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Better call Albuquerque: Breaking Bad Fans have new spots for selfies

Rabid Breaking Bad fans still make pilgrimages to Albuquerque to have an Indian taco at Los Pollos Hermanos (Twisters, in its civilian life), grab a coney at The Dog House and buy blue meth candy from Debbie Ball at her three-decades-old candy store in Old Town. There’s even an RV tour with stops at 17 locations from the still-popular AMC show.


To get a jump on what’s sure to only add to Albuquerque’s mojo, here’s a tour of six must-see’s from the new prequel, Better Call Saul.

Loyola’s Family Restaurant. When Jimmy McGill (in a fake British accent) asks Craig Kettleman, the county treasurer accused of embezzling $1.6 million, and his wife Betsy to meet him at Loyola’s Cafe, he couldn’t have given the long-time family eatery a better endorsement.

Not that it needed it. Located on historic Route 66, this diner with maroon vinyl booths and wrap-around counter has been packed with University of New Mexico students, cops and chile-loving locals since it was opened by Loyola Baca in 1984. Her daughter Sarah Cordova now runs the joint that also sells by the quart posole, menudo and red and green chile that will make your nose run, your pits sweat and your heart dance flamenco.

Fried chicken, chicken fried steak and liver and onions go for $9.19. For a New York strip, be prepared to pony up $11.99. And even though Loyola’s appeared to be open into the wee hours in Breaking Bad (“Cornered”—Season 4, Episode 6), it closes by 2 each afternoon. Don’t miss the roadrunner lamps. 4500 Central Avenue, SE, 505.268.6478.

Café Lush. With Jimmy’s credit card already being declined at the flower kiosk, he didn’t try lassoing in new clients at this tiny, 12-table café in a quiet edge-of-downtown neighborhood. But it played a cameo role in the pilot as twins Cal and Lars waited at 7th and Tiejeras Avenue with skateboard in hand.

Café Lush (baristas even write the letters L-U-S-H on top of lattes) is top of the list for Albuquerque’s vegan, organic and gluten free set. Their breakfast pizza which looks and taste nothing like a pizza (but is every bit as delicious) satisfies both persuasions. They also make gluten free brownies, muffins and tortillas and such daily specials as shrimp tacos with Napa cabbage and mango salsa. They even have a Better Call Saul burger, but it’s a turkey burger with cheese and peach mustard. 700 Tijeras Ave. NW, 505.508.0164.


Java Joe’s. Psychopathic Mexican kingpin Tuco Salamanca is back, along with his henchmen No-Doze and Nacho Varga. Luckily, he’s not snorting meth straight out of the bag just yet. His abuelita’s house (where Jimmy first meets him) is at 12204 Manitoba Drive Northeast, but if you want to see his hideout, the one a certain chemistry teacher blew up by throwing fulminated mercury on the floor, it’s not in ruins after all. Instead, it’s a quaint neighborhood café serving breakfast platters and its own house-roasted coffee in a funky vibe complete with nightly live music. 906 Park Avenue SW, 505.765.1514. http://downtownjavajoes.com

Vintage 423. Jimmy had trouble making conversation with his blonde bombshell date at this upscale Northeast Heights supper club. And no wonder. He’d just survived a different kind of encounter in the desert with maniacal, grandma-loving Tuco. Although this elegant, low-lit restaurant doesn’t really serve breadsticks (the crunching of which reminded Jimmy of the twins’ legs being broken) it does serve a fabulous homemade French baguette with chile olive oil spread. If its accompanying bar with the waterfall were anywhere else, patrons would be required to wear a tie. Here, like Jimmy, you can get drunk and throw up in the bathroom wearing about anything you like. On weekends, expect hours-long waits. 8000 Paseo Del Norte Boulevard, 505.821.1918.


Los Altos Skatepark. When Jimmy came up with the hare-brained scheme of tricking the Kettlemans into becoming a client, he knew just where to find the no-brain skateboarders Cal and Lars. Los Altos Skate Park, the largest in the southwest, has 35,000 square feet of skateable area, a banked street course, two bowls and accommodates BMX bikes, skateboards and in-line skates. There are even bleachers, phones and colorful murals at this popular park near Lomas and the I-40 overpass that, just last year, got a facelift. 10140 Lomas NW.

