Ireland for sightseers and music lovers

Ireland is for golfers. But what has changed dramatically in recent years, is its appeal to anybody and everybody. The tour company we used for our ‘golf’ trip to Ireland, by the name of ‘Links Golf-Ireland‘, informed us that 10-15 years ago their tours consisted of about 80-20 percent in favor of golf tours, but in recent years that percentage has totally flip-flopped. The word is out – Ireland has a host of noteworthy places to visit. From a multitude of sea-ports, to the jaw-dropping rugged shorelines, to the lush ’emerald’ green countryside full of shamrocks, leprechauns, and fairy trees.

Shamrocks everywhere in Ireland, even painted on the back of our travel mate’s head!

Wonder what kind of mischief this leprechaun is up to. If we grab him he has to grant us 3 wishes for his freedom!

One of many fairy trees that dot the Irish countryside – reminding us of the importance of Irish folklore.

As mentioned in the previous post, the culture of Ireland is worth a visit to experience. The locals either stay local, or after a stint to check out what the rest of the world is all about, tend to return to their original roots. If you need to learn how to relax and enjoy what just being alive really means, spend some time in Ireland for a front row seat to what the Irish have perfected. I believe I also mildly touched on the importance of ‘music’ to the Irish culture in my previous post. One of the true highlights of our 10-day excursion was listening to our tour guide/shuttle driver, Eamon Hegarty, regale us with Irish tunes in his melodic Irish lilt and soothing voice. We couldn’t get enough and rarely did he repeat himself with the same song – and one song, Seven Drunken Nights, went through the whole week as each stanza started with the day of the week.

It was of great importance that we didn’t tucker ourselves out during the day, so we always had enough left in the tank to make it to a local pub, or three, each night to listen to live Irish music. Music that takes you in, and quite often takes you from a place of grief to a place of joy and happiness by the end of the song. Or take you on a journey of self-deprecating humor that has a place for everyone to connect. I can only imagine many of these songs being born on the bar stools of many a pub, plenty of Guinness to loosen the tongue and lips.

The entrance to the Guinness Brewery – looks like you’re entering Fort Knox.

Look at all those vats of Guinness – they must have known the beer drinking North Americans were coming!

Little known fact – Guinness owns the right to the harp logo. If any other entity, including the state of Ireland wants to use the harp logo they have to use the mirror image of it.

Luckily several of our party had been to Ireland several times, so we wasted no time winging it through our trip.  On our way to have our first pint of Guinness at Gogarty’s Pub and before we took in some great live Irish music off the back entrance off another great pub, Stag’s Head, we took in some of the local history: The General Post OfficeThe Ha’penny Bridge; Illen Bagpipes; Phoenix Park.

The General Post Office, where an uprising was held in 1916 for Irish Independence from the British Empire.

The Ha’penny bridge over the River Liffey.

A random gathering of an Irish musical group outside the back entrance to Stag’s Head Pub in Dublin.

The next morning had us up bright and early and off to Old Head Golf Links – in the rain and thick fog. Afterwards we headed to the idyllic little port town of Kinsale. After checking into Perryville House, and a long hot shower to thaw out from the chilly day on the course, we snuggled up in our jeans and sweaters and walked down to Finns’ Table to enjoy a relaxing 5-star dining experience. Followed by another walk, and a pop into a pub for a little music and what would become a regularity of having a Red Breast Irish Whiskey or some other Irish scotch whiskey for a proper wind down to our long day.

Perryville House, Kinsale. A quaint Inn off the bay in Kinsale – large comfy rooms and a great bar lounge area.

The harbour in Kinsale – a beautiful backdrop to a quaint little town where you can enjoy 5-star dining in your jeans.

