Barcelona’s Best

My favorite issue of Travel and Leisure each year comes out in August: “The Best in the World”. I hungrily read it from cover to cover to learn what readers select in the World’s Best Survey as the best hotels, cities, island, cruises, and airlines in the world. Whether I’m pleased to have personal experiences with places on their pages or I’m planning a future adventure (here’s looking at you, Charleston and European cruise), this T+L is my definitive list.

One of the parts that I am always curious to read is the best cities, especially in Europe. This year, Florence, Rome, Barcelona, San Sebastian, and Budapest rounded out the top five European cities. Having been to 80% of these cities, I began to think of how I’d rate these cities. I loved the stunning river views in Hungary’s capital, and I visited both Italian cities on my very first international journey. I can see why Barcelona rates highly up there: it has perfect weather, delish cuisine, and the architecture was riveting!

In this post, I’d like to go back ten years ago and share some memories of a trip to the capital of the Catalonia region. Upon arrival from a UK business trip, I met up with my traveling companion on a Saturday night. An easy taxi ride into the city, we started the mini-break with sangria and incredible veal–a typical late evening dinner in Spain. Over the next few days, we saw the Palau Nacionale’s fountains, rode Vespas around the city (bucket list!), ate paella, and basked in the sun on a playa.

Visiting Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, Sagrada Familia, was a joyous highlight. Then, I was mesmerized that the construction on this gorgeous temple would not be complete until decades later. As I pen this, the official website of the basilica states that the architectural work could be completed in 2026. The Sagrada Familia’s carved murals and Christian symbolism throughout its design was somewhat of a pilgrimage for me, and any visitor would be stunned by the incredible views from its many complete towers.

I think of Barcelona as a journey through Gaudí’s unique vision with additional visits through Parc Guell and on the terrace of his famed apartment Casa Mila. Besides his modern–and sometimes zany–creations, the shopping off of Las Ramblas and the hospitality of its people make Barcelona an excellent choice for a long weekend.

And the readers of Travel + Leisure certainly agree with me: 2017 is the first year in three Barcelona didn’t make its top 10 cities in the world list. (If you’re curious, #1 this year was San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, followed by Charleston, South Carolina.) ¡Olé!

Last Stop through Balkans: Dubrovnik

After learning about the recent history of Dubrovnik–including the city being partially destroyed in the 1990s and later renovated–I really wanted the opportunity to explore “The Pearl of the Adriatic”. Medieval fortress? Check. Chic shopping? Done. A famed spot only findable by its “Cold drinks…this way” signs? Count me in.

We visited Croatia in the fall of 2013 as a part of a Balkan road trip. Our journey took us through three countries, beginning with Albania. Beautiful in parts, one could tell that this poor nation was still reeling from Communist rule that ended in 1991. Our favorite parts were the southern coastline and the quaint village of Berat (where our “expensive” meal was $26 for the two of us). We next ventured into Montenegro, and the difference between it and Albania was shocking. We lunched in the coastal town of Kotor (a must-see!) prior to continuing our road trip with the most wonderful people from Australia.

By the time we reached our last stop of Croatia, we were all fast friends and continued to tour Dubrovnik together. There, we explored Old Town’s city walls, as well as the famous cliff bars. Home base for my boyfriend (now husband) and me was the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik, which was adjacent to the gates of Old Town and had stunning views of the sea. It was a perfect meeting spot for our group to meet to walk into the walled city, where we strolled, had incredible meals of fresh fish, meandered on the actual wall, watched cliff divers, and soaked up the culture.

 

 

December 2016 Travel Photo of the Month

Between the brutal jet lag and catching up on real life, I’ve neglected editing the 824 photos my husband and I took during a recent trip to Southeast Asia. Equally daunting: how can one possibly chose just one to feature as December’s Travel POTM™? Time management and prioritization aside, I’d like to offer a glimpse into a part of our journey that wasn’t even on our radar prior to our trip planning.

Enter Tonlé Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. Some interesting factoids about this body of water in Cambodia? It flows in two directions–due to the Mekong River–and can swell to be four times its size in the wet season. We traveled by car to a boat “dock” (I use that term lightly), where we boarded a rickety local boat, run by an engine that resembled a weed whacker and sorely needing a fresh coat of paint.

