Stories by Sana Butler

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    The Venice of Egypt

    As the country struggles to boost tourism after the arab spring, all eyes are on the thriving resort of El Gouna.
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    Kayaking Along Croatia's Coast

    A waiter from a local restaurant walks around the docks in the small medieval fishing village of Zaton Bay, just outside Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Holding a spear on his shoulder, he is looking for an octopus in the shallow waters along the coast. He stabs it just as we walk by, and proudly displays it for his son to see.
  • Taking the James Bond Tour

    "Do you see the targets?" I ask "Agent Q" through my covert earpiece as we walk toward Trafalgar Square."No.""There," I say, catching a glimpse. "They are headed south toward the lion statue on the east staircase.""Targets identified," she confirms over the static.We pick up the pace, adrenaline pumping. "You go ahead and I'll trail behind," I say, panting.My mission for the weekend: to track organized-crime members linked to terrorism. According to an encrypted e-mail I received that morning at my hotel, the targets, a man and a woman, had arrived in town to sell weapons to an unidentified network of people. I was to find the players and intercept them before the exchange could occur, thereby saving the world.Within hours of arriving, I was undergoing agent skill training at the Carlisle Street headquarters of Quintessentially Secure, a privately owned global-security and bodyguard firm with offices in London, New York, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Launched two years ago as a member...
  • Polar Bears: Up Close and Personal

    Armed with 12-gauge shotguns, pepper spray, two-way radios, and noise flares, two guides met us at the unpaved landing strip on the edge of the Hudson Bay, where we had just touched down after a 25-minute flight from Churchill, Manitoba. Six of us—a mix of professionals and retirees from the U.S., the U.K., and Australia—were headed for Seal River Lodge, Canada's only fly-in polar-bear eco-lodge, operated by the adventure tour company Churchill Wild, for an up-close view of the last great land predator in its native habitat.The guides greeted us with a surprise. "We have four polar bears on the grounds," said Andy. "Two are in front of the lodge." He pointed east, to where our accommodations were visible about half a kilometer away. The five-day, $5,900 Great Ice Bear Tour practically guaranteed the encounter we were about to have, but I didn't expect it within the first five minutes of the trip. Andy continued talking as I stretched my neck over his head for a glimpse of the polar...
  • Hotels Offer Free Sculpture With a Night's Stay

    "Don't touch that," i thought to myself as I watched a toddler stumble across the park of the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, Switzerland. His father called his name; the boy laughed and kept going, wobbling at an ever-faster pace. He was headed for a shiny, two-meter, red-and-green No. 6. The $550,000 sculpture, on display in the hotel's front garden, was created by pop artist Robert Indiana. His 1 Through 0 series of brightly colored aluminum numerals represent each stage in a man's life. Six is wisdom. The toddler tagged it as if it were home base.Baur au Lac is one of a handful of hotels around the world that has successfully transformed its grounds into a hands-on outdoor gallery space. "When someone wants to touch, we don't say no," says Gigi Kracht, the wife of the sixth-generation hotel owner. "We welcome it." They stage a biannual art-in-the-park exhibition. For this year's show—co-hosted with the nearby Galerie Gmurzynska—Kracht handpicked 12 sculptures by some of the world's...
  • Hotel Guests Serve as Mystery Inspectors

    At some point during Paul Watson's stay at a Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) property, the retired communications executive gets down on his hands and knees. "My favorite place to look for dirt is in the corners," he says. He expects the hotel staff to refer to him by name, the operator to pick up before three rings and the bartender to make small talk when pouring a drink. "I look for the same level of service no matter where I go," he says. "It should hit me in the face."Watson (not his real name) is not just an overly demanding hotel guest. He is one of about 175 volunteer travelers from around the world who have signed up for the Mystery Inspector program offered by SLH, a member organization of more than 500 independent hotels. In exchange for one or two nights on the house, the inspectors fill out a 32-page questionnaire, scrutinizing everything from the bellman's shoes to the bathroom towels. The oncea-year visits are anonymous, and usually coincide with a preplanned...
  • Seeing City Sites From a Riverboat Cruise

