In December, I traveled to to Zurich aboard Swiss International Air Lines. From there, a small plane took us on a 35-minute flight to Geneva. (Swiss provided impeccable service throughout, and delicious meals.) We then had an hour's drive to Montreux, at the other end of Lake Geneva.
The surprise of our arrival was to find that Montreux sits in its own microclimate, in what's called the Swiss Riviera. The balmy temperatures mean palm trees, kitchen gardens still going strong, and roses blooming in December.
Our hotel, Le Montreux Palace, A Raffles International Hotel, sits close to the shore with a spectacular view across the waters to the French Alps on the other side. Built in 1906, it's an excellent example of Belle-Epoque architecture and is within walking distance of Montreux's congress center. It has 235 rooms and some palatial function space.
Montreux has its own attractions and is a wonderful base for excursions. One day, we walked from the hotel to the train station and caught a fast train to nearby Lausanne for a pedestrian tour of this very walkable city. At the recently renovated Lausanne Palace & Spa, we lunched in the bustling brasserie, Le Grand Chêne. The elegant Beau-Rivage Palace, a stone's throw away, is set amid 10 acres of private gardens. There we enjoyed an amazing afternoon tea in the wine bar.
For our ultimate day trip from Montreux, we were whisked up, up, and away by helicopter to a mountaintop and ski slope atop the Diablerets glacier. We lunched at a new facility at the terminus of two cable cars coming from Gstaad and Les Diablerets, and then, along with a polyglot of skiers, took the speedy cable car to the village of Les Diablerets. Back at our ground transport, we settled in for a relaxing ride to our next stop, Geneva.
Our base in Geneva, the 192-room Mandarin Oriental Hôtel du Rhône, sits on the banks of the Rhône in the heart of Geneva's business and shopping district. In the morning, we headed across the bridge for a fascinating walking tour of the Old Town. Of interest to incentive planners is a hidden gem, the Société de Lecture, a private library founded in 1818 that has several function spaces with charming views of the Old Town.
After an afternoon motorcoach tour of the city, a very short ride to the countryside took us to a winery for a tasting and a bit of wine shopping. (If you want to sample Swiss wines, you almost have to go to Switzerland: Only 1 percent of what the Swiss produce is exported.) Back in town, we began our final evening with a memorable tram ride aboard Le Tram Bleu, a historic, restored streetcar built in 1901. We were served cocktails and hors d'oeuvres as we passed through the city streets.
Everyone knows that Rome is an amazing incentive location — all that art, history, fabulous food, and high-style shopping. On a trip there this spring, I saw many improvements from my last visit some 20-odd years ago.
While the traffic in Rome can be a little crazy at times, cars do stop for pedestrians in the crosswalks, and a new law against horn-honking makes for a much quieter city than I remembered. And cleaner, too. In preparation for the Jubilee in 2000, many of the city's buildings and monuments were cleaned of centuries of grime. The city also built a new tour bus parking area near the Vatican, easing congestion in that area.
The Vatican itself has revamped its entranceway to help move the lines of eager tourists through more efficiently. The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's grand work, has been completely and painstakingly repaired, and the colors in the panel of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden look as though they were painted just yesterday.
One of the largest group hotels is the Cavalieri Hilton, with total capacity of 2,100, while the Sheraton Roma Hotel and Conference Center in the EUR district, which is just outside the city center and can be reached easily by the Metro line, can accommodate up to 2,000. I stayed at the lovely Westin Excelsior Rome on Via Veneto. Starwood has recently plowed $30 million into the 316-room grand dame, including restoring the beautiful façade, building a new fitness center, returning its 32 suites to their former splendor, and redoing the famous Doney Bar, a local hot spot. The Excelsior can accommodate up to 1,140 people. Musician Paul McCartney, who was in town to give a free concert for 500,000 outside the Colosseum during our visit, stayed at the luxurious Hassler Villa Medici, which can accommodate groups up to 200. There's also the St. Regis Grand Hotel, for groups of up to 900. For those who want an American-style property — you know, with in-room coffee pots and full spa facilities — the Crowne Plaza Rome at St. Peter's is a good choice. Surrounded by acres of parkland, you feel as if you're in the country in the midst of a bustling city.
Before leaving, I had to indulge that tourist urge to throw a euro into the Trevi fountain in hopes the legend is true, that it will ensure I'll return to Rome one day.
South Wales is a surprisingly accessible country geared up for groups. The Wales Tourist Board has been working to get the word out that Wales is safe, diverse, and has all the necessary infrastructure to host incentive programs.
The drive from Heathrow airport outside London to Wales took less than two hours. The convenient train from Paddington Station makes the journey even swifter: It's a dependable 1.5 hours to Newport, home of The Celtic Manor Resort. The resort sits amid three Robert Trent Jones-designed golf courses. It was host to the 2003 Wales Open, and — a real feather in its cap — will host the 2010 Ryder Cup, in Wales for the first time. The hotel has 400 rooms and suites (another 300 will come online before the Ryder Cup) and its own purpose-built convention facility.
