Friday, July 17, 2009

Travel Guide: Milan, Italy

Pitch: This is a city to get dressed for. Italy’s Fashion capital to see and be seen, shop, drink, and (maybe) eat. Everyone is svelte. The men wear suits and the women, dresses. Break up the villages and beach hopping with the pulse of city life!

Stay: Close to the Duomo or Castello Sforzesco – both are very central so it’s easy to get around by foot. We chose Hotel Spadari by the Duomo. I loved this place. Complimentary waters and non-alcoholic beverages (it’s the little things...), contemporary, yet comfortable design throughout the hotel, AND the bartender is very generous lady.

Walk/shop: Hit the ground running by strolling around Piazza Duomo and taking in it’s grandeur. Then continue up Vittorio Emanuele II toward Piazza Babila and the fashion district. Take Corso up to Milan’s most famous street...Via Della Spiga. You will find every luxury brand and Italian label imaginable lining this quiet, pedestrian-only cobblestone street. Window shoppers allowed but I would only go into stores if you intend to make a purchase.

Eat lunch: We ventured to BVLGARI hotel from Via Della Spiga to tour the brand’s new extension into hospitality. You’ll find the hotel in a quiet corner of Via Gabba, right off of Via Monte Di Pieta. It’s a stunning property, but only have lunch here if you are (or spend money like) a rockstar or Swiss banker. We are not either, but did enjoy the small plates of sashimi, langoustine nicoise, lobster and melon salad, and a few glasses of wine. The highlight of the extreme world we stumbled upon in the backyard of the Brera was the nine euro Diet Coke...not my order. That’s what vacations are for!

Fit in: We then stumbled upon the SoHo of Milan (where we should have had lunch) where we were suddenly engulfed in the city’s locals – and their energy. We would end up returning to this area for happy hour and dinner but just walked through the first time to get a feel for the neighborhood. The best route is Via Brera to Via Fiore Chiari.

Sight see: Take Via Fiore Chiari towards Piazza Castello. Here you will find the impressive Castello Sforzesco. The grounds are open to everyone and once you walk through the castle there is a giant park. This is a nice time to take a rest on the grass or scout out some gelato.

Admire: If you can dream of the Harrod’s of food, I will tell you it exists. In Milan. It’s a fine food and beverage emporium called PECK. Fate has it that the shop was right next to my hotel (corner of Spadari and Torino), otherwise I may have never encountered this paradise. Coffees, teas, chocolates, fish, meat, oils, vinegars, a bakery, and jaw-dropping wine cellar. They also have their own bar and restaurant a stone’s throw away. Dining there will be a priority on my next visit.

Nap:  The days and nights are long in Milan, and you will do a lot of walking so I highly recommend a nap. Happy hours start around 7 and the streets really don’t get bustling again until 8. Dinner at 9 is considered early. So take your time and relax.  Even if you’re back out at 7, you still have two hours of exploring until dusk (in the summer).
Drink/snack: We returned to the Brera for a few drinks and some small plates before dinner. We found a great table at Bar Brera (corner of Via Brera and Via Fiore Chiari). The place was packed and after peoplewatching for twenty minutes, we decided we had stumbled on the crossroads of the city. Families, tourists, locals, stilettos on cobblestone, three piece suits, bums, beers, martinis, and champagne :)

Eat dinner: Our concierge recommended the restaurant Nabucco on Via Fiore Chiari. SO we walked a few streets from Bar Brera and settled in to a cozy table inside (outside was booked). Michael had the best lasagna “of his life” and I ate potatoes for the first time in years (they were roasted in this delicious white wine sauce that plated the scampi). They have a great wine list too as well as a selection of half bottles.

Stroll: Back to your hotel or hop in a taxi if you happen to catch a few raindrops like us.

Other Recs: Gucci Cafe, Nobu Armani (connected to a hot night club), Teatro alla Scala (famous Opera House)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Travel Guide: Zermatt, Switzerland

Pitch: The village of Zermatt delivers extreme peace and beauty on the Swiss/Italian border of the Alps. It's a famous (and oddly, German-speaking) alpine town at the base of the daunting peak of Matterhorn. Hit the slopes year-round or find adventure (like me) below 5,000 feet.

