David’s Discoveries: Portofino Perfect

Portofino’s horseshoe-shaped harbor and plumb-line cliffs are among the more actively gorgeous places on the Italian Riviera, as Italians call the boomerang-shaped region of northern Liguria. And Liguria is one of my favorite regions in the world for hiking, eating, dreaming and wandering.

A picture-postcard faux fishing port, Portofino is the Riviera’s most glamorous time warp: the villas of the super-rich perch on pine-studded promontories jutting into the Mediterranean. Billionaires like Silvio Berlusconi spend precious leisure hours here. “Precious” is the operative word.

Five hundred years ago one irreverent overnight traveler noted that in Portofino “you were charged not only for the room but the very air you breathed.”

Paying for the atmosphere is still what Portofino is all about.

But my wife Alison and I have a novel way enjoying Portofino for free. It includes some of the greatest views on the Mediterranean seaboard, plus lots of fresh air, and exercise. Naturally on either end of our “Portofino Perfect” walking experience (and even halfway along it) you can drop a few euros for a cappuccino, or spend $200 per head for a snack at a fashionable ristorante.We live much of the year in Paris, but spend several months-usually in fall and winter-in Liguria. Childhood attachments and more–call them elective and professional affinities–draw us back.

Why fall and winter (and spring, for that matter) and not summer, when you can swim and sunbathe? The easy answer is we prefer the low-season peace and ease of access. And I am not a lover of heat
Our fall-winter ritual is to trek to Portofino from the neighboring resort of Santa Margherita Ligure. This is an unwise proposition in summer, when the traffic on the narrow, serpentine coast road flies thick and fast. Until recently it was not only unwise, it was downright suicidal. That’s changed.

So to ring in the autumn, we laced up and marched toward Portofino on foot, marveling at the scenery: a jigsaw of conglomerate boulders and cliffs, offset by those patented Italian umbrella pines and deep blue waters, where sailboats, fishing boats and motorboats splashed and spluttered.

What’s refreshingly new on this walk is that cars, buses and trucks were unable to molest us.

A skillfully sprung boardwalk now runs from Santa Margherita Ligure a couple of corkscrew miles toward Portofino, via the oligarchs’ hamlet of Paraggi. It’s hunkered down in a hairpin curve a few hundred yards west of Berlusconi’s turreted castle.

The boardwalk ends at Paraggi. A steep, curving, perfectly paved forest pathway leads the remaining mile or so to Portofino.

We scrambled up it, amid the pines and strawberry trees–arbutus to a botanist–and drank in the scent. The wisteria and jasmine were having their third blooming, and the arbutus trees were covered with spiky orange fruit and tiny, sweet-smelling, bell-shaped blossoms.

Instead of battling summertime crowds to reach Portofino’s stone-paved harbor and airborne, black-and-white church of San Giorgio, we were practically alone. A garrison of cats guarded the Castello Brown-the hilltop fortress-mansion where Enchanted Aprilwas filmed.

Back down in the quaintly costly village, there were no lines at the fashion boutiques-not that either of us could afford to or wanted to shop. Shop for designer clothes in Portofino? That’s what the sun-bronzed vacationers who roll off the 200-foot motor-yachts do, before hitting perennial Portofino hangouts and glam, chic-issimo Lo Strainer, on the wharf.

More important to us, there was no wait for the onion focaccia at the sole bakery in Portofino. No, it is not the best focaccia in Liguria, but it’s not bad, and it won’t bankrupt you.

This year my understanding and appreciation of Portofino and of “Enchanted April” deepened as never before: I actually read the novel and was enchanted. Enchanted April, the book, is better than the movie. Read it, take this leisurely seaside stroll, and you too may understand why, back in the 1840s, Portofino became Italy’s first full-blown resort. You might also appreciate why it’s so popular today. Granted, “popular” isn’t the right word. In its peculiar, pretentious, gilded way, Portofino still manages to distill the essence of the Italian Riviera.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.comand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Flickr image via Valentina_A]

The Greenlandic Riviera

“Where did you get so tan?” they ask, and I tell them: “Greenland.”

