See This, Skip That: Ask the Concierge

PHOTO: Concierge BellGetty Images
Concierge Bell

At many of the best hotels across the country, and in many of America’s greatest destinations, the guest’s best resource is right past the lobby doors. Concierges can be a wealth of information, yes. But they are also insiders by design, cultivating relationships for years that can help travelers personalize their vacations, maximize their budgets and, often, secure experiences that would otherwise be unattainable.

Planning a trip? Want insight from your very own concierge? I tapped some of the industry’s best for unique, oft-overlooked things to do and see at some of our favorite places to visit.

See This, Skip That: Sonoma

For a California wine country stay, it’s tough to beat the lush grounds and deluxe service at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. The onsite restaurant, Santé, with its iPad wine list, is one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Robyn Berg has been a concierge here for a year, following stints over the last decade at Fairmont properties in San Francisco and Singapore. For the discriminating palate, she has a short list of by-appointment-only wineries to visit: B Wise, Repris, the Donum Estate, Stone Edge Farms, Corner 103, Sojourn and Three Sticks; I visited the latter during my stay at the Inn last year and loved the spice-red berry blend of flavors in the Gap’s Crown pinot noir - absolutely delicious. But for a break from tasting, Berg recommends Coastal & Vineyard Air Tours for a private ride “in a beautifully restored 2916 biplane… and sweeping views of vineyards, San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge.” And she points trekkers toward Jack London State Park for “over 26 miles of hiking trails across 1400 acres, including stunning vistas and historic buildings from the place famous author, Jack London, called home.”

See This, Skip That: Santa Barbara

California’s alternative wine country is down the coast, in Santa Barbara, where AAA 4-Diamond Bacara Resort & Spa caters to elite guests looking for seclusion, elegance and quality R&R. In downtown Santa Barbara, about 20 minutes away, State Street is a popular hubbub of activity. But Guest Services Manager Kristin Battaglia suggests venturing to the historic Presidio Neighborhood, about a block away. “It's shielded from the tourists but still offers the Spanish charm Santa Barbara is known for. It’s surrounded by great tasting rooms, including Margerum and Grassini, as well as bites at C'est Cheese Cafe, Julienne and Intermezzo.” When here, stop by the brand new Bodega inside historic Casa de la Guerra, a tasting room for Standing Sun Winery housed inside an 1820s wine cellar. The vineyard-laden Santa Ynez Valley, about 30 minutes away from Bacara, is the heart of wine country here, but Battaglia prefers driving a bit further north, to Los Alamos. “This quaint sleeper town is home to great wine tasting rooms – including Kurt Russell's GoGi label at the historic Union Hotel – eclectic galleries, and the famed Full of Life Flatbread. Don't be surprised if you run into a few celebrities who have also discovered this little gem.” For me, nothing beats Los Alamos’ Bob’s Well Bread for breakfast or lunch, where former Sony Pictures exec Bob Oswaks (he helped launch shows like Seinfeld and Breaking Bad) is now baking some of the best breads and pastries in all of California.

See This, Skip That: Las Vegas

The Four Seasons Las Vegas oozes distinction. It occupies floors 35 through 39 of the Mandalay Bay Resort tower, in the heart of the Strip, and features private elevators, a casino-free lobby and a Forbes 5-Star spa. Adrian Little has been the Chef Concierge here since the hotel opened in 1999 and likes to point out unique vantage points. “To witness the valley's breathtaking sunsets, visit Valley of Fire, a hidden jewel in the desert offering amazing western views of the mountains. It's an even better perspective than Red Rock Canyon,” he says. “Another option is Maverick Helicopter's Dream Catcher tour, which provides spectacular aerial views of the sunset from the Grand Canyon and a final fly by over the glittering Las Vegas Strip. Pair either experience with a Champagne picnic prepared by Four Seasons' chefs!” Little thinks that art buffs should not miss “some of the world-class art galleries now in Gallery Row at Chrystals in City Center.” The Rodney Lough Jr. Gallery features nature photography, The Gallery presents glass masterpieces by Dale Chihuly, and Camelot Gallery houses “elegant European art works and antiques, ranging from Art Deco to European and Clean Contemporary styles.”

See This, Skip That: Dallas

The walking proximity to downtown makes the Omni Dallas one of my favorite stays in the Big D. Here, concierge Alex Escobedo tries to make sure guests get some of the best views of the city. “One of the top things to do in the area would be to go up Reunion Tower to the observation deck,” she says. “It does a full 360-degree rotation so it provides a beautiful view of the city (and it's wonderful at sunset). People are always welcome to go to the restaurant Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck, even if not for dinner. They can sit at the bar and their lounge area still overlooks the Dallas area while perhaps enjoying a drink.” She goes on, “HG SPLY CO. is actually a great restaurant to go and enjoy dinner or have a drink on their 2nd floor patio, overlooking downtown Dallas.” Escobedo’s colleague, Chef Concierge Kris Wood has a short list of awesome watering holes: “Standard Pour, Deep Ellum Brewery, Capital Pub, Parliament, Katy Trail Ice House and Victor Tangos,” Wood suggests, and adds the Kung Fu Saloon. “The old school arcade games here get me every time!”

See This, Skip That: Chicago

With an awesome downtown location and a sleek vibe, the Hotel Palomar – a Kimpton Hotel is one of my favorite places to stay in Chicago. Bobby Gonzalez has been the concierge here for five years and whets the palate of cocktail buffs with his short list of unique libation creations. “Be sure to check out the Aviary and try the "In the Rocks" cocktail,” he suggests. “You'll have to repeat yourself when your friends hear you say that your cocktail came trapped in a ball of ice, and that you had to break it open with this tiny slingshot - a real Dennis the Menace moment!” He continues, “If you don't enjoy a libation in a rad speakeasy you just didn't do Chicago right. Take The Drifter, located in the basement of a building built in 1872, and next door to one of Chicago's oldest bars, The Green Door Tavern. This is a small cocktail bar with sporadic live entertainment, and an interior boasting everything from 20th century circus paraphernalia, to an old-school phone booth, to an elevated door that was once used to roll in booze barrels during Prohibition.” For fall time visitors, Gonzalez also recommends the Chicago Botanical Gardens in the neighborhood of Highland Park, 30 minutes outside of the city. “Fall is a great time to visit and see the beautiful foliage on their October Fall-Color Tree Walk.”

See This, Skip That: Miami

Ever since the Bohemian, beach-chic Thompson Miami Beach opened right on the water late last year, it’s been one of South Florida’s sexiest spots to stay. Brenda Santana has been concierge here ever since, and she knows just where to send her water buff guests. “Book a private jet ski tour of the palatial mansions on Star Island, swim with the dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium, or go parasailing high above the white sand beaches of South Beach,” she suggests. When on land, she suggests, “Spend an afternoon of art and food in one of Miami's trendiest and most vibrant neighborhoods at the Wynwood Art District Food & Art Tour. Eat your way through favorite local restaurants in one of the largest open-air street art collections in the world.” She adds, “End your day with happy hour at Smith & Wollensky and enjoy the beautiful Miami sunset on their outdoor patio.” Her guests don’t have to travel far, though, to please the palate. At the onsite 1930s House, hand-crafted cocktails are served up with a side of live music and small plates by James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein.

Next time, concierge tips from other great American destinations, including Maui and New York City.

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals to and in all of these destinations at www.travelzoo.com.

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