Tag Archives | featured

EXPLORING CAPPADOCIA: GOREME, UCHISAR and BEYOND

GOREME

My Cappadocia explorations begin at Goreme. Per Lonely Planet:

Surrounded by epic sweeps of lunarscape valleys, the remarkable honey-coloured village of Goreme, hollowed out of the hills, may have long since grown out of its farming hamlet roots but its charm has not diminished. In the back alleys new boutique cave hotels are constantly popping up but tourists still have to stop for tractors which trundle up narrow winding roads where elderly ladies dally for hours on sunny street-side stoops doing their knitting.

The description is accurate: Goreme is a sleepy town with just enough going on not to be boring. It’s a good base for exploring some of the many excellent hiking trails in the area or just wandering aimlessly to catch glimpses of real life in Cappadocia.

Goreme is situated among multiple valleys, and is the starting point for several scenic hikes, including a 1-2 hour trek through Kiliclar Vadisi:

Gnomes Hat Goreme

Or a person can tackle the stretch of the Rose Valley from here:

Cappadocia from Dervent

Plodding through these dusty, strange environs I feel like a Dothraki in search of my horse, to the point where I can hear the Game of Thrones theme song in my head.

From the town of Goreme I walk the highway to the Goreme Open Air Museum, a vast complex of rock-cut churches, chapels and monasteries and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Goreme Open Air Museum

UCHISAR

It’s possible to walk from Goreme to Uchisar uphill through Pigeon Valley, but considering that I’m traveling solo, the temperature is approaching triple-digits beneath this July sun, and the fact that I would somehow have to return to my parked car, I drive the distance.

Lonely Planet‘s description of Uchisar:

Pretty little Uçhisar has undergone rapid development since the heady Club Med days. The French love affair with the cliff-top village continues each summer as busloads of Gallic tourists unpack their joie de vivre in trendy hotels at the foot of Uçhisar Castle. The royal rectangular crag, visible from nearby Göreme, is the dramatic centrepiece of a stylish Cappadocian aesthetic, albeit at times a touch manufactured.

I park at the outskirts of Uchisar, and walk the length of the picturesque village to the castle.

Uchisar

MAZI

In addition to staying in a cave hotel and taking a hot air balloon ride, another one of the “things to do” in Cappadocia is to tour an underground city. The Mazi Underground City is one of the best known in the region.

Spoiled by the proximity between Urgup, Goreme and Uchisar, the drive down to Mazi is becoming a little long, and the route is not quite as intuitive as the map suggests. I eventually arrive at a somewhat deserted intersection, the cave entrance to the left of my car, a picnic table of swarthy men smoking and playing cards to my right. They stare at me.

I back-up, turn around and speed out of here while silently castigating myself for coming all this way and chickening out. Mustering up all the bravery I can, I stop again, turn around, continue to the underground city and swarthy men, park the car and get out, oscillating between trepidation and determination. Trepination.

One of the men gruffly beckons me over to the cave entrance — just a little hole in the wall — and hands me my flashlight. Aside from his buddies, there’s no one else in sight. I look down the hole to the long, dark tunnel below. Me, a strange man, in a foreign country, alone in in a shadowy underground city.

It’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. I hand my flashlight back to the man, apologize for inconveniencing him (not that we speak the same language), and scoot back to my car.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

CAPPADOCIA HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE at DAWN

CAPPADOCIA HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE

Two things you’ve GOT to do when visiting Cappadocia: 1) stay in a cave hotel, and 2) take a hot air balloon ride.

There are dozens of Cappadocia hot air balloon operators to choose from. Considering that I would be caged in a straw basket suspended by a large swatch of nylon held aloft by an open flame, finding THE BEST Cappadocia hot air ballon operator seemed like a good idea. In keeping with my history of impeccable travel timing, only six weeks ago two Cappadocia hot air balloons crashed, leaving three dead and more than 20 injured. The activity obviously carries some risk.

My sister, Eren and Duke Dillard, a writer at Captivating Cappadocia with whom I had exchanged tweets, all recommended Butterfly Balloons. Eren booked my one-hour flight with them for me (175 Euros).

BUTTERFLY BALLOONS

Crap. It’s 3:50 a.m. and my iPhone alarm is nagging me, dragging my Central Standard Time-programmed body from an Ambien-induced sleep. I’m so confused.

The Butterfly Balloons van picks me up at 4:15 and I share it with a couple from Singapore and their college-aged daughter. We exchange sleepy greetings.

At the Buttefly Balloons HQ we pay our balances, are assigned pilots (mine is Captain Mike), and eat a continental breakfast. We reboard our assigned van and are delivered to the Butterfly Balloons launching site where the crew is busy preparing our aircrafts for launch.

Hot Air Balloon Prep

The 16 of us assigned to Pilot Mike are divided into groups of four and placed in a quadrant of the basket (I’m with the Singapore family again). Pilot Mike educates the group on crash landing procedures with enough gravity that we pay attention and sufficient humor that we don’t become nervous.

And off we go.

Our ascension to 7,000 feet, interrupted by occasional bursts of fuel to push us upward, is peaceful. We’re one of the first Cappadocia hot air balloons off the ground, giving us the advantage of viewing the other 50 or so balloons ascending over the sunrise-lit horizon.

I love Pilot Mike. There’s something attractive about a man in charge of his craft. Pilot Mike, who moved to Cappadocia from England over a decade ago, strikes the perfect balance between professionalism and next-door-neighbor likability.  He answers our many ridiculous questions and regales us with Cappadocia hot air balloon stories, yet doesn’t hesitate to shush the conversation as he receives or imparts information over his headphones.

