Author Archives: Sophia's Travel

Venice Transfers

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Venice is amazing city, but the tourists pay more for privilege of seeing it. While other cities have public airport bus, Uber etc, in Venice there are only boats (public and private).

Some thing to consider for Venice

On arrival, we recommend to take pre-booked transfer with private water taxi and assistant. Consider this: you arrive from overseas with jet lag, tired and trust me, you do not want to negotiate public transportation. I travel to Europe every 2 months and I am not a stranger to Venice. Last trip a month ago, I planned to arrive Venice during the day, and take public transportation. My flight has been re-routed from Frankfurt to Zurich due to Lufthansa strike and I arrived later in the day. So much for planning! My hotel was in Lido.

I used Alialaguna (public boats service) before. They are going every half an hour from airport to Lido and Venice Island. After getting my suitcase, bought the ticket at Alialaguna counter (15 euros) and asked when and where is next boat. The lady told me: the dock and next boat will be in 12 minutes (8:30pm boat, 1 hour ride). I got my suitcase, and ran. I followed the signs and got in 8 minutes instead of 10. I congratulated myself on maraphon run and settled in the boat for 1 hour ride to Lido. Then, looking at my purse, to my horror I realized that I do not have a wallet! I left it at Alialaguna counter! I notified the captain of the boat and he already knew about it! The ticket office called him. I needed to get off at 9pm at next stop, Murano and to take next boat back to the airport. Next boat came at 9:40pm. Murano is commuter island and in the evening there are no people. I was sitting at the dock alone. I thought I should not worry about being robbed since I did not have a wallet! Next boat came and I started to explain that I do not have money to pay for a ticket, but they already knew! It took another 30 min go back to airport and kind Alilaguna employees brought my wallet to the dock. I applaud them! They are my heroes!

So, in any case, the boat took me to Lido and what would have been 1 hour trip, turned out to be 3 hours.

So the morale of the story is – take a private transfer! I would not have to deal with ticket, taking out my wallet and if I would need to go back to airport for some reason, I would just tell private boat captain to turn around and go back!

Why assistant? Assistant will meet you at the terminal and will go to the dock and will escort you to you your private boat. Since location of private boat is not fixed, you will need to communicate with captain over the phone. You might find it, but there are possibilities for failure. As your private travel designer, we are responsible for your transfer and we do not want any possibilities for failure. So if you do not want an assistant, we would rather not take chance and will not book water taxi only.

Pay attention which hotel you book at Venice Island if you have considerate amount of luggage.

Some hotels, if better priced and seem centrally located, but might not have access to the dock. In some cases, you will need to take your luggage from the nearest dock to hotel and it might be crossing some foot bridges. If you cannot handle it, check with us for hotel with an easy access. Also hotels which a located on smaller, side canals, and sometimes they cannot be reached by water taxi depending on tides. Also some hotels even located on Grand Canal, but not with private dock, but they use other landing area. Which brings me to the next subject – if you can travel light to Venice, please do. It will simplify your life.

So here are our list of services for transfers. All transfers include private boat, if needed vehicle (for example from port), and luggage up to 6 suitcases. Please inquire for prices – advise date, time, flight or train or cruise ship info, number of people and we will give you exact price. There is a supplement for late night transfer and holiday supplement.

Meet & Greet from Marco Polo airport to Your Hotel
Meet your personal assistant at the arrival hall and, together with your chauffeur, head towards Venice. First by car and then by boat. Your personal assistant will give you first orientation information. Location of your hotel, main attractions to see during your stay, meeting with the guide and so on. While on the boat, enjoy a panoramic short tour of Venice, riding towards your hotel you’ll get to shoot some pictures of the Grand Canal.
(Includes: a personal assistant, Mercedes car with a private chauffeur, porterage service and a private water boat)

Meet & Greet from Marco Polo airport to Your Cruise Ship
Meet your personal assistant at the arrival hall and, together with your chauffeur, head towards your Cruise Ship in Venice. Your personal assistant will give you first orientation information, main attractions to see during your stay, meeting with the guide and so on.
(Includes: a personal assistant, Mercedes car with a private chauffeur and porterage service)

Airport VIP Meet & Greet – it is a great service and clients love it
You will be met and welcomed at the door of the aircraft by our staff. You’ll be then accompanied straight through passport control and baggage claim, to meet your personal assistant and chauffeur, which will wait for you at the arrival hall. Continue with the Mercedes towards your boat, having a porter service for your luggage and enjoy a short ride by boat towards your hotel. Your personal assistant will give you orientation info with all the interesting things going on in town during these days.
(Includes: a VIP service from the door of the craft, a personal assistant, a chauffeur, porterage service and a private water boat)

From Train Station to your hotel
Meet your personal assistant and your porterage service at your arrival platform and head straight to your private water limo. Together, head towards your hotel passing through the Grand Canal. Your personal assistant will give you
first orientation information.
(Includes: a personal assistant, porterage service and a water boat)

 

Please note – we provide transfer services together with hotel and sightseeing.

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Dalmatia Blog September 2016

 

This report covers my latest trip to Croatia – to Dalmatian Coast. I visited Split, Trogir, Brac, few wineries and Zadar. Other parts of Croatia which I visited before are Dubrovnik and Zagreb which are also worth to visit but not visited this time.

The sites listed here are not in particular order.

Trogir is a small town and harbor, UNESCO Heritage site. It is the city with 2300 years of tradition. Its rich culture is created under the influence of old Greeks, Romans, Venetians. It is located within medieval walls on small island, connected to mainland by one bridge and to the island of Ciovo by second bridge. .    Its Patron is St. John.   As it can be expected authentic Trogir dishes (like all Dalmatian cuisine) are oriented to the seafood.

Below are some images of beautiful  Trogir.

 

We’ve met a chef Tatiana at the market and went shopping. Dalmatian food is light and healthy, based on Mediterranean diet. Characteristic of Dalmatian coastal cuisine is its digestibility and simple preparation. Fish, meat, or other cooked dishes are grilled or roasted, or lightly sautéed with adding some olive oil. Of course, taste depends on ingredients and all food we were shopping for our cooking class and lunch were on the market, fresh local vegetables, fruit, bread, cheese and seafood. We got sea bream, vegetables and fruit for salad, berries for desert, local cheese and bread. We went to Tatiana’s home which is a wonderful cozy house in the center if medieval town, within the walls, housed in former 13C palace. The tourists were sticking their heads in the front yard…

We dropped food at the house, and while Tatiana’s husband Kiah was setting the table, we went to see this small town. You can see it one hour, but the town was amazing with narrow picturesque cobblestone streets. In the main square, in the center, at the Cathedral, the  men quarter was singing traditional songs. We went to the harbor and saw large castle. We returned, and started to cook. We made staffed eggplant with vegetables and cheese and roasted in the oven, sautéed seabream, salad from fresh ingredients, Dalmatian version of ratatouille, cheese with honey and nuts, mascarpone cream, figs and pomegranate seeds for desert. This was supplemented by local wine, and great conversations.

After lunch, we reluctantly parted with Tatiana (I liked the fact that she has one room upstairs and maybe once I will get back to stay there for few nights. Breakfast and access to refrigerator is included so I can have all cooking classes leftovers!) . But we needed to go to next place.

We went back to Split, and took a ferry from the harbor to island Brac.  Brac is known for its stunning beach Zlatni Rat, on the South Coast of the island in the village of Bol. By getting on the jeep to the top of the island, we enjoyed great views. We visited new hotel Lemongarden (children not allowed there), it is nice upscale hotel on waterfront of Bol.

We saw the hermitage of the Glagolitic Order (Glagoljica – Croatian ancient alphabet) raised on the steep cliff. Blaca were established by Glagolitic priests from Poljica that fled to island of Brac running away from the Turks. In 1552. they established monastic community and in 1570 they got permission from the bishop to raise monastery and church. They produced wine, honey and other cultures – by time they became very powerful and rich. Being wealthy, they built a world known astronomic observatory.  Very unique place!

We continued to Senkovic winery on the island and had wine tasting with paired food. The food was cooked by owner’s young wife and she had the talent of Michelin Chef. The dishes were exquisitely prepared and presented.

We got back to Split by ferry and this concluded our busy and interesting day.

Here is the video of Trogir, market, cooking and lunch.

 

 

Split. We had a morning tour of Split with local guide and inspected some hotels in Old Town. Split is unique because the ancient center lies within the walls of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s summer palace which was built in 3c ad. Later on, XV-18C it was ruled by Venice and became as one of the major trading ports and there were built magnificent Renaissance palaces. Habsburg took control in XIX century, and it was well integrated in their empire.

So it is a very interesting town to explore (called Grad), all historic monuments lay within walls of Diocletian Palace and they even have s Sphinx from Egypt. Diocletian owned Egypt, so he could take from there whatever he wanted.  Jewish travelers find of interest a synagogue of Split. We even have a Jewish guide, member of Jewish community to conduct tour and introduce you to local community.

Game of Throne fans will see many spots which were featured in the movie. So Split has everything for everyone!

Here is video of Split

After Split, we left the town for Zadar. One the way we visited Bibich winery in Sibenik  but it the food paired with wine was more like commercial (of course were spoiled by small Senkovich winery) but the wines were good. Looks more like California winery..

We arrived Zadar and checked into hotel 4* Relais and Chateaux Bastion.

Zadar was yet another small town, located on a small peninsula 4 km long and 500 meters wide. It has beautiful Roman ruins, medieval churches and palaces. It had lovely promenade where we spent some time and had a dinner. I loved Sea Organ – so unusual! Designed by local Architect Nicola Basic, it has pipes in stairs, descending into the sea. When water moves, the pipes produce sounds. The sounds increase when large ship or ferry sails by.  We went there by sunset and enjoyed music and lights color.

Here is a slideshow of my trip.

 

 

Copyrights of Sophia’s Travel, 2016

 

Review of Zaika restaurant London

Today I tried Indian restaurant Zaika in Kensington. It is part of Tamarind Collection in Mayfair, which was the first fine dining Indian restaurant in the world to receive a Michelin star.  I settled on tasting menu which makes choices easy: they bring you everything on sample menu so different dishes can be tasted.

From their website quote:

True to the name, Zaika of Kensington offers authentic flavours of the subcontinent with an emphasis on refined, creative and contemporary cuisine from the Awadhi traditions of Northern India. Awadhi is heavily influenced by the Mughal and Nawabi styles and offers preparations that are an indulgent mix of flavours and spices, creating gourmet spreads that may be described as nothing less than royal. Served in fitting ambience too.

Zaika first opened its doors to diners back in 1999 and is one of the few Indian restaurants to hold two prestigious AA rosettes. It wasn’t until November of 2012, that Zaika joined the ranks of Tamarind Collection. And the reimagined Zaika is now ready to welcome guests with a menu that features all the usual favourites and some new ones. Under the able guidance of Head Chef Shoeb Haider, Zaika is all set to serve epicurean delights that are sure to satisfy even the most sophisticated of palates.

That alone get me drawn to this place to try it.

First came chips which had pleasant unusual taste, and light texture. They were potato/chick peas chips and came with 3 types of chutney, one of which was bettroot.

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First starter was a plate with 3 items:  Channat Chaat – siced chickpeas, with yogurt ad tamarind chutney, POtato and Green Peas cake , and Malai Tikka – Tamarind chicken. All of them very good. They were complimented by spicy mint sauce.

