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Cuba

December 30, 2017

Havana > Cienfuegos > Viñales > Havana

Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating – Cuba is a country of indefinable magic.

Expect the Unexpected
Cuba is like a prince in a poor man’s coat: behind the sometimes shabby facades, gold dust lingers. It’s these rich dichotomies that make travel here the exciting, exhilarating roller-coaster ride it is. Trapped in a time warp and reeling from an economic embargo that has grated for more than half a century, this is a country where you can wave goodbye to everyday assumptions and expect the unexpected. If Cuba were a book, it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses: layered, hard to grasp, frequently misunderstood, but – above all – a classic.
-Lonely Planet

Es Complicado
These juxtapositions were totally consistent with our Cuba experience. If we had to give our cuban travels a theme, it would be “Es Complicado”, which was the phrase that came up in just about every conversation we had with locals, especially when talking about the government. And that’s not to say complicated = bad, in fact, complicated makes for some wonderfully colorful and nuanced travel experiences.

But even just trying to talk about traveling in Cuba es complicado. The friends we were traveling with arrived a couple days before us in Havana, so they called us just before we boarded our flight to give us a heads up in case there was anything we should be prepared for upon arrival (the rules for Americans traveling to Cuba had changed after our booking of this trip and none of us were sure what to expect on either end). Before I could even say hello, Jocie squealed, “OMG Havana is dirty and smelly and noisy and it’s AWESOME!!!” And all of those things are true.

Because of this, we wouldn’t say Cuba is a destination that’s ideal for a novice traveler, or someone who is super attached to their creature comforts (toilet seats, the internet, paper products). At points during our trip, even while staying in an Airbnb that could have been straight out of Architectural Digest, it felt like we had to have a camping mentality. Do we have enough drinking water to get through the day? Check. Do we each have our own roll of TP and a Kleenex packet? Check. Do we have our hardcopy or previously downloaded Google maps of this location? Check. That said, as long as you do your research, pack smartly, and keep an open mind, you’re going to fall in love with Cuba.

The Elephant in the Room
As Americans, given the current Administration, we were a bit nervous that we’d not exactly be welcomed with open arms. But it quickly became apparent that Cubans have a long history of being able to separate the people of a country from their government. Most locals assumed we were French at first, but once they asked where we were from we’d always get, “We love Americans!”, or some variation of, “We love Obama! Fuck Trump!”

A few friends who had visited Cuba previously had warned us not to try to talk politics with the locals, as if we tried we’d only get propaganda in response. That was not our experience in any way. The Cuban friends we made and locals we spoke with were extremely educated, informed and more than happy to have insightful in-depth conversations about both Cuban and American politics, daily life and everything in between.

GETTING THERE & AROUND

When we booked, the people-to-people option was still one of the 12 valid pulldown options that was part of the airfare booking process. From what we understand it’s still possible to visit, but you may have to go as part of a tour or as “support for the Cuban people” which is another pulldown.

Currently, there are no direct flights out of Philly, so we opted for flying out of Newark, which was super smooth. You get your visa before going through security, which is one extra line and $75/person, but the whole process was quite efficient.

We booked our transfers between towns prior to our trip, since we knew finding vehicles for 6 people + luggage would be a challenge. Once there, it’s pretty easy to grab a cab/bike/motorcycle/horse in any of the towns (I’m not kidding about the horse thing, horses are definitely still a prominent form of transportation outside of Havana), although it’s good to know some Spanish and definitely negotiate the fare before getting in.

THINGS TO KNOW

Food
We were told to “lower our expectations” by several friends, so maybe because of that we were pleasantly surprised in several cases. In both Havana and Viñales, there were plenty of international options. In Cienfuegos there were fewer international options, so that’s where we ate mostly traditional Cuban fare. Spices do seem to be lacking in general, and if you go into it expecting Cuba Libre, you’re going to be disappointed. Breakfasts tended to be fairly consistent: eggs, fruit, bread or a crepe, coffee and juice. The thing we weren’t prepared for was that the portions at our hotels and Airbnbs, tended to be huge. So in order to not feel gluttonous and guilty (because we knew most locals didn’t have access to the same ingredients or quantities that tourists get), we started ordering half as much food and just sharing.

In our experience, the food at the privately owned restaurants and hotels was significantly better than the government-run options. We used a combo of Lonely Planet guidebook recommendations along with the A La Mesa app, which works offline as long as you download it before you arrive.

If you stay at an Airbnb or Casa Particulares, you’ll likely have the option of them preparing you breakfast for about 5CUC/person. Definitely take them up on it at least once. It’s a good opportunity to hang out with your host for a bit and have some great conversation.

Drinks
Hate to say it, but you’re probably going to get a better mojito at home. That’s not to say they’re bad, we did have several quite yummy ones, but they’re not super consistent. It definitely helps if you ask for the Premium rum. Same goes for Cuba Libres (coke + light rum) and Cubatas (coke + dark rum). As for beer, your choices are basically light or dark (Negro), but calling it dark is a stretch, it’s more like what we’d call an Amber. Bucanero Fuerte was our go-to beer and is their strongest (hence, the Fuerte) at 5.4%.

Potty Talk
Toilet paper is scarce and not the quality you’re probably used to. Bring a couple rolls of your own, plus 2-3 of those purse-size Kleenex packs to keep on you at all times, and either some wipes or hand sanitizer. Whenever you go to a public restroom, including restaurants, there’s a woman sitting outside with a little table and a plate. You put some change on the plate and she hands you 3-4 squares of TP. That’s it. Paper towels don’t seem to exist and there’s rarely a hand dryer. Most public toilets have no seats, so your squat game gets strong (on the plus side, if you’re not working out while on vacation, you’re still getting your squats in). And in the more rural areas/farms/cafes, wooden outhouses are not uncommon.

Like in other parts of the Caribbean, you’re not supposed to flush the TP – it should be placed in the small trash can near the toilet.

In the somewhat related category, definitely bring plenty of Imodium AD – that’s not something you can easily find once there and all six of us needed it at some point during the trip. Ladies, also be sure to bring however many tampons or pads you’ll need, because that’s another thing you won’t have access to once you’re there.

Internet
Wifi access is hard to come by, and when it’s available it’s often unreliable and expensive ($4.50/hr in Havana, $2.50/hr in Viñales). This is, on the other hand, a great opportunity to take a break from modern devices and have a true holiday. There was many a time that we had a question we normally would have just Googled (customary tipping in Cuba), and that is not an option, so we definitely recommend bringing an old-school hardcopy travel guide.

If you can’t go without, no matter where you’re trying to log on, you’re going to need an official ETECSA Wifi card. You can stand in the long line at an ETECSA store to buy one or you can just grab one from most hotel front desks, which will be quicker (in Havana, at least). We recommend going to a hotel, buying the card from them, and then grabbing a drink while you use their internet. A few public parks are also hotspots, although the connection is going to be much weaker than at a hotel, and you still need the card.

One tip we learned from a friend: If the login page doesn’t pop up (it usually didn’t for us), try typing 1.1.1.1 directly into the search bar, and that should bring you to the site. If it just searches Google for 1.1.1.1, keep trying until the page comes up. Use this to log out too – if you don’t manually log out, it will keep docking time from your hour even if you’re done using the internet.

Money
Cash only. No American credit cards or debit cards will work. It’s best to convert USD to Euros BEFORE you leave the US (I know, it sounds crazy, but we did the math and you do save $ doing it this way) and then convert the Euros to CUC upon arrival. Right outside the airport (to the left when you walk outside) there’s a money exchange office.

We were traveling for 10 days, as a family of 3 and brought the equivalent of $3000US (about 2400Euros). We spent about 550Euros in transfers/daytrip transports, plus about 250 in hotels (the Airbnb’s were paid in advance with credit card before we arrived) and still had about $500 left at the end of the trip.

Don’t forget you’ll need your passport to do any money exchanges.

Cuba has two currencies. One is the convertible Peso (CUC) and the other is the Cuban Peso (CUP). CUC is what tourists use, and 1 CUC is roughly the same as $1. CUP is what locals use, and it’s worth a lot less. You’re allowed to use CUP, but you likely never will since there isn’t really a need to. 1 CUC is something like 25 CUP, so you should know the visual difference between the two, since sometimes people will try to give you change in CUP instead of CUC, and that’s a big difference. We only had one driver give us change in CUP, but it’s still good to be aware of.

Also, its a good idea to keep maybe $10-$20 worth of CUCs if/when you change back your money to Euros, so that if there’s a delay at the Havana airport you can still buy some snacks.

Safety/Security
You can walk anytime of the day or night without problems or heavy solicitation. Guys will ask if you need a ride, or if you need help with anything. Ladies, be aware that guys make a cat call sound that seems offensive at first, but is actually used toward both men and women interchangeably and doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it does in the States.

Environment
There are definitely piles of trash in Havana, and a fair amount of litter tossed on the streets of other areas as well. Santeria is still practiced, so it’s not unusual to see decapitated chickens in the streets. So heads up on that, whomp whomp.

Bringing things home
We were told that cigars should be in your carry on, not in your checked luggage, which we did and had no problems. We were also told that if we purchased street art we should get a certificate from the artist and that should also be kept out of checked luggage. We did purchase art from a street artist, but he didn’t have certificates. He warned us we may need to pay a small tax at the airport, but we didn’t call attention to it and they didn’t ask us any questions about it.

THE DIGS

Havana

Melvis House
We only spent one night here before heading out of Havana to Cienfuegos, but Melvis and her son Jorge were super sweet. While not the most picturesque block at street level, the location is extremely centrally located in Old Havana (Havana Vieja), and the views from the balconies are amazing.

