Travel Writer & Author

Hungary Blog


Dec.1-7, 2008

We were waiting in the van while our driver, Attila (yes, like the Hun) collected our press packs from inside the Danubius Heath Spa Resort Sarvar, Hungary. Jan, one of the three travel agents with whom I was traveling, remarked from the front seat: “Watch that guy, he’s moving the ladder without getting off it.” I looked up from my Blackberry and sure enough, a burly, grey hair fellow in a puffy winter jacket was hanging Christmas lights around the front portico while balanced on a narrow, wooden step ladder. Unlike the stainless steel ones that Bob used, this ladder was a simple pair of wooden triangles connected by skinny rungs; it was missing the flat cross bar at the top and, in fact, the long sides extended far higher than the last rung. The worker wiggled across the driveway like a circus performer on stilts performing with a long string of lights in hand. He stopped, fastened the multicolored connector every sixteen inches or so and restarted his wiggle-walk maneuver on down the driveway to the next spot and the next.

I can’t say why I started giggling; the movement just touched my funny bone. I felt like I was watching a contestant participating in David Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks and giggle I did, spontaneously, and it felt good.

Bob had been gone for six months and nine days (but who’s counting?) and, except for some late-night political humor–thanks to TIVO and Letterman, Leno and my favorite, Jon Stewart, giggles were a rarity. This outburst reminded me of Carrie, in Sex in the City, the movie. Like me, she was certain that she’d never laugh again, but her friend assured her: “When you see something funny, really funny, you’ll laugh.” She did and, so did I.

I didn’t travel to Budapest in search of my smile, though it’s a great pleasure to find it even for a short while. I accepted Ruthanne’s assignment to research and write an article (for Travel Agent) about Hungarian health resort spas in and around Budapest in part because I am forever curious about what the next spa is like and in part because I was grateful for the work. Ruthanne had been good enough to send me to St Moritz (heaven on a mountain top and we also got to spend a day at Villa d’Este) and Bordeaux (which I loved) not to mention Napa and San Diego spas and more. While Bob was ill, I had to turn down her invitations and assignments, so I really appreciate that she is still inviting me.

Actually, traveling to Budapest was good for me because it was a bit of a stretch to go somewhere where I didn’t know the language (or very much about the history and culture). Although I flew alone and had to change in Vienna (someday, I’m going to say, non-stop or non- go!) there was a promise of a driver at the other end, plus a host so it really wasn’t much of a challenge.

It was, however, different on a variety of levels. The driver wasn’t actually waiting for me at the terminal, but he had left a message at the information booth that he had been there and had to leave to pick up the others and that I should wait. Knowing that (and having enough cash in pocket to take a cab to the hotel IF I had to, eliminated that stress). When Attila arrived, he took me to the van where I met three travel agents all of us invited on a FAM (familiarization trip) to check out Danubius hotels, not just the three we stayed out, but three others outside the city and about four additional ones in Budapest.

I usually travel with other travel writers and the occasional editor, so one of the valuable experiences on press trips is the opportunity to talk shop, even to connect with a new editor. I met women who became good friends on press trips: Susan in Florence, Barbara in Bermuda, Connie in Phoenix, Carla at the Montage and Patti in Kenmare. Each of them have enhanced my world in various ways and been the mainstay of my travel writing career.

As food/travel writers, we are usually treated like VIPs, though on those occasions when there are rose petals strewn on my table, I feel as if I’m in the realm of Royalty. Travel agents, on the other hand—or at least this trio of agents—aren’t treated to such rarified moments, in spite of the fact that they actually send paying clients to the venues.

This particular group of strangers was really an eye-opener and quite different from being with typical, sophisticated and spoiled travel writers.

Judy, the most elegant, refined and well-traveled 76 year-old, is based in Westchester where she works part time in an upscale agency, after selling her own company. The two other women were home based travel agents—one from New Jersey and one from Brooklyn—with clients from modest means whom they helped travel back to Eastern Europe. Each had lived in Latvia, where one was raised, both had emigrated to the US as adults and both spoke Russian, the language they were taught in school, and were very familiar with Hungarian culture and cuisine. Our young host, a Ukrainian tour operator for Tradesco–which specializes in Central and Eastern Europe– lives in Florida and had just become a citizen in time to vote for Obama. She had met a Russian on the internet and had moved to the states to marry him. Because they all were familiar with the foods and spoke Russian, the language they had each been taught in school, they were able to share culture information with us although they frequently lapsed off into prolonged whispered conversations, leaving Jan and I no clue as to what they were discussing.

It didn’t matter because I was entranced with the pastel painted buildings in the small towns Heviz and Sarvar and appreciated the beauty of Budapest, the palaces, the beautifully decorated St. Mathews, the opera, the grand synagogue, the gracious boulevards and tree-lined Champs Elysees-like, Andrassy Avenue. There’s something about the Belle Epoque and Art Deco 19th and 20th century aesthetic, the Castle, the Parliament that are just so appealing. Drinking coffee in Café Gerbeaud, a patisserie with warm wood paneling and high painted ceilings adorned with gold leaf is as memorable, in Budapest, as it is at Angelina’s in Paris.

And, the spa culture was something that was totally and completely comfortable to me. In Hungary, the swim, sauna and Thalasso medical treatment lifestyle—where thermal springs prevail–is very similar to what I’d experienced in Israel, in France and even at Spa’Deus in Italy. Christina Newburgh, whom I loved and adored, hired mostly Hungarians to work in Italy, not only because she’s Hungarian and could communicate with them but also because they are hard workers, who cooked the foods she loved, appreciated the spa mentality and—not such a minor point—appreciated low pay, at least by American standards.

(As I edit this, in April, 2017, I realize how much a giggle means and how much each travel experience has influenced my enhanced life. )

Morgan Library New York Irvina Lew Travel Writer

Treasures From the National museum of Sweden Come to the Morgan Library

Considered one of New York City’s greatest treasures, the Morgan Library & Museum showcases manuscripts, art, history, and architecture, and through May 14th, Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden: The Collections of Count Tessin. An extraordinary group of more than 75 masterpieces are on display while Sweden’s largest and most distinguished art institution is undergoing a major refurbishment. Franc?ois Boucher The Triumph of Venus

The current show displays the extraordinary assemblage of Swedish Diplomat Count Carl Gustaf Tessin (1695-1770), which is the core holding of the Nationalmuseum. Tessin, who was a politician, courtier, diplomat, public official, artist, writer, historian, collector, and philosopher, amassed much of his collection of about 2,000 items while he lived in Paris from 1739 until 1742, serving as Sweden’s unofficial ambassador to the French court. Tessin was very much in contact with the best artists of the era from whom he also commissioned works. An elegant, art-buying lifestyle cost the count such a fortune that it left him with major financial problems. By 1749, he was forced to sell 243 of his paintings to King Frederick I, who in turn presented them to Crown Princess Louisa Ulrika, Tessin’s confidant. In 1750, Tessin sold most of his drawings to Louisa Ulrika’s husband, Crown Prince Adolf Frederick. Fortunately, the collection remained in the family’s royal palaces until they moved to the museum in 1866.

Rembrandt Three Thatched Cottages by a Road

Among the artists represented, Italian masters include Domenico Ghirlandaio, Raphael, Giulio Romano, and Annibale Carracci. Northern European artists are represented by Albrecht Dürer, Hendrick Goltzius, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Anthony van Dyck. Jacques Callot and Nicholas Poussin, as well as Count Tessin’s French contemporaries Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin illustrate the accomplishment of 18th-century French art.

dead game and rifle jean-baptiste oudry

In the exhibit, masterwork drawings by Chardin, along with his small oils, illustrate exquisite and emotional interior scenes. The Morning Toilette shows a governess as she prepares a young aristocratic girl for morning mass. One of the most striking paintings is a jubilant and luminous, some say erotic—The Triumph of Venus, c. 1740—one of three paintings commissioned by Count Tessin and exhibited at the 1740 Parisian Salon. A group of paintings of birds, roosters, and animals by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, including The Dachshund Pehr with Dead Game and Rifle, illustrate the way that Tessin, a sophisticated collector, had a wide range of preferential subjects, including his own beloved pet.

Jacques-Andre?-Joseph Aved (French, 1702–1766), Portrait of Count Carl Gustaf Tessin

Among the 14 paintings in the exhibition is Portrait of Count Carl Gustaf Tessin by Jacques-André-Joseph Aved, which shows the collector among his art, books, and medals.

The Morgan has an important role in preserving and displaying important elements of Western civilization from 4000 B.C. to the twenty-first century. Since 2006, when renowned architect Renzo Piano—who also designed The Whitney downtown—completed the institution’s expansion, visitors enter the Morgan’s light-filled atrium entry and cafe on Madison Avenue. The soaring space links to the grandeur of its original palazzo home on 36thStreet, designed a century earlier by Charles McKim and owned by financier Pierpont Morgan.

The Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden exhibit was produced with a lead gift from the Michel David-Weill Foundation, with major funding by Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Family Foundation and Jerome L. Greene Foundation, and supported by The Johansson Family Foundation, Katharine J. Rayner, The Christian Humann Foundation, and the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation. For more information, visit




City Guide NYC

Brewery Long Island Irvina Lew

Drink Better Beer: Jon Bloostein of New York’s Heartland Brewery

From a kid of 4 who sold Burpee Seeds door to door, to the “The Cone Ranger,” who introduced Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to New York, to his present seat looking over New York’s beloved Heartland Brewery, Jon Bloostein is first and foremost an innovator.

jon bloostein heartland brewery

Jon Bloostein lifts a stein to good beer.

After attending eight undergraduate schools and earning an MBA, Bloostein was involved in assorted commercial efforts and had an investment banking career before deciding to promote craft beer, a product he had learned to love during trips to the Bay Area. When he opened his first Heartland Brewery in Union Square, in 1995, it was the largest brewpub in the tri-state region. “I had no restaurant experience whatsoever, but they [my investors] knew I would never be able to sleep if the place started to fail,” he says.

Today, with a staff of 620, the 100% employee-owned Heartland Brewery Group which Bloostein created includes nine venues. Visitors to New York flock to these prime locations and make up a large percentage of the Heartland Brewery clientele. You’ll see travelers from around the world mixed in with the locals at the two-story, 450-seat Heartland Brewery and Rotisserie inside the Empire State Building, and in the Times Square neighborhood at Heartland Brewery Midtown West, Heartland Brewery in Times Square, and HB Burger. Bloostein suggests that tourists comprise 90% of the crowd at the Empire State and 75% of the customers at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, a Theater District partnership with Food Network star Guy Fieri.

houston hall

Houston Hall. Are you even allowed to have this much room in New York City?

Bloostein also developed three neighborhood beer halls (Flatiron Hall, Houston Hall, and Bernheim and Schwartz), which draw locals with entirely different designs, menus, and beers than the Heartland Breweries. “If you want to feel the New York vibe and be transported to another place and time, these are the places to be,” Bloostein says.

The beer rates as some of the best craft beer around, with several medals from the Great American Beer Festival to prove it. Each venue serves more than 25 varieties of beer annually, including 12 on tap at any given time. All are made near Albany in upstate New York, where the Director of Beer oversees the production to exacting Heartland specifications and flavor profiles.

heartland brewery beer burger

Heartland’s burger is seriously good.

Some varieties cry Americana, as in Farmer Jon’s Oatmeal Stout, Indiana Pale Ale, Red Rooster Ale, and Corn Husker Lager. French Toast and Belgian Golden Ale tempt with a European panache. “Voyages of Beer” give customers an opportunity to taste six types. The flight of five-ounce pours are served on a round tray labeled “Real Beer,” which has numbered round spaces for the glasses, each of which arrives with its own description. The range starts with a light beer, at about 3.9% alcohol, and moves upward to a hoppier blend at about 11%.

Training is key to the success of serving beer. A Beer Sommelier shows bartenders how to educate guests to choose for their individual taste, but before bartenders can serve or speak with guests they must earn 100% on both written and verbal Beer 101 tests. “Over time, they get more advanced training with Beer 201 and 301 classes,” Bloostein explains.

jumbo heartland pretzel

Dark or light, two dipping sauces. Decisions, decisions.

“Serving great craft beer has always been the mainstay of the restaurant group, while creating beer-friendly food elevates the experience,” Bloostein adds. He’s certainly set the menu apart from the competition. Serving a giant pretzel is more than a gimmick, it’s fun and people find it special (so do the several New York bars which have copied the idea). Heartland Brewery was the first brew pub in New York to offer sliders, a bigger and better black Angus version of the “tiny and tasty” White Castle burgers Bloostein ate as a kid. Take advantage of happy hour menus to sample one for just $2, with a $6 drink to go with it.

best veggie burger nyc heartland

Yes, this is vegetarian. Really.

Burgers are particularly popular, at HB Burger and beyond. Describing the burgers, Bloostein notes, “Along with black Angus beef, there are sashimi tuna, turkey, and a Buffalo-style burger, which is laced with Wisconsin blue cheese and coated with our own hot sauce. I’m particularly proud of our veggie burger because the vegetables are actually visible, unlike most  grainy, brown burgers available elsewhere.” One blogger ( posted that it is “The most delicious veggie burger I’ve ever had.”

Innovative, beer-friendly menu options also include Buffalo chicken and pastrami Reuben spring rolls, available at all the beer halls. To further please customers, there are kids’ choices, gluten-free options, and a classic New York cheesecake.

Heartland Brewery and Rotisserie Empire State Building

Great atmosphere at the Empire State Building.

Bloostein infuses a sense of brewing history into each restaurant’s design by showcasing an array of authentic beer memorabilia. He has amassed a vast collection of breweriana from all over the world, with some beer collectibles that date to the early 20th century. Along with vintage posters, photographs, signs, and trays, there are old Rheingold (a New York product that used to dominate the local beer scene) bottles, and, of course, a myriad number of steins. Those items that don’t decorate the restaurants and brew halls are stored in a warehouse on Bloostein’s 90-acre upstate farm. That farm is also home to a 1,000-square-foot organic garden, where Bloostein grows eight varieties of heirloom tomatoes, sweet Walla Walla onions, and cucumbers, some of which he pickles. In season, home-grown produce appears on the Heartland Brewery Chop House menu.

heartland chophouse party space

A space at the bar at the very inviting Heartland Brewery Times Square.

