Best of 2011: Favorite Airports, Airlines & Hotels

On the last day of the year, it’s traditional to look back over one’s travel itineraries and choose the year’s best airports, airlines and hotels.

Having experienced 21 airports, 10 airlines and 12 hotels this year, I made a cute “word cloud” of my itineraries at Tagxedo.com  (see left)

Of course, travel writers have different opinions about what constitutes the best of the best.

My good friend Mirva Lempiäinen, a Quality Hunter for Finnair, has already published her picks.  I especially liked her hotel ratings!

Hong Kong International Airport won the Skytrax World Airport Award for 2011, and Qatar Airways ran away with Best Airline.  I did not spend much time in Asia this year, so I have not yet experienced the joys of HKG or Qatar Airways.

My own travels focused more on Europe and North America. While luxury is important to any jet-setting diva, I also look for the best prices, and I place a lot of value on personality and flair.  So without further ado, here are the Globetrotting Soprano’s Most Outstanding Airports, Airlines & Hotels of 2011:

AIRPORTS

1. Vancouver International Airport: I was utterly charmed by the rustic British Columbian decor which I described in detail here.

2. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport: This snazzy Dutch airport is comfortable and convenient, featuring easy access to public transportation and an enthusiasm for giant television screens!

3. Long Beach Airport (Long Beach, California):  I usually prefer the big international airports, but there’s something special about Long Beach. I love its simplicity and 1950s style. You won’t have to wait in long lines here. It’s quiet airport with a hometown feeling, and yet there’s free WIFI!

AIRLINES

1. British Airways: this “4-star” airline continues to provide good seat comfort, great entertainment and high-quality tea!

2. Air Canada: this year’s surprise favorite offers transatlantic flights at an affordable price.  They also feature good classical music in the in-flight audio program!

3. Austrian Airlines: deserves kudos for friendliness and hospitality.

HOTELS

1. Penta Hotel Leipzig (Leipzig, Germany):  As a soprano, I have a weakness for sparkly things, so I went wild over the disco theme! If you like mirror balls in the lobby and glittering gold floors in the elevator, this is the hotel for you. You can enjoy the breakfast room, high-speed internet, fitness center, and indoor swimming pool without spending a lot of money.

Honorable mentions go to two other German hotels with bold personality: Artists and designers will love the surprising colors and shapes in Cologne’s unique Hotel Cristall. I also enjoyed the NH Düsseldorf City with its vast lobby, high ceilings and glass elevators.

2. Hotel Astor (Zurich, Switzerland): Clean, comfortable, and central.  It’s not the most exciting hotel from the outside, but Swiss hotels aren’t cheap, and it’s hard to find a better value for money in the very center of Zurich.

3. Hotel Milano (Modena, Italy): Quaint Italian style within walking distance of the train station and the Old Town.  I enjoyed a quiet, spacious room with a queen-sized bed and an oversized bathtub.  The thick wooden shutters opened onto a lovely view.

So what are your favorite airports, airlines and hotels? I’d love to know what you think. Please share!

the City of Angels (and how to use it)

Having lived in some of the most beautiful places in the world, I never get tired of returning to Los Angeles.

L.A. has so much natural beauty! The people are friendly. The weather is beautiful.  There is access to all of the resources of a major metropolis. There’s a good reason why millions of people want to live here.

Of course, there are disadvantages, too.  The city sprawls out over more than 500 square miles, which means that it can take a lot of time to get from here to there.  There is smog (although the air is usually crystal clear at the beach) and there is traffic (although it is generally predictable and therefore avoidable, if you know the short cuts).

But in general, I find that Los Angeles is misunderstood. So often, people will tell me: “I was in L.A. once. It took us forever to get out of the airport and there was so much traffic on the freeway.  Then we went to some conference center in a sketchy part of town.  It was terrible. I could never live there.”  When I ask them if they visited the South Bay, or the foothills, or the art museums, or the sports stadiums, or the university campuses, or the Hollywood Bowl, or any of the beaches, they look at me blankly and mumble that they were in Malibu for thirty minutes but they didn’t actually go to the beach. Uh-huh.  Yeah, you haven’t really been to L.A.

When planning a tip to L.A., imagine that you are visiting a wild and foreign landscape!  Los Angeles is not like other cities, so don’t expect it to feel familiar. Be kind to the natives, even if you think their customs are a little weird — try to get in a mentality where there is an exaggerated emphasis on cars, movies, and beach volleyball.

Got that? OK.  Now, here are my 4 basic rules for having a good time in the Southland:

1. Respect the Freeway

The first mistake that tourists make is to assume that the city has a “center.”  Downtown L.A. is a very cool urban community (boasting the Music Center and our new Cathedral, among other things), but it is not the “center” of Los Angeles in the European sense.  Despite the success of Beverly Hills 90210, there is no single zip code where everything happens.  Greater Los Angeles is a collection of smaller communities, each with its own unique culture.  You might hate being downtown, but love the beach cities.  You might prefer the mountain vistas of La Cañada to the fashionistas of Rodeo Drive.  You might like Koreatown better than Olvera Street. But it’s all part of L.A.! Angelenos spend a lot of time on the road, going from one town to the next, without ever leaving L.A. My mom once quipped, “Los Angeles is a freeway looking for a city.”

Treat the freeways with respect.  A freeway is a wild and powerful animal, but it can really help you… as long as you obey its laws and use its energy to your own advantage. If you do get lost, ask someone for directions.  Angelenos love to talk about freeways. We talk about the traffic with the same enthusiasm that other people talk about the weather.