CasaPaticular Old Havana
Maykel, the host, has done a beautiful job of rehabbing and designing this gorgeous airy space. And Maykel, himself, is also a highlight of this experience – he’s full of knowledge, very easy to communicate with and someone you just really want to hang out with. Be sure to take him up on breakfast – it was the best breakfast we had during our 10 days in Cuba. Plus, it gives you time to have conversation and get true insight into Cuba and its beautiful, joyful people. The location is in the Belem neighborhood, which is on the outer rim of Old Havana, so it is a slightly further walk to some of the sights (we’re still only talking 10-15min), but that gives it a much more authentic experience than some of the more central touristy locations.

Cienfuegos

Villa Lagarto
Adorable, privately-owned, and also has the best restaurant in Cienfuegos. The staff here is excellent, especially our new friend and server, Felix. Wilbur, the concierge, was very helpful in booking our transportation for our day trip to El Nicho Falls. Rooms (there are only three) are fairly basic, but comfortable and clean. Our rooms were only about $50/night and that included a huge breakfast and welcome drink. The lunches and dinners are HUGE, with 3 courses, so two of us often split one meal. We found out after the fact we could have been ordering a la carte (the menu doesn’t make it clear that’s an option), so that’s probably the way to go if you’re not super hungry.

Viñales

Villa Vista al Valle
OK, so yes, the rooms appear to have been decorated by my husband’s grandmother circa 1970. There are frilly sateen comforters and some very fancy Asian-esque wall fans. But everything else about this place is awesome. And honestly, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a better designed option in Viñales, at least as of the time of our visit. Although given the volume of international tourists here and the direction the newer restaurants seem to be going, I imagine it won’t be long before the design hipsters get their hands on this area. The rooms are a nice size, clean, extremely affordable (we paid under $40/night), the breakfast is yummy and the location/view is AMAZING. The owners, Osiris and Dunia, are super sweet. As an added bonus, while we were there, in addition to the roosters and piglets, there were puppies, which the kids absolutely adored.

THINGS TO DO & EAT

Havana

304 O’Reilly
O’Reilly #304 | Habana & Aguiar
Small, quirky, fun and yummy

Van Van
58 San Juan de Dios | e/ Habana y Compostela
Funky hip airy space with cool menus, delicious food and great music. The women’s bathroom is surprisingly spacious.

La Bien Paga
259 Aguacate
Tiny sandwich shop. Super cheap (sandwiches are about $2-$4) and the Ropa Vieja sandwich was one of the most delicious things we ate during our entire trip. It’s perfect for take out, but there’s also a little vintage seating area in the back with tasty milkshakes. Highly recommend grabbing a couple sandwiches from here to bring with you to the airport for snacking on while waiting for your flight on departure day.

Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco
Avenida Puerto y San Pedro
One of the two breweries in Havana, with a nice location on the waterfront. Your choices are light or dark (negro). The food is just ok, but it’s worth a stop in to checkout the warehouse space and grab a beer.

Cafe Bianchini
Calle Sol N.12 entre Oficios y Ave. del Puerto
Great breakfast spot just off the Plaza de la Catedral. Excellent coffee and crepes. Be sure to walk through the art gallery at the end of the block where you can actually watch the artists at work.

Salsa lessons
Av. del Prado No. 111 e/ Genios y Refugio
Rosario is the real deal, in that she is the Director and Choreographer of her own dance company. For $25/pp/hr we were each paired up, individually, with one of her dancers, while she taught us the basic steps, and then we broke off into pairs to practice. The dancers were so sweet and patient with us, and man can they move. Definitely a highlight.

Cienfuegos

Villa Lagarto
Street 35, No. 4B, e/ Avenue 0 y Litoral
The best food we had in Cienfuegos, and great location right on the water.

Poco Bonito gallery
Calle 29 | #5008 e/52 y 54. Centro Historico
Check out some super cool street art, particularly by the artist known as Tooth Fairy, who’s basically the Cuban Banksy (except not anonymous, you can actually meet him).

El Nicho Falls
About 1.5 hours from Cienfuegos, and definitely worth a day trip. Lovely series of waterfalls. Be sure to bring your passport, as this is a Natl. Park. The restaurant onsite is state-run, so we’d recommend eating at an independent restaurant/farm in the vicinity. Our driver took us to a little farm/restaurant just a few minutes away called El Indio, which was great (huge portions, recommend the fish), but it’s not the kind of place that has a website, or probably even an address. They do serve tree rat, however, so there’s that.

Viñales

El Olivo
Calle Salvador Cisneros, Viñales
Tasty Mediterranean/Italian; mushroom risotto and the cannelloni were both great

Moreno’s
53 Salvador Cisneros, Viñales
Light bites and great drinks in a cool little space. Be sure to sign the wall.

Tres Jotas (J3)
45 Calle Salvador Cisneros, Vinales
We call the family we travel with J3, collectively, because all of their names start with J, so we absolutely had to try this place and it was awesome. Yummy tapas and drinks in a cool atmosphere.

Horse back riding tour of the local tobacco and coffee/rum farms
Your host or hotel will be able to set this up for you. It’s a must do.

trips

Dominica

December 27, 2016

“Have you ever found yourself vacationing in a stunningly beautiful place overrun with sunburnt tourists and thought, ‘I wonder how spectacular this was before the whole world showed up?’ Well, Dominica is your answer. This is the most undeveloped island in the Caribbean, a 300-square-mile piece of lush tropical jungle where nature still reigns supreme. 

Dominica’s flush with thunderous waterfalls, crystal-clear rivers, and mountains that shine 14 shades of green on a sunny day. The Atlantic crashes into boulders along black sand beaches and mist engulfs palm trees along the shore. The entire island smells like a spa, full of thick, steamy air scented with the sap from gum trees. It’s the kind of place that restores your faith in the power of nature.”
– MATT MELTZER, Thrillist

 

The first thing that needs to be said about Dominica (Doe-min-EEK-uh) is that it is NOT the Dominican Republic – different island with a completely different vibe. Dominica is not the island you visit if you’re looking to spend your days lounging on a white sand beach having tropical drinks delivered to you by an all-inclusive staff. Dominica is the island you visit for true adventure travel, which hasn’t been spoiled by hordes of people, yet (we did see construction for at least one large resort, which could be the unfortunate sign of times to come). While there is a cruise port that dumps a few thousand tourists into the area surrounding Roseau on port days, those folks tend to stick to the more easily accessible waterfalls and attractions, leaving the rest of the hundreds of gorges, waterfalls, rivers, volcanoes (there are 7) and coral reef practically untouched for the non-cruise crowd. I’ll be honest, Dominica’s probably not for everyone, but if you’re up for some adventure, it’s one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous places on Earth with some of the most genuinely friendly locals we’ve ever met. Oh, and we had rainbows every. single. day.

The original thing that put Dominica on our bucket list, over a decade ago, was its reputation as one of the better dive locations in the Caribbean. And in that respect, it did not disappoint. The reef is healthy and colorful with a nice range of diverse dive sites. But the thing that made us truly fall in love with the island, are the seemingly endless options of adventures to be had above sea level. We knew on day one into our twelve-day trip, that there was no way we were going to be able to explore even half of the volcanic peaks, gorges, boiling sulphur springs, sparkling waterfalls, rushing streams and rainforest canopies. You could spend a year here, choosing a different adventure every day, without hitting the same place twice.

THE DIGS
Cocoa Cottages Treehouse
Just getting to Cocoa Cottages was an adventure, as it was our first day of driving the crazy Dominica roads, and the road we were pretty sure we needed to take to get there, was blocked off with a wooden barricade. It turns out, there had been a mudslide the day before and a good portion of the road was pretty much gone. But as things go in Dominica, a local saw us standing there trying to figure out what to do, calmly told us about the mudslide (it’s a fairly common occurrence) and told us about an alternate route. Upon arrival, we were greeted by one of the owners, Iris, who took pity on us when we admitted we weren’t ready to take on the unfamiliar roads in the dark, and agreed to make us dinner even though we hadn’t made a reservation (Cocoa is a very small resort, so they typically only provide meals if it has been arranged in advance). We immediately knew we were in good hands.

We were a teeny bit nervous going into this situation, in that we knew we were renting an open air treehouse, in the rainforest, with six of us sharing one bathroom, with no walls. But the treehouse exceeded our expectations in every way. Magically, even though there are mosquito nets on the beds, we didn’t see a single one and ended up not even using the nets. We fell asleep each night and woke each morning to a symphony of jungle sounds – everyone agreeing it was the best sleep we’ve ever had. We actually recorded several minutes of the night sounds on John’s phone, and play it on a loop to fall asleep to every night since we’ve been home. The beds were all super comfy and we really couldn’t have been any happier with our Swiss Family Robinson-esque glamping experience.

The treehouse, in addition to the other cottages/rooms, are all decorated with an artist’s eye, utilizing local materials. The communal dining area is a lovely open air kitchen, and while the treehouse does have its own kitchen, we only ended up cooking one meal for ourselves, opting instead to enjoy the tasty breakfasts and dinners cooked by Iris and her crew. Breakfasts are $15/pp and the ginger coconut jam/spread is AMAZING. Dinners are $35/pp (Iris gave us a break on the kids, which was much appreciated) and were a delicious array of local organically grown veggies and fresh seafood or meat, plus dessert. All meals are served at a large round table, allowing for a nice bit of socializing with the other guests who quickly became friends.

Iris was a wealth of information for the best local hikes, dive shops, beaches and any other activities you could want in the area. Right next door to Cocoa Cottages is the base camp for Extreme Dominica, which is THE BEST canyoning experience on the island and not to be missed (see Things To Do section below).

