Thursday, November 6, 2008


There is only one word to describe Venezia: enchanting. No matter how much time I spend there, it is never long enough to see all there is to see or to have my fill of this glorious city. I photograph everything with my mind as well as with my camera; ancient religious statues in little niches in walls, fading colors and crumbling cement, water glittering under charming bridges and bustling with activity in the Grand Canal, gondolas with their colorful gondoliers, music in unexpected places, art to die for in cool, dark churches, the colors, smells and bustle of the Rialto market early in the morning and all the nooks and crannies Venice abounds in. One could spend hours lazily watching the activity on the canals. My eyes are so filled with stars I don't even see the touristy over-priced restaurants, the tacky souvenir shops, the crowds of people and the thousands of fat pigeons in the Piazza San Marco. It passes right over my head and I long to start wandering this marvelous city.

My first trip many years ago set the mood for all my following trips: we arrived at night, Venice suddenly appeared in front of us in the distance and we watched, charmed, as the city grew in front of our eyes. Our hotel, Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal, was on the water and once up in our room we threw open our shutters and leaned out the window not wanting to miss anything. On our way to dinner, as we crossed one of Venice's many little bridges, a gondola appeared below with a hatted gondolier, a young couple and, believe it or not, a tenor singing an aria. Could you doubt for a minute that I couldn't wait to get back and spend more time here?

On our most recent trip, we stayed once again at Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal; again we arrived at night and watched Venice appear like magic.

The hotel has a great location and fabulous views over the Grand Canal, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute and the island of San Giorgio. It has been newly renovated and is really charming, retaining its old world elegance while introducing a contemporary decor. I can't praise them enough for their service; one of us became ill while visiting and a doctor was there in 15 minutes. Now I grant you this is a pricey hotel, but my granddaughter had never been to Venice and we wanted her to see it the way I did on my first trip.

In this same price bracket (and also on the Grand Canal) is the Hotel Danieli; another charming old world hotel. I won't spend much time talking about hotels as there are many to choose from in Venice; any travel agent can help you find one to fit your budget. However, another favorite (and very inexpensive) is the Pensione Accademia; very small, it offers offers two large gardens for breakfast al fresco and is close to the Accademia Gallery. It's in the Dorsoduro district, one of the most peaceful areas of Venice, adjacent to the Grand Canal.

One of the biggest charms of Venice is getting lost. Very easy to do with all the narrow streets, alleys and tiny bridges, but that's the way you find out-of-the-way churches, some of the nicer shops and workshops owned by old fashioned artisans and the niches, nooks and crannies I spoke of. Besides, there are maps and the concierge at your hotel will be extremely helpful.

Everyone should cruise the Grand Canal: Whether seen by gondola or by water bus, Venice's Main Street is something from another world. Although many will tell you the gondolas of Venice are a tourist trap and can be quite expensive, where else can you have the experience of riding an authentic Venetian gondola? You should try it once. It's fascinating. First the bustle of the Grand Canal and then the gondolier takes you up and down and around the smaller canals. So peaceful.
On every list of "must sees" you will find the following listed first: San Marco Square. This is the main square of the city, it’s home to the beautiful Byzantine basilica of San Marco, the patron saint of Venice, and to the Doges Palace the symbol of the Venetian Republic and the most conspicuous feature of the city, the 91m high Campanile San Marco.And then around the corner is the famous Bridge of Sighs, which connects the palace with public prisons and was the route by which prisoners were taken to and from the judgement hall. The Bridge of Sighs was the last bridge prisoners walked over before being thrown into the dungeon or executed, so the sighs came from realizing that the view through the bridge’s cutwork was their last view of Venice. But my favorite bridge is The Rialto Bridge. The Rialto, dating from the 1500s, was the first bridge to span the Grand Canal, and it has shops lining both sides. More important for a foodie like me, it also heralds the area of the Rialto market, an enormous open market where you can find anything from spices to eels. Be sure to go there early! It's open Monday through Saturday, but the fish market is closed on Monday. And you don't want to miss the fish market! You can spend hours here and wish you had your kitchen and refrigerator nearby. We always end up with some lovely fruit (which we eat immediately as we walk around) and spices (which we put in our suitcases). This is an extraordinary market, world famous and should not be missed.