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Second started had Tiger Prawn and Smoked salmon baked in Tandoori oven. Prawn was large and had texture of lobster. I think Prawn was overpowered by Tandoori Sauce but salmon was nice and tender. These are all small sample by the way!

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Next came Main course with samples:

  1. chicken tikka simmered in sauce of browned garlic, tomato, cream and spices. It was very good.
  2. Lamb simmered with spices , yougurt and red chile paste. It was a little dry at least more dry as I expected. Sauce was good.
  3. Saag Paneer with spinach, garlic and cumin  , it was good
  4. Very tasty vegetarian dish – black tiny lentils –

The main course was served in attractive stainless steel small pots and accompanied by Naan bread with truffles (at least it tasted like truffles), and basmati rice. It was good to soak sauces in rice and naan.

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I washed this meal down with a glass of Rose wine.

Desert was brownie and hazelnuts, somewhat moist. I prefr haselnutys crispy. I am i general not fond of brownies, but they were on the bed of very good chocolate sauce and it helped 🙂 . And, Mango Ice cream was delicious.

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After dinner, they also served raspberry petit-fours and small chocolate shells with cinnamon cream inside. Delicious.

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The sophisticated decor is a mix of modern and British colonial , with large windows, nice photos on the walls.  Bathrooms have Occitane toiletries and very nice. There is touch of incense smell in the air.

I recommend to try it even if you are not usually eating Indian food, it is a great experience.

 

 

 

 

 

Review of KItchen W8 restaurant, London

Kitchen W8 report, London, Kensigton

In search of interesting restaurants in London, I came across this one:  Kitchen W8, which is One Michelin Star restaurant.

Chef is British, but it is modern European cuisine. Décor is bright and modern. Good service. I came for lunch so I opted for 3 course tasting menu.

The bread and butter came in. Bread was excellent, whole wheat, crispy crust and light texture inside. Butter had few salt specks on top.

For appetizer/first course I chose Mackerel.  It was listed as “scorched fillet of Mackerel, Peanut, Blood Orange, Seaweed, Mussel and Monks Beard”.

Mackerel was exquisite, very tender. It was somewhat salted, with hint of herring taste, very light. It was placed on top of delicious white sauce with trace of seaweed taste and some delicious small pieces of either marinated apple or something similar in taste.  On the sides were mussels baked in pastry.  Everything was delicious, and I used that excellent bread to soak the rest of the sauce.

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Second course I chose Slow cooked duck leg with Tokyo Turnip, Young Chard and Smoked beetroot.

Duck leg was small, perfectly cooked, with crispy skin, not too much fat underneath, maybe it was young duckling? The meat was tender and was just falling of bones. It was perfectly complemented with smoked beetroot. I never tasted smoked beetroot, but it was delicious.  Sautéed Swiss chard was surprisingly very good.

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There was though turnip which I was not excited about. I tried to savor it, it was perfectly prepared, but I still think some small potato dish would work better especially with smoked beetroot. There is Russian potato beet salad which I like so this taste combo is familiar to me. Maybe not for everybody though. But duck was excellent.  I again, cleaned plate with bread.

Desert was  Pont D’Yeu – it is very nice and tender French goat cheese, served with carrot chutney, sunflower seeds , few springs of rocket and wafers. Wafers were toasted Hazelnut bread slices crispy, but at the same time brittle. It was again excellent choice.

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I did not order wine, and had sparking water with lemon – local KIngsdown water bottle.

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I finished with cup of tea. It was steeped in the teakettle, just I like. I only wish they had thin porcelain cups not thick ones. I believe tea is better sampled in thin cups.

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Bill came in with chocolate truffles, crispy outside and some liquid chocolate inside, delicious. Looked like homemade..

The best part, the price is bargain for London, especially for 1 Michelin star restaurant. It was 25 GBP. Plus mandatory 12.5% gratuity but I would pay for it anyway.  Tea and mineral water was extra.

It is located in a 11-13 Abingdon Rd off High Kensigton st.

www.kitchenw8.com

Service was very good and bathrooms are clean and nice.

 

 

Highclere Castle – Downton Abbey and Ritz Carlton

We are delighted to announce an exclusive experience with Ritz Carlton with Highclere Castle or ‘The Real Downton Abbey’, the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.  Guests will enjoy a three -course lunch accompanied with wine in the state dining room at Highclere Castle.

An expert guide will give a private tour of The Egyptian Exhibition, (which explores the fascinating discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1922), followed by a selection of the magnificent state rooms. Guests will also be able to explore the grounds of the Castle.

Downton Abbey has developed a close relationship with The Ritz, beginning in the fourth season, when a young footman won a place at the prestigious Ritz Academy to receive training in the hotel’s kitchens and, culminating in the finale of series six, where key scenes were filmed in the beautiful Ritz Restaurant.

This package includes:

  • Two nights’ accommodation at The Ritz with arrival on Monday 29th February 2016
  • Dinner in The Ritz Restaurant on Monday 29th February 2016
  • English Breakfast each morning
  • Coach transfer to Highclere Castle on Tuesday 1st March 2016
  • Three-course lunch with wine in the state dining room at Highclere Castle
  • Private tour of Highclere Castle, the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and setting of acclaimed British television drama Downton Abbey
  • A private photographer and your own photographs to take home
  • An exclusive Ritz Gift

This two-night stay starts from $6400  for one of Ritz Carlton beautifully appointed Deluxe Rooms, inclusive of Value Added Tax, based on two people sharing, and is available for guests arriving on 29th February 2016.

Reservations are non-refundable and must be pre-paid and confirmed by 29th January 2016.
Email for reservations: info@mytravelfind.com or call 1-877-466-2934

Sophia’s Travel Travel Agents Fam trip to Naples

Naples, Italy Oct 15-22, 2015

This was just the third part of our Italy trip in October.  Our trip started with a Travel Market business meeting in Rimini,  a seaside town of 145K inhabitants on the Adriatic Sea.  My partner and I  then split up.  I went to Cinqua Terre region and he spent time in Florence and the surrounding Tuscany region.  We finally met up days later in Florence and rented a car.  The next few days, we checked out properties in Tuscany and Umbria and finally, we took a 4-hour drive down the Autostrade on A1 to Naples.

Our base for the 5 night experience was the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia, a 4* built in 1900.  It is right on the Bay of Naples, with the vista including: the seaside fortress of Castel dell’Ovo, a 19th century small fishing village, and Mt Vesuvius. The Castle is the location of the first Greek fortification in the 6th Century BC, and has been rebuilt many times. The castle’s name comes from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who had a reputation in medieval times as a great sorcerer and predictor of the future. In the legend, Virgil put a magical egg into the foundations to support the fortifications. Had this egg been broken, the castle would have been destroyed and a series of disastrous events would have transpired in the city of Naples.

A bit about Naples.

Naples’ historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its museums boast some of Europe’s best archeology. The city’s history remains a fundamental component of present day society.This  is revealed in numerous archaeological ruins, monuments and buildings. The people are friendly, and Neapolitan cuisine is honest, authentic and most delicious. Proud birthplace of pizza, which is midway between refined cuisine and a traditional working-class meal, Neapolitan pizza has been one of the region’s main dishes and a symbol of Neapolitan gastronomy since the 18th Century. The region also boasts: the best pasta and coffee, fresh and delicious seafood dishes, and street snacks and sweet treats — from thick-crusted rectangular pizzas to deep-fried sugared dough. We intend to look beyond the grime and graffiti and discover amazing frescoes, sculptures, magnificent vistas of Vesuvius, and warm people with lively and thought-provoking conversations filled with legends and humanity.

October 17,  Saturday.

Antonella, my partner in Amalfi Coast and tour organizer for this trip, advised us against taking a car into Naples and instructed us, instead, to drop it off at  the airport. This  was a very wise decision. It was relatively easy drive to the airport and drop off the car.  I called Antonella, and she was, in fact, on the way to pick us up. (Naples airport is only 30 min or so from the ciy center.)
We were off to hotel to meet our tour participants – a group of travel agents for a week- long educational tour of Naples and the surrounding area.

After we had some time to check-in and explore the vistas and waterfront promenade/exercise path, the group met for personal  introductions and an orientation. Then, we departed to familiarize ourselves with this region,  new even to me region – Phlegraean Peninsula.

 

Naples Phlegraean Amphitheatre

Antonella invited local experts for this area, which included a geologist, an anthropologist, and a historian and archeologist to join us for that evening.

 

The day was like a mini seminar or rather a candy store of information for your mind.

Phlegraean Peninsula, located just north of Naples on the coast, had: two amphitheaters, ancient ruins, an old Greek fishing market, and an array of underwater artifacts from a long ago forgotten home submerged in very shallow water.  There are snorkel and scuba dive centers locally that will gladly help you visit the protected sites. You can also learnLearn about the geology of the region, especially the cauldron and then you can actually  visit an ancient aquifer used by the Greeks, Romans, and all the conquerors through the centuries.   While in this area, we visited the Church of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples.  His blood has reportedly been saved in a vial and kept in the church.  It allegedly liquefies once a year.  This is the same San Gennaro, for whom  the feast is  celebrated in New York’s Little Italy.  There is no place in Italy where street food, espresso, and friendly people do not enhance your experience.

Naples Macellum

 

October 18, Sunday.

Capri by private boat.

After breakfast, our driver picked us up for our departure to Sorrento, where we  boarded a private boat for day trip to Capri.  You can also take a ferry from Sorrento to Capri but the best way to do is to explore by private boat. We had a captain at our disposal, and he told us he would sail around island and will dock where we wish.

A boat trip across the scintillating waters of the Bay of Naples leads to this stunning and legendary island, surrounded by rose-tinted rocks and coves washed by a translucent sea, giving it the look of a precious marine gem.

Over the years, enchanting Capri has attracted its fair share of superstars. Cesar Augustus had a particular love for the island and, more recently, its guest list has included Naomi Campbell and George Clooney.

We arrived at Capri, docked, went up by funicalr to Anacapri, with its spectacular vistas. The whitewashed houses, cobbled stone streets, and the views over the Amalfi coast are jaw-dropping.  We had lunch in one of the outside cafés, shopped for souvenirs, including the famous “Capri Watch”. One highlight is the Church of San Michele, which was once part of an ancient monastery. Decending, we hopped into two open-air taxis, pink colored (!) Cuban style!

While in Capri, you must take the time to visit the enchanting Blue Grotto, one of the island’s wonders. The visit inside the sea cave by row boat is remarkable, but alas, there were very long boat lines to get in, so we skipped it. For clients we usually prebook it but we kept for this day itinerary flexible.

Back to the boat, the captain set sail to the beautiful east side, to see the subject of one of the most famous postcards of Capri, Monte Solaro, the Bay of Marina Piccola, and the Faraglioni.

It was an enjoyable day and the weather also cooperated.

In the evening, we journeyed to the Tunnels which were a sneak-peek preview of the Museum to be opened in December. The volunteers did an amazing job! We wandered on, through the interconnected passageways, below the bustling Neapolitan streets, and saw aqueducts that had been used for 23 centuries. Then, we descended 121 steps deeper to the air-raid shelters. In 1941, almost 250 miles of tunnels and waterways under Naples were cleared of water and refuse, most wells were sealed, and stairways were built and electricity installed. The Neapolitans, who waited in the shelters as bombs pounded overhead, left markers of their tense days and weeks there: drawings on walls of bombs and planes, and the word “aiuto” (help).

