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A Letter From… Europe: Tbilisi, Georgia



Welcome to the most vibrant, exciting capital in Europe. No, it’s not Berlin or Madrid: I am in Tbilisi in the cultural melting pot that is Georgia.

It is hard to wrap your head around how old Tbilisi is. Archaeologists have found evidence that this area was inhabited in Paleolithic times, and by the late Bronze Age, it was already the largest settlement in the Caucasus. Alexander the Great invaded, the Georgians went to war with the Ancient Romans, and by the mid-4th century, Christianity had been adopted as the state religion. You can still bathe in the same hot springs that King Vakhtang discovered on a hunting trip more than 1,500 years ago, and walk along streets that show the architectural influence of centuries of not only invasions but also equitable cultural exchange with countries across Europe and Asia. The sense of history in this place is inescapable and wonderful.

What I really love about Tbilisi, however, is the energetic multiculturalism of contemporary life here. In the old town, churches, a mosque, and a synagogue neighbor one another. You hear a constant babble of different languages on the streets. In spite of the ghosts of the past, Tbilisi feels very young, with a creative, entrepreneurial population. The skyline is constantly changing, as are the bars and restaurants, galleries, and boutiques. I always make a point of visiting the Center of Contemporary Art or the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for inspiration but also to feel intellectually and creatively challenged. There is always something new, something thought-provoking to see and experience.

One of my most recent discoveries is Republic, a multipurpose entertainment and hospitality complex built on what had been a Soviet-era parade ground in the center of Tbilisi. The square was famous for a concrete monument nicknamed “Andropov’s Ears”: Yuri Andropov was the leader of the USSR in the early 1980s. Today, Republic hosts concerts most weekends, plus fashion shows and concerts. Europe’s top DJs and other electronic music artists get the dance floor pulsing at the Noble Savage nightclub, where the partying starts from 11pm. This is one of the best spots to experience the wild party culture that Tbilisi has built an international reputation for.

And then there’s the food. Georgia has one of the world’s great cuisines, but for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, it is far less well-known than, say, Italian or Turkish food. Perhaps the Georgians are just too busy enjoying eating and drinking to bother marketing their gastronomy abroad. At Republic, there is a choice of places to eat, but my first point of call – whatever the time of day or night – would always be Republic 24, which serves modern Georgian dining from an open kitchen. Don’t miss the Adjarian khachapuri, Georgia’s iconic cheese-stuffed bread; or the board of assorted pkhali, colorful vegan pates made from spinach, red bell pepper, or eggplant, held together with walnut paste and decorated with pomegranate seeds. It is blissful comfort food, and as Republic 24 stays open round the clock at weekends, you can drop in whatever hour you finish clubbing.

On this trip to Tbilisi I am staying at the Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel, which with its glittering glass facade has become a landmark of the city center. The guest rooms here look across the rooftops to the Caucasus Mountains, or down to the Mtkvari River which winds its way through the city. It wasn’t cold last night, so I ventured out onto the Iveria Terrace to watch the flickering of the city lights and the equally sparkly stars above. In summer, there’s a restaurant here, but in the colder months it’s better to dine indoors at the appropriately named Umami, or at Filini, the hotel’s Italian restaurant.

One of the benefits of staying at the Radisson Blu is its Anne Semonin spa, a haven of peace and the ideal place to recover after a night on the dance floor. The infinity pool overlooks the city, and I felt completely rejuvenated after an hour in the Finnish sauna and aroma steam room, the essential oils softening my skin.

I’m raring to head back out and continue exploring now, so I will bid you adieu,


Swellegant Stays: ROOMS, Tbilisi – Tbilisi, Georgia


ROOMS, Tbilisi

Tbilisi, Georgia

There is no doubt that Tbilisi is one of Europe’s coolest cities, but what is less well known is that Georgia’s capital is also blessed with some of the continent’s swankiest Design Hotels. And the hotel which capture’s Tbilisi’s laid-back-yet-funky vibe better than any other is ROOMS. In the past few years, ROOMS has established itself not only as a cultural landmark but also the place to be seen.

The architects who took on this former Soviet publishing house in Tbilisi’s Vera District had their work cut out for them. The building was industrial-looking and mostly derelict, and it is hard to imagine how they saw such potential in it. But imagination and plucky determination, combined with serious financial investment, go a long way in a place like Georgia, and the transformation is nothing short of remarkable. ROOMS’ guests fall in love with the building’s fusion of the past and present, function and aesthetics, and the array of different construction materials. Many of the components, from floor tiles to light fittings, have been upcycled, and some of the ornaments are tongue-in-cheek: a bust of Joseph Stalin has been snuck surreptitiously into a line up of Snow White’s seven dwarves.

