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July 22, 2008

Questions About Travel in Croatia

by Wendy Perrin

Two questions have come in about Croatian transportation options:

"Can you tell me who to contact and what would it be reasonable to pay to have a driver take two adults from Dubrovnik to Drvinek so we can take the ferry to Hvar?" asks kedougherty.

Meanwhile, annereilly asks: "Ferry from Rovinj, Croatia, to Venice in September? Venezialines does not appear to travel on September 8, the day we need to cross. Is there another company we could use? A fast ferry is preferred."

When I was in Croatia back in September 1998, I drove my own rental car, and the ferry I took was a slow one from Split to Ancona, Italy, so I'm afraid I'm ill-equipped to answer these two questions and, unfortunately, have no time to research them right now. Might anyone else know the answers?

Continue reading "Questions About Travel in Croatia " »

May 27, 2008

The Cradle of Civilization Needs Your Help

Rumkale (Turkish for "Roman castle") is a fortress dating from 855 B.C. that sits some five hundred feet above the Euphrates in Mesopotamia. It's the most stunning Roman ruin I've ever seen (and I've seen my share, including gems like Baalbek in Lebanon and Palmyra in Syria).

by Wendy Perrin

Today is the last day you can increase the chance that your favorite entry in The Geotourism Challenge--a "global search for innovations in tourism that sustain, enhance, and preserve local culture and place"--will be named a finalist, by posting a valuable comment about the entry you support. Finalists are announced, and voting begins, tomorrow.

Many of the 324 entries from 84 countries are worthy, but one is especially close to my heart . . . and, I'm sure, close to the heart of anyone else lucky enough to have traveled in the undiscovered jewel that is southeastern Turkey, a.k.a. Upper Mesopotamia.  Check out the Southeastern Anatolia Promotion Project: You can watch a beautiful film about this otherworldly region, download guides to its highlights, and listen to mesmerizing music performed by the local people. Then go to the Geotourism Challenge and post a comment.

Tell me, readers, have any of you been to southeastern Turkey . . . or are you planning to go?  You can  learn more about my magical experience in Mesopotamia by reading the comment I posted.

At Deyrul Zafran (Arabic for "Saffron Monastery") near Mardin, Turkey, the monks still speak Aramaic and perform a church ceremony, complete with chanting and incense, straight out of the Middle Ages. I spent a night sleeping in that cloister under the stars in June 2006 (it was too hot to sleep indoors!).

June 20, 2007

"Where's Wendy?" Contest Starts Tomorrow!

Follower of Wendy 'Tracker1312 hit the nail on the head when he identified this wooden building as the Podvorye restaurant outside St. Petersburg, Russia. 
Tracker1312 guessed it! This is Podvorye, a famed Russian restaurant near the entrance to Pavlovsk Park outside St. Petersburg.

Don't pass on the dacha: Podvorye is supposedly President Putin's favorite restaurant. 
Inside Podvorye: The entertainment may be a bit kitschy, but the food is fabulous, the atmosphere welcoming, and the location perfect for lunch after a morning spent exploring Catherine Palace.

by Wendy Perrin

Congrats to Tracker1312, who guessed yesterday's clue: The place is Podvorye, a traditional dacha-style restaurant serving authentic Russian country fare and located in the town of Tsarskoe Selo (which translates as Tsar's Village and was formerly known as Pushkin). Rumor has it that Podvorye is Vladimir Putin's favorite restaurant; he took the former President Bush there.

If you followed the trail of guesses in response to yesterday's clue, you know that Tracker1312 had help: TheGlobalTraveller was first to place the mystery building near one of the Imperial parks outside St. Petersburg. Very impressive indeed. Kiwiwriter also helped, by deducing that the mystery building was a restaurant.

But the truth is that this game could have been won by anyone holding a March 2007 issue of Conde Nast Traveler. Look at the picture on p. 98!

This little brainteaser was just to put you in the mood for the WHERE IN THE WORLD IS WENDY? contest that starts tomorrow in the late afternoon. For info on the rules and the prize, click here. And fasten your seatbelts!

