Grace over race.
I’m sitting outside on a mini stool in northern Cambodia where my bent knees don’t fit under the table. A three-course meal arrives from the nearby food stall—a hard-boiled egg served as a delicacy with three additional finger bowls presenting spices, limes, and mint. Egg vendor #7, Chantheaea, giggles when she returns with a tiny long-handle spoon. Meanwhile, I watch two guys, Narit and Ponlok, shoot it out on a makeshift outdoor pool table. This jungle-encased village, Cheabb, probably won’t see electricity in the lifetime of these two pool sharks. Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, has just built its first shopping mall with an escalator that has become an instant tourist attraction. I realize later that Chantheaea was chuckling about my inside-out T-shirt. I haven’t passed a mirror in weeks.
I’ve flown 15,000 miles by plane, over-nighted on a bench of a chugging riverboat, spent a day in the dusty cab of a puny Japanese pickup crammed with 10 riders, and then 10 hours on a wobbling motorbike sputtering on rutted, meandering jungle trails. The trail, barely worthy of foot traffic, frequently requires crossing rivers on slimy log bridges. It becomes impassable during the wet season.
My brother Basil and I were repeatedly warned not to venture into this isolated region that’s supposedly rife with landmines and holdups by teams of bandits. However, our reward for forging ahead was a spontaneous night that fused a wedding and a bizarre theater odyssey. The first thing we saw in Cheabb was a mobile PA system announcing what later turned out to be a play. The PA system involved two guys on a motorbike rigged with a large horn on the handlebars connected to an amplifier sitting in the drivers lap. The rear passenger held a mike to a Walkman that made the announcements.
In this off-the-grid destination, the wooden box houses are raised on six-foot stilts. In the shade below, black buffalo, pigs, and chickens reside. The people, mostly rice farmers, steal naps in hammocks slung between stilts under the houses or between the trees. Everyone we pass waves hello. My hunch is that once war-ravaged, perpetually destitute Cambodia had a lighter side, and I wasn’t quitting until we found it. Landmines, civil war, and genocide dominate many associations with Cambodia, but life has returned to a new version of normal, even in Preah Vihear Province, one of the poorest and most isolated.
There’s no way for an outsider to know they’re crossing between the neighboring villages of Cheabb Lech and Cheabb Kart (Cheabb east and west). But that’s where we were invited into the soul of this village with zero tourism. In one magical night, we attended a wedding reception, which later segued into an outdoor theater performance, and then slept on the top cop’s porch.
The wedding highlights included proud toasts ladled from a 35-gallon jug of homemade milky-fermented booze, dancing to insanely loud Cambodian pop, eating bugs, and listening to the best man speech in which he noted that the bride’s premiere hobby was jumping rope. The groom, dressed in a frumpy, oversized suit, couldn’t stop snickering during the should-be solemn slow dances. Our go-to-guy, the only one in town who could speak English, told us about the local pothead, a little girl who wears a red cooking pot as a hat.
After the wedding reception, the group marched across town to join 200 people already seated on the ground before a stage that was amplified by a lone microphone hanging from a wire. The wooden stage set was draped in billowing, silky tarps. The performance, hours and hours of short bits, were punctuated by the manual closing of a dainty pink curtain. A flash photo (Basil’s) started a tizzy that startled the entire audience and made actors modify their act and speak in even higher pitched voices.
Where there are no televisions, traveling troupes are still the stars. Within the crowd, several campfires were maintained to combat the 70-degree winter chill. At one point during the six-hour Khmer epic play, half of the audience suddenly stood up and gasped—a reverse domino effect that didn’t seem like a standing ovation. It wasn’t. A six-foot-long heat-seeking venomous snake had crawled into the audience. Once the snake was hacked in half by someone who happened to have a machete handy, the show resumed. Basil suggested that the snake’s demise might be a metaphor for what happens here when someone threatens married life.
After the marathon performance, we feasted with the wedding gang, but passed on the cow stomach and dried blood patties that resembled black tofu cakes. After waking up on the hospitable police chief’s front porch, we visited several schools, all raised 12×12-foot platforms either under a home or outside covered by tarps. The blackboards were black paint on flat boards and the instructional guides were laminated posters, one for math and one for language. After Basil donated hordes of pens and notebooks to these makeshift schools, he also stepped in as interim teacher, which routinely inspired more laughter than learning.
