Posts Tagged ‘vacation’

Customized Tour of Northern Italy Was Great Experience

My wife and I spent nearly three weeks touring northern Italy in September and early October 2018.   As was the case with several of our recent vacations, we used a travel agent working with a in-country tour operator to design a customized tour for the two of us rather than joining a group.  The Italian tour operator we worked with was Olive Tree Escapes, which has an office in Chicago.

This was our third trip to Italy and was designed to allow us to see parts of the county we had not visited before, see great art and have some time to relax and immerse ourselves in Italian culture.   We visited Venice, Bologna which we used as a base for a number of day trips, Lake Como and Milan.  Our day trips from Bologna included Ravenna, Florence, Ferrara and the Emilia Romagna countryside.

Logistics

We flew direct from Philadelphia to Venice on American Airlines and returned from Venice to Philadelphia on another direct flight.   If we had returned from Milan, we would have had to take a connecting flight to reach Philadelphia.   For travel between major cities in Italy we used the excellent high speed rail service, the Frecciarossa, that travels up to 185 miles per hour with a much smoother ride than Acela service in the U.S.    For shorter day-trips out of Bologna we used slower but still comfortable and efficient regional train service.   It is possible to reserve trains and get tickets from the U.S. over the Internet.  We used the national rail service, Trenitalia.  A private rail company, .Italio, now offers competitive and sometimes lower priced service on some routes and it may be worth checking on this option.    Our tour company arranged for transfers to and from the airport and the major inter-city train stations in cities we visited.

Venice

There are no cars, buses or taxis in the central parts of Venice. Getting from Venice’s Marco Polo airport to the old city included a car service from the airport terminal to a water taxi and porter, a water taxi ride up the Grand Canal to a dock near our hotel and a walk from the dock to our hotel with our porter.  We stayed at the Londra Palace located on the waterfront promenade facing the Canale di San Marco, a few blocks from Piazza San Marco, the center of Venice.  This is an ideal location, close to the main tourist sites with canal views and vaparetto (Venice’s water bus) docks located just across from the front of the hotel.   Even though we booked well in advance we were unable to get a deluxe room with a canal view but our room was comfortable, big enough for two and well appointed.   Our room came with complementary breakfast served on the first floor with the option of eating outside facing the canal. Service at the Londra Palace was excellent and we would definitely recommend the hotel.

Grand Canal

On the day we arrived in Venice we walked through Piazza San Marco and explored parts of central Venice on foot, visiting Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Church, which feature altarpieces and artwork by Titian, Bellini and Tiziano.   Our first full day in the city we toured the Basilica San Marco and the Doge’s Palace, for which a guide that can help you avoid the long lines is a worthwhile investment.  Other highlights of our visit to Venice included a guided tour of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art, touring the Academia museum, a visit to the Jewish ghetto where we toured several synagogues and visiting a European Crafts Fair at San Giorgio Maggiore.  Our tour company arranged a gondola ride for us one evening in Venice, which was very short and a bit of a disappointment.  If I was doing it again, I would find and negotiate my own gondola ride.  We ate well in Venice but favored small, local restaurants recommended by our guides or hotel.  We did splurge on aperitifs at the Caffe Florian on Piazza San Marco.

Gondoliers
St. Mark’s Square

Bologna

We picked Bologna, which is much less of a tourist destination than Venice, Florence or Milan more for its location as a base from which to explore Ravenna and Florence than for any other reason. But we found Bologna to be a delightful city featuring great food, the oldest university in Europe, attractive streets with covered arcades and good shopping options.   We stayed for a week in an apartment in Bologna located mid-way between the train station and the main square just off Via dell’ Indipendenza.    We took a walking food tour in Bologna with stops at a chocolate shop, charcuterie, pasta restaurant, bakery and gelateria, which were all great.    We also did a food tour of the Emiglia Romagna countryside to see Parmigiano Reggiano, Balsamic Vinegar and Parma Ham being made, with a stop for lunch at a vineyard restaurant.  When planning the trip we thought two food tours were excessive but we very much enjoyed them both.  We also explored the center of Bologna including historic buildings of the University of Bologna, founded in 1088.