Arrive: By train or helicopter...anything BUT a car (you will be fined if you attempt to drive in). We drove and parked at the train station in Brig and took the Mattterhorn Express to and from Zermatt. Scenic hour and twenty minute train ride. Once you arrive, there are electric taxis, rental bikes, or even horse and buggies as modes of transportation.

Stay: At Hotel Bellerive (Riedstrasse 3) or at another one of the chic chateaus in the tiny village. We loved our room especially because it had the most comfortable bed we would sleep on for our entire two week trip. The spa in the basement is romantic, clean, and the perfect way to relax after a day of skiing or hiking. Hotel Monte Rosa (Bahnhofstrasse 80; 41-27-966-03-33; is a little more central and across the street is the luxurious Grand Hotel Zermatterhof.

Play: Walk up to the sports store next to the Matterhorn gondola and rent all-terrain scooters. They will give you a helmet and gloves and then it's up to you to take TWO separate gondolas to the top of the trail. I admit, it was a pain sherpa-ing these scooters in and out of gondolas, but once we arrived and found the trail, the ride down was the coolest experience I've ever had. The pictures don't do it justice. You have free rein of the mountain and can go as fast (or slow) as you want. Stop to check out the waterfalls and maybe even duck into a lodge for a coffee. And don't forget a camera!

Eat lunch:  For something a bit gourmet with a lively outdoor garden where you can drink and dine, try Ristorante Seilerhaus Molino (Bahnhofstrasse). For a casual, more traditional meal (maybe a weiner and beer) grab an outdoor table at Old Zermatt Restaurant (Steinmattenstrasse).

Shop/explore: Bahnhofstrasse is the Fifth Avenue of Zermatt. You'll find fine watch and jewelry stores, couture boutiques, and galleries, among many sports apparel shops. If you didn't come with gear, you'll leave outfitted.

Relax: Time for a massage, sauna, or maybe even an afternoon drink. Most hotels have a number for a local massage therapist or in-house specialists. The Papperla Pub (Steinmattenstrasse 34) is the locals choice for a beer or cocktail.

Eat dinner: I highly recommend Myoko Teppan-Yaki & Sushi (Bahnhofstrasse). This was by far the most internationally diverse dining experience I've had. The table across from us was 4 young French women on vacation from Paris who hit it off with the couple next to them from Australia. The couple was returning to Mykoto after one year and insisted to the Teppan-Yaki chef and rest of the staff that they had been looking forward to this dinner since their last time in. The husband and wife at our station were quiet until we asked them about the tasting menu they ordered. After we initiated the conversation, they jumped right into speaking English to us about Zermatt (they're locals) and the excellent restaurants. The food stood up to the rave reviews. Sushi is sushi (Mykoto's was fresh and delicate) and the chicken terriyaki was authentic and delicious. We can't wait to go back. 

Entertainment: Option 1: A movie at Vernissage - it's actually a bar, art gallery, restaurant, and movie theater (Hofmattstrasse 4). Option 2: Like quirky bar with live music? Head to The Hotel Post (Bahnhofstrasse). Option 3: Dancing, drinking, and debauchery at the Broken Bar Disco. Option 4: Club it til your legs collapse at Schneewittchen (next to Papperla Pub). Option 5: Get in your cozy bed and watch a DVD from the hotel's video library. Can you guess what I chose? ;)

Travel Guide: Cinqueterre, Italy

Pitch: 5 quaint towns along the Italian Riviera connected by miles of trails over the mountains and through the vineyards of Cinqueterre. A must see if you are in Northern Italy (or anywhere close). Every picture you take will make you feel like a professional photog.

Stay: In Monterosso al Mare (we stayed at Hotel Palme). The town has a little more bustle and lots of beach. I also appreciated the variety of cafes and restaurants. The other 3 villages are quieter and
really chill and Vernazza is in between.

Play: Spend the morning swimming, lounging and sunbathing at Bagni Eden beach club (Via Fegina, 7-11; 39-0187-818-256). A few euro will get you a colorful chaise and use of their changing rooms. There’s no better way to enjoy a morning by the sea.

Eat lunch:  Enoteca 5 Terre di Sassarini Giancarlo (Via Fegina, 94; 39-0187-818-063) Toast your arrival with a little Franciacorta, then try the local sauvignon blanc. Nice bruscettas, pastas, and carpaccios.

