Category: Travel ideas

Exploring Northern Africa: Three Top Destinations

As one of the largest and most populous continents on the planet, Africa offers some of the richest and most diverse cultural delights imaginable. Amongst these, North African holiday destinations are some of the most attractive due to their beautiful Mediterranean coastlines, their fascinating cultural history and their reasonably priced resorts.

Egypt

Egypt offers the trip of a lifetime to any holidaymaker with a taste for luxury hotels, authentic, bustling markets and awe-inspiring feats of human engineering. One day you could be cruising the Nile on the steam ship Sudan and the next you could be relaxing by the pool in a five-star, all-inclusive Club Med resort.

For the restless adventurer Egypt is a true paradise. Trudge round the pyramids in a private tour, fly a hot air balloon over Luxor’s spectacular West Bank or ride a Camel to Dahab beach for a spot of windsurfing. There’s no shortage of excitement to be had.

Wherever you go in Egypt though, and whenever, just remember your sun cream. Even in winter, the days can get warm (though the nights are guaranteed to be chilly). It is also worth being clear that the summer months in Egypt are not for the faint-hearted.

In August, an average of 38 degrees Celsius in Sharm el Sheikh means a fair-skinned holidaymaker who is used to colder climes will probably spend the daytime either in the pool or under the sunshade.

Tunisia

Whilst Egypt might be home to some one of the most well-known sites, it does not have a monopoly on fascinating historical ruins with beautiful holiday resorts situated nearby.

For example, the northern coastal city of Carthage, once the centre of the Carthaginian Empire, boasts the epic ruins of one of antiquity’s richest civilisations. These are often just a short journey away from the hotels you will stay in and the pristine sandy beaches you can spend your days trekking across.

The Mediterranean breeze that the coast enjoys, as well as keeping you cool on those hot, thirty-degree days, also makes the Tunisian coast a great destination for aspiring sailors. Sheltered bays and calm waters are perfect for an amateur learning the ropes. More experienced sailors can also rent a catamaran to take further out.

Morocco

Situated in the northwest of Africa on the Atlantic coast, Morocco is a beautiful country with expansive rural areas in the north and a sparse, Saharan landscape in the South.

The major city of Marrakech is one of the most popular destinations for holidaymakers. This is because it is home to a stunningly detailed traditional architecture, spicy Moroccan cuisine (the couscous and spiced lamb is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted) and friendly locals who are keen to show you their culture.

At six Morrocan dirham to the pound, your money goes reasonably far when visiting the country as well. Even those on a tight budget can afford to splash out on extravagances like a ferry trip to nearby Gibraltar.

Likewise, movie lovers will want to take a trip to the largest Moroccan city, Casablanca, where they can visit the sites that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman made particular famous.

Ice roads in Estonia open to cars, SUVs, and tractors

When I was in Estonia during the summer, I really wanted to go bog-walking. It didn’t work out so I went sea kayaking instead. Still pretty good.

Now that it’s nice and cold in Estonia, the country’s ice roads are open. The ice roads need to be 20 cm think to open and can be used by cars, SUVs and tractors, according to the Police and Border Guard’s South Prefecture. Drivers planning to venturing out on the lakes must first register at the nearest border guard station. I could see renting a tractor (and maybe hiring a guide) and hitting the ice roads for a new experience.

If you check out this sign, you’ll see that you’re supposed to go 10-25 kilometers an hour (tractor speed I guess) or 40-70. This is a thumbnail so click the image for a full-size picture

estonia-ice-road-speed-limit

Food tour of Queens and Brooklyn in NYC

From Lonely Planet US Travel Editor, Robert Reid:

New York City isn’t a bad place to think about food. Even if you don’t step foot in Manhattan.