Blogger Wendy Perrin beholds the breathtaking beauty of St. Petersburg's Catherine Palace. 
Me and my notebook in Catherine Palace -- a must-see on any Russian iconic itinerary -- in Oct 2006, before lunch at Podvorye.

June 05, 2007

Booking The Perfect Trip To Croatia

A cafe inside Diocletian's Palace -- a 1,700-year-old remnant of the Roman empire -- in Split, Croatia. Photo: Photographer's Choice, Getty Images

by Wendy Perrin

Question from reader LeonMalkin:

"We are looking to spend the month of September in Croatia. Do you have a travel agent in your "Rolodex" who specializes in travel to that country?"

Boy, am I jealous.  An entire month in Croatia!  I had only four nights there -- IF you include the night on the overnight ferry from Split to Ancona, Italy -- and, of course, it wasn't nearly enough.  Plus you've picked a gorgeous time to go.  I was there in September too, and it was delightfully uncrowded. (Of course, that was back in '98, when virtually the only tourists were Germans.)  Don't miss Diocletian's Palace in Split, and be sure to spend at least one night on the enchanted island of Hvar.

But I digress. To answer your question, the Croatia travel specialist you want is Wanda Radetti of Tasteful Croatian Journeys (800-828-0345;  Tell her I say hello!  And have a fabulous trip.

February 27, 2007

Renting A Villa In Croatia

Rental villa off Croatia's Dalmatian coast
This seven-bedroom villa on the island of Brac off Croatia's coast sleeps 14.

By Wendy Perrin

Question from Conde Nast Traveler subscriber P.Divine:

"Can you suggest a good travel agent for a group of 10 adults planning to visit the Dalmation coast in September for one week?  We would like to rent a villa for the week, and will drive from Vienna."

May I come along?!  Seriously, that is one terrific-sounding trip, and I'm very jealous.  I've dreamed for a long time of driving through Slovenia and am dying to return to Croatia (I was in Dubrovnik, Hvar, and Split back in '98; I drove there from Sarajevo, so holler if you need any Bosnia driving advice.)

I suggest you contact Charla Cusinato at HomesAway, which is expanding into Croatia and is very careful about vetting properties there.  I like HomesAway because each of its villas comes with a "local host"--an English-speaking resident of the area who will introduce you to the local community and troubleshoot for you--and because its "house books" (the binder you find at the house upon arrival or are given in advance by the rental agent) are loaded with invaluable insider information about the region.  I have great trust in the company's professionalism and customer service because Maija Palkienen, Charla's colleague whom I recommended in my list of the best villa rental agents last year, has done a superlative job for Conde Nast Traveler readers. Bon voyage, and let me know how it goes.

Before your trip, if you would like to keep up with politics and analysis of other news developments in the Balkans, I recommend surfing the Croatia-based Neretva River blog.  You can also find beautiful photography and some fascinating insight into the region at this blog of an American UNDP worker in Albania.  Among the contradictions the writer cites in her Top 10 Things to Know About Life in Albania: "I've drank the freshest water I've ever drank from a mountain stream just 100km from the dirtiest smog I've ever inhaled."

Vote for my blog by clicking here.

December 01, 2006

Travel With V.I.P. Access Worldwide

By Wendy Perrin

Each year for the December issue of Conde Nast Traveler I and my team, fellow staffers Brook Wilkinson and Kathryn Maier, compile "The Fabulous 50" -- a list of 50 of the best insider-access travel experiences worldwide.  "Insider access" means access to places, people, and events that are off-limits to the general public -- from museums and monuments to archaeological digs, royal families, indigenous peoples, and traditional festivals, all of which give you special insights into a foreign culture.  You too can have these experiences . . . IF you know the right sources to contact (which, of course, we provide).

I'm amused to see that the blogger behind lifeasdaddy seems ready to book himself on the experience Brook tested for this year's feature article accompanying the list. She patrolled Sydney Harbor by Jet Ski, helicopter, etc., tracking down sharks with Australia's ace Surf Life Savers.  Mr. LifeAsDaddy expressed zero interest whatsoever in replicating MY experience.  Then again, all I did was discover a lost civilization in ancient Mesopotamia.

