Scotland

Highland cattle (known locally as ‘coos’) have a double coat of long hair making them well suited to the rain, cold and winds in the Highlands of Scotland. They are also hilariously photogenic.P1060489Throughout the trip we sought as many opportunities as possible to see Highland cattle and made sure to get photos. By the end of our week, I swear I started to look like a Highland coo! IMG_4714Our eight day trip to Scotland began in Edinburgh. Delta Airlines introduced seasonal non-stop service from Boston and we were on the inaugural flight. To celebrate, Delta had a bagpipe player at our gate and offered whisky and shortbread before boarding. A cliche for sure, but a welcome one! We arrived to sunshine and despite only a few hours of sleep on the overnight flight, we set out to explore the city.P1060101P1060095Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline from high on Castle Rock, an extinct volcano, and is visible from just about anywhere in the city. It was the home of Scottish kings and queens for centuries and is a symbol of Scottish independence. In August the esplanade in front of the castle becomes the site of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo where kilt-wearing bagpipers and drum corps entertain the crowds. Here’s a link to a YouTube video from the BBC to give you an idea of the power of the bagpipes and drums.P1060154fullsizeoutput_bec9An easy walk that provided us with great views over Edinburgh at sunset was Calton Hill with numerous monuments including ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’ — the nickname for the unfinished replica of the Parthenon, honoring those lost in the Napoleonic Wars.P1060138P1060150We had two memorable dinners in Edinburgh. We were tired on the first night since we had only arrived earlier in the day, our hotel suggested a room in the west end since we were willing to eat early and it was a short walk. The food was delicious and I began working on my goal to try a different Scottish gin every day (I didn’t meet one I didn’t like!)— my first tasting was Caorunn. Our other dinner in Edinburgh was at Purslane, a cozy basement bistro with inventive food pairings and a beautiful presentation. My G&T at Purslane was made with Edinburgh gin.

On the morning we were leaving Edinburgh, it was pouring rain, yet by the time we reached the Falkirk Kelpies, the sun was out. That kind of weather is pretty typical — mainly wet and unpredictable. The Kelpie is a mythological transforming beast that possesses the strength and endurance of 100 horses and inhabits the lochs and pools of Scotland. The two-30 meter high horse head sculptures were designed by sculptor Andy Scott and opened in 2013. Visible from the highway, yet much more dramatic to approach on foot, they honour the lineage of the heavy horse in Scotland.fullsizeoutput_bed6We also made a stop at the Falkirk wheel, a giant wheel that picks up a boat and slowly raises it up to link the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals. Prior to the opening of the wheel, transportation relied on a series of locks that were effective, but slow. IMG_4296Our destination after Edinburgh was Pitlochry, an attractive tourist town on the edge of the Highlands. We arrived in the late afternoon in time for a visit to the Pitlochry Dam Visitors Centre and Salmon Ladder which was easily accessed on foot from our hotel. We didn’t see any salmon but saw the ladder which allows the salmon to step their way upstream to the next dam.P1060209We returned to the hotel in time for cocktails and my third evening of Scottish gin tasting.  This time I ordered Shetland Reel gin and was quite happy with my choice. The next morning, before leaving the area we stopped at the Edradour Distillery for a tour and tasting. I’ve been mentioning my gin tastings, but my husband was treating the trip as a whisky tasting tour! We attempted to make reservations for various distillery tours several weeks before our trip but everything was already booked. Edradour is the smallest historic distillery in Scotland and they don’t take reservations. We made it in time for the 10am tour and thoroughly enjoyed the tour and tasting.

 

Next stop was two nights in Inverness. We followed Rick Steves walking tour and agreed with his assessment that it’s a nice, midsize  Scottish city with a disheveled grittiness. We had a late, hearty lunch at Number 27 Bar & Kitchen where I stuck with a familiar Scottish gin – The Botanist – and was not disappointed!P1060227The real reason we were staying in Inverness was because of the Malt Whisky Trail in Speyside, a pilgrimage for single malt whisky lovers (and my husband). To get there we drove through the town of Elgin and made a stop at Johnstons of Elgin where we had an excellent tour of the mill. They purchase cashmere from Mongolia and then dye, tease, card, spin and hand finish the fabric. No photos were allowed since they also produce fabric for Burberrys and Hermes and those companies don’t want to see their next season fabrics on someone’s blog or instagram!

