(Although I’ve never lived in the warmer climates, this time of year I start to get pretty tired of single-digit temperatures. But sailing on a big cruise ship or baking on the beach is not everybody’s style. So we asked Contributing Editor Ruth Hill to check out a slightly different way to enjoy Baja, Mexico–a small-ship cruise out of Cabo San Lucas. Here’s Ruth’s report.)
Day one, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez log: Sunny peace on the deck of Safari Spirit. Music playing, drinks in hands, lunch underway in the yacht’s galley. Suddenly, my shipmates and I are called to our first wildlife encounter of this week’s cruise.
“Look, look–over there,” shouts Jerry, a vintner from Sonoma. “Mantas jumping like popcorn!”
In seconds, two crew members position the dinghy at the stern and invite us to ride out to meet the manta rays. I’m in. On the motor over, our naturalist–a Swede named Heather–declares the mantas’ behavior “unusual,” and ours is too. We’re like excited kids. As we approach the pod, one flat black-and-white winged creature leaps from the depths beside us and nearly lands in my lap. It’s hard to say which of us is more surprised.
As it turned out, the rays were the first of many wildlife encounters around Baja’s blue depths, often called the world’s most populated natural aquarium. In the Cortez, you can always expect the unexpected to pop up from the water, the coral reef, the next island, the coves, or the open water. This sea is home to 25 species of cetaceans, from the mighty blue whale–the largest mammal on earth–to common dolphins that travel in pods of as many as 10,000.
Scientists have counted 800 varieties of fish in the Cortez, and that abundance is not lost on the many commercial and sport fishermen who pursue them with hooks and nets. Marlin is the big prize, but you can only catch and release. A seemingly infinite population of lesser marine life feeds the big guys. Winter months are the best time to see the leviathans in their birthing cycle. It’s also the prime season for bird-watching, because where there are fish there are fowl by the thousands, overhead and at shoreline. Our only weapons for this January safari were binoculars and cameras. With their help, we “bagged” about 50 marine species among our trophies by week’s end.
The Glories of Los Cabos
I’d learned on a previous trip to Baja’s Los Cabos (The Capes) why this region has been a Hollywood playground for decades. Luxurious resorts, golf, nearly year-round sun, and beach life lure many visitors. But this trip, I was intent on discovering Baja’s considerable ecological wonders.
As if the fish and fowl weren’t enough to lure us on safari, nature serves up even more eye candy. Framing this cornucopia of wildlife are uninhabited white-sand beaches and desert mountains that produce fascinating silhouettes against pink and purple sunsets. On land treks, we found ancient forests of giant cordon cacti and lesser succulents. Baja beachcombing is always productive because shells and other sea treasures litter unspoiled white sands. We hit land daily and, like kids on a scavenger hunt, carried back shells, bone bits, and fauna remnants for Heather’s shipboard collection.
To access all these wonders, the traveler has choices. Overland rough riding and camping along the peninsula’s 1,000-mile highway spine connecting Ensenada and Tijuana with Los Cabos is one. That gives plenty of access to the desert, but not much to water. Today’s most popular mode is via commercial air from the States into Cabo San Lucas, the jumping-off point for the region’s resort high life. From there, sea safari adventurers board a variety of boats, with or without amenities and guides.
Day cruisers can sample the marine scene in a simple open boat with a local guide, both of which can be hired in town. Others, like us, choose longer adventures with some amenities.
I wanted the water, the island beaches, and the thrill of getting up close to marine and bird life. For me, that meant the spontaneity and intimacy of a small vessel, the kind that had me kayaking with Cap’n Rod or another crew member on several occasions.
Onboard, I enjoyed creature comforts such as gourmet meals, a video library of titles I could view in my stateroom, and daily housekeeping service. My safari comrades were strangers at launch, but everyone quickly settled into the easygoing shipboard camaraderie.
Life at Sea
Cap’n Rod set the tone that first morning at breakfast.
“On my ship, we teach people how to relax,” he said. “Nobody has to do anything, and we’ll do our best to see that you enjoy yourself even if all you want to do is sit in the hot tub with a book all week.”