For day one, go to QUEENS. And eat all day. It’s ridiculous the food you can eat in Queens if you pace yourself. Most of it spans the globe for sources, is quite inexpensive, and a lot of fun to get to. Just go along the 7 train. In Woodside, traditionally an Irish neighborhood, Sri Pra Phai is the city’s BEST Thai restaurant. You see people stop in with roller suitcases, grabbing some noodles or curry on the way to the airport. It’s that good. I always get a spicy papaya salad with dried shrimp, then experiment. Like all Thai menus, it’s endless — and I usually don’t remember what I got the last time. sripraphairestaurant.com

Then go to Jackson Heights, walk down the ‘Little Delhi’ strip of 74th St, peek into sari shops and Bollywood DVD shops, but don’t eat. Instead go right on 37th Ave ten blocks, till you get to a couple Uruguayan cafes. La Nueva (85-02 37th Ave) is always active. Uruguay soccer heroes on the walls, and very cheap, Uruguayan and Colombian baked items you can pick/point to. Get one with a tea or coffee. One time I went there and a teen was playing a trombone. That’s why, in the end, Queens wins.

Then return to Roosevelt Ave, under the 7 and walk farther into Queens. You pass Amazon witch doctor shops where you can get potions for any need. You’ll pass taco vendors and pupusa shops. Continue on into Corona Heights, and make your way to the Corona Lemon Ice King for another snack. It’s been here for ever — overlooking a small park where old-timer Italian Americans still play the public bocce court. The lemon ice place has heaps of flavors, but don’t get cute. Lemon is best. (thelemonicekingofcorona.com)

A couple blocks down, Empanadas Del Parque (empanadascafe.com) has a lone table, and long lines. It’s well-known as some of Queens’ best empanadas — of a long list of candidates. Wait for a couple.

Back on the 7, continue on into Queens, all the way to its ending point, where it ends in the real Chinatown in Flushing. It’s packed with Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants, tea shops and noodle houses. My favorite is Spicy & Tasty, a plain name for a great little Szechuan Chinese Restaurant, with a busy lunch and some seriously spicy unique dishes you don’t get at your usual Chinese restaurant. spicyandtasty.com

The next day, go with BROOKLYN. Brunch/lunch at Ditmas Parks’ superb Farm on Adderley. Best Bloody Marys I’ve had, and the fries are shockingly good. thefarmonadderley.com

For dinner, get New York’s best pizza at Lucali on a leafy residential street deep in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens (575 Henry St). It’s a small place, run by a guy who lives above it. There are serious long lines. Go when it opens, bring a bottle of wine, and don’t mind waiting if you have to. The chef twirls the dough in back, and has select toppings each day, all fresh, and amazing. I once told an out-of-town visitor to go and look out for ‘Beyonce and Jay-Z’ who go frequently, I’ve been told; my friend went and Beyonce and Jay-Z were there! So, well, look out for them.

Advice: First time to Walt Disney World

Reader question: Heading to Orlando in early December for a week and we are planning to take our 7 year old daughter to Disney (can’t avoid it any longer). Any advice? We have lodging covered and are trying to figure out must do stuff and how many days we should plan on spending there.

As usual I have a few pieces of advice from various sources but I encourage everyone who can to leave a comment below.

Answer 1: The Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is a must do. And visit Disney’s Hollywood Studios. They have the Osborn lights. Every evening at dusk they light about 5 million Christmas lights and they play holiday songs. Oh, it snows too.

Answer 2:

a) Don’t sleep in. Get up, eat, and be at the gate before the park opens. You’ll have few lines for the first couple of hours.
b) Since you got up early, go to lunch early and beat the lunch crowds.
c) After lunch, do a few more rides, then head back to your hotel for a midday siesta. If you try to go 10+ hours a day straight, you’ll burn out by midday the second day. Relax for a few hours, take a dip in the pool, nap, whatever. Late in the afternoon, return to the park as the crowds are leaving.
d) Buy the book linked below. It’s the absolute bible to navigating Disney.

(we reviewed this one in 2012)

Answer 3: It may be just sentimental memories but I think it’s a must to eat at Ohana at the Polynesian. It’s a bit hokie, but so is a lot of Disney. The meal is actually pretty good (served churrascaria style but with polynesian food) and the show is fun and the resort is a throwback. And if you time it right you also get a great view of the nightly fireworks. Also with a seven year old the Hoopdeedoo review is a good show that you’ll all enjoy (hokie again, but fun). The food at that one isn’t so good but the fried chicken is passable and you’re there for the show.