    Many of the world's great cities were built along rivers, making them easily accessible for trade and exploration. Today, riverboat cruises remain one of the most alluring and efficient ways to tour them. Like ocean liners, riverboats resemble floating hotels, but instead of carrying 2,000 passengers on the high seas, riverboats rarely hold more than 150 passengers, and they sail past fishing villages and vineyards to dock right in the heart of towns or medieval cities. In Europe, the Rhine and Danube are the hottest waterways for touring. Tauck organizes a 24-day Grand European Cruise through nine countries—including Germany, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania—to the Black Sea. Passengers awaken in a new city each day without the hassle of packing and unpacking. They stop long enough to walk to the ruins of a hilltop castle where Richard the Lion-Hearted was imprisoned in Durnstein, Austria, and study the architecture at the private library at the bishop's palace in Kalosca,...
  • Watchmakers Branch Out into Matching Jewelry

    Women in possession of a dazzling watch have long had trouble figuring out what jewelry to wear with it. Now there's an easy answer: pieces designed by the watchmakers themselves. Audemars Piguet has reinterpreted the design of its popular Lady Royal Oak watch—an octagon dial with diamond screws—as a ring, bracelet and pendant in a sporty new collection that uses rubber in shades of white, black and chocolate brown (audemarspiguet.com). Franck Muller, who's known for his Crazy Hours Color Dreams dial concept featuring sharp hues and out-of-sequence numbers, remains true to form with a funky, feminine ring collection that incorporates diamonds crafted into backward and upside-down numbers. The line has expanded to include bands for men as well as women (from $2,500; franckmuller.ch).To complement his bold but simple watch with hearts on its face, Roger Dubuis has created the My Heart diamond line, which includes a pendant and a chunky, heart-shaped ring that looks uncomfortable, but...
  • Easter: Eggs For Adults Only

    Why should kids get all the good Easter treats? These chocolate eggs are much too precious to waste in their wicker baskets. The Harvey Nichols Limited Edition, available only at stores in Britain and Ireland, is an 80cm-tall solid milk-chocolate egg inside a Valrhona dark-chocolate shell, flecked with gold-leaf designs (five available at $1,120 each; www.harveynichols.com for stores).Award-winning London chocolatier Paul A. Young has won a cult following for his made-to-order Easter eggs. Customers can choose from 20 different types of chocolate for the base, paired with unusual truffle fillings, including coconut and litchi or port and Stilton, and decorated with custom design elements—say, violins for a music lover. Orders take two weeks (from $200; paulayoung.co.uk).The dark-chocolate Large Egg Treasure by La Maison du Chocolat is covered with colorful pastel polka dots and carved with spy holes to reveal a solid milk-chocolate center. It must be purchased in the boutiques; it's...
  • Travel: Genealogical Tour Guides

    For those eager to trace their roots without doing reams of research, genealogical tour guides will handle all the legwork. Scottish Ancestral Trails will design a trip built around any information—surname, birth certificate, old photos. "If you heard your grandmother singing a song about how she used to live on a hill overlooking a town, we can go with that," says co-owner Lesley Gray. The seven-day custom trips are chauffeur-driven, and accommodations often include castles (from $14,000 for two; scottish-ancestral-trail.co.uk). Research and Travel Dr. Grams specializes in emigration from Germany; he's traced one clan to the 17th century (from $800 a day, pre-trip research from $5,000; roots.de). Routes to Roots traces Jewish ancestry in Eastern Europe, offering tours of Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Moldova (routestoroots.com). And Swedish Genline Family Travel takes a detective approach, knocking on doors, writing letters to ancestral churches and talking to historians. The five-,...
  • By Land and By Sea

