Bogota: Colombia's Capital of Cool




It's 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, and already Andrés D.C., a four-floor restaurant and rumba club in Bogotá's Zona Rosa district is packed with a well-dressed crowd, sipping cocktails and paging through magazine-sized menus.

A man in dark sunglasses and a long fur coat begins a salsa dance with a woman draped in sequins and white mink. I'm seated in "hell,'' a themed floor (the others are earth, purgatory and heaven), where red lights flicker and the music thumps. I raise my camera to take a picture, but before I can click the shutter, a hand blocks my lens. I tense up, then realize it's all a spoof. The mysterious drug kingpin, his gun moll and their  "bodyguards'' are actors hired by the club to get the party started.


Bogota's Andres D.C.

A literal capital of cool - Bogotá sits at an elevation of 8,600 feet in the Andes mountains - Colombia's largest city blends the hip with the historical, its past reputation for crime and violence more suited to kitschy nightclub acts than a reflection of real life.

Pack a scarf and sturdy walking shoes. Nights are chilly and average daily temperatures rarely top 70. Start with funicular or cable car ride to Monserrate, a mountain and religious shrine set in a forest 10,340 feet above the sea level. Looking out over the city, it becomes clear that getting to know a metropolis of 9 million will require some artful neighborhood-hopping.  


Big Picture: The Monserrate cable car 

Best advice: Plan a three-day stay. Spend a day in the historical center of La Candelaria for museums, colonial architecture, and traditional foods; explore upscale North Chapinero for stylish restaurants, shopping, and nightlife; and finally, devote an afternoon to strolling through La Macarena, Bogotá’s Greenwich Village, known for its contemporary art galleries, artisan workshops, and cafés. 

In my story for the September-October Issue of Virtuoso Life magazine, I offer this advice on  what not to miss.  

La Candalaria

Leading to some of Bogotá's most important museums are narrow streets lined with low-rise, colonial buildings, some painted in bright colors, others covered with elaborate graffiti, considered a credible form of street art.



Candalaria street scene 




Botero's Mona Lisa 

Visitors smile as they walk through the Museo Botero (Botero Museum), housed in a restored mansion surrounding a flower-filled courtyard. The collection includes paintings, sketches and sculptures donated to the Banco de Republica by Colombian-born Fernando Botero, known for his outsized depictions of people, including a chubby-faced Mona Lisa.
Botero also donated paintings by Ernst, Dalí, Miró, and Picasso, adding to the feeling of being invited into the home of a wealthy art collector.

English-speaking art historians offer tours through the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) filled gold ornaments, pendants and helmets used by the Muisca, the indigenous tribe that a lived in the central Colombian highlands before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.




A few blocks away at the National Police Historical Museum, young officers guide tourists to a room dedicated to the capture and death in 1993 of Pablo Escobar, former head of the Medellín drug cartel. On display are his wallet, telephone, guns and a confiscated Harley Davidson he gave as a gift to a cousin.




With more sophisticated areas of the city focused on international dining, La Candalaria is the place to forage for traditional Colombian drinks and street snacks. The Pequeña Sante Fe cafe marks the spot on a pocket-sized square where Bogota is believed to have been founded in 1538 by Spanish conqueror Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada. The house speciality is canelazo, a drink made with aguardiente, a distilled spirit; hot water, sugar and cinnamon. 

Vendors hawk fresh fruit and grilled corn along the Carrera Séptima, a major artery bisecting the city, closed on Sundays to all but cyclists and pedestrians.




Look for cafes offering "chocolate completo," a traditional breakfast of hot chocolate, white cheese, buttered bread and a biscuit; also soft, cheesy buns called pandebono; and avena helada, a chilled drink of boiled oats, water, milk, cinnamon and salt.

North Chapinero

North of La Candelaria, diplomatic offices, art galleries, pubs, and restaurants line the leafy boulevards leading into the newer downtown neighborhood of North Chapinero. Affluent Bogotanos flock to Zona Rosa’s Centro Comercial Andino, a massive shopping mall filled with luxury-brand boutiques, theaters, and restaurants. After dark, the scene shifts to nearby Zona T, a T-shaped pedestrian area packed with young revelers sipping martinis and nibbling on tapas in bars and clubs.

Quieter, with a more sophisticated vibe, is Zona G (the “gourmet zone”) where France, Spain, and England meet Colombia along streets filled with Tudor-style houses and European-inspired architecture. The Hotel Charleston Casa Medina, built as a private home in the 1940s, has been beautifully restored and named a monument of cultural interest by the Colombian Ministry of Culture. Surrounding the hotel, in the upscale neighborhood of Rosales, dozens of Bogotá’s best restaurants serve everything from gourmet pizza to Peruvian fare.
  

