About Donna Sozio
Author, journalist and publishing consultant, Donna Sozio has been featured in 200+ media outlets including the Tyra Banks Show, Early Show, Fox News, Good Day LA, Seventeen Magazine, Yahoo! Personals, Match.com, Lavalife.com, WeBlobtheWorld.com, EcoSalon.com, OrganicAuthority.com and many more.
Her books The Man Whisperer (Adams Media) and Never Trust a Man in Alligator Loafers (Kensington) were Amazon.com bestsellers, had TV/Film options and were translated into German, Portuguese and Czech.
Latest Posts by Donna Sozio
Some kind of magic happens when everything is easier than expected and better than you hoped. That’s what I experienced whilst staying at the Hotel Nice Excelsior. It’s an easy hop from the Nice airport (even on public transport) and less than a 2-minute walk from the train station. Which should leave enough Euros in your wallet for a fresh fish dinner along the Promenade des Anglais.
The Hotel Nice Excelsior
Arriving with my carry-on in tow, the Hotel Nice Excelsior had me at bon jour with its gorgeous Belle Epoch facade and an inviting modern entrance that had me thinking, ” I’m really going to like this.”
A Welcoming Entrance
Its 42 rooms are light, bright and brimming with French chic while each floor is themed with old world travel glamour. I found all the modern comforts I appreciate today, like an actually powerful hair dyer, which in France and Europe in general, is quite a rarity. And a bathrobe that actually fit, rather than the ridiculously enormous ones I trip over.
The Ground Floor
It’s the details that count and there is so much to appreciate at the Hotel Nice Excelsior. The rooms are spacious and filled with light. Balconies overlook a lovely courtyard. The beds are amazing, no stiff neck in the morning. And the bathroom looked brand new. Which isn’t always the case in Europe, even at four star hotels. I’ve often opened doors to rooms that felt more like a dark cave r hallway and slept in lumpy beds that creaked all night. But not here at the Hotel Nice Excelsior. There wasn’t one sore thumb sticking out. Not one oddity.
Perhaps their exceptional attention to detail is due to ”atmospherist” Sandrine Alouf and her part in the hotel’s recent top-to-bottom renovation. She encompassed all the charm of the bygone Belle Epoch era that travelers still long for with everything you need for a comfortable stay. As her title suggests, it’s all about atmosphere. And dare I say, emotion. Every hotel makes me feel a certain way and that’s what I remember. The Hotel Nice Excelsior made me feel… well, French. And I loved it.
Each of the Hotel Nice Excelsior’s 4 floors is artistically themed with a different mode of transportation: plane, train, car and boat to invoke the fun of travel. Chic yet whimsical wallpaper with stylistic postcards and sketches by illustrator and graphic designer Frédéric Arnold adorn the walls to give the hotel a fresh and fun throwback retro feel.
My room featured a postcard written by the infamous R. Nietzsche from Nice in 1885. Whether is was an actual postcard or a artistic representation is a mystery to me. It added to the charm and fun of staying at the hotel because I actually enjoyed staying in my room.
Room with Postcards from Nietzsche
Even the staircase was part of charm of Hotel Nice Excelsior. Yes, there’s an elevator. But taking the stairs was much more fun.
There are two areas to relax. One was the courtyard with modern patio furniture where you could appreciate the architecture and facade of this classic building with vines climbing up the wall. The other was a comfy reading room and common area with a computer for guests to use.
Comfy Common Area for Guests
Breakfast was a treat with speciality French butters, artisanal jams, chestnut flower honey, delicious cheeses, charcuterie, fresh baked breads, juices and… actually great coffee. As much as I love France, finding a good cup of coffee here isn’t easy.
There isn’t a restaurant in the hotel. But, no matter. I just walked outside and was minutes away from Vieux Nice and the Promenade des Anglais lined with fresh fish restaurants featuring Nicoise specialities. After a charming night in Old Nice dining on a slanted table, where the wine was in danger of sliding off (and it did!), I actually looked forward to returning to the hotel, flop down on the perfect bed, don my bathrobe and relax. I wanted a night in and to enjoy the room. After all, there was a really nice bottle of French rosé waiting for me in the minibar.
