When your cities can trace their histories back 4,000 years and they’re located in fabled Macedonia – land of Alexander the Great, Aristotle and Mount Olympus – “legendary” is not an inflated superlative.
Divided into three sections, Central Macedonia is the location for not only Thessaloniki and Halkidiki, but to the more northerly cities of Serres and Kilkis both steeped in history, natural beauty, wine and fine dining.
Read more in my travel column for the April edition of the Hellenic News of America…
Five years ago a (very) young smiling Yannis Laspas first greeted me in the lobby of the Flegra Palace Hotel. Yannis and his sister Lena were already managing the family owned Flegra Palace that their parents had opened in 1989. In these past five years I’ve had the pleasure of being greeted by Yannis at his hotels (plural) twice more.
Not content with totally renovating the Flegra Palace Hotel, Yannis and his sister Lena have built a select hospitality empire in Pefkoahori on the Halkidiki peninsula of Kassandra – the flagship Flegra Palace Hotel, the waterfront Flegra Beach Hotel, and the new Apanemia Apartment Hotel, which opened in 2017.
Halkidiki’s three peninsulas – Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos – have long been sun-kissed summer playgrounds. Easy access to dozens of public beaches, natural hot mineral spas, classic white washed villages climbing hillsides and the incomparable clear water of the Aegean attract tens of thousands of visitors annually. The fishing town of Pefkoahori has become one of Kassandra’s most popular summer tourist destinations.
During the summer season, this family oriented resort town is a marriage of sun, sea and Coney Island. A lengthy beachfront pedestrian walkway becomes a carnival of street food and vendors selling everything one expects from sunglasses to helium balloons. A small amusement park will delight children. Shopaholics will be pleased with the number and diversity of stores. Bar and restaurant hoppers will be sated with dozens of attractive beach venues and music opportunities.
The Flegra Hotels are ideally situated to maximize a beach vacation as well as to explore natural beauty and local antiquities. The Flegra Palace’s rooms surround an opulent pool that is the hotel’s focal point and includes the Soleil Bar with its dramatic glass floor jutting over the water. In the warm Greek evening the entire scene is lit by a computer controlled LED system that cycles through soft colors. The light plays on olive and palm trees, flowering plants as well as fountains and a waterfall. Dozens of candles flicker on the tables of the Soleil bar and the Flegra Palace’s two restaurants – the poolside Ambrosia and the main building’s glass walled Titanes room.
The open air Ambrosia restaurant offers superb a la carte dining for lunch and dinner. Titanes is both a buffet and an al la carte dining room. Guests at the Flagra Palace can opt for a rate that includes the buffet. Classic Greek, Mediterranean and Eastern European dishes are prepared with the freshest local meats, seafood, fish and produce. Executive Chef for the Flegra Palace and Flegra Beach’s Yalla restaurant, Michael Voulgaris, is pushing the envelope for a family oriented tourist destination.
In cooperation with Visit Greece’s promotion of pan-Hellenic regional foods the Flegra Palace offers special rotating themed dinners as part of the buffet as well as regional breakfast dishes. The dinners themed menus range from foods of the Byzantine Empire, ancient Thrace, Asia Minor to Macedonia, Greek fish and Chef Michael Voulgaris own creation, recipes based on the philosophy of Aristotle.
Chef Voulgaris used Aristotle’s five foundations for life – air, fire, water, either and earth.
Air: A cold soup, slight bitter appropriate for ancient times, with wine, wine vinegar and rose petals.
Fire: A seafood dish of barley and vegetables served at room temperature. Nice flavors and raisins sweeten the dish. Olives and raw onion add counterpoint.
Water: Bitter greens steamed in sea and fresh water with apricots and feta cheese. The apricots add that touch of sweetness ancients loved so much to balance bitterness and the feta adds salt. Served at room temperature.
Either: A dessert soup of fruits with honey and molasses in wine served at room temperature. Once more contrasting bitter and sweet since quince is one of the fruits along with berries. One of the more complex of the five dishes maintaining contrasting textures and flavors with sweet and sour counterpoints.
Earth: It was the most radical of the five dishes maintaining contrasting textures and flavors with sweet and sour counterpoints. A beautiful cold soup of wine, rose petals and herbs.
