Forbes - How To Book A Villa

Have you ever booked a villa, apartment, home, anything? I'd love to know about your experience. While hotels will always be my first love, I see the advantages to a villa rental - the ability to cook in a fabulous kitchen holding the number one spot, followed by better value for large groups of family members and friends traveling. And in the next year, I am planning on renting an apartment in Paris for a couple weeks after staying at a few hotels.

I interviewed A&K Villas and Think Sicily/Think Puglia for this piece on Forbes: How To Book A Villa

And let's take a moment to drool over this A&K Villa in Tuscany:

National Geographic: Great Trips: Sailing China's Three Gorges

Sailing the Three Gorges region of China should be on everyone's list to do in their lifetime.  I wrote more about my experience on National Geographic here. I'll be posting more photos from the ship, the M.S. Yangzi Explorer by Sanctuary Retreats, here tomorrow!

China plans to build more than 50 new airports in the next five years, and its population — with nearly 500 million Internet users and counting — is becoming more “global” each day. But to grasp what China meant and means today, you have to get out of the big cities and go rural. Nine hundred million of China’s 1.4 billion people live in the countryside.

China’s bucolic side will feel at once familiar and foreign. Want to step into a landscape painting? Sail through the Three Gorges region on the Yangtze River, famous for its recently constructed dam, the largest on Earth.
The dam, which is about 5 years old, has had an incredible impact on the region’s people and ecology (many villages had to be moved to make way for the new circuitry of the river, and water levels have risen, covering the bases of once-exposed mountains), but the potential for exploring the river valley by boat has made this area a new travel hot spot.
I booked a three-day cruise on the M.S. Yangzi Explorer by Sanctuary Retreats, departing from Chongqing, which is — with 33 million residents — arguably the world’s largest city (ever heard of it?). Okay, the people are spread out over an area the size of England and it takes eight hours to drive across with no traffic…but it can still claim the title. As an added bonus, you’ll set sail at night when the skyline is lit up.

For Western travelers, the Yangzi Explorer is far and away the most comfortable ship to travel on without a sticker-shock price tag. Every room has a balcony, which I took advantage of daily to gaze at the curved swallowtail Chinese roofs and white bloc-style architecture that characterize relocation towns near the dam. I loved the engaging lectures they offered on the cruise (such as “China, The West, & The Mao Years”) — and the early morning tai chi lessons, taught by the ship’s doctor.

Though I was anxious to see the colossal dam, my most memorable experiences happened on the ship, sailing through the Three Gorges, surrounded by thick, cool air and hearing the river water lap against the boat. Early morning brought us through the dramatic Qutang Gorge, followed by the Wu Gorge (or Witches’ Gorge), and finally the longest gorge of Xiling, where the dam is. Your first glimpse of the dam comes at night as the ship sails through five locks.

It was originally thought that the Three Gorges Dam would provide for 12% of China’s electricity needs, but due to a voracious appetite for energy, it can supply only 3%. Media accounts in the West have been decidedly negative, typically focusing on families that have been forced to leave their homes. But of course, nothing is black and white, and there is always another side. It was on a shore excursion to Fengdu where I met relocated families who were glad to move (payment from the government helped). I also learned about the intense flooding that has killed millions in the region, which the dam has alleviated.

The final shore excursion takes you to the best place to view the dam (and take photos of it) along with an exhibit about its construction. The hazy weather didn’t dampen the excitement of seeing something I had heard about for so long. As with most things both applauded and condemned, the dam is worth seeing in person. But it felt even more significant to see the unspoiled terrain of the Three Gorges.

National Geographic: Welcome to the Wild West of China

I wrote this awhile ago and reading it today takes me straight back to the magical trip I went on with Abercrombie & Kent last fall. Check out my latest piece here, up on National Geographic today!

China's Wild West

“Welcome to the Wild West of China,” my guide said as we touched down in Lijiang after a 4-hour flight from Shanghai. Though I didn’t yet spot any cowboy boots, I was indeed far west in the Yunnan province, at the foothills of the Himalaya; bordered by Laos, Vietnam, and Burma.

