Sushi, Slots and Sumptuous Luxury – The Ultimate Food and Wine Experience – Las Vegas, Baby!

Story by Linda Kissam

Palazzo Hotel Las Vegas Resort“Wow, this place is incredible!” I must have heard that phrase a hundred times over in my 4- day stay at the Palazzo (Hotel, Resort and Casino) in Las Vegas, Nevada… and they weren’t talking just about the slots. Each one of us has our own vision of what the “Vegas Experience” is , but if you haven’t been there in a while or you usually just come to play and don’t spend much time on – or in – the accommodations, restaurants, or non-gambling activities, you’d be missing the “Real Vegas” experience. Seriously, slow down folks; enjoy all the amenities that Vegas has to offer. It’s like going abroad, but without the passport and language hassles.

I have to admit, I used to be a casino dasher. Up and down the strip I’d go, umbrella drink in hand, my casino key card at the ready to pop into the slot machines, eating at the food courts. That was my old vision of what Las Vegas had to offer. Now that I have been introduced to the indulgent lifestyle a large well thought out and professionally managed property has to offer, I am all in; they can have all my chips and my loyalty. I understand now that I can check in to my suite, drop my bags and begin the planning for days of uncompromising culinary treats, wine, cocktails, and shows…as well as world class gambling opportunities. In fact, there really is no reason to go anywhere other than the Palazzo during your stay. Continue to read and see where The Palazzo WOW factor gets its credentials from.

suites at Palazzo Resort VegasWith more than 3,000 spacious suites, luxury shopping, world-class dining and entertainment, the $1.9 billion, Silver LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified Palazzo Las Vegas takes luxury to new heights. The Palazzo features 3,066 sprawling suites, each specifically fashioned for convenience and comfort ranging from the 700-square-foot Luxury suite, nearly two times larger than the standard Las Vegas hotel room, to the palatial Presidential and Chairman suites, measuring in excess of 8,000 square feet, with private terraces and outdoor plunging pools. Ranked as one of the Top 25 Hotels in the Continental U.S. and Canada by Travel + Leisure’s ‘World’s Best Awards’ for two consecutive years, the AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Four Star Award-winning resort brings high fashion to the Strip more than 60 luxury boutiques. For a shopping diva, this place is nirvana.

Las Vegas Foodie TourThe all-suite resort also offers a variety of cuisines (30+) from a collection of award-winning chefs. My favorites include Valentino with Chef Luciano Pellegrini, AquaKnox with Chef Tom Moloney’s, LAVO with Ralph Scamardella, Taqueria Canonita with Chef Reed, , SUSHISAMBA with Executive Sushi Chef John Um (See recipe below), and the Public House with Corporate Executive Chef Anthony Meidenbauer. Each one of these places features a different cuisine, exceptional service, carefully selected wines, beers, cocktails, and reasonable prices.

Las Vegas Resort Hotel Also not to be missed – which I definitely did not –is the unique and fabulous Fusion Mixology Bar. Located on the casino floor the Latin-inspired Fusion Mixology Bar offers beautifully handcrafted cocktails focusing on the Latin American beverage culture. Designed by award-winning bartenders and mixologists, cocktails are made-to-order using fresh fruits and the muddling technique of grinding sugar with fresh limes and lemons. A friend and I were challenged to call out some ingredients so the mixologist could create a unique drink for the two of us. Got to say, that is a day we won’t soon forget, as the JoLinda was created. A lovely mix of cucumber, basil, mint, and citrus… we certainly found our happy taste place. This is a memorable experience I highly recommend to you. Its open 24 hours daily, which gives you plenty of time to fit it into your plans.

Las Vegas Hotel Resort EntertainmentSomething that everyone knows is there, but may not take advantage of, is the world class “experience entertainment “opportunities. I’ve travelled a lot, but Las Vegas and especially The Venetian do a great job providing enthralling Las Vegas shows with special engagements by headliners and special events. There is something to do or see every day. See critically acclaimed shows including the world-famous Blue Man Group, and the thrilling Phantom production. Reserve your tickets to see special engagements from headliners like Rita Rudner, Tim Allen, David Spade and Joan Rivers. Catch the hottest events in town from shows and parties to amazing activities.

All in all the experience at The Palazzo in Las Vegas gets this Wine, Food & Travel Diva’s best recommendation for a memorable luxury adult getaway.

Recipe

SUSHISAMBA
Compliments of Executive Sushi Chef John Um
www.sushisamba.com

Great VLas Vegas CuisineTUNA TATAKI

Serves 1-2

Salad

Ingredients:

• 8 oz ahi tuna

• ¾ cup fresh tatsoi leaves (may substitute baby spinach)

• ¼ cup hearts of palm, sliced

• 1 stalk white asparagus, sliced

• ½ tbsp garlic chips

• ¼ tsp black lava sea salt

• ¼ cup yuzu garlic vinaigrette*

• ¼ cup avocado vinaigrette*

• ¼ cup ponzu sauce*

• ¼ cup blended oil

 

Method: Toss tatsoi in ponzu sauce and place on plate. Assemble hearts of palm and white asparagus on top of tatsoi. Dip tuna in yuzu garlic vinaigrette and marinate for a minute. Layer tuna with garlic chips and top with avocado vinaigrette. Garnish with black lava sea salt.

*yuzu garlic vinaigrette

Ingredients:

• ½ tbsp shallot, chopped

• ½ tbsp garlic, chopped

• ¾ oz yuzu juice

• ½ oz soy sauce

• ¼ cup vegetable oil

• ¼ tsp black pepper

Method: Place all ingredients, except vegetable oil, in blender. Blend until smooth, adding vegetable oil in a slow stream. Reserve in refrigerator.

*ponzu sauce

Ingredients:

• ¾ oz soy sauce

• 1 ¾ oz rice wine vinegar

• ¼ oz lemon juice, strained

Method: Whisk all ingredients in a bowl and reserve in refrigerator.

*avocado vinaigrette

• 1 fresh ripe avocado, peeled and pitted

• ½ oz rice wine vinegar

• ½ oz water

• 1 ¼ oz vegetable oil

• ¼ tsp honey

• ¼ tsp yuzu juice

• ½ fresh lime, juiced

• salt and pepper to taste

Method: Place avocado, vinegar, water, honey, yuzu and lime juice in blender on a low setting. Blend ingredients until smooth, adding vegetable oil at a slow steady stream until creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste; reserve in refrigerator.

Returning to Ojai, California – The Town L.A. Didn’t Ruin!

Story by K. Pearson Brown

Ojai is one of the few places in the world where a rare and wondrous pink tinted sunset occurs (photo credit Michael McFadden)
Ojai is one of the few places in the world where a rare and wondrous pink tinted sunset occurs (photo credit Michael McFadden)

It was my third trip to Ojai in five years, and delightfully, not much has changed. This adorable town of about 8,000, nestled in the Ojai valley, seems to have escaped the shuttering of independent shops and eateries that has plagued LA. Surely the recession has hit Ojai, but perhaps because of its small-town attitude, where folks take care of one another and life is simpler, they have managed to maintain their charm and economic vitality without giving in to Pottery Barn and Taco Bell.

The Inn Place

Ojai Hotels
Bungalows at Blue Iguana Inn feature private entrances and gated patios (photo credit Betty Jane Brown)

The accommodations in Ojai reflect the way of life of its residents. Mostly visitors will find small inns, with all the creature comforts of high-end hotels, but with a low key and casual atmosphere. My family lodged at The Blue Iguana, a Santa Barbara style bed and breakfast with modern amenities such as HD flat screen TVs in every room, but also with its own full kitchen, so we could prepare meals at “home.” Our bungalow also featured its own private fenced-in outdoor dining area and patio and French doors in every room opening to the outdoors.

Each morning at the Blue Iguana we enjoyed a complimentary continental breakfast of bagels, pastries, cereals, juice and coffee, and my son’s favorite, hardboiled eggs. Guests could take breakfast to their own private patios or bungalows or sit with other guests in the breakfast nook or on the communal patio outside.

It was a couple of minutes by car from the inn on the town’s main street, Ojai Avenue, into the center of town, heralded by what used to be the only stop light in town, at Signal Street. Shopping in town offered many charming small boutiques that thankfully resembled nothing of the GAP. My favorite clothing shop was The Kindred Spirit, featuring comfortable and stylish modern hippie fashions and shoes, like the Spring Step European wedge loafers I picked up there. Another fun to browse was Kingston’s Candy shop, which is like a trip into a Little Rascal’s episode with its bins of vintage-style candy, sodas and other novelties, like Big Buddy chewing gum.