“Omaha” Cinnabon. Want to take a selfie at the Cinnabon where Gene (yet another alias for Saul) now spends his days wearing an apron, mixing dough and stirring up CinnaSweeties? No need to head to Omaha. The opening B&W sequence was filmed at the Cinnabon inside Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall. They even gave out some 350 free mini-buns the day after the pilot premiered. 10000 Coors Blvd Bypass NW. 505.792.8136.

It takes The Thief to create guts, glory and glamour in Oslo’s hottest new arts district

When Nobel Peace Prize winners head to Oslo, they stay at the Grand Hotel. When Rihanna, Pink, Steven Tyler and Justin Bieber go to Oslo, they stay at The Thief.

Here’s why. The Thief is provocative, inspiring, even ballsy. I mean, who else would name a hotel after a villain, especially in a city where art thievery (Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has been stolen not once, but twice in Oslo) has made international headlines?

The Thief has the pedigree to get away with it. It’s owned by Norwegian billionaire, Petter Stordalen, who steals away to his 170-some Nordic Choice Hotels in a biofuel-powered Ferrari. He also chained himself to a nuclear plant in England in 2002, but that’s another story.


In only two years, this edgy hotel has created a splash nearly as big as Pal Enger who, with three other men, waltzed into Oslo’s National Gallery on the opening day of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and made off with Scream.

The Thief’s contemporary art collection is its protagonist, not some afterthought to match the bedspreads. Curated by Sune Nordgren, the former director of Norway’s National Museum, the hotel’s art collection includes the most important names in contemporary art. The restaurant has a $2.5 million Andy Warhol, the elevators feature Julian Opie video images of blinking, winking women and the Oslo Suite has several Peter Blake installations. Each of the 118 rooms has original contemporary art.

No wonder this bold hotel that sprang up on Tjuvholmen (this tiny island along the Oslo Fjord from reclaimed docklands actually means Thieves Island) has earned the dubious distinction of paying the world’s highest hotel insurance premiums. It’s one thing to abscond with those tiny hotel shampoo bottles, but at this hotel you’re sleeping next to art by Richard Prince, Albert Merz and Fiona Banner. There’s even photography of Kate Moss taken by Bryan Ferry and albums covers from Roxy music.

My favorite perk of staying at The Thief is free admission to Europe’s hottest new contemporary art museum. The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Art, designed by renowned Italian architect, Renzo Piano, is a few steps from Fru K’s, the Thief’s organic, local, artistically inspiring restaurant, and all guests have to do is show their room key for complimentary entry.

I’ve followed bad boy Damien Hirst’s career since 1992 when his controversial shark in formaldehyde landed him a nomination for that year’s Turner Prize. So having unlimited access to The Astrup Fearnley (I went twice) that has a whole room and a half of Hirst’s work was one of the highlights of my time in Oslo.

Of course, entry to this privately-owned contemporary art gallery that created a stir in 2002 when it paid $5.1 million for Jeff Koons gilt porcelain of Michael Jackson with pet chimp Bubbles is just the beginning of Thief amenities.

The robes are designed by internationally-renowned designer Cecilie Juvodden. The chairs by Antonio Citterio and, if you want, you can actually purchase original pieces of art right from your 42-inch plasma TV.

Guests get a treasure map for scouting the hotel’s art collection and, for those crazy enough to to leave the premises (my chief question being, “Why?) just know that within walking distance, there’s a beach, a sculpture garden and many of Oslo’s best galleries and restaurants. City Center’s also nearby.

As the hotel promises, it’s guaranteed to steal you away from the ordinary.

The Thief, Landgangen 1; 47-24-00-40-00, Oslo; thethief.com/en.

21 reasons Bentonville’s 21C is an art lover’s wet dream

I write a series called “Why I’m the Luckiest Person on the Planet.” Near the top of the list is that I’m a travel writer. I get paid to visit really cool places. Usually those places involve airlines and passports.