Mango Island Lodges
For the second part of our stay, we wanted to be in the central part of the island with easy access to the beach (Mero beach is walkable), and Mango totally fit the bill. This part of the island is a bit more arid than jungle-like, so the salt water infinity pool, situated at the top of a hill overlooking the Caribbean sea, is a really nice perk. There are only 3-4 rooms, each designed in a cheerfully elegant modern decor utilizing local eco-conscious materials. All water is heated by solar panels. And included in each room is an older cell phone for guests to use, which really came in handy for making local calls and getting around. The French owners, Stéphane & Karine have spent years lovingly crafting the landscaping throughout the property and it shows.

The restaurant is creatively, yet tastefully, designed with three different themed sections, one of which includes swinging chairs, and all of which have breathtaking views of the Caribbean. Stéphane & Karine seem to do most of the cooking, with our favorites being the crepes for breakfast, the cumin & paprika encrusted tuna for dinner and the pineapple cake for dessert. The breakfast menu is set with 5-6 items, and the dinner menu changes based on the availability of local ingredients and the various catches of the day. You need to make your dinner selection by 2pm, choosing from a board posted with that day’s menu. John and Jocie, feeling daring, split a lion fish one night, which lead to some entertaining stories of Stéphane’s colorful diving run-ins with the poisonous fish.

Stéphane is an excellent resource for diving info and good hiking trails, and we really enjoyed our time at Mango with him, Karine, and their sweet daughter.

Manicou River
On the northwest coast of the island, Manicou River was a bit of a splurge (cottages are $220-$265/nt with a 3-night minimum), but for the last leg of our trip, we knew we wanted to treat ourselves. Like many Dominican destinations, arrival at Manicou is part of the adventure as you wind your way up the mountain to the steepest driveway you are ever likely to experience. You DEFINITELY need 4-wheel drive. But the unbelievable views from your cottage and the restaurant are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The laid back, friendly owners, Kate and Patrick, have done a wonderful job of designing the hand-built wooden cottages and restaurant. The entire property operates off the grid, using rainwater for plumbing and solar power. Each cottage is built into the hill in such a way that you have total privacy, while still having stunning open air views of Cabrits National Park and the Caribbean. The furniture is all handmade with local wood and each cottage has its own kitchen stocked with basic cooking essentials and a mini fridge. The bathrooms are supplied with delicious smelling homemade soaps and shampoo all made with local ingredients.

The restaurant includes a great little bar which has 29 varieties of Manicou’s homemade rums. We made it our mission to sample all 29, with the help of the extremely personable bartender, Junette. After an intense couple of nights of sampling (including color coded ranking brackets), the winners were: mangosteen, soursop, smokey cocoa, admirals plum, Caribbean gooseberry, bitter orange and star fruit.

Manicou River is about 10 min from Portsmouth, a charming port “city” that has several restaurants and a market or two. There is a small walkable beach (Tantane), although the hike back up the Manicou driveway/road is a bit of a beast. We really enjoyed Toucari beach, just a bit further up the road, and especially lunch and drinks at Keepin’ It Real.

 

THINGS TO DO & EAT
Emerald Pool Falls
This was the first waterfall we visited on the day we arrived, so at the time, it seemed impressive. And not that it isn’t lovely, but we quickly realized that it’s one of the more crowded/touristed falls because it’s one of the most easily accessible in terms of the hike in. There’s a well cleared path through the woods and some steps, making for a super easy & quick visit. There’s a small entrance fee.

Hike to Boeri Lake
The hike up to Boeri Lake is like a trek through an enchanted forest culminating in a misty mountain lake in the clouds. Mossy rocks, fiddle ferns dripping with dew, dangling vines – it seemed completely believable that we might need to make way for a fairy or tree sprite. The hike itself was moderately challenging for us and took 2 hours to reach the lake at 2900ft (the sign at the trailhead estimated 45min up to the lake), and 1 hour to hike back down. There are rather steep inclines & declines at parts, and the rocks can be quite slippery. There’s a hot spring at the end of the parking lot (marked by a bamboo shoot) which was great for a warm-up after our chilly swim in the lake, but be warned, it does smell like iron and left an orange sediment on the kids’ swimsuits.

Dive/snorkel with Champagne Reef dive shop
Champagne Reef: Underwater geothermal springs vent gasses in the form of thousands of warm bubbles giving the feeling of swimming through a giant glass of Champagne. Sightings of sponges, lobster, parrot fish and a resident population of Hawksbill turtles.
Scotts Head: A vast submerged volcanic crater, it has several amazing dive sites; dramatic drop-offs and walls, huge pinnacles rising from the sea bed, active underwater fumaroles, expansive coral reefs, all full of life.

Bakes
Bakes are a local street food that’s bit like a biscuit, but you can get them stuffed with all sorts of deliciousness (cheese, fish, meat). As a local fave, they are frequently sold out before noon, so grab one early. Our favorites were the cheese bakes from an oceanside shack in Soufriere. Amazing. John also had a shark bake that he really enjoyed, from Smithy’s in Portsmouth.

Sulphur Springs in Soufriere at the Bubble Beach Spa
In front of St. Mark’s church, there’s a little stretch of beach where they’ve built a small wall of rocks in the shallow surf, creating a natural hot jacuzzi. Just be sure to enter the water quickly, because it’s extremely hot (and will burn your feet) at the most shallow part. It’s free, but totally worth throwing a few dollars in the donation box to support the local man, Dale, who keeps the area maintained and clear of beach debris. Dale also runs a small snack bar with amazing homemade coconut, lime or peanut rum for $5EC (about $2US). It’s the perfect way to end a day of diving.

Canyoning Titou Gorge with Extreme Dominica
It’s hard to even put into words how much fun this experience was, but we happened to do it on New Year’s Eve and everyone in our group (there were about 10 of us) unanimously agreed that it was by far the best spent NYE of our lives. You rappel down a series of boulders (ranging from about 20-60ft in height), following the path of a waterfall, which creates pools that you swim through to get to the next rappelling section. Total adrenaline rush. The water is chilly, but you are wearing a full wetsuit, which helps some. Extreme Dominica is a top notch operation. The guides (Nahjie, Akeel & Barani) were fantastic – extremely personable and fun, while still super safety-conscious. There’s a brief training session at their canyoning school prior to departing for the Gorge, where you get suited up and practice on a wall, so even if you’ve never rappelled before you can do this. I would recommend being relatively fit for this adventure though – it’s a workout (we all passed out before midnight on NYE). That said, Foster and Jade, both 10, did great physically and were probably more fearless than the adults.

Mero beach & Romance Cafe
Mero beach is one of the few sandy beaches with a quaint strip of restaurants/beach shacks. You can rent chairs & umbrellas and there are restrooms for changing and showers. There were a couple hours where there was a bit of a cruise ship crowd, but once they left, we practically had the place to ourselves. We had a tasty dinner on New Year’s Eve at Romance Cafe and really enjoyed talking with the chef (she seems to know everyone on the island and has great stories).

Hike Sultan Falls w/lunch at Riverstone Bar ’n’ Grill
One of the easier set of falls to hike to (it’s only about a 20min hike from the road), but not crowded at all. There was only one other family there while we were. There are two falls, one that’s taller and more narrow, and one that’s lower but wider. After the falls we had some yummy fish and chicken plates at the scenic & very casual Riverstone Bar ’n’ Grill.

Hike to Sari Sari Falls in the South East (near La Plaine) w/lunch at Riverside Cafe (within Citrus Creek Plantation)
Sari Sari was rated as a moderate level hike in our guidebook, but after storm damage, it’s become more challenging and definitely one we would recommend hiring a local guide for. We were approached by at least two locals as we got close to the site, so you don’t have to look hard for a guide. It’s not very well marked and there’s some pretty precarious terrain (slippery boulders, mudslides that you get down via rope, crossing streams, etc). We hired a local, named Frankie, as our guide, and while we initially negotiated him down to $30US from his asking price of $50 (for the six of us combined), we did end up paying him $40 in the end because he definitely earned it. And he did the entire thing barefoot (stashing his sneakers in a rock at the beginning of the trail).

After the vigorous hike, we had an excellent lunch at Riverside Cafe. Great food, excellent drinks, really good service, on a beautiful riverside wooded veranda.

Toucari Beach with lunch at Lunch at Keepin’ It Real
In the NW part of the island, not far from Portsmouth is a little sandy beach cove, lined with palms. We had an amazing lunch at Keeping It Real, a beach shack where we watched the chef, a local named Derrick, bring in the catch of the day from the boat, and then prep and grill it. It’s not a fast process – it was probably about 2 hrs from the time we placed our order until we were eating our snapper platters, but man, was it worth the wait. And sipping on Derrick’s homemade lime rum punch, served out of a container that looked like it should be something straight out of the Pirates of the Caribbean set (which was actually filmed in Dominica), made the two hour wait go by in the blink of an eye.

 

GETTING THERE & AROUND
Part of what has kept Dominica one of the best kept secrets of the Caribbean, is that there aren’t any direct flights from the US, and therefore it’s not the easiest place to get to (and definitely not the easiest place to land – more on that later). You have to take a small charter flight, most connecting from either San Juan, PR or St. Maarten. Three of the six of us arrived from San Juan on schedule, with no problem. The other half of us were scheduled to arrive an hour later, coming from St. Maarten. But in that hour, the wind had picked up enough that just before we were about to touch ground (landing gear down, friends waving to us from the end of the runway), the pilot had to pull up and reroute us to the next island over (Guadeloupe, with a larger, less perilous runway), where we ended up having to spend the night. In our case, the airline, Windward Island Airways/Air Antilles (https://www.fly-winair.sx), put us up in a hotel for the night, free of charge. We heard that’s not always the case depending on which airline you fly, and apparently this landing issue is not an uncommon occurrence due to the small, mountain-rimmed runway.

