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BAYSIDE TRAVEL BLOG

 

The Reality of Cuba

By Patricia Cotti

President Obama authorized legal educational travel to Cuba in 2011.  US citizens are now allowed to travel to Cuba under the US government’s People to People Cultural Exchange Program.  Air from the United States to Cuba is now developing. 

This is not a typical Caribbean Vacation.  Restrictions on visitors are strictly observed.  Activities such as going to the beach, fishing and other leisure activities are still not sanctioned and, therefore, are not part of the experience.  It is, definitely, a trip for an experienced traveler who desires an immersion into Cuban life by interactions with the people going about their daily life. 

The people are friendly.  Music is everywhere.  The people appeared clean and well dressed in appropriate stylish designs.  Everyone has a home since homelessness is illegal.  They are well educated since education is free.  However, job opportunities are scarce.  Medical care is also free.  However, it is largely in the form of basic medical care provided by local small clinics.  Basic medicine is available from small, sparsely stocked pharmacies. 

The majority of the people work for government wages.  They earn the equivalent of $20/month in Cuban pesos.  Each family receives a ration book every month.  This allows every member of the family to purchase a given amount of basic items (beans, bread, pasta, rice, oil, eggs, flour) each month at very low prices.  The caveat is that the items on this short list are not always available in the stores.  Life is a daily challenge. 

Pork, chicken and fish were available to the tourists and a treat for the Cubans.     Considering that the country is surrounded by the sea, you would expect delicious fish at every meal.  It was suggested to us that any one with a boat has taken it to Miami.  In fact, we saw few boats in our travels.  Rice and beans is the staple of the Cuban diet. 

There is a dual currency system established in the 1990’s.  As Russian influence declined, foreign currency flooded Cuba.  In an attempt to counter act this problem, the government created an alternate currency called the CUC (Cuban Convertible Currency).  Foreign currency is converted into CUCs at very steep conversion rates.  Shops accept either pesos or CUCs but not both.  Shops stocked with food supplies and merchandise like flat screen TV’s, washer/dryers only accept CUCs.  Consequently, Cubans want jobs with access to CUCs i.e. tourist industry jobs, taxi drivers…Access to the CUC provides the availability of the items needed to supplement their meager rations.  There is an underground economy.  So often, we heard stories about the medical doctor who drove a taxi.

Housing was varied.  In the countryside, a typical house was small, made of cinder blocks and had a pounded dirt floor.  It was sparsely furnished, had indoor plumbing, a basic kitchen and pen with a pig in the back yard.  In Havana, there were 1950 era Russian built apartment blocks.  However, remnants of beautiful Spanish architecture were visible.  It was, however, in great disrepair.  It required a creative imagination to see the beauty that must have been!  Nothing was repaired since the Revolution of 1959.  Affluent Cubans who fled the island left mansions behind.  Unfortunately, on average 3 buildings collapse each day.  To buy paint for the outside of a building it would cost about 45% of one month’s salary.  So, occupants preserve the quarters that they own and inhabit but neglect the outer building which is of indeterminate ownership.  The good news is that there is some restoration of the main squares and important historic buildings in Old Havana.  The bad news is that the process is slow and very costly and the number of buildings in disrepair qre innumerable. 

Tourist accommodations are better than one might expect.  I particularly enjoyed the Hotel Nacional of Havana.  It is the iconic hotel from 1930 located on the malecon (waterfront) in the middle class Vedado neighborhood.  It was the hotel of choice for all the rich and famous that frequented Cuba in its heyday-the early 1950’s.   It maintained the faded elegance of a bygone era.

Most of the time one felt that time stands still.  When you step onto the street, there are 1950 era vintage Chevy and Fords ingeniously kept running as taxis.  Local people get around by hitchhiking, crowded, unreliable buses, trucks converted into buses or pedicabs.  In the countryside, there were horse drawn carts.

There is a drive to remove individuals from the government payroll.  Private enterprise is now sanctioned and encouraged.  Small private restaurants with better quality food are very common and increasing.  One wonders where that food comes from.  Private bed and breakfast enterprises were present especially in the countryside.  Property can now be bought and sold.  Things are slowly evolving. 

Cuban Americans provide strong economic support for their families on the island.  They provide access to the CUC economy and everything from clothing to flat screen TVs.  Tourism provides hard currency vital to the economy.  The infrastructure is in a state of collapse.  It will take an enormous infusion of money and much time to repair the damage of the past 50 years.

It was an amazing learning experience.  The Cubans adopted the Russian model.  Since the fall of the USSR in the 1990’s, Cuba was forced to reevaluate this model.  Change is in the air.

The visitor must carefully process everything that is seen and heard and try to determine the Cuban reality.  In fact, I am still reflecting on my experience and have many unanswered questions.  Go and see it for yourself but go now.  The Cuban reality is evolving.