The following day after our round at Tralee Golf Club we worked our way towards the more inland base of Killarney – where we spent two nights at the Ross Hotel. One great thing about all the Irish towns – they are all very walkable. After a dinner of Irish Stew and a very intense tutorial on the proper pouring and drinking of Guinness by our gracious host Eamon Hegarty, we set off to do a little late night shopping of soft and cozy Irish wool sweaters and accessories, and jewelry before tracking down more live Irish music and Irish whiskey.

Ross Hotel, Killarney – great location in the town center, next to a beautiful church, walking distance to castles, pubs, shopping…

How to properly pour a Guinness: Step 1 – pour the glass 1/3 full – let sitl; pour second 1/3 – let sit; pour final 1/3 – let sit. Takes about 20 mins.

Amazingly the glass is still cold. Now ‘stroke’ glass to help beer separate from head. If dranken properly the size of the head should remain the same until the beer is gone.

After a day of golf at Waterville Golf Links, the gals took the next day to explore around Killarney, a couple of us hiking up to one of the many castles that dot the Irish countryside, Ross Castle ruins, circa 15th century. Followed by a visit to Inch Beach – a long stretch of beach that is slowly connecting the arms of the Iveragh (Waterville) Peninsula and the Dingle Peninsula, our next destination.

Ross Castle – a 15th century ruin that sits on the edge of Killarney, a 30-minute easy walk from the town center.

Inch Strand – an idyllic stretch of beach. Great for strolling, searching for seashells, and surfing – if you are so inclined.

Dingle. What a great name for a town. It had a vibe and a style that put a perennial smile on our faces. Colorful buildings filled with local artisans working away at their art, from jewelry to leather goods to knitting. We were also treated to a tour of Dingle Crystal, where we met the owner and head craftsman, Sean Daly, and watched him create one of his original cut-glass styles on Waterford Crystal he brings in uncut. One of Sean’s original cut-glass designs is called the ‘beehive’ named after the beehive huts that exist on Slea Head, Dingle Peninsula, where a big part of the recent Star Wars movie was filmed. We had dinner at Sean’s son’s restaurant, called Solas, named after one of Sean’s styles of cut-glass.

Colorful buildings align the streets of dingle, housing multiple artisans and pubs.

The gals huddle around Sean Daly in his workspace where he spins his magic cut-glass freehand designs.

Then the real highlight of the trip was waiting for us at John Benny’s Pub, where the owner’s wife, Eilis Kennedy, one of the world renown Celtic Divas, and of the duo, Lumiere, gave a somewhat impromptu mini-concert with several of her Irish musical friends. We were mesmerized by their vocal talent and instrumental savvy, with several drop-in’s adding to the musical mix.

Eilis Kennedy and her colleagues regale us with their Irish folklore music – both vocal and instrumental.

The next day took us to our most favorite lodging of the whole trip, Moy House. I could just post pictures and need not write another word – but this a ‘writers blog’ so write I shall. At least a caption or two. Moy House is a 200-year-old home that stood in disrepair for most of its life until a family member lovingly and meticulously renovated it about 20-years ago into a magnificent country house with each room as unique as the lay of the land, and a chef that creates a 5-star dining experience for every meal, with produce and proteins grown on site.

Moy House – a country home turned into lodging of 12 rooms, a full stocked self-serve bar, 5-star restaurant, and 50-acres of walkable grounds.

The rear views of Moy House – overlooking Lahinch Bay.

Stone walls fill the Irish countryside. People could only carry the rocks so far and just piled them up in a line that became property lines.

Lahinch Beach parallels the western holes of Lahinch Golf Club. It is a long expansive beach that allows for some pretty big waves to be created and is well known for its surfing. That’s a little out of our comfort zone being from the AZ desert, so we watched the youngins’ give it a go and stuck to strolling the wide swath of sand with the tide being out giving us ample room to spread out and each find our own private beach experience.

Lahinch Beach – lined with massive boulders to protect the town from high tide.

The bright buildings in the town of Lahinch sit as a colorful backdrop to Lahinch Beach – one of the most popular surfing beaches around.