Hotel Nice Excelsior ****
19 Avenue Durante – 06000 NICE FRANCE
+33 (0)4 93 88 18 05
I was a guest of the Hotel Nice Excelsior. This review is a true representation of my experience at the hotel.
Luxurious. Elegant. Sexy. Historic. That’s Florence’s Guelfi e Ghibellini Restaurant.
The Music Room
I arrived for dinner an hour early to enjoy a cocktail from the bar in the Music Room on the piano nobile in the historic Relais Santa Croce Firenze Hotel. I slowly sipped my negroni taking in its true grandness. The parquet floors. The vaulted ceilings. The enormous glittering chandelier and the removable panels in the wall that once hosted a full orchestra when the Marchese Baldinucci entertained in the 1700’s. I pinched myself. It’s 2015 and now, I’m here. Really? Fancy that. You can’t help but to feel special in a such a beautiful and truly historic palazzo that invites you to experience and enjoy it as you would your own home.
Guelfi e Ghibellini Restaurant
Once seated in the restaurant, we were swept away with the elegance of fine dining. Service was relaxed but excellent as we were guided through the Mediterranean menu and its excellent wine list.
As beautiful as the Guelfi e Ghibellini is I wasn’t here to just to admire the art. I was there to indulge in some serious Florentine cuisine with their signature Mediterranean twist. And so our three hour dinner began.
Honestly, I’m not sure how the Italians do it. Antipasto. Primo. Secondo. Then desert, fruit and coffee. Mamma mia! For me it’s always a bit too much but I put on my game face and tried my best. Everything on the menu was truly tempting such as: Chianina beef tartar with artichokes and pecorino cheese slivers and crisp vegetable strudel with ewe’s ricotta and Mediterranean gazpacho. There were even some classic Roman favorites such as: Spaghetti with ‘Cacio’ cheese and black pepper and Amatriciana spaghetti with tomato sauce, bacon and hot pepper.
Il Primo: Paccheri from Gragnano with seafood, tomatoes and lemon zest
For the primo, I opted for my favorite type of pasta: paccheri, which are very large tubes that collect the sauce expertly. Fantastic! The slightly nutty flavor of the Gragnano flour with the seafood was a lovely combination. It was a shame but I had to leave some in my bowl to make room for the secondo.
When in Florence it’s obligatory – at least for me – to try the Grilled Florentine T-bone steak, which was cooked to perfection and very juicy. The flecks of salt on top brought out even more flavor and blended perfectly with my bold Chianti.
Il Secondo: Turbot fish in a pistacho crust with potatoes from Cetica and sweet peppers
If steak isn’t your taste, try the fish. Although Italians aren’t famous for their seafood, truly they are masters in its preparation. After all, Italy is surrounded by the sea.
Il Dolce: Trio of crème brulée Pistachio, Passion fruit, Strawberry
Then after una pausa (little break) it was time for desert. I’m a fan of all things citrus and I love that flavors that it gives to deserts. Not too sweet, like the Cantucci parfait with orange, ginger and vin santo sauce. And for cherry lovers the variation of cherries: cheese cake, broiled custard and sorbet is a must try. Fruity and refreshing, it was the perfect end to the truly memorable three hour meal.
For its elegance, fine dining, and historic setting dinner at Guelfi e Ghibellini Restaurant is a Tuscan experience to hold and remember. I know I will.
*Images courtesy of Relais Santa Croce Florence
*I was a guest of Relais Santa Croce Florence and Guelfi e Ghibellini Restaurant
At the Relais Santa Croce Florence, I channeled my inner contessa when I stayed in this meticulously restored palazzo filled with Italian treasures and majestic frescoes.
Entrance to Relais Santa Croce
Evidently, it’s good to be the treasurer of the pope. At least it was for Marchese Baldinucci, who in the early 18thcentury built Palazzo Ciofi Jacometti, that is now the Relais Santa Croce Florence.
As the saying goes, “God is in the details” and I had an inspiring – almost religious – stay.
Perhaps it was the views of Basillica di Santa Croce, the original frescoes and vast parquet floors? Or the exquisite gold leafing? Even just walking in the front door between two Roman columns was an experience in itself and had me at hello.
