My Dinner with Thomas: Eatwith.com offers world travelers meal-sharing evenings with local amateur chefs

Eatwith host Thomas and one of his dinner guests

How does a busy journalist with an assignment to cover massive protests in Paris the next day spend his evening? Hosting 9 guests - all strangers - for dinner, of course. 

If you haven’t heard of Eatwith.com, a website that follows the Airbnb model of connecting travelers with locals - not with a room but with a shared meal in their home - check it out the next time you're in Paris...or Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam and many other cities including some in the U.S.

Eatwith and a similar site called Mealsharing.com use social media models (profiles and pictures of hosts posted online along with menus and reviews) to link amateur chefs with guests happy to pay modest amounts for the chance to connect with locals and other travelers around the table.

As with Airbnb, no money changes hands. Host post their menus online, along with their prices. You pay on the website with a credit card at the time of booking, and agree to  cancellation terms set by the hosts.

Scrolling through the offerings before a recent trip to Paris, I could have selected a "French Quiche" dinner ($42) with Phillipe, a Paris policeman and his partner, Dzianis in their apartment near Notre Dame; a "Parisian" dinner  ($63) in Montmartre hosted by world traveler Claudine; or a "French/Asian Fusion dinner" ($56) with Catherine, a therapist, who lives near the Ile Saint Louis.

In the end, a friend and I settled on a "Friendly Parisian" dinner ($49) hosted by French news reporter and amateur chef Thomas Obrador, a journalist and producer in his 40s, whose been traveling around the world since 1996 and living in Paris since 2000. 

I choose Thomas because I too am a journalist, and he lives in an area that was new to me, the 16th arrondissement, a chic residential area sometimes compared to the Upper Eastside of New York.

From the menu he posted online - appetizers, a seasonal soup, ratatouille with chicken or fish, a cheese course and crème brûée, - I knew we were in for extended evening. What I didn't expect was that we would spend 5.5 hours laughing, talking, drinking and eating with Thomas and seven strangers until 1 a.m.

The wine helped, of course. Thomas paired each course with a different wine, stating with two rosés he poured around his living room table as we snacked on cured sausages, eggplant pâté and a tomato confit.


Appetizers and wine with Thomas

We arrived at 7:30 p.m., but it wasn't until 9:15 p.m. that we gathered around the dining room table for the first course of pumpkin soup with smoked bacon. Thomas said he doesn't  normally allot that much time for appetizers, but everyone seemed to be getting along so well, he let us go on talking. By the time we sat down, we felt as if we were dining with a group of long-time friends.

There were Nancy and Steve, a couple who had just flown in from Los Angeles that day; Allison from Pennsylvania who was in Paris on business; Eva (Swedish) and Boriana (Bulgarian), who work together in London; and Bobby and Dionne Duplantier who do Eatwith dinners in their home in New Orleans. Bobby calls himself "Chef Tuck" on Eatwith. When he described his menu (crawfish-pecan salad, red jambalaya, wood-fired dessert pizza), we all decided New Orleans would be our next stop. 

Part of the fun of meal-sharing in a foreign city is the opportunity to explore a new neighborhood, often a residential area that tourists rarely visit. Thomas' apartment was about a 40-minute Métro ride from our hotel, and a short walk from the Église d'Auteuil, a station with interesting bits of trivia attached to its name and location. It's the least-used Métro station in Paris, according to Wikipedia. The station was named Wilhem until  1921. Wilhem was the pseudonym of a French musician, Guillaume Louis Bocquillon Wilhem. However, a municipal councillor became convinced that the station was actually named for Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, so it was renamed following World War I after a nearby church, Notre-Dame-d'Auteuil.


At the table

Thomas explaining the wine regions of France
Starting with some of his mother's recipes, Thomas has been doing his dinners (He also does brunches and Paris market tours) for five years. He estimates he's hosted 100 dinners and around 500 guests. The wine and conversation continued to flow as we moved onto the main course, ratatouille, a French Provençal stewed vegetable dish served with grilled chicken. That was followed by a cheese course and homemade créme brûlée. Thomas introduced each course, referring to a map to point out from which parts of France the wines and cheeses came. 


Cheese please 

It was around 1 a.m. when we put on our coats, exchanged e-mail addresses and hurried out the door in time to call Uber or catch the Métro. Chef Tuck summed up our Eatwith evening well when he said "It's not really about the food. It's about the people, making new friends and learning a little about the place you're visiting."