 

Malta

By Patricia Cotti

Situated between Sicily and North Africa, Malta is the largest of 3 islands in the Mediterranean Sea that make up the Maltese Archipelago.  Malta is only about twice the size of Washington D.C. with a population of approximately 400,000.  It is the smallest member of the European Union.  However, situated at the crossroads of civilization, Malta’s strategic location has provided for a long, rich and turbulent history.  Malta has been occupied by Phoenicians, Carthagians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, French, Spanish, English, European Crusader Knights of the Order of Malta, preachers (St. Paul was shipwrecked here in 60 AD), painters (Caravaggio painted here), politicians (Napoleon in the 18th Century).  The culture has absorbed various aspects from its diverse occupiers.  The language although close to Arabic has Latin based vocabulary.  The cuisine has Italian flavors.  The Maltese drive on the left. 

Perhaps, the most impressive is Malta’s architecture which reflects its 7,000 year history.  Valletta is the “new” capital of Malta and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  A walled city was built by the Knights of St. John to defend against the Ottoman invasions in the 16th Century.  From the Upper Barrakka Gardens, one can get a panoramic view of the Grand Harbor and the Three Cities enclosed within fortified walls.  Originally, the Upper Barrakka Garden was a private garden of the Italian Knights whose residence inns are close by.  In 1824, it was opened as a public garden and suffered great damage during World War II.  Each day, at mid-day, there is a re-enactment of a Victorian military salute with cannons fired. 

A beautiful Renaissance city was created within the walls.  Here you will find St. John’s Co-Cathedral with its elaborate baroque interior vaulted ceiling and tombs of more than 375 knights and officers of St. John beneath the ornate marble floor.  You will also be able to view two of Caravaggio’s masterpieces:  The beheading of St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome.  These were painted during Caravaggio’s stay in Malta.

The Mdina is Malta’s “old” capital city.  It is a rather magical place.  Access begins through an elaborately carved city gate.  Once inside, medieval and baroque architecture dominates the narrow, winding cobblestone streets.  It is especially magical in the evening when the lighting creates shadows on the buildings and the horse and carriages parade through the lanes.  You can easily understand why Malta has been chosen as a desirable film location for many period films like:  The Count of Monte Christo; Game of Thrones; The Da Vinci Code; Gladiator.  I felt the karma of the past walking the streets of the old town. 

Hagar Qim is another UNESCO World Heritage site and represents one of Malta’s megalithic temples.  It dates to the Neolithic Period, 3200BC.  Huge assembled stones seem to have solar significance.  There is an elliptical hole which is hewn out of the stone in perfect alignment with the sunrise on the Summer Solstice.  At sunrise, on the first day of summer, the sun’s rays pass through this opening and illuminate a stone slab inside the chamber.  Who built the structures and why they were built still remain unanswered questions. 

Off the southern coast of Malta is the Blue Grotto (of Malta).  This is a naturally eroded grotto at the base of a wall of sheer cliffs.  The sunlight reflects the phosphorescent colors of submerged plants and the dark blue color of the sea in the waters of this chain of caves. 

A short 25 minute ferry ride brings you to the smaller island of Gozo.  Gozo is a popular destination for local outings as there are small unspoiled swimming bays and beaches.  Gozo, too, has a small fortified city; prehistoric stone builders left the Ggantija Temples believed to be the world’s oldest free standing structure (a UNESCO site); Nature carved a free standing natural arch called the Azure Window.

Malta is a short flight from Italy or a ferry ride from Sicily.  It can be a delightful and easy extension to a visit to Italy or Sicily.  Often, Malta is a port of call on a Southern Mediterranean Cruise. 

You will not be disappointed by the food.  The fish is fresh and well-prepared.  The food is served in picturesque, outdoor venues near the harbors or within the iconic, historic buildings.  Many restaurants, clubs and 5 star hotels are located in the vibrant area of Malta called St. Julians.  Perhaps, you might prefer to stay in a small, boutique hotel in the Mdina where you can experience a restored 17th Century Palazzo.  I was amazed by the development occurring on the island.  It is a thriving destination where you can meet visitors and workers from around the world.  Malta has, surely, been discovered by Europeans.  Lonely Planet has declared Malta as one of its 25 well kept secrets. 

The country is small and compact but the history, culture, architecture and experiences loom large.  Get yourself to Malta now and be delighted by the discovery of its riches!

 

Cabo San Lucas

By Carlos Castro

I had the opportunity to participate in a familiarization trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico which was definitely a unique experience in learning more about the destination and experiencing  the in-flight service on AeroMexico (Mexico’s flag carrier).

The whole experience from beginning to end was phenomenal. We checked in at AeroMexico counter at JFK and we had access to the Delta Sky Club Lounge at Terminal 4 where they had an assortment of fresh fruit, vegetables, snacks, dips and cookies. There was a good amount of choices to say the least. We flew on their new Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” which was quite a pleasant experience. Very spacious seats, great onboard service and meals and state of the art technology. After our flight landed we had the opportunity to take a tour of this amazing aircraft. I had the most amazing flight experience and I highly recommend flying on this aircraft. Currently AeroMexico uses this aircraft on their JFK-Mexico City route. They also use this aircraft on other long haul flights such as Tijuana-Shanghai and Mexico City to Paris routes.

Cabo San Lucas is a water lover’s paradise as well as a golf mecca. Beach activities abound, like swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, glass bottom boat tours, and of course, Cabo’s world famous deep sea fishing. Cabo San Lucas is on the Pacific Ocean side, which meant the waves and undertow were too dangerous for these activities. There are some areas that have non-swimmable beaches and this should be taken into consideration especially for Beach lovers. That being said it shouldn’t discourage anyone from traveling to this wonderful region as there plenty of things to explore and do from water based acitivities to historical sites to amazing scenery and vibrant nightlife. With over 300 days of sunshine making it a desirable destination in terms of weather.

 I had the privilege to stay at ME Cabo, a contemporary lifestyle hotel  situated along the gorgeous Medano Beach which is walking distance to numerous modern restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Music playing throughout the day by the pool was great and seeing everyone having fun and dancing was fun to watch. Not only is this hotel beautiful, but the service at this hotel is awesome. The staff were so nice and accommodating. The housekeeping did little things for our room to make our stay more special. I could go on forever about how great this hotel is. I highly recommend this hotel!!! Thank you ME Cabo for an amazing stay at your beautiful hotel.

Even someone like me who tends to get seasick can enjoy a tour of Cabo’s famous Los Arcos sea rock formations aboard a catamaran. Our two-and-a-half-hour sunset cruise took us from the Sea of Cortez into the rolling Pacific Ocean and back again. A dinner of grilled chicken and steak with rice, beans, chips, guacamole, and salsa was served. And, of course, there were free-flowing margaritas, beers, and other bebidas (Spanish word for drinks).

One day we went to visit a local village which was quite a unique experience. We had time to visit a church where some local children were singing so that for me was inspiring. The people are very warm and welcoming. There was also a square with several shops where we had the time to do some shopping. I took some amazing pictures of this place and had a chance to purchase souvenirs.

Finally, it was time for what I’d been waiting for…we went TEQUILA tasting in a local liquor store in downtown Cabo. I sampled all different flavors: chocolate, coffee, vanilla, strawberry, coconut. They were all good. It was a different experience form the Tequila tasting I had in Cancun. I purchased a few bottles myself.

After a long day,I hung out with my group colleagues one last time before we headed back to the United States. I had the most amazing time with this group and I’m convinced I made lifelong friends. I highly recommend traveling to this wonderful destination for a truly authentic Mexican experience and the many places to explore!

 

 

South Africa

By Natalie Faggianelli

Many of us have what is now referred to as a bucket list. I prefer calling them my dream destinations, Places I have wanted to visit since I was a child. The African continent is one of them for me.

My first trip recently took me to South Africa for 9 days. While my trip was not as long as others my experience was unforgettable.

I spent 4 days in Cape Town a wonderful city rich in history, beautiful coastlines, and accommodations, shopping and dining for all budgets.

There is so much to experience while in Cape Town I suggest you allow the time to enjoy the city. A full day tour will take you by boat out to Seal Island, while the trip is about 45 minutes long to the island the views of the Cape town coastline is beautiful and viewing the seals up close in the sea- while smell is awful- the experience is memorable. My trip continued with a drive out to the Cape of Good Hope along the beautiful coastline, en route we found a group of baboons enjoying themselves by the side of the road while they were a surprise to see you do need to take precaution as they are dangerous. The Cape of Good Hope is where it is believed the Indian and Atlantic Ocean meet, but they actually are believed to meet just under a mile from this location, and well worth the trip the views are beautiful. After lunch I continued my trip over to the lighthouse to again take in the majestic beauty of the coast line. My next stop on the drive was to Boulders beach to see the penguins! At the time of year I visited the penguins were in their molting season, which keeps them on land for about 2-3 weeks, seeing the penguin in their natural habitat is a truly memorable experience.

After a full day of touring I returned to my hotel and relaxed on the balcony by the bar to enjoy the beautiful Cape Town Sunset should not be missed.

A visit to Robbens Island is a must while in Cape Town. The history of this island is in my opinion very interesting and you are guided by men who were held has political prisoners during the apartheid. What these people endured in the name of freedom should give us all a reason to pause and appreciate the freedom we enjoy today. The trip by boat weather permitting is about 30 minutes each way. The island is famous for housing the political prisoners especially Nelson Mandela. The Island was also a leper colony as well as used for the chronically and mentally ill with political prisoners during the 1800s. The Island was made ready to use during World War II should the need have arisen.

My last day in Cape Town was spent the day visiting the wine region.

The areas are known as Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl. I chose to spend the day visiting each of these 3 regions visiting 7 vineyards. You do not need to enjoy wine to visit this region the area is beautiful whether you choose to spend the day or a few days at one of the many lodges. The region offers golf, biking, horseback riding, dining, shopping   along with tasting some of the wonderful locally produced wines.

The next part of my trip took me to Sabi Sands where I stayed for 3 nights

on safari. I spent one afternoon visiting the local village to learn a little of their daily lives. My visit took me to one of the local schools where the children were preparing for their graduation from their pre- school, I met a young adult choir who performed for us and taught us a few local dances giving me the opportunity to learn one myself. My visit then took me to the home of one of the villagers where I was taught the process of tuning corn into meal which they use in some of their local recipes and invited to taste some of foods that is prepared.