Much as I was enticed by the prospect of being an Urban Queen, ROOMS’ best places to stay are the Garden View and Terrace Suites. All the rooms have a strong retro feel, but this is complemented with plenty of natural light and modern technology like Marshall speakers and powerful rain showers. I was quite tempted to copy the bold printed wallpaper and medieval-style chandelier combo at home, but am unsure how this over-the-top playfulness would translate in a London apartment!

As in everywhere else in Georgia, ROOMS takes eating and drinking very seriously. In fine weather nothing beats the Garden Bar, which is outdoors but feels as if you’re sitting in a greenhouse. There’s no excuse for skipping Georgia’s famous wines, but save space for one of ROOMS’ signature cocktails, too, and then move on through to The Kitchen where Danish restaurateur Frederik Bille Brahe has curated a menu mixing Nordic, American, and Georgian flavors in unforgettable combinations.  


Swellegant Stays: Sheraton Zagreb Hotel – Zagreb, Croatia


Sheraton Zagreb Hotel

Zagreb, Croatia

How should you build a new hotel in an historic city? The designers of Sheraton Zagreb Hotel knew that they would struggle to compete with the Croatian capital’s millennia of impressive architecture, so took an innovative approach: they clad their building in glass so that it would mirror the city around it. What you see on the external walls are ever changing reflections of Zagreb, past and present, a marvelous visual effect. By blending in, the hotel has become a landmark in its own right.

Although Croatia’s most famous tourist hotspots, Dubrovnik and Split, are on the coast, there are plenty of reasons to spend a long weekend in the capital. Sheraton Zagreb Hotel is in the downtown area, within easy reach of attractions like St Mark’s Church, one of the oldest monuments in Zagreb; Art Pavilion, and Ban Jelacic Square. If you are coming in winter, the hotel is also well located for Zagreb’s famous Christmas Market.

Guests at the Sheraton Zagreb Hotel are a good mix of business and leisure visitors, many of whom bring their families and pets with them as there is such a laid back atmosphere at the property. Whether you opt for a standard double room or the vast Presidential Suite, you will find there is plenty of space and all the amenities you need for a comfortable stay. And you can certainly easily combine business and pleasure: the hotel has an indoor heated pool and luxurious spa, both of which tend to be quiet.

When it comes to dining, book a table at Tomassino Restaurant. On the face of it, this is an Italian restaurant, but there is a strong and proud influence of Croatian cuisine, too. Have a cocktail in the &More bar before you eat, and then offer yourself up to the chefs. They will indulge you with gastronomic delights such as octopus ragu with polenta, followed by crème brûlée infused with lavender.

Sheraton Zagreb Hotel

Swellegant Stays: art’otel, Amsterdam, Netherlands


art’otel, Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Life equals art at Amsterdam’s swankiest hotel. Signature artist Atelier van Lieshout, one of the biggest and most prolific names in the Dutch art world, has waved his magic wand across the appropriately named art’otel, filling every space with more than 120 of his sculptures and curating an inspiring calendar of ever-changing exhibitions and cultural events. The hotel also has a partnership with the STRAAT Museum, Amsterdam’s impressive gallery of street art and graffiti, which is a short ferry ride away.

art’otel occupies an enviable location, overlooking a canal and Amsterdam Centraal Station. It is a grand historic building, but the traditional architecture belies the funky interior. In fact, stepping into the lobby, your first impression may well be that this is a contemporary art gallery or a very fashionable club, and the stylishly-dressed clientele only adds to that ambiance. The quality of the people-watching is second to none.

In this busy city, art’otel’s 107 bedrooms are simple sanctuaries, calm and well-equipped with Egyptian cotton linens, mood lighting, and Marshall Bluetooth speakers for a high-quality soundtrack to your stay. There are Atelier van Lieshout artworks on the walls here, too, so you will have something meaningful to gaze and reflect upon even as you lie in bed.

There are uncountable places to dine in Amsterdam, but one of the best restaurants is within art’otel. Chef Henrique Sá Pessoa combines the flavors of his native Portugal with a fusion of Asian cuisines at ARCA Restaurant. The mid-week four-course menu offers particularly good value at €47 per person, with dishes such as Robalo (seabass, cauliflower, roasted mushroom, and fricassé sauce) and Lombinho de porco iberico. The accompanying wine list is superb and the young, enthusiastic sommelier has a sharp nose and palate, so he can recommend some imaginative, thoughtful wine pairings.

For a nightcap, pop into the ARCA Bar, where the cocktail list mirrors the restaurant’s Portuguese-Asian influences. It’s one of Amsterdam’s coolest watering holes as celebrities and art lovers alike brush shoulders in the art’otel Gallery and then move on here for a drink.