Afterwards, we had dinner in one of the waterfront cafés near our hotel.

October 19, Monday: Naples walking.

10:00am. After breakfast, we took our minibus  into the center of town to meet our local guide Roberto.

We began with  a panoramic tour to the  top. Here, at the observation point, Roberto explained  the history of Naples – from a Greek settlement in 470 bc  it grew and expanded and was  therefore  called “Neapolis” – “New City”.

Naples is very ancient city, built layer over layer on  volcanic stone called “tufo”.  Later, the Romans came and excavated the tufo and building aqueducts. We saw samples of the Roman excavations also. Then we went to see Roman Theater.  It has exceptional views from  hillto sea.

We continued on to Fontanella cemetery, where Roberto, with local flair and exuberance, relished us with old stories and legends of love and the unfortunate “little skull” venerated by the Neapolitan people and linked to  Neapolitan tradition. This is where, in the 1600s, they interned all the victims of the black plague.  It has recently been rearranged, with 40,000 skulls sitting on a 1 meter bed of long bones, lined up along the walls of the catacombs.  Locals visit the place light candles and “adopt” skulls, thinking they will grant them wishes.

Naples Plagues skulls closeup

We were back in town to see the typical streets and alley ways of the Naples – with the laundry hanging to dry. These narrow streets  are actually a UNESCO World Heritage site and thetrue heart of the city.

By now we  were hungry and Roberto took us to the really local places, where we enjoyed local food. Of  course this included pizza in different forms – fried pizza, baked pizza and the city specialty “arancini” –fried rice balls with meat filling.  That was at the famous “Pizzeria del Presidente” which former president Clinton visited years ago.

After pizza, we went outside and sampled delicious deserts from street vendors, and we were just on time to have a sweet little break to try the real Neapolitan coffee with the famous “sfogliatella “, in one of the oldest bakery of Naples.

Afterwards, we continued to Piazza Dante, where we will entered the ancient heart of Naples, through Port’Alba, one of the four citygates..  We passed among the old craftmen’s shops: the luthiers, the artisans making cribs, the booksellers, the potters, the Hospital of dolls. We passed through the famous “Spaccanapoli” and in  particular, the Via San Gregorio Armeno, famous for its “Christmas shopping”. We ended up in the historic center of the city a beautiful place, with monuments. . It was an unique opportunity to learn about the peculiar everyday customs  of the people of Naples!

Next we went to the synagogue, where Roberto gave us and in-depth inspection, and also talked  about the Jewish community in Naples, of which he, himself is a member.

Afterwards, we visited the famous Cappella Sansevero – a museum, built in the late-Baroque style, which houses almost 30 works of art..  The A Christ Veiled under a Shroud (also called Veiled Christ), shows the influence of the veiled Modesty. Itwas completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino.  This piece alone was worth the time and cost of the visit!

veiled jesus

 

In the evening, we joined together for our welcome pizza dinner. It featured the famous Neapolitan Pizza in an old, traditional pizzeria, withspecial historic, conic-shaped ovens.

October 20, Tuesday: Sorrento – Positano

We drove to Sorrento after breakfast.

Heading south from Naples along the Bay ,with is vistas of the Isle of Capri and Mt Vesuvius, was majestic thrill. The road propels  you long the side of the bare cliff –  the mountain on one side and a shear drop to the Bay of Naples on the other.

Pastel-washed towns spill down the cliffs towards the sea. Beautiful trailing bougainvillea and zesty lemon groves add the perfect finishing touches. Sorrento is a picturesque town with a vibrant population, cafés, stores, artisans, an opera house and historic grand hotels with terraces that offer impressive views.  Our local guide, Angie, took us for brief walk to show us her hometown. Besides the street scenes, we visited a cameo shop and watched the artisans perform their craft.

There is a lift that takes you down from the mountain height to the beach and marina.  Once down, we then took our minibus further south to Positano.

We arrived in time for our lunch appointment in the famous  5* hotel, Le Sirenuse

 

Le Sirenuse commands one of the premier spots on the southernmost side of the town.  It has been used as the location in several movies, most recently the 1994 film “Only You” starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. The restaurant boasts a Michelin-starred chef and hosted our magnificent lunch.  Positano is cut into and built up along both sides of the  mountain cliffs.  The cut looks as though it was made through the ages by a river, which once led to the sea.  Positano’s near-vertical alleys, crammed with cafés and boutiques, shower down the cliff-side, each one with its own perfect view  We got to experience this from an insider’s perspective with our local guide, Lucia. She took us on a walking tour where we visited some off-beat, un-touristy, unique places in the nooks and crannies of the hillside.

October 21, Wednesday: Irpinia wine tasting.

Naples is the capital of the Campania region of Italy. The region itself has numerous calls to fame.  These include the sun drenched Amalfi Coast, aka the Italian Riviera, with its old Castles set in the mountains and picturesque villages hidden behind the rocks.  The region is also known as a place for skiing, strolling through the woods, and tasting good cheese and great wines.  The wine region centers around the town of Irpinia, about 40 km east of Naples, where you can relax, while drinking a glass of wine in the garden and admiring the views of vineyards and olive trees over the surrounding hills.

We traveled to Irpinia and  met Gaetano, a local wine producer. He first took us to  a farm to see how Mozzarella is made, and we sampled some mozzarella and another local specialty cheese.

We then proceeded  to a small farmhouse, which also has few rooms and functions as B&B. The grapes were still plump on the vines.  We tasted both red and white, and with each, the flavor exploded in our mouths. These over-ripened grapes were left to harvest later for sweeter desert wines.  We were served a wonderful home cooked meal with local wines.  Italy has this “zero kilometer agrotourismo policy”.  Everything you eat is grown and consumed locally.  Nothing is consumed outside the range,  except for certain staples like sugar, salt, and pepper.

We continued to a working winery, to sample more wine, local olive oil and cheese.

We napped a bit on the hour’s drive back to  Naples. Then, we got ready for another wonderful evening – a  show and dinner in a very typical Neapolitan restaurant, where performers  sing and dance to old Neapolitan music, as they move among the tables. They even sang Sinatra for us as they announced for “Antonella’s Americani”!J

October 22, Thursday: Hercolaneum and Vesuvio.

After our hotel breakfast, we met today’s local guide, Ludovica to go Hercolaneum.

When Vesuvius erupted on 24 August AD 79, it engulfed two flourishing Roman towns, leaving an impression of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the wealthier citizens of the Early Roman Empire. Most people are aware of the destruction of Pompeii that occurred on August 24, 79 A.D. The ruins of Pompeii are world famous. Each year thousands of visitors flock to Italy to view the archeological wonder, and they are one of the most visited attractions in the country.  We visited the lesser known town of Herculaneum,  on the other side of Vesuvius.  While the mountain spurted out rocks and ash, the heavy materials carried by the prevailing winds crashed down upon Pompeii, crushing most of it.  Herculaneum, on the other side of the mountain, was upwind and spared of its sister city’ss wrath of raining debris.  Instead it was flooded with mud and filled from the bottom up.  It was not immediately excavated because the Romans had no way for digging into the hardened mud and meters of covering ash.  So the city sat, and when it was finally uncovered some buildings still had their roofs intact. The marble statues were where they had been, and the plaster on the walls was mostly preserved, including the frescos!  It’s smaller than Pompeii, less crowded and easier to navigate.

We then visited a working winery on this sameside of Mt Vesuvius.  The sulfur from the mountain eruptions concentrates in the local soil, making for a very robust grape and hearty wine.  We had a wonderful meal and enjoyed the wine very much.

After lunch, we continued our tour to the top of Vesuvius where the tragedy had begun. We visited and walked through the lava fields and learned the history. We visited the big crater and enjoyed panoramic views over the Bay of Naples.

We still had time before to goingto airport, so ventured to historic Naples to look at B&B Neapolis Bellini, which Antonella and her partner Lisa own. It is located in a meticulously  restored historic building which used to be stables centuries ago. It does have a small elevator, but the marble stairs are beautiful. The 6 rooms are generous in size, but we only were able to see one, as the rest were occupied. We had some cofee, refreshed and departed for  the airport for our next destination, Palermo, Sicily.

That concluded our wonderful trip to the Naples area and Amalfi Coast, I strongly recommend it for anyone’s bucket list.

Link to the slideshow  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KXQHyZPjvk

copyrights of Sophia’s Travel, division of EMCO Travel, LLC

 

Sophia’s Travel Agent’s fam trip to Sicily

 

October 23, Friday – Palermo – Paceco, Trapani

We stayed at Grand Hotel Des Palmes which is the Grand dame of Palermo.

Breakfast at this hotel was one I will long remember.  The Grand Hotel des Palmes was a stately  old hotel that showed its age, but the large room that held the breakfast buffet was exceptional — if for no other reason than they had a make-your-own cannoli station.

We met our local guide, Bianca in the hotel lobby.

We began with a private walking tour through the old squares and street markets of the city center that date back to the Arab period.  We experienced local specialty foods – from street vendors and in old establishments frequented by locals. We meandered through the Mercato del Capo’s spider web-like alleys located behind the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house and the casbah-style Ballarò food Market (our favorite). Of course we had the opportunity to sample some of the aforementioned specialties as well as street vendor favorites, such as panelle (fried chickpea rectangles) and crocché (perfectly-fried ovals of mashed potato and egg). We made our way to the main Cathedral, representing the best of Arab-Norman architecture and then to  the Renaissance period fountain of Piazza Pretoria. We then continued to  I Quattro Canti, the church of San Cataldo and the Baroque church of Santa Caterina.

The hospitality of “chez-Anna” was most memorable.   She invited us into her home, along a beautiful square with a picture perfect  view. Her relatives and friends were there, and she fed us and treated us as family, with the most wonderful family-style lunch.

In the afternoon we visited the Inquisition Museum.  Then, we departed towards Trapani for our accommodation in agroturismo Baglio Fontanasalsa.

I visited here previously  in February on and exploratory  trip with Barbara, my partner in Sicily.  In February, it was under construction/renovation, but the manager Collette and the lovely surroundings made an impression on me. They have olive trees, especially one 800 year old olive tree still bearing fruit. They have a a grapevine that is at least 120 years old and still producing sweet grapes. These hang from a trellis over the dining table and continue draping over a romantic courtyard.   Collette, with her hospitality and unique personality, is an attraction herself. There are 3 dogs running around. One is  a “talking dog,” who actually communicates with Collette.

Arriving agin now, there was  a bit of  commotion,  but we  quickly settled into the rooms. Then we came downstairs to explore the property and have some wine before dinner.

Fontanasalsa’s olive oils are exported to prestigious stores in Paris.  The complex is surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, lemon, orange and pomegranate orchard gardens..  We arrived in late afternoon and sat in the courtyard, enjoying the sunset with wine.  It looked like scene from a movie set.

Soon  it was dinnertime, with local simple food served family-style accompanied with Fontanasalsa’s local wine.  We lingered a bit after dinner and then went to sleep.

October 24, Saturday. Erice – Salt Route – Mozia

After ample breakfast at Fontanasalsa (I liked their jams), we left to explore local area.

 

Our first stop was Erice, a wonderfully preserved Medieval town, offering the most breathtaking views with a palpable sense of history. Strolling through the narrow streets, we admired its 60 churches and the ruins of the Pepoli Castle. We took  a “gourmet break” to taste the marzipan, cinnamon and sugar pastries  at Maria Grammatico‘s bake shop.  Maria  was born to a poor family, so her mother sent her to live in the convent with the nuns. From the nuns, she learned  how to make pastry, and it turned out she was really talented at it. We enjoyed her fresh baked pastries right from the oven.

