Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Marvelous Walking Tours In Madrid

Madrid is one of my specialties. And, because I often like quirky activities, I found that a walking tour with the offbeat (some might say eccentric) Chairman of the Wellington Society of Madrid fits right in with my sensibilities. I've taken many of his walking tours and, with each one, I came away with lessons in Spanish art, history, literature and plenty of royal and political gossip and rumors. Whether it's a night walking tour in Madrid or a day trip to Segovia, visitors who tour with Stephen Drake, a former art history professor, will have a unique experience.

The Wellington Society of Madrid is not a tour company, but rather a society involved with education, culture and research. So, in order to sign up for any tour, you have to first become a member (and pay 50 euros). (Prices for the individual tours vary.)

Named for the Duke of Wellington who is most remembered for the Battle of Waterloo, the Society offers its new members a free two-hour walking tour of Madrid, plus tapas/wine stops along the way, as well as a travel help line and restaurant/wine recommendations, all for a 50 euro fee.

LinkHere's what I learned on the many walks Stephen led:

• On the Hemingway’s Madrid walk, for example, we visited the writer’s favorite watering holes, hotels, cafes and restaurants.

• On the Bloody Madrid tour, Stephen pointed out the street where an assassin killed a philandering count on orders of the king, and the apartment where a writer, as renowned as Dickens. killed himself over a lost love.

• In Aranjuez -- a day trip from Madrid -- Stephen told me that the Bourbons hated to read but instead entertained themselves on the property’s hunting grounds and landscaped gardens.

• In Segovia, most people learn about the Roman aqueduct but Stephen pointed out the house where the public executioner would stay, the four restaurants favored by King Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, and the castle that inspired Walt Disney in the 1950s.

• Visiting the Valley of the Fallen, I got the real story behind the 50-foot-tall cross that sits above the underground basilica. It was not built, as most tours are told, as a memorial to some 40,000 soldiers of the Spanish Civil War but, rather, in honor of Franco and his right-hand man. In fact, tens of thousands of Republican prisoners were the laborers over the 19 years it took to build it.
continue reading "Marvelous Walking Tours In Madrid"

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Adventures in Travel on Blog Talk Radio

Ellen Barone (no relation) who has a new show on Blog Talk Radio called "Travel Talk" just interviewed me. Check it out. You'll learn plenty about how I plan my trips, how I manage to never check luggage, why I love Madrid, and much more.
continue reading "Adventures in Travel on Blog Talk Radio"

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Beach For Every Personality in Vieques

As far as Puerto Rico goes, one of my favorite places is Vieques, the offshore island that once had a reputation as a test-bombing site for the U.S. Navy. The only plus to that situation: the seaside remained largely undeveloped. With the Navy now completely gone as of a few years ago, I have concern regarding overdevelopment along the waterfront and elsewhere. But there are still so many untouched sandy swaths and secluded covers that you'll easily find a place where you'll feel like Robinson Crusoe. Here's a large sampling of the beaches I've visited; each offers a different pleasure, whether you prefer to set your blanket in the midst of crowds or you would rather stroll the sands without any distractions.

Sun Bay, where Lord of the Flies was filmed, is so easy to get to that it's the beach everyone flocks to on the weekends. I enjoyed hiking around Cayo de Adentro, one of the keys that's accessible by walking on a narrow spit of sand. Visitors to Sun Bay will have plenty of opportunity to eat local food thanks to vendors at the entrance selling cod fish fritters, mashed plantain with meat or seafood, conch salad and pastelillos.

• A short walk or drive down the Beach Road is Media Luna, named for the half moon shape of its bay. This calm water attracts families who wade several hundred yards into the still water and, like Sun Bay, is fringed with tall coconut palms.

• The next beach, Navio, is renowned for its white sand and clear turquoise water with strong waves that make it good for surfing. On either side of the beach are caves, one where fruits bats live, that you can either swim or walk to.

• At Esperanza Beach, in the eponymous town with restaurants and bars aplenty, you can get away from it all by snorkeling around the coral reefs of the uninhabited island, Cayo Afuera, that sits a few hundred feet offshore. You can easily kayak to the island that's also noted for its surf-battered sea cliffs.

• On the west end of the island, Green Beach is where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean. From there, I parked the car and walked to a series of sandy coves that are so desolate yours will be the only footprints. Most visitors stop at the main beach rather than continuing south to a rocky point and then east to a series of beaches with intimate coves and stands of coconut palms. Backed by hills topped with scrub, these beaches are desolate with desolation with sculpted boulders.

