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Being such a popular destination, it can sometimes feel impossible to get away from the well beaten tourist trails in Spain. The amazing Paradores change all this for returning visitors, and along with a few insiders tips make for a truly unique and surprising vacation. The Paradores are historic buildings including convents, castles and monasteries which were identified as culturally significant structured and restored into modern accommodations full of character and retaining plenty of original features. There are around 100 dotted across Spain. Each Parador promise the very best of nature, local produce and regional cuisine; as well as the opportunity to stay in utterly unique surroundings.
Literature lovers shouldn’t miss Alcala de Henares, a world heritage site just outside Madrid. This was the world’s first city specifically founded as a university in 1499. It is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the famous Spanish novelist, playwright and poet who gave the world Don Quixote.
The dilemma for visitors to London is that by the time they’ve enjoyed the ‘must see’ attractions, they’re left with little time to experience the hidden gems that the city has to offer.
Beyond the historical buildings, markets and West End theatre, there is a vast number of lesser known sites of interest that can easily be missed if you don’t seek the council of a local. Luckily for you, dear reader, your author is a born and bred Londoner – 30 years to be precise – and spend much of my time exploring the city’s nooks and crannies, both for work and leisure.
Gathering all of my London knowledge, I’ve come up with a list of six of the city’s best lesser-known attractions.
Coronet Cinema – For most tourists, going to the cinema is not necessarily on their list of things to do. But London is home to some truly unique picture houses. One of the finest is the Coronet Cinema in Notting Hill, west London. A major part of the London arts scene, this cinema dates back to the late 19th century and specializes in non-mainstream movies.
Here are some Paris travel tips that will make your journey safe, comfortable and fabulous. I’m always spouting, “When you see a super great deal – make yourself drop everything and go!” That’s exactly what happened to us last month when Linda and I had the opportunity to fly off to Paris at a fabulous promotional rate. We had a little over 2 weeks to pull our trip together, so we focused in right away. Here’s what we did:
#1 A Quick Brush Up On Our High School French
Linda found a terrific language learning program – EarWormsLearning.com. Despite the crawly name, the concept is amazing. They believe that you learn better, faster and with more recall when you learn with music. So their language lessons come with music playing in the background. We loved it and listened on our iPods all the way to Paris.
And for extra reassurance, we picked up a quick translation guide – 30 Words ($9.95). These are terrific passport sized accordion folded translations of tourist phrases that are waterproof and tear-proof – perfect for toting around.
Paris Greeters, a volunteer organization of amiable Parisians who look forward to welcoming visitors to their city are changing the impression that Paris is a less than friendly city, one tour at a time, every day.
As Linda and I make our away across the city from the broad perfumed boulevards of the Champs Elysee to the gritty, lyrical lanes of the Left Bank, we are giddy with anticipation. We are about to meet a new friend that we met a few weeks ago online thanks to the Paris Greeters organization. Our Paris Greeter / guide, Laurent, has volunteered to show us his city on this particular Saturday afternoon. We’ve been in touch by email to set a time and place to meet, discussed our mutual interests, and exchanged photos so we can recognize each other outside the Metro station.
Within minutes of meeting we are talking, laughing and already appreciating the nuances of Left Bank neighborhoods and seeing French culture through new eyes. Beyond a litany of Louis’ and their royal accomplishments (how DO they keep 18 Louis straight?) we stroll by a Pierre Herme´ pastry shrine (you really can’t call it a bake shop when there are 50 people waiting in line to get in the door!); then on to Gelati D’Alberto where the iced delights look like rose blossoms, and of course we can’t resist ogling the decadent cheeses and fragrant produce at an open market. Oh to be a Parisian on market day! Laurent schools us on choosing restaurants to dine in, “NEVER enter a restaurant that has ‘French Cuisine’ on the sign or menu”, he admonishes, “they are just for poor unsuspecting tourist!”
If you're heading over to the Emerald Isle, don't go unless you've spent some time exploring VisitDublin.com. The site is loaded with tons of ways to save money and guarantee a fabulous visit. The site is a prime example of a tourist bureau doing things...
Local food markets give a glimpse into the soul of a destination. The crops that local farmers grow and the culinary creations that food artisans produce speak to the history of the location and the traditions of its citizens. Nothing is more pleasing and engrossing than roaming among the stalls of a neighborhood farmer’s market or the grand food halls of a metropolitan city. In China I was almost afraid to look (bugs on a stick?!), in Vancouver the smells and colors were dazzling, in Hawaii I found vegetables I had never seen before in my life, and the markets in Rome and Paris were sensuous. Now that it’s harvest time around the world, don’t miss the opportunity to visit a luscious food market wherever you roam – here are some of the world’s favorites:
New York – Chelsea Market, a hub of foodie activity
San Francisco – Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, large Organics Markets, operates 3 times per week
New Orleans – Crescent City Farmers Market, Uptown and Downtown fabulous fruits
Seattle – Freemont Sunday Market – more than fruits & veggies – treasures of all description
Hawaii – Hawaii Farmers Markets Online, several gorgeous markets on every island
Vancouver – Granville Island Public Market, The ethnic diversity of Vancouver makes this market a sensory explosion
Mexico City – Mercado de la Merced, nirvana for chili pepper lovers – every color of the rainbow!
Beach It In Paris – yes, Paris!
