Live like the 1% in Virginia’s Hunt Country, where the dogs and horses have nicer sweaters than you do

Two women emerge from the backseat of a Range Rover in full length mink coats. They stroll past a sign on a boutique window advertising pure bred Appalachian Great Pyrnees “rescue dogs.” Up on Washington Street, shoppers consider $45 t-shirts, $132 cashmere sweaters, and $238 dresses, all in toddler sizing, at the Magic Wardrobe, a children’s clothing boutique. Just outside of town, men play polo seven months out of the year.

Welcome to Middleburg, the heart of Virginia’s Hunt Country, where even the apartment dwellers drive Audis and manage hedge funds. With the Occupy movement and election year politics putting the nation’s ultra-rich in the spotlight, why not make a field trip out to the gorgeous Hunt Country to study the 1% in their natural habitat?

The Hunt Country includes the pastoral, hilly counties of Loudoun and Fauquier counties, about an hour west of Washington, D.C. Although there are some low-income residents in both counties, it’s better known as an area of horse farms, fox hunts, fake accents, old estates, McMansions, and new money trying to be old money. Loudoun county now has the highest median household income of any county in the country at $119,540.

Middleburg is ground zero for upper crust leisure time pursuits in the area. Men in chunky, checked wool blazers and ascots share the streets with elegant looking women in riding boots and Burberry scarves. Dogs and horses in the area will be wearing nicer sweaters than you, but don’t let the pretentious leanings of the town scare you away, as it’s an undeniably charming, walkable small town.

The first thing you’re likely to notice about Middleburg are all the hand painted signs for businesses like the Christmas Sleigh, which offers “fine European wares,” Juliens, a “sandwicherie,” The Fox’s Den Tavern, and Les Jardins de Bagatelle, a French store where Callista Gingrich and her credit cards might feel right at home. The shops and oh-so-trendy eateries might be hard on your wallet, but it’s hard to deny the fact that the place is an extremely pleasant spot to spend a day, or if you have beaucoup cash, a lifetime.
%Gallery-147733%Keep walking down Washington Street, the town’s main drag, and you’ll come across The National Sporting Library & Museum, which features books and art on horses and field sports. (hunting, fishing and the like) This is a great place to check out paintings of people who would have funded Super-PAC’s, had they existed back in the day.

Curious to know where the “poor” people in Middleburg reside? Check out the condos just north of Washington Street. Sure, they go for half a million bucks, and the cars in the parking lot are Land Rovers, Audis and Benzes, but some of them are a few years old.

After you’ve had your fill of Middleburg, take a little detour north of town to check out an 8 bedroom, 12 bath, 464 acre estate that is currently on the market for just a hair under $16 million. And then when you’re done fantasizing and are ready to rejoin the 99% crowd, head north to the picture-perfect town of Waterford, an absolutely pristine, historic village that was founded in 1733, and still looks as it did centuries ago. The town has dozens of historic homes, two old cemeteries, sheep and farm animals right off of the main street, and a tiny little jail where drunkards and petty criminals were once detained.

There is but one real store in the town, a very eerie, but worth visiting market, run by a woman named Linda. Her museum-like collection of products for sale is meager and obscure (see photo on the right), but she makes nice wool socks from the sheep that are right out back. Once a year, in October, this quiet little village comes alive for its annual fair, which includes a historic home tour and crafts exhibit.

You won’t see any signs of ostentatious wealth in Waterford, but on your way back east, look to your right and left on Route 7 and you’ll see 7,000 square foot homes- big money temples that would make Donald Trump blush. Close your outing with a walk around historic Leesburg, and a killer $6 doner sandwich at Doner Bistro. You’ll need that little reminder that the best things in life usually cost less than a mink coat or a 464 acre estate.

All photos copyright Dave Seminara

The sushi invasion of Eastern Europe

sushi in eastern europeTraveling through Eastern Europe recently, what stood out to me the most (aside from ultra low prices and varying success with capitalism) is the extreme popularity of sushi. Particularly in Kiev and Warsaw, sushi restaurants are nearly as prolific as the national cuisine and if you find yourself in a fashionable restaurant, odds are raw fish will be on the menu.