Enroute to our next destination of Galway, we stopped at the ‘must see’ destination of the Cliffs of Moher. Stunning sea cliffs that go on for about 14 kilometers and range from 390 feet at the low-end up to the biggest drop-off at 702 feet – with no railings along any part of the ridge, so visitor be ware!

One of the highest points at the Cliffs of Moher, just outside of Dingle. A sight to be seen!

The pathways run along the edge of the Cliffs of Moher for 14 km, no railings in sight.

We arrived into Galway on a misty day, but ventured out on a beautiful walk along the waterways outlining this quaint city, dotted with a 14th century Gothic Church, a majestic Cathedral, and more history than all of the US combined. We sauntered around the city streets and low and behold found an interesting little pub to imbibe in our nightly Guinness consumption – at the 800-year-old historic King’s Head Pub. But the music wasn’t your regular Irish fodder so we went to the streets and were greeted with an ensemble of young musicians who randomly gathered and gave the people a musical treat streaming from a multitude of traditional Irish instruments.

Galway, sandwiched between two waterways is a great walking city with beauty along every shoreline.

Galway Cathedral stands tall within the town of Galway.

But the interior was the real sight to behold!

We finished our trip with a three-day stay back where we started, at the Brooks Hotel in Dublin. Now that we were comfortable with our surroundings we spread out and took in as much of the city as we could in what little time we had – more pubs, more shopping, more golf. Our second to last day in Ireland provided a few of us with a highlight of one of the most visually satisfying hikes I have ever experienced. The Howth Coastal Walk – about 10 miles north of Dublin, was a moderately challenging hike along the water’s edge, up and down steep embankments, with views of the ocean, a lighthouse, and immersed in a plethora of colorful unique flora and unique rock outcroppings.

Some of the views from our Coastal Walk on Howth Head were absolutely stunning.

The original Baily Lighthouse off of Howth Head was built in 1667, and is now a fully automated but still working lighthouse.

Some of the colorful flora that dotted the Coastal Walk on Howth.

As busy and full our 10 days in Ireland was – exhaustion never fully set in because the full experience was too exhilarating and left us saying good-bye to Ireland with very big smiles on our faces and a definitive intent to return to the Emerald Isle. But I won’t wait 40 years again for that to happen.

Stay tuned for more great pictures from Ireland in the Global Gallery.

 

Ireland for golfers

Yes – Ireland is for golfers. And it has castles galore. But it’s the people and their culture that are the true highlights of the Emerald Isle. Although my husband and I set out with three other couples on a 10-day excursion touted as a ‘golf’ trip – and golf we did – we also absorbed the love of life the Irish have perfected. You certainly don’t go to Ireland for the weather – although we did experience a couple of truly nice weather days with no rain, no mist, no fog and only a light wind. But you definitely need to go for the music, the beer, the music, the smiles, the music, the beautiful architecture, the music, the golf, the music, the lush green countryside, the music. Did I mention the music??

Our days, no matter how long and arduous, always ended up in a local pub listening to local Irish songs regaling us with their entertaining folklore. It was amazing how you could enjoy listening to so many songs you’ve never heard of in a style most are not accustomed to hearing. There was music everywhere – you didn’t need to search it out. Almost every pub, on almost every night had live music. And if it was a nice evening, there were street performers everywhere we turned. They were young, they were old; they were father and son, they were brother and sister; they were the wife of the pub owner; they were a random gathering of musicians.

But more on the Irish culture and people in the next post. As this was intended to be a trip focused on the amazing golf in Ireland, I’ll share our golf experiences in this post and share all the other highlights of Ireland in a follow-up post.

Golf in Ireland. A bucket list dream of mine for the 40+ years I’ve been playing golf. Check that one of the list – but not one and done – I’d head back tomorrow. We arrived on the heels of an abnormal summer drought. The courses were in tough shape, but you don’t expect pristine conditions where they use very little artificial irrigation methods. This is walking with caddies golf, which can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to having somebody looking over your shoulder on every shot. But ‘buggies’ a/k/a golf carts are generally only available for medical reasons. Some courses don’t have any on hand, or are only provided by a handful of members.