Eat Local

An entrée from Feast Bistro, an eatery that features fresh house-made dishes in a casual setting with a patio that backs up to the Arcade’s grassy plaza (photo credit: courtesy Feast Bistro)
An entrée from Feast Bistro, an eatery that features fresh house-made dishes in a casual setting with a patio that backs up to the Arcade’s grassy plaza (photo credit: courtesy Feast Bistro)

I had thought I had tried all the best restaurants in town during my previous visits, but I was thrilled to find a plethora of undiscovered outstanding options for gourmet tastes, including the enchanting Azu. The restaurant had an earthy, artsy feel, with a cozy fireplace, wood benches — for which I asked for and was given a cushion for my poor bad back – and a front-room bar with well-dressed locals gathered for conversation and laughter. The service was friendly and casual, and Chef Laurel Moore’s Spanish and Mediterranean comfort cuisine menu was creative and reflective of the local bounty, such as blood orange and spinach salad, Cabra salad of Ojai organic greens and honey baked brie, drizzled with Ojai organic sage honey.

The next day we lunched at Feast Bistro, a quaint eatery along the town’s famed Arcade, a long pavilion of shops, that backs up to a grassy landscaped area where purveyors sell locally grown fruits and vegetables, jams, honey, bees wax candles, olive oil, free range eggs and chicken and a variety of crafts at a year-round weekly farmer’s market, every Sunday, rain or shine.

The knoll behind Feast Bistro restaurant was a great place for my son to play while we waited for our food. Since we all had walked up an appetite, and everything on the menu looked so yummy, we ordered entrees to share. We started with the locally sourced Eel River organic beef burger with cheese, a perfect complement to the Buffalo Blue spicy chicken breast on a bed of mixed greens and veggies, topped with Bleu cheese crumbles. My son enjoyed a huge platter of pomme frites, served as he ordered, half garlic, half parmesan. We finished off our hearty meal with a plate of still-warm Cookies of the Day.

All Aboard 

Ojai, California
Downtown Ojai offers shoppers plenty of boutiques and restaurants and not a single chain establishment (photo credit Michael McFadden)

We wanted to see more of Ojai outside of downtown, so we hopped aboard the Ojai Trolley, which for a fare of fifty cents is a great way to get around the town. Though the wooden bench seats didn’t make for a very comfy ride, and the trolley meanders through some of the less glamorous sections of town, it was still a fun ride. The trolley also offered the chance for us to see some of the good-neighbor attitude of Ojai in action, as the locals aboard the trolley greeted each other as they boarded and were quick to help a man in a wheelchair get aboard.

The Ojai Way

We were happy even as tourists to experience the small town feel of Ojai, which by the way is Ventura County’s smallest city. At the local park across from the Arcade I met a mom who lives in town. We pushed our kids on the swings side by side as she gave me the local scoop on the schools and community, which was all good. Then my son joined in with a group of kids on a spinning merry-go-round, and I chatted with their parents, more friendly locals. We strolled deeper into the park to find an outdoor concert theatre with a magical gate made of handing pipes that actually played music when you walked under them.

The Road to Ojai

Kids in Ojai
The friendly small-town feel of Ojai is a welcome change from city life for visitors from LA

Though this oasis sits in Ventura County, just 12 miles inland from Ventura, the great thing for Angelenos is that it is just about a 90-minute car ride from our bustling city. We made the trip in a luxurious seven-passenger Mazda CX-9, which featured super comfy reclining leather seats and was more than roomy for our family of four, with space to spare for all of our luggage and even my son’s 20” bike that we brought along. It also featured the best navigation system that I had ever used, which not only led us directly to our final destination and a few side trips, but it warned us of traffic ahead and offered alternative routes and advised me when I had drifted over the speed limit, which can be easy to do when the ride is so smooth. The rear-seat entertainment center with a DVD player also came in handy for my son.

Our trip goes to show that three times is a charm, as were my first and second visits to Ojai. And already I am planning a fourth.

 

 

Desert Hot Springs, California: Spas, Mineral Soaks & Soleil Chilled Avocado Soup with Tomato Salsa

Pics & Story by Linda Kissam

Desert Hot Springs, CAIt’s a shame that not much has been written about Desert Hot Springs near Palm Springs, Ca. I am not sure if those who know about it don’t want others to be “in” on the values and fun of it all or the press just hasn’t discovered it yet. One thing for sure, this is one of those wonderful USA holidays that hasn’t yet been ‘discovered’.

No matter, I’ve been there, experienced its rich treasures, and am here to tell you – it’s a great place to relax and rejuvenate. It’s hasn’t wrapped itself in the glitz and glamour cloak of its neighbor Palm Springs yet, but …it can certainly hold its own until that time comes and is worthy of a 3-day stay. If you’re the kind of traveler who can appreciate the raw essence of a natural jewel, this is the place for you.

Desert Hot Springs is built over one of the world’s finest natural hot mineral water aquifers. Naturally occurring mineral waters bubble to the surface making this a mineral bath and spa destination. There are over 22 unique (many family owned and operated) inns where you can Zen out, relaxing in polished marble resorts, retro-hip motels, clothes optional, or dog friendly retreats.

Desert Hotsprings, CAAlmost every inn has spa treatments available on property, so you can just roll from the comfy rooms, to the pool, to the mineral baths, to the spa treatments. No need to bring your own stash of designer bottled water as the city boasts pure and delicious award-winning municipal drinking water.

I’d forgotten how good the health benefits of mineral-rich, hot springs can feel. Mineral waters around the world are famous for their healing attributes, and Desert Springs is no slacker in this department. What a treat to experience stress relieving natural heat, while minerals absorbed through my skin rejuvenating my body. Ready to relieve sore muscles and treat the stiffness that accompanies arthritis, the water in Desert Hot Springs is rich in silica leaving the skin soft and smooth.

This destination is perfect for some serious alone time, girlfriend getaways, or some romantic rejuvenation. There are a variety of inns to choose from. My favorites (including a refreshing recipe) are below, but whatever you’re looking for…it’s here for you.

Desert HotspringsAqua Soleil: This was my host hotel for two days. Savvy General Manager Sabine Pollerman welcomed me with open arms. I must say the ground floor suite she assigned me was amazing. Just imagine your own mammoth Jacuzzi in your suite. By count I think I could have gotten at least 10 people in it. Also, lots of space to work on the computer or lounge on the couch. If I were writing a book, I’d like to start or end it here. The grounds were immaculate and inviting with a large swimming pool, two Jacuzzi’s and inviting well-kept outdoor conversation areas. Sabine tells me that her goal for her guests is for them, “To relax, refresh, and leave with abundant energy to return to their normal life.” The on property spa offers a variety of treatments and uses the upscale Body Deli products. Think Blueberry Fusion Micro-Scrub. Sabine encourages potential guests to check the property’s Web site for specials, and to call front desk manager “Ella” for any daily deals not shown on the Web site.

Desert Hotsprings, CAEl Morocco Inn & Spa: A Moroccan inspired luxury inn in Desert Hot Springs, CA. run by owner Bruce Abney , one of the most gregarious inn keepers I have ever met. A day here is not only going to provide relaxation via the natural hot mineral water pool and spa, but when the evening rolls around… charm and deliciousness is the order of the evening. Between the delightful Bruce and the Inn’s signature cocktail, “The Morocco-tini” you’ll be raising a glass to pure relaxation. And hey…make sure you ask Bruce for the Sultan’s Tent Tour

Dog Spa Resort: This is an inn created from the ground up for dog lovers. Dogs vacation free with their owners. The owner and inn keeper are outstanding guardians; you’re going to love this place. No size limits or breed restrictions. Soak, swim, and rejuvenate in some of the world’s finest hot mineral waters.

Desert Hotsprings, CADoes it get any better? Yup! The pet nanny is on duty from 12 – 6pm to care for dog guests while you play off site. The rooms are large, clean and gorgeous. All you have to do is pack your bag, grab your significant others and get ready for a unique experience.

# # #

 

 

Soleil Chilled Avocado Soup with Tomato Salsa
The recipe serves 8-12
Compliments of Aqua Soleil

Ingredients

6 large ripe avocados, peeled and seeded
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
6 spring onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups yogurt

Salsa —

4 ripe tomatoes, deseeded
2 seedless cucumbers, deseeded
2 spring onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sweet chili sauce
4 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

Desert HotspringsChop avocados roughly, leaving 1/4 cup for the salsa. Place in a food processor with lime juice, garlic, spring onions, cumin and stock – puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Add yogurt and blend for 30 seconds. Chill soup until ready to serve.

