Travel Gems

A collection of stores, restaurants, and attractions that all travelers should add to their must-see list.

Ai Monasteri (Rome, Italy)

In a quiet corner of the Piazza delle Cinque Lune, just a stone’s throw away from the glitz and glamour of Rome’s most fashionable shopping district, sits one of the city’s most unique businesses. Its storefront is plain and simple, its window displays tasteful and understated. There are no flashing lights, pounding disco music or any of the other gaudy lures used by the trendy shops on the nearby Via del Corso. In fact, the atmosphere in this quiet store has been compared to the peacefulness of a monastery, and with good reason.

Ai Monasteri, literally translated as “to the monastery,” began as a simple herb shop in 1892. Its founder, Angelo Nardi, was a doctor who participated in the first expeditions to Eastern Africa. The store is now managed by the fourth consecutive generation of the Nardi family, and some of Angelo’s original health products can still be found on the shelves. To fill the rest of the shop, however, the family sought out other manufacturers who shared their commitment to using only pure ingredients and old-fashioned production methods. The numerous monasteries scattered throughout Italy proved to be the perfect suppliers, and Ai Monasteri now carries products from nearly every monastic order in the country.

Browsing through the store’s glass display cases is like wandering through a medieval apothecary’s shop. Bottles and vials of every size and shape line the shelves, filled with elixirs to cure any ailment. In addition to the tonics there are also herbal teas and more obscure health products such as royal jelly, a vitamin-rich secretion procured from the glands of worker bees.

Not all of the shop’s products belong in a medicine cabinet, though. The hazelnut-studded chocolate bars made by the Carthusian monks may be preservative-free, but they’re also sinfully delicious. The same applies to the store’s wide selection of jams and jellies and their two dozen varieties of honey.  Also for sale are wines and a variety of liquors, everything from amaretto and sambuca to unusual concoctions like elixir alla lavanda, a liqueur made from fresh lavender flowers. In addition to their edible products, Ai Monasteri sells cosmetics and perfumes which are also made only from pure, natural ingredients.
Over 100 years after its founding, the store remains popular with both locals and tourists alike. Considering the source, it’s no surprise that customers find Ai Monasteri’s products to be so heavenly.

The Butterfly Farm (Aruba)

The warm Caribbean sun is barely deterred, the ocean breeze is free to weave itself between the flowers and shrubbery, and the nearby palm trees are clearly visible as they gently sway back and forth. In effect, the sheer mesh walls and roof of Aruba’s Butterfly Farm do little to keep the outside out; instead, they create a capsule of tranquility, an oasis within an oasis where nature lovers can relax among the sights and sounds of one of the island’s most unusual attractions.

Inside the farm, a sandy path bordered by conch shells winds its way among ponds, fountains and streams. Benches made of driftwood encourage reflective pauses while odd bits of tropical bric-a-brac such as coconuts with faces carved into their husks lay tucked among the greenery. Spotted koi ripple the surface of the ponds and the smell of sliced oranges and bananas lends a sweet tang to the air. But while this idyllic atmosphere may delight the senses and soothe the nerves, few visitors come to the farm for a simple rest; the main attraction here is the floating bits of bright color that dance through the air like stained glass in motion.

The Butterfly Farm is home to over 30 species of butterflies from all over the world, including specimens from China, England, Brazil and Jamaica in addition to Aruba’s native varieties. The insects aren’t shy and visitors may approach within mere inches to get an intimate look at some of the most fascinating colors and patterns found in nature. While the butterflies are too fragile to be touched, they often land on guests wearing bright clothing or strong perfume. Guides at the farm not only identify the different species but also give a detailed narrative of the entire life cycle of the insects from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly, using nearby examples of specimens in these stages as a visual reference.

In addition to caring for the imported species, The Butterfly Farm also breeds the native monarch butterfly and releases it into the wild, sometimes in highly creative ways. During a recent wedding, dozens of donated butterflies were set free during the ceremony, perhaps conveying new meaning to a young couple beginning their life together on a wing and a prayer.

The Spanish Bakery (St. Augustine, Florida)
It’s only fitting that America’s oldest city is home to a restaurant that still does things the old-fashioned way.
There’s no shortage of quality restaurants in St. Augustine, but that doesn’t stop locals and tourists alike from lining up at the tiny Spanish Bakery, tucked away in a quiet courtyard off of St. George Street. Housed in the detached kitchen of a colonial-era home, the restaurant is hardly bigger than the coat closet in most other eateries. What it lacks in size, however, it more than makes up for in atmosphere.
Like many of the buildings in St. Augustine’s historic district, the walls are made of coquina. Seating is outdoor only, at brightly-painted picnic tables which are shaded by the branches of an enormous cedar tree.
“When I was a kid, I used to climb that tree and hide whenever my dad wanted me to wash the dishes,” admits Gene Adelsperger, whose parents have owned the restaurant for over 25 years. A certified chef, Gene handles all of the cooking himself. Every day at 3 AM he begins preparing the restaurant’s trademark baked goods, including cinnamon rolls, cookies, and loaves of soft, warm bread. Gene’s grandmother created the recipe for the bread, but the cookies (lemon, almond, and cinnamon) are made from an even older formula. For these, Gene uses a colonial recipe that requires no milk or eggs, since refrigeration was rare in the late 1700s. You also won’t find measuring cups in the Spanish Bakery’s kitchen since they weren't used in colonial times.
In addition to their baked goods, the restaurant is also famous for its authentic Latin dishes, including empanadas and picadillo. The empanadas are turnovers made with beef, onions, peppers and tomatoes stuffed inside a buttery crust. Gene’s picadillo, a Spanish version of chili served over rice, contains many of the same ingredients but he uses a light hand with his spices to avoid masking the flavor of the crisp, fresh vegetables.
While customers love these old-fashioned recipes, they’re fond of the old-fashioned prices, too. A loaf of bread sells for only two dollars, cookies are three for a dollar, and the daily lunch special is just four dollars. “You won’t find a deal like that anywhere else in town,” Gene says. “And the word’s gotten out, because I have customers who drive all the way from Orlando for my picadillo.”
As I scrape the last savory spoonful from my bowl, I can easily understand why.