Many courses individually name each hole – often to coincide with a story that goes along with that hole. Which adds to the historical element of playing these amazing tracts of land that often have a lot of local influence into their success. The locals love their golf as much as the tourists. All of our caddies had single digit handicaps, so even though you really just want them to carry your clubs and give you the yardage, their local knowledge of where to aim your drives and approach shots, and read the greens, was imperative to navigating these challenging courses. Caddies ranged from a couple of college aged knuckleheads out to make a few bucks for beer, to ‘professional’ caddies who were a wealth of knowledge. Some tended to get a little too deep into your psyche – thinking by the end of the round they knew more about your game than you did. The right caddy can make your golf experience, but the wrong caddy can break your golfing spirit.

We started in Dublin and made our way along the coast of Southern Ireland until we reached Galway and then we shot straight across the country to finish in Dublin. The courses were all links courses – defined as being the ‘link’ between the land and the sea, built among the natural sand dunes and lay of the land, void of trees. Can you say WINDY!! Nothing to stop those coastal breezes as you buffet your way around these courses. We rarely golfed with less than a few layers on top, thermal pants, and kept our rain pants handy as much to cut the wind as to counter any rain. But there was no complaining about the conditions, and we were never ‘chilled to the bone’. We wanted to play in whatever the coast or Ireland could throw at us, and she didn’t hold back! We mixed up our pairings – couples and couples, just guys and just gals, mix of guys and gals.

A map showing all the amazing golf options – in Ireland (aka Southern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.)

1st round – the brainchild of one John O’ConnorOld Head Golf Links, circa 1997, Kinsale. This was to be thee golf photo-op of the trip. Driving in you come up over a rise and apparently below sits the diamond shape of one of the most amazing tracts of a golf course property ever developed. All we saw was fog so thick we did well to see the road or fairway in front of us. But we were there to play golf – and golf we did! Among the rows of thick fragrant hydrangea and wild rose bushes, 400-year-old ruins, an austere lighthouse, and 300-foot cliffs with no barriers to the sea below. We may have missed a great photo opportunity of the peninsula as a whole, but we did get some great on course shots of this very unique golf setting. We’ll be back! Signature Hole: #12 – a 564-yard par 5 – perched along the 300-foot cliffs, from tee to green. You better hope the golf Gods are on your side with this hole or you might as well put down your max.

The view of Old Head as we would’ve experienced it had we arrived on a clear day. The signature 12th hole lies along the right side of the neck heading towards the point that is Old Head. (picture courtesy of Old Head facebook page.)

The 4th hole at Old Head. During our visit, the lighthouse stood shrouded in fog. And the remains of the Lusitania sit in the deep waters off Old Head, where it was sunk in 1915.

Last year during a horrific storm, the storm surge threw 160 golf balls back up onto the 17th green at Old Head.

2nd Round – the Arnold Palmer designed Tralee Golf Club, circa 1896, Killarney. No fog, nor rain, but plenty of wind. Even the inland holes were a solid 2-club wind on what the locals considered a pretty normal day. Built along an expansive beach open to the wild Atlantic Ocean, the salty sea breeze was intoxicating. The vistas are as impressive as the course is challenging, and we all battled the uniqueness of each hole while absorbing the history of the area. Signature Hole: #17 – Ryan’s Daughter – a 361-yard par 4 – where the ocean scenes from the epic movie Ryan’s Daughter were filmed in 1970.

The Arnold Palmer designed Tralee Golf Club has a statue to commemorate him and his legacy in golf.

The beach along Tralee Golf Club where the epic film Ryan’s Daughter was filmed in 1970.

