An off-season weekend getaway to Cape May, New Jersey

A few weeks ago I felt the urgent, desperate need to flee New York City.

There was something about the city’s noise, its attitude, its frenetic pace that was driving me out of my mind. I felt caged in by the narrow tenement buildings of my Lower East Side streets. A taxi driver honked unnecessarily and I felt the irrepressible urge to slam on his front hood and yell “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO THAT FOR?”

It was clear that I needed a break.

My requirements were simple: a place outside of the city where I could unwind with a good book, a fireplace and maybe a bottle of Pinot Noir. My top priority was silence.

I found what I was looking for in Cape May, New Jersey. While in the summer it’s a hotspot for vacationing tri-staters, in the winter it’s close to deserted. I recruited my boyfriend, rented a car for the three-and-a-half hour drive and booked a room at Congress Hall, a charming Victorian hotel that once served as the summer residence for presidents Pierce, Buchanan, Grant and Harrison. With a friendly yellow exterior, a tiled lobby reminiscent of Havana and a daily schedule of events, the Congress Hall had the look of a coastal resort and the feel of a grown-up summer camp.

But most importantly, in a section of the hotel called the Brown Room, Congress Hall had a fireplace and in front of that fireplace were a scattering of leather armchairs and a bar with an extensive wine list. Behold, the resting place I’d been dreaming of.


Turns out, the Brown Room and adjoining Blue Pig Tavern are among Cape May’s only hotspots during the off-season months of October-March, and by 5pm the area was bustling with locals taking advantage of happy hour. After a relaxing evening of reading, wining and dining on delicious mussels, I fell into one of the most restful sleeps I’d had in months.

The next morning, we woke early to explore the town. The streets were dead silent, except for the sounds of waves crashing on the shore. Further inland, quaint multi-colored storefronts advertised shop names from a different time: Good Scents, Just For Laughs, Whale’s Tale, the Cape May Popcorn Factory.

The only store open at 9am on a Monday was the Original Fudge Kitchen, where I picked out a selection of salt-water taffy and gulped what tasted like stale Folger’s coffee (even though it was a retreat, I am still a New Yorker, and I was desperate).

After the pit stop, we continued our stroll. The roads were deliciously devoid of cars, and only a handful of pedestrians shared the sidewalks. After ascertaining that nearly every shop had closed for the season, and that there was in fact very little to do, we made our way to the waterfront. The late winter day was fresh, and we had the beach entirely to ourselves. After tiring of splashing in the surf, we headed back to the hotel. A fireplace was waiting.

[Flickr image via Alan Kotok]

South of the Clouds: Songtsam Retreat, Shangri-la

Set on a hillside directly overlooking the Songtsam Monastery, the Songtsam Retreat offers a taste of Tibet to the traveler in China. The collection of buildings are built in the style of Tibetan stone houses, and despite its grandeur, the quietly unassuming Retreat blends nicely with its surrounds. Heavy blankets cover thick doorways (which are locked with wooden bolts) to trap heat inside, and every room has a wood stove, all of which manages to infuse a bit of rustic and give it a “lodge” feel.

Gadling visited the Songtsam Retreat in November on a tour with WildChina. Here are our impressions.

The Check-In

The lobby of the Retreat is filled with Tibetan antiques and artifacts, as well as the requisite wood stove. Roomy chairs and couches sit in front of low tables lit with candles, and the ambiance manages to be both grand and cozy. Staff serve you a warming cup of ginger tea, and then you’re lead cross the stone walkways to your room. There you’ll find a warm fire already glowing.

%Gallery-114505%The Rooms

There are 75 rooms at the Songtsam Retreat, and even the smallest can be considered a suite. Big beds, a sitting area with a wide coffee table topped with magazines and fresh fruit, a wardrobe, large TV, and a fireplace make up the expansive rooms. Windows gaze out to farmland and the monastery, and back porches with lounge chairs offer the same view (but with a bit of a chill). Large rugs cover hand-laid wood floors.

Beds are large, set on low, wide platforms and topped with thick mountain blankets. Reading lamps and a “captain’s” headboard for storing water and books take up less space than regular nightstands. Water, fruit, and tea-making appliances are provided, and the rooms are equipped with wifi.

The Bathrooms

Our bathroom was a bit on the small side compared to the room, but still perfectly adequate. Some rooms come with deep timber bathtubs, but ours had a simple stand-up shower. Stone walls contrasted nicely with the modern facilities. Shower products were kept in ceramic pitchers – definitely one of the more unique and charming presentations we’ve seen. A small, frosted-glass window let in natural light.

The Bar and Restaurant

The drinking and dining facilities are located in a large, three-story building. High ceilings and low tables and chairs add space to the dining room, an appropriate continuation of the wide open space outside. Rooftop dining terraces also connect you with the surroundings, while the sunken bar/library lounge area creates intimacy.

A large breakfast buffet offers both Western and Chinese choices, from an omelet bar to rice porridge. Tibetan specialties such as yak hot pot are on the menu and shouldn’t be missed.

The Facilities

Spa services such as massage are offered and can be booked at the front desk. A meditation room furthers the “retreat” experience.