And if you’re so inclined for a world class meal and feel like leaving Disney go to the Bull and Bear steakhouse in the Waldorf. Their Tomahawk is a unique massive aged prime ribeye on a huge bone and it’s one of the most incredibly wonderful steaks – in fact one of the most incredibly wonderful eating experiences – anywhere. It’s expensive but considering how incredible the food is it’s actually a good value – on par or maybe even cheaper than most Mortons.

Answer 4:

a) Spend a day at each park.
b) Epcot is great, you can walk around the country section and have a beer at each country, also see the shows (such as a Beatles copy band in England, etc.) This may not be a priority for the kids so it’s good to have a backup plan – some kids like it but some get bored. Make sure you get them the passport they can color and get stamps for throughout the park, it kept mine interested as we sampled food and beer from all over the world. Try the ride Soarin – feels like hang gliding. Finally there are still lots of characters in Epcot too. You can always find Aladdin or Jasmine in Morroco, Mulan in China, Dalmations and Marry Poppins in England, etc.
c) Also Epcot is connected to the Disney Boardwalk, there is a walkway right next to Canada. The Boardwalk has the ESPN Sport Club (for football games), a few good restaurants, and a piano bar.
d) The night parades are the best, both the Magic Kingdom and MGM have great ones.
e) Use Fastpass whenever possible.
f) To get to the Magic Kingdom I like to take the ferry back to the parking lot, especially if its late. Less people take it than the monorail, and you can see the fireworks from the boat.

Answer 5: Download Disney Mobile Magic app to your phone. Its an excellent resource while you’re in the parks. I also recommend pacing yourself. A park a day is great advice. Don’t miss the illuminating fireworks at Epcot. Ponchos may be in order – showers might pass through in the afternoon. Sea World gets all decked for Christmas too. It makes for a nice change of pace if you need a down day. We had a blast.

Answer 6: It might be too late now but try to book at least one character meal – Chef Micky is a lot of fun and is breakfast/dinner with Cinderella inside the Castle. My kids were young so rides weren’t much of an option, but she and my younger daughter had a blast getting princess autographs and doing tea parties and such with the princesses. Depending on what your budget looks like I’d
check into some of those. People seem to enjoy the one at the castle, but it can be tough to get into. There is a tea party with Sleeping Beauty at one of the resorts that is probably better.

See also: discounted tickets, when it rains, 2009 Disney advice

Visit Portugal – A Cultural Experience

Portugal like other European countries received a bailout for its economic decline, but its chances for success in rebounding from the crisis may be better than many others. It remains a small, beautiful country with a lot to offer as a tourist destination. Besides visiting Lisbon, the capital, there are many other cities, towns, and villages that have attracted film producers worldwide and travelers looking for that special vacation. J.K. Rowling spent time here as an English teacher while writing her first book in the Harry Potter series.

Oporto (or Porto) on the Douro River is a World Heritage Site of monuments and wonderful civil and religious buildings of Baroque architecture and splendid tile work, officially recognized as the European capital of culture in 2001. It is the birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator and the city where port wine originated. The filming location of Oporto with its mild Mediterranean climate and scenic beauty was chosen for The Dancer Upstairs (2003) starring Javier Bardem and directed by John Malkovich. More recently, scenes from the same general location were used in the 2008 movie Righteous Kill with DeNiro, Pacino, and Penelope Cruz.

Attractions:

Oporto Cathedral – This 12th century cathedral features paintings by Nasoni, silver and golden altars, and 18th century blue ceramic tile throughout. Visitors will have a wonderful view of the city from the north and west sides of the cathedral.

