Seattle to Cairo via Rome: The ins and outs of planning a trip to Egypt




After two "false starts" in the past nine years, we are off to explore Egypt for the first time.  As usual, this will be a do-it-yourself trip, planned as an independent adventure rather than part of an organized tour. 

We first made plans to visit in 2008, but put the trip on hold when the U.S. economy began to tank. Then we briefly reconsidered going last fall, but backed off due to lack of time to prepare. Now, with our plans finally in place, I'll share some ins and outs of putting the trip together. 

The decision to go now started with the idea that Egypt has not yet recovered from a downturn in tourism that began with Arab Spring, the anti-government protests that spread across the Middle East in late 2010. Low prices and improved security are drawing visitors back, but not at high numbers, which means it's still a good time to go. If I worried about "safety" I'd never travel outside the U.S. But for those who might be concerned, the State Department, which once warned against travel to Egypt, has softened its advice to exercise caution in a couple of areas where few tourists go.

Figuring out how to reach Cairo from the West Coast was the first challenge. All flights require a connection and a long layover in cities as Paris, Dubai and Frankfurt, with a minimum of 18 hours of flight time and inconvenient arrival times.

The solution: Break up the trip buy buying a ticket from Seattle into Rome and out of London on Delta, then book a separate ticket on Egypt Air from Rome to Cairo and Cairo to London - all for about the same price we would have paid for a Seattle/Cairo round-trip. We'll spend three days in each of those cities - an extra bonus - and instead of arriving in Cairo after 11 p.m. as we would have on the through flights, we'll be there around 8:30 p.m.

The next decision was how much time to spend in Cairo. The capital of Egypt is a sprawling city of nearly 20 million, filled with historical treasures, but also teaming run down tenements and traffic-clogged streets bathed in bad air. Some stay only long enough to see the pyramids at Giza and the Egyptian Museum before traveling to visit the ancient tombs and temples of Luxor, or boarding a Nile cruise.

The Old Cairo Cafe in Coptic Cairo

Given that we love cities, and hate rushing, we settled on six nights and five days, taking care to guarantee there were rooms available in the little family-owned boutique hotel I found nine years ago. With its updated rooms and excellent reviews, I thought it might be difficult to get into the Hotel Longchamps in the residential neighborhood of Zamalek,  an island in the Nile across from downtown Cairo. But with tourism depressed, the owner offered me a discount.- any of her rooms for $99 a night.  She's been an excellent help so far with questions, and I look forward to meeting her.

Next came the visas. Egypt issues visas to foreign travelers at the airport, but to speed up our arrival, I applied online for electronic visas ($25). They arrived in my in-box just a few days after filling out a form and submitting copies of our passports. 

Now it was time to arrange a few tours. I settled on three offered by Urban Adventures, and another by Cairowalkingtours.com, all booked and paid for online, with generous cancellation policies. 

Urban Adventures is a division of Intrepid Group, which designs longer budget group tours to destinations around the world. Urban Adventures puts together day trips and half-day excursions led by young people using small vans or public transportation.


Traditional Egyptian dress

Our five-hour tour of the Giza Pyramids ($40 each) will include transportation and lunch at a local spot for Koshary, a national dish made with rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed together, topped with tomato sauce and  garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. Another day, we'll explore Coptic (Christian) and Islamic Cairo on a six-hour walking tour with Cairowalkingtours.com, and then go to the home of a Cairo family for a traditional meal and conversation about local culture and what it's like for women in the Middle East. Perhaps we'll gain enough "street smarts" to make our way by subway back to Giza one night to the roof top of the local Pizza Hut to see the pyramids lighted at night.

From Cairo, we'll travel to Luxor by day train, a 10-hour trip that skirts farming villages along the Nile  provides a glimpse into Egyptian village life, and take a van or private car from there to Aswan, near the border with Sudan. Why no sleeper trains or cruise along the Nile? The sleeper train would be comfortable and the cruise scenic, but we have plenty of comfort and scenery here at home in Seattle. We're just as interested in meeting people and observing village life as we are in seeing the sights. We're told the train trip is beautiful, although long, so we plan to go prepared with plenty of water and snacks. 

