Friday, March 29, 2013

Searching for John Reed on Ile de Re

When John Reed, the head of what was the world’s largest financial institution exited Wall Street in 2000, he hightailed it to an island off the coast of southwest France. Interesting, n’est pas?  I mean, John Reed could have moved anywhere in the world but this Master of the Universe chose Ile de Re. Why?

For years, I wondered about that. But I never managed to actually get to Ile de Re to find the answer - which is strange since as islands go, it is very accessible. It is connected to the mainland by a bridge and is only 15 minutes by taxi from La Rochelle airport.  But finally, my chance arrived when friends generously offered their house over the Easter school holidays. And so we went. With years of built-up expectations, would I be disappointed?

Hardly. This island is as good as its reputation. Elegant but relaxed, popular but unspoiled, charming but not pretentious. Granted we were there off-season. That has many benefits and a few drawbacks. It was way too cold to go in the water but it didn’t stop the die-hard surfers who were having a great time. Many restaurants, shops and activities were not yet open. On the other hand, the restaurants that were open were thrilled to see us. Our seafood lunch at L’Ecailler in La Flotte was particularly memorable. We could ride bikes along 60 miles of deserted bike paths, down empty streets and across lonely marshes filled with wildlife. We walked for hours on the beach without seeing a single soul. We drank the local wine and were the only folks buying oysters at the morning market in La Porte so we received a breakfast of free samples and an amazing lesson in how to open them. It’s so much easier than you think.

Here’s what we didn’t find – crass commercialism, tear-downs, McMansions and all the other nightmares so often seen when too much money is chasing too little real estate. Chapeau to you residents of Ile de Re. You’ve kept the commercial and bad architecture beasts at bay and the island is all the better for it. Long may it last.

Anyway, I am sure the atmosphere of this very special place changes dramatically when its population (20,000 in winter and 220,000 in summer according to Wikipedia) increases  10 fold but basically, I’m not worried. It’s like this. I now understand why John Reed likes to walk the beaches and mess around

in boats and ride bikes and play tennis here. This is a lovely, interesting island Believe the hype – it’s wonderful and by all means, go.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Skiing the Dolomites - From New York to Chicago on a Single Ticket

Every year since 2006, we have sung the praises of skiing in the Dolomites.

  • One ski pass gives you access to 1,200 kilometers of trails, 510 lifts across 12 valleys encompassing three regions of Italy with infinite options for skiers of all abilities 
  • Spectacular alpine scenery and charming villages that offer the best of Austria and Italian tradition and culture (designated a UNESCO natural world heritage site in 2009)
  • An almost infinite number of mountain restaurants with exceptionally good food and drink at attractive prices (including Michelin-starred British chef Hywel Jones contributing to the 2013 ‘Taste of Skiing’ promotion at the Piz Arlara hut)

All those elements were present this year and we found a neat, new three-star, ski-in, ski-out hotel – the Hotel Arlara in Corvara - that was better and less expensive than where we have stayed in the past. It is steps from the Arlara chair lift, serves good food, has some nice amenities like a large pool and a sauna. The staff are young, good natured and helpful. Now if they only get their Wi-Fi working properly (it’s terrible and they admit it), freshen up some of the decor in the rooms and make the dinnertime a little bit more flexible, it would be just about perfect. In any event, it represents excellent value.

The bottom line on the Dolomites, and I say this as a die-hard fan of Austria, is that it does many things better than the big boys in France, Switzerland and Austria. It’s bigger in terms of skiable terrain but more intimate in feeling. It has no crowds, no lines, exceptional mountain dining and it is generally less expensive. OK, it’s not as high as some other resorts, not big on nightlife and not easy to get to. Still, if you would like to ski the equivalent distance of New York to Chicago on one lift ticket, be dazzled by some of the loveliest mountain scenery in the world and eat the best food ever, No Crowds advice holds firm; head to the Dolomites.

 Photo Credit: Patrick Beal - the view from his room at the Hotel Arlara