In 2014 more than one million people visited Iceland, three times the country’s population, and figures were expected to increase by another 76% in 2015. Needless to say, this large increase in business and leisure travel to Iceland has helped the country’s economy, which was shattered in the 2008 worldwide recession, when Iceland’s banks and economic institutions were rocked with deep losses. Today, Iceland and its major air carrier, Icelandair, are enjoying the success that comes when a country’s various elements – scenery, cuisine, fashion, design, safety and a modern infrastructure – have become of-the-moment trends among millennial travelers.

Founded in 1937, Icelandair was a fledgling airline when it was founded in 1927 in the small town of Akureyri on the north coast of Iceland. In 1940 the company moved its headquarters to the Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, and has been the country’s major airline since then, benefiting greatly recently from Iceland’s tremendous increase in passenger traffic from North America and Europe, its biggest international markets. Icelandair’s pioneering low-fare services across the North-Atlantic commenced in 1953, opening up the country to adventurous travelers, including many young backpackers, who discovered Iceland’s amazing glaciers, waterfalls, and mountain scenery.

Early Loftleidir flight crew before it merged with Icelandic Airlines (courtesy Icelandair)

Americans actually constructed the present international airport in Iceland in an area called Keflavík during World War II, when the U.S. Army Air Forces desired an airfield in Iceland capable of operating heavy bombers and fighters. Construction began in 1942 and by March, 1943, service for transatlantic military flights was started. At the end of the war the airport facilities became a refueling stop for the international flights between North America and Europe, and when the U.S. military withdrew in 1947, the airport was handed over to Iceland and renamed Keflavík Airport, and operated by both countries for transiting civil and military flights.

One of the first international flights on Icelandic Airlines (photo Icelandair)

The U.S. military returned to Keflavík in 1951 under the auspices of NATO (Naval Air Station Keflavík) and the joint operation continued until 2006, when the military installation was handed over to the government of Iceland. Because Iceland has no military of its own, there were some protests against keeping a NATO presence in the country, but now that the airport has been expanded, and the new terminal complex is dominated by international departures and arrivals, the NATO-base issue has become moot.

Fortunately, Kefkavík Airport’s 10,000-foot-long, 200-foot-wide runways are long enough to support any type of aircraft, so there was more than enough space to harbor several international flights that had to land in Iceland on September 11, 2001, when the U.S. government ordered all domestic airports to shut down for security purposes.

My first flight to Iceland was in 1973, when I purchased one of Icelandair’s very affordable round-trip flights from New York to Luxembourg, with a stop-over in Iceland. The airline still offers stopovers in Iceland on flights to more than 20 European destinations from the U.S., up to seven days stopover in one direction are permissible with no additional airfare. I returned to Iceland in 1993 for a newspaper travel story, and this year, in mid-March, to cover DesignMarch, the country’s annual Iceland Design Festival in Reykjavík, the country’s capital.

My flight started at Newark International Airport, with check-in for Icelandair’s non-stop evening flight to Reykjavík at their priority check-in line in Terminal B. For Saga Class passengers the boarding pass allows entry into TSA’s premium ticket lanes, and admittance to Lufthansa’s business class lounge, which Icelandair arranges for its Saga Class passengers. The Lufthansa in EWR’s Terminal B is somewhat small, with about 25 seats, and space for 12 smaller seats computer-style tables. Free WiFi is provided for lounge guests. A hot and cold buffet and self-service bar is also available.

Boarding began at 7:15 pm, and a separate lane was available for Saga passengers. The B757-200 on this flight has three sections (Economy, Economy Comfort, Saga) seating 183 passengers with a 3×3 configuration in economy and 2×2 seating in Saga class for 22 passengers. Although the Saga seats were not full-recline, they do have 40” pitch with ¾ recline, and seat-back entertainment screen with a full menu of movies, TV shows, games and flight information. Shortly after stowing gear in the overhead an amenity kit was provided, a Spanish cava was served, and soon after that, at 7:45 the aircraft departed the gate. After a relatively short wait, Icelandair’s flight 622 to Reykjavík lifted off at 8:00 pm, just five minutes behind schedule.

Service aboard Icelandair Saga Class (photo Icelandair)

Dinner was a nicely baked salmon (possibly Icelandic) with vegetables and desert, accompanied by a dry white wine from France. After watching a movie and a short nap, I heard the flight attendants moving about the cabin serving croissants, juice and coffee, announcing to the passengers that we would be landing in Iceland shortly. As we began our early morning descent towards the airport I was anxious to look out the window, eager to see the terrain from the air, but of course it was still winter in Iceland, the sky quite dark, with drops of rain on the window, and the only lights visible were streetlights in the small villages that hug the rocky coastline near the airport.

The flight landed at 6:00 am local time, I gathered my belongings, walked quickly to the passport windows, fully staffed and with no lines, and within fifteen minutes I had picked up my rental car right outside the terminal and was on the highway to Reykjavík, 30 miles away. By the time I reached the outskirts of the city the sky was becoming eerily brighter, no sun yet, but a faint orange glow appeared above the city, illuminating the snow covered landscape and the cozy house lights of early rising Icelanders.

Snowy streets and colorful houses in historic district of Reykjavik.

Each aircraft in the Icelandair fleet is named after 16 Icelandic volcanos, including Eyjafjallajokull, Heklaaurora, and Helgafell. Passengers boarding an Icelandair plane can see a plaque with the name and illustration of the volcano the aircraft was named after.

For information on non-stop flights to Iceland from North America contact:


101 Hotel, Reykjavik

(Hotel photos courtesy Design Hotels™ )

101 Hotel, Reykjavik

My flight from the U.S. landed in Iceland at 6:00 am local time. I gathered my belongings, walked quickly to the passport windows, fully staffed and with no lines, and within fifteen minutes I had picked up my rental car outside the terminal and was on the highway to Reykjavík, 30 miles away.

For most of the 45-minute drive the sky was black, with sleet blowing sideways across the road, but by the time I reached the outskirts of the city there was a ribbon of fuchsia on the horizon and a delicate glow of light appeared above the city, illuminating the snow covered landscape and the cozy kitchen lights of early rising Icelanders having breakfast before leaving for work.

Arriving at the 101 Hotel in the center of Reykjavík is the perfect ending to the overnight flight, and a perfect beginning to a work week at Iceland’s annual DesignMarch Festival. The 101, named after Reykjavík’s downtown postal code, was Iceland’s first design-driven, upscale boutique hotel when it opened in 2003, quickly becoming popular with visiting film and music celebrities, and the growing number of affluent millennials who have recently discovered Iceland’s stunning scenery and vibrant culinary scene. The 101 Hotel is a member of the prestigious Design Hotels group.

I check in at the reception area near the front door, which, like the entire 38-room property, is a beautiful example of Nordic minimalism. The lovely art objects on the white walls, colorful flowers on the front desk, and the warmth of a wood burning fireplace in the lounge give the first floor area the feel of a private, upscale Icelandic home.

My third floor room is surprisingly, and fortunately, available for early check-in and the heated oak floor in the room and the King bed with a fluffy white quilt cover are, at 6:45 am, the most important amenities I could imagine. In the dawn light, outside the large windows, is Arnarhóll Hill, a city park where a statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, known as Reykjavik’s first settler in the year 874, overlooks the modern Harpa concert hall, and the sea and the mountains beyond.