 There are few words the first time you look into the eyes of a leopard or lion and be close enough to touch them if you have always dreamed of going on safari and the opportunity presents itself! With each drive the excitement of not knowing what animals or birds you may find is indescribable! On the second night drive out of the bushes appeared 4 male lions along the dirt road- the sight was just incredible.

Other amazing sightings included, a herd of elephants heading to the watering hole with their babies, baby Hyenas waiting outside their den for their mother. An unforgettable experience was watching a female leopard hunt an impala to feed her baby. There are few moments in life that can match watching the sunset enjoying a glass a wine, while the hippos are in the watering hole within a few feet of us.

 

 

Mysterious Myanmar

By Patricia Cotti

Myanmar, once known as Burma, is South East Asia’s second largest country after Indonesia.  It was called Burma by the British but Myanmar is favored by the current government since it reflects all the ethnic groups in the country, not just the Burmese.  It is surrounded by India, China and Thailand making it a cultural crossroad.

The repressive military government has cost the nation years of censorship and political sanctions.  Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize winner and Democracy leader, was released from house arrest in 2010.  In 2011, the military government bowed to the crippling international pressure and sanctions and released its grip on the nation.  The country opened its doors.  There has since been an onslaught of tourists and feverish movement to meet the demands of increased tourism.

The country is a cultural paradise and a treasure trove of Buddhism.  Thousands of golden temples and pagodas dot the hillsides, mountains, cities and riverbanks.  The gilded domes sparkle in the sunlight.  Men, women and children wear traditional longis, wraparound sarongs.  Older women still smoke cheroots, cigars.  Smiling faces reveal red stained teeth which is evidence of years of chewing betal nut.  Faces are covered in tree bark paste called thanaka, a kind of beauty product/sunscreen.  Yes, it is still a land where time has stood still-but not for much longer!

Yangon is Myanmar’s capital.  It was formerly known as Rangoon-a British corruption of the name.  Hawkers, street food vendors and crowds fill the sidewalks.  We even encountered a democracy demonstration.  Rangoon sits on a tributary of the Irrawaddy River.  In former times, it was among Asia’s busiest seaports.  It was a key British colonial seaport to export teak to be used in shipbuilding.  The city architecture is little changed from the days of the British Raj (1851).  The telegraph office, the customs house and district court are now decrepit, moldy, mildewed reminders of times past.  The Strand Hotel, built in 1901, has been restored to its former colonial luxury.  It has high vaulted ceilings, paddle fans and teak and bamboo furniture.  It all evokes a time when the East India Trading Company dominated the area.  One can easily conjure memories of a time when George Orwell was a police officer here and Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling arrived by steam ship to begin a long journey!

The Shewedagon Pagoda is probably the most revered complex to the world’s Buddhists.  The main stupa is covered in 60 tons of gold leaf while its spire reaches 326 feet to heaven and is topped with diamonds and precious gems.  The complex consists of some 100 golden pagodas, shrines and statues of Buddha.  Devout Buddhists flock to this complex.  Protocol requires that you remove your socks and shoes when entering Buddhist holy places.

Pagan is the sleepy town that contains Myanmar’s most enduring images.  It is a flat, dry, dusty plain with some 2,200 Buddhist temples spread across some 16 miles.  These are the remains of an estimated 13,000 temples built some thousand years ago by kings and merchants to gain favor in the next life-a kind of karma insurance.  The view of this plain is breathtaking from every high point.  It is Myanmar’s most visited and iconic site.  Horse drawn carts provide the transportation to the various temples.  During my stay in Pagan, there was a celebration for the initiation of youngsters into Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.  There were colorful processions of the initiated, their parents and followers accompanied by exuberant joyful music, costumes and feasts.  The entire community participated in the joyous event.

Mandalay is considered the center of Buddhism.  Over 30% of the population of this city is either a Buddhist monk or nun.  These monasteries and nunneries shelter, educate and function as a welfare network for the young, outcast, orphans and poor.  It was common to see the young people in early morning moving through the sleepy city with their begging bowls.  Individuals donated food which when pooled was the daily food ration for the community.  On Mandalay Hill, we visited the world’s “largest book”-more than 700 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist scripture within individual small pagodas.  Nearby, in Mingun, is the largest ringing bell-90 tons.

Heho is the site of the U-Bein Bridge, a long rickety teak pedestrian bridge.  It was a beautiful sight at sunset when the sun set behind the bridge and left a silhouette of the pedestrians in the disappearing light.

Kalaw was established in the early 1900’s by the British as a hill town retreat from the lowland heat.  It was a stop on the British railroad system.  Currently, it is a good stop to mingle with the members of Burma’s hill tribes.  The villages cling to the hillsides.  The houses are made of bamboo.  The surrounding valleys are beautiful.  Hikers were a common sight.