Hours: Open daily (except on religious holidays). 8:30am-12:30pm, 2:30-7pm. Free admission, except for the sacristy, treasury, and cloisters – $2.43

The Crystal Palace Pavilion is surrounded by lovely gardens in a park setting beside the Douro featuring various cultural and sports events. The Romantic Museum on the grounds typifies the rooms in mansions for the rich in the 19th century with a Billiard Room, Dressing Room, and Ballroom.

Hours: Tues-Sat, 10am-12:30pm, Sun, 2-5:30pm. Free admission on weekends.

Built in the 19th century, the Palacio da Bolsa (stock exchange building) is a work of art with a central courtyard, glass paneled dome Hall of Nations, ceiling frescoes, sculptures, and imposing portraits of former Portuguese monarchs. The Arab Room is a main attraction here with its Moorish revival interior seen in the Alhambra in Granada, numerous theaters, synagogues, and temples in cities across the U.S, Europe, and South America. It serves as a reception hall for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. An active business establishment, the Palacio da Bolsa is open daily with guided tours (English, French, Spanish).

Hours: Nov-Mar, 9am-12:30pm, 2-5:30pm. Apr-Oct, 9am-6:30pm. Admission: $7.30 (Adults), $4.88 (under 12).

Beautifully designed on landscaped gardens, the Serralves Museum opened in 1999. The museum houses 14 exhibition rooms of contemporary art, including works by Warhol, Tuymans, and Oldenburg, a library, and café.

Hours: Open daily except Mon. Visit the website for daily schedules. Admission: $6 – museum & park. Free admission on Sunday, 10am-2pm.

Accommodations:

The 5-star Yeatman Hotel offers 82 rooms or suites with all the amenities and each with private terrace or balcony and view of the historic center of Porto across the Douro. Known as the best wine and spa hotel in the city, guests will enjoy gourmet cuisine, wine tasting, and luxurious spa treatments. Enjoy a cocktail in Dick’s Bar and live music on the weekends. The Yeatman offers a variety of packages including an exclusive romantic Wedding Night for $1,327 and a 3-night package for $1,342/dbl.

Porto Palacio, recently renovated in 2006, is a modern tower of 233 rooms and 18 suites on 23 floors. Conveniently located near the commercial center of the city, it is listed as one of the leading hotels in the world. The hotel features a spa and fitness center, several restaurants, bar, VIP lounge, 2 indoor swimming pools, and numerous other amenities.

Rates/dbl: $100 & up (some include breakfast, tickets to the Serralves Museum, city, ocean, or river view.).

Hotel Infante Sagres can be described as elegant, comfortable, and dignified, often frequented by kings and presidents. Rooms are spacious, and the interior decor of the hotel is impressive with stained glass, mahogany paneling, and intricate tile work. Guests can enjoy indoor dining at D. Filipa or outdoors on O Patio, lounges, and the solarium.

Rates/dbl: $170 – $378 (suite), incl brkfst.

Also recommended are the Sheraton, Pestana, and Tiara Park with rates from $280-$730.

Restaurants:

Aqua Douro restaurant is located upstairs in the Pestana Hotel overlooking the Douro River. Recommended for fine cuisine, entrees of seafood or duck, excellent wine list, and 1st class service.

Hours: 12:30-3pm, 7:30-10:30pm. Prices: $28 – $46.

The 2-story Churrascao do Mar specializes in seafood and international cuisine of South America. Dine in one of four rooms, each carefully restored to its original elegance of 1897.

Hours: 12 Noon-3:30pm, 7-11pm. Prices: $25 – $45. Reservations.

Receiving good reviews, the 80-year old Escondidinho is a tavern style restaurant complete with stone fireplace, beamed ceilings, intricately carved chairs with brass studs, and Portuguese ceramics. Grilled steaks, chateaubriand for two, and fresh seafood are specialties, as well as unusual desserts. Excellent service in a charming old world atmosphere.

Hours: Noon-3pm, 7-10pm. Prices: $23 – $40. Reservations.