Despite the forewarnings about landmines and holdups, we ventured to Cheabb where the people, like most Cambodians, exemplify warmth, grace, and pride, which is incredible when considering the unspeakable horrors many of them have endured in their lifetime. In these more prosperous times, some still manage to survive on one dollar and 1,000 calories per day. The Khmer capacity to overcome extreme adversity and still welcome unannounced travelers with smiles and respect is humanity. Being the first foreigners to visit a place where they’ve never seen any is a traveler’s cliché—but when you unearth the last remnants of virgin turf in Southeast Asia, dignity and joy is what you’ll find.
As my brother and I prepared to roll out of Cheabb, we enjoyed a final hard-boiled egg at the food stall. The newly married couple rode past and waved to us and all of the food stall workers. They were honeymoon bound—a visit to the other side of the village—which made the staff cheer wildly. That’s when it dawned on us that the bride was #7, our previous egg vendor, Chantheaea.
The Milling Room’s refreshing space is a discovery even for veteran Upper West Side Manhattanites. There’s no indication from the establishment’s street view—which only reveals their inviting bar—that a huge, inspiring restaurant space with high ceilings capped by a glass atrium awaits. The rustic, industrial brick is counterweighed by recycled wood and cast iron trimmings. I’ll get to the dazzling food in a bit. The history of this lofty space is equally amazing, as it transitioned from a hotel lobby bar hangout for “high-end” 1930s gangsters into an asylum for the mentally ill during the 1940s through the 1960s. It later became a food court. Then, after a few restaurant incarnations, it established itself as this trusted local retreat.
Olden and classic blues play while old-school 1930s cocktails (that won’t break the bank) accompany supreme appetizer stylings of Hamache Tartar and Roast Beet Salad. I settled in with a Casino, a classic concoction (Hayman’s Old Tom gin, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, lemon, orange bitters) that has multihued notes which make you ponder New York’s oft-glamorized mobster era. A disused fireplace mantle is one more bit of history inside this bygone but revitalized gem.
The American-style cuisine is prepared by veteran Chef Scott Bryan. Bryan, who was heralded by Antony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential as one of New York’s top chefs, turned me into a fan of Long Island Duck Breast via its preparation in parsnip puree, shaved brussel sprouts, and brandy jus. Bryan’s take on Skate (crisped with couscous, capers, tomato, and verjus) elevates this fish in the ray family to new heights.
This spacious getaway that melds tavern, historic site, and memorable cuisine—while transporting NYC’s aggravation eons away—won’t disappoint.
The Milling Room, 446 Columbus Ave, NYC, 212.595.0380
New York Comfort Food—with a Twist
Swifty’s restaurant feels like an old-style Upper East Side private club, but with reasonable prices and a few designer-t-shirt hipsters spiced into the mix. Dinnertime, which seems to start at 7pm-sharp for sport-jacket-wearing retired men and their spouses, means Frank Sinatra might be crooning as the backdrop. There’s no shortage of chatter and cheer in this eatery namesaked after a dog who used to be the VIP at a now-closed nearby restaurant that took its reputation—and clientele—here. Enjoy clear-cut American cuisine with classic Euro options, ranging from Baked Meatloaf to Wild Bass with Chanterelles and Port Wine Sauce.
What does ‘bistro’ mean to you? If desired descriptions include non-flashy, intimate, romantic, old-world-real, and house-made ice creams, then this place is for you. The lingering, clandestine 65+ high-society vibe is balanced by affable, mostly European waiters. It seems that at least one person at each table (your neighbors are not far away) is an expert storyteller (or filibusterer). Inside this neighborhood parlor with huge, slightly down-turned mirrors, vintage wallpaper, and talk of the Ivy League, you won’t see many diners ogling their phones. If you wear a cowboy hat here, you will be the first. Arrive early (6pm) and run the show. There will be no brawls.