Continue reading "Travel With V.I.P. Access Worldwide" »

November 27, 2006

Russian Spy's Death By Poison

By Wendy Perrin

I'm fascinated by the unfolding story of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy who died of radiation poisoning in London on Thursday. The weapon: A rare radioactive isotope called polonium-210.  Litvinenko's friends and colleagues say he was poisoned because of his public criticism of Russian president Vladimir Putin.  Death by poison is apparently a murder method favored by Russia's security services in recent years.

I'm fascinated because, when I was in Moscow in 2005, I visited the so-called KGB Museum, a private club for officers of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB, the KGB's latest incarnation).  Last year this museum was open to the few travelers who knew how to get in.  This year it is once again off-limits.  As I learned when I was back in Moscow last month, it is now closed to all but FSB officers. Of course I can't help but wonder if Putin, a former spy and head of the KGB, has ordered the museum closed to outsiders because he wants to keep its poisoned-dart-style weapons secret . . .

Continue reading "Russian Spy's Death By Poison" »

November 02, 2006

Getting Into Museums In Russia

Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral

By Wendy Perrin

The other day I warned about the endless lines and countless tour groups that jam-pack Russia's museums, monuments, and palaces in the tourist season of mid-May through mid-September.  I lamented that the Russian government doesn't extend museum hours, which are typically from 10:00 or 10:30 till 5:00 or 6:00. A reader responded:

"I think the reason the Russians will not extend the visiting hours for the museums is that the later hours are for people who have connections and can visit the museums alone by paying the 'right' people."

Yes, that is indeed one of the reasons for the relatively short hours.  And it is why I asked Exeter International, a travel firm that specializes in Russia, to arrange my trip.  Exeter can get you into museums and monuments before or after hours, and into sections that are closed to the general public. It also books tickets in advance, which allows you to skip the lines.  But in Russia such advance arrangements can cost 10 times more than if you were to just show up, stand in line, and buy a ticket.

I wanted to have immediate entry at some museums, but I also wanted to experience what is encountered by non-group travelers who can't afford Exeter's arrangements.

Continue reading "Getting Into Museums In Russia" »

November 01, 2006

Good Walking Shoes For Travel Abroad

Photo:  Dansko

By Wendy Perrin

Back from Russia and can finally answer some of the questions readers have been posting, like this one:

"Enjoying your reports from Moscow but am wondering how your feet are holding up.  My perennial concern when traveling in big cities is how to protect against my feet being sore and pulpy by midday.  Any tips on specific brands of shoes that you have found useful would be appreciated."

After two days of sightseeing in Moscow, my feet were so callused and blistered that I was limping.  That's because I opted against a car and driver (which is how Exeter International, the travel firm that arranged my trip, recommended I get around) in favor of far more affordable transport: my two feet and the metro. Unfortunately, getting from sight to sight in Moscow requires far more hoofing than your typical European city.  The distances between subway stops are much greater, many sidewalks are cobblestoned or potholed, and often it's neither easy nor safe to hail a taxi when you're tired.

Your question about shoes is a great one, and I wish I had the perfect answer.  I rarely wear sneakers overseas, since I like to blend in with the crowd rather than get pegged as an American. When I must spend much of a trip walking on uneven or unpaved streets, the shoes that work best for me are Dansko clogs. My podiatrist recommended them, and I wore them every day when I was in Turkey last summer. But they work best in dry climates. I did not bring them to Russia because the weather called for rain, and Danskos can be slippery on smooth surfaces (such as museum or palace floors, especially when the soles are wet).  So I packed Munro shoes and boots, which serve me well in cities like London and Paris (and, of course, at home in New York City) but were not enough to keep my feet from getting mangled in Moscow. My husband (the best traveler I know) swears by Mephisto walking shoes; he wore them all over Ireland last summer, and they kept his feet in good shape rain or shine.

Can anyone else recommend supportive and well-cushioned walking shoes for big cities abroad?  If so, I invite you to click on "Post a comment" below.