It was a risk taking meal, and diners were taking the plunge. Yet for an all-inclusive buffet, even the regular selections are imaginative and well above the average hotel in quality.
To offer the Certified Greek Regional Breakfast a restaurant has to guarantee that 65-75% of the dishes are made from local ingredients and products and prepared using traditional recipes from designated regions of the country. Many of the selections are sweet and savory pastries of differing shapes with fillings including nuts, spinach, fruits and cheeses.
Not content with simply new hotels and three vibrant restaurants, Yannis has embraced the cocktail revolution, which has swept North America the past decade. The new menu and trained mixologist of the Soleil Bar now offer among other drinks a Gin Basil Smash with aromatic fresh basil, simple syrup and lime juice. A Nigorni with gin, compari and sweet vermouth has a rich color and a great bitter/sweet balance. Sparkling Tarragon Lemonade is a summer cooler with the unique touch of a star anise garnish. Naturally they can stir a classic “Prohibition Era” Martini.
The 29 individually decorated rooms of the Flegra Beach Hotel, at the quiet end of Pefkoahori beach, each come with kitchenettes. The sleek, modern understated silver gray color scheme, accented in teal and black, is mirrored in the public spaces but with splashes of red and window walls looking onto the pine tree shaded beach and Aegean Sea.
Flagra Beach’s Yalla Restaurant and Beach Bar also benefits from Chef Voulgaris’ imagination and passion for fresh seafood. A salad of bitter rocket and sweet cherry tomatoes with balsamic continues his fascination with bitter/sweet contrasts. A medley of seafood with pasta and saffron scented sauce was photo perfect. Both food and drinks can be served under the extensive number of shade umbrellas on the beach.
The Apanemia Apartment Hotel is the newest addition to the Flegra Hotels collection. Although not on the beach, it’s convenient to the center of Pefkoahori and has its own parking – very desirable in old Greek villages. Each apartment is equipped with a well-designed compact kitchen. The balconies over look Pefkoahori or interior gardens. The wifi reception is excellent; laundry service is available and most of all it’s nestled just far enough from beach activities to be very quiet.
The Halkidiki peninsulas are not as well known to North Americans as the more famous Greek islands, but that is changing through imaginative marketing by the Halkidiki Tourism Organization and forward thinking young entrepreneurs such as Yannis and Lena. Based on the relaxed, comfortable, affordable and delicious hospitality offered by the Flegra Hotels, 2018 ought to be your year to explore timeless antiquity, tranquil beaches, lively night life and imaginative cuisine from the pan-Hellenic world in this less discovered corner of one of Earth’s most fabled destinations – Greece.
When you go:
The Flegra Hotels 2018 season runs from May through mid-October. Pefkoahori is an easy and picturesque 50-mile drive on modern highways from Thessaloniki Airport “Makedonia.” The gateway city of Thessaloniki is served by direct flights from a number of European cities. Numerous flights from Athens are available and affordable for the short 35-minute journey.
Disclaimer: the author was a guest of the Flegra Hotels.
You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:
With the view from my room at Iniohos Hotel & Restaurant, Delphi, 700 meters/2,300 feet up Mount Parnassus, overlooking the Pleistos Valley and the Corinthian Gulf it’s no wonder the Oracle of Delphi could glimpse the future!
Yannis Papathanasiou, second generation owner of Iniohos, is as equally fascinated as I with the interplay of ancient regional culture and history with the development of the region’s food. He decries the weakening of traditional food making techniques and availability of such products as cheese from Crete using an enzyme from fresh figs, and natural yeast made from boiling grapes to syrup creating natural yeast used in their breads.
Yannis shares a feeling frequently expressed to this well-Greek-traveled journalist that Greek tourism in general has not concentrated enough on developing local tourism that cover these interest – popular culture/”people culture,” the history – not simply ancient – and local foods rarely found outside of the region.
Shortly after lunch, Yannis was off to food markets in Athens – 200 plus mile round trip – to pick up special ingredients from trusted purveyors and special spices from India. He didn’t arrive back until well after midnight. India?
