20 Great Escapes

From private islands to historic locales, we present fabulous vacation destinations for every palate and pocketbook. PLUS: an insider’s guide to Florence.

1. Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand’s north island seems like a long way to go for a show. But the WORLD OF WEARABLEART(www.worldofwearableart.com) is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The two-hour performance combines art, choreography, music, dance, and light to showcase wearable creations from artists in New Zealand and beyond. Founded in 1987 by Suzie Moncrieff in the tiny arts community of Nelson, WOW began as a promotional event for a rural art gallery but has blossomed into the premier creative event coming out of New Zealand today. Now in its 20th year, the show is located in Wellington, at the Events Centre, Queens Wharf. Designers submit an elaborate garment for judging (at left is “Milk Maid” by Sharon Reid of Auckland), and the best are presented at a spectacular show, which takes place this year from September 21 through October 1. (Tickets went on sale February 1 and can be purchased through the WOW web site.) Of course, you can’t travel around the world without a place to stay. We suggest the modern, apartment-style accommodations of the BOLTON HOTEL (www.boltonhotel.co.nz) or the equally sophisticated DUXTON HOTEL (www.duxton.com.au/well.htm), which are both near the Events Centre. When you’ve had enough of the buzzing capital of Welly, head out to the country to Wairarapa (Wairarapa is to Wellington what the Hamptons are to New York) and spend a few nights at the absolutely fabulous WHAREKAUHAU COUNTRY ESTATE, where five-star luxury meets 5,000-acre Romney sheep station.

2. New York, New York
This city may never sleep, but we have to after a day of eating, drinking, cabbing, sightseeing, and—the pastime of true adventure travelers—power shopping. The perfect position for conquering New York’s finest stores is one of New York’s finest hotels, THE CARLYLE (www.thecarlyle.com), located just around the corner from the designer shops that line Madison Avenue. This super-luxe hotel made its debut in 1930 and has long attracted world leaders, high-end business travelers, high society, and entertainers. The hotel’s CAFE CARLYLE has become a legendary cabaret, thanks to the long-running performances of Bobby Short (who passed away last year), Elaine Stritch, and Woody Allen, who performs most Monday evenings with the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band. Now a member of the Rosewood Hotel group, the refurbished rooms are distinctly aristocratic and finished in classic Louis XVI style. The beds are covered with 440-thread-count, custom-designed Rivolta Carmignani sheets, and, overall, service is polished. After you’ve perused Madison, grab your credit cards and head to the Lower East Side (that’s LES, in case you don’t know), where less money will get you more. ORCHARD STREET (www.lowereastsideny.com), New York’s original shopping avenue, has long been the source for real bargains. Most of the Madison Avenue brands—at deep discounts—can be found in the small shops tucked under the original tenement houses of the early immigrants.

3. Frégate Island Private, Seychelles
If your idea of the perfect vacation is seclusion and luxury, then look no further than FRÉGATE (www.fregate.com), one of the Inner Islands of the Seychelles archipelago, in the western Indian Ocean. Choose one of 16 mahogany villas perched above the beach, each elegantly appointed with Javanese sculptures, South African pottery, and silk pillows and carved furniture from Africa and Asia. Open the French doors in the bathroom to let in the breeze while you relax in the tub overlooking the water, or curl up on the king-size daybed that sits next to your private outdoor hot tub. Accessible only by boat or helicopter, this granite island is surrounded by its own coral reef, making it an ideal location for scuba diving to spy stingrays, moray eels, and sharks. But the ocean isn’t the only habitat for wonderfully exotic creatures. Frégate is also home to the endangered Seychelles Magpie Robin, a species of thrush found only on this island, among other rare birds, as well as giant tortoises that roam and breed here freely. But no private island retreat would be complete without gourmet cuisine and a world-class spa. The island’s garden grows more than 60 different vegetables, fruits, and herbs, which end up in the kitchen of chef de cuisine Kurt Berman, who prepares international fare in the restaurant, as well as in the hands of the experienced spa therapists, who use the fresh produce in their one-of-a-kind treatments at the ROCK SPA.