For the tomato salsa, finely dice tomatoes and cucumber, then combine with the remaining avocado left from the soup. Stir in spring onion, lime juice, sweet chili sauce and chopped cilantro.

To serve, ladle soup into bowls and top with a small amount of salsa.

Best Autumn Festivals Around the World

We usually think of summer as the party season but across the globe, some of the best and wildest festivals happen in the autumn. The fall is a great time to travel – it’s off-season in many places, meaning cheaper flights and less of a crush at the airport.

Wat Phantao during Yi Peng Image by Takeaway@Wikimedia.org, used under Creative Comms licenseAt these autumn festivals you can hang out with Mexican spirits, swill the finest German beer or sail your own (two-inch) candle-lit boat in Thailand in the coming months. So when you do a holiday comparison for your autumn vacation, remember to check for these fantastic events before you start booking your flights…

Kyoto in Japan

September to November in Japan is a riot of color and beauty that’s particularly cherished in areas like Kyoto, where you’ll see the most stunning reds, oranges, golds and green leaves in Japan’s most traditional and fascinating city. Not much compares to seeing men and women dressed in elaborate kimonos and walking under a canopy of rich and vivid autumn leaves colours. Enjoy the sights at the Maple Festival in November, where you will also see Japanese dancing performed on boats on the river and can partake of the elegant tea ceremony.

Dia de los Muertos in Mexico

The ‘Day of the Dead’ is a colorful and macabre festival of celebration held all over Mexico at the end of November. Locals make garlands of marigolds and buy a special bread that attracts the spirits of departed loved ones, and everyone heads to the graveyards after dark to eat, drink tequila and dance to the Mariachi bands. It’s not so much a party as a thoughtful and sometimes exuberant celebration of life. Tourists will find themselves welcome to join in
and learn about this vibrant culture.

Oktoberfest in Munich

If you like beer, and you like festivals, get yourself to Munich! Also known as the Munich Beer Fest, this celebration takes over the city, with little stalls and massive tents lined up along the riverside, serving beers and ales from Germany’s finest breweries, and a wide selection of traditional German foods. There’s even a funfair and rides to go along with the carnival atmosphere.

Loi Krathong in Thailand

This beautiful river festival is a visual treat. Thousands of little floating ornaments made from bread and bark are lit up with candles and sent out onto the river. The little boats, known as krathongs, signify letting go of negative thoughts and hurts, and giving thanks for your blessings. At the same time, the festival of Yi Peng involves releasing thousands of illuminated paper lanterns into the sky. A lovely and completely unforgettable experience.

Festival de Cornuto in Rocca Canterano, Italy

Not a great choice for a honeymoon trip, this November festival is a celebration of infidelity! The ‘Festival of the Horned One’ with its carnival of floats and street theatre is a perfect choice for spurned lovers, cheated-on spouses and betrayed brides. Console your broken heart with some delicious Italian ice-cream and laugh your troubles away.

Aruba Adventures

aruba adventuresAruba is a gorgeous island where you can spend entire days (or weeks) lounging on the beach staring into the crystal clear ocean. Just because you can be a total bum in Aruba does not mean you have to (or that it is best way to maximize your vacation).

The rolling hills and open seas also make Aruba the perfect location for adventures and outdoor challenges.

On Land
Aruba adventuresArikok National Park is made up of three different geological configurations which result in unique wildlife and rock formations. Aruba lava, quartz diorite and limestone formations have influenced the land development in the park. Hard core hikers will enjoy challenging themselves on the over 20 miles of trails throughout the rugged terrain.

aruba hikingThe majority of Aruba may be flat and sandy, but interestingly enough Aruba is also filled with unique hills and colossal boulders. Ayo and Casibari are both excellent rock climbing locations with challenging hills juxtaposed with unbelievable views. If rock climbing isn’t your thing, you can also hike through the boulders on the walking trails developed by the Aruba government.

In the Water
deep sea fishing in ArubaDeep sea fishing takes place a few miles offshore. You will be rocked by the strong ocean waves and may swallow some salt spray during your experience. However, you may hardly notice these things because you are so intently focused on reeling in an 80 pound fish at the other end of your pole. You don’t need to have fishing experience if you go with a tour, because they will provide you with a skilled captain and first mate.

Aruba Scuba DivingThe entire south coast of Aruba Is covered in coral reefs, making it the Caribbean wreck-diving capital. Planes, abandoned cargo ships and tugboats are some of the wrecks divers can explore while snorkeling in Aruba’s water. Over eleven wrecks can easily be reached by divers, and there are over 20 sites designated for diving in Aruba. The bright and unique reefs paired with the wrecks are both magnificent and fascinating.

Difficult waves, flat water locations, 15-knot trade winds year round and widespread shallows make Aruba one of the top five locations in the entire world for windsurfing. Because there are so many windsurfing locations in Aruba, anyone ranging from someone with no experience to a skilled windsurfer will enjoy and be challenged by the experience.

 

Biking and Drinking in Argentina’s Mendoza Wine Country

By Melissa Ruttanai

biking in MendozaMendoza was made for wine and traveling winelovers. With street grid construction and verdant parks, this city steeped in viticulture offers great walking boulevards, outdoor cafes, and of course, wine at every corner. Visitors cannot walk 200 feet without passing a wineshop or restaurant with a display case. Even the fountain at Plaza Independencia is tinted red so that spouts shoot water up into the Argentine sky resembling sparkling wine rosé. At most restaurants, a wine list includes most of the vintners in the area and prices them starting at 40 pesos (US$10) for a 750ml bottle. In town, Vines of Mendoza presents a formal tasting room for tourists looking to sip their way through the regions wares. While here, most visitors will be compelled to see at least one winery. Some perhaps via the 200 peso (US$50) tours offered at high end hotels. But for more adventurous, DYI wine lovers, head over to the circuit of Bikes and Wines.

Bikes and Wines in Maipu, Mendoza
A cluster of wineries are located off the main drag in Maipu, a small town in Mendoza province. Each are a few minutes bike ride from each other. Alongside parking lots for cars, visitors will find designated bike racks and even VIP signs for Bikes and Wines. Truck drivers seem more lenient toward 2-wheeled traffic, giving them wider berth than their counterparts in Buenos Aires.

When you come off the bus ramp, employees from rival bike companies will offer you flyers. Take them and feel free to browse. When Neil and I visited, we preferred bikes with baskets so we could carry all our goodies. Each shop offers a full day rental for around 25 Argentine pesos (US$8). They provide a map for the day and when you return, there are refreshments. We were really surprised with our rentals with Orange Bike. They offered us a 10 peso discount for the day and when we returned for our snacks we expected some potato chips and a thimble-full of wine. The workers set up a table with three types of snacks and a full bottle of red wine. In the shade and with music in the background, Neil and I relaxed, chatting with the other travelers on the patio. The owner Mario is a jovial man, making sure all was well and introducing us to other bikers on the wine trail. At the end of our day, he and his assistant walked us to the gate, sending us off with a kiss on the cheek. Crossing the street, we waited no more than 10 minutes for the return bus back to Mendoza.

Wine tour in ArgentinaWineries and Other Sites in Maipu
Wineries of all shapes and sizes dot the landscape around Maipu. There are artesian shops and hi-tech ultra modern behemoths as well. Trapiche is one of the biggest producers of wine, exporting to the US, Canada, and Russia. But as you pedal around the countryside, enjoying the green vines stretching on either side of the road, smaller vineyards will post signs if they are open for visitors and tastings. So you can weave in and out of these orchards all day. One of the best aspects of this self-guided tour is that their is no set itinerary.

Each winery will have prices for tours and tastings. They are mutually exclusive of each other. So, while you may think a simple tasting should be less expensive than a full tour, this is not always the case. At Trapiche, a tour costs 35 pesos for video, walk-through of the winemaking buildings, and 3-4 tastings. Their tasting menu is by the glass, starting at 50 pesos for three samples and a souvenir glass.

If you have time, stop at the Beer Garden located off Mitre Street. It is a simple outdoor seating area with three choices of microbrewed beer. Their menu includes 6 empanadas and 2x 500ml beers for 55 pesos (about US$14). The veggie versions taste like fresh pizza bites. Nearby is another artesian shop called Historia and Sabores offering homemade chocolates and liqueurs extracted from regional fruits and cocoa. There is outdoor seating for tasting breaks and shade as well as a bathroom.