A lunch of flaky spiral spanakopita, local grilled smoked sausages, tomato and feta salad all seemed very typical for a traditional Greek restaurant. Yet then an aromatic plate of Indian squash and peppers arrived. The executive chef at Iniohos is from India, and there’s a reason.
Delphi was a magnet for the entire pan-Hellenic world beyond what we now know as Greece. It was always an international city bringing together believers in the Pantheon. Today tourists from China, India and Japan flock to marvel at Delphi – as well as many other ancient Greek sites. After all, at one time all these regions were contemporaries – allies and enemies – always tied by the commerce of the great trade routes.
Hotel Iniohos sits high on the steep Mount Parnassus hillsides in the heart of Delphi. Delphi’s founding is shrouded in mist dating from the 1400s BC. Yet by the apex of the classical era (600s – 400s BC) and even into Macedonian and Roman empire days Delphi held an unparalleled position – and earned great wealth – within the belief system of the Greek pantheon. Considered the “navel of the world” to ancient Greeks Delphi was more important than the gods’ home of Mount Olympus. Delphi was their Vatican.
Pythia, the honorary name given to the Oracle of Delphi, held sessions from the stunningly positioned Temple of Apollo. There is evidence of volcanic fumes that seep up from deep in this tectonic active region that may have induced euphoria, even hallucinations. The Oracle’s pronouncements on the petitions and predictions asked were often cryptic – almost rants – and open to wide interpretations. Yet listened to with baited breath and frequently followed with auspicious outcomes.
Delphi was more than just the Oracle and became a commercial religious city of pilgrimage. Temples, sanctuaries, a vast theater with panoramic views of the valley and sacred springs dot the site.
The Thelos at the Sanctuary of Athena (4th century BC) in Delphi is iconic. It was often the first temple many pilgrims saw when entering the vast complex of the Oracle. Considered in its own day a masterpiece of Greek architectural symmetry and polychrome decoration it had 20 outer and 10 inner marble columns. Devotees of Athena still come to pay homage and pray to the goddess.
The ancient site of Delphi – a mere 20-minute walk or short taxi ride from the center of town – is extensive and built on the hills of Mount Parnassus, so walking within the site is essential. There is a modest admission charge to the main complex – the Temple of Apollo – including the excellent Archaeological Museum of Delphi. There is no admission charge to enter the Thelos at the Sanctuary of Athena, which is another easy 20-minute walk down the hill. You do want to see it all so allow yourself at least 3-hours.
The modern Archaeological Museum of Delphi caps this UNESCO World Heritage Site and is recessed into the mountain constructed of the same honey colored marble as the temples. Much of the art were gifts from around the pan-Hellenic world to the Oracle and priests of the temples, or burial objects for those fortunate enough to be interred in this sacred land. It’s superbly arranged in chronological order from 2,000-year-old bronze figurines to the eerily beautiful statue to Antinoos (2nd century AD). This remembrance to a tragic gay love story is sculpted in marble smooth as wax with rivulets of hair delicate and life-like.
On the morning I walked the grounds of the Thelos at the Sanctuary of Athena, a group of women – not a staged event – were dressed in modern versions of ancient robes chanting and meditating to the goddess Athena. It seemed strange at first. Then it all became real; they were giving thanks at the navel of the world to mother Earth.
When you go: Modern toll-roads and many bus companies connect Athens with Delphi.
Disclaimer: the author was a guest of Iniohos Hotel & Restaurant. Travel arrangements were made by the MTCgroup
You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:
On Andros Island in the Cyclades Islands, it’s easy to be distracted by vistas at every turn. With my first glimpse of the glittering harbor of Batsi it was obvious I’d enjoy four days exploring the island’s coastline and dramatic interior.
I can’t think of a better way to spend a beautiful afternoon than lunch at Taverna Lagoudera on Batsi harbor. When you can still taste the natural saltiness of the Aegean Sea on the sea bream you know you’re in heaven (aka Greece).
Andros and its sister island Tinos (the subject of my March Hellenic News article) are affluent escapes with more villas than hotel rooms. Within easy access of Athens through the port of Rafina, the comfortable car-ferries of the Fast Ferry group run year round. Restaurants, cafes and coffee shops thrive on this island
Eastern Macedonia and Thrace is a region still home to the mix of ethnicities and religions that have settled on these lush, mountainous lands.
