sass ee sho-co-lah-tay), but I wasn’t able to pull together a minimum number of people. Fortunately, however, my quest was not entirely fruitless. Both chefs Brent Marsh and David Sterling graciously offered to meet with me. I wrote in an earlier post about the delightful evening at dinner with Brent and his partner Stan. While I wasn’t able to...

Catching up

Well, March and April turned out to be very busy for me.  I spent March traveling around Mexico, from Merida, to Mexico City, with side trips to Taxco, Guanajuato, Delores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, and Queretaro, then on to Oaxaca, Cancun and down the Caribbean coast to Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum, then back to Cancun for the flight home in early April. After returning to NH, I had to get my car registered and back on the road, settle into my next place to live, dig things out of storage, help my daughter with car and school issues, and take care of a myriad of other details that awaited my return.  Whew.  So…. somehow I had no time to blog. After moving yet again, I’m now aiming to establish a routine that includes regular blogging. My posts about my experiences in Mexico most likely will be more topical than chronological. I welcome your comments, questions, and stories — about Mexico, cooking, dining, wellness vacations, travel in general, or anything else of...

Cacao Museum of Yucatan

I visited this new museum – el EcoMuseo del Cacao – with two friends one Sunday afternoon.  Approximately two hours south of Merida, the museum is located in an area of Yucatan among a number of recovered Mayan ruins.  After many stops along the way, for sightseeing, shopping, and eating, we arrived near closing time.  Unfortunately we didn’t get the entire experience or see the plantation.  But we did visit each of the casitas (little Mayan-style houses) and learn about the fascinating history, cultivation, processing, and uses of Mayan cacao.  We saw a demonstration of the way it was prepared traditionally.  Best of all, we got to taste the rich, foamy, unsweetened drink, to which we could add sugar and a variety of spices, if desired.  We also got to sample two of the delectable confections produced by the affiliated chocolate factory in Merida. This is a beautiful new facility and well worth a visit.  According to the web site, it sits at the entrance to a 100-hectare plantation (247 acres) of organic creollo cacao.  Creollo cacao is known for its complex, fruity flavor.  The plantation is the first in Yucatan to grow cacao, which is typically grown in other parts of Mexico and Latin America that have a more abundant water supply.  The main building is built of stone with a thatched roof, natural wood furnishings, an outdoor cafe, and a playground for the kids.  Even the rest rooms are gorgeous. The grounds are immaculate and beautifully arranged.  Manicured paths curve through attractive plantings of a wide variety of native vegetation.  The trees and shrubs are labeled with signs explaining the...

Dinner with the chefs

Last week my friend Kathleen White and I had the pleasure of dining with a couple of talented and genial Merida chefs, Remixto owner Brent Marsh, and his partner, architect and sous chef Stan Khang.  Brent and Stan are the brains, hands, and hearts of Remixto, a “culinary salon” that aims to educate people visiting and residing in Merida about the delights of Yucatecan and Mexican foods.  Kathleen is the owner and innkeeper of El Ave Blanca, a cozy B&B where I stayed my first month in Merida. Kathleen had previously participated in one of Chef Brent’s cooking classes, which is documented here.  I had hoped to take a cooking class while here, but classes are on hold while the chefs oversee the renovation of their new home and teaching kitchen.  So they invited us over to see the house and have dinner — a most pleasant surprise!  Their home is an impressive and modern remake-in-progress of a large Spanish colonial home in the historic center of the city.    My utter lack of architecture and design vocabulary and style prevents me from adequately describing this handsome space.  (I’m wishing I had snapped a couple of photos.)  On the first floor, you enter what will be a roofless courtyard, pass through the media room, then emerge half-outdoors into a long living/dining room, which is open to a tropical garden where you would expect the long wall to be.  The absence of a wall creates the ambiance of a comfortable and casual patio.  The kitchen beyond, which has a beautiful center work counter made of resurfaced railroad ties, also has a large wall opening to a patio,...

My trip to Campeche

My big adventure last week was taking the bus to the city of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s the capital of the state of the same name.  The trip took almost three hours because of highway construction most of the way, but the first-class bus was comfortable. I had only two short days there but was able to see a lot of the historic center. The city was founded by the Spaniards in 1540 after finally conquering the Maya, who had resisted for 20 years.  For the next 200 years the city was repeatedly plundered by European pirates.  After a particularly brutal attack that essentially wiped out the city, the Spanish built a stone wall that completely surrounded it and ended the attacks. Large sections of the wall, two of the four gates, and seven of the eight “balluartes,” or bastions, still stand. Inside the wall is the historic, cultural, and commercial center.  The wall-to-wall adjacent buildings are painted in bright or pastel colors with decorative contrasting trim. It’s quite a captivating sight.  The buildings house shops, restaurants, offices, libraries, academic institutions, banks, bars, museums, and hotels.  Streets and sidewalks are narrow, driving and parking are a challenge, but everyone seems to take the squeeze in stride and good humor.  Outside the gate are, on the east side, a bustling market, and on the west side, a malecon, or seaside promenade, for pedestrians and cyclists that goes on for miles. I walked quite a bit, including along the top of one of the walls, saw some of the historic buildings, and did some shopping at the market.  The city...