Several years ago a houseguest visiting me in New York said, "You've taken me to four bars and two restaurants, and none of them have been marked. What is going on?" It was the height of Manhattan's speakeasy craze, and although it may have gotten (and may still be!) a little out of hand, there was something irresistible about exploring an underground New York just for New Yorkers.
In a city that sees 48.8 million visitors each year, the best way to claim a corner of one's own may be to hide it behind a secret phone booth, underneath a pizza stand, beyond the kitchen, on the other side of the wine cellar or in a train car. The same is true in other cities, of course, which is why digging for insider tips and word-of-mouth directions before a trip always pays off. The legwork is far more fun when the results are guaranteed.
Take, for example, La Petite Cuisine à Paris. British ex-pat Rachel Khoo moved to town to train at the Cordon Bleu, and she ran this two-seat restaurant out of her 256-square-foot apartment. She served lunch just two days each week, on Wednesday and Saturday. Guests were treated to soufflé, ragout or coq au vin, depending on the chef's inclination.
Khoo is closing her kitchen soon, so here are ten other word-of-mouth addresses worth investigating. Whether this list leads you to a hilltop spa in Mexico, a helicopter-access-only slope in the Canadian Rockies or a kitchen filled with Italian grandmas hell-bent on perfecting your pesto is up to you. When you've arrived, you'll know you're there.
Boulangerie de Croquignoles: Verbier, Switzerland
Verbier is that rare place in which travelers exercise and party in equal measure. A day of off-piste skiing isn't complete without a rich raclette supper, drinking and dancing. Crowning it all is one phenomenal secret address, located just outside the town square: Boulangerie de Croquignoles. The bakers begin their morning just as weekenders are ending their night. Knock on the window and a hand will appear, bearing a hot croissant in exchange for about $5. A most symbiotic relationship! The macaroons are also worth the trip. Route des Creux 22; verbier.ch.
Le Tunnel de la Collonge: Ambierle, France
In the cheese world, affinage, or the art of aging and maturing cheese, is a whole separate genius. Fromagerie Mons, in Roanne, France, is at the top of the game, supplying perfectly aged cheese to the world's best restaurants. Beginning in March, travelers can witness the aging process in a most alluring way, by venturing to the tiny town of Ambierle to spy the innovative aging tunnel the affineurs constructed in 2009. The entire operation is tucked inside an abandoned railway tunnel. Filled with shelves and shelves of the finest cheeses in the world, one imagines that if Willy Wonka had had an affection for dairy, not candy, Le Tunnel de la Collonge would have been his headquarters. 42820 Ambierle; mons-fromages.com.
Tutti a Tavola: Chianti, Italy
Learn to cook Italian from those that know best: mammas! Mimma, Lele, Franca and Simonetta are the women behind Tutti a Tavola, a hidden cooking school in Tuscany. (The name translates to "Everyone to the table.") If you inquire, these Italians mothers might invite you to stay on their own property -- think: incredible 18th-century farmhouses -- for a two- to four-day culinary course. That includes shopping with the mammas at the market, cooking with the mammas in the kitchen and joining the mammas at the table. Best of all -- just like an American mama -- they're pleased to visit you too. Each year they pop in to see former guests in America, Australia and beyond. Near Chianti; tutti-a-tavola.com.
Happy Hummingbird: British Columbia, Canada
Ditch the same ho-hum run-and-go for something a bit more adventurous with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). As the inventor of heli-skiing, they know a thing or two about secret slopes. Instructor Jean-Francois Lacombe suggests hopping a 12-minute flight from Calgary to the outfitter's private Valemount Lodge, where another ten-minute flight will take guests to a narrow ridgetop for a run dubbed "Happy Hummingbird." Lacombe says, "I love this run because of the cool landing site, great views and, of course, a great ski descent, from mountain top to the helicopter pickup at the bottom of the valley." With its (relatively!) central location and notable amenities, Valemount Lodge tends to book months in advance. Plan ahead. Near Valemount; canadianmountainholidays.com.