    Booking a room at a hotel doesn't necessarily mean sleeping there. Some coastal hotels are buying or renting private yachts for guests who want to split their stay between land and water. Guests at the Four Seasons Resorts Maldives, where the spa has its own island, can book the hotel's newly renovated catamaran for a three-, four- or seven-night cruise. The 24-strong crew includes a personal chef and a masseur, as well as a videographer for underwater-photography classes (from $1,200 per night on land and $17,000 per day on water; fourseasons.com/maldives).At the Hotel Belles Rives in Antibes, the concierge can reserve a yacht for sailing the French Riviera. The popular 12-meter Sunseeker can be hired for an overnight trip to St-Tropez, Monaco or Corsica, while a larger 40-meter model can sail for a month and store Jet Skis (from $290 per night on land and $3,680 per day on water; bellesrives.com).Guests who book a hotel stay at the Romazzino on Sardinia can party at night and fly...
  • Luxury Opera Packages

    The passing of Luciano Pavarotti has inspired much lamenting about the future of opera. Aficionados needn't worry; a number of companies are offering special opera tours that combine spectacular singing with unforgettable dining and accommodations.Euridice Opera organizes personalized trips that can include meeting a singer or even a private performance at, say, England's Glyndebourne Festival. On Dec. 7, the company will arrange for couples to see the performance of Puccini's "Turandot" at the famed Teatro La Fenice in Venice, followed by a formal ball inside the hall (from $3,500; euridice-opera.com).JMB Travel specializes in holidays among 28 European and North American houses. Visit a theater in a different country each night, including Cracow's Slowacki Theatre and Milan's La Scala; wine tastings are often included (from $700; jmbtravel.co.uk).The Hotel Imperial in Vienna offers a three-night stay and a performance of one's choice at the State Opera across the street (from $1...
  • Hiking In High Style

    There's no better way to explore a place than on foot. But forget the trail mix and sleeping bags; walking tours are increasingly going upscale, adding amenities from goat-cheese tastings to bath butlers. The Wayfarers' Pathways of the Impressionists is a seven-day journey through the French Provençal landscape. The easy-to-moderate daily walks through hilltop olive groves incorporate side trips like a visit to an herb farm and a cooking lesson with a two-star Michelin chef (from $3,850; thewayfarers.com).Bothfeet's new Great Ocean Walk, southwest of Melbourne, covers 56 miles of remote Australian coastline in six days. But a personal masseuse visits hikers' rooms to ease the pain. And the trip concludes with a spectacular helicopter ride retracing the journey (from $2,295; bothfeet.com.au).On the Heritage Tours Private Travel personalized vineyard and tea tour in northern Portugal, visitors stroll through a 17th-century wine village for port tastings en route to a tea ceremony...
  • The Good Life

    Have you always dreamed of vacationing on your own private island? It's still possible, even in heavily trafficked destinations like the Maldives, without having to go to the trouble of buying the land yourself. Archipelago resorts offer the beauty and solitude of small islands along with the convenience of big-city hotels. The Maldives has more than its share of private beaches. Of the 1,190 coral islands that make up this Indian Ocean archipelago, only 87 have resorts. On the Baa Atoll, the Four Seasons Resort at Landaa Giraavaru is scheduled to open in November. Surrounded by a lagoon, it will have 102 thatched villas with private plunge pools ($750 per night) and an ayurvedic spa and yoga retreat. The Four Seasons Resort at Kuda Huraa on the North Malé Atoll, which was rebuilt after the 2004 tsunami, will reopen in September. The resort features an islet spa across a tropical mere ($590 per night; fourseasons.com ).Beyond the Maldives, the Bazaruto Archipelago is a naturalist's...
  • The Good Life

    Too often on business trips, the end of a workday means room service and perhaps a drink at a nondescript hotel bar. But if you choose a hotel in the right place, you can greatly improve your entertainment options once your work is done. the good life's favorite spots for mixing pleasure with business:Located in Sydney's business district, the Observatory Hotel is steps away from two of the city's most beautiful landmarks: the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge. This European-style hotel also offers a fun package: when your meetings are over, take a tour of the Sydney Observatory and it'll even let you name a star ($610; observatoryhotel.com.au).In Paris, the intimate Hotel Daniel, a 19-room and seven-suite boutique hotel, serves every business need with Wi-Fi access throughout the hotel. "It's more cozy than a Hilton, with a very [Asian], colorful feel, like a house," says manager Cecile Croisard. But it's a house designed by noted London-based talent Tarfa Salam--and it's...
  • Cruises For Hobbyists