A few hours later, after washing up in the large, free-standing, glass-enclosed shower, I notice the other beautifully designed amenities in the room including the Electrolux mini-bar, Plexiglass night tables, sleek black work desk and swivel light, SONY DVD, Bose speakers and i-Pod docking station. The square, white ceramic sink and claw-foot bathtub are placed in front of the window in the open-plan bathroom area. The décor of the rooms, and all the interior public areas, is a blend of black, white and grays with, of course, the heated oak floors throughout the property.

The books on the shelf in my room have lots of new art and design titles, as well as Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, a classic novel of Icelandic life which won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize in literature. Sitting in Iceland’s compact and beautiful capital city, with snow-covered Mount Esja on the other side of the bay, seems like perfect place to start chapter one.

The 101 Hotel has a long, glass-roofed bar/restaurant called Kitchen & Wine on the ground floor, serving chef-prepared breakfast items and lunch and dinner menus with locally caught fish, a delicious langoustine soup, Icelandic lamb, salads, burgers and light snacks. On the lower level is a small workout room and mini-spa with steam bath, Jacuzzi and plunge pool. Of course there are also hundreds of outdoor public pools, in Reykjavík and throughout the island, where locals and visitors swim year-round in the warm, naturally flowing geothermal waters that heat the homes, schools, businesses (and fill the swimming pools) of the country.

Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Center , located five minutes walk from 101 Hotel. (photo Iceland Tourism)

Although the exterior of the 101 is a typical, somewhat bland, five-story Icelandic façade, a former office building, the interior of the property is so wonderfully designed, with splashes of color against white walls and black furnishings, with subtle indoor lighting and a quiet elegance, it becomes difficult to get up the momentum to go outside. But, of course, the outside is where Iceland really opens up and sparkles, the 101 Hotel is for when you are ready to go home at night.

Ron Bernthal

Fogo Island Journal: At the edge of a continent, a melding of design and nature

Fogo Island Inn (photo Alex Fradkin)

Fogo Island Journal: At the edge of a continent, a melding of design and nature

“By January it had always been winter.”
― Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

By Ron Bernthal

On brisk winter mornings guests at the Fogo Island Inn take long walks on foot trails that meander along the rocky coast, trails with names like Joe Batt’s Point, Oliver’s Cove, Little Seldom and Brimstone Head. After lunch in the glass enclosed dining room overlooking the Atlantic, afternoons may be spent in ocean-view guestrooms, relaxing in hand-crafted armchairs. A wood stove will keep the room toasty (although electric heat is available), a fierce wind will blow outside, snow will move sideways in blurring white lines. The ocean, a heaving gray mass just beyond the window, will become indistinguishable from the horizon.moonwalk bounce house

In spring the winds will decrease a bit, the snow may stop flying and icebergs will start to appear on the sea, drifting past Fogo Island on their way south to warmer climates as the slowly melting mountains of blue and white ice pass the coastal communities of Newfoundland and Labrador. The seasonal migration down “Iceberg Alley” is enjoyed by year-round residents as much as visitors.

In spring giant icebergs will float quietly past Fogo Island (photo Paddy Barry)

The Fogo Island Inn, a not yet three year-old, a stunning architecturally designed property, is reached by a 45-minute car-ferry from Farewell, itself a small Newfoundland community an hour north of Gander. The Inn is partially raised off the rocky beach on sturdy stilts, from a distance it looks like a huge, white bird about to soar off into the sky. Even visitors who have seen photographs of the building are taken aback when it first comes into view. Compared to the small, wood structures guests pass as they drive to the property from the ferry landing eight miles away – saltbox houses, fish drying stages, waterside storage sheds called stores, small churches — the four-story, ultra-modern Fogo Island Inn is like a mirage on the landscape.

In any other place the presence of a modern architectural gem next to a rural fishing village would be somewhat controversial. (photo Alex Fradkin)

In any other place, at any other time, placing a 43,000 square-foot, multi-million dollar, design-driven, deluxe inn on the beach of a tiny, isolated fishing community, population 700, would be controversial to say the least. And with room rates of $700-$2,000 per night (including all meals and services), it is doubtful that many Fogo Islanders will be spending romantic weekends at the island’s only upscale accommodations. But island residents, skeptical at first, are now enjoying the new revenue and employment opportunities the hotel has brought to the area, and are now proud the project was conceived by an 8th generation Fogo Islander, and designed by a Newfoundland-born architect.

The back story to the opening of the Fogo Island Inn is as interesting as the building’s design. The collapse of the northern cod fishery marked a profound change in the ecological, economic and cultural structure of Atlantic Canada. The cod fishing moratorium in 1992 marked the largest industrial closure in Canadian history, and the results were felt throughout Newfoundland, where the heavily fished continental shelf lay just off shore. Over 35,000 fishermen and plant workers from over 400 coastal communities in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador became unemployed.

Fogo Island, 15 miles long and eight miles wide, was settled by the English and Irish in the early 1700’s. These settlers braved the harsh seas and living conditions for the profits gleaned from cod, and the bounty lasted for more than 250 years. When Newfoundland fishing boats were prevented from hauling in their daily catch of cod the men turned to other species, like crabs, shrimp, char and salmon, but the loss of the cod catch was devastating. Unable to support their families under the strict commercial cod fishing regulations, the population of Fogo Island dwindled from 5,200 to about 2,500 today, many of the men left the island for jobs in the gas and oil fields of western Canada. The 11 small “outport” fishing communities on Fogo Island, including Joe Batt’s Arm, where the Fogo Island Inn is now located, managed to survive despite the much decreased fishing revenue and a short summer tourist season. Unemployment was high, the winter’s always long.

There is vegetation, edible herbs, and colorful moss along the rocky beaches near Joe Batt’s Arm (photo Ron Bernthal)

Zita Cobb, an 8th generation Fogo Islander, left the island to attend college in the 1980′s, eventually becoming the CFO of a high-tech company in Ontario. When the company merged with a big U.S. firm Cobb was able to exercise stock options and retire, becoming a multi-millionaire. Missing her island home, and looking for a way to contribute to Fogo Island’s declining economy, Cobb moved back to Joe Batt’s Arm and founded the philanthropic, family-run Shorefast Foundation in 2003. A “shorefast” is the line and mooring used to attach a traditional cod trap to the shore, and a strong symbol of Fogo Island’s cod fishing heritage. To Zita Cobb it also symbolized the link between the cod moratorium and Fogo Island’s stagnant economy.

Traditional cod trap and its “shorefast” line symbolizes the history of fishing on Fogo Island

After the Foundation was established an idea was developed to create an inn that would represent the culture of the island, and benefit as many islanders as possible. The Fogo Island Inn would be constructed of local materials and Fogo Islanders, many of whom were descendants of the early English and Irish settlers, would be hired to produce locally-crafted furnishings. A well-known Newfoundland chef would be found to serve regional cuisine, and almost a 100 residents would be trained for hospitality work, and encouraged to share their history with tourists who would “come from away.” Zita Cobb even convinced a Newfoundland-born architect, Todd Saunders, who was happily designing buildings on the west coast of Norway (similar climate and terrain), to return to the province and design a structure on Fogo Island that would wow the sophisticated, high-end travelers from Toronto, Boston and New York. Then everyone kept their fingers crossed.