Deli Shop Window
Making Parmigiano Reggiano
Library University of Bologna

 One of the nice things about staying in an apartment versus a hotel, in addition to having a washer and dryer, is the ability to have meals on your own.   The owner of the apartment we rented directed us to groceries and salumerias.  We ate simple breakfasts of yogurt and coffee and had two dinners in, one of fresh pasta with pesto and salad and one of cheese, charcuterie and bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Restaurant near our apartment in Bologna

Florence

We took a day trip from Bologna to Florence, only 35 minutes by train, to visit the Uffizi Gallery, the Bargello and Pitti Palace. We had spent time in Florence on a previous trip to Italy, so it was an easy choice for us to focus on the art rather than exploring the City. It is essential to make reservations in advance to tour the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace and at the Uffizi you will still wait in a long line to enter near when your timed-ticket indicates. The Uffizi is one of the world’s great museums and it is well worth putting up with the large crowds to see its collection. In Florence, we had cappuccino and breakfast at an outdoor cafe, a nice lunch in wine bar overlooking the Arno River but ended up having dinner in the train station because our train back to Bologna was 90 minutes late. Due to a problem with the tracks north of Rome, all of the trains running south to north were delayed.

Ponte Vecchio from Uffizi window

Ravenna

Ravenna dates to the 2nd century BC, when the Romans colonized the Po River Valley. It served as a major port and naval station for Caesar Augustus, was the capital of the western Roman empire and the capital for barbarian kings Odoacer and Theodoric. The magnificent mosaics found in Ravenna today combine Byzantine, Arian and Roman Christian influences.

Ravenna is a flat, compact and very walkable city and we toured the city and a number of its churches with a private guide. It was a highlight of our trip and a place you could spend more than a day. Ravenna was a high priority for my wife, who is an art museum docent, but both of us really enjoyed the mosaics and the city.

Mosaics in Basilica di San Vitale

Ferrara

Ferrara is only 20 – 30 minutes from Bologna by trains and was recommended to us as a pleasant city with a strong Jewish heritage. The city seemed pleasant enough and has a very interesting castle but all of the Jewish sites were closed for renovation when we visited and we we were a bit disappointed. We did not have a guide in Ferrara, which may have also caused us to miss some things.

Lake Como

Lake Como is simply gorgeous. We stayed in Varenna on the eastern shore of the lake, which is only a little more than an hour’s very scenic drive from Milan’s central station. We chose Varenna because Rick Steves recommends it as a base and were very pleased with our choice. We stayed at the delightful Villa Cipressi hotel, which is right on the lake, features it own botanical gardens and is only a short walk to the main square.

While on Lake Como, we took our own private boat tour of the Lake that included stops at Bellagio and Villa del Balbianello and cruising past a number of towns and villa’s including George Clooney’s. We also spent a day exploring Varenna and one day lounging on the grounds of our hotel and the Villa Monastero, which is right next door. We had meals at restaurants overlook the main square with its historic churches or overlooking the lake.

Our hotel Villa Cipressi
Sunset over Lake Como from our hotel window

Milan

We really had only one reason to visit Milan – to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. This requires advance booking and usually booking with a guided group. Seeing the Last Supper was a great experience but it is a highly regimented and short visit. At your appointed time, your guide gives you background while you wait on the plaza outside the refectory of the Santa Maria della Grazie Church, where the painting is located. You then enter an anteroom where the humidity is adjusted before you enter the room housing the painting. Each group only gets 15 minutes to view the painting and for this year preparatory sketches for the Last Supper from the collection of the British Royal Family. While the Last Supper began deteriorating from almost the moment it was completed because of the technique da Vinci chose to use, has suffered through bad and good restoration and has very muted colors today, it is still a painting of immense power and a masterful work of art.

