America

Where the experts holiday: Nick Kontis, travel author and journalist

Born in Greece on one of the most breathtakingly beautiful islands in the world, Santorini, Nicholas Kontis was brought up in the cultural capital of the Americas, San Francisco. From a very young age, he developed a passion for travel as he shuttled between California home and Athens during summer vacations. At age 12, he learned the meaning of travel immersion as he slept on couches in various relatives’ homes and learned to bake his own bread.
Fast forward a decade and Nick launched the first successful travel agency in the United States that specialised in discount around-the-world airfares. Before long, he had been featured on Arthur Frommer’s travel TV show and Peter Greenberg’s radio show while Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler hailed him as the “father of around-the-world airfares.”
Today Nick is an award-winning travel journalist and author who still calls San Francisco home, while also spending time in the Napa Valley, Greece and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

What do you like to do on holiday?
I seek people and a better understanding of my destination. At the forefront of any journey, travel begins with people. I try to tred lightly on our pristine planet. I want to volunteer more. Yes, I’m Greek, so I am a foodie. I like to seek out parts of a city with their own unique slice of culture, character and charm.  I’m a Greek-Californian living part of the year in Mexico, so surfing and diving and sea are dear to me. You know, when I was 24, I drove from Darwin to Sydney. Oh, to be a backpacker again and do more overland travel. One day, I’m psyching my mind to be 18-24 again.

Where did you last go?
Istanbul in Turkey. The U.S. State Department said: “Do not travel to Turkey.” That was the clincher!
While in Istanbul, Peter Greenberg, the great  Emmy-winning investigative reporter, interviewed me by phone and asked me what’s going at midnight on a Saturday night in Istanbul. I told him the truth, that the Turkish people remain as nice as ever. They were as curious to learn and know more about me, as I was to learn about them. I always say one thing, as you travel the world you learn that people are much more the same than different.  

Do you know where you’re going this year?
I tend to stay in Mexico during the summer. Did you know that low season in Mexico is right now until September and I’m loving it? I’ll probably end up back in Greece, but I have this plan to attempt to visit Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. I’m aiming to be in London in November and I really need to get to Australia. I want to go to Perth.

Of all the places you’ve been to, which was your favourite and why?
You know, I’m asked this so often and the canned response from a travel guy is supposed to be, “I like all places” or something along these lines. I’m going to leave out Greece, Italy and Mexico for now. Back in the day I was mesmerised by Burma -it was as if time had stood still. Even in the worst of times, people are lovely in Burma. I guess I should be saying Myanmar, but the country was known as Burma when I was there. There are so many cool things to do there from drifting down the Irrawaddy River in an old river steamer to lazing on deserted beaches in the serene Bay of Bengal. Plus, the people are passionate and inquisitive.  I had a similar feeling in Nepal, where I once spent a month.

Which destination do you wish to travel to, but haven’t yet been?
Here’s the thing: you may think that you’ve  seen it all, there’s so many new and wonderful people and places to discover. So, getting back to your question, there’s too many to count. I think I have travelled to 85 countries and still have so much left to see. The Silk Road is calling me right now as is Easter Island in Chile. And, as a diver, I want to go to Palau. Then there’s West Africa – I’ve yet to visit – and both poles. Ethiopia and Bolivia are two more. 

In your own country, what would you recommend tourists see that isn’t in the travel guides?
My country of California or my country of America? Yes, I’m kidding, but America is a big place. I think just about every place is in a travel guide nowadays. In California, parts of Yosemite are still less visited. Two other recommendations are the Russian River in Sonoma, just north of San Francisco, and Santa Cruz – a lovely seaside surf town. All these places bring back fond childhood memories.
Other parts of America that are still a bit under the radar include The San Juan Islands in Washington, The Smokey Mountains in Tennessee and Big Bend National Park in Texas. Like Australia, America has great open spaces.