• Among the beaches that were off limits but opened to the public as of 2003 are Red and Blue beaches on the east end of the island. (They are now part of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.) Playa Caracas (Red Beach) is one of the prettiest on the island with white sand, gentle waters and volcanic outcroppings. The much longer Bajia la Chiva (Blue Beach) allows those with four-wheel vehicles to drive onto the sand.

• Also on the island's once off-limits east end are the latest beaches to open to the public. These include Playa Escondida, Playa La Platita and Playa La Plata (Silver Beach), aka Orchid Beach. No matter which one you choose, you'll be delighted with the bay views as well as the expansive verdant hills in the distance. The often calm waters make La Plata especially appealing.
continue reading "A Beach For Every Personality in Vieques"

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Walking in the Footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright

For someone who's an obsessed Frank Lloyd Wright fan, like myself, visiting Oak Park, IL during the annual Wright Plus house walk is a joy. I just returned from the event that's in its 35th year that's run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. This was my first year at an event that I've always wanted to attend but the timing never quite worked out before. What could be better than spending the day touring several of the master's private houses and public buildings as well as those of his?

Don't get me wrong, this is not a walk in the park for those committed to touring every property. I found that in order to explore all 10 Oak Park buildings you have to postpone lunch as well as bathroom breaks and make your way briskly from one building to the next. After all, the buildings open at 9 am and close at 5 pm. And, though it sounds like plenty of time to view all 10, it's not without a lot of planning.

With some 2,700 tickets sold this year, I found long lines galore, many requiring a 45-minute wait outside -- not a problem this past weekend when the weather was sunny and mild. And it also provides plenty of opportunity to chat with the other visitors who come from all over the world for this event. I spoke with people from France, Belgium, Canada and Italy. And what I found was that declaring my love of FLW was never met with quizzical stares -- as it usually is -- because everyone on the line was also obsessed.

It's easy to get around, with most people walking from property to property. Others take the free shuttle bus. Some ride bicycles while others preferred to sit in bicycle rickshaws.

Here are more tips and insights for making the most of your visit with minimal hassle:

1. Don't get on line with backpacks or tripods or anything bulky. They'll ask you to check these outside the house. If you come to the event with luggage -- I did because I had to leave for the airport afterward -- you can easily check it at the Orientation Center where you pick up your tickets.

2. You are not allowed to take any photos inside because these are private properties. But you can take as many exterior shots as you like.

3. I recommend pre-ordering the box lunch because otherwise you waste a lot of time walking back into town and ordering lunch. My choice was the turkey/cheese sandwich, which came with a broccoli slaw, BBQ chips, chocolate chip cookie and a beverage.

4. Box lunches are not ready until after 10:30 a.m. So it's best to tote along snacks. I didn't stop for lunch until 3 p.m. and wished I brought something with me.

5. If you didn't pack a snack, there are plenty of local children selling homemade cookies (the chocolate chip were quite good) as well as lemonade, sodas, popcorn and various packaged snack items: chips, pretzels, chocolate bars and peanut butter crackers. (These are very inexpensive.)

6. There are different theories as to how to plan your day. Some suggest visiting the non-FLW properties first because the lines will be short. I did the opposite for several reasons: I love his properties the best and wanted to assure I saw them. In addition, these lines were certainly the longest but I'd rather do my waiting in the morning when I was still fresh.

7. If you can't get everything done in one day, the ticket allows you the rest of the year to visit Wright's two Oak Park public buildings (Unity Temple and his Home and Studio) as well as the Robie House in Chicago.

8. Pack an umbrella because the event isn't cancelled if there's rain.

9. If you're truly into history and architecture, you'll love the end of each property tour because there are usually posters showing photos of the original owners, the original exteriors/interiors as well as house plans. And, though you'll find plenty of volunteers leading you through the house and providing background information, there are often an additional volunteer or sometimes an architect or designer on hand to answer more detailed questions at the end of each tour beside these posters.

10. If you can't get enough of FLW, get to the area early (8 a.m.) and stop by the museum shop to peruse the books and other memorabilia. I purchased "A Guide to Oak Park's Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie School Historic District." This is a particularly useful book because it lays out each property on maps so you can check these out as you wander through Oak Park for the open house event.

11. I stayed overnight in downtown Chicago and took the Green Line to the end of the line, the Harlem stop. It's a 15-minute brisk walk from the station to the start of the event. When I do this event again, I think I'd prefer to stay in Oak Park at either of these two convenient and comfy accommodations: the Wright Inn or Under the Ginkgo Tree.

