Croatia’s Unspoiled Beauty

(Post originally submitted to AFAR magazine.)

At the end of our one-month summer vacation through Europe, we had had enough of the heat and crowds of touristy cities. We longed for open space and fresh air. After an overnight stay at a nearby pension, my family and I finally arrived early morning at this long-awaited, breathtaking wonder of nature.

The photos on the travel websites were real! The lakes are a stunning palette of emerald, turquoise and azure blue. Crystal clear waters show off the abundance of trout. The waterfalls, of varying heights, surprise you around the bend, and flow nonstop as if the turn-off valve had broken. Close your eyes and hear the gurgling. Butterflies with velvet blue wings flutter by. Ducks float quietly over the trout. Limestone provides a nice contrast in color and texture to moss and algae.

We easily explored the connection of lakes by shuttle bus, ferry and boardwalks. These walkways allowed us to traverse the lakes, while in other areas, protect plants from foot traffic. Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest in Croatia, has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. Though it has attracted many tourists over the years, it is excellently maintained — no trash lying around, swimming and fishing are forbidden, no cars allowed inside.

We have been back in California for a few weeks now. Of the 8,000 photos we took on our trip, only one has been framed and sits in a prominent spot in our living room. With a glimpse of the blue-green water, I smile at the memory.

Need help with an upcoming vacation? Contact me.

How to Tackle the Cinque Terre

While still in California and planning for the Cinque Terre (five villages) hike, I must say there was an overwhelming amount of online reviews and advice on how to tackle this popular hike. From everything I’d read and photos I’d seen, I deduced it was a beautiful hike along the coast, but you had to be prepared and forewarned. Total hike time ranged from 5 hours to 8 hours, depending on physical ability and how much time you spent touring the villages. Everyone agreed to start from the southernmost town of Riomaggiore and work northwards to end up in Monterosso. If you got tired, one reviewer suggested taking the train or ferry to the next town. I decided to get one more person’s advice — the hotel (Hotel Villa Anita) owner, Sandro. Since he had given us such great advice and directions for the hike to San Fruttuoso, I knew we could rely on him again. After a hearty breakfast, we filled up our water bottles (a must!) and set out for our excursion.

This was our plan:

1. 1-hour train ride south from Santa Margherita Ligure to Riommagiore, walk around the town for a few minutes, start the hike at the coast and walk the “Lover’s Path”. Yes, we can now understand why it’s called this. The view is beautiful and romantic. We were charmed by something else. To express a couple’s love for each other, the path over the years has been decorated with locks. Attached to rails and fences, these locks come in a splendid array of various sizes and metal finishes, etched with initials and hearts.

2. After a 30-minute walk through Lover’s Path, arrive in Manarola and visit the town for a few minutes.The seaside is quite stunning. Gigantic rocks used as diving platforms for the young and daring. Small, colorful boats anchored waiting for their passengers. Waves splashing onto shore.

3. Take a short train ride to Vernazza, skipping Corniglia because the trail was still closed from the mudslides in 2011. (Or, you could take the ferry.) While walking around the town, affects of the mudslide were visible, though much of the town was in great shape. We saw some building basements full of dirt and debris, with workers repairing broken walls. The water at the beach was a murky green from excess mud. We decided to take a gelato break, and I snacked on calamari wrapped in a small newspaper cone. Reminds me of chips doused with salt and vinegar wrapped the English way.

4. Continue the hike on the coast to Monterosso. Have a snack and cold drink, enjoy a swim. The hike from Vernazza to Monterosso was spectacular, but arduous. Steep inclines, dramatic descents, shady in areas, and full-sun in others. Always a welcoming view of the sea. The hills are terraced with vineyards, though no grapes at this time of year. Once in awhile we would see a grape-picking contraption — since I don’t know the name, that’s the best way I can describe it. It is a small buggy, gripping a very narrow metal track, with a seat for the driver, and a metal container to fill up with grapes. The track winds itself around and up the steep incline of the mountain. Brave driver, picking grapes and not afraid that the buggy might slip and fall into the sea!

5. Finally, take the train back to Santa Margherita Ligure. We were tired, but satisfied from a full-day’s adventure and memories.

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Picturesque Portofino

Portofino was just a pit stop for us on our hike fom Santa Margherita to San Fruttuoso Abbey. I can describe it in three words: small, crowded and yachts. Very picturesque, though, with colorful buildings fronting a very narrow harbor, and flanked by villa-studded hills. I suppose this view is what gives Portofino its charm. Our first order of business was to find a gelato shop to cool us from the heat. Licking our gelatos, we walked along the harbor gawking at the fancy yachts, peaking inside as if we would see anyone famous! One set of lounge chairs was done up in leopard print! We didn’t linger. After 30 minutes of soaking in the scene, we continued our trek to the abbey.

Santa Margherita Ligure, Charming Town on Italian Coast

We arrived in Santa Margherita after a long, full day of traveling from Madrid. A 2-hour flight into Milan Malpensa, 1-hour train ride from airport to Milan Centrale station, then 2-hour train ride to Santa Margherita. After the heat and crowds in a big city, we were happy to be in this coastal town where you could feel the breeze coming from the vast ocean. I made the right choice in selecting this town as our anchor for the next 4 nights. 

Santa Margherita Ligure lies along the Ligurian coast just south of the popular Portofino and quick train ride to the northern most village of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso. Colorful villas, hotels and restaurants line the picturesque harbor. At the harbor is a small plaza with shady trees, colorful flowers and benches perfect for a rest stop and for viewing the fishing boats and ferries coming in and out of the docks. The green, surrounding hills, dotted with more colorful villas, provide a nice backdrop.

The highlights of our stay include:
1. Delicious gelatos, and with a view. Gelaterie Lato G, across the harbor, was our favorite gelateria in this town. We savored the passion fruit, mango and hazelnut flavors.
2. The afternoon fish market, authentic local experience. I love food markets because you can really be part of the local scene. The fish market is in a perfect, convenient location — right across the small street from the harbor. It is open every day starting at around 5:00 pm. We got there early enough to witness the fishing boats motoring in with their catch, already sorted by fish type in wooden bins, then loaded into carts which were quickly pushed across the street to the market, then placed onto metal racks ready for weighing and selling. There were bins of all kinds — fish, crabs, squid and octopus. The first hour of sales is, we guessed, for commercial sellers or restaurant owners buying in bulk, then the next hour is for the selective chef wanting to make something fresh and delicious for their family dinner.
3. Hotel Villa Anita, 2-star rating, but really 4-star accommodations and service. How do hotels get their ratings? This boggled my mind. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. The hotel is pleasantly located away from the busy, coastal strip. It does have a few peaks of the ocean from some of the rooms. It shares a street with other gorgeous villas, is a quick walk to the center of action — harbor, restaurants and shops — and clean and comfortable. The breakfast buffet is something to look forward to every morning, and you can sit on the outside deck and view the lush landscaping. The pool is small, yet new and comes equipped with several massage jets and a rain shower.
4. The hike to San Fruttuoso Abbey, with a quick gelato stop along the way in Portofino. It was really hot on the almost 4-hour hike from our hotel. We were so happy to have packed water bottles. We hiked up and down steep terrain, went in and out of the forest and always rewarded with gorgeous views of the coast. The descent into San Fruttuoso was exciting. The abbey became more immense as we approached and we paused to take in the scene — a lone, impressive structure; gorgeous water; and crowds suntanning on the small beach, while others enjoyed a swim. I took a dip in with my daughter. The water was so refreshing!
5. The hike through Cinque Terre. We visited Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso. We skipped Corniglia because the trail was still closed from last fall’s mudslide. The towns are fun to visit for a few hours, but not to stay in, especially with my adventurous family. (Best for romantic couples, I’m told.) For our hike through the villages, we took the one-hour train ride to the southern most town of Riomaggiore, then started our walk from there.
I am still working on a separate blog for our visit through the Cinque Terre. Come back soon.