Swifty’s, 1007 Lexington Avenue, NYC, 212.535.6000
Stanton Street Kitchen—Craft Beer & Wine Bar
I’m fully aware of the advance of cool joints creeping into my neighborhood of 15 years. This stretch of Stanton St., unlike its parallel universe, hip Rivington St., is still an archetypal lower (lower) east side street with little fanfare and some lingering grit—the edge of a creeping frontier. Charging ahead on this frontier is the Stanton Street Kitchen Craft Beer & Wine Bar. Grand but intimate, this open-kitchen food show features an in-house beer advisor (suds sommelier) who’ll no doubt be tailed by a wine whiz for comrades so inclined. The décor is reminiscent of the late 1920s with brick walls, high ceilings, copper accents, and black granite. Newsflash: if scallops, pork belly, gigantic tasting stouts (from the cellar below your feet), and a revived take on non-mainstream handpicked wines are your kind of thing, then this is your kind of getaway.
As opposed to being an opinionated foodie, I review restaurants based on how they physically transport customers. To me, this key to this destination is renowned master chef Erik Blauberg’s passion for food-inspired travel. When not fine-tuning his restaurant, he leads food and wine journeys—literal cooking tours—via Culinary Passport, which frequently collaborates with The Culinary Institute of America. With years of guiding food and wine lovers around the world on his resume, Blauberg’s forthcoming fine-food foray opportunities are to Spain, France, Italy, and New Zealand. Throughout these trips, customers enjoy local culinary experiences and exclusive food and wine tastings available only to travelers in these exclusive groups.
Back on the Stanton St. home-front, Blauberg has created a menu of small plates designed to pair with the beer and wine offerings, allowing guests to fashion their own tasting menus. There is also a “Chef’s Feast” tasting menu presenting off-the-menu seasonally inspired dishes, available to guests who are seated at the 14-seat bar that overlooks the open kitchen. The contemporary menu reflects Chef Blauberg’s worldwide travels and is heavily influenced by the many different global cuisines he has studied.
So if you can’t join Blauberg on a culinary journey, don’t fret, as he brings the best of his gastronomic discoveries from around the world to you on New York City’s Lower East Side. Bring on the truffles paired with beer sampler “flights” that hit each of your taste buds. The beer cellar features 100 different varieties of bottled beers from around our planet, ranging in styles from Kolsch to Imperial Stouts, and is no stranger to the revolution of small batch brewing overtaking Brooklyn. Trust their beer sommelier to pair the 24 rotating seasonal drafts—and an extensive wine list—with their reasonably priced menu.
The menu features an assortment of “beer bites” served on toast such as Spicy Prawns with cracked corn, jicama, and cilantro; Kadotas Figs with goat cheese and 50 Year-Old Sherry; and Braised Pork Belly with red cabbage and toasted peanut slaw. Small plates such as Sugar Pea Risottowith cepes and delicata squash; Homemade Tagliatelle with hen of the woods mushrooms and wild boar sausage; and Port-Braised Oxtail with foie gras and fava bean ravioli can be yours. The lineup also includes a few vegetarian items, including a Salad of Wild Arugula, flat bread, Humboldt-fog goat cheese, candied spicy pecans, and pistachio vinaigrette.
You won’t be bored.
Stanton Street Kitchen seats 70, including a 14-seat intimate food bar overlooking the open kitchen and the hustling chefs. The beer cellar also showcases a private Chef’s Table with seating for up to 30 guests.
178 Stanton Street, Manhattan, NYC, 917.963.6000, Stanton Street Kitchen
The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization comparable to the European Union with its enduring effort to achieve regional solidarity. Myanmar hosts the 34th annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) in Nay Pyi Taw on January 22-29, 2015. This year’s theme is “ASEAN – Tourism Towards Peace, Prosperity and Partnership.” ATF will be held in Myanmar for the first time since its inauguration in 1981.
This conference is laser focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination. Myanmar Tourism Minister Htay Aung is keen on promoting “Myanmar’s richness in culture and biodiversity…while sharing products and services for the local tourism players to showcase their products and services to the global market.”
Last year, the 33rd forum took place in Kuching, Borneo, with the theme “Advancing Tourism Together.” The fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN members range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politics also run the spectrum, from the democratic Philippines, which is largely Christian, Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—and, until now, a sometimes difficult to access Myanmar.