Each day’s itinerary, he told us, would be governed by winds and the best course for wildlife sightings. Even though meals would be somewhat regular to accommodate Chef Dave, we’d be on “ish” time.
The morning after my first manta encounter, I awoke to Vivaldi playing in the main salon, deep blue waters, and Baja’s usual sunny skies. In the dining room after breakfast, Heather announced we were approaching the island Los Islotes, home to a colony of California sea lions and blue-footed boobies.
“This is prime snorkeling territory,” she said. “You can see the animals on the rocks, but putting your face underwater will open up a whole new world for you.”
Along the way, at least 400 dolphins surrounded the Spirit, some leaping and tail-slapping as they came close enough for us to hear their breathing.
How could anything top that show, I wondered. I soon found out. The underwater area near the island was in full motion when I lowered my head into the blue. It seemed the Vivaldi symphony was playing there too, as a school of blue and yellow angelfish performed rhythmic movements and several playful baby seals added the crescendo. Clearly, they had seen humans before, and they did not hesitate to brush against us. One set of soft black eyes came toward my mask. I had an overwhelming desire to grab a flipper and make acquaintance, but I resisted the impulse.
The next afternoon we visited the tiny Isla Coyote fishing community and were able to meet some of the people who live off the Cortez’s bounty. Rod had forged friendships with a few men in the community who watched for the Spirit’s weekly sail. At some point, he learned they had no water source on the island for drinking and household needs, so he offered them a generous supply. It became a weekly ritual–the men arrived at the stern in their open panga boats loaded with giant plastic barrels. While they siphoned water from our onboard reservoir, the Spanish speakers among us carried conversation for everyone.
We accepted the invitation to visit their homes, where we learned more about life in the Cortez. Though they lack water, electricity, and other comforts we consider basic, residents of Isla Coyote have the beauty and fruit of the sea around them. And like their ancestors, who have lived in the Baja for centuries, they see no reason to go elsewhere.
And after only a few days on my Baja safari, I saw their point.
Just the Facts: Baja by Boat
From November through March, several American cruise companies offer sea adventures from the Cabo region. Prices per person range from $75 for day excursions to $5,795 for a week of all-inclusive, barefoot luxury.
Small-ship operators American Safari Cruises (amsafari.com, 888-862-8881) and Baja Expeditions (bajaex.com, 858-581-3311) offer spontaneity and intimate group experiences at opposite ends of the cost scale. Lindblad Expeditions (lindblad.com, 800-397-3348) and Cruise West (cruisewest.com, 800-580-0072) operate ships of about 100 passengers. There are more structured itineraries and pricing for larger groups.
Destination info: see visitcabo.com or call 866- 567-2226.
Christmas and Valentine’s Day rank as the leading holidays to pop the big question, “Will you marry me?” Presuming the answer is “Yes,” the more fun project is choosing a diamond ring. Why don’t the two of you consider jetting to Antwerp, the diamond capital of the world, and choosing the perfect stone while on holiday? And even if you’re already hitched, an anniversary ring might provide a convenient reason to head to Belgium, as well.
I asked Melanie Walker to put together a first-time visitor’s guide to Antwerp, where finding a diamond is as easy as stepping off the train in the center of town.
“Jewelry shops line the streets just outside the station,” Melanie reports, “which is perfectly apropos since Belgium is responsible for 75 percent of the world’s diamond trading.” The business of diamonds accounts for nine percent of Belgium’s GNP. Eight out of every 10 rough-cut diamonds are handled in Antwerp, and one out of two polished diamonds passes through the city.
The diamond district is a three-square-block area of streets housing diamond brokerages, cutters, cleaners, and grading houses. Hasidic men in their distinctive black hats stroll past Armani-clad Indian businessmen. Couriers, briefcases chained to their wrists, scurry to and fro, carrying an average of $15 million worth of stones. At each corner and along most building facades, clusters of cameras record everyone who walks by; the photos are saved for 48 hours. Antwerp’s diamond district is the most highly secure area in Belgium outside the inner sanctum of the capital building.