How do you plan your holiday?
Funny, you ask, I’ve spent my working life acting as a travel advisor and now influencer, but I can be my own worse travel agent. However, I ask around. I tend to trust people who have visited a destination where I would like to visit, for advice. As I wrote a book titled Going Local Experiences and Encounters on the Road, Airbnb is an excellent way to travel for a bargain and to meet people. Sometimes, I do not plan at all. Many times I travel on just a one-way ticket.

How often do you go away?
If you consider Mexico, my second home as “going away” I would say I’m away from my native San Francisco for around five months. I’m in Mexico as we speak, so technically I am overseas.

Who do you travel with?
Usually, it’s just my wife and I. That said, I do a couple of trips with friends as well.

Where do you see tourism in your country, in 10 years?
Well, that’s a good question. As much as I want the man in the big white dome to succeed, I cannot support someone who I feel is not pro-people. It’s really sad in America that this guy is dividing our nation for the worse. Did you know that only 38% of Americans have passports? It sickens me that Americans don’t travel much.
I was reminded, as a travel author, not to expect big things from my book as two thirds American’s will not care about immersion into local societies around the world, when they might never leave their state. I always believe that it is my duty to attempt to change as many Americans’ perceptions of people and places that I can.  I just hope that the world still visits America. We’re still a beautiful nation.

 Nick’s first book Going Local – Experiences and Encounters on the Road is out now and available via Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Going-Local-Experiences-Encounters-Road/dp/0997894709) or his website (www.nicholaskontis.com)

Follow Nick on Twitter & Instagram @nicholaskontis
 

View the post here: http://www.justabouttravel.net/2017/06/30/where-the-experts-holiday-nick-kontis-travel-author-and-journalist/

Southern comfort in Asheville

After an artsy escape? Look to Asheville, North Carolina recently named the number one destination in the US to visit in 2017. And for good reason: the magical mountain town boasts eclectic architecture, an artistic community and a booming food and drink scene – all surrounded by spectacular natural beauty, says Kaye Holland

 

The charming enclave of Asheville is the “no one place on our best in the US 2017 list for a number of reasons,” according to Lonely Planet magazine editor, Rebecca Warren. 

“It’s been drawing creative spirits for decades and packs a big punch for a small city with its cultural offerings. It has its own symphony orchestra as well a plethora of other music venues. Plus the River Arts District now hosts more than 200 artists, making for an aft-filled afternoon strolling around studios.”

In short, it’s a liberal oasis in what is otherwise a red state, that hums with the sound of a good time being had by all.

Little wonder then, that Asheville proved popular with the A list likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Ford, John Rockefeller and Thomas Edison back in the 20s and, more recently, the Obamas (who were forced to deny they had bought a house here) and Jude Law (who spent time in the mountain town preparing for his role as American novelist and Asheville native, Thomas Wolfe, in the 2016 film Genius.

Interest piqued? TNT has the low down on the bohemian North Carolina city.

 

 

Culture vulture

George Vanderbilt - an American art collector and part of the prominent Vanderbilt family - was so taken by Asheville, that he decided to construct a country retreat modelled on a grand chateaux he had admired in Europe. Take a bow The Biltmore: an 8,000 acre estate that is today recognised as America’s largest private home and Asheville’s number-one tourist attraction. Tip: don’t skimp on time: there’s 65 fireplaces, a private bowling alley, 43 bathrooms, and 250 acres of perfectly manicured grounds and and gardens to gawp at, so be sure to dedicate at least half a day to taking in its glory.

 

Once you’ve got the Biltmore out of the way, tour Thomas Wolfe’s childhood home - a 29-room downtown house that his mother ran as a boarding home, which was immortalised as ‘Dixieland’ in the writer’s debut novel Look Homeward, Angel. While Look Homeward, Angel - which recounts the life of a young man born in western North Carolina and his burning desire to quit his small town in search of a better life - made waves all around America it wasn’t, owing to its autobiographical nature, well received in Asheville where locals were angered by Wolfe’s portrayal of their town as a less than desirable destination.