The lush mountainous terrain of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace make driving difficult. It’s not the well-maintained roads; it’s the distractions. I wanted to constantly pull the car over, get out and take yet another photo of scenes that I know the Greats of the ancient world witnessed. Every few miles another sign pointed to a sanctuary of the pantheon, sacred cave or ancient theater.
Nowhere in the southern Balkans has a region been so coveted by empires than Croatia with over 1,100 miles of photogenic Adriatic coastline. Although the ethnic Croats were themselves 7th century northern invaders, they could not stop a historical process that would come to an end only in late 20th century. The Romans, Venetians, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans, Mussolini’s Italy and Serbs all lusted over this beautiful and strategic land akin to the biblical neighbor’s wife.
Today Croatia is invaded not by empires but by golden hordes of tourists…
Read more on my travels to Croatia in the Hellenic News of America
With the current penchant for luxury travel flooding the blogosphere promoting budget hotels may seem incongruous. Yet during a life of travel this writer has always budgeted for both memories and things. Not to discount fine luxury properties worldwide, especially in Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta, but one does not have to compromise.
The walls of this travel journalist’s residences became filled with visual reminders of lasting memories through acquiring top quality local art and antiques. The double effect has been to patronize and promote local artists and antique shops while satisfying a desire to glimpse the soul of a destination through its creativity. Not being a wealthy individual it’s difficult to achieve both goals spending in the high hundreds of dollars for accommodations.
For the sake of full disclosure many sponsored trips including luxury accommodations are part of the business of a travel writer. Among those Puerto Vallarta’s superb Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel is close to ideal for this writer – and will not require one to take out a loan – but both professional and private travels have included modest hotels worldwide. Based on three trips to Puerto Vallarta over the past year, Travel with Pen and Palate reviews four price friendly hotels starting with its least favorite.
Hotel Posada de Roger – ★
In the heart of the rapidly gentrifying Romantic Zone of Puerto Vallarta, the Hotel Posada de Roger is top rated on Trip Advisor. (“Why” should become another article on the questionable merits of rating agencies.) From both the exterior and interior court, the hotel looks every inch a throw back to the lazy days of Margaritaville.
That doesn’t have to be an issue; it could be romantic. Unfortunately the song of that name was written in 1977, and the hotel does not seem to have been renovated anytime before or since. The beautiful jungle of the potted plant courtyard and gardens on the upper floors hide the hotel’s flaws.
The rooms are air-conditioned but gaps in the ill-fitting windows and doors, whose lock offers little security, requires leaving the air on high and using the ceiling fan as well – Puerto Vallarta is a hot, humid, albeit beautiful, Pacific Ocean city. A charity thrift store appears to have been the source of the small room’s furnishings with a hard bed, musty coverings and, considering the room’s size, an incongruous sofa jammed against an old chest of drawers – the only place to store clothing.
Access to the adequate bathroom required opening the door to the bath before one could step up an 8” rise – remember that at night or bring a night light. Wifi was hit or miss. Breakfast was not included.
The Hotel Posada de Roger has a well-known restaurant for breakfast and lunch that’s popular with tourists. Between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. the restaurant staff begin their daily set-up and that is when you will awaken – no need to set an alarm if you’re an early riser. Given the design of the restaurant the noise level reverberating off the masonry walls and stone courtyard was unacceptable.
The hotel does have a swimming pool. The water was strangely green. That should have raised a flag for this writer, but it was hot. Regrets the following day from ingesting said water while swimming were not pleasant. That was the only personal incidence of illness in the three trips to Puerto Vallarta.
Hotel Belmar Galeria – ★★
The Hotel Belmar, also in the Romantic Zone, should qualify for three stars, but after two seperate stays in two different rooms inconsistencies prevent given it more than two. The lobby and walls of the hotel are lined with top contemporary works by Puerto Vallarta artists. It’s a smart look for modest accommodations. Yet the quality of the rooms vary, and they’re location will dictate the quality of wifi reception from okay to non-existent.