I felt both a part of yesterday’s Renaissance and today’s timeless chic.
One of Italy’s premiere Baglioni Hotels, this five-star gem embodies luxe and refinement. Dare I say, it’s one sexy palazzo. Pack your silk dress and well-fitted suit because here you’ll be inspired to embody your Italian-style. Comfy wrinkled travel clothes just aren’t the right vibe. Not under these vaulted ceilings.
The common rooms are anything but common. They’re an elegant mix of period pieces and restored elegance, splendor, and charm. It’s not often I use the word splendor to describe a hotel. But I do here with full regale.
The Music Room
The Music Room, the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail before dinner, is where the Marchese Baldinucci entertained Florence’s A-list in the 170o’s under a particularly enormous chandelier with an orchestra that emerged from behind removable panels in the wall.
The Sala Fumoir
And not that I advocate smoking but if you ever wanted to have an elegant puff, the Sala Fumoir is the place to light up in an atmosphere of restored sophistication with a view of Florence below.
De Pepi Presidential Suite
The rooms were just as I had expected whilst staying in a palazzo – gorgeous! Of the 24 rooms and suites the most famous are the Da Verazzano Royal Suite and the De Pepi Presidential Suite with priceless antiques and 18th century frescoes to keep you company.
Da Verazzano Royal Suite
I fell in love with even more details: the ironed linen sheets and the softest bathrobes were definitely in alignment with the hotel’s five stars.
As much as the Relais Santa Croce had me at hello, the next morning came and after a delicious hotel breakfast and cappuccino under vaulted ceilings, it was time to check out and say goodbye to my Tuscan Contessa fantasy. After all this gold leafed elegance, I knew it would be uncouth to cross my arms and refuse to leave. Although I admit the thought absolutely crossed my mind.
For me, it wasn’t just the beauty of the palazzo but also the feeling I had staying at the Relais Santa Croce that I never wanted to forget. Thankfully, you can take all your feelings with you. And when feelings turn to memories, they are yours forever. Such is my memory of contessa for a night at the Relais Santa Croce Florence.
*Photos courtesy of Relais Santa Croce Florence
*I was the guest of Relais Santa Croce Florence
Palazzo and Michelin star are three of my favorite words. At the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze in Palazzo della Gherardesca, these three words deliciously collide at the famed Il Palagio.
You can dine al fresco on the verdant garden terrace and watch the sun reflect in your glass as it sets over botanical gardens. Or indulge in modern Tuscan elegance inside under the light of its many chandeliers. Either way, even before your meal begins, Il Palagio is a feast for the senses.
It was a hot May day so we opted for the terrace, which absolutely was the right choice. The gardens were lush and magical. A stunning backdrop to an incredible meal.
I let the sommelier choose the wine. We started with a Tuscan Fattoria Di Montechiari “Donna Catherine” and then moved on to a Gavi di Gavi white that sang out of the glass.
Once our dishes arrived the negotiations began. “Can I have a gnudi, if I give you one of my prawns?” These flavorful negotiations are always a win/win.
Here are a few of the dishes that we battled over with our forks.
Warm ‘francesina’ stewed beef salad on swiss chard cream
Gnudi: traditional ricotta cheese and wild asparagus dumplings served with San Miniato saffron sauce
Cavatelli pasta ‘cacio e pepe’ with marinated red prawns and baby squid
Pigeon from Assisi with Vin Santo and thyme scented caramelised fruits.
What I enjoy so much about fine dining is that every forkful, dab, swirl, or smear on your plate offers a new experience of flavor. You never know what direction those mysterious three green dots are going to take you. Which only adds to the fun of discovering new flavors.
By now the sun had set and twilight had faded into black. Which meant it was time for dessert.
With desert came even more negotiations and fork fighting over ‘Amedei’ chocolate and cardamon mousse with coffee ice-cream and the Mascarpone lingot with salted caramel pecan nuts and ‘Malaga’ ice cream.