 

Best bites

Asheville is a fantastic (and affordable) foodie town. TNT loves Tupelo Honey which has two locations (one downtown and one in the southern ‘burb) – both great places to taste Asheville on a plate. Whether you go for lunch, brunch, breakfast or dinner don’t miss out on the hot biscuits with honey.
Alternatively make for  Asheville Music Hall (where every Sunday Mojo Kitchen and Lounge elevate brunch to the extraordinary), Rhubarb (run by James Beard award winning chef John Fleer) and the Sunset Terrace at the Omni Grove Park Inn – whose pretty patio is the perfect spot to tuck into gourmet Fried green tomato sandwiches and (more) Southern buttermilk biscuits…
Elsewhere chocoholics scoring a cocoa fix should look to Lexington Avenue – home to the French Broad Chocolate Lounge but unless you like a queue arriver early or late.

 

After dark

Boasting more breweries per capita than any U.S. city,  Asheville is arguably the best beer city in the America. We love Wicked Weed and Wedge (over in the edgy River Arts District) - two characterful, homegrown craft microbreweries that ooze character. Beer not your thing? Make a beeline for Ben’s Tune Up –  a sake brewery, restaurant, convenience store & music hall where it’s hard not to feel hip.
However if you’re of the opinion that bubbles are best, pop into Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar - a marriage of two of life’s greatest pleasures, books and bubbles, side by side. Or perhaps page by glass…

 

Best excursion
Fans of the great outdoors will be in seventh heaven as Asheville is surrounded by one million acres of forest including the Blue Ridge Mountains (America’s favourite drive).

Urbanites would be well advised to book a half day hike with the Blue Ridge Hiking Company, whose mission is to make the wilderness accessible and enjoyable for all. The brainchild of North Carolina native, Jennifer Pharr Davis - aka the first woman to be overall record holder on the 2,168 mile Appalachian Trail - Blue Ridge’s likeable and knowledge guides will take you to thriving wildlife and Instagram-worthy frothing waterfalls, passing rare plant species and wildlife

 

Best kept secret
As refreshing as Asheville’s boutiques, microbreweries, live music scene and ability to serve fab coffee is, it’s the friendly and fun loving locals who are arguably at the heart of what Asheville has to offer – everyone waves and says hello. Spend a while with them and you may never want to leave. Or as Wolfe - Asheville’s most famous son - wrote his sister Mabel in 1938: “I have a thing to tell you now: that is you can’t go home again….”

 

http://digitaledition.tntmagazine.com/southern-comfort-in-asheville/

The Big Easy

Forget Florida, New York, Las Vegas and the like. There’s only one American destination worth knowing about in 2017: take a bow, New Orleans. Mardi Gras - basically one big party - begins on 6 Jan  and runs until 28 February while British Airways is starting direct flights to the Big Easy from 27 March making reaching Nola a doddle. There’s no point resisting…. Much like playwright Tennessee Williams - who once famously remarked “America has only three cities, New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland” - you’ll be forever smitten, says Kaye Holland

 

The Big Easy hasn't, erm, had it an easy time of it in recent years. New Orleans was hit - and hard - by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Make no mistake: 80 per cent of the city was flooded when the levee flood prevention system failed and some 1,800 people lost their lives, while more than one million were left homeless. Then, a mere three years later, just as the Big Easy was getting back on its feet, the global recession occurred stopping tourism in its tracks. Next - to confound Nola's woes - the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico damaged the area’s ecology.

But if you're of the opinion that New Orleans’ spirit might - understandably so - have been dented, think again. The music never stopped in New Orleans which continues to be a place of impromptu parties and parades – and not just during Mardi Gras. 

Stir into the mix winter sun, fabulous food, friendly locals and live music 24/7 and you've got America's most dazzling destination. Decided to see the States' sexy southern city for yourself? Check out TNT's definitive guide below...

 

CULTURE VULTURE
Louisiana’s favourite city is unmatched when it comes to diversity (the former French colony was given to the Spanish in 1763, until America took control in 1863) and its’ colourful history can be felt in the medley of architectural styles: expect to see trademark Creole townhouses, shuttered windows, Spanish courtyards and ironic ironwork balconies. 

That said, the city’s real selling point isn't its architecture, but its street life - especially around Jackson Square which is positively teeming with magicians, miners, musicians and… mystics. We kid you not: voodoo is as much a part of New Orleans as Mardi Gras and, as such, the French Quarter is thriving with psychic readers. Even if you don’t believe in voodoo, a tarot reading makes for a great pub story on your return home!
Get the inside story on the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans – Marie Laveau – by booking a spot on Le Monde Creole’s ‘Insider’s French Quarter Courtyards & Cemetery Tour. (www.mondecreole.com) Charismatic guide, Bill Coble, brings the tour to life dispensing gossip and stories, while walking you through the heart postcard pretty French Quarter that literary greats – here's looking at Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder et al –  once called home.

Next up go to the Garden District to gawp at Lafayette Cemetery (http://www.saveourcemeteries.org/lafayette-cemetery-no-1), aka the oldest burial grounds in the city. The family tombs – many made from marble – were built above ground because of the shallow water. This lovely, leafy district is also where Anne Rice, author of Interview With A Vampire resides, and visiting her stately home has become a rite of passage for fans of both the book and Tom Cruise film adaptation. 

 BEST BITES

Foodies rejoice!  Food isn’t just for refuelling in Nola, rather it’s a culture of its own - so be prepared to return home at least one dress size larger.  Good tasting local specials to get stuck into include boudin, beignets - read deep fried fritters sprinkled with powdered sugar and served as square pieces – washed down with a creamy cafe au lait at the institution that is Cafe du Monde (www.cafedumonde.com),crawfish, jambalaya and gumbo (magic in a bowl).
TNT recommends busting out the credit card (well you only live once) and enjoying an elegant dinner on-board Steamboat Natchez (www.steamboatnatchez.com) where you can try all of the aforementioned while watching the sun set over the mighty Mississippi. Just don't forget to dress up: denim shorts and Havaianas might make the grade in Orlando and LA, but it's a different story down south.

Want to recreate some of the cuisine you’ve been consuming back home? Sign up for a cooking class - a sociable and enjoyable way to learn a little about local Nola culture while acquiring a cornucopia of classic Cajun and Creole recipes -  at Langlois Culinary Crossroads (www.langloisnola.com).

 

 

 

AFTER DARK

Boozy Bourbon Street, in the famous French Quarter, is a magnet for visitors looking to join the party – but it’s not always evident why. Actor Channing Tatum may own a bar here – step forward Saints and Sinners (www.saintsandsinnersnola.com) – but Bourbon Street has a Benidorm feel about it (although if all you’re looking for cheap drinks and liveliness, it definitely does the job). Much of the proper music scene can be found on Frenchmen Street in venues such as the Spotted Cat (www.spottedcatmusicclub.com) and Three Muses (www.3musesnola.com). These are two hotspots in which to sip a Sazerac (New Orleans’ official cocktail) or four before letting loose to live jazz and blues.  However as everywhere hip neighbourhoods come and go and there are signs that the scene is shifting to the upcoming Bywater district.

But regardless of which neighbourhood you end up in, you can be assured of a riotous party for in the words of Jay Dardenne Jnr, Louisiana’s lieutenant governor: “If it walks, crawls, swims or flies we will salute it with a festival before tossing it in the gumbo pot.”

 

 

TOP SHOPS                                                                                              In In the mood to decimate your luggage allowance? Shop up a storm on Royal Street (situated within the Vieux Carré district), which is chock full of chi chi boutiques selling enough glittering goodies to make any magpie happy). Then head - ideally by the iconic St Charles Avenue streetcar – to the Garden District and make for Magazine Street – brimming with galleries and cute cafes that you'll wish you lived around the corner from. Indeed chances are you’ll find yourself checking house prices before you leave... New Orleans is that kind of place.