More to do: Enjoy an all-day tour through the Douro countryside, small villages, and hillside vineyards, lunch and wine tasting included, $115. Visit any one of the 50 port wineries, other museums, and churches. Shop for designer apparel, gifts, and books. Be sure and stop in Lello’s, one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Remember to sample a delicious Francesinha (little Frenchie), Porto’s local sandwich specialty, served in bars and cafes. Usually made with ham, sausage, steak, and cheese, covered with a special sauce of beer and tomato.

Upcoming event – June 2013, annual festival of fun, food, and fireworks in celebration of St John the Baptist – Free.

Getting there: One-hour flight from Lisbon to Porto, $180 – $160. Direct train departures (18 a day), 3-hours, $30 2nd class, or by bus, a 3-hour ride, $20.00. Another option is to rent a car and drive from Lisbon to Porto, about 3 hours (a beautiful way to see the area.)

Sharon L Slayton

Venice travel tips from Americans who lived there

A little less than a year ago i review The Venice Experiment. That book won’t be moving to America with me but I did have page 148 folded – when the Frangipane’s were showing friends around Venice, here’s what they wanted to do. Kind of like getting advice from a local if you ever end up in Venice:

  • the secret gardens of Venice
  • the serene canals near Fondamenta Misericordia along the backside of Cannaregio
  • Rialto market at sunrise
  • Piazza San Marco at midnight
  • enjoy the sun at a cafe in Campo Santo Stefano

Also, three good pizza restaurants:

Ae Ochi, Tre Archi, Vesuvio, Ristorante Casa Mia (Trattoria Casa Mia)

Are most of the world’s beautiful college campuses in America? – An Update

Are the world’s most beautiful campuses in America? After reading James’ post from a few years back and visiting more than a few campuses recently, I thought I’d offer another school for consideration to his list, the University of Deleware.

You see, I have two children of college age and each went through the arduous process of selecting the right place to continue their studies for the next four years. Neither sought the advice of the other, high school being an awkward time when it can be considered uncool to hang out or even speak with one’s sibling.

The college search process took us very different places for each of our students. My daughter’s list consisted of schools with a good reputation in her area of study. Her high priorities had always been the three R’s, so this was of no great surprise. My son, on the other hand, had been more of a 3 S’s kind of guy (sun, surf, and sand). This was reflected in his list.

My daughter’s search would take us to places along the eastern seaboard, many with traditional campuses and majestic, ivy covered buildings throughout. Like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, these schools were cast from a familiar mold, none really all that different from the other. After a while they all blurred together for me.

By contrast, my son’s list of prospects was comprised mostly of schools with palm trees. And pictures of coeds on the cover of the school brochure. This should surprise no one. Still, I was a bit disappointed.

After a brief discussion (and reminder that I was the one paying his tuition), we agreed that an amended list was in order. We would visit a few schools of his choosing as well as a couple we could mutually agree on. Our first visit was to be to a school that was not initially on my son’s radar. The University of Delaware.

It was Friday evening when we arrived on campus, tired and hungry from a long trip. There were numerous restaurants along Main Street, all catering to students about to blow off some steam after a long week of studying. Nothing struck us as particularly interesting. Then we stumbled into The Deerpark.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Deerpark Tavern was built in 1851 from the remains of the St. Patrick’s Inn after in had burned down. It’s low ceilings and thick wooden beams take one back to years gone by and given it’s unique history, it has a charm that few buildings on any campus can rival.

It’s predecessor, the St. Patrick’s Inn, had been a stopping place for George Washington and Edgar Allan Poe among others, and it is easy to imagine Poe pounding down a few drinks in the small bar at the front of the structure. Shortly after dinner we called it a night, knowing that tomorrow we’d be on our feet for most of the day.

Early the next morning we showed up for our scheduled campus tour. Our guide, a business student at the Alfred Lerner School, seemed well informed as my son peppered him with question after question about graduation rate, employment statistics for graduates, etc. While they discussed things we walked the area referred to as The Green, an expansive lawn where students talk, toss frisbees, or just hang out and relax. I couldn’t help thinking how unexpectedly beautiful the grounds were.