How To Do a 4-Week Summer Trip in Europe with Kids

We were in Europe for about four weeks this summer — Madrid, Northern Italy and Croatia. Our family of five includes three kids ages 11, 12 and 15. We’ve taken long trips before and I have learned that the key to an enjoyable and memorable trip is to balance the needs and wants of everyone in the family, even if it means skipping that one important activity, or place, in your itinerary. Here are some tried and true strategies for long trips that work for our family. (Although I’m writing this after our trip in Europe, these strategies also worked for us in Asia a few years ago.)

1. Europe is hot in the summer. When booking accommodations, make sure you stay in a few places with a swimming pool. Pools might be scarce in big cities, but they are available in other towns and you don’t have to always select 5-star hotels. They will provide a place to refresh and reenergize everyone after a good day’s worth of walking and sightseeing in the heat.The kids, especially, have something to look forward to after you’ve dragged them to yet another tourist site. Our small, 2-star hotel in Santa Margherita Ligure (Hotel Villa Anita) had a new, small pool with several jets that entertained the kids endlessly. Although we stayed just one night at the small Hotel Kapetanovic in Opatija, Croatia, the pool was just what the kids needed after a long drive through the country. After two weeks of culture in Northern Italy, we were ready to unwind in Rovinj, Croatia. We spent three days splashing and swimming in the pools of the 5-star Monte Mulini, our favorite hotel during our 4-week trip.
2. Give the kids ice cream or a cold drink as often as they want. Forget the calories, forget how much sugar they’re taking in. You will have quieter, happier kids. After all, you do want them to come along with you to visit museums, churches, towers and look at all the interesting architecture, right? Besides, this gives all of you a chance to sit down, talk and cool off. Better yet, find an air-conditioned gelateria or heladeria.
3. Be flexible. It’s okay to not do everything you planned to do. When planning our 3-day stay in Verona, Italy, I had the idea of renting bikes to see the town and surrounding area. Bike tours were certainly promoted as one of the things to do in the city and its outskirts. The weather was so hot and humid (it was 103 F one day!) that there was no way I would be able to convince my family to do a bike tour. No big loss, especially since I didn’t book anything in advance. We walked around instead and came back to our air-conditioned b&b when we got too hot. Another example, prior to our trip, I had reserved a car for our third day in Rovinj, so that we could do some sightseeing to neighboring towns. When we got to the hotel, all we wanted to do was hang out and not leave. We had already been traveling three weeks and we needed some R&R. So, we postponed the car for the next day and relaxed for three days.
4. Schedule a few guided tours. I selected Context Travel for Segovia, Florence and Venice. You can sign up for an already-scheduled tour (10+ people), or decide to take a private tour for up to 6 people. The private tours, though I thought pricey, was well worth the money. The online registration form asked me to give the company a brief description about our family (ages, interests, etc.), so that they could match us with an appropriate guide. Of course, I asked to have young, energetic guides to capture (and maintain) our children’s attention. We were very happy with our guides. They were knowledgeable, service-oriented and personable. Especially nice was the boat tour through Venice — we were happy to not do a walking tour in the heat. We had our own guide, water taxi and driver and this allowed us to photograph the not-so touristy highlights of the city.
5. Get out after breakfast, rest in the afternoon, be reenergized for the evening. After breakfast, our routine would be to walk around a neighborhood, stop for ice cream, visit a church, museum, or other historical site, then stop for another ice cream or snack. At about 3:00 pm, we would be exhausted. We would head back for the hotel or b&b and rest and enjoy the air-conditioning. The kids occupied that time with their books, electronic gadgets, or swam in the pool. My husband and I read, checked email, and occasionally had a siesta. At around 6:00 pm, we were ready to explore again and slowly make our way to dinner at the restaurant of choice.
6. Do not overdose the kids on big cities with too many museums and churches. Europe is full of these, but DO plan to visit towns that are along the coast or near lakes. This will give everyone a much-needed change of pace. You will enjoy refreshing breezes, cooler temperatures, and wide open spaces. Also, we established a rule of one museum and one church per town. Better to get an in-depth understanding of a few, rather than an overload from too many. Of course, this might not be possible in Florence.