 

NEED TO KNOW

For more inspiration and information, visit www.neworleanscvb.com or follow the tourist board on Facebook (New Orleans), Twitter (@NewOrleans) and Instagram (NewOrleansCVB)

 

 

 


 




 

The new breed of hostels

The much maligned hostel has - huzzah! - upped its game. The Sybarite reports on the rise of the designer hostel

Naysayers will no doubt tell you that hostels are synonymous with uncomfortable, germ-ridden bunk beds, shared bathrooms and sleepless nights (caused by the fear that someone might steal your suitcase).

They may have been right circa 2000 but they’re wrong in December 2016. Make no mistake: fast forward to today and hostels - once the preserve of dread-locked teenagers and twenty somethings - have gone decidedly upmarket, proving that it is possible to sleep in style on a budget.

These new breed of boutique hostels are a world away from their predecessors, focusing as they do on quality not quantity. Translation? Expect stylish extras - think fully equipped and, crucially, clean kitchens, complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the property, exhibition spaces, funky art work, rooftop terraces and reading rooms - all for an amazingly economic price.

What’s more owing to their communal spaces, these boutique hostels represent a great way to meet like minded travellers while simultaneously ensuring a guilt free trip: staying in a boutique hostel (most of which are family owned and run) as opposed to a big chain hotel, means that the money you’re spending will go back into the community.

The company that has arguably done more to dispel the image of hostels as dirty, shabby, crash pads for skint students, than anyone is Generator - aka the pioneer of the posh hostels.

Chic, full of character and invariably located in an enviable postcode, Generator (www.generatorhostels.com) is bridging the gap between backpacker basic and four/five star luxury chic. Case in point? Generator Paris - which opened to rave reviews in March 2015 - is situated in the French capital’s up-and-coming 10th arrondissement district and comes complete with a rooftop bar boasting breathtaking views of Montmartre and Sacré Coeur no less for under US$80 (US$36 if you don’t mind sharing with a stranger). In short, Generator mixes the comfort of a hotel with the sociable DIY aspects of a hostel, providing everything you need while doing away with all the things you don’t.

Freehand Hotels (www.freehandhotels.com) is another hot hostel group that’s changing the game by offering first class facilities (read cocktail bars and private pools) for affordable prices. Freehand made its debutin Miami back in 2012 and has since expanded to Chicago, with plans to open in both the Big Apple and New York imminently.

Out of the independent options, The Sybarite has soft spot for Santiago’s CasAltura (www.casaltura.com) which shows that style is possible on a shoestring. Situated in a beautiful 100 year old building, CasAltura is more flash-packer than backpacker thanks to its stunning rooftop terrace, well designed kitchen, comfortable lounge and dining room, satellite tv and friendly staff. The location can’t be bettered either: CasAltura is close to Mercado Central and Parque Forestal (two top Santiago sights) and within easy walking distance of most of the Chilean capital’s must sees and dos. Little wonder then, that this boutique hostel has fast become a hit with savvy Sybarites.

Bottom line? Leave your preconceptions at the door: hostel-hopping around the world no longer requires roughing it….

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Savannah - a Southern belle of a city and the backdrop for John Berendt's book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - will steal your heart says Kaye Holland

 

Barmy about John Berendt’s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – an enticing Savannah-based combination of travelogue and true crime tale? You’re not alone. Berndt’s book spent a record 216 weeks on the New York Timesbest-seller list.

Ever since I first read the sharply observed Savannah tome in which the eccentric protagonists (think voodoo practitioners, drag queens, antique dealers and charming, if amoral, entrepreneurs) live their lives against a backdrop of moss-draped oaks and shady squares,  I’ve been obsessed with visiting this hothouse of the south.

Happily, towards the end of 2014 – aka the 21st anniversary of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – I finally made it to steamy Savannah in search of the settings that had seduced me.