Fast-forward to the present. Todd Saunders’ white, oblong building has attracted worldwide attention. The Inn is a highly insulated steel frame building, the windows have the equivalent rating of triple pane glazing. Rainwater is collected in two cisterns, filtered, and used for toilet and laundry water. Solar panels supply hot water to the in-floor radiant heating. Photos of the Inn, its dining room, duplex suites, and the amazing views have appeared in all of the best architecture, design and travel publications, and the awards have been piling up, including being placed on Condé Nast Traveler’s 2016 hotel Gold List.

Despite, or because of, the Inn’s remote location on the edge of the North American continent moneyed travelers from Toronto, Boston, New York and Europe are flying to Gander or St. John’s, Newfoundland, renting cars and finding their way to Joe Batt’s Arm, where they are assured of an ocean view (all guestrooms face the sea), deluxe accommodations, excellent cuisine, and an opportunity to visit a destination not yet spoiled by fast food outlets, theme parks, stop lights, or traffic. The only obstacles on Fogo Island’s roads are the occasional caribou.

Punts (colorful small work boats) on Fogo Island (photo Barrett and MacKay for Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

All the furniture used at the Inn is designed by professional Canadian and European designers, and constructed at a small wood shop nearby by local men and women who have experience building their own homes, boats and fishing stages. The fabrics for the chair and pillow covers, quilts, and woven rugs are hand-stitched by the women of Fogo Island, a tradition that dates to the 1700’s when the wife’s and daughters of fishermen would make the gloves, sweaters, hats and clothing for the family. Art gallery space is created within the public areas of the inn, where the work of Newfoundland artists is displayed. The Inn’s dining room, with its double-ceiling windows overlooking the sea, is rated one of the top ten restaurants in Canada by Enroute magazine, and executive chef Murray MacDonald, a Newfoundland native, has been using locally sourced root vegetables, fresh caught fish and seafood, and traditional ingredients like sea buckthorn, spruce tips, caribou moss and dried chanterelles.

Chef Murray MacDonald uses local, organic ingredients for his award-winning cuisine (photo Alex Fradkin)

On the Inn’s second floor the 24-seat cinema, created in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, is designed with movie theater-style seats, and is a guest favorite. There is also a fully equipped fitness center and conference room. The fourth and top floor includes additional rooms and loft suites, sauna and steam rooms, outdoor hot tubs with views of the ocean, and a roof-deck for summer sunbathing. The Inn will not turn Fogo Island into another Nantucket (no one on the island wants that), but young people who left are now returning, and local shops and cafes are seeing an uptick in year-round business.

Dining room at Fogo Island Inn with view of North Atlantic (photo Alex Fradkin)

For Zita Cobb and others, the grand idea of helping the island’s economy seems to be working. Almost all of the 80 employees at the Inn are Fogo Islanders, now earning salaries that are considerably more than the $20,000 annual average income for island residents. The few local cafes, ice cream shops, music pubs and small island art galleries and museums are all benefiting from the influx of well-heeled Inn guests that arrive every week, year round. Many islanders –painters, quilters, fishermen, shipbuilders, writers — have also signed up to be part of the Community Host Program, and are always available to give Inn guests complimentary island tours, showing them how to fish in the local bays, forage for wild berries and mushrooms, watch boat builders at work, or listen to Newfoundland music in local homes. Roy Dwyer, a former school teacher and fisherman, spent several hours showing a visitor the various communities on the island, including his own home in the quaint village of Tilting.

Fogo Island resident Roy Dwyer in his fishing stage in the community of Tilting (photo Ron Bernthal)

As part of Shorefast’s Fogo Island Arts project architect Todd Saunders also designed four ocean-front studios which are occupied during the day by visiting artists who were accepted into the Foundation’s Artist-in-Residence program. The studios are beautifully designed, self-sustaining, one-room buildings perched on the rocks at the ocean’s edge, complete with solar panels for heating and lighting, mini-kitchens for cooking and small bathrooms with chemically treated toilets. The four studios include the Long Studio (constructed in 2010) and the Tower, Bridge and Squish Studios, completed in 2011.

Artists who apply for the residency come from many countries, and as part of the program they receive accommodations in one of Fogo Island’s fishing communities, a vehicle, and a weekly stipend to offset the costs of materials, shipping and living expenses for periods of one to three months. Most travel expenses are also covered and artists-in-residence must give one public presentation, performance, workshop, or lead a similar event during their residency. Selected artists are invited to present their work in exhibitions at the Fogo Island Gallery. Other Shorefast projects include a micro-lending fund for small businesses on Fogo Island and the nearby Change Islands, various academic residency programs, heritage building preservation initiatives, the New Ocean Ethic, and a retail furniture business, the Fogo Island Shop.

Long Studio, Fogo Island, Todd Saunders architect (photo Ron Bernthal)

Squish Studio, Todd Saunders architect (photo Ron Bernthal)

“When the Canadian singer, Alan Doyle, visited a Fogo Island museum a few years ago he was shown an artifact called a gaff, a fisherman’s wooden-handled tool with a hook on the end of it,” said Paddy Barry, the Inn’s friendly and informative Guest Ambassador. “In April, 1917, four young men including the three Jacobs brothers, walked out on the ice floes off Fogo Island and got stranded, unable to get back to shore when the ice shifted. They were terrified, knowing that their wives and family would never know what had happened to them. On the gaff they had with them they carved their names and dates, along with the desperate words, “laying down to perish,” and sent it adrift, hoping it would eventually wash ashore and be found by the families, which did happen several months later, when it was a found on a nearby island and returned to Fogo Island.” This is a true, often-told story, and the song that Alan Doyle wrote following his visit, called

Laying Down to Perish

was recorded in 2014. The song should be downloaded onto every visitor’s mobile phone before they arrive on the island, and listened to as they walk the trails of the island. It is evocative of Fogo Island’s history and the resilience of its people, living on the edge of a continent.

Jacobs gaff on Fogo Island, the inspiration behind Alan Doyle’s song “Laying Down to Perish”

The feature film “Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island,” is an award-winning, one-hour film by David Craig and Katherine Knight which documents the story behind the design and construction of the Fogo Island Inn, as told by Zita Cobb and Todd Saunders. Directed by Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly, it has been presented at various U.S. and international film festivals, including the 2015 Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York City.

Info to Go:
Fogo Island Inn
Newfound and Labrador Tourism

Norwegian: Premium class offers best of both worlds — price and comfort

Norwegian 787-8 Dreamliner (photo courtesy Norwegian)


By Ron Bernthal


The United Nations has listed Norway as the number one country on the organization’s 2015 Human Development Report. Combining life expectancy, education and income per capita, Norway ranks first in the world for the 12th straight year. Add in personal freedom and health and Norway sits at the top of the 2015 Prosperity Index for the seventh year in a row.