And then there is Venetian glass; it's everywhere. From enormous objects d'art to chandeliers, to some of the most beautiful crystal glasses you will ever see. In some shops you can find lovely glass jewelry; in others you can find glass beads to take home for your own projects. We found some wonderful artisans; they are worth searching for.
If you have time, visit Murano, located north of Venice; it's famous for its beautiful, hand-blown glass. There’s a glass museum there, and many glass-making shops; you can go into the factories and see the glass blowers shaping the lovely pieces as they are being made. The glass blowers were moved to Murano long ago to lessen the chance of fires in Venice, and they have remained there ever since; you can find less expensive prices on the fine glass there than in the Venice shops, and you can bargain with the shops for even lower prices.
There are also day tours to the mountains and day trips to Burano and Torcello, two more of the lagoon islands. I must confess I have never taken the side trips, but would love sometime to eat at the Fortuny Restaurant at The Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca Island.

Art. It is everywhere. In churches, in architecture, on the gondolas, secreted away in wall niches, on a wall in a restaurant. There are the museums: The Venier dei Leoni Palace is the headquarters of the famous Peggy Guggenheim art collection and contains works by Picasso, Klee and Kandinskij. The Accademia Gallery holds a vast collection of Venetian painters from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The Ca'd'Oro, one of the most beautiful monuments of Venice, is now the seat of the Franchetti Gallery. I love wandering and finding the art in churches. Any guidebook worth its salt will list churches, locations (good luck with that) and a brief description of the paintings in each. We were fortunate to have my daughter along, who knows her way around Venice. But even she finds new surprises every trip- it is part of the charm of Venice.

Do you adore exploring old churches? You can have your fill in Venice. One afternoon we happened upon a choir sitting casually on church steps and giving an impromptu concert. There are some really important churches: of course St. Mark's Basilica in St. Marks Square; Santa Maria dei Frari, a monumental church in Gothic style containing numerous works of art, including the altarpiece of the Assumption by Titian and a wooden statue by Donatello; Church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo- the biggest Gothic church in Venice; Santa Maria della Salute, while a minor basilica is probably the most photographed and its location and prominence on the canal make it famous. It has an interesting history, although most churches do. In October of 1630, after nearly a third of Venice's 150,000 citizens had been killed by plague, the Venetian Senate made an offer to God: "Stop the plague, and we'll build a church to honor the Virgin Mary." God came through, or maybe the onset of cooler weather reduced the population of plague-ridden fleas. No matter the reason, the plague was stopped in its tracks. The Venetian authorities honored their promise by giving the Virgin a prime chunk of real estate near the tip of Dorsoduro, where the Grand Canal merged with St. Mark's Basin. (As you can see it was being renovated during our visit):
And the last two: Chiesa della Madonna dell'Orto, where there are 10 paintings by Tintoretto and Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli which houses Nicolo di Pietro's Virgin and Child—a painting believed to have miraculous powers.

In your meanderings, you will find shopping is a real pleasure as you discover little shops, compare prices of the things you can't resist and then return later to purchase. I never buy anything I cannot carry home. Shipping is hideously expensive, it may arrive in pieces and who can afford to buy much in Europe now anyway? The fun is looking! Antiquing is a joy here, although prices are prohibitive. I won't list clothing and shoe stores because there are simply too many and they are easy to find. But we do have a few favorite shops: for masks, Max Art Shop, Frezzeria S. Marco, 1232. This shop is a Venetian carnival wonderland. Masks are all hand made and painted/decorated by artisans. Several years ago I purchased a mask made entirely of leaves, acorns and corn husks; we saw several that were reminiscent of this style. They have anything and everything. Elegant, funky, funny and decorative. The mask below I bought last year; isn't he wonderful?
Another favorite is Vetri a lume di Amadi - Calle Saoneri - San Polo 2747; you will find a world of animals: beetles, birds, butterflies, rabbits, fish, made with a thousand colors of glass. If you go with children, be careful; everything here is fragile. I couldn't resist this exquisite glass anemone:

We found all of these shops accidentally, merely wandering around and peeking in all the doors and windows. You will find just as many favorites of your own when you go. The last one I will mention is Venetian Dreams, Calle della Mandola 3805. They had some wonderful handmade bags (along with other fabulous items);

Did you think I had forgotten food? I could never forget that; it's on my mind most of the time! Please don't be in a hurry and eat at the most convenient place you find. You will be disappointed. We love these two restaurants for lunch and they are worth searching for:
Antica Locanda Montin, Fondamenta di Borgo, 1147. The charm is sitting outside in the beautiful spring weather; the food is spectacular.

And yet another fabulous place for lunch: Trattoria alla Madonna, Calle della Madonna, Rialto 594. As you can see from the address, this is in the Rialto market area. The fish here is mouth-watering.

For dinner, there are so many restaurants to choose from. The first night, because we arrived so late, we ate out on the water at our hotel's restaurant, The Grand Canal. It was delicious. But to narrow the dining list down just a bit, and if food is really important to you, you can't miss with any of these three beyond perfect restaurants: Corte Sconta, Calle del Pestrin, 3886; Da Ivo, Calle dei Fuseri, San Marco 1809; and lastly, Antico Martini, Sestiere San Marco, 2007. I had the most perfect asparagus I have ever tasted at Antico Martini.

We had a drink at Caffe Florian in the Piazza San Marco late in the afternoon every single day; you can't beat the view, it's relaxing, there is live music, you feel as though you are finally a true Venetian, and the crowds in the piazza have started to thin out by cocktail time. Anyway, it is super people-watching.

Of course, there is Harry's Bar and his famous Bellinis; you really should go there just to have one, to be a part of history. But sitting in the Piazza San Marco at Caffe Florian until the sun goes down is soooo romantic and just plain WOW.

We saw as much of Venice as we could during our short trip and I am already planning my return. I always feel that way as I leave the magic city in the distance. Ciao, Venice!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Harbour Island, Bahamas

We've been to most of the islands in the Caribbean but this past summer we only had a week and decided to check out Harbour Island in the Bahamas. It's a 50 minute trip from Fort Lauderdale in a small plane (with your knees pretty much crunched to your chest); you land at the North Eleuthera Airport, take a taxi to the dock and then a short boat/ferry ride across to Harbour Island. The taxi from the airport, the ferry and the taxi to the hotel each cost $5 per person.
Harbour Island is 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, a small, quaint island of narrow streets filled with pastel cottages surrounded by palm trees and lush bougainvillea. I don't mean you won't see dilapidated houses and piles of trash here and there, because you will. Nonetheless, we were delighted by the old homes and the down home island flavor of everything. They have an enormous chicken population on the island which actually may surpass their local population. The hens and roosters pop up everywhere as you walk or drive around; the crowing goes on all day but you get used to it. The beach is the charm here; it is 3 miles long and a heavenly pink sand against the turquoise water. If you like to run or walk on the beach, you will love it as the sand is firm and easy to exercise on.

