Monday, August 30, 2010

Surprising Finds on Comino Island in Malta

I’m always a little skeptical when I plan a trip and people, whether friends or locals, tell me that I should reconsider going or staying there. That’s what happened recently when I planned to stay two nights on Comino Island, the smallest of the three Maltese Islands.

I was told that the Comino Hotel -- the only accommodation on the wee island that measures about 3.5 square km -- is falling apart, literally. That this car-free island is a complete snore with basically nothing to do. In fact, locals on the main island of Malta and the middle-sized greener island of Gozo said I could walk the entire circumference of Comino in two hours. After that and a swim in the pristine waters of the Blue Lagoon, I should take the next ferry back to Gozo.(Comino is snuggled in the channel between Malta and Gozo.)

Needless to say, after a week of hearing these comments, I was reconsidering my two night stay on Comino that has a year-round population of four people. Good thing I didn’t change my plans because neither the friendly, charming, comfortable hotel nor the unspoiled island lived up to the bad reputation I was prepared for. In fact, quite the opposite. After spending two activity-laden days and eating some very yummie food at the hotel, I wished I had a third day just to relax, reading a book while gazing at the waterways or sitting beside a tidal pool or cove.

Here’s what I found on Comino, an island that’s definitely worth a two and maybe a three-day visit if you really want to get caught up in nature and history while living the very low-key, laid-back life.

1. Yes, the Comino Hotel does feel stuck in the 1960s and the interior does need some work. But it’s not falling apart, by any means. In fact, my room #297 had perfect views of San Nicklaw Bay where I could sit on the tiny balcony and watch the sunrise every morning. And given that this hotel is an amazing deal considering the seaside location and that the staff couldn't do enough for its guests, I overlooked the tired and sometimes tattered interior.

2. There are no restaurants on the island -- we’re talking a desolate island, remember -- except for the one at the Comino Hotel and the truck kiosks that sell burgers and such beside the tourist laden Blue Lagoon. But that worked out great because the hotel’s extensive dinner buffet was fresh with something for all palates. For dinner, these were some of my favorite buffet items: salads, including cucumber and mint, octopus, and baby shrimp with cauliflower; fried calamari; roast turkey with mustard/sage gravy; vegetable quiche, cream of pumpkin soup, a cheese platter that included the local gbejniet cheese that’s either served fresh or coated in black pepper, fresh fruits, and some scrumptious desserts: lemon mousse and a chocolate layer cake. (It’s a good thing I was walking five hours a day to burn off all these calories.)

3. The first day I walked almost five hours along the island’s network of dirt roads and paths passing fragrant wild thyme, blooming oleander and caper bushes, clumps of pines and a scattering of orchards. Walking along the clifftops and headlands, I spied curious offshore islets with odd erosion holes that gave you a glimpse of the sea on the other side.
4. St. Mary’s Tower, a 17th century watchtower build by the Knights of St. James, makes for an interesting visit where you can spot the well where the knights would gather their water and the basement that was once accessed by a long rope ladder. Once I crossed the footbridge, I prowled around this tower that that was built to protect the channel from ship piracy. The rooftop provides panoramic views of the island from this almost 300-foot-tall perch.

5. Carrying lunch from the hotel that consisted of a sandwich made of thick Maltese ftira bread filled with tuna, olives, onions, capers and tomatoes, I found a perfect place for a much-needed shady picnic: the patio of the island’s old isolation hospital. (This sprawling building is where the island's four residents live, but one of them saw me approaching and gave me the go ahead to lunch in the shade.)

6. I checked out the iridescent azure-toned Blue Lagoon at 7:30 am knowing that it would become packed with lounge chairs and umbrellas, starting at 8 am. The lazy atmosphere with nary a sound beyond the crashing waves, completely transforms to a chaotic atmosphere the rest of the day until the last boats depart late in the day. Each morning, I took the short walk here before breakfast to enjoy the solitude.

7. Instead of the Blue Lagoon, I visited a cove that sees few if any visitors: Smuggler’s Cove on the South Channel. It requires a longer walk and there are no kiosks, boats or lounge chairs to rent. What you do find are pristine tidal pools where you could sit and watch crustaceans and fish swim around your toes. Good swimmers can also enjoy the deep cool waters offshore.

8. The only kiosk at the Blue Lagoon that’s worth visiting is a small stand selling fresh fruits, including prickly pear cactus. One day I lunched here on nectarines, watermelon, prickly pear and yogurt while sitting under the kiosk’s expansive umbrella.

9. Two people told me about St. Mary’s Caves that are accessible not just by sea but also by foot. It took three tries wandering down several paths along the cliff front to find the massive cave complex that you can simply walk into and swim in a calm pool of seawater. (I’m told that the Count of Monte Cristo was filmed here.)

10. On my second full day on the island, I walked all the paths I missed the first day and found an old hilltop cemetery, St. Mary’s Bay that’s much more relaxed than the Blue Lagoon, lush valleys that are still verdant despite the tempertures, and a small chapel ringed by a stone wall and tall conifer trees that also provide some much needed shade and a bit of a breeze.