Like the last page of your new favorite book that you don’t want to put down, this was a dinner that I didn’t want to end. More than just delicious. It was dreamy. A pinch yourself surreal “La Dolce Vita” moment. I was even tempted to leave behind an earring. Something to come back for.
But then I remembered how beautiful Il Palagio was also on the inside. And how it would be an entirely new experience to dine under its chandeliers.
Tonight, I could keep my earring. I had found my reason to return.
*Photos courtesy of the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze
*I was a guest of the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze
Before you begin reading, first pour yourself a glass of proseco and toast yourself. Why? Because you have chosen to leave the road most traveled (Rome, Florence, Venice) and venture into Umbria – the green heart of Italy – where you can experience la vera Italia.
You might know which Umbrian wineries to visit and what medieval hilltop towns to tour. But where should you stay?
Certainly Umbria’s hamlets and walled cities are full of hotels. But why not try something different? Like a private villa or an agritourismo, where you can make the most of Umbria’s vistas of never-ending rolling hills? After six visits to Umbria, I’ve tried both. Here are my top two picks.
Private Villa: Fondo la Teglie
A restored 17th century farmhouse, this 5-bedroom private villa is what Italian countryside dreams are made of.
The villa itself exudes a rustic country feel but it is fully equipped with all modern amenities. There’s a marvelous kitchen, outdoor grill, and wood-burning pizza oven to please the chef(s) of your group. The master bedroom made me feel like an Italian contessa with a canopy bed and gorgeous traditional Umbrian linens.
The master bathroom with its sweeping views of the Umbrian countryside made getting ready – even just for a walk through local vineyards – a luxurious affair.
One of the things I love about Fondo la Teglie is the dilemma where to have my morning coffee. Under a canopy of wisteria overlooking a hilltop town in the distance? Under the olive trees? Or by the pool, which introduced me to an entirely different view of the Umbrian landscape. I settled on enjoying my caffé under the olive trees. Then I had lunch by the pool. And enjoyed an evening apero under the wisteria watching the full moon rise. A perfect trifecta.
So, what’s the allure of an Italian villa?
There’s something utterly magical about having all this all to yourself. It’s just you, the olive trees, the lavender and rosemary, the hills, the views, the wine, the food, and your closest friends and family living it up La Dolce Vita-style.
The gardens, orchards, and olive groves surrounding Fondo Le Teglie are bursting with colors and scents. Even the trees buzz with life. And with so many gorgeous spaces for dining al fresco, or just taking in the views, a day spent on property is a vacation in itself. Pick tomatoes from the proprietor’s orto. Or plums from her orchard. Stroll the garden path with a glass of wine in hand. Cool off in the pool. Work on your tan. Dine under the stars. And you’ll never want to leave. I didn’t.
Whatever you need is just a phone call away. The proprietor can arrange almost anything. A Vespa tour. Wine tastings. Private chef and traditional Umbrian home cooking classes with the talented Senora Dina.Tickets to Umbria Jazz. Hot air balloon rides. Even transportation by helicopter.
Getting to Fondo le Teglie is easy enough. Simply fly into Rome or Florence. Then you can arrive either directly by car or take a train to Terni. From the Terni train station, private pick-up is available.
Somethings in life – like a private villa in Umbria – are just worth it. Fondo le Teglie isn’t a place to stay. It’s a life-changing experience. La Dolce Vita at its best shared with the ones you love.
I Gergoni: Agriturismo
So, what if ten of your closest friends can’t commit to an Italian villa in Umbria? Or you love mingling with other international guests and want a more communal Italian countryside experience? Then stay at I Gergoni Agriturismo. With six luxury apartments on property, accommodating from two to six guests – each with a gorgeous kitchen and spacious private patio – county living Umbrian-style is easy to get used to.
About 90-minutes equidistant from Rome and Florence by train, you can get away with not having a car and arrange with the proprietors to pick you up from the train station, just 10 minutes away. From I Gergoni, you can easily pop into Rome, Florence, or Orvieto and be back in time to enjoy wine on your balcony as the sun sets and fireflies flicker amongst the oaks.
Private and serene or communal, if you want it to be, I loved the farm feeling to my stay. Which is what an agriturismo is all about. And if you like animals this is the place to be.