I've relied on the excellent Man in Seat 61 website for information about the trains and how to buy tickets. This could be the riskiest part of our trip, since technically, foreigners are allowed only to buy tickets for the more expensive sleeper trains which are patrolled by tourist police. It's not illegal, however, to travel by day train. We have a plan which I'll talk about in a later post. 



El Nakhil in Luxor

Most lodging in Luxor is on the east bank of the Nile, a touristed hub close to the temple sites of Luxor and Karnak. Quieter and more remote is the west bank, the location of the ancient tombs - the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens - that replaced the pyramids as burial sites for pharaohs and nobles. We chose the west bank and the little German-Egyptian-owned El Nakhil Hotel ($40 a night with breakfast), reachable by a foot ferry across the Nile and a short walk to Geziret el Bairat village. Part of the adventure will be following the owner's scavenger hunt-like directions on how to get here from the train station. 

"Walk or take a taxi ($1.50) from the station. Cross the Nile by ferry or motor boat (30 cents per person), then go straight on the main street (look for the minaret of the mosque). Cross the street  and turn into the village, pass the mosque and follow the street until it turns right, then go straight on. Pass El Fayrouz Hotel (pink building) and you come direct to the entrance of El Nakhil!"



The Nubian Lotus 

Our last stop will be Aswan in Nubia, a dry, desert region along the Nile between Upper Egypt and Khartoum in central Sudan. Here we found an Airbnb ($45 with breakfast), the Nubian Lotus, on Elephantine Island, an island in the Nile. The owners are Marta, from Italy, and Osama, from the island. Together they have created an Italian/Nubian village retreat, calling on her background in art and architecture and his experience as a professional travel organizer, to offer Italian or Egyptian meals to their guests, and arrange early-morning excursions to the rock temples at Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser. 

We'll fly back to Cairo from Aswan, spend one night near the airport, and fly to London the next morning for three days of exploring before heading back to Seattle. As usual, you can follow updates to this blog by entering your e-mail address to the left of this post.



Winter without the crowds at Washington's Mount Rainier

The National Park Inn

Tea and scones appeared on a side table as logs crackled in the stone fireplace at Mount Rainier's National Park InnUnlike the first travelers to visit here in the early 1900s, we didn't come to soak in the hot springs, ride a dog sled or hike the glaciers in tin pants.  

Trying out new snowshoes was our mission, but with rain at Longmire, the historic district where the inn first opened in 1906, and a storm keeping the road to Paradise -elevation 5,400 feet and one of the snowiest places on earth - closed for the day, sitting by the fire, reading seemed like a fine Plan B.

Perhaps because it was January when my husband and I first visited Mount Rainier years ago, winter has always been our favorite time. Campgrounds and roads crowded with tourists and cars in summer are transformed into quiet cross-country ski, snowshoe and winter hiking trails. 


A fire plus tea and scones warm winter visitors
With the larger Paradise Inn closed for the season, those who reserve one of the 25 rooms at the more intimate National Park Inn have the park practically to themselves.
 "In the winter, mid-week, I might see 30 people," says ranger Darby Robinson who staffs the Longmire Museum. "In summer, it's well over 300." 

And after many visits in winter, I know by now that weather conditions can change literally overnight, as they did for us on this trip in mid-December. 

Snow blanketed the trees when we awoke the next morning. Waiting for the clouds to lift, we breakfasted on kale and squash omelettes in the dining room, then took our coffee to the wicker chairs on the front porch as the mountain popped into view. More than a foot of fresh powder awaited 10 miles away at Paradise when rangers opened the road at 11 a.m.

The road to Mount Rainier

No matter what time of year, I consider the journey to Mount Rainier half the reason for making the two-hour drive from Seattle.  Best advice: Take the back roads, and visit some of the mom-and-pop businesses in the mountain towns of Eatonville, Elbe and Ashford.


The Cottage Bakery and Cafe 

Picking up Highway 167 and Highway 161 South, the mountain comes into view in Eatonville where hot coffee and fresh pastries await at the Cottage Bakery and Cafe cottage-bakerycafe.com CQ. Laurie Tartaglia,  and her mother, Alicia Nelson, keep a glass case filled with homemade scones, bear claws and giant cookies, popular with the local school kids.