Melanie retained the guide services of a well-regarded diamond expert, Rob van Beurden. A diamond dealer, van Beurden offers a $100 package that includes a night at the downtown Hilton and his services as a guide through the diamond district. Tagging along with a pro can have its advantages–Melanie and he were stopped on a street beneath a security camera and shown a rare, square-cut, Asscher diamond valued at around $5,000.
The best way to get a good deal on a stone, advises van Beurden, is to cut out the middleman. Find a reliable broker who can consult on the quality and cut, then have the diamond graded at one of the top three certification agencies. If a stone is accompanied by a guarantee or certificate from IGA (International Gemological Institute), HRD (Diamond High Council), or GIA (Gemological Institute of America), it’s sure to be of high quality.
It can be difficult for outsiders to find a reputable broker in Antwerp. The diamond trade is a small and closed circle of exclusive, often family-owned, businesses. If a trader shakes on a deal, the diamond is his. If he tries to get out of the deal, his reputation will be sullied and he’ll be unable to purchase diamonds from reputable dealers.
And being able to buy high-quality diamonds is paramount. Of all the diamonds mined in the world, 80 percent are a low- grade, used for industrial purposes. Most of the rest are 5 points in size or smaller. The upshot: There are very few high- quality, larger diamonds.
Do Your Homework
Before you pick a reputable dealer, do your research at home. Rob van Beurden recommends boning up on the four Cs: cut, clarity, carats, and color. (Visit the Gemological Institute of America’s web site at www.GIA.org or take a look at Rob van Beurden’s site at www.diamondhouse.be for an explanation of these terms.)
Second: Decide what is more important to you–size or quality? Japanese buyers look solely for quality, while European buyers historically like a balance between good quality and a reasonably flashy size. Americans are most interested in purchasing size at the expense of quality–as long as the sparkle isn’t impaired. Rob urges his buyers to opt for higher quality and temper their size demands. You’ll get an investment-grade stone you’ll be proud to pass on to future generations.
The show was a flop on HBO, but in the nation’s capital, the short-lived series called “K Street” coproduced by George Clooney was all the rage. K Street is shorthand for DC’s architecturally bland downtown street where many lobbyists and politically influential law firms have their offices.
With its handheld camera shots and confusing blending of actors with real political figures (James Carville, Mary Matalin, Howard Dean, and a small army of lobbyists and restaurant hosts), “K Street” the television series tried to capture the zeitgeist of a city where nothing is black-and-white, where gray is the color of life.
Each episode was shot on location in Washington (with occasional forays out of town) the week before it aired on Sunday evening, helping the scriptwriters to incorporate current events and further lending an Is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex? feel to the shows.
Publicists and press secretaries vied to get their clients or bosses on the show, and visitors to DC were sometimes surprised to see George Clooney wearing a headset and directing scenes in restaurants at lunch or dinner.
The series may be over, but the real-life settings are still thriving. Their inclusion in “K Street” only buttressed their claims to establishment status. And if you’re planning to visit the nation’s capital, you may not see Clooney at these sites, but you may well spot many of the politicians, media figures, and lobbyists who peopled the show.
Here’s a cheat sheet contributing editor Kathy McCabe drew up for some of the series’ featured locales.
Charlie Palmer Steak
101 Constitution Ave., NW; 202-547-8100
The six-month-old Charlie Palmer Steak leads the pack of DC’s places to see and be seen. Dashing, young Congressman Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) appeared in a scene shot at the restaurant for the fifth episode of “K Street.” This nontraditional steakhouse has a stark, modern décor. The wine cube at the center of the restaurant houses 3,500 bottles of American wine. There are three private dining rooms for hush-hush gatherings. When guests are seated they receive a large Palm Pilot from which to order their wine or drinks. Dishes include grilled filet mignon with roasted shallots and cabernet sauce, Chesapeake blue crab gratin with shellfish emulsion, and smoked squab with chipotle glaze. Bring a credit card with a high limit–a nice bottle of wine can bring dinner to $80 per person.
(Seen at Charlie Palmer: Washington’s most powerful players recently feted author Richard North Patterson at a book party.)