Next,  we headed to the sea to follow the historic salt route. Blue skies highlighted the  scenery that incorporates shelter for migration birds via windmills and the so-called “salt houses,” which are actually mountains of salt-covered with protective tiles. The salt pans and windmills still function as they have for centuries.  Located just feet away, we had lunch in a wonderful trattoria.  Then we jumped on a boat, while singing the theme from “Gilligan’s Island”, and took a 15-minute excursion to the Phoenician isle of Mozia (Motya) to see the collection of Joseph Whitaker, the famed archaeologist and ornithologist, whose family made a fortune producing Marsala wine. The island was founded by the Phonecians in approximately 8BC. It has a small museum with the beautiful marble statue “The youth of Motya”.

Back on land after a return boat trip, we headed to taste Marsala wines in the oldest regional winery, Florio.  In this expansive place, replete with history and artifacts, we partook in a choreographed tasting led by our very  knowledgeable hostesses.

We returned to Fontanalasa for dinner.

October 25, Sunday – Valle dei Templi, Agrigento

In the morning, we toured Fontanasalasa.   We had a lovely snack alfresco in the olive garden with an invited musician, who played local folk music.  We even had the chance to harvest our own olives and watch as they were processed into cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.  Afterwards, Colette gifted us with abottle of our own product!  We finished with lunch and more wine and olive oil.

After lunch, we bid  farewell to Colette, her staff and dogs and  departed for our next destination.

Agrigento VOTT city vista

We traveled southeast around the Island of Sicily towards Agrigento.  I was surprised the most by the lack of traffic;, there were hardly any other vehicles along the way.  We passed majestic  rolling hills dotted  with farms producing either wine or olives.  The ambience was peacefully serene, as though we were back in time.  After 2 hours and 15 minutes, we arrived and  met our local guide on cue,as we got off the minibus to visit the Valley of the Temples.

The temples were erected in the Fifth century BC, following the ancient principle (Greek as well as Roman), “face East”. In this way, the rising sun would first illuminate the statue of the Divinity, as a principle of life. The archaeological area known as the Valley of the Temples is one of the most important archeological sites in the world. It has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1998. Along an outstretched rocky scarp, chosen as the southern limit of the town, are still sited the great temples of ancient Akragas. These include the Temple of Hera (Juno) Lacinia, Concordia, Heracles (Hercules), Olympian Zeus (Jupiter), Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri) and Hephaistos (Vulcan). Further down, on the bank of the Akragas River, near a medical spring, stood the Temple dedicated to Asklepius (Eusculapius), the god of medicine. At the mouth of the river there was the harbor and emporium (trading-post) of the ancient city.  These Temples were built along one line and a single pathway led us past each one.  These are older than the Acropolis of Athens but still, some of the temples were very much intact. The British did not borrow the frieze from these Temples as they did with the Parthenon, which was also damaged in 1687 by the Venetians during the Morean War.

Dinner was in local restaurant with a beautiful view overlooking the temples.

October 26, Sunday. Piazza Armerina, Caltagirone, Siracusa

We stayed in an old Arab style Kasbah, Baglio de La Luna, with breathtaking night views of the Valley.

We then took an inland route, passing by two very notable sights that were the focus of our touring today. Upon arrival in the mountain town of Piazza Armerina, we visited the renowned Villa Romana del Casale, one of the grand attractions of Sicily, boasting the largest and best preserved collection of Roman Mosaics in the world. This place was thought to be the summer palace of the regional Roman commander. It was lost then found and the artistry is impressive.

We left and continued 45 minutes to Caltagirone, famous for its pottery production. Here the main sights include an Aragonese Castle, built at the end of the Fourteenth century and an imposing, Eighteenth Century Duomo. The architectural highlight is undoubtedly the 142 steps of the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte that connect the lower town with the older upper town. Each step is decorated with ceramic tiles. We visited a pottery factory and learned the secrets of this ancient art.

Finally we drove off to the east to Siracusa with accommodations in the historic center, Ortigia.

October 27, Monday, Siracusa, Noto

Our driver and guide picked us up from the hotel, and we departed for a 30-minute drive to Noto.  I was amazed by the beauty of the Sicilian Baroque as we explored Noto. Noto is one of the seven villages, rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693. The flowing ornate buildings and balconies were intricate and beautiful works of art.  The small café in town ranks one of the best coffee shops in the world, according to the Wall Street Journal.  It was time to sit down and  enjoy the local espresso and specialty of the region, granitas.  The location in the town square across from

 

the Cathedral was perfect.

We shopped in the local artisan stores.  We plunged  ourselves in the Iblean local life, and we delved our hands into a very special cooking experience. With Chef Andrea we learned how to cook an authentic Sicilian meal in a unique location, an ancient watermill.

Driven by the expertise of the chef, we immersed ourselves “mani o” with the ingredients to create our own meal —  from fresh homemade pasta to desert.  A selection of Sicilian wines completed the menu. We enjoyed the results of our group effort with the chef in the relaxing tranquility of the terrace, with the spectacular view of the falls and the smooth sound of the river in the background.

Here is a link to video of our cooking experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6RszzUivy8

That afternoon we met our local guide in Ortigia and had an in-depth walking tour of Ortigia. We admired the Cathedral, built on the ruins of the Temple of Athena; the Palazzo Beneventano, and the Temple of Apollo. It was one legend after another. Our visit also included the Archaeological Park in Syracusa, the Greek Theatre and the Dionysus Ear.

October 28, Tuesday : ETNA North experience with the wine tasting

Aetna lava walk fog

We were transferred from our comfortable Mercedes minibus into two four by fours — a Land Rover and a Toyota. We proceeded with our geologist driver/guide through the northern side of the volcano, between forest trails and fun off-road paths of ancient lava flows to the inside the “Etna Park”. We discovered Etna and its history. We started with a delightful walk on the edge of the ancient extinct craters to better understand the structure of the volcano. Then, we continued with the exciting discovery of a lava flow cave. Finally, we made the ascent by jeep, off the road and on to the top of an ancient lava flow to the great Mount Belvedere. From here we could admire the whole “Valle del Bove,” where lava flows from the last eruptions are collected. Then, we proceeded onward, where we reached the territory of Linguaglossa, home to the vineyards of Etna DOC. We visited a Sicilian cave, revealing all stages of the supply chain, from harvesting to bottling to the finishing touch – a tasting of 3 wine labels and a wonderful lunch. It seems the high sulfer content of the soil on the sides of this active volcano gives the grapes a unique taste that makes these wines special.  Note: Since we left, the volcano has experienced another active stage.  We only hope no person nor property was damaged.  Seeing the actual areas consumed by the lava flows in the past, gave us a special insight into the devastation that can and does occur.

We arrived Taormina, our last evening in Sicily.

October 29, Wednesday, Taormina

Taormina? The best I can say “wow”. It is a seaside city build up the side of a mountain. There is just one winding road that goes up and another (on the north side of the town) that goes down. It is a pedestrian-only city with some room, but not much for delivery and infrastructure vehicles.  The vistas are remarkable. The streets are clean and packed with restaurants and shops.  There is an ancient theater on the uppermost bluff and several historical churches. We had a little time at night to enjoy the city, including a wonderful meal in an outside trattoria. The next morning we had about four hours to further explore before our ride came to take us to the airport.

I would like to thank Barbara for being with us for a whole week and arranging such a wonderful tour. Also, thanks to Simona and her geologist guides who provided an enriching educational day and the robust wine in Aetna.

For more photos, see our slideshow

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aspEtA8X4Hs

copyrights of Sophia’s Travel, division of EMCO Travel, LLC

 

 

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Africa Travel – Safety tips

In light of recent events, We would like to express condolences to the tourist killed by lion in South Africa’s park. We feel sorry about loss of the life of young woman.

The tragedy happened in Lion Park which is not a National Park, but a tourist facility which basically operates like safaris in vehicle in USA. Our clients are not booked there.

For tourists traveling to Africa on safari, we would like to remind about safety rules.

Every safari has an element of danger but it is one of the life’s great adventures. Surrounded by open landscape, amazing scenery and untouched beauty, trip to sub-Saharan Africa changes your life.

While most animals on safari you will meet are dangerous, especially watch for the lion, elephant, hippo, buffalo and crocodiles.  Also watch for a baboon – these are more like pests, but they can attack you for food or camera. They have sharp teeth!

Wildlife is potentially dangerous, but as long as you adhere to what you guide tells you, you will be safe.

Your guide knows animals, and he tells you exactly when it is safe to approach some animalsor when it is not. Example: A young elephant in mating mode is dangerous. A female elephant or lion are dangerous. Other situations with can be safe. Listen to your guide! Africa is not a zoo and the animals might attack you.

  1. In National Park (for example, Kruger, Serengeti), always folllow the rules of the Park
  • If you are not in a open safari jeep, keep your windows closed and doors locked.
  • We recommend tour with the guide and appropriate vehicle. Some tourists were seen in Kruger National park in red cars. It might trigger animals attack.

However, IMHO I personally would avoid parks which allow tourists to drive their own cars.  I would stick with safaris in private reserves with their own guides and rangers. While it is huge territory, private reserve’s rangers and guides know it well.

  1. On Safari in private reserves (usually done in open air vehicles like Land Rover Jeep):
    • Sit in the car, until you are allowed by guide to stand up or leave the car. The animals are used to the car since birth and they consider it as one unit. When something changes, it can trigger attack.
    • When allowed to leave the car (sundowner for example), stay with the group.
    • If need to use “a bush”, ask for designated spot. The guide will check it for you first, then tell you where to go.
    • Do not wear bright clothes especially red.
    • Pay attention to the guide (again!!!)
    • Do not leave any waste
    • When walking, always stay with a group and watch your back. The group usually has a guide in front and in the back.
    • Never tease animals.
    • Never feed animals and do not eat until you are allowed to get out and eat in safe place.
    • Keep your voice down
  2. In wilderness lodges or tented camps, remember – you are on animal’s territory. People and animals live side by side in harmony. With that in mind:
  • In the dark, guests are not allowed to walk themselves. They are walked by lodge’s staff. This is regardless of whether it is a simple tented camp or even a luxurious safari lodge, you will be escorted. This is because many of these lodge are in prime spots close to rivers or waterholes which are obviously attractive for the wildlife. Everyone wants to be able to see wildlife from their deck but that means that safety at night is very important.
    • Close your door or zip your tent. This is also to avoid of getting of those pest monkeys into your room and going through your things.
    • Never feed animals
  1. Always wear sneakers and socks when walking around the bush, there are can be snakes and scorpions that could bite you.

Besides safety rules, a reminder: Just because you paid for safari, it does not mean you will see all animals. Remember, it is not a zoo! They are not paid to show up at your convenience. Be patient.

I hope you will enjoy your trip and be safe.

Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who’s been there….
Copyrights Emco Travel, LLC..

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Trip to Africa, April 2014

forgot my poop bag

This April I attended a tradeshow in Cape town, so I used this opportunity to see Africa. It was my first trip to Africa below Sahara. When I told my African colleagues that I’ve been in North Africa, they said it does not count! Hence, I can tell it is my first time to Sub-Saharan Africa.