Baby, its cold outside: Here's how to make the most of winter in Paris


Tartiflette in La Défense

Steam rises from a giant iron skillet filled with boiling potatoes, onions and ham, the ingredients for tartiflette, a cold weather favorite anywhere in Paris, and a signature dish at the Marché de Noel in La Défense, one of the biggest Christmas markets in France.

Walking along a blue carpet past little bungalows with roofs covered in white felt to look like snow, I wander the stalls, accepting samples of cognac laced with caramel, nougat studded with almonds and slivers of black ham from Corsica before settling on a cup of mulled wine and a “raclette sandwich” of cured ham and melted cheese piled into a baguette big enough for three.


Black ham from Corsica


Raclette sandwich big enough for three

Winter is my favorite time of the year in Paris. Air fares drop, and planes tend to be half-full. Hotels offer tempting discounts, and it's possible to walk into museums and sites that other times of the year require waiting in line or buying tickets in advance.

Darkness falls early, which means you’re more likely to be settling into a snug cafe with a book and a glass of wine rather than picnicking along the Seine. Adopt the local uniform - long coat, hat and big scarf- and you’ll be ready when a sidewalk table opens up under the red glow of an overhead heater. 

It’s not too late to enjoy this year’s holiday-season festivities, or plan for next year. The weeks before, during and right after Thanksgiving tend to be quiet, yet festive, a time when Europeans travel, but not many Americans. Most of the Christmas markets begin December 1, but a few, such as the one in La Defense, start in late November. 

I just returned from a Thanksgiving week visit where I met up with a friend who is in Paris for a month. We took in first-class art exhibits (November was photography month in Paris); enjoyed meals far less expensive than in Seattle, L.A., New York and many other U.S. cities; planned a day trip by train to the city of Rouen to visit the new Joan of Arc museum; and of course, did some early holiday shopping, warming up along the way with mugs of vin chaud. 


Vin Chaud garnished with an orange peel

A few suggestions for planning a winter visit: 

*Shop for air fares anytime to get a feel for prices, but don’t buy too early. I bought a ticket about three weeks in advance for $650 on a non-stop Delta/Air France flight between Seattle and Paris.

*Check hotel specials on sites such as booking.com or agoda.com. The lowest prices will be for advance payment, non-refundable reservations - something I avoid when planning a trip that's months away, but am willing to risk when booking last-minute.  I used Agoda to find a $104 non-refundable rate for a three star hotel in the Marais district when the hotel itself was quoting $130, still low compared to $200 or more in high season. I passed on the $14 breakfast, and instead went around the corner to the charming Au Bouquet St. Paul bar and bistro for a $11 cheese omelette served with a salad, baguette, coffee and pitcher of hot milk. 


Au Bouquet St. Paul

*With darkness falling by late afternoon, there’s no need to wait until 7 p.m. for dinner (the time most Parisian restaurants reopen in the evening) unless you have a specific restaurant in mind. Plenty of cafes, such as Au Bouquet St. Paul, advertise “Service Continu,” meaning they serve food all day. Ethnic restaurants - African, Thai, Vietnamese etc.  - tend to open on Sundays when others are closed. 

*There's always something going on art-wise in Paris. Stop at a newsstand for a copy of l'officiel des spectacles, a weekly entertainment guide, or visit its website, for listings of special exhibits, concerts etc., many of them free. 

Extended until January 6 at L'Atelier des Lumieres, Paris's first digital art museum, is a stunning light and music extravaganza featuring the works of Viennese artists Gustav Klimt and Hundertwasser. The paintings are transformed as images onto 30-foot- high walls and ceilings inside a restored foundry. Visitors wander wherever and forever long as they want, listening to classical music that's paired with the changing images. A month ago, this exhibit would have required pre-booked tickets for a particular day and time. The Friday after Thanksgiving, my friend and I walked in off the street and entered with no wait.





Digital art at  L'Atelier des Lumieres 


*Walking tours around Paris continue in the winter. Paris Walks (15 euros) leads walks several times a week in December, January and February including guided, two-hour strolls in the Marais and Montmartre. 

A four-hour “Hip Eats and Backstreets” walking tour (95 euros) with Eatingeurope.com brings visitors backstage with local purveyors in a former working class neighborhood once filled with textile, fur and crystal factories, now populated with high-tech start-ups and young entrepreneurs. 


