Tag Archives: grand hotel

Green Globe Trekker (Series Premiere)

Today on Alphabet City: JP premieres the new series Green Globe Trekker—a personal look at stylish & sustainable travel; first stop gay & green Amsterdam

Sometimes it’s easy for me to overlook the seeds of my interest in green travel, because my bookshelf is filled with pre-teen travel journals that include these hilarious pronouncements:

Age 12, 20 February 1981, London Journal “Today was so exaspirating! (sp)  We got on the plane o.k.  But, they put us in the smoking section!  So, we traded.  The movies were Hopscotch & Raise the Titanic.  The food was awful!  It was a great trip!”

Age 12, 24 December 1981, Canadian Adventure “I was not as impressed with the Four Seasons in Calgary as I was with others.”

Age 13, 16 June 1982, Rhein (sp) River Adventure “I say, you seen one palace, you seen ‘em all”

Dad holding me down

But next to these riveting written accounts of my early life as a travel critic, there’s an old black binder of pictures from a family eco-adventure I will never forget.  Instead of our usual cushy stay at Point Clear, Alabama’s Grand Hotel, my family spent six days white water rafting down the Grand Canyon.  At the time, I was six years old and one of the youngest kids allowed to undertake the semi-dangerous excursion.  Because I was so light in weight (and probably the loafers), my father had to sit on top of me in order to hold me down when we passed through treacherous rapids.

Bio-soapy fun with my sisters

The thing I remember most about the trip is not my mother wrapping her legs around my sister Pam to save her from going overboard—but soap.  Biodegradable soap, mind you.  I was fascinated with the concept that there were special, glycerin cleaning products for use in the muddy waters of the Colorado River.  My sister Paige, a budding environmental advocate who now works for Whole Foods Market, explained to me how important it was to try and leave as little impact on the surroundings as we could—and that included sensitive detergent that didn’t harm the ecosystem.

Queen Rania pumps it up at World Savers Congress

It’s been 35 years since my first taste of green travel, and now I am right back in the thick of it.  For the past four years, I have been advising Condé Nast Traveler on issues of social responsibility and the travel industry, including the planning of the magazine’s annual World Savers Congress.  The conference is a gathering of over 200 leaders of the travel industry designed to celebrate, promote and encourage a range of efforts—from poverty alleviation and health initiatives to environmental and cultural preservation.  Speakers have included everyone from noted economist Jeffrey Sachs to musician-activist Wyclef Jean, from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times to Queen Rania of Jordan (talk about stylish—staring at her Versace pumps almost got me in security trouble).

At this year’s conference on October 20 in Singapore with keynotes by Academy Award-winners Mira Sorvino (UN Goodwill Ambassador advocating against human-trafficking) and Louie Psihoyos (environmental activist and Director The Cove), I will be moderating the panel  “To Preserve and Protect: Can Going Green Coexist with Luxury?”  Joining me will be Debra Erickson, Executive Director of the Kerzner Marine Foundation; Hans Pfister, President and Co-owner of Costa Rica’s Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality; Adine Roode, Managing Director of South Africa’s Camp Jabulani; Gary Stickland of Melbourne’s Alto Hotel on Bourke; and Brigitta Witt, Vice President Environmental Affairs, Hyatt Hotels Corporation.  I’m excited to dig into some important questions like how can big corporation scale up the amazing green advancements made by small hotels and lodges.  And perhaps, more importantly, how does (or should) a company communicate to consumers their commitment to these causes?

Some question whether the travel industry, thanks to its expansion, is responsible for killing the planet.  But visionary Virgin mogul Richard Branson tackled this thorny question rather well at a recent luncheon hosted by Condé Nast Traveler at the Council on Foreign Relations.  “I don’t think asking people to hold back progress is the way to deal with global warming.  Rather, we should all invest a percentage of our profits in energy that is clean.”  Whatever my feelings about Branson’s braggadocio, he is an innovator that is leading the way on clean aircraft fuel development.

Fellow Brit Tony Blair backed up Branson’s belief in the tourism industry being a positive force, albeit from a completely different standpoint.  Mr. Blair made a very powerful and forceful argument for tourism development as being critical to the Middle East peace process in helping Palestine achieve a viable economic state.  Blair in-person has that Bill Clinton-effect of mesmerizing an audience.  I hung on his every word.  At times, I wondered if maybe I had seen Love Actually too much, equating the real Blair with Hugh Grant’s version.  Regardless, by the end of his impassioned plea, I was ready to write a check and become an investor in a hotel in Gaza—for the sake of the planet.