For an instant introduction to the region, I attended a performance of “Impressions of Lijiang,” with the sacred Jade Dragon Mountain looming behind the outdoor theater.  It is truly a spectacle of local culture, with hundreds of the minority Naxi people performing songs and dances. And no wonder the show is such a creative triumph; the force behind it is Zhang Yimou, famous for directing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. I couldn’t leave without purchasing a recording of the music that could transport me back to Lijiang over and over again.

The area is difficult to navigate on your own. I traveled on an Abercrombie & Kent itinerary with the warmest expert guide, Gerald Hatherly. He makes centuries of Chinese history come alive daily. A&K is known for making far-flung getaways like the Yunnan accessible — and also happens to be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Banyan Tree was our base in Lijiang, and its architecture reflected the design of the Naxi homes while providing all of the comforts of a great hotel. We rode bikes through a valley of green farmland to the village of Bai Sha, and to the infamous Dr. Ho, who has been credited with healing thousands of people in his 90 years. I received a quick eye scan from Dr. Ho, who instantly pronounced (with Gerald interpreting): “healthy” (whew!). His office contains more than 50 pots filled with therapeutic plants and herbs that he gathers in the mountains. Dr. Ho will proudly show you a letter from the Mayo Clinic thanking him for healing a terminally ill cancer patient. I am convinced that if I return in 30 years, a 120-year-old Dr. Ho will still be there, smiling and healing.

From Lijiang we took a stomach-turning drive through the mountains to Shangri-La, or Zhongdian. An easy hour-long hike through the stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge provided me with a much-needed break in the drive. These mountains are home to Khampa Tibetans, and the area provides a look at Tibetan culture, 13,000 feet above sea level. Each morning, from my room at the Songstam Retreat, I awakened to views of the jagged, snow-capped Himalaya. Gerald introduced me and my group to farmer friends of his in the town of Ringha who welcomed us in for cups of yak butter tea and to meet their new baby. A warning: the tea is a hyper-local delicacy, and makes you feel like you’re drinking a cup full of hot butter!

The hotel overlooks the 17th-century Songzangling Monastery, home to hundreds of monks practicing Tibetan Buddhism. At the bustling monastery, I toured colorful temples and meditation halls covered in murals. I was even blessed by a living Buddha (a very high-ranking lama) in his prayer hall, which kept me on cloud nine all week.

As you make your 2012 travel wish lists, I hope you consider adding this faraway corner of the globe. The Yunnan is woefully under-traveled, with Westerners accounting for only 1% of visitors. This unusual and exotic journey felt like a well-kept secret: until now!

The Banyan Tree Ringha, Shangri-La, China

The Banyan Tree Ringha is nestled in a Tibetan valley (and yes, it was surreal to be "nestled in a Tibetan valley"), surrounded by green mountains, and about an hour from the Songstam Retreat I wrote about.  One of the staff said "This is where all the overworked people from Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong come to relax. The West is simple." And it made sense right there. Like busy New Yorkers escape to Colorado or Arizona, the city dwellers of China escape to Shangri-La and the Banyan Tree Ringha.

I felt the peace that I only feel when surrounded by mountains and not much else (what I always feel at home in Arizona).  Before we entered the hotel, I spotted these two little piglets running around, glued to each other, and running around snorting. 

The hotel is surrounded by working farms, one of which Gerald at A&K had arranged for us to visit. Through the entrance we went, greeted by smiling faces and beautiful red lanterns hanging on the lobby building.  All the buildings were designed to look like Tibetan farmhouses.  To my right was a bubbling river and green hills, with lodges at the water's edge. To the left were more lodges and the spa.

Lobby

View from the lobby down to the river

Peaceful river & lodges

Loved these pathways

How cool is this bathtub?!

The spa

View of Ringha & the valley