Leo at TSF

Bundled up on a grey day, four of us (compared to 10 or more on busier days) followed our guide, Leo Goldstein who grew up in the neighborhood, first to Fric-Frac ("Breaking the law" in French) on the Canal St. Martin in the 10th arrondissement where the owners experiment with modern riffs on the Croque-Monsieur, a French classic toasted ham and cheese sandwich. We sampled a sweet version made with goat cheese, honey and nuts, then moved onto TSF, a cozy gourmet shop filled with tempting edible gifts such as truffle mustard and pine needle pâté. We sipped a Pinot Noir from the Loire Valley while snacking by candlelight on sausages, pickles and jambon-beurre, crusty bread with lashings of butter and Prince of Paris cured ham. 


Nacer inside his couscous cafe

North African immigrants have made couscous one of the most popular ethnic dishes to try in Paris. Few shops go so far as to grind their own Semolina each day. Algerians Nacer and Nora Ouallouche own L'amalgame, a restaurant with just a half-dozen tables in a former butcher shop, where hooks still hang from the ceiling and the works of local artists decorate the walls. Nora's couscous is the consistency of fine sand, a warming winter dish when topped with chick peas, raisins, zucchini, carrots, fava beans and a cigar-shaped North African sausage called merguez. Prices range from around $10-$16, about half what restaurants in more expensive parts of Paris charge. 


Cheese please at Paroles de Fromagers

A proper French meal always includes a cheese course. We sampled five, paired with white wine at Paroles de Fromagers, a combination cheese shop, cheese-making school, bar and restaurant in a 17th century building with a basement coal cellar near Place de la Republique in the 11th. When it was time for dessert, Leo improvised with a take-out order from Yann Couvreur Pâtisserie. The plan was to eat our Taste au citron (lemon tart) and Kouign Aman (a Breton cake resembling a caramelized croissant made with layers of butter and sugar) in a park, but this was November, and there was a slight drizzle. We gathered


Leo cutting a lemon tart 
round as he used a ping-pong table to cut our treats into small pieces. Eating standing up was not a problem given all of our other stops had been inside cozy places with plenty of time to sit down, relax and chat with the owners. I couldn't think of a better way to spend a winter afternoon in Paris.  

Next: My dinner with Thomas arranged through the eatwith.com meal-sharing site that's become the Airbnb of dining. 



Tequila Sunrise: Craft distillers use old-school techniques to produce Mexico's signature sprit

Jalisco's blue-green agave fields

It was just past 9 a.m., and already the sun was beating down as we left the cobbled lanes and low-slung buildings in the town of Tequila for a day trip into the Mexican countryside. Fields of blue-green agave plants, their spiky leaves stretching toward the morning light, flanked mountain roads in the shadow of a dormant volcano. With Clayton Szczech, a Spanish-speaking, American-born tequila expert as our guide, we were exploring La Ruta del Tequila, not a prescribed route so much as a meandering drive through lush valleys lined with family-owned distilleries, elegant haciendas, and roadside cantinas dedicated to the production and consumption of the country’s signature spirit. 

Here, in the state of Jalisco, about an hour’s drive from the capital, Guadalajara, lava from the Tequila volcano left mineral-rich soil that’s ideal for growing blue agave, a resilient succulent first harvested by the area’s indigenous people as food and later for a fermented drink they called pulque. Like cognac, a brandy that can only be called cognac if it comes from grapes grown in the Charente region of France, tequila can only be called tequila if it comes from blue agave cultivated in just five of Mexico’s 31 states, the main one being Jalisco. Anything else is just an “agave spirit.”

A focus on craft – slow food, farmers’ markets, craft cocktails, and, as Szczech puts it, “in general caring about how things are made and where they come from,” by U.S. consumers, who account for half of all tequila sales – means microdistillers here are reviving old-world techniques to produce small-batch, premium brands. The area’s biggest distilleries, who rely on more modern methods to meet mass-market demands, offer public tours and tastings, but with Szczech leading us on an outing for Virtuoso Life Magazine, arranged by Journey Mexico, we were were able to go behind the scenes. We met with several smaller, boutique producers during our three-day visit to this less-explored spot, which definitely merits a stop for travelers looking to deepen their understanding of tequila.