Given my interest and knowledge of sustainable travel issues, I thought maybe it was time to start writing about it on ABCityblog.  So when the Holland Tourist Board asked me if I’d like to find out if it was true what their ad campaign proclaims—Everyone’s Gay in Amsterdam—I queerly said yes.  I have had some memorable, sexy times in Holland’s eco-friendly capital.  So what a perfect place to combine gay style and green travel in my new series of columns I’m calling “Green Globe Trekker—a personal look at stylish & sustainable travel.”

So stay tuned while I try to prove Kermit the Frog wrong—in this day and age it should be easy and fun and chic being green.

Let’s just hope that throughout this journey there are copious amounts of biodegradable soap.

The dawn of the Green Globe Trekker

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Summering Worries

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s idyllic memories of “summering” are threatened by the oil spill.

JP and sister Pam beachside at Grand Hotel

“Summering” has been on my mind a lot lately.  One of my favorite passages I’ve been reading out loud on book tour is from Alphabet City’s Episode 3:

Until I moved to the Big Apple, I had never heard the word “summer” used as a verb.  But from what I could tell, the entire society stratus of New York City greeted summer with a mass exodus.  For those that could afford it, summering meant scheduling into two-day weekends all the things we took for granted on a weekly basis in Texas—swimming, tanning, boating, golfing…Summering ensnared all kinds—Fags to Fire Island, Snobs to Southampton, Monied to Martha’s Vineyard.  New Yorkers returned after Labor Day bronzed and exhausted.  In Dallas, we just went to Lake Texhoma and returned leathery and pickled.

For the most part, summering for my family meant visiting my grandmother in her mobile home trailer in the piney woods of East Texas near a Dairy Queen and catfish pond.  But every other year, my father loaded us up in our diesel-powered Mercedes sedan and drove from Dallas to Pt. Clear, Alabama to the Grand Hotel just outside Mobile.  Car trips with my father were lessons in endurance—bathroom breaks were limited and replaced by mandatory singing of odd German folksongs, Ray Charles ballads, and an occasional showstopper from Cabaret.  One time Dad ran the car off the road and into a ditch filled with Mississippi kudzu because he was reading—while driving.

But making it to the Grand Hotel meant a fortnight of frolicking.  I began by drinking copious amounts of Shirley Temples concocted by legendary bartender Bucky who called me Mr. Buchmeyer!  Afternoons were spent precariously riding a bicycle built for two with Dad, scoping out the twisted arbor for the annual awarding of the “Gnarliest Tree Award” complete with blue ribbon.  And off course, there was lots of time reading on the beach—scanning out across the murky waters of Mobile Bay and seeing a few oil drilling platforms on the horizon.

At the time, those rigs were nothing more than a curiosity.  As a young kid from the Lone Star State that was fueled by a powerful oil addiction, it never occurred to me that there was anything particularly dangerous happening offshore.  My uncle was in the oil business and my cousins even spent a few summers working on Gulf Coast rigs.  But when I returned a few years back with Chef for a story about the area for Condé Nast Traveler, I saw those platforms in a much different way—as a menacing encroachment on the area’s natural beauty.

On that trip, I experienced the towns scattered along the Gulf Coast in a much different way than the hurried road trips of my youth.  This time, my traveling companion Chef actually encouraged multiple detours and roadside stops on our sweep around the Florida Panhandle in a souped up Mercedes.  When we weren’t stopping for roadside Hot Nuts, we were delighting in the succulent (and cheap) oysters of charming Apalachicola.  Here’s how I describe it in CNT’s June 2008 issue:

Today, Apalachicola is a delicately balanced blend of Old and New Florida—historic buildings and houses mixed with funky boutiques and numerous cafés. I’m completely charmed by the place, but Chef withholds judgment until he tastes the local fare.

Oysters have provided stability to this region for years. Ten percent of the country’s supply comes from this bay, and they are some of the biggest, juiciest, meatiest, saltiest—and cheapest—oysters we’ve had the pleasure of tasting. At 25 cents each, compared to about four dollars a pop in New York City, Chef and I literally can’t get enough—we eat them morning, noon, and night. We eat them roasted, baked, and in shooter cocktails with peppered vodka and horseradish, not to mention in oyster po’boys for lunch, and served with eggs (and grits) for breakfast.

…we drive on to St. Joe Beach along a road that’s among the prettiest on this trip—baby palm trees dwarfed by giant cedars. Out of the car, we trudge up stairs over mountains of sand, and at the summit, take pause at the view: miles and miles of nearly empty snowy beaches lapped by clear turquoise water. We head down to splash in the warm water, agreeing that we will come back and bring friends: Oysters and beaches this delicious deserve to be shared.

