Friday, September 25, 2015

Hotel Domestique: “Far from Everywhere, Close to Anywhere”

The French countryside comes to South Carolina at Hotel Domestique; an elegant European-style farmhouse  (Taylor)
TRAVELER’S REST, SC  Tucked amid the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near the border of North and South Carolina, rests an elegant boutique hotel that blends Old World luxury with contemporary European flair.

Domestique beckons the moment you arrive  (Taylor)
Hotel Domestique is the inspiration of world class professional cyclist George Hincapie and his brother Rich. And, just as the hotel slogan says, Domestique is “Far from Everywhere, Close to Anywhere.

Situated in rural countryside, Domestique is just 10 miles from Traveler’s Rest, SC, 20 from Greenville and 40 miles from the eclectic charms of Asheville, NC.

Like everything about the 30-acre property, the sophisticated style of a countryside European farmhouse has earned Hotel Domestique the distinction by Yahoo Travel as one of  the “20 Hotels That Are The Destination.”

Subtlety is the key to the hotel’s personality. As one would expect, with an owner who competed in 17 Tours de France, cycling is the primary attraction of the 13 room property, but that is far from the diversity of amenities the Hincapie’s have incorporated into their concept.
George Hincapie was a world class professional cyclist for 19 years, including 17 Tours de France  (wikipedia)
In fact, the inspiration is derived from George’s travels throughout Europe during his days of professional cycling. “I wanted to create a world class destination which is proud of its service and a product in atmosphere of elegant charm, sophisticated dining and gracious living that combine with an active lifestyle,” he says.

Old World elegance blend with modern charm  (Taylor)
Though Domestique opened in 2012, the same year Hincapie retired from competition, it has already achieved its concept of “old farmhouses and contemporary design.”

Greenville architect Eric Brown had the unique ability to capture the essence of the concept and bring it to life far beyond the expectations of George and Rich. The result, a small hotel that is either “elegantly rustic” or “rustically elegant.” Whichever you choose, it’s an idea that works.

One of George’s peeves during his travels were  traditionally small European rooms. Realizing that American travelers are accustomed to rooms with room, Domestique accommodations are spacious and well appointed including the bathrooms.
Bedrooms and baths are spacious, comfortable and filled with subtle touches that make guests feel at home  (Taylor)
Upon arrival, the first thing a visitor notices is the hotel’s welcoming atmosphere. It took a year of renovations to establish the “natural farmhouse” appearance before Domestique opened its doors in an ambiance of cultivated hospitality mixed artistic pizzazz.

Domestique has two levels with 3 rooms downstairs, 10 rooms upstairs  (Taylor)
Perhaps, more than anything, the subliminal touches of  Hotel Domestique provide its international flair.

Guests are treated to a welcome glass of champagne at check-in.

No chocolates on the pillow at Hotel Domestique. Rather visitors are treated to delightful pastries from the kitchen each night before retiring.

Unoccupied rooms leave doors open so guests can explore the property as if it is their own.

Blue Ridge Mountains are a land for all seasons (Taylor)
Believing that visitors should be immersed in the experience of Domestique, the Hincapie’s have eliminated mini-bars in favor of a room on each level of the hotel where complimentary soft drinks, water or wine are available along with a selection of small snacks.

There is also a small library tucked away off the main salon and wi-fi is free for guests who “can’t leave home without it.”

In French a domestique is a “servant”. When first used in the cycling world it was a derogatory term because it referred to riders who set the pace for the leader on a team. In the Tour de France, Hincapie was regarded as the premier “domestique” for the American team led by Lance Armstrong.

In essence, in the world of sport, a cycling “domestique” is the ultimate team player who paves the way for his teammate to win.

Carry that expression over to the world of hospitality where “Domestique” also means “service”; the goal of any high quality establishment.
Cycling is the main attraction but there is plenty to do for visitors with an active lifestyle  (Taylor)
The gourmet restaurant, 17, the pride of Chef Greg McPhee makes a crucial connection between chef and farmer. Once again, Hincapie incorporates his cycling experience into the name. Hincapie shares a record of “17” starts in the Tour de France and holds the record of 16 finishes.