“But how?” they exclaim, laughing in sheer disbelief, because let’s face it: the nameless friends we invent for the sake of trite opening dialogue are inherently dumb. Mostly, their minds are muddled with storybook imagery like scary snowstorms and Eskimo cliché, a random mix of Alaska, Siberia, and the opening sequence in Empire Strikes Back. They still think Greenland is like, cold.

This is my chance to correct them. Besides my sheepskin rug, my enviable neck tanline is my best souvenir from a blissful week on the sunny Greenlandic Riviera. What, you don’t know it–the Greenlandic Riviera? What rock do you live under? What travel magazines are you not reading? The Greenlandic Riviera is exploding right now-it’s already this whole thing and the real estate war is right around the corner.

Alright, I totally made that up. If you Google “Greenlandic Riviera” you get zilch–until now. See, that’s the magic of the internet–once you say it, it becomes real. Greenlandic Riviera, Greenlandic Riviera, Greenlandic Riviera. If you build it, they will come.

The real Riviera was (and still is) in Liguria, the region that spans the northwest coast of Italy. Despite its 700-year old status as an iconic vacation spot, the original Riviera can be a little disappointing. For one, the coastline is all rocky and the towns comprised of overpriced boutiques selling pink sweater vests for men. There is nary a beach to stand on, and the ones that are any good are ultra-private. But no matter–history, tradition, and Hollywood have made “Riviera” mean everything we long for in a chic travel destination: escapism, romance, sunshine and sea.

Today, there are other countless Rivieras to choose from: on our planet today, actual people will non-jokingly refer to the English, Mexican, Russian, Chinese, African, and Australian Rivieras (also, French). Did you know that there’s even a self-proclaimed Redneck Riviera along the American Gulf Coast where instead of seashells, earnest Alabama children collect shiny black tarballs to take home for “show-and-tell”?

Greenland’s beaches come sans tarballs, (although the country’s drive for oil exploration could change this, wink, wink). In fact, Greenland has the cleanest beaches I have ever seen: a mile-wide half-moon stretch of vanilla sand bordering clear turquoise shallows that are so clear, you can follow the gently waving seaweed below. There are no cigarette butts and no blowing trash. Also, there are no people, which is the recipe for a perfect beach. And who knows what you’ll find as you stroll along the shore? A reindeer skull, a salmon-colored piece of wave-polished granite or a jumble of blue, microwave-sized ice chunks. What the real Riviera offers in fashion, culture, and high-life, Greenland makes up for with its elegant arctic beaches.
Perhaps you’ve never considered a beach vacation in the Arctic, but when you know the facts, the concept is compelling:

  1. Greenland is at the top of the world, which means extra long summer days-and for at least a few weeks in June and July, endless summer days. In fact, Greenland’s national day is June 21st, the summer solstice, and the amazing arctic light is something to experience for yourself.
  2. It’s not THAT cold. The southern reaches of the Greenlandic Riviera are on the same latitude as Stockholm or Helsinki. In September, it was still remarkably sunny with temperatures in the mid-50s.
  3. It’s getting warmer. Climate change is Greenland’s consistent headline-an attention-grabbing story that’s a little tiresome. In Narsarsuaq, a town that’s destined to become the airport hub of the Greenlandic Riviera, my taxi driver wiped her brow and exclaimed, “You can really feel the climate change today, can’t you?” I couldn’t, but even if I could, the climate change schtick is a total downer and most Greenlanders enjoy the nicer weather. It’s nice to be able to swim in the sea, finally.
  4. All the ice is melting, too-you can now buy that melted glacier by the bottle and enjoy the delicious cool, clear taste of pre-historic snowstorms in the comfort of your own cup.