The Birthplace Of Wine


The country of Georgia is building its brand as the birthplace of wine. Those in the know also rave about Georgian cuisine, including delicious khinkali (steamed dumplings) and khachapuri, a loaf of bread stuffed with melted cheese and which is altogether superior to pizza. What surprised and delighted me, however, was the breathtaking scenery of the Caucasus Mountains, a destination offering everything from ancient churches to lively music festivals.

Georgia’s Mtskheta-Mtianeti region lies close to the capital, Tbilisi, and it is an all-season tourist magnet. The historic town of Mtskheta is known by Georgians as Little Jerusalem; it’s the country’s former capital and holiest site, as it was here at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers that Christianity was proclaimed as the official religion of Georgia in 337 AD. Yes, you read that right: Georgia was one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity, almost 1,700 years ago. Together, Mtskheta’s Jvari Monastery and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Historical Monuments of Mtskheta; and the town is the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church. The ancient monuments testify to the region’s high culture; its sophisticated arts of stone masonry, pottery, as well as metal casting and processing; and the social, political, and economic evolution of this mountain kingdom which has supported artisans for some four millennia.

From Little Jerusalem to Little Switzerland, the equally affectionate moniker given to the mountain resort of Gudauri, it is just a little over an hour’s drive. The city’s buzz subsides as the car climbs, and it is replaced with mountain tranquillity and a bit of molkhena, a useful Georgian word which translates as “the act of having fun”. It’s a term I’ll use a lot in the days to come. The air feels crisp and there are eagles flying above your head. For much of the year you are greeted with the sight of sparkling snow, as the altitude of the peaks is relatively high, though in mid-summer the white powder is replaced by verdant green.

Gudauri is young as mountain resorts go, but it is well located for year-round travel: you can horse ride and raft on the Aragei River, hike or take an off-road jeep tour to remote landmarks like the Georgetown Trinity Church above the village of Stepantsminda. There’s plenty of wildlife here, birds and mammals alike, so carrying a pair of binoculars is advised.

I arrived in Gudauri on the cusp of winter and spring. There was still plenty of snow for skiing and snowboarding, but already residents and tourists alike wanted to be outdoors in the bright sunshine, welcoming the coming of longer days. Many of us had come for Winter Jazz, rightly described as “Georgia’s hottest party in fresh air”. It is an annual event organised by Eastern Promotions, the Mountains Tracks Agency,  and the Georgian National Tourism Administration. Tbilisi is regularly cited as one of Europe’s top party capitals, and the festival draws big name artists and their fans out into this mountain paradise. The 2024 programme kicked off with Tbilisi native Soulidan, a name which means “from the soul”. It is an intense state of being, and when the music started it was impossible not to dance ‘soulidan’ as soon as I heard the beat.

There are plenty of hotels now in Gudauri, but I wanted to stay in the heart of the action, at the Alpina Hotel. The mountains are visible from every window, as well as from the huge outdoor terrace, and the peaks do look rather like the Alps. Alpina is busiest in winter as it is close to Gudauri’s main chair lift, but later in the season it’s a relaxing spot to retreat to for a long weekend. There’s a laid back atmosphere and children are welcome, and with plenty of well designed public spaces there are lots of opportunities to get chatting with other well traveled and engaging guests. Gudauri seems to attract those kinds of people.

What you realize quickly when you come to Georgia, and the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region in particular, is that everything in this culture is about food. I thought I was coming to Gudauri for jazz, but really it was an elaborate decoy: the real focus of this and every other Georgian event, it seems, was eating and drinking. The festival opens its arms to visitors, serving hyper local produce and also pop ups introducing other region’s speciality cuisines. I indulged in a modern twist on a Georgian classic: vegetarian lobio beans, in this instance filling a sandwich made by the small, independently owned Andamagi. It’s typical of the cuisine of Racha, a highland area in western Georgia, as I learnt whilst sipping wine from the family-run Jobava Winery in Kakheti.

Every Georgian I’ve met, in Georgia or abroad, has prided themselves on their warm hospitality: they see it as the anchor of their national identity. As a guest, especially one who might be hungry, you are enthusiastically welcomed into conversations, as if you were family or an old friend. As each stall holder prepared my food, they carefully wrapped it in stories from their region. It’s a beguiling approach and one which made me want to visit every village, every stream, every vineyard that they described.

Even once my stomach was full, my eyes kept wandering towards a khinkali stall, where two young men were preparing these popular snacks from scratch. Everyone could see the process before they ate them hot. I was told that the very best khinkali are made in Pasanauri, a small town on the Georgian Military Road, and I knew then that I would have to make a gastronomic pilgrimage to taste them for myself. The following morning, I did just that, sinking my teeth into the juiciest khinkali at Chabarukhi Restaurant on the way back to Mtskheta. Learning of my newfound obsession with their khinkali, the ladies in the kitchen invited me to make some of my own.

