5 Spring-Break Tips for a Rejuvenating Beach Vacation

The beach at Grace Bay in Turks & Caicos is magnificent.  Photo© Laurel Kallenbach

Time for a break! Winter-weary travelers seeking a sunny, healthy recharge on a tropical island need look no farther than The Palms Turks & Caicos on the Caribbean island of Providenciales. Here’s how it stacks up as a relaxing, revivifying destination—whether you’re traveling with your sweetie, BFFs, or kids.

Tip #1: Bliss Out on a Beautiful Beach

Nothing’s more restoring in winter than a sun-kissed beach. The Palms is located on Turks & Caicos’ Grace Bay, consistently rated among the best beaches in the world. It’s got white sand—miles of it to walk or jog on—and a barrier reef a mile or so offshore that creates a naturally sheltered area with calm water. Oh, the color of that water! If you like water that changes from luminescent light-aqua into ultramarine blue the deeper you go, you’ve found paradise.

Tip #2: Chill by the Perfect Pool

Yes, resort waiters will deliver food and drinks to the beach, but sometimes nothing beats hanging by the pool. The Palms’ serpentine infinity pool offers gorgeous ocean views; a hot tub; and Plunge, the pool bar/restaurant that offers in-water tables so you can sip and beat the heat!

Tip #3: Rejuvenate at a Holistic Spa

If you want to shed stress and nurture your skin with all-natural and organic treatments, get thee to a spa! The Palms’ world-class spa offers innovative treatments—including a conch-shell body polish and a bamboo massage—created from Asian and Caribbean healing traditions. Just reclining in the spa’s outdoor lounge and looking at the tranquil reflecting pool shaves 10 points off your blood pressure.

The outdoorsy spa at The Palms is centered around a gorgeous reflecting pool lined by private treatment cabanas (the white buildings that flank the pool). Photo© Laurel Kallenbach

Tip #4: Lounge in a Luxurious Room

Vacations are all about catching up on your shut-eye. Everything about the rooms and suites at The Palms Turks & Caicos says “relax”: from the spacious bathrooms with all the amenities to the fluffy beds to the daybeds on the balconies. Plus the bougainvillea-draped property is beautiful to wander through.

Tip #5: Eat Healthy, Delicious Food

The Palms’ courtyard is colorful with bougainvillea, which brightens the indoor/outdoor restaurant, Parallel 23. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

You need to eat right—even on vacation! Parallel 23 restaurant at The Palms serves innovative fine cuisine, and the resort sources about 40 percent of its ingredients organically. The spa has a separate menu that includes light but flavorful fare. And here’s another idea: Sign up for a cooking class and take home some of the chef’s healthy cooking secrets.

Eco-Efforts

Island life always makes people aware of resources. The people at The Palms take care to conserve where they can, including:

  • Kitchen food-scrap composting
  • An organically grown kitchen garden for herbs and tomatoes.
  • Rainwater collection for use in watering the landscaping.
  • The resort recently installed new air-conditioning controls that adjust automatically to minimize A/C use when guests leave their rooms.
  • Switching to energy-saving bulbs as current ones burn out.
  • Bottled water is widespread among guests, and recycling all that plastic is difficult on an island. However, the hotel management is investigating ways to recycle plastic bottles.
  • The staff participates in island-wide clean-up crews that collect trash on land or that washes up on the beach.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The serpentine pool at The Palms Turks and Caicos.  Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

Warm Up with a German Sipping Chocolate in Dresden

I loved sipping this rich Schokoccino—dark chocolate and espresso—at Camondas chocolate shop. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I loved sipping this rich Schokoccino—dark chocolate and espresso—at Camondas chocolate shop. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In Dresden’s Old Town, if the temperatures chill, if a cold wind blows, or if rain sweeps down from the skies, it’s time to duck into the Camondas chocolate shop.

I was walking back to the Swissôtel Dresden am Schloss from the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), and Camondas’ signs for drinking chocolates enticed me. I succumbed and stepped into a warmly-lit fantasyland of chocolate.