Tourism promotes people-to-people connectivity—one of the key strategies towards ultimately achieving the ASEAN community. Peter Semone, chief technical adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (Lanith) noted that “ATF points to what lies ahead for the region where human capital is at the core of its sustainability and a robust tourism economy.”
ATF 2015 is expected to attract 1,500 attendees from more than 40 countries, including tourism ministers and officials, ASEAN exhibitors, international buyers, international and local media, as well as tourism trade visitors.
A goldmine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers will include Green Recognition Award winners and homestay program pioneers. Also, press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries will create buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will help create an ideal single destination.
ASEAN Tourism Forum 2014 news…
Tiny BRUNEI is a gateway to remarkable Borneo. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive, or relax in a plush resort.
CAMBODIA now partners with Thailand for a single visa option. The symbolic Kingdom of Wonder campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism.
The “Wonderful INDONESIA” campaign continues successfully selling its brand beyond Hindu Bali. Despite a few political setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing as the country offers incredible cultural and geographic diversity.
Simply Beautiful LAOS is undergoing major infrastructure developments that will soon change the face of this hospitable country. The “Jewel of the Mekong” continues a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion.
For the first time ever during decades of international travel, upon landing in Kuching, MALAYSIA, there were no forms required to clear immigration or customs, only a quick scan of both index fingers. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.
MYANMAR had a 93-percent increase in tourism in 2013! Prohibitive to tourism for decades, its democratic rebranding includes visa on arrival and the acceptance of foreign investment. Every aspect of tourism is rapidly evolving, and securing accommodations can be difficult.
Still recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, when a PHILIPPINES Tourism Minister was asked about what stage of climate-change awareness, he replied, “Painfully, aware.” Many of the Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its new tourism slogan: It’s More Fun in The Philippines. In 2013, the U.S. followed South Korea as its strongest arrivals market.
SINGAPORE is gearing up for a hi-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, a project that aims to eventually extend through Thailand and all the way to Kunming, China. The Your Singapore brand drives an efficient tourism machine, including Formula One Racing Week (once featuring ZZ Top) which as has been extended until 2017.
THAILAND’s anti-government demonstrations continue, but the tourism influx endures outside Bangkok. The Amazing Thailand brand continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors. The country is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service.
VIETNAM continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. A French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms. Russia is its fastest growing market.
This ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. Tourism Ministers continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in other countries. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the association. Until December 2008, the 40-year-old organization had no written constitution. The new charter sets a 2015 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.
For details about the ASEAN Tourism Fourm in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, visit ATF-2015.
The annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
There is no burnt rice to a hungry person. —Philippine proverb (Ifugao Province)
Our first urge to travel was motivated by finding food. This transient lifestyle requires a mobile crash pad. Tracking migratory herds, primeval wanderers fashioned portable shelters out of stones, branches, and animal hides. Today, our movable shelters—tents and the like—have roots in archetypal havens like Native American tepees, Inuit tupiks, and Mongolian gers. Even well-fed never-get-their-knees-muddy city kids want to build forts inside of their apartments.
While many are now concerned with our food’s farm-to-table odyssey, we rarely have to worry about defending it while it grows. Grown in water, rice is the staple food of three billion people. In traditional rice paddies, a hidden few take shelter and wait to defend their crops. While trekking in the mountainous northern Philippine highlands, I came across a recurring curiosity, farmhands who seemed to be watching the rice grow. I discovered that the rice business requires 24-hour surveillance where live scarecrows protect mountainside rice terraces from persistent rice-loving birds. These farmers spend their days in temporary thatch-and-bamboo huts called ab-hungs, makeshift sheds built for two. They are built into manmade mountainside terraces and provide relief from the sun and rain for the people whose job it is to spy and scare off the thieving birds.
These human scarecrows rely on tactics that evolve with the growing seasons. Early on, pounding on a barrel or a basin would suffice in frightening the birds away. When the birds tired of that ploy and returned to the crime scene, the farmers created noise by pulling on strings attached to rows of jingling cans. When that jig was up—the birds don’t fall for the same tricks for long—ab-hung security ultimately had to shoo the birds away by running after them.