While our focus in Milan was the Last Supper, we spent a day and a half and two nights in the City. Our hotel, the Sina Hotel de la Ville, was nondescript but pleasant and well-located. While in Milan we visited the La Scala opera house and museum on our own and did some shopping in and around the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade, a 19th century high-end mall that remind us of GUM in Moscow. We also took a guided tour of Milan’s Duomo, which is a grand while lace-like Italian Gothic Cathedral.

Milan Duomo
Duomo Dome
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

We also ate two very good meals in Milan, one in the restaurant hotel and one in a restaurant called Restaurante Da Bruno, which is located in a brutalist Fascist-era building a couple of blocks off the main Piazza del Duomo. The waiter did not speak English so he brought out a large basket of freshly harvested porcini mushrooms to convey his recommendation and the pasta with mushrooms were great.

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History, Nature, Art & Good Food In The Hudson River Valley

In the second week of July my wife and I spent 5 days on vacation in the Hudson River Valley.   It is a place several friends and family members have visited and recommended and it is reachable from our home in Baltimore in a 4 – 5 hour drive.   Our primary interest was in visiting Franklin Roosevelt’s home, museum and library in Hyde Park, NY near Poughkeepsie but there are a broad range of attractions and accommodations on both sides of the River between Westchester County north of New York City and Albany.

We found very attractive accommodations on the west side of the river in Milton, NY at the Buttermilk Falls Inn and Spa.  The Inn is located on a 75 acre site overlooking the Hudson bisected by a stream with a small waterfall and several ponds with ducks, geese and swans.    Accommodations include a main house dating to 1764 with 10 rooms and a number of houses and cottages.   Breakfast is included and there is a very nice farm-to-table restaurant on (Henry’s), as well as event space, including a great outdoor wedding venue overlooking the Hudson.  A farm and animals provide food for the restaurant and another diversion for guests.   There is an exercise room, indoor pool and spa.   We stayed in the Sage Right room in the main house, which comes with a queen bed, gas fireplace, refrigerator, patio with views of the Hudson and bath with combination whirlpool tube and shower.    The room was attractively furnished with antiques but a bit cluttered with limited closet and drawer space.    There was no way to control the air-conditioning temperature in the room and we ended up having to run the gas fireplace to maintain the room temperature as a reasonable level – nothing environmentally conscious in that.

Buttermilk Falls Inn From Our Patio

We ate at Henry’s, the on-site farm to table restaurant, our first night and liked it so well that we ended up having light suppers two additional nights during our stay.   Both the food and the wait staff at the restaurant were excellent and the menu offers lots of appetizer/small plate options as well as substantial entrees and different white, red and rose sangria nightly.  The owners of Buttermilk Falls also own a bakery and cafe, called Frieda’s, a few miles from the Inn on Milton’s main street.   It provides the baked goods for the Inn and Henry’s and also offers good breakfast, lunch and take away/picnic options.

We maintained an active but measured pace during our trip, blending visits to historic, natural, and art attractions and the Culinary Institute of America with time at the Inn for afternoon tea, reading and relaxation.   We spent more than half a day on our first full day visiting Franklin Roosevelt’s home, Springwood https://www.nps.gov/hofr/index.htm, and the adjoining Presidential Library and Museum https://fdrlibrary.org.    The house is large but surprisingly modest and comfortable compared to other Gilded Age mansions.   The library and museum, the first Presidential library, were designed by Roosevelt himself and have excellent exhibits chronicling Roosevelt’s life as well as housing his personal study and being a repository for Presidential archives.   The museum exhibits are very well designed and many are interactive.

Springwood

Day two we parked on the western approach to Walkway Over The Hudson and crossed the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge spanning 1.28 miles over the Hudson River http://walkway.org/visit/.    The bridge is a converted rail span built in the nineteenth century. The walkway is free of charge and provides great views up and down river with the east end landing in Poughkeepsie, which offers some restaurant options.    You can enter and exit the walkway at-grade on both sides of the  River and there are also elevator and stair options on the Poughkeepsie side but the elevator to the Poughkeepsie waterfront wasn’t working the day we visited.   Information panels along the walkway acquaint visitors with the River and the history of the bridge and the area.