Camondas sells sweets from around the world. As I browsed through cigar-shaped chocolate from Cuba and espresso-filled chocolate from Italy, I removed my gloves. The Venezuelan dark chocolates prompted me to unwrap my scarf. At the Swiss display I took off my hat. By the time I discovered the section of Saxon chocolates—Dresden is the capital of Saxony—I had unzipped my coat and decided to stay awhile.

A display of mouthwatering truffles at Camondas ©Laurel Kallenbach

A display of mouthwatering truffles at Camondas ©Laurel Kallenbach

I turned my attention to the counter and decided to focus on which chocolate drink I should order—and there were many. Because I was struggling to read the German menu board, I asked a woman behind the counter what was in one of them. Her English was good, but to make things easier, she handed me the menu printed in English.

Even with descriptions I could understand, I still had trouble deciding between a Nougat Blast (hazelnut nougat with melted milk chocolate, whipped cream, and a sprinkle of chopped hazelnuts on top), the Chocolate Cream Liqueur (containing a shot of creamy chocolate liqueur made from brandy that matures for a year in oak casks), a dark-chocolate ice-cream shake, and the Schokoccino (an aromatic espresso and thick, creamy cocoa topped with chocolate chips.) They all sounded divine, but this last concoction won out.

Yet there was another decision to make: Would I like to add spice on top? The choice of spices was eclectic: rosemary, curry, ginger, cinnamon, chili, nutmeg. I went with cardamom, paid my 4.75 €, and claimed a seat at one of café tables lit by a candle.

Commemorative chocolates in honor of Dresden's reconstructed Frauenkirche. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Commemorative chocolates in honor of Dresden’s reconstructed Frauenkirche. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Before my drink arrived, I occupied my time admiring more chocolates: There were local chocolates in wooden boxes stamped with an illustration of the Frauenkirche. There were truffles, organic sweets, and chocolates filled with matcha green tea.

Soon the chocolate lady arrived with my glass cup of aromatic chocolate. She told me it was lightly sweetened but that I could add the natural sugar on my table to suit my taste buds. Then I was alone with my Schokoccino.

The cup lay sensually before me. I sniffed a dizzying mix of sweet cardamom and rich, loamy cacao. Its consistency was like warm lava, and I didn’t want to disturb the natural swirl of the darkest-of-dark chocolate too soon.

A display of chocolate made in Saxony ©Laurel Kallenbach

A display of chocolate made in Saxony ©Laurel Kallenbach

While soft jazz played in the background, I beheld the luscious cup. Eventually I was ready and took my first sip. I was rewarded with a flavor so deep I could practically sink into it.

I felt like I was in Vianne Rocher’s magic candy shop in Chocolat, one of my favorite books (and films).

I sat for a long while, watching the people who came into Camondas chocolate shop and listening to the melody of German vowels and consonants. I never did add any sugar; sipping that Schokoccino was the perfect bittersweet ending for my last night in the enchanting Old Town of Dresden.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Dresden, Germany:

Flavors of Beschle chocolate from Switzerland ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flavors of Beschle chocolate from Switzerland ©Laurel Kallenbach

3 Artsy Reasons to Visit Dresden’s Theater Square

February is not the most popular month to visit Dresden—the glittering Christmas Market is long gone, and there are no summery flower boxes or outdoor cafés. But for music and museum lovers like me, winter is a thrilling time to visit this musical city.

Dresden's Semper Opera House on the Theaterplatz Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

Dresden’s Semper Opera House on the Theaterplatz. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

One of my primary reasons to travel to Dresden was to attend a performance in its world-renowned Semper Opera House, which simultaneously juggles at least three operas, a ballet, and orchestra concerts during the winter months. Before I departed in early February, I peeked at a map of Dresden’s historic Old Town (Altstadt) and was thrilled that the opera house located in the heart of the historic city.

In fact, the entire square, the Theaterplatz, is named for the venerated opera house. Dresden’s Old Town contains many architectural and cultural gems, and some of the most spectacular are concentrated in the Theaterplatz, including the glorious Rococo-style Zwinger Palace, home to several fantastic museums.

Though there are many other gorgeous and historic buildings and churches to enjoy in Dresden, you can’t go wrong starting in Theater Square. There were three sites in the Theater Square that I particularly enjoyed: The Zwinger, the Old Masters Picture Gallery, and the opera house itself.

Sculptures on the Zwinger pavilion ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sculptures at the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

1. The Zwinger

What’s a “zwinger”? The word sounds like a hip nightclub, and back in the early 1700s when it was built, Dresden’s Zwinger was indeed an 18th-century party venue for the aristocracy.

“Zwinger” is an Old German word that refers to an area between a castle’s walls and the outer fortress walls. Dresden’s ornate Zwinger, often called the Zwinger Palace, was originally designed as an orangery and a setting for court festivities. It was later used for exhibitions; today it houses several museums.

Dresden’s Zwinger Palace is known for its beautiful baroque architecture, which, as you can see from the photos, means there are lots and lots of showy arches, curlicues, floral motifs, fountains, walkways, and Greek-inspired statutes.

The porcelain bells mounted in the Zwinger Glockenspiel Pavilion The porcelain bells chime on the half-hour. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The porcelain bells mounted in the Zwinger Glockenspiel Pavilion chime on the half-hour. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Zwinger is an ideal place to stroll on a nice day—and it’s free to the public. At the southeast end of the Zwinger’s courtyard is the Carillon/Glockenspiel Pavilion with a collection of white glockenspiel bells made of porcelain by the famous Meissen factory. The bells play a tune every half-hour, which usually attracts a bit of a crowd.

The Nymph Garden and Crown Gate are filled with enchanting mythological sculptures and fountains (which were dry during my visit in February).

Statues in the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ice-cold statues of naked goddesses in the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

I would have loved to linger in the Zwinger for longer than I did, but a chilly wind was blowing, and all the unclad goddesses made me feel even colder. I vowed to return to Dresden in summer, when flowers and fountains and weather would be brilliant.

Luckily, the Zwinger Palace houses wonderful museums (entry fees apply): the Dresden Porcelain Collection, the Mathematics and Physics Museum, and the Old Masters Picture Gallery. It was into this last museum that I hurried in to warm up.

2. Old Masters Picture Gallery

This museum, in the Semper building adjoining the Zwinger, contains one of the world’s most important collection of paintings dating from the baroque and Renaissance period. The 700-piece collection was started 300 years ago by Augustus II the Strong, who built the Zwinger, along with a lot of the baroque structures in Old Town Dresden, the capitol of Saxony.

Raphael's "Sistine Madonna" at the Old Master's Gallery

Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” at the Old Master’s Gallery

The most famous painting in the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister) is Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” which I wanted to see mostly because of the two comical cupids at the Virgin’s feet. Their image is so popular that it appears on refrigerator magnets, greeting cards, and blank journal books.

Apparently the exasperated cherubs’ fame has also reached the Far East, because when I arrived in the chamber with the wall-sized Madonna, a group of Japanese tourists was getting their pictures taken in front of the painting—first individually, then in pairs, and finally many different exposures and arrangements of the entire group at once. I wanted to get closer to the painting to see the cherubs in detail, but I didn’t want to spoil anyone’s pictures. The photo session took so long that I gave up and went in search of some other art.

The Renaissance painters, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586), saved the day. Paintings by the younger Cranach were so detailed and realistic that they looked more like photographs than oils.

I was enthralled by “David and Bathsheba,” which focused on Bathsheba and her handmaidens, one of whom has turned and stares straight at the viewer. Though the scene is biblical, the women were dressed in Renaissance garb. I thought the painting was mistitled because King David was nowhere to be seen. At the last minute, when I was moving on to look at the next painting, I spotted in the upper left-hand corner a man wearing a crown high in a castle tower. King David was almost out of the picture, but we could still see his lusty stare!