October 28, 2006

Saturday Night in Moscow

The Kremlin
Photo:  Exeter International

By Wendy Perrin

I suppose I could have done like the fashionable "New Russians" and had drinks at the Hotel Savoy followed by dinner at Gallery, but I don't own the requisite furs, jewelry, and heavy makeup.  I could have taken in a ballet at the Bolshoi, but I did that the last time I was in town.  So I opted for the Moscow Circus and saw:

*A monkey disrobing himself of hat, vest, and pants before doing somersaults and backflips through the air into his trainer's hands.
*A bear walking on a tightrope, turning on his toes to walk back, then doing a handstand on the rope.
*An elephant standing on a ball while twirling three hula hoops around his trunk.
*Another elephant stomping his foot while playing the harmonica.

But the best part of the circus was in the lobby, where children could get their pictures taken with the animals. They could pose with their arm around the monkey, sit on top of a dromedary, even cuddle up next to a tiger.  In one night I saw more smiling Russian faces than I've seen in the past week.

So my evening may not have been glamorous--dinner was popcorn and ice cream; transportation was the underground metro--but it sure was fun.


October 27, 2006

Dispatch From Moscow

Red Square
Photo: Exeter International

By Wendy Perrin

Still in Russia for an article for Conde Nast Traveler.  Spent the last two days in ancient towns along the Golden Ring that are the cradle of Russian culture, then got to Moscow a few hours ago.  Can't give away what my article is about--you'll have to wait to read it in the magazine--but I can share a few of the weirdnesses I've encountered:

1.    Tonight I was checking out rooms at the Hotel National, close to the Kremlin and Red Square, and the employee who showed me a balconied suite told me that you can't use the balcony without getting permission from the front desk first, since the Kremlin might consider it a security threat. 

2.    I was in a McDonald's in Sergiev Posad (Russia's most sacred ancient town), taking a photo of the big neon menu above the counter, when the manager jumped on me, saying that taking photos is strictly forbidden . . . although she could not explain why. Now, I've photographed dozens of McDonald's menus the world over, and never before have I been reprimanded for it. (To anyone tempted to post a snarky comment about why I was wasting film in a McDonald's: It's the fastest, easiest way to document (a) the cost of a Big Mac--a telling economic indicator; and (b) the local specialty reflecting popular taste. In Sergiev Posad it's something called a Greek Mac--two patties with yogurt sauce wrapped in pita.)

3.  My hotel concierge, handing me a map for my walk in Moscow this evening, advised me to carry my passport with me.  In other countries I typically leave my passport in the hotel-room safe, since why risk losing it or having it stolen?  But here in Moscow, where street crime is not uncommon, you're supposed to walk around with it -- in case you get stopped by a policeman.  Apparently some policemen will accept a photocopy of a passport, but some won't.

4. Museums, monuments, and other tourist sites in Russia are a mob scene in high season (May through September), with endless lines to gain entry (which is why I'm here in October), yet the government won't rectify this problem by opening places a couple of hours earlier (opening time is usually 10:00 or 10:30), closing them a couple of hours later (closing time is usually 5:00), and/or cleaning them at night rather than shutting them down for an entire day each week just to sweep up.  According to two English-speaking guides I've used here in Russia, museum and monument workers are on fixed salaries.  The government doesn't extend hours because it won't pay the workers for the extra hours, nor would it hire extra employees to work those extra hours.

My humble opinion:  I think this country needs a minister of tourism.


October 25, 2006

St. Petersburg, Day 4

Catherine Palace
Photo:  Exeter International

By Wendy Perrin

I've got to wake up in 5 hours to catch a 7:20 am flight to Moscow, so I'll be brief. Today's biggest surprises: 

1. The contrast between Catherine Palace now and how it looked after the Nazis destroyed it. This 56-room residence of the czars, who were the richest royal family in Europe, has been restored to its 18th-century splendiferousness.  But inside are photos showing only a shell of the building. The pics were taken after the Nazis--who turned the palace into a soldiers' barracks during WW2--stole all its treasures (except the priceless antique furniture, which they used as firewood) and then set half the place on fire, leaving only a shell of the building.