3rd round – modern era designers John Mulcahy, Eddie Hackett, Claude HarmonWaterville Golf Links, circa 1889, Killarney. Rated as the #1 links golf course in Ireland, it was easy to see why. We hit a great weather day, and I finally got to experience the beauty of this layout my brothers and father have raved about from when they played here some 30 years ago. Each hole just feels right – nothing quirky, all magical in their own way. Mark Twain may have said, ‘Golf is a good walk wasted,’ but I think if he had ever played Waterville he would have changed his mind. And I liked it so much I can’t wait to go back. Signature Hole: #12 – The Mass hole – a 200-yard par 3 – a very low spot protected by high dunes was used by Irish Catholics to hold secretive masses during a time when British rulers disallowed the religion. When the course was being built the local Irish would not touch the sacred ground so now the tee boxes sit high atop one dune and the green on a high flat top across the untouched mass grounds.

One of the very few truly flat holes at Waterville, carved along the seaside beach.

The vista showcasing some of the holes on the back 9 at Waterville. A truly beautiful links course.

4th round – Dooks Golf Club, circa 1889, Dingle. Dooks almost closed in the early 1960’s due to lack of funds, but the members rose up bought the land and literally, with shovel in hand, built another 9 holes, creating a championship level course that is today still owned and run by the members. Signature Hole: the members are the highlight of this club – dubbed the ‘friendliest golf club’ in Ireland – and that’s saying a lot – Dooks is the envy of golf clubs everywhere in how they treat their guests while giving them a great golf experience.

Not a true links course, but plenty of gorse and other elements to battle. (Photo courtesy of Dooks Golf Club website.)

5th round – Tom Simpson designed the modern era Ballybunion Golf Club Old Course, circa 1893, Lahinch. Mother Nature was in prime form the day we came visiting and had us looking for extra layers and cement shoes to battle the elements. The course is beyond tough in the best of conditions – today we were truly humbled – ie. hitting a 3-wood to a 125-yard par 3 and coming up short. This course was hardest hit by the drought, but the lack of grass on the fairways did not diminish the experience of a full line-up of 18 challenging holes. Each hole had a unique quality that had us saying wow over and over again. So much so that I need to go back an re-experience this whole round. Signature Hole: #11 – Watsons, because Tom Watson calls this the best golf hole anywhere. Riding the ridge along the ocean, you have to be brave enough to ride the boundary line with your tee shot to have a chance of landing in the fairway. The approach shot is blind, up a narrow neck, that is all carry to the green – the only safe landing area. We earned our Guinness that day!

The 1st hole at Ballybunion Old Course where it is said that whoever puts their drive into the cemetary buys the first round of Guinness.

One of many blind shots at Ballybunion. The walkways are artificially irrigated, but the fairways are left to Mother Nature to tend to.

“I’m flying!” – to take a line from Titanic. And you could have almost taken flight with the gale force winds we experienced off the west coast of Ireland along the 12th hole at Ballybunion.

6th round – the Old Tom Morris and Dr. Alister MacKenzie designed Lahinch Golf Club, circa 1892, Lahinch. Probably in the best condition of any of the courses following the drought, the thick grass covered giant dunes and the ocean breeze made sure Lahinch still stood as a strong test of links golf. The gals took a raincheck on golf today, and after hearing the guys rave about the condition and the layout, I absolutely have to return to Ireland so I can experience Lahinch. Signature Holes: #4 – Klondyke Hill – 475-yd par 5 – a blind approach shot over Klondyke Hill has you waiting for the flagman on the hill to give you the all clear – failing to take enough club to clear the hill will surely result in a bogey or worse; #5 – Dell – 154-yard par 3, the only indication of where to aim your tee shot is a white stone sitting atop another giant dune that blocks your view of the green.

The goat is the Lahinch Golf Course logo/mascot – for good reason. When the weather apps go on the fritz, rely on the reliable on course goats to tell you what’s ahead for the day’s weather. Goats on the hill – all is clear; goats by the clubhouse – nasty weather is near.