If you’re still not sure of how much natural beauty is in danger of destruction from the country’s worst environmental catastrophe, I encourage you to read the full CNT story for just a taste of my own humble perspective.

Lil JP stealing one of my Dad's books at The Grand Hotel

For hundreds of years, the Grand Hotel and the citizens of the Gulf Coast have shown remarkable resilience bouncing back from a series of natural disasters.  But as oil from the raging spill begins lapping at the shores of nearby pristine Dauphin Island, I have to be honest and say I’m worried for the hardworking laborers who trawl for the delicious oysters and succulent shrimp.  And I’m sad that the lazy, almost idyllic setting might be in danger for future generations of kids who might not experience Bucky’s charming hospitality or the thrill of tacking a ribbon to “The Gnarliest Tree.”

Summering used to be so much simpler.

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Glamour Girl

Today on Alphabet City: Glamorous touches surprise Jon Paul on his American Airlines flight to Jamaica.

JP in the glamour days of travel

Every other year when Dad didn’t take us to The Grand Hotel on the murky waters of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, he planned some more eventful and memorable family vacations.  There was the white water rafting trip down the Grand Canyon where my mother’s fierce maternal instinct kicked into overdrive and kept my older sister from falling overboard into deadly rapids.  And I’ll never forget the car trip down the California coast where we played tennis with his old college buddy Chief of Staff/Secretary of State James Baker for the last hotel room available near Ronald Reagan’s ranch.

But it was my virgin trip to the Caribbean when I was about five when I fell in love with the glamour of air travel.  Since most of our family vacations involved car travel, this one was exotic in that it began at Dallas’ Love Field and ended at Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands.  Today, the resort is run by Rosewood and is the epitome of island luxury.  But when my family vacationed there it was a true Robinson Crusoe immersion experience with limited supplies of electricity and hot water.

While I thought the whole sand and flashlights thing was kind of fun, my mother immediately burst into tears and never recovered.  She insisted my father gather the troops and hightail a retreat.  For several days, he put up a good fight but eventually yielded to her steady stream of tears.  The only seats available on the return flight to Dallas were in First Class, and so reluctantly he ponied up the cash (or MasterCard).

Stepping onto that plane in San Juan was like getting my passport stamped for entry into a world unlike any I had seen.  The flight attendants’ lipstick was a little brighter, her skirt a little tighter, her boots a little taller.  She showed us to our special seats—no, not some regular series of leather faux recliners—but a built in banquette!  Like we were at some mile-high diner, only classier with table linens and seatbelts!  My father and mother both looked miserable (turns out my mother was very sick), and my teenage sisters were devastated that summer vacation was cut short.  But I was in heaven and could hardly sit still the entire way.

Unfortunately, the glamour of air travel reached its zenith for me there at the tender age of five.  After that, it’s been a steady decline of expectations about First Class travel.  Over the years, I’ve acquired millions of frequent flier miles and only dispensed them judiciously for upgrades.  A three-hour flight back to Dallas?  Not worth cashing in miles just to be crammed into compact seats at the front of the plane when I can snag a roomy exit row for free.

So it was with some hesitation that I clicked the “upgrade” button on AA.com when choosing a seat on my flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica.  But seeing as how I hadn’t used any upgrades in quite a while, I figured why not.  Use or lose them.

Alphabet City enjoys the glamour of AA

Imagine my surprise when I walked into the lap of luxury—a redesigned business class cabin featuring flat bed seats and on-demand video worthy of a Pacific crossing!  We only had 3 hours and some change.  Barely enough time to learn the complicated seat controls, take a nap lying flat on my back, watch Michael Jackson’s swan song This Is It (is it weird that I cried?), eat broiled chicken with a spicy mango salsa, drink two glasses of chardonnay, enjoy a cranberry oatmeal cookie, flip through OUT magazine, eavesdrop on the flight attendant’s expert handling of a fussy older lady brandishing a bag of prescription bottles, and conduct a photo shoot to launch my new book tour gimmick—Where in the World is Alphabet City?

Whew!  I landed in Jamaica ready for a break, and grateful to American Airlines for putting a little sunshine back into air travel.  Granted, I have no idea what it was like back there in coach.  But for a few hours at least, I felt like a kid again returning from that first trip to the Caribbean, once again enjoying the glamour of it all.