After some consideration, one realizes that we are on the verge of a new and grand beach destination trend. Renting a villa in Tuscany with friends is the women’s magazine dream of the late 90s. The 21st century’s male equivalent is renting a villa in Greenland for two weeks of full-on nature and total testosterone outdoor adventure. You will have the world entirely to yourself and can spend your days scaling rock walls, hiking empty green valleys and fishing for Arctic char that you take back to your villa and grill outdoors.

In order for the dream to take root, we’ll need at least a half-dozen middle-aged men to escape poor life decisions and corporate humdrum by running off to the Greenlandic Riviera, where thanks to a wily sled dog, a cheerful blue house, or a fix-it upper fishing boat, they each rediscover their spiritual centers and pen subsequent memoirs that compete with each other on the New York Times bestseller list.

To hasten the process, I am thoughtfully including this small guide to the Greenlandic Riviera, with the knowledge (and intention) that my text will like be cribbed, copied and pasted into countless future guides for generations to come, including the omniscient Lonely Planet:

“Place of the polar bear” might just be the cutest village on earth. “Picturesque” comes close to describing this delightful panorama of bright civilization clinging to the rocky edge of a final, modern-day ice-age. Angled wooden houses painted red, white, yellow, blue, and green dot the round, granite boulders next to the mirrored and rippled harbor. On weekends, gleeful children play soccer on the wharf, and after school, these same brave children go swimming in water that’s about 38 ° F (admittedly, most wear wetsuits). The town’s flag proudly bears three polar bears and everyone’s got a good polar bear story to share at the local bar, where glowing Christmas lights blaze all year round. The “museum” consists of a dozen historic and well-preserved buildings, with lots of photogenic architecture and exhibits on life in Greenland for the past several hundred years. Oh, and what’s that out in the harbor? The yachts of adventurous richies who are plum tired of the real Riviera. What’s that? You didn’t know that the yachties love Greenland? Oh, but they do: Nanortalik is like the St. Tropez of Greenland (and actually, I’m not kidding.)

With 3,500 inhabitants, the larger and much more prominent Qaqortoq is technically the Cannes (or “Qaan”) of southern Greenland with all of its glitz and glory and beautiful seacoast and lovely sea breezes and fussy culture. Not only does the town’s name sound like the exclamation of a lounge singer in a choke hold-the town itself is a cultural epicenter populated with the studios of several talented artists and outdoor sculpture that decorates rock walls and grocery store parking lots. Qaqortoq also boasts the only Thai-Greenlandic fusion restaurant in the world (e.g. leg of lamb roasted in coconut milk and red chili), as well as a remarkably trendy hotel, the Hotel Qaqortoq. Just last winter, a bundled-up Paris Hilton was spotted strolling along the waterfront (ok, that’s a lie. It was probably just an emaciated Polar Bear looking for food), but whatever–there’ll be a Qaqortoq film festival there before you know it.

The town has a population of 1,500 and even with the rising number of curious cruise ships, only gets about 5,000 visitors a year. Narsaq also represents the “Real Greenland”-one of the few villages where you can actually see the massive inland ice from your doorstep. The Royal Greenland fishing plant adds a healthy dose of authenticity, as do the early Viking ruins overlooking a glistening bay of drift ice. Narsaq is also home to Greenland’s school of culinary arts, where you can sample serve national dishes like king crab and smoked halibut.

I’ve mentioned this village before, and frankly, I’m afraid of it being discovered, so I shouldn’t even mention it, but since we’re such good friends, I’ll let the secret out. This quaint Greenlandic settlement (population 67) feels like the world’s first neighborhood-a rare and civilized tribe protected from the rest of the world by a most magnificent fjord and the shadow of Ulamertorsuaq, a mountain whose name rolls quite nicely off the tongue, n’est-ce pas?