Fortunately, this mode of occupational scaremongering does pay off.Highland rice is tastier, more aromatic, and more nutritious than the lowland’s industrial version. Then again, more work goes into it, as it takes six to seven months to grow, three times longer than chemically fertilized rice. Locals perform planting and harvesting rituals to invoke ancestral spirits who watch over the crops—and it seems to work. The International Rice Research Institute wasn’t so lucky. When it tried introducing new strains here, they didn’t yield. Farmers then resurrected their ancient methods after rejecting a non-governmental organization’s pesticide invasion, which killed tiny fish and snails—additional food sources—that also grow in the rice-paddy ponds.
Savoring moments in an ab-hung, I’m reminded of the ancient nomad musings today’s weekend warriors enjoy inside their camping tents. Entering one makes the hut smaller but the world bigger. While avoiding some midday rain in this bird-spy shack, I chatted with a local elder about rice watchmen until the sun came out. Inside the primitive lean-to, I offered the farsighted, squinting man a pen, and he doled out a pinch of tobacco for me to chew, redefining the notion of insider trading. He then trotted out a thought that was loosely rendered by an eager kid who had been tailing me. I later employed the eager one as my guide, and the old man’s quote as fact…
“A peace on birds would probably work better than this war on birds.” —Rice wisdom, and an ageless take on disputes
Handcrafted Mexican artwork initiates the Maya dining experience that’s soon enhanced by acclaimed Chef Richard Sandoval’s daring culinary techniques—authentic but modernized Mexican where you can segue from Mexico City style corn on the cob to filet mignon presented with a cactus salad. This Upper East Side neighborhood hangout can be quite lively, but the veteran servers remain calm and poised. The homespun margaritas blended from a collection of 200 agave-based spirits pair beautifully with Maya’s traditional small-plated finger food and its other contemporary triumphs. There’s no ageism or posing here, even their huge bar defies this neighborhoods reputation for niche-only establishments.
At times, I mistook this upbeat chill zone for something you’d find in a hipster part of Madrid, but then the Bacon Guacamole showed up (infused with chicharron, pickled chile, and cotija cheese). And, any reminiscing about old-style Mexican grub stops with their Chipotle Camarones—tequila flambé shrimp, black bean purée, gouda huarache, and chipotle sauce with a frisée salad. Pace yourself and keep your post-dining plans flexible.
You can turn this culinary romp—ooh la-la, chile pasilla-rimmed Yucatan Margaritas steeped in agavales blanco and habañero blood orange—into a health kick by concluding with their chili-powder-spiced fruit plate. Investigate their Bottomless Brunch, Saturdays and Sundays 11:30am – 4:00pm. Visit Maya New York on 1191 First Ave (64th/65th), 212.585.1818.
Check out Travel+Leisure’s rave review of THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons.
“By the end of the book, you like the author, you believe him, and you’ve had a fun ride–because this is no namby-pamby travelogue.” —Travel+Leisure
Bustling Midtown still has a few secret hideaways. As part of Hotel Chandler’s inviting entrance, Juni and its understated elegance might go unnoticed if you’re hustling along East 31st St—but they shouldn’t. Juni’s famous Australian chef, Shaun Hergatt, slices and dices locally sourced ingredients (think nearby Union Square Market) to enliven the contemporary American theme. The chef—no stranger to media fanfare—provides a minimalist but exotic experience that allows you to have a fling with his culinary imagination.
Paying homage to every season, chef Hergatt serves up enticing combinations, such as the “stone crop–fresh hearts of palm–purple basil.” Other standout choices include the “garden radish–live montauk scallop–citrus coriander” option, which sounds as tantalizing as it tastes. This is an extended journey, not a mere meal. Juni’s inventive ingredient pairings awaken the taste buds with flavors meant to be savored.
The universal appetizer medley is the first of four or six courses (not including chef’s samples). A team of attentive waiters swoop in with oyster-soaked leaves, and the odyssey begins. You’re invited to explore your boundaries with a menu that encourages and rewards experimentation.