4. Turtle Island, Fiji
You may not admit to seeing the movie The Blue Lagoon, but if you did manage to sit through 104 minutes of Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins, two prepubescent children marooned on a pristine island, chances are the idyllic scenery is all you remember. Today that lagoon is surrounded by TURTLE ISLAND RESORT (www.turtlefiji.com), the ultra-romantic tropical paradise for adventurous island wanderers searching for a private paradise. And, like the movie, Turtle Island Resort is a retreat for couples who “seek a renewal of the spirit and a return to the innocence of falling in love.” Set on a 500-acre island, the resort consists of 14 “bures,” traditional, two-room thatched cottages built by Fijian craftsmen. Each bure has a king-size bed, Jacuzzi, outdoor shower, and a verandah with a queen-size napping bed. Gentle winds carrying the scent of tropical blossoms flow through louvered windows into the room. Talk about pampering: each bure comes with a bar stocked with drinks and fresh tropical fruit and a bure manager who will arrange and manage your daily life on the island. Want to plan a snorkeling trip or a private picnic? Done. Take your pick from one of the 14 powdery white-sand beaches. You can reserve one for the day and sip champagne, munch lobster, and work on the perfect all-over tan.

5. Graham, Texas
Just 90 miles northwest of Fort Worth is WILDCATTER RANCH (www.wildcatterranch.com), where the historic West meets modern-day luxury. After a day of riding the rocky range dotted with mesquite, oak, and juniper trees, you can relax with a two-hour, in-room massage before chilling out with a glass of Chardonnay at the Blowout Saloon. Yes siree, you can relive cowpoke lore with roping clinics once a month, chuck wagon cookouts, campfire sing-a-longs, and cowboy poetry readings. The ranch sits on 1,500 acres of rolling hills and overlooks the historic Brazos River. Besides canoeing, fishing, and archery, the headquarter ranch has set aside 2,500 acres for those who prefer to hunt with guns instead of cameras. Wildcatter also offers signature series workshops featuring roping, photography, wine tasting, campfire cooking, leather tooling, and designing a “Texas” home. There is something here for every wildcatter in your family.

6. La Jolla, California
We can think of no better way to keep the love alive than traveling to a resort that caters to the discriminating husband and his even more discriminating wife. Take, for instance, the elegant LODGE AT TORREY PINES (www.lodgetorreypines.com), where the sporty gent can play a round or three at the famous championship Torrey Pines Golf Course overlooking the Pacific Ocean (tee times are guaranteed for guests), while his wife relaxes in the equally famous spa, taking advantage of such delicious treatments as a natural botanical honey wrap or ancient oceans ritual. All this in a place that is an extraordinary tribute to the California Craftsman era, designed in the spirit of architects Charles and Henry Greene, with an interior filled with Jatoba woodwork, stained glass (the panel behind the front desk in an original, rescued from a Greene & Greene house), superb Tiffany lamp reproductions, and Gustav Stickley-style furniture. When you’re not putting or being pampered, take a hike in picturesque Torrey Pines State Reserve, play croquet on the resort lawn, or browse the boutiques in La Jolla. But what would a getaway be without to-die-for cuisine? In this, too, Torrey Pines excels, thanks to veteran executive chef Jeff Jackson, who prepares simple yet sophisticated dishes using the freshest ingredients from local farmers markets, growers, ranchers, and fishermen.

7. Treasures of Turkey Escorted Journey
Join TRAVOCA (www.travcoa.com) for a 17-day trip (September 4–19, from $8,195 per person) through the mysterious land of Turkey, an unforgettable juxtaposition of modern life and remnants of an ancient world that once was the gateway linking Europe and Asia. Your trip begins in ISTANBUL, where you’ll stroll through TOPKAPI PALACE, home to Sultans and their court during the Ottoman Empire; shop for jewelry, tapestries, local handicrafts, perfumes, and fine fabrics in the GRAND BAZAAR; and absorb the awesome architecture of ST. SOPHIA, once the world’s most renowned Christian church. But that’s only the beginning. Other highlights include an intimate cruise to explore the Turkish coast, excellent remnants of Greek art and architecture, and the unforgettable red cliffs of ANTALYA. After your daily explorations, led by educated guides, relax in your luxury accommodations, such as the KEMPINSKI DOME HOTEL in Belek or the SWISSÔTEL THE BOSPHORUS in Istanbul. The best part is, you haven’t lifted a finger. Someone else has done all the planning, and your only task is to get out there and enjoy.

