Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Trip to Italy with Mary Liz Wheelis, hosted by the Bettoja Family - November 9 to 18, 2017

We flew overnight to Rome connecting in Dublin, my first time on Aer Lingus, and I was impressed by the service and hospitality of the flight crew.  Since we had exit row seats in economy there was plenty of legroom and we were very comfortable.  At Rome Airport we met up with Mary Liz Wheelis of TVL Marketing Solutions, who represents independent properties including the Bettoja family owned hotels in Rome.  Upon arrival at the Hotel Mediterraneo, we met our hosts and fellow travelers for tours of the three boutique hotels owned and operated by the Bettoja family since 1875. The hotels are across and adjacent to each other on via Cavour and are very conveniently located just a short walk to the Rome Termini train station, and 15-20 minutes walk to the Colosseum, the Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and many other places of interest in Rome.

The Hotel Mediterraneo is a 4.5 star hotel built in the 1930's in Art Deco style with magnificent views of Rome from the Roof Garden restaurant where we were treated to a sumptuous reception and dinner. The hotel features mosaics, artwork, inlaid panelling and an amazing floating marble staircase, and offers 251 spacious rooms and suites.  The second restaurant on the premises is the breakfast room which is panelled and adorned with intricate wooden carving and two eye-catching chandeliers. This room serves as a Banquet Hall for special events, and there is also and a conference center which can accommodate 150 people. This is a non-smoking hotel, and breakfast is included in the room rate. For Superior Rooms and Suites breakfast is served in the Roof Garden Restaurant where guests can enjoy an amazing view of Rome.

The Hotel Massimo d'Azeglio directly across the street is a 4 star property which originated in 1875 when Maurizio Betttoja decided to open a restaurant above his wine cellar. The Restaurant has been in continuous operation for more than 100 years and is a well known landmark in the city. The hotel has 185 rooms including a suite we saw with a private wraparound terrace and to-die-for views of Rome.  Perfect for a honeymoon or romantic getaway. There is also a Conference Center that can accommodate up to 180 people.

The Hotel Atlantico is also 4 star and has 69 rooms on 5 floors also in an Art Deco style. Guests share the breakfast rooms and restaurants with the Hotel Mediterraneo which is connected and accessible through the Lobby. There is a smaller conference facility here.  The selection of food and wines for all the hotels is supervised by members of the Bettoja family, who are very involved with the daily operations.  Many of the staff at all three hotels have been there for many years, creating a homey feeling of warmth and relaxation.

The morning after we arrived we piled into a minibus for an orientation tour or Rome, which included stops at some of the major sites including the Trevi Fountain and ending at the Vatican.  My husband and I then joined a tour of the Vatican Museum and St Peter's followed by dinner at a local sidewalk restaurant recommended by the Concierge.  A liter of water, a liter of wine, bruschetta and a doesn't get much better than that! The following morning we met with our group and guide and enjoyed a wonderful walking tour of the area around our hotel, including Santa Maria Maggiore, some shopping and a stop for expresso and gelato.  With some free time in the afternoon, my husband and I took a taxi across the Arno to a piazza where there were stalls selling colorful arrays of pasta and olive oil, scarves and leathergoods, and we also stumbled upon a wonderful Leonardo da Vinci exhibition.  In the afternoon we spent a few hours at the Borghese Gallery followed by, you guessed it...a liter of water, a liter of wine, bruschetta and a pizza!

Our last day in Rome we were free to explore, and I had booked a tour of the Colosseum including the underground chambers, the arena and upper tier, and then across to Palentine Hill and the Forum.  The Colosseum could hold between 55K and 80K people and was designed so they could all leave the arena in 10 minutes.  I don't think that could be achieved very easily today :)   

We were treated to a wonderful dinner on our last night in Rome with the group in the wine cellar of the Hotel Massimo D'Azeglio.  What a special venue and it would be the perfect venue for a private gathering or special celebration.  We were very fortunate to have shared this wonderful experience in Rome with a great group of people, and many thanks for generous hospitality extended to us by the Bettoja family.  A heartfelt thanks to our wonderful guide Gracelyn with Through Eternity, and the drivers, and especially to Mary Liz Wheelis for putting this great trip together.