Dominica is only 26 miles from tip to tip, but you will definitely need to rent a car to get around. And definitely 4-wheel drive. Driving is, without a doubt, part of the adventure, and not for the faint of heart. Dominica used to be a British colony, so driving is on the left. That said, most roads were so narrow and winding, that there isn’t so much a right and left as a let’s-take-turns-sharing-the-middle situation. Dominica is very mountainous, and the switchbacks are so sharp and narrow that everyone honks when going around a curve so oncoming cars know to pull over to let you pass, one at a time. But even pulling over can be tricky, because it’s pretty common to have a cliff drop-off on one side of the road with a 2-3 ft. deep ditch on the opposite side, to allow for water runoff. Dominica was hit hard by Tropical Storm Erika in 2015, so along with lots of upside down abandoned cars on the side of the roads, they are still trying to repair the damage from mudslides and flooding, leaving several roads in poor condition or closed all together.

 

THINGS TO KNOW

  • Many of the hiking trails to the waterfalls and lakes were damaged during Tropical Storm Erika, so when they suggest hiring a local guide, they are not trying to just make a buck off of you, it’s a genuine safety issue. Ask a local if the trail is safe and well marked (many aren’t marked at all) before proceeding on your own, they will be honest with you, and if they recommend a guide, hire a guide.
  • I would recommend having a decent level of fitness to be able to really take advantage of Dominica’s offerings. We found that several hikes that were marked as “easy” in our guidebook, were actually moderate-to-hard for us, and often took double the allotted time. Granted, we had two 10-year olds with us, and the guidebooks were written before the storm damage, but we’re talking about moss-covered slippery boulders that definitely involved having to use your hands.
  • Bring good sturdy hiking sandals that can get wet (Merrell, Teva, Chaco, Keen, etc). A closed toe is a good idea, in general, and a requirement if doing the canyoning. Also bring a rain poncho. We had some rain just about every day. Or as the locals say, always wear a bathing suit.
  • Mosquitos/biting bugs were not an issue in the rainforest areas while were there (Dec-Jan), but we did experience them in the drier areas (around Mero). It’s good to have bug spray, in case.
  • We had no issues with the drinking water. There are waterfalls and natural springs EVERYWHERE so it’s about as fresh as you can get.
  • Before you get on the road, you will need to obtain a driver’s license which cost $30 (US$12). This can be done at the Dominica airport. You must be between 25 and 65 years old, with two years’ driving experience to qualify for a driver’s permit.
  • English is the primary language. Currency is Eastern Caribbean (EC) but they take $US everywhere.
trips

Colorado & Utah Roadtrip

August 1, 2016

Denver, CO > Telluride, CO > Cortez, CO > Kanab, UT > Moab, UT > Breckenridge, CO > Denver, CO

The inspiration for this trip was twofold: 1. We had American Airlines Companion Certificates that had to be used before the end of the year, and can only be used for domestic flights. And 2. The National Parks is currently running the Every Kid in a Park promotion where incoming, current & graduating 4th graders (and their families) get into National Parks for FREE.

Our original plan was to hit the Grand Canyon, flying into Denver and out of Phoenix, but it turns out if booking with Companion Certificates (full price for first ticket and then two companions can travel with you for $99/person) you have to fly in and out of the same airport, so we swapped out the Grand Canyon for Bryce Canyon and added in Moab, making for an 1800 mile loop back to Denver.

When traveling with Foster, we also like to have a bit more room to spread ourselves out and allow for some downtime between driving, so we booked all of our lodging with airbnb. Plus, being able to cook a few of your own meals and do laundry after climbing mountains/ATVing/sandboarding/getting caught in Utah monsoon season is HUGE. With the exception of one host canceling on us two weeks before the trip (which turned out to be a blessing in disguise) and one bumpy check-in in Telluride (the host forgot to provide us with the key code to get into the condo) all seven accommodations were great.

THE DIGS

Denver
Renovated Duplex in LoHi Denver

Telluride
Viking Lodge – 1BR Condo Gold #304

Cortez
The Jolly Rancher-Sundance Kid Yurt

Kanab
The Pearl – Beautifully Restored

Moab
Casa Moab- Casita #2, 1b/1b

Breckenridge
Ski in/out, 2 blocks to Main St

Denver
Prime location, Modern Baroque

 

THINGS TO DO & KNOW

Denver, CO

Denver Kush Club
2615 Welton St. Denver, CO
when in Rome…

Walk around the Highlands neighborhood to the 16th St bridge into downtown.

Union Station
1701 Wynkoop, Denver, CO 80202
Lovely light-filled station with gourmet eateries and bars, plenty of places to plug-in while you wait, great music on the sound system, and even some shuffleboard.

REI
1416 Platte St, Denver, CO 80202
This is one of their flagship stores so it’s definitely an impressive space, including a rock climbing wall where you can test out gear.

Horseback riding at Gargot Farm
222 North County Road 23, Berthoud, CO 80513
On our last trip to Isla Mujeres Mexico, we became friends with our dive master, Ramon. Ramon then married Molly, an American horse trainer, and moved to Colorado to work with her at Gargot Farm, about an hour northwest of Denver. Molly is a fabulous instructor and was kind enough to give Foster his first riding lesson.

Telluride, CO

Bridal Veil Falls
It’s about a 1.5 mile hike up to the base of the falls, although you can drive it if you’d prefer, as long as you have a 4×4 vehicle.

Cortez, CO

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings
Tip: The only way to actually get close to the dwellings is to be part of one of the guided ranger tours. We went to the visitor center to purchase tickets in the morning, thinking there would be openings for that day, but it was all booked up. They recommend booking in person, at least one full day in advance. We were still able to do a self-guided driving tour, which was lovely, but could only see the dwellings from afar.

Four Corners (drive through Monument Valley): Only worth it if you’re driving through (don’t go out of your way) but sort of fun for the novelty of being able to stand in four states at the same time, and a pee break. It’s $5 cash per person paid to the Navajo Nation.

Page, AZ

Antelope Canyon
Lower Antelope Canyon
Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park, Page, Az
This was probably the biggest disappointment of our trip, in that we didn’t actually get to see either of these canyons. They only allow you into the sites with a Navajo guide, and we hadn’t done our due diligence on the research to realize how far in advance they get booked up. We did end up getting slots for the Lower Canyon tour, by booking online the night before, but there wasn’t any availability for the Upper Canyon, for several weeks out. But the other issue, with both of these sites, is that if there is any rain at all within the area, they cancel the tours, due to concern of flash flooding (people have died). After waiting 2 hrs for a rain delay, our tour was cancelled. It then took us another hour to get our refund and get out of the parking lot. Tip: If you plan to go, book weeks or even months in advance, and book early in the day so that you have some wiggle room for possible weather delays. Also, if you’re coming from CO or any of the other surrounding states, know that Arizona is in its own timezone, if it’s summer, because they don’t practice Daylight Savings.

Kanab, UT

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary
We only had time to drive around the Sanctuary, which is gorgeous, but there are volunteer opportunities and they even have a few cabins so you can stay right on site. But apparently they get booked up very far in advance, so heads up on that. Definitely the coolest pet cemetery you’ll ever see.

ATV and sand boarding at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. You just head to the Visitor Center where they rent out ATVs (including a guide) and both sand boards & sand sleds by the hour.

Hiking Bryce Canyon
We did the Navajo Trail, which was crowded, for sure, but absolutely stunning. Definitely plan to arrive before 9am – parking lots fill up by 10am.

Mossy Cave: Still part of Bryce, but a few miles up the road on Highway 12, this is an easy hike with a small waterfall. It’s MUCH less crowded than the main park and makes for a nice add on after the Navajo Trail.

Moab, UT

Rafting Fisher Towers. There are several tour companies offering up all sorts of wet & dry adventures. We went with Canyon Voyages and they were great. The rafting itself was actually more calm than we would have chosen in hindsight, but we weren’t sure what we were getting into with Foster, so we went with one of their “family friendly” options. And even without a ton of exciting rapids, it still made for a nice scenic day on the river, including lunch.

Hike to Delicate Arch in Arches Natl Park at sunset
Bring water. Lots and lots of water.

Glenwood Springs, CO

Soak in the natural hot springs at Iron Mountain
There are a few places to do this, including some locations that have water slides and are more kid/family oriented, but we had read reviews of this one as being a more chill vibe (while still having a family pool), which we dug.

 

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

Denver

Comida at The Source
3350 Brighton Blvd, Denver, CO 80216
very tasty taqueria in a super cool multipurpose industrial space

breakfast at Prosperoats
2550 15th St, Denver, CO 80211
oatmeal, quinoa & yogurt bowls

Old Major
3316 Tejon St, Denver Co, 80211
awesome Old Fashioneds, crispy chicken sandwiches & great service

Little Man Ice Cream
2620 16th St, Denver, CO 80211
there can be a wait up to 45 minutes long, but we went just after lunch and had a 5 min wait

Telluride

Siam
200 South Davis, Telluride, CO 81435
awesome Thai dinner with live music, great drinks (basil lime cucumber vodka, coconut mango)

breakfast at The Butcher & Baker
217 E. Colorado, Telluride, CO 81435
yummy breakfast options and good hiking fare available for take-out with a light cheerful ambiance

Overall note on drinking in Utah: Utah law sets a limit of 3.2 percent alcohol in beer sold at grocery and convenience stores and at establishments operating under a “beer only” type license, such as taverns, beer bars and some restaurants. Beer over 3.2 percent by weight is available in State Liquor Stores and Package Agencies and at clubs and restaurants licensed to sell liquor.

