Madeira looked like it was going to be a beautiful island, so we signed up for a tour from the Regent Explorer that would get us around as much of the island as possible in the one day we had to visit. Boy, were we glad we did. Blessed with an absolutely gorgeous day and, as our guide described, “fresh” cool temperatures, we set off from Funchal to see the western and northern coasts along with the high point and scenes from the interior.
There are no natural beaches on this pile of lava rock, and so the brilliant blue sea and crashing Atlantic waves hit a shore of black rocks and pebbles. Several places we visited had barriers to keep visitors away from vantage points due to aggressive wave action. Our guide was a German native who has spent the last 57 years on the island after marrying a local and raising a family. Her insights and commentary were authentic and very interesting, and I felt we had a good window into what it was like to live on an isolated island (with unreliable air service). She also gave us a very graphic description of how life on the island has evolved, from 10 cars and few hotels when she arrived in the 60s to the thriving tourism industry it is today. As part of Portugal, Madeira’s fortunes have also risen and fallen with changes and political transitions in their home country. Read More
Tangier was a substitute port on this trip. Our stops in Casablanca and Agadir Morocco were canceled due to an Atlantic storm, and this was a sub for one of those days. Can’t say that I’m in any rush to come back here. Although I know you cannot judge a country by one short visit, so let’s all keep that in mind.
I did enjoy our driving route since we saw some of the nicer residential areas, including a ride-by of the Presidents’ summer palace. Our first stop was at Cap Spartel, the 1,000’ seaside outcrop with a lighthouse which is the image most often associated with Tangier. Just below the Cape is the Hercules Grotto, another of the mythological legends attributed to Hercules in this part of the world. Our guide was useless and explained nothing so we hung around and eavesdropped on other guides who were giving some very lively background. I also spent some time unsuccessfully trying to get good pictures of the cats in the Grotto area. Read More
Finally. Got the see this big rock. From our cruise ship, The Regent Explorer, we took a bus for a scenic ride through bull-ranch country and crossed the border into Gibraltar, a British territory.
Upon arrival, you have to pass through both Spanish and British customs, a process that can be tedious, but this day was a breeze. Arrival of an Easy Jet, however, did slow our entry, since the runway crosses Winston Churchill Ave, the main road into town and of course, planes get priority. Read More
I guess the third time is a charm. It’s taken me that many visits to finally get into the Palau de Música and I’m so happy I did. We did it all, a performance and a tour. We saw a fabulous evening performance in the theater – this one featuring four very talented Flamenco dancers. If you have never had a lesson is this classic Spanish style or tried to play the castanets while moving you may not truly appreciate this precision-oriented, graceful, and expressive form of dance. Tappers might appreciate the rapid-fire footwork and core control. We were treated to a variety of Flamenco styles during the 90-minute performance. It was a magical evening.
The following morning, we returned for a daytime tour. You really need to see the facility during the day to appreciate the magnificent stained glass and incredible tiled pillars and interior workmanship.
Domènech Montaner designed the theater in 1908 as a daytime venue, so it’s important to really appreciate the dramatic details, artistic details, and the way he channeled light into such a tightly configured space. Montaner was Gaudí’s teacher and the father of Barcelona’s modernista movement.
English language tours are held every hour and during the week you can usually arrive 15 minutes early and get tickets. You can also buy them online. Our tour guide was excellent and at one point turned on music by the 4,000-pipe organ so we could experience the remarkable sound quality. What an amazing combination of artistry.
I was super excited to learn that Gaudí’s Casa Vicens is now open to the public for tours. Up until a few years ago, it was a private home to the second family to own it (after the Vicens). Now privately owned by a bank it is being run as a museum. The cab driver didn’t understand where we wanted to go, which gives you an idea of just how “new” and unknown this property is today. Located in Gràcia, it was once considered a country house.
We bought tickets online for one of the two daily English-language tours and joined a couple from Hong Kong as we explored the incredible house. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this home reflects so many influences and is a testimonial to Antoni Gaudi’s incredible obsession with details.
