Archive for the ‘Travel & Leisure’ Category

Portugal – Europe’s California With Castles

My wife and I spent two weeks in Portugal on a self-guided road trip for which we had https://www.toursforyou.pt/ arrange our hotels and rental car, suggest sites we might visit and arrange select guided tours, wine tastings and a boat ride along the way.

I call Portugal, Europe’s California because it is west coat, has fine beaches, great wine and food, a diversity of landscapes north to south and very mellow people, most of whom speak English.   Portugal is a good deal smaller than California, only about the size of Indiana, and you can see a lot of it in a two week visit.

What, of course, differentiates Portugal from California is a rich history that goes back thousands of years with a native Celtic people who were in turn overrun by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors.  Portugal fought with Spain for many years to win and keep its independence and was, for a time, a major maritime power with colonies in South America, Africa, India and Asia.   It seems as if each major city and almost every small hill town has a castle or castle ruin.

We were able to fly direct from Philadelphia to Lisbon on American.  The flight is a bit shorter than most to Europe because, at Europe’s western edge, Portugal is closer to the U.S. than much of the continent.  In two weeks we saw a good deal of Portugal, with the notable exception of the southern coast and resort area of the Algarve.

Our itinerary began in Lisbon(3 nights), where we picked up a car and drove southeast through Evora to an excellent hotel near Monsaraz called Sao Lourenco do Barrocal located on a large wine estate and farm that has been in the same family for over 200 years (3 nights).   From Monsaraz we turned north traveling to Belmonte where we stayed at a posada hotel created from a former convent – Convento de Belmonte (2 nights).   We then continued north to the Douro Valley where we stayed at the Wine House Hotel on a high-quality, small-production wine estate – Quinta da Pacheca (2 nights).    From Quinta da Pacheca we drove west along the Douro River and over the mountains to Porto, where we stayed at Flores Village Hotel & Spa (2 nights) before driving south, stopping at Coimbra, and heading back to the Lisbon airport where we stayed one night at Hotel Tryp Aeroporto before catching our flight home.   All of our hotels were quite good, with Sao Lourenco do Barrocal and the Wine House Hotel standing out above the rest (See Trip Advisor reviews for more details).

Portugal’s two main cities, Lisbon and Porto are both located on major rivers (the Tejo or Tagus in Lisbon and the Douro in Porto) at the point were they enter the Atlantic Ocean.   Lisbon, the capital is a city of about 500,000 people in a metro area with about three million.

Lisbon from overlook

Lisbon is a city of hills with enough elevation changes that there are elevators and funiculars to get you from one neighborhood to another.

Barrio Alto

The center of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake and tidal wave in 1755 and was quickly rebuilt with new housing, shops and offices and wider boulevards.  While the City center (Baixa) is attractive, the older hillside neighborhoods of Alfama and Barrio Alto retain their smaller scale buildings with whitewashed walls, orange tile roofs and narrow winding streets.

Lisbon has a cathedral, numerous churches, some good museums (notably the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum) and a wide main boulevard with upscale shopping (Avenue Liberidade) but much of its charm is found in the neighborhoods, small shops, some very good restaurants and the surrounding communities of Sintra, Estoril and Cascais, the latter both fronting the Atlantic.

Among the things we most enjoyed in Lisbon were the fanciful Pena Palace in Sintra, the coastal cities and outstanding sea bass we ate near Cabo da Rosa, Europe’s westernmost point, our evening listening to Fado (Portuguese blues) and the Gulbenkian museum.    We had a car and driver to take us to Sintra and the coast and for a half day tour of Lisbon but could have used one more day in the city for sight seeing and shopping.

Pena Palace

We had our rental car, a Vovo V40 diesel hatchback delivered to our hotel to save us having to come back to pick up our luggage after getting the car.   Portugal drives on the right, using standard international road signs and Google Maps on our phone worked well.   I order a GPS with the rental car because I read cell phone coverage might not be good in rural Portugal but the Garmin GPS that came with the car was useless outside major cities and cell coverage was fine everywhere.  Stick with Google Maps and order enough on your international data plan to cover using your phone as a mapping tool.