1401 K St., NW; 202-216-5988
For an incredible seafood dinner or the city’s best pork chop, DC Coast makes a great choice. “K Street” fictional lobbyist Maggie Morris held a post-event tête-à-tête at the bar here, but even on a slow night, it’s a favorite meeting place for singles who are players on DC’s political circuit. Much of the menu is inspired by New Orleans, including the gumbo, blackened Cajun catfish, and the shrimp po’boy sandwich. To help prolong the New Orleans feeling, have the buttermilk beignets for dessert.
(Seen at DC Coast: Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, back when they were married.)
400 N. Capitol St., NW ; 202-737-0400
La Colline, just two blocks from the Senate side of the Capitol building, is such a Capitol Hill institution that it starred in the first “K Street” episode, when lobbyist Morris stopped to talk to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) outside the door. The restaurant opens at 7 a.m. so movers and shakers (the restaurant is a favorite of Republicans) can hold breakfast meetings. The classic French menu includes plenty of seafood dishes. Busy Hill staffers often stop by La Colline for takeout. La Colline offers a no-nonsense meal at a moderate price; entrees start at $13.
(Seen at La Colline: Bill O’Reilly (Fox News is in the same building), “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams, every member of Congress who dines out.)
1225 19th St., NW; 202-293-9091
Even after three decades, The Palm remains Washington’s preeminent power lunch scene. The Palm’s reputation is such that HBO chose it as the venue for the “K Street” launch party, one of the hottest tickets in town this year. It’s two-and-a-half blocks off the real K Street, but it’s a popular place for television news personalities, lawyers, and pols to tuck into thick steaks and gargantuan lobsters.
(Seen at The Palm: Everyone who’s anyone.)
800 F St., NW; 202-654-0999
This restaurant attached to the International Spy Museum is a favorite of First Lady Laura Bush–she’s dined here twice. Zola specializes in “straightforward American cuisine,” including a handmade hamburger on a potato roll for lunch and red-brick roasted chicken for dinner. Earlier this year, Conde Nast Traveler named Zola one of the “best 75 new restaurants in the world.” Fictional lobbyist Francisco Dupre had drinks at the spacious bar in episode five of “K Street.” Main dishes for lunch are $10 to $23; dinner entrees run $16 to $25. Take the kids next door to the Spy Museum for a step into the world of real James Bonds.
(Seen at Zola: Robert De Niro, George Stephanopoulos, Wolf Blitzer, VA Gov. Mark Warner, basketball stars Kwame Brown and Juan Dixon.)
Hay Adams Hotel
One Lafayette Square, NW (16th and H sts., NW)
The location of the recently refurbished Hay Adams, across Lafayette Park from the White House, makes it a natural meeting place for Washington power brokers. Many gather at the hotel for breakfast; shady “lobbyist” Dupre tells his office he was approached by FBI agents while at a breakfast meeting here. If you’re interested in visiting DC for the holidays, call the Hay Adams to check on packages.
(Seen at the Hay Adams: Mikhail Gorbachev, Donald Rumsfeld, Ted Koppel, Bob Dole.)
Four Seasons Hotel
2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 800-332-3442
When Hollywood stars jet into Washington to attend the annual White House Correspondents Dinner or to testify on Capitol Hill, many stay at the Four Seasons, one of DC’s most opulent hotels. Located in Georgetown, the Four Seasons provides a central location for shopping, dining, and visiting the White House 12 blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue. The hotel’s downstairs restaurant, Seasons, is a favorite power-breakfast spot.
(Seen at the Four Seasons: Queen Rania of Jordan, the Clintons, Don Henley, and oodles of Hollywood celebs.)
1150 22nd St., NW; 202-835-0500
The Ritz vies with the Four Seasons as the poshest pad in town. No wonder “K Street” producers chose it as the location to film a Branford Marsalis concert. Just sitting in the lobby can be a people-watching extravaganza, with everyone from Hollywood stars to real-life royalty passing by. The Sports Club/LA attached to the hotel, where George Clooney played basketball regularly, offers guests five-star workout facilities. The wood- paneled bar and a gourmet restaurant, The Grill, offer exceptional service and atmosphere.