8. Seville, Spain
Have a brandy or two at a sidewalk cafe along one of the many narrow cobblestone streets, then close your eyes and listen to the sounds of Seville. Gypsies stomp sharp rhythms as the wind carries the melody of a guitar. An echo of horse hooves pulling a carriage of eager lovers trails off in the distance. The clink of sherry glasses and the ever-present chorus of laughter complete the soundtrack. Stay up late with the locals (dinner might start at 10 p.m.) and explore every nook of this mysterious and exotic city. Seville is spiced with Roman, Jewish, and Moorish influences, which dominate the architecture and culture. The massive CATHEDRAL, built on top of the 12th-century Moorish mosque, is the third largest cathedral in the world and is a testament to the city’s rich cultural history. Christopher Columbus’ tomb lies within the stone walls and is a must-see for American tourists. Stay at the VINCCI LA RÁBIDA (www.vincci-hotels.com), a renovated 18th-century palace, just behind the PLAZA DE TOROS DE LA MAESTRANZA (bullring) along the Guadalquivir River. Popular toreadors, dressed in full regalia, are known to lounge (or pace) in the hotel’s courtyard prior to fights. Shopping along trendy CALLE DE LAS SIERPES is only a 10-minute walk from your front door.

9. Mt. Ida, Arkansas
MOUNTAIN HARBOR RESORT (www.mountainharborresort.com) and TURTLE COVE SPA (www.turtlecovespa.com) prove that there is (much) more to Arkansas than Bill and Hillary. Located about 23 miles west of Hot Springs, on the shores of Lake Ouachita deep in the densely forested Ouachita Mountains, this resort is a mecca for outdoor and indoor adventurists. For the former, there are boats of all sorts at the marina, a stable of horses, swimming pools, tennis courts, and miles of hiking trails. For the latter, indulge in 11 types of massage, including fireside couples massage; detoxification facials and body treatments; manicures and pedicures; and the spa’s signature Crystal Energy Balance Massage, which uses locally mined polished crystals. The 1,000 miles of Lake Ouachita shoreline provide plenty of free entertainment. The lake is a watering hole for deer, turkey, gray fox, and black bear. The resort offers a wide variety of accommodations, including lake-view rooms, kitchenette units, multibedroom condominiums, and rustic log cottages with hot tubs and fireplaces. Feeling romantic? The staff will sprinkle your turned-down bed with fresh rose petals.

10. Loro Ciuffenna, Italy
Aspiring chefs, diehard foodies, and those who just love a good meal will delight in OLIVE OIL WEEK, led by Jackson, Mississippi ex-pat ELAINE TRIGIANI of the DELLA DONNA COMPANY (www.delladonnainc.com or [email protected]), in this picturesque Tuscan town. Stay in a fully modernized apartment constructed of old stone, open timber ceilings, and terra cotta floors at the BORGO VIGNAMAGGIO, just a quick walk from the Loro Ciuffenna town center. But the real fun is hands-on. Learn how olive oil is made (and make it yourself); shop for seasonal, fresh ingredients in the village market, then learn how to prepare classic Tuscan dishes using what you bought; explore the Tiberio vineyard, followed by a tasting of the Nocentini family’s traditional Tuscan wines, such as Sangiovese and Canaiolo; visit with local cheese makers, butchers, and bakers; and explore tiny, ancient, mountain villages where chestnuts and chestnut flour were nutritional staples for centuries. And—we get giddy just thinking about it—Trigiani can take you to the nearby Prada, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana outlets for an afternoon shopping diversion. Choose from four trips this year (May 14–21, May 28–June 4, November 5–12, and November 19–26), and for 2,500 euros ($3,000 US) you get ground transportation (from the Florence airport or the train station at Montevarchi), accommodations for eight days and seven nights, most meals, and all tours and cooking classes. The gorgeous Tuscan landscape is free of charge.