McPhee, the former Executive Sous Chef at Charleston’s Husk Restaurant, incorporates regional grains, meats and produce in each of his presentation.

At Hotel Domestique everything blends into an ideal symmetry that is appealing from the moment you arrive. Golf, tennis and hiking are other activities that add to the amenities.
Relax in the main lobby. Domestique is a unique place to get away from it all  (Taylor)
 Cycling, however, is the main attraction. Throughout the year, George hosts 5 four-day cycling camps. He is also responsible for creating the Gran Fondo which has become an annual event in Greenville, SC. 

Basically, a Gran Fondo is an Americanized term for a bicycle race of various lengths. In Italy Gran Fondo events are held every weekend between February and October. Using the magnificent “color season” of the Blue Ridge Mountains however, Hincapie’s Gran Fondo takes place in late October when the foliage is at its peak. This year the event, with rides of 80, 50 and 15 miles, takes place on October 24th.
As the slogan suggests, Domestique is "Far from Everywhere, Close to Anywhere"  (Taylor)
Hotel Domestique is the ideal blend of European lifestyle with American “chic”; a year-round hotel that embraces the “cycles” of the seasons.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Hotel Santa Caterina: Amalfi, Italy’s cliffside gem

Ride the elevator down through the cliffs where the pool and sea beckon at Hotel Santa Caterina  (Santa Caterina) 
AMALFI, ITALY Hotel Santa Caterina on the Amalfi Coast of Italy is one of those places where you feel you belong from the moment you cross its portals.

Arriving by car from Positano, Santa Caterina appears to be little more than a gleaming white fa├žade at a curve in the road to Amalfi.  From the Amalfi side, it looks more like a hotel.  A lovely hotel, to be sure, but not nearly as majestic as it is in reality.

A deceptive entrance leads to breathtaking beauty  (Santa Caterina) 
It was at Santa Caterina in the 1960s that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their tumultuous relationship while filming Cleopatra.  Decades later, when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were captivated by each other’s charms, Santa Caterina cast it’s magic spell once again.

On a tamer note, First Lady Hillary Clinton and Chelsea were even guests during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

So what is it about the Santa Caterina that makes it so infectious?

Like most places along the Amalfi Coast, Santa Caterina is a family operation.  Tracing its roots to 1880, Giuseppe Gambardella built the original structure just outside the village of Amalfi on a hillside overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In 1904, Giuseppe’s son, Crescenzo, redesigned the property with six guest rooms.  Today, the resort features 66 rooms and suites, most with southern exposure that peer out to views combining mountains, gardens and the sea.
Santa Caterina's lemon grove meanders from the hotel to the pool  (Santa Caterina)
Day-to-day operations have since yielded to Cescenzo’s daughters, Giusi and Ninni Gambardella, along with other family members, who delight in taking personal interest in the comfort and enjoyment of their guests. 

Amalfi nestles between mountains and sea  (Taylor)
Visitors come, and visitors go, yearning to return, but the staff remains virtually intact to preserve the hotel’s trademark style and service.  As one staff member said, “when you live in paradise why go anywhere else?”

The result?  No matter when guests return, familiar smiles greet them, and that continuity has major appeal.

Resting at the summit of an expansive stretch of land along the Amalfi road, Santa Caterina is deceptive in its spaciousness. 

Once inside the white tiled lobby, a short walk past the restaurant to a lovely balcony that overlooks the sea, reveals a series of landscaped terraces, a serpentine citrus grove and jagged rock-bound cliffs that plunge into the water a thousand feet below.

The hotel points a perpetual face to the sun  (Taylor)
With its southern exposure, Santa Caterina points a perpetual face to the sun, taking advantage of every ounce of daylight from sunrise to sunset.  So familiar do guests become with the peaceful stream of liquid stars that dance across the water during the day or night, that the hotel has adopted the phenomenon as the symbol of the property.