How to Get There
Argentine Bike and Wine TourFrom Mendoza City, catch a Line 10 Bus to Maipu. This line has several routes, of which #170 and #173 will take you to the right place. All bus stops are numbered with the lines, so you can just queue up. Ask the bus driver if he goes to Bikes and Wines. They all know it and will drop you off at the appropriate spot where all the bike companies are located. You pay all fares in coins, so make sure you have enough for a round trip. The ride is 30 minutes and takes you through Godoy Cruz for most of it.

Mendoza is 1040km from Buenos Aires and 155 km from Santiago. Neil and I took a daytime bus through the Andeans from Santiago. A 7-hour ride, the route covers some of the prettiest parts of the the mountain chain. Between Mendoza and Buenos Aires, several bus companies service the long 14-hour trip. Whether you take Cata, FlechaBus, or any other, know that service levels are all the same. In fact all the buses are owned by the same company. That said, book early to lock in lower fares and then sit back to first class, cross-country service that begins with Mendocino sparkling wine.

Wonderful Alberta: Breakfast with Dinosaurs and Lunch in the Wild West

Story and Photos by Esther Amis-Hughes

Ever heard of Drumheller?

This small town in Canada is quite literally the best place in the world! It is more like a giant movie set than New York; there are better museums than London, and it definitely boasts the most ‘atmospheric’ location for a cheese toastie!

 

‘Drum’ is about 135 kilometers east of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada. This drive is the perfect way to appreciate the contradictions in the Canadian landscape. Calgary is on the cusp of the rockies, which smolder menacingly in the distance, reminding the growing city that they were there before Calgary became a force to be reckoned with, and they’ll be there long after.

Leaving Calgary, the mountains fade in the rear view mirror and suddenly the landscape drops away to reveal nothing. Stretching way into the horizon are the huge green plains of the Alberta prairie, which is so still it seems to be holding its breath. This is enchanting for about 10 minutes, but then it becomes like the illustration in a children’s book, unbelievably bright and unchanged.

 

Just as we reach Drumheller, the landscape changes one final time. Big nobbles of gnarled grey rock shoot up from the grassland as we descend into a valley that more resembles the moon than anywhere on earth that I’ve ever been.

 

We stay at Heartwood Inn and Spa, a B&B that I cannot recommend highly enough. It is run by a husband and wife partnership who do everything to make the weary traveler welcome – our room (their best value – by which I mean the cheapest!) is spacious, with a huge bath at one end of it. The building itself is beautiful, clad in bright blue wood, and what’s that in the garden? Oh a dinosaur.

 

Yup, a life size dinosaur just hanging out in the garden. Pretty much a must for all boutique guesthouses and I’m pretty sure all dinosaur-less B&Bs will be a disappointment to me from now on. Coming in a close second to the carnivorous garden guest is the breakfast. Wowser! Our host asks what we would like and gave us an option of French toast or French toast. Being allergic to egg, I say we’ll sort out our own breakfast, but our host takes this as a challenge to serve me the most amazing (egg free) fruit, toast and yoghurt combo I have ever had. And The Photographer tells me that the egg breakfast is also delicious – either savoury French toast (mushroom, asparagus and bacon) or sweet (syrup and berries). Breakfast is eaten with the other guests, and served with plenty of fresh coffee and enlightening conversation.

 

We ask our hosts what we should do in Drumheller, and are sent off on the ‘Dinosaur Trail’. The complete absence of any dinosaurs is the only disappointing things about the trail, which takes in several unique sites that only Drum could boast. The first stop is the much more appropriately named ‘Little Church’, a roadside church with six one man pews. Cue lots of humorous photography. Next, Horse Thief Canyon, a real taste of the Alberta Badlands, where the bland but colourful prairie landscape drops dramatically away to reveal a great scar in the land, with huge mountainous lumps. From the top you can see from miles, but clamber down to look closely for those famous fossils that give the trail its name and its easy to feel like you’re in another world, (and totally loose your bearings.)

 

Talking of being in another world, our next stop was also completely new to me – the cable operated Bleriot Car Ferry crosses the Red Deer River, at a point where it is so narrow I was wondering if I could jump across. The kind, three fingered operator chatted to us all the way over (it was painfully slow, so it took at least 3 minutes) and waxed lyrical about his job. I found myself wondering if we were his only customers that week. The smallest church, the quietest car ferry and no dinosaurs – so far this was road trip was sounding like the bin in the offices of the Guinness World Records.

 

We drive back towards Drumheller and out the other side towards Wayne, a ghost town with a population of 27. It looks like everyone left the minute they stopped mining coal, and didn’t take anything with them. The best thing about Wayne is ‘Last Chance Saloon’, the Lonely Planet’s recommended Top Choice restaurant in Drumheller. It’s no top choice restaurant, but it is my recommendation to anyone who goes to Canada! Have a warm pepsi and cheese toastie (that’s what we call it in Yorkshire! You might know it as a grilled cheese sandwich) amongst the relics – which range from old pianos and static customers who are so still I thought they might be dead – to actual bullet holes in the wall from real dead customers who didn’t pay.

 

From ’Last Chance’ we progress from cowboy territory, to alien planets. The hoodoos are a crazy moon like formation of precarious columns, with a flat shelf on top. Apparently, in Blackfoot and Cree traditions they are believed to be frozen giants who come alive at night. I like them even more knowing this.

 

We arrive at our final destination unsure what to expect: Atlas Mine is a former coal mine which is now a historic site. Living in Yorkshire, England I am familiar with mining memorabilia and it was eerie to see this completely disused and deserted mine, left to rust. It is so familiar, but in such foreign surrounds. I stand under the rickety wooden tipple tower, sheltering from the sudden and torrential rain, and think about all the Brits and Europeans who moved to Drumheller to mine coal.

 

When natural gas and oil were found in Northern Alberta, the demand dried up and the migrant workers had to move away to find new jobs, breaking up the mining communities they had built around the Pit. In Yorkshire people stayed (the disadvantage of a small country I guess) but the communities also dispersed.

 

We head back to Heartwood to find that in our absence another Velociraptor has appeared in the garden. Is this for real? It’s like they’re following us.

 

Day two in Drum and we do what most people do on day one – head to the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. As interest in coal waned, tourism became a big market for Drumheller, and the town has built up a powerful brand around the famous by-product of their now redundant fuel: fossils. Now the dinosaurs make sense. Turns out a full size dinosaur in your garden in Drumheller is the equivalent of a full size BBQ in your garden in Australia. In fact, in the center of Drum is the ‘world’s biggest dinosaur’ – a 26M tall T-Rex, and this really is in the Guinness book of world records.

 

If the plastic dinosaurs are cute but frankly a bit cheesy, Royal Tyrrell is the exact opposite. It is an academic institution, with very well presented galleries and films. Staff sit in the galleries cleaning fossils and answering questions, and breathtaking fossils fill every room.

The Museum runs educational excavation activities, we head to ‘Dinosite’, which, despite assurance from staff that it is for ‘all ages’, appears to be for children. I don’t care – give me a trowel and a tray and I am ignorant of the fact that I’m the only person over 4 foot tall! Our guide traipses us across the Alberta desert (yet another landscape in this schizophrenic region), shows us recent dig sites, and takes questions from adults and children alike.

 

And, as if dinosaurs, hoodoos, and canyons aren’t enough, it is Canada day, so we see the whole town take part in a drive through parade (more people take part than watch!). The highlight of this is the Heartwood Inn offer: a small white convertible driven by a blonde groom and his brunette bride. It was only the handwritten sign on the car that helped us to recognise them – it was our very own Wills and Kate!

 

As we leave Drumheller, after only 48 hours, it is hard to shake the feeling of other worldly-ness. In fact I write this now, looking at photos of deserted mines and empty car ferries, of breakfast with dinosaurs, of ghost towns and bullet holes, and I feel compelled to tell everyone about this remarkable little place… just so someone else can tell me it wasn’t all a dream

 

Esther Amis-Hughes (aka Travel Bug) loves to travel and write. She and her companion (The Photographer) have traveled (and been ill) on all five continents. Check out  Travel Sic for more adventures and tips.

Meeting Artisans in the Fez Medina

Fez Medina Fes MoroccoMeeting the Artisans of Fez, Morocco was one of the highlights of my time in Morocco. Much has been written about the Fez, Medina – I’ve even written some of it.  In a nutshell, the Fez Medina is a UNESCO world heritage site, the largest inhabited car-free urban area in the world, the best example of a living medieval Muslim city and a place where you can stay in some amazing hotels,  guest houses, dars and riads.

The Artisans of Fez, Morocco

I was fortunate in being able to take part in something that hasn’t been so extensively written about.  I joined my friend Jessica Stephens (aka ‘The Jess’) on a medina tour that was focused on not only observing but also interacting with, talking to and getting up close and personal with the artisans who do their work and make their home in the Fez medina.