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Green Globe Trekker: Settling Accounts

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul longs for hotel lobbies of yesteryear, but takes “art” in Kimpton.

Lil JP stealing one of my Dad's books at The Grand Hotel

Since I was a little kid traveling with my family every other year to The Grand Hotel in Pt. Clear, Alabama, hotel lobbies have enamored me.  My heart skipped a beat every time I saw the giant double doors fog up as the over air-conditioned interior fought off July’s southern humidity.  Once inside the kingdom, there was the smell that I describe in my Condé Nast Traveler essay on the experience as “an odd mix of pine floors and fried crab claws.”

As an adult lucky enough to travel the world, I developed an affinity for hotels that understood the lobby wasn’t just for shuffling people to and fro, but a stage.  And like good set design, I prefer my lobbies have a measured point of view so as not to overwhelm the actors guests.  While I could never quite square myself to the overt and uncomfortable theatricality of Miami’s Delano, I was immediately drawn in by the modern painting collection at Barcelona’s Hotel Arts.

The lobby of Kimpton's Hotel Palomar in Atlanta has a definite point of view.

Recent travels have left me slightly disheartened at the state of hotel lobbies with most companies adopting a Shake n’ Bake approach to dumb down design.  But a reception I attended last night for the unveiling of a 28-foot installation by artist Barbara Nessim gave me hope.  Kimpton Hotels commissioned this piece that will reach two-stories in the lobby of their new hotel Eventi, opening in “North Chelsea” in May 2010.  Kimpton’s interest in artwork already captured my attention on my recent stay in Atlanta at their Hotel Palomar.  So I’m looking forward to their latest in New York—the 50th hotel in their portfolio.

There was one more bit of lobby drama that captured my fascination as a kid—the moment my father paid for the two week stay—with a personal check.  He would march me up to the counter, take out his wallet and ready his personal check from Republic National Bank, while announcing in a dramatic flourish to the front desk attendant, “I’m here to settle my account!”

Years later, on my adult visit to the Grand Hotel, I also marched up to the counter the night before my early morning departure and announced, “I’m here to settle my account!”  The clerk eyed me suspiciously.

“We have your credit card on file, sir.”

So much for the dramatic.  Hey, I wonder if Kimpton Hotels would consider taking a check?

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Father Complex

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul realizes that despite his best efforts he has become his father, in a scholarly way.

For many years, I’ve been concerned about turning into my father, even immersing myself in psychotherapy to ward off some of his less charming tendencies.  But on holiday, I came to the conclusion that one of his more obsessive tendencies snuck through—a near manic compulsion to devour as many books as possible on vacation.

Every other year growing up, my father would load up the car with the family and two suit cases for him.  One was pack mostly with 17 collared short sleeves shirts that he could only find at Neiman Marcus, and the second suitcase filled to the brim with his own reading material.

At the crack of dawn, we would make a mad dash out of Texas and across Louisiana and Mississippi, ending up at a family resort known as The Grand Hotel.  While my sisters and I rode bikes and lapped around in the gargantuan pool, my father parked himself in a lounge chair outside our beach side cabin and read book after book after book after book. Only occasionally did he rouse himself to play a game of tennis, and a mean game of croquet during which his sole goal seemed to be to knock my ball into the murky waters of Mobile Bay.

Lil JP stealing one of my Dad's books at The Grand Hotel

As an adult, my editor Dana at Condé Nast Traveler gave me the opportunity to revisit the stomping grounds of my family holidays this time with Chef in tow—you can read about it here.

Now Chef and I have traveled the world together, but I’m not sure he was quite prepared when we arrived at our rented casa in Merida’s Yucatan peninsula and I unveiled a suitcase filled with a few Speedos, a range of paperbacks and hardbacks, and my Kindle’s power cord—I had downloaded just a few more necessary tomes before the plane took off at Newark.

Just like my father, I stationed myself on a lounge chair poolside and let Chef and my “chosen” family of Susan and Shannon worry about meals.  Upon completion of every book, I snapped the cover closed in triumph and moved onto the next.  Chef looked at me in wonder.

“You’re reading like a book a day.”

“I know.  It’s glorious.”

“Are you skipping parts?”

“What?  I’m just a fast reader.  Like my Dad.”

Unlike my father, I actually did participate in other activities, and shared with everyone my thoughts on the books I was reading.  My reading list below might give you some insight into my current range of interests and influences.

Upon reflection, I could have done worse to let my father’s book obsession creep into my life.  Thank god I didn’t inherit his fashion sense. Continue reading

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