Friday, February 27, 2009

Activities Galore in Australia's Northernmost City

Often seen as a stepping-stone to the Northern Territory's national parks, Darwin, Australia's northernmost city, is a paradise destination in its own right. "Australia," a "Gone With The Wind" romantic adventure set in the Outback and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, was shot in Darwin. And this is a perfect time to visit given the number of new and improved activities.

1. In this city where young people and entrepreneurs flock, one company is taking advantage of the network of flat bicycle paths wending through the city. (Almost 50 miles of paths criss cross the city.) Darwin Walking and Biking Tours offers day trips along the beachfront lining the harbor as well as to the lush botanical gardens and other green spaces and landmarks. I took one of their two-hour walking tours where we strolled past Aboriginal sites, several museums and a World War II memorial, Our guide peppered this ride with plenty of worthwhile
trivia, including that the Japanese dropped more bombs on Darwin during World War II than Pearl Harbor

2. In addition, a relatively new aboriginal-run tour company, Unique Indigenous Land Tours offers an all-day tour where you'll have plenty of opportunities to sample bush foods -- the mangrove worms don't taste like chicken but they do taste like oysters -- and even go barramundi fishing the traditional way.

3. One way of taking advantage of Darwin's warm weather is by attending the outdoor Deckchair Cinema. Set along the lovely harborside, you can get comfy and watch either art house or big budget films. The cinema is up and running during Darwin’s dry season which is approximately from May/June to September/October.

4. Watch the glorious sunset from the deck of the 100-foot-long schooner named the Alfred Nobel. (It was once an explosives barge.) On this dinner cruise, I dined on grilled barramundi and local Tiger prawns.

5. You'll see Darwin for the melting pot that it is especially on Sunday and Thursday nights if you visit the open-air Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. (This is also during the dry season.) This is not like any outdoor market you've ever seen because it's almost like a culinary United Nations. Here, I sampled fish wrapped in a cassava leave and paw paw salad.

6. Darwin even has its own theme park of sorts. At the relatively new Crocosaurus Cove you can swim with the crocodiles. But don't expect any bloody accidents here. After all, in their “Cage of Death” there is five-inch-thick acrylic between you and the 20-foot-long reptiles.

Other activities include the Sunday pub crawl as well as gallery hopping and checking out the recently renovated waterfront.
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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Australia's Far Out Outback

Sure, Nicole Kidman's character had plenty of challenges to contend with in the movie, Australia. But there's never a dull moment for Marlee Ranacher and her husband, Franz, the owners of the Bullo River Station as well as those who work on the property in Australia's Northern Territory. I watched in wonder how Marlee multi-tasked as a medic, vet, herd boss, ranch manager, clearing the dirt roads with heavy equipment and taking care of two young children to boot.

And things are never dull for those who stay at this working cattle ranch in the northwest corner of Australia's Northern Territory. (I arrived from Darwin on a small single-engine plane and landed on the ranch's grassy landing strip right in front of the main house.)

During my stay, one afternoon, I leisurely cruised down the Bullo River Gorge with its towering sandstone cliffs where we spotted crocodiles lying on the banks.

On another day, I fished along the river with my guide, hoping to catch the much-sought-after barramundi, but no luck. (Maybe it's because I was a bit distracted: I had one eye on the nearby crocodiles.)

At the sandy mouth of the river, I walked to a placid beach spot for a picnic where we were told there would be no intrusions by the crocs because our guide would easily spot their prints.

One morning, we took a guided walk to the red sandstone escarpment and explored the relatively recently discovered Aboriginal rock art painted on the rocky surfaces amongst the many nooks and crannies.

Even an ATV ride through a minuscule part of this half-million-acre property can present surprises with dingoes, wallabies and wild boars crossing our path.

The highlight, however, was being whisked by helicopter to a private, secret beach a mere 15 minutes away. Snuggled amid soaring red sandstone cliffs, this tiny swatch of fine sand sits beside an array of natural turquoise-tinted pools and cool, cascading waters. Each varies in depth and temperature but all offer a delightful swimmable experience. But, even better, you can have this place all to yourself for one night with no chance of intrusions by humans, crocodiles or other creatures. Marlee and Franz will leave you with everything you need: a satellite phone, sleeping mattress, mosquito netting, all your food including grilled barramundi and wine, deck chair and beach towels.

Guests are welcome to participate in as many cattle-related activities as they want. Marlee told me that they could learn to brand, and watch a curious helicopter muster. "Some of the ladies want to learn to castrate a bull," said Marlee. I skipped out on that activity. But I found that no matter what activities guests choose, a short stay at the Bullo River Station is a memorable experience.
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Monday, February 23, 2009

Corsica's Beauty Far From The Coast

Corsica’s coastal properties may get almost all the tourist traffic, but hiking through the interior with Vallecime tours is how I experienced the wild side of Corsica. Specializing in guided hikes based out of two bed and breakfasts, this local company organizes private treks for couples, families or groups of friends. For a week, my three friends, Andrea, Eric and Dennis, and I climbed and descended the rugged picturesque terrain covered with aromatic maquis with our local guide, Laurent, who gave us a window into authentic Corsican culture, pointing out all manner of geological and botanical finds, and taking us to plenty of spots so we could sample local culinary delights. No matter which village we enter, our guide meets and greets people, whether a man delivering supplies to one of the mountain refuges, or a woman driving the grocery truck, which brings produce to the villages who live far from markets.

Starting in Sant Andrea di Bozio with its schist stone houses some 2,600 feet above sea level, we trekked through peaceful valleys, circled glacial lakes and wandered along old shepherd and mule paths where, on one day, we ran into a wild boar hunt where Laurent knew the hunters. On another day in the isolated Niolu Valley , we found a shepherd selling fresh sheep's milk cheese. Majestic peaks rose all about, including Mt. Tafunato with its prominent hole -- attributed to the devil as are several other land features -- where clouds often float through.

In the hamlet of Poggio, our bed and breakfast, the five-room Casa Capellini, sits along a terraced property where pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce grow in the vegetable garden. From here, dramatic peaks are visible from just about anywhere. In another village, San Quilico, an old milling stone forms part of a doorway, and a schist oven still stands where villages once baked bread. In the area of Casamaccioli, the village that's home to our second inn, Casa Vanella, most of Corsica’s high peaks can be found.

Interestingly, one of the co-owners of Vallecime, Jean Francois, held the record, until recently, for running the 120-mile GR 20, Corsica’s most famous high mountain, long distance hiking trail. (He managed to finish this rugged route, that's considered Europe's most difficult, in a mere 37 hours; it normally takes hikers about a week.)

Trail markers were rare where we hiked because, as our guide noted, “This is the land of freedom and any signs are a form of pollution.” Corsica’s independent spirit is ever present. The island has few resorts. No wonder, considering separatists have been known to demolish construction sites. And just about everything runs wild: bulls, cows and sheep on village streets, pigs outside our B & B, and horses and goats beside our trails.

In Casamaccioli, the village that's home to our second B & B, Santa di u Niolu , the island's most important folk festival, has been celebrated every September for more than 500 years. Commemorating the old ways, this fair, with its handicrafts and regional food specialties, has long attracted all manner of Corsicans, especially shepherds who would herd their flocks back into the valley.
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Thursday, February 19, 2009

In Corsica, Chestnuts Rule

In my Corsican travels, I found authentically produced foods aplenty. The locals consider the chestnut tree the "tree of life." So, it's no wonder their oldest, and perhaps the biggest, fair is Fiera di a Castagna (the chestnut festival) held in the village of Bocognano. In December, the beloved chestnut is the main attraction with the many stands selling chestnut butter, breads and biscuits while visitors can also watch chestnut fruit and flour competitions.

Chestnuts and chestnut-derived products appear just about everywhere on this French island. In fact, it's one of the only places in Europe where you can still find chestnut flour that's made into cakes, pastries, bread, soup, polenta, honey, even ice cream and beer.

When I sampled the island's honeys, cheeses and meats, I found that they all had a unique flavor because of the aromatic maquis plants -- coating so much of the land -- that the animals feed on.

The pork products that are staples of all meals also have a sweet flavor because of the free-range pigs and wild boar foraging also for chestnuts as well as acorns. Interestingly, the charcuterie, whether figatelli, a smoked sausage with offal or lonzu, a pork loin, are artisanally produced. And most of the other meat products are free range also, including lamb and beef.

The unique beer, Pietra, is brewed from sweet chestnut flour making for a full-bodied beverage.
(Colomba, another beer produced by the same local company, gets its flavor from Corsica's scented maquis, the aromatic herbs coating so much of the land.)

Brocciu is a shepherd's cheese of sorts made of whey usually from sheep's milk cheese. It's served fresh or made into a fiadone, a Corsican cheesecake, or in omelettes.

From the smallest mountain huts to the finest seaside restaurants, Corsica lovingly maintains its traditions that bring an array of flavors to the table.
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Monday, February 16, 2009

Madrid Insider Advice

1. The most efficient and economical way of getting from one place to the other in Madrid is the Metro. If you plan on zipping all over the city, buy a 10-journey ticket at any metro station.

2. If you don't have a lot of cumbersome luggage, the hassle-free way to get from Barajas Airport to downtown is via the #8 Metro line that's right at the airport. However, you will have to change trains (at least once) to get to your final downtown destination.

3. Be wary of this scam used by pickpocketers all over the city: you're standing near a park when prodigious amounts of "bird poop" drops on you and two sweet, well-dressed young girls with water bottles and tissues rush to seemingly help you.

4. If you don't want to look like a tourist, don't order café con leche after 12 noon. It's a breakfast drink and should never be consumed with tapas or other afternoon/evening food items.

5. In the much-visited Retiro Park, don't miss the lakeside Palacio de Cristal, a glass pavilion with contemporary art exhibitions. Then wander to the park's east side across Paseo de Duque de Fernan Nunez for lovely gated formal gardens with peacocks, pergolas and water features.

6. On the south side of Retiro Park, you’ll find plants from all over the world as you wander past shady dells in the Royal Botanical Garden.

7. Near the airport but well worth the trip, El Capricho Park, open only on weekends, is known for its French, Italian and English-style gardens. It’s easy to spend the afternoon wandering around the shady grounds.

8. Giangrossi (Calle Velazquez, 44) is an artisanal ice cream chain that's usually packed but worth it to sample the many unusual and refreshing flavors, especially the mandarin and other fruits.

9. If you are a pastry fan, check out Mallorca (in Salamanca neighborhood on Calle Serrano), a chain store that has a wide array of miniature pastries, including éclairs, Napoleans and cream puffs.

10. Valentin del Barrio (Calle Moratin, 20) is an upscale leather goods shop (with a workshop downstairs) selling everything from portfolio cases to journalist's noteLinkbook covers. The family has been in the leather business since 1934.

11. Chocoholics should look no further than Cacao Sampaka (Calle Orellana, 4) for a quick fix of everything to do with the cocoa bean, including a shop to by gift items.
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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Adventure Sports in Israel

In Israel, all year long, all you have to do is drive and you'll find a climate conducive to some sport, whether skiing in the north or diving in the south. There's something for everyone, from true thrill seekers to soft adventure enthusiasts.

1. The annual Tour of the Dead Sea bicycle rally, promoting awareness of this ever-shrinking body of water, is a single or multi-day event. The rides attracts more than 1,000 riders from around the world (including myself) who ride past Ein Gedi, an oasis with lush vegetation, and Mineral Beach where sore riders can slather their legs in the therapeutic Dead Sea black mud.

2. The Negev offers marked and unmarked trails along wadis (stream beds) and other paths that are perfect for walking or mountain biking. In this vast triangular-shaped enchanting swatch of arid land, enormous sandstone cliffs are streaked with a rainbow of colors and Nabatean ruins provide a window into the days of the ancient Spice Route. These trails course through river valleys, beside acacia, white broom and other flora, past oases where endangered ibex may be found, and across the Makhtesh Ramon, a unique erosion crater.

For cycling aficionados like myself, the Isrotel Ramon Inn was the perfect accommodation for exploring the nearby Makhtesh Ramon. After all, they have bicycle guides, a bike repair shop, bike-friendly snacks and lunches (high in protein or carbs).

3. In the steep-sided Tamar Canyon, I had a short but interesting adventure as we negotiated down slick rock using metal hand and foot holds fastened into the rock. At other times, we used ropes that are permanently attached to the rock fact to assist us down a slick chute. Then the more courageous rappelled down several 60-foot cliff faces while I climbed down a series of via ferratas.

I had complete confidence in my guide, Adam Sela, who specializes in custom desert excursions and extreme activities, including canyoning, rappelling, zip lines, hiking safaris and mountain biking expeditions. Each trip is custom-made and could include everything from fully catered camping safaris to outings that start and finish at resorts. They even can arrange a helicopter to shuttle you from one activity and venue to the next.

4. Mount Carmel, Israel's largest national park, presents almost endless hiking and walking possibilities with paths coursing past Aleppo pines, the only remaining natural population of this old growth forest in the country, through forests of laurel, oak and carob with views of the Mediterranean and Haifa far below. Interestingly, within the park boundaries in this area that's often known as Little Switzerland are two Druze towns as well as a Carmelite monastery.

5. Ein Gedi, a nature reserve on the shores of the Dead Sea, is an oasis in the arid land with several springs, dense tropical flora and a variety of animals that are attracted to the waters, such as endangered ibex and hyrax. In one of two canyon trails, palms and pines rise above you with the sound of a waterfall accompanying you. On the second canyon hike, you'll find ruins of a sanctuary from 3,000 BC while another walk leads to a Byzantine-era synagogue with a decorative mosaic floor.

6. Water sport options abound in Israel, whether it's kayaking the Jordan River, diving in the Eilat area in the south or, maybe even more interesting from a historical perspective, in Caesarea National Park where you can dive in what was once King Herod's elaborate port. Along the four underwater routes are artifacts that include remains of a medieval tower and a Herodian pavement.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Madrid's Other Amazing Museums

The Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza seem to attract all the touist attention. But there are other museums far out of the limelight that are worth exploring.

  • Housed in a turn-of-the-20th century mansion, the Lazaro Galdiano Museum displays the immense private collection of Jose Lazaro Galdiano, a Gilded Age entrepreneur and writer. The exhibits include everything from 4th century BC gold jewelry to the works of Goya, and unique small and miniature paintings, a mere one to four inches in size. Surrounding the museum is a garden landscaped in an 18th century style, one of the few surviving examples in Madrid.
  • The Sorolla Museum is the former home and studio of Joaquin Sorolla, Spain's most famous Impressionist painter. Here, you'll find his most noteworthy works, including "Strolling along the Seashore", as well as his Spanish ceramics collection and antique furnishings. After wandering through the house and viewing the paintings, stroll through the lovely garden that was inspired by Andalusia, with shade trees, water features and ceramic tile work.
  • The Monastery of Descalzas Reales is an elaborately designed convent turned museum where the nuns who were daughters of artistocrats donated precious works of art. On the tour, which is usually in Spanish only, you'll explore the many rooms and hallways displaying gold holy relics, frescoes and tapestries, including one woven from work by Rubens.
  • For a completely different experience, walk through the Museo de Escultura al Aire Libre, an outdoor sculpture garden directly under an urban bridge. A small waterfall and a bubbling pool drown out most of Madrid's traffic as you explore the dozen or so contemporary pieces, mostly bronzes, by notables such as Eduardo Chillida, Joan Miro and Julio Gonzalez.
  • The Real Academia de Bellas Artes houses a premier collection of classic works of art, mostly religious, by such great masters as Titian, Raphael and Van Dyck. Here, unlike the Prado, you'll find plenty of peace and quiet with more security guards than visitors.
  • Given its distance from downtown -- though still accessible by the metro -- it's no wonder the Museu del Traje (Costume & Fashion Museum) is little visited. It's a shame more visitors don't take the opportunity to examine the vast collection of historical and contemporary dresses, gowns and costumes. This modern museum, with a lovely glassed-in restaurant, located in a garden with shaded paths, stands of bamboo and a pond with more than 60 spouting fountains.
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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Day Trips from Zagreb

1. The Baroque village of Varazdin is a mere 40 minutes away but it feels worlds apart, especially if you arrive during the annual late summer Spancirfest, which celebrates art, music and medieval times. I wandered about and found women making lace using bobbins, men selling brandy brewed from medieval herbs and craftsmen displaying reproductions of 9th century jewelry. In this quaint old town, Baroque manor houses are detailed with elaborate carved doorways. The Herzer Palace houses an Entomological Museum with a fascinating display of not only insects big and small --- from tiny ants to giant beetles, but also rare species. (If you're into insects, you could spend hours here.) The Rococo Sermage Mansion holds exhibitions of old and modern masters. Presiding over the town with its ornate churches is a 16th century castle that's home to a museum tracing the history of furnishings through the centuries. But maybe the crowning glory among the city's sites is the Groblje cemetery. I’m definitely no fan of cemeteries but this is a must see. The sculpted hedges, shrubs and trees are as decorative as the tombs and mausoleums they snuggle.

