Chicago Sun-Times
With Lori Rackl

April 2009 Archives


Ever since I started watching the "Real Housewives of New York City," an extremely guilty pleasure, I've been intrigued by the fact that Simon van Kempen (husband of Housewife Alex McCord) runs a hotel in Manhattan.

Since I was going to New York last week for a Canadian Tourism conference, I figured I'd shoot Hotel Chandler an email and see if Simon would be game for showing me around the 124-room property.

I was pleasantly surprised when I got an email back from Simon himself, happy to take me up on my offer.

As much fun as it is to moan and groan about the ridiculousness of these RH characters, I have to admit that Simon was pretty darn normal in person. He's spent 25 years in the hotel industry, he knows it well, and he's happy to chat about it.

I thought he'd balk at my request to snap a few photos of him in front of the hotel (these pseudo-celebs can get very control-freakish about their image), but he gladly complied.

Hotel Chandler is in the Midtown/Murray Hill area of Manhattan, just three blocks from the Empire State building at 12 E. 31st St. It seems like a perfectly nice place to stay, especially now that rates have been reduced to as low as $189, at times, for a standard room. Even if you don't stay here, swing by for a cheap drink in the lobby bar during the Monday-Friday happy hour from 5 pm - 10 pm.

After spending my morning last week with the 7th housewife, I think I'm on Team Simon....

If you have plans to travel to Mexico City in the near future -- and yours truly does -- you might be wondering if it's still a good idea to go.

As of right now, I'm still planning on making it to our friends' wedding there in May. (Anyone know where I can get a cute face mask to go with my dress?) But I'll be monitoring the World Health Organization and CDC Web sites, among others, for travel advisories.

Here's the latest from AP, as of late afternoon on Monday:
ATLANTA (AP) -- The federal government is preparing a travel advisory instructing Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico, the acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday.
Dr. Richard Besser made the disclosure during a news conference in Atlanta, saying the advisory was being released "out of an abundance of caution."
Besser also reported 40 confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States, including 20 in New York City. He said people can help keep the disease from spreading by taking everyday precautions such as frequent handwashing, covering up coughs and sneezes, and staying away from work or school if they're not feeling well.
Before the CDC changed its advice to travelers, U.S. airlines were reporting that some passengers have already changed or canceled their plans to fly to Mexico.
Spokespeople for US Airways, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines said Monday passengers have requested travel changes, but none of the carriers would say how many. The three airlines said their operations are proceeding as normal and they have not canceled any flights to Mexico as a result of the scare.
"The loads are a little bit less than they normally would be for this time of day, but we are not seeing mass bookings away," said Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for US Airways.
American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said his carrier has not had a lot of requests for travel changes, though there have been some.
Delta continues to follow CDC and government agency recommendations, spokesman Anthony Black said.
"We have seen minimal changes to customer bookings," he said.
Several airlines are allowing passengers to change their travel plans to or from Mexico without any fee or penalty.

It's been one heck of a year so far for Mexico tourism, what with the violence/safety issue and now this. Here's to hoping both problems clear up soon.

What do you think? Carry on as usual or play it safe and skip it?

Governor Pat Quinn announced Thursday that 11 of the state historic sites closed by Blagojevich late last year have been reopened to the public.

At the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Governor Quinn welcomed the first visitors to the site in more than four months.

Earlier this month, the General Assembly passed a $1.6 million supplemental appropriations bill to support the re-hiring of all 33 Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) employees who were laid off when the historic sites closed.

The following historic sites will reopen today (April 23) and most will resume a five day per week schedule:
Apple River Fort, Elizabeth
Bishop Hill
Hauberg Indian Museum at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island
Cahokia Courthouse, Cahokia
Carl Sandburg, Galesburg
Dana-Thomas House, Springfield
Fort de Chartres, Prairie du Rocher
Fort Kaskaskia, Ellis Grove
Pierre Menard Home, Ellis Grove
Jubilee College, Brimfield
Lincoln Log Cabin, near Charleston

Interesting info released Friday from the U.S. Travel Association, a non-profit organization representing all components of the $740 billion travel industry:

Washington, DC -- The U.S. Travel Association today expressed deep concern about newly released Department of Commerce data showing that overseas arrivals to the United States plummeted nearly eight percent in January. U.S. Travel called upon Congress and the Administration to create a nationally coordinated travel promotion program to compete for overseas visitors who spend an average of $4,400 per person, per trip and are critical to America's economic recovery.
"As any business will tell you, tough economic times demand increased investment in attracting customers," said Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. "Congress and the Administration must act now to compete for global travel dollars and reverse the accelerating decline in U.S. visitation. Increasing travel to the United States is the most efficient form of economic stimulus." 
This latest news from the U.S. Department of Commerce comes only two weeks after the announcement that 633,000 fewer overseas travelers visited the United States in 2008 than in 2000, despite the fact that 48 million more international travelers took long-haul trips in 2008 than in 2000.  If U.S. overseas arrivals had kept pace with international long-haul travel trends from 2001-2008, America would have welcomed a cumulative total of 58 million more visitors, $182 billion in new spending and $27 billion in new tax revenue.  These visitors would have supported 245,000 American jobs each year.
The House of Representatives passed the Travel Promotion Act in 2008. The legislation would have created a nationally coordinated promotion campaign at no cost to U.S. taxpayers.  Studies show that such a campaign would attract millions of additional overseas visitors per year, resulting in billions of dollars of new visitor spending. A Senate companion bill, co-sponsored by a majority of U.S. Senators, did not receive a vote. The Travel Promotion Act is expected to be reintroduced in the 111th Congress in the coming weeks.

Why are foreigners staying away from the U.S.? And should we care?

Travel for opera lovers

| 1 Comment | No TrackBacks

As spring opera season approaches, Frommer's has asked the editors of OPERA NEWS magazine, whose European Travel issue hits newsstands mid-April, to come up with the top 10 destinations that should be included on every opera lover's roadmap this year.

Here they you have any to add?

GERMANY: Göttingen
International Handel Festival
Home to the world's oldest Baroque music festival, this tiny, half-timbered university town in Lower Saxony fêtes the glories of George Friedrich Handel's artistic output for two weeks each summer. A profusion of top-notch chamber concerts, late-night recitals and oratorio performances make use of the village's fetching historical venues, while opera presentations in the 500-seat Deutsches Theater boast the kind of cozy authenticity that is the stuff of dreams for period-instrument purists.

Don't miss out on the rest of Germany's highlights, including Oktoberfest, the Alps, and Berlin's vibrant, cutting-edge cultural scene. Discover more with Frommer's® Germany 2009 ($24.99, ISBN: 978-0-470-28784-2).

RUSSIA: St. Petersburg
The Mariinsky Theater
Named for its royal benefactress, Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II, and inaugurated in October 1860 with a performance of Mikhail Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, the Mariinsky Theater remains a crown jewel in the cultural life of St. Petersburg. The beautifully restored welcomes Mozart, Verdi and Puccini favorites as well as once-forgotten operas by Russia's own Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov. During the summer months, the theater glittering White Nights Festial draws operatic and classical music royalty - along with nearly one million Russians - to St. Petersburg for the motherland's largest public event.

The Heritage Museum and The Kremlin are two more reasons to start planning a trip to Russia. Discover these treasures and more in Frommer's® Moscow & St. Petersburg, 2nd Edition ($19.99, ISBN: 978-0-470-19403-4).

IRELAND: Wexford
The Wexford Festival
This southeastern Irish town's opera festival, which runs through October and November, abounds with a distinctly Gaelic allure. A sense of discovery that's just as potent as the municipality's omnipresent aroma of burning peat proves to be this festival's calling card: emerging young stars take part in little-known operas, presented with remarkable musical and dramatic merits under artistic director David Agler. Away from the festival's presentations, one can find myriad opportunities to revel in Wexford's charms, from poetry recitations in Thomas Moore Tavern to incomparable suppers at Forde's Restaurant and - should the muse strike you - the Guinness International Singing & Swinging Pub competition.

Frommer's® Ireland 2009 ($21.99, ISBN: 978-0-470-38749-8) provides the scoop on where to stay the night in an ancient castle and how to eat fish and chips like a local.