But not always. I recently discovered a really cool destination that’s a short three and a half-hour drive from my home: 21C Art Hotel in Bentonville, Arkansas.

I KNOW! I was as surprised as you are. So unwind that knot in your knickers and listen up.

Here are 21 reasons why Bentonville’s 21C is deserving of every art pilgrim:

1. This 104-room boutique hotel is a populist’s rallying cry. Even though 21C is by far the most unique and chic property in this pint-size burg of 36,000, it’s actually an art museum that’s completely free and open night or day to anyone and everyone. The hotel’s bedrooms, of course, are private, but most of its 30,000 square feet is alive and pulsing with contemporary art, all of which is there to be enjoyed by visitors from all income brackets.

2. It sits on “best of” lists next to hotels in New York, Paris, London and other top-flight cities. Name a travel magazine (from Conde Nast to Travel+Leisure) and every last one of them has singled out this provocative hotel.

3. 21C has original contemporary art everywhere—even in the bathrooms and in the fitness center where Fat Bat, a hilarious obese Batman, flies over the ellipticals.

4. Its prices raise eyebrows. Can a hotel this awesome really be this reasonable? Even though this Deborah Berke-designed hotel deserves every list it has made and every elbow it has rubbed since its opening February 2013, its daily rack rate is one-fourth to one-tenth of the price of its peers. I like that in a hotel.

5. It’s within walking distance of the 120-wooded acres of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the first major-and I do mean major–art museum to open in the United States in 40 years. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for all my past disparagement of Wal-Mart. I stand my ground that global domination is never a worthy goal. However, when you use your fortune, as Alice Walton appears to be doing with her $26 billion, to open a truly remarkable, Moshe Safdie-designed museum, you deserve a little credit.

6. Crystal Bridges, like Sam Walton, is rolling back prices. Admission to Crystal Bridges is absolutely free. Compare that to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that’s $25 just to sniff the rarified air. Take a family of five to the Louvre and you’re looking at the better part of a hundy.

7. 21C also has daily curated tours. Every afternoon, Museum Manager Dayton Castleman brings art to life in a riveting tour that’s as much history lesson as reminder to view life through different eyes. His contagious passion about Dis-semblance, the current exhibition of portraiture, reignited in me a burning appreciation for art and how it changes history.

8. At 21C, it’s perfectly acceptable to play with your art. Like its two sister properties, 21C Bentonville has a flock of four-foot plastic penguins. At last count, there were 32, all of which are bright neon green and free for guests to move around the property. At one point, I had a conga line of seven in my room.

8. It’s better than Mary Poppins. The green penguins are far more entertaining than any nanny. Even for big kids like me.

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9. The green penguins (okay, so I really really like the green penguins) are simultaneously fun and thought-provoking. Cracking Art Group, an Italian consortium that makes the penguins, is also trying to make a point. By using the earth’s oldest natural material (petroleum) to make plastic animals, they’re raising awareness of the use (and misuse) of precious natural resources.

10. Exhibits (ergo the hotel décor) change twice a year. Hotels, no matter what kind of reputation and loyalty they inspire, must undergo renovations at least once a decade. It’s practically a necessity for repositioning against upstarts. At 21C, the hotel is automatically renovated every six months, practically a new hotel with a brand new exhibition.

11. Art is better viewed without the good sense of sobriety. Sure, you can score a drink at any hoity toity art patron function, but at The Hive, the cocktail bar at 21C, you can enjoy a Drugstore Cowboy (it has bulliet rye, courvoisier, domaine de canton and Benedictine) and Serkan Ozkaya’s “A Certain Burst of Wind,” 400 sheets of metal paper that emulate a scattered stack of 8-1/2 by 11-inch papers at the same time.

12. The Drugstore Cowboy is just the beginning of The Hive’s stellar hand-crafted cocktails. When you’re owned by Laura Lee Brown, heiress to the Brown-Forman fortune, it’s pretty much a no-brainer that your cocktails are going to stand out. If the name Brown-Forman doesn’t ring a bell, let me drop a few others: Jack Daniel’s, Finlandia, Southern Comfort, Woodford Reserve.