Both rooms had exterior balconies which sounds romantic if one is not bothered by street noise starting early in the morning. Both beds were adequately comfortable and the second room had a desk. But to turn the air on one had to stand on the mattress and throw the circuit breaker switch.
Breakfast was not provided at the Hotel Belmar but coffee and store-bought cookies were available in the lobby. Even with its shortcomings, if being in the center of the Romantic Zone on a budget is important than inspecting rooms ahead of time is advised and, for sound proofing, choosing an interior room may be a good option.
Catedral Vallarta Boutique Hotel – ★★★
For full disclosure the Catedral Vallarta Boutique Hotel was one of the sponsoring hotels during the second trip to Puerto Vallarta in November to cover the 22nd Festival Gourmet International. It is located in the Centro District a few minutes walk from the Romantic Zone across the Rio Cuele and the “Jungle” – the green oasis and artisan center of Isla del Rio Cuele. It’s central location puts it within blocks of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadeloupe and, like all four hotels, of the beach and the Malecon.
Noise level in Puerto Vallarta Centro is radically improved over the Romantic Zone – unless you’re there during Mexican Independence Day when a school marching band decided to practice at 6:00 a.m. The Catedral Hotel offers a wide variety of rooms including the spacious suite provided to this writer. Although the hotel is not 21st century modern, the furnishings were in top shape, the bed comfortable, the kitchen – had this culinary travel writer time to cook – was modern and well equipped and the expansive balcony was a pleasant spot to people watch.
Both modern and traditional original works of art lined the walls of the hotel and the rooms. Like the Belmar, the hotel was constructed around a large interior courtyard, but it was quiet. Wifi was not available in the suite or in some other rooms according to guests, but was strong in the courtyard, which had several sitting areas. Breakfast was not provided but coffee, tea and cookies were available in a room off the courtyard.
Hotel Porto Allegro – ★★★★
Hopefully word will not get out too quickly that the Hotel Porto Allegro is a bargain for fear management will raise the rates. Just across the street from the Catedral, this modern cut stone and glass hotel is a hidden gem. Sleek cool stone and marble tile in light grays immediately soften the bright hot sun of beautiful Porto Vallarta. Modern gym facilities are just off the lobby, and an elevator – rare among budget hotels – will carry you and your luggage upwards.
The rooms are simple but well appointed with excellent beds, a desk, ceiling fan and a split air-conditioning system so efficient it needed to be kept low. A spacious closet system stored all belongings and the bathroom was ultra modern. Best of all for this travel journalist the wifi was excellent!
On the rooftop of the Porto Allegro was a large hot tub and the outdoor lounge area from which to survey a vista of Puerto Vallarta, the Catedral and the Bay of Benderas. A glass walled breakfast room served a superb buffet, included in the room rate, of Mexican and American foods that tantalized this chef who desires more than anything non-traditional breakfast items. Eggs and sausages were certainly available but so were spicy sauces to liven them up as well as copious amounts of fresh fruit, waffles with dulce de leche, savory stewed dishes of poultry and/or pork to ladle over rice, fresh squeezed juices, a variety of Mexican sweet breads and excellent coffee.
It is possible to have it all: comfort, memories and fine things that will recall those experiences. The budget does not have to be sacrificed if that is a concern. When that same budget gives you Puerto Vallarta, then, like PV Tourism proudly exclaims, welcome to paradise.
Additional Puerto Vallarta articles by Chef Marc d’Entremont:
Leaving the sprawling modern city of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, Maurice Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels and my guide throughout my stay in Costa Rica, deftly maneuvered the Toyota Rav4 on the winding roads as we ascended into the Cloud Forest. I was pleased I didn’t have to drive or else my field of vision would have been narrowed concentrating on the well paved but narrow mountain roads on our way to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Instead I could marvel at the panorama of the receding Central Valley as we entered the lush landscape for which this bio-diverse Central American nation is justifiably famous.
Costa Rica is a landmass equal to 0.03% of the Earth, about 20,000 square miles – the size of Vermont – but accounts for over 6% of the globe’s biodiversity. Just one hour from San Jose the emerald green mountain slopes are thick with coffee plants. Costa Rica leads world coffee production per acre because two trees are planted together.