The Bottom Line

The Songtsam Retreat is definitely something special. Ninety percent of the lodge’s staff are from minority groups; most are Tibetan but there are also many Naxi. They receive language and skills training, and are genuinely friendly. Furthermore, the Retreat’s rural location and overall design ensure both a comfortable stay and a unique experience. There’s nothing quite like waking up and pulling back the curtains to a view of the monastery rooftops, smokey mountain air, and farmland. And while many hotels that try to create a “feeling” can come off as cheesy and chintzy, the Songtsam Retreat does a fine job of establishing a mix of Tibetan-rural and lodge-comfortable.

Read more about Gadling’s travel through Yunnan, China here.

Though our stay at the Songtsam Retreat was funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are all our own.

Hotel Review: The Linden Centre, Xizhou, Yunnan, China

Though it was only built in 1947, the Linden Centre is a nationally protected building – in fact, it holds the same status at the Great Wall. Built by a wealthy merchant in traditional Bai style architecture, the grounds were occupied by the army during the Cultural Revolution; the Red Guard were kept at bay, and thus the building and its paintings and artifacts remained intact.

Today, the Linden Centre functions as both boutique hotel and learning center. Meals and transport are included in the cost, and you can expect a quiet yet stimulating stay.

Gadling visited the Centre in mid-November on a trip through Yunnan with WildChina (read more about it here); here are our impressions of the hotel.

The Check-in

The alleys in Xizhou are so narrow that buses can’t squeeze through them; instead, your bus stops about a block away and you’re met by staff who carry your luggage through the unassuming gates.

Once you pass inside, you’ll enter a Bai-style courtyard, which means that one wall is a dedicated “reflecting” wall — painted white, it’s meant to reflect the sun’s rays. The other three walls are made up of guest rooms, a small bar, and offices. Though the grounds have been modernized to a very comfortable Western standard, the Linden Centre isn’t the type of place you’d stop over for business meetings; think of it more as a retreat. In fact, Gadling’s own features editor Don George will be teaching a writing workshop there in 2011!

%Gallery-110440%The Rooms

The 14 rooms at the Linden Centre were remodeled to modern Western criterion but retain their authenticity. Original feng shui principles were kept, and the lofty ceilings, antiques, and tall, wood-shuttered windows add a touch of the grand. Mattresses are large and Western (those of you who have traveled in China know what a difference that makes) and come equipped with thick comforters.

The rooms also contain a writing desk, wireless Internet, and a walk-in closet/nook complete with fluffy terrycloth bathrobes and tea-making equipment.

The Bathroom

The walls and floor of the bathroom are laid with dark stone, creating a spa-like ambiance. The large shower is walk-in style, with high-end toiletries on offer. A small stone sculpture protruded from one wall in my shower; just another touch of detail that makes the place special. Hot water is turned on in the mornings and evenings, and of course there is a Western toilet.

The Bar and Restaurant

The Cafe-Wine Bar straddles two courtyards, with walls opening to either side, and has a very laid-back vibe; it’s the type of place where you might go read a book over a cup of tea. Low tables and soft lighting impart not so much a lounge feeling as a coffee-house one – and I wouldn’t say that that’s a bad thing. Still, it has an admirable wine list (which they were still putting it together when I stayed there) and a range of beers and liquors.

The restaurant is amazing in that it has an entirely glass ceiling. This feature gives it the feel of a courtyard, but you don’t have to worry about the elements. Paintings in this room were left untouched. A small fish pond and fountain break the space up, making dining more intimate.

Food is locally sourced, and most meals are eaten Chinese style, in a group. A breakfast buffet offers anything the Western diner might desire, from omelets made-to-order to freshly brewed Yunnan coffee.


The Linden Centre is a sort of learning retreat, and as such has almost as many activity rooms as it does guest rooms. A spiral staircase leads to a rooftop terrace, where you can gaze across fields and the village. There’s a library and painting room, a conference room, an exercise room, a small meditation chamber, and a large kids’ activity center.

The Bottom Line

It’s hard not to be impressed by the Linden Centre. The preserved architecture, antiques and art (the owners run a gallery back in the States), and the emphasis on learning make for a great environment. The owners are warm and involved; you’ll even see their kids around. Though small-group retreats and seminars are a bit more common, the independent traveler will feel very comfortable.

Read more about my travels in Yunnan here.

Though my stay at the Linden Centre was funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are all my own.

A unique retreat at the Lost Iguana Resort in Costa Rica

So, what are you doing in May? If your plans are open, check out the “Volcanic Yoga & Spa Retreat” at the Lost Iguana Resort in Costa Rica. You’ll save almost 40 percent off the price of the six-night getaway with a price tag of only $800 while enjoying the “eco-chic” property and (more important), giving yourself the break you deserve.

From May 14 – 20, 2010, the Lost Iguana is hosting this unique retreat, which includes airport transportation, breakfast and dinner every day (you’re on your own for alcohol, though) and a $300 Golden Gecko spa credit along with your accommodations. And, there are daily yoga and water fitness classes to keep your body moving – when you’re not out on a guided nature hike.

Now, let’s get to the spa – nothing beats an amazing spa treatment. With your $300 spa credit, you can take advantage of a wide range of treatments in private open-air thatched bungalows. Volcanic clay and stone facials are on the menu, not to mention exotic body polishes to help you push out the toxins and stimulate your circulation. I’m particularly interested in the cocoon stream therapy treatment, which purifies and softens your skin.

If you have an open week in May and an itch to get on the road, this is the only way to scratch it. Sit in a spa, and let someone else do all the work of stretching your muscles for you.