(Seen at the Ritz: Rudy Giuliani; Jack Welch; Ozzy Osbourne; Morgan Freeman; Bill Gates working out in the gym; Michael Keaton, Jay-Z, and Beyonce Knowles at the bar after Michael Jordan’s 40th birthday party.)
1200 16th St., NW; 866-308-1200
A stay at the antiques-filled Jefferson feels like an escape to a cozy country inn. But with the White House just four blocks away, it’s difficult to avoid political intrigue–especially in the restaurant and bar. On “K Street,” fictional lobbyist Tommy Flanagan met his father here to ask for $10,000. In real life, the Jefferson is still famous as the location of Dick Morris’ tryst with a prostitute, a detail that should have made Flanagan, who had a penchant for hiring dates, feel right at home. Washingtonian magazine says The Jefferson has “the best bar for smoking stogies.”
(Seen at the Jefferson: ABC News personalities such as Peter Jennings–ABC-TV’s offices are just blocks away.)
I’m writing this article from a Starbucks store in St. Paul, MN, and I don’t even drink coffee. But lately, Starbucks, along with Barnes & Noble bookstores and American and United Airlines airport lounges, have become my favorite places to work for one reason: Many of those places are Wi-Fi enabled.
“Wi-Fi” means “wire free,” as in: You can sign on to the Internet without plugging a wire from a laptop computer or PDA (personal digital assistant) into a phone jack. If you’ve bought a laptop in the last year, chances are very good that you have Wi-Fi capability built in. Whenever you turn on your computer within range of a Wi-Fi signal, your computer will alert you. And with a couple of clicks, your computer will configure itself to allow you to go online.
I travel with a spiffy Dell Latitude D600 that allows me to log onto wireless Internet networks all over the world because there’s an Intel Centrino chip built in. So there’s no complicated rejiggering of my computer and modem and, of course, no need to plug a wire into a phone jack.
Even if you don’t have a Wi-Fi enabled laptop, you can buy a Wi-Fi network card about the size of a credit card that will allow your laptop or PDA to grab a signal out of thin air. Cost: about $45. Gone forever are the days of phone cords, phone cards, network cables, and–overseas–phone jack adaptors.
I’m not the first to predict that America is about to enter a new Wi-Fi era. Soon, signing online using a PDA or laptop in all kinds of public areas will be as commonplace as cell phone use. Many hotels have already installed Wi-Fi technology, and thousands more are working on it.
The technical name of this technology is 802.11b wireless networking. (That’s the most widely deployed–there’s also 802.11a and 802.11g.) You’ll find 11b runs faster than a digital subscriber line or cable modem connection, so you’ll be able to download files or upload data at lightning speed.
Locations that offer Wi-Fi signals are called “hot spots,” and there are numerous providers of Wi-Fi service that sell their technology to locations. Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and American and United Airlines offer Wi-Fi service from T-Mobile– you’ll usually see a small sticker on the window or door that reads “T-Mobile Hotspot.”
Other locations, such as the international terminal at the Los Angeles airport, use Boingo. Itss running a special of $21.95 per month for unlimited use for 12 months with no cancellation penalty. (details: www.boingo.com)
When you first connect with a Wi-Fi service, you’ll usually be asked to provide a credit card number, though a few locations offer free Wi-Fi connections in hopes of attracting visitors.
How much does Wi-Fi access cost? T-Mobile offers several plans, beginning with a pay-as-you-go plan at the rate of $6 per hour and 10 cents for each additional minute with a one-hour minimum. Or you can pay $10 for a day’s worth of access. If you’re a road warrior who’ll be online a lot, you can pay $40 a month for unlimited access or sign an annual contract and the fee drops by $10 a month. (www.t-mobile.com/hotspot)
Finding hot spots is easy. Before you hit the road, visit a web site that lists them, such as www.wi-fihotspotlist.com. Click on the country of your choice. If you select the US, you’ll be asked to choose a state and, finally, a city. Up pops a grid with a list of public places and businesses that offer Wi-Fi service, along with their addresses. The name of the company that provides the technology is listed, as well, so if you have an account with T-Mobile, you can choose your destination accordingly. That’s how I wound up at this Starbucks at the corner of Snelling and Selby avenues in St. Paul.