Kanab

dinner at Sego

190 N 300 W, Kanab, UT 84741
excellent ahi tuna, avocado toast, pumpkin seed chipotle shrimp, buttered fig salad

dinner at Rocking V Cafe
97 West Center Street, Kanab, Utah 84741
awesome deep dish enchilada, huge pork chop, excellent bison steak – $48, not cheap but really good and great service

On way from Bryce to Moab (Rt. 70)

lunch at Costa Vida
950 West 1350 South, Richfield, UT 84701
huge delicious burrito portions, Chipotle-like vibe

Moab

Despite several restaurants with very visually appealing patios surrounded by cascading mist, we found the dinner options in Moab to be very mediocre.

But we did enjoy breakfast at Love Muffin
139 North Main St, Moab, Utah 84532

Breckenridge

Breckenridge Brewery
600 South Main Street, Breckenridge, CO 80424
buffalo chicken beer cheese soup is da bomb

breakfast at Columbine Cafe
109 S Main St, Breckenridge, CO 80424
large tasty portions, usually a bit of a wait

dinner at Mi Casa
600 south park avenue
traditional mexican fare, family friendly

breakfast at Daylight Donuts
305 N Main St, #C, Breckenridge, CO 80424
quirky spot with several breakfast meal options under $8, donuts are delish

trips

New Orleans, Louisiana

April 6, 2016

With the wedding and the location scouting/pre-prep for the wedding, we ended up having about 1.5 days of free time in NOLA. And the way our schedule worked out, we didn’t get a chance to try almost any of the restaurants that our foodie friends had recommended. But we did have lovely weather for walking around and enjoying several of the quintessential must-sees (Bourbon Street & the French Quarter, the cemeteries, the Garden District) while taking in the essence of the city.

THE DIGS

The Old No. 77
535 Tchoupitoulas St, New Orleans LA 70130
This place has a very cool hipster design favoring a masculine industrial vibe with plenty of exposed brick and duct work. The hotel doubles as an art gallery for the local art school and the lobby features an excellent coffee & pastry bar. To the left of the lobby is Compére Lapin, Top Chef Nina Compton’s restaurant, which unfortunately, we didn’t get to try. The location is nice and central in the Warehouse District: 3 blocks from the French Quarter and a slightly longer, but scenic, walk to the Garden District. The front desk staff were all excellent. Our first floor room had some funky vintage mod furniture and a very comfy bed, but was really dark with no natural light (the only window looked out onto a dark ventilation shaft). Apparently the higher level rooms have windows with much more light, so if we went back, we’d request a room on a higher floor. Parking isn’t cheap at $40/day, but you really don’t need a car with such a central location.

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

New Orleans Coffee & Beignet Co. (inside Renaissance Arts Hotel)
700 Tchoupitoulas St.
Shrimp & grits, biscuit & spinach artichoke, beignets. Great food, cool scene in the bar area.

Breakfast at Surrey’s
1418 Magazine St.
Be prepared to wait – this place is a local favorite, and only has a handful of tables. But come hungry because everything is delicious and the pancakes are ginormous.

St. Roch Market
2381 St. Claude Avenue
A beautiful airy space with about 15-20 vendors offering a diverse range of food options and a cocktail bar. It’s like a mini upscale version of Reading Terminal Market.

Lunch at St. James Cheese Co.
641 Tchoupitoulas St.
Super tasty sandwiches & salads, and of course a great selection of cheeses in a bright cheerful space.

Johnny Sanchez
930 Poydras St.
This taqueria is co-owned by two celebrity chefs, John Besh & Aaron Sanchez, so we had fairly high expectations, especially since Mexican is one of our favorite cuisines. We would certainly go back, but we weren’t blown away. The highlights: strawberry habanero margarita, guacamole, cauliflower tacos (they were bangin’), and the coconut salted caramel flan. Just ok: the ceviche and the black bean side dish.

SHOPPING
Magazine St. in the Garden District.
There are a few chains, such as Lush and Free People, but mostly fun & funky independently owned boutiques and restaurants.

The Art Garden
613 Frenchman Street (behind the wood fence)
Local artists and crafters display their wares in a charming courtyard setting.

trips

South Beach, Miami

April 3, 2016

Given South Beach’s rep, we were mildly concerned that we were gonna feel too old and lame for the scene. We were traveling without Foster, but we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of families we saw, mostly European, in that we weren’t the only 40-somethings. South Beach is great for people watching and not feeling like you have to accomplish anything other than laying poolside for the day while drinks magically appear in your hand. It’s definitely fun to get your inner “I’m on a Boat” on for a couple days.

THE DIGS
Surfcomber
1717 Collins Avenue Miami Beach, FL 33139
Kimpton hotels are our go-to as far as boutique chain hotels go. We enjoy their quirky but conceptual design aesthetic, especially their Philly locations, Monaco and Palomar. The excellent service and very cool outdoor spaces definitely lived up to our Kimpton expectations. The lobby is a playful design, albeit slightly cluttered (it feels a bit less cohesive than Monaco or Palomar). The reception staff wears dapper seersucker jackets with green pants and yellow vests, which is just plain fun. We love the perks like free wine at happy hour, sunscreen poolside, the $10 “raid the mini bar” credit and our welcome cocktail. Comfy padded chairs are free on their private section of beach, but an umbrella is an extra $19. The pool area is fabulous including a tasty poolside menu. We were slightly disappointed in the size of our room and bathroom, view of a wall (we tried to upgrade to the next size up of room with a view, but there weren’t any available), and the hallways are ridiculously cold & dark. But the location is excellent, right along the main strip on Collins Ave, beachfront, so everything is walkable, in fact a car is just a nuisance with the cost and lack of parking.

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Quality Meats
1501 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, FL
Full disclosure: we are related to the chef. But HOLY SHIT WE’RE RELATED TO THE CHEF, so we got to try just about EVERYTHING on the menu, which means we know just how amazing this place really is, because every damn thing was ridiculously good. It was so good we actually left in pain, but highlights included: bacon slabs in peanut butter with jalepeno jelly (The Elvis); charcuterie; john’s 3, yes 3, steaks; the corn creme brûlée; really every side dish on the menu, the fig ice cream, the Quality Mule (vodka + homemade ginger beer) & the mango basil martini. OMG. SO. MUCH. FOOD.

Joe’s Stone Crab
11 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33139
Old school decor & shtick, not unlike the vibe at The Palm in Philly, but excellent food and service. No reservations, so go before 7pm if you want to avoid a wait.

Rosetta Italian Bakery for breakfast
1666 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, FL
There’s a line out the door every day. Bangin’ fruit tarts, tasty ham & cheese croissant, great coffee with attention to detail, in a clean, bright, comfy-feeling space.

trips

Key West, Florida

March 31, 2016

John books a couple destination weddings every year, but this year he was fortunate enough to have one in Key West followed by one in New Orleans, the very next weekend. Since his airfare & hotel costs for a few nights were covered, we took it as an opportunity to turn the trip into a working vacation with a few days in South Beach, Miami, in between. We had 3 nights in Key West, and really only one non-working day, but we did manage to pack a good amount of fun into that one day. And, technically, John and his second-shooter, Kyle, did end up squeezing in a quick photo shoot that day, but it was a fun one for Kyle’s girlfriend’s new line of swimwear. Check out Aileen’s awesomely cheeky designs at Bare Native and on instagram.

THE DIGS
Truman Hotel
John had stayed here once before for another Key West wedding he’d shot a few years ago so he knew it was a convenient location with a cool vibe. It’s a small boutique hotel they describe as “South Beach hip with Key West flair”, which is fairly accurate. The pool area is well-designed, modern but inviting. The rooms pictured on the website  show fun pops of color combined with funky prints, however our room had more of a traditional but trying-to-be-modern-caribbean feel. It wasn’t bad, just a bit more conservative than we were expecting based on John’s prior stay. There aren’t many steals to be found in Key West at this time of year (spring break), so at $278/nt. this wasn’t our idea of a bargain, but still a better deal than any of the big chain hotels, and with more flavor. A continental breakfast is included and served poolside. They even provide trays you can take back to your room or balcony, should you decide to treat yourself to breakfast in bed, which is a nice touch. A few minor tweaks that could improve the experience: plugs for charging phones that can reach the bedside tables; and hooks for towels in the bathroom that can actually be reached from the shower.

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Kojin Noodle Bar
601 Duval St #4, Key West, FL 33040
This is a tiny place with a counter and a handful of tables, but perfect for lunch or take-out. I had one of their specials of the day, a sesame shrimp noodle bowl, which was DELICIOUS.

Frita’s Cuban Burgers
425 Southard St, Key West, FL 33040
Essentially a food truck/take-out shack combo with an adorable outdoor patio area and super tasty Cuban sandwiches. The shrimp tacos and the House Cubano burger with jalepeno & bacon were both excellent. As an added bonus, they have Schofferhofer beer and churros.

El Mason de Pepe for Mojitos
410 Wall St,  Mallory Square
We didn’t actually go inside this place, other than to use the restroom, which involves a walk down a slightly bizarre muralled hallway, so we can’t comment on the food. But the mojitos at the outside bar are fabulous, with a nice view of the water.