Mid Hudson Bridge From Walkway Over The Hudson

Day three we drove south to Storm King Art Center, a 500 acre sculpture park located in Cornwall, NY https://stormking.org/about/.   Storm King offers a vast array of monumental and smaller sculpture on an attractive rolling site.   We very much enjoyed and were impressed by the art but believe Storm King should offer more tram service options to help visitors get around.   A tram circulates through the site but only about once an hour. We walked more than two miles and by no means saw all of the sculpture.   More frequent tram circulation and shuttles between parking, dining, and shop/museum locations so you can concentrate your walking to see the art would make Storm King much more accessible to visitors.    There is a bike rental option that you may want to try but we did not discover it until we were on our way back to our car.   If you visit, be prepared to walk and bring water and sun protections with you.

Zhang Huan – Three Legged Budda

Ronald Bladen – Untitled

Alexander Lieberman – Adonai

Alexander Calder – The Arch

Day four we returned to Hyde Park to tour Val-Kill https://www.nps.gov/elro/index.htm, Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage home and we also visited Top Cottage, Franklin’s personal retreat https://www.nps.gov/hofr/planyourvisit/top-cottage.htm.  The Roosevelt home, Springwood, Val-Kill and Top Cottage are all administered by the National Park Service.   A visitor’s center and the Roosevelt Library and Museum adjoin Springwood but Val-Kill and Top Cottage are located on separate nearby sites.   You can drive yourself or take a shuttle bus to Val-KIll from the visitors center but Top Cottage is only reachable by a strenuous 1.5 mile hike from Val-KIll or by shuttle.  Val-KIll was acquired by the National Park Service at the time of the bicentennial and is dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt personal accomplishments, not her role as First Lady.   Val-KIll offers attractive grounds, a small gift shop and welcome center, an orientation film about Eleanor’s life and a tour of several rooms in Val-Kill and the adjoining Stone Cottage, which also houses some exhibits.   We very much enjoyed our visit to Val-Kill but it’s offerings are much more modest than those of Springwood and the Roosevelt Library and Museum.

Val-Kill Stream and Pond

Top Cottage was designed by Franklin Roosevelt to be his retreat after completion of his second term and only saw limited use as he went on to serve a third and a portion of a fourth term as President.    It has almost no original furnishings and the volunteer docent who we toured with had only limited information to offer on the property.    Top Cottage is only open limited hours and should not be a high priority for a visit.    We got there by hiking a somewhat steep and rocky trail from Val-Kill but arrived in time to catch a tour and were able to return to Val-KIll on the shuttle.

Top Cottage – Rear Porch

Two nights during our visit to the Hudson River Valley we dined at restaurants operated on campus by the Culinary Institute  of America (CIA).   Advanced reservation, best made exactly 30 days in advance, are a must and can be done on OpenTable.com.   The CIA operates five restaurants, four of which are open for dinner – American Bounty with a focus on the seasons and products of the Hudson Valley, Bocuse a French restaurant named for the most famous chef in France, Paul Bocuse, Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici and Al Forno Trattoria offering authentic regional Italian cuisine and Post Road Brew House http://www.ciarestaurantgroup.com/new-york-restaurants/.    We tried both American Bounty and Bocuse but preferred Bocuse, which is a bit more upscale and where we had a table next to the glass enclosed kitchen.   A signature item at Bocuse is lavender ice cream made fresh at your table using liquid nitrogen to deliver hand-churned ice cream in only about five minutes.

Desserts Accompanying Ice Cream At Bocuse

Making Lavender Ice Cream at Bocuse

Pike At American Bounty

Duck at American Bounty

Dessert At American Bounty

There is a lot more to see and do in the Hudson River Valley including wineries, local farms, cute small towns, cruising the river and West Point but we intentionally did not try and squeeze too much in so we had time to relax and enjoy the picturesque setting as well as tour some sites.

