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Touring Tuscany the Italian Way

By Alex Lobrano

“I’ve dreamed of visiting Tuscany for years,” wrote Sheila, one of my oldest friends, from Sydney, Australia. “I know you’re busy, but it would be wonderful if you could meet me there, because then we could have a real catch-up that goes deeper than just a dinner – and I selfishly want to take advantage of your expertise. So what do you say?” Well, yes, of course, I replied, because as I discovered when we were students in London a long time ago, Sheila is one of the world’s most entertaining people. And how often do you see a friend who lives on the other side of the world? When it comes to visiting Tuscany, I just might be the friend everyone wishes they had. As a Paris-based food-and-travel writer with in-laws in Florence, I’ve been lucky enough to visit what just may be the most magnificent province of Italy dozens of times in all seasons – and I speak Italian. So I got to work on an itinerary that would give my friend the best of Tuscany in the short time we had to travel together.

Present in Tuscany’s past
This did not involve making lists of museums, castles and churches, because I’ve learned that the most richly treasured moments of any trip are often the ones lived vividly in the present as much as they are encounters with the cultural richness of the past. So I decided we’d visit Florence for two nights and then take the train to Lucca for an overnight stay. Returning to Florence, we’d pick up a car to visit the Chianti countryside for two nights, then stay overnight in Siena, and finally spend a night at a very special hotel near little known Pienza before driving back to Florence.

Just after breakfast on our first day, I picked up Sheila at the Hotel Tornabuoni Beacci, a well-located hotel in the heart of Florence where the entry-level rooms on the fourth and fifth floors are a good value for the money. We met up with Judy Witts Francini, a food-loving American who’s lived in Italy for 30 years, for one of the tours she gives of the city’s bustling Mercato Centrale. We tasted our way through the market – both of us loved the soft, creamy Tuscan goat’s milk cheese known as caprino, and ate nearly our weight in Tuscany’s superb charcuterie, including ribbons of the region’s famous lardo di Colonnata, alabaster-like fatback aged in marble boxes with salt and herbs.

Afterward, we headed for Santa Maria Novella, visiting both the stunning 13th century church and its adjacent pharmacy, a magical place that’s been mixing cures and fragrances since the church was consecrated. Next, a light lunch of paninis – the best in the city, including pecorino cheese with pistachios and gorgonzola with salami at ‘ino, followed by a breath of fresh air in my favorite secret garden in Florence. During our sojourn, we also enjoyed a long lunch of succulent bistecca at Officina della Bistecca in Panzano in Chianti, a cooking lesson at one of the Antinori winemaking families’ estates, and the enchanting village of San Gimignano with its medieval stone watchtowers.

Two hotels were especially noteworthy: The Borgo Santo Pietro was a splurge that was more than worth it, and La Bandita, a delightful country house hotel near Pienza opened by a former music-industry executive from New York and his charming wife. But wait. What about the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Well, you can no more see all of Tuscany in a week than you could cover California in seven days, and all good travelers know that you always leave out something important to have an excuse for the next time. Excerpt from a note received from Sheila two months after our trip: “Every morning when I open the door to my closet, the scent of the potpourri I bought at the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella makes me dream that I’m back in Tuscany. I will return!” Dreaming about a trip to Tuscany? Check out AAA Member Choice Vacations’ Spotlight Tours at AAA.com/MCV to see tour details, itineraries and more. Return to Top
 


Cruising Corner


A Short Jaunt to Paradise

One of the most popular cruise destinations is Bermuda – and with good reason. Not only does the island have pink sand beaches and cheery pastel-colored buildings, but it’s a cinch to reach from the Northeast. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line set sail from New York, while Norwegian also has a Boston homeport. Once on the island, 600 miles off the coast of North Carolina, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy. In Hamilton, browse in the shops (purchase a pair of Bermuda shorts!) and dine at waterfront restaurants such as Marcus’ by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. Nearby are the Bermuda Botanical Gardens and the Royal Naval Dockyard, the major cruise port, which features a museum and restaurants. Rent a scooter and spend the day in the quaint town of St. George and unwind on beaches like Tobacco Bay and Horseshoe Bay. Golf is also a favorite activity, and you can’t leave the island without trying its signature drink, the Dark ‘n Stormy, a cocktail made with Gosling’s rum and ginger beer. For more information, visit AAA.com/Crusies. Return to Top
 


The Top 10 in The Berkshires, Mass.

By Donna Heiderstadt

What’s not to love about a place where you can listen to a world-famous orchestra as you picnic, go hiking and antiquing in the same day, and visit cool museums? That’s the Berkshires, a hilly corner of western Massachusetts where the focus is on living well via active pursuits, cultural immersion and culinary indulgence. And it doesn’t hurt that it features some of the Northeast’s most beautiful landscapes. Here’s what to do when you visit.