Starbucks Not: Zona G's Juan Valdez


Preparing for Starbucks recent entry into Bogotá, the Colombian-based Juan Valdez chain recently opened a three-floor cafe decorated with lounge chairs and gas fireplaces. Waiters and waitresses in kakis and blue button-downs pass out leather-bound menus to customers sipping lattes made from coffee grown in a rotating selection of regions. A block away, a lunchtime crowd fills the sun-splashed terrace at Masa, a cafe known for its European-style breads, pastries and smoothies blended with milk and exotic fruits (Ask for  "mora,'' Spanish for blackberry). 

La Macarena 

The editors of "Art Cities of the Future" put Bogotá on their list of 12 cities destined to shake up the world art scene in the 21st century. 

The international art fair artBO draws artists from the United States, Europe and Latin America to Bogota every October (Oct. 24-27 in 2014). Other times, visitors can sample what's new by exploring the gentrifying hilltop neighborhood of La Macarena overlooking a park near the Santamaría Bullring.



Jario Valenzuela looks for artists with a political message

Tucked into houses and historical buildings are galleries featuring the work of contemporary Colombian artists.  Jairo Valenzuela of the Valenzuela Klenner Galería lends  space to artists with a social or political message. A recent exhibit featured the work of Edgar Cortes who grew up in the slums of Bogotá, and created works from scrap materials used residents to build shelters.  



Handcrafted leather bags at Taller Manual Del Cuero

A few doors away, at Taller Manual Del Cuero, craftsman César Giraldo welcomes visitors into his workshop where he cuts and hand-stitches leather for purses, wallets and overnight cases selling for $100-$600.

For those who don’t manage to snag a reservation in heaven, hell, or purgatory at Andrés D.C., lunch awaits at the Museo Nacional de Colombia, an art museum designed as a prison in the nineteenth century. Visitors to the museum’s El Panóptico, a café named for a type of jailhouse architecture, sit at tables surrounded by brick walls and barred windows looking out over an outdoor sculpture garden. No worries. The inmates, like the drug lords, are long gone, replaced by diners happy to be doing time over plates of shrimp and coconut rice.

WHEN TO GO: 
Bogota has a cool, subtropical highland climate, with daytime temperatures averaging in the 60s most of the year. Best times to go are December, January, February and March when it rains the least. April and May are usually the wettest. 

WHAT TO KNOWPack a raincoat, umbrella, scarf and sturdy walking shoes. The weather can change throughout the day, and walking is the best way to go sight-seeing.

WHERE TO STAY:  The 58-room Charleston Casa Medina, originally built as a private home in 1946, combines historic architectural touches with the conveniences of a modern boutique hotel. Drawing on his studies in fine arts and architecture in Paris, Medellín-born Santiago Medina Mejía oversaw a classic French and Spanish-influenced design that incorporated wrought iron, clay tiles, stone floors, columns and hand-carved wooden doors salvaged from two colonial convents. Restored and opened as a hotel in 1988, Casa Medina features suites with wood-burning fireplaces for Bogota's chilly nights. Doubles from $230, including airport transfers and breakfast. 



Casa Terracota

GETTING AWAY: Guidebooks point visitors to Colombia to the town of Villa de Leyva, a historic colonial village, 95 miles north of Bogota, known for its fine dining, boutique hotels and huge central plaza built by the Spanish in the 16th century. The square is picture-perfect, but  there's an even more intriguing reason to come this way: Casa Terracota, or Casa Barro in Spanish, is a 5,400-square-foot Hobbit-like house made entirely of clay, a project literally cooked up by architect and owner Octavio Mendoza who calls it "the biggest piece of pottery in the world.'' 

Put your wallet away and enjoy four-star Seattle on a two-star budget



A $4.75 ride on the West Seattle Water Taxi buys this view of downtown Seattle 

Business travel has its perks, but the downside is there's usually little time to break away from the confines of a conference room. A world-class city like Seattle - home to Amazon.com, Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft - deserves a few extra days, even if it's on your own dime. Traveling in style is always easier when someone else is paying, but leaving the expense account behind doesn't have to translate into a budget motel or dinner at a fast-food restaurant.

You'd rather sleep in luxury and enjoy cocktails and dishes created by award-winning chefs, right? If this sounds more like your kind of weekend escape, read on.  Four-star Seattle on a two-star budget is your mission. Here's the plan:


Sleepful in Seattle 

Prepare for sticker shock. Thousands of cruise ship passengers and baseball fans fill downtown hotel rooms in the summer, keeping demand strong and rates high.  

If you're looking for a room last-minute, download the the Hotel Tonight  ap to your smart phone, and look for discounts on same-day bookings. A room at the Pan Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle recently showed up for $245 compared to the hotel's best-available online rate of $275.

For more substantial savings, bid for a room on Priceline. You won't find out the name of the hotel until your bid has been accepted and your credit card charged, but it's hard to go wrong if you you narrow your choices to four-star hotels in the downtown area. Travelers posting information about their deals on Bidding for Travel report snagging rooms from $85 (Grand Hyatt Pike Place) to $125 (Sheraton). 