2. Alpine-like Samobor, a mere 15 minutes from Zagreb, is a small old town sliced by a trout stream and nestled against the forested mountainous slopes. Most people, including myself, stop here to sample their famous samoborska kremsnita, a vanilla custard cake in phyllo dough. This is a huge cake that I gobbled in no time. Even if that's the sole reason for your visit, don't miss the short but very steep hike to the 13th century fortress ruins. (A good way to burn off the calories.) This area is also perfect for paragliding, caving and mountain biking.

3. Plitvice Lakes National Park, once occupied by Serbs during the ware in the 1990s, is a magical land of tumbling waterfalls and placid turquoise lakes. To fully appreciate this UNESCO World Heritage Site, plan on spending at least four hours strolling the boardwalks that traverse the cascading waters. This park is noted for its rich array of plant life -- some 50% of the species that Croatia protects. This is Croatia's most popular park, which means there are crowds aplenty. But don't let that disuade you from visiting this unique, unusual park where you can still find places to enjoy a waterfall in relative solitude.
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Monday, February 2, 2009

10 Don't Miss Activities in Madeira

With it's rugged volcanic peaks, exotic flowers, a network of levadas or level walking paths and a wild virgin forest dating back millions of years, it's no wonder that visitors to Madeira, a small archipelago far out in the Atlantic, describe it as a tiny piece of paradise. Here are 10 of my favorite activities:

1. Take the cable car that sweeps above Funchal's ravine-like valley to the Monte Palace Tropical Garden where the wooded paths are lined with elaborate Portuguese tile work, 17th century coats of arms, ancient stone window frames and many other surprises.

2. In Monte, visitors, seated in a wicker sofa atop wood runners, experience a hair-raising toboggan ride down hairpin turns along steep, narrow cobblestone streets with two men steering and braking using their thick boots

3. The scenic road that twists and turns to the summit of Pico do Areeiro runs through a volcanic land covered in rare flora and provides unparalleled views of valleys laced with streams. It's also a jumping off point for short walks to see the central mountain range rising from a thick cloud cover.

4. Madeira is most noted for its levadas, a network of almost 1,000 miles of irrigation channels that are bordered by a level but often precipitous walking path. Nonetheless, though the reputation of the island's levadas often turn away acrophobic visitors, there are plenty of lovely levada walks coursing through Madeira's unique environment without the fear factor. The walk from Ribeira Frio to Portelo takes walkers through a protected laurisilva forest, Madeira's native woodland that's so precious it's designated a UNESCO World Heritage site

5. Drive to Curral das Freiras, a village isolated by deep abysses and thick woodland has been a haven for 16th century nuns who fled a local convent when pirates ransacked Funchal. At the Nuns's Valley restaurant you can sample the homemade chestnut or almond cakes.

6. Try a glass of poncha -- considered a popular Madeira drink made of sugar cane brandy plus honey and lemon -- at Victor's Bar, a rural restaurant near a trout hatchery with basalt stone pools.

7. Once you've checked out the cozy A-frame thatched cottages in the village of Santana you can have lunch at Quinta do Furao where a wrap-around porch provides views of rugged sea cliffs and giant offshore rocks. When I dined here for lunch, I enjoyed grilled limpets, fresh cheese and bread baked in a wood oven.

8. Visit Funchal's fish market where you can check out the scabbard fish, an island delicacy that looks fierce with a large eel-like body, bulbous eyes and sharp jagged teeth.

9. Whether it's the English-style and tropical gardens, 18-hole par 72 golf course (Perched at 500 feet above sea level, the clubhouse provides panoramic views of the Bay of Funchal), or Casa Velha Do Palheiro, a five-star country house, you’ll find plenty to do at the Palheiro Estate that dates back to the 1800s. This former hunting lodge provides guests with the use of the private yacht. Plus you won’t want to miss a meal at their restaurant, considered one of the island’s best with some select Portuguese wines available. When I was there, they served: pigeon and foie gras with gingered sweet potato puree; blue lobster and avocado with mango in a rice paper wrap. You can have high tea with scones in the afternoon or stop by the teahouse for homemade pastries.

10. Treat yourself at the hilltop Zen-inspired Choupana Hills Resort and Spa. Here, guests are pampered in a tranquil property with almost three dozen bungalows made of teak and basalt stone. (The suites are my preference with their canopy beds and wraparound terraces.) Light streams into the interior, thanks to walls of windows overlooking the lush gardens or the Bay of Funchal far below. Here, you can have aromatherapy, hot stone massage or an algae wrap and soon Reiki treatments.

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