Viva Madrid

My family took an almost 4-week trip through Europe. First stop, Madrid, Spain.

My young teen succinctly characterized it as “hot, stinky, old, and ham and cheese”. After 7 days, he got a good feel for the city. This would not be a top summer destination for him, but, never the less, an excellent choice for our family reunion with my in-laws who live on the Canary Islands.

From my adult perspective, I would describe it as a city rich in history, grand architecture, abundance of art museums, and, yes, hot. And, ham and cheese — jamon y queso –everywhere. Of course, the city has all modern amenities. A 7-day stay in this big city gave us a chance to experience more than just the tourist destinations.

I would highly recommend our hotel, Jardin de Recoletos. It is centrally located and a great starting point for many of our walks through the city. Walking is the best way to explore Madrid and many other European cities. The hotel is a quick jaunt to Retiro Park, perfect for evening walks. Large rooms compared to typical sizes throughout Europe. Excellent restaurant food. Dinner served outdoors in a small garden. Efficient and friendly front desk staff. Quiet side street off of Calle Serrano, where all the designer shops are located. One negative — restaurant staff need to learn about service!

Here are the highlights of our stay. Our kids’ ages range from 11 to 15 years old, which I feel are old enough to appreciate old cities rich in culture.

– Retiro Park (lots of strolling through shaded paths, snack bars, people watching, playgrounds)

Museo del Ferrocarril (for fans of old trains and model trains)

Real Fabrica de Tapices (very low key, no crowds, but fascinating short guided tour of how tapestries are made)

Museo Reina Sofia (modern art museum houses Picasso’s huge black and white painting, Guernica, which many experts claim is his greatest work)

Photo credit: The Guardian

Casa Patas (excellent, authentic flamenco in a small venue)

Museo del Jamon (not so much a museum, more of a popular eating place where you stand squeezed between locals enjoying their jamon y queso sandwiches and other tapas, like pulpo)

Segovia (easy day trip from Madrid showcasing Spain’s largest Roman aqueduct — amazing!)

Other memorable experiences included a necessary visit to a “lavanderia”, laundromat, to wash our clothes. Totally automatic with signs in English and Spanish. A snack at the Chocolateria de San Gines for the must-eat churros and thick chocolate experience. Of course, unfriendly and incompetent waiters at many restaurants. We longed for American service.

Next stop: Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy

If you would like help on your next trip to Madrid, please send me an email.

Kauai: My Favorite Island

In recent weeks, seems I’ve been asked many times about recommendations for Hawaii. The Islands remain a top tourist destination for their abundant sunshine and warm weather, gorgeous beaches, and hospitality. Plus, from the mainland, fares are cheaper (many direct flights) than overseas destinations and you don’t have the hassle of passports and visas. Which island is my favorite? Which hotels would I recommend?

Kauai is absolutely my favorite. My family has been going there for years. It is quiet, lush, unpretentious, with gorgeous views and the real feeling of aloha. There are so many activities to choose from: kayaking, hiking, swimming, ziplining, renting atv’s, stand up paddleboarding, surfing, snorkeling and much more. The north shore, especially, confirms the image you have in mind of what an island should be: waterfalls, jagged cliffs, secluded beaches, quaint towns, jungles of greens. Yes, the north shore is the rainier side of the island, but you are rewarded with regular citings of gushing waterfalls and rainbows.
Where should you stay? If you can afford it, renting a house on Hanalei Bay would be my first choice. Kauai Vacation Rentals offers an excellent selection of homes. The homes are of great quality and clean. Or, again if you can afford it, the St. Regis in Princeville has,

hands down, the best view on the island, in fact, on any of the islands. Very pricey, with a small beachfront, but you can’t beat the views and quality service. Maybe spend just a few nights here, then combine with a stay on the south shore at Kiahuna Plantations (condos) or the Hyatt Regency, both in Poipu.