The main mode of travel, aside from walking, is by golf cart; we rented one for the week. We got ours through our hotel (because we didn't know when we arrived it would be a necessity) although someone later told us the cheapest place to rent was right near the dock. Most activities are water or beach oriented and you have to be able to find your own amusements. If you want to be entertained or are looking for activities for your kids, this is not the island for you. It's very laid back, you sure won't need a tie or a little black dress and if you want nightlife, you mix with the islanders at their haunts. Surprisingly, you can ride a horse bareback on the pink sands of the beach- they were located right next to our hotel on the beach. We found tooling around in the golf cart a really fun way to see every nook and cranny of the island, although we got soaking wet the one day we spent sightseeing. Tropical Storm (soon to be Hurricane) Gustav was stirring in the Caribbean during our trip and we had quite a bit of rain.
My daughter and son are divers so they had looked into diving groups on the
island. There appear to be two and Valentines was recommended by a friend; unfortunately, because of the weather they were only able to go out three days, and although they had one frightening day with some inexperienced divers, they were pleased enough with the dive group; the dives were good, but not outstanding.

If you like to shop, or just want to wander around, you will find lots to do in Dunmore Town; we liked shopping in the afternoon and found straw vendors lining Bay Street, nice jewelry, clothes- lots of decorative odds and ends along with the t-shirt shops. Look especially for Dilly Dally, Island Treasures, Shells and Things and The Blue Rooster. You'll find lots more just walking around. Unfortunately, the art gallery was closed. Our biggest help locating the interesting shops was our breakfast waitress; she was nice enough to name the best and locate them on an excellent map of the island. The Pink Sands Hotel has a nice boutique.

One of the quirkiest sights is an intersection referred to as "Uncle Ralph's Aura Corner". It is a collection of hand painted signs, some printable, some not. I read someplace that if you take a photo, you should leave some change and Uncle Ralph will give it to the medical center. Unfortunately, we did not know that at the time.

A friend recommended our hotel, The Coral Sands. It has a sister hotel, The Pink Sands, which is double the price yet located right next door and they are on the identical stretch of beach. We were very happy with the hotel; our room was not luxurious, but excellent and was air-conditioned which was nice as it is almost a necessity what with the humidity of August in the tropics; however, our bathroom left a lot to be desired and I believe it was scheduled to be remodeled. The rooms are no doubt the difference between the two hotels, though we did not take the time to look at a room in The Pink Sands. Coral Sands photos below (lobby, pool and dining area):

The lobby of The Pink Sands:
As far as eating was concerned, we were rather unlucky as many places were closed due to the time of year so our choices were limited. Food is expensive here. The one grocery story has very little in the way of food and after speaking with someone who has a home in these islands, they have to go quite a way for decent provisions. As on most islands, food has to be imported and this always makes for pricey meals. If you go on a budget please keep this in mind; our meals were costlier than we expected. However I must tell you the chefs on this island are superb. We never had a bad meal anyplace. I would not be exaggerating to say our meals were spectacular. We are foodies and therefore fussy and knowledgeable about dining. We ate at our hotel, The Coral Sands, at The Pink Sands and a restaurant in a hotel called Rock House Hotel, which looks like a fun place to stay (the sunsets there are unreal) but unfortunately it is not on the beach which we wanted. Be sure to order a Goombay Smash here!

Sunset at Rock House and their pool area below:
Of course there are lots of small, inexpensive places to eat (and takeout) as well. You will find many of them scattered around Dunmore Town; we especially loved Queen Conch. They have odd hours though (that could have been the timing of our visit- off season); you place your order and tell them when you are coming back to pick it up. Their conch salad is to die for. They actually have listed possible ingredients and you can pick and choose what you would like in it. Ask your hotel or any locals where to go for lunch and dinner. Or check out this website which I think is informative and amusing:
As far as nightlife is concerned, try Gusty's or Vic-Hums or both!

The old fishing dock, where you can buy fish:
We noticed a big influx of people on a Friday and decided that many Floridians come over for long weekends; it is such a quick trip from Florida and the time it takes to get from the airport to the dock to Harbour Island is under half an hour. The one thing you have to be ready for- flight delays. Most of us are already used to delays, but there are lots more in the tropics because of the frequent (and quickly formed) storms that arise in the afternoons.
If you are looking for a relaxing time on an cozy, laid back island, you will love Harbour Island.