Heading southwest from Lisbon we visited Evora, the largest city in the dry and hot Alentejo.   We found Evora to be a bit over-hyped and the large free parking lots that reportedly ring the old city to be very poorly marked.    We ended up driving into and parking in the old part of the City – just remember to pay the meter.    Evora does contain some well preserved Roman features include a temple, a bath being excavated under town hall and an ancient aqueduct.  The cathedral and its museum are also worth seeing.

Roman Temple, Evora

From Evora we continued southwest past the walled town of Monsaraz to Sao Lourenco do Barrocal, an outstanding resort on a large wine estate and farm.   Monsaraz is a well preserved walled town and castle with some nice shops, including a very good pottery and painting gallery called Galerie Monsaraz operated by a husband/wife team of local artists.  We enjoyed our dinner at Restaurante Sabores de Monsaraz, which is a quirky locally owned restaurant where we had black pork with pearl onions and cod Bacalhau à “Sabores de Monsaraz” (see Trip Advisor for review).    While the staff struggles with English and it is a small, authentic Portuguese restaurant, Sabores de Monsaraz does have a slick website on which you can make reservations.

Ducal Palace, Vila Vicosa

We enjoyed the pool, cafe and restaurant at Sao Lourenco do Barrocal and took day trips to nearby sites such as Monsaraz, Villa Vicosa, where we highly recommend the Ducal Palace, and Sao Pedro do Corval where the locally made pottery is plentiful but pretty mundane.

From Sao Lourenco do Barrocal we traveled north to Belmonte, stopping along the way at Castelo de Vide.   Both Castelo de Vide and Belmonte were interesting to us because of their once significant Jewish populations and the history of these communities documented in museums.   The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1497, five years later than in Spain. No meaningful Jewish population remains in Castelo de Vide but it features a large former Jewish quarter and what is reported to be the oldest synagogue in Portugal, now housing a small but well done museum.   Belmonte also had a large Jewish population.  Its Jewish museum was being renovated when we visited in July, 2017 but had some exhibits set up in a nearby storefront.   What’s remarkable about Belmonte is its community of Marrano, or secret Jews, that survived from the Inquisition to today, only emerging from secrecy in 1989 and building a modern operating synagogue.   We liked our hotel in Belmonte (Convento de Belmonte) which is a wonderful renovation of an historic convent but the hotel seemed a bit understaffed (See Trip Advisor).

Heading north from Belmonte to the Douro Valley we stopped at the now abandoned walled town of Marialva, which we enjoyed but is only worth a visit if you are passing by.  As you head north toward to Douro, the land becomes more mountainous and greener and the Douro Valley itself is one of the most attractive landscapes you will see anywhere.

Douro River Valley

The Douro Valley is all about wine, is the only place you can make port wine according to the EU and is the oldest officially recognized wine region, predating those in France.   In the Douro we stayed at the Wine House Hotel on the Quinta de Pacheca wine estate and we highly recommend the hotel, its restaurant and the wine at Quinta de Pacheca.  We also enjoyed a boat ride on the Douro by FeelDouro Yaatch Charters and a tour and tasting at Quinta do Seixo, a large commercial wine estate operated by Sandeman.   We enjoyed the tour and the wine much more at Quinta da Pacheca.

We traveled from the Douro Valley to Porto by taking small winding roads along the river and over the mountains, a beautiful but somewhat harrowing ride, and the only place I thought Google Maps let us down since there were major highways options.    Porto is a wonderful old city of about 215,000 (less than half the population of Lisbon) but with a metro area population of 2.4 million, which is closer to Lisbon’s size.  Navigating Porto’s warren of narrow streets is a chore, so you want to get out of your car as quickly as you can.    We liked our hotel in Porto, Flores Village Hotel & Spa, in part because it was on a delightful pedestrian only street very near City center.   However, that meant after 10 am we had to leave our car in a nearby parking garage and transport our luggage to the hotel.