13. Contemporary art deserves to be seen. Brown and her husband Steve Wilson are mega-art collectors and, in fact, when they opened 21C Louisville in 2006, the first of the three in their growing line, they knew nothing about the hotel business. They just wanted their sizable $10 million plus contemporary art collection to come out from behind a velvet rope.

14. James Beard was here. Or rather one of his proteges. The Hive, a popular gathering spot, is helmed by Chef Matthew McClure, a James Beard semifinalist. His Brussels & Belly, a eponymous dish of smoked pork belly, brussel sprouts, hazelnuts and apple butter, is right up there with meth and crack when it comes to wanting more.

16. Where else can you see a tree that bears 40 kinds of fruit? In the winter, the Tree of 40 Fruit, one of several permanent “sculptures” at 21C, looks like any tree. In the spring, however, it blooms into an incredible harvest of heirloom and antique plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines and other pit fruits.University of Syracuse art professor Sam Van Aken grafts and sculpts what he calls a transubstantiation, a tree that defies how you see nature.

17. While you can play with the art, you can’t play with the basketball hoops. Orange Tree, a large metal sculpture sprouting 19 basketball hoops, is one of the first pieces visitors see. Maintenance finally had to erect stanchions to deter visitors from trying to shoot the basketballs that surround the piece created by Cuban artist Alexandre Archie

18. You can mosey over to the town square. There’s an old-fashioned soda fountain, a farmer’s market in the summer, an ice skating rink in the winter, crickets crooning at night and when you spot facial hair it’s on a farmer in overalls—not a hipster.

19. Bentonville is a whole different variety of hayseed. Sure, you get the Mayberry RFD vibe, but here–like art itself—things are turned completely on their heads. People are genuinely excited, revved up about art’s possibilities. Think Barney Fife channeling Alfred Stieglitz.

20. The building itself is aesthetically intriguing with high ceilings, cool tones and lots of natural light.

21. If you build it, they will come. Above all else, 21C Bentonville is blatantly fun, but like all the hotels in the 21C line, it has an ulterior motive. To stimulate economic growth. As Sam Walton used to say, “ Capital isn’t scarce. Vision is.”

Vision definitely isn’t scarce at 21C Bentonville.

Helsinki’s urban castle set right in the heart of the Design District

Attention, Princess Wanna-be’s!

If your sights are still set on a castle, you should probably know that most kingdoms and their palaces are located in the countryside, far, far away from shopping, the latest fashion and a decent sushi bar.

Unless, of course, you go to Helsinki.

Glo Hotel Art, a 1903 Art Nouveau castle, is located right in the heart of Helsinki’s Design District, a 25-street area with upstart boutiques, oh-so-cool galleries and restaurants that put Downton Abby’s Mrs. Patmore to shame.

Without having to call for your squire or your butler, you can easily prepare for a night out with Prince Charming at the nearby design showrooms, neighborhood jewelry makers and antique shops. You won’t even need your horse and carriage to get to the Esplanade, the famous green promenade with parks, free concerts and inspiring shops like Marimekko, Aarikka and Stockman’s. From Glo Hotel Art, it’s a pleasant ten-minute walk.

Renovated in 2012, just in time for Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital, Glo Hotel Art combines the accouterments of a castle (well, maybe not a moat) with the cool factor of Finnish design. The stone lobby with its arches, stained glass windows, soft lighting and mysterious stairways evokes a cool Hogwarts vibe. Or would if Albus Dumbledore had admitted Art Nouveau muggle Alphonse Mucha to paint the walls.

The 170 guest rooms, accessed down a series of long corridors, are contemporary, hip and even have free, fast WiFi, something you can’t say about your everyday garden variety castle.

Although Madonna, while in Helsinki on her Sticky and Sweet Tour, stayed at Hotel Kamp on the Esplanade, Glo Hotel Art is one of six owned and operated by the same hotel group and treats all guests as if they were famous rock stars.

Although they don’t hold up lighters or begin swaying together when guests walk in, they’re unwaveringly kind, courteous and don’t even seem to mind dumb questions.

The breakfast (free to all Glo Art Hotel subjects, er guests) is fabulous, featuring Finnish lingonberries, cheese, pastries, breads and other local dishes. Even foamy lattes are thrown in for the asking.