With the dough between my fingers, I was finally able to grasp Georgians’ philosophy behind everything that they do. “There is wisdom in everything,” said my tour guide, Kartlos Chabashvilli of Inter Georgia Travel. “We even believe the way you treat wine during the winemaking process is how the wine will then treat you.” Keeping this in mind, I shaped my khinkali more carefully and focused on positive thoughts, just to be on the safe side.

Georgia stays with you, long after you depart. The conventional picture of wine, khinkali, and mountains is true, but it is a gateway into understanding and appreciating the country’s more diverse, united and strong soul. I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a goodbye in Georgia. Instead, there is nakhvamdis, or “until we see each other again”. It captures a very Georgian essence, of hope and warm affection. Nakhvamdis, Georgia!


NEW Chef-Led Culinary Cycling Tour of Sicily Announced by Tourissimo

by Sophie Ibbotson

(Turin, Italy) — Tourissimo is thrilled to announce a NEW culinary cycling tour of Sicily being led by two different celebrity chefs. Chef Mary Sue Milliken, a James Beard and Julia Child Award-winning chef, cookbook author, activist, and media personality best known for her modern Mexican concept, is back for her seventh tour with Tourissimo. She will be accompanied by her friend, Chef Bob Blumer, Food Network TV host, author, artist, and eight-time Guinness World Record holder. Guests will spend seven days cycling their way through the heart of Southeast Sicily, a seductive and bold region, where every pedal stroke includes a gastronomic journey that mirrors the island’s vibrant cultural tapestry. The tour is scheduled for May 26 – June 1, 2024, and starts at $5,495 per person double. That rate includes bicycles, meals, accommodations, and activities. Non-cyclists are welcome, and e-bikes (pedal-assisted system) are available.

“As you explore the enchanting eastern provinces of Siracusa and Ragusa, let the aromas and tastes of Sicily’s distinct cuisine be your muse and our guest chefs be your expert eye,” said Beppe Salerno, Co-Founder of Tourissimo.

While this region is celebrated for its Baroque and Norman architecture, artistic heritage, and intellectual contributions, it’s the food that truly steals the show. Sicilian cuisine is a delightful blend of influences from Phoenicians, Greeks, Moors, Arabs, and Normans, creating a unique culinary tradition. Citrus, wild fennel, resins, and pine nuts, to name a few, make any dish distinctively Sicilian. Sicily is also a wine-lover’s paradise with 23 DOC zones, offering a wide variety, complexity, and abundance of Bacchus’ unique gift.

“Picture yourself dining under the Sicilian sun, indulging in dishes that showcase the island’s bounty – ripe tomatoes, succulent eggplants, and artichokes bursting with flavor,” said Tourissimo Co-Founder, Heather Dowd. “Seafood takes center stage, reflecting the island’s proximity to pristine waters. And, of course, no Sicilian feast is complete without an abundance of pasta and the finest olive oil.”

But this tour isn’t only about exquisite cuisine; it’s a holistic experience. Guests will cycle through landscapes adorned with rolling hills and vineyards, coastlines kissed by aquamarine waters, and ancient sites steeped in history. The guest chefs will play a vital role in understanding the local productions and the preparations that better tell the story of the territory.

“Immerse yourself in Sicily’s past and present, where every turn of the pedal unveils not only stunning vistas but also the authentic and mouthwatering essence of this captivating island,” said Salerno. “Join us on a journey where each taste tells a story, and every flavor is a piece of Sicily’s unparalleled culinary heritage.”


  • Delve into the diversity of Sicilian cuisine (a cultural crossroads)
  • Explore Scicli, Ragusa, Modica, and Noto (UNESCO World Heritage Sites)
  • Savor breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea
  • Enjoy an authentic Sicilian cooking class
  • Tour of Ragusa (a Baroque gem)
  • Visit producers and tastings including olive oil, almonds and almond milk (Slow Food presidium), DOP cheese, fruits and vegetables not found in continental Italy
  • Ride the scenic farmland of the southern island dotted by historical sites
  • Learn how and why the Mediterranean Diet (an intangible UNESCO Cultural Heritage) blends with Arab and Moorish Flavors

About Tourissimo: We are Italy experts and have several decades of combined experience in all facets of the adventure travel industry.  We came together to combine our strengths and focus on what we do best: create and operate tour programs that showcase the best of Italy. In addition to offering fixed departures in some of Italy’s most enchanting areas, we work with tour operators, travel agents and group leaders to provide high-quality, intelligently designed and exciting custom itineraries all over the country.

This is a brand-new Chef Bike Tour itinerary. Back in 2018, Mary Sue was our guest chef on the western side of Sicily, and now she is back to cover the rest of the island. Non-riders are welcome. E-bikes are available.