Just down the hill, Amalfi buzzes with the same daily routines that have endured for centuries.  The hotel offers regular drop-off and pick-up service to and from the village, on the half-hour, for guests who choose to ride rather than walk into town. 

Ravello has the most spectacular views on the coast  (Taylor)
Less commercial than Positano, its sister city down the coast, Amalfi offers superb restaurants, lively ambience, plenty of shopping and easy access to Capri, Ravello, Positano, Maori, Minori, Atrani and Vietri.  Not quite as accessible, but easily arranged for day trips, visitors can also do tours of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum.

Passageways to Santa Caterina’s rooms are miniature labyrinths leading to accommodations that offer individuality in each chamber. 

Most bedrooms feature balconies with a sea view and brightly colored tiles from nearby Vietri.  Many travelers enjoy an excursion to Vietri’s shops where they can purchase unique souvenir tiles as mementos of their trip.
Santa Caterina's citrus grove and cliffside elevator as viewed from the sea  (Taylor)
Santa Caterina’s kitchen is arguably the best in the area, which makes dining a delight for guests. 
The menu features a wide range of classic Amalfi Coast recipes which naturally emphasizes the local fish.  Pastas are a staple, of course, and other items such as chicken and veal are available for variety or for those who don’t enjoy seafood.

Dining is exquisite at Santa Caterina  (Taylor)
Dual elevators burrow through sheer rock before opening into a small grotto that leads to the exercise room and pool. 

Santa Caterina is open year-round and rates vary according to season. Breakfast and service are included, but there is a 10% VAT.

One cautionary note when traveling along the Amalfi Coast.  Opt for local transportation, buses or taxis.  Driving the narrow hairpin roads can be a nightmare for unsuspecting motorists, and you will thank yourself for not accepting the challenge.
Take time to explore all the nooks and crannies of Santa Caterina. If you get lost you have done yourself a favor  (Taylor)
The staff and hospitality at this little gem of a hotel nestled atop the craggy hills of Amalfi are a sure-fire guarantee that one day you’ll be back.  It even works better than throwing a coin over your shoulder at Trevi Fountain in Rome.

Best of all, no matter when you do return, chances are those newfound friends on the staff will be right there waiting to greet you again.   

Friday, September 11, 2015

Switzerland’s Gotthard Base Tunnel will be the world’s longest

The Swiss have mastered the obstacles of their geography into a scenic treasure; the Lauterbrunnen Valley  (wikipedia)
SWITZERLAND Ever since the Swiss created their first rail line, a 12 mile stretch of track from Zurich to Baden, in 1847, the country has made transportation an art form that is the envy of the world.

Meandering road across the St. Gotthard Pass  (wikipedia)
Next year, when the 38-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel is completed, a new era of train travel will be unveiled as the longest rail tunnel in the world. The architectural, engineering and transportation marvel will ultimately reduce travel between Zurich and Milan, Italy by an hour.

The St. Gotthard Pass is already home of the world’s first Alpine railway which was christened 133 years ago in 1882.

Two base tunnels are presently under construction in Switzerland. The Gotthard, which  is to be inaugurated on June 1 of next year with regularly scheduled service planned for December of 2016, and the Ceneri Base Tunnel that  will open three years later.

Historically the Gotthard has been a major connecting route between northern and southern Europe since the early 13th century. Among the major obstacles preventing earlier use was the need to ford the River Reuss which was frequently flooded by turbulent rapids resulting from melting snow at higher elevations.

The Gotthard Post by Rudolf Koller depicts early travel through the Gotthard Pass  (wikipedia)

Nearly 100 years after the Gotthard rail tunnel began service, the Gotthard Road Tunnel was opened in 1980 allowing cars to traverse the pass. Until that time, automobile traffic could cross the mountains as long as the road was passable with limited accumulations of snow.

The final stretch of the Gotthard Base Tunnel was broken through in October of 2010. As would be expected, Switzerland plans a huge national celebration on June 4th and 5th next year when the general public will be allowed to use the tunnel for the first time. As part of the festivities, a drawing will be held in January to allocate seats on the train.