The usual medina tour goes something like this (and it’s good, don’t get me wrong)

“Here is the medina, here is a potters shop, here is the Quarawine Mosque, here is an old funduq, here is an old medrassa, and here are the famous tanneries from five floors up, now we will go to my uncles rug shop…” 

Depending on how much you’ve paid your guide, you will get various levels of sales, various levels of information, and various levels of bullshit (How do you know when a guide is lying? Their lips are moving!)

This tour was different.  Jess and I met with her clients at a cafe in Bathha which sits on the edge of the Fez medina and is very tourist friendly. They were nice, interesting people from Seattle who have traveled all over the world and lived in Vietnam, India, Malaysia and probably a few other places.  One way to tell if a tour is interesting at a glance is to look at who is going on it.  This one was looking tops from the beginning.

Jess went over the details with a map and asked them about anything in particular they wanted to see.  He wanted to see  the tanning process up close and she wanted to just enjoy the architecture since she’s an architect.  I particularly liked Jess’s warnings at the beginning 1) This isn’t a shopping tour so they shouldn’t buy a bunch of things on the way – the guide could take them back later if they desired 2) Don’t walk into an artisanal and just start snapping photos, instead talk with people, let them explain what they do and then – after all of that – take some photos if they want 3) Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact with people and 4) Watch out for the donkeys (okay, I added that last one myself)

Once the briefing was done we headed down to the not so tourist friendly (but still safe and cool) Bab Rcaif, where we met with the licensed Moroccan medina guide.  Here’s a side note – Jess pays her extra not to take visitors to any of the shops that most guides get commission from when tourists buy things. That’s not only cool for the guests, it’s also cool for the guide because Jess tries to compensate her for the commissions.  There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and fair trade these days, but this is the real deal in action.

Our first stop was to the dyeing street inside the medina. This is an entire derb (small street or alleyway) dedicated to the art of dyeing clothing and material.  We were able to stop and ask questions along the way from the dyers and they showed us the process of the vats, using wool and also aloe vera silk harvested from the mountains.

This old man was the shop steward in one of the dyeries…the map of lines on his face speaks of the travels of Ibn Battuta and more. Here’s something else nice, rather than the guide simply telling us everything – she allowed the artisans themselves to speak and then translated. This might seem like a small thing but it made a huge difference in terms of trust and authenticity.

From there we crossed over the river and went through the metal working and mirror shops.  All along the way, Jess was giving the artisans, the workers and the kids copies of the photos she had snapped on previous expeditions. It’s something that brought smiles of delight to the old and young and made all of us welcome guests along the way.

The metal working area opened up into the Attarine Square – one of the oldest squares in the medina and our lovely guide told us about the history of the migrations from Tunisia and from Andalucia and how they set up on different sides of the river and had a fierce rivalry which caused Fez to become the shining light of the times – home of the first university (The Quarayine University) and also I learned something I hadn’t known – there are 365 mosques in the Fez medina and that is why it is the spiritual capital of Morocco ( of course the guide’s lips were moving as she said it, so you might want to count).

We paused to explore a bit of the square and see the famous library though since it is still a place where students study, we weren’t allowed to go inside. Still, magnificent…

Down another narrow winding passageway and we came across a fellow who works exclusively with bone and horn. He showed us how he heats the bone and horn make it flexible and then he is able to cut around it and create beautiful shapes that can be carved and polished.

Now we were heading to the area where a recent scandal shook the medina. I hadn’t been in town for more than a few days and already I’d heard about it from three different sources. Here is the scandal and the very unfair way it turned out:

A fashion magazine of some sort came and booked a tour with their models of the famous Fessi tanneries.  When they got there, they apparently bribed someone to be allowed to go down in the thick of things despite the fact that they were using an illegal guide and technically aren’t supposed to go down there. Once down there, the models stood in the center and stripped nude! Now, this might not seem so scandalous but remember, this is a conservative Muslim country and these guys working there are among the conservative working class – it was shocking! As a result, the models and the photographers were escorted out but the manager of the tanneries and the guide were both jailed and charged 4000 dirham – which is a huge fine here.  Anyway, we had proper permission and we all kept our clothes on.

Even clothed, the tanneries were still amazingly interesting. I’d always wanted to get down into the pits and see the process and it was incredibly fascinating.  The process goes a bit like this – skins are brought, thrown into the limestone pits (filled with pigeon shit and lime) and soaked for a few days. After this they are thrown onto a huge electric wheel that scapes them along the floor and gets the hair loose. Next a man scrapes the hair from the hides. After that, they are thrown in another pit with more chemical agents. Following that they move to the dying vats (the brown ones) and then they go to be dried, scraped and softened, and finally made into your shoes or bag.

I probably don’t need to say this, but the smell is something you can simply not imagine. It is awful throughout. The guys in the pits looked at us suspiciously as we wandered through, probably wondering if we would take our clothes off or at least ‘Why the hell do they want to come down here?” We walked through the entire process and then blissfully, left the tanneries to head to the carpet weaving area. The weavers rooms didn’t smell bad at all, but then, after the tannery, nothing really could!

The weaver spoke excellent English and gave an demonstration of how to make material. We found out that for silk and cloth, it is generally men who do the weaving but for rugs, that is up to the women (like the women weavers I met in the collective in Rbat al Khair a few months ago).  The scarves and textiles were gorgeous and in a variety of colors but most striking was a deep cobalt blue. The dyes used to be all natural but these days (we had found out on the dyer street- most of them are chemical dyes).

After this we took a car from Rceif to the artisanal  school commissioned by the King of Morocco. In the school we met a master zelij (mosaic tile) craftsman, teaching four apprentices his craft with a massive piece.  We also had the chance to meet and talk with a Moroccan slipper maker and to see a number of the workshops where master artisans are teaching their craft to pupils.  Among the skills being passed on are the making of the oud and Moroccan fiddles, stone work, glass, tile, ceramics, wood working, and much more.

Finally, withe the tour of the artisans of the Fes Medina complete, we all sat down for lunch and took a good rest. This was an awesome tour – I hope that more tours like this that  1) respect the local people 2) interact with the culture 3) create an appreciation for the arts and handicrafts of places – continue to show up.

To book this tour for yourself, you can contact Jessica at her site  Artisanal Affairs to arrange it all for you. She also has a lot more information, some videos of the artisans and a whole lot more at http://www.culturevulturesfez.org

South America for Adrenaline Junkies

Backpackers heading to South America are in for a treat. Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and La Paz are some of the world’s most famous and intriguing cities. And the beaches; everyone goes for the beaches. But the life of a backpacker is more than sightseeing and sunning yourself on the beach; any trip has to be the adventure of a lifetime.

So, there’s bungee jumping, skydiving, and snowboarding in New Zealand and Australia; but what does South America have to offer? Here’s what.

Mountain biking the death road, Bolivia

Riding the Deathroad in Boliva cc image by Wanderlass on Flickr
You may be a mountain biking specialist, knowing all there is to know about Shimano shoes and Specialized bikes, but that won’t necessarily prepare you for cycling the death road in Bolivia. Don’t worry you won’t just be grabbing any old rusty bike and taking your chances on your own; it’s one of the biggest attractions in the country. That doesn’t make it any less scary though!

Descending 3,400m from a high mountain pass near La Paz to the tropical lowlands of Coroico, the North Yungas Road is said to be the most dangerous in the world. Prior to the new road being constructed in 2006, the narrow unpaved highway was responsible for hundreds of deaths every year, with cars and busses toppling over the cliff sides at the rate of one each week. Nowadays you can throw on your cycle clothing, jump on the back of a bike and ride hard with one of the many tour companies offering trips.

Sea kayaking the Patagonia, Chile

This is a haven for extreme sports junkies, with climbing one of the biggest draws here. Coming in a close second is sea kayaking. Travellers will find hundreds or glacial lakes and crystal clear waters traversing the Andean Mountain Range and the fjords. The scenery is awe-inspiring. Get yourself on a tour (ranging from 2-9 days) as much of the lakes are un-spoilt, so a guide is essential.

Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru

Sandboarding Instructions in Peru ccImage by Palegoldenrod on FlickrWhen you mention getting on a board in South America, snowboarding in Argentina probably springs to mind; but for those heading to Peru there’s the chance of some adrenaline fuelled action without the snow. Sandboarding in the large dunes found in this spot 5 hours outside Lima is the perfect alternative for those winter sports lovers dying for their fix. It’s not as fast, but it’s still cool.