"Paradise" by Lucas Cranach the Elder in Old Masters Gallery

“Paradise” by Lucas Cranach the Elder in The Old Masters Picture Gallery

Cranach the Elder’s depiction of the Garden of Eden accentuated pairs of animals, including unicorns (on the far right). Adam and Eve are in the background; that story is overly told, but the animals in Paradise were a refreshing twist.

It would have been easy to spend a couple of hours in the Old Masters Gallery, but I had just an hour. With more time, I would have looked up Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”—and maybe I would have returned to the Raphael “Madonna” when there were fewer people.

3. Semper Opera House

As a musician, I was drawn most of all to the iconic Semper Opera House, which for me is a temple of music—the equivalent of visiting a great cathedral. Even if you’re not an opera fan, the opera house is worth touring for its stunning architecture and ornate interior. It’s also home to the Saxon State Opera, the Saxon State Orchestra, and the Semperoper Ballet.

The posh theater in the Semper Opera House. Photo courtesy Visit Dresden

The posh theater in the Semper Opera House. Photo courtesy Visit Dresden

I took a 45-minute tour given in English of the magnificent building, during which I learned about its three incarnations. Originally built in 1841 by architect Gottfried Semper, the opera house wowed audiences throughout Europe. The brilliant (and anti-Semitic) composer Richard Wagner was one of its early music directors. Three of Wagner’s operas premiered at the Semper Opera House: Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser.

Unfortunately, the opera house burned down in 1869 and didn’t reopen in its full glory until 1878, when it was reconstructed according to another of Semper’s designs.

A beautifully decorated ceiling at the Semperoper with Apollo and his swan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A beautifully decorated ceiling at the Semperoper with Apollo and his swan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The second opera house was almost entirely destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945. It took 40 years to rebuild, but in the 1980s, restorers painstakingly recreated nearly every detail of the former structure—plus they added more comfortable seating with better sight lines, modern heating/air conditioning, and state-of-the-art stage machinery.

When I walked through the halls and beheld the elaborately painted ceilings, the chandeliers, and the statues of singers and composers, I understand why the acoustically excellent Semper Opera House is also consideed one of the world’s loveliest. Though the 1980s reconstruction took place under the East German communist government, attention to detail was perfect, although many of the special craftsmen who knew how to create such wonderful finishes where gone.

Inside the glorious Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

Intermission at the glorious Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

The balustrades are made of serpentine stone, and the green “marble” pillars are actually built from brick covered with plaster, glue, and paint—then polished so that they gleam like marble. The giant chandelier in the theater weighs 1.9 tons and can be lowered from the ceiling so that it can be cleaned and its 258 light bulbs changed.

Theater tour in English at the Dresden Opera House

Theater tour in English at the Dresden Opera House

My guide took the tour group into the theater, where stagehands were preparing for the next show. They attached scenery to the stage’s fly system, and the orchestra pit had been raised to stage level so that they could roll in the celeste for the night’s performance. (A celeste is keyboard instrument that plays the glockenspiel part for the character of Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. (Most people are familiar with the celeste’s best-known solo, “The Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairy” in The Nutcracker ballet.)

That night, I attended The Magic Flute performance at the Semper Opera House, a beautifully sung production set in a modern fantasyland that was half Edward Scissorhands and half Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The theater was packed; the Germans really support the opera with enthusiastic attendance.

A pre-show view of "The Magic Flute" at the Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

A pre-show view of “The Magic Flute” at the Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

From my seats in the 1st Ring, I could see and hear wonderfully, and the supertitles—the lyrics projected above the stage—were in both English and German, so it was easy to know what the characters were singing.

Most notable was the Queen of the Night’s aria, a stratospherically high and notoriously difficult part sung by a coloratura soprano. The performer’s mouth opened wider than I’ve ever seen before, but her pitches were bright and true. It was breathtaking, and the applause was thunderous when she finished. Attending an opera in the spectacular Semper Opera House was an unforgettable experience.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The Semper Opera House at night. Courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

The Semper Opera House at night. Photo courtesy Dresden Marketing Board