Have you ever taken a lovely, luxurious trip to a brilliant destination and returned to tell people the trip was "fine...just fine"? I have. Which is to say the trip wasn't bad. It wasn't fraught with transportation delays, planes didn't crash, hotels didn't overbook. I traveled with a charming companion, the food was great, and the pool was gorgeous. At a certain point, what the hell is the matter with me? Princess, get off the high horse. But truly, it was just ... okay.
Here's what happened: I planned badly. I tried to cram a trip that required twelve days into eight and I chose to spend more money than I really had. I went to Buenos Aires and southern Uruguay over New Year's. Our hotel in BA, Algodon Mansion, was one of the chicest places I have ever been; our meals at Pàru in BA and Finca Narbona in Uruguay rocked our world; I ate dulce du leche for breakfast every day. Not too shabby.
But here's the deal: You have to be honest with yourself about what you can really accomplish on a trip, and I did not do that.
Every year, my husband and I go away for New Year's. When we met, I was shooting television and he was cooking madhouse hours in his restaurants. The days between Christmas and New Year's were the only days we could count on having off. As we consider Christmas to be an exhausting, overrated event, a holiday trip fit the get-out-of-Dodge bill. From year to year, the adventure varies. One year, we had four days and had just purchased our apartment — a cruise down the Nile was out of the question. So we went to Paris and had a ball. We spent a terrific night at Jean Georges' restaurant, Market, and knocked back a lot of Havana Club rum in the bar of the Hôtel de Vendôme. (Every time I see Cuba in the news, I calculate how long it will until I can bring that rum through customs.) We spent hours at E. Dehillerin buying copper pots, and one breathtaking morning at Sainte-Chapelle. There was a lost night of dancing in a disco neither of us could find again. That trip was short, chock-a-block, and damn fun.
What I should have known is that the holiday after you build a house, host all the in-laws for Christmas, and try to fly out of a giant blizzard is not the same holiday in which you should tackle the continent of South America. We thought we were doing classic Green Acres and mix city and country. The plan was Buenos Aires for three days followed by Colonia, Uruguay, for three more. (Of course, I didn't need to go all the way to South America to do that.) Señor Snowy scrambled our flights, and we ended up with two days in BA, three in Uruguay, and another in BA. We ran into a lot of problems securing, canceling, and re-securing rooms in our hotels for New Year's Eve. Prices skyrocket during the holidays, and we paid London/Tokyo/New York money for our lodging. We spent so much time in airports and on ferries and in cars that we didn't SEE enough. Buenos Aires is a great, great town, but the best of South America is in the Galapagos, the Andes, Bariloche, Iguazu Falls. Well, I'm guessing. I never got there.
I tried to turn an outdoor, exotic destination into a junket and paid sucker prices for it. No one who lives in Buenos Aires is there for New Year's Eve. Why should they be? It's during the summer, and they are on vacation. It would be like going to New York City to celebrate July 4 and wondering why you can't find lemonade stands or outdoor BBQs.
When I go back to Buenos Aires, this is what I will do:
1. Travel in early spring, not high season. Fewer people, lower prices.
2. Allocate two weeks. Traveling to and from the United States takes a full two days, leaving only twelve to jump around. On the upside, you are traveling north to south, so there is no jet lag.
3. Focus on the great outdoors. I would not visit South America without seeing at least one (if not two) of the following: the lakes in Bariloche, wine country in Medoza, Iguazu Falls, Cuzco, silver mines in Bolivia, the Galapagos.
4. Forget the beach. On the Rio Plata, on the sea, in your mind, wherever — forget it. Unless you are going to Brazil, Buenos Aires is not a beach trip.
5. Stay at Algodon Mansion again and again. I would bring them roses and gold bullion to thank them for the incredible service we received in their care. Our butlers (yes, butlers) Martin and Mariano sent us to Pàru, Tegui, and Miranda where we had great meals. They arranged the most charming guide for our city tour and they helped us with all our intra-country travel. Not to mention the hotel itself — a fabulous, pitch-perfect marriage of 19th-century city mansion living and 21st-century conveniences.
6. Eat at La Brigada twice. I cannot say enough about the tangy deliciousness of the grass-fed beef.
7. Spend at least one night at Finca Narbona in Carmelo, Uruguay, instead of every night at the Four Seasons. The Four Seasons is lovely, but the bucolic charm of Narbona left me wanting more after our dinner there. (Homemade pasta with beef ragu, by the way. Yum.)
8. Spend more time at Asociasion PIEL. Even a full morning to tour the facilities and appreciate Dr. Ricardo Bennun's enormous efforts. Dr. Bennun, a highly respected Argentine plastic surgeon, runs a non-profit clinic in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. He and his fine staff repair cleft palettes and other craniofacial deformities suffered by children in the area. Argentina is by no means a third world country, but financial upheaval and the dirty politics of the last few decades have thwarted the country. For all the young men and women dressed in Armani toting iPhones, there are as many people on the fringes, and the clash is raw. You can happily stroll BA by night. By night, you'd better get a cab. Not safe. With that in mind, it's good to appreciate what others are doing to improve the lives of their countrymen. I feel very strongly about taking a minute to appreciate life — real life — in a destination. The list of countries not grappling with major poverty is short. Anything you can do to recognize the efforts of people on the front lines is good. Asociacion PIEL is my Humanity Tithe tip this time around.
9. Read the American Airlines fine print. Next time AA suckers me into gobbling up all my miles on upgrades, I will be sure the business class seating is not four to a row. I will make sure my the entertainment system is not busted in my seat (or my entire row), and I will double check the mechanism that operates my seat to see if it is, in fact, operational.
10. Finally, I will be more honest. I will look at what's happening in my life and I will travel according to what I can actually accomplish. Money and time are too precious not to be spent wisely. With as many destinations as there are in the world, it's important not to get caught up in taking the trip you think you should take. Take the one you can really enjoy and appreciate. Your wallet (and perhaps even your spouse) will thank you.