I flew on Emirates airline and splurged on business class since I wanted to check out that A380. Service and aircraft was amazing.  Comparing to Boeing 777 when they just give you a seat convertible into bed, this one was like a little cubicle with some table space. Food was excellent, toiletries was nice Bulgari bag, even toilet napkins were cloth. I specifically liked lounge with a bar where you can sit or stand and congregate with other fellow passengers.

I arrived Johannesburg in the evening and stayed my first night at airport Citilodge hotel. It was comfortable enough for one night sleep. Although internet as advertised – free wi-fi was only free for 2 hours per day. I gave up anyway on internet and went to sleep. After breakfast, a porter carried my luggage to the terminal (short walk) and gave me to another porter who helped me to check in. Usually I do it by myself however due to safari light air regulation, I could not bring a bag with wheels, so duffel bag was hard to carry. I checked it, spent some time in airport lounge (free internet!), did some work and soon boarded a plane for Salink short flight to Skukuza. Skukuza was new (only 8 month old), airy, cute, small airport. You can tell it is Africa when you get to Skukuza, it has this feel. I met my fellow travelers who signed up for this pre- ILTM show trip. 6 people, All of them were from different countries.  Skukuza has no carousels, but luggage was quickly unloaded and safari jeeps were departing with passengers. Once all our luggage was packed, we got into 6 seater jeep and were on the way. The driver pointed to some impalas on the way and I got a photo of my first animal in Africa! My fellow travelers were from UK, Canada, Netherlands, Argentina and Brazil.  Were bound to Mala Mala, private reserve which borders Kruger National park and were looking to our adventure there for 2 days.

Next 2 days were spend in Mala Mala. We saw most big 5, except Lion. Lion was also there but for some bad luck we missed it. Lion even came to Mala camp! This private reserve owned by Mr. Rattray (the owner was also visiting camp at this time and he is very nice, down to earth gentleman). Mala Mala is known for great service and sound conservation management policies. Sophia Mala Mala

The reserve owns approximately 12 miles unfenced boundary with Kruger National Park. The Sand River flows through the property for approximately 13 miles and assures plentiful supply of water at all times.  Mala Mala and its sister camps, Sable Camp and Rattray’s, are located on western side of the river, assuring direct access to the animals approaching from Kruger Park.

The property is designed to appreciate the view of surrounding wilds. There are 10 suites, 8 rooms . I stayed in luxury room which faced the river. The room was very nice, with a deck facing the river where I saw occasional elephants. In addition to nice appointed shower and bath tub, there also was outside shore. The room was in stand alone house with architecture of traditional African architecture (thatched round roof). It was air conditioned and had internet. No TV , this is the way I like it. We were introduced to our ranger who is assigned to each guest and stays with guests all the time serving as host, ranger and educator.  We had one ranger for our 7 people (another member was arrived from Russia later on). The Range Ron was great, he told us a lot about area, plants, animals, and was very knowledgeable. The resort had nice bar where people congregated before meals. Meals were good. One night out of two was a traditional BBQ at the fire with African music.

Safari drives with Ron were amazing, in the morning and at night. Mid days were for resting – nap or lingering by the pool.  We saw Elephants (even from dining deck and room’s deck), Rhino, Leopard, Cheetah, Wild Dogs, Giraffes, and many others (Impalas, etc).  As I said above, we missed Lion by minute.

I enjoyed Mala Mala, it was a great experience. The owner also owns Sable Camp (no children under 12) and luxury, colonial style Rattray’s (no children under 16, couples mostly, all king beds). We visited them all. It is various lodges suitable for different clients. Resort also has its own air strip, so it is easy access. Otherwise trip from Skukuza airport is 45 minute ride.

On third day, we left Mala Mala, for Skukuza airport and flew to Cape town where We started our 3 day ILTM (Luxury Travel Mart) Africa. I was staying in Cape town at Table Mountain hotel on V&A waterfront. It is a luxury hotel, member of Luxury Hotels of the world, very nice, great service and comfortable. Breakfast was amazing, the most varieties I’ve ever seen. I wish I can sample it all. Location is excellent adjacent to shopping and restaurants. I enjoyed my half day there. Meanwhile my Mala Mala travel friends who were stayed at Taj, came for dinner in V&A waterfront, left me a message but I missed them by 30 minutes. I’ve done some shopping and had dinner with Asian fusion and watched people on waterfront. Very relaxing.

Next 3 days went quickly with meeting with African suppliers, looking at interesting products, networking and parties. We had one party in Aquarium which was very interesting. I highly recommend to visit it when in Cape town. Other parties were at One and Only – great location, good hotel – set up on canals (like in Venice only contemporary!), and in beach club. The event coincided with WTM Africa (world travel Mart), so I’ve meet some other interesting people and colleagues. Great connections!

3 days later, I left early in the morning to fly to Victoria Falls. Another agent Heidi was going to the same lodge so we traveled together from our hotel. We connected in Johannesburg and flew to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Immigration was very slow and by hand. They take $35 for visa, write receipt and write visa and glue to the passport – all hand written. Took forever.

On exiting airport, we were met by African band who were dancing and singing. I took a photo with them. A driver took us to our next place to stay, Stanley and Livingston.  It is located about 10 minutes from the town and located in the 6000 acre  – colonial oasis of Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Reserve, in  a tranquil, serene setting and an exclusive Victoria Falls safari lodge reminiscent of a bygone era. It was very nice elegant beautiful hotel/lodge. We took 2 drives there and also saw big 5 (except Lion).vicfallgreeting

First day we took Zambezi river cruise, very nice, romantic, relaxing where you can enjoy sunset and see hippos in the water. In hotel food was great and I got to taste crocodile meat. Tastes like chicken. We also inspected Victoria Falls hotel – best in town. Vey nice.  Next day we went to the town and saw falls, impressive, awe inspired! Take poncho and maybe waterproof shoes since depending on wind, prepare to be soaked wet. We went for some shopping on the market and while souvenirs were nice, the stress of bargaining and vendors pulling us to different  stalls was too much.  However, we enjoyed our stay at Stanley and Livingstone and Victoria Falls.

My next destination was Botswana. I loved book and show by Alexander McCall Smith “Number 1 Lady detective agency” and looked forward meeting Botswana People. I was going though, to Okavango Delta where mostly animals live in the wilderness. To get there, I had to take few small plane flights. A driver took me to Victoria Falls airport where I went to Wilderness Air counter. There are no scheduled flights, they tell you “departure in late morning” and then call your hotel to tell you when to come. So Wilderness air rep took my luggage and said plane arrived. It was a small plane, pilot introduced himself, his name was Michael , I was the only one in this 4 seater and were off for 20 min flight to Kasane, Botswana. By the way, in Zimbabwe you also pay $50 exit visa. So make sure you have cash. In Kasane, while small airport, I still needed to go through immigration. I was the only one and ported for Mack Air (my next airline) went together with me through security (small metal detector LOL). Then I’ve met other passengers, 10 altogether and we went on another flight Mack air into wilderness. The plane served like a shuttle – was picking up and dropping off passengers from different camps. Myself, and 2 Australians were bound for Stanley Camp, but it was last stop. So we got to see almost all of Delta, the pilots announced stops and there is a map in seat pocket. Very interesting mode of transportation!

The “runways” in each stop had a jeep with driver waiting for people, they also served as traffic controllers to clear airstrip from animals (chase giraffes, impalas, etc). The plane lands, quickly disembarks people, driver takes people and leaves. Plane continues.  Our Stanley camp was about 45 min drive from air strip. On arrival, as usual, we were met by staff. It was classic safari camp in a wilderness. You cannot walk in the dark. Surprisingly, they had electricity and wifi (not in the main area to discourage anti-social behavior).  No phones and TV,  So I spend next 2 days there, going into wilderness, I was grouped with Sophia ElephantAustralian couple and next day with Italian. I also visited neighboring Bangs luxury camp to inspect it.  You cannot walk alone in the dark , the staff walks you to the room.

One day I attended “Elephant experience” where you interact with 3 elephants. These orphaned elephants are taken by naturalist couple Sally and Doug and they tell you about elephant you go to walk elephant, touch, and interact. It was amazing experience, highly recommended. They are in the wild, not fenced..

After Stanley Camp, I flew again, on Mack Air to my last destination, even smaller camp. Chitabe Lediba  . This was the most secluded camp, only 6 cabins. We saw the most wilderness I saw on my trip in this camp.  Rangers also were excellent, they taught us and educated on everything in the bush. We saw lions every day, especially with their daily chores (eating!) , got chased by Hippo, observed different animals.  While this was more rustic camp ( no wifi even), it was amazing experience. The guide presented and got my attention to drama in the bush which opened to our eyes. It was great.  Botswana people and staff were very nice. I enjoyed my stay and experience in Botswana a lot.

20150421_060902

On return to Johhanesburg, I spent last day ther wit my friend and collegue explored the city.

Last night I stayed in Emperor Palace near airport,  very comfortable 5* but a bit more Las Vegas !

That concluded my trip.

Africa is amazing and has a lots to offer, different countries with different personalities. I definitely return in next few years to explore more and hopefully bring my groups of clients.

I hope this review of Africa will want you to visit it!

Contact me with any questions at info@mytravelfind.com

Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who’ve been there…. Tastes Differ…
Copyrights Sophia’s Travel Agency, division of EMCO Travel, LLC…@2015

Africa April 2015

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Wales 2014

Day 1, October 14, Amsterdam – Cardiff

We had an easy 75 min flight to from Amsterdam to Cardiff, Wales.

Welcome to Wales, Croeso i Gymru!

We took an airport bus which took us right to the front door of our hotel, Radisson Blu in town center.

Sophia stocks

 

 

Sophia Cardiff castle falconry

Cardiff castle1

Cardiff castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arrived before check in so we left the bags and headed out. We had hop on/off bus tours waiting at hotel. The weather was rainy, light rain but it did not stop us for exploration. First we had breakfast in one of the local restaurants, where I tasted my first Welsh Rarebit. It had too much taste of beer or mustard I think but I enjoyed it anyway. Fortified, we walked through the light rain and 54F degrees through a pedestrian area to Cardiff Castle.

The pedestrian road was called St Mary’s and we plan on revisiting that area again tonight.

We arrived on time for our 1 hour guided tour of the castle. This castle had 17th to 19th century decorations with history spanned over 2000 years. It was given to the city by Bute family. The decorations were not gold painted but 18 carat gold leaf and a lot of it!  We saw most of the castle keep. The rooftop garden was beautiful with tiles.  After the tour, we walked the castle grounds and saw the falcon handlers with their 2 beautiful specimens. I could not hold the falcon, but the handler got it closer to my shoulder so we could take photos. We skipped the military museum.

After exiting castle, we found the hop on hop off two decker bus ride to familiarize ourselves to the city, and then on the second go round, we got off in front of the national gallery/museum. This museum is beautiful and it is free! We saw some fine pieces including the Davis Sisters collection of Rodin sculptures and impressionistic pieces – Monet, Cezanne, Sisley, and Pissarro. There were three Monet paintings that were made in Giverny.

The museum also has Natural History sections and other exhibits including fine porcelain for those who inclined to see other than art. It is very nice museum overall.

We took another hop on and off bus to rest our feet J which dropped us off at stop near our hotel. We checked in. To our surprise and delight, the nice folks at Wales tourism board, whom I’ve been working closely, with were kind enough to leave a bottle of fine Welsh single malt whiskey!