Clayton Szczech at Tequila Fortaleza

An outgoing former California punk rocker, Szczech has earned national recognition for his tequila knowledge. Working his industry connections, he arranged private, by-appointment-only visits and a gourmet picnic lunch of fajitas and chicken mole cooked by local women on the grounds of Casa Herradura, a historic hacienda owned by the Tequila Herradura distillery, as well as a tour of the Cascahuín distillery.

Members of the Rosales family, whose ancestors began making tequila 114 years ago, waited for us on the sidewalk outside Cascahuín in the town of El Arenal. At 32, tequila maker Salvador Rosales holds a master’s degree in tequila production, but it’s past generations he looks to for inspiration as he guides the family business in the twenty-first century. His grandfather didn’t finish high school, but he knew a little something about making what was called vino de mezcal, a high-octane spirit made from the juice of the blue agave.


A jimador harvests agave


Then, as they do today, skilled farmers, called jimadores, wielded long-handled, flat-bladed knives to harvest pineapple-shaped hearts from plants that take five to nine years to mature. Tossed like footballs into a wood-fired, earthen pit oven lined with volcanic rocks, the “piñas” would cook for days before being hand-crushed with mallets to release a sweet syrup that was fermented in wooden vats, distilled in copper pots, then rested in containers covered in corncobs.





View from the rooftop of Hotel Solar de las Animas

On the flip side, back in Tequila, La Rojeña – the distillery of the biggest and best-known tequila brand, Jose Cuervo – dominates the town of 40,000, the most popular stop in an area designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006 for its distilling heritage. Most visitors arrive in Tequila by bus or tourist train, tour La Rojeña, buy a few bottles of tequila and maybe a hat woven from agave leaves sold by street vendors, then leave by late afternoon, missing out on the delights of a small, safe Mexican pueblo without the crowds.

“It’s an area of Mexico that a lot of people don't know exists,” says Adel, Iowa-based Virtuoso travel advisor Whitney Shindelar. And if you’re like me – a tequila novice drawn here more for the novelty of exploring a town that shares a name with the famous drink – she says don’t be shy. “For people who don’t think they like tequila, I would challenge them to go there and try it anyway. When you sit down to sip it or sample the different cocktails that are difficult to find in the U.S., I think a lot of people could be swayed.”

Best advice: Do as many affluent Mexicans do, and spend a night or two at the elegant, colonial-style Hotel Solar de las Ánimas, built to resemble a typical Mexican house in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with stone pillars and tiled floors. Settle in at the rooftop Sky Bar overlooking the town plaza; order the fresh tuna tostadas and a Smoky Margarita, made with tequila, agave syrup, lemon juice, and a sprig of flaming rosemary, and take in the views of the volcano and Sierra Madre mountains.




 Designated a Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town), Tequila lives up to the reputation, welcoming visitors by day with colorful shops, tasting rooms, and museums, and revealing a lively local scene by night, when the plaza fills with strolling mariachis and push-cart vendors hawking roasted corn and tequila drinks.


Tasting tequila with Salvador Rosales 

Old-School methods

As we sat a long table next to his outdoor bar in El Arenal, Salvador Rosales poured from a bottle of Siembra Valles Ancestral, a 100-proof blanco (white) tequila produced for the U.S. market using his grandfather’s old-school methods. With virtually all new agave plants reproduced by cloning rather than from seed, the family is experimenting with letting bats naturally pollinate the flowers. Akin to the Rainforest Alliance’s work with coffee farmers, the bat project aims to help growers cut back on chemicals and produce healthier, more sustainable agave that’s better able to fight diseases that nearly decimated the crops a few years ago. 

Tasting from a cup made from the shell of a local tree fruit, I pick up notes of smoke and pineapple in my first smooth swallow. Certified “bat friendly” and retailing for around $100 a bottle, this is a drink meant to be sipped and savored.

“The first thing you want to look for on a bottle is ‘100 percent agave’ ” – meaning the plant is the sole source of sugar used to make the alcohol, as opposed to harsher “hangover” blends mixed with cane sugar or corn syrup – Szczech told us on a visit to Tequila Fortaleza, a microdistillery owned by fifth-generation producer Guillermo E. Sauza. After the family business was sold (it now operates as Tequila Sauza, one of Mexico’s biggest distillers), Sauza returned to his ancestors’ hillside hacienda in Tequila and revived an old-time distillery that had been converted into a museum.