"Ninety five percent of the tourists coming through grab a coffee and a pastry or a lunch and head to the mountain," says Alicia. Locals tend to linger inside the cozy yellow house, decorated like a mountain cabin decorated with wooden tables and soft lighting.

Fourteen miles from the park's Nisqually entrance on Highway 706 E. in Ashford is Dan Klennert’s Recycled Spirits of Iron. Klennert keeps his parking lot gate closed in winter, but welcomes visitors to enter through an archway, and explore his outdoor sculpture park filled with life-size figures of animals and other objects he fashions from pieces of old machinery and scrap metals. 


Recycled Spirits of Iron 

One of my favorites is a skier Klennert crafted using old car bumpers for the skis, a milk can lid for the hat and water faucet handles for the ears.  There’s no charge, but Klennert accepts donations.

Six miles from the park entrance is the Ashford Creek Gallery where owners Jana Gardiner  and Rick Johnson sell pottery, cards, candles, glass and watercolors made by a dozen local artists. There's a small library of used books  on local history, mountaineering and nature for sale, and an upstairs museum filled with a historical collection of paintings and prints by Northwest artists.

The highway dead-ends at the Nisqually entrance to the park. From there, it's an easy 6-mile drive to Longmire (elevation 2,700 feet),  making the National Park Inn a reliable destination year-round.


Cross-Country skiing near Paradise

Once the road between Longmire to Paradise opened, we followed the ranger's recommendation to snowshoe in an area called Barn Flats, a closed road with a pullout for cars and wide, flat trails, good for cross-country skiing as well.  


Evening entertainment

Later, back at Longmire, we hiked along the Trail of the Shadows, a flat, kid-friendly path where a sign marks the rock-ringed hot springs where visitors once paid $8 per week to bathe and stay at a resort established in 1890 by explorer James Longmire.  Renovations over the years have transformed the inn into a  rustic mountain lodge with simple but comfortable rooms that become more affordable off-season with 50 percent discounts on mid-week stays. 

I found myself grabbing for my phone more than once, before remembering that the inn has no Wi-Fi. Instead of surfing the Web, guests play Candy Land, read or do jig-saw puzzles. 

For those who must go online, Wi-Fi is available at the Copper Creek Inn,  a cozy roadhouse 2.5 miles from the park entrance where wild blackberry pie is always on the menu. 

If you go in winter

See Visit Rainier for general tourist information.Check here for the park's updates on reopening after the government shut-down.  The Nisqually entrance and National Park Inn remained open most of the time the government was closed, but the road to Paradise was closed, and park services were limited. 

Vehicle access into the park in winter is only available through the Nisqually entrance (Sunrise is closed). The road from Longmire to Paradise closes nightly, and usually reopens at 9 a.m., although can open later or remain closed all day due to weather. Call 360-569-2211for current road conditions, or check MountRainierNPS on Twitter for updates.
All vehicles, even those with four-wheel drive, must carry tire chains from Nov. 1-May 1. Entrance fee is $30 per vehicle and passengers. 

What's open/closed

The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at Paradise is open Fridays- Sundays, 10 a.m.-4:15 p.m. in winter. The visitor center will be also open Monday, Feb. 18.  The National Park Inn and restaurant at Longmire is open year-round for lodging, food, gifts and snowshoe rentals. Paradise Inn is closed for the season.

Open daily from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., the Longmire Museum provides general park information, winter activity guidance and backcountry permits.

What to do:

A winter visit to Mount Rainier can include hikes, ranger-guided snowshoe walks, snow play, camping and cross-country skiing.

Rangers offer 1.8-mile, two-hour snowshoe walks at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays through March. Register one hour in advance (no phone registration) at the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. Five dollar donation suggested.


Winter snow play at Paradise

Sledding and sliding are permitted in designated areas at Paradise, depending on snow conditions.  Visit Rainier has links to information on snow shoe and cross-country ski trails. and tips. 

Where to stay: 

 • The 25-room National Park Inn at Longmire has rooms with ($187-$230) and without ($132-$166) private bath. Off-season specials include a 50 percent discount with a two-night minimum stay Sunday-Thursday through April 25, excluding holidays. 