Photo credit: St. Regis Hotel

I do have recommendations of what to do and where to stay on the other islands. Contact me, if you really want to go to the other islands, after I’ve painted such a remarkable picture of Kauai.

Amazing Bird’s Nest Restaurant

I just came across a unique and beautiful restaurant. You eat high up in a tree in a space shaped like a bird’s nest. And, the waiter delivers your food by zip line! Check out Soneva Kiri, on an island in Thailand. I imagine you would also zip line to your table.

Credit: Six Senses Resorts & Spas
Credit: Six Senses Resorts & Spas

Favorite Vacation Spots in Hawaii and California

You don’t have to travel overseas for a memorable vacation. Especially when air fares are expensive (imagine for a family of 5!) and time is limited, you can find special spots in Hawaii and California. Here are a few. For more details, or help with planning your trip to any of these locations, contact me.

Kauai, Hawaii. My favorite of the Hawaiian Islands. Quiet, lush, and relaxing.

 Anza-Borrego Desert, San Diego, California. Try this place with an RV.

Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California. Eclectic collection of art by wealthy publisher, William Randolph Hearst, with outstanding views of the valley and ocean.

Safari West, Santa Rosa, California. You don’t have to go to Africa to experience giraffes so close to you. Sleep overnight in a luxury tent.

Point Bonita Lighthouse, Marin, California.  An awesome walk with gorgeous views of San Francisco on a clear day. The suspension bridge to the lighthouse will open spring 2012.

City Hall, San Francisco, California. Take one of the free guided tours for an interesting history of city hall. Learn about Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

Cheap (or Free) Thrills

After many years of traveling with my family, I’ve decided that many of our most memorable moments have come from what I call “cheap thrills”. Of course, we’ll never forget our pampered vacation at the lakeside resort of Parco San Marco (Lake Lugano). Booking a room that overlooked the sparkling lake and renting a speedboat — to satisfy my then 8-year old son’s wish of driving one — were not cheap. But, nothing compares to the deep feeling of satisfaction and elation from an activity that is free, or costs little, yet provides memories that will last a lifetime.

Gelato everywhere you go in Italy. Go ahead and spoil your kids — let them have a gelato anytime of day. Cheap thrill all day long. We’ll never forget the delicious, refreshing gelatos we bought from a little shop in Menaggio, and licking them as we sat at the edge of Lake Como.

Golf cart rental during the last 2 hours of the day. We didn’t use it for golfing (pricey activity), but drove it around to photograph the gorgeous landscaping and views from the Princeville Golf Course. (The golf course makes extra money because early morning golfers have returned their carts by this time.) We actually rented two. My husband and I each drove one with one child, so that they could experience the fun of riding on a golf course in a buggy equipped with a fancy GPS navigation system!

Biking in Bali. Bike rentals are really cheap and the stops you make along the way are free. My husband and I parked our bikes to follow the crowds swarming to a festival — we guessed it was a festival because of the colorful banners waving high in the breeze. It was a festival for the traditional tooth-filing ceremony. Wow!

Kauai’s canoe club annual fair in Hanalei. Many community fairs do not charge an entrance fee, and you get to hang out with the locals to get that authentic experience. You can watch the races for a bit, go swimming when you’re ready to cool off, and the kids can even participate in a keiki (means child in Hawaiian) obstacle race on shore.

Watching elephant seals in San Simeon, California. Just pull your car over along Highway 1 and park for free. These mammals are HUMUNGOUS and hilarious to watch. Very comical as they clumsily maneuver their 3,000- to 5,000-pound, 15-foot long bodies across the sand, often bulldozing over another one! Every member of our family was so entranced and amused the first time that we went back a second time. Best time to see them is between November and March.

Reply to this post and share your cheap thrill on your last vacation.