I could collect eggs or truffles. And give scratches to Gretta, the proprietors’ adorable rescue dog. One afternoon their neighbor visited bearing gifts: delicious cherries fresh from his tree, which were shared amongst guests.
Some guests come to I Gergoni with ten books and the only place they go is the pool. Others are day-trippers, leaving early in the morning and back in time for a relaxing dinner. As for me, I enjoyed a bit of both. A day trip to Montepulciano was a delight. And while staying in on property, I dipped my feet in the pool and thought about how life in Umbria – whether staying in a private villa or at an agriturismo, indeed is a bowl of cherries.
*Photos courtesy of Fondo Le Teglie and I Gergoni.
*Note: I was the guest of Fondo Le Teglie and I Gergoni but all opinions are entirely my own.
Whilst in Umbria, Roccafiore is what the locals call da vedere….which means it’s a must see. An even greater compliment to Roccafiore is that you’ll find locals dining at the table next to you and ordering their wine from the cantina.
What often starts as just lunch at Roccafiore turns into hours under the Umbrian sun dining al fresco with sweeping views of Todi, a hilltop medieval town, visiting Roccafiore’s lavender gardens, organic wine tasting in their cantina, sunbathing by their luxurious pool or indulging in a day pass at the Wellness Center. Or just give in and stay the night in one of Roccafiore’s 13 luxurious rooms. Then you can wake up and do it all over again. Even picnic in the surrounding Grechetto vineyards.
My love affair with Roccafiore began with lunch last year. An exceptional white tablecloth fine dining affair at their Fiorfiore Restaurant, I was spoiled with unparalleled farm-to-table dishes on their seasonal menu like the Torretta: eggplant with bufala mozzarella, tomatoes and oregano, Chianino beef: with froth of parmesan cheese, salad and toasted almonds and homemade strangozzi pasta: with sausage, lemon and anchovies.
Accompanying our meal, we sipped on organic wines – Grechetto di Todi, Trebbiano Spoletino and Sangiovese – from their cantina. Talk about Zero Kilometer commitment. The cantina isn’t next door. It’s on property. Roccofiore also generates its own solar energy that saves up to 90.000 Kg of carbon emissions annually. I’ll drink to that. And, we did!
I also found the staff to be more than accommodating. Once on a windy June afternoon, they kindly set up a table outside, just for the two of us, on the terrace. We couldn’t pass up the stunning views of Todi, vineyards, hills, and gardens and didn’t mind chasing after a few cloth napkins to enjoy it. The waitstaff are well educated on food and wine pairings offered delicious suggestions that I would never have thought of. Even the biscotti with my espresso after our meal were homemade and truly exceptional.
So, get out your navigation device and make your way to Roccafiore. Pack your swimsuit and I wouldn’t make any other afternoon plans. Because there is a high probability that you will not want to leave.
For just 15-35 Euros – an incredible deal – treat yourself to a day pass at the spa complete with a Kneipp bath, Jacuzzi, equatorial showers and more.
When is the right time to go to Roccafiore?
After six visits to Umbria, I find the countryside stunning and magical in all seasons. The colors of the hills are constantly changing. Every time I visit Roccafiore, I sink deeper into simple delicious pleasures of Umbria. The views. The hills. The lavender gardens and vineyards. And then there’s the pool, the cuisine, the spa, and the wine. Roccofiore’s 38 Euro seasonal wine tasting menu brings it all together – a tour of the flavors of Umbria on your tongue. Just make sure you designate a driver. Tasting pours are more than generous.
As far as luxury, quality and value, I have yet to find a hotel, restaurant and spa in Italy that offers even close to what Roccafiore provides guests. Every time, it fully delivers on my dream of the Italian countryside experience. Which is why I go back again and again. For me Roccafiore is da vedere di nuovo. I pinch myself and ask “can life really be this good?” Yes, it can. At Roccofiore, it is.
Talk about farm-to-table, Lodi’s legendary Towne House restaurant was located on a historic farm where the restaurant was the original house to the Towne family. Keeping that homestead vibe, delicious wine country cuisine is served family-style. Elegant but without pretense, I found every detail thought of and carried out with warmth and excellent service. It’s the kind of place where you actually feel a connection to those who aren’t just your servers but feel more like long-time friends.