Lahinch had the best recovery from the drought of any of the links golf courses we played.

7th round – Portmarnock Golf Club, circa 1894, Dublin. Filling the whole of a flat barren peninsula just north of Dublin, this course has hosted major amateur and professional events over its history as well as some of the games greats dating all the way back to Harry Vardon who held the course record of 69 over what was then at a full course yardage of 5800+ yards. It has been called the fairest test of links golf due all the holes laying out in front of you – no hidden shots. No wonder my husband enjoyed this course the most. Signature Hole: #15 – 204-yard par 3 – this iconic Irish style hole parallels the ocean and a straight shot is needed on this long hole and well bunkered green to have a chance at par.

The 15th hole at Portmarnock. (Photo courtesy of Portmarnock Golf Club website.)

8th and final round: The Island Golf Club, circa 1890, Dublin. Surrounded by water on 3 sides it looked like an island from across the bay and until the 1970’s it was only reachable by boat. Sitting on the north end of Dublin, it is a comfortably challenging links course with a few wow holes. Being so open to the water, the wind had a big influence on our ball flight, but its a fair track and one I’d definitely return to play. Signature Holes: #13 – a 197-yards par 4 – Broadmeadow– a classic short par 4 that’s all carry over a large grassy bowl and along the water; and #14 – a 333-yards part 4 – Old Clubhouse – behind the tee box is where the old clubhouse stood when the course was only reachable by water and boasts the narrowest fairway in all of Ireland with water along the whole right side.

At the Island Club we had a great caddy, and that made the experience all the more enjoyable and necessary with blind shots such as this one.

The 18th hole at The Island Golf Club – a unique private club started by a group called the ‘Syndicate’ and is still run by the members today.

More amazing pictures from the golf courses in an upcoming Ireland photo gallery in the Global Gallery.

Down Under: New Zealand

New Zealand:

We departed Sydney, Australia on the morning of January 17th – summer-time down under. Our destination – Queenstown, New Zealand. Flying over the Tasman Sea, we entered New Zealand over the Fiordland National Park. Even though the day was a bit overcast, I had my camera out as the entrance into Queenstown was breathtaking – coming in low over a set of glacial lakes, carved through the majestic mountains. A few feet from touchdown I turned to my travel partner – we were both smiling with anticipation at what was to come in this notoriously beautiful country.

One of our first views upon arriving in Queenstown – and I didn’t even bring my golf clubs!

Our entrance into Queenstown over the glacial waters of Lake Wakatipu.

In the next instance we were both thrown backwards into our seat as the plane accelerated quickly and pulled upwards. Everybody looked at each other with a ‘WTF’ stare. No announcement from the pilot. But the map screens on the back of each seat quickly listed ‘Christchurch‘ as our ‘next’ destination – a 40-minute flight away. We later learned the tail wind into Queenstown was so strong we would not have had enough runway to land. So…we had a last-minute addition to our itinerary! Unfortunately we were not able to get off the plane – but it was neat to see a different part of the south island of New Zealand – a channel of lush green geometrical agricultural flat lands with the sea on one side and hills on the other.

An unscheduled touch down in Christchurch allowed us a view of another amazing part of New Zealand.

Several hours later we finally landed in the magical, remote, rugged Queenstown. The city sits along the shore of the ‘lightening strike’ shape of Lake Wakatipu  and at the base of a mountain range aptly called ‘The Remarkables‘ – as it is nothing short of remarkable with its steep, sheer jagged formation. They are also one of only two mountain ranges in the world that run north to south. This range and a hilly area called Deer Park Heights were used for multiple scenes in the Lord of the Rings.

The Remarkables and Deer Park Heights – a backdrop to Queenstown and the setting for many scenes of LOR.

