Why I Travel: Mary Jo Gartner

Mary Jo and Jay Gartner in Quebec City. 
Mary Jo and Jay Gartner in Quebec City. 
Photo by Mary Jo Gartner
Opera and action-packed itineraries lure Mary Jo Gartner around the world.  

Mary Jo Gartner’s father worked for Pan Am, so she grew up flying standby, taking whichever seat was empty. She’s still hopping on planes at 56, but her travel standards are slightly higher: Now it’s first class, Michelin stars, and lavish corner suites. Dallas-based Virtuoso travel agency owner Nancy Strong does the advance work for Mary Jo, a retired technology and business consultant, and her husband, Jay, a retired physician. 
 
The best trips are like time travel. I love when a tour guide brings the events of a particular epoch to life in a personalized way. That’s why we always request private guides. In Florence, we didn’t just see the David at Galleria dell’Accademia – our guide showed us the city through the worlds of the powerful Medicis, as well as young Michelangelo and his conflicts with Leonardo da Vinci.
 
I like a complete itinerary, and by complete, I mean something scheduled every minute of the day: museums in Europe, canoe adventures on the Amazon, climbing a glacier in Alaska. I want to be exhausted coming back to the hotel. 
 
My hobby is “restaurant-touring,” especially Michelin-starred restaurants. We just came back from Pujol in Mexico City – fantastic! In Stockholm, Nancy got us into the kitchen of Mathias Dahlgren’s two-star Matsalen, and we watched him tweeze tiny leaves onto the plate. As far as truly jaw-dropping experiences, that would be Ikarus in Salzburg – white-glove service in a private airplane hangar surrounded by Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz’s art collection. 

The Gartners with their children in Peru.
The Gartners with their children in Peru.
Photo by Mary Jo Gartner

A trip isn’t a trip unless I’ve seen an opera. The most memorable was The Magic Flute at La Scala. It’s quite bizarre – Mozart must have been on something. We were right there in the first row, and it was one of those “Wow, we’re in Italy!” moments. That’s what Nancy does for us.
 
Once during the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo, we had dinner in the magical town of Èze, at La Chèvre d’Or. Tiny restaurant, handful of romantic tables. One was all distinguished men in suits. Afterward our driver said, “What did you think about having dinner with King Gustaf of Sweden?” I had no idea. He wasn’t wearing a crown!
 
I want a concierge who gets you what you need, and there’s no staff better than at The St. Regis Mexico City. Even when we’re staying somewhere else, their concierges will get us tickets or reservations if we need them. That’s service above and beyond. 
 
Big trips, small trips, guides, transportation, dinners: Nancy does it all. We’ve worked with her agency for 15 years – it’s impossible to imagine traveling without her. She transforms touring into adventures and adventures into memories that last a lifetime. And if there’s ever a change or a problem, we know we can call anytime and be cared for in the most hospitable way. 

Cruising Venice.
Cruising Venice.
Photo by Mary Jo Gartner 

I don’t travel anywhere without my Simplehuman makeup mirror. It’s foldable and unbreakable, and has a light that’s better than the best hotels’. 
 
Being Jewish, we have a ritual of visiting synagogues. We did an in-depth trip with Abercrombie & Kent to Italy, Switzerland, and Austria with emphasis on Jewish history. In Split, Croatia, our guide invited us to meet her father, who was in charge of the synagogue.
 
What I pack: Three pairs of shoes (running, walking, evening). Three pairs of jeans (blue, black, white). Three jackets (casual, dressy, weather-proof). Some silk shirts. A few wrinkle-proof dresses. One purse for day, one for night. That’s basically all I need for ten days.  
 
I want to be at hotels where the answer is “Yes, of course!” I have a strong preference for historic hotels, such as the Four Seasons in Budapest and Lisbon’s Olissippo Lapa Palace.

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