Our cruise took us to Kampong Phluck, a small village entirely on stilts! Fishing is the main local economy, and we delighted in seeing families working together to bring in that morning’s catch. Imagine an entire existence based upon living on the water in a house on stilts! Even further, the schools, police department, and even temple were raised high above the muddy waters as locals buzzed about in small boats.

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Stilt Village on Tonlé Sap Lake

We also saw multiple crocodiles and had a harrowing canoe tour, yet that is a story for another day. Perhaps one in the future when I have edited all of the photos from an incredible visit to Southeast Asia…

Seven Magic Mountains

I have been waxing poetically about things to see and do in Las Vegas for over four years now, yet there is never a lack of adventures and sites in my city! My latest must-see is a large-scale public art exhibition called Seven Magic Mountains that debuted this summer about 10 minutes south of the Strip. Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s massive, brightly painted boulders are free to visit and will be displayed for two years.

We visited on a Saturday morning in July. A rather warm day, I’d recommend a trip in the fall when the desert temperatures are cooler. I was lucky enough to hit the seven towers at the perfect moment to capture an image sans humans, and a patient photographer can most likely get the same shot. For more details about this vibrant art installation and driving directions, click here.

Nature Near Nevada

A dear friend who has visited me in Vegas multiple times is visiting this week, and I attempted the impossible: show her part of my beloved city that she has not yet experienced. She has already done many of my Las Vegas like a Local recommendations, including the Mob Museum, laughing our way through A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Smith Center, and multiple activities on the Strip. We did take in Rock of Ages this weekend—which has recently moved to the Rio—and we nostalgically belted out ‘80s anthems at the top of our lungs…another must-see if you’re so inclined.

Alas, there is not much else that my friend Brandi hasn’t experienced in Las Vegas, even though I am constantly proclaiming each visit her “best trip ever.” With that in mind, I decided that it was time for a road trip: on to explore nature-y sites in neighboring Utah and Arizona. If you’re looking for a fast-paced (read: crazy) excursion to accompany any time in Vegas, then this is your itinerary.

Day One: Zion National Park and Horseshoe Bend

We started out around 9am from Vegas and drove approximately 2.5 hours on I15 to Zion National Park—and what an interesting drive it was! The road instantly started to climb when we crossed first into Arizona; then later in Utah, the topography became even more stunning. When we arrived in Springdale, Utah, we cruised through the quaint town, ignoring the many shuttle stops. After paying to enter the park and driving around mistakenly trying to find a spot, we turned around and parked in town and hopped a shuttle. The two shuttle lines were a very convenient to get around the park; we chose stop 5 to hit the Emerald Pools trail, and the online trail descriptions were most helpful in determining the right trail for two inexperienced hikers. We spent about 2 hours total in the park from start to finish, and while it is possible to spend—and enjoy!—so much more time in stunning Zion, we had to hit a very curvy mountain road to head to our next stop.

And that mountain road required some very active driving through canyons and a dark tunnel; approximately another 2.5 hours, and we made it into Page, Arizona, where we booked into the Best Western Plus. It was clean and adequate, plus had a nice hot breakfast. (Note: try to stay on top floor to avoid thunderous upstairs neighbors.) Not two girls to rest, we headed immediately to our next adventure: hiking about 20 minutes to see Horseshoe Bend. This is a magical place where the Colorado River has carved its way around a canyon—a spectacular view! Brandi and I caught the splendor and took photos before making the trek back to our car—mainly because we were worried that idiot tourists who were too close to the ledge would fall to an untimely death. Plus we were starved for dinner. Not much to feast on in Page though—the “Texas” BBQ place is most likely your best bet.

Day Two: Antelope Canyon and Valley of Fire

Our second day started off bright and early with the aforementioned hotel breakfast before checking out and making the 10 minute drive to the Lower Antelope Canyon. Our tour was operated by Dixie Ellis, and I highly recommend the photo tour. Picture this (pun intended): a quick walk in a small group, private canyon views, plenty of time to set up tripod and DSLR camera, and two hours of exquisite shooting in a place sacred to the Navajo. Pictures from another friend’s tour were the literal inspiration of this trip, and Antelope Canyon did not disappoint. Book the photo tour, bring your tripod, and plan to hit the canyons first thing in the morning. The Upper Canyon is famous for light beams, but we were more than happy with the imagery we collected. (One can tell the difference between the below tripod photos on the tour versus the others taken via iPhone.)