We passed by a specially constructed facility in Cardiff’s Porth Teigr – near the studios where Doctor Who is filmed – the Doctor Who Experience. I did not see this show but few times I was asked by my clients. This facility offers a journey into fifty years of adventures in space and time.  http://www.doctorwho.tv/events/doctor-who-experience/ .

After we checked in and refreshed ourselves we decided to take a taxi to well know pub in Cardiff, Y Mochyn Du http://www.ymochyndu.com/   for dinner.  (Located at Sophia’s Gardens so how could I miss it? 🙂  )

It is also possible to walk there for about 30 mins but we did not want to walk through the park in the rain at night. Anyway, the taxi cost was under $10, so it was not bad. The pub was atmospheric, not too many people on this weekday night and this early. We learned that in pubs, we order at the bar and they bring food and drink to our table, then you go and pay at the bar cashier. We got local ale, and of course fish and chips!  We sampled two types of beer. They came with chipBeer tasting Y Mochyn Du Cardiffs and Mash (chips means fries and mash means mashed peas). We also took appetizer fish cakes. For desert we had bread pudding and apple crumb. It was very hearty dinner so when we took taxi back, we were ready to collapse after this very busy day!

 

Day 2, October 15, Cardiff – Abergavenny – Cardiff

We decided to visit small town Abergavenny by train. We had breakfast on the way in Great Western restaurant which was across our hotel on the way to the train station. It was only 5-10 min to go to train station so I can comment location of Radission Blu was very good. The restaurant was in traditional building, with comfortable chairs and tables, newspapers. We had Welsh cakes for breakfast and porridge. I liked cakes.Abergevenny Wales

Then we rushed to the train, since we only had few minutes left, otherwise we would have to wait for next 30 minutes. We were waived on by the ticket people who told us to buy ticket on the train. The journey took about 20 minutes, we got off at Abergavenny. It is medieval city circa 12C. Very friendly train station attendant chatted with us and directed us where to go. I like maps but there were no maps besides the one on the wall and he pointed to us “just go that way”. In about 15 min of walk (I took some photos on the way), we arrived to the center. The local tourist office had very recently moved their office to another location by St. Mary church, but it needed better signs. While we got lost, by serendipity, we found out bustling local flea market, so we spent some time there. After that we indeed found tourist office which is in the very nice building, refurbished barn – combined tourist office, café and some tourist shops and historical museum. In the second floor of the museum, we saw ladies from a local church  at display of their tapestry. It was beautiful tapestry and looked like it was new, with has various pictures of Wales. After talking to ladies, they said it is indeed new. 60 local volunteers were working on this project and took about 4 years to complete from 2002 to 2006. It was impressive and I took photos with ladies, two of them were a part of tapestry project.

Then we went to the castle, or castle’s ruins to be exact. It had small museum where we tried medieval clothes and heavy chainmail shirt! Then we strolled castle grounds and took some photos. After that we got hungry, what else is new? Someone in town recommended The Angel Hotel. They had from what they told us a famous seafood platter, so we took it. It was delicious but too big for us. After that we walked back to the train station and returned to Cardiff. It was another day well spent!

Sophia Abergavenny Castle WalesAbergavanny Castle Wales

After some rest at hotel, we walked pedestrian district again. We visited Cardiff market and sampled some local cheeses and bread. We bought them for next day breakfast at hotel. These Welsh cakes tasted better than in Great Western…. Also, my Swiss watch needed a replacement of battery and we found in the market a jeweler who had a replacement battery for my watch. We chatted with him, as with all the people in Wales, he was very friendly. He mentioned that his daughter is looking for au pair in USA so I told him I know some people who need au pair and left him my card.  Then we stopped in few stores on the way back to hotel. They have TJ Maxx but it was called TX Maxx. We needed another power adapter. The sales people there did not know why it is different name from TJ Maxx.

We were not hungry for dinner after that seafood platter, but it was time to eat and explore more pubs J. We walked to the Duke of Wellington http://www.dukeofwellingtoncardiff.com/  , it has really nice masculine interior, very cozy and service was friendly. We started with ales but then gave up and ordered fish and chips again.  L  I also tried their dragon burger and it has some sort of chili, spicy..

Day 3, October 16, Cardiff – Brecon Beacons National Park – Cardiff

Since we travel as tourist professionals, we needed to explore all ways of touring – city tours, trains, hop on/off. My next exploration was before we will leave Cardiff on our own to try local tour operator with minivan tours. We booked a small minivan tour offered by Where When Wales company. It was A Valleys Tour.

Here is description from company’s brochure:

“Travel as far north as Mid Wales for a sightseeing tour of Brecon Beacons National Park. Visit the central region of the Brecon Beacons and in the late afternoon, the Black Mountains to the east.  Stop for lunch in Brecon, followed by a tour of the cathedral in the town.  Have a photo stop and get the history of Castell Coch — a medieval castle and the former hunting lodge of the Marquis of Bute — followed by a journey through ancient woodland to the Mountain Road to enter the town of Caerphilly. At the town enjoy a guided tour at Wales’ largest castle with a tower that leans more than Pisa.  “.

There were only two of us and 2 more ladies from Australia.

The husband and wife team Jan (guide) and John (the driver, but he is also guide by profession), did a great job. Jan was wealth of information. We learned about history, culture, saw sheep, stopped and chatted with people who were sailing canals on their charters canal boat. We visited 2 castles. One small castle was a hunting castle. Jan gave great historical info on castles, sheep  and Brecon cathedrals. Such details on masons and how they left their marks in stone were really fascinating…

Castle leaning tower

Caerphilly Castle

There was indeed one castle with leaning tower! Each castle was unique in its own way.  One was being used to film the current Dr Who episodes on BBC series. By the way, Dr. Who series are very popular there, so for its fans, they can also visit the brand new Dr. Who exhibit in Cardiff – big centre plus castle on countryside.

The last castle was in the middle of filming a U.S. Movie DaVinci Devils so access was limited , but Jan got us there anyway to mingle with movie crew. 🙂

We had about 1 hour free time in Brecon for lunch, in local cafe we had tea, soup and pie.

I highly recommend this tour for people who come to Cardiff for few days, so they can visit countryside….

After we came back to Cardiff, we decided to take break from fish and chips and we ate in Brazilian meat restaurant Viva Brazil. I had meat menu and Michael vegetarian. It has usual Brazilian meat restaurant fare. We did not have place for desert since meat was all you can eat plus buffet….

Day 4, October 17, Cardiff – St. David, Pembrokeshire.

We had breakfast again at Great Western. I found out I was not a fan of the full English breakfast with sausages, bacon etc so we stuck with porridge and Welsh cakes, and we enjoyed them. Porridge was like our Irish oatmeal, but not processed Quaker type, more like Irish whole oats type, served with milk or cream and some sugar.

After breakfast we were ready to leave Cardiff to start our driving adventure! Cardiff Europcar office was kind enough to come and pick us up.

GPS advice.

Since built in GPS is usually expensive, we opted instead to use phone navigation application Waze, which we use it at home. But it required internet connection for that. So we got Wi-fi device from Tep Wireless. I highly recommend it. It cost about $70 for a week including extra battery. It does drain power from the device so extra battery helped. It worked fine for directions. They only deliver locally, so once we bought it, the device was sent to our hotel and we prepaid for return shipment. All you need to do is to drop it off in any mailbox (more on that later!!) . http://www.tepwireless.com/  . It had good internet connection in most places (except some remote coastal areas, but Waze used downloaded directions).

Europcar people showed us directions to get out of town – it was very close to highway and we went off.

Our final destination for a day was St. David on the coast of Pembrokeshire National Park. It is the smallest town in UK. St. David’s was designated as a conservation area by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in 1972, it is named after St. David, the patron Saint of Wales.seaside Pembrokeshire NR Wales

On the way, we stopped in small town Tenby, steeped in ancient history surrounded by an imposing medieval stone wall. Through the passages of time Tenby has seen many changes but it has been on the leisure map for nearly 200 years. Fox News selected Tenby as one of the “coolest small towns in Europe.”

We had lunch on the coast outside Tenby “Coast restaurant” with gourmet food. Chef was excellent there, with seafood dishes. After that, arrived Tenby, walked few hours, and then went off to St. David’s. Sometimes the road hugged coast with really spectacular scenery. More or less, so far weather cooperated. We passed another beautiful town Solva with pastel like houses. We arrived St. David just about sundown. On our first driving day, we did not want to arrive in the dark.

Our hotel for this night was Warpool Court, http://www.warpoolcourthotel.com/ , a member of Welsh Rarebits collection of distinct hotels. Their choices for properties were excellent. They represent the essence of country hotels, each unique i???????????????????????????????n each own way…

Like they boast Location, Location, and Location! Warpool court is located on 15 seafront acres of prime coastal views and walking trails of Pembrokeshire National Park. I wished to stay 1 day longer so we enjoyed walking trails more. Especially with beautiful fall colors, the views were picture perfect.hotel entrance St Davids Wales

We planned to go in town (about 10 min walk) for dinner, but it was strong wind and rain outside, so we decided to eat at the hotel. Unlike our previous pub dinners we had, this one was gourmet. I liked goat cheese cheesecake.  We ate by the fireplace with beautiful tiles. We had some scotch, beer and local ales before dinner. The staff was Eastern European so I was able to speak my language.

St Davids Hotel seaside walkIt is very nice hotel, however few con points: it does not have elevator, so it is not accessible for clients with some mobility issues. Check out was at 10:30am! Later we found out other hotels have check out at 11as well. The room was cozy, but small with Victorian interior. Not enough plugs to charge our devices.  I did not have opportunity to inspect more rooms, maybe larger room or better category will be nicer.  The tea service had nice teas though and staff was very nice. And viDoor to Magic Garden Pembrokeshire Walesew from the room to die for!

 

Day 5, October 18. St. David  – Aberaeron

In the morning the weather improved. We had breakfast at hotel (included in rooms stay). I tried smoked haddock. They cooked eggs to the order and we enjoyed a nice buffet.

We still had about 1 hour before check out, so walked out to use trails in the dunes, lovely. It must be outstanding in summer. The winds were blowing and we took into consideration how far we can go so then we will need to come back.

Then we checked out and left to explore St. David’s. We visited St. David’s cathedral and remains of bishop’s palace. The setup was beautiful and we saw a group of artists drawing from the scenery.

Then we had a walk in the St. David’s village and had a tea with scones in local tea room.

Sophia Michael Whitesands beach Pembrokeshire Wales

We drove to White Sands Beach and admired scenery.

Then we left for next destination – Aberaeron going north.

Fishguard was a small coastal town with picturesque harbor and quayside known as Lower Fishguard.  This was where Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood was filmed in the 1970s as well as Moby Dick.

The coast between Strumble Head and Fishguard was the site of the last invasion of Britain in 1797 by Franco-Irish soldiers but. The landed on the beach, the troops got drunk and never made it any further!

Guess they like the local wine, beer and ale!  I was always amazed at the local history.

The drive continued through the rural area with sheep and cows.  We were driving through one especially secluded sunken roadway with high hedgerows on each side with barely room for one car let alone the occasional oncoming cars.

Pentre Ifan Sign

We went by an ancient 2800 BC ceremonial Druid grave site of stones named Pentre Ifan, very impressive.Michael pentre ifan

We arrived Aberaeron where we were booked at a hotel Harbormaster, also a Welsh Rarebit property. http://www.harbour-master.com/

 

Aberaeron from its description: “is picture-postcard pretty with its colorful Georgian style houses and graceful architecture. Built in the early 1800’s, Aberaeron is one of Wales’ first ‘planned’ towns, and the brainchild of the Rev. Alban Jones-Gwynne.  http://www.aberaeron.info/ “.

Aberaeron turned out to be a delightful small harbor town where a river runs into a manmade harbor circa 19C. The hotel/ bar were built in 1810 in this site and right on the harbor. It was a bit difficult to find a parking space, but eventually we made it. This small hotel is also a well known pub and restaurant for locals. Reception desk is in the pub! Michael particularly liked to go to our room through pub 🙂 .

Sophia Harborside HotelWhile we were parking, we were welcomed by local ladies sitting on the bench and enjoying the sun. They “supervised” our parking and were so welcoming and lovely, so we took photos with them. This is the Aberaeron’s welcoming committee!

 

 

Fishing Wales Style

Harborside hotel balconyMichaelSophia Harborside

Our room had a balcony overlooking the breakwater on the entrance into the harbor. The weather was nice and we had the doors open all night.  The Stars were out in force that night and they seemed so close.

The people are so friendly and honestly interested in what we think of their country. Such a lovely change of pace. It was Sunday and we joined locals on their walks, took some pictures of local streets, people, dogs, etc. I loved this town even more than previous St. David’s.

In the afternoon, we had a snack – local oysters and sample beers at the bar from hotel/pub manager. It ended up being a taste testing event.  It was also marked by some exceptionally large and sweet oysters.

For dinner we chose to eat in the restaurant, since they had lobster on the menu. Alas, lobster was not caught that day and we ended up eating other fish. Otherwise we would prefer bar, it was more lively setting.

Hotel was excellent as well. It has lift access for those inclined not to walk. Our room was very comfortable, modern, with huge bath. We had balcony overlooking harbor. If we would choose not to go outside, we would watch all harbor action from the balcony! I liked this hotel the best so far.

Day 6, October 19, Aberaeron – Devils Bridge – Portmerion.

After breakfast we met with Sioned from Welsh Rarebits, who arranged our stays and she was interested to hear our feedback. We babbled enthusiastically about people, food, villages we experienced. She gave us few sightseeing tips and we sadly said goodbye to Aberaeron.

We drove further up north along the coast and had another full day of leisurely stops.  Farm stands and cheese stands were along the way. There are 12 million sheep in Wales, 3 million people.

Our plan for today was to drive through Aberystwyth.

 Description  “Home to the University of Wales Aberystwyth and the National Library, the town is nestled between three hills and two beaches, and hosts castle ruins, a pier and a harbor.  The surrounding hills hold the visible remains of an iron-age fort and also a monument to Wellington. Climb the hills to find stunning views of Cardigan Bay.”

We though to take Vale of Rheidol Railway to Devil’s Bridge and return
Sophia Devils Bridge signdevils bridge sophBut somehow we got lost (lost Wi-Fi connection) and missed it and never made to Abersyswyth, so we continued to the Devils Bridge by car.  The weather was good and the sun highlighted beautiful fall colors. The bridge was very interesting, it had 3 levels and attracted tourists since the 18th century. You can pay to see it from the falls side or from the gorge side. We parked and walked through the turnstile gates to admire nature, three bridges and the gorge.

We drove on and into Snowdonia National Trust Park later on, the road was winding with beautiful vistas… We wanted to stop to eat lunch, but the places to eat where somewhat apart and by the time we would see it, we passed it. As result, and being hungry, we decided to go straight to Portmerion. Even after we lost connection once more time, Portmerion was clearly marked. It is well known place in Wales, like Disneyworld in Florida.

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PortMeirion main Hotel

 

We arrived in Portmerion village. What can I say? It is a different property, again suggested by Welsh Rarebits. It is not my style (we do not like Disneyworld either!). But I was glad to see it, otherwise I would always wonder. Mr. Meurig Jones, attraction manager, gave us a tour of the village in the golf cart. I definitely understand its appeal for some travelers. Snuggled onto a peninsula on the Snowdonia Coast, Portmeirion was the dream of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who designed the resort to engage the visitor with interesting views wherever they should stop.  It also provided the perfect backdrop for the TV series The Prisoner in the late 1960’s.  www.portmeirion-village.com/ . He built it for 50 years and was lucky enough to live to see it to completion through delays due to the war, and financial difficulties.  The TV in the rooms continuously shows The Prisoner.

Estuary Portmeirion Wales

Estuary Portmeirion Wales

 

It was a site with neglected garden, and a mansion. He acquired it for about 5,000 pounds. It is located on the estuary and faces the mountains, the scenery changes during the day depending on tides, just like Mont St. Michel. The idea was to build a tightly grouped coastal village. I am an architecture lover, and this village is somewhat eclectic and sometimes even weird. You really need to know what you are looking at, for example, some of the windows are just painted, the façade is just a façade and in the back, there is nothing. Some shapes of few houses were curved, like Gaudi’s. He also collected discarded statues from everywhere, so for example, Asian statue of Buddha. The structures on the way to the sea are on of Mediterranean castles type. Overall it somehow fits together. There is Victorian hotel (where we stayed) plus various cottages pastel color around the village. Rich and famous stayed there. They also built a castle (circa 20c). The castle reminded me Dracula castle hotel I stayed in Romania.

Sophia PortMeirion gardens WalesPortmerion gardens Wales nice photo.

We also drove through the garden in the golf cart and it was very beautiful. Mr. Jones said most people never get to the garden, only stay in the village. It was Japanese gazebo and fall colors were beautiful.

People usually stay there and do not leave the village. Dinner was included in our stay. We also had afternoon tea there. Service was very good. Our room faced the estuary and it had beautiful views of the sea, and we witnessed the quick and impressive tidal change. There was a stoned ship moored by the hotel, a tribute to the previous one that was dragged out by the current to sink close to shore.  This one was a dummy. What was strange is that during our 2 days there we did not see any birds or traces of fish in the sea. We were told the estuary was dead. No fish, shellfish and therefore no seabirds.

And, I almost forgot to mention – there is Victorian dog cemetery! Not by Clough but from the previous long time owner.

DAY 7 – Monday, 20 October Portmerion – Anglesey Isle.

After breakfast, we left Portmerion for our next destination – Chateau Rhianfa on Anglesey Isle.

On our schedule we had Caernarfon Castle, one of the impressive castles constructed by King Edward Ist of England in 13C, but we “castled out” and went through to Chateaux Rhianfa, where Welsh Rarebits booked us for next night. It is a real castle hotel!   Wow!  http://www.amazingvenues.co.uk/

Anglesey is an island, or Ynys Mon as it is known in Welsh, covers an area of 276-square miles, and has a coastline some 125 miles in length. Two thirds of the coastal path is in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty.  Anglesey was also known as Mon, Mam Cymru, the Mother of Wales, because its fertile lands were considered capable of providing sufficient food for the whole of Wales.  castle sophia turret room

 I took a tour of facilities with sales manager. It is only in business as hotel for 2 years and before was private castle. This Chateau was inspired by a Chateau in the Loire Valley and sitting in a commanding setting overlooking the Menai Straits, and is very romantic, 18C, built for Sir John Hay Williams, and it was in the family until 1957. Later on it was sold and few years now it is a hotel for lucky guests.

Our room at the chateau is facing the water we have also an extra round turret room with lovely windows and built in bench. It seems we have the tower room I always wondered what was in those round towers so common in the corners of the castles and chateaus. Now I know.  Here is a photo of me reclining in the room reading a book in the afternoon.

We  met with my Italian friend Antonella and her local Welsh friend Steve. We left our car (what a relief!) and Steve showed us “his Wales”.  We saw yes you guessed it another castle, Beaumaris, this one built by King Edward 1st, who ran out of money before it was completed.

IMG_7062 Anglesey Beaumaris Castle Beaumaris Lighthouse Anglesey Wales

We saw the village and train station with the longest name and took obligatory picture. It has 54 letters. .

 

Llanfair­pwllgwyn­gyllgo­gery­chwyrn­drobwll­llanty­silio­gogo­goch.Sophia long name2

 

Steve taught us how to pronounce it. There is a song written to teach kids how to say it, here is the link from youtube  if you wish to practice 🙂

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BXKsQ2nbno   (credit video to donwoodswirral).

Then we went to Beaumaris and saw the lighthouse on the point and a small Puffin Island off the coast with puffins and seals. The seals are cubing, but neither animal came out to say hello.

We had a nice lunch and another local pint of beer from Snowdonia brewery was very smooth. The seafood mussels and haddock were very good.

On the road we saw more sheep then people. I made a mental note to have lamb for dinner. 🙂

SNOWDONIA mountain lake Wales Sheep Snowdonia Wales sheep field stone fence

We visited another very old monastery with a story, about a local person who became a saint in 1200 or something like that.

We have breakfast in our chateau tomorrow before we trek out over a bridge through Bangor which is spelled the same but pronounced very differently by the Welsh than our city in Maine. The Welsh language is very alive and spoken by all very melodically and impossible to understand.  Everyone speaks English as well and I am always so pleasantly surprised by their friendliness. We head out to Bodnant Gardens in Snowdonia mountains national trust.

Back to Chateau, we took a nap. We missed our scheduled visit to the welsh custom of boys choir practice, but we needed to rest.

We did not feel like eating at the chateau since we had already so many dinners and meals… so we skipped the dinner. Another five course meal with wine, aperitif and such is not sounding good to either of us at this time.  I would not mind having afternoon tea however the reception at chateau said it has to be booked a day in advance.  This and the dinner is the only one negative thing about Chateau. I would think they should have an option of lighter meal or room service or some kind of sandwiches available. Especially since everything else I believe is in driving distance.

DAY 8 – Tuesday, 21 October. Anglesey – Bodnant Food Centre – Llandudno.

Today we had a breakfast in the Chateau and it was an experience. You sit at a large table in an ornate formal dining room with other people and multi course formal breakfast is served. You select from the menu. The serving lady was in maid outfit and said in pronounced British accent: “What else can I get for you before I go downstairs to kitchen? “

Once I got over the shock, we were able to talk to other people (British) and we had a lovely conversation though.  We learned that it was a hurricane went through Northern Wales from USA and it brought strong gusty winds and bands of rain. The chateau was built so sturdy we hardly knew that it happened.

We checked out and went to Llandudno, our last 2 nights stay in Wales.

Our commute was not far and the road was four lanes most of the way.  Before Llandudno, we had an appointment at Bodnant Welsh food center. It is a destination by itself for foodies. You would think British food is boring? Think again.

It is located in Conwy, North Wales, in beautiful Snowdonia Mountains, with panoramic views. Prince Charles was present at the opening. As we’ve were told, he is very much into “slow food” movement, organic locally grown food.

Shphia crew bodnant chef Sopia crew cheese room take 2

A month ago I attended yearly trade seminar on Britain in Las Vegas and Wales was showcased there. They brought cheeses and other delicacies from WaSophia Bodnant foodsles and a renowned chef Dai from Bodnant center gave us cooking class. Therefore we came to his territory to sample food see the center by ourselves. We’ve met there with Judith from Wales tourist board and Rebecca from Bodnant center. All the produce food and supplies are strictly local. They make their own cheeses from the milk of the cows we saw across the Conwy River. We met the master cheese maker who showed us the process and the let us into the giant cheese fridge where the cheeses are aged.  They have their own bee farm and learning center. Vegetarian and kosher meals can be provided there as well.