My husband and I had differing theories as to the sushi invasion. I figured it was popular as it is the exact opposite of most Eastern European food. After many years of boiled meat, heavy sauces, and pickled vegetables, sushi must make a refreshing palate cleanser and a delicious novelty. My husband, who was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, had a more subjective theory. He maintains it has to do with a way of thinking that is particular to post-Soviet and developing countries: after the oppression of communism, wealth and status are held in high regard; imported goods once impossible to obtain exemplify status and wealth. In other words, nothing says how far you’ve come from bread lines more than eating fish flown in from another country while wearing Louis Vuitton and texting on your iPhone.

In order to delve deeper into the sushi explosion, I consulted a few expats familiar with the former Eastern bloc to get their insights and found both of our theories supported.Political consultant, fellow Istanbullu, and Carpetblogger Christy Quirk easily qualifies as an expert in my book on the peculiarities of the FSU (former Soviet Union), with posts like how to tell if you’re in Crapistan (perhaps “many sushi restaurants” should be added to the checklist?) and how to buy a suit in the FSU. She agrees with the post-Soviet (and new money) mindset theory, noting “nothing says ‘I have more money than sense’ more than eating overpriced frozen sushi from Dubai. EVERY self-respecting restaurant in the FSU — especially those that appeal to the Oligarch class or, more accurately, oligarch wannabes — must have a sushi menu.” She adds: “Our favorite ‘Mexican’ restaurant in Kiev had an extensive one (I hold that up as the paragon of ridiculous dining in the FSU but it did have good chips and decent margaritas, for which it deserves praise, not derision).” As a fellow expat, I understand the importance of a place with decent margaritas, even if the menu is a bit geographically confused.

Prague-based food and travel writer Evan Rail has fully experienced the, uh, Prague-ification of the Czech Republic after living in the capital for the past decade, concurs with the novelty theory and adds that food trends tend to take a bit longer to arrive in this part of the world. Sushi became big especially as “most of this region is landlocked, it’s quite noteworthy to encounter the salty, briny flavors of seafood, especially raw seafood. Fines de claire oysters went through a similar vogue in Prague a few years back.”

Evan further reports that in Prague, sushi is no longer the flavor of the month. “After [sushi], it seemed like every restaurant on every cobblestone lane in Old Town was serving Thai soup, but only a weak interpretation of tom kha gai — you couldn’t get tom yum for love or money. Now the vogue seems to be about Vietnamese noodles, which makes more sense given the Czech Republic’s long-term and quite sizable Vietnamese community. I’ve actually had some of the best bun bo hue I’ve ever tasted here, far better than anything I’ve found in Paris or Berlin.
But banh mi? Well, maybe in another five years…”

While all this may be further evidence of globalization, it’s become part of the food culture, for better of for worse. If you travel to Eastern Europe, be sure to try the local food and keep your mind open to what might be “local.”

Do you have another take on the sushification of Eastern Europe? Noticed another foreign food trend abroad? Leave us a comment below.

[Photo by Flickr user quinn anya]

Money buys happiness, except maybe in Spain

The five happiest countries in the world have two things in common: their all pretty far north in Europe, and money generally isn’t a problem. Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands top the latest list of the world’s happiest nations, due in large part, it seems, to the fact that basic needs are covered by sufficient incomes. Spain, on the other hand, ranked seventeenth of 21 European countries … it must be the relaxed lifestyle.

Gallup, which conducted the study, found that money is good for a certain kind of bliss:

“Money is an object that many or most people desire and pursue during the majority of their waking hours,” researchers wrote in the report. “It would be surprising if success at this pursuit had no influence whatsoever when people were asked to evaluate their lives.”

Denmark boasted a per-capital GDP of $36,000 last year, putting it ahead of 196 of the 227 countries for which the CIA collects data (don’t go down the conspiracy road – it’s for the agency’s “World Factbook”).

Now, monetary satisfaction only addresses how happy people are about future prospects. When it comes to day-to-day smiles, having basic social needs is much more important, which is why Gallup found that Costa Rica finished sixth:

“Costa Rica ranks really high on social and psychological prosperity,” says [Jim] Harter [chief scientist at Gallup]. “It’s probably things systemic to the society that make people over time develop better relationships, and put more value on relationships. Daily positive feelings rank really high there.”

So, there are two keys to happiness: being rich and being loved. How do you measure up?

[photo by dotbenjamin via Flickr]

Roll with the rich in five easy steps: travel like you’re on the Forbes 400

From peaking through the curtain to first class to eyeing the VIP check-in line at the hotel, travelers are envious creatures. Someone else always has something we want – be it an experience, device or amenity. We fantasize about the perfect travel experiences, wondering what it must be like to [fill in the blank with what you dig most].