Built between 1883-85, the home uses stucco, plaster of Paris, ceramics, iron, wood, and paper mâché in design elements on walls, floors, and ceilings. Nature, as always with Gaudí, was the inspiration for many of the designs, from the chrysanthemums used on tiles to the fan palm design on the fence and gate and the ivy pattern etched into the wall over the dining room fireplace. Color is everywhere and function is never forgotten with external panels that rotate to maximize breezes, areas that can be closed in the colder months and Gaudi’s first accessible rooftop, so charming who wouldn’t want to visit.
A portion of the property had been added in an expansion that Gaudí had approved in 1925, and that area, as well as the attic, are now used for exhibits explaining worldwide residential architecture of the era, details of the workmanship in the home, and the former uniquely landscaped gardens long lost to the sell-off of the surrounding land. The original kitchen was housed in the basement, now repurposed as an eclectic gift shop and the outside features a small café.
Add it to your list of ‘must-see while in Barcelona’.
Being blessed with beautiful weather, we decided to take a ride on a Hop-on bus. We didn’t plan to “hop-off” but just want to enjoy the pretty day, fresh air and cityscapes. I also wanted to take an updated picture of the famous Gaudí cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, under construction for more than 100 years and still not complete. I was curious if there were the same number of cranes as when I visited a few years ago. The cranes were certainly not as visible as before, although still in use. To visit this site, you now need an advance purchased ticket due to the large daily crowds. You could also rent a car or hire a cab and I’ve done both, but it is enjoyable to sit up high in an open-air vehicle to view the area. Be sure to ride through the beautiful Gràcia, Pedrables and Sarrià neighborhoods and get up to Montjuic for some great views of the city and surrounding area.
Barcelona is truly one of the great cities of the world. It really has everything, a waterfront, Europe’s largest port, mountains on the horizon, temperate weather, history and more history, leafy boulevards, grand houses, delicious food, a thriving artistic community, incredible architecture, museums, and charming neighborhoods. The city combines a melting pot of cultures while maintaining a strong independent identity all its own. It’s a city that has reinvented itself throughout the years and has worked hard to earn the reputation it has today.
I have heard other people say they’ve been here before or more than once and seen the city. That’s just not possible, there is way too much going on here. Having visited before we had covered the obligatory major sites – such as La Sagrada Familia and fabulous Gaudi sites such as Park Güell, Casa Batlló, and La Pedrera (Casa Milà). If you’ve never been, don’t miss these famous iconic sites. But when visiting this interesting and complex city carve out some time for walking because there is nothing like exploring sections of the city on foot. Read More
Newport, Rhode Island
Some notable highlights for good Rhody food include a hidden delight, Belle’s Cafe, at the Newport Shipyard with really good lobster rolls and an interesting setting featuring many of the yachts and sailboats in the area. Relax and enjoy all the activity around you.
Flo’s Clam Shack (in Middletown), is a local favorite for fresh fried clams and fried everything else! Best fried clams I’ve ever had. Bring your appetite.
Bodega Bay, Northern California
The Russian River flows into the Pacific on the Sonoma Coast and much of the coast is part of the Sonoma Coast State Beach. Highway 101 runs along this dramatic, protected area. We drove the stretch between Bodega Bay and Jenner. It was uncrowded and seemed so remote, with wild, uncorrupted beauty. There was no cell service.
All this scenery and wine tasting made us hungry and we headed back towards Bodega Bay (where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds) and the Spud Point Crab Company. You don’t come here for a luxury setting, comfortable chairs (picnic tables outside), bathrooms (across the street at the marina), or heat (it was cold and windy); what you will get is terrific crab, shrimp and clam chowder. They have won awards for the best clam chowder on the Pacific coast and I can taste why, it was wonderful. Service was fast and friendly and we were soon on our way to San Francisco.