Better yet, check the listings for luxury apartments on Airbnb. Examples include a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment  in the close-in First Hill neighborhood for a nightly rate of $195 and a $100-a-night private studio cottage in the hip Fremont neighborhood.

Urban drinks and gourmet eats

Two words: Happy hour. Enjoy drinks and dinner for two at some of Seattle's swankiest spots for $30 or less. Did I mention the free wine and $1 oysters?

Topping a long list of downtown hotel happy hours is the Four Seasons Seattle,   serving smoked salmon flatbread ($7), shortrib tacos ($8) and lava salt pretzels ($8) along with drink specials daily from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. in its Art Lounge overlooking Elliott Bay.  



Happy hour at the Four Seasons Seattle 


Locals have been known to make dinner out of the hotel's cheese and antipasti buffet ($14 from 4:30- 9 p.m. and $8 from 9 p.m.- 11 p.m. daily), stocked with a dozen local and imported cheeses; olives; cured meats; and roasted veggies.

A "Shuck it for a Buck'' $1 oyster special continues through August 30 from 4:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m. Guest wine experts offer free tastings each Wednesday. 

Most high-end restaurants offer afternoon and late-evening deals. At the clubby El Gaucho steakhouse, starters to go with your $65 New York steak will set you back $12-$19.  Stick to the generous afternoon and late-night happy hour in the bar, and you'll dine well on a $6 soup spiked with black truffles and a $7 mac and cheese made with English cheddar.



Storyville Coffee


For a quiet cup of coffee, skip the noisy crowds at Starbucks and sip your latte in style at Storyville Coffee hidden in an upstairs corner of the Pike Place Market. Soft, yellow lighting sets the mood for enjoying a relaxing cup while lounging on leather chairs grouped around a fireplace or near windows overlooking the flower and produce stalls.   

Dessert? Sign up for a $10 tour at Theo's Chocolate bean-to-bar roasting factory. The hour-long visits include free samples and a souvenir chocolate bar.

High culture/low cost 

Nearly all Seattle's museums are free on the first Thursday of the month, including the downtown Seattle Art Museum where the normal adult admission is $19.50. The museum is also free to seniors on the first Friday of the month. Free all the time is the museum's outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park on the Seattle waterfront.



Stroll the Olympic Sculpture Park on the Seattle Waterfront 


Discounted tickets for cultural events, concerts and theater performances show up daily on Goldstar.com. Look for half-price specials at pricey venues such as the the Triple Door, Benaroya Hall, and Teatro ZinZanni theater.  

Cruise Control

If $23.75 isn't in the budget for a sightseeing tour of Seattle's harbor, consider a 10-minute ride aboard the West Seattle Water Taxi  for $4.75. The commuter run across Elliott Bay doesn't include the historical commentary offered on the commercial cruises, but it comes with the same four-star view of the Seattle skyline.



The West Seattle Water Taxi 


When you arrive, kimchi quesadillas and hawaiian shave ice await at the Marination Ma Kai,  a gourmet Hawaiian/Korean food truck operation reincarnated as a waterside pub with an outdoor patio.  Knock $2 off daily drink specials and a dollar off beer and wine during happy hour. Order a Jalapeño Fizz and a sampling of mini-tacos. There are five - kalbi beef, miso ginger chicken, spicy pork, sexy tofu and kalua pork. At $2.50 each, you can afford to try them all.

Alaska Airlines/Boeing team up to offer larger overhead "Space Bins''


Boeing's "Space Bins'' will add extra room on Alaska Air flights 

Good news from Alaska Airlines. It will be the first carrier to get new Boeing "Space Bins,"  larger overhead bins that will be easier to reach and will hold more bags, including oversized items such as guitars.

The Seattle-based airline said Alaska's next-generation 737-900ERs, scheduled for delivery starting late next year, will hold as many as 174 standard carry-on bags, a 48 percent increase compared to current bins that hold up to 117 bags. 

“Boeing listened to Alaska when developing its innovative new 737 Space Bins,” said Mark Thompson, Boeing sales director, in a press released posted on the airline's blog today.

“Flight attendants, customer service agents and others visited Boeing’s design center, tested prototypes and gave Boeing’s designers insightful feedback. In addition, Boeing engineers who regularly fly Alaska observed first-hand how customers load bags into bins." Boeing truly appreciates its special partnership with Alaska Airlines.”

When open, the bin’s bottom edge hangs about 2 inches lower, which means people don’t have to lift their bags as high to load them. I'm especially happy to hear this, having recently struggled to reach new reconfigured overhead bins on a refurbed Delta Airbus A330 from Paris. The airline said it expects the new bins will cut boarding times, improve on-time performance and require less intervention from flight attendants.

Booking windows: How and when to get the luxury trip you want


Resorts are in demand on Italy's Amalfi Coast 

Whether it's sailing though China or Alaska, Judith Works puts a comfortable cabin at the top of her priorities for getting the most out of a cruise. 