Porto from Vila Novo de Gaia

In Porto, we had a half day guided tour and also time on our own to explore the city and enjoy its character, shops and restaurants.   We had two excellent meals in Porto at DPO Porto by chef Rui Paula and Cantinho do Avillez by Michelin star chef Jose Avillez.    Porto, like Lisbon, is a very hilly city with some magnificent churches and vistas, particularly the view of Porto from Vila Novo de Gaia, across the Douro.

Before leaving Porto, we took a full day tour to the Minho or Costa Verde, which is the portion of the country north of Porto.   This is beautiful country and we particularly enjoyed the ancient city of Guimarães, where Portugal was founded, the magnificent shrine at Bom Jesus do Monte and the city of Braga.    If you get to Porto, take at least a day and explore theses areas (See photos).

Guimaraes

Bom Jesus de Monte

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We return to Lisbon via Coimbra with its university dating from 1290 and a library that looks like it belongs in a Harry Potter novel.  The Hotel Tryp Aeroporto is just an airport hotel but did its job with quite good service and surprisingly good food, so I would use it if I needed a stay at the Lisbon airport.

University of Coimbra

We found Portugal to be an interesting, charming and thoroughly enjoyable vacation spot and would highly recommend it.

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Machu Picchu & Peru Exceeded Expectations

It has been almost two years since I wrote about a vacation.   In the interim we have traveled to the Pacific Northwest, visited Hilton Head twice and done a Midwest Road Trip that took us to Pittsburgh, Chicago, Lake Michigan, Detroit and Niagara On The Lake Ontario for the Shaw Festival.   While each of these was enjoyable, none seemed novel enough for a blog post.

In February 2017, my wife and I took a 10-day guided tour of Peru.   The trip was sponsored by two universities, my alma mater Johns Hopkins and North Carolina State University, and was operated by Odysseys Unlimited, well known for its small group tours featuring very good hotels and excellent guides. While the tour was limited to 24, we only had seven in our group, perhaps because others realized February is the rainy season in the Andes.   The name of our trip was Treasures of Peru and you can find the detailed itinerary and hotels listed on the Odysseys Unlimited website https://odysseys-unlimited.com/tours/central-south-america/treasures-peru .

The tour covered five parts of Peru – Lima, Cusco, The Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, along with less significant sites along the road from Cusco to the Lake.   Machu Picchu is obviously the big draw and, as described below, it did not disappoint. But the beauty of the mountainous country of Peru, the colors of its abundant textiles, fruits and vegetables, its ancient art (what’s left that the Spanish did not carry off) and architecture, and the character and warmth of its people were benefits we had not expected.  The photo below at La Raya Pass is the one that I believes best captured the color and physical beauty of Peru.

Farbics + mountain

Peru is the third largest country in South America, with a population of 30 million, a third of whom live in Lima.     The country has an amazing range of climate and topography, from coastal desert along the Pacific Coast to the high peaks and plateaus of the Andes to Amazon jungle.

The Andes are the second highest mountain range in the world behind the Himalayas, with a number of peaks ranging over 20,000 feet. Many cities and towns in Peru are at 8,000 feet above sea level or higher.     The climatic and topographic diversity within Peru is great for crops and scenery but complicates packing for travel because in the summer the temperature can be in the 80s or higher in Lima and in the 40s or lower at night in the highlands with bright sun at altitude during the day.   As noted above, winter in the northern hemisphere is summer in the southern hemisphere, which means warmer weather but more rain in the Andes highlands. We packed rain gear every day but were very fortunate to have only a few instances of daytime rain affecting our trip.

Reaching Peru is relatively easy from the U.S. with 6 – 6.5 hours direct flights to Lima from Miami and other southern cities.     Our tour used Latam airlines, a Peruvian carrier, from our flight from Miami to Lima and for flights within Peru from Lima to Cusco and Lake Titicaca back to Lima.   Latam flies modern Boeing and Airbus planes with fine service in coach but connecting to Latam in Miami requires travelers to exit the domestic airline terminals and go through security again to check in for Latam. If going to Peru again, I would consider using American Airlines, which also has multiple flights to Lima, to fly from Miami to Peru in order to eliminate one very long walk with luggage and a second security screening in the Miami airport from the trip.