The modern, plush setting, inspired by Capellini Design Associates, whispers relax. It’s Midtown majesty without the pomp. However, be prepared to have the wait staff cater to your every need. The server to diner ratio seems almost one to one in the 50-seat restaurant. If you’re a true foodie and can’t get a reservation at Noma (waiting in line?), add this classy but unpretentious gem to your culinary hit list. Dress nice.
Discover Juni at 12 E 31st St., Manhattan, (212) 995-8599.
I love being in situations where it’s nearly impossible to make a culinary mistake. In most restaurants,you order, and then your entrée is parked upon your table and that pretty much defines your experience. At Fogo de Chão, the circulating waiters swing by your table to slice your preference of 16 different cuts of prime fire-roasted meats. It’s all about revolving options at your own pace.
Behind the scenes, the knife-wielding waiters—gauchos—who roam the restaurant are also grilling the individual skewers of your meat.
You turn the meat service on and off by flipping the coaster on your table. When you’ve had enough
filet mignon, prime sirloin, sausage, or chicken parked on your plate via your personal tongs, the gourmet salad bar (30+ items) is available to satisfy any other cravings. Fogo de Chão also has an enormous selection of wine, including its own signature label.
Fogo de Chão’s Midtown location, 53rd street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, doesn’t conjure up intimate images of leisure, and there’s nothing about its nondescript façade to lure you in. But, inside, 30-foot ceilings and sweeping staircases create a modern museum atmosphere—then add the fabulous aromas. Adding to the ambiance is the friendly staff, many who are Brazilian. The staff to customer ratio is unheard of in most other
city restaurants. This is the company’s 22nd opening in the U.S., and a true escape from hurried Midtown Manhattan.
This Brazilian steakhouse experience means no commitments—or regrets. Visit or call 212 969 9980.
The Best Place to Heal in the World?
Baltimore is a legendary brick empire that redefines urban renewal. After sliding from a manufacturing stronghold into a depression of near irrelevance, the port cities’ grand factory landscape has been reinvented into an industrial-chic hotspot. Being from this storied metropolis means being somehow connected to the water—whether it be intrepid boating, prying open seafood, or wearing nautical-inspired clothing even in winter. Locals also don’t pronounce the ‘t’ in Baltimore. A relaxed gap between north and south, the hometown of Frank Zappa and John Waters has a history as remarkable as Boston’s, and a future that won’t quit.
Downtown Baltimore’s U-shape frames a harbor that’s a showcase for colonial and modern architecture, likeable tourist attractions, including one of the most beloved aquariums in the world, and classic people watching. Water taxis ply these waters, quickly delivering passengers to various neighborhoods, all with their own trademark charm. Baltimore’s resurgence from a once grim industrial city into trendy factory ritziness reminds me of the similarly amazing metropolitan turnaround achieved in Manchester, England.
Baltimore has also always been a great place to heal. Johns Hopkins is rated as one of the best hospitals in the world, and the University of Maryland’s Trauma Center isn’t far behind. Because of these cutting-edge institutions, a significant number of international patients, and their families, visit here long term and dig in for a cure. But illness is certainly not the only reason to schedule a visit. A few suggestions…
*Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum is the official national museum for self-taught, intuitive artistry. Three renovated buildings that are themselves works of art showcase masterpieces created by artists—ranging from the homeless to neurosurgeons—who were never taught not what to do in the making of their art. Many spent decades of intense devotion to create just one work they saw as a fulfillment of a spiritual mission or personal devotion. If you crave a bit of the untamed and wild, visit avam.org.