"We like to get the room we want, and the category we want.'' That means working with her travel advisor, Sharon Whiting of Cruise Specialists in Seattle, to plan ahead and book early, says Works, who with her husband, Glenn, has taken more than 20 cruises. 

For a June trip through Alaska's Inside Passage, they booked with Regent Seven Seas in January, selecting a port side veranda suite on a forward upper deck for the best views of scenery, sea life and bald eagles as the ship traveled south.  

 "We had our choice at the time," says Works. "To me, that's very important."

Cruise lines, resort hotels and tour operators often offer incentives to book early -  price discounts, resort or shipboard credits and pre-paid gratuities are common - but as the economy recovers, seasoned travelers are finding the No. 1 reasons to plan ahead are choice and availability. 

"We're not in a recession anymore," emphasizes Jack Ezon, president of New York-based Ovation Vacations. "This is not 2008. Space is tight, and people are starting to realize that.''

How far out should you book a luxury cruise, resort or tour you know you're going to take in the future? I explore this topic in the July-August of Virtuoso Life magazine. Optimal booking windows vary with the season, type of vacation and destination, but some general guidelines apply:

CRUISES

Demand for European river cruises is so strong, travel advisors are suggesting booking a year in advance for April though September sailings.

 "Some dates were completely sold out,'' by this year's January-February wave season, normally a prime time for booking cruises, says Patty Perry of Maryland-based Cruise Vacations International. 

 Alaska cruise-tours, summer-season vacations that combine seven-night cruises with land packages, should be booked at least six to nine months out, Perry, advises, because of a limited supply of hotel rooms Booking windows for Caribbean cruises can be shorter (three to six months out) due to a greater number of ships and sailings. 

In general, when it comes to cabin choice, she advises, "to get the prime suites, you've got to plan ahead, even on the large ships, because they sell out first,"

Cruise lines tend to offer the best prices nine months to a year ahead of sailing dates. If last-minute deals do surface, most will honor the  difference up until final payment is due. Check with your advisor on refund and cancellation policies, and discuss what type of travel insurance might be right for you. 

TOURS

"You really need to be making plans a year in advance,'' when it comes to popular seasonal destinations, says Virtuoso advisor Susan Dischner of Four Seasons Travel in Savannah, Georgia. 

"If people are just not going to plan and want to do spur-of-the-moment, then they have to be somewhat flexible."

For example, the best time to tour the Grand Canyon is April and May, meaning anyone thinking of going next year should book now. Dischner recalls checking availability last winter for a client looking for a spring tour. "They were sold out through mid-June...Sure, you could go, but who wants to be in the Grand Canyon when it's 100 degrees?"

She recommends booking a year out for tours in Southern Africa (best for travel in our spring, summer and fall) and East Africa (best in our summer, fall and early winter).

"In Europe, the most popular destination is Italy,'' where Dischner says some Abercrombie & Kent luxury tours sold out early on a number of dates this year. 
Niche tours that cater to small groups, such as trips focused on biking or wine, should also be booked as far ahead as possible. 

HOTELS/RESORTS

"It's not about deals anymore; it's about space,'' says Ovation Vacations' Jack Ezon. Space at warm-weather luxury resorts during this year's Spring Break season was difficult to find as the cold weather across the United States caused a spike in last-minute bookings.

 "Clearly the message is resonating that the economy has bounced back, and snagging a room in St Tropez, Ibiza or Capri will be harder than ever,'' Ezon noted in a report on luxury vacation trends for 2014.



Italy's Island of Capri 

Some hotels in Sardinia and Italy's Amalfi Coast closed their wait lists for certain weeks this year. His advice: Book resorts in January for summer vacations, and at least two to three months out for Spring Break. 

Last-minute requests are still a trend, especially among younger travelers and those living on the East Coast, Ezon says.  He recalls getting a call from client last winter, saying he had just bought tickets to Nice, and was leaving that night. 

"Set us up. Right now,'' the man requested. Ezon worked his connections and found his client rooms, but "right now'' is not a time frame he recommends.  

 "Book early, please. If you want your choice and not leftovers, book early. When you book later, you might find great values, but it's a crap shoot.''

Beyond the Beaches and Volcanos: Do-It-yourself culinary tours of Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii

The Big Island's Onomea Tea Company

For all of you with Hawaii on your minds for this fall or winter...Here's a leg up on some off-the-beaten path culinary finds to wet your appetite the next time time you're ready to go exploring.

I'll start with the Big Island and an update of a story I did recently for Virtuoso Life Magazine, then follow next week with a post on Upcountry Maui.

The Big Island

Ceiling fans spin above tables covered with mint-green cloths as we settle in for lunch and a farm tour at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in the tropical rainforest town of Paauilo, an hour's drive from the sunny Kohala Coast on Hawaii's Big Island. 