On our must-see list for our day in Speyside was the Cooperage where you can watch coopers build or refurbish casks (barrels) for whisky storage. Oak is the only wood that is used to produce casks as it prevents seepage and allows the contents to breathe. Due to the porousness of the cask, some of the whisky inside evaporates during the aging process, roughly 2% per year, affectionately known as the angels’ share. Many of the casks used in Scotland are hand-me-downs from the US where bourbon laws allow only one use per barrel. From the observation deck we watched a former oak bourbon barrel get refurbished in record time. The coopers are paid by the piece and the best ones work with amazing speed and accuracy.P1060249P1060253We stopped at the Glenfiddich Distillery since it was a beautiful day. They had space in a tour but we decided to skip it and continue exploring the picturesque region.P1060267Walkers Shortbread is made in the town of Aberlour. They don’t do tours but they did have a factory store where we bought a large bag of seconds for about $3 and snacked on them the rest of the trip! Our last stop before heading back to Inverness was Cardhu Distillery.  A little out of the way but worth the drive to walk around the charming distillery founded by women, and see some more cows! P1060287P1060295From Inverness, we were heading to the Isle of Skye. The sun was out and we were excited about the drive, that was until we met the single track road! I don’t know who decided this was a good idea. A one lane road that permits two-way traffic but isn’t wide enough for two vehicles. There were plenty of ‘passing places’ but you had to be very aware of their locations and be prepared at every corner to meet a car or a logging truck! Drivers were polite and the system seems to work but we had to adjust our arrival times accordingly! P1060307The scenery was incredible!P1060318P1060324P1060334Plockton is a picturesque Highland village that sits on Loch Carron. The single track road into the village was a little crazy but worth it for the view and the charm. We stopped to walk around and had delicious take-away fish & chips from The Harbour Fish Bar.P1060355Just a short distance from Plockton was the incredibly photogenic Eilean Donan Castle. You may recognize it from numerous movies…including the location of MI6 headquarters in the 1999 James Bond film The World is Not Enough.fullsizeoutput_bee3And finally, we reached the Isle of Skye. Rugged, remote and with unpredictable weather, we felt like we were at the end of the earth – in the very best possible way.P1060450fullsizeoutput_bef1Our hotel was in the main village of Portree with a view from our window over the colourful harbour. It was a perfect location, away from the hustle of the main street but an easy walk into the village.P1060404We had one full day to tour Skye so we set off for the Trotternish Peninsula. On a map it looks like an easy drive but with so many single track roads, it took us most of the day. We never made it to the Dunvegan Castle or to the Fairy Pools hike. And despite having booked a tour at Talisker Distillery, we got bumped for a private party. By this point in the trip, Ron was happy to taste the local whisky in the bar and skip the driving to a distillery! We started our day with a visit to the Skye Museum of Island Life, a small settlement of croft houses that offers a glimpse into life on Skye 100 years ago.P1060478Next stop was The Quiraing, the northernmost summit of Trotternish, for the spectacular view. We felt like we were alone at the end of the world…except for the 50 or so other people who also drove the very narrow single track road to reach the start of the hike!P1060500Kilt Rock was a quick stop to see the 200 foot sea cliff that look like the pleats of a kilt!P1060513And on my must-see list was Shilasdair Yarns, a small shop that sells British wool that they have dyed using local plants and minerals. From there we headed back to Portree and a delicious late lunch at the unassuming, local diner The Cafe. I tried Isle of Harris gin with my hearty portion of fish and chips and was quite content to skip dinner.P1060493 We left Skye for a long day of driving through what was to be an incredibly scenic drive past Ben Nevis and through Glencoe. It poured rain and the fog was so extensive it blocked most of the scenery except for a quick shot out the car window! We’ll add it to the list for next time and request sunshine! We found a great little restaurant called The Laroch when we needed a break from the rain and traffic. It was in a village that was fun to say…Ballachulish.IMG_4747Since we weren’t stopping to look at the scenery we decided to push to make it for the last tour of the day at Deanston Distillery. This is where some of the scenes for Angels’ Share were filmed, a 2012 quirky movie about a troubled young man from Glasgow who discovers he has a nose for whisky. A relative new-comer to whisky production, Deanston single malt is made on the site of the former Deanston Cotton Mill. We had an excellent guide that made the tour a great end to a long day.IMG_4777IMG_4782Small but spectacular with rugged mountains, dramatic coastline, castles, culture, golf, cows, whisky, bagpipes and kilts — Scotland has so much to offer. We felt like we barely scratched the surface of what we wanted to see and plan to return soon. P1060294Haste ye back!

 

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San Francisco

Before the free tour even began, the SF City Guide started talking about POPOS and I quickly debated with myself whether I should casually walk away, since I had no idea what she was talking about and other people were nodding as if they understood. I decided to stay, and for the next two hours I thoroughly enjoyed the City Scapes and Public Spaces walking tour. The guide explained that POPOS stands for Privately Owned Public Open Spaces – a development requirement since 1985 to ensure San Franciscans would have access to open, green spaces amid the office buildings. If you look carefully you can find a few plaques on buildings around SF.fullsizeoutput_bd44We began with the rooftop garden above the Wells Fargo bank at One Montgomery, accessed through the Crocker Galleria and finished with the redwood forest at the Transamerica building.P1050996The weather was perfect…sunny, dry and in the 50’s for our four day visit.fullsizeoutput_bd36I have grown to appreciate a walking tour on my first day in a new place as a way to get oriented and to learn something not easily discovered on google. After the tour and then lunch at the Grove on Fillmore, I set out for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. My route took me down the Lyon Street steps, through the Presidio…fullsizeoutput_bd41to Crissy Field and these spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge.P1060033P1060028The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937 and was the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time. An engineering marvel and a world famous landmark, the bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County and offers breathtaking views. 6zATiV0nS5aFQ1SBWFgeLQWalking in San Francisco requires some serious hills so stopping for food provides a welcome break for the legs. We had several memorable meals…lunch after our flight at Bluestem, delicious pizza at Pachino’s, coffee and ricotta toast at Mazarine, ice cream at Salt & Straw and Bi Rite, delicious mexican at Nopalito’s, small plates at Terzo’s and sourdough bread to die for at Tartine Manufactory.hxwLGdoRQr6O1gFxsQnFDgOn Saturday morning I set out early to find the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory It’s down a tiny alley in Chinatown and welcomes visitors to watch the cookies being made. You can even write a personal fortune to be folded into a cookie. They also sell x-rated fortunes! I was handed a free sample that was still warm as soon as I walked in. They won’t tell you the recipe but will tell you the ingredients – vanilla, flour, sesame, butter, sugar & eggs. I have never had a fortune cookie that wasn’t wrapped in cellophane…these were really good! IMG_3396P1060038fullsizeoutput_bd35P1060044Wandering the streets of San Francisco is a fun adventure. IMG_3284Colorful food trucks, streetcars, cable cars, rainbow flags and incredible architecture.IMG_3258The San Francisco cable car system is the last manually operated system in the world. The iconic cable cars are a significant tourist attraction in the city providing some spectacular views. The Powell Street cars were built to only move in one direction so the turntable that allows the car to change direction is a unique attraction!aDsdlzpMSuO5EL171lEiUQI didn’t have time to visit the Cable Car Museum pictured below but I did notice the parked cars on the street next to the museum. Apparently you can get a ticket in SF if you don’t turn your wheels in when parking…yikes…hills are steep!fullsizeoutput_bd88Every street provided picture-worthy homes with incredible entrances and detail. The SF City Guide talked about looking up in the city since so many buildings have elaborate detail at the top. I looked up — and I looked right in front of me —  and loved what I saw. I tried to be discreet when taking pictures of someone’s home but it was challenging not to stare and wish I could peek inside!IMG_3436fullsizeoutput_bd8afullsizeoutput_bd89IMG_3435We had dinner in the Castro district on our last night in San Francisco. We had a little time to walk around before our reservation. The main street was colorful and fun and edgy. Just as you would expect.IMG_3518IMG_3517Since the weather was so perfect, we wanted another view of the Golden Gate Bridge so we went to Lands End, described as the wildest part of San Francisco. The Coastal Trail follows the rugged cliffs and ends with some beautiful views of the bridge. The signs warn you to stay on the trail or risk being stranded by incoming tides or being swept away by high waves! We stuck to the trail and made it back safely!IMG_3493IMG_3482Four days was a reasonable amount of time to cover some decent ground in San Francisco but there is so much more to see and do and eat! We will be back!

 

 

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Basque Country, Spain

Basque Country isn’t like the rest of Spain. Proudly perched on the northern Atlantic coast, near the border of France, the region, locally known as Euskadi, has its own distinct language, strong cultural traditions, celebrated cuisine and amazing wines.IMG_2335I recently returned from a week in the region attending IWINETC, an International Wine Tourism Conference. It was the best kind of sensory overload! Food, wine, history, more wine and incredible landscapes.IMG_2749Arriving in Bilbao, I was met at the airport by Jakob from JWA Tours, a company of Basque country locals that provide tailor-made experiences. He provided an excellent introduction to the region and an informative walking tour of Bilbao, including the Guggenheim, and gave me my first taste of pintxos, the small snacks eaten in bars in the Basque country. Pintxos are similar to tapas or cicheti but don’t make the mistake of calling pintxos tapas. You will be corrected quickly and firmly! In Basque Country, they are pintxos!

My first look at the Guggenheim Bilbao was the puppy  who makes quite a statement at the entrance. Designed by Jeff Koons, the West Highland terrier is covered in flowers and stands guard at the museum. IMG_2120The Guggenheim Bilbao is a modern architectural landmark, built in 1997 in an area of the city that was an industrial wasteland and now symbolizes the revitalization of Bilbao. The museum is so significant to the area that I heard several people referred to events as either before the Guggenheim or after the Guggenheim.IMG_2103The IWINETC conference began in the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz and included a tour of the Santa Maria Cathedral & Bell Tower. fullsizeoutput_bb67The bell tower is under construction which made the access challenging —we climbed narrow steps, ducked under low ceilings and squeezed through tight spaces —and were rewarded with an incredible view of Vitoria-Gasteiz at sunset.IMG_2210From Vitoria-Gasteiz, the conference moved to the Rioja Alavesa wine region. Rolling hills, quaint villages, mountains in the distance and vineyards tucked in every possible piece of land.IMG_2423I spent three nights at the charming Eguren Ugarte Winery & Hotel and couldn’t have been happier. Built into the hillside you enter the lobby on level 4 and travel down to the rooms. I arrived after dark so I was thrilled to wake up, open my window and look out the back of the hotel, over the vineyards to the mountains in the distance.IMG_2263The watchtower at the top of Eguren Ugarte holds a private family tasting room with incredible views…the room even rotates slowly so you don’t have to move from your chair to enjoy the changing vistas. I was fortunate to meet one of the owners, Merche Ugarte, and she treated me to a quick visit to the tower and a glass of wine! Merche was charming and humble and made me love this place even more. I would go back in a heartbeat!

Another highlight of the trip was a visit to Solar de Samaniego winery. The tour includes a dramatic presentation of several 10 meter high concrete wine tanks that have been painted with the faces of people from the area to reflect the fusion of wine and literature. Titled The Wine Cathedral, by Australian artist Guido van Helten, check out this short video showing Guido at work.IMG_2255Ysios Winery catches your eye from the road with its futuristic ‘temple’ dedicated to wine, designed by Santiago Calatrava.IMG_2358After a tour, the wine maker Roberto gave us a private tasting of their incredible wine.

Despite arriving late and hungry for the tour at Remirez de Ganuza winery, it was impossible not to recognize the quality of their Rioja Reserva 2004!

My final full day in the Basque country included a walking tour of the incredibly beautiful seaside city of San Sebastian.IMG_2601fullsizeoutput_bb60fullsizeoutput_bb61fullsizeoutput_bb5cIMG_2633IMG_2637Our guide gave us a short break to grab some pintxos, the small snacks served in bars in the Basque region, before our final winery tour. Pintxos are perfect for a quick snack as everything is laid out on the counter and you just select what you want!IMG_2620The last wine tour was in a stunning location overlooking the ocean. The vines at Txomin Etxaniz have a pretty spectacular view! fullsizeoutput_bb65fullsizeoutput_bb64IMG_2654After the tour, the owner poured some of their Txakoli wine (pronounced cha-ko-lee) for us to taste. The crisp, refreshing white wine is famously poured from quite a height above the glass to aerate the wine and give it a little fizz.IMG_2692He also served some delicious tuna and anchovies that they prepare at the winery.IMG_2721After several different wines, plus anchovies and tuna, our winery tour was over…and it was time for lunch! We ate overlooking the marina in Getaria, a seaside town west of San Sebastian at a packed restaurant called Astillero and had some incredible fresh grilled monkfish…and cod…and dessert..and more txakoli! It was an incredible week of beautiful scenery and more food and wine than I needed, but certainly enjoyed.

If you are considering a trip to Portugal or Spain plan to add on a few extra days to visit the Basque Country!

 

 

 

 

 

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Nevis

No cruise ships, casinos or stoplights on the 36 square mile island of Nevis, and the only traffic jams are due to sheep or donkeys crossing the road. A leeward island in the Caribbean that along with St Kitts forms the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, it’s southeast of Puerto Rico, west of Antigua and takes some effort to get to but that’s what makes it so special.IMG_1789We just returned from Nevis — the week we were away coincided with the polar vortex that was blasting most of the US and Canada. IMG_3852We managed to miss the whole thing!IMG_3853I love exploring new places when I travel, however, I also appreciate the familiarity of returning to a favourite location and quickly slipping into a welcome routine. That’s what Nevis provides for me. P1050605The main decisions revolve around where to eat dinner since it’s a puzzle of which restaurants are open which nights! Just about every night of the week you can find a West Indian BBQ and we are slowly making our way through all of them. We’ve enjoyed Nisbet Plantation’s Beach BBQ  in the past. Last year we went to the buffet at Hermitage Plantation Inn and this year we loved the sunset BBQ on the beach put on by Montpelier Plantation & Beach.

fullsizeoutput_ba18I’ve been documenting the sunrise on the beach by Nisbet Plantation for many years and thankfully the three picturesque palm trees remain standing, making a beautiful silhouette for my early morning photos.IMG_3862We always plan a hike with Reggie Douglas of Nevis Adventure Tours. He knows the island and the plant life incredibly well and always finds a new trail for us to explore. IMG_3865This year he took us to the ruins at the Mount Pleasant Estate and dug up some roots that he uses to make tea and even found a few wild yams.

IMG_1564The only other decisions are when to walk the beach and what day should we go to Golden Rock for their lobster salad lunch. Golden Rock has a restaurant and inn designed around a sugar mill from the 1800’s with beautiful gardens and bold colours.

It’s a lazy week by design. And it never fails to rejuvenate. IMG_3854Sun, sand and a slower pace work their magic on the island of Nevis.IMG_3848

 

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Lisbon, Portugal

Bursting with history and faded charm, Lisbon was the perfect host for my recent visit.fullsizeoutput_b48aEvery corner I turned revealed something special…a colourful tram, beautiful tile work, laundry brightening a drab building, a view to the river, a castle…even in the rain and fog, it was charming.IMG_6192P1050332I was a guest of Visit Portugal and TAP Air Portugal for a three-day tour around Lisbon and a one-day travel marketplace. Portugal has been voted “Europe’s Leading destination 2018” by the World Travel Awards and it’s easy to see why. The country’s history and culture, food and wines, beaches, surfing, golf and varied landscapes all create a great travel destination.

The weather was mild in mid-November but unfortunately we had several days of rain. Lisbon’s famous artistic limestone sidewalk designs, known as calçada portuguesa, are stunning…but slippery when wet!IMG_5988Day one was spent exploring areas just north of Lisbon. Sintra was our first stop, the resort town in the foothills of Portugal’s Sintra Mountains and a designated Cultural Landscape World Heritage site by UNESCO. A longtime royal sanctuary, its forested terrain is studded with pastel-colored villas and palaces. The Sintra National Palace is distinguished by dramatic twin chimneys in the kitchen and elaborate tilework.fullsizeoutput_b477

The rain prevented us from visiting the very instagrammable hilltop 19th-century Pena National Palace, known for its whimsical design and sweeping views. Despite the weather, there was still plenty to see and do in the town and we enjoyed a delicious lunch of grilled codfish at the Central Palace restaurant. Every meal in Portugal includes incredible local wines!P1050176

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From Sintra, we visited Cabo da Roca, the western-most point of Europe,P1050191P1050185and drove along the coast past the surfing beach Praia do Guincho to the charming town of Cascais with a marina and beautiful historic centre.P1050201We headed south of the city on day two to the town of Setubal and the lively Livramento Market. The beautifully decorated market hall was filled with locals on a Sunday morning, buying fresh produce, cheeses, fish and enjoying local pastries & coffee.

Lunch was at the Sesimbra Hotel, another delicious meal of grilled swordfish and local cheeses, pastries…and wine! P1050240And then off on a drive through the Arrabida Hills to see the view. Unfortunately, this was the second (and only other) rainy day so the vistas were shrouded in fog and mist.P1050254P1050257On the third day, the sun came out for our walking tour of Lisbon. Our guide, Nuno Alegria of Secrets of Portugal was knowledgeable and patient as he led us through narrow alleys, up secret elevators to incredible views of the city,fullsizeoutput_b494and to castles, monuments and plazas.fullsizeoutput_b47c P1050366P1050263We stopped at the Lisbon Jewish Memorial on the corner of Rossio Square, and learned about the Jewish Massacre of 1506.P1050275 Our walking tour in Lisbon ended with an amazing lunch at RIB, a restaurant on the corner of the Praca do Comercio (Commerce Square) and in the lobby of a beautifully restored hotel, Posada de Lisboa.P1050490The iconic streetcars were jam-packed so I didn’t get to ride on one however the sunny yellow tram 28 made me smile as it rattled through the Alfama neighborhood.fullsizeoutput_b48cIMG_6179Most cultures have a signature pastry and Portugal is no exception. I make it my mission to sample several of the favorite local sweets when I travel. I tried to limit myself to one a day, however it was difficult since they were even offered at breakfast! The pastel de nata is an egg custard tart, often dusted with cinnamon. Think creme brulee in a croissant tart shell!IMG_5967

 

The most famous pastel de nata is the Pasteis de Belem, made from a secret recipe passed on from the monastery in Belem that was next to a sugar cane refinery. In 1820, as a result of the liberal revolution, all convents and monasteries in Portugal were shut down. In an attempt to survive, the monastery started offering pastries for sale, they became known as Pasteis de Belem and have been drawing crowds ever since!

On my last afternoon in Lisbon I enjoyed a boat cruise on the Tagus River with Lisbon by Boat. The weather was perfect and it was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours and see Lisbon from the water. P1050496fullsizeoutput_b49bThe boat brought us up close to the Belem Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage site, built on the northern bank of the Tagus river between 1514 and 1520. Its original function was to defend the city, later becoming a lighthouse and customs office.fullsizeoutput_b497Right next to the Belem Tower is the impressive Monument to the Discoveries. The monument was built in 1960 on the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator who discovered the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde. Leading the ship is Prince Henry and behind him are many Portuguese explorers.fullsizeoutput_b49dOverlooking the city is the Christ the King monument and shrine. Inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil, it is an imposing statue. The giant cement statue was erected to express gratitude because the Portuguese were spared during World War II.P1050481The boat cruise was timed to end just as the sun was setting. We passed under the 25th of April bridge, a suspension bridge spanning the Tagus River. Originally called the Salazar Bridge, the name was changed in 1974 because the authoritarian regime was overthrown on the 25th of April, which is now a national holiday in Portugal, known as Freedom Day.P1050504I left Portugal with a long list of places I still want to visit and things I want to do. I’ll be back and if you have any interest in visiting Portugal, let me know! I’d be happy to help you plan a trip to this incredibly diverse country.

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Rancho la Puerta

Some trips are about the exotic and unusual. And some are about the familiar and comfortable. Some manage to combine both. I have been going to Rancho la Puerta, a fitness and spa retreat in Tecate, Mexico off and on for the last 16 years. And while the setting is familiar, it never fails to provide me with something new. It’s a travel ritual that I feel fortunate to repeat.IMG_5741

Since starting Heather Robinson Travel, I have really upped my travel game. I always have my carry-on bag stocked and ready to go and I jump at offers for travel agents to explore new places and use my passport. So this year, the idea of the ranch felt like just the right balance of comforting ritual, yet it still required my passport!IMG_5775Rancho La Puerta lies in a broad valley at the foot of 3,885-foot Mount Kuchumaa. Mornings at the ranch begin with a sunrise hike up that mountain.IMG_5777The paths stay the same but my body has aged since my last visit so the hike is a welcome challenge.IMG_5776Huge granite boulders emerge on the hike giving the early morning landscape an other-worldly feel.IMG_5725Home to coyotes, rabbits and foxes, Kuchumaa also enjoys a diversity of North American bird species- ravens, golden eagles and red-tailed hawks. All hikes have a leader and a shepherd keeping an eye on things for you so you can just listen to the wind and your heart beating!fullsizeoutput_b3d2I first heard the term incidental fitness at the ranch many years ago. It’s the exercise that happens when you aren’t even thinking about it. Rancho la Puerta has been designed with incidental fitness in mind. No path is a straight line, they meander — lined with sage and lavender— and are created with surprising vistas so that before you know it, you have walked many miles in your day.IMG_5752P1050113fullsizeoutput_b3d0Opened in 1940, the Ranch continues to get it right. The wisdom of a week-long visit, the 50+ daily fitness classes, the amazing, abundant food and the chance to rest and renew are done so well. IMG_5889

Rancho la Puerta is a very special place. It’s a travel ritual I feel fortunate to keep repeating.IMG_5709

Contact me if you want to know more. heatherrobinsontravel@gmail.comIMG_5866

 

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The Danube River

IMG_3627Our first look at the Danube River in Budapest. It was a grey, cold day but the twists and turns of the river through the city were still impressive. Unfortunately, the boat we were spending the week on was docked in Slovakia, instead of Budapest, due to record low water levels on the river. That meant less time to explore the city and more time riding a bus back and forth to the boat. Not what we had hoped for so we will need to return to Budapest some other time to experience the thermal baths and Fisherman’s Bastion.IMG_3630Our second full day was in Vienna and we were able to take the metro to the city center and be on our own schedule. The morning began with a walking tour of the heavy hitters, such as the Hofburg Palace, the Opera House and St Stephen’s cathedral and gave us a good overview of this beautiful city.IMG_3635We visited the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, also known as the Nameless Library, that depicts shelves of books with their spines turned to the inside. The names of the concentration camps in which Austrian Jews were killed are engraved around the base.IMG_3636Our guide told the story (and couldn’t hide her displeasure at the outcome) of the Gustav Klimt painting Adele Bloch-Bauer I that was removed from the Belvedere Museum in Vienna and returned to Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann in LA after a lengthy legal battle. If you are curious about the story, watch the movie Woman in Gold with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds

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Vienna was also cold and grey so we were happy to find a cafe and try the famous Sacher Torte. Our guide had suggested that if there was a long wait for a table at the Hotel Sacher (there was) that you could have excellent Sacher Torte anywhere in Vienna. IMG_3639She also suggested that we order our Sacher torte with whipped cream since it is fairly dry and that her favorite was the apple strudel. We tried them both!

From Vienna the boat cruised through the night making it fun to wake up in the morning and step on to our balcony to see where we were!IMG_3656The rising sun gave the town of Krems in Austria a warm glow. We skipped the included tour and went on a bike ride instead and loved seeing some vineyards and villages up close, and getting some exercise!IMG_3663IMG_3678We rode to a picturesque little village called Durnstein, charming but felt a little like Disney with a mini train driving around the narrow streets and tons of tourists.IMG_3659IMG_3657Apricots are grown in the valley as well as grapes so we bought some apricot vodka that we enjoyed on the sun deck later in the day!IMG_3686The afternoon that the boat traveled from Krems, Austria to somewhere near Passau, Germany was exactly what you picture when you hear river boat on the DanubeIMG_3654IMG_3668Known as the Wachau Valley, it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as both banks of the river are dotted with ruined castles, medieval towns and terraced vineyards.IMG_3674IMG_3705Passau was our next stop and it is known as the ‘City of Three Rivers’ since it is where the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers converge. Passau was an important medieval center for the salt trade, known as white gold. Salt has become one of my favorite things to purchase when I travel and despite trying to find some in the grocery store to bring home, the only salt I could find was on top of a pretzel!IMG_3716

Another day, another charming town…Regensburg, Germany is a medieval town on the Danube that was virtually untouched by World War II bombing.

Notice the little statue tucked into the green wall below…it is a sculpture of someone kissing their butt and it was aimed at their neighbor…who knew the expression has been around for so long!

Our walking tour in Regensburg included some Jewish history and we learned about a memorial to victims of Nazi persecution. German artist Gunter Demnig has created over 60,000 brass-plated stumbling stones (stolperstein) in 22 countries so that the victims of the Holocaust are never forgotten. The stones are placed in the pavement in front of the victims home and include their name, date of birth, date of deportation and the place of their death.IMG_3695The final stop on our river cruise was the city of Nuremberg. Despite its history, it was a beautiful city that appeared to be working very hard to find the right balance between remembering the atrocities of war without glorifying them. Nuremberg was the site of fanatical Nazi party rallies and ultimately the site of the Nuremberg Trials. It also has a toy museum, delicious lebkuchen(spice cookies), a lively pedestrian market area, IMG_3709regular citizens,IMG_3711and some interesting statues and fountains. The Beautiful Fountain pictured below is a highlight of the central market square. It was designed in the 1380s by Heinrich Beheim and is an impressive 62 feet high and dripping with gold. Only a copper ring on the north side of the fence is accessible and local folklore says you should rub the ring, turn it full circle and make a wish! Oops, I forgot to do that!

IMG_3714This was our first experience with a river cruise. In theory, it sounds ideal. Unpack once and float on the Danube in your stateroom sitting on your balcony watching the scenery go by. When the boat docks, walk off and in to a charming town to explore. Our experience wasn’t quite like that! When we did dock, it was usually outside the city center which required another bus ride. Mid-week, due to the low water levels, we had to pack our bags and switch boats. Everything was well-organized and went seamlessly but it just wasn’t what we were expecting, however, that is what traveling is about!

Despite that, our rooms were very comfortable and well-designed with thoughtful touches like a heated bathroom floor and plenty of outlets and lighting options. The food was delicious and abundant, and the scenery was what you would expect to see in a movie! Every night there was a regional special on the menu so we had the opportunity to try goulash or weiner schnitzel, Oktoberfest sausages and local wines and beer. IMG_3674Depending on your tolerance for (or interest in) traveling with a group, a river cruise can be a great way to see a slice of life from a different perspective.IMG_3688 It’s a peaceful, calm way to travel off the beaten path.

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