Located at the Wine & Roses Hotel, amongst vineyards, tall oaks, redwoods, and weeping willows, The Town House’s ingredients come from local farms, including their own garden. Fresh and crisp, everything had that extra crunch to it that made you feel like you were eating something truly homemade.
Romantic inside and out, it’s perfect for twilight dining under a fairy lit gazebo on a warm balmy night. And there are plenty of balmy nights in Lodi. And lucky me, on Tuesday’s in the Town House’s lounge I joined in for their piano sing-along. Their award-winning local Lodi wines are said to “sing out of the glass.” At the Towne House, I was invited to sing with my glass. Holding my wine glass like a microphone gave me a little extra courage to belt out some tunes with the rest of the fun loving and surprising talented locals.
Now that Lodi has emerged as a wine making region (not just grape growers) it’s worth circling on your wine road map. And with restaurants like the Towne House, you get all the perks of wine country – farm fresh ingredients and sumptuous recipes paired delicious old vine Zinfandel wine, but without any of the pretense of the more commercial wine country regions.
*I was a guest of Charles Communication and the Lodi Wine & Visitors Center
*Photo courtesy of the Wine & Roses Hotel
It’s not often that I could spend my entire stay on hotel property. Let alone enjoying an entire afternoon in my room and its environs. But such is at the MacArthur Place in Sonoma. Located walking distance from tasting rooms and minutes from stunning wineries, it’s a unique classic. A gem. Just 45 minutes from San Francisco, it’s worth not just staying at, but also staying in.
After check in, I followed a narrow garden path on the way to my room where I discovered one whimsical nook after another. Art and sculptures emerged, all with a sense of humor. Swings beckoned and sunny spots invited me to whittle away the afternoon reading a new book or record random musings in my journal.
MacArthur Place both impressed and inspired me. I felt my stay unlocked my creativity. Ideas flowed as I was both entertained and utterly spoiled. From feeling old-Hollywood glamorous in the outdoor cabana shower to the pure indulgence while sipping champagne in the morning on my veranda overlooking a garden full of oversized playful jacks. Like watching a good movie twice and enjoying it even more the second time, I’m counting the days until I can return.
And then there was the pool to soak up a few afternoon rays in luxury and day dream if only just a little while. On the way, I meandered through the Spa Gardens where they harvest fresh herbs for signature spa remedies. The pool is understated and elegant surrounded by a lush garden view in every direction. Even the jacuzzi was bordered by white roses and lavender.
But time slipped away and I realized that it was nearly happy hour held in the Library. Now, the Library at MacArthur Place is hardly quiet. It’s a fun and lively gathering place for guests where our entertaining hostess, Cynthia, generously poured delicious local wines. After a glass or two (but who is counting?) with a Chardonnay smile, I happily stumbled to my suite for a disco nap before dinner.
When it was time to sleep and party with my pillow, I took the “long” way back to my suite and sat in a swing contemplating the stars and my good luck. And not wanting the night to end, I took a bath enjoying yet another perk; complementary Grape Seed Bath Soaking Tea from the Spa.
The next morning I work up feeling utterly refreshed. I treated myself to a glass of champagne in my white fuzzy bathrobe on my suite’s front porch. Looking down, I saw yet another subtle art installation. A life-like dog sat to my left, who left paw prints in the “wet” cement under my feet. More whimsy to make me smile.
I could have relaxed on my front porch for another hour, but I didn’t want to miss breakfast. So I traded in my fuzzy bathrobe for real clothes and headed over to The Barn for its complimentary buffet for guests. Sitting in their garden room with nearly floor to ceiling shutters with lush green views, I fully enjoyed homemade muffins and a fresh breakfast that lived up to all that I had experienced before.
Looking at my watch, checkout was looming. I could have easily have stayed another day or ten reveling in the charm and whimsical elegance that is MacArthur Place.
Disclosure: I was the guest of MacArthur Place Inn & Spa and Photos courtesy of MacArthur Place Inn & Spa.