Jelly jars filled with vanilla-scented iced tea and lemonade arrive along with vanilla-infused sauteed shrimp, grilled chicken in a bourbon-vanilla citrus marinade and a salad tossed with a vanilla-spiked raspberry vinaigrette.

Any regrets about leaving the beach behind to explore the agricultural side of an island normally associated with volcanoes and fields of black lava rock, disappear as quickly as the vanilla ice cream topped with a passion fruit curd.

Lunch at Hawaiian Vanilla Company

In business since 2000, Hawaiian Vanilla is among a handful of micro-farms and culinary entrepreneurs welcoming in visitors for a look behind the scenes.

In 1988 when Peter Merriman, one of Hawaii's best-known chefs and founder of the Hawaii regional cuisine movement, opened his first restaurant in the inland ranching town of Waimea,  "the vast majority of agriculture was intended for export, and it was mainly cattle, pineapple and sugar."  Like the rest of the state, the Big Island imported much of what it needed from the mainland.

"There weren't enough people in Hawaii, and the tourism industry wasn't yet big enough yet to develop supplies for the local market. We literally had to run an ad in the newspaper saying 'hey we want to buy stuff that's locally grown.' ''

Sugar disappeared, lost to countries with lower production costs, but the island's diverse mix of microclimates and rich, volcanic soil meant almost anything could grow well.
Today, the menu at Merriman's country-manor style restaurant in Waimea reads like a locavore's Who's Who. From the "dirt farm'' salads composed of tomatoes, roasted beets and papayas to the roasted mushrooms and naturally-raised lamb, 90 percent of what's served comes from the island. 

Taking time out to visit a few of these new-age purveyors, Merriman says, and  "you'll get close to the heart and pulse of the real Hawaii.''

Shorelines strewn with lava rock give way to rolling hills and forests as my husband and steer our rental car onto Highway 19, the paved, two-lane belt road that circles the island. It's just a   12 mile drive from the white-sand beaches on the South Kohala Coast to Waimea, elevation of 2,600 feet. 

First stop, the Rare Hawaiian Honey Co. Without a GPS or good directions, it would be easy to miss the warehouse that doubles as a tasting room for an organic white honey as precious as fine perfume.

Beekeepers Michael Domeier, a marine scientist, and his wife, Amy Grace, a jewelry designer, bought the company in December, 2012, taking over from long-time Volcano Island Honey owner Richard Spiegel.

Produced by bees harvesting nectar from a single grove of kiawe trees, a type of mesquite often used for fire wood, the honey is put through a natural crystallization process. The result is a creamy texture, more like butter than traditional honey.

The company hopes to start tours soon. For now, tastings are free, and visitors are invited to sample several varieties including honey infused with ginger and passion fruit.

Rare Hawaiian Honey Co., 66-1250 Lalamilo Farm Rd. Waimea. Tasting room open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. 4 p.m. Phone 808-775-1000.

Thirteen miles east of Waimea, a landscape lush with tropical foliage flanks the highway as we approach the rainy Hamakua coast, the start of a scenic 45-mile drive ending in Hilo, jumping off point for visits to the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano, the highest point in the U.S.  

Coffee, cultivated today mainly on the dry Kona side of the island, thrived here too before sugarcane became the major crop.

Leading a coffee-growing revival are a small group of artisan producers. Among them is Wendell Branco, a crusty mule breeder who founded the Long Ears Coffee Co. with coffee from trees growing wild on his estate in the foothills of Mauna Kea.


Wendell and Netta Branco

Wendell and his wife, Netta, both 71, greet visitors with handshakes and hugs, and offer samples around a picnic table in a tasting room decorated with vintage coffee pots. 

Explaining the challenges of small-scale production, Wendell points to a hand-cranked pulping machine he bought for $500, and laughs at how he tried to dry his first batch of beans in a clothes dryer.




The Brancos have since improved their equipment and techniques, but still do everything themselves by hand, from picking the bright red coffee "cherries'' from their trees to drying, aging and roasting the beans. 

Long Ears Coffee Co., 46-3689 Waipahi, Honokaa. Call ahead for drop-in visits or tours ($35). Information: 808-775-0385.

Leaving Long Ears, we drive a few more miles southeast on Highway 19, then detour onto a steep backroad and across a one-lane bridge to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in the hills overlooking the Pacific.

Convinced by an orchid enthusiast that vanilla (the fruit of the planifolia orchid) could grow in Hawaii, Jim and Tracy Reddekopp planted two acres on newly-purchased, high-elevation ranch, and in 2000, became the first to grow the spice commercially in the U.S.

Working in an abandoned coffee mill and slaughterhouse they converted into a kitchen and country store, they and some of their five children cook for visitors, and tweak a repertoire of more than 80 vanilla-inspired products for sale that includes soaps, cookies, pie spices and body mists.