12. For next year's event, plan to order tickets by October or November. This year's event was completely sold out.
continue reading "Walking in the Footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright"

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Enjoying a Stay at a Japanese Ryokan

When I travel to Japan, I always prefer staying in a traditional Japanese inn, referred to as a ryokan. I love the simplicity, the sparse furnishings, the open spaces and the meticulously designed outdoor gardens. As someone who loves walking around indoors in bare feet and prefers sleeping on a futon set on the floor, I didn't have too much trouble adapting to ryokan life. But, many travelers will want to know that etiquette issues abound.

Here are a few of the most noteworthy ones I came away with:

1. When you enter the ryokan, you trade your street shoes for slippers that are worn most everywhere inside, with some exceptions.
2. Before you enter any room that has a straw or tatami mat, make sure you only step with your bare feet or socks. You should remove your slippers at the door threshold.

3. Once in your room, you'll change into a yukata or light cotton robe. Though it might seem odd by Western standards, it's perfectly normal to walk around the ryokan in the yukata. What's key, however, is how you tie it: it's wrapped left over right. To the dismay of my guide, I repeatedly tied mine incorrectly, right over left, -- the way it's done only on corpses.

4. Special slippers -- like the bright red ones I found in many of the ryokans I visited -- are only worn in the bathroom (toilet). Unlike what I accidentally did, never wear these slippers anywhere else in the ryokan nor should your regular slippers in the bathroom.

5. Expect to sleep on a futon on the floor and snuggle into a comfy comforter or quilt. But don't be surprised that your pillow, rather than cushy down, will be hard because it's filled with buckwheat or another grain or husk.
6. The ofuro or traditional bath -- I often found the ryokan only offered a sex-separate public bath -- is a nice respite before dinner. Here's how the ritual works: before entering the bath, soap up first while seated on a mini-stool and pour water over your head with a large bucket or use the shower head. Then, after making sure you have rinsed off every bit of soup, you step into the hot water. (I prefer lukewarm water and found these temperatures scalding. So step in carefully.) 7. When dining at the ryokan, don't leave your chopsticks standing up in a rice bowl. This is something that's only done at a funeral. And always fill the glass of those you dine with (before they ask).
continue reading "Enjoying a Stay at a Japanese Ryokan"

Friday, May 8, 2009

Hiking China's Great Wall - What to Expect

Because I prefer authentic travel experiences, I've hiked the Jinshanling to Simatai section of the Great Wall rather than the very touristy and totally restored Badaling section. Here's what you'll find:

1. It's a steep scramble, sometimes on all fours, on an often-dilapidated narrow stone path loaded with steps that are worn or missing entirely.

2. You'll have sweeping vistas that sometimes resemble a Chinese brush painting: misty forests, misty forested hills and lush valleys, and the ever-present serpentine wall with its multitude of towers.
3. You'll either be climbing up or down where you must carefully watch each and every step, because a misplaced foot could mean falling into a hole or off the Wall.

4. Watchtowers provide a bit of a welcome breeze and a pleasant respite from the blazing sun, especially if you hiking in the steamy, humid summer as I did. (It's better to trek here in the spring or fall.)
5. Bring plenty of water, snacks and lunch. And expect to spend about four to five hours hiking.

6. Take a cab to Jinshanling (it takes about 2-3 hours from Beijing, depending on traffic) and then arrange for your driver to pick you up in Simatai for the drive back to Beijing.

7. Along this six to seven mile trek, you'll pass some 30 towers on the way to Simatai. (If it's very hot, the towers -- at least those with a roof -- are great places for a picnic.)

8. The first and last parts are restored sections where it's easy to step into the multi-storied watchtowers and imagine the soldiers scanning the broad landscape, sending black smoke signals or lighting fires to alert others to an impending attack.

9. No matter the time of year, you won't find yourself alone on this section of the Wall, but not because of crowds. You'll be followed by a local vendor wearing casual attire, flimsy slippers and hefting a heavy bag loaded with bottled water, souvenir books, postcards, and T-shirts. They are quite persistent following you for miles, sometimes the whole way. So it's best to buy a bottle of water or another item from them. Many speak some English and can be quite helpful with directions and cautions on walking the Wall

10. In the final section on the way to Simatai, you'll have to cross a narrow suspension bridge over the Miyun Reservoir. (And both sections require an admission fee as does entrance to the bridge.)