*Wit & Wisdom, a harbor-side ultra-modern American tavern on the ground floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, has an open-air wood-fired kitchen and a hand-pulley operated grill designed by Thomas Jefferson. Its specialty is comfort food with a contemporary Eastern Seaboard twist. The upscale, roomy space—no two diners will ever bang elbows—has high ceilings and flawless service. The staff, including your waiter, gets a ‘cheat’ for each customer sharing their profile, preferences, and tendencies revealed during earlier visits. Even without a cheat-sheet, you won’t have to beg for refills of any of their hand-crafted cocktails. witandwisdombaltimore.com
*Another impressively spacious dining spot is Pazo (Galician for ‘grand house’) in Harbor East. This renovated 19th-century iron-works factory has a 65-foot ceiling, its original hulking-wood crossbeams, and huge booths that resemble two posh high-back couches facing each other. This liberating environment—rustic but plush—was once open at one end to accept backed-in freight trains that hauled out bullets and other munitions. The candlelit-style wrought-iron chandeliers and wraparound balcony adds to the wide-open but warm atmosphere. And, oh yeah, prepare for the most indulgent Euro-Mediterranean food and wine in town. pazorestaurant.com
*Aldo’s in Little Italy is fine dining without the pomp or attitude. Calm, professional servers ply an old-school parlor setting. Chef Aldo Vitale, originally a cabinet maker, spun his handiness into building the lavishly appointed dining rooms—and crafts classic southern Italian dishes. This sets the bar for Maryland’s Italian cuisine. aldositaly.com
*Baltimore’s Four Season Hotel’s (fourseasons.com/Baltimore) international ambiance is partially kindled by relatives of patients being treated at Johns Hopkins; seems Arab royalty puts this hospital high on its list. There are also guests from every corner of the world mixing with rooted East Coasters. The swankest digs in town, every detail—from the harbor view from your bed to a beguiling staff-to-guest ratio—make luxury seem natural. The hotel also has an incredible spa, whose world-class masseuses leave you wet-noodle limp. The Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore houses the largest hotel art collection in the city. Check it out here here
*Baltimore Soundstage (baltimoresoundstage.com) is a classic mid-sized downtown music venue attracting nationally touring acts; another example of a defunct factory that now rocks, literally. Right next door, PowerPlant Live! also rocks live entertainment at five bars, Rams Head Live!, and a summertime outdoor concert series.
*I usually avoid what can be deemed as tourist traps, but was presently surprised at Baltimore’s harbor-side Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I now appreciate founder Robert Ripley (1890-1949) as a world-traveling pioneer (201 countries) and ‘amateur’ anthropologist. A groundbreaking travel writer on a par with Mark Twain, his museums celebrate (way) out of the ordinary oddities, trivia, unsung heroes, and touchable interactive displays—a tribute to his dedication to collecting mind-bending news and show-and-tells from every edge of the globe. ripleys.com/baltimore
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
*For more information, visit baltimore.org.
*Amtrak lands near the heart of downtown Baltimore, which is easily accessible along the northeast corridor. Once there, your feet, or inexpensive ferries (or the free Charm City Circulator) can take you pretty much everywhere. Take advantage of a special 30-percent off companion fare discount from Amtrak to save on traveling here. baltimore.org/amtrak
Ps, National Bohemian Beer, colloquially “Natty Boh,” was first brewed in Baltimore in 1885. This Bohemian-style beer’s slogan has long been “From the Land of Pleasant Living,” a tribute to the Chesapeake Bay. Ninety percent of National Bohemian sales are still in Baltimore, where it’s not uncommon to find cans served in many bars for $2. National’s president once also owned the Baltimore Orioles, making Natty Boh the “official” brew served at the ballpark in the 1960s—similar to Schaefer Beer proudly sponsoring the New York Mets in the 1970s.
Annual travel industry trade show—in Malaysia for 2014—unifies Southeast Asian tourism.
The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) resonates the European Union’s regional solidarity for reciprocal benefits. Held in member nation Malaysia, the 33rd annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) will take place January 16-23. In developmental terms, Southeast Asia’s 10-country amalgam of incredibly diverse cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN member states range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politically, members include the democratic Philippines (largely Christian), Indonesia (world’s largest Muslim population), and, until recently, military-ruled Myanmar. Host country Malaysia has long understood the value of tourism.
This year’s conference in Kuching (Borneo) is themed, Advancing Tourism Together. Multi-ethnic and multicultural Malaysia is one of 17 megadiverse countries on earth that harbor the majority of the Earth’s species, including 250 endemic reptiles.