Norwegian started operations in 1993, flying domestically along Norway’s rugged west coast and, coincidently, was listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange in 2003, just as Norway began to occupy its top place on the UN list of best countries. Privately owned Norwegian is quite reflective of its country of origin. The mostly Norwegian-born flight crew are friendly and helpful. The Nordic-influenced food served on Norwegian is as fresh and delicious as Oslo’s top restaurants.  The carrier’s fleet of new, Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft helped Norwegian rank as the most fuel efficient airliner in the aerospace industry for 2015, Norway is one of the “greenest” countries in the world in terms of sustainability, and Norwegian’s tail fins are painted with pictures of Nordic heroes (including Swedes, Danes, and Finns) who “have pushed the boundaries, challenged established norms and inspired others,” much like the Norwegian explorers, athletes, writers and artists Roald Amundsen, Sonja Henie, Thor Heyerdahl, Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch and Gustav Vigeland.

Norwegian tail fin with Nordic heroine Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

A recent flight in Premium class on Norwegian’s non-stop service from New York (JFK) to Oslo (OSL) began with a light buffet dinner in the Korean Air lounge, where several international carriers lease space for their departing business class passengers. The lounge, close to Norwegian’s Gate 4 at JFK’s Terminal 1, is quite large with several food stations, bar service, complimentary WiFi, computers and printers, and private shower rooms.

After tracking boarding times on the lounge departure screen I made my way to the gate and boarded the aircraft at 9:20 pm through Norwegian’s dedicated Premium lane.  The 32 grey, leather Premium seats with the red Norwegian head cloths were arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration and, immediately after stowing my gear in the extra-large overheads I was offered a choice of Champagne, juice or water.  The seats on the aircraft looked and felt brand new, the average age of a Norwegian aircraft is only four years, the Dreamliner windows were devoid of the traditional pull-down shades, little buttons under each window control shading, and Norwegian’s ambient cabin lighting, called Sky Interior, is a relaxing blue and purple, similar to Virgin America’s phased mood lighting. Even the bathrooms on the aircraft had a calming atmosphere, with blue ambient lighting, little colored lights on the sink faucet, and an extremely quiet toilet flush.

Norwegian’s “Sky Interior” cabin lighting in economy class on the Dreamliner (photo courtesy Norwegian)

The onboard dinner that evening was cold pasta and olive salad, baked chicken with spinach and eggplant, dinner rolls and chocolate cake, along with a selection of wines and spirits. New York strip steak, curry prawns and a vegetarian dish was offered on the return flight. Before landing a breakfast was served consisting of a warm bagel with cream cheese and smoked Norwegian salmon, fruit and juice and coffee.  Other flights may include fruit salad, natural yoghurt, honey, muesli and pain au chocolat.  All meals are served in efficient boxes made of re-cycled cardboard, with plates and cutlery inside. It may have been initially disappointing not have a starched table cloth and assorted chinaware placed over the tray table, but with the low prices Norwegian charges for its Premium fares, it was understandable that there had to be some sacrifice.  The cuisine itself was as nicely prepared and tasty as most other airline business class meals.   Economy fares are so low that passengers are more than willing to pay extra for food, pre-ordered before boarding.

Premium seats on Dreamliner aircraft (photo courtesy Norwegian)

The entertainment system in Norwegian’s long-haul Premium class is viewed on a large touch-screen that folds out of the armrest (live TV and free WiFi is offered on flights within Europe), and with a 46” pitch, 19” width seat, and an almost full recline, it was quite easy to get a few hours’ sleep during the night. The thick, blue duvet provided by the flight attendant didn’t hurt either. Norwegian’s on-time performance is usually in the high 80%’s (it was recently eight best out of 50 airlines), on my flight to Oslo wheels were up at 10:25 pm, 25 minutes behind schedule due to departure traffic at JFK, but arrival at Oslo’s Gardermoen airport was at 10:55 am the next morning, five minutes early.

Boarding Norwegian flight at Oslo Airport (photo courtesy Oslo Airport)

In 2015 Norwegian was voted Europe’s Leading Low-Cost Airline at the World Travel Awards, and Best European Low-Cost Airline from Skytrax World Airline Awards.  In Economy class the price difference between Norwegian and other carriers flying the same route is several hundred dollars.  For Premium business class the difference is extraordinary, anywhere from $600 to $4,500 round-trip compared to other airlines flying the same route. And, of course, on most days Norwegian is the only carrier flying non-stop from several American cities (New York, Boston, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Oakland, Los Angeles) to Bergen on Norway’s West Coast, and/or Oslo, Norway’s capital and largest city. The relatively low cost Premium class fares, combined with its high degree of comfort, has not gone unnoticed by budget-conscious corporate travel managers. “We started out as a low-cost carrier for tourists, but 15% of our passengers are now business travelers, and the number is growing,” said Bjorn Kjos, founding co-partner and current CEO of Norwegian.

In April 2017 the new Oslo Airport will be finished. This shows how the inside of Pier North will look in 2017. Rendering Nordic Office of Architecture © Oslo Airport

Norwegian will soon offer 34 non-stop routes from the U.S. (including Las Vegas, San Juan, Baltimore/Washington) to Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, London, and to the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.




The Thief: Design hotel thrives in Oslo’s newest cultural district.

The swim-up window at the Spa allows you to float in a heated pool listening to Reiki Zen meditation music while peering outside at pedestrians walking along the snow-covered Norwegian landscape (photo The Thief)

The Thief Oslo

By Ron Bernthal

Although most visitors to The Thief , in the Oslo neighborhood of Tjuvholmen (tchuv-holmen), arrive by taxi, others can travel by bus, tram or ferry and walk ten minutes along the Aker Brygge waterfront, past the stunning, three-year old, Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum to The Thief, an equally impressive structure designed by the Oslo firm Mellbye Architekter AS. The hotel’s name came about not because of the property’s high room rates (Norway is not an inexpensive country to visit), but because 18th century Tjuvholmen was called “thieves’ island,” a time when criminals caught stealing were executed in this once isolated area.

Large artwork by Richard Prince installed on a wall in the lobby of The Thief (photo The Thief)

Today, Tjuvholmen is one of Oslo’s glittering new arts districts and, as one might expect, The Thief has its own art curator, Sune Nordgren, a noted Swedish-born art and design aficionado and founding director of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo. Mr. Nordgren oversees the 100+ museum quality art pieces that are displayed inside and outside the property, including Sir Peter Blake’s collages in the hotel suites, the Andy Warhol print in the Fru K restaurant, Jeff Koons balloon animal sculpture and Julian Opie’s animated artwork in the elevators. When I checked in at the hotel’s reception desk I kept staring up at the Richard Prince’s huge ink-jet on canvas work, “Cowboy – The Horse Thief” that covered an entire wall of the lobby. The hotel maintains a close working relationship with the Astrup Fearnley Museum next door, and all that priceless, borrowed art in the guest rooms and interior public spaces, and the stunning sculptures outside the hotel, like Antony Gormley’s intriguing cast-iron beggar outside the front entrance, is a great perk for guests. Free admission to the museum comes with your room booking, although few of The Thief’s upscale guests are looking to save the 100-120 krone ($11-$14) entrance cost.