Here, the agave steams in brick ovens, emitting a faint smell of sweet potatoes, then is transferred to a circular pit to be crushed by a two-ton stone wheel pulled by a small tractor (in times past, a mule did the work). Men in white rubber boots follow behind, working the mash with hoes and pitchforks before hosing it down, pressing the water out by hand, and pumping the juice into wooden fermentation tanks – a labor-intensive process akin to making a sauce with a mortar and pestle instead of a food processor.


Crushing agave with a stone wheel

Inside a candlelit cave, Szczech leads us through a tasting, pouring from bottles lined up next to a row of Champagne-style glasses. There is an unaged blanco, bottled soon after distillation; a reposado, aged in oak barrels for seven months; and an añejo, aged for two years. “The question I always ask is, are you tasting or drinking?” Szczech says. “There is a right way to taste. When it comes to drinking, do it however you like.” He pours the tequila into the stemmed glasses, telling us that “the glasses really do matter” when it comes to sensing the different aromas. We look for hints of citrus and sweet agave in the blanco, caramel notes in the reposado, and vanilla and butterscotch in the añejo.

For me, acquiring a taste for drinking tequila straight will take more practice. But Whitney Shindelar is right about the cocktails. Solar de las Ánimas draws on its large collection of premium spirits to come up with creative specialty drinks, such as a fiery mango-and-habanero margarita, and riffs on standbys, like its Bloody Maria, a mix of tequila and lemon, strawberry, tomato, and clam juices.


A cantarito 

On our last evening, we joined the locals on the plaza, strolling and listening to mariachi music while sipping cantaritos, drinks street vendors make with tequila, grapefruit soda, lime, and salt, served in little clay cups. Accordion music mixed with the clang of church bells as women in bright dresses and men in suits gathered for a wedding. Kids climbed on big letters spelling out TEQUILA in the plaza. The tour buses were gone, the tasting rooms were closed, but it seemed as if the party was just getting started. The air filled with the scent of agave cooking at the Cuervo distillery, reminding us again that this was no ordinary Mexican town. It was magical.

  


STAY

Colonial-style Hotel Solar de las Ánimas overlooks the main plaza and the eighteenth-century church of Saint James the Apostle in the heart of Tequila. Two pools, one at ground level and the other on the rooftop, offer a respite from the afternoon heat. Garden areas with tile floors and stone pillars surround 93 contemporary rooms and suites. 


Pool at the Solar de las Animas

At the Sky Bar, try the strawberry basil margarita or my favorite, the smoky margarita, served with a sprig of flaming rosemary. Doubles from $130, including breakfast daily and a visit to the agave fields.

This story appeared in the November, 2018 issue of Virtuoso Life magazine



Finding your Moment of Zen in Seoul


Neung Hyun serves tea

Seated on a platform behind a curved wooden table, Neung Hyun, a Korean Buddhist monk, welcomes me with a steaming pot of green tea.

Her shaved head framed with black-rimmed glasses, she smiles as I take off my shoes and sit cross-legged on a cushion for a tea ceremony at Seoul's Templestay Information Center
"Appreciating tea takes practice," she tells me, encouraging me to lift a small ceramic cup to my nose, breathe in, take a sip, and feel how the liquid warms my throat, and finally, my whole being.  

For Buddhist monks who first introduced tea to Korea after returning from studies in Japan and China, drinking it is a form of meditation, intended to rejuvenate the mind as well as the body.  "Every glass of tea is different," she says. "Just like life."

South Koreans love coffee, but it's tea they turn to when they want to smooth the stomach, relieve stress or cure a cold. As important as the teas - not just green and black teas brewed from loose leaves, but drinks made with bouquets of boiled dates, ginger, pine needles, herbs and flowers  - are the intimate teahouses in which to enjoy them.

Decorated with low tables, heated floors and windows looking out onto flowering gardens, these hideaways offer an escape in a busy city where peace and solitude can be hard to find. Whether you're wandering the back alleys of older neighborhoods such as Insadong, or exploring the shopping malls in trendy Gangnam, there's a teahouse designed to help you find your moment of zen. While some have English menus, English is not widely spoken, so it helps to ask a Korean companion to join you. I enlisted friends of friends, a volunteer from the Seoul Greeter program, and local culinary expert Veronica Kang, owner of Gastro Tour Seoul

Here are few worth a stop:

Cha-teul

Where: Bukchon Village, a traditional neighborhood of low-slung hanoks (traditional Korean houses first built in the 14th century), boutiques and art galleries.  Cha-teul is a family-owned teahouse on a tree-lined street where visiting Koreans sometimes go to have their pictures taken in traditional costumes called hanboks.