ATF 2014 will stand on the shoulders of ATF 2013, which was hosted in Vientiane, Laos, and brought together 1,580 delegates, including 10 Tourism Ministers, travel industry buyers (470 from 60 countries), nearly 1,000 sellers (500 exhibition booths from 360 companies and properties), and media (145 from 35 countries) to focus on the significant developments and aspirations of this booming region. A mine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers ranged from tourism experts to winners of the Green Recognition Awards, a supporter of rainforest tree-replanting programs.
ASEAN Tourism Forum news…
BRUNEI, the last Malay Kingdom, celebrates options to golf, play polo, dive, or kick back in a plush resort. This tiny country is a gateway to remarkable Borneo.
CAMBODIA’s symbolic Kingdom of Wonder campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism. It now partners with Thailand for a single visa option.
INDONESIA’s claim that it offers the ultimate in diversity remains legitimate. Despite a few setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing. Wonderful Indonesia is succeeding at selling its brand beyond Bali.
Simply beautiful LAOS continues promoting itself as the jewel of the Mekong with a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion. Major infrastructure development will soon change the face of this hospitable country. tourismlaos.org.
MALAYSIA welcomed 23 million visitors in 2009, a one million increase from 2008. That growth model continues to accelerate. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign showcases the best of its mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.
MYANMAR, closed tight for decades, now has visa on arrival and is accepting foreign investment. Suddenly, every aspect of tourism is evolving, and it can be difficult to secure accommodations.
Many of The PHILIPPINES’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its new tourism slogan: It’s More Fun in The Philippines. In 2013, the U.S. followed South Korea as its strongest arrivals market.
SINGAPORE’S Formula One Racing Week, once featuring ZZ Top, will continue to headline international music acts. Hosting this race has been extended until 2017. The Your Singapore brand drives an efficient tourism machine.
THAILAND is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service. The Amazing Thailand brand continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors.
VIETNAM’s French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms. It continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. Russia is its fastest growing market.
Peter Semone, chief technical adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (lanith.com), said, “The grouping of destinations under the ASEAN flag is a highly effective way of bringing together Southeast Asia’s unique tourism options. In the realm of human capacity development, ASEAN plays an important role in identifying common standards for education and training. Not only does this enable smaller countries such as Laos to benefit from its more developed neighbors, but it also affords greater workforce mobility, which in the coming years will be a challenge as markets become more integrated and liberalized through the ASEAN Economic Community.”
Bernie Rosenbloom, a Southeast Asia tourism and hospitality communications consultant, was pleased that “Laos finally silenced critics who did not believe the country could successfully host an event of this size. It also served as a showcase for Vientiane’s fast-growing infrastructure, including more upscale accommodations, a new convention center, a rejuvenated tourist area, better roads, and expanding air links—all of which brighten the city’s light on the Asia Pacific’s MICE radar screen.”
Exemplifying that spirit, ASEAN Ministers of Tourism continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in different locations in the region. “This forum is always an ideal venue for tourism managers and policy makers to exchange issues of common interest,” explained Brad Olsen, a California-based author and travel expert. “ATF is more than just another trade show, because it goes to great lengths to infuse culture—including music, dancing, and fashion shows—into the daily events.” Conference delegates were also entertained each night by an array of cultural song and dance performances.
ATF’s “Hand In Hand, Conquering Our Future” campaign also created a united tourism image. ASEAN’s concern for the environment continues to uplift its hotel industry standard in the form of the ASEAN Green Hotel Recognition Awards presented to ASEAN properties with outstanding efforts in environmental conservation. Criteria for these hotels includes environmental-friendliness and energy conservation measures based on 11 major criteria, including environmental policy and actions for hotel operations, solid waste management, energy efficiency, water efficiency, and air quality management.
ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the organization, which has existed for more than 40 years. But until December 2008, it had no written constitution. The new charter set a 2015 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.
Professor Bosengkham Vongdara, the Lao Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism, said, “This was an exciting time for the Laotian tourism industry, and we were honored to host ATF 2013. Since we last hosted ATF nine years ago, Laos has grown in infrastructure and facilities. Through ATF, we did our best to contribute to strengthen and build an ASEAN community by 2015.” Press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries created buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will create an ideal single destination.
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The annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.