11. Trelawny, Jamaica
Remember when nothing could separate you from your Calvins, your love for The Empire Strikes Back was matched only by your adoration for The Dukes of Hazzard, and your parents vacationed in Jamaica? Well, much like the Dukes, Jamaica has been resurrected. Check out the annual BEST OF JAMAICA weekend festival held at the GRAND LIDO BRACO RESORT AND SPA (www.superclubs.com) in early October. The celebration honors all that makes the island unique—the history, landscape, music, and, most important, the food—and allows you to get a tan at the same time. (You may have no tan lines, as one half of the resort is clothing optional.) Most of the seminars take place on the beach or poolside. Learn how to mix rum and come away with a host of new Jamaican jerk recipes. But if you’re looking for some stuff that’s a little less “how to” and more “let’s drink,” check out Jamaican revivals, dance classes, and village fiestas. Even so, we can think of worse ways to learn a little about Jamaican history or how to roll Jamaican “cigars” than with a daiquiri in hand and the roar of the waves in the distance.

12. Brewster, Massachusetts
They say a family that plays together, stays together. Or something like that. Regardless, OCEAN EDGE RESORT & GOLF CLUB ON CAPE COD (www.oceanedge.com) is sure to please even the most persnickety family. For the ladies, Ocean Edge offers top-notch tennis on 11 hard and clay courts. Need help with your backhand? USPTA professionals are on hand for group or individual lessons. Gentlemen, pack your clubs. You’ll want to play a few rounds on the 6,665-yard championship course, complete with five ponds, rated one of the best in the state by Boston magazine. Kids will need to pack their suits, because they’ll swim like fish in one of (or all of) six swimming pools or run themselves ragged along the 700 feet of private beach. Then the whole family can get together for an old-fashioned clambake and s’more roasting. Need a break from the sand? Catch a CAPE COD BASEBALL LEAGUE (www.capecodbaseball.org) game at the nearby fields, and Ocean Edge will pack a picnic for your clan. Accommodations range from simple guest rooms to one-, two-, and three-bedroom villas, meeting the needs of families of all sizes. And let’s face it: come summertime, there’s no better escape than the Cape, where the temperature tops out in the 80s and, thanks to that Atlantic Ocean breeze, cools down at night for some much-appreciated relief from the heat back home.

13. Austin, Texas
Once upon a time, 21 years ago to be exact, a group of proud Texas chefs and winemakers got together to put on an event celebrating the unique flavors of the Lone Star State. Now there’s not a foodie in Texas—maybe in the country—who hasn’t heard of the TEXAS HILL COUNTRY WINE & FOOD FESTIVAL (www.texaswineandfood.org), a four-day food and wine extravaganza that rocks downtown Austin, the shores of Town Lake, and Georgetown every April. (This year it’s April 6-9.) The culinary landscape has changed quite a bit in that time (read: the world now takes Texas tastes seriously), so big-name chefs like Todd English and Wolfgang Puck descend on the state’s capital to celebrate—and show off. A highlight of the 2005 festival was a cook-off between the Food Network’s Tyler Florence and local boy David Bull, the executive chef at Austin’s Driskill Hotel, who won by a tine. But cooking demonstrations are only a few of the excellent events, which also include enlightening breakfasts, luncheons with winemakers, cigar smoking and spirits tastings, elaborate dinearounds featuring delights from the Hill Country’s finest restaurants and wineries, and good old-fashioned singalongs with chefs-turned-musicians like Dean Fearing’s the Barbwires. The best news is that most events take place in and around Austin’s bustling downtown, and shuttles run from festival events to the FOUR SEASONS HOTEL (www.fourseasons.com/austin) —our pick for where to stay, both for amenities and convenience—and the Hilton Austin.

14. Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
Thanks to the foresight of Laurence S. Rockefeller, LITTLE DIX BAY, A ROSEWOOD RESORT (www.littledixbay.com) sits in a protected, undeveloped area that is strictly controlled to preserve the natural charm and local way of life. Chances are when you visit you’ll meet guests who have been traveling to their favorite room or villa for years, some even decades. In fact, generations of families have flocked to Little Dix since it opened in the mid-1960s. The resort sits alone, lining a half-mile crescent-shaped beach. Villas are nestled amid lush gardens and shaded footpaths. High on a ridge above the resort sits the SPA AT LITTLE DIX BAY, with treatment rooms scattered between tropical palms and huge walls of purple bougainvillea. If you manage to pry yourself away from the resort, rent a car at the front desk and take the 20-minute drive to THE BATHS, an unusual geological formation of massive, smooth, round granite boulders partially buried in the sand. Strap on your snorkeling gear and snorkel between the grottoes and caves. Then relax with a piña colada and a plate of conch fritters at the THE TOP OF THE BATHS. It’s the perfect perch to watch the sun sink into the western sky.