Herds of cows and goats graze wrapped in swirls of misty clouds. Vendors selling large plump strawberries and the country’s ubiquitous balls of fresh mozzarella-like white cheese line village roads.
We stopped first at one of Costa Rica’s 27 national parks, which along with private wildlife and biological reserves encompasses nearly a third of the country – the largest percentage of protected national land on Earth. Central America is a seismically potent part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and Parc National Volcan Poas encompasses one of Costa Rica’s six active volcanoes. Exacerbated by the temperature differential of the venting volcano, the crater is often shrouded in mist that wafts up the steep walls of the caldera. Yet when the mist parts mineral rich turquoise lakes are visible.
The spacious modern visitor center at Parc National Volcan Poas has fine educational exhibits of the surrounding ecology. The gift shop displays top quality pottery and woodwork from some of Costa Rica’s most famous artists. I was particularly taken with the ingenious creations made from recycled materials such as a life-size toucan crafted from a single automobile tire.
Our objective for the day was a visit to the privately owned La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge – one of the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica. Florida entrepreneur Lee Banks purchased this property with its five spectacular waterfalls with the intention of preserving its pristine biosphere. Visitors take self-guided tours along several miles of well-designed wooden walkways through the hills, along the La Paz River providing numerous vistas of the spectacular falls.
Within the gardens is a large butterfly house with a colorful collection of over 4,000 butterflies from 40 species native to this mile-high environment – only a small portion of Costa Rica’s over 1,200 species. The butterfly conservatory is part of an educational heritage village of pre-industrial rural life.
The visitor center complex is the gateway to the gardens and Peace Lodge. The architectural integration of the structures with their native wood and stone mirrors the surrounding environment. Like all Small Distinctive Hotels, the quality of the cuisine matched the beauty of the surroundings.
Lunch with Vanessa Gonzalez, restaurant manager, and Executive Chef Diego Seitour highlighted the quality of local ingredients and the creativity of Costa Rican talent. Diego’s French grandfather and Argentine born father were chefs. His Spanish mother added an additional culinary insight to his environment. Diego was born in Costa Rica and studied culinary arts in France and Costa Rica but worked in restaurants since he was a boy. I found this mix of talents and culinary backgrounds common in Costa Rica.
Lunch started with a sea bass ceviche. The paper-thin slices of sea bass were garnished with pajibaye – the iconic steamed bright orange Costa Rican fruit of the Peach Palm tree – and napped with a lime, orange juice and olive oil dressing that was bright and intense. Diego adds meat bones to the broth when simmering the pajibaye to provide a depth of flavor uncommon when the fruit is simply cooked in water.
Surrounding the base of a waterfall adjacent to the swimming pool at Peace Lodge is a large free form trout pond fed by the La Paz River. Chef Seitour uses the organically farmed trout in his menus. His impressive trout Napoleon is a pair of fillets sandwiched between grilled onions and eggplant resting on risotto cakes that have been pan seared. The accompanying vegetables and rice have a smoky flavor, which gives depth to the trout. The fish is glazed with a red and yellow pepper jam.
Papaya and Curry Soup blends the natural sweetness of papaya with the spice of curry creating a warm flavored soup.
Diego has assembled an impressive collection of craft beers for Peace Lodge. A local Escalante brew was dark and strong with a distinct hint of chocolate followed by coffee notes that worked well with the warm tones of the soup. Famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià created Estrella Damm Inedit for Barcelona based Damm S.A. that had strong citrus overtones with a light and effervescent mouth feel. It paired well with both fish dishes.
Hugging the hillside, the village-like complex of 18 rooms and suites of Peace Lodge are unique. Each is individually designed to integrate the Cloud Forest into the room while providing maximum privacy. Large log beds, stone gas fireplaces – Peace Lodge is 5,300 feet elevation – plant infused bathrooms with their own waterfalls and hot tubs on private patios and balconies are only a few of the serine elements that make Peace Lodge a sought after refuge and honeymoon haven.