Freeway photo by Tom & Michele Grimm, DiscoverLosAngeles.com

2.  Plan ahead

I love to be spontaneous!  But as a native of L.A., I know that this city requires a lot of planning.  If you want to cover more than 90 miles in a day (not unusual here), and still arrive at the right place at the right time,  you have to think ahead.  Get online before you plan your day: the Internet will help you map your route, buy your tickets, and choose where you want to have lunch before you get there.  Also plan what you will do in the car.  Road rage rarely happens to people who are having good conversations, listening to their favorite music, or enjoying an audio book.

3. Enjoy the Great Outdoors

Please, please, please do not leave L.A. without at least putting your toes in the Pacific Ocean.  Go hiking, go kayaking, go parasailing.  If you like cycling, enjoy the 25-mile bike path from the trendy Santa Monica Pier to the more remote beauty of Palos Verdes.

4. Go to the Opera

It seems that L.A. is on the verge of becoming one of the world capitals of classical music.  Under the musical leadership of James Conlon and Placido Domingo, L.A. Opera consistently attracts world class artists for stellar productions.  Gustavo Dudamel is pouring his dynamic energy into the L.A. Philharmonic. The L.A. Master Chorale is utterly fantastic. And the Hollywood Bowl continues to offer classical concerts to audiences of 18,000!

Of course,  I don’t spend all my time in L.A.  If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I am totally in love with Europe.  I love European music, European culture, European history, European food, European architecture! I feel very much at home there. And that’s why I’m often on a plane to London, Paris or Vienna.  But at the same time… I’m pretty stoked about spending Christmas with my family in the city of angels. 

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas from L.A.!

Chocolate Snails & Skating with Mozart

Well, it’s time to leave Salzburg and head home to California for Christmas…

It’s been a wonderful autumn in Austria! And I finished my last performances yesterday, so I was free to wander through the Christmas Market today.

I also indulged myself by eating a chocolate snail.  No, not a real snail. Die Shokoschnecke is a favorite pastry of mine.

I need to board my plane in just a few short hours, so let me leave you with a quick video clip of kids having fun on the ice skating rink in Mozartplatz. Skating under the shadow of Amadeus!

Vienna, All Dressed Up For Christmas

This week, I decided to splurge on a little pre-Christmas gift for myself: Vienna.

Every now and then, it’s nice to visit a beautiful city even if I’m not performing there that weekend. So I decided to head to the capital, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Imperial City is all ready for the holiday season, with the most elegant display of Christmas lights along its fashionable boulevards.

Sunday evening, I had the pleasure of seeing Verdi’s Nabucco at the Staatsoper.  The Ukrainian-Russian soprano Maria Guleghina was battling a cold that evening, but she still delivered an impressive performance in the role of Abigaille. When I last heard her sing it in Los Angeles, Ms. Guleghina gave an electrifying rendition, pinning people to their seats with a wall of sound. It was pretty exciting.  But this time, she sang with less wildness and more nuance, letting her voice blossom slowly into creamy high notes and chesty low tones.

The next day, I extended my mini-vacation to include the Naturhistorisches Museum.  If you read my posts about Florence, you know that I am a museum lover; in fact, I “visit” certain works of art whenever I’m in Paris (Winged Nike at the Louvre) or London (the Parthenon Frieze at the British Museum) or Rome (Michelangelo’s Pietà in St Peter’s Basilica). I consider these artworks to be my friends.  Since I was in Vienna, I had to drop by and say hello to the famous Venus of Willendorf, an ancient statue in the shape of a fertility goddess.  Some experts believe that this little 5-inch statue is 24,000 years old! So I checked in with Venus, not because I’m interested in fertility this year, but just because she’s that cool. In fact, the Naturhistorisches Museum is full of cool stuff, including amethyst geodes and dinosaur bones. There are a number of fun exhibits for kids, like a “time machine” that documents continental drift.

All in all, I had a marvelous time in Vienna.  It is a glorious city, steeped in culture and art. The Economist recently hailed Vienna as the city with the highest quality of life in the whole world! No one can deny that it is a great place to be. And yet, when I actually lived in Vienna in 2004, I noticed that the city also has a peculiar kind of heaviness to it.  There are so many old traditions that they can actually weigh you down.  All over the city, there are fantastic neo-classical statues in niches and fountains and columns and archways.  Very often, you will find statues of young men and women (and serpents and griffins and mermaids…) supporting the buildings of Vienna on their backs and shoulders and heads.

But if you’re strong enough to carry the weight of an Empire between your shoulder blades, then Vienna makes an unforgettable Christmas present.  🙂

From Austria with Love

In the opening scene of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, we find a couple of starving artists ( a poet and a painter) talking about life and art in their Parisian garret on Christmas Eve. They’re having some trouble paying the bills, so after a witty conversation, they decide to burn the pages of the poet’s latest play in order to keep warm.

Once again, I am living la vie bohème in Salzburg. That doesn’t mean that I’m having trouble with my central heating! But I get to be an artist among artists. I have the privilege of knowing so many talented and creative people in this city.

Here in our cozy Alpine flat, my friends have been hosting a lot of coffee parties, even more than usual. And it’s Christmastime, so we always have candles burning in the window and sweet treats in the kitchen.  We have had honored guests from Stockholm and Vienna, and more local friends, as well.  They all come over to discuss Life and Art over coffee or wine. Most of them are classical musicians, of course, and they tend to quote German poetry and refer to Italian operas in the same conversation, so it always feels like we’re about to burst into song, and sometimes we do.  This week, our coffee table  has become a kind of nexus for artists, where we all discuss and compare our latest creative projects. It feels a little bit like Paris in the ’20s… but for the Facebook Generation.

Of course, Salzburg is much smaller than Paris and I feel the urge to visit a larger city quite soon. Can you guess which one?  (Hint: it’s not Paris.) Stay tuned…

And while you’re pondering that, enjoy this clip from La Bohème: