Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Finally Finding Kornati National Park

On my recent trip to Croatia, I had my heart set on visiting Kornati National Park, a unique archipelago with more than 150 islands that present a barren, almost lunar landscape. I was told that it was a land of limestone mounds -- some resembling snow, vertical cliffs and isolated patches of olive, fig and juniper. It's a lovely day trip from the city of Zadar. But I found out the hard way that few of the tour boats hawking their trips from the harbor actually cross into the national park boundaries. And, it turned out, the boat I was on was of these. Hard to believe, because the trip was booked through someone associated with the Croatian Tourist Board in the U.S. I confirmed everything with Fortuna Travel, the agency in Zadar they recommended, and yes, they said, the boat was going to Karnati. So you can imagine my surprise when I'm about to set foot on the m/b Fazanka and I look at the map on the brochure I'm given and it didn't look like the Kornati Islands were on the itinerary. When I spoke to one of the crew they told me that the boat is going to the islands that should be part of the national park and that it was all a political thing. It's just a matter of where the lines were drawn, I was told. Now I knew I was in trouble. After quite a bit of back and forth with him saying I'd still have a good time and me saying it's like going to the building adjacent to the Empire State Building and saying it's still a good view, the boat took off. Instead of stopping in the archipelago, we visited a couple of green islands, including Dugi Otok, aka Long Island, which is quite lush and noted for Telascica Nature Park. I walked to the cliffs on one side of the island and then through the forest to a lovely but crowded salt-water lake. This was all well and good but it wasn't the national park. The other people on the boat didn't seem to mind. As long as they were fed and had time to swim and sun. The bottom line is that few boats go to the national park. One that does go is the Plava Laguna. If you are in Zadar and you want to go to this archipelago, check out the brochures and if you see a nature park or a salt-water lake on the brochure, turn around and find another vendor. Because you won't be going to Kornati.
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Avoiding Crowds in Dubrovnik

I've got plenty more to tell you about Portugal and Iceland, two of my favorite countries. So expect to see additional postings down the road dealing with my adventures in both places as well as Spain, another one of my specialties. But first, I want to share with you some interesting findings from the five weeks I recently spent in Croatia. This post will deal with the lovely old walled city of Dubrovnik, also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's on the radar of just about every visitor to Croatia. The cobbled and marble streets and stone stairs are jam packed with tourists. But there are sites that don't see traffic and also ways to avoid the masses.

1. Walking atop the old fortification walls is a must. It gives you an amazing perspective of the city and its many historic features. Get there as soon as it opens up. And pick up the audio guide for all the historic and architectural details. But few people walk the entire more than one-mile length. So expect to find fewer and fewer people as you wander farther along the narrow path. (It's interesting how, the many stairs and the lean size of this walkway doesn't stop people from bringing along baby carriages.)

2. Early in the morning you'll have Fort St. Lawrence all to yourself. Sitting some 120 feet high on rocky cliffs, this massive fort provides scenic views of the sea and the old town. Prowl around the watchtower and examine some cannon ball artifacts.

3. Dubrovnik's old synagogue dates from the 15th century. It's now a museum but it's also a functional synagogue, though services are infrequent. It's still an unexpected venue on a side street and worth checking out. They've got a lot of interesting religious artifacts, including a 13th century Torah.

4. The War Photo Limited Museum definitely flies under the tourist radar. When I visited, they had a photography exhibit of child soldiers from Ramallah, Sierra Leone and other war torn parts of the world.

5. Another little visited but interesting museum is the Rupe Ethnographic Museum that's housed in a 16th century building that once stored grains. You can still see the unique deep dry wells inset in the floor. There's plenty of display, everything from goatskin bags to willow baskets.

6. Buza I and II are two bars that literally sit on the cliff side outside the city's fortifications and literally are entered through a hole in the wall. You can't get a better location, and everyone knows that -- at night both are plenty active. But I stopped by for a quickie breakfast snack and found only one other couple at one of the tables. You could spend hours gazing at the turquoise waters and crashing waves far below.

7. The Museum of Modern Art is outside the city walls and located in a Renaissance-style villa. During my visit, three series Picasso graphics (Suite Vollard, La Tauromaquia and Suite 156) hung on the walls. And the only other visitors were students from a small school group.

8. A quiet walk, first paralleling the sea on the promenade and then past the high stone walls of villas and other properties brings you to the Beach of St. Jacob. You reach it by going behind the little chapel and taking the very steep set of steps. The sandy beach is set at the base of tall cliffs. It's very much a local retreat and very low key with a café and snack bar. Definitely worth walking to.

9. A short ferry ride from Dubrovnik brings you to Lokrum Island, a wooded nature reserve. I only spent a couple of hours but I wish I had at least the entire afternoon. Here, you'll find a botanical garden with plants from all over the world. (Everything is labeled so if you're into botany or gardening, this is a great venue.) A network of trails slices the lush island. One leads to ruins of a 19th century fort where you can climb to the top, and another set of trails leads to an old Benedictine monastery and cloister that's now a café. One of the loveliest parts of the island is beside a salt-water lake that sits in a rocky quarry. A great place to swim or just hang out.
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Friday, December 19, 2008

10 Cool, New Shops in Reykjavik

I promised you more on Reykjavik and here it is. 2008 has seen a lot of new, renovated or relocated restaurants, shops and other venues. And, I'm crossing my fingers that, despite the economic crash, they all survive and thrive. Here's what I found on my recent trip: 1. O The former Siggi Hall restaurant has a new life as O, an upscale restaurant in Hotel Odinsve with chef Eythor Runarsson -- he's on the Icelandic Culinary team -- at the helm. They're serving a menu that's focused on new Nordic cuisine. Among the delicacies on the menu: arctic char with pistachios, and salted cod with sugared cabbage. 2. Lykkjufall — They're not new but they just relocated to a new space. Specializing in unique clothing designed for women who are breast-feeding, the store attracts plenty of women (including myself) who are not breast-feeding yet who clamor for these stylish items. 3. Hemmi and Valdi — Where else can you work on your laptop at 10 p.m. beside people casually drinking a glass of wine, sipping a cappuccino or strumming a guitar while the kids are using crayons to sketch? This is a cosy bar -- though I use the term loosely -- with card games and crayons scattered about and decorated with second-hand furniture that's all for sale. Once I settled in, I didn't want to leave. 4. Emm — Combining a designer clothing store and a cosmetics shop, Emm is oriented to satisfying the needs of the strong, independent women. The fashionable, wearable, trendy items (e-label) all revolve around a sophisticated black color palette, perfect for New Yorkers like myself. Women owned and designed, the store also is home to MM, a cosmetics shop where you can reserve a girl's afternoon of make-up, hair and cocktails. 5. Kryddlegin Hjorta — In my opinion, this new restaurant -- the name is the Icelandic equivalent of the movie title: Like Water for Chocolate -- has one of the best views of the waterfront with the majestic peaks in the distance. Don't expect a menu here. The owner cooks whatever suits her mood at the moment. But it's all great. Everything is organic -- at least it is right now but who knows; that could change with the economic downturn. Lunch is soup, bread and salad but it's something not to miss. I had one of the four soups, the Thai chicken soup with peanuts and chili and, if I had room, I would've had seconds. She also bakes all the thick, healthy breads, like spelt with barley. They only serve dinner on weekends when you also might be treated to drumming night -- her husband is a drummer who has traveled the world. 6. Blue Lagoon Spa — This is not the famous Blue Lagoon not far from the airport. It's a very convenient, new downtown spa with Blue Lagoon treatments. You can soak in a jacuzzi that sits under a small waterfall, sign up for a algae, silica and lava mud scrub or an algae wrap. They also have a very reasonable day-pass so you have full use of the health club. This is a place where you could spend an entire day, or at least the afternoon. 7. Boston Bar — Though the bar isn't new the menu they're serving is. Plus, they now have Bjork's chef, Numi Thomasson, cooking up some simple but tasty options. Only five dishes are served, including citrus garlic herb chicken leg with brown curry rice, and spotted catfish with warm pear and blue cheese sauce. Even if you're not hungry, Boston is one of Reykjavik's loveliest bars, without all the crazy frenzy you see in so many nightspots. (Plus it's also open for lunch.) 8. Aftur — Not new but just expanded its quarters and also it's now open every day of the week. All the clothes are made from recycled clothes and no two are alike. They're all fun and function. I especially coveted the hooded wool capes. Perfect for snowy days in New York when I also need to look fashionable. 9. Kaffi Hljomalind — This non-profit coop just moved to a new location on the main shopping street. It's an amazing social spot considering it's a vegetarian cafe that also houses an art gallery, political library and much more. When I was there, they had a calendar on the wall listing yoga classes, tango lesson, live music performances and independent films. It's another quaint spot to hang out for several hours. The grilled cheese with sundried tomatoes is particularly yummy. 10. Fotografi — This photo gallery and retail shop opened a year ago but the walls are now hung with more of the work of the three owner/photographers. They've got some very avant garde images as well as gorgeous Iceland/Reykjavik-related scenes. If you love anything to do with photography, you must visit this friendly and creative venue. I stopped by twice during one weekend because I felt I missed some treasure. They also host some nice temporary exhibitions in the rear gallery.
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cool Goings on in Reykjavik

