TripAdvisor VIP survey

TripAdvisor asked me about my favorites restaurants, hotels, and places to travel, plus my travel suggestions for San Francisco. Here’s the interview:

VIP Survey: Laura Fraser

Author Laura Fraser (photo by Cristina Taccone)

What’s your favorite hotel (and why)?
The Hotel Alto Atacama in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It’s a low-key, elegant, environmentally-friendly lodge with all-inclusive meals, wine, and wonderful outdoor excursions in the incredible desert and volcano surrounds. The adobe architecture melds into the landscape, and it’s peaceful and cool in the rooms. At night, you can climb a hill and use a telescope to see all the stars in the southern hemisphere.

What’s your favorite restaurant (and why)?
La Ciccia, in San Francisco. The owners, Lorella and Massimo, serve authentic Sardinian cuisine in a cozy neighborhood restaurant. It’s amazing food with no pretensions; when I go there, I always feel like family.

Can you tell us about a “hidden gem”– like a non-touristy, neighborhood restaurant– you’ve found in your travels?
There’s a little restaurant on the island of Filicudi in the Aeolian archipelago north of mainland Sicily called Villa la Rosa that serves the best pasta sarde anywhere. The dish tastes like the fresh sea breezes all around.

What’s the best travel advice you’ve ever received from a friend?
Learn to speak Italian fluently.

Please tell us about your best and worst travel experiences.
My best travel experiences are always the simplest ones–a fresh meal on a terrace with a sunset, a swim. Somehow, these experiences almost always happen in Italy. My worst experience was being assaulted, once in Egypt, and once in Samoa. It’s good to travel with a friend.

If a traveler had only one day to spend in your hometown, what are the top five things they should make sure to see or do?
San Francisco is such a wonderful town. I would tell people:
– Take a walk in Golden Gate Park in the arboretum.
– Go to the Farmer’s Market in the Ferry Building.
– Wander around Valencia Street in the Mission to take in the funky boutiques, then eat a pizza atDelfina or have a pastry at Tartine.
– Take a bicycle ride in the Presidio, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then eat at the Presidio Social Club.
– Wander the streets of Chinatown and North Beach and go in to City Lights Booksellers.

Where do you want to go on your next vacation?
India.

Laura Fraser is the author of All Over the Map (Harmony Books), the follow-up to her New York Times bestseller, An Italian Affair.

Atacama Desert in Chile

I just got back from the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on earth. That description doesn’t make it sound very inviting, but it’s a magical place, with the kind of rock formations you might see in Canyonlands, ringed with volcanoes, and lodges that serve great Chilean food and wine.

The Atacama is surrounded by mountain ranges, which stop the humidity from entering the area. These are impressive peaks, with the tallest, Volcan Licancabur, towering at 5,916 meters–19,400 feet. We hoped to climb some volcanoes, but it’s winter in Chile, and it gets to about 40 below on the volcanoes. But there was plenty to do lower down.

We stayed at a lodge called the Alto Atacama,which is among my favorite places to stay in the world. It fits right in to the landscape with its adobe walls and a design that tucks right in to the canyon wall. The rooms are simple, elegant, and cool in the desert heat. There was an incredible peacefulness and silence in the evenings, and the brightest stars I’ve ever seen (they even have a telescope on top of a nearby hill). The meals were fresh with Chilean accents,  and local ingredients–like the home-made ice cream from the arroba tree, which you can’t taste anywhere else in the world. Best was the staff of guides, who were prepared to take us just about anywhere we desired in the region, which was just about everywhere.

Our first day, we took a hike to the Valle de La Luna, or Valley of the moon, which is in the Cordillera de la Sal, or Salt Mountains. This was the area that most resembled Canyonlands, with hoodoo rocks and rippling red canyon walls. Huge sand dunes spread across the horizon.

The next day, we hiked down a cactus canyon–Los Cardones Gorge; the area is so dry that the cacti grow about 6 centimeters per year, and most were well over 300 years old. In the afternoon, after a long lunch, we drove out to a salt flat, where we saw the several species of flamingoes that feed in the pools on the salt flats. The surface of the salt flat is crusted with crystals; with the volcanoes in the background, it was a spectacular sunset.

Our favorite day was taking a hike down the  valley of the Machuca River. We started at a small town called Machuca, where our guide, Joel, grew up, and his aunts now live, selling handicrafts to tourists on their way up to the geysers, and raising llamas. It’s over 12,000 feet, and all the houses are made of stone, each with a small solar panel that can produce electricity for lights and a small radio. We hiked down the valley on the route that Joel used to take to school in Rio Grande, a small town 14 kilometers away. His people, native Ataqueños, speak Quechua, from the Incas, and an older language, Kunza.

The route started with high mountain lagoons with frozen grass and a few Andean gulls. We followed the river down through fields of wailla, which is the grass that they make the roofs out of. We saw the plants rica-rica, copa-copa, and pingo-pingo, each with its own medicinal use (the combo is an aphrodisiac). Joel told us that when he grew up here, he saw no other people than his family, and was friends with the animals. As if on cue, a huanaco, the wild animal from which the llama was domesticated, showed up on the trail.