15. Mérida, Mexico
Unless you’re a member of the Forbes 400, there are few, if any, occasions in life when your every whim is catered to. HACIENDA PETAC(www.haciendapetac.com), a private, five-bedroom Yucatan estate, aims to change all that. Okay, so a trip to Mexico normally includes a beach. Petac is located on 85 acres of lush gardens sprinkled with soothing fountains and has the unique distinction of providing the perfect environment for activities ranging from yoga to binge drinking to getting married. But no worries, tanorexics. You can sunbathe by the lushly landscaped pool. Bedrooms are spacious and charming, but the adjoining baths are where the magic happens. The shower alone is immense (about the size of the average NYC apartment), which makes showering alone seem almost foolish. Serene environment and cool bathrooms aside, it’s the service that makes it imperative that you book passage immediately. Have drink preferences? The bar is stocked accordingly. Interested in day trips, massages, or dance lessons? All you have to do is ask. Tasks, including daily laundry service, are met with enthusiasm we’re confident you’ve never shown your own dirty socks. And the food, sweet Mary, the food. Empanadas, fresh guacamole, homemade chips, luscious fruit, and the tortilla soup make any efforts to “be good” moot. Between the shower and that soup, you’ll never want to leave. Honest.

16. Jasper, Alberta
You may have experienced the splendor of the U.S. Rocky Mountains, but if you haven’t seen the soaring glacier-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies, you’ve missed the most majestic and serene mountains in North America. The quaint town of JASPER sits in Jasper National Park, and peaks crown the horizon in every direction. Mountain sheep, bears, wolves, elk, and mountain goats share roads (and golf courses!) with tourists and residents. On any given day, you’ll witness a traffic jam caused by a female mountain goat leading her young brood across the street. To improve the chance of spotting a grizzly bear, adventure seekers can opt for a hiking tour or explore the surrounding wilderness on horseback. If you’re looking for a birdie other than a Canadian goose, you can find them both on the rolling fairways of the 81-year old JASPER PARK LODGE, GOLF & COUNTRY CLUB, adjacent to the FAIRMONT JASPER PARK LODGE (www.fairmont.com), the perfect spot to settle before setting out to explore the natural wonders of Alberta. Rent a car and drive 30 minutes to MALIGNE LAKE, the oldest attraction in Jasper National Park. At the center of the stunning turquoise glacial waters lies Spirit Island, accessed only by boat. Tours depart every hour on the hour throughout the summer season.

17. Petite St. Vincent, The Grenadines
Imagine living in a cozy rock cabin with a 180-degree view of the ocean from your down-pillowed bed. The only noise you hear is the gentle sound of the ocean lapping at your doorstep—well, unless you count the occasional caw of a laughing gull. If you need anything to eat or drink, all you have to do is slip on your terry-cloth robe, fill out an order sheet, place it in the bamboo tube outside your cottage door, and raise the yellow flag. Within minutes a “service patrolman” arrives and relays the message to the kitchen. He returns with your request, whether it be for champagne or an in-suite massage. Welcome to life at PETITE ST. VINCENT RESORT (www.psvresort.com), a 113-acre privately owned island 40 miles south of St. Vincent. There are no nightclubs, no souvenir shops, no traffic. There are 22 cottages scattered about: some set on hillsides, some set into the sides of cliffs, and some right on the beach. All offer unparalleled views, proximity to beaches, and, above all, privacy. Charter a yacht for a day and sail to the Tobago Cays, small deserted islands surrounded by coral reefs and clear turquoise waters, perfect for snorkeling and swimming with sea turtles. Owners Lynn and Haze Richardson admit that their resort isn’t for everyone: “Our guests are not loners, just people who like themselves and each other and the beauty of nature, unspoiled but accessible.” Here, here.