 

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My wife and I visited Costa Rica from January 6 – 15, 2018.   It is a remarkable country both politically and naturally.   A stable democracy surrounded by countries that have gone through political upheaval, dictatorship and civil war, Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 and put the money into education and healthcare.   Only slightly above the equator, with long shorelines along the Caribbean and the Pacific and  with diverse typography, Costa has a remarkable diversity of climates, habitats, flora and fauna, with more species of birds in this tiny country than in all of North America.    After clearing much of its rainforests for grazing land and agriculture, Costa Rica began to restore it natural environment decades ago and is now a prime location for eco tourism, with much of the country designated as nature preserves.

Costa Rica also offers a very nice lifestyle and very friendly people, almost all of whom speak English.   The universal phrase is “Pura Vida”, which means pure life in Spanish but is the way Ticos live. Costa Rica has been named one of the happiest countries in the world, mostly because its inhabitants don’t stress about things the way most foreigners do. Ticos have a very relaxed, simple way of life.  The phrase “Pura Vida can be used as a response to “How are you?” but also as hello, goodbye and great.

Our goals for the trip were to experience Costa Rica’s diverse ecology and have time for rest and relaxation.   We planned the trip through our travel agent, Louise Kemper of Travel Experts, who worked with local tour company, Rico Tours.   Based on our travel agent’s advice, we split our roughly 10 day trip between two locations, one near the Arenal Volcano, in the north central part of Costa Rica in the rainforest, and Guanacaste on the Pacific Coast.   Average temperatures in January are in mid-70s in the rainforests near Arenal, with almost daily chances for a little rain, and in the mid-80s on the Pacific coast with little chance of rain.

Logistics – We were able to fly from Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) airport directly to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, via Southwest and returned from Liberia in the northwest of the country to BWI via Houston, TX on Southwest.    Our tour company arranged private drivers and vans to get us from the San Jose airport to our resort new Arenal, Nayara Springs, from Nayara Springs to our second resort on the Pacific Coast, the J.W. Marriott Guanacaste, and from the J.W. to the airport in Liberia.  The drive from San Jose to Arenal takes you over the continental divide and through cloud forests and rain forests and is quite a scenic trip.

We considered some in-country air options for the trip from Arenal to the Pacific coast but were glad we elected to use vans because a charter flight crashed in Costa Rica the week before we arrived.   Costa Rican roads are a mixed bag but probably better than remembered by visitors who have been there a number of years ago.  Most roads are well-paved, well maintained two lane highways and not very crowded outside population centers.   We traveled on one stretch of new four-lane divided limited access highway near Liberia and hopefully there is more of this to come.    Side roads, however, can be heavily pot holed and partially washed out, making for a slow and very bumpy ride.   We were warned about bad roads and the need for motion sickness medicine for the car from others who had visited but only encountered relatively short stretches of really bad roads, and we survived without motion sickness medication.    It might be a bit worse if you were traveling on a big bus instead of a private van that is able to maneuver around some of the pot holes.

Nayara Springs Resort – The Nayara Springs Resort is an exclusive boutique hotel with only about 60 individual villas, each featuring a large bedroom, living room, two dressing areas, a large indoor and an outdoor shower and a patio with queen size lounge, hammock and 6 ft x 10 ft private soaking pool fed from a natural hot spring.   Daily laundry, twice daily maid service, a private concierge and option of breakfast in room are all included.    There are three restaurants, a coffee bar, fitness center with yoga sessions daily and a spa on site, as well as additional restaurants and a wine bar on an adjoining property operated by the same company.   The resort offers once daily shuttle service into La Fortuna and now offers its own private tours to nearby attractions.  We found the private tours offered by the hotel to be only modestly more expensive than group tours offered by others and Nayara Springs’ tours included a wonderful picnic lunch with wine and beer.   Nayara Springs is one of the nicest resorts in which we have ever stayed and the lush grounds and on-site nature trails give you the opportunity to experience Costa Rica’s beauty without even leaving the hotel.

Nayara Springs Villas

Bedroom Nayara Springs

Soaking Pool Nayara Springs Fed By Hot Spring

Arenal Volcano – We did two excursions near the Arenal Volcano, one was to the Mistico Hanging Bridges Park and the other to the lava flow from the 1969 eruption.   Mistico Hanging Bridges Park offers a hike along well tended mostly-paved trails over a series of fixed and hanging bridges through the rain forest.   With an attentive eye and the help of a good guide you can see an amazing diversity of plants and animals in a wonderful environment in the canopy of the rain forest.   There are some steep patches on the Hanging Bridges Park trail and you have to be comfortable crossing  hanging bridges, some at pretty good heights above the ground, but on the whole the hike is not too rigorous.   Much better seeing animals and birds with a private guide, hopefully carrying a spotting scope, than with a group.  The lava walk is interesting but with much younger (post 1969 eruption) vegetation, a less scenic natural setting and more strenuous hiking conditions.

Hanging Bridges Park

Arenal Volcano

Mukmuk in Hanging Bridges

Coatimundi

Sloth In Hanging Bridges

There are a number of other areas for touring from hotels in the Arenal volcano area but we choose to avoid those with multi-hour van rides and full day itineraries so we could enjoy some R&R at our hotel.  Both our hotel and our tour company, Rico Tours, offered lots of touring options that you can review before you go.

J.W. Marriott Guanacaste – The J.W. Marriott is a much larger property than Nayara Springs with good-size but traditional hotel rooms, five restaurants, an oceanfront bar and a large pool complex and beach.  It is located within a large private golf and beach community know as Hacienda Pinillia on the Guanacaste peninsula south of Tamarindo.   Both the community and the J.W. Marriott Resort were very nice, but not as nice as the Nayara Springs Resort in terms of accommodations, amenities or service.   The large pool complex, with plentiful lounge chairs and pool side drink and food service, is the best feature of the J.W. Marriott.  The biggest negative to the J.W. Marriott is that it is somewhat isolated and the road between the highway and Hacienda Pinillia is a couple of miles of potholes.  We ate all our meals at the J.W. Marriott.  The food was good and there was enough variety among the restaurants for our four night stay.  Our room came with a buffet breakfast and our favorite restaurants were the pool and beachside Azul Grill for lunch and the Sabanero Steak House for dinner.   Portions were very large and we shared entrees, salads and sandwiches for most meals.

J.W. Marriott Pool From Room

J.W. Marriott Pool

J.W. Marriott Beach

Howler Monkey at Hacienda Pinillia

Coast Near Tamarindo – We did two outings to coastal areas near Tamarindo and the J.W. Marriott.  One was a boat tour of a mangrove forest along Estero de Playa Grande where it meets Tamarindo Bay and the other on the beach near Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas.    On the mangrove forest tour we saw a crocodile and many different birds and on the beach we saw sea turtles laying their eggs.   According to guides the crocodiles do occasionally pick off surfers who chose to swim across the relatively narrow Estero de Playa Grande that separates two beaches on Tamarindo Bay despite warning signs and numerous shuttle boats.   Our tours to the coast near Tamarindo were group tours with multiple-hotel pickups in small vans but featured good guides and attentive staff.  We arranged these tours through Swiss Travel, which has an office at the J.W. Marriott.   The walk to and from the beach at night to see the sea turtles was fairly rigorous and requires you to traverse the beach in total darkness.

Crocodile Near Tamarindo Bay

Heron On Mangrove Tour

Blackback Turtle Laying Eggs

Costa Rica As A Retirement Option – On many lists, Costa Rica is ranked among the top overseas locations for Americas looking for an affordable retirement location.   While we did not inspect retirement housing options during our vacation in Costa Rica, I can see its appeal, particularly for those living in the West and Southwest for whom it is a relatively short trip.   What makes Costa Rica stand out is its stable democracy, good healthcare system and diverse and pleasant climate.  Everyone readily accepts dollars and almost everyone speaks English, making it a particularly easy place for Americans to live.  Our sense is that U.S. retirees favor the Pacific coast where communities appealing to such people abound.

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