Glo Hotel Art, Lönnrotinkatu 29, 00180 HELSINKI, Finland, +358 10 3444 100.

13 things you probably didn’t know about Finnish saunas

On a recent trip to Helsinki, I was fretting about my glaring lack of language skills. How, I wondered, was I ever going to pronounce all those really long words with so many vowels and umlauts?


Turns out, nearly everyone in Finland speaks English. And even better, I’ve known the most important Finnish word since I was four.

Yes, I’m talking about the word “sauna,” a Finnish word that has made its way into more than 100 languages. Except in Finland, it’s far more than a word–it’s a point of national pride, a weekly ritual practiced by 99 percent of the population.

There are more saunas than cars in Finland and, unlike the rest of us who view a hop in the sauna as a luxury, the Finns consider their weekly sauna as a necessity, right up there with food, rye bread and vodka.

Here are thirteen more things you probably don’t know about Finnish saunas:

1. Any business worth its credit rating has its own company sauna. Even Parliament House has its own sauna chambers, as does the Finnair lounge in the Helsinki airport., the Pyhasalmi zinc and copper mine (it’s 4600 feet underground, making it the deepest sauna in the world), most passenger and cargo ships and every home, summer cottage and apartment building.

2. A popular Finnish television talk show that ran for years featured two hosts in a sauna chatting up celebrities and government officials. Even former president Tarja Halonen (the Conan O’Brien look-alike) was interviewed wearing nothing but a towel.

3. When Finns travel abroad, the sauna goes, too. Those serving in the UN Peace Corps are well-known for the tent saunas they build at every base. And every Finnish diplomatic and consular mission around the world has its own sauna, as does the Finnish Church in London.

4. Speaking of churches, the sauna is considered an equally sacred place. Swearing, controversial topics and sex (although it’s a faux pas to wear clothes in a sauna) are strictly verboten.

5. During the Cold War, Finnish President Urho Kekkonen, who was born in a sauna, held political negotiations in his sauna at Tamminiemi. In fact, soon after Khrushchev attended Kekkonen’s 60th birthday party, where he sat for many hours in Kekkonen’s private wooden sauna, the Soviet government issued a communiqué expressing support for Finland’s intention to cooperate with the West.

6. American actor Danny Kaye, in Helsinki as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, was made a Knight of the Sauna Order by the Finnish Sauna Society. It’s a cultural association with more than 4000 members that publishes papers, organizes seminars and symposiums, supports scientific research and, of course, maintains a sauna for its members.

7. Jatkankamppa, a log cabin sauna in Finland’s Lakes District, can hold 60 people. It is is thought to be the world’s largest.

8. Teuva, a town in western Finland, hosts a mobile sauna rally every year. Dozens of wacky saunas built into telephone booths, farm equipment, old cars and even on the back of a bike are displayed.

9. In Finnish folklore, there’s a sauna-elf. It’s called a saunatonttu and is rumored to perform magic.

10. Saunas are not just used for bathing. In olden days, they were also used for drying flax, preparing malts and curing meat. There’s a famous Finnish proverb, “Build the sauna. Then the house.”

11. Another well-known proverb says a sauna without a birch whisk is like food without salt. Yes, the Finns lightly beat themselves with young birch twigs that allegedly raises blood circulation and speeds up the sweating process.

12. For years, saunas were lauded as the poor man’s pharmacy. Studies now show that sauna visits may aid in everything from rheumatoid pain and heart disease to stress and chronic fatigue.

13. If you plead “saunanjalkeinen,” which means you’re just out of the sauna and completely relaxed, you can get out of most anything.

Only in Australia: the 5 Top Things you Will Find Nowhere Else

In the time it takes to read this sentence, an estimated 92 thousand selfies will be snapped for imminent posting on Facebook. And even though the Oxford English Dictionary chose the now-ubiquitous word as its 2013 word of the year, it was invented 11 years earlier in Australia when a drunk 21-year-old, eager to show off a drinking injury, apologized for his photo’s fuzzy focus, because it was, as is the Australian custom to add an “ie” to innocuous words, a “selfie.”