The Hawaiian Vanilla Company

Jim appears wearing a backwards ball cap, shorts, t-shirt, tennis shoes and an apron as his son, Ian, gives a short demo on how to make home-brewed extract using vanilla beans and Costco vodka. Lunch is followed by a walk to the farm where vines grow under black shade cloths to buffer the sun. 

Growing and harvesting vanilla on a small scale is a labor intensive business. Blossoms appear just one day a year for four hours, and must be hand-pollinated in that brief window of time - one reason why a single bean sells for $11.

The Hawaiian Vanilla Co., 43-2007 Paauilo Mauka Rd. Paauilo.Tastings, lunches, tours, teas ($25-$39) by reservation. Information: 808-776-1771

Our last stop is the Onomea Tea Company, a 30-mile drive south along the coast's most scenic stretch.

Rob Nunally and Mike Longo were sipping a cup of Earl Grey in 2003, thinking about a crop that would fit the agricultural history of the former sugarcane fields they bought overlooking the Onomea Bay, just north of Hilo.

They found out that tea, part of the camellia family, grew in Hawaii in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Tours start with a walk through the fields where citrus and banana trees surround 2,500 tea plants spread out on land above rocky sea cliffs. Rob shows visitors how to pick the tea by plucking the stem and top one or two leaves, and explains the different processing methods that results in organic green, oolong or black varieties that sell for $15-$20 per ounce. 

Warm cranberry scones appear on antique Japanese plates as Mike begins a relaxed Chinese-style tea ceremony on their outdoor deck. Filling a thimble-shaped  "aroma'' cup, then covering it with a larger sipping cup, he demonstrates how to quickly invert the two so as not to spill any liquid. We follow his lead, tilting the aroma cup to inhale a fragrant mist. Then we slurp the tea, letting it hit the back of the throat as we savor yet another taste of Hawaii. 

The Onomea Tea Company, 27-604 Alakahi Place, Papaikou. Tours/tastings, $30 by reservation. Information: 808-964-3283. 

Our day ends at Merriman's in Waimea where guests waiting for tables can kill time wandering through a garden filled with dozens of examples of vegetables and herbs that can be grown locally. There's no view, no beach, just a dining room filled by 6 p.m. every night with diners ignoring the sunset as they focus on their dirt farm salads and roasted lamb. 

Merriman's Restaurant, 65-1227 Opelo Rd, Waimea. Reservations required. Call 808- 885-6822 


Next week: Upcountry Maui 

Culinary discoveries await on Maui, Hawaii's Upcountry backroads


Lunch at the O'o Farm on Maui

Mornings in Maui generally demand nothing more strenuous than pulling on a pair of shorts and sandals and heading for the beach. So what am I doing in long pants, hiking shoes and a jacket?

No swimming or snorkeling today. Instead, a dozen of us have signed up for a tour at the O'o Farm in upcountry Maui, 3,500 feet above the ocean on the slopes of Haleakala volcano.

We compose a you-pick salad with snippets of wild anise, garlic chives and mustard greens; sample espresso made from farm-grown coffee beans; and sit down to a farm-to-table feast prepared by a gourmet chef.

Spread out on platters near an outdoor kitchen are chunks of yellow pineapple, bright red strawberries and cherimoya, a melt-in-your mouth fruit as smooth as pudding. And those are just the appetizers.

Upcountry Maui is a region of lush vegetation and winding, two-lane mountain roads. Most visitors know the area as the slice of old Hawaii they drive through on the way up to the summit of 10,023-foot Haleakala. A half-dozen microclimates and rich, volcanic soil make growing conditions ideal on the volcano's lower slopes.

Now young farmers, many connected to local chefs, are reclaiming patches of land that native Hawaiians once planted with sweet potatoes and taro. Their aim: to "re-localize" food production and showcase native ingredients.

For visitors to Maui with time to explore the back roads, culinary discoveries await at out-of-the-way restaurants and boutique farms cultivating everything from wine grapes to exotic herbs. Here's an update on a story I did a while back when I was the travel writer for The Seattle Times

Lunch on the farm

Long before Oprah Winfrey discovered the potential for farming in Upcountry Maui - She recently started an  organic farm on part of her 60-acre farmhouse estate - the  owners of the Pacific'O and I'O restaurants in beachfront Lahaina bought land that had ben claimed by a hippie commune of squatters. About 80 percent of the food on the island flown in from the outside, so they began experimenting with new and traditional crops, with a goal of supplying their restaurants with locally grown produce.

With dinner entrees in the $30-$45 range at Pacific'O Lahaina restaurant, $58 each for a tour  of the 8.5-acre organic farm and lunch is a bargain.

The morning begins with with samples of sweet, red coffee berries. Then tour goers are invited to wander through the kitchen garden, picking their own salad mix while the chefs work on lunch.




On the menu is fresh local fruit, tofu with oven roasted vegetables and herbs from the garden; Kaffir lime fresh fish; wood oven-roasted organic rosemary chicken; greens with lemon vinaigrette; and herbed focaccia bread.