Nobody knows how to travel quite like the billionaires on the Forbes 400. Sure, this crowd isn’t hitting hostels, mingling with the locals and doing all the stuff we say we prefer. They’re busy with butlers and maids and yachts and poetry readings (sorry, not joking on this one). You’re not going to get the “genuine” travel experience if you roll like the rich, but who the hell cares? The last thing I’d want is genuine if I had that kind of cash.

Interested in traveling like the insanely wealthy? After the jump, there are five simple steps to running with the big dogs when you tour the world. It’s not nearly as hard as you might think … as long as you have the cash to back it up.

1. Vacation homes are a must
Yes, there’s something to be said for the luxury of a hotel’s best penthouse with butler service, private dining and a special entrance. You don’t want to mix with the proletarians, after all. But, this type of travel means you’re not in control. Eventually, you’ll find boundaries. So, to travel like the insanely rich, buy vacation homes in the places you like best.

2. Yacht or not
Vacation homes are nice, especially when they’re on the water, but you’ll never get away from land. To dart out from your troubles – or a collapsing Ponzi scheme – you need a yacht. Right now, yacht sales are in the tank, so you can get a better price than you may expect. Keep in mind that this is a billionaire‘s game: don’t try to do it on the cheap. If you can’t afford a yacht (or simply don’t want one), you can always explain away your yachtlessness with something about seasickness or a penchant for other vices (like mistresses).

If you do go the yacht route, pimp it out properly. Rupert Murdoch took friends and families on a cruise to Alaska. Just in case that wasn’t enough, his sailboat is decked out with a “technogym,” deep-sea diving equipment and king-sized sleeping cabins.

Do it big.

3. Join a club
Rich people and clubs … crazy. It starts in college, with the likes of Skull and Bones, and by the time these kids become adults, they’re paying ridiculous sums of money just to be allowed to spend money on dinner and drinks. Michael Bloomberg, New York‘s mayor, belongs to the Game Creek Club in Vail, Colorado. The privilege involves a $50,000 initiation fee, but I imagine the grub is fantastic.

4. Have the right friends
Again, Mayor Mike does it right, golfing with Ross Perot and Silvio Berlusconi. They’re both unbelievably wealthy and turned to politics after amassing fortunes in the technology/media space. When you’re that rich, you need to travel with people like you. So, be prepared to trade in your old friends – it’s nothing personal.

5. Do weird stuff
We all know that billionaires are crazy. So, when you travel, you can’t resign yourself to sightseeing, beach-sitting and cocktail-sipping. You have to do something bizarre … because you can. Stephen Spielberg attended a cliff-side poetry reading on Ireland’s Aran Islands before touring the moors on a motorized bike. Oracle chief Larry Ellison prefers speed, flying around in a MiG 29.

The Abbey Resort and Spa: Luxury on Lake Geneva

Billing itself as “the only full-service resort” on the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, The Abbey Resort and Spa is one of those places where you can almost feel the ghosts of the past whispering around you. The resort was completely renovated in 2005, but its timber A-frame and low-slung bungalow style buildings look much as they did when it was built nearly 50 years ago, when the Midwestern elite made it their summer playground.

There’s plenty of nostalgia for the “good old days” here – the nearby Geneva Grand Resort proudly boasts that it was a Playboy Club in the 1960’s and 70’s. And money. Lots and lots of money. The houses that front Lake Geneva, the 9-mile long lake that is the centerpiece of the area, are multi-million dollar affairs that bear the names of families like Borden, Vicks, and Wrigley. Yet despite the vast wealth of the “haves”, those who aren’t descendants of the Midwest’s titans of industry can still share in the benefits of area. There are several public beaches and marinas, and every lakefront property is required to have a public walkway so that all area residents can enjoy a stroll around the lake. And in the towns of Lake Geneva and Fontana, more modest homes and affordable restaurants lines the streets where wealthy summer residents mingle with the local families who live here all year round.

For Chicago residents, getting to The Abbey couldn’t be easier. It’s about 80 miles from the city (50 miles from Milwaukee), but the Metra Rail will get you there in less than two hours from downtown. You’ll get off at the end of the line, at the Harvard Station, where a shuttle will pick you up and drive you the remaining 15 minutes to The Abbey. You can also request service from the resort to anywhere in Lake Geneva, making a car completely unnecessary.

