Budapest — Hip, historic and reasonably priced

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The Danube winds its way through this ancient city, the capital of Hungary—actually, two cities, Buda and Pest, facing each other across its riverbanks. For 1000 years, ancient people settled here, first the Celts and then the Romans. Being overrun by the Mongols, led to some 150 years of Ottoman rule and then becoming the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each people left their mark on this global city, where art and culture meet food, wine and relaxation in equal measure.

The Four Seasons Gresham Palace

#1 Why Not the Best?
For a real splurge, book a room at the Fours Season Gresham Palace, on the banks of the Danube with the famous Chain Bridge within view. All of the thoughtfulness and ultra luxury of the chain combines with this magnificent Art Nouveau landmark building. Built in 1906, Gresham Palace was abandoned and ultimately restored in 1998 by the best local craftspeople the Fours Seasons could employ. A two million-piece mosaic tile floor, a grand, sweeping staircase, stained-glass floors, and a wrought iron elevator are just a few features of this stunning hotel. The spa ranks at the top of its class in a city of spas, and the Kollázs Brasserie & Bar off of the lobby provided an outstanding dining choice. We really liked breakfast, ordering Hungarian scrambled eggs – pepper, onion, and homemade sausage.

Tip: Reserve a room with river view; the lights of the city are worth it. For a splurge, get a River-View Park Suite which is a huge open concept room with a king bed, sitting area or two queens complete with a marble bathroom and a soaking tub!


#2 The all-day bus pass
We usually start any visit to a new city with a Hop On Hop Off Bus trip. We stayed on for the entire two-hour circuit with views of Heroes’ Square, noted for its iconic statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, the Hungarian Parliament Building and the towering dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica. Then the next day we rode the bus to the stops we wanted to see like the baths.


#3 Spa City
If you like spas like I do, this is a city for you. There are 118 thermal springs feeding 15 public baths, as well as spas like the one at the Four Seasons and several other hotels. We tried two public baths including the Széchenyi Thermal Bath located in the City Park. It is one of the largest spa complexes in Europe and is frequented by locals and tourists alike. Be careful of the Thai massage bookers, however. They grabbed us in the lobby and aren’t a part of the formal spa.

The Gellért Thermal Bath has a succession of pools, inside and outside. We enjoyed sitting on the outside deck with a beverage, watching people at the wave pool. My Swedish massage at the Gellert fully met my expectations, and I’d book a repeat. With so many more spas to try, I’ll definitely be back to work my way through the remaining dozen or so.


#4 Castle Hill and a traditional Hungarian meal
We were looking for a traditional meal and found Pest Buda Bistro in the heart of the castle district, the oldest section of the city. What else do you order but goulash at this cheerful restaurant with its red-checkered tablecloths? Pest Buda offers a Hungarian home-cuisine approach to their entrees. We sat outside and took in the medieval feel of the district centered around the old Royal Palace. After stuffing ourselves, we took a leisurely stroll including visiting the Matthias Church.


#5 Walking the Vaci utca to the Central Market Hall
A vital shopping and dining thoroughfare in the heart of the city winds its way to the Central Market Hall. The Market includes lots of shops to pop into for shopping of all kinds—upscale clothing, gadgets, or a cup of coffee (and, of course, paprika). The Central Market Hall is a bustling two-story building stuffed with stalls selling just about everything from foodstuffs to souvenirs to clothing. Food fills the first floor, with other goods upstairs. It was very crowded when we visited, but was still a great place to pick up souvenirs.


#6 St. Stephen’s Basilica
One of the must-see sites, St. Stephen’s is a Roman Catholic Basilica, named in honor of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038). Although we didn’t see it, his hand is supposedly resting in the reliquary.


#7 A lovely evening stroll to Rezkakas Bistro
In the evening, we wanted to take a brief walk, dine outside and sample traditional cuisine. The concierge directed us to this charming restaurant where all three goals were met. High concept goulash!

#8 A nighttime cruise on the Danube
Along with our two-day bus pass, came a nighttime cruise on the Danube. This was a remarkable way to see the lights of this romantic city on our last night in Budapest. The boat was a little crowded, but the views of this UNESCO World Heritage city were remarkable.


#9 Who knew Hungarian wine was terrific and inexpensive?
One of the reasons no one knows about Hungarian wine is that they drink almost all that they produce within their own country, which boasts nine wine producing regions. Hungarian wine production dates back to at least Roman times. Outside of Hungary, the best-known wines are the white dessert wine, Tokaji, and the red wine, Bull’s Blood of Eger (Egri Bikavér). Domestic wines include superb syrahs and cabernets. Plan a visit to The Tasting Table (Brody Sandor, Utca 9) to taste a great range of local wine and to snack on the bounty of a tasty local cheese and charcuterie board. Our favorite wine was a lovely Bulls Blood, Kovacs Nimrod, Rhapsody (2012).

Tip: Buy a wine that isn’t exported and bring home at least two bottles per person.


#10 Paprika
Finally, who knew there were so many types of paprika? Mild and sweet, to fiery spicy were just a few of the choices. Most importantly, we learned that we should throw out the paprika we had at home since it is a spice that does not keep its flavor once open to the air. As a spice, it is almost synonymous with Hungarian cuisine especially paprikash and goulash.