 A "senior saver" package, also good mid-week through April 30, includes a 10 percent room discount, breakfast and afternoon tea.  Two first-floor rooms are ADA approved. 

• See Visit Rainier for lodging outside the park in cabins, private home rentals and nearby inns and bed and breakfasts.  

Whittaker’s Motel and Historic Bunkhouse offers rooms with private baths starting at $70 in winter. A cozy cafe serves hot drinks, breakfast sandwiches and snacks. Whitaker Mountaineering next door rents snowshoes, skis, snow tubes, tire chains etc.  

This story appeared in the Seattle Times on Feb. 24, 2019

Seattle Day Trip: Explore Kingston via the new Kitsap Transit fast ferry


Lunch al fresco at  J'aime les Crepes in Kingston

More than 100 commuters walked off the new fast ferry linking the quiet Washington State hamlet of Kingston on the North Kitsap Peninsula with downtown Seattle. Only five of us were in line to go the opposite direction.

While more Kitsap County commuters have been using the new passenger-only ferry each week since Kitsap Transit launched the service in November,  few take advantage of the  "reverse commute" - sailing from Seattle to Kingston in the morning and back to Seattle in the late afternoon or evening.   

 "There have been plenty of times when one person has pretty much had the boat to themselves," says Seth Harris, a marine service ambassador for Kitsap Transit who handed us our boarding passes on a brisk January morning.

My husband and I and the three others all had the same idea. Why not take advantage of the new 40-minute sailing across the Puget Sound to spend a day in Kingston, a picturesque waterfront town previously reached mainly by driving 17 miles from Seattle to Edmonds, and taking a 30-minute ride aboard a Washington State Ferry.

For Elizabeth Sully and Tim McGoldrick, the new ferry  meant they could plan a day visiting friends in Kingston without the hassle of driving to Edmonds and parking their car. Like us, they took a bus downtown from their house in Greenwood in time to catch the 9:35 a.m. ferry at Pier 52, arriving in Kingston at 10:15 a.m.

Chances are more locals and Seattle visitors will discover Kingston once Saturday fast ferry service begins in May (The ferry currently runs Monday-Friday). Until then, Kingston makes a budget-friendly mid-week winter getaway. 



The "Finest" fast ferry

Here's the plan:

9:35 a.m. 
All aboard

Show up at Pier 52 on the Seattle Waterfront, and board the Finest, a ferry that operated between Manhattan and New Jersey, and was named after the New York City Police Department.   

Kitsap Transit bought and refurbished the boat with revenue from a sales tax increase passed to fund a fleet of new passenger ferries, including the walk-on Bremerton/Seattle service launched in 2017.

Buy tickets from machines, use an Orca card or have exact change (One-way fares are $2 Eastbound, $10 Westbound and $1 and $5 for seniors, youths etc.), and settle in for a scenic ride with views of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker in the distance. 



Hot mini-donuts at Aviator Coffee


10:15 a.m. 
Coffee break 

Walk off the ferry though a walkway next to the Washington State ferry terminal, and find Aviator Coffee in a wooden shed called the Hanger. Burlap coffee bags cover the ceiling, and mini-donuts sizzle in a pan near a walk-up window. The Bainbridge Island roaster offers free donut samples, and 15 percent discounts on the "drink of the month," an English toffee latte the morning we stopped by. 

10:45 a.m.
Farmhouse brunch

Most of Kingston's independently-owned restaurants, bars, cafes, bakeries and shops are along Highway 104, all within walking distance of the ferry. 

Open early on weekdays is Lacey and Kory Anders' Borrowed Kitchen Bakery and Farmhouse CafeThe "borrowed" comes from a time when they borrowed commercial kitchens to sell their first baked goods at the Poulsbo Farmers Market in 2010. The "farmhouse" refers to the 1890s farmhouse whey we live in Kingston. 

We found seats at big communal table, and split an order (pacing ourselves for a day of grazing) of sweet potato hash, roasted sweet potatoes, bell peppers, spinach and onions, topped with feta and eggs over easy.