When the 10-mile Ceneri Base Tunnel (CBT) opens in 2019, it will complete the final piece in the mosaic of the north-south corridor in Switzerland, and it will inaugurate a continuous level-track railway known as the New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA).

The Gotthard Rail Tunnel built in 1882  (wikipedia)
Visitors to Switzerland who have traveled by train through the St. Gotthard Pass in the past have long been familiar with the St. Gotthard Tunnel which is a spiral tunnel through the pass. Though passengers have no sensation of making the turns through the tunnel, there is a familiar landmark that gives riders a sense of perspective.

As trains meander over, under, around and through the Gotthard Pass, passengers are delighted to view the Church at Wassen which is perhaps the most outstanding Catholic church in Switzerland.

What makes the chapel so recognizeable however, is the way that it is viewed. Says Esther Burri, a pastoral assistant at the church, “The church here in Wassen is certainly one of the most well-known in Switzerland, if not the most well-known, because you see it three times from the train.”
Train passes the Church of Wassen at eye level while traveling through the St. Gotthard Pass  (wikipedia)
Depending upon the direction the train is traveling, riders view the church from above, from eye level and from below. Because of the helical tunnels that guide trains up and down the Gotthard ramp, the Church at Wassen actually helps people get their bearings as well as realizing that as they have been traveling through the pass they have basically been going around in circles.

While the church appears small from the train, and though locals call it the Chileli, or little church, it is actually much larger than it seems. Naturally, thanks to its baroque style, the interior is also rather ostentatious.
The tiny village of Andermatt is near the first road tunnel through the Gotthard  (wikipedia)
Strangely enough, though thousands upon thousands of tourists are familiar with the Church at Wassen, relatively few ever actually visit.

The Swiss have always prided themselves on their ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to give their country one of the highest standards of living in the world. Digging tunnels, therefore, comes naturally, and burrowing through the Alps can be traced back as far as 1708. It was then that the Umerloch Tunnel, near Andermatt, became the first road tunnel for goods and passenger traffic measuring approximately 21 miles in length.
The "Needle" of the River Reuss as it through Lucerne  (wikipedia)
Nearly two centuries later, trains were also able to cross over the pass, thus bringing to an end difficult and treacherous mule-back journeys.

Alpine village of Airolo in the Gotthard  (wikipedia)
The original St. Gotthard railway tunnel took ten years to complete and cost the lives of almost 200 workers. It was the longest tunnel in the world until 1906 when another marvel of Swiss engineering, the Simplon Tunnel, was about 2 miles longer than her cousin.

Come 2016 however, the Gotthard will reclaim the trophy with the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel at a distance of 38 miles.

Ticket sales will begin in April 2016.

In the words of Michael Flanders, “If God had intended us to fly, He would have never given us railways”, and in Switzerland trains are truly wonders of “engineering.”

Friday, September 4, 2015

Traveling on Scotland’s West Highland train

The romance of a steam powered train as it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland  (wikipedia)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND When it comes to traveling by train in Great Britain, nothing compares with the West Highland Line of Scotland. The magnificent 164-mile scenic railway passes along or beside rushing rivers, deep Scottish lochs, muscled peaks, canopied forests, mysterious moors and a breathtaking curved viaduct that is a living postcard in its own right.

Starting point for the West Highland Train  (wikipedia)
The train originates from Queen Street Station in Glasgow. With frequent service between Glasgow and Edinburgh, travelers staying in Scotland’s capital have easy connection. A change of trains to the West Highland line is necessary in Glasgow, however.

This is not an express. Plan for five-hours or more between Glasgow and Mallaig. Due to irregular stops, many of which are by request only, trains easily get off schedule. Day-trippers can make a round-trip, but an early start is a must.

Many riders travel to Mallaig to catch the ferry to the Isle of Skye. Frequently those travelers return by way of Oban to take the train to Crianlarich where coaches reconnect for the trip back to Glasgow.