Lima is a large, diverse city, with a road network and transit system that has not kept pace with the city’s growth.   Lima was developed beginning in 1535 by the Spanish after their conquest of the Incas. Today, you will see a lot of gritty one and two story concrete buildings around the city along with some very attractive upscale neighborhoods (Miraflores) near the Pacific, and historic areas with attractive colonial era buildings and parks.

Lima is a great food city and has a number of historic buildings and museums worth visiting but everything takes time to get to because of the congested traffic.   We particularly enjoyed the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, which features an extensive private collection of Incan and pre-Incan art including a large ceramics collection.   The museum also has lushly planted grounds, a very nice restaurant that opens the its gardens and two high quality museum shops (See photo below). We had hoped to try one of Lima’s world-class restaurants while in the City but just did not have the time or energy between our late night flight in and very early flight to Cusco on our second morning.

Museo Rafael Larco Herrera

Cusco is a city of nearly 500,000 people that was the historic capital of the Inca Empire. It is located near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range at an elevation of 11,200 feet.   To ease our acclimation to high altitude our itinerary moved us quickly through Cusco and onto the Sacred Valley formed by the Urubamba River, which is below 10,000 feet, and returned us to Cusco after our tour of the Sacred Valley and visit to Machu Picchu.

We took Acetazolamide/Diamox starting a day before we were flying to Cusco to ease our transition to high altitude and did not have any significant problems.   Most hotels also offer supplemental oxygen for guests that request it, which I used one night, and coca leaves and coca tea are freely available, which is also supposed to help with altitude sickness.   Coca leaves are used to make cocaine but it takes a very large quantity of the leaves to make a small amount of cocaine, so you are getting only trace amount of cocaine and mild stimulant by sucking on the leaves or drinking the tea. Our travel doctor warned of one patient who had a heart attract after drinking coca tea but most of our tour group use leaves or tea in limited quantities with no ill effect.

The historic core of Cusco (see below), which is likely where you will stay and tour in the City except while entering or exiting, is quite charming and includes colonial era scale and charm, in many cases built over earlier Inca foundations and first floor walls. Notable sights in Cusco include: the Church of Santo Domingo built on the site of the former Inca temple called Qorrikancha (Golden Courtyard), Sacsayhuaman (an immense Inca ruin of religious and military significance, and a number of churches, museums and shopping areas in the City center.

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We had an excellent dinner in Cusco at restaurant called MAP, which is located in the courtyard of the Museo de Arte Precolumbina just a few blocks off the main square. A neighbor who lived in Peru for nine years recommended MAP. In Cusco we visited and had lunch with a local family and during the meal we tried guinea pig (cuy), which is consider a delicacy in the Peruvian Andes and tastes a lot luck duck.

The Sacred Valley (see below), less well known to tourist than Cusco or Machu Picchu, is very scenic and contains a number of sites including Ollantaytambo and the village of Chinchero with its women’s textile cooperatives.   We particular liked our hotel create from a former monastery in Yucay, the Sonesta Posada del Inca, which has extensive gardens. We also found the textile making demonstration at one of the woman’s cooperatives in Chinchero to be both interesting and fun and a good place to buy right from the makers (See below).

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Both the train and inca Trail to Machu Picchu leave from Ollantaytambo and run to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu.   Belmont operated the train we took, the same company that runs the Orient Express, and the ride on the narrow gauge railroad along the Urubamba River is very picturesque.   We stayed over one night in Aguas Calientes at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu, an excellent and eco-friendly hotel.   The advantage of staying over is you get two opportunities to visit Machu Picchu, one in the afternoon and one in the morning before most of the tourists arrive by train.   Because the site is crowded and the weather and fog can be very different day to day, two opportunities to visit the sight are much better than a few hours one crowded afternoon.

No matter how many photos you have seen of Machu Picchu, it is much more impressive in person than in the photos.   The site is reached by a 20 minute bus ride on a switchback road from Aguas Calientes or by a hiking trail up 1,600 feet from the river valley floor.   Separated by surrounding peaks by steep ravines, Machu Picchu itself includes two peaks (Machu Picchu – old mountain and Huayna Picchu – young mountain and fills a saddle of land between the two.   The site itself includes agricultural terraces, religious buildings, a central plaza for ceremonies and a residential portion.   It is best to see it with a guide because it is something of a warren of trails and stairs and individual buildings with the site are not marked or interpreted for visitors.