18. Oakhurst, California
Imagine peace, serenity, and the traditions and hospitality of Europe’s grand houses, all within 20 minutes of the south gate entrance to YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK. Instead of tour buses, RVs, and hordes of camera-toting tourists, the CHÃTEAU DU SUREAU (www.elderberryhouse.com) offers a fairy-tale experience. The stucco inn—complete with stone turret, Parisian balconies, walking paths, fountains, a swimming pool, and a bocce court—is built on immaculately landscaped grounds surrounded by the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains. Chambermaids, attired in black dresses and white linen aprons, tend to your every wish. The grand salon has a magnificent floor-to-ceiling fireplace. Each of the 10 guest rooms, decorated with antiques, tapestries, and fine art, is named after the fragrant herbs and flowers grown on the estate, like chamomile, sweet geranium, and lavender. Follow the path of elderberry bushes to ERNA’S ELDERBERRY HOUSE RESTAURANT, where executive chef James Overbaugh’s haute cuisine reigns in a European country-estate atmosphere adorned with antique French provincial furnishings and original oil paintings. The cozy outdoor terrace, with a commanding view of the mountains, is the perfect spot to enjoy dessert and coffee while gazing at the stars.

19. Eleuthera, Bahamas
While the rich and famous party down in the swanky hotels and trendy nightclubs at nearby Harbour Island, the smart and secretive set hang their sandals at THE COVE (www.thecoveeleuthera.com). Nestled on a secluded pink sand beach with water as clear as gin, the small, casually sophisticated 26 rooms and suites have everything you need: 600-thread-count sheets, fabulous views (sunrise and sunset), and gourmet food. They also have everything you don’t need when you really want to relax, as the rooms come sans phones and televisions. You can do everything—sea kayak, snorkel or dive, play tennis, ride bikes, bone or deep-sea fish, swim in the fresh water swimming pool that overlooks the ocean—or you can do nothing. The thatched huts on the beach are only a stroll away from the bar, where bartender extraordinaire Wallace Sands whips up a famous Goombay Smash: rum, peach Schnapps, rum, pineapple juice, rum, and coconut milk. The long (100 miles), thin—at one point not much wider than a two-lane road—island is covered with rolling acres of pineapple plantations and serene coastal villages. The turbulent waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the calmer, blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea collide at the GLASS WINDOW BRIDGE just minutes from the hotel. Hurry back to the beach for sunset. The green flash awaits.

Nevis, West Indies
While giant cruise ships dock in St. Kitts and dump thousands of day-trippers on shore to explore the streets lined with tourist traps, the laid-back, secluded beaches of Nevis, located just two miles across the Caribbean Sea, are dotted with serene, unspoiled places begging to be explored. This jewel of an island is only 7 miles long and 5 miles wide, with tropical terrain that rises 3,232 feet to the top of Nevis Peak. The gently sloping hills are alive with the chattering of green vervet monkeys loitering in the treetops. Nature and ecotourism are alive and well here, with many companies providing guided educational hiking and biking tours. A stroll through historic Charlestown reveals a wealth of well-preserved Victorian architecture. Lodging on the island ranges from charming pastel guest cottages scattered among the fruit trees at the HERMITAGE PLANTATION INN (www.hermitagenevis.com) to the luxury of the famous FOUR SEASONS RESORT (www.fourseasons.com/nevis).

The Flavors of Florence
Few places in the world are as famous as this Tuscan town, which seems hardly changed since its Renaissance heyday. Despite the throngs of tourists that invade this charming città, there is plenty in Florence to seduce you, from inspiring art and architecture to world-class shopping and cuisine. Herewith, an insider’s guide to Italy’s most beloved destination. 
by Jennifer Chininis