Inle Lake is a unique community.  Inle Lake houses more than 200 villages with homes constructed on stilts over the water.  Floating gardens have been cultivated out of water hyacinth and silt from the lake.   There is only one way to get around Inle and that is by open air narrow long boats with chairs and nosy, smelly diesel engines.  Fishermen still wear baggy trousers and row by pushing the oar with one leg.  Women sit cross legged on the prow of the boats.  Lines of laundry hang outside of houses on stilts and water buffalo wallow in among the water hyacinths.  Try to visit the nearby Indein Ruins, now a derelict archaeological site, not unlike Angkor Wat, with ornate carved pagodas.  They are being “restored” but, unfortunately, with fresh cement and gold paint-just another reason to visit soon.

Myanmar is still an unspoiled destination inhabited by a gentle warm people.  The accommodations were more than satisfactory and surprisingly comfortable.  The food was tasty.  Rice was accompanied by fresh vegetables and fish.  The people still produce high quality crafts like lacquer, carved wood and silver at modest cost.  Bring plenty of new crisp dollar bills as credit cards are not accepted-yet!

This was a very wonderful opportunity.  I’ve been told that Myanmar now is what Asia was in the 1950’s.  It was a very experiential opportunity to visit an authentic culture before it is changed by the outside world.  Myanmar is on the tourist radar.  Now is the time to go!

 

A Recent Visit to Casa De Campo, Dominican Republic

By Carlos Castro

This past May I had the opportunity to visit the Casa De Campo resort in La Romana, Santo Domingo. It was raining upon arrival into La Romana airport but we were met and provided with umbrellas. Going through immigration and customs was a breeze and the ride to Casa de Campo was less than 10 minutes.

During my visit I learned that recent renovations resulted in new categories of suites offering clients more options and flexibility. They were divided into three categories, Ground floor Elite patio rooms which are the most basic, each featuring one king or 2 double beds, a 42 inch flat screen TV, Wi-Fi, a walk-in closet, a bathroom with walk-in shower and whirlpool with garden views.

Second Story Elite Balcony rooms are a bit more dramatic, with high ceilings and balconies that offer a golf course view and in some cases, ocean views.

Casa de Campo's new Elite Suites are also on the second floor.  These are a great option for families or multifamily groups. Each comes with a King Size bed, a master bath and a separate living area with a second balcony.

We did a site inspection of the resort's privately owned villas, which are located throughout the expansive grounds of the property. These villas are offered in 3 categories, Classic, Exclusive, & Oceanfront. Each villa is beautifully designed and decorated uniquely to its style from Caribbean decor to a more contemporary design with modern finishings. They are surrounded by lush vegetation and they come with a private pool(s). A concierge handles all of the villa guests dining, planning of activities, etc.

A great feature at Casa de Campo is that each guest room, suite and villa comes with a touring cart that allows guests to move around the resort.

There are a variety of activities offered such as skeet-shooting, horseback riding, kayaking, sailing, tennis and deep sea fishing. You can also plan a day trip to nearby Catalina Island or Santo Domingo. I personally enjoyed the horseback riding and the gentleman who rode with us was very friendly.  I also had a 50 minute massage at Casa De Campo Spa which was very soothing and relaxing. They currently have 8 treatment rooms and are in the process of adding more.

One highlight of this trip that I will always remember was the visit to Altos De Chavon, which is a replica of a medieval village set upon the Chavon River. There you can stroll through cobblestone streets, take photos, shop at boutiques, tour its archaeological museum or see the amphitheater (Frank Sinatra once performed there). You can also check out the Alto's de Chavon School of Design, a branch of the Parsons New School for Design. To reach Altos de Chavon you can either take a shuttle that runs from the resort or for the more adventurous, you can make the trip in your cart.

There are plenty of dining options at Casa de Campo but I only dined in a few of them. La Cana by II Circo is located in the main area of the hotel and offers air-conditioned indoor or outdoor fine dining. The Beach Club by Le Cirque is a newly renovated restaurant right on Minitas Beach that offers delicious fish dishes, grilled meats, freshly caught seafood and amazing desserts. Lago Grill is located in the main area of the hotel as well, facing the Teeth of the Dog and the Caribbean Sea and it is great for either breakfast or lunch offering traditional and popular Dominican cuisine. Although I enjoyed all the restaurants the highlight of my dining experience was at La Piazetta in Altos de Chavon, a small cozy restaurant featuring gourmet Italian dishes. It features a rustic ambiance and the food and service were absolutely phenomenal.  Resort staff suggests making reservations for all restaurants and activities.

Overall I was truly impressed by all that the resort has to offer. It is definitely a good fit for tennis and golf pros or anyone looking for a great Caribbean experience with wonderful service. Also, I would like to pass along my thanks to the General Manager Daniel Hernandez with whom I had the pleasure of meetin,g and his excellent staff. Together, all of you definitely made it a trip to remember! Please contact Bayside Travel for your reservations to receive exclusive virtuoso amenities offered our clients at the Casa De Campo resort.

 

Antigua "The Island of Many Beaches"


By Barbara Nichuals

I have just returned from my fourth visit to Antigua.  This 108 square mile island paradise, best known for its 365 beaches, has much beyond its powder-white sand and crystal clear water.