    When you're picking a cruise, the first question used to be "Where do I want to go?" These days, the traveler is just as likely to ask "What do I want to do?" Some options for a themed cruise:Art and architecture: Wind through the waterways of some of the world's most prominent architectural capitals, including Venice, Istanbul and Athens. Consultants will help you learn to apply the lessons of the master designs to decorating your home (from $4,915; crystalcruises.com).Sinatra: Celebrate big bands with the top arrangers on many of The Voice's greatest hits. Afternoons onboard the seven-day crossing from France to Funchal, Madeira, are filled with 1950s and '60s classic films and informal talks with Rat Pack friends (from $2,937; rssc.com).Cars: Formula One fans can live vicariously through Sir Stirling Moss and Murray Walker, hosts of Celebrity Panel events, as you tailgate aboard Silversea's six-star charter headed to the Monaco Grand Prix (about $5,470; itcsports.co.uk/monaco)...
  • Beauty: Golden Glow

    Still washing your face with soap and water? You're worth a lot more than that. Sales of ultra-expensive facial skin-care products are outpacing the mass market from China to Italy, with an emphasis on delicate natural ingredients. the good life helps you put your best face forward:^ Estruse offers a new way to wear gold. The Skin Revitalizer toner and moisturizer comes with flakes of 24-karat gold. The precious metal has been used by Egyptians for centuries to kick-start the production of collagen and hyaluronic acid, both key for healthy, young-looking skin ($300; estruse.com).^ The signature Caviar Collection by La Prairie Switzerland is made from the roe of white sturgeon full of the omega-3 fatty acids necessary for regenerating cells. Skin Caviar melts upon application to restore elasticity and tone. Also try the Luxe Body Cream (from $315; laprairie.com).^ Sisley Paris Ecological Compound is derived from Centella asiatica extract, used in traditional Southeast Asian medicines...
  • Spaced Out

    The mini space race to send civilians to the moon is light-years away. Why wait? In September, the American Museum of Natural History's Discovery Tours launches a travel program that allows you to do almost everything to become an astronaut--except leave planet Earth. For $30,000 a person, the two-week "Earth Orbit" immersion trains 15 space tourists side by side with Russian cosmonauts and former U.S. astronauts.Thanks to the museum's unparalleled NASA contacts, the crew visits three space centers in the United States, including restricted areas where techies are busy designing the next unmanned spacecraft. Then it's off to Moscow to Russia's Star City, a facility only recently opened to nonmilitary personnel. After a physical exam (this is serious stuff), participants have the opportunity to work alongside cosmonauts during a regular business day. Experience a zero-gravity flight for up to five minutes, take a ride aboard the world's largest centrifuge--and endure forces three...
  • Sex On The Beach

    After vacationing in Jamaica, an anonymous American woman logged on to Negril.com, a Web site devoted to the island. But she didn't want to comment on the weather, the food or even her tan. She wanted to talk about her new beau. "I found the man of my dreams," she wrote. "I am in love."For increasing numbers of Western women, a steamy fling has become one of the most coveted souvenirs of a trip to the Caribbean. Since the 1970s, some upper-class European women have sought sex holidays in Spain and Italy, then considered poor and developing countries. But the rising popularity of cheap package tours--combined with women's growing sexual boldness--is encouraging a number of affluent women to look for love abroad. While Israeli and Japanese women tend to travel to Thailand and Hawaii for romance, Americans prefer the Caribbean islands. "They can do things they wouldn't be able to do on their own turf," says Margaret Byrne Swain, a women's studies professor at the University of...