Hotel News We Noted: July 5, 2013

four seasons st. petersburg
Image Courtesy of Four Seasons

Happy Friday, everyone! We hope that most of you are reading this as you enjoy an extended long weekend and that everyone had a great Fourth of July yesterday. We’re back from Arizona and, after a brief stop home in Washington, D.C. (see us on Instagram again this week), we’re headed to Richmond for the weekend.

Opening Sunday: Four Seasons St. Petersburg
The first Four Seasons in Russia opens this weekend when a 19th-century palace officially becomes The Four Seasons St. Petersburg. Immortalized in Alexander Pushkin’s poetry, the 177-room hotel is located inside an iconic, triangular-shaped building in the city center, just steps from the Winter Palace. Nearly all rooms boast impressive views, and guests can enjoy numerous on-site amenities, including a Russian Tea Lounge, a bar with (what else?) vodka tasting flights and an Asian-inspired restaurant opening soon called Sintoho. A luxe spa will also open later this year. A second property in the country, Four Seasons Hotel Moscow, will open in 2014.

Hotel Deals: SniqueAway becomes Jetsetter
As we reported a few weeks ago, the flash sale site formerly owned by Gilt Groupe was sold and merged with SniqueAway, a TripAdvisor company. Today, the platform is called Jetsetter, the better known of the new brands. While this news isn’t particularly exciting in and of itself, the $100 incentive credit the brand has given to members of the site is. Use that cash to book a reservation at some of your favorite luxury hotels for more than 40 percent off. At some properties, that’s like a free night! Need a code? Join here.

Hotel Opening: Jing An Shangri-La, West Shanghai
Shangri-La hotels has opened its third luxury property in the city in the heart of the city’s most fashionable neighborhood on the Puxi side of the Huangpu River. The 508-room hotel is located inside the Jing An Kerry Centre, a high-end mixed use property featuring shopping, offices, restaurants and more. In addition to an impressive art collection, the hotel features four restaurants, (including a New York-style steakhouse) and the largest Horizon Club lounge in the Shangri-La collection.

Hotel Review: L’Auberge de Sedona
We spent several days last week visiting L’Auberge de Sedona in the lovely city of Sedona, Arizona. The AAA Four Diamond property is tucked just below the city’s main strip of shops and restaurants and is conveniently nestled against the hillside with impressive views of both the famed Red Rocks and the charming Oak Creek. (A car is definitely necessary, but the gratis car service to nearby hiking trails and shops was definitely a plus, as this resort is more walkable than most.) We stayed in a Creekside Cottage, a perfect choice for the super hot days. Overall, the property is an ideal choice for guests visiting the Sedona area – rooms are spacious, rates are reasonable, and the on-property restaurant is voted one of the best in the area, offering fine dining on the banks of Oak Creek. We’d also suggest a sampling of the resort’s spa, where treatments are inspired by the desert setting. Overall, this resort is definitely worth a return visit.

Richmond: America’s most underrated city?

As the former capitol of the Confederacy, Richmond has long been one of the premier destinations in the country for Civil War geeks. But as I discovered on two recent visits, it’s also a young, vibrant city with architecture treasures, stunning parks, walkable neighborhoods, great food and perhaps the most elegant vintage cinema in the country.

For Yanks looking for a quick taste of old Dixie, it’s also the northernmost Southern city, making it an easy weekend getaway for Northerners in search of some Southern hospitality. I live in Northern Virginia, which is technically part of the South, but in reality, Southern accents and good biscuits are a two hour drive south in Richmond, which is on my short list for most underrated historic cities in America. Below are my suggestions for how to spend a memorable weekend in Virginia’s capital.

Sites
MaymontThe hilly grounds of this 100 acre estate built by Confederate tycoon, Major James Dooley, offer panoramic views of the James River and feature lush gardens, a children’s farm, and a nature center. There is a small admission fee to visit the mansion and nature center but you can explore the beautiful grounds and visit the farm for free.

St. John’s Episcopal ChurchBuilt in 1741, this handsome wooden church, located in Richmond’s historic Church Hill neighborhood, is where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me liberty, or give me death,” speech to George Washington.

The FanIf you like Victorian architecture, this alluring neighborhood just west of downtown is a must see. Easily one of my favorite walkable neighborhoods in the country.

The Byrd TheatreBuilt in 1928, this may be the most beautiful old time cinema in the country. Even if you don’t plan to take in a $1.99 movie, stop in to take a look at this masterpiece theater, which is located in Carytown, a neighborhood with great shops and restaurants.

Virginia Museum of Fine ArtsA free-to-enter, world-class museum with more than 20,000 works of art, including a very impressive collection of South Asian art.

The American Civil War Center at Tredegar If you’re only going to hit one Civil War related museum in Richmond, this is the place to go for a terrific overview of the conflict. Opened in 2006, the museum offers a visually attractive, interactive user friendly experience that depicts the war from the perspective of the Union, the Confederacy and African Americans.

The Virginia State CapitolTake the time to explore this Classical Revival gem, which Thomas Jefferson modeled on a Roman era temple in Nimes, France.

James River BridgesTake the Robert E. Lee footbridge over to Belle Island for a great walk and then check out the unnamed, interpretative footbridge just off the Canal Walk for insights into the fall of Richmond during the waning days of the Civil War.

The Museum of the ConfederacyWhile the American Civil War Center offers a nicer overview of the conflict, this is a great stop to see Confederate memorabilia, like Robert E. Lee’s hat and tent and Jeb Stuart’s knee high boots. The gift shop sells lots of kitsch, including nylon Confederate flags for $39.

Children’s Museum of RichmondIf you’re traveling with kids, this is their reward for tolerating all the Civil War history.

Food

Alamo BBQCheap and delicious, this is one of my favorite BBQ places anywhere, but I also love the tilapia burritos. Excellent pecan pie for $2.93 a slice. The only downside is that you have to sit in a tent, but it’s not as cold as you might think, even in January.

Edo’s SquidItalian fine dining in a hidden location at very fair prices. Arrive early to beat the crowds.

ComfortSouthern comfort food at its finest in a relaxed setting.

821 Bakery Café- Tasty food and a terrific beer selection in a cool old building with exposed brick walls and a vintage tin ceiling. Also wins my award for the most colorful bathrooms I’ve ever seen.

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Virginia hosts ‘100 Miles of Lights’ this holiday season

A Beach CVB. Courtesy www.virginia.org, Virginia Tourism Corporation

It might not even be Thanksgiving yet, but holiday travel planning is well underway. If you’re looking to be razzle dazzled this holiday season, the state of Virginia offers a festival of lights that has been bringing visitors back year after year. The 100 Miles of Lights celebration is a series of world-class light displays spread across six cities: Richmond, Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. While exploring the glitzy trail, visitors will find drive-through light displays, twinkling cityscapes, and other sparkling spectacles.

The whole shebang kicks off in Norfolk this Saturday with the Grand Illumination Parade, an event that sets downtown Norfolk ablaze in lights and is followed by a parade featuring festive floats, marching bands, giant balloons, dancers and more. Nearby, the Virginia Beach boardwalk will also be shimmering with Holiday Lights at the Beach (pictured above), which is expected to draw 30,000 cars to the boardwalk before the new year begins.Jeffrey Greenberg. Courtesy Virginia Tourism Corporation.

Newport News Regional Park will become home to Celebration of Lights (picture above), a two-mile drive of 750,000 lights and 200 displays, including the animated “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa’s Enchanted Kingdom.” Over in Richmond, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden will features more than half a million lights, botanical decorations and trains for GardenFest of Lights. New this year, the “Virginia is for Lovers” LOVE artwork will be on display, allowing families and couples to take holiday photos.

Besides these long-running events, Colonial Williamsburg will host a Grand Illumination on December 4, while Hampton will host the Holly Days Parade on December 11.

If getting the whole family to go to Virginia seems like a Christmas miracle, you may be in luck: The Virginia Tourism Corporation also just announced the “Virginia Snowmotion Sweepstakes.” The grand prize includes a free ski or snowboard lesson, complimentary equipment rental and lift tickets, a $200 gift card for dining, and a three-night, four-day stay at Wintergreen Resort for a family of four. Also included in the promotion is round-trip airfare and car rental to explore the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. To enter, visit www.virginia.org/sweeps.

Not able to make it to Virginia? Check out more of the best Christmas light displays in the United States.

Mobile farmers markets: the next “big thing” in food trucks?

food trucks2010 was the Year of the Food Truck, with cities from Seattle and San Francisco to D.C. taking it to the streets, literally. While street food and taco trucks have long been a part of U.S. culture in places like New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland, health regulations have historically made it considerably more difficult in other parts of the country. Eatocracy reports that Atlanta–despite its tight mobile cooking laws–now has a “hybrid” approach that enables food trucks to exist, albeit in a different form. Could 2011 become the Year of the Mobile Farmers Market?

For the uninitiated, street food technically refers to food that is prepared (cooked, if applicable) and sold from a street cart, stall, or permanent stand. Food trucks are essentially mobile street food, and can change location from day-to-day, or remain parked in a stationary spot. These are not your “lunch” trucks of old, selling flabby sandwiches and processed, grab-and-go items. Today’s food truck offers food prepared from seasonal produce and other ingredients likely sourced from local family farms.

Until recently, state and county health departments largely prohibited street eats due to fears regarding potential foodborne illness. It’s harder to regulate things like sanitation and temperature control in a non-stationary kitchen, but far from impossible. Thanks to the open-mindedness of city officials across the country, enterprising chefs and other food industry professionals have been able to give mobile food operations a shot, the most successful of which have gone on to achieve national acclaim. Portland, Oregon, has been so supportive, there are now permanent designated locations for food cart clusters.

But even as we’re becoming more of a food truck nation, it’s still an uphill battle. Eatocracy states that Chicago is just one city making it next to impossible for actual cooking to be done on-site. Instead, food must be pre-packaged, which is a buzz-kill for many budding entrepreneurs. Atlanta requires convoluted logistical wrangling (trucks selling cooked-to-order food must change location every half-hour, nor operate at more than two locations a day) as a deterrent. One local farm’s solution: focus on the raw ingredient, not the end product.

[Photo credit: Flickr user star5112]


food trucksRiverview Farms of Ranger, Georgia, has created a mobile farmers market that brings sustainably-grown produce to various locations in Atlanta. As creator Elmer Veith puts it, “We’re going to bring the farm field to the neighborhood, so you don’t have to come to us.”

Veith retrofitted a Mac Tools truck to create Riverview’s Farm Mobile. Customers enter the truck from the rear, and pay before exiting at the front. The sides are outfitted with shelves for produce, as well as the farm’s cornmeal and grits. There’s a freezer for Riverview’s grassfed beef and heritage Berkshire pork. Other offerings may include bread, pasture-raised chickens, free-range eggs, and cheese from other local food artisans and farms.

Customers get updates on Farm Mobile’s location and that day’s product via email, Facebook and Twitter. The social media aspect is a key part of the success of today’s food trucks. Yet Farm Mobile is subject to less regulations, because they’re not selling prepared food. They are, however, licensed by state authorities, and require permission from property owners to park on their land. If outfits like Farm Mobile (or Richmond, Virginia’s Farm Bus) catch on, can we expect to see more markets on wheels servicing urban areas? Greg Smith, President of the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, hopes so.

“Street food adds life and vibrancy to the city,” he says, predicting that in the future, “There will be multiple ‘food truck lots’ around the city and the trucks might move on a daily basis from lot to lot.” The Coalition, which seeks to help entrepreneurs break into the industry, is yet another sign that mobile eating is here to stay. TruxMap is an iPhone app that lets users hunt down their favorite food trucks, while dedicated sites such as Food Carts Portland are attracting legions of fans. The best way to show support, however, is to start eating on the street. Check out Eater.com, to see if there’s a food or farm truck (coming) near you.

To sign up for Farm Mobile updates, click here.

Civil War secret message decoded

Civil War, civil war
A coded message sent to the beleaguered Confederate commander of Vicksburg has been cracked, the BBC reports.

The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond has had the message in its collection for more than a century. It had never tried to decipher the code of seemingly random letters until this year, when they sent it off to retired CIA codebreaker David Gaddy. While Gaddy is trained to break sophisticated modern codes, this early cipher was still tough enough to take him several weeks.

It turns out the message was sent to Confederate General John Pemberton telling him he wouldn’t be getting any reinforcements. The city was the key to the Mississippi River and had been under siege by Union forces for months. The message was dated 4 July 1863, the same day Pemberton surrendered. The bad news was probably the last straw. With his men short of food and munitions and the city in ruins, Pemberton’s last hope was getting reinforcements.

The fall of Vicksburg opened up the Mississippi River to Union gunboats and cut the Confederacy in half. It was one of the turning points of the Civil War.

[Photo courtesy U.S. Army]