At Home in the World

Bearly There

Croatia

Recovering from a long transatlantic flight from New York to the Balkans, the last thing most people want to do is munch on some bear meat.

Yet that's exactly what I found myself doing one afternoon in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, where, fortified by healthy doses of the potent homemade brandy that Croatian countrymen imbibe before every meal, I forced several slices of salami made from European brown bear down my gullet in a doomed attempt to settle my stomach.

Actually, bear tastes pretty good; like beef, only more so. Any chance of controlling my nausea, however, disappeared when one of my traveling companions shouted, "I've got bear meat stuck in my teeth!" before jamming a long wooden toothpick into her rather prominent incisors.

First gagging, then beating a hasty retreat from our traditional eatery in one of Zagreb's beautiful ancient fortresses, I reached the modern 303-room Sheraton Zagreb, where several glitzy events were in progress -- including a high-profile launch party for a new automobile. There, in the familiar environs of a big business hotel, I forgot my troubles and I began to relax.

I thought that Zagreb was tops, but the town that really owns my heart is Dubrovnik, the glittering jewel on the Dalmatian east coast of the Adriatic Sea.

Dubrovnik reminds me of Jerusalem, only it's set on the sea, it's more beautiful, and in better repair. It is a walled city and it's made entirely of sandstone. Badly shelled in the bitter ethnic wars that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Dubrovnik is back. A real, living community, with restaurants, nightclubs, apartments, hotels, and high-end retail shops, thrives within the fortress-like stone blockades that ring the city.

I stayed at the wonderful Hotel Excelsior, a large seafront property with copious meeting space. A terribly romantic hotel, the Excelsior has played host to visiting royalty and major corporations. Arguably the best meal I had during my sojourn was at the Excelsior's restaurant, the Rustica, where I enjoyed as my main course a simply prepared sea bass, freshly plucked from the clear waters of the Adriatic and grilled whole in front of me in an open stone fireplace. Sitting in that old restaurant, enjoying excellent local food and wine, I was most content to hear a singer from Dubrovnik strum his guitar and sing a Croatian seafaring song.

It was a lot better than bear meat.



A Night to Remeber

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

At the western entrance to the Rio Cuale plaza in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, there is a statue of John Huston, the American moviemaker. The imposing bronze creation honors Vallarta's unofficial and unlikely patron saint, the man who caused an obscure Pacific fishing village to become a sprawling world-class destination. It was in 1963 that Huston came here to film The Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams' tale of dissolution and salvation. With him came a glittering collection of Hollywood's finest, including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ava Gardner, and in their trail a press corps numbering in the hundreds. The resulting media uproar put Puerto Vallarta on the map.

Bustling PV has long since stood on its own merits, but the legend of The Night is hardly forgotten, as we found on our recent disorganized tour of all things Iguana. Starting at the bronze statue showing the rambunctious Huston in safari-suited repose, we proceeded eastward to "Gringo Gulch" and Casa Kimberley, the former home of Taylor and Burton purchased during the shooting of the movie; two houses in fact, joined by a pink bridge arching over the narrow street, where the couple spent many happy and/or volatile times in the 1960s and '70s. It remains nearly unchanged since Taylor sold it, and for a nominal fee the new owners gave us the run of the place, including bending an elbow at Burton's well-used bar. The evocative casa can also be hired for parties and special events. Maurice, hombre of the house and tour guide, fills you full of Liz and Dick gossip, some of which, as he says, is bound to be true.

Most of Iguana was filmed down the coast at Mismaloya, then an almost inaccessible cove backed by emerald jungle. Now a deluxe resort, La Jolla de Mismaloya (303 oceanview suites) occupies much of the cove. Remarkably, many of the movie's sets remain in place among the dense overgrowth above the beach. Ava Gardner's tropical hotel is now a restaurant (named, literally enough, The Sets of The Night of the Iguana Restaurant). A richly atmospheric place for an evening out in the jungle (bats overhead, grilled shrimp below), receptions can be arranged on the actual terrace where the Richard Burton character lay trussed-up and screaming in a hammock, though management these days would prefer their customers a little less stressed-out. The men's and women's lavatories are delineated by photos of Burton and Ava pinned to their swinging doors. Another, newer joint, John Huston's Sunset Bar, is a further climb up the hillside. The manager of the place hasn't seen La Noche de la Iguana but he knows that if it brings people up the hill and with much thirst, then it must be a very good movie indeed.



Home of the Drive-Thru Espresso Hut

Sunriver, Oregon

I couldn't sit still while visiting Oregon's Sunriver Resort. Maybe it's the perfect climate (not too hot, not too cold), the outdoorsy feel of the West, or the coffee beans. Oh yeah, maybe it was the coffee. I had my very first "shot in the dark," a cup of traditional coffee with a shot of espresso in it, at a drive-thru stand, unquestionably prepared the true, natural way -- strong and rich.

I was there to visit the resort's new Sage Springs Club and Spa at Sunriver Resort, a beautiful place with desert-esque meadows and the Cascade Mountains serving as the backdrop. First, I cycled around the many trails surrounding the resort; then I tried fly-fishing. Unfortunately, I couldn't pick up the technique. I learned that, when fly-fishing, it is crucial to have patience and a quick hand to snap the delicate rod when you feel a fish nibbling on the bait. Because of the delicacy required (or my caffeinated state), I couldn't determine between the water's current and the fish biting. So, no fish for me -- but still an interesting sport to try.

Dining at the resort's restaurant, Meadows at the Lodge, I feasted on Oregonian bounty. I started with the seafood soup, followed by a peppercorn-encrusted filet mignon. At the recommendation of my waiter, I tried a Pinot Noir that came from the Willamette Valley, where most vineyards in the state are found. Its earthy Cabernet taste complimented my meal well. For dessert, the marionberry cobbler I graciously consumed is something I still dream about. (A hybrid of the blackberry and the raspberry, the marionberry was created in Oregon and bursts with juicy flavor.)

While I finished dinner, the sun was setting, exuding blues, purples, and yellows into the dining room. Having never been to this part of the country, I couldn't help but think I was in some western movie.

I took a tour of the resort's 500-odd accommodations across a variety of rooms, and the 32,000 square feet of convention space that features exposed beams, slate tile, and large windows providing spectacular views. With the opening of the Sage Springs Club and Spa, I was able to experience several treatments and relax in the eucalyptus steam room; others may opt for golf on three magnificent courses.

I ended my trip with a two-mile canoe ride down the Deschutes River. Caught in a sleet storm, my guest and I were able to make the best of the experience, since us city folks hardly ever get a chance to absorb this kind of natural beauty. With all the outdoor activity Oregon has to offer, its a good thing coffee beans are so abundant -- to rejuvenate the body so you can explore the West's mountains and lakes. What more could you ask?



Imperial Tastes

Austria

I'm a firm believer in the importance of first impressions, which is why I knew upon arriving at the airport that I would be in good hands for my week-long visit to Austria. My trip started with Austrian Airlines Grand Class -- an adventure all its own, which included a six-course meal with wine selections and my choice of in-flight movies. I already felt like royalty, but that was only a taste of what was to come.

My first stop in Vienna was one of the many cafes that line the streets, where I sipped a cup of melange (similar to cappuccino) and watched the inhabitants stroll by. For dinner our group went to Gigerl, a typical Viennese restaurant and favorite of the locals where we were served dumplings and strudel, family style, while an accordion player serenaded us. After a good night's rest in the 247-room Radisson SAS Palais Hotel, I was refreshed and ready to see what the city had to offer.

The next day, our group began with a tour of the newly opened Albertina Museum, displaying renowned art collections (as well as offering function rooms for groups of up to 950 people). Next, it was on to the famous chocolate shop and bakery, Demel, where we got to decorate a traditional Sacher cake. As I continued to eat, drink, and sample everything the city had to offer, I began to feel like I never wanted to leave.

We visited the famous Schoenbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the imperial family, where I got a chance to see 19th century -- style furnishings. After this first taste of royalty, I was glad to hear we would be taking a trip to Herberstein Castle, owned by the Herberstein family for over 700 years. My transportation to the castle was the Majestic Imperator Train, whose six lavish rail cars, accommodating up to 150, were rebuilt from the original plans of the Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Joseph I. Two and a half hours later with much champagne, desserts, and music, I arrived at the castle for a sumptuous dinner. Afterwards, I stumbled into the motor coach that took me to Graz.

Graz was hosting the Austrian Travel Business (ATB) trade show at the 132,000-square-foot Stadhalle. After the show, I headed back to the 200-rm Hotel Weitzer to rest before leaving for Innsbruck the following morning.

Our group checked into its third and final hotel early, the 108-rm Hotel Europa Tyrol. From there it was onto the Swarovski Crystal Museum, and equally impressive Bergisel Ski Jump, where athletes from around the world launch themselves from the death-defying mountain (not me; I opted to ride the gondola to the top for a breathtaking view and lunch in the panoramic cafe).

Before leaving, there was one more stop I had to make: The ski resort village of Kitzbuhel, where skiers participate in the toughest downhill ski race in the world, the Hahnenkamm. I decided to take the scenic route and donned some snowshoes for an enchanted hike through the snow-covered mountains. Finally it was time to catch some zzz's before returning home from what seemed like the shortest nine days I'd ever spent.