Terrace at MP

MP from above

After leaving Machu Picchu and doubling back to Cusco, our tour took us by bus from Cusco to Puno and Lake Titicaca.   There are a number of sites along this seven hour route including: Andahuaylillas featuring a remarkable church (Inglesia de San Pedro), Raqchi featuring interesting Incan ruins, and the 14,330 feet high La Raya pass shown in the opening photo above.   We saw little of Puno, or the even grittier and more congested city of Juliaca.   We stayed at the very nice Hotel Liberator that sits on a peninsula jutting into Lake Titicaca and has its own boat dock.   The Floating Islands of Uros are a popular stop for tourists (see below) and we also visited Isla Taquile.   Lake Titicaca is interesting but less so than many other sites we visited.

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Barcelona and Basque Region Vacation

My wife and I vacationed in Barcelona and the Basque region of Spain in October 2015.   We had previously visited Madrid

Placa de Catalunya in Barcelona

Placa de Catalunya in Barcelona

and southern Spain but had never before been to the northern part of the country.    Our itinerary took us directly to Barcelona, where we spent three days, followed by five days in San Sebastian and another two days back in Barcelona before flying home.    We planned the trip and traveled on our own without any difficulty.

Logistics – If you live in Baltimore, or its northern suburbs, flying internationally from Philadelphia can be an attractive alternative.    The Philadelphia airport is only 93 miles from my home in Baltimore and, while further away than either Baltimore Washington International airport (26 miles) or Dulles (65 miles), offers many more international flights than BWI and, if you time it right, is an easier drive than Dulles.   It also happens to offer a direct flight to Barcelona, which Dulles did not.    At the Philadelphia airport, since we don’t know the facility well, we pre-booked parking at PreFlight, which offers both indoor and outdoor parking options and quick shuttle service to the terminal.

Our hotel in Barcelona was in the city center, a 30 to 45 minute drive from the airport.   For our arriving flight we pre-booked a car service online for 39 euros, which was only a bit more than the 33 – 35 euro for the taxis we used for our other trips.     While many guide books recommend train travel in Spain, which is fast and efficient, a friend with relatives in San Sebastian recommended we fly from Barcelona to the Basque region, which only takes an hour and is cheaper than the train.   We flew Vueling, a discount airline active in Spain, from Barcelona to San Sebastian for about $94 per person each way, paying a bit extra for preferred seating and the ability to check luggage.    The plane was a modern Airbus and flights were fine.    The San Sebastian airport is about half an hour from San Sebastian in Hondarribia and there are only a few flights per day.     Another alternative is to fly to Bilbao, which has more flights but is about an hour drive from San Sebastian, or to fly to Biarritz in France, which is actually slightly closer to San Sebastian than Bilbao airport.  On the ride from the San Sebastian airport to our hotel, the cab, which did not have a meter, over charged us by about 10 euros.  The proper fare should be about 33 euros.

Barcelona – is a city of 1.7 million people, the second largest in Spain, and is the capital city of the autonomous community of Catalonia.    Locals prefer to speak Catalan rather than Spanish but understand both and most also speak some English.   Barcelona is a charming, very walkable city with wonderful food, shopping and architecture.    The city is organized by neighborhoods, with the two most important for tourists being Barri Gotic (the old walled city or Gothic Quarter) and Eixample, the fashionable district north of Barri Gotic with amazing Art Nouveau / Modernisme architecture (as the Catalans call it).   These districts are linked by Placa de Catalunya, a main square in an area with many tourist hotels.   We stayed in El Born, which adjoins Barri Gotic and also has small lanes, lots of shops, restaurants and bars, the Picasso Museum and the large Citadel Park.

We felt very safe in Barcelona, even when out late on the street.    The guidebooks all caution you about pickpockets in Barcelona and we did take precautions for this using money belts, anti-theft purses and bags and keeping my wallet in my front pocket with two rubber bands so it could not be easily removed.    But we never saw or noticed a pickpocket incident.