Later that day we strolled through other areas of the university and around the town of Newark (pronounced New – ark as in Noah’s ark. The locals will correct you if you don’t get it right). We found other areas to be just as attractive. Should you tour the campus yourself, don’t miss some of these places:

* The water fountain near Hugh Morris Library

* Laird campus (the Independent Complex)

* The grounds of the Winterthur Art Museum

While we visited a number of other attractive campuses shortly after, I believe my son made his decision that day.

My daughter will be graduating from college as part of the class of 2013 and she’s been giving some thought to attending medical school. What’s on her radar? The American University of Antigua. No kidding. She says studying amongst the palm trees might be nice. I wonder who could have given her that idea?

Richard Barnes

Old notes on travel to Nepal

So I was doing a little cleaning and found some old notes I took while talking to a friend who spent lots of time trekking in India and Nepal. The dude has even been to the Mt. Everest base camp which sounds pretty darn impressive to me. In order to throw out this piece of paper, which will be a very small thing compared to all the junk I’ve still got, I have to write my notes here.

Cold in winter and monsoons in summer make those bad times for visiting Nepal. September and October are, I’m told, the best times to visit in terms of weather. Spring is my friend’s next favorite time to visit.

One hike my friend recommended is Jomsom to Pokhara. It’s a 7-10 day hike or a 45 minute plane ride. Jomsom to Muktinath is supposed to be a good one too.

Pokhara is supposed to be OK in winter. I don’t know how cold that means but my friend said he would ask some locals and then find a 1 bedroom place with no kitchen for $3 a day after haggling. This was 5 years ago but still… Then you can do day hikes around Pokhara and that’s supposed to be real nice too. So just fly into Kathmandu and take the bus to Pokhara and start living cheap.

But I was warned to use bottled water for everything like brushing your teeth and stuff.

Older related blog entries: 2005 travel plan, my student volunteering in Nepal.

Interesting festival in Kyoto indicates this winter a good time to visit

My wife wants to go to Hawaii this winter. I want to do something less expensive. Plus I’ve been wanting to go to Kyoto for a long time. Since 2012 is the year of the dragon, some places in Kyoto normally closed to the public will be open during a festival from January 7-March 18, 2012.

All I have for the moment is the content of this email from JAL but Kyoto is likely to be cheaper than Hawaii and closer. Not as warm but you can’t have everything.

Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture

Eastern and Central Kyoto:

Hatto Hall and Kaisando Hall of Shokoku-ji Temple, Daikomyo-ji Temple of Shokoku-ji Temple, Choraku-ji Temple, Choko-do Temple (open to the public in this series for the first time), Byodo-ji Temple (open to the public in this series for the first time)

Western Kyoto:

Sanmon Gate of Myoshin-ji Temple, Rinka-in Temple of Myoshin-ji Temple, Gyokuho-in Temple of Myoshin-ji Temple

Southern Kyoto:

Five-story Pagoda of To-ji Temple, Kanchi-in Temple of To-ji Temple, Sanmon Gate of Tofuku-ji Temple, Ryogin-an of Tofuku-ji Temple, and Unryu-in Temple of Sennyu-ji Temple (open to the public in this series for the first time)

Gardens, buildings, fusuma sliding door paintings, and Buddha statues which are not normally open to the public are specially opened to the public. Places related to Taira no Kiyomori, the head of the Taira clan in the 12th century and the main character of the TV drama that will be broadcasted from January to December, 2012, are introduced. Select valuable cultural properties in a variety of categories, including temples’ properties with dragon motifs, are opened to the public, because the year 2012 is the Chinese Year of the Dragon. Wearing thick socks is highly recommended when visiting temples since, with shoes off, the feet are chilled.

Warmth and sunlight this winter (US cities)

Not long ago I linked to an article about US cities with nice Christmas decorations. If you’re more interested in sunlight than Christmas lights, than this article pegs some vacation spots in the US you ought to check out.

No. 1 San Juan

No. 2 Honolulu

No. 3 Phoenix/Scottsdale

No. 4 New Orleans

No. 5 Houston