Each July and August since 2002, Paris creates its own beaches right along the banks of the River Seine (by the Pont Neuf, Notre-Dame and Pont au Change). Industrious crews bring in over 3,000 tons of sand to create an urban beach right along the city’s beloved Seine River, for all Parisians (and visitors) to soak up some rays and participate in (my favorite activity) – eye popping people watching! But it doesn’t stop with sand – we’re talking palm trees, chaise lounges, umbrellas, hammocks, wifi, games and books, grassy lawns and raised decking – a sun lovers paradise for sure! Find all the details at Paris Plage
Swim The Seine, really – no pollution involved
A number of giant swimming barges (floating swimming pools) have been anchored along the banks of the Seine creating the illusion of being able to swim in the river. Perhaps the most notable is the Josephine Baker, where a 25 meter pool can delight 375 swimmers at once. After your refreshing swim, relax in the cafe, on the sun deck, or work out in the gym facilities. Their sliding roof makes this spot perfect on any day, in any weather. Here’s where you can find all the info on the Josephine Baker Swimming Pool.
The Azores - The Most Beautiful Eco-Friendly Islands That You´ve Never Heard Of I should have brought along a Thesaurus to even attempt to describe to you how incredibly beautiful the islands of the Azores are. Clint and I just hopped a short 4 1/2 hour nonstop...
Just when I thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, we ventured off to the eastern expanses of Sao Miguel Island where we were totally wowed! Now let me say we had already experienced 7 days of incredibly beautiful landscapes and were in a bit of panorama overload, but the eastern regions of the island woke up our senses once again and had our jaws dropping at the wild and dramatic coastal views. Everywhere were glimpses of riotous pink azaleas in full bloom cascading down steep headlands. Cows munched precariously on upland pastures – I thought they should have a sign, “Beware of Falling Cows – instead of falling boulders!” What touched me the most was seeing charming little picnic parks tucked all along the winding roadways. Families in the Azores take to the parks every weekend all year long to enjoy family gatherings. Each park has a dramatic scenic view, picnic benches, masonry barbecues, sinks for food prep, toilets, and often playground equipment for the kids – and always a profusion of flowers in bloom – Martha you should see this!!
Incredible sites along the way included a lava formed swimming pool in the middle of the ocean (talk about your infinity pool!), Europe’s only tea plantation where bright green tea plants blanket the hillsides (and you can tour the tea processing plant), cascading waterfalls, farmers collecting milk from the fields with horse and wagon, and chanting groups of religious Pilgrims who encircle the island for 7 days during Lent, visiting every church, cemetery and memorial. It’s time to head off to Furnas to soak our well traveled feet in the hot springs!
Sorry for the delay in posting about the finish to our trip. We had very sporadic access to the web. One day I was muttering to myself about the lack of internet access, and then took a look around and realized we were staying in the middle of a volcano crater – no wonder the signals were a bit challenged! Here’s a recap of the marvelous sites we visited on the Island of Sao Miguel and the capitol city of Ponta Delgada.
Ponta Delgada is a study in black and white. Streets and sidewalks are decoratively adorned with intricate mosaic designs executed in small blocks of black basalt rock and white sandstone. Tightly woven streets are lined with white stucco buildings accented with black basalt trim. Numerous city parks were planted with cheery flowers, but alas with the unusually cool weather while we were there, they were yet to ‘pop’, so the city appeared a bit colorless in spots. I am certain that in a week or two all the trees will have leafed out and flowers will provide bright accents making Ponta Delgada a charming seaside city. The city reminded me of the wonderful mosaic displays in Lisbon, and we learned that while Ponta Delgada’s designs are done in black with white accents, Lisbon’s are done in white with black accents. Sao Miguel has the black basalt stone and Lisbon has the white sandstone – so they trade!
To be honest, we didn’t spend much time in the city center. The countryside is so appealing that we scurried out to explore at every opportunity. We hired a taxi (who’s driver spoke good English) for approx $20 an hour (for the 4 of us) and headed off to explore. Our first visit was to Vila Franca Do Campo, the first capitol city of Sao Miguel. There we sat across from the harbor ramp choked with brightly colored fishing boats and had one of the best meals of our trip at the Atlantico Restaurant. Fresh fish was abundant throughout our stay – with many varieties we had never heard of – we often just ordered the filet of fish of the day and were never disappointed. The Azores has a robust tuna fishing industry – although it was still early in the season to see a catch being brought in.
We took a bouncy half hour ferry ride from Pico to the Island of Faial. Horta, the capitol of Faial, is a cheery harbor town with a yachting flare. For centuries boats have been provisioning here before making the run across the Atlantic. Today you can see paintings all along the break-front where boaters have left their artistic signatures and highlights of their journey – many on around-the-world adventures. Even though Faial is smaller in size than Pico, the town of Horta is much busier and bustling with shops and colorful local pubs. Raising a glass or two at Peters is almost compulsory!
The harbor front boasts several 4 star hotels, including a very dramatic Pousada (historic inn) fashioned out of the city fortress – complete with drawbridge and iron gate. A huge open air swimming pool fronts the harbor offering dramatic views while you swim.
We’ve been on Pico Island for four days now and have been completely captivated. There is nothing to do here, and everything at the same time. If you are ‘into’ nature, enjoy short hikes and mingling with local folk in tiny village cafes, you would adore Pico. Let me set the scene.
Pico Island is famous for the pods of whales that visit just off shore most of the year, hand made lace, locally produced wine, divine Pico cheese and beef so tender you can cut it with a fork. We start every meal saying we won’t eat all of the cheese plate brought to the table, but you guessed it, we always gobble up every crumb. The cheese is light yellow, spreadable, with a mild slightly nutty flavor. Each of the Azores Islands make their own cheese which differ slightly from each other. There are contented cattle roaming on all the hillsides, munching away on vivid green grasses. Here in the Azores it stays warm all year, so there are no barns for the cattle, they roam free all year. On Pico the pastures and vineyards are divided by miles and miles of neatly stacked black volcanic rock walls.
For everyone who loves chocolate as much as I do, it's time to plan a vacation swirling with chocolate tours and adventures. Nothing matches the euphoric lift after munching on a creamy chocolate delight. Here are eight destinations for immersing yourself in...