1.

When summer arrives, the Boston Symphony Orchestra decamps to Tanglewood, a 529-acre music complex in Lenox, where it performs in the Koussevitzky Music Shed from late June to early September.

2.

Nostalgic Americana awaits at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, where 998 of the artist’s paintings and drawings reside. Pair a visit with lunch at the atmospheric Red Lion Inn, established in 1773.

3.

There are plenty of places to hike in the Berkshires – even a 15-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail. Hardy trekkers can tackle its most rugged section and climb 3,491-foot Mount Greylock for a panoramic view.

4.

Head to Lenox for dinner, where options include upscale fine dining at Table Six, local seasonal cuisine at Nudel and Mediterranean dishes (and 24 wines by the glass) at Alta Restaurant & Wine Bar.

5.

This region is known as Antiques Alley, and the browsing opportunities are non-stop along Route 7, where you’ll find specialized shops as well as the multi-dealer Great Barrington Antiques Center.

6.

Contemporary art lovers can check the schedule at MASS MoCA in North Adams, where both temporary and long-term exhibitions – notably 105 wall drawings by Sol LeWitt – are on display.

7.

Whether you prefer wine, beer or distilled spirits, sampling local artisanal brews makes for a fun afternoon. Options include Balderdash Cellars, Big Elm Brewing and Berkshire Mountain Distillers.

8.

Known for its wood-fired sourdough-crust pizzas, Baba Louie’s in Great Barrington is a hotspot. Or, for contemporary bistro fare, dine at Allium Restaurant + Bar, where seasonal menus are sourced from local farms.

9.

At the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, you can browse amid work from impressionist masters like Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

10.

Golfing is a top activity here from May through October – there are more than a dozen courses – with options that include Cranwell Golf Club in Lenox and Wahconah Country Club in Dalton. Looking for a variety of great lodging options in the area? Visit AAA.com/Hotels. Return to Top
 


Save & Splurge: Miami


By Jill Fergus

Miami, with its miles of beaches, art deco architecture and Latin-influenced cuisine, is a super-fun spot for a holiday. But this sun-drenched city also has a growing arts scene with multimedia galleries, street murals, performing arts spaces and new museums. South Beach remains the tourist hub, but downtown, Wynwood and the Design District are emerging areas to discover.

Budget

Stay: The Two Diamond Rated South Seas Hotel is a great find. The beachfront boutique property is just minutes from Ocean Drive. There’s also a pool and a garden with nap-inducing hammocks. Pilikia by the Pool, an indoor/outdoor cafe, is great for a casual lunch – try the fish tacos.

Do: The beaches are free, so enjoy soaking up the sun and people-watching at Lummus Park Beach. In the Wynwood area, warehouses have been transformed into art galleries, and Wynwood Walls, an outdoor street park, has murals from Shepard Fairey and other artists.

Dine: South Beach’s La Sandwicherie sells delicious sandwiches such as the SoBe club with turkey, Brie and avocado. And don’t miss the famous Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, where you can enjoy Cuban fare like black bean soup, ropa vieja and Cubano sandwiches.

Mid-range

Stay: There are 216 rooms in the Four Points by Sheraton Miami Beach, some with ocean views. Amenities include free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and a fitness center. After a day spent at the beach or poolside, sip a craft beer in The Bloo Lounge and have a bite in the Sungrass Cafe.

Do: Tour Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, the former winter home of Chicago industrialist James Deering. The Italian Renaissance-style villa features antique-filled rooms and gorgeous gardens. Don’t miss Lincoln Road, a pedestrian-only shopping street with outdoor cafes.

Dine: Enjoy small plates such as salt cod empanadas, Iberico sliders and creamy coconut rice at The Bazaar by Jose Andres. Joe’s Stone Crab is a can’t-miss classic: Since 1913, it’s been serving stone crab claws with a mustard- based dipping sauce and, for dessert, Key lime pie.

Luxury

Stay: The AAA Four Diamond Rated Fontainebleau Miami Beach, which attracts stars like Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga, is one of the city’s iconic art deco properties. It boasts 1,504 rooms, numerous pools, a spa and 12 restaurants and bars inside its beachfront setting.

Do: Most of Miami’s upscale resorts offer cabanas complete with butler service for a pampering day by the pool. You can also charter a yacht to cruise Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean while sipping wine and sampling fresh seafood prepared by a private chef.

Dine: The Fontainebleau boasts hot spots like Hakkasan, which serves modern Asian food, and Scarpetta, known for its rustic Italian fare. Downtown, yellowfin tuna carpaccio and short rib are on the menu at the AAA Four Diamond Rated Azul restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental.  

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