OVERRATED
Blue Heaven
729 Thomas St, Key West, fl 33040
Several friends, as well as travel sites, recommended Blue Heaven. We were underwhelmed. The outdoor space was very cool with chickens and pastel colors and whatnot, but the food was overpriced and wasn’t awesome. The drinks were downright bad. They told us it would be an hour wait, but it was actually 1.5hrs. Maybe we just caught them on a off night.

La Creperie
Another one that had great reviews. Service was decent, the food, meh.

THE DRIVE
For the 3.5 hr drive back to Miami, we treated ourselves to a convertible. We don’t consider ourselves Mustang people, but HELL YEAH, that was definitely the way to do that drive. And if you need to grab a bite & beer in Key Largo on your way in or out of the Keys, we recommend Alabama Jacks. It’s a roadside dive bar with mediocre food, but it’s just the right place to get you into that Florida Keys spirit.

trips

Holbox Island, Mexico

December 23, 2015

40 miles northwest of the chain resorts of Cancún, Holbox island feels like it’s on another continent. It’s an unpretentious paradise with sand roads, golf carts as the main form of transportation, an authentic town square and one ATM machine on the whole island. This is one of those rare beach/island destinations where the locals actually still live and vacation here themselves. Granted, that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you are put off by the idea of placing your TP in a trashcan next to the toilet, as opposed to flushing it, this probably isn’t your kind of place.

Whale sharks are what Holbox is most known for, but we were visiting out of season, so we spent the majority of our days just chilling on the beach and stuffing ourselves with the local cuisine. It’s easy to catch a golf cart taxi if you want to explore some of the more remote beaches. Beyond that, activities include kayaking, paddle boarding, birding (be on the lookout for flamingos) and boat trips to nearby uninhabited islands. The lack of distractions leaves you with plenty of time for walking on the beach, feasting on the freshest ceviche, taking siestas, swimming in calm waters, and collecting seashells. Peek into the doorway of a sand-floored home and you’re likely to catch someone napping in a hammock. And be sure to check out the great murals that are all over town.

THE DIGS
Ida y Vuelta Hostel & Cabanas
As the name suggests, this was not a luxury resort. There are several upscale and mid-range boutique options if you’re looking for a more pampered experience, but given that we spent more on airfare than we’d like (it was X-Mas week, so there weren’t any good airfare deals to be found), we needed to keep our accommodation costs on the lower side. Plus, we liked the idea of Jade and Foster, both 9, and who both attend a spanish-immersion school, getting to have a more communal, backpacker type of experience.

Ida Y Vuelta is run by David and Sasha, a husband and wife team, who live in the main house with their kids, and could not have been more sweet. This is clearly a labor of love for them, and they’ve created a charming little haven, with accommodations ranging from a hammock (you can literally rent a hammock for the night and sleep under the stars) to a rustic house with a small kitchen that sleeps 4. We were traveling as a group of 7, with 5 adults and two kids, so we rented the casita ($150/night during peak season) and two of the bungalows ($85/night during peak season), all with ensuite bathrooms. There’s also a camping area, a few sand-floor cabins, some dorm-type cabins with bunks and a large communal kitchen & bath house.

They serve a full breakfast menu. The equivalent of a continental breakfast is included in the nightly rate, but you can apply that as a credit toward any of the other menu items. Breakfasts were super tasty including eggs, fruit with yogurt & granola, and freshly baked pastries. They don’t serve lunch or dinner regularly, but on special occasions they host a prix-fixe feast ($30/per adult, $15/child, including drinks). We partook in the Christmas Eve feast, which was extra special because they had their extended family staying with them who helped cook the meal, and we all agreed it was the best fish any of us have ever had in our lives (grilled simply with lemon and olive oil). We lost track of how many courses we ate, but everything was exquisite.

Rustic would definitely be the best word to describe our bungalows. And it’s tight quarters. There are 2-3 open shelves, a table with two stools, and a bathroom. There was a surprising lack of hooks to hang anything on (even in the bathroom), so we ended up draping our towels over the wooden rafters and doors. It’s a camping-type setting, so you can hear people talking at night, even in the private bungalows. Most people quieted down by 10pm though, with the exception of our drunk neighbor who got locked out of his bungalow at 3am one night.

The casita was roomier than the bungalows, with a kitchen, two double beds, and a fun tiled bathroom including a shower made from a conch shell. Perfect for a small family.

If we had some suggestions for improvements, it would be adding the aforementioned hooks in the bungalows, as well as some more comfortable seating options. The benches that are in the dining and communal areas are super cute, but not very comfy after a few minutes. It would also be great if there were beach chairs and umbrellas available for rent.

We can’t say enough good things about David and Sasha – their smiling faces were truly a highlight of of the trip. So if you’re up for a backpacker sort of experience, two blocks from the beach, this is your place.

WHERE TO EAT
Mexican cuisine is one of our absolute favorites, and Holbox does not disappoint.

El Chapulim
The best restaurant of the trip. We loved everything about this place and Foster said it was the best steak he’s ever had in his life (granted, he’s 9, but we tried it and it was a damn good steak). See Jocie’s review here.

Ukulele Grill
Calle Igualdad S/N, Holbox Island 77310, Mexico
We LOVED the drinks and guacamole here. And the service was excellent. We weren’t blown away by the tacos, but applaud their creativity.

Villa Mar
Av. Pedro Joaquin Caldwell and Tiburon Bellena (right near the pier)
This became our go-to lunch spot. Totally authentic (as in plastic floral table cloths and lots of locals), right on the beach. Highly recommend the coconut fish or shrimp and the shrimp ceviche.

Viva Zapata
1/2 block west of the main square | Calle Damero 67 Solar 14, Holbox Island 77310, Mexico
Swings at the bar, locally owned, delicious and hoppin’. This place is very popular, so arrive early or be prepared to wait and service can be on the slow side.

GETTING THERE & AROUND
Even though it’s only 40 miles from Cancun, Holbox Island is a bit of a trek, which is probably a large part of why is has been able to maintain its authenticity. You fly into Cancun airport, from there it’s a 2-2.5hr drive to Chiquila where you catch a 30min ferry to the island. So you’re looking at 2.5-3hrs of travel from Cancun.

A tip when booking your airfare: book the earliest flight possible out of your home city. The last ferry from Chiquila to Holbox is 9:30pm, and if you miss it, you’re not getting to Holbox that day. We learned this lesson the hard way. Our flight out of Philly was a late morning flight but was delayed a bit. Once we finally got into the air we all noticed a terrible smell coming from the back of the plane, so an hour into the flight the pilot decided to turn around and go back to Philly. It was another 4 hours on the ground before they were able to get us a new plane and crew. We finally arrived in Cancun around 11:30pm. Our driver was still able to get us as far as Chiquila by 1:30am, and we hadn’t given up hope as we’d been told that there are a handful of fishermen that will take you to Holbox in their private boats after the last ferry. But apparently the harbor had been shut down for high winds, so we were out of luck and had to spend the night in the only “hotel” in Chiquila (which involved waking up the proprietor to let us in – not fun).

Once in Holbox, you can get around to most of the restaurants and shops on foot. But for the more remote beaches, or if you’re dealing with luggage, just grab a golf cart taxi. The golf carts are also available to rent by the day or week if you’re staying a bit far from town.

THINGS TO KNOW
There are clouds of mosquitoes at dusk: bring repellent with the dreaded Deet (the eco-friendly natural stuff couldn’t stand up to these guys).

As previously mentioned, there’s only one ATM on the island, and it was actually down for a few days while we were there. So bring cash. US dollars are accepted most places, but you’ll get a better rate by paying in pesos. Some, but not all, of the restaurants and hotels take credit cards.

We booked this trip for December in the previous June, and most of the hotels we were interested in were already booked up. So if you’re planning to visit during the high season (winter), book EARLY.

It’s a mostly European crowd tourist-wise. If topless sunbathing bothers you, this probably isn’t your scene.

Paddle boarding: the water is is pretty calm, so it’s an ideal place to try for first-timers.

The water is not the translucent turquoise common to most of Quintana Roo, because here the Caribbean mixes with the darker Gulf of Mexico. It’s still lovely, just not that traditional Caribbean blue.

tips

Afar.com & the Afar app

October 16, 2015

Travel junky that I am, I get my fix between trips, by planning our next trip. Prior to our last journey, I discovered Afar. You may be familiar with the magazine, which is lovely and awesome for getting destination ideas, but what I found to be super helpful for the actual planning of our trip was their website and app (and it’s free!).

We made 90% of our hotel and restaurant selects for our Portugal trip based on their recommendations, and there was not a dud in the bunch. We definitely felt like there were places we never would have found without Afar because they had insider/local tips that were less generic than your average travel guide.

Simply do a search on the site for your destination of choice, and you’ll get a list of recommendations that fall under the categories of Eat, Drink, Stay, Shop or Do. So if you’re looking for a hotel, for example, just click on the “stay” tab and you’ll get a list of just hotels. Then you can save the ones that interest you by creating a Trip Plan. Once you’ve got your list all set with where you want to stay and ideas for things you want to do, restaurants, etc, you can download your list(s) to the app and have access to everything, including all of your locations of interest pinned on a map, without having to rely on wifi.

This system was a game changer for us, and one we’ll definitely be using for all of our trips from now on.

tips

Tom Tom app

September 4, 2015

If you’ve ever spent a day driving in Philadelphia, you’ll agree that making it home in one piece is a challenge. That said, driving in a completely different country may not be something you would even consider. But honestly, the freedom to explore at your own leisure is the best way get around outside of cities.

To be honest, fifteen years ago, when we first drove internationally, we were a bit nervous. Not so much with the actual driving because, again, we’ve survived Philly. But more with the logistics. Things like navigation, paying tolls, and even how gas stations work gave us pause. Nowadays, we rent cars all the time without a second thought. Sure, our driving frequency has helped instill more courage, but really it’s the technology that has given us the confidence we once lacked.