In the near future, you’ll be able to roam the globe with a laptop as easily as you can now with a mobile phone. When I see a Starbucks today, I see an office. In North America alone, that means I have 5,714 offices I never had before.
I may even take up drinking coffee.
by Brooke Comer
My first trip to Savannah was on business, and I assumed I was booked into a chain hotel. Instead, I was happy to find myself at the Gastonian, a bed & breakfast in the town’s lovely historic district.
Savannah survived the fires of the Civil War because, as legend has it, President Lincoln and his wife, fans of the city, gave orders to leave it intact. The Lincolns would be pleased to know that time has been as forgiving as General Sherman’s pyromaniacal army. Savannah is a town that time forgot and General Sherman spared.
It was raining when I arrived, and moisture clung to the Spanish moss that hung from massive oaks. When the sun came out, the raindrops on the moss sparkled like jewels. Savannah’s subtropical climate keeps the city’s many gardens thick with green foliage and keeps residents under umbrellas during frequent, but short, rain showers.
Stepping inside, I immediately felt at home. Except that I don’t have an antique Persian rug and a Waterford crystal chandelier in my drawing room. In fact, I don’t have a drawing room. The Gastonian’s English and French antiques are impressive, but the soft colors or the overall arrangement that make the rooms warm and welcoming.
I happened to arrive at tea time (between 4:30 and 6 p.m.), which features a selection of tea, coffee and California wines accompanied by Vidalia onion bites, spinach tartlets, cucumber sandwiches, and tiny Southern biscuits.
Each room and suite is named for a local hero, and many rooms have canopied beds, working fireplaces, and enormous baths. My room, the Sheftall, (named for Sheftall Sheftall, a Jewish patriot and one of the American Revolution’s youngest heroes), had a balcony. On my way back downstairs, I peeked into the Caracalla Suite and saw my first canopied Jacuzzi–all eight feet of it, on a platform, brass fixtures gleaming.
Curious about Savannah’s film history, I took Hollywood Ron’s Movie Tour–more than 52 films have been made in town. Hollywood Ron actually worked on many of the movies whose locations he reveals on the one-and-three-quarters-hour tour, so he’s got stories. (Adults, $15; children, $8; under 7, free; 877-444-3456.)
There are 25 ghost tours in Savannah; I picked Sixth Sense Savannah. Owner Shannon Scott is also the Georgia director of the American Institute of Parapsychology, and I liked his honesty. He told me it was possible but “very rare” to see a ghost. I didn’t, but maybe next time. (Sixth Sense’s midnight tour rates: Adults, $35; children 16 and under, $30; 912-234-2121.)
Gastonian manager Melanie Bliss did me an enormous favor by recommending Elizabeth’s on 37th for dinner (www.elizabethon37th.com). It’s an old, gracious home that feels like a friend’s dining room. Original owner Elizabeth Terry scoured Savannah for familiar flavors from local 18th and 19th century recipes when she opened in 1981, and my tasting menu included corn pancakes with duck confit; pork tenderloin with Maytag blue cheese sauce; and more.
Fortunately, breakfast wouldn’t be served for another 12 hours. The Gastonian’s morning menu included pecan pancakes, omelets, and fruit, but I chose Eggs Bene-Quita, poached egg over fried tomato on a biscuit, with green onion cream sauce, apple-smoked bacon, collard greens, and cheese grits. I did a lot of walking that day and also skipped lunch.
My time in Savannah was too brief. I managed to visit the gallery of Jack Leigh, whose haunting black-and-white images have immortalized his hometown. A Leigh photo appears on the cover of the bestseller set in Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
When it was time to check out, I promised myself I’d be back soon. It was a promise I knew I’d keep, because in Savannah, at the Gastonian, I’d found a home.
Brooke Comer is an author and world traveler. Her new book, Gods and Hallucinations, is set in Egypt.