It is impossible to write about, and nearly as impossible to see, everything Florence has to offer in the way of art and architecture. Michelangelo spent many years here before moving on to Rome, and the city beams with his handiwork. First and foremost, you must make reservations for the tiny Galleria dell’Accademia (Via Ricasoli 58-60, +39 055 2388609) which houses Michelangelo’s magnificent David. (Call +39 055 294883 or visit www.florenceart.it/ booking for advance tickets to the Accademia, Uffizi, and many others.) Take time, too, to study Michelangelo’s unfinished marble works, which offer a glimpse into the mind of the master. Michelangelo always claimed he was freeing the forms from the marble; indeed, it appears these forms are trying to break out of their marble shells. If you have time for only one other museum, make it the Galleria degli Uffizi (Piazzale degli Uffizi 6, +39 055 2388651; www.uffizi.firenze.it), which is conveniently arranged chronologically, from the 13th to the 18th centuries. An audio guide provides excellent commentary for the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, including many by Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Michelangelo (of course), and a room full of Botticellis, including The Birth of Venus. The Duomo, or Santa Maria del Fiori, is Florence’s most recognizable building, with its massive dome by Brunelleschi—the first dome ever and the model for those to follow—and busy Gothic façade with pink, green, and white Tuscan marble. But nearly all of the important works from inside as well as the exterior have been replaced by reproductions, and the originals moved to the often-overlooked Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Piazza del Duomo 9, +39 055 2302885) behind the church. In addition to Luca Della Robbia’s cherubic reliefs and Ghiberti’s original bronze baptistery doors, you won’t want to miss Donatello’s moving—and strange for its time period—wood carving of Mary Magdalene or a late pietà by Michelangelo. If you want a dose of serenity with your art, head to the quiet Museo di San Marco (Piazza San Marco 3, +39 055 2388608), an idyllic museum in a former Dominican convent, which houses an unrivaled collection of medieval frescoes and paintings by Fra Angelico, including the famous Annunciation, which you’ll recognize from many a Christmas card. Still haven’t gotten enough of Michelangelo? Then visit the Cappelli dei Medici (Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini, +39 055 294883) a feast of Michelangelo’s architecture and sculpture containing two Medici tombs. Then pay your respects at the Gothic church Santa Croce (Piazza Santa Croce 16, +39 055 2466105), where Michelangelo rests for eternity alongside Galileo Galilei, Niccolò Machiavelli, and fellow artist Lorenzo Ghiberti.

As a general rule, the restaurants and cafes on or near the piazzas should be avoided, as their very existence depends on the business of tourists, which means mediocre and overpriced food. However, people watching from these patios can’t be beat, and sometimes you’ve got to rest your weary legs and take in the show. (Just know that if you decide to take a seat, rather than grab something to go at the bar, most likely you’ll pay a service charge for that luxury.) We recommend an aperitif or, better yet, hot chocolate at Rivoire (Via Vacchereccia 4/r, +39 055 214412) on the buzzing Piazza della Signoria, across from the Palazzo Vecchio. This beautiful cafe also has a reputation for fine chocolates, and our favorites were those topped with a single pistachio. Better bets for a splendid meal lie on the side streets, out of the way of the crowded piazzas. And, oddly enough, some of the best are also the least expensive. For example, I Fratellini (Via dei Cimatori 38/r, +39 055 2396096), just an olive’s toss from Orsanmichele, is literally a hole in the wall, big enough only for the guy at the register and the guy making the sandwiches behind the counter. We can still taste the panino stuffed with pecorino, black truffles, and arugula, which we scarfed down while sitting on the curb among the pigeons—the only seats around. Once we finished our vino rosso, we dropped off the glasses on the rack on the wall. Grand total for two sandwiches and two glasses of wine: 11 euros ($13 US). Another jewel, around the bend from Santa Maria Novella, is Trattoria Garga (Via del Moro, 48/r, +39 055 2398898). Though no secret to out-of-towners—we ran into plenty of Americans the night we dined—this restaurant is truly special, offering such divine dishes as insalata del Garga, roma tomatoes, heart of palm, avocado, and Parmesan, tossed with olive oil and lemon; taglierini del magnifico, pasta with cream, orange zest, and mint; and the smashing scaloppini di vitella all’avocado, veal pounded thin, smothered with sauce of truffle oil, cream, and avocado. We truly appreciated our affable—and English-speaking—waiter Alessandro, who patiently explained many of the menu items and was right-on with his recommendations. (Yes, Alessandro, the light-as-air cheesecake is the best in the world.) Equally memorable is Acqua al 2 Ristorante (Via della Vigna Vecchia, 40/r, +39 055 284170; www.acquaal2.it). The menu has changed little since it opened in 1978, which goes to show that good food transcends trends. You could make a meal out of the pasta sampler—five served family-style, each with a simple but delicious sauce, each one better than the last. But when you see the plates of tenderloin sauced with a thick balsamic reduction exiting the kitchen, you’ll beg for beef. Yes, we know there’s another Acqua al 2 in San Diego, but you won’t get a bottle of Tuscan wine for 7 euros ($8.40 US) anywhere on the West Coast.