Timeless Elegance in Barcelona


Stepping into the grand lobby of El Palace Barcelona together, we were immediately wrapped in an atmosphere of elegance and history that promised an unforgettable couples’ retreat. The hotel, with its stunning marble floors, majestic chandeliers, and warm, intimate welcome, felt like a portal to another era, a place where luxury and romance have danced together since its opening in 1919. This iconic establishment, which has played host to countless discerning travelers over the years, seemed to welcome us into its storied fold with open arms.

Our room was a testament to the perfect blend of classic elegance and modern amenities, designed to provide an enclave of comfort and luxury for us to retreat to. The high ceilings, plush furnishings, and rich textiles made it a sanctuary where we could unwind together, surrounded by the kind of attention to detail—from bespoke linens to state-of-the-art entertainment systems—that spoke of a commitment to excellence we both deeply appreciated.

Waking up to our first morning, we indulged in a breakfast experience at the Garden, a serene oasis that felt a world away from the bustling city outside. The gourmet selection of local and international delicacies was presented with creativity and care, setting an exquisite tone for the day ahead.

Eager to explore the architectural marvels of Barcelona, we took advantage of a private guided tour arranged by the hotel. Walking hand in hand through the Gothic Quarter, gazing up in awe at the Sagrada Familia, and meandering through the whimsical pathways of Park Güell, we were immersed in the rich tapestry of art and history that defines this vibrant city. With Gaudí’s masterpieces as our backdrop, every moment felt like stepping through a living museum, a shared journey of discovery that brought us even closer.

Returning to El Palace in the afternoon, we were drawn to the tranquility of the Mayan Luxury Spa. Choosing treatments that promised relaxation and revitalization, we found ourselves enveloped in a ritual that was both ancient and luxuriously modern, emerging feeling renewed and deeply connected.

Dinner at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Amar Barcelona, was a highlight of our stay, a culinary journey that celebrated the rich tapestry of Catalan cuisine with innovative twists and global influences. Overseen by chef Rafa Zafra, each dish was a discovery, paired with selections from an expertly curated wine list that elevated our meal into an unforgettable dining experience.

The leisurely pace of our second day allowed us to savor the luxury that is El Palace Barcelona. A late breakfast in bed, a leisurely afternoon by the rooftop pool overlooking the city and the sea, and a sunset yacht charter arranged by the hotel’s concierge—it all felt like a dream crafted just for us, complete with champagne and canapés against the backdrop of the Mediterranean.

Our evenings were spent enveloped in the sophisticated charm of the Bluesman Cocktail Bar, where the live jazz and expertly crafted cocktails provided the perfect soundtrack to our nights, encapsulating the golden age of jazz and the timeless romance of Barcelona.

As our stay drew to a close, we found ourselves lingering over breakfast, not wanting to leave the cocoon of luxury and shared memories that El Palace Barcelona had woven around us. More than just a hotel, it had been our gateway to an experience that transcended the ordinary, leaving us with a longing to return before we had even departed. From the impeccable service to the exquisite surroundings, our time here was not just a journey into the heart of Barcelona’s grandeur but a celebration of love, culture, and the art of travel itself.

Sidebar on Suites:

Signature Suites at El Palace Barcelona:

A Haven of Luxury

El Palace Barcelona, a landmark of luxury and history, offers an array of signature suites that serve as the epitome of opulence and comfort. Each suite is a testament to the hotel’s commitment to elegance, blending classic design with modern luxuries to create unique spaces that cater to the discerning tastes of its guests. Here’s a closer look at the exceptional experiences these suites offer:

The Salvador Dalí Suites

Named after the illustrious surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, who was known to frequent the hotel, these suites embody a blend of artistic flair and luxurious comfort. Featuring unique decor that pays homage to Dalí’s creative genius, guests can immerse themselves in a space that feels both inspiringly artistic and comfortably lavish. With spacious living areas, stunning views of the city, and bespoke furnishings, these suites offer a truly unique stay.

There are a multitude of signature suites, but the one which stand out for us was the Josephine Baker Suite…

The Josephine Baker Suite at El Palace Barcelona

El Palace Barcelona pays tribute to the legendary entertainer and civil rights icon Josephine Baker with its exclusive Josephine Baker Suite. This suite captures the essence of Baker’s dynamic spirit and her glamorous, trailblazing lifestyle, offering guests a unique blend of history, luxury, and style.

Design and Decor

Inspired by the Jazz Age glamor that Josephine Baker epitomized, the suite is a harmonious blend of Art Deco elegance and contemporary comfort. The decor reflects the sophistication and allure of the 1920s and 1930s, with luxurious fabrics, bold geometric patterns, and a palette that mirrors the classic elegance of that era. Every detail, from the furniture to the artworks, has been thoughtfully chosen to evoke the ambiance of the period, creating an immersive experience for guests.