Want to follow in the real life footsteps of Jim Williams, Joe Odom, Luther Driggers, Lady Chablis and co? Here’s where to head…

 

Clary’s cafe
Located over on Abercorn Street, Clary’s was a favourite haunt of Luther Driggers – one of Midnight’s most memorable characters. (Legend has it that Luther carried a vial of poison 24/7 and was well known to walk flies on strings…) Driggers breakfasted at this former drug store on a daily basis and it’s at Clary’s  cafe – which today features a stained glass window depicting the cover of Berendt’s famous book – that the eccentric and author first met. Want to make like Luther? Order The Georgian – a hearty portion of ham, bacon or sausage, egg, cheese, toast and grits (so good, I’d fly back tomorrow for this side alone) washed down with a super-sized cup of Joe. Savannah, it seems, runs on caffeine, so expect to be offered a refill at no extra charge.

 

 

Mercer Williams House Museum
Savannah’s grandest mansion was the home of Jim Williams – a prominent arts and antique dealer and Midnight’sprotagonist – up until his death in 2004. This is where Williams hosted his legendary annual Christmas parties and, allegedly, shot and killed “his young lover” Danny Hansford one fateful night in May 1981. Williams’ infamous home, today owned by his sister Dorothy, is open for tours although access to the upstairs part of the house (where the Williams family still reside) is forbidden. Even if you’re not mad about Midnight (maybe you’re from Mars or something), the downstairs will delight art lovers – adorned as it is with furniture and art from Mr. Williams’ private collection including 18th and 19th century furniture, 18th century English and American portraits, drawings from the 17th century and a wide collection of Chinese export porcelain.

 

Bonaventure Cemetery
Though not Savannah’s oldest cemetery, the quintessentially Southern Gothic, Bonaventure – part natural cathedral and part sculptural garden–  is certainly its most beautiful. And its most famous: military generals, poet Conrad Aiken, Academy Award-winning lyricist Johnny Mercer and Georgia’s first governor Edward Telfair are among those buried at Bonaventure. But the 100 acre cemetery’s biggest claim to fame is for being site of the voodoo rituals vividly depicted in Midnight that were designed to get Williams acquitted (Jim Williams was prosecuted four times in the shooting death of Danny Hansford before his acquittal.) The cemetery is also famous for the ‘Bird Girl’ statue - sculpted by Illinois artist Sylvia Shaw Judson in 1938 as a garden fountain and bought by  Savannah resident Lucy Boyd Trosdal as one of three copies for the family plot in Bonaventure - which features on the cover of every copy of Midnight. But don’t expect to see the statue in Bonaventure – the tourist attraction has been moved the Telfair Academy, to help persevere its art work.

 

Club one
“Rumours and whispers carried through the streets of Savannah and across the globe. But, The Lady Chablis, The Doll, The Grand Empress has never changed, never waivered and never backed down from having her say and saying it with wit, wisdom and flair…”
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is chock full of colourful characters but none more entertaining than Lady Chablis– a black transvestite nightclub performer – who became an overnight sensation upon the book’s publication. So much so that Chablis played herself in the Clint Eastwood film adaption of John Berendt’s non-fiction best-seller and went on to appear on several talk shows including Oprah, in addition to writing a bestselling book of her own – say hello to Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah.

No visit to Savannah is complete without seeing the Lady Chablis at least once. You can catch the outrageously charming drag queen perform at Club One. It’s not a show for the faint hearted (some of her vocabulary can turn the air blue) but it is sassy, spirited and a Savannah must see.

 

Armstrong House
“Armstrong House was a lion of a house. It gloated and glowered and loomed. It even had a curving colonnade that reached out like a giant paw as if to swat the Oglethorpe Club off its high horse across the street.”
Built at the turn of the century, Armstrong House was one of Jim Williams initial real estate acquisitions and today, Sonny Seiler –  Williams’ lawyer who, like Lady Chablis, played himself in the film – has an office here. Originally owned by the Armstrong family, the historic four story building was built in a beautiful Italian Renaissance style. Seiler’s office itself is replete with 18th-century furniture, marble floors and gold-framed portraits of the lawyer’s five white bulldogs -all named Uga after the University of Georgia, and all of whom served as the university’s mascot. Want to experience Armstrong House for yourself. Tours can be arranged by calling (912) 232-7193