Sitting at a long wooden table shaded by trees, guests linger until early afternoon, finishing the meal with chocolates infused with house-made espresso and lively conversation among new friends.

O'o Farm, 651 Waipoli Rd., Kula. Tours and lunches Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. by reservation. The farm also offers a "Seed to Cup” coffee tour for $50 per person on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Call 808-667-4341 for reservations.

Tea and lavender

Nearby is a spot many locals describe as one of the most peaceful places on Maui — the Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm. With 45 varieties of lavender and native gardens filled with tropical flowers, macadamia and olive trees, something is blooming year-round.

Samples of lavender tea and scones are offered on the porch overlooking the sugarcane fields, and the farm's backstory is learned on a 30-40-minute guided walking tour.
Most everything was cultivated by Chinese-Hawaiian farmer Ali'i Chang. Chang bought the land in 1992 after selling a nursery he owned near Hana.


Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm
He was given a single lavender plant by well-known Hawaiian singer Emma Veary, and what began as an experiment (lavender is not native to Hawaii) grew into a nearly 20-year labor of love until he died last spring. For sale are lavender products made by island entrepreneurs.

Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm, 1100 Waipoli Rd., Kula. Free admission. Guided tours are $12, with $2 discount for booking in advance. The farm also offers twice-daily, one-hour guided cart tours for $25. Call 808-878-3004.

Pineapple sparklers

A stop at the Tedeschi Vineyards off Highway 37 in Keokea is a treat, especially for drivers returning from the long drive to Hana on the rough road skirting the back side of Haleakala.
Get elk burgers at the old-time general store, or take a tour and sample wines at the Tedeschi winery on the grounds of the Ulupalakua Ranch, a favorite cool-climate getaway for Hawaiian King Kalakaua in 1874.


Tastings at Tedeschi
The ranch has been in paniolo or "cowboy" country for more than 160 years. The current owners raise elk, grow grapes and cultivate strawberries, onions and potatoes for local chefs. Pineapple wine comes from fruit grown in lower elevations, then crushed at the winery in an Italian grape press. Cattle eat the leftovers.

Twice-daily free tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. include samples of a chilled pineapple sparkler served inside the king's former guest cottage. 

Tedeschi Vineyards at the Ulupalakua Ranch, Highway 37, Keokea. Tastings and tours daily.Call 877-878-6058.

Cheese and chores

Island-grown ingredients end up in many of the 30 goat cheeses made by Eva and Thomas Kafsack, the German owners of the solar-powered Surfing Goat Dairy in the lower Kula area. A flavor called "Purple Rain" contains a mix of local lavenders. "Rolling Green" is flecked with fresh garlic chives.


Feeding the livestock at Surfing goat dairy

The Kafsacks run one of only two goat dairies in Hawaii, an expensive undertaking given the costs of turning dry brush land into irrigated pastures. "You can't survive just selling cheese to restaurants and hotels," says Thomas Kafsack. So they invite the public in for cheese-making classes and tours.

Popular with families is the Monday-Saturday "Evening Chores and Milking tour," a 45-minute walk ($12 for kids, $15 for adults, reservation only) through the pastures at feeding time, capped with a hands-on lesson in how to milk goats. The dairy also offers daily no-reservation casual tours ($7 for kids, $10 for adults) and Saturday, two-hour tours that includes cheese samples ($25).

Surfing Goat Dairy, 3651 Omaopio Rd., Kula. Call  808-878-2870.


IF YOU GO.

Where

Upcountry Maui begins about 1,600 feet above the island's beaches on the west-facing slopes of Mount Haleakala. Get there via the Kula Highway (State Route 37), about a 1.5-hour drive from the beaches.


Dining

Grandma's Maui Coffee, Highway 37, Keokea. Breakfast, lunch and coffee roasted on site by fourth-generation owners. You might have an Oprah-sighting here. 


Grandma's Maui Coffee: Oprah sometimes stops by

Hali'imaile General Store, 900 Hali'imaile Road, Hali'imaile. Beth Gannon, one of the founders of the Hawaii regional cuisine movement, serves crab pizza and other local specialties in a historic general store surrounded by pineapple fields. 

Ulupalakua Ranch Store and Grill, Highway 37, Old-time store near the Tedeschi Winery. Elk burgers, salads and sandwiches.

Kula Lodge, Breakfast, lunch and dinner in a rustic dining room overlooking Maui's central valley. 


Spin the Globe: Volunteer Greeters Offer Visitors a Warm Welcome

Greeter Patrick in the Calanques

Patrick Leurent shows up at our pension in Marseille wearing flip-flops, shorts and a black V-neck sweater over a polo shirt. I look down at his feet, thinking about how I made room in my carry-on for bulky hiking shoes especially for the day we have planned together. We're going for a hike in the Calanques, a series of jagged cliffs and miniature fjords just south if Marseille, to be followed by what Patrick has promised will be a "cheap but delcious'' lunch in the oldest part of the city.