We met with the master chef Dai who was kind enough to prepare a sea bass lunch for us, with steamed vegetables and salad, all beautifully presented, and outstanding taste. Judith and Rebecca showed us around.  The master butcher talked to us on the local products and cuts.  The adjacent store was like a playground for foodies.  Some noticeable items I found amusing.  The fresh vegetables were not washed; potatoes, carrots etc had fresh dirt on them so the patrons can see it’s fresh and without any pesticides. The same thing with the meats, they had the cuts still red and bloody showing they were freshly prepared.

Fresh breads, cheeses, jellies, jams and everything you could possibly want fresh every day.  The deli made fresh meat pies in their varied forms daily.  Move over, Wholefoods! We took many photos. But they would just make you salivate and prevent you from finishing this blog.  If your interested just ask us and we will set you up with a link to the images.

After that, we went to the coastal city Llandudno, a Victorian resort about 30 minutes away.

We checked into St. Tudno hotel, http://www.st-tudno.co.uk/ on waterfront. Besides being a part of Welsh Rarebits collection, it is a historic hotel, but it is also famous that Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the ‘Alice’ in Wonderland character in the books, stayed in Llandudno in 1861. She was eight years old, and on holiday with her family when Charles Lutwidge Dodson (Lewis Carroll) visited the family. Alice Little sat on Lewis Carroll’s lap and told him of her dream the night before.  That dream was written down and we now know it as “Alice in Wonderland ”

st tudnoalice

Sophia Llandudno Pier

Sophia Llandudno Wales

 

 

 

 

 

Day 9, October 22, Llandudno

Llandudno (pronounced “Chlon dud no” ) is a Victorian city that has kept intact its integrity since 1850’s. We walked the lovely Victorian styled and aged pier to the end with its unique shops and arcade style game rooms. At this season, however most of the shops were closed. This is reportedly the best holiday seaside resort in the UK. Its mountainous bookends called the greater and lesser Orme, protects the city’s  climate.  It is also has the legend of stopping and protecting the inhabitants against the Viking raids that plagued other coastal towns and villages in bygone eras.  Queen Victoria brought a present of Cashmere goats whose descendants we saw wondering the greater Orme.

Next morning, we walked at waterfront. There were benches with plaques of people whose family dedicated to departed who loved to be in this pier.  Very thoughtful.

We found a small synagogue that was being used as a retreat by some Jewish school from Manchester, where we chatted with students.

In the afternoon, we met with a driver guide John from VIP services, who wanted to show us “his Wales”.  We were glad to have the day off from driving.  The weather was not raining and less windy but colder about 50’s.  John was born and raised here and was armed with that integral knowledge of the area, history and local stories/fables.

Before we headed out of Llandudno, we passed a restaurant near our hotel and John stopped to talk to the restaurant owner, and introduced him to us as his brother. I had this restaurant on my list to try and asked if he has lobsters. He said will get few for us for dinner.

Sophia Snowdonia tea room GEM entrance church graveyard SNOWDONIA wales Sophia Michael Falls Snowdonia Wales 1 SNOWDONIA mountain lake Wales

He took us through little known roads into the towns, villages, and Snowdonia National Park.  As we mentioned before, Three million people in Wales, 12 million sheep! Beautiful vistas narrow roads and old buildings.

We had a wonderful afternoon with John. We visited some interested churches; he drove us in Snowdonia hills above Llandudno. We went to woolen factory Trefriw Woollen Mill  which was running on turn of the century machinery and hydroelectric power from the local stream through its antiquated water turbines.

We had a tea in a very unique small place “Tu Hnwt I’r Bont “ – Tea Room Gallery,  National Trust Property,  http://www.tuhwntirbont.co.uk/   a very characteristic place in 12th century building. We had tea and welsh rarebits with scones. This was the best Welsh Rarebit I tasted in Wales. We discussed qualities of rarebits (food, not the hotels :-). John said it depends how much beer and mustard it is used by each cook. This one was perfect in my opinion. Scones were hot from the oven, tea was just perfectly brewed and homemade jams and cream were delicious. I started a conversation with two ladies who represent some kind of other tourist attraction nearby which was filmed in the series “Amazing Race”.

As for building itself, it had so much character that it was unreal.  The ceiling was low that Michael had to bend to watch out for the rafters.  It used to be the city hall.  It was right by a 15th century bridge.  Remember with all the rain the water was almost at flood level. We felt like I had visited the Prancing Pony from JRR Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit” in the city of Bree.  The place is so entrenched and famous there was photos of the Prince of WalesTu Hwnt I'R Bont Tea room Autumn – Prince Charles enjoying his afternoon tea.  Scones were fresh baked, cream and jam just perfect. We asked for second scone and it came hot from the oven.  Tea was well brewed.

We then finished in an ancient town Betws-y-Coed, with it’s a must see old church 12 century and its waterfalls.   The town itself is quaint but had the usual junky touristy shops. John knew all these small side roads not on maps, the shepherds let us onto their farms observing them corralling the sheep and we went to view this high mountain lake that had wonderful Druid legends from bygone times surrounding it.

We saw another tea room “Ugly House” and visited there beautiful gardens in the back. We saw a waterfall and walked on suspension Foot Bridge.

We saw Conwy castle on the Conwy River in the medieval town of Conwy. It is a mostly intact castle made in four years for Edward I in 1283-89.

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle back side

Conwy Castle back

We returned to Llandudno and we had dinner at Seahorse restaurant where John’s brother/  the chef kept his promise and fed us lobster for dinner. It was not on the menu. It was excellent dinner at our last day and we sat and talked with chef afterwards, left him our cards and he said he might take advantage of our offer to come fishing to Florida. I liked his sign at restaurant “Never trust a thin cook!”

Back at the hotel, there was preparation for event “Alice in Wonderland”  new application launch. There were Alice dressed up characters in strategic locations all over town and they camped in our hotel’s lobby. The application is called “White Rabbit” and will be available on apple and android phones. It will be interactive touring in the town starting from hotel where Alice vacationed, a great sightseeing resource for the families.

For more info, see http://www.alicecic.co.uk/town-trail/ .

It seems that every day there were interesting events for us. Never boring!

Day 10, October 23.

After breakfast together with the Alice characters, we checked out and drove to Liverpool. On the way, we stopped in Roman town Chester. It had interesting Roman history. We took hop on/off bus and we visited military museum there. Then after last lunch of fish and chips (sigh), we drove to Liverpool airport. After we left Wales, the roads became busy. We arrived at the airport and had some difficulty in finding the rental car return – they were not well marked. Finally we made it. We returned the car and then realized we need to find a mail box to return our Wi-Fi device. The rental car clerk suggested we take a car and drive 5 min to the office to return it since they are not allowed to take package. We said “we do not want to drive anymore!”. The city driving in Liverpool was a bit exhausting… He took pity on us, and drove us to the post office where we dropped off the package. Then we walked to the terminal (it is small airport but still some walk…). There was yellow submarine outside of terminal – we are at John Lennon airport!  Lyrics from his songs were everywhere on the walls. His music was even playing quietly in the background throughout the airport atrium. That completed our stay in Wales…. I am sure we will come back next time.

Final thoughts.

Why Wales?

I’ve been thinking about visiting Wales for last few years. While most of travelers in UK tend to gravitate to London including some day trips from there, Wales opened my eyes for other opportunities for a destination  rich Norman and Roman heritage, and an unique culture shaped through years of history.

It is one of the most popular European destinations now but Americans only started to discover it. It is not overrun by tourists yet. It offers 641 castles, amazing scenery, steam trains, sheep, national parks with coastal and mountain scenery, excellent local flavors of seafood, lamb and cheeses.

Wales’ greatest contribution to European literature is The Mabinogion – medieval Welsh folk tales came to prominence in the mid 19th century. Their most famous literary figure is Dylan Thomas who wrote poems and short stories including ‘Under Milk Wood’. Other writers to come from Wales include children’s favorite Roald Dahl who was born in Cardiff to Norwegian parents and Sarah Waters shortlisted for the Booker and Orange prize for her novel ‘Fingersmith’.  Or for fans of British show Dr. Who or “The Prisoner”.

But the most wonderful asset of Wales it’s friendly, relaxed people. Whenever we went, we experienced good service with smile, and even from people on the street who did not need our business. For example, ladies in Aberaeron “welcoming committee”. The people wanted to know where we came from and were genuinely interested how we loved their land.

Food – was excellent. From regular UK fare fish and chips which we ate a lot – to gourmet cuisine in upscale restaurants, it was well prepared and presented with emphasis on local home grown food.  I liked the most Welsh rarebit, scones, Welsh cakes, and seafood. Michael enjoyed scotch and beers. Cheeses were on a par with French. I liked especially Caerphilly cheese.

Accommodations.

From well known city hotels like Radisson Blue to unique countryside properties of Welsh Rarebit collection, all of them offered good quality hospitality and were unique in its own way.

It is matter of personal opinion, but out of all accommodations, we loved the Harbourmaster the most. It was characteristic, modern, comfortable, and reflected the mood and spirit of local people. We also liked that the pub is the center of life in the town.  We loved of course other hotels but the Harbormaster was just our style.

Itinerary. We covered a lot of Wales in 9 days but if I would have more time, I would add on central part with Beacon Brecon national park. Sometime people just to come to Cardiff and stay there, but it is a large city and while it does offer a castle and museums but countryside is the best.

How to get there?

We came from Amsterdam by air – There is nonstop flight on DL/KLM from USA via Amsterdam.

From London, it is about 2.5 hour by train but for people who already been in London and interested only in Wales, it is better to fly to Manchester or Liverpool. It is also cheaper since London is much more expensive.

Wales also combines very well with Ireland since there are ferries in 2 ports of Wales from Ireland.

Touring

As my profession requests, I always explore different ways of travel so I can recommend to my clients the best choice based on their needs.

We tried:

  • City stay on our own with hop on/off bus, and visit of Castle and Museum
  • Day trip out of Cardiff with Wales Where When minivan tour
  • Self-drive
  • Using local driver/guide
  • Using local friend

My suggestion would be to use local driver/guides. Even though it was interesting to explore on our own, but 3 days with local people really made our touring very special.

We did not mind driving but I can see that the best way to be in a new country is to be with a local guide who loves his country and loves sharing his culture and history. Because you can drive does not mean you should drive. We enjoyed the scenery more at the day with local guide than any other day on our own.  Plus it meant we could also have a beer in the local pub.  All guides we used were excellent with good local knowledge, shared the secret places to see and eat, knew access to special sites and told local legends.

Special thanks to Welsh tourist board and the people who helped us to plan trip discover Wales.

Lauren Summers and Jennifer Minella in New York Wales office

Judith Newton and Tracey Rogers in Wales tourist board

Sioned Williams of Welsh Rarebits

Rebecca Williams and Chef Dai from Bodnant Food Center

John Hadwin from VIP travel services

Jan Williams of Wales Where When

Our local friends Steve and Antonella

Apologies if I missed anyone.

I will definitely will recommend it to visit Wales to all people I will be talking too and hope to come back in near future.

Click here to to our slideshow.

 

Conclusion : I hope this review of Wales will want you to visit it!

Contact me with any questions at info@mytravelfind.com

Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who’ve been there…. Tastes Differ…
Copyrights Sophia’s Travel Agency, division of EMCO Travel, LLC…@2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

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