You can visit Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, where you step back in time and explore the only working original Georgian Dockyard in the world.  Explore Belly’s Hope, a 300 year old sugar plantation, located on the eastern side of the island, or Cades Bay Pineapple Station and take an “Antiguan Black” pineapple home.

Did you know that Antigua has a rainforest where you can zip line?  You can swim with the stingrays, play golf, go snorkeling and see a Sea Turtle (which we were lucky enough to see), or go to the Arts and Crafts Market.

This visit my children and I stayed at Curtain Bluff, a family-owned 5 star resort.   All of the rooms and suites are beachfront, the food delicious, and the watersports and other activities in abundance.  The views from the infinity Jacuzzi at the spa are breathtaking!  We spent the day at Jumby Bay, a resort located on a private island 10 minutes from the mainland.  At Jumby Bay, there are rooms, suites and private homes available for rent. You will experience gourmet dining, fabulous staff and wonderful amenities.

You might ask why I would return so many times.  It’s all about the people – their warm, genuine smiles and conversation; they are eager to make you feel at home on this island paradise.  Plus there is nothing quite like falling asleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore or the peaceful sense of calm reading in a hammock on the beach.

I highly recommend Antigua for couples, families, ladies getaway or for a special occasion. 

 

 

 

Priceless Peru

By Patricia Cotti

  

Are you interested in visiting a diverse land that offers desert, ocean, coastline, capital cities and valleys?  I have a suggestion.  Visit Peru and you will have it all in one destination.

Peru is a country slightly larger than twice the size of Texas, located in the west central part of South America.  It is bordered by Ecuador and Colombia to the north; Chile to the south and Brazil to the east.  Geographically, there are three major regions:  the coast, highlands dominated by the Andes Mountains and the jungle or Amazon Forest.  There are, however, 84 biodiversity zones.

I flew into Lima, Peru’s capital city, where my great adventure began.  Founded in 1535 by the Spanish, Lima has a rich colonial past.  The historic center, a UNESCO world heritage city, has some of the finest examples of colonial architecture.  The Cathedral, the Convent of San Francisco and the elaborate wood carved balconies speak of the rich Spanish heritage.  The Larco Herrera Museum is a showcase for the Pre-Columbian history of Peru and, definitely, worth a visit.  The suburbs of Lima have become the chic, bustling neighborhoods of Lima.  Many of Lima’s best hotels, shopping centers and restaurants are located in the seaside suburb of Miraflores.  There is an exciting vibe everywhere.  The restaurants are packed with young affluent professionals on the move.

About two hours south along the coast, the geography changes to a vast desert.  The land becomes arid and barren.  Yet, there are amazing surprises.  At Nasca, there are glyphs of animals and plants drawn by the ancient Peruvians.  They are only visible from the air even though the ancients had no means of flight.  Today, they remain an enigma.  Off the coast are the Ballestas Islands—lovingly called “the poor man’s Galapagos”.  This is a wild life refuge that is the habitat of sea lions, Humboldt Penguins and migratory birds that feed on the vast supply of anchovies.  For the adventurous, you can explore the dunes in an SUV; view the sun set on the vast desert and end the day with dinner in a tent under the stars—Remarkable!

Cusco, another UNESCO city, is the next stop and, perhaps, the most familiar Peruvian city.  90% of all the tourists to Peru visit Cusco.  Located at 10,500 feet above sea level, high in the Andes Mountains, Cusco stands as the center of the Inca universe.  Today, Inca descendants live among the ancient ruins, farm on Inca terraces and celebrate the festivities of their ancestors.  In Cusco, visitors can explore Inca buildings bearing large polished dry stone walls that fit perfectly together without mortar and sleep in exquisite modern hotels that use Inca foundations.  It is a magical city and jumping off point for a visit to the Sacred Valley and Machu Piccu.

The Sacred Valley is 8,800 feet above sea level.  The valley is fed by the Urubamba River and a lush setting for agriculture.  The traditional Inca farming on the mountain is by agricultural terraces that descend like vast steps down the mountains.  Peru overall has over 3,500 varieties of potatoes and numerous varieties of corn.  Organic farming is increasingly popular.  Consequently, restaurants and cooking classes prosper.

Machu Piccu is the iconic image of Peru.  Located at 6,685 feet above sea level, it is reached by a train from the Sacred Valley followed by a bus ride along switch backs cut into the mountain.  The path is dramatic but the sight of the Inca city is awesome and takes one’s breath away.  The magical citadel arises out of the midst of a group of green covered mountains surrounded by the mighty Urubamba River.  Not only is it a beautiful location but the visitor becomes part of an intact ancient world.  Why was Machu Piccu built?  How was it built?  What was the significance to the Incas?  Machu Piccu was used by the Ancient Inca Civilization yet left unfinished.  The answers to the questions remain unresolved.  Some believe that it was a magical place protected by the four mountain gods and the river.  Perhaps, it was an astronomical calendar.  Although the questions remain, the site is a tribute to Inca architectural precision and tantalizes the visitor.  It is truly a “Bucket List” experience.  Machu Picchu can receive up to 3300 visitors per day throughout its different routes.  The more adventurous arrive by hiking the Inca Trail, which is limited to 500 people a day, in much the same way as the ancient people. 