From the Metropolitan Opera, to Carnegie Hall, to a thrillingly modernized Alice Tully Hall - and let's not forget about outer-borough venues like the unique Brooklyn Academy of Music - there's a reason New York remains the cultural capital of the world. The Metropolitan Opera, now operating under the auspices of its innovative general manager Peter Gelb, has become an increasingly accessible institution. Likewise, a revitalized New York Philharmonic, led by native-son Alan Gilbert, can tackle symphonic rep ranging from Bach to Schoenberg. Splendid Manhattan-bound classical and operatic fare need not be experienced within confines of the Upper West Side, though: Le Poisson Rouge, a trendy Bleecker Street nightclub presents some of the best jazz, contemporary-classical and chamber music the city has to offer, allows its patrons to quaff hearty hefeweizens or smoky pinot noirs in an atmosphere so easygoing as to make Brahms and Ellington seem like kissing cousins.

The night doesn't have to end at the final curtain call in the City That Never Sleeps. Take full advantage of all NYC has to offer with Frommer's® New York City 2009 ($18.99, ISBN: 978-0-470-28562-6).

ITALY: Milan
Teatro alla Scala
Milan's operatic history - which dates back to the seventeenth century - is no less dazzling than the world-famous fashion houses that make this city one of the modern world's top destinations for cutting-edge design. [Teatro alla Scala has been the city's operatic pride and joy since the eighteenth century: the official opening of the La Scala season is almost always on December 7, the feast day of St. Ambrose, Milan's patron.] La Scala remains hallowed ground on which divas-in-the-making must prove their mettle, and where the world first heard Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Verdi's Otello, Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, Rossini's Turco in Italia and Bellini's Norma - and scores of other classics.

Milan is also home to museums featuring art by such towering geniuses as Michelangelo (his final sculpture) and Leonardo da Vinci (The Last Supper). Learn where to find these gems from Frommer's® Italy 2009 ($24.99, 978-0-470-28556-5).

Has any place inspired more operas than Paris, perhaps the most romantic city on earth? Paris's newest home for opera is the spacious but somewhat chilly Opéra de la Bastille, which boasts an unrestricted view of the stage from each of its 2,700 seats, but the city's most famous operatic landmark remains the opulent nineteenth-century Palais Garnier, familiar to lovers of Broadway's Phantom of the Opera. Don't miss a chance to visit Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, an Art Deco masterpiece that is one of Europe's prettiest theaters, or the devastatingly elegant Théatre du Châtelet. Also worth a trip is the Salle Favart, its frothy good looks an apt metaphor for the light-hearted attractions of its home company, the Opéra-Comique.

From the Louvre to Notre Dame, rely on Frommer's® Paris 2009 ($18.99, 978-0-470-28563-3) for a complete guide to all the city's sights, shopping, and restaurants.

Chicago's Civic Opera House is one of the most beautiful buildings in a city that prides itself on its architecture. Built in 1929, this ageless amalgam of Renaissance revival and Art Deco has superb acoustics, excellent sightlines and sumptuous public spaces, including a handsomely proportioned lobby designed by Jules Guerin. The theater was home to several Chicago opera companies before its most distinguished tenant, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, arrived in 1954. The Lyric established the City of Big Shoulders as an international opera capital, offering the opera world's brightest stars in top-notch productions. After the Lyric season ends in late winter, Chicago's opera lovers hold on until spring, when the adventurous Chicago Opera Theater presents its three-opera season at the slick new Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millenium Park.

Want to know where to grab a slice of the best Chicago pizza on the way to the show? Pick up a copy of Frommer's® Chicago 2009 ($17.99, ISBN: 978-0-470-37371-2).

The Drottningholm Court Theatre
Built in 1766 for the Swedish queen, Lovisa Ulrika, the Drottningholm Court Theatre-located in the Royal Domain of Drottningholm, only a short bus or boat ride from the capital city of Stockhom-is a thing of exquisite artifice. The theatre was a beehive of musical and theatrical activity during the late eighteenth century, but when Lovisa Ulrika's son (and political enemy), King Gustaf III was assassinated-an event used as the basis for Verdi's opera Un Ballo in Maschera,-the theatre fell into disuse; it was a storage facility for much of the nineteenth century. Drottningholm was recalled to life in the 1920s and now presents a brief summer season each year, with the repertory usually drawn from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Spring and summer tours of the theater and the palace grounds are relatively infrequent, in order to spare its eighteenth-century charms from the wear-and-tear of twenty-first-century life. Early booking is advisable.