11. Other activities available from the hotel include aromatherapy massages, canoe or windsurf rental, diving -- and even mountain bike rental. The hotel also offers two outdoor swimming pools (one is for children) and two small strips of golden sand.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Michelle Obama's Spanish Vacation - Visiting Ronda

Michelle Obama certainly has great taste in vacation venues when she decided to holiday in southern Spain last week with her daughter, Sascha, and friends. One of the most picturesque cities in the Andalucian area that she visited was Ronda. I certainly don’t have any insider information on her full itinerary in this Moorish town, but I’m sure she took in some of the more iconic offerings.

1. I walked through the Jardines Ciudad de Cuenca, a series of tiered gardens that sit on the edge of the gorge. These green spaces are a quiet oasis landscaped with palms, cacti, roses, stone benches and boulders.

2.At the18th century Casa del Rey Moro or House of the Moorish King, I visited the surrounding Islamic and European garden with its manicured hedges, lily pond, palms and cedar. Here, I climbed down the long, slippery underground stairway that was cut out of solid rock. At the end of the 365 steps that lead to the bottom of the gorge, I looked out at the impressive rock face and green water of the Guadalevin River.

3. Sitting on the edge of Ronda's precipice, the Casa del Don Juan Bosco is noted for its extensive collection of local ceramics. Decorative art also found outside the house in the tiered garden with decorative tile work, mosaics and fountains.

4. At the Plaza Maria Auxiadora or Plaza del Campillo with its flowering trees is a narrow path that snakes down to the bottom of the gorge. Along the way, I found the remains of the medieval city walls, an old Moorish door to the city and flourmills also from the Arabic period. This path has one of the best views of the gorge, El Tajo, as you stand face-to-face with the cliff and directly across from the New Bridge, and the waterfall that tumbles into the river.

5. The museum inside the Palacio de Mondragon displayed an interesting Muslim funeral exhibit with tombstones dating from the 14th century and an explanation of how the dead were buried on the outskirts of Ronda.

6. At the Arab Baths, I watched a video that explained, in Spanish, how water was pumped in from the nearby stream.

7. I could've spent hours examining arrest warrants, dioramas of bandits' hiding places in caves, their weapons, death certificates, and pseudonyms all on display at the appropriately named Bandit Museum. The extensive exhibits are devoted to the life of Spain's bandits, especially the bandits of Andalusia where they have long been romanticized in literature and myth.

8. Popular with locals, the Alameda del Tajo Gardens in the center of town are landscaped with iron arbors, palmetto, bamboo, conifers and a balcony hanging over the cliff edge. Here, I strolled the adjacent path lined with flowering shrubs and trees that parallels the gorge.

9. When I finally stopped to relax, I ordered a café con leche at a cafe across from the Plaza Dequesa de Parcent that's planted with tall conifers, palms and orange trees.

10. I followed the signs out of Ronda for Virgen de la Cabeza, a lovely short that winds through a hot and dusty land that's lined with old stone walls, olive trees and wild pistachio. This one-mile trail leads to a Mozarabic church that was built in a cave in the 9th century. I walked through the rooms cut into sandstone -- with monastic living quarters and others for worship -- and into the crypt. On the second Sunday of June, the locals make a pilgrimage to this hermitage where they honor the Virgin Mary with prayer and celebration.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

A Little Bit of Portugal in New York City

It's not often that I step into a restaurant in New York City and find that after the first bite, I feel transported to another country. But that’s what happened to me the other night when I had dinner at a very recently renovated restaurant on the Lower East Side.

Nomad, a restaurant specializing in North African cuisine, still retains a North African theme with its murals, lamps, naturally-sculpted rose stone pieces and other embellishments. But now that it has Portuguese chef, Luisa Fernandes, as its executive chef, the restaurant has taken on a whole new life.

Luisa conjures up some magical Mediterranean fare that include elements from Spain, Italy, Greece, France, North Africa, and her native, Portugal. Portugal is one of my specialties and every dish that came out of the kitchen harkened back to my travels across that country. But each also had a little twist that made it approachable to the American palate.

The fresh sardines came topped with pickled onions. Perfected grilled baby octopus was nestled in amongst chickpeas that were nicely flavored with bits of lamb sausage. A stuffed quail was dressed with a tangy pomegranate sauce and served with couscous, onions and raisins.

I ordered a balanced Trajadura wine from Monho, Portugal to accompany the meal. And I couldn’t get enough of the freshly-baked garlic and herb flatbread. (Many of the dishes are cooked in the brand new wood burning brick oven set into the wall in the dining room. And it’s the maple and cherry woods Luisa uses here that lend to the aromatic flavors.)

The interior of the restaurant couldn’t be more romantic, with flickering candles and a soon-to-open garden courtyard.

If you want to dine in a restaurant where the chef -- who, by the way, was the 2009 champion on the Food Network's cooking competition show, Chopped -- has a supreme passion for cooking, then I’d run right down to Nomad if you live in New York. And, if you don’t, I’d put it on my list of places to dine when you're next in town.
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