Page is a small community, but it was big enough to have a Sonic, which we hit before driving on the Glen Canyon Dam across Lake Powell (stunning and Hoover Dam-like!). Then, we hightailed it back to Nevada, crisscrossing across Arizona and Utah stateliness several times. It took us roughly 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to Hurricane, Utah for a quick break, then another similar time period before we pulled into the Battleborn State’s first state park: the Valley of Fire. One can understand why several movies (Star Trek, Total Recall) filmed their alien scenes here against the stunning red rock scenery. Nevada residents save $2 on entry at the information center, and a 6 mile one-way drive takes one through quite a bit of the park’s landmarks. It was too hot to hike at 113° F, yet it was a lovely drive and well-worth some incredible photos.

Another 45 minutes’ drive, and we were back to the City of Sin! Keep in mind that cell phone reception is often spotty at best in this part of the country. For this trip, I recommend exactly two tanks of gas, plenty of water and sunscreen, very comfortable clothes (and close-toed shoes…can’t convince myself to buy hiking shoes), a great camera with tripod, an excellent playlist, and an incredible friend with whom to enjoy the journey!

 

Shannita en Ciudad de México

During my two years of high school Spanish classes in Texas, my nombre en español was Shannita. As much as I tried to pronounce the words and phrases in Spanish, I was never very good at it. Later in life, I also tried learning via the Rosetta Stone program. I picked up vocabulary words but speaking the language was not a strength. Little did I know how I’d use this knowledge recently on a business trip to Mexico City.

Aqui, I will share my picks for a quick trip to the capital city, one of the most populated in the world. Stay: I was in a southeast part of town in the stylish Live Aqua; it was trendy, very clean, and the amenities (Molton Brown and remote control curtains/lighting) were stellar. The lobby was decorated in books throughout, and the meals I had on property were lovely. It was close to Polanco, an upscale district with beautiful flowers and expensive villas.

Eat: attached to my hotel was Porfirio’s, and it was heavenly. I highly recommend the elote para preparar (done up nicely tableside) and the brisket tacos. The following day, my colleague was kind enough to give me an afternoon tour downtown, and we enjoyed a late lunch at Azul Histórico, which was in walking distance from many famous sights. The ambiance was quite lovely–candles strung up in trees–and the presentation of our tasty mole plates were deftly crafted.

See: no trip would be complete without a drive down the famous Paseo de la Reforma, which is often compared to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. This was our thoroughfare into downtown, home of the Catedral Metropolitana (one of the largest cathedrals in Latin America) and the Palacio Nacional. Near the cathedral, once can see excavations to pyramids and architecture from earlier civilizations underneath, with reminded me of Rome. Lastly, a jaunt down a pedestrian street brought us to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is a beautiful domed building that houses an art museum and theatrical performances.

My sixteen-year-old self would have been proud of the Spanish vocabulary I retained, yet she would have been even more impressed with the exciting, fast-paced capital city. Ciudad de México es muy seguro, moderno y muy interesante. I highly recommend a long weekend visit–hire a driver, and get out into the city!

Popping About Portland

I arrived to a sunny, gorgeous Portland several summers ago—after a flight that was chock-full of huge arena football players! In the city for a conference, I got fantastic local recommendations for activities and dining from a former local. My colleague and I really enjoyed some fabulous meals—turkey at Huber’s (the oldest restaurant in the city that has every turkey dish one could ever conjure up) and a stellar view and dinner at Portland City Grill—as we spent three days in this great walking city.

Downtown was easy to navigate on foot, and a streetcar system covers much of it and the trendy Pearl District. I caught a festival of sandcastles whilst there and enjoyed the casual Pacific Northwest vibe of the city. The weather was fabulous and the sights (including the gigantic Portlandia statue and the famous Powell’s books) were great…I highly recommend a visit to the City of Roses!