Given how scarce space can be in NYC, it’s unusual to find as much square footage as Heartland holds down around the city. Weddings and events are often booked in the company’s various back rooms and bars. As a good neighbor, the Heartland Brewery Group offers space at no charge to reputable charities and organizations whenever they are unoccupied. And when a charity books a fund-raising party, the company makes a donation to that charity of 10% of the party price.

Still ever eager to originate new ideas, Bloostein circles back to the spirit of innovation that’s driven him his entire life. “We are always looking for the next best items to find or create to match up with our beers,” he says.




City Guide NYC

5 Best Sleep Tips Irvina Lew

5 Tips For Better Sleep

Increasingly busier schedules and an addiction to glowing screens are making eight hours of sleep more elusive than ever for most Americans. “Sleep deprivation is the forgotten sleep disorder,” said Dr. Michael Weinstein, director of Winthrop-University Hospital’s Sleep Disorders Center. “It is so prevalent that we often lose sight of it and yet, close to three-quarters of the population sleeps less than the recommended eight hours per night. Chronic sleep deprivation can have profound implications including reduced quality of life, increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and, possibly, increased risks of obesity and death.”

Quality sleep is one of the most basic tenets of wellness and one of the most organic ways to renew our bodies and minds. There’s no guaranteed way to drop off to dreamland at will. However, adapting some of these proactive tips might enhance the chances of a deeper, more restorative sleep cycle.


The weight loss adage, “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper,” is just as applicable when trying to get some shuteye. Dr. Paul Tchao, board certified in internal medicine and a member of Stony Brook University School of Medicine’s teaching staff, counsels against eating certain foods late in the day. “Avoid rich, fatty, fried or spicy foods, citrus fruits and carbonated drinks in the evening because they can trigger indigestion.” He also advises substituting chamomile tea for caffeine and other nicotine stimulants, starting four to six hours before bedtime. WebMD states that food items that contain the essential amino acid L-Tryptophan—turkey, chicken, meat, cheese, yogurt, fish and eggs—have a calming effect.


The ability to sleep like a baby in hotel rooms is not just about being travel-weary. Specific design elements in hotel rooms contribute to sleeping well. “Sleep comes easier if there is no visual chatter in your bedroom. It’s about simplicity,” said Clodagh, a top New York interior designer of stunningly serene spaces at spas such as Miraval Life in Balance Spa in Tucson and Six Senses Douro Valley in Portugal. “The last thing you see before you go to sleep should be an art piece or flowers that harmonize with your emotions.” Clodagh recommended using organic mattresses and pillows and spraying sleep-inducing fragrance, such as lavender, on the pillow. Blackout shades, eyeshades, earplugs, humidifiers and sleep bracelets (which stimulates acupressure) may also be good investments. As for those ever-present electronic devices, consider the National Sleep Foundation’s warning: “Careful studies have shown that even our small electronic devices emit sufficient light to miscue the brain and promote wakefulness.”


Melatonin is a natural hormone the body produces and it helps regulate sleep patterns. The ancient Eastern treatment of acupuncture can boost melatonin levels, ultimately aiding in sleep. “Acupuncture is a pain-free, drug-free way to help with sleeping by stimulating the production of endorphins in the body, which is a pre-cursor molecule to the relaxing hormones serotonin and melatonin,” explained Anthony Cerabino, a licensed acupuncturist and owner of Healthcare Wellness Center in Bay Shore.


Exercise is great for your physical health, but it will also help your body get the rest it needs. “[The time of day] you exercise is key to a good night’s sleep,” said Dr. Alan Blum of Premier Sleep Center in Lynbrook. He recommended exercising at least three hours before you go to bed. “That will give your body temperature and metabolism an opportunity to drop.” David Cloud, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation, concurred. “For the millions of people who want better sleep, exercise may help,” he said. “Working up a good sweat is an important ingredient for getting a good night’s sleep.”


The Mayo Clinic claims that, “Being consistent reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle and helps promote better sleep.” The hospital recommended going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, takes it a step further. He proposes establishing a personalized sleep formula to improve sleep quantity. According to Breus, the average sleep cycle is 90 minutes long and there are typically five sleep cycles per night, totaling 7.5 hours of needed sleep.  “If you need to wake at 6am to get ready for work,” Breus stated, “counting back seven-and-a-half hours, your ideal bedtime is 10:30pm. That means lights out, in bed, ready for sleep at that time.”

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