Florence has myriad accommodations, at every price point, and even those “outside” the city center are convenient because Florence is compact and a breeze to conquer on foot. At the Hotel Lungarno (Borgo San Jacopo 14, + 39 055 27261; www.lungarnohotels.com), owned by the Ferragamo family, modern sophistication meets old-warm charm. State-of-the-art amenities, clean lines, and a collection of 20th-century art are a stunning juxtaposition to the Renaissance cityscape outside. Most rooms and suites have private terraces overlooking the majestic Arno, the most spectacular of which is the two-level Suite Cocteau, where, from the comfort of your bed, you can view the Ponte Vecchio through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Or, if you prefer something more medieval, book the Suite Torre in the Marsili Tower, where you’ll be surrounded by brick barrel vaults dating back to the 13 century. If you would like to stay away from the hustle and bustle, the Villa San Michele (Via Doccia 4, Fiesole; +39 055 567 8200; www.villasanmichele.com), an Orient-Express Hotel, offers respite. Housed in what was formerly a 15th-century monastery, with a façade attributed to Michelangelo, Villa San Michele offers 45 rooms, including 24 suites and junior suites, some situated in the old monastery itself, others scattered among the picturesque gardens. The unforgettable Michelangelo Suite—once the Florence headquarters for Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte—runs the length of the entire façade; the airy and bright Limonaia Suites—the limonaia is where the monks used to house the potted lemon trees in the winter—might be worth booking just for the bathrooms. For convenience, the hotel offers regular shuttles back and forth from the popular Piazza della Repubblica.

Perhaps the only part of Florence that can rival its fine art is its retail, from the jewelry, both new and antique, on the world-renowned Ponte Vecchio, to the haute couture (Prada, Versace, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli) that lines the famous Via Tornabuoni, to the plethora of pelletterias (leather shops). Leather goods here—despite the weak dollar—is generally of finer quality and less expensive than it is in the States. And, if you shop in the right stores, you’ll purchase unique pieces you would never find at home, anyway. One reliable source is Gabi (Via Ricasoli, 45/47 r, +39 055 291459; www.gabiflorence.com), very near the Duomo. The shop is run by an Australian ex-pat, who, if she doesn’t have what you want on the floor, will have it made in the factory that day. Although Gabi’s artisans don’t make the handbags (only the jackets), the selection here is solid, and we took home a gorgeous chocolate brown bag with Prada-esque push locks for 100 euros ($120 US), and an equally divine waist-hugging brown leather coat for 290 euros ($350 US). For the bargain hunter in all of us, the Mercato di San Lorenzo, in the streets surrounding the church of San Lorenzo, is a must-shop. Miles of stalls house everything from tacky souvenirs to leather goods to jewelry. And oh my god the scarves, in every fabric and color, from soft silk to chunky wool. You’ll want to buy a dozen. And we couldn’t believe our luck when, around 6 pm, we scored a lovely long necklace strung with Murano glass beads for just 20 euros ($24 US). But perhaps the most special boutique, one that we stumbled upon quite by accident—on the way to dinner at Garga, actually—is Il Tamarino Stampe d’Arte (Via del Moro 46/r, +39 055 282457; www.iltamarino.com), which combines Florence’s two finest assets: art and shopping. Here they make fine limited-edition etchings using a process believed to have originated in Florence in the early 16th century, in which a copper plate is covered in a wax varnish and etched, then immersed in a mordant that corrodes the copper where the wax has been removed. The plate is then inked, covered with a dampened piece of paper, and passed through the printing press. The dry print is then watercolored, producing a unique image. You’ll be hard-pressed (sorry) to choose between from pristine Florentine cityscapes, Tuscan landscapes, and darling botanicals and butterflies—each a special keepsake from this magical and majestic place.

Photos: Wellington: Courtesy of World of Wearableart; New York: Courtesy of Rosewood Hotels; Fregate: Courtesy of Fregate; Turtle Island: Courtesy of Turtle Island Resort; Graham: Courtesy of Wildcatter Ranch; La Jolla: Courtesy of Lodge at Torrey Pines; Turkey: Courtesy of Travcoa; Mt. Ida: Courtesy of Turtle Cove Spa; Loro Ciuffenna: Courtesy of Della Donna; Brewster: Courtesy of Ocean Edge; Austin: Courtesy of Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival; Virgin Gorda: Courtesy of Rosewood Hotels; Merida: Courtesy of Hacienda Petac; Grenadines: Courtesy of Petite St. Vincent Resort; Oakhurst: Courtesy of Chateau Du Sureu


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