I found it unique that Peace Lodge suggests no more than a three day stay. The expressed purpose is to encourage guests to explore the rest of Costa Rica. After over a week at five Small Distinctive Hotels I was no longer surprised at this sentiment, which seems to run counter to maximizing profits. What makes the Costa Rican experience memorable is the obvious pride both the owners of these beautiful hotels and ordinary citizens from scientist to street vendors have for their peaceful nation and their eagerness to share it with visitors.
When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive to downtown San Jose and an hour to La Paz Waterfall Gardens/Peace Lodge
Petra was carved into multi colored mineral laden sandstone by the Nabataeans c. 300 B.C., yet this geographically strategic region in present day Jordan generated wealth for whoever had control long before the city existed. As a center for long-haul caravans, some stretching for 700 camels, Petra was an ideal junction for the distribution of goods on their way south, west and north into the Levant, Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. As for security, Petra was a natural bank vault.
The massive city was carved into the red sandstone cliffs on the flanks of Jordan’s vast dry Wadi Araba. The dramatic main entrance through a long towering and narrow gorge – a Siq – was a defensive and psychological tour de force. The eyes are focused on the first building that comes into view, the impressive Al Khaznch. Popularly known as the Treasury, its purpose was more likely ceremonial – shock and awe.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, chosen in 2007 as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and discovered by Hollywood in the Indiana Jones franchise, Petra deserves its reputation as the top tourist attraction in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. With an international mix of visitors, the carriage, horse, donkey and camel rides, the craft and trinket stalls, local musicians and water hawkers add a visceral caravan atmosphere to a serious archaeological site.
Petra’s dominance of the Spice Route in the Levant continued well into the Roman era when the city became the capital of the empire’s Arabian province. Although it’s not clear what use the Nabataeans meant for many structures, the Romans added obvious flourishes – an impressive theater, colonnaded market and freestanding temples. Yet if it were not for the genius of three human accomplishments, the glory of Petra would have been impossible.
Petra’s wealth and life in the Cradle of Civilization were based on wheat, sheep and water. The domestication of a wild grain and a feisty animal in prior millenniums allowed for settled life and the rise of towns. Yet all life was dependent on water, especially in regions prone to drought. The Nabataeans mastered an efficient system of dams, cisterns and water channels carved in rock that provided this desert city with a profitable surplus of water.
While Petra declined after the 5th century A.D. due to changing commercial routes and serious earthquakes, wheat, sheep, people and the need for water remained. The cuisine of Jordan’s Bedouin culture harken back to the basics of ancient settled life. Flat ash bread is still buried under the hot coals while goat, lamb and poultry may be grilled or baked in a hot sand pit. Vegetables of all types are pickled and dried fruits, nuts and cheese round out the basics.
Who knows when humans first discovered that slathering toppings on flat rounds of bread and baking them were tasty and had infinite possibilities? Among the many dozens of mezze – small plates – that dominate Jordanian cuisine, Araies Iahma is a favorite among locals and visitors. Known as Bedouin Pizza, araies lahma is easy to prepare.
Araies Iahma (Bedouin Pizza) – 8 servings
1 pound ground meat – any combination of lamb, beef, mutton or goat
1 medium onion, diced
½ cup olive oil
1 green chili pepper, seeds removed, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed and diced
2 tomatoes, blanched, skinned and diced (see preparation)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C)
Blanch the tomatoes for 45 seconds in boiling water and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Using a sharp knife slit the sides of the skin and slip off the skin
Finely dice the tomatoes, onion, chili pepper and garlic
Add the salt, cumin, and diced vegetables to the ground meat and mix well.
Cut each round of pita in half, and spread a thin layer of meat inside each pocket.
Brush the stuffed pita halves with olive oil and arrange on a sheet pan.
Bake for 7 minutes, turn each pita over and continue for 5 minutes more.
Serve hot with a salad as a light lunch, as an appetizer or part of a festive and elaborate Jordanian mezze buffet.
Araies Iahma is just one of a dozen dishes a visitor can participate in preparing at the Petra Kitchen. The staff of the Petra Kitchen under manager Ali and chef Mustafe have created a participatory dinner that introduces guests to the top tastes of Jordanian cuisine. Couple this with its location at the very epicenter of ancient human achievement, and dining in Petra becomes a bonding experience with the ancestors.
