HOTELS: MAY I SHINE YOUR SHOES?
The word butler still conjures up visions of a Wodehousean gentleman in coattails, effortlessly managing every detail of an English country estate. But thanks to a growing trend at luxury hotels from Tokyo to Las Vegas, manservants are getting a makeover. Instead of the famously stolid butler of Victorian descent, today's version is a warm and affable personal concierge-cum-valet. And all you need to do to get one is make the right reservation.
Relying on individualized service to set them apart, tony boutique hotels have turned to butler services in an effort to lure customers away from large five-star chains. Like the butlers of yesteryear, these majordomos are apt to look upon an unstarched collar with a somewhat jaundiced eye. But they're also trained to surf the Internet, play the sommelier, unobtrusively pack and unpack bags, plan parties and arrange itineraries. They can even organize hot-air-balloon rides. "Any hotel can provide all the trappings of modern society, but few can make their guests feel secure, well-looked after and welcome," says Liam Ryan, manager at London's 51 Buckingham Gate, which recently added butlers to give the hotel a competitive edge (325-795 pounds per night; buckinghamgate.com).
The Howard in Edinburgh has service fit quite literally for a queen; head butler Cory Douglas Campbell was employed by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. To ensure that standards are met at the hotel, Campbell runs an intensive butler-training course that includes field trips to a 700-year-old castle, where participants learn to set a proper dinner table laden with silver and gold. Campbell's butling feats have included assisting with an overdose, having a Domino's pizza delivered to a family onboard the Edinburgh-to-London express train and bailing out the grandchild of a prominent American family from a Bohemian jail. The Howard's guests aren't even required to check in: butlers do so for them, while their visitors unwind over drinks in the drawing room. Johanne Falconer, the general manager, says, "We make sure our guests aren't required to lift a finger and are extremely relaxed and pampered" (108-395 pounds a night; thehoward.com).
Hotel Seiyo Ginza in Tokyo was the first hotel in Japan to introduce butler services to all its rooms and suites. Its butlers are trained to attend to its guests with customary Japanese hospitality, even taking care of guests who become ill over the course of their stay. Its team of 25 butlers serve 77 rooms and are on call 24 hours a day ($450-$2,000 per night; seiyo-ginza.com).
At Sao Paulo's Hotel Emiliano, the staff of male and female butlers go a step further, decorating the rooms with fresh flowers and candles. They'll even order up your bathrobe of choice ($365-$660 per night; emiliano.
American hotels have been surprisingly slow to capitalize on the trend. The Bellagio in Las Vegas is one of the few that offer 24-hour butler services for their villas ($5,000- $6,000 per night; bellagio.com). Jeffrey Landesberg, the head butler, even shops for his guests' designer clothes and cosmetics. So the next time you forget to pack your Armani suit, don't fret. Just ring for the butler.
CRUISES FOR HOBBYISTS
When 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?" Here are some options for a themed cruise.
Cars: Formula One fans can live vicariously through Sir Stirling Moss and Murray Walker, hosts of surprise "Celebrity Panel" events, as you tailgate aboard Silversea's six-star charter headed to the Monaco Grand Prix (about 2,975 pounds; itcsports.co.uk/monaco).
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 how to apply the lessons of the master designs you admire 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).
Coffee: Spend a week studying how to make the perfect home brew on the way to Mexico. Learn skills taught only to pros, from cafe latte art to coffee cocktails with a twist. Bring home the best gourmet beans from onboard retailers from around the world (from $800; coffeecruises.com).
Books: If reading is your passion, book a berth on the Written Word Silversea Cruise, and join renowned editors and authors for entertaining lectures on the story-behind-the-story. Next up: Brian Hoey, Princess Anne's biographer. Barring a personal invitation from Buckingham palace, this is the closest you're going to get to the British royal family (from $4,586; silverseacruises.com).
TAMALES IN PARADISE
Santa Barbara, California, between the sapphire blue Pacific and tall, rocky Santa Ynez mountains, is the most romantic hideaway on the U.S. West Coast. You can stroll on the sand, walk under palm trees or watch dolphins in the water. Our top picks:
Stay at Bacara Resort and Spa (from $450; bacararesort.com). Right on the beach, with a 3,900-square-meter spa and rooms that carry the softest Frette Italian linens, robes and slippers.
Eat at La Superica (622 North Milpas Street; 805-963-4940). Julia Child and Martha Stewart each caused a stampede when they mentioned this taco stand. Expect long lines, since its tamales are so hot.
See the Santa Barbara Mission (sbmission.org). Founded by Spanish Franciscans in 1786, it's one of the state's finest examples of mission architecture. Several structures built by Indian labor remain: aqueducts and ruins of a pottery kiln.
Go on a one-hour catamaran ride across the Santa Barbara channel, passing humpback whales. Then paddle your own kayak into ancient caves on Santa Cruz island. A one-day adventure costs $175 at adventours.com.
Sip the same grape juice they raved about in "Sideways." More than 60 small wineries can be found in the nearby hills (santabarbara.com for a map).
Forget to learn Mandarin before your business trip to China? Just take an in-flight crash course. Several airlines offer interactive lessons that run on their personalized entertainment systems. Passengers listen, repeat and administer self-tests. The courses don't promise to have beginners fluent in 20 hours, but they do hope to save you at least some desperate gesticulating when you land. "We concentrate on words and phrases that can be used immediately upon arrival," says Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson, whose airline started offering Spanish and English last August (virgin-atlantic.com). This month it added Japanese on London-Tokyo flights, and plans on expanding to Mandarin, Cantonese and French. Singapore Airlines (singapore air.com) has just launched Berlitz Word Traveler, which offers 11 languages, with plans to add nine more languages by the end of the year. Set up like a game, Word Traveler teaches numbers, dates, simple words and dialogue and gives pronunciation tests. Travelers who finish a course get a certificate, so you can prove you passed with flying colors.
Outdoors: When Bears Attack!
In summer, bears are eating machines whose mission is to pack on as many pounds as possible before their next winter nap. Though attacks are rare, here's how to protect yourself:
Never surprise a bear. Like humans, they use trails and roads, so don't set up camp near either one. Travel with a group and make plenty of noise.
Avoid attracting them. Cook away from your tent and wash all dishes. Store your food in airtight or specially designed bear-proof containers. If these aren't available, carefully hang food from a tree limb at least 20 feet up and four feet out.
Back away. If a bear comes close, let it know you are human by talking to it in a calm voice and waving your arms. Try to back away diagonally, but if the bear follows you, hold your ground. Raise your voice or bang pots and pans, but never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
Play dead. If attacked, fall to the ground, lie flat on your stomach or curl up in a ball, protecting your face and neck. Remain motionless for as long as possible.
When in doubt, spray. Aerosol sprays that contain red-pepper extract can help protect you if a bear is charging. Spray it in the eyes and face once it gets within 40 feet.