Women modeling hanboks in Bukchon Village 


After a visit to Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of Korea's Joseon dynasty, this is the spot to take in mountain views while relaxing in the garden or on floor cushions in a century-old hanok. Signs in English apologizing for a possible wait, English-speaking waiters and English menus make Cha-teul one of Seoul's most tourist-friendly teahouses. Classical music plays in the backround, setting the mood for quiet conversation. No on his tapping on a laptop or talking on a cell phone. 

What to order: A menu lists the health benefits of more than 40 teas served hot or iced. There's jujube tea, a thick, hot brew made by boiling Korean-grown red dates, said to stimulate the appetite; a refreshing  "Five Taste" tea (spicy, sweet, salty, bitter and sour), made with dried omija berries believed to help with headaches and hangovers; and a house-made Ssangwha, an herbal tonic, brewed overnight for 14-15 hours. 


Tea and pumpkin cake at Cha-teul

Like most teahouses, Cha-teul serves snacks and desserts, artfully-arranged  in tiny bowls and on small plates. Its signature treat is a dense and chewy steamed pumpkin cake, shaped into a mound, topped with pumpkin seeds, and served with flat wooden spoons for sharing.

Osulloc

Where: Multiple locations with a flagship store and teahouse in Insadong, one of Seoul's oldest neighborhoods and a popular tourist destination filled with hanoks housing cafes, art galleries and antique shops. Ask a Korean under 30 to recommend a tea house, and chances are he or she will point you to a chic and modern café run by Osulloc, a major exporter of organically-grown green tea started by Seo Seong-hwan, the founder of the Korean cosmetics company, AmorePacific.   


Osulloc in Insadong


What to order: Anything made with Osulloc's premium green tea grown on the Korean island of Jeju. Lines forms on the sidewalk for samples served next to a cooper roaster.  Attractively-packaged teas line the shelves of a busy retail store, while tea and snacks are served upstairs in a modern, two-level tea salon.


Osculloc is popular among young Koreans for its green tea riffs on traditional coffee drinks and desserts. There's a fresh citron tea slushie topped with citrus sherbet; a green tea caramel latte, and a  a tangerine milk tea made with Jeju tangerines. 

Tteuran

Where: Ikseondong, a community of historical hanoks, slowly gentrifying, but not yet as touristed as neighborhing Insadong.

Shops selling mung bean pancakes, perfume and roasted coffee beans draw visitors into Ikseondong's narrow alleyways, but when Kim, Aeran opened her teahouse in 2009 in a former noodle shop, hers was one of the few businesses in a mostly-residential neighborhood. Tteuran is popular with Japanese visitors who remember it as the location of the Korean-Japanese film Café Seoul.  Owner Kim Aeran makes all the traditional snacks and teas herself.  


Kim Aeran

Customers sit at tables and chairs, or on a heated floor overlooking her flower and herb garden. Tea arrives in bowls set on wooden saucers along with house-made sweets such dried persimmon rolls filled with walnuts.

What to order: Tteuran organizes its teas into categories - fermented teas, wild leaf teas, medicinal herbal blends and flower teas - with photos and descriptions on the health benefits of each. I sipped a mild brew made from the roasted leaves of the aromatic mugwort plant, believed to boost the immune system. 


Homemade tea snacks at Tteuran

Crunchy mugwort rice cakes turned up in a bowl of Kim's homemade sweet red bean porridge, a thick pudding found on most teahouse menus in cooler weather. In warmer months, she adds bingsu, a favorite Korean shaved ice dessert.


Shin Old Teahouse

Where:  Insadong, near Osulloc, but tucked in an alleyway off the main street. Housed in a hanok furnished with antiques and polished wooden tables, Shin Old Teahouse this is one Seoul's oldest teahouses, run by the same family for several generations. Guest remove their shoes in a garden with chirping parakeets, then step up onto  heated floors covered with colorful silk cushions. This is the place to go to escape the crowds and noise just a few steps from the neighborhood’s busiest shopping street


 Shin Old Teahouse

What to order: Refreshing in warmer months are the cold punches - pear, cinnamon and ginger; quince, citron; and mulberry. A small snack menu includes rice cakes, red bean and pumpkin porridge in cool weather and green tea and jujube bingsu in summer.