Piranha fishing in the Amazon, Brazil

OK this one may not involve throwing yourself down a sand dune or pushing your body to the limit, but piranha fishing is still pretty damn scary. Your guide will take you out in a boat on the Amazon while you drop a line for these feisty fish.

Other favourites include ziplining in Ecuador, Bungee jumping in Brazil, kitesurfing on the Brazilian coast and canyoning in Mexico. What will you choose? 

Meeting Marzipan Men and Hanseatic Sailors in Lübeck, Germany

Photos and Story by Katherine Rodeghier

It isn’t often I encounter a man so sweet from head to toe.

Life-size figures made of marzipan are on display in the Marzipan Salon inside Café Niederegger. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
Life-size figures made of marzipan are on display in the Marzipan Salon inside Café Niederegger. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

But what should I expect of one made of almond paste and sugar?

He’s one of 12 life-size figures on display in the Marzipan Salon, the upstairs museum inside the Café Niederegger, famous throughout Germany for its marzipan confections.

The particular object of my interest is the figure of Thomas Mann seated, appropriately, with book in hand. The 1929 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was born in Lübeck where his grandparents’ house served as the setting for his novel, “Buddenbrooks.”

The home still stands not far from the café and operates as a museum, as do museums devoted to two more Nobel laureates from Lübeck: Author Gunter Grass and former Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Lübeck reached prominence centuries before any of these three came along. Designated a free imperial city in 1226, it became the capital of the Hanseatic League, a powerful confederation of 200 city-states banded together against pirates and warring nations to protect their trade in the Baltic. Unlike sister Hanseatic city, Hamburg, some 40 miles away, many of Lübeck’s medieval buildings still stand, earning the old city’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Don’t miss:

A giant astronomical clock attracts visitors to St. Mary’s Church. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
A giant astronomical clock attracts visitors to St. Mary’s Church. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

St. Mary’s Church: Germany’s third largest church was built to show off the power of the Hanseatic League. Begun around 1200 in Romanesque style, builders changed their minds, switching to the Gothic style of the massive limestone cathedrals then being built in France.

But Lübeck had no limestone. When it was completed in 1350, St. Mary’s was the largest red-brick church on the continent and became a model for about 80 churches scattered through the Baltic region. Its middle nave remains the highest brickwork vault in the world.

Bombed by the British on the night before Palm Sunday in 1942, its roof burned and towers came down. Since restored, the bells that fell that night have been left embedded in the floor as a memorial to world peace.

Inside you’ll also see a huge astronomical clock and the world’s largest mechanical organ with 10,000 pipes, one more than 36 feet long. Outside the church, a bronze figure of a devil, with horns rubbed shiny by passers-by, should intrigue you.

Legend has it that when the church was being built the devil thought it was to be a wine cellar so he enthusiastically helped the builders. When he discovered a holy place instead, he fell into a rage, throwing boulders and creating all sorts of mayhem. City fathers appeased him by promising to construct a wine cellar next door in what is now the town hall.

Dining at the Schiffergesellschaft:

Saying it is a mouthful, for sure, but dining here is a pleasure for the mouth and a feast for the eyes.

Since 1535, this house built in Renaissance style with stepped gables has served as the meeting house of the skippers’ and sailmakers’ guild. Now leased as a restaurant, it serves traditional German fare, but be prepared to share a communal table unless you can snag a seat at individual tables along the wall.

Order the duck breast with apples and red cabbage or the wiener schnitzel with fried potatoes. While you wait for your meal, look around at the wooden beams, the huge chandelier, ship models, the long oak tables and benches ending in posts decorated with the coats of arms of captains who commandeered the Hanseatic League’s ships.

Members of the guild still meet here on Tuesdays for informal chitchat.

The fortified Holsten Gate stands at the entrance to the old city. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
The fortified Holsten Gate stands at the entrance to the old city. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

Holsten Gate:

You can’t miss it; the turreted red brick fortified gate, now tipped slightly forward, sits as a landmark at the main entrance to the old town. Built in the 15th century with red brick, black glazed tiles and a terracotta frieze, it was meant to both intimidate visitors and repel intruders.

Inside you’ll find a museum devoted to the history of Lübeck with a scale model of the town in the Middle Ages and exhibits describing the Hanseatic League. The gate was once equipped with 30 cannon, none of which ever fired a shot. Check out the turret with fireplace where tar was heated to be poured down a pipe onto enemies below. One room devoted to medieval instruments of torture just might give your nightmares.

Panorama from St. Peter’s Tower: Built as a church in the 13th century and enlarged in the 16th century, this building now serves as a gallery and coffee shop.

What makes it special, though, is the view from the top of the tower. Walk up or pay a few euros to ride the elevator for a panorama of green-clad belfries, red-brick buildings and red-tile roofs. From this perspective you’ll see that the Altstadt, the old town, is built on an island, the better to protect it from invaders.

The Trave River and canal completely surround the medieval city.

The Rathaus and Marketplace are at the heart of Lübeck’s old town. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
The Rathaus and Marketplace are at the heart of Lübeck’s old town. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

Town Hall and Marketplace:

Lübeck’s Rathaus, one of the oldest town halls in Germany, was built as a hall for trading cloth.

Begun around 1230 with the erection of a large wall with three towers and two wind holes, it was added onto several times, including a sandstone front section put up in 1570. Lübeck’s Senate still convenes in the council chamber.

The Marketplace on the plaza in front of the town hall is a good place to sit on a nice day, enjoying a coffee or a beer and watching the world go by.

Marzipan at Café Niederegger:

Lübeck is so famous for its brand of marzipan that any confection of almonds and sugar marked “Lübecker Marzipan” is protected by law as an authentic product of this city. Several big companies ship it around the world.

The most well-known, though, is Niederegger founded in 1806. It operates a store, café and museum just a few steps from the Town Hall. Walk into the first floor stop and you’re greeted by a riot of confections, including 300 varieties of marzipan as well as pralines, nougats, cakes and other pastries, many beautifully wrapped.

Upstairs, the café serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and early supper. Whatever the time of day, be sure to order a steaming cup of fresh-brewed coffee and a slice of the house specialty: a nut torte.

Another flight of stairs (or elevator ride) leads to the museum with its 12 life-size figures, mostly notables from local history. You’ll also find Faberge-style eggs three feet tall and a model of a ship that took marzipan chefs 350 hours to create. A video explains how marzipan is made and exhibits in a hallway are devoted to the history of marzipan, which dates back to Persia in the 10th century. In Europe it was packaged in little boxes called mataban, from which the candy took its name. Knights carried the boxes of treats from the Middle East home during the Crusades.

 

 

Yodeling Vagabond in the Alps – Tour of Mont Blanc

Words and photos by Brian Leibold (Check out Brian’s Rules of the Road on Kindle!)
hiking in the alpsThe valley of Chamonix is set in arguably the most stunning location in Europe, with the great Mont Blanc overlooking it like a wise stern infinitely distinguished grandfather capable of making you feel lucky and inspired or low and humbled, according to his whim.

I arrived on a foggy night, and the clouds obscured the mountains.

There was a refuge called Gite Le Vagabond. This intrigued me, but the price for a cot was unfit for the vagabonds who they purported to attract, so I slept on a bench in a little hut by the train tracks on my ragged blue mat.

In the morning, the fog had cleared, and I woke up to a clear blue sky. Eyes and spirits seemingly magnetically fixed skyward, I embarked on the Tour of Mont Blanc, the TMB for short, a week long 200 kilometer hike beginning in the French Alps and continuing to the Italian and Swiss Alps.

Alps hiking adventuresSolitude if sought in the Alps can always be found, and for me it was always found in the early morning. Every morning I would wake up before six and would usually have about three hours before the rest of the (mostly elderly) hikers would start their day.

In these early hours, I would feel like the lone human viewer of the mountain musical symphony, my companions the chirping birds, the bored cows and their jangling bells, the tranquilly flowing water, the soaring snow-capped peaks, and the enigmatic forests. I would try to discern the age old whisperings of the forests and mountains.

I am inclined to walk fast, and the trees in particular were undesirous of this, I felt. They would silently express their disapproval at my quickness. What would I see walking quickly that I couldn’t see trekking slower?  This is no race, least of all a rat race. Take your time, they seemed to say. They parroted the Ents, the trees of Tolkien, warning me against hastiness.

At one point, I became hopelessly lost in the midst of a ever-thickening forest. Beginning to actually become frightened, I cursed loudly for a few minutes. But the tall trees admonished me for my blasphemous unquiet, and seemed to whisper confidentially to each other,

“Who is this brash young American vagabond who comes into our woods and expects to never get lost?”