No worries about the footwear, Patrick assures me. He biked in to meet us and stashed shoes in his backpack. He looks at his watch, and motions for my husband, Tom, and me to follow him to the closest subway stop. It's standing room only during rush-hour as the cars fill with early-morning commute. Resurfacing to street level a few minutes later, we run for a bus that in 20 minutes takes us from the city to the countryside. We begin our walk in a park surrounded by pine trees and lined with rocky paths leading to cliff side viewpoints overlooking the blue waters of the Mediteranian

Though we have known each other for only a few hours, Patrick feels like the kind of plugged-in friend every traveler hopes to meet up with in a strange city. We connected with Patrick through The Marseille Provence Greeters, part of the International Global Greeters Network, an organization offering travelers the chance to get to know a city from a native's point of view. "I'm not a guide,'' Patrick repeats several times while we're together. Rather, volunteer greeters act more like neighbors or new friends, taking visitors behind the scenes either on foot or public transportation to discover favorite neighborhoods, cafes and historical sites. We each pay for our own bus and subway tickets. Other than that, there's no charge.

Setting up our time together was easy. I filled out an online form with Marseille Greeters several weeks before our trip, and received an immediate response that my request was received, followed by a confirmation setting the date, time and the name and contact information of our greeter, Patrick, 60, an enthusiastic promoter of Marseille where he's lived for the past 10 years. I sent Patrick an e-mail, and heard back the next day with his suggestions.

Flip flops, as it turns out, are his footwear of choice. He starts wearing them in spring and keeps them on through fall, with few exceptions. The hiking shoes never leave his backpack during our two hours of walking and climbing. When our walk is finished, we return to the city on the bus, subway and tram, then wend or way through the narrow streets of Le Panier, a gentrifying hilltop neighborhood overlooking Marseille's old port.


It"s possible to eat well in Marseille for $10 or $100. With Patrick, we dive into a 8.5 euro ($11.50) meal, including wine, at the tiny Le Panier Gourmand, entered by turning into an alley next to a sandwich shop, and ringing a buzzer. It's a voilà moment when one of the young owners starts filling our table with platters of seafood salad, antipasti, a chicken and tortilla pie and carafes of chilled, white wine. After lunch, Patrick introduces us to a local potter, and walks with us past a few historical sites before jumping back on his bike and peddling home.




Other Greeter groups

My first experience with Big Apple Greeters in New York City a few years ago hooked me on the Greeter program. Wandering around Manhattan on our own, we saw the city most visitors see. Then we met Bernie Young, a volunteer for Big Apple. Bernie met us at our hotel for a few hours of off-the-beaten path exploring. We chatted over coffee, then got on a bus for walk a stroll through various parts of the Bronx. We explored City Island, New York's "Nantucket," noted for its fish restaurants, then Arthur Avenue.

Lunch was at a rowdy Italian restaurant called Dominick's, where we ate family-style at long tables. We ended the afternoon knowing a bit more about New York than we would have found out on our own. Best of all, we made a new friend.

All the Global Greeter programs work a little differently, but the basics are the same. Greeters accept no money. Donations to the organizations are accepted, and can be made online. Tours generally last anywhere from two to four hours, but can be longer or shorter, depending on everyone's time. We spent nearly the whole day with Patrick in Marseille.

Here's a few more examples:

-Houston Greeters will organize activities such as golf, biking or an outing to an Astros game. Another possibility is to arrange a stroll focused on a particular interest, such as the city's Hindu temples or African-American history.
-Chicago Greeters help visitors explore 25 diverse neighborhoods, or 40 special interests including art and architecture, food, local history, gay Chicago and ethnic Chicago. Two hundred volunteers help organizes walks through Ukrainian Village on the Near North Side and Andersonville, home to Scandinavian restaurants and shops, Middle Eastern bakeries and a thrivingHispanic district. Guides will also organize tours around themes such as fashion, film or public art. Visitors without the time schedule and pre-register can take advantage of hour-long guided walks of of downtown, and seasonally, Millennium Park and Magnificent Mile, are perfect for the visitor with more flexible travel dates, someone whose schedule. Walks leave on the half hour beginning at 10am , last walk at 3pm Friday, Saturday and Sundays.
-Guides in Lyon organize walks around themes such as shopping, markets and sports.
-In Paris, English-speaking volunteers for Parisien d'un Jour lead visitors through hidden corners of Paris, often ending with a lively discussion on a cafe terrace.
-Amsterdam's Mee in Mokum is staffed mostly by retirees. It's not officially part of the Global Greeter Network, but it's one of the oldest international greeter programs. Mokum is Amsterdam's nickname. Visitors choose from several 2.5 to three-hour walking tours that cover the historical city center, the Jewish Jordaan neighborhood or the harbor. Cost is 7.5 euros per person.