I had adventures on the desert dunes; saw the fauna of the Ballestas Islands; swam on a beach; hiked on a mountain; walked the capital city both its colonial and modern area; visited great Inca sites to learn about the past and visited the people to learn about the present.  I stayed in fine properties with modern conveniences that respected the setting.  I ate excellent Peruvian Cuisine.  Many dishes were from the sea served with local sauces and unique varieties of potatoes, corn and quinoa.  I shopped for my Peruvian treasures in markets and boutiques.  Believe it or not, I just touched the surface of the country. 

It was a remarkable and diverse experience.  Peru is a hot destination.  It is a great value destination offering a discovery around every corner.  You must visit Peru and you will be amazed.  It is an experience that is truly unforgettable!

 

 

Moments of Bliss at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA

By Barbara Nichuals

  I'm watching snowflakes fall gently outside the window of my spacious and comfortable room. I've spent the last two days renewing my mind, body and spirit at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. In two days, I have taken Zumba, Dance, Meditation, Ballet Barre (groan!), had wonderful healthy, well-balanced meals, experienced the Eucalyptus Inhalation room, jacuzzi and had a facial! Canyon Ranch is much, much more than a health spa.

I have been to the most educational, thought-provoking and uplifting lectures: Learning from a physician about the critical importance of optimal digestive health to our immune system and overall wellness, hearing how small changes in our present lives can effect huge results in our futures by understanding the "Butterfly Effect", experiencing the many ways to access your spiritual wisdom through self-discovery.

You can do as much or as little as you like.

My time here has been a gift to myself that will keep on giving. Everyone should experience Canyon Ranch at least once - or once a year if you can!

 

South Africa

By Natalie Faggianelli

I have just returned from South Africa. My stay was a 9 day itinerary visiting Capetown and Sabi Sands.

My visit to Capetown which is a wonderful city to visit rich in history, beautiful coastlines , the wine region and for those who love to shop and dine at some wonderful local restaurants is not to be missed. My stay in Sabi Sands was 3 nights which offered me the opportunity to do 6 game drives, the excitement of seeing these beautiful animals in their natural habitat is an experience that should not be missed!

 

 

VISIT CROATIA

By Patricia Cotti 

Croatia is a land with a rich cultural heritage.  It is a magical place where a stroll down a steep cobbled stone alley is a journey of thousands of years.  It is a land of primeval beauty.  It is a land of islands washed by the blue waters of the Adriatic.  It is a diverse land which is emerging on the tourist radar.

My introduction to Croatia was in Zagreb, the capital city.  It is an elegant city with architecture that reflects its Austro-Hungarian past.  It is an easy place to walk both the upper and lower town where you can explore the beautiful parks, monuments and churches to relive its elegant history.

My encounter with the days of antiquity began on the Istrian Peninsula, a heart shaped spit of land reaching deep into the Adriatic Sea.  In Pula, you will find the second largest Roman amphitheater.  It is a magnificent monument of Roman antiquity from the 1st Century, once the arena where gladiators and lions fought.  Today, it is a unique stage for festivals and concerts.  In Rovinj, encounter the Medieval.  In this small seaside town, you can walk the cobblestone paths for a magical journey into the Venetian past, when this area was an important port of trade and conquest.  Follow the winding streets, peek into doorways, look for the coats of arms, loggias, gates, enter churches and allow yourself to feel the karma of this amazing land.  Always save time to find an outdoor seaside café where you can dine on fish plucked fresh from the sea and people watch.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is the jewel of Croatia’s National Heritage.  This is Croatia’s best known national park and the only natural site included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage, of a total of six sites in Croatia.  The main attraction of this park, unique in the world, comprises 16 small turquoise colored lakes joined by 92 waterfalls and cascades surrounded by densely wooded mountains and lush vegetation.  Visitors walk along a network of footpaths to access the falls and lake shores.

Zadar tells the story of the sources of Croatian cultural heritage better than any book.  It is the heart of Dalmatia.  The city is 3,000years old and has the largest researched Roman Forum, on the Croatian side of the Adriatic, as well as Romanesque churches.  Zadar was continuously defended and conquered, destroyed and rebuilt.  Today, its history is revealed in its rich archaeological and monumental treasures.

In 305ad, the Roman Emperor Diocletian decided to build his leisure time abode.  He chose a bay well protected from the sea by islands of the Split archipelago and defended landward by high mountains.  He chose the future city of Split.  Today, Split is a city of 200,000 people.  It has been inhabitated for as long as 1700 years.  Today, the heart of the city is Diocletian’s Palace.  It is an impressive, picturesque and vibrant city and a living monument.