The Abbey is family-friendly – there are childcare services, organized kids’ activities, free games like bags and croquet, two outdoor and one indoor pool, and a 2,000-square foot arcade complete with Wii system – but it’s also perfect for a romantic or relaxing retreat. The rooms have all been updated and feature pillow-top mattresses, LCD wall-mounted TVs, mini-fridges, and patios or balconies.

I saw a few families, but mostly couples in their 30’s to 50’s, during my stay. My room was comfortable and spacious and the bed soft and inviting. My only complaint was with the wi-fi service. It was free, but I had a very hard time getting a signal. When I did, I was bumped offline every 15 minutes or so, and web pages loaded very slowly. I can’t say if that would be the case all over the resort, or just in my location, but it was inconvenient when I needed to get some work done.

If you don’t plan on working while at The Abbey, you’ll find plenty of things to do to keep you busy. The resort rents bikes and fishing poles and there is a golf course nearby. The 35,000-square foot AVANI Spa offers treatments like facials, massages, body wraps, waxing and manicures. It features a pool, whirlpools, inhalation spa, steam room, sauna, sundeck, and spa menu for dining. Guests can also take advantage of the Spa’s fitness center or full line-up of exercises classes liking spinning, yoga, zumba, and pilates, which are geared towards any fitness level. I found there was always equipment available for use, the yoga class was just difficult enough to challenge me (but not hard enough to make me feel like an uncoordinated idiot), and the spa staff was always friendly but unobtrusive.

The resort borders a marina, but the small beach isn’t suitable for swimming. There is a nicer, sandy beach less than a five-minute walk off the property, or you can take the shuttle into Lake Geneva proper to visit the beach there. In town you can rent a boat or wave runner, water-ski, or take a cruise past the historic mansions around the lake. Nearby parks offer hiking trails and horseback riding, two wineries offer wine tasting (a wine festival is held in September), and there are farms where you can pick your own fruit just a few miles away. You can also soar above the lake in a hot air balloon or small airplane. In winter, locals hit the frozen lake for ice fishing and skating.

The Abbey offers an impressive variety of delicious food, all made from scratch in the resort’s kitchen. Meals are served at one of two restaurants, and there is a coffee shop, gazebo grill, cocktail lounge, and cigar bar. The resort also offers catering and meeting spaces, and hosts many weddings throughout the year. The weekend that I visited, a wedding was being set up on the lawn in front of the marina. For a resort-style destination wedding close to Chicago, I can’t think of a more beautiful place in the Midwest at which to get married.

To be honest, when I hear the word “relaxing”, I think “boring”. I prefer my vacations to be packed with sightseeing, learning, experiencing, and of course, eating and drinking. This makes me generally shun resorts where I think I’ll feel as though I’m held captive and at a loss for things to keep me entertained. I’m also very budget-conscious. Since I spend so little time in my hotel room, I don’t like to spend too much on it. And I can’t stand when resorts jack up their prices for food, drinks and activities just because they know guests will pay rather than head off-site. So I was a bit worried that The Abbey wouldn’t be my style. But I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the things that I liked about The Abbey was that leaving isn’t a hassle for guests without their own wheels. The shuttle will take you anywhere you want to go, and there a few restaurants and shops within walking distance of the hotel. And The Abbey doesn’t gouge its guests on food and drink just because it can. Management knows that it isn’t just the hotel guests who keep the resort in business, especially in the off-season. They aim to attract local customers too, and keep the prices reasonable so that everyone can enjoy The Abbey.

Despite any initial reservations, I found myself enjoying The Abbey immensely, and trying to convince my husband that returning for a “relaxing weekend” (in my case, meaning one chock-full of wine-tasting, boat tours, horseback riding, and cooking classes) at The Abbey would be the perfect fall trip. And as it turns out, fall is one of the best times to visit. Weekend rates start at $216 per night, and include free breakfast buffet and a 25% discount on spa services.

Disclosure: The Abbey Resort did cover the cost of my stay, but don’t think they had an easy time wooing me with spa treatments and Pelligrino. Freebies are nice, but they won’t make me forgive a hotel’s shortcomings. My review of the resort represents my own views and experiences as a guest and were not influenced in any way by fancy cheeses or free champagne.