The other-worldly Cappadocia countryside is breathtaking from above, flattered by morning light.

Cappadocia Hot Air Balloon from Below

Cappadocia Valleys

Pilot Mike explains to us that he can control our height and rotate our craft, but he is powerless as to the direction the breezes take us, which is why he is in constant communication with his ground crew. They read the winds and speed along the roadways to greet us at our anticipated landing site.

Although I’m a fairly cautious, skeptical person, I am not the least bit worried in Pilot Mike’s hands: he knows exactly what he’s doing. He lowers our balloon skillfully until our basket lazily skims a tree top. In a Willy-Wonkaesque gesture, Pilot Mike plucks a piece of fruit from a branch and hands it to one of the passengers to sample its sour pulp.

tree from hot air balloon

We land, the Butterfly Balloons crew and Pilot Mike’s yellow lab rush us. Once released from our communal basket we’re treated to sparkling wine and cookies.

I would normally find sparkling wine and cookies at 7:30 in the morning forced and corny, but something happened up in the air and the feeling of celebration and conviviality between all of us is palpable. I break my No-Drinking-Before-9:00 a.m. rule and indulge.

Cheers!

Captain Mike Butterfly Balloons

I can’t speak to all the other Cappadocia hot air balloon operators, but I highly recommend Butterfly Balloons.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

ST. ERMIN’S HOTEL, MARRIOTT AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION

MARRIOTT AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION HOTELS

I used to consider all Marriott Hotels bland and unvaried: seemed like every guest room at every property was decorated in the same flyover state decor of green carpet, rose and green floral bedspreads and matching wallpaper, with brass accents adding to the despair. However in the past half-decade or so, as the company has added some sophisticated brands (Edition, Bulgari) and invested in making its JW line more exciting, my impression of the chain has moved from staid to sexy. I especially love the Marriott Autograph Collection Hotels.

From the Marriott website:

The Autograph Collection is a remarkable group of upper upscale and luxury independent hotels. These iconic properties are located in dynamic gateway cities and preferred destinations worldwide. Each one is unique, one of a kind with its own distinct perspective.

For the true individualist who shuns the predictability of chains, Autograph Collection takes the guesswork out of finding independent, high-personality destination hotels that reflect the adventurous spirit and uncompromising originality of the guests who seek them out.

The Autograph Collection Guest Profile: The Individualist

  • Prefers to find their own way and forge their own paths
  • Shuns convention, rejects the familiar, seeks the road less traveled and the choice less obvious
  • Searches for original experiences that add to their lifelong narrative and sense of adventure
  • Views the hotel as the focal point of the journey; what they see along the way is an added bonus

This is me! As a hotel afficionado and marketing professional I’m very impressed with how Marriott has positioned their Autograph Collection.

FAVORITE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION HOTELS

I lost my Marriott Autograph Collection virginity to the Santo Mauro in Madrid in 1998 (it probably wasn’t an Autograph Collection property back then). I had endured four weeks in Salamanca and Barcelona at a language school, and although I acquired zero Spanish skills (I learned only four words: cerveza, baño, bolso and zapatos)  I managed to contract a toenail fungus from the shower of the crappy (unheated) student apartment in which I stayed.

After weeks of listening to me complain, my boyfriend instructed me to dump my remaining classes, retreat to Madrid, and hunker down at the Santo Mauro, his treat. I was in heaven.

Presently, when in Minneapolis I stay at the dramatic The Hotel Minneapolis, a Marriott Autograph collection property. The stunning lobby belies the fact that walk-in rates can sometimes dip as low as $109.

Hotel Minneapolis Elevator Bank

And when I visit Detroit (monthly) I stay only at The Henry, a charming Autograph Collection hotel in Dearborn. The rack rate is typically $239, sometimes I pay only $189 with my AAA membership, and corporate rates drop go a mere $129.

The Henry Autograph Collection Lobby

ST. ERMIN’S HOTEL, LONDON

I stayed at the St. Ermin’s Hotel, the Marriott’s Autograph Collection property in London, my last trip to the city. On a scale of one to five stars , I rate the St. Ermin’s Hotel in London at 4.5 stars: I was quite happy spending four days there.

PROS

  • Dramatic, recessed entrance

St Ermins Hotel Entrance

  • I was able to book four consecutive nights with Marriott Points less than one month prior to my stay (145K Points)
  • The location is fabulous (next to St. James Park, an easy walk to Westminster Abbey, London Eye, Houses of Parliament)
  • The hotel is convenient: many restaurants and shops are located nearby and the Underground station is a block away
  • Gorgeous, stunning lobby. I’m a sucker for the white on white wedding cake look and dramatic staircase. As with the other Marriott Autograph Collection hotels I’ve visited, the the designers of St. Ermin’s lobby took risks

St. Ermin's Hotel Lobby from Above

St. Ermin's Hotel Lobby

  • Complimentary baked sweets awaited me in my room
  • All the promised Platinum amenities (free wi-fi, complimentary breakfast, bottle of wine, etc.) were fulfilled
  • Controllable room temperature and good shower pressure
  • The inclusive cold breakfast buffet is only ok, but I ordered hot items off the menu and was not charged
  • Speedy wi-fi connection
  • Newspaper delivery

CONS

  • Small rooms (I received an upgrade and still had to tuck my suitcase underneath the desk). I became less sensitive to the fact the longer I stayed
  • Thin walls. This was an issue only one of the four nights
  • Mediocre cold breakfast buffet

The St. Ermin’s, Marriott Autograph Collection exceeds four stars. However, despite the amazing public space decor, the property just barely misses that certain je ne sais pas quality of five star hotels.

But I’d happily stay here again in a minute.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }