Southern Africa

This was the trip of a lifetime! Three nights each in four different locations in Southern Africa. From Cape Town to a private game reserve on the edge of Kruger National Park, South Africa, to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and finally to the banks of the Chobe River in Botswana. We started with temperatures in the 60’s in Cape Town, enjoyed the view from the top of Table Mountain, saw penguins and tasted wines… 0DC26523-AFC0-4255-BC31-C4499E0E8ED836AC3CD3-FB48-499A-8030-F2A01A75D5594E3D421E-2DD5-4C97-ADCB-5877B3B89336_1_201_a56D7174C-0B97-45CC-BE23-5930C5A44560…and finished with temps in the high 90’s and large herds of elephants. In between we saw the Big Five as well as baboons, monkeys, zebras, giraffes, birds, antelope and a cheetah. We were treated to welcoming hospitality, met incredibly knowledgeable people and learned a little about life in each of the places we stayed. But what really tells the story of this epic trip are the photos…

I’ll start with the Big Five. The term was coined by big game hunters and refers to the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot, and is now on most safari-goers check list. It includes the lion,1FB12DFD-BB1D-4BD6-B66B-D73F02F19CEF1AB8317C-36F0-469C-B15B-5A5B9FC7D972_1_201_athe leopard,A129EF3E-2044-4103-87B1-B1B8512B2D728EB03142-7279-4044-82E2-9FEA6BC55925the rhinoceros,A6E2A6D4-2FE4-425A-852D-CDCF72C42167_1_201_a07959F88-64A6-4F22-90C4-74768933D812the buffalo,A56187FA-142E-43EE-B6C3-83C60F1661D9_1_201_a29DA45ED-C59D-45BC-8AC3-54FCEDF68E77and the mighty elephant!DB5D692A-3F9D-4BE4-8A5C-4F3C0C5BD6A58A1E4FC7-8255-462D-A758-046009361C8DThe Big Five misses some of my favourite animals, namely the giraffe,6611E03D-E5CF-44D0-B32D-84177BB06075_1_201_a9619295F-D9DB-45EA-BDE1-6C790DE150D1zebras,4752DB2E-0F6A-4A05-852E-91CFB4066EB3D1DA9A7D-25FF-4978-886B-B381777BF77Fand the cheetah.E2A7C162-3CF8-4AFE-B0A2-8E75F627C2CC_1_201_aA typical day on safari starts very early, around 6AM when you head out on your jeep with a ranger and possibly a tracker. The idea is to find the animals while they are drinking or hunting before it gets too hot. You return to the lodge around 9AM for breakfast. The next game drive is around 4PM and you are out until dusk, watching the animals. In between the game drives you eat, take a nap and stay cool. We got off the jeep at one point for a short walk and our ranger Chane was in front, with her rifle! We had to walk single file, no farther apart than arms length so we would look like a large animal to any predators! That was my least favourite part of the whole trip and I willingly sat for a total of 7 hours a day in a bumpy jeep to give me a little distance from a surprise predator!012D0B84-3395-4EB3-898E-959FD7B86EA91D51DAF9-69C5-4435-8945-39909418157FThe other time you are allowed off the jeep is for sundowners…basically cocktails in the bush at sunset! Chane and our tracker, Patrick set up a bar on the front of the jeep, after making sure the area was safe!D622E5F0-A5EF-4C3D-A1AB-A4F2BDA565FCThe animals are obviously the highlight of an African safari but the accommodations were something special too. It’s pretty standard at safari lodges that everything is included, since you can’t really go anywhere else. You can’t even walk to your room after dark, you need an escort to check for animals!!! Our first taste of a safari lodge was Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge in the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve bordering Kruger National Park, South Africa, where the rooms are sculpted into a slope of the earth and hardly noticeable.0EDD6E9E-D8B2-43FD-8DA1-BD6134DF72CBEach couple had a spacious suite with an outdoor seating area and private pool!E681599A-8866-43B5-B6BB-0D978D2837F0_1_201_a348BF5FD-02B2-45E5-97DE-CFF0C3D18813Earth Lodge was an incredible base to return to in-between game drives, the lodge was gorgeous and tasteful, and the staff were attentive, friendly and unpretentious. I wish we had another day there but we had flights booked to Zimbabwe. Our next three nights were spent at the beautiful Victoria Falls River Lodge in luxury tents on the Zambezi River.C37351BA-37A1-49D8-9682-7E9D0DC05E1DA bathtub in our tent overlooking the river fits with my definition of glamping!C9737A8F-A7AF-4ADA-8A92-91A76EA30FB9The outdoor shower and private plunge pool helped to keep us cool in the 95-100F heat!BADBB616-3FC7-4FFB-95D9-9AF915D667B4This location was chosen so we could see Victoria Falls and experience wildlife from a boat. Our guide, Chips took us to the Falls, pointed out dozens of birds on our boat ride on the Mighty Zambezi and took us somewhere down a very long, bumpy road in the Zambezi National Park where we saw hundreds of buffalo and elephants!11FDF33D-D86B-44E1-A5B4-EA3BC01A2043450CFC0A-591C-42BE-A5FC-B8734DCF464220044E2F-6B13-4248-82A6-84A6748C048D0B0A2E43-183E-468B-B4D2-17CD2F6543A5986E8908-BDA8-4FD3-99D6-D3E07D3F363B342E0124-77A7-427F-A92A-B4EC68EC84267DEB2EA9-AD88-4CB5-8ABE-15023577EE02_1_201_aHana kept us well fed and shared his smile and stories about his life in Zimbabwe.AA6CFEB6-DEB3-40B6-8296-C58E7B2B3D8FAnd them it was time for Botswana and the Chobe Game Lodge, situated on the Chobe River. The temperature at Chobe was similar to Victoria Falls, high 90’s and very dry. The rains usually come in early November but there had been very little sign of rain so the animals were drawn to the river making for some incredible viewing of elephants!444908CF-9D7C-4170-A375-A378D2A9A2E68C874A74-81BB-48B4-816E-F204D35C3F44F8F5DBE2-1C78-432C-BCAA-F4448F553E75Lebo was our guide at Chobe taking us on the solar-powered river boat and on a jeep through the Chobe National Park with ease.75D112A5-F4C3-471E-AC9F-9161B3C9C1864CF14D39-DE72-47B2-B197-9C046279E211We also saw hippos, baboons, giraffes and crocodiles in the Chobe River and in Chobe National Park and more elephants!375A603E-2141-41F8-B030-1EF40EFE2AE46E8159A5-A269-4CC8-8AEF-7FC524CC13C150E18C6B-FFBB-462C-88CD-62751A81DC62C51E1182-11F6-4A37-93A7-8FAC6E60C3344532969D-1835-4E0D-90BA-86E7C1FDCBD430E99F7C-0212-492C-B859-545310B559E6CD5CED28-0FB5-4D48-963F-B80A2A74FF48398E5E40-5098-4FAC-8F15-0D08CE6F414CThe opportunity to observe exotic animals that had, for most of us, only existed in children’s books and trips to a zoo was incredible. On the one hand, this is wild, raw, unspoiled nature and yet, each evening, we would return to exceptional accommodations and first rate service. It’s a long way to travel but such an amazing experience. Kenya and Tanzania are on my short list and I’d happily return to Southern Africa for more!

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Thailand

Land of smiles. Land of contrasts. The heat, humidity, smells and traffic, the temples and Buddha’s and quiet respect shown to visitors, all combine to make Thailand a fascinating place to visit.IMG_7340I traveled with G Adventures in mid-September with 11 other travel advisors on a Wellness Trip to Thailand. We started in Bangkok, flew to Chiang Mai, drove to Pai and flew to the island of Koh Samui. I added 2 days to the end of the trip and toured Bangkok with a guide. The 9 days were filled with yoga and Thai massage, Temple visits, delicious food, a cooking class and even a stand-up paddleboarding lesson! It was a terrific week!Map of the route for Wellness Thailand

In Bangkok the tuk-tuk was a quick way to get around, though perhaps not the safest since their are no seatbelts! It was raining the day I toured Bangkok so the tuk-tuk provided a quick and dry way to travel between Temples.fullsizeoutput_cb1cThe longtail boat is another popular method of transportation in Bangkok, allowing you to escape traffic and get around the city on the Chao Phraya river.

Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) was the first Temple I saw in Bangkok. Located on the west bank of the river, it is supposed to be particularly beautiful at sunrise. I missed that opportunity and saw it mid morning on an overcast day but was still impressed by it.fullsizeoutput_cb19Wat Arun has two central spires that are decorated with multicolored ceramics.IMG_8476Covered in gold leaf and an impressive 15m high and 46 meters long, the Reclining Buddha represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and can be found at Wat Pho, also known as The Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  It is one of the largest and most impressive Buddha statues in Thailand.IMG_8410Not surprisingly, the feet of the Reclining Buddha are also enormous, the soles of the Buddha’s feet are covered in mother-of-pearl inlay.IMG_8421After viewing the Reclining Buddha, the Emerald Buddha seemed surprisingly small, however it has much more significance in Thailand. It is the figure of a meditating Buddha made of a semi-precious green stone (probably jade, not emerald) and is thought to provide protection and safety for the people of Thailand. Pictures are not allowed so instead I have included pictures of the guardians of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Elaborate and a little frightening, in my humble opinion!IMG_8355P1060586On my day touring the Temples of Bangkok, I must have seen over 50 various Buddhas. Some have different hand positions, some have a gold leaf coating and some were lined up in a store that sells Buddhas for Thai people to take home with them. There were many signs around Bangkok about respecting Buddha, reminding people that you cannot get a Buddha tattoo or use the name Buddha for your bar or restaurant. I saw a large billboard on the way to the airport that said DISRESPECT FOR BUDDHA IS WRONG BY LAW, and then directed you to the website knowingbuddha.org.SdswwiLpS4ieOeW91sLrIAAt the Royal Palace complex, I was amused to see these three monks with two cell phones and an iPad taking pictures. It fascinated me that despite giving up so many earthly possessions, they were busy taking pictures just like me!IMG_8372And the three monks below sitting at a table were comparing something on their cell phones! My guide explained to me that monks are not allowed to chew in the middle of the day but they could have a drink. Again the rules puzzled me — no shirts, no hair, no chewing, often no shoes, — but cell phones were acceptable!IMG_8610After a lesson in Thai massage at the famous Wat Pho Massage School  our G Adventures group flew to Chiang Mai and toured the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, sitting at the top of over 300 steps! Despite being in the midst of rainy season, we had a perfect day for our visit.IMG_7348
IMG_7338IMG_7345On our second day in Chiang Mai, we traveled to a village outside the city to observe how traditional northern Thai people live. We toured the herb garden with our very entertaining host and then made Thai Herbal Compress balls used for massages.IMG_7381Our visit also included a delicious meal and a lesson in making cigars! IMG_7437My fellow travel advisors Grace, Kim and Victoria took a puff of the cigar, living by that saying…when in Rome, or Thailand or wherever!IMG_7406Our hotel in Chiang Mai, the Bodhi Serene, served drinks and light meals poolside. I enjoyed their Tom Kha Gai soup, a coconut milk soup with chicken and icy cold Gin & Tonic on more than one occasion!IMG_7443

On our last morning in Chiang Mai, we got up early to offer food to the local monks. Our hotel provided the food and we silently placed it in their bowls. In return, the monks blessed some water which we then used to water a tree. The whole event took about six minutes and was done silently and without eye contact. IMG_7464From Chiang Mai, we took a long and winding road to the charming, hippie community of Pai. Thankfully there was a rest stop about half way so we stopped to visit the Toilet Lady and have a cold drink. I got seriously into the local bubble tea and matcha tea while in Thailand. Readily available, very inexpensive and with a sugar/caffeine hit that carried me through the heat of the afternoon, they were hard to resist!IMG_7473IMG_7481Pai was charming, mainly because of the community of friendly people we met there. Our stay began with a yoga class taught by the lovely Kookai, the owner of Pai Yoga Shala. Kookai also owns a restaurant in town and we had a delicious meal there one evening.IMG_7514IMG_7649IMG_7931Charlie and Lek own a restaurant serving delicious food in Pai and also have a cooking school just outside of town. IMG_7616Lek took us on a market tour before our cooking class and showed us many of the common foods used in Thai cooking.

Then she made it very easy for us to succeed at making spring rolls, Pad Thai, Massaman curry and sticky rice with mangos!IMG_7766After Pai, we flew to the island of Koh Samui, a little slice of heaven in the Gulf of Thailand. From the beach, if I looked right, I saw the sunrise…IMG_7908and to the left, I saw the sunset!IMG_8156More yoga, free time, great food and massages made our stay in Koh Samui enjoyable!IMG_7832Koh Samui has no shortage of luxury beachfront hotels and several of us had the chance to visit a few of the resorts on the north shore of the island one afternoon…

The Four Seasons Resort,IMG_7969The Belmond Napasai,IMG_8061and the gorgeous and whimsical W hotel Koh Samui.IMG_8087This was an incredible first visit to Thailand. I’d happily return and stay longer. I was just beginning to remember the exchange rate for Thai Baht to US dollars and had not tried enough Thai food!

Thanks to Eduardo and Moh of G Adventures for an amazing Wellness week in Thailand!fullsizeoutput_cbaa

 

 

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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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