Frommer's® Sweden 6th edition ($21.99, ISBN: 978-0-470-43214-3) captures all the highlights of this beautiful nation-everything from sophisticated cities to medieval towns, the Gota Canal, summer solstice festivals, and Swedish glass factories.

In 1957, New York conductor John Crosby started an opera company in a highly unlikely locale: the breathtaking mountains of northern New Mexico. Crosby's impossible dream has endured: every July and August since then, Santa Fe Opera has presented an imaginative, exciting mix of familiar classics, rarely-performed treasures and brand-new works, their casts generally populated by the best young singers in America. Opera lovers from all over the world have been thrilled by Santa Fe's singular natural beauty, an element in the company's appeal celebrated by its dramatically proportioned adobe theater, which has unequalled views of the high desert landscape - and the heart-stopping beauty of its sunsets. Daytime hours in Santa Fe can be spent sampling the myriad charms of the city itself and of its thriving local community of world-class artists and artisans.

The oldest capital in the United States, Santa Fe is also known for its cutting-edge cuisine, some of the finest artwork in the world, and pueblo-style architecture. Explore this city and more of New Mexico with Frommer's® Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque, 12th Edition ($17.99, ISBN: 978-0-470-37188-6).

ENGLAND: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Sussex
The thoroughly English character of Glyndebourne Festival Opera reflects the personality of its eccentric founder, John Christie, who developed the ambitious scheme to offer festival-quality opera performances on his East Sussex estate beginning in 1934. Christie's original theater was eventually replaced by a completely new facility in 1994, but the abiding presence of the Christie home and the continued involvement of Christie's descendants in festival life have allowed Glyndebourne to retain much of its original atmosphere. The operas of Mozart have been at the core of Glyndebourne's repertory for all of its existence, but more esoteric fare - including some world premieres - is also among the company specialties.

Explore more of England with tips from Frommer's® England 2009 ($24.99, ISBN: 978-0-470-28786-6), including where to find the best of literary England (Stratford-upon-Avon, Jane Austen country, and more); ancient and Roman sites, including Roman baths and "Hadrian's Wall"; and diverse museums and galleries, from the Tate Modern to the National Museum of Wales.

Rioja wine country

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

Rioja Alavesa is the wine region (part of the Rioja appellation) at the
southern tip of Spain's Basque Country.

It's about an hour to an hour-and-a-half drive from the Basque Country's most
populous city, Bilbao.

The town of Laguardia makes an excellent base to explore the Rioja Alavesa wine region. The 13th century walled village is very pedestrian friendly, since cars aren't allowed within the town¹s walls.

The top place to stay near Laguardia is easily the Frank Gehry-designed
Marques de Riscal Hotel in Elciego. It literally looks out of this world,
with its titanium ribbons and avant-garde design. There's something special
about being in an ultra-modern building and looking out at a medieval hill
top village (Laguardia).

The 43 guest rooms (11 of which are suites) are equally modern and sleek.
They're also not cheap, as you might expect. Weekend rates in late April
were starting at $590 a night. Tip: Marques de Riscal is a member of
Starwood Hotel¹s Luxury Collection, so if you've racked up enough
Starpoints, you can redeem them for a free stay.

If you can't afford to stay here, at least have a glass of Marques de Riscal
wine in the high-ceilinged wine bar. But if your bank account can swing a
stay, ask for a room facing the church -- those are the best views by far.
Avoid Room No. 10, where I stayed. In the middle of the night, the ceiling
started leaking onto the hardwood floor. I was told it's a recurring problem
in that particular room.

The hotel has two excellent restaurants, a rooftop lounge and library and
the Vinotherapie Spa by Caudalie (a Paris-based company that also has spas
at the Plaza in New York and several tony properties in Europe). Many of the
treatments use grapes.

Get rates and info at
Less expensive lodging can be found at the charming small hotel Antigua
Bodega de Don Cosme Palacio. It doesn¹t have a Web site but you can check
rates/availability at
The four-star Villa de Laguardia is another great option;

Some Rioja Alavesa wineries worth checking out:
El Fabulista:
Marques de Riscal:

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from April 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

March 2009 is the previous archive.

May 2009 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.