“Those who seek paradise on earth must come to Dubrovnik.”  So wrote George Bernard Shaw, enchanted by the beauty of the city whose untouched defensive walls, today under UNESCO protection, surround the city.  It is known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic”.  Dubrovnik, founded in the 7th Century, sits on the southernmost part of Croatia and reflects the centuries of heritage created by the finest artists and builders.  Its success was based upon maritime trade.  The old town is encased in the ancient ramparts.  Be sure to walk these ramparts in late afternoon as the sun becomes mellow.  It is an unforgettable experience to view the port, cobblestone streets, red tiled roofs and distinctive medieval buildings from high above.  There is a connection to the rich past and contemporary life.  In the summer, the Dubrovnik Festival takes place.  Various artistic venues play out in the public squares and monuments of the illuminated old city.

There are 2 not to be missed excursions from Dubrovnik.  The first is an excursion to Montenegro to view the Bay of Kotor, the longest and deepest fjord in southern Europe.  The view is spectacular but you can never forget the route to reach this lookout point.  You must climb 3,000 feet from the sea via switchback roads through the mountains.  The second excursion goes to Bosnia to visit the town of Mostar with its very famous single arch stone bridge.  The bridge was built in the 16th Century by the Ottoman Turks.  It was destroyed in 1993 during the Bosnian Conflict.  It has since been rebuilt and is a symbol of this proud town’s Ottoman past.  There is a small museum that shows the tragedy of this war.  Of course, the old city has the remains of the Turkish quarter where you can shop for exotic treasures or taste some Turkish delicacies.  It is an inspirationally beautiful city where the culture refused to die.

I would be remise if I failed to suggest a visit to the nearby country of Slovenia.  It is a pristine, magical place.  The mountains are beautiful.  The lakes are dotted with islands bearing churches and castles.  It is a Disney-esque experience.  Visit the thriving capital of Ljubjana.  You can explore the unique architecture and admire the 20th century restorations of the city which suffered from a devastating earthquake in 1895.  You can see some buildings that survived the earthquake and still stand in the charming historic old town.  Stroll along the promenade to visit the open air market, small shops and outdoor cafes.  It is reminiscent of Salzburg, Austria.  Be sure to visit Lake Bled, a resort on the lake shore surrounded by the majestic Julian Alps.  Take a stroll around the lake and savor the emerald green lake and its surroundings.

Croatia is quickly being discovered.  It is still the Mediterranean as it once was.  It has the European feel of Italy and Greece.  Consequently, there is a steady increase in US tourism.  It provides an opportunity to mix the fairy tale ambiance of “old Europe” with contemporary adventure.  The secret is out!  Visit Croatia now! 

 

A VISIT TO TOKYO AND KYOTO, JAPAN

By Natalie Faggianelli

As one of 23 worldwide Travel Consultants, I recently was invited to the Luxury Japan Travel Forum. While very excited, I was also intimidat­ed by the language barrier and cultural difference I was about to experience!

My first stop after a 13-hour flight and the 12 hour time difference from New York was the bustling cosmopolitan city of Tokyo. The city has several areas or Courses to visit Staying in the Ginza, noted for its fine stores, restaurants and theatre, I spent my first afternoon walking the lo­cal streets, visiting markets, sampling the produce from the flint stands, browsing the shops and, just taking in the culture.

My next task was finding a restaurant for dinner. This in itself is an experience for those who enjoy immersing themselves in a new city.  The many local restaurants have the dishes they serve designed in plastic replicas in their win­dows as well as photographed on the menu so you can point to what you would like to eat. My choice was a local noodle restaurant where you dine at communal tables. For those less adventurous you can always eat at a western restaurant or in your hotel.

 The city offers many historical temples, mu­seums and of course the Imperial Palace to visit. The Nijnbashi Bridge {which is open to the public only on special occasions} accesses the palace for­merly known as Edo Castle. A visit to the famous fish market is a sight, as wholesalers’ trade over 450 types of shellfish and fish. An early morning visit, usually before 6:00am, starts the bidding on the Tuna's sold at the market.  There are also many places of interest to visit just outside Tokyo.

Yokohama offers the Silk Center, the Yo­kohama Doll Museum as well as the Shin Yoko­hama Ramen Museum. Yes, the noodles! Of course the Beautiful Mt Fuji and the five lakes is a wonderful side trip while in Tokyo or as a stop en route to Kyoto, home of the Geisha.

Kyoto, one of the most known cities in Japan, is a wonderful mix of traditional and modem.  I start­ed my visit to the Sanjusangendo Temple (Temple of a thousand statues), housing statues that date back to the 1200s.  Situated on beautiful grounds, the Temple offers an insight into the Buddhist religion.

The next morning I visited the Shisendo Temple and participated in a Japanese tea cer­emony, followed by Zen meditations. The monks there will meditate 20 hours a day and sleep as little as 3 hours!

I had-the privilege of visiting the Noh The­atre and was invited to join the acting clan. The actors were trying to learn the art of conveying to the audience emotion, using gestures, while wear­ing a mask, some of which are hundreds of years old.

While I loved everything I experienced, one favorite memory was my lunch with the Geisha, watching their performance, and having the opportu­nity to speak with them about their life.

Japan is a country of wonderful history, culture, and amazing people. I look forward to a return trip.