Astrup Fearnley Museum (photo Nic Lehoux)

The 119-room property, opened in 2013, is a member of Design Hotels™ and the entire building, and almost every object inside, is a feast for the eyes, including the most common elements, like the perfect round holes that act as handles on the translucent bathroom doors, the adorable glass yogurt cups on the breakfast buffet, and the narrow, rectangular swim-up window at the Thief Spa, where you can float in a heated pool listening to Reiki Zen meditation music while peeking outside at pedestrians trudging along the snow-covered Norwegian landscape in parka’s and woolen ski hats. Every sensory experience, from the images of brightly colored artwork that flash before your eyes, to the pleasing curvature of the hotel’s glass façade at twilight when the golden glow of lighted room windows contrast with the moody dark waters of the fjord, is enjoyable.

The Thief sits between a small canal and the scenic Oslofjord in the revitalized Tjuvholmen district, steps from the Astrup Fearnley Museum and close to the Oslo Opera House. (photo The Thief)

The large windows in my room face the Astrup Fearnley and the Oslofjord, as well as the modern, rust-colored Handelsbanken, where, from my comfortable leather desk chair, I watch office workers stay busy at their desks until well after sunset. There are nine pillows on my King bed, with two flexible reading lights on each side of the headboard, and two stunning lamps on each end-table. A glass door allows access to petite triangular balcony, just big enough for a small chair. A wooden shelf holds large-size picture books about Norwegian art and architecture. The 42” Philips plasma HDTV offers dozens of channels from Norway, USA and Europe, and the complimentary Wi-Fi is fast and reliable.

Standard guestroom with view of Oslofjord and Astrup Fearnley Museum (photo The Thief)

A solid pocket door separates the white and brown marble bathroom from the guestroom, and sensors turn on the recessed mood lighting as soon as you enter the bathroom. A price guide to the bath amenities lists the thick, fluffy Maggie Wonka-designed bathrobe hanging on the door at 1,500 Norwegian krone, about $177, or one can purchase a tube of Marvis, the Italian-designed toothpaste, for $7. Even the little white boxes hanging on a bathroom wall where glasses are stored, is imaginatively designed.

The steel and painted polyester sculpture “Le Grand Rossignol” by French artist Niki de Sainte Phalle (photo courtesy The Thief)

The hotel’s fine dining Fru K restaurant serves three meals daily, and is filled with as much art as any other space in the hotel. I especially liked the original 1976 Andy Warhol silk screen and acrylic on canvas, a piece from a series called Ladies and Gentlemen. This work, valued at close to $2 million, hangs casually in the same room as the gorgeous buffet breakfast spread. Honestly, at 7:00 am it was not that difficult to decide which attraction needed my attention more, but Warhol was a very close second. Fru K has its own meeting room, a private bar area, an outdoor patio and a lunch and dinner menu that rivals any in Europe. Depending on the season, some of its Norwegian cuisine includes cod from Lofoten in the far north, quail eggs from Toten north of Oslo, Langoustine are caught by trawlers off Norway’s west coast and delivered live, and reindeer ribeye steaks arrive from the Nordas region near Bergen.

Small plates of Norwegian cuisine from Fru K restaurant (photo The Thief)

Although the Thief Spa is physically separated from the hotel by about 50 feet, with its own entrance for local visitors, hotel guests use a private elevator that descends along an outside wall to a below ground location, where an underground corridor leads to the reception area of the Spa. Constructed in 2014, about a year after the hotel opened, Thief Spa offers treatment and dressing rooms, post-treatment relaxation areas, a gym with the newest exercise machines, sauna and steam rooms, and a lovely heated swimming pool with mood lighting above and below the water. A small fee is charged to use the Spa, and includes complimentary fruit, nuts, and tea.

While former industrial areas of Oslo are still being transformed into modern arts and cultural districts, like nearby Bjørvika, where the modern Oslo Opera House opened in 2008, the construction work in Tjuvholmen is now complete. With the Astrup Fearnley Museum and The Thief pushing the envelope in terms of design and art, several of Oslo’s most well-known art galleries, including Galleri Brandstrup (, Galleri Pushwagner ( and Stalper+Friends ( have now moved into the area, along with numerous restaurants, outdoor cafes, and a few brightly colored, design-driven residential buildings, all facing the sea, Oslo’s most precious asset.

A view of the Oslofjord from Tjuvholmen with ferry, sailboat and storm clouds (photo Ron Bernthal)

Hotel Review: Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton

Hotel Review: Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton

Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton (photo © Matthew Shaw for Curio Collection by Hilton)

Review by Ron Bernthal

During a recent business trip to Hamburg, Germany, I took a fast metro train from the airport to the center of the city, a pleasant 25-minute ride. I was happy to have reserved a room at the Reichshof Hamburg, a deluxe property just a five-minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main railway station, where high-speed inter-city trains and local metro lines are accessible. The five-star Reichshof Hamburg re-opened in May, 2015, after a $34 million restoration.

Slowman restaurant opened in the 1920′s and has been restored with its original walnut paneling. (photo © Matthew Shaw for Curio Collection by Hilton)

Built in 1910 as the Reichshof Hamburg — now known as the Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton – the property was one of the largest hotels in Europe and the largest in Germany when it opened. It has now been exquisitely restored to its early grandeur, retaining its original Carrara marble columns and tile flooring, the art deco façade and gilt chandeliers in the lobby, and hand-crafted original walnut paneling in the Slowman restaurant and in some of the nine meeting rooms. The hotel’s early baroque and classical influences are clearly visible, and preserving many of the property’s original architecture was always part of the restoration plans.

This early photo of the Reichshof Hamburg, now hanging in the hotel’s lobby, was taken shortly after the property opened in 1910. (photo Ron Bernthal)

My renovated room, like the other 277 rooms (reduced from the original 303 rooms), was quite large with a high-ceiling, art deco flourishes, complimentary Wi-Fi, large-screen HDTV, comfortable, modern furnishings, and a nice selection of bathroom amenities. The floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the Kirchenallee, a busy street that runs past the Hauptbahhof, located just down the block, but not directly opposite the hotel. This is not your typical cookie-cutter, chain property. There are more than 60 different room sizes and varieties, from the 150-215 square-foot medium size rooms, all the way up to the spacious one-bedroom suites.

Spacious rooms with high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and complimentary Wi-Fi are standard amenities in every room category (photo © Matthew Shaw for Curio Collection by Hilton)

The hotel’s lobby, including sections of the original checkered tile flooring, the framed black and white photographs of early Hamburg (including a large photo showing the interior of the hotel shortly after it opened), and the cozy Bar 1910, with its cocktails and premium whiskeys, are incredibly reminiscent of pre-World War I Germany, although with eclectic touches, such as the unique pink fabric hanging from the original lobby chandeliers and Sushi & Sweets lobby bar, which offers sushi and baked goods from the hotel’s own patisserie.
The hotel’s signature restaurant, known as Slowman (breakfast, lunch and dinner), was opened in the 1920’s and retains the ambience and look of early 20th-century Hamburg, with its ship-style design reflecting the city’s rich maritime history. With its walnut paneling and configuration the restaurant’s design takes its inspiration from the mid-19th century cruise line Hapag. The hotel’s builder and first owner, Anton Emil Langer (1864-1928), was a former executive chef of Hapag, and is responsible for the property’s present-day atmosphere and service. The Langer family continued to run the hotel for many years afterwards, and descendants still live nearby.