Alps Vagabond hikingThey shook their branches at me in the wind. When I quieted down, they welcomed me back saying

“Sit under our branches for a spell and quit your cursing and worrying. You will find the road again.”

Words of Wisdom: In the mountains and the woods, trek slowly, and engage in unhurried reflection. Listen to the Ents, and hasten not back to civilization. Do not give a moment’s thought of the things that burden you in the valleys and back alleys down below.

Thoreau says “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

Mark Twain, in his travels in the Alps, wisely writes that “All frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps.”

On the hike, I liked that almost every person that passed would give a friendly greeting. In the French cities, this is unheard of. But in the mountains, it is the norm. Tony Hawks remarks on this in his book A Piano in the Pyrenees when he goes for a hike saying

Alps vagabond hiking“Every person we passed offered a jovial Bonjour! Every single person. It was almost as if the moment they left the speed, noise, and fluster of the town behind and exchanged it for the freedom of the countryside, their manners had changed.”

Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that in the city, the ruck sacked are often looked down upon. What are you doing? Where are you going? Get a job. Take a shower. Button your top button. Buy a lot of stuff you don’t need, and so become normal. Stop making us feel so uncomfortable by your strangeness. There’s nothing wrong with having a job and taking showers and buttoning top buttons. Neither is there anything wrong with not doing those things.

But, in the mountains, we all have the rucksacks and the muddy boots and are alike in that we are choosing (at least for a few days) to voluntarily remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle. We are all trekking vagabonds. So the natural feeling of freedom that comes when we are removed from our burdensome obligations combined with the incredible natural beauty of the Alps allows people the ease to smile at strangers, strangers who are alike in many ways. All greet all with the joy they really feel.

The trek continued. Every day there was a peak above 2000 meters. There is perhaps nothing more satisfying than reaching a peak after an arduous and long climb. The beauty seen below is enhanced by the climb’s difficulty.

John Muir, in his observations of Yosemite says “One must labor for beauty as for bread, here and elsewhere.”

Alps hikingIt is why going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (and, more especially, coming back up) is so much more satisfying than simply gazing at its grandness from the visitor center. And it is why the view after hiking to a peak in the Alps rewards the traveler more than the same view when reached with the help of the gondola.

At the top of a mountain, the golden eagle, flying towards the golden sun, provides more joy than he would lower down. You have climbed to where the birds fly high above the cowbells. The wind, though fierce, seems benign and congratulatory, like it is applauding you somehow in all its frantic activity. The green unperishing ageless, yet at the same time youthful, hills with innumerable knotty roughened toughened trees and the tranquil Edelweiss flowers high up in the rocky soil soaked by the sun seem also to congratulate you. You have done well, they say, and you have not been hasty. Now, look out and see what we see, and be calm, as we are. And the snow-capped craggy Teton-esque mountains, inimitably eminent on their natural thrones, appear more inviting that they do imposing, as if they are responsive and open to you now that you have worked so hard climbing higher to meet them. They are still unknowable and silent and all knowing and unviolent, but in your proximity to them, you feel closer to unlocking their brooding mysteries.

As you descend, this feeling begins to fade, and as you reach the valley of Chamonix again, you look back up and feel small and unimportant and, well, human. You feel like what you are. But you look with pride back up at the mountains, remembering how you felt and knowing you can feel like that in the future. You feel that thirsting unquenchable desire to rise up high in the sky above the clouds. So, again, you climb.

Fireworks, Bulls & Pirates – Another Explosive Event in San Sebastian

 

cc image courtesy of Kasi Metcalf on flickrAlthough famous for its white sandy beaches, delicious cuisine and super-cool culture, there’s another reason why the Basque city of San Sebastian is such a coveted holiday destination. Each August, the city becomes a feverish hub of activity for Semana Grande, or ‘Big Week’ – a spectacular festival featuring Papier-mâché bulls, hundreds of pirates, and many thousands of fireworks!

For the San Sebastian locals, Semana Grande is the highlight of their cultural calendar and seemingly every resident will don costumes and take to the streets to party on each day. This year’s Semana Grande, held between the 11th and 18th of August was no exception, and throughout the seven days of the festival dozens of activities took place across the city from cookery lessons to outdoor sporting tournaments, though certain unforgettable events really whipped up the crowds.

The first of these was the annual Pirate Attack, where some 3,000 amateur seamen took to the waters of San Sebastian in their handmade boats – dressed in the requisite pirate outfits, of course! The pirates made the journey from the San Sebastian harbour towards La Concha beach, clinging anxiously to their shaky crafts as crowds cheered them on their way.

Puppet Pursuit

cc iimage courtesy of mesq on flickrNext up was the procession of the ‘gigantes’ and ‘cabezudos’, the giant and big-headed puppets that are carried through the streets of San Sebastian each day and accompanied by music, dancing and a highly zealous crowd. As per tradition, the giants and big-headed characters singled out members of the crowd to chase, which delighted many of the local children and caught more than a few unsuspecting tourists off-guard!

As night fell, the crowds filled the streets again for the Encierro de Torros de Fuego, or the ‘Running of the Fire Bulls’ during which large Papier-mâché bulls with fireworks for horns were paraded through the streets every evening, as more fireworks exploded over the darkened bay. This was part of the annual contest between pyrotechnic companies to produce the most stunning, spectacular and superbly designed fireworks display, of which the winner was announced at the end of the festival – a title that’s so coveted, the companies will spend the entire year planning their entry!

 

 

The Eagle Hunters of Mongolia – Photo Essay by Dave Stamboulis

Just in case you missed it yesterday, you should check out the incredible story about the Kazakh Eagle Hunters of the Mongolian Steppes which was published yesterday – the images are stunning by themselves, but when you combine the sensual imagery of the text, it is truly something special. Click on any of the images below to see the photos in a larger size.
The Kazakh Eagle Hunters of Central Mongolia
Photos by Dave Stamboulis



The Kazakh Eagle Hunters of Western Mongolia

Eagle hunters of Mongolia

Story and Photography by Dave Stamboulis

(Check back tomorrow for Dave’s photo essay on the Kazakh Eagle Hunters)

I am perched on top of a cliff on a small crag looking out over the arid Altai mountain chain of western Mongolia. In this remote corner of the globe, population density registers less than one human being per square kilometer, roads into the region are nothing but dusty tire tracks, and temperatures during the eternal Siberian winters regularly plummet into the minus 40 and 50’s. One rarely spots an airplane overhead, nor for that matter many Russian vans or Suzuki 4WD jeeps lumbering through, but what is striking out here is the complete absence of sound. All I can hear from my perch, other than the wind, is the beating of wings, coming from a large golden eagle who sits beside me, scanning the horizon for prey.
Eagles inhabit the vast grasslands and mountains of the Central Asian Steppe, from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan and on into Mongolia. Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, the forbearers of the modern nomads, had thousands of hunting birds, and their falconry expeditions were detailed by Marco Polo. It is also thought that berkutchi, as the art of eagle hunting is called, has been in existence on the Steppe for some 6000 years.
In Bayan Ulgii Province, which straddles the Kazakh, Russian, and Chinese borders, there are over 200 golden eagle hunters, all carrying on the ancient tradition of their forefathers. Most of the actual hunting takes place during the winter, when the birds are lean and hungry, but a large festival takes place in the province at the end of autumn, where the ethnic Kazakh hunters gather to show off their skills and talents, as well as compete in traditional Kazakh games such as kokbar, in which a tug of war with a goat or fox pelt is played while on horseback; kyz kuu, which is a romantic flirting game involving horse racing between women and men; or tenge alu, in which horse riders attempt to pick up tokens laying on the ground without getting off of their mounts.
kazakh eagle huntersThe bond between hunter and eagle is a strong one, as the eagle is a fiercely independent creature, and in order to create trust, it must be trained from an early age. The eagle hunter I am staying with, 50 year old Bikbolat, tells me that females make the best hunters, as they are more aggressive due to protecting offspring, as well as tending to be a third heavier than their male counterparts. Training young chicks can be preferable, as they are tamer, and won’t harm children or sheep, but birds that are a bit older are actually better hunters and have the killer instinct needed to bring down wolves and foxes.
Bikbolat tells me that the eagle chicks can be obtained by finding nests on the mountain tops during hatching season, but that to get older birds they have to resort to setting out traps baited with fresh rabbit meat, or tethering an accompanying eagle next to an animal carcass which will provoke a flying eagle into a jealous fit of rage if it occurs in a space they consider their territory.
Once trained, the eagle goes out with the hunter on horseback, riding on his left arm. The bond can be so close between veteran hunters and their birds that the slightest change in talon pressure on a hunter’s arm alerts him that his bird has picked up the scent of a prey. Some Kazakh hunters have antiquated Russian rifles which they can use to pick off hares, but most of the hunting is left to the eagles, as their vision is eightfold that of a human, and they can spot a fox or wolf several kilometers in the distance. While their main victims are marmots and corsac foxes, prized for their pelts which make excellent insulation, the physically powerful eagles also take down owls, wolves and even rare snow leopards. While not out on a hunt, the Kazakhs tend to keep blindfold hoods known as tomaga on their raptors so that they will remain calm.
Despite the hardships of life in rural Mongolia, the Kazakh hunters and their families remain tightly knit and enterprising. Bikbolat, who has also trained his first son Asentai to go hunting with him, lives in a traditional ger (yurt) for 4-5 months a year, and then in a small wood home on the edge of the grasslands during the colder months. Ever smiling, he proudly joked with me that he had 70 sheep, 50 goats, 40 cows, 20 horses, but only one eagle and one wife! His wife and daughters spend the day cooking, sewing, and preparing an endless array of dairy and bread products to supplement the mutton that feeds the family year round (not to mention their beloved eagle, which needs around half a kilo of raw meat a day to stay nourished!).
One could say that with enough livestock, hunting is superfluous, and mainly done for sport. However, the warm coats, cloaks, and hats that the hunters wrap themselves in during the severe winters are made entirely from the furs they get. Additionally, the practice of eagle hunting still serves as a rite of passage for Kazakh young men as well as a time honored tradition and highly refined art form that has been passed down for generations eternal.
Overgrazing of Mongolia’s rangelands has impacted the wildlife available for hunting in recent years, not to mention that with the arrival of tourism and its sponsors, pressure for wildlife preservation has also made inroads into the traditional way of living of the Kazakh eagle hunters. Yet eagle hunting requires a blend of force and tenderness as well as a profound respect for the natural world. The birds are treated with reverence and honor by the Kazakh hunters, and are always released back into the wild after ten years or so (eagles normally live to around fifty). And Bayan Ulgii Province is thousands of kilometers removed from the bureaucrats in Ulaan Baatar.
A Kazakh proverb sums up the hunters’ lives out in one of the world’s most remote places, saying “fast horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakh people,” and from my mountain perch, my view is almost as good as the birds.
Travel Tips:
Mongolia can be reached via Air China, which has daily flights to Ulaan Baatar via Beijing (http://www.airchina.com/th/en/index.shtml).
To reach Bayan Ulgii, the new Eznis Airways has domestic flights every other day and is the most comfortable way of reaching the remote west of the country (http://www.eznisairways.com/).
To set up visits with eagle hunters or tour anywhere in Mongolia, local outfitters Kazakh Tour are recommended (www.kazakhtour.com)
The Eagle Festival in Bayan Ulgii usually occurs during the first several days of October each year.

Reasons You Should Travel the World with your Kids

If you want to take your kids around the world but you have some reservations, then you are not alone. So many people are in the same situation that you are in right now, but if you follow this guide then you will soon find that it is easier than ever for you to have the best time without breaking the bank.

Your Kids’ Education Won’t Suffer

People who come from Western countries believe that they are being given access to the best education around. This is understandable, but if you take your kids out of school for a year then that doesn’t mean that their education is going to stop. In fact, it is actually going to carry on for quite some time. They will learn so much when you spend your time travelling the world with them and this is the case for children of any age.

The World is the Best Teacher

No book, movie or even TV show could teach you about what you can learn about the world through travel. A textbook will never give you the same experience of watching the sunrise at the top of the Mayan pyramids, or teaching you how to make a coconut curry when in Cambodia. You may feel as though your kids are too young to appreciate things like this, but this is not true at all. It’s now easier than ever for you to show them the wonders of the world and have them learn a great deal at the same time.

They Can Learn Another Language

Your kids have the amazing ability to learn languages fast. Kids as young as three can pick up on new languages as this is the optimum time for them to be learning. If you are able to teach your kids the ability to learn another language, then this will go on to benefit them for the rest of their lives. You may find that they have much better job prospects and this can work in your favour as well. If you want to travel to an English-speaking country, then you may be wondering “can I travel in the U.S. right now?” and this is understandable, so it helps to do your research so you can keep up with the latest changes.

https://www.pexels.com/photo/two-girls-sitting-on-brown-bench-near-body-of-water-1292006/

 

Kids can Soak up Details

Your kids will soak up knowledge and they may even notice things that you don’t. You may find that your children are able to pick up on obscure facts about dinosaurs, and that they also remember a lot about geography as well. It’s great to watch your kids absorb information without any kind of preconceived idea or prejudice.

Entertainment can be Found without Tech

So many people believe that children need toys every single day, and that they need a lot of them. This is not the case at all. Cell phones, video games and more have become so common that it’s not rare to see one or the other, in every single room in the house. When you are taking off to another country, you can take the opportunity to really pare down and get rid of a lot of the useless items you have around your home. This can be empowering to say the least. If you are able to get out and on the road then you may come to the conclusion that most of the stuff in your life is just tying you down, and that it’s not necessary at all.

The Experience is the Gift

If you want to make your kids have the best time, then it helps to give them their own camera so that they can take shots. This is priceless to say the least, and it’s a great way for you to kill some time while giving them an utterly enriching experience.

Your Memories and Photos are Enough

It’s important that you teach your kids that the experience itself is a gift. Your memories and photos are more than enough to give your kids fond memories for years to come, and when you get back from your trip it’s very easy to make up your own photo albums with your kids’ help. This is a great way for you to show them what a journey they have had in life and it also gives them something to look back on fondly.

There Are More Ways to do one Thing

If you travel the world with your kids, then they will learn that there is more than one way to do something. For example, you may boil rice on a hot hob with a pan, but if you go to another country then they may use a wok and an open flame at the side of the street. This is a priceless experience and you can learn so many new and unique skills by simply being open-minded. This helps them to be open to change and you may even find that it spurs on their curiosity.

Become Appreciative

When you go to another country, you may find that you are more thankful, tolerant and understanding of the culture. You will be more aware of how things bring people together and how people are also driven apart. This can have a huge impact on your kids throughout their lives.

Your Kids Might be Eager to Explore

A lot of people think that it is selfish to take kids on a tour of the world, but this is not the case. In fact, when you take your kids away from their peers, you may find that they express some discomfort but at the end of the day, you are giving them chance to make new friends and take onboard new experiences. This can give them a new and fresh perspective and it can also help them to become more confident. If you want to get the best experience when travelling with kids, then it is helpful to talk to them about the way that they feel and if there is anything in the world that they would like to see.

Inspiring your Kids

You may have older kids who want to travel with their friends. This is great but you still need to give them a foundation to build on. If you travel the world with your kids, then you can inspire them to go and tackle other destinations on their own or with their own group of people. Your kids can also tell their friends about their adventures, and this can go on to inspire them overall.

Travelling with Babies and Toddlers

If you want to travel with a baby or even a toddler then this can be daunting, but at the end of the day, there are so many people out there who are doing it right now. Sure, your child might not have any vivid memories of their travel as a baby but that doesn’t mean that they can benefit from the travel lifestyle.

Naps and Snuggles

The great thing about travelling with a young child is that you can make more time for them in the day. When you are at home, you may feel as though between chores and work, you have so much going on and you can’t possibly hope to manage it all and spend time with your child. When you travel, you may have 8 hours or so to cuddle your baby, or to talk to your toddler about the new adventure you are going on.

A Sense of Home

When you travel with a young child, you may find that they develop a huge sense of home. After all, your child will learn that home is where family are, as opposed to just being a place. Your child will have more time to be shaped by you, as a parent rather than the environment, which is ever-changing. You may find that your child learns how to walk in Vietnam and reads their first book in Australia. Either way, your child will grow up knowing that home is where you are, and this can come with its own benefits along with a sense of safety.

You can Learn from your Kids

Your kids really aren’t the only ones who are going to be getting an education when you are on a family trip. Giving your kids the chance to learn is great, but at the end of the day, you can also learn as well. Travelling as a family will benefit everyone but in a very different way. Famous sites and even museums will get very boring for kids after a while, but if you go to a child-friendly destination then you may find that this gets old, fast for mom and dad. Having a successful trip is all about changing things up and the more you can expose your kids to new and interesting things, the more likely they will be to enjoy the new sense of travel.

So there really are many benefits to taking your kids with you around the world and if you do decide to take the leap, then you may find that you are able to book numerous vacations for a very affordable price. Just make sure that you focus on going to non-tourist destinations and see how far your budget stretches.

 

 

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