Features and Amenities

The Josephine Baker Suite offers an expansive layout that includes a sumptuous bedroom, a lavish living area, and a sleek, modern bathroom equipped with high-end amenities. The suite’s highlights include a state-of-the-art entertainment system, a fully stocked minibar, and bespoke toiletries. Large windows afford panoramic views of Barcelona, filling the suite with natural light and connecting guests to the vibrant energy of the city.

Exclusive Services

Guests of the Josephine Baker Suite enjoy a range of exclusive services designed to provide an unparalleled stay. This includes personalized concierge service to cater to every desire, from arranging private city tours to securing reservations at Barcelona’s top dining establishments. Additionally, suite guests can avail themselves of private butler service, ensuring that every aspect of their stay is seamless and luxurious.

A Tribute to a Legend

Staying in the Josephine Baker Suite is not just about experiencing the height of luxury; it’s also a homage to Baker’s remarkable life and legacy. The suite serves as a reminder of her impact on the arts and her tireless advocacy for civil rights, making it an inspiring space for guests who appreciate history, culture, and the power of an individual to make a difference.

The Josephine Baker Suite at El Palace Barcelona offers a unique opportunity to step back in time to the Jazz Age, enveloped in the luxury and style that defined Josephine Baker’s life. It’s an ideal choice for those seeking an accommodation experience that combines opulent comfort with a rich historical narrative.

Gastronomic Gallivants: Hostal de la Gavina Spain


By Sophie Ibbotson

Not too long ago I was told that Girona is the gastronomic capital of Costa Brava, the southeastern coast of Spain. But though that might be true, bigger does not always mean better: sometimes the best food is not to be found in the city but tucked away in a village or small town. The resort of S’Agaró is a case in point: if you are planning a culinary adventure in Catalonia, by all means visit Girona, but then head to Hostal de la Gavina overlooking the Bay of Sant Pol, a 30-minute drive south of Girona.

As you approach Hostal de la Gavina, the proximity of the sea grabs your attention. The sea spray and the breeze cool the air, and the turquoise blue of the water and the gentle sound of waves crashing soothes the mind. This grand old hotel, one of Europe’s finest, has stood here for generations, its gardens growing up around the buildings and creating a green oasis on the coast.  The hotel is intimate enough to feel like a family home, albeit one which has always been the favorite retreat of politicians, film stars, artists, and socialites, but wandering in these expansive grounds you can always find space to be alone. And if you do want to stretch your legs further, the Cami di Ronda coastal path is on your doorstep.

Days typically revolve around meals, not exercise, however. The hotel’s gastronomic delights deter guests from straying too far. Breakfast is on the terrace, lunch by the pool or on the beach, cocktails and snacks are in the garden, and come dusk you will want to dress elegantly for dinner in Candlelight by Romain Fornell.

Having stayed for a long weekend at Hostal de la Gavina and thoroughly indulged, three culinary experiences stand out. The food, atmosphere, and surroundings were distinct, but what they share in common is the freshness of the ingredients, the attention to detail of the chefs, and the extremely high level of service from the waiting staff.

Candlelight by Romain Fornell is Hostal de la Gavina’’s flagship restaurant, a carefully designed space spilling out from the hotel’s main building onto an outdoor terrace whenever the weather is warm enough. And on a balmy September evening, I had no need for a jacket or wrap. Although there is a choice of dishes, opt for a set menu with wine pairings, as the chef and sommelier have worked together  to curate an exquisite combination of flavors that even the most passionate food and wine lover is unlikely to be able to match. The dishes almost looked too good to eat.

But at Candlelight, the food and wine are only half the experience; the rest is the ambience. A talented pianist performed a medley of classical, jazz, and pop favorites, and the music and star-studded sky above created such a romantic atmosphere that one couple left their meal between courses to dance passionately on the patio. I have two left feet and an attention-shy partner, else I’d have been up there too.

For something a little more casual the following day, we dined at Gavina Terrace, a patio restaurant spreading out into the gardens. There is an excellent menu of local wines, including sparkling Cava, and dishes are served tapas style. Spain is renowned for its small plates, and rightly so. It is one of my favorite ways to dine as between two people you can try half a dozen dishes or more. With the sea so close by, it would have been a crime not to opt for the seafood, but the stand-out dish for me was small artichokes lightly battered and fried, dipped in garlic aioli. The fiery tang of the chorizo made quite an impression, too. As we ate and drank, slowly over several hours, we chatted in a relaxed fashion and people-watched. Hostal de la Gavina is a popular location for weddings, and one lucky couple were tying the knot in the gardens that night.