Walk/hike: From Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza. Bring water, sunscreen, a camera, and supportive sandals or sneakers. Takes about 2 hours. Breathtaking journey over mountains and through vineyards...even though we had no water and donned flimsy flip flops.

Relax: Upon arrival stop for a few scoops of gelato and find some shade to watch the ferries come in and out of a rocky port. There are tons of cafes to people watch and sip on wine.

Home: Catch the train or ferry back to Monterosso al Mare. They’re constantly coming and going.

Eat dinner: L'Ancora della Tortuga (Salita Cappuccini, 6; 39-0187-800-065). Reserve an outdoor table for 8:30/9 - or right around dusk. The restaurant is a converted AND romantic. Can’t go wrong with the catch of the day and the scampi.

Stroll: L’Ancora della Tortuga is at the opposite end of Monterosso al Mare so enjoy a leisurely walk back to your hotel along Via Fegina. And who says you can’t have gelato twice in one day?!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Online Dating (for your house)

My fiancee and I just got back from the South of France. The trip was fantastic. But the way we chose the destination for our vacation deserves somes attention.

We listed our home in Newport Beach, CA on a website called, where (as the name suggests) people "exchange homes".  The process of listing our place was actually quite fun. You pay a $99 annual membership fee, and then proceed to upload pics of your house and your neighborhood. It really kinds of feels like you're writing a personals listing for your home! And most people give some info on the owners as well (which is important since most people, rightly so, want to know about the people they are potentially lending their home to).

Here's our listing:

After we finished and posted the listing, we were blown away by home many inquires or "exchange requests" we received. From all over the world. Major cities in Italy, Spain, and France. London, Aspen, Stockholm - the list goes on! The site allows you to specify where you're looking to go, but we kept ours fairly open since we weren't exactly sure where we wanted to travel (although France and Australia were high on our wish list). Plus, the element of a little serendipity was appealing as well.

After evaluating all of the inquiries, we ultimately chose to exchange with a nice couple from London who own a vacation home in St. Jean Cap Ferrat (an exclusive little enclave in the French Riviera). According to the pictures and description ( it was an adorable two bedroom apartment about a hundred yards from the beach, with views of the Mediterranean.  Upon arriving we were relieved and actually pleasantly surprised that the place felt even better than advertised! 

We had such an amazing vacation. One of the best things about doing a home exchange v. staying in a hotel/resort, besides saving around $10,000+ (14 nights x at least $600/night plus all those annoying taxes, egregious parking fees, restaurant/room service...) is the fact that it forces you to have a different kind of experience.  You're staying in a home, with a kitchen, and end up shopping a the locals markets every morning, and cooking in many nights. For us, we ended up feeling like we really got a much more intimate feel of the town and the people.

I highly recommend Home Exchange for your next vacation.  (And if you happen to have a place in Australia and want to visit Southern California...let me know!)

Trip Hero: GARMIN Navigation (Europe Chip)

We get lost more in Orange County then we did driving through Europe with our GARMIN navigation system. I ordered the Euro chip on Amazon before we left and, to our amazement, it never failed. Every nameless road, hairpin turn, tunnel, and freeway showed up. It even directed us to one of Cinqueterre's five (practically car-free) villages, Monterosso al Mare. 

If we had attempted following paper maps, printed directions, or even signs, there would have been many wasted hours, tears, and probably vomit. I'm truly thankful for this technology. If you have a trip planned, make sure your rental car has this device or some comparable navigation.

Disposable Sunglasses

Urban Outfitters is having a huge sale right now and all of their sunglasses are 1/2 off or $10! Take my advice if you aim to stay in style and save some money and heartache. You just may never buy $300 sunglasses again.

Urban Outfitters has tons of great frames in every color imaginable. They never have cheap fake designer letters or logos. And inspiration ranges from Jackie O to Kanye West. I dropped $40 on these 4 pairs which I think are pretty nice. And if you're still not sold, here's 3 more reasons:

1. If you lose them you're not upset for a week
2. If you loan them to a friend and they come back damaged, or never come back, there's no harm to the friendship
3. It's really fun when someone loves your glasses and you can offer to give yours to them on the spot