Australians also invented the wine cask (they call it a goon sack), spray-on artificial skin, the underwater torpedo and Vegemite, a brown food paste made from leftover brewer’s yeast that’s unlikely to ever gain much of a following past the country border.

Here are five more things you can only find in the rowdy, fun-loving country that also happens to be the sole continent without a volcano.

1. A convicted forger on a bank note. Francis Greenway, a British architect and one of the 164,000 convicts sent to Mother England’s newest penal colony between 1788 and 1868, received a pardon in 1819 when the colonial governor, Lachland Macquarie, fell in love with Hyde Park Barracks, a building Greenway designed to house fellow convicts. Greenway went on to design many significant buildings in the new colony including the Macquarie Lighthouse, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and St. James Church that was chosen by the BBC for its series Around the World in 80 Treasures. Even though he died of typhoid at age 59, Greenway’s face graced the Australian $10 note from 1966 to 1993.

2. A prime minster who attributed his political success to a championship beer drinking record. Robert Hawk, Australia’s longest-serving Labor Prime Minister from 1983 to 1991,was immortalized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1954 for sculling 2.5 pints of beer in 11 seconds. At the time, he was a student at Oxford University and, in his memoir, Hawke suggests that this feat may have single-handedly contributed to his political success. Perhaps he took his cue from an earlier Australian politician, Sir John Robertson, five times premier of New South Wales and an early advocate for universal suffrage, who, for 35 years, drank a pint of rum every morning before heading to work.

3. A prestigious opera house that pays tribute not only to the arts but to the country’s strong gambling industry, the highest per capita in the world. When Danish architect Joern Utzon, chosen to design the now-iconic Sydney Opera House, resigned after nine years and ongoing battles with the new conservative government over skyrocketing construction costs, a public lottery was conceived to raise the remaining funds. The 4.5 acre-complex took 15 years and a final price tag of $102 million, most of which was raised from the Opera House Lottery that remained in effect for 29 years. It was a gamble that paid off. Even though Uzon never set foot in Australia again, his revolutionary design is now a World Heritage Site that hosts some 1500 performances and 7 million tourists a year.

4. A cattle ranch bigger than the state of New Hampshire. Anna Creek Station, the largest cattle ranch in the world, has six million acres and is seven times larger that the largest ranch in the United States, King Ranch in Texas. Located in the Australian outback in the state of South Australia, Anna Creek has its own pub, its own once-a-week mail delivery and its own small airplane fleet to keep tabs on livestock. Anna Creek’s scrub, sand dunes and savannah started as a sheep station, but dingoes kept decimating herds. On another ranch, a dingo fence, the world’s largest, is twice as long as the wall of China.

5. Boats made entirely out of beer cans. On Boxing Day 1974, Hurricane Tracy practically wiped out the Northern Territory capital city of Darwin. Work crews, rebuilding the town were unaccustomed to the humidity and ended up consuming larger than normal quantities of beer. Since recycling hadn’t come into vogue just yet, mountains of empty beer can began piling up. Lutz Frankensfeld, one of the territory’s many colorful, larger-than life characters, hatched a scheme of holding a boat race with vessels fashioned from empty beer cans. The inaugural 1975 race not only eliminated the litter problem, but was so much fun that they’ve held it every year since on Darwin’s famous Mindil Beach.

Boats are constructed entirely out of stubbies (that’s Aussie for beer cans) and extra points are given for creativity. Lots of extra points if your vessel happens to be seaworthy. Now sponsored by the Darwin Lions Club, the wacky regatta, depending on the tide takes place on a Sunday in either July or August.

Where to stay:

Adina Apartment Hotels, Sydney Central. The perfect place to toss another shrimp on the Barbie, this magnificently-restored turn-of-the century landmark (it was originally an insane asylum and later served as a post office), is literally minutes from anywhere you might want to go. The Central Train station is adjacent to the front door with regular trains to the Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef. And not only does it have all the regular amenities (heated pool, gym, spa) and spacious rooms with natural light, but it has DIY facilities for throwing your own barbie. Adina Apartment Hotel Sydney Central, 2 Lee Street, Haymarket, NSW 2000, Australia.

