Climbing down a coal shaft and up a castle keep in Wales

Seeing how both halfs lived –

We were descending a into 300-foot-deep Welsh coal mine, hard hats firmly in place, watches and anything else with batteries removed because the law requires it to prevent a spark that could set off flammable methane gas.
CardiffOur guide, a former miner, grinned and joked. We laughed nervously. If you want a memorable experience, visiting “The Big Pit,” an hour‘s drive north of Cardiff, is high on the agenda!

Sailing the Caribbean on the luxury yacht Sea Cloud II

It‘s a shimmering sunny morning in the Caribbean, a night‘s voyage out of Antigua, and we‘re lounging on the Lido deck of the elegant Sea Cloud II. First Mate Hendrik Carlsson is explaining how to set sails and navigate a square rigger. Tall ships have square sales and are therefore called square riggers. We‘ve been given diagrams and lists of the 24 sails so we can follow the drill as agile crewmen sprint up high poles. The real sailors among the guests and even neophytes love it!

London for Businessfolks, Bankers and Book-lovers

London has so many moods, so many façades, it could be dozens of different cities. I had recently stayed in the West End theater district and in trendy Kensington. Now I turned to investigate places that appealed to two very different kinds of visitors: business people and intellectuals.

For the first, I chose the Hilton at Green Park, a favorite for business travelers, and Threadneedles‘ Bonds Restaurant in the City of London financial center. For the second, I headed for Bloomsbury, site of the British Museum and the University of London, stomping grounds of the famed Bloomsbury literary group, where the Thistle Bloomsbury and the Imperial Hotel offer very different atmospheres.

Exotic San Juan: trendy hotels, historic old town, beaches, casinos & sumptuous food.

How do you know you‘ve picked a trendy hotel? In San Juan, it‘s where the new governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, chooses to have his inauguration party! Just my good luck to arrive there on that festive day. Loud speakers drew me to a nearby park where the political movers and shakers of the island had gathered for the swearing-in.

Then people headed for the tall white Caribe Hilton a short walk away. They had picked my hotel!

European Railroads: The best way to go has gotten faaaster!

I attended a New York press conference sponsored by the French National Tourist Office. One of the speakers, Fabrice Morel, president of Rail Europe Group, told us that French trains were picking up so much speed that Marseilles and Bordeaux were now only three hours from Paris.

London‘s Hampstead Theatre a Trendy Place for Modern Plays

If you are going to London, there‘s a very modern theater you should visit. It‘s not in the center of the city; it‘s in Hampstead in north London, the intellectual heart of town. Or at least that‘s the neighborhood where a lot of writers and theater people live. Giving honor to place, the theater is called the Hampstead Theatre, and its recent incarnation is the creation of Jenny Topper, artistic director from 1988 until 2003, the first woman to hold that post.

Literati Gather in Key West for Annual Literary Seminar, this one on “Crossing Borders”

Hemingway‘s ghost hovers over an annual confab of literati from all over the U.S. who meet every January in Key West, Florida, for a seminar that has become so successful that some years it closes out early. The Key West Annual Literary Seminar has been going for 22 years, drawing writers, writer wanna-be‘s and fans to hear novelists, essayists and playwrights talk about literary themes and also about how they work. Each year, there‘s another topic; past seminars have focused on the memoir, the novel, the natural world, science, and journalism.

Hitchcock‘s London, with a side-trip to Hitchcock‘s Marrakesh

Alfred Hitchcock fans walking into the lobby of the old Coburg Hotel must shiver a bit. This was the place in the 1972 thriller “Frenzy” where Dick Blaney (Jon Finch) took his girlfriend, the barmaid Babs Milligan (Anna Massey), after his soon-to-be murdered ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) slipped him some cash. The bellhop led them through the square paneled glass doors, to room 322, “the cupid room.” Ask for the Dome Suite.

The Intriguing Past and Present of the Place Vendí´me in Paris

There‘s a curious silence to the Place Vendôme, a sense that this 17th-century architectural gem has successfully defeated the noise and traffic of modern Paris. Yes, cars and pedestrians do move over the cobble-stones, but they seem hardly noticed by the statue of Napoleon sitting atop the bronze obelisk at the center. It‘s as if the elegant stone mansions that ring the square were guarding the place and fending off intruders. And inside those mansions, you can imagine whispering gossips telling the intriguing tales of the past occupants.

The Art of Sex and Politics in Paris

Paris has always been stimulating to the artistic soul and also a little outrageous. There are two edgy museums with art that pushes the most controversial boundaries – sex and politics. And both also defy the staid notion that museums are only for solemn daylight viewing. They are he Museum of Erotic Art in Montmartre, and the Palais de Tokyo near the Arc de Triomphe.

Kensington, a Chic Residential Corner of London

Where would you want to live if you lived London? What neighborhood has elegance, charm, sophistication and also sense that it’s for real residents, not for tourists, nor for moguls or diplomats or businessmen on expense accounts? Where do you get a sense of community, but also a location near some of the museums, royal landmarks and parks that London is famous for?

My choice would be Kensington, an upscale neighborhood in West London, just south of Hyde Park, close enough in fact to walk to the park, as well as to Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Music, the Albert and Victoria Museum and especially to Kensington Palace.

Visit to the KGB: Spy agency opens door to world of secrets

I was having dinner at the Moscow apartment of Tatiana Kudryavtseva, the Russian translator for books by Graham Greene, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, John Updike and William Styron, among others. But it wasn’t a literary evening. The other guest was Rufina RufinaPhilby, widow of the British spy. Tatiana knew her through Greene, who had written a preface to Philby’s memoir.

Rufina, or Rutchka, as Tatiana called her, was disarming, referring to Kim as the spy and recounting how they’d met in Moscow when a friend couldn’t use a ticket to the U.S. Ice Capades. The couple going with her invited Kim. She recalled how depressed he’d been in his Russian exile until the KGB finally gave him a job–training spies to behave as proper Brits so they’d pass easily in England.

I asked if she’d been to the KGB Museum I’d heard about.

I’ve never been there, she said. I don’t know anything about it. I didn’t know there was one.

That turned out to be far from the truth.

Where to stay in London

Planning a visit to our cousins, the Brits? In London, there are several main areas best to stay in. Most convenient is the West End — known as Theatreland. You can move further west and live near one of the big parks or squares — Green Park or Grosvenor.

Here is the majestic Millennium Britannia in Grosvenor Square. Millennium

Or you can choose to be in Knightsbridge, Chelsea or Kensington, the trendy areas that are minutes from downtown by tube and have the flavor of an upscale Greenwich Village and Upper West Side. I checked out hotels in each of those neighborhoods.