View of restored 1910 lobby, a mix of historic artifacts and designer driven architectural flourishes (photo © Matthew Shaw for Curio Collection by Hilton)

The property has a new spa and fitness center, and is located directly across the street from a StadtRAD Hamburg docking station, where inexpensive bike rentals are available for visitors and residents. Biking is a good way to get around this relatively flat city, but public transport is efficient with several metro lines stopping close to the hotel. The property is also within walking distance of Hamburg’s downtown lakes, the new HafenCity redevelopment district and the stunning new Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Concert Hall).

The Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Concert Hall) is the latest architectural gem in the HafenCity district, located just a short traxi or metro ride from the Reichshof Hamburg hotel. (photo courtesy Hamburg Convention Bureau)

Guests of the hotel should ask to see the property’s early, pioneering technology – a massive indoor car garage with hydraulic lifts. Although the garage is no longer operating (a newer garage is available), it is an amazing relic of the hotel’s early modernization projects. During World War II the former owners of the Reichshof Hamburg hid the hotel’s engraved silverware, porcelain equipment and art nouveau paintings in a hidden walled-off room, and some of these artifacts can still be spotted in the dining room and other areas of the property.

Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton
Kirchenallee 34 – 36,
20099 Hamburg, Germany

Hotel Review: Red Roof PLUS + Secaucus/Meadowlands, NJ

photo courtesy Red Roof Inn

Review by Ron Bernthal

Before checking into the Red Roof Plus+ Secaucus/Meadowlands I tried to imagine what type of property this would be, sitting in the shadow of a busy highway overpass in the semi-industrial city of Secaucus, New Jersey, a town of about 16,000 people whose name comes from the Algonquin phrase “a place of snakes.”

To say the least I was pleasantly surprised when I pulled off Route 3 onto Meadowlands Parkway on a hot summer night and found a lovely three-story hotel surrounded by a beautifully landscaped garden and interior courtyard. Across the street from the property was the Swan Plaza Shopping Center, where bright neon store signs advertised several restaurants, a wine outlet and other small businesses.

The lobby is just big enough room for a few people to register at the front desk, but the staff was friendly and after receiving my room key I moved my car a bit to park closer to my room, one of the great perks of American roadside motels.

The Secaucus property is known as a Red Roof PLUS+, the first Red Roof in New Jersey to receive this designation. What this means is that all the rooms have been recently renovated with higher-end amenities, and 100% smoke-free. My room amenities included a King bed, free high speed wireless internet access, a 32-inch flat-screen LCD HDTV television, a work desk and ergonomic desk chair, microwave and refrigerator. No, it’s not Four Seasons quality, but comfortable and clean, and the room rates make for great value.

Red Roof Inn Secaucus King Premium Room (photo courtesy Red Roof Inn)

Although I could not tell in the dark of night, I did notice in the morning that the back of the property faced the Hackensack River, and is located between the two overpasses of Route 3 (Eastbound and Westbound lanes), which is an interesting juxtaposition of the structural steel underbelly of a highway bridge, and the somewhat pretty, urbanized/natural view of the 45-mile long Hackensack River. The river, which used to be one of the most polluted waterways in the country, has been cleaned up in recent years and before I left the hotel in the morning I actually saw some folks fishing.

It must have rained during my night at Red Roof Plus+, in the morning the grass, shrubbery, and groomed trees around the hotel and in the center courtyard were glowing green with moisture, and combined with the summer heat and humidity it looked and felt more like southern Florida than a community in the shadow of Manhattan.

Red Roof Inn Secaucus Double Premier Room (photo courtesy Red Roof Inn)

My wake-up call at 5:30 am was on-time, and I checked-out without going into the lobby for free coffee. I also noticed that some of the rooms had stickers on them that advertised the property’s new Premium rooms, which mine was not. In those rooms, I later learned, guests receive special plush pillow-top mattresses, a spa-inspired bathroom with multiple shower heads, and a mini-fridge stocked with high-end snack treats, orange juice and water, as well as a larger TV. There is a small surcharge for the Premium rooms, but they seem well worth the additional expense.

And why would a guest stay in Secaucus more than one night? Believe it or not, there are many reasons, some I knew about, like the proximity of the Meadowlands Sports Complex and MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants and New York Jets. Others I learned about later, like several large, nearby outlet malls, a boat launch and docking area, and a riverside picnic area on the property with several barbeque grills. There are also natural attractions as well, tucked into spaces between highways and light-industrial plants, like Snipes Park located nearby in the rear of Osprey Cove, with two pedestrian bridges that lead into the park. And located just a few minutes’ drive from the hotel is Schmidts Woods Park, a 14-acre multi-use park containing one of the last remnant woodlands in the Meadowlands District. Who would have thought you could see Trout lilies (a field of yellow delicate wildflowers), Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nests, or the spring migration of Black-and-white and Yellow Warblers, Brown Thrashers, and Red-winged Blackbirds and Ruby-crowned Kinglets all within close proximity of major metropolitan highways.

Perhaps the best reason for multi-night stays in Secaucus is the New Jersey Transit Railroad Station that is just a five-minute taxi ride from the hotel. I believe that many of the guests at this property are really visiting New York City, and are taking the NJ Transit commuter line from Secaucus Station into Manhattan. It’s the next and last stop after Secaucus, a ten minute ride, and with frequent service throughout the day and night. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of low hotel rates, and free overnight parking, to be so close to Manhattan.

In March, 2015, Red Roof Inn received the #1 ranking in the ReviewMatrix Customer Satisfaction Index Benchmark survey among economy category hotels for the 5th consecutive year. With the 208-room Red Roof Plus+ Secaucus/Meadowlands, I believe that its overall quality, location and price offer great value for many travelers to the New York metropolitan area

PHONE: 201-319-1000

Hotel Review: Sonesta Collection ES Suites, Burlington/Boston, MA

Lobby of Sonesta ES Suites Burlington and, beyond, part of breakfast room. (Photos courtesy Sonesta ES Suites Burlington



Review by Ron Bernthal

In 2014 the Sonesta Collection of hotels and resorts launched their Sonesta ES Suites brand, with “ES” the abbreviation for Extended Stay, one of the fastest growing hotel categories. I really like most extended stay properties, especially when the room rates are comparable to regular, non-extended stay properties.

When I needed to spend some time in the Boston area I chose Sonesta’s ES Suites Burlington, a property located in Boston’s NW suburbs, close to Route 128, known as the “high tech” highway because of all the technology companies that are located in that area.

The hotel, which had been another extended stay property brand before Sonesta took it over several years ago, has been completely remodeled, updated and refreshed with room and public area renovations and redesign. This part of the Boston metropolitan area is busy, not only with corporate offices, but residential housing and shopping malls have expanded throughout the area, and regional highways are maxed to capacity during morning and evening rush-hours. Rooms at the Burlington Sonesta ES Suites property, as well as the Sonesta ES Suites property in nearby Andover, are often quite full with business travelers on multi-week work assignments, leisure travelers visiting friends and relatives, and travelers on I-95 going to/from New Hampshire and Maine needing an overnight stop.