The tiny four carriage trains pull out of Glasgow roughly paralleling the River Clyde. It doesn’t take long for the surroundings of Glasgow to give way to rugged mountain terrain that plunges into picturesque lochs through a scrim of morning mist. Soon the double tracks merge into a single serpentine ribbon of steel that promises bold new adventures up ahead.

The cramped interiors are not designed for luxury, but passengers don’t seem to mind as they flit from one side to the next to view each new panoramic vistas.
Wooly Highland sheep add to the picturesque journey on the West Highland Line  (wikipedia)
With a constantly changing carousel of scenery, one side of the train is no better than the other. Simply choose a seat and be prepared to be awed while shuffling back and forth to witness the majestic scenery that stream by the window.

Gare Loch is first. As home to Britain’s nuclear submarines, it seems incongruous amid the tree-lined brownish-green hills covered with bluebells.
The famous Loch Lomond at twilight  (wikipedia)
Gradually the hills become more mountainous. On the right a long, deep, U-shaped valley known as Glen Douglas guides travelers toward the “bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond."

Soon the loch made famous in the song Loch Lomond comes into view with Ben (Gaelic for “mountain”) Lomond towering over the scene. Across the water lies Inversnaid, the rolling landscape once roamed by legendary Scottish folk-hero Rob Roy MacGregor.

The tiny rail station at Crianlarich  (wikipedia)
Just beyond, the train coasts through a tunnel of trees that eventually reveals streams rushing beside fields of wildflowers and steep heather carpeted banks covered with craggy yellow gorse. Here and there shaggy brown Highland cattle graze lazily, oblivious to the curiosity seekers aboard the train. 
The train divides at Crianlarich with two carriages traveling to Oban, and the other pair to Mallaig.

Wheels sing upon the tracks as steel grinds against steel at every sharp bend in the rails.  Just north of Tyndrum the train makes a dramatic horseshoe turn around a curve that wraps around a valley lined by two large conical hills.

Eerie moonscape atmosphere of Rannoch Moor with its Hound of the Baskervilles atmosphere (wikipedia)
From there it’s on to Rannoch Moor with its eerie Hound of the Baskervilles aura. The train is the only way across the boggy pockmarked moonscape with its outcroppings of rock and lonely otherworld atmosphere. Desolate though it may be, the Rannoch Moor is a highlight of the journey.

Ben Nevis Mountain in the Scottish Highlands  (wikipedia)
But there’s no time for despair because just after the moor, the stunningly beautiful Loch Treig comes into view. The squealing wheels hush as the train gently glides beside bluish-gray water that yields to rising banks of deep green on the opposite shore.

As the train pulls into Fort William, passengers catch a view of the ruins of historic 13th century Inverlochy Castle, which was the site of two major battles. Fort William, the largest town in the region, nestles in the shadow of the highest mountain in Great Britain. At 4,400 feet, Ben Nevis is a Mecca for hikers. The base alone has a whopping circumference of 24 miles.

Fort William is a popular jumping off spot for travelers not wanting to venture to Mallaig. The shopping is excellent and the village is delightful.
Scottish loch in the primeval Highland countryside  (wikipedia)
Those who journey onward however, are in store for the indescribable beauty of Glenfinnan Viaduct with its 21 arches that curve southward toward Loch Shiel. Along the shore of the loch stands Glenfinnan Monument marking the site where the Jacobite Rising of 1745 erupted when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to raise an army and march on Edinburgh.

Summer travelers can enjoy crossing the viaduct aboard a steam-powered train. It’s the ultimate romance of the rails that can only be appreciated by the experience itself.
The stunning Glenfinnan Viaduct is a highlight of the West Highland train in Scotland  (wikipedia)
The end of the line is Mallaig, where frequent ferries are available for visits to Rum, Eigg and other small islands as well as the popular Isle of Skye.

This is rail travel as it once was and as it should be. Scotland’s West Highland Line is a memory in the making.