Following our 3 nights in Rome, my husband and I took the high speed train to Florence to spend an extra couple of days.  Just a 5 minute walk around the corner from the train station, we arrived at the Grand Hotel Minerva where the Sales Manager welcomed us and took us for a tour of the hotel.  The hotel's 100 rooms have recently been refurbished as have the public spaces, which are filled with art and light and there are great views of Florence from the higher floors.  There is a rooftop pool bar and sundeck, and comfortable common areas where you can relax, read or make new friends.  There's a bar next to the main restaurant, and when weather permits, also an outdoor restaurant directly on the piazza. The location is perfect in the old town on a lovely piazza right next to a splendid church Santa Maria Novella, and within a 10-15 minute walk of everything in the old city.  

With just a day and a half to explore Florence we hit the ground running and that afternoon had a guided tour of the Galleria dell Accadamia, climbed up inside the Duomo as well as the Exchange and the Bell Tower, and enjoyed exploring the narrow, cobbled streets.  Returning to the hotel, after a drink at the bar we enjoyed a delicious dinner at La Buona Novella Bistrot Italiano and then my husband was presented with a surprise birthday cake to round out our special dinner.  So sweet.....!

Our last day in Florence started with a guided tour of the Galleria dell Uffizi, a walk across the Ponte Vecchio, lunch at a sidewalk cafĂ©, a walk around Bobbili Gardens, and a private tour of Pitti Palace and the Palatine Gallery.  
(David says Hi..!)

The Concierge had recommended a 15th century Taverna for dinner, which had been the workshop of one of Bronzino's students.  We were the only people in the restaurant which I think they had opened just for us, so it was a very special evening consisting of many courses, delicious local wine, and great conversation with the Maitre d'.

The following day it was time to leave Florence and I treated us to a private car and driver booked with Mario, the owner and MD of Privilegeitalia, a distinctive concierge company offering a wide array of VIP services.  Mario kindly upgraded us to a Mercedes no less, and our driver Vincenzo was terrific.  We stopped for a couple of hours to explore Siena and then had lunch in Orvieto at a small Trattoria Mario had recommended.  

Our last night was spent at the Rome Airport Hilton Hotel so we could be on site for our flight the following morning.  The Airport Hilton could not be more conveniently located, being attached to the airport and just a few covered minutes walk to the terminal. It was a great trip and a wonderful experience, and we are very grateful to Mary Liz our host, who happens to be almost a neighbor so we are planning to get together for dinner soon!

Nikki Perkins, CTA
Travel Exchange - A Virtuoso Agency
2 Sconset Square, Westport, CT 06880
T# (203) 221-3500  C# (203) 912-4641

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

FAM Trip to Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia

September 9 to 16, 2106
Hosted by Regent Porto Montenegro, Etihad Airways, Air Serbia, Tourist Organization of Belgrade
and the Croatian National Tourism Board.

Business Class passengers on Air Serbia have access to Etihad’s spectacular new Lounge at JFK, where one can enjoy not only the great view from the bar, but also snacks, beverages and some very creative cocktails.  There is also a private area with separate entrance, prayer room, shower and dining area.

Air Serbia now offers a direct flight between JFK and Belgrade 5 days a week.  The aircraft is an A330 with 236 seats in the main cabin, and in Business Class there are 18 lie-flat seats in private “suites” laid out in a herringbone design.  Provided are a blanket, pillow and amenity kit, and pajamas are offered if you want to get more comfortable.  The main menu offers several courses and wines, and a choice of hot and cold snacks is available at any time.  Each pod has its own viewing screen, and a choice of entertainment in English and Serbian during the flight, and wifi is available for Euros 5.  The cabin crew will make up your bed and you even add a mattress pad for extra comfort.  The service and amenities on this flight were incredible!