The Icelandic economy may be in the dumps, but on my recent visit I found a slew of new or renovated restaurants, shops and other venues that are worth checking out -- especially considering you'll never find your dollar can buy this much against the sinking kroner. And don't think that a visit to Reykjavik at this time will be a depressing experience given the seriousness of Iceland's financial crisis. Yes, there have been regular protests in front of the Parliament with plenty of egg throwing. But, though they're frustrated, the Iceland people, young and old, seem to be an optimistic lot. As I roamed the capital city, I found many citizens to believe that this crisis is actually a good thing; a sign that they have strayed far from from tradition, and that they needed to go back to the old ways, such as fishing and so forth. Sure, I found boarded up shops along the main shopping streets, but some took advantage of the empty window space to display artists' works. It was easy to get reservations at many of the upscale restaurants and there were abundant sales wherever I looked. Here's one of the restaurants I recommend:

Orange is a restaurant that defines "fun through gastronomy." How else can you explain the coconut crusted prawns arriving aboard helium-filled balloons? Other delicacies hide behind clouds of dry ice. Don't miss the high-octane slushy cocktails in the bar. It's easy to guzzle too much because they look too fruit-punchy to be powerful. I had the "Let's Go Crazy" tasting menu which, like many of the offerings, has a lot of locally-sourced ingredients, including reindeer and grey duck. But expect the unexpected: a soup might be served from a milk carton while a sauce is poured from a ceramic cow. It's all about fine dining mixed with theatrics. After all, the chef, Thorarinn Eggertsson, is on the Icelandic culinary team that did quite well in this year's Culinary Olympics.

Later in the week I'll reveal more of my findings regarding new/renovated/ shops, restaurants, cafes and bars.
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Saturday, December 13, 2008

new restaurants in Portugal

I just spent a weekend in Lisbon and ate at two new and very fab restaurants: Bocca near the Parque Eduardo VII in the city center area, and Arola in nearby Sintra at the Penha Longa Hotel & Golf Resort. They are both must-eat places. Bocca serves up a completely different menu at lunch and dinner and it's the dinner menu that is the most amazing. (Lunch is a more casual affair, without the multi-course tasting menu.) The young chef, Alexandre Silva, creates delicacies that look like mini works of art. He firmly takes his inspiration from traditional Portuguese recipes and then he turns them on their heads. Even if you get the tasting menu, try to get someone at your table to also order the cheese sampler -- it includes varieties from some of the country's major cheese regions -- as well as the interesting convento dessert that's a deconstructed trio of typical egg-based Portuguese desserts that originated in the convents. Because I never can drink more than a glass of wine at a sitting, I was please to find out they have 60 wines by the glass. Quite unusual and they've got great picks, including a Portuguese ice wine. (Obviously, it's made artificially but still very smooth and tasty.) I walked away totally satisfied.

And Arola is the restaurant of noted Spanish chef, Sergi Arola. It's his first eatery in Portugal. The decor is a futuristic Mediterranean style, minimalist with touches of turquoise. They've even got an in-house DJ spinning electronic music. Definitely worth driving to the club house to sample his signature tapas and other dishes. Arola trained with Ferran Adria so expect the unexpected in terms of flavors and textures, including a touch of molecular gastronomy. Of course his patatas bravas are on the menu; they are served at all of his restaurants. I heard that when the restaurant first opened the golfers were more than a little shocked by this very unconventional club house restaurant. But they're getting used to it. I wish I were there when it was warm: the outdoor terrace with views of the 18th hole looked perfect.

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my first blog post

I'm launching this blog to share with you my tips on travel, food, wine, design, architecture and anything else I'm interested in and discover during my often international adventures. I'm a travel writer and consultant who's been published in dozens of magazines, from National Geographic Traveler to various AAA publications. This blog will tip you off to what I call "undiscovered treasures" or "off-the-beaten-track" destinations. I'm on the road about three months a year, though not all at once. My specialties include Spain, Portugal and Iceland and, though I visit each of these countries every year, I'm always visiting other countries and cities that are on my "must see" list. Even when I'm in well-trafficked areas, I manage to find a museum, park, garden, gallery or restaurant that is either new, renovated or somehow not on the average tourist radar. Because I also have a background and interest in nutrition and medicine, I may be posting items relating to traveler's health whenever that's relevant. I'm hoping this blog will open up a whole new world of adventures for you.

Jeanine Barone
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