2. The Hidden Treasures Revealed collection at the Hermitage.  To get back at the Germans, Stalin decided to steal some of Germany's treasures.   He sent a group of art connoisseurs and strongmen to Berlin; they returned with 87 French Impressionist paintings, which then sat in the Hermitage's vast storage rooms for 50 years.  The horde was kept hidden until 1995, when the Hermitage revealed it to the world.  All this according to my English-speaking guide.

3. Learning from my guide that Catherine the Great, who began building the Hermitage--the world's largest museum--in 1763, was the only person allowed inside!  "Hermitage" means "place of solitude," and that's what Catherine wanted.  Her first acquisition was 336 paintings of Western European masters. Five years later her collection numbered 2,500.  All for her eyes only!  Her countrymen had to wait till 1917 to get a glimpse. (Today the collection numbers 3 million.)  When I told my guide that such selfishness on Catherine's part was unconscionable, she thought I was nuts.  "Look at how Catherine left us this wonderful gift!" she said.   "I want to thank every one of those czars and aristocrats who made these acquisitions."

4. The horse that came onstage durings Acts I and 2 of the Kirov Ballet's Don Quixote this evening.  The horse carried Don Quixote; a tiny donkey carried Sancho Panza.

5. The cab driver who drove me to the ballet.  When I saw there was no meter in the taxi, I steeled myself for an extortionate fare and an argument in a language I don't speak.  To my surprise, when we got to the theater, the driver charged me a reasonable fare, hopped out of the car to open my door for me, and asked in English if I would like him to pick me up after the ballet.  Sure enough, the moment the ballet ended, there he was waiting for me, again getting out to open the door.  A more polite taxi driver I've never encountered. 

October 24, 2006

St. Petersburg, Day 3

The Hermitage
Photo: Exeter International

By Wendy Perrin

My English-speaking guide in St. Petersburg has a talent for getting into places after they've closed for the day.  Yesterday it was the State Russian Museum.  Today it was Tikhvin Cemetery, where many famous Russian artists, composers, and writers are buried (Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Glinka among them).  We arrived at 5:30 only to learn that the cemetery had closed at 5:00.  The guard eyed me skeptically.  Whatever my guide said to him, he ended up letting us in.  For half an hour we were the only (live) people in the cemetery. Then my guide explained that the guard would be expecting payment.  On the way out he named his price: 200 rubles (about $8).

We were running so late because I'd had to spend six hours this morning checking out hotels.  Anyone who thinks the life of a travel journalist is one giant vacation should spend a morning with me scrutinizing hotel rooms and trying to cut through the marketing spin dished out by hotel sales managers.  I chose six properties, ranging from 3-star to 5-star, that are good bets for Conde Nast Traveler readers, and at each one my goal was to determine which room category (e.g., superior river-view) or line (e.g., all rooms ending in "05") or floor or single room represents the best value for your money.  Try doing this with a hotel like the Eliseev Palace, where no two rooms are the same, or the Kempinski Moika 22, which has 17 different room categories.

Only after completing this hair-raising task could I start my sightseeing day -- at 2:00 pm!  By the time we had zoomed outside the city to Peterhof -- Peter the Great's summer palace and gardens -- and zoomed back, it was 5:30 and we had missed our can't-be-missed appointment at the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory.  Since I'm more into dead composers than dinner plates, I wasn't devastated.   But if you think the cemetery visit was the end of my work day, you're sorely mistaken.  Since then I've checked out two restaurants and a Russian Orthodox church service. I've also switched hotels.  Had to flee the affordable Petro Palace because, after many wasted hours battling the world's most bizarre hotel Internet-access system, I could not get onto the Web from my laptop.  Which made blogging tough. I'm now at a five-star classic that is totally unaffordable (a large bottle of Evian in the restaurant costs $15),  but whose ace business center got me WiFi-enabled within three minutes.  (Can't tell you where I'm staying, of course, since I'm here incognito.  I'll spill the beans after I check out on Thursday.)