Despite a busy lobby with late afternoon check-ins the front desk wait was minimal, and the reception staff was friendly and efficient. Good extended stay hotels need to have oversized and clean accommodations and my one-bedroom suite did not disappoint (the property also offers studio rooms and two-bedroom accommodations). My suite had a full kitchen with a separate table for eating, full-size fridge and freezer, microwave, two-burner electric stove, dishwasher, and a complete set of glasses, plates, silverware, pots and pans, toaster and coffee maker.

Kitchen in hotel suite.

The living room of the one- and two-bedroom suites are equipped with a 32” Samsung TV, work desk, chest of drawers, couch, comfortable reading chair, phone, plenty of lighting and outlets everywhere, and a large window for natural light. Framed prints hung on the walls. For a business traveler staying for several weeks, this room could easily be a home-away-from-home.

Sleeping area portion of hotel’s one-bedroom suite.

In the bedroom, separated by its own door, was another chest of drawers, another large screen Samsung, two Queen beds (Kings are also available), night tables with reading lights, another phone and charging port, and a colorful, plastic laundry basket for taking clothes to the guest laundry room. Both rooms had pleasant, if not institutional looking, brown carpeting. Wi-Fi speed was excellent throughout the property, and complimentary.

The bathroom contained a nice looking, square Kohler sink with a large vanity mirror, and many drawers under the sink. There was also a separate tub, shower and toilet room. Poggesi brand canisters of Coco Mango shampoo, conditioner and bath gel were attached to the shower walls.

The public areas of the property were equally as impressive, including the large breakfast room, a modern and colorful space near the front desk with a variety of seating choices. The complimentary breakfast was your normal buffet lineup of eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit, cereals, juices and coffee, and it was kept clean and refreshed during the entire morning until 10:00 am. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays the property offers a 5:00-7:00 pm manager’s reception, a social gathering offering complimentary hors d’ oeuvres and wine or soft drinks. This is targeted to their extended stay business travelers, which make up much of their mid-week business, but all guests are welcome.

Photos courtesy Sonesta ES Suites Burlington

The hotel’s fitness room is called the “Mat” and is a small room near the lobby with two new treadmills and other “Life Fitness” brand equipment. The “Shoppe” is little grocery section next to the front desk that sells a variety of snacks and drinks. There is also a wonderful, landscaped courtyard, accessed by doors off the breakfast room, with an outdoor pool, barbecue grills, tables and chairs, and a full-size outdoor basketball court (a rare amenity at any hotel).

Full-size basketball court located within landscaped courtyard (photo Ron Bernthal)

A huge shopping mall is located five minutes from the hotel, along with other retail outlets and a large number of restaurants. For business visitors with appointments along the Route 128 corridor, Burlington is quite convenient, and for trips to center city Boston the drive is just 25 minutes during non-rush hour periods. There is also a commuter train from nearby Woburn station, a 25 minute ride.


Sonesta Collection ES Suites, Burlington/Boston
11 Old Concord Road
Burlington, MA 01803
Phone: 781-221-2233

Hotel Review: The Press Hotel, Portland, Maine

The Press Hotel, Portland, Maine (photo courtesy The Press Hotel)

(877) 890-5641

Review by Ron Bernthal

Like its name implies, this hotel is about the newspaper business — the writers, the headlines, the tools of the trade and the industry vocabulary of daily newspapers all over the world. Specifically, the hotel is about the Portland Press Herald, formed in 1921 with the merger of Portland’s Daily Press and Herald newspapers. The Press Herald occupied this building, on the corner of Exchange and Congress Streets, from 1923 to 2010, and after a meticulous and expensive conversion, it opened to the public as The Press Hotel in May, 2015.

Even if you have never worked as a newspaper journalist, or no longer read hard-copy newspapers, the interior details of this 110-room hotel will still be a joy to experience, as the architects and interior designers used creativity and a bit of playfulness to cleverly convert a vacant, 92 year-old newspaper office building into a modern hotel environment.

The lobby is spacious, like a large living room with comfortable chairs and couches, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street. At one end of the lobby is Union, the hotel’s signature restaurant, and a bar and lounge, named The Inkwell, occupies space at the other end. And, in this hotel, when guests come down in the morning for breakfast at Union they pass a wood table in the lobby overladen with complimentary newspapers – stacks of Wall Street Journal’s, the New York Times, USA Today and, of course, the Portland Press Herald.

Lobby and front desk of The Press Hotel (photo Ron Bernthal)

Below the lobby, accessed by a modern staircase, are four meeting rooms, appropriately named the Composing, Editorial, News and Press Room, and an Art Gallery displays works by Maine artists. The hotel is filled with art, and while many of the pieces reflect the newspaper industry, like the “letterpress art wall” sculpture behind the front desk, or the two-story installation of antique typewriters conceived of by students at nearby Maine College of Art (see lobby photo above), most of the art covers a broad spectrum.

Although Stonehill & Taylor, the interior design firm, says the décor of the guestrooms was inspired by a 1920’s-era writer’s office, the details are subtle. Bathrooms feature a reeded glass door similar to those in traditional newspaper offices, and a wood writing desk has plenty of outlets, good lighting, and complimentary WiFi available throughout the hotel. On the back of every leather desk chair is the phrase, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” in Times New Roman typeface. Wood floors are covered with herringbone area rugs, and local Main-based companies supply the bed coverings and bedding. Prints by Portland artists are in all the guestrooms.

King room at The Press Hotel (photo The Press Hotel)

The not so subtle but very imaginative touches can be found in the hotel’s corridors, where the wallpaper is comprised of enlarged Press Herald newspaper headlines, in black type over the white walls, and the corridor carpet is whimsically scattered with typewriter letter keys imprinted into the carpeting, as if the letters are dropping off the wall and onto the floor. In guestrooms the privacy tags have esoteric quotes on them from famous literary figures and songwriters, as in “My goal as a writer is more to comfort than to disturb,” by Joni Mitchell. The thick Press Hotel-branded “beat reporter” note pad, found in each room, is so beautiful they will need to be replaced frequently.

Wallpaper on corridor outside guest rooms shows Press Herald newspaper headlines with text letters seeming to drop down and scatter on carpeting below, part of hotel’s whimsical “newspaper industry” interior design theme (photo The Press Hotel)

Union, the hotel’s restaurant serving three meals daily, has already become a popular dining venue for local residents as well, a big accomplishment for a new restaurant in a city known for some of the best dining venues in America. The farm and sea-to-table menu will change at least as often as Maine’s seasons, and when I visited in June there was locally sourced oysters, scallops, salmon, mountain trout, Casco Bay cod and lobster, with farm fresh chicken and Maine-grown fruit and vegetables. Desserts and excellent oat bran bread are made in-house and the wine list is affordable, with a nice selection of California and European bottles. With its open kitchen, friendly staff, communal table, and a few more subtle details of the building’s former occupant (note the real newspaper clipping under the salt cup at breakfast), I imagine that Union will be as cozy and comfortable on a cold winter night as it was during a sultry summer evening.