When renting a car these days some rental companies will give you the option to add a GPS and even a toll device. In Portugal their EZ-Pass system is called Via Verde. It was €1.50 per day plus the actual toll costs. The tolls were frequent on the highways and not cheap. Having the Via Verde tag saved us the trouble of attempting to speak Portuguese to a toll operator or carrying around a wad of cash.

Renting a GPS, however, might not be the best way to go for navigation. In Belgium we spent 20 minutes in the parking garage trying to figure out how to change the language from Dutch to English. Additionally, renting a unit isn’t cheap. In Portugal the going rate was  €125/week.

There’s a better way to go if you have a iPhone. It turns out, iPhones don’t require data usage for a GPS position. They only require data to pull maps from the internet as you move. But if you download the maps in advance, then you can navigate without using data or being dependent on wifi. We downloaded the Tom Tom app with the Southern Europe maps before we left the States. There was a one time cost of $59 for the app. When you get abroad, just launch the app with your data turned off and you can navigate for free.

Additionally, you can use the app to help you get around on foot when you reach your destination. Another neat function the Tom Tom app offers is to navigate by photo. Any photo you take on an iPhone is GPS tagged. Pass a great restaurant or town you want to hit another day? Snap a photo as you pass it so you can find you way back to it at a later time. Forget the address of the place you are staying? Dig up a photo you took of your new digs when you checked in and the app will help you get back. It’s a game changer for navigation and since maps are sold as areas, should you go anywhere else in the area your maps cover (say Germany, in our case), it won’t cost you a dime.

trips

Santa Cruz & Sintra, Portugal

August 8, 2015

GETTING THERE & AROUND

From Porto, the coastal town of Santa Cruz was a 2.5hr drive south. Getting to Santa Cruz was easy but we actually had a pretty hard time finding our hotel because GPS was not recognizing the address. We knew we were close though, so we just worked our way toward the coast and eventually found it. Again, in hindsight, I see there are GPS coordinates, as well as driving directions on their site (but we didn’t have access to wifi at the time we were driving). This was the last leg of our trip, and our plan going into it was to spend the majority of time just enjoying our hotel, the beach and our immediate surrounding area.

We did take one day trip to Sintra, which was about a 1 hr drive south of Santa Cruz. Parking in Sintra is a bit challenging due to the crowds, and the roads are narrow and windy. Most people park, or arrive via train from Lisbon, and then take busses up the hills to the various palaces. Fortunately for us, the palace we were most interested in was an easy 10 minute walk from the town center, so we were able to avoid all of the bus craziness.

THE DIGS
Areias Dos Seixo
Praceta do Atlantico, Mexilhoeira, Povoa de Penafirme, 2560-046 A-Dos-Cunhados, Portugal

There was a reason we saved this hotel for last, in addition to getting us back within 45 minutes of Lisbon for our return flight, we knew this place would be the mac daddy grand finale of our already fabulous trip. It was definitely a splurge for us, at about $325/night, which included breakfast. The overall design of Areis Dos Seixo, including the grounds and cliffside setting, is stunning. Each of the 10 individually and exquisitely decorated rooms within the main building has wood burning fireplaces, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lawn and the crashing Atlantic below.

I had requested a specific room when we booked, because I’d fallen completely in love with the bathroom, which had a sunken concrete soaking tub, fireplace and a live tree. When we checked in and they showed us to our room, we quickly realized it wasn’t the room we’d reserved. I felt a bit silly being as disappointed as I was about it, because the room they did give us also had a ridiculously gorgeous bathroom, albeit sans fireplace and live tree. John sweetly tried to rectify the situation with the front desk, because he knew I’d been fantasizing about that bathroom for months, but no amount of “but it’s her 40th birthday” was going to change that, as they had already given the room to someone else.

This place is all about creating an ambiance of nature, serenity and romance. The candles in the room are magically lit when you return from dinner. Music is piped into speakers throughout the suite. There are live full-size trees lining the steps from the reception area down to the rooms and lawn area. There’s a massive fire pit circle created with driftwood and tree limbs that were gathered after a huge storm wrecked havoc just prior to the opening of the hotel, where guests gather at twilight for a glass of wine. There’s even a super cool pod-like swing filled with pillows and blankets, which easily fits two people, on the edge of a wooden platform where they screen outdoor movies some nights.

The large open bar and restaurant area features chunky rustic wooden tables mixed with elegant chic chandeliers and a menu that highlights produce from the hotel’s rooftop-garden. Servers are top-notch and quick to provide area recommendations or any advice to improve your stay. The breakfast buffet has a great selection and is spread out throughout the open kitchen area. You can even have eggs or an omelette made-to-order and freshly brewed coffee, all included in the room rate, which takes it up a notch to being more than your typical European Continental breakfast. Lunch on our first day included a pumpkin soup, made with pumpkins from their own garden, that was divine.

The only meal we didn’t love at the restaurant were the dinners. Each night, the menu featured three options: one meat entree, one fish entree and one vegetarian option, so not a ton of choice, for €25 each. The first night I wasn’t feeling either the meat or fish options, and the veggie choice said “grilled head of lettuce”. I thought, surely that must be an English translation issue, because how on Earth could they charge 25 Euros for a head of lettuce, so I went ahead and ordered it. Sure enough, it was literally a grilled head of lettuce on top of some sort of sauce. The presentation was lovely, and the sauce was tasty, but there were no sides, no protein, just a head of lettuce. And the portions of all the entrees were actually quite small, although they do a fabulous job of making them look impressive, by serving everything on large smooth rocks. The phrase “put it on a rock” has since become a running joke for us as the embodiment of trying to compensate for something small.

The room hiccup and the dinners are the only reason we wouldn’t rate this a perfect 5 star experience, but would we go back? HELL YES.

HIGHIGHTS
Mexilhoeira beach
Over the sand dunes, at the bottom of about 100 steps down the jagged cliffs (so pack lightly), is the insanely beautiful Mexilhoeira beach. It’s one beach over from the much more crowded Santa Cruz beach. We just about had the place to ourselves other than a handful of surfers who appeared to double as lifeguards. It doesn’t seem to be a swimming beach, or at least maybe just not under certain conditions, but it’s storybook gorgeous.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra
Sintra is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its colorfully ornate palaces & castles. We skipped the more touristed Pena National Palace and Castle of the Moors in favor of focusing on the Gothic-style Quinta da Regaleira. The exterior and interior of the palace are pretty cool, particularly the whimsical gargoyles on the turrets. But what makes this place so fascinating are the labyrinths of gardens, full of hidden moss-covered tunnels and wells that drop hundreds of feet into the ground, and secret passageways that wind like mazes throughout the property. It feels like something straight out of Indiana Jones.

trips

Porto, Portugal

August 5, 2015

GETTING THERE & AROUND
From Montemor-O-Novo, Porto was an easy 3 hour drive North. Arriving, you’ll inevitably have to cross at least one of Porto’s six famous bridges. While lovely, I found this experience to be terrifying (these bridges are crazy high and narrow). Once in Porto, we parked the car in a garage for 7 Euros/day and got around the city on foot almost exclusively. We did end up taking a cab to dinner one night because our garage closed at 8:30pm, so we wouldn’t have returned from dinner until after that time (most restaurants in Portugal don’t start serving dinner until 8pm). The cab process was simple and for tipping you just round up to the next Euro.

PORTO (4 days)
Porto has all of the great architectural diversity of Lisbon, but on a smaller scale and with a more colorful, artsy, gritty flavor. Old World icons, such as the baroque Torre dos Clérigos bell tower that helped the city earn UNESCO status in 1996, contrast with contemporary buildings. New hip boutiques are transforming historic streets, and upscale hotels are bringing former palaces and row houses back to life. And then there’s the port wine, lots and lots of port. We went into this trip knowing nothing about port, and were surprised by the range of variety. The Douro River is the life blood of the city featuring the iconic postcard view of the iron D. Luis I Bridge above and the rainbow-colored buildings lined with the Port-barrel-carrying-boats below.

THE DIGS
The White Box House
Rua de Santa Catarina 575, 4000-454 Porto, Portugal
This guesthouse is chic and very affordable, with a mix of standard rooms and hostel style, located right in the center of Porto on the best known pedestrian shopping street. With only 6 rooms it creates a cosmopolitan atmosphere, cozy and relaxed, allowing contact with the local culture in a more intimate way. It’s housed in a building from the early twentieth century, carefully restored preserving the original features while updated with today’s standards of comfort. There’s a minimalist clean palette aesthetic sense, with hardwood floors, granite walls, pops of Portuguese tile, and vintage mid-century modern furniture.

We stayed in Room 6, a roomy suite on the top floor, with lovely white exposed wood beams, a skylight, and a small lounge area for $80/night. Breakfasts were fairly simple, including some ham slices, cheese, yogurt, freshly-squeezed OJ and a different homemade baked good each day. The small staff were young, hip, super friendly and very helpful. They were a great resource for insider tips and were happy to help us with dinner reservations or anything else you could possibly need.

HIGHIGHTS
All In Porto
Rua Arquitecto Nicolau Nasoni #17-27
We stumbled upon this little wine shop hoping for our first port tasting, and we really lucked out. The owner, Hugo, was incredibly informative, friendly, and has a great selection. We learned that Port can be bottle aged (the vintage fortified wines you’re probably most familiar with) or barrel aged (tawny ports meant to drink younger than the bottle aged ones.) A new discovery was white port which can be served as an aperitif with seltzer water and a citrus twist. Hugo introduced us to the Niepoort line of ports, which was by far our favorite. This was a much more intimate one-on-one experience than dealing with the crowds and lines of the port houses across in the river in Gaia.