As an Englishwoman abroad, I associate seaside restaurants with fish and chips (fries), especially when from the window you are watching children building sandcastles and splashing in the sea, their mothers sunbathing and casually watching on. But at Taverna del Mar, a short walk away from the hotel on the beachfront, I was in for a surprise. The crisp blue and white interior, though faintly nautical in theme, was the first clue that this was something higher end. The second clue was that the waiter wheeled past a fish trolley. If there was a menu, I did not see it: it is far more rewarding to pick the exact fish or shellfish you want to eat from the morning’s catch.

We popped the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine and started munching our way through a bowl of mixed local olives whilst the waiter talked us through the fish on a bed of ice. The huge prawns and sea bass were easily identifiable; species like the sea urchin, less so. I was enthralled, and had no idea that you can catch great big tuna off the southern coast of Spain. There was a strong temptation to order everything, but with a sigh I passed responsibility for decision making to the chef, asking that he simply prepare a selection of whatever he thought was best that day. As with the set menu at Candlelight, it was the right decision. The chefs are the experts, after all.

The highlight of this lunch was the salt crusted sea bass. It arrived on a platter, the rough sea salt piled high in a mound. Skilfully, the waiter carved through the salt, making a satisfying crunching sound. Removing the top layer, he revealed the creamy white fish inside, soft and lightly cooked to perfection. Despite its outer casing, the taste of the salt wasn’t overly strong; it was just a faint reminder of the sea. I did ask for it with a portion of fries, but they were crisp and a deep, glorious gold color, nothing like the limp seaside fare wrapped in paper that I would have got at home. 

I am increasingly of the mind that, as in Italy, there is no such thing as a bad meal in Spain. But there is still a wide canyon between a good meal and an unforgettable one, and the delightful thing about Hostal de la Gavina is that it delivers the latter time after time.


Luxury Inn Mendocino


Nestled along the rugged coastline of Mendocino, California, the Brewery Gulch Inn stands as a beacon of luxury, offering a haven for those seeking an escape from the ordinary.

My recent long weekend at this enchanting retreat was nothing short of a symphony of indulgence and relaxation.

As I approached the inn, a sense of tranquility washed over me. The architecture seamlessly blended with the surrounding redwoods, creating a harmonious connection with nature. The scent of the Pacific Ocean lingered in the air, adding an extra layer of coastal charm to the experience.

Stepping into the inn felt like entering a realm of refined elegance. The warm hues of the wood-paneled walls, coupled with tasteful artwork, created an inviting ambiance. The attention to detail was evident in every corner, from the carefully selected furnishings to the strategically placed vases of fresh flowers.

The accommodations were a testament to the inn’s commitment to luxury. My room, adorned with plush linens and antique furnishings, offered a cocoon of comfort. A private terrace provided breathtaking views of the ocean, setting the stage for serene moments of reflection as the sun dipped below the horizon.

Dining at the Brewery Gulch Inn was unique. The evening menu changes frequently and is based on freshly sourced ingredients; hence the fluidity. Guests enjoy wine and beer, also local, as they enjoy a culinary treat that the inn does not refer to as dinner — yet it is heavy enough to be called just that. This evening gathering brings guests together through local flavors and global influences that are quite often the topic of conversation.

One of the highlights of my stay was sipping on rare vintages while overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Since the inn is close to a multitude of wineries, we were spoiled for choice. This activity made for unforgettable evenings, where time seemed to stand still.

For those seeking relaxation, the inn’s spa facilities provided the perfect sanctuary. Indulgent massages and rejuvenating treatments offered a blissful escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The serene atmosphere of the spa, coupled with the skilled therapists, transported me to a state of pure serenity.

Exploring the surroundings of Mendocino was a delightful adventure. The inn’s proximity to the coastline allowed for leisurely strolls along pristine beaches, where the crashing waves provided a soothing soundtrack. The nearby redwood forests offered a chance to connect with nature, the towering trees standing as silent witnesses to centuries of tranquility.

As I reluctantly bade farewell to Brewery Gulch Inn, I couldn’t help but reflect on the magical moments that defined my long weekend. The seamless blend of luxury, natural beauty, and impeccable hospitality had created an experience that transcended the ordinary. Mendocino’s hidden gem had left an indelible mark, and I departed with a heart full of memories and a promise to return to this haven of coastal splendor.

A Retreat to Remember: Discovering Bliss at UCLA Lake Arrowhead Lodge


Nestled in the mountains of Southern California…

lies a serene destination known as UCLA Lake Arrowhead Lodge. Recently opened to the public, it was here that my friend Lisa and I embarked on a remarkable journey, immersing ourselves in the beauty of nature while being graciously hosted on this iconic retreat that would serve as our sanctuary for the next few days. Join us as we explore the enchanting UCLA Lake Arrowhead Lodge, experiencing its breathtaking surroundings, embracing its warm hospitality, and creating memories that would forever hold a special place in our hearts.