When you go:
Non-stop flights are available from major North American hubs to Amman, Jordan.
Petra is a 3-hour drive south from Amman on modern highways. Although day excursions can easily be arranged from Amman, to give Petra its due, an overnight in one of the new town’s attractive hotels is recommended.
As in all hot arid regions, visitors to Petra are urged to carry and drink plenty of water. Visiting the entire site entails walking 6 to 9 miles round trip, but carriage, horse, donkey and camel transportation is available. Bottled water is easily purchased in the historic site from numerous vendors.
A nighttime candle light illumination of the Al Khaznch (the Treasury) is not recommended. Candlelight at its base fails to do the vast edifice justice. Save your energy for the daylight.
As a chef I usually shy away from all-inclusive resorts. Being a captive audience for a resort’s desire to maximize profits too often results in forced acceptance of less than stellar quality. Yet Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel proves that excellence is by design.
Hoteles Buenaventura group was founded over 30 years ago in Puerto Vallarta by a family of engineers and architects with three generations now actively involved. A flair for design is evident in the liberal use of original art that decorates public spaces and rooms as well as the ergonomic comfort that dominates the furnishings. Villa Premiere is one of three resorts under the group’s umbrella along the vibrant shore of the Bay of Banderas.
Villa Premiere, built in 1999, completed a multi-million dollar renovation in September 2016 under the direction of the second generation family CEO and architect José Abel Villa Fernandez. Not only were all 60 rooms and suites refurbished but the public areas including pools and the three restaurants received major improvements. The adult only Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel & Romantic Getaway exudes comfort, serenity and extraordinary customer service even before you arrive. Upon making a reservation an email is sent with a list of pillow, room scent and mini-bar preferences.
Guests are presented with glasses of champagne before sitting at the reception desk. After the necessary formalities of registration they’re whisked to one of two masseuses who provide a complimentary neck massage. By the time they’re thoroughly relaxed a staff member escorts the guest to their room where the baggage has already been delivered. A platter may await in the antechamber of the room next to the espresso machine with an attractive arrangement of welcoming sweets. That’s all within the first hour.
If a guest has opted for the all-inclusive package – highly recommended – the discrete pampering will continue during their stay. An extensive room service menu and a well-stocked mini-bar may entice one to remain in their room gazing out on the pounding surf of the Bay of Banderas from the balcony. Yet the glass walled and open air restaurants, beachfront pool bar, luxurious Mind & Soul Spa, the spacious well equipped gym and the soft sand beach are equally enticing.
From breakfast to late night cocktails, the Villa Premiere’s chefs and mixologists never cease to amaze. Each dish whether it’s traditional mechaca – northern Mexican dried beef scrambled with eggs – a tropical fruit plate, extraordinary seafood soup or a fanciful dessert of faux sweet fried egg with tulle cookie bacon, the skill, quality and imaginative presentations are outstanding. Cocktails are made with the freshest ingredients from superb fresh fruit margaritas (no mixes here!) to the finest scotch.
Yet the Villa Premiere/Hoteles Buenaventura’s commitment to service goes beyond the paying guest. I met staff members that have been in the family’s employ for years. The young executive chef has been in charge of the kitchen for five years – since he was 24. In an age when longevity in the hospitality industry is often measured in months, that’s a lifetime.
One evening we were serenaded at Villa Premiere by the La Orquesta Escuela de Puerto Vallarta, a youth orchestra consisting of at risk Puerto Vallarta teens. Under the direction of an equally youthful Daniel Oliveros and the patronage of Hoteles Buenaventura, these children are learning life skills equal to their newfound musical talents. The success of La Orquesta Escuela de Puerto Vallarta bodes well for both the city and Mexico.
Puerto Vallarta, unlike many resort cities that I’ve visited worldwide still maintains the charm of its humble beginnings as just another village on the Mexican coast. When discovered in the 1960s it attracted artists, writers and sport fishermen looking for tranquility. Although luxury resorts, condos and beachfront nightlife along the Malecon now entertain thousands, it’s still the gentle rhythmic sound of the surf while drifting off to sleep at Villa Premiere that’ll remind you life is good.