Halfway down the valley we came to a small farm, Peznaliri, with cultivated Andean terraces. Joel grew up in one of these stone houses, and showed us the chalkboard where his dad taught him multiplication tables. Now the water has diminished enough that the family has moved away; there’s not enough water to cultivate vegetables, which he says were plentiful as a child, a result of global warming. The family has been offered a lot to develop the gorgeous valley, but Joel explained to me that the real richness is the land, as is. We walked all day without seeing another soul, and ended up in Rio Grande, which has about 100 people, who raise llamas, sheep, and goats.

Our last day, Joel took us mountain biking in the Salt Mountains near the lodge, which was like cycling in the canyon country near Moab–sandy, with lots of hills ad rocks, though mostly gypsum, not sandstone. In the afternoon, we wandered through San Pedro de Atacama, a backpacker’s town with lots of little restaurants and artisan shops, as well as a North Face store for the serious trekkers. We visited the home of a miller, who showed us how his stone mill worked, fed by a hydraulic paddle underneath; it seemed like another century.

Our last night, we sipped Chilean malbec and were sorry to leave the quiet, the stars, and the daily excursions. There was a lot left we hadn’t seen–more mountain excursions, lagoons on the altoandino, the altiplanic villages…It was so remote, 2 hours by plane from Santiago and then another 2 hours by car to the lodge, that I don’t know if I’ll be back. But I’d love to return.

Most of these photos are by Peter Eckart.

Night of the Tarantula in Puglia

PUGLIA—Scorrano
I am in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, a hot, arid place with crumbling stone walls, olive trees, cactus, and Baroque limestone buildings. The people in Puglia are friendly, open, and don’t have the sense of furbezza—distrust, wheeler-dealer scamming–that is more common in Sicily, Naples, and other parts of southern Italy.
After I arrived in Brindisi the first night, completely tired after three flights and a sleepness night, I went to a simple pizzeria near the airport hotel. I was revived, sitting outdoors, watching people come in for dinner with groups of friends, kids chasing each other around. I ate an arugula salad with bresaeola and a crispy-crusted pizza Napolitano with anchovies and salt-cured capers from nearby islands, with local white wine, and everything was right with the world. Since I was alone, the waiter did what great Italian waiters do, which was to effectively give me company, making enough conversation to put me at ease, kissing my hand and welcoming me to Italy all the way from San Francisco, and calling me “bellisima signora.”
(I wish more American men would realize that compliments are free and don’t necessarily mean they have to have a relationship with the woman, they can just be men appreciating women, and they don’t have to do it in a way that seems aggressive or leering. Last night, for instance, dancing at a concert, an older man smiled at me after the song and said, “Complimenti per la sua eleganza,” using the formal polite address, complimenting me for my elegant dancing. Lovely.)
In Brindisi, I met up with my dear friend Giovanna, from Bologna, and we braved the little streets to find a masseria near Maglie—a reconstructed farmhouse called Le Pezzate, gorgeous little place with a stone pool and friendly owners, Mario and Bernadetta. Giovanna and I accidentally reserved a single instead of a double, so they put two little cots from the pool in the room instead of the bigger bed and I said we could pretend we’re nuns for a few days. The cook at the Masseria makes fresh brioche every morning, with her own marmalade—fig, orange.
Everything is dead here during the heat of the day. The small towns in Grecia Salento are deserted as everyone escapes the heat. They go to the sea or sleep in the afternoon. In the evening, the street come alive, shops open, and the towns are transformed.
I’m here doing research for an article for AFAR magazine, a wonderful and beautiful new magazine about cultural travel. Please subscribe: www. Afar.com. Then you can read my story from Puglia (I’m not going to give it away here!)
Last night was the Notte della Taranta festival in Melpignano. 150,000 people streamed in to this town of 2000 souls for a concert of pizzica, the traditional folk music of the region. It was amazing to see so many people of all ages completely enchanted with the music, the energy, the rhythm. The tambourinists, singers, violinists, accordianists—the orchestra was fantastic, with guest singers including Angelique Kudjo doing traditional feminine songs from her country, and duets with the pizzica singers here. I loved a band called Giro di banda, also Alla Bua…The concert lasted until 4 a.m., after which people gathered in circles with tambourines in the main piazza and either danced or passed out. Giovanna and I got a little lost on the way back to the masseria, where today we can do nothing but repose and recuperate, then make our way to a botanical garden and dinner tonight before I get back to work tomorrow…
Also: I have an article out in Tricycle Buddhist Review, “The Joy of Mindful Cooking,” http://www.tricycle.com/feature/the-joy-mindful-cooking.
Technical note: I bought this cute Internet key from VodaFone in Italy that attaches to my computer; for 50 euros I’m connected anywhere all month, no need to go somewhere with wireless, it uses cell signals…