The dense forests and shimmering lake…

provided a stunning backdrop, setting the stage for an unforgettable experience. Approaching the lodge, we marveled at its rustic elegance, embraced by the crisp and beautiful surroundings. The UCLA Lake Arrowhead Lodge emerged in the distance, a charming retreat of alpine-inspired architecture. The true essence lies not only in its picturesque landscapes but also in its warm hospitality. From the moment we set foot into the lodge, we were greeted with genuine smiles, ensuring that our stay would be nothing short of extraordinary. The comfort of our accommodations, along with the impeccable service, made us feel truly at home. The staff, always attentive and friendly, went above and beyond, ensuring that every need was met, making our experience even more memorable. After settling into our two-story cozy chalet nestled amidst towering trees, we breathed in the crisp mountain air, and joined our group for a sunset cruise on the lake.  Golden rays of sunlight spilling behind the mountains. The serene lake shimmered in the gentle breeze, quite yet perfect. As we glided across the lake’s surface, we couldn’t help but be captivated by the beauty of the surrounding homes, nature’s masterpiece adorning the lakesides. Our guides gave us insight on the who’s who of the town and the famous names who have lived and filmed movies at the lake.  Watching the sun tuck behind the mountains was not far from magical.

During our stay…

at UCLA’s Lake Arrowhead Lodge, the plant based meals at the Lodge not only catered to dietary preferences, but also painted an encompassing and enjoyable experience for all palates. The variety of meals exhibited unparalleled culinary brilliance. The freshness and tastiness of our meals were simply extraordinary.   The vegetables embodied a baseline of natural, enriching taste – whether baked, sautéed, or served raw in a light salad. Indulgence like risotto, were topped with a medley of mushrooms, simmered in light, savory sauce that caused a joyful dance of flavors on the tongue. My favorite and most memorable dish was the Chickpea Curry, impeccably prepared and seasoned, offering a hearty balance to the light yet refreshing soup starter.  The cuisine was one of the best parts to experience at the lodge.  We enjoyed buffet style for breakfast and lunch and a plated dinner, always accompanied by a variety of healthy and flavorful options to select from.

UCLA Lake Arrowhead Lodge offers a myriad of activities, enticing us to explore and create lasting memories. A state of the art Pickle Ball court, hiking trails through the property made for a fun yet challenging adventure, specifically “Cardio Hill”, right outside our chalet.  Lisa enjoyed pushing herself and completing the ropes course climbing session, an obstacle course used for team building and pushing yourself past your mental and physical limits.

While adventures filled our days, moments of relaxation and connection were equally cherished.  The craft chocolate wine pairing and education was an activity to remember. The lodge’s communal spaces provided a tranquil setting to unwind and connect with fellow guests. Fireside chats at the fire pits, making smores created a warm and inviting ambiance. Connecting and rejuvenating were one of our main goals we wanted to get from our stay, and that is exactly what we received.

Evenings at the lodge…

held their own magic. The chill in the air embraced us as we settled down to our chalet’s crackling fireplace, sharing our experience and laughter while sipping on steaming mugs of hot tea from the lobby’s  24 hour self service drink station. The scent of toasted marshmallows lingered, a sweet reminder of the cozy fireside moments we cherished. As darkness blanketed, we walked to the main lawn, gazed up at a sky filled with stars, their twinkling luminescence creating a dreamlike atmosphere.

The next day was filled with wellness activities and mindfulness practices, accompanied by the perfect setting of the mountains, lake, and nature surrounding us.  We started our second day with yoga on the Zen Deck, overlooking the tree scape and the lake.  The perfect way to start off the calm day in the mountains. The transformative mindfulness walk to one of the oldest trees on the property  was the best experience of the day, guided by wellness coach Anne Fernandez.  The poolside social was special with the fresh watermelon cocktails hosted by the amazing lodge management team.

We couldn’t help but reflect on the transformative experience we had encountered. As we woke up to the most beautiful sunrise the next day, we savored our last breakfast, we gazed upon the serene lake one last time. A source of inspiration and solace our new sanctuary, to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Our journey to UCLA Lake Arrowhead Lodge was nothing short of enchanting. With gratitude in our hearts, we bid farewell to the marvelous lodge and welcoming staff, forever grateful for the haven provided to us.  Every moment was a testament to the power of retreat and rejuvenation. UCLA Lake Arrowhead Lodge not only provided a haven amidst nature’s greatness but also reminded us of the importance of connection and reflection. As we departed, we carried with us a renewed sense of peace, gratitude, and memories that would forever remain etched in our minds. UCLA Lake Arrowhead Lodge has truly left an indelible mark on our souls, reminding us of the profound impact that nature, great food and heartfelt hospitality can have upon our lives.

For more history and details visit www.lakearrowheadlodge.com

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