11. Consider hiking the wall with this company: Wild Wall. William Lindesay guides hikes on various crumbled sections where you'll get an education on the Wall's history, architecture, natural landscape and myths.
continue reading "Hiking China's Great Wall - What to Expect"

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Food & Fitness in Canada's Charlevoix Region

Sixty miles from Quebec City, in a land of rounded wooded hills, small villages nestle in pastoral valleys and steep-sided cliffs plunge precipitously to the St. Lawrence River. Some 350 million years ago, a meteor crashed in this area, shaping the dramatic landscape of Canada's Charlevoix, a World Biosphere Reserve.

The culinary front is the real draw here. So pick up a brochure (or print out the map), hop in your car and drive around. You'll soon see why this region is known for its Flavor Trail (Les Route des Savaeurs), a culinary route with farms, restaurants, hotels and artisanal food producers all focused on promoting, growing and serving local food.

As the chocoholic that you know I am, I couldn't resist Chocolaterie Cynthia. Their spicy Aztec hot chocolate strikes a perfect spicy note. And I spent quite some time browsing their individual chocolate delicacies.

I'm also a cheese fan so a stop at Laiterie Charlevoix is a must. Here you'll find an ecomuseum with plenty of information on cheese production. Spend time sampling their products. My favorite was the velvety Fleumier as well as the raw -- yes, raw -- cheddar.

More fine cheeses are to be had at La Maison d'Affinage. The master cheese maker, Maurice Dufour, has been churning out his award winning Migneran for more than a decade. For those who enjoy strong cheeses, I'd also try the La Ciel de Charlevoix, a mild blue. If you've got the time, hang out and enjoy a cheese plate with fruit and a glass of wine. Can you think of a better way to relax?

One reason you'll want to spend at least four days in the region is to have the time to dine at the many locavore-friendly eateries, such as Auberge La Muse. (If you want to stay right in the town of Baie-Saint-Paul, I'd stay in this 19th century upscale accommodation and maybe indulge in one of their stone massages.) Hank Suzuki, the Japanese chef, has designed a menu that has an Asian influence -- you'll find sushi is on the menu, for example. Since I often order several appetizers for dinner (rather than an entree) when I'm checking out restaurants, that's what I did here as well: emu tartare, and salmon prepared two ways: one marinated with chives and another was gravlax with walnuts and olives.

A grand place to stay (and dine in style) is the Fairmont's Le Manoir Richelieu. You can't get a better venue: the castle-like edifice is huddled on a windswept cliff that towers over the St. Lawrence River. Walk in the door and you'll be transported to another era: with French mirrors and iron balustrades. Of their several restaurants, I'd make a reservation at the luxe Le Charlevoix where I ordered these two appetizers: lobster cappuccino and ginger duck with a foie gras risotto.

After all of this high calorie dining, don't even think about feeling guilty. After all, loads of outdoor activities beckon:

• The Fairmont is graced with a 27-hole golf course with drop-dead gorgeous views of the St. Lawrence River. You can also rent a bicycle, play tennis, walk a network of trails on the property or ask about guided sea or river kayaking.

• The 15-mile road encircling Isle aux Coudres attracts many a road cyclist. Renowned for its apple orchards, this tidy island is a short ferry ride from the mainland. Though small, I wouldn't miss it if I were visiting this area again. Here, you'll find a placid land where you'll delight in apple picking (depending on the season), sipping homemade apple cider, sampling apple butters and checking out a an ecomuseum where you can watch grains being milled in a 19th century watermill.

• In Parc National des Grands-Jardins, you'll be plenty impressed by the sheer rocky peaks that rise to about 3,000 feet. Here you'll find plenty of trails that are perfect for hiking or snowshoeing. When I snowshoed here in the winter, I tackled the short and easy Le Gros Pin Trail, which wanders through a dense spruce and white birch forest. It takes its name for the grand old pine tree that stands at trail's end. Cross country skiers who delight in backcountry terrain will enjoy the park's ungroomed trails that meander through some hilly terrain.

• Dotted with half a dozen lakes, Mont Grand Fonds is popular for its small downhill runs. But, since I often prefer cross-country skiing, I found the almost 100 miles of trails -- some perfect for skating -- quite enticing. On my short five-mile loop I was surprised to find two log chalets -- actually warming huts -- with complimentary hot cocoa. Here I took a short break, lunching on the fixings in my fanny pack: fresh bread, proscuitto and cheddar cheese.

It's certainly not a rough life in Charlevoix.
continue reading "Food & Fitness in Canada's Charlevoix Region"