This uninhabited island is famous for it’s wonderful hot springs (as seen on TV), but should really be famous for the stunning scenery of grey, fairy-tale mountains and vast expanses of fragrant wildflowers. Once you’re soaking in the pool, you’ll never want to leave. Unutoq is all the loveliness of the Riviera but without any of the traffic or people. Just you and planet earth.

Anyway, there it is–ta da!: The Greenlandic Riviera. Spread the word, tweet it, chat about it at dinner parties, mention it to your pals in the sauna and dedicate Sunday’s Travel section to its merits. In short, pass it on. The more you say it, the realer it becomes. Greenlandic Riviera.

(All photos by Andrew Evans)

The author traveled as a guest of the nation of Greenland but the Greenlandic government and it’s corporate affiliates had nothing to do with conceptualizing the Greenlandic Riviera. That’s all original and the author will be charging them royalties once it takes off.

France is romance at Valentine’s Day

Put your economic woes an ocean away with a trip to France on Valentine’s Day. Concorde Hotels & Resorts is offering great deals from February 13 to February 16 at its Parisian hotels, with rates starting at $172 a night. They’re sweetening it with a daily buffet breakfast for two, a 50 percent discount on the second night and a special surprise gift that they wouldn’t even reveal to me (ugh).

Or, if you prefer the French Riviera, check out the Hotel Martinez in Cannes. The property is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year and wants to bring you in on the festivities. A two-night stay on February 13 and February 14 or February 15 and February 16 starts at $271 for the first night and only $103 for the second! You’ll get a VIP welcome (which you deserve) and in-room or buffet breakfast. Also, they’re giving complimentary fitness center and sauna access … but you probably don’t want to tell your significant other to hit the treadmill on Valentine’s Day!

[Photo via Concorde Hotels & Resorts]

Send your friends and loved ones away

Travel is a tough gift to give. You need to know the recipient pretty well to make sure your well-intentioned effort doesn’t turn into a disaster. Could you imagine sending a wealthy friend through budget hotels in Romania? Or, putting a cities-only person on a beach for two weeks? The possibility for disaster is infinite. But, if you put some thought into it, your gift of a trip can be a big hit.

Time magazine realizes that “it’s the thought that counts” is flawed thinking. You need to get it right if you’re going to put a friend or family member on a plane, bus or train. Fortunately, you have choices. Solo jaunts, group get-togethers are and romantic getaways are all great fodder for the gift of travel … as long as you tailor it to the recipient. A certain travel writer (ahem) took his wife to Eze, France for her birthday and proffered a cake covered in gold leaf at the top of that city’s famous Chemin de Nietzsche (“Nietzsche Trail”). Not mentioned in the article is that the walk up tested the marriage. She and I had no idea that we’d really be climbing a mountain.

This brings me to my next point: know what you are doing. Just because something looks interesting, life on the ground may not be as advertised.

Read the original for a few more tips >>

[Via Time magazine]

Brush Shoulders with the Hoi Polloi?

If the Holiday Inn near Disney World just won’t cut it this year, perhaps you can save up for a real hotel treat. The French Riviera beckons with some of the best real estate and hotel luxury in the world. The place to go is the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc.

Opened in 1870, over the years, this grand hotel near Cannes has hosted kings, presidents, and stars too numerous to mention, and even gangsters (in fact, chambermaids were troubled to follow the hotel’s dust-everything policy when it came to guests’ firearms, according to Julian Allason of the Financial Times). The sea-side swimming pool was such an attraction that it drew the likes of Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw, back in 1914. The hotel was the inspiration for the setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.

Starting at a mere $600 USD a night (in the off-season, of course), you can indulge yourself in luxury. The 22-acre site has woods, two hotels, and villas situated on a small cape, sticking out into the Mediterranean. Amenities include water taxies out to your yacht, valet parking for your speedboat, magicians to entertain your children, spa treatments, and helicopter transportation to your private jet at the nearby Cannes airfield.

But you have some time to save up: the hotel opens for the season on April 6. Oh, and be sure to check out the great website to see the alphabetical list of celebrity guests.