Key Largo, Florida
Alabama Jacks has the best conch fritters ever. We can’t even remember how long we’ve been coming to this great South Florida spot – at least 25 years, and it is always consistently fun. First, let me say, the food is great. The Conch Fritters are incredible, actually one large mound, not wimpy, little bite-size croquettes like most places. Other favs include the smoked fish pieces, fish spread, and peel & eat shrimp.
The setting? Well, it’s special too: all the way down deserted-looking Card Sound Road, right where Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties meet, on a permanently anchored barge, with a water view on the Gulf side.
It’s casual, very casual; a weekend-bikers destination that attracts boaters who dock, as well as a mix of locals, tourists, kids, Coast Guardsmen, red hat ladies, and every type of person you can imagine. From tattoos and designer shorts to sunburns and square-dancing costumes, nothing is out of place. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons they play host to a country music band, and patrons will be even more entertained by the friendly local clogging crowd.
Alabama Jacks is the way Florida used to be and has a vibe far too few get to experience these days. So, when you’re in Miami/South Beach for a visit, keep driving south and see what Florida is really about.
Pensacola is pleasant, walkable and friendly. We were visiting on a Monday and the historic tours weren’t operating, but on the plus side, Monday is 25 cent oyster night at Atlas Oyster House. So, that’s $3 for a dozen terrific, plump Louisiana Gulf oysters! I think we ate about three dozen.
I’ve had the good fortune to make two trips to see Europe’s fabulous Christmas markets. Once with my Mother on a river cruise and once with a girlfriend. Both trips were kaleidoscopes of super-sized, festive, cold, delicious Christmas overload.
I know from previous experience that Germany is really where many of our beloved Christmas traditions began and the Alsace region of France, enhanced those traditions by taking tree decorating to the next level. Germany alone has 2,500 Christmas Markets. This entry will give a recap of my market experiences and tips for markets in Germany, France, and Switzerland, listed in alpha order by city. Find out about markets in: Basel, Cologne, Colmar, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Lucerne, Ludwigsburg, Mainz, Munich, Nuremberg, Rudesheim, Strasbourg, and Stuttgart.
The markets run during Advent, from late November until just before Christmas, and all feature stalls stocked with every imaginable kind of ornamentation and decorative item. About half of the markets are devoted to an incredible array of food, baked treats, and goodies of every description. Not to mention the famous hot mulled wine, Glühwein, of which I am not a fan – I’ll stick with hot chocolate. I love that the Germany markets sell cute mugs as traditional market souvenirs. They are customized for each location and year. Large and mid-size cities often have multiple markets and many smaller towns are a short train ride away. They generally open around 11 AM till 9PM in the evening. But times can vary, so be sure to check the links provided for current info.
Many markets only take cash, so have your Euros ready, and lots of items are easily available in the U.S. with no savings evident, this is NOT bargain shopping. Look for the special, locally made items and know you will pay a fair price. Be wary of anything electrical, it will not work if you bring it back to the U.S.
While you make your way through the markets here is a list of local treats to taste-test:
- ֎ Chocolate-covered gingerbread
- ֎ Springerle
- ֎ Lebkuchen cookies
- ֎ Weckla – Nuremburger sausages in a hard bread roll
- ֎ Bredle cookies
- ֎ Brenton (marzipan) cookie
- ֎ Snowball
The South has some legendary grand hotels, and many Southerners would love to keep them all to themselves. These are five of my favorites, all elegant, renovated, and award-winning:
The Hermitage Hotel | Nashville
The Hermitage Hotel is really the grand dame of them all. The architecture and décor are the very best of Southern elegance. From the minute you step into the beautiful lobby staff is attentive and friendly. Our room was lovely, spacious and totally modern in every amenity and function. We started the evening with local friends in the hotel’s iconic Oak Bar (with a quick side visit to see the famous Men’s Room). Then out the door of this conveniently located hotel to hit some of the cities great nightspots and hear some excellent music. Read More