Tea Therapy

Where: Tea Therapy has locations in Insadong and Gangnam. Gangnam is modern, while the Insadong shop is tucked away in a historic hanok with a foot bath outside where customers can relax by soaking their feet and drinking tea at the same time.


Tea Therapy's foot baths

What to order: Consult a paper "road map"  that assesses your state of mind and overall health with statements such as "I worry about getting things gone," and "I have cold hands and feet." Then pick a recommended tea. My choice after a long day of tea-tasting was one called "stress free," aimed reviving tired eyes and tight shoulders. 

The Lounge, Park Hyatt Hotel

Where: Gangnam, Seoul's upscale financial and business district made famous by the music video Gangnam Style. The Lounge at the Park Hyatt is a modern Korean teahouse on the 24th floor, with panoramic views of the city lights at night.  


Tea and snacks at the Park Hyatt

What to order: Soft jazz and comfortable couches invite relaxing with a pot of the Hyatt's signature green tea, flavored with bergamot, and blended by well-known Korea tea master Su Yeon Kim. A menu of traditional sweets includes a black rice cake waffle topped with purple sweet potato ice cream, and a Gangnam-style bingsu  - an overflowing bowl of shaved milk ice, topped with honeycomb, Chantilly cream, a roasted apple puree and pecans. 


If you go:

Spring is cherry blossom season, a good time to take part in festivals with music, street food and see Koreans dressed in traditional costumes.

Koreans attach health benefits to what they eat and drink. Most tea houses and many restaurants offer English menus with explanations for the reasons you might choose one drink or snack over another. 

The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism offers cultural programs for visitors including the opportunity to have tea with a monk. Contact or visit the Templestay Information Center, 56, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu. 


Veronica Kang leads food-related walking tours around Seoul and culinary tours in other parts of Korea through her company, Gastro Tour Seoul. 

English-speaking Seoul residents volunteer as guides for traveling foreigners. Request a guide through the Seoul Greeter program. City of Seoul volunteers also lead free group walking tours in various neighborhoods.

A version of this story appeared in the November, 2018 issue of Virtuoso Life magazine 


Flying overseas? Consider heading north to Vancouver for savings


Native art titled "Cedar Connection" at Vancouver International Airport 

"Where are you going?" the Canadian immigration officer asked me as we stepped off the Amtrak train at Vancouver B.C.'s Pacific Central Station.

When I told him we were headed to the airport, he flashed a knowing smile. "How much are you saving?''

Obviously we weren't the first ones to figure out we could take advantage of lower international airfares by flying out of Vancouver instead of Seattle. 

 "About $250 per ticket," I said, telling him of our plans to fly to Lima, Peru on AeroMexico via a connection through Mexico City.

It was the third time in the past few years that my husband and I have made the trip140 miles north to Vancouver by train or bus to take snag lower fares on overseas flights.

The savings this time was not as much as the $600 per ticket we netted a few years ago by flying Delta Airlines from Vancouver to Rome via Amsterdam and back from Berlin, but it was enough to justify the train fare ($75 for  two) and four-hour ride.

"Differences in supply and demand for individual cities," is likely one reason international fares are often lower, says Scott Mackenzie,  editor of Seattle's Travel Codex, an online site that offers advice on airline pricing and award travel. "There may be more demand to fly in/out of Seattle due to Seattle’s comparatively larger economy and (presumably) wealthy businesses and residents who can afford to pay more for travel."

He notes also that Vancouver has a larger international airport with more airlines competing on the same routes, and relatively relaxed customs procedures which make international connections easier.  

"If some passengers are already flying from Europe to Asia and stopping in Canada, then there is lots of supply for Americans (and Canadians) to take advantage of for at least half the journey."

Whatever the reasons, you'll want to add up the cost, time involved and relative hassle or ease of traveling to Vancouver before making a decision. 

Start by comparing fares to the same destination on the same airline with similar flight times and connections. Search fare quotes for the same type of service: ie: economy coach vs. basic economy (cheaper but with many restrictions). Keep in mind, not all fares will be lower (some could be higher), or the savings might be too little to make it worthwhile.

A few examples: 

A check on Delta Air Line's website for mid-March, round-trip travel between Seattle and Rome, with a connection in Amsterdam, showed a fare of $1,384 vs. $1,069  between Vancouver and Rome, a savings of $315 per ticket for a main cabin economy coach seat. The savings was even greater on a Delta flight to and from Madrid through Amsterdam -  $883 from Vancouver vs. $1,421 via Seattle. 

Lufthansa showed some of the biggest fare differences. Its website showed a fare of $2,295  for a round-trip Seattle-Berlin flight in March, with a connection in Frankfurt, on what it calls a "Basic Plus 1" fare (refundable with a fee) vs. $1,042 from Vancouver.  On the flip side, A Delta non-stop between Seattle and Paris for March travel was $760 on the airline's website vs. $824 in and out of Vancouver with a connection through Seattle on the way over and Amsterdam on the way back. 

Tip: If comparing and booking fares online, be aware that some airlines quote fares on flights from Canada in Canadian dollars, meaning you'll need to do the conversion to figure out how much the fare is in U.S. dollars. Currently, $1 U.S. is worth $1.30 Canadian. 

Next, consider timing. You'll want to make sure you can get to Vancouver at least three hours ahead of your flight. Calculate if the savings is enough to justify the cost of spending the night. Otherwise, book a late afternoon or evening flight so you can get to Vancouver in the same day.

If you are worried about being too tired to get back to Seattle from Vancouver after a long international flight, consider pricing what's known as an "open jaw," meaning you fly out of Vancouver but return directly to Seattle (We did this on our flight to Peru, opting to return directly from Mexico City to Seattle at a slightly higher cost than a Vancouver round-trip).

Getting to Vancouver

There are several options: 

* Amtrak offers operates two trains daily between Seattle and Vancouver and four Thruway buses. BoltBus makes 4-5 trips daily.  All arrive at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station, where there's a SkyTrain light rail stop across the street, convenient for reaching the airport in about 40 minutes with a change at Waterfront Station to the Canada line. Taxis are also available. Both take about four hours. 


The SkyTrain's Canada line has a stop at the airport

*QuickCoach Shuttle travels several times per day between downtown Seattle and Vancouver's River Rock Casino next to the Bridgeport SkyTrain station, three stops from the airport. Travel time is around three hours and fifteen minutes.

*Should you want to drive, Park'N Fly offers long-term parking and shuttle service.

Killing time before the flight

Vancouver International is in Richmond, a neighborhood with a large number of residents of Asian heritage. Many immigrated in the late 1980s from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. Make the most of your time by taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate, and the shopping, dining and entertainment options along the SkyTrain's Canada Line. Buy a day pass for $10.25 Canadian ($8 U.S.), drop your bags at the airport, and go out and explore. 

A few suggestions: 

*Relax at the health club in the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel. A $20 Canadian ($15.50 U.S.) day pass buys access to the hotel's fitness center, pool, whirlpool, sauna, showers and changing area. For $50 Canadian ($38.50 U.S.), the hotel throws in workout clothing and a healthy snack. 


McArthurGlen Designer Outlet

*Shop and dine at the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet mall two stops away from the airport on the SkyTrain at Templeton station. You'll see signs in Chinese and hear jets soaring over the faux copper roofs of a shopping center designed to look as if it's in Paris or Italy. 
Vancouver's popular Japadog chain has an outlet here (Try the Yakisoba dog topped with Japanese noodles, red pickle, ginger and seaweed). The favorable exchange rate translates to extra discounts at chains such as Columbia Sportswear, J. Crew and Banana Republic. 


Japadog treats

* Try your hand at poker, black jack or play the slots at the River Rock Casino Resort, open 24 hours, three stops from the airport at the Bridgeport Skytrain station. Beer and wine is $5 Canadian ($3.80 U.S.) at Starbucks, Sunday-Thursday from 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. 


River Rock Casino

* Take a trip to Taipei without leaving Vancouver at the Richmond Night Market (Bridgeport station)  Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 7 p.m. The market is closed for winter, but reopens again next May.  




* Finally, reserve time to explore the airport itself. Try out the flight simulator in a public observation area, visit the Vancouver Aquarium's marine exhibits and view the airport's large collection of First Nations art.

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on Oct. 18, 2018