Carlson's of Fishtown: Leland, Michigan
Some New Yorkers go to the Hamptons to get away from it all. Mario Batali heads to Northern Michigan. "It takes less time for me to get here from New York than it would for me to get to Amagansett," he told the New York Times. Batali's choice of Midwest secret addresses for Departures is Carlson's of Fishtown, a hole-in-the-wall so obscure that Google Maps can't find it. No matter. In this tiny town, any native knows where to go for smoked whitefish pâté, a famed local delicacy. 205 West River St.; lelandmi.com.
Verjus: Paris, France
In 2007, American ex-pats and avid cooks Laura Adrian and Braden Perkins began hosting private dinner parties as a way to make new friends in Paris. What started as a hobby soon became a business, as their "Hidden Kitchen" gained traction through food blogs and word of mouth. Soon it was nearly impossible to get a reservation for their ten-course meal, served two times a week in their home. On December 1, the couple took their culinary accomplishments out of hiding and opened Verjus, a restaurant near the Jardin du Palais Royal. Hurry, this won't be a secret address for long! 52 Rue de Richelieu; verjusparis.com
Spa En Vivo at Hotel Matilda: San Miguel Allende, Mexico
If you haven't been to San Miguel Allende, chances are it's on your list. The 469-year-old colonial city and artisan hub is the new must-see destination in Mexico, with two new luxury properties -- Rosewood San Miguel Allende and Hotel Matilda -- that opened just in the past year. This November, Hotel Matilda added a secret address to its features. In addition to its on-site 4,700-foot spa, it opened Spa En Vivo. This outdoor spa perched on a hilltop in the countryside allows guests to experience hand-blended apothecary treatments created from locally sourced ingredients in an environment that's every bit as natural. Enhanced by thermal pools, bamboo-encased treatment rooms, a yoga pavilion and a contemporary interpretation of a temazcal sweat lodge, it's so pleasant outside you may never want to go back in. Private hilltop in the countryside; hotelmatilda.com.
Night Gallery: Los Angeles, California
As much as we love New York's pristine Chelsea galleries, they're a far cry from the gritty artists' studios in which the works are created. To narrow that gap and dig for a diamond in the rough -- and we do mean rough -- drive to L.A.'s Night Gallery. Canadian-transplant Davida Nemeroff opened the black box space in February 2010 as a safe haven for young artists and the collectors who love them. She now runs it with Mieke Marple. Need directions? Look for an unmarked former party supply store surrounded by taco shops in a dicey eastside neighborhood from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Tuesday through Thursday. Sound scary? Wait for Night Gallery's next show at the Chateau Marmont. Their first group show at Bar Marmont opened in October 2011 to rave reviews. 204 S. Avenue 19; nightgallery.ca.
Royal Mansour Marrakech: Marrakech, Morocco
The result of King Mohammed VI's marvelous mandate -- and budget -- to build the most beautiful example of Moroccan architecture in the world, and years of toil by more than 1,000 craftsmen, Royal Mansour Marrakech opened in June 2010 to much fanfare. The property includes 53 riads, each more opulent than the next. The winner, though, is the palace within the palace: Riad D'Honneur. Royal Mansour does not advertise, and in that sense alone, it's a secret address. It becomes even more so when one considers the intricate tunnels and passageways that run under the hotel, obscuring the Royal Mansour's most opulent feature of all: impeccable, invisible service. Rue Abou Abbas El Sebti; royalmansour.com.
Door 74: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
This Amsterdam stalwart speakeasy gets continued high marks for its consistently delicious cocktails, intimate booths and modern reservations system. Just call 31-0/877-844-980 in the morning to book a table and text the same number in the evening to confirm. Upon settling in, the menu arrives with specific instructions to further the clandestine nature of the place. Smokers are asked to walk to another bar, down the road, before lighting up -- lest they signal the secret address to passing pedestrians -- and patrons are instructed to say their farewells before exiting the bar. Reguliersdwarsstraat 74; door74.nl.