Upon arrival in Belgrade, our group was met and escorted rapidly and efficiently through Customs and Immigration formalities, and to our waiting transportation to the Hyatt. The Hyatt Regency is a 5 Star modern, glass and steel hotel in the city center, across from the National Theatre and a short distance from the Belgrade Fortress.  It is located in the financial district of new Belgrade, and just 15 minutes from the airport. Minimalist rooms have minibars, flat-screen TVs and free Wi-Fi, plus desks. Upgraded rooms add city views, butler service and access to an executive lounge, and suites include a living room. Room service is available 24 hours.

The hotel has 3 restaurants which offer Italian and Arabic cuisine, as well as a bar and a tea room. Other amenities include an indoor pool, a spa and fitness center with saunas and whirlpools. A business center and meeting rooms for up to 600 guests are also available.

 Belgrade is the largest city and capital of Serbia, and is located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, where the Pannonian Plain meets the Balkans.  Its name translates to "White city" which was given for the white stone used to construct the fortress walls.  Our guide was fabulous and very knowledgeable, as she explained the tumultuous history of Serbia and pointed out notable buildings, squares, statues and parks as we explored both old and new Belgrade.

We walked the walls of the Roman fortress and took pictures of where the River Danube meets the River Sava.  We saw where the river boat lines dock along the Danube, and across the way on the Sava there were vessels that looked like houseboats, but were actually restaurants, cafes and clubs along the waterfront.  Belgrade is a hip and happening place, with a very active social and artistic scene as we were to discover later.

During our tour of Belgrade, we visited the Royal Palace and adjacent Church of St. Andrew. Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia and his family actually live on the upper floors, so our tour was limited to the main first floor area, where the craftsmanship, impressionist paintings, gold leaf work, and historical artefacts were very impressive.  We visited the Nikola Tesla museum, which was both interesting and enlightening (literally!) After an educational video about his life and amazing inventions, we all played at being Jedi Warriors by lighting up our Sabers with the use of Tesla’s famous coil invention.

We had lunch and took a tour of Square Nine Hotel, a member of Leading Hotels of the World. Square Nine offers world-class luxury, blending international lifestyle and local hospitality with sophisticated Brazilian design and an elegant, modern atmosphere. It is ideally situated in the heart of Belgrade adjacent to a pedestrian and shopping area, and is a short stroll to the Fortress.  The hotel has 30 rooms and 15 suites, a Spa and Wellness Center with spacious indoor pool, and two restaurants including Belgrade’s only rooftop terrace, offering Japanese cuisine.

In the evening we had dinner outside at long tables in the Bohemian pedestrian area of Skadarliji, which was great fun!  Multiple courses and you have to try everything. The food, wine and local brandy shots just kept on coming.  Just as well we got a lot of exercise while we were here:)

After a short 45 minute flight from Belgrade we landed in Tivat, Montenegro, and again were delighted to be VIP’d through Customs and Immigration. 15 minutes later we arrived at the Regent Porto Montenegro Hotel. 

The Regent Hotel is part of the Porto Montenegro complex, which will be expanded over the next 5 years offering additional hotel rooms and residences.  The complex was named the best marina in the Mediterranean in 2015, beating out Monte Carlo and Nice and the number of mega yachts there would attest to that.  The Village along the bay adjacent to the hotel consists of shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes.  We visited the Naval Heritage Museum and went inside a submarine, learning about when this area had been an important submarine yard when Montenegro was part of the old Yugoslavia.

Cocktails at the Yacht Club followed by dinner in the Village at the remarkable Restaurant One, where I have to say I had what was probably the best sea bass I have ever eaten.  It was cooked en pappiette along with a sampler platter of local delicacies, which included white and black risottos, fresh mozzarella with locally grown tomatoes, and beef tartar sliced paper-thin, served with tapenade and delicious garlic bread.

We boarded two speed boats in the morning, and spent the day touring Boca Bay.  First we visited the Lady of the Rocks Island, and then spent a few hours with our guide in Kotor, which is a UNESCO heritage site.