Mother Daughter Spa Adventure

It really doesn’t matter where you go if you really like the company of the people who are with you. I’ve learned that through years of solo travel for work to many lovely places that were just not quite as much fun without my family or friends.

Traveling with my daughter was an especially wonderful treat especially as she is now off on adventures of her own. It doesn’t really matter where we go – I wanted to spend some special time together.r

Our best, recent trip was an over-the-top pampering weekend at the exquisite Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, California.

We shopped very diligently for the best spa deals in Southern California for our weekend rendezvous and the Langham came up with an excellent package for a suite of spa services over two days. We picked a package that started with our toes went all the way to the top of our head including a pedicure, massage and hair treatment.

I have to admit that we may have been influenced by the shade of pink the entire Langham chain uses as their unique brand color, or the miles of emerald lawns or the beautiful swimming pool at the Pasadena property. I had not tried the Chuan Spa before even though I fancy myself as a bit of a spa snob. In Chinese, Chuan means flowing water and is a key part of the spa’s philosophy towards wellness.

Upon entering the spa, we were immediately welcomed by staff that went out of their way to make sure we had all the services we wanted at the times we wanted. Fitting some sun time at the pool was another key ingredient of the weekend. We were ushered into the changing facilities through the Moon Gate. The spa offered a unique way to think about the pampering experience – as part of a journey to regaining balance and harmony built on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine.

For our massages, I dived wholeheartedly into the hot and cold stone massage that delivered on it promise to deliver both an invigorating and healing experience. My daughter chose the more traditional Swedish massage. We spent some time in the Dream Room, aptly named for a quick snooze between treatments or a sip of their five elements teas. Following our rest and a dip in the Jacuzzi tub, we enjoyed side-by-side signature pedicures. I love a full massage but having someone focus on the pressure points of your feet was the most luxurious feeling. Fully relaxed and almost unable to move, we decided to go to the pool for lunch and some sun.

Dining outside in California was something I always look forward to enjoying when I visit. The Terrace restaurant offered a pool-side table. I enjoyed fish tacos while my daughter enjoyed her burger with a brioche bun and aged cheddar. Obviously we weren’t eating a spa menu or healthful and low calorie items.

The next day my daughter tried out the fitness center while I slept in. We returned gladly to the spa for our final treat, scalp and hair treatments. This was something I don’t remember ever having before. Remember how great the foot massage was? A scalp massage may be even better. I mean who gets their head rubbed?

Even though we shopped for a special, this weekend wasn’t something any budget can afford every year, making it an even more special treat. We regretfully concluded our spa weekend, fully refreshed and connected to each other.

Rural Tennessee offers a fitness vacation

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

IMG_2334Exercising and eating well eludes so many of us. What is even harder is finding time for self-reflection, solitude and self-care with the pressures of work and family. It took a girlfriend and me almost a year to find a week where we could spend time working out, eating a healthy menu and focusing on ourselves.

If time was a challenge, the cost was another. At the high end, you can spend a week for a mere $10,000, including meals, exercise and spa treatments. The more average cost was around $3,000 a week.

A friend recommended the Tennessee Fitness Spa near Waynesboro, Tenn. They’ve been offering fitness vacations for the past 20 years. It had the benefits of being within driving range of Battle Creek and a weekly rate of $1,000 per person for meals, lodging and all the exercise classes you can stand. Another advantage was the small size of the resort, only 58 guests when filled to capacity. I admit I was nervous about just how rustic it might be.

It was after 10 p.m. when I picked up my friend at the Nashville airport for our 95-mile drive to Natural Bridge, Tenn. It took close to two and half hours, as we wound through small towns on two-lane rural routes with lots of construction, before arriving at the resort. Luckily the security guard, Teresa, had stuck around waiting for us. That was our first sign of the friendly, personal care that was the hallmark of our week.

Our room was extremely clean and decorated in taupe and beige. It had the look of a Holiday Inn, not much wow factor but everything we needed. Breakfast was served starting at 6:45 a.m. followed by a group walk. Getting up at dawn didn’t sound all that appealing but we were gung ho and set our alarm.

Breakfast turned out to be my favorite meal of the three offered. I could choose from eggs, oatmeal or cereal, toast or English muffin with fresh fruit. We had French toast and pancakes on different days plus frittatas.

Lunch was the largest meal of every day with dessert. Dinner was the lightest meal.

The menu was 1,200 calories a day. Snacks were available all day, the usual rabbit food of celery and carrots and hard-boiled eggs. But you could get a slice of cheese or a serving of peanut butter anytime you wanted. Having chef Belinda Jones and her staff plan, cook and clean up, all meals made for a wonderful week.

IMG_2365The exercise classes were split between water and land. I choose water aerobics for most of my classes, led mostly by Kimi Sue Kelly, a perky, pint-sized drill sergeant.

The land classes were spin class, high and low aerobics and Pilates. Yoga and mediation classes were also offered along with stretch classes.

The daily recommended plan included two sessions of aerobic exercises, one stretch, one resistance (weight) training activity, and at least four abs classes per week. With the variety of classes offered I was easily able to fit in all of that plus yoga or meditation every day with lots of times for reading and relaxing.

The resort was located in a beautiful part of Tennessee with a rare double-IMG_2351span natural bridge formation right behind our building. The impressive, vaulted stone cavern was formed over millions of years of erosion by a fresh water spring.

At the end of the week, my thighs and my psyche thanked me. I felt refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to face the world again.