Okay, enough throat clearing. Today's highlights:

1. Peterhof's 28 over-the-top rooms, which I might describe as Versailles meets the Hofburg, only with even more floral silk upholstery.  Peter the Great's decorator, Catherine I, clearly believed that more is more.
2. Learning that Peter never even lived there!  Way too grandiose for him. He preferred his four-room log cabin in the city. 
3. Finding out from my guide that Rimsky-Korsakov was actually a naval officer by education, that Borodin was a chemistry professor, and that Rachmaninoff, who fled to the U.S. when the Revolution started, "died of homesickness."
4. Learning--again, from my guide--that the theft of 220 works of art from the Hermitage about a month ago was an inside job perpetrated by the husband and son of one of the curators.
5. Being told by the Grand Hotel Europe's sales manager during this morning's hotel inspection that Tchaikovsky honeymooned at the hotel.  Talk about marketing spin:  My guide told me later that this is not possible, since Tchaikovsky was gay and never married.

It's now 1:00 a.m. St. Petersburg time and I'm still at my laptop.  Yup, the life of a travel journalist is just one giant vacation.

October 23, 2006

From Russia With Love


St. Petersburg's Church On Spilled Blood
Photo: Exeter International

By Wendy Perrin

It's 11:30 p.m. in St. Petersburg, Russia, and I'm back at my hotel after seeing Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theatre, built by Catherine the Great as an addition to her home, the Winter Palace, in 1783.  I'm on assignment for Conde Nast Traveler (tough job, but someone's gotta do it). Can't reveal what my article is about--you'll have to wait and read it in the magazine--but I can share the highlights of my first 24 hours in St. Petersburg:

1. Arriving at the State Russian Museum to find a sign stating "Museum Is Closed"--visitors were still inside, but were no longer being admitted--and watching my private English-speaking guide (who was hand-picked by Exeter International, the travel firm that booked my trip) go around the corner to a side entrance, knock on several doors, sweet-talk several administrators, and get us into the museum.

2. Seeing the stage where Pavlova danced and Rachmaninoff played in the intimate rococo theater inside the Yusupov Palace. Also liked the Buffet Room, which filthy-rich aristocrat Zinaida Yusupov built just off the theater's balcony, for the exclusive use of the royal family when it came to visit: The room has a secret door leading downstairs to the stage, allowing both the royals to sneak backstage and the ballerina to sneak upstairs.

3. The just-married couples smashing champagne bottles and posing for pics in St. Petersburg's favorite wedding-photo spot, on the river embankment behind the twin lighthouses, with Peter and Paul Fortress in the background.

4. The glittering mosaics and semi-precious stones that completely cover, inside and out, the byzantine-style Church On Spilled Blood (built on the spot where Alexander II, the tsar who abolished serfdom, was assassinated by terrorists in 1881).

5. The ballerina who danced the role of Odette tonight.  The way she arched her back, stretched and quivered her neck, and fluttered her arms, you could have sworn she was a swan.

Tomorrow I'm off to Peter the Great's summer palace, the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory Museum, and more.  For now, off to bed.

September 24, 2006

How To Sail from Moscow to the U.S.

By Wendy Perrin

Question from a reader:

"We are Americans living in Moscow who expect to return to the U.S. in a few years.  We thought it would be symbolic and romantic to make the transition back to America slowly, by ship.  Do any cruise lines offer a trip from Eastern Europe to North America?  Any U.S. port, East or West Coast, would work for us.  Thank you."  Dore Meyers

I asked Mary Jean Tully of The Cruise Professionals to answer this question.  Mary Jean is a cruise specialist on Conde Nast Traveler's list of the world's best travel planners (a list that I and my team compile and update each year). Her response:

"There is currently no one ship that will take you from Russia to North America. You'd probably need to combine three sailings on three different ships. First you could take a seven-day river cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The second leg of your journey would be from St. Petersburg to London.  From London you could sail for six days across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 or, if it's late fall or spring, you could probably make the transatlantic crossing on Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea, Seabourn, or any others that are offering transatlantic repositioning cruises. Depending on the ship, it could drop you in New York or Miami.  You could even stay on the ship past Miami, transit the Panama Canal, and disembark in Los Angeles."

Dore, when you get ready to book your cruise, I advise you to call Mary Jean, and I also urge you to consider booking private custom-tailored shore excursions.