We climbed the ancient steps of the fortified village to get a fantastic view of Kotor and the fjords before getting back in the boats and heading to Forza Mare for lunch.  We were greeted by the General manager who showed us around the small, 10 room boutique hotel clinging to the hillside.  Such fun arriving by boat to enjoy a delicious lunch in such a beautiful location.

For our last dinner in Montenegro, the chef at the Regent Porto Montenegro prepared a special menu for us, paired with wines from an 18th-century Vineyard at Savina monastery.  Everything was locally sourced and completely delicious.

Leaving Porto Montenegro, we crossed the border into Croatia for the 2.5 hour drive to Dubrovnik.
Slowly climbing up a winding mountainous road, we rounded a bend and were blown away by the view below us of the walled city of old Dubrovnik.  What an incredible vista!

We arrived at the Valamar President hotel where the general manager warmly greeted us.  The Valamar President hotel is one of five Valamar hotels in Dubrovnik which are located adjacent to each other on the tip of the Babin Kuk peninsula.  The President has its own private beach with stunning views of the Adriatic and is a 5 Star property with 286 elegant rooms and 6 suites, all with balconies or terraces and a sea view.  There are two restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating, a Piano Bar, and a Wellness & Spa Centre.  The property also has meeting facilities and outdoor spaces for banquets, receptions and conferences.  The other Valamar properties are 4 Star and offer a mix of conference/business space as well as catering to leisure guests with pools, spas and restaurants. 

Our guide met us by the main gate to the old town of Dubrovnik, and began our tour by showing us some of the locations that were used for the filming of King's Landing in Game of Thrones, including Bokar Fortress, the Pile Gates, the Rectors Palace, Jesuit Staircase, a jetty and several streets.  Practically everyone in Dubrovnik has been an extra at one time or another! We also saw Onofrio's Fountain, a Franciscan monastery and several churches, before our delightful host from the Croatian Tourist Board took us to her favorite cave wine bar up the steep flight of steps in the center of the old town.

Back at the hotel again, we enjoyed a welcome reception on the patio overlooking the Adriatic Sea as we watched the sun set on another perfect day.

A 15 minute ferry ride from the old town brings you to Lokrum island, where we saw the Botanical Gardens, a Benedictine Monastery, and a Game of Thrones exhibition.  Look out for the peacocks and tame bunnies, and take your towel for a refreshing swim.

After a delicious lunch at Lacroma Restaurant, we returned by boat to Dubrovnik.  This afternoon’s tour began with steps and then more steps.  We climbed up and up and at every resting point the view of the old town was more amazing, until the whole walled city was laid out below us like a model town.  Definitely well worth the exercise!

Dinner this evening was at the spectacular Villa Dubrovnik, on the other side of the town. We arrived just in time to see the sun setting over Dubrovnik, an amazing sight to behold.  With the old city as a backdrop we enjoyed a wonderful dinner of locally caught fish and freshly made pasta...delicious !

After a lovely lunch on the patio overlooking the water, it was time to check out and head to the airport for our Air Serbia flight back to Belgrade.  Once again we are treated to VIP service, and guided briskly through Customs and Immigration to enjoy the respite of the private lounge, before departing on our 45 minute flight.  Our transportation awaited and we were whisked off to the Hyatt Regency Belgrade, to be welcomed back by the general manager.

In the evening we enjoyed a welcome drink at the Novak Restaurant and a tour of Novak Djokovic's trophy room, before heading on to a Mediterranean dinner at Ambar restaurant at Beton Hala down on the waterfront.  This area is full of bars, street cafes and restaurants, and it seems everyone was out having a good time!  We were joined for dinner by representatives of the Tourist Organization of Belgrade and Air Serbia, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to meet them and talk about the Balkans and tourism in the region.  Super-nice people, great contacts and a valuable resource to reach out to when planning future trips for clients.  

Farewell Belgrade and the end of an amazing Baltic adventure….

Nikki Perkins, CTA

Travel Exchange - A Virtuoso Agency
2 Sconset Square, Westport, CT 06880
T# (203) 221-3500  C# (203) 912-4641