Sydney’s Harbour Rocks Hotel, a 59-room boutique hotel in the heart of “The Rocks,” the landing site of the first English settlers, is a mere 10-minute walk from the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Opera House and Circular Quay. Once a stone warehouse, the historic hotel was built by 12 of the early convicts who, with little but their sweat and tears, cut the stone for this three-story masterpiece. There’s even a resident ghost. Harbour Rocks Hotel, 34 Harrington Street, The Rocks, Sydney.

Sydney’s Harbour Rocks: a perfect mashup of historical charm and modern comforts

Bill Gates just gave $50 million to fight Ebola. I don’t have that kind of money, not yet anyway, so I support causes I believe in with my travel dollars.

I choose to stay and, as a travel writer, promote hotels that stand for things I believe in, things like creativity, kindness and making a legacy.

Sydney’s Harbour Rocks Hotel, a 59-room boutique hotel in the heart of “The Rocks,” the landing site of the first English settlers, is the perfect choice for supporting my passions.

Plus, you can’t exactly quibble with the location. Brilliantly situated for gallery viewing and pub-hopping, this iconic hotel is also a mere 10-minute walk from the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Opera House and Circular Quay.

Let’s start with making a legacy. Once a stone warehouse, this historic hotel was erected in 1887 by 12 of the 164,000 convicts that were shipped from England to Australia. These convicts, with little but their sweat and tears, cut the stones for this three-story masterpiece from the harbor’s rocky cliffs. First used as a wool warehouse, this mighty building has played as many roles as Kristin Scott Thomas, the British actress who helped choose the 60 hotels in the Accor hotel chain’s M Gallery collection to which it belongs.

Before it joined the M Gallery, (to give you an idea of this extraordinary collection, it also includes the former residence of the Caracciolos of Naples, Italy, the five-century-old Santo Domingo residence of the first governor of the Americas and the Songtsam Retreat that overlooks a remote valley of China and one of the world’s largest Tibetan temples), Harbour Rocks served as everything from offices for importers, indenturers and ink manufacturers to, in the 70’s, an art gallery.

Suffice it to say, The English Patient actress, educated in Paris and recently chosen by UK’s Guardian as one of the fifty best-dressed women, knows class when she sees it.

Let’s go next to creativity. This luxury hotel is a perfect mashup of historical architecture and unique contemporary styling. With exposed beams, original sandstone and brick walls, it’s arranged around a central atrium and a library in which, if I wasn’t in such a cool city, I would have loved to have spent more time.

I didn’t get to meet the architects or the interior designers, but I would have gladly given them a standing ovation for so creatively incorporating the old Nurses’ Walk and the rough-hewn sandstone. The tool marks of the original stone masons accent leather-lined walls, hand-cut furniture and other modern appointments.

Even Eric, the resident ghost, a former sea merchant who wanders the halls late at night looking for his lover, Scarlett, is celebrated in his namesake bar, in specialty drinks (a Scarlett Fever, anyone?) and in a ghost tour.

As for the kindness, the Harbour Rocks staff welcome guests as friends. They seem to really care. Either that or Kristin Scott Thomas also gave acting lessons to the 32 staff members who often call guests by their first names, go out of their way to provide every comfort, every whim and, like all the hotels in the M Gallery collection, offer what’s called a “Memorable Moment.”

For example, at the collection’s Phu Quoc in Vietnam, the “Memorable Moment” is a romantic lunch on a deserted island. At the Grand Hôtel in Cabourg, France, guests get the original recipe for madeleines de Commercy at a cooking lesson with the hotel’s head pastry chef.

At Harbour Rocks, the “Memorable Moment” is a three-course dinner on a private balcony overlooking the stunning Sydney Opera House while a Classical String Quartet plays on.

So, yea, I like a Four Seasons as well as the next guy. But rather than being one of 531 guests (which I would have been at the Sydney Four Seasons), I got the luxury experience (with a lot of added features) and I got to join Bill Gates in supporting a cause I believe in.

Harbour Rocks Hotel, 34 Harrington Street, The Rocks, Sydney.

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