We really enjoyed Barcelona.   The city itself and its architecture and food are the main attractions.  Most guide books suggest you start with Las Ramblas, a street with a wide pedestrian-only median that runs along the edge of Barri Gotic on the line that was the former old city wall.    This walk gives you a glimpse of the people, the lower edge of Eixample if you start at Placa de Catalunya, and the Barri Gotic but is increasingly filled with chain stores and tourists so not the most interesting perspectives on the city.   We much preferred strolling through the windy lanes of Barri Gotic where more local shops, restaurants and many historic sites, including the main cathedral, are located.    Eixample and areas north house the Modernisme architectural gems of Barcelona, which include:

La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia church, which is one of the largest and most magnificent religious buildings and architectural achievements anywhere.    Started in 1882, it blends some Gothic elements with the Modernisme style of Antoni Gaudi.    Be sure to book timed tickets in advance and, if you can, try to come in later in the day when the sun streams through the stained glass windows (see photo).    We did this by accident and were delighted we did.

Park Guell, also designed by Gaudi, which started as an exclusive residential development on a high point north of the City, and has evolved into a park featuring fanciful designs and landscaping highlighting the Modernisme style.  Timed tickets purchased in advance also a must here.

Casa Mila, a Gaudi designed apartment apartment building whose interior courtyard, attic, roof and top floor apartment are open to the public while the rest of the building remains a fashionable

Casa Mila

Casa Mila

Barcelona residential address.      You can view the exterior for free but the paid tour including the former owners apartments was well worth the price of admission for us.     Timed ticked in advance essential.

Block of Discord, which features three prime examples of Modernisme architecture designed by Gaudi and two other Modernisme architects.   While one of these building is open for tour, viewing the facades for free from the street is probably sufficient here, particularly if you tour Casa Mila.

 

 

Sculpture at Fundacio Miro

Sculpture at Fundacio Miro

We found two art museums to be really special, the Picasso Museum and the Fundacio Joan Miro.    Collections in both were created with works donated by the artists and their families and both present a broad range of work from the artists student days, in some cases, to very late in life.    The Picasso Museum is more centrally located in three interconnected historic buildings in El Born, just outside Barri Gotic.   Advance reservations are a must for the Picasso Museum to avoid long waits and this Museum has the stronger collection of the two.   We would rate it a must-see for anyone with even a mild interest in art and it explains the historic and cultural influences influencing Picasso’s various periods.   The Fundacio Joan Miro is located in a modern building on Montjuic, a tall hill west of the city center.     In addition to a strong Miro collection, Fundacio Joan Miro has temporary exhibits by contemporary artists.   We found the audio guides temperamental and the directional signage and organization of the building a bit confusing but still well worth a visit.

We ate some great meals in Barcelona and particularly enjoyed two restaurants in El Born, near our hotel – LlAmber and SABoC.

Basque Region –  The Basque region includes parts of Spain and France where the two countries meet on the Atlantic

La Concha Beach in San Sebastian

La Concha Beach in San Sebastian

Ocean.     The Basque people have a long history, a distinct language and culture and are know for excellent cuisine.   We stayed in San Sebastian, which is a very attractive modest-size waterfront resort with an charming old town.   We really enjoyed San Sebastian, with walks along the beach and the two hills that frame the main beach and harbor, exploring pintxo bars in the old town and shopping.    Biarritz in France offers a more upscale beachfront option and St-Jean-de-Luz in France and Hondarribia in Spain both offer smaller, more intimate places to stay and all are within an hours drive of San Sebastian.

For food in San Sebastian, we mostly relied on pintxo bars, finding the full, multi-course Spanish lunches too heavy for us.    Favorite pintxo bars included La Cepa, and Taverna Gandarias.   We also have a very good full lunches at Branka, which overlooks Concha Beach in San Sebastian and at Txoko in Getaria overlooking the harbor, where we had a memorable white and green asparagus salad and terrific grilled fish.

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

The Basque region of Spain and France offers hilly, very green scenery, like Ireland or the Pacific Northwest in the US, great beaches and wonderful food.    We hired a guide and driver in San Sebastian online for visits to see the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the coastal towns of Geteria and Zumaia in Spain and the French Basque region.   Our guide was very good and we we would recommend Basque Tours (info@basquetours.com).   The Guggenheim museum in is an amazing architectural work that we thought worked less than ideally as a art museum but absolutely worth a visit.   We also enjoyed visiting the French Basque region, which offers from dramatic scenery and charming towns.    We particularly liked St-Jean-de-Luz which we visited on market day and where we shopped in small stores on a pedestrian-only street.

 

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Galapagos

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National Geographic Islander

Our 2015 trip to the Galapagos was my wife’s choice.   While I had an interest in the ecology and evolutionary history of the islands, my preferred vacation would have been more urban and more culturally focused.   But both my wife and I found the Galapagos to be a spectacular trip.   Never before had we been immersed in a natural environment where the animals were so oblivious to your presence and the range of geology, plants, animals, marine life and sheer beauty of the islands were spectacular.

The Galapagos Islands are located about 1,100 kilometers/600 miles west of Ecuador and are easier to reach than most people realize.   You will need to look at a map to believe this, but Ecuador on the west coast of South America is south of the U.S. east coast and in the Eastern Time Zone.   The Galapagos are in the Central Time Zone.   Travel time from Miami to Guayaquil, Ecuador (its largest city and a port from which many Galapagos trips depart) is about 4.5 hours and the flight time from Guayaquil to one of two spartan but relatively modern airports in the Galapagos is about 2 hours on modern 737s.

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Sea Lion Pup

The entire Galapagos Islands group and all of the waters surrounding them are a national park and marine reserve administered by Ecuador, of which they are part. From what we could see, the park is very well managed despite pressures from a booming tourism-based economy which accommodated about 220,000 visitors in 2014.   Since 1998, when Ecuador passed a constitutional amendment giving the government greater power over the Galapagos, the number of ships visiting the islands have been monitored and the visits to individual islands and islets by each ship is controlled on an hour by hour basis.   This limits the number of visitors on any given island at any given time.   The Park Service limits visits to certain islands, requires all visitors to stay on designated paths and requires well-trained licensed guides to accompany all visitors on land.   Fishing around the islands is largely limited to what is needed to support the local population and immigration to the islands of foreigners and Ecuadorians from the mainland  is controlled to prevent over-population and over-development. Several of the islands are inhabited with the largest city having a population of about 25,000.

Fees paid by tourist to visit the islands are used for research and breeding programs, to improve tourist facilities and to eradicate non-native species, such as goats and donkeys, improving prospects to unique native species to survive.   Special efforts are taken to limit contamination from additional non-native species to the islands and from island to island.

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Tortoise

There are both land-based and ship based options for seeing the Galapagos but since the land-based options require day trips by ship to see the diversity of the Islands, the ship-based options allow you to see more and seemed generally more attractive than the guest houses and hotels on shore we saw during our visit.   There are a wide ranges of ships, from one’s accommodating a dozen or fewer to one’s with about 100 passengers.

We visited the Galapagos on a National Geographic tour on the Islander managed by Lindblad Expeditions, which operates ship-based tours for National Geographic.   The Islander can accommodate up to 48 passengers, comes with a tour director and three guides/naturalists who lead excursions and the ships crew.   It is a well-appointed ship that you can see on www.expeditions.com.

We found the Lindblad/National Geographic tour to be very well done, with comfortable accommodations, good food, excellent tour staff and crew.   However, it is important to understand that this is an active tour, with twice-a-day hikes sometimes over hilly and rocky terrain, snorkeling and transfers to and from shore on zodiac boats.   You don’t have to do everything and in a number of instances there were less strenuous options for those that did not want to do the full hike. But if you are not at least an active walker, you will miss much of what the tour has to offer.

One travel magazine recently indicated visiting the Galapagos is the number one bucket list trip for tourists worldwide.   I would definitely have it on my bucket list and as a near-retiree when I took my trip to the Galapagos I was glad I did the trip sooner, rather than later, while you I was still able to handle the physical demands of the trip.   Ages of those on our trip ranged from about 8 to 80 with most in their 50s and 60s.

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