Metalsmith Makenzi Wrinkle


11:45 a.m. 
Retail finds

Some businesses close or keep shorter hours in winter. The eclectic Paisley Whale vintage shop  wasn't open the day we visited, but we found surprise treasures at Kingston Mercantile and Marine  next door to the Borrowed Kitchen. Crammed into this small-town "everything" store are crab pots, rubber boots, jars of local honey and colorful Yak Wool blankets brought home by a local teacher to support a Tibetan refugee family in India.  

Used paperbacks are stacked floor-to-ceiling across the street at the Kingston Bookery.   Metalsmith Makenzi Wrinkle makes handcrafted jewelry and sells the work of other local artists at Mak.W Designs out of a shop inside a house at 11133 NE Maine Ave.



Sweet Life Cakery

1 p.m. 
The sweet life

Inspired by Chocolat, a British-American romantic comedy-drama about a woman who opens an unusual chocolate shop in a small French town, Methia Gordon runs Sweet Life Cakery in a 1930s cottage painted aqua blue inside and out.  Drop in for "Cake Slice Happy Hour'' Tuesday-Friday, 3 p.m.- 5 p.m., or try her signature Sweet Bliss, a gourmet  "Ding-Dong" confection of chocolate cake and whipped cream.

J'aime les Crepes provides sidewalk tables for customers ordering sweet or savory French-style crepes from it's walk-up storefront near the ferry dock. Lisa and Rob Maxwell stock old-fashioned lemon and horehound drops; licorice; penny candy; and their own homemade fudge at Little City Candy Co.


Forested walking trails


2 p.m.
Walks in the parks

Pick up a map at shops around town or at the visitors information center, and find the the locations of several wooded parks and hiking trails. 

Take a beach walk along Saltair Park when the tide is out, or hike up the hill on Ohio Avenue to a Quiet Place Park, nine acres of walking trails through second-growth forests,  named and donated to Kistap County by Naomi M. Libby Elvins CQ in 1993.

Keep an eye out around town for Kingston's "Big Chairs," giant Adirondack-style chairs painted in bright colors, the idea of a  local businessman to promote Kingston as a place to relax.


d'Vine Wines

4 p.m.
Happy hour 

With the last ferry leaving 5:55 p.m., there's plenty of time to end the day with a beer, glass of wine, or an early dinner before returning to Seattle. 

Filling up fast on warm days are the outdoor tables with water views on the back deck of the Kingston Ale House. Next door, d'Vine Wines offers wine by the glass and small bites. 

Worth the quarter-mile walk from the ferry terminal is kid-friendly Downpour Brewing where owner Dan Williams keeps 17 taps flowing with his local brews, ciders, root beer and Kombucha. We sipped $4 schooners of Stout, and snacked on salmon smoked by Poulsbo's Crimson Cove while Dan tipped us off on what was perhaps the best discovery of the day - an early dinner at Mossback,  a small farm-to-table restaurant popular with locals.

Set back on a side street (You'll pass it on your way to A Quiet Place Park), the restaurant occupies an old farmhouse that could be mistaken for a private home. Tucked in back is a cozy bar with a few tables reserved for happy hour from 4-6 p.m. The owners source everything, from wine to oysters, from Northwest producers.


Mossback 

Our bill came in under $30 for a glass of wine, a homemade cranberry soda, a bowl of borscht and a deli spread of cheeses, sausage, pickled fruits and veggies, homemade garlic crackers, and onion jam. 

It was the perfect ending to a day of new discoveries, capped off with a leisurely walk back to the ferry dock to join six other passengers for the return trip to Seattle. 


If you go:

Kingston Fast Ferry information: See Kitsap Transit for schedules, fares, bus connections and other information. Ferries currently leave Seattle's Pier 52 for Kingston Monday-Friday at 6:15 a.m., 7: 55 a.m. and 9:35 a.m., returning at 2:35 p.m., 4:15 p.m. and 5:55 p.m. Plans call for adding Saturday service in May. The trip takes about 40 minutes.

Tourism info: See https://www.visitkitsap.com/kingston or stop pick up maps and other information at the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center,  25923 Washington Blvd NE. https://www.kingstonchamber.com CQ


Coming up: The Kingston Farmers Market runs Saturdays, 9:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m., May-October at Mike Wallace Park next the ferry terminals.

This story appeared in the Seattle Times on Feb. 13, 2019.

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