It seemed that wherever we went in South Wales, there was a Norman castle around every bend in the road. They pepper the landscape, and a self-guided tour of one or more, or a hike through the hills to one of these ancient ruins, gives one a real sense of the depth of history here.
In nearby Cardiff, the 132-room St. David's Hotel & Spa is a striking, contemporary, five-star hotel on Cardiff Bay. Cardiff has awakened after a long period of decline: There's a fantastic arts scene, with a first-rate musical theater festival. And Cardiff Castle is not to be missed. Surrounded by a Roman wall, the 15th-century castle in the heart of the city holds a 12th-century Norman keep at its core, which is a stunning backdrop for concerts in summer. The castle itself includes an ornate banquet hall that holds 150 for a reception.
The Welsh are crazy for rugby, and you can visit the training center for the national rugby team while staying at the 143-room Vale Hotel, Golf and Country Club, 20 minutes from Cardiff city center. The hotel has a separate indoor sports training facility with the most lush, realistic artificial turf you've ever seen. The Vale staff will help to organize team events here, as well as outdoor events from fishing to falconry.
In Swansea, another seaport on Wales' south shore, Morgan's Hotel opened recently. It is a renovated 19th-century maritime building, close to the waterfront (and to the Dylan Thomas Museum; the poet was born here), with 20 stylish rooms. Swansea is near some of Wales' spectacular beaches, and it has a great indoor farmers' market.
And then there's the golf. In addition to the Ryder Cup coup, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators named Wales the winner of the 2003 Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year award. The “must plays” on a golf trip to Wales are The Wentwood Hills course at Celtic Manor (Newport), site of the Ryder Cup; Royal Porthcawl (Porthcawl), a magnificent seaside track, regarded as the best in Wales; Pennard (on the Gower Peninsula near Swansea), a wild, woolly, little-known masterpiece; and Tenby, a links course overlooking the popular seaside village of Tenby.
For more information, go to www.meetings.visitwales.com.
— Barbara L. Brewer & Larry Keltto
Vienna's newest incentive venue is the vast Museum Quarter complex. Its central building, the Kunsthalle, was, in the 18th century, the royal stables. Refurbished and expanded, it now presents contemporary art exhibits and cultural festivals, and the new Halls E and G can be used for private functions. Flanking the Kunsthalle are the new Museum of Modern Art and the Leopold Museum, a collection of more than 5,000 pieces of modern Austrian art. Each museum can be rented by groups after hours.
An unusual incentive option is the Majestic Imperator, a luxury train offering varied itineraries from Vienna. A candlelight dining excursion ends with a Gypsy concert at a Hungarian castle. A day trip goes to Austerlitz, Czech Republic, where more than 100 costumed actors re-enact the battle in which Napoleon defeated the Russian and Austrian armies. Small groups — a minimum of eight people — may travel in a car attached to a scheduled train; groups of 100 to 150 can book a private train that operates at their convenience.
The Piaristenkeller, a 300-year-old Baroque monastery, is a special-events venue suitable for welcome or farewell dinners; recipes date from Imperial times. In the gala after-dinner parade, guests model the elaborate hats of the nobility now kept in the Piaristenkeller museum.
In Graz, Austria's second-largest city, the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage city because of its many fine Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque structures. Graz offers culture and charm without kitsch. There are hidden arcaded courtyards where jazz concerts are held or opera films shown, ancient buildings with colorful painted shutters, and a mountaintop clock tower — the city's symbol — now reached by a modern glass elevator.
An offbeat incentive destination is the spa resort Rogner-Bad Blumau. The buildings, designed by iconoclastic Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, have colorful mosaic-like exteriors; no two windows are identical in size, shape, and color. The interiors feature corridors with undulating floors that flow into the walls, rather than joining at right angles.
Bad Blumau offers extensive spa and holistic health services — including meditation accompanied by gongs and chimes — plus tennis, Europe's largest golf course, and a conference center.
Austrian Airlines service to Vienna includes daily flights from Washington, D.C., and six flights weekly from New York, all with connecting service to Graz.
For more information, go to www.conferenceaustria.com/tourist-board.htm.
— Rayna Skolnik
Munich may be best known as the birthplace of Oktoberfest, but the attractions go way beyond beer and oompah music. A rich arts community, top-notch hotels, dining, and Bavarian charm make this city a memorable destination.
A city of 1.3 million, Munich is home to world-class entertainment, including the Bavarian State Opera, The Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Bavarian State Orchestra, and dozens of museums devoted to everything from art to manufacturing. One of the more celebrated venues on Munich's distinguished museum scene is the new Pinakothek der Moderne; a three-story rotunda in the museum's center and a 330-seat auditorium are available for events.