Góshò
Avenida da Boavista, 1277, piso -1 – Porto
Sushi, asian fusion and Japanese tapas in a modern and friendly atmosphere with nice, professional service. In the basement of a hotel featuring minimalist Japanese inspired interior design with a cool metal curtain that separates the dining room from a lounge area. This place is more expensive than the average Portuguese restaurant, but in line with what you’d expect for high-end sushi.

D. Luis I Bridge
The iron double-decker D. Luis I Bridge is the symbol of Porto, inaugurated in 1886, engineered by a disciple of Eiffel. The upper deck is the Metro & pedestrian track while the bottom deck is traffic and pedestrian. We walked across the upper deck to the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river, the views of the city and the area from the bridge are spectacular. But I was so scared by the height on the top deck (190ft above the river) that I had to close my eyes about a quarter of the way across and let John lead my white-knuckled self the rest of the way. So we returned on foot via the lower deck (which was much less terrifying), taking the funicular back up the steep hill into Porto. At the base of the bridge on the Gaia side, industrious local teens were asking 1 Euro to jump from the lower deck of the bridge into the river 50ft below.

Vila Nova de Gaia
Across the Douro River from Port, stretched along the hillside on the south bank, is where all of the port houses are. They all offer tours and tastings, but we were content to just sit ourselves down outside the Sandeman house, sipping our port, listening to a street musician play beautifully on his violin, and people-watch for a couple hours. Plus, the view of Porto from this side is fabulous.

The Bolhao Market
Mercado bolhao Loja 1, 4000 Porto, Portugal
Established in 1839, this colorful, noisy market is located in the heart Porto. The market consists of an open roof two-story building and carries every imaginable type of fruit, vegetables, beans, olives, specialty cheeses, home made breads, desserts and some local crafts. Of course there is fresh fish, poultry, and meats.

Shopping at A Vida Portuguesa
Rua Galeria de Paris 20 – 1º, 4050-162 Porto
Very cool shop on the second floor of the building which sells traditional Portuguese goods with a twist, in a gorgeous setting. Perfect for souvenirs for yourself or gifts for the friends and family back home watching your kid/pet/plants.

Lunch at Conga (“Casa das Bifanas”)
Rua Bonjardim 318, Porto
Located close to the town hall, opened in 1976, a perfect lunch choice is their famous slider-size Bifana pork sandwich, cooked in a secret spicy sauce on a mouthwatering chewy bun. We each devoured one and regretted not ordering two.

Dinner at Frida
Rua Adolfo Casais Monteiro, 135
Somehow we had missed this neighborhood all together until our last night, which was a total bummer because there were some super cute hip artsy boutiques that we would have loved to check out if they’d been open. We were craving some Mexican, and found this place via TripAdvisor – what a great call. It’s tiny, so you definitely need a reservation. Quirky latin decor, including little bottles filled with sand on each table from Central and South American beaches. The service, food and drink were all excellent, especially the margaritas. This place is the real deal. Probably our favorite meal in Porto.

trips

Alentejo & Algarve regions, Portugal

July 30, 2015

GETTING THERE & AROUND
After picking up our little Fiat rental in downtown Lisbon, we drove about 2.5 hours south to Cercal (the nearest town to our next inn). Most of the trip was on a large 3-lane highway (A2). You can pretty quickly notice the more rural change in landscape, with dusty rolling hills covered in cork trees, as you head south. Finding our next hotel, Herdade Da Matinha, was a bit tricky, as our Tom Tom wasn’t really recognizing the address (in hindsight, I see their site provides actual GPS coordinates, which would have done the trick), so we were particularly excited when we successfully arrived, the cows, less so.

From Cercal, our next hotel was about a 2 hour drive northeast to Montemor-O-Novo. As we mentioned in the Lisbon post, driving in Portugal was really quite simple, as long as we were able to figure out how to plug the proper address in to the GPS app (surprisingly, that part was not as easy as it sounds).

THE DIGS
Herdade da Matinha
7555-231 Cercal do Alentejo, 7555-231
This was exactly the laid back rural juxtaposition we were looking for coming off of the Lisbon leg of our trip. Herdade da Matinha is the kind of place where you can do as little or as much as you want. The coast is about a 10 minute drive away, and known as a really good surfing area, but other than a morning hike and day trip down to Lagos (see Highlights below), we were totally content to spend the majority of our time here soaking in the farm-to-table vibe, enjoying the art of doing nothing. We spent one entire day getting up out of our shaded poolside lounge chairs only long enough to eat lunch, pick some plums off a tree to snack on, and mingling with the freely grazing horses.

The overall decor is farmhouse chic. They’ve found ways to infuse colorful modern art and pops of color with comfy style into all of the shared community spaces. Our room, #14, was one of their “Romantic Rooms” at $149/night—the crisp white bedding and walls contrasting beautifully with the exposed wooden ceiling beams. Our bathroom was nice and large with good natural light, overlooking the pool.

There aren’t too many restaurant options super close by, so we were a tiny bit nervous about eating just about every meal of our stay at the same place, but the food was so tasty it totally wasn’t an issue. The dinners were a fixed price at about $35/pp and included 4-5 courses. Out of the three dinners we ate here, there was only one course of one dinner that we weren’t oohing and ahhing about (it was a modern twist on their national dish of salted cod, and to be fair we weren’t loving the whole Portuguese salted cod thing in general). Lunches were a casual a la carte affair – all yummy. The breakfast spread, included in the cost, featured the usual European meats, cheeses & breads, plus farm-made jams and an array freshly squeezed fruit juices.

They have a pretty extensive wine cabinet, featuring vineyards mostly local to the region, with the bulk of bottles in the $15-$25 range. They also had a few house wines you could order by the glass. And there was a cozy bar for mixed drinks. The mojitos, with fresh mint picked from their garden, and sangria loaded with fruit from their very own trees, were of course, excellent.

L’And Vineyards
Estrada Nacional 4, Herdade das Valadas, Apartado 122, 7050-031 Montemor-o-Novo, Évora
This was one of two splurge hotels we’d booked for this trip, at $265/night. We typically try to stay in the $150/night or less range, but this was a special occasion trip for us and how many times in your life do you get the chance to literally sleep under the stars in a bed with a FULLY OPENING SKYLIGHT over it? And did I mention the hotel is a winery, with a Michelin-starred restaurant? Yeah, this one was worth the splurge.

The architecture and suites at this place are gorgeous, designed by Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan, who created the space using natural stone, slate and wood. We loved the pool. We loved everything about our suite. The service was impeccable. Although it’s worth mentioning that lunch service at the less formal, outside restaurant was VERY leisurely and, as to be expected, overpriced for sandwich-type fare. The breakfast, included in the price, was a very impressive spread, and all delicious. Our only real letdown was dinner at the main restaurant. This was our first Michelin-starred experience, so maybe our expectations were a bit too high. Our waiter was excellent, as was the wine, naturally. John enjoyed his steak, although he wasn’t blown away, but I actually outright disliked my fish entree and made John eat it because I’m just not one of those folks who is brave enough to send a meal back. So while we’d GLADLY come back here for the hotel experience, we’d seek out dinners offsite.

There is also a spa onsite, featuring vineyard-themed treatments. And while we didn’t get a chance to partake, we did have conversations with other guests who said it was excellent.

HIGHIGHTS

Hiking the Rota Vicentina
Rota Vicentina is a network of walking trails along the Southwest coast of Portugal, totaling 400 km to walk, along the most beautiful and best preserved coastline of Southern Europe. There are 75+ small hotels and inns featured on the site that line the trail, which is how we found Herdade da Matinha (these places get totally booked up during the summer beach season, so book several months in advance if that’s when you plan to travel). There’s an entrance to the trail right from the Herdade da Matinha property, although Matinha is a bit inland, so we were told it was a 2hr hike just to reach the coastline via the trail. We hiked about an hour in and then turned around because while there were some shaded sections, it was a bit too hot to make it the all the way to the coast on that particular day (and poolside mojitos were calling our name). But we really enjoyed the mix of cork trees, blue skies, and lush pockets of wooded areas along the way.

Sea kayaking the cliffs & caves in Lagos
Caís da Solaria , Forte Pau da Bandeira – 8600-000 Lagos
Lagos is about a 2 hour drive south from Herdade da Matinha, so we visited this picturesque beach town as a day trip. The cobblestoned town itself is quaint, if touristy, with plenty of cafes, bars and shops. But the real draw of Lagos is the range of fabulous cliffside beaches, some of which can only be reached by boat or kayak. There are several operations that offer tours of the beaches, cliffs and caves, ranging from small skiffs to big party boats, but we preferred the intimacy and peaceful satisfaction of exploring via kayak. The crustal clear turquoise water was cooler than expected, given the hot August climate, so we did not actually swim, but the views were stunning.

Évora
Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to the preservation and eclectic combination of old & new European architecture, about 30 minutes from L’And Vinyards. The hilltop medieval walled village has a lovely town square, roman ruins and charming side streets lined with cork-filled shops.

Just around the corner from the front of St. Francis church is the entrance to Capela dos Ossos, aka the Chapel of Bones. The macabre greeting on the wall states “we bones, lying here, for yours we wait”. It’s a surreal experience to see the remains of bodies dug up from the town graves in the 17th century used to create a place of worship and reflection, but you can’t help but appreciate the artistry and dedication that went into it.

trips

Lisbon, Portugal

July 27, 2015