August 12, 2009

Q: Can you recommend a stylish, well-priced hotel in Madrid? —Salvador Lopez, Austin, Tex.

A: The 102-room De Las Letras H&R (doubles from $223), located on the city’s main thoroughfare, has new parquet floors and a wrought-iron elevator; book a sixth-floor suite for an outdoor whirlpool. In the nearby Chueca district, the vibe at Room Mate Óscar (doubles from $140) is playful: think oversize furniture, pink walls, and white bedding. And two miles west is the lively Salamanca neighborhood, where you’ll find Vincci Soma (doubles from $166)—all 170 rooms are modern, with architectural lighting; Nos. 902, 903, and 904 have teakwood terraces overlooking downtown Madrid.

Q: I have five days to spend in Tokyo and Kyoto next month. What kind of itinerary do you suggest? —Ellen Steele, Darien, Conn.

A: After arriving at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, check in to the 178-room Park Hyatt Tokyo (doubles from $450). The next day, stroll through Ueno Park, which houses the Tokyo National Museum. Then watch the Harajuku girls parade along crowded Takeshita-dori Street in wigs and colorful costumes. A 2 1/2-hour ride on the Shinkansen (japanrail.com) train will land you in the heart of Kyoto. In the traditional geisha quarter, Yoshi-ima Ryokan (doubles from $390, including meals) makes a good base for exploring the city’s many temples, such as Kinkaku-ji, the 14th-century Golden Pavilion.

Q: Does travel insurance cover pandemics? —Jim Lawrence, Lake Forest, Ill.

A: It depends on the type of coverage you opt for. Most policies will reimburse medical, evacuation, and other costs incurred if you fall ill during a trip. If you become sick before your departure, you can typically cancel your trip, as long as the plan was purchased within 15 days of your initial deposit. But there are exceptions, so it’s important to read the fine print closely. Several major carriers, such as Access America, Global Alert, and TravelSafe have exclusion clauses, which means they won’t recognize any pandemic-related claims. If you want to cancel or postpone a trip because you’re afraid of getting sick, you can purchase an upgraded policy with a “cancel for any reason” option. This allows you to back out usually up to two days before your departure for reasons not covered by insurance. The downside? Expect to spend up to 40 or 50 percent more on your premium (prices vary widely based on age and trip cost).

Ask an Expert: T+L Wine and Spirits Editor Bruce Schoenfeld

Q: Do you have any good tips for bringing wine home from outside the U.S.? —Lori Russell, Potomac, Md.

A: “Transporting wine while traveling can be complicated,” says T+L’s wine guru Bruce Schoenfeld, “so make sure the bottles you bring back are worth the effort. They should either be very difficult or impossible to buy in the U.S., or available abroad at a far better price. Also keep in mind that U.S. Customs and Border Protection allows travelers to carry just a bit more than a typical bottle into the U.S. before duty payments kick in. Finally, wine can’t be carried on board anymore, so you’ll need to check it as luggage. I like the carrier from Wine Cruzer (winecruzer.com; $305)—it holds up to six bottles, maintains temperature, and prevents breakage.”

Park Hyatt Tokyo

Years after its starring role in the hit indie film Lost in Translation, the Park Hyatt Tokyo—housed in the upper floors of a handsome steel Kenzo Tange tower near Yoyogi Park in Shinjuku—continues to draw moviegoers and discerning travelers alike. For years this was the Tokyo hotel to stay in, and a Hollywood star-spotting in one of the restaurants or lounges was practically guaranteed. Other luxe hotels have since opened and some celebrities have moved on, but the 177-room Park Hyatt Tokyo continues to offer some of the best amenities of any property in the capital. In a city where space is at a premium, its generous 500-square-foot rooms are a standout with their rare 2,000-year-old Hokkaido water elm paneling, deep soaking tubs, and far-reaching views. The 47th-floor swimming pool, complete with glass roof, is an oasis above it all. Afternoon tea in the peaceful Peak Lounge also offers a quiet respite from the city’s bustle. If the skies are clear, have lunch on the 40th floor in Kozue and gaze upon Mount Fuji as you nibble away on your bento box.

Hotel de las Letras

The literary aesthetic of this Belle Époque 1917 building with a choice location near Chueca and blocks from Puerta del Sol plays out in details like quotes from famous authors on the landings and phrases from classic literature in rooms. (The hotel’s name is a nod to “el barrio de las Letras,” the area around Plaza Santa Ana that was a stomping ground of literary greats in earlier centuries.) Rooms are minimalist, with white-on-white bedding, restored parquet floors, and walls painted in deep hues like ocher and red. Hallways, with preserved historic oak floors, lead to a spiral staircase circling an original wrought-iron elevator.

Room Mate Óscar

The vibe here is playful: think oversize furniture, pink walls, and white bedding.

Vincci Soma

All 170 rooms are modern, with architectural lighting; Nos. 902, 903, and 904 have teakwood terraces overlooking downtown Madrid.

Tokyo National Museum

The Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park is the largest repository of Japanese art and artifacts in the world, with collections spanning thousands of years and ranging from textiles and ceramics to armor, painting, sculpture, and calligraphy. This vast collection is spread over five buildings, including the Toyokan Gallery of Asian Art, which includes work from all over Asia. Built in 1937, the museum mounts major exhibitions each year in addition to its permanent collection. Experts recommend three hours for a museum visit.

Yoshi-ima Ryokan

This 17-room ryokan in Gion, the traditional geisha quarter, holds candlelit evening tea ceremonies and makes a good base for exploring the city's many temples.

Kinkaku-ji

A 14th-century Gold Pavilion.

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