A number of more intimate venues, many of them in historic settings, are scattered throughout the city. The Palais Schlossrondell, a historic private home on the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace and Park, was reopened for private parties after an extensive restoration in 2001. The home can accommodate as many as 80 guests.
At the other end of the spectrum, six major breweries and more than two dozen sprawling beer gardens help to maintain Munich's reputation as a beer metropolis.
Among the more notable incentive-caliber hotels in Munich are The Bayerischer Hof, a 351-room family-operated historic property in the city center that is a very popular gathering spot for locals. The Kempinski Hotel, a 266-room grand hotel that opened in 1858, is in a neighborhood of upscale boutiques. And the 613-room Arabella Sheraton Grand Hotel has undergone a recent renovation.
For more information, contact the Munich Tourism Office at www.muenchen-tourist.de.
— Megan Rowe
PALACE RESORTS, CANCUN
The motto of Palace Resorts is “Where everything is one great price.” This Mexican-owned hotel company has been around for the better part of 20 years with its three properties in the Cancun hotel zone — Cancun Palace, Beach Palace, and Sun Palace — serving the leisure market.
Since 1997, Palace Resorts has raised the bar in delivering the all-inclusive concept to meeting and incentive organizers with the addition of three hotels: the 2,031-room Moon Palace Golf Resort on Cancun's south shore; farther south on the Riviera Maya, the 1,266-room Aventura Spa Palace (an adults-only resort); and the 464-room Xpu-Ha Palace, in Xpu-Ha ecological park. All meals, drinks, entertainment, and nonmotorized water sports are part of the package, and a guest at any one resort can enjoy the amenities at all the others. Shuttle transportation among the resorts is provided. Among the guest room amenities at all properties are double Jacuzzi bathtubs.
Moon Palace offers a high-tech convention center within its Sunrise wing capable of hosting 3,000 theater-style. An adjacent convention center opened in January with a total of 55,000 square feet of space. A dedicated convention center also recently opened at the Aventura Spa Palace with 50,000 square feet of space.
Attendees will be thrilled when they hit the links on the brand new Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at Moon Palace. It's a beauty and will be a tough act to follow for even the most well-traveled golf enthusiast.
For more information, visit www.palaceresorts.com.
— Paula Hill
SOUTH PACIFIC ISLANDS
When I recently had the opportunity to take a trip to the French Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora, you can bet I jumped on it!
Tahiti, home of the capital city of French Polynesia, Papeete, is the most developed of the islands and is home to many museums, including one featuring the life and work of painter Paul Gauguin, who spent his later years in Polynesia. Tahiti is also the youngest of the islands, which means its 7,000-foot-peaks have yet to be eroded by time, making for some spectacular views of cloud-enshrouded monoliths and sunlight-dappled jungle.
To truly appreciate all Tahiti has to offer, you can take a four-wheel-drive tour of the inner island or a helicopter tour, or hike some of the many trails. We just had time for a quick spin up the coast, past the bustling market in the downtown area, where you can buy anything from fresh papaya to black pearls, or even get a tattoo.
Because the island is young and its reefs are still developing, instead of white crushed coral beaches you'll find silky black volcanic sand beneath your feet at Venus point, a favorite swimming spot for locals and a great place to watch outrigger canoes rip by.
Nearby lies the island of Moorea, with its fields of pineapple and vanilla, pastel-colored houses with gardens of hibiscus and birds of paradise, and dramatic vistas of Opunohu and Cook's Bays, all capped by the soaring 3,000-foot summit of Mount Rotui.
Then there's Bora Bora. Mount Otemanu thrusts high above the island's 16-mile coastline and is the focal point for the palm-covered motus (small islands) and reefs that encircle the main island. The lagoon is world-famous for a reason — the snorkeling and scuba diving are incredible. A motu picnic, where you're whisked off to a private islet for an authentic Polynesian barbecue, is a must, as are guided tours to see the sting rays and shark feedings.
Almost all the islands' resorts feature over-water and garden bungalows, pools, and tons of water sports. And there are lots of options for groups. Le Meridien Tahiti Hotel's colorful Matisse ballroom opens to an outdoor reception area, and the Tahiti Beach-comber Inter-Continental Resort's indoor facilities can hold up to 240 theater-style. The over-water bungalows at the Moorea Beachcomber Inter-Continental Resort offer courtyard areas a group could take over. The Bora Bora Nui Resort and Spa, a Starwood property, opened last October with 120 one-bedroom-suite bungalows.
Most of these resorts say they are willing to work with planners on rates. With the great exchange rate for the country's currency, the French Pacific franc, and Air Tahiti Nui's willingness to work with planners on airfares, you may find this exotic destination more affordable than you expected.
For more information, visit www.gototahiti.com.
— Sue Pelletier