Unique lighted room number outside guest room door. (photo The Press Hotel)

Portland is a walkable city, and the downtown Press Hotel is close to the historic port area, the city’s business district, and the Merrill Auditorium entertainment venue. The property is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection™ of hotels.

Former newspaper office typewriter in The Press Hotel lobby. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Gloucester Journal: Historic seaport always had atmosphere, scenery and unlimited ocean fishing, now looking for economic boost to combat fishing restrictions.

Good Harbor Beach, Gloucester, MA (photo Arlene Taliadoros, Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce)

By Ron Bernthal

Gloucester, Massachusetts was settled in 1623, making it one of the first English settlements in what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and today the town proudly proclaims itself as “America’s First Seaport.”

Although this early group of settlers abandoned Gloucester three years later due to the harsh conditions, English fisherman and farmers eventually tamed the land, harvested an unlimited supply of ocean catch, and incorporated the seaside town in 1642.  It has been a fishing port ever since, although its harbor is seeing fewer and fewer fishing trawlers.  Although fish packing houses still line Rogers Street as it meanders along the waterfront, and summer tourists still crowd local restaurants for fresh seafood, unemployment in the fishing industry has grown as government catch restrictions limit, or sometimes prohibit, the amount of fish that can be legally caught and sold.

Since the early 1800’s Gloucester’s harbor and the quaint towns and beautiful seascapes throughout the Cape Ann peninsula have also attracted painters, photographers, sculptors and writers who established private summer homes in the inland forests or on the bluffs overlooking the sea.  Art galleries and studios line village main streets, and it is a common sight in good weather to see painters standing in front of their easels with Gloucester Harbor or a deserted ocean beach as a backdrop.

The ethereal light along the coast in the Cape Ann region is often compared to the light in Arles, a city in the south of France where van Gogh produced 300 paintings during his time there in the late 1800’s.  Today, if one looks at the 19th- century paintings of Fitz Henry Lane, who lived in Gloucester, the Cape Ann scenes he depicts are very reminiscent of southern France.

Gloucester Harbor at Sunrise (painting by Fitz Henry Lane, 1851, courtesy Cape Ann Museum)

“The early artists concentrated on all the beautiful natural landscapes we have here, including the shoreline, the harbor and the center of the Cape Ann peninsula, which is still relatively uninhabited,” said Martha Oaks, curator of the Gloucester’s Cape Ann Museum. “Some of them did wonderful portraits of local fishermen, and captured the large schooners that used to sail in and out of the harbor.”

Gloucester itself, with only 30,000 residents, has so many arts and cultural venues that in 2013 it became the first community in Massachusetts to be granted two cultural district designations.  A good introduction to Gloucester’s historic seaport is to take the Harbor Walk, a short self-guided tour that meanders along the historic harbor area and in the narrow streets above the port, which are lined with numerous small, family-run businesses, including taverns, pizza shops, restaurants, barber shops and clothing stores.  On a hill in the center of town stands Gloucester City Hall, a lovely 1881 building with a clock tower that looks out past the harbor to the glittering bay beyond. The larger restaurants, those most frequented by summer motor-coach tours, as well as local families celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, are located along the waterfront and offer fresh fish and lobster with views of the harbor.

Fishing boats in Gloucester Harbor (photo Arlene Talidoros, Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce)

In the last few decades the city has experienced its share of tough times.  A rash of teenage pregnancies, drug abuse among its youth, and growing unemployment that is more than the national average, not unlike many other small New England coastal towns.

One of six restored murals by Charles Allan Winter displayed at Gloucester City Hall (photo Ron Bernthal)

But perhaps the cruelest indignity has been the decline of Gloucester’s fishing industry.   Although depleted stocks have taken its toll all along the East Coast, fishing has been Gloucester’s life blood for 400 years, and the decline has been especially difficult for the residents here, financially and psychologically.  Massachusetts ranks second behind California in the number of jobs supported by the fishing industry, but with coastal cod fishing in New England highly restricted, and severe limits on other species also affected, each year there are far fewer local boats leaving Gloucester harbor before dawn for a day’s catch.

Annisquam Lighthouse on Cape Ann (photo Arlene Taliadoros, Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce)

Many of the former fish processing sheds along the waterfront have either closed, or now process product that arrives by truck from larger seaports along the coast, and for many young men in town, following your father onto a Gloucester-based fishing boat is no longer a guaranteed career.

The town still supports a fishing fleet,  Gloucester fishing boat captains are the stars of the TV show Wicked Tuna, and the popular film, The Perfect Storm, is a true story based on a Gloucester fishing boat, and was about filmed here. But local officials and the business community have to make-up for the revenue and jobs lost in the fishing industry, and they are doing so by inviting high-tech firms to relocate out of the pricy Boston market nearby, and recently approved a modern hotel development project on beach property near the harbor.

Although the traditional fishing community has not objected to the inland high-tech development that is taking place on the Cape Ann peninsula, the hotel project had divided Gloucester during the years when it was being debated in town meetings, until construction was finally approved to move forward by the Gloucester town board.

Rendering of new Beauport Gloucester Hotel, opening 2016 (rendering courtesy Olson Lewis + Architects

In the end, the fishing community in Gloucester, traditionalists who opposed the hotel being built on a town beach, the site of a former Bird’s Eye processing plant, lost out to residents who see the future of the city’s economic revitalization no longer can count on fishing, but with luring modern businesses, design-driven hotels, and more affluent business and leisure travelers.

Painted door on fisherman’s house near Gloucester Harbor (photo Ron Bernthal)

The 96-room Beauport Hotel is expected to give Gloucester’s economy a much needed boost. “That project is a case of land going unused.  Do you just let it sit there, let the former buildings crumble and waste away?  It is prime waterfront property, and can bring it megabucks to the community,” said Erik Ronnbert, adjunct curator for maritime history at the Cape Ann Museum. “The new hotel, and perhaps others like it, will be a benefit for the city, but I understand why some residents of Gloucester were against it. The hotel is symbolic of the changes in lifestyle for generations of families that were once part of the city’s fishing heritage, and they’re seeing their culture and heritage disappear.  The kind of employment being offered to many of these proud fisherman, they see it as a step down in the town’s social hierarchy, so of course they aren’t happy about the changes are coming.”

Other residents welcome the changes.  “Interestingly, there were big resort hotels here 100 years ago, the city has always been a popular destination for visitors,” said  Scott Memhard , president of Cape Pond Ice, a company which has supplied Gloucester’s fishing fleet since 1848, and was featured in the film the Perfect Storm.  Mr. Memhard’s business has seen sharp declines in the number of fishing boats they serve, but welcomes the new hotel and the possible increase in leisure boating that may result.  “Gloucester is not really reinventing itself, there actually was once a fancy hotel on Pavilion Beach, just down the way from the Beauport Hotel, and these properties were always an important part of the economy here.”

Scott Memhard, president, Cape Pond Ice. (photo Ron Bernthal)

The Beauport Hotel is expected to open in 2016 with visitors coming to see the area’s museums and art galleries, but also to walk along the city’s working harbor, stroll the nearby beaches and enjoy the beautiful and fragile sunlight that artists have been trying to capture since Gloucester was founded 400 years ago.