We eventually settled into our room at the QT Hotel, overlooking Lake Wakatipu and watched the 100-year-old TSS Earnslaw steamship chug up and down the waterway from destinations at the far tips of the lake . Our late arrival had us missing our afternoon wine tours so instead we took a walk around the town center to get our shopping out-of-the-way and purchased some of the locally produced wares – wool, jade, wine and beer, anything kiwi, and Manuka honey!

The TSS Earnslaw steamship running up and down Lake Wakatipu for 100 years and still chugging!

Our first full day in New Zealand was a doozy. We were shuttled to the airport where we boarded a 12-seater fixed-wing plane, and headed out on a 35-minute journey to Milford Sound – one of the most well know fiords in New Zealand with Mitre Peak as it’s major focal point. Our pilot was obviously well experienced and versed and in the trials and tribulations of flying in and out of not only a very mountainous terrain but with sketchy weather conditions. Flights had not been flying in this area for the last several days because of rain storms – and the night before our flight we had been given a 50-50 shot at taking off.

This fixed-wing 12-seater airplane felt solid as a rock as it sliced through the turbulent air above Milford Sound.

Mitre Peak stands at the forefront of Milford Sound as the main focal point across the swampy inlet near the landing strip.

This vast mostly untouched land is a sight to be beholden.

But take off we did – and flew so close to some of the mountains they seemed within reach if I could’ve opened my window – which thank goodness I couldn’t!! Swooping in and out of glacial lake canyons and over the Paradise region where Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies did some of their filming, I was snapping pictures left and right. We landed on a tiny airstrip at the inlet of the 12-km long fiord, followed by a 10-minute hike to board a lightly packed cruise ship for our 2-hour water journey. The boat made its way up one side of the fiord, coasting along sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet up into the cool misty skies. We came within viewing distant of the Tasman Sea and then back to port along the other side of the fiord. Witnessing some of the most amazing waterfalls – some permanent, others pop-ups thanks to the 10″ of rainfall mother nature bathed the area with in the last 48 hours.

Our landing strip at the end of inlet of Milford Sound. Not a lot of room for error – coming in low over the water.

One of the permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound – and no this has not been retouched!

Sheer cliffs meet the serene waters of Milford Sound.

A couple of temporary waterfalls popped up thanks to the double-digit rainfalls in the last 48 hours. The boat captain would take us close enough to get a ‘shower’ if we wished.

To give you an idea of the beauty of the area I took 400+ pictures in a two-hour time span – I couldn’t stop snapping! It is said the fiords in Alaska or Norway are equally as beautiful and not as hard to get to – but this was worth every long hour spent on the flight to get down under, and the harrowing flight we took to bring us to this amazing natural sanctuary. Rudyard Kipling dubbed the area the ‘8th Wonder of the World.’ We were told we might see dolphins or penguins, but alas they did not make an appearance. We were however graced with the characters of the seas – seals! Of all shapes and sizes and colors.

We caught the usually active seals taking a snooze on a warm rock in Milford Sound.

Our return flight was equally impressive, taking us on different route, with a new pilot who was even more daring than the first – but just as confident in his ability to get close enough to the natural landscape to give us an up close and personal look while still keeping us safe. It is easy to understand why so many movies have been filmed in New Zealand with its natural beauty, much of it untouched by mans wayward hand.

One of many amazing rock formations the pilot took us over, almost feeling we could reach out and touch it.

A glacial lake fed by a nearby glacier enroute to Milford Sound.

Is it a diamond or Africa – either way it’s a uniquely shaped mountain lake high above Milford Sound.

That was enough stimulation to fill a day, but we were only getting started. Next we were whisked off to experience our most extreme, heart pounding, invigorating adventure of the whole trip – a fast paced ride aboard a 16-person jet boat for an excursion on the Shotover River – yet another filming location for LOR and the Hobbit trilogies. This 25-minute adventure placed us in the hands of a diabolical, but thankfully very capable captain who whisked us up and down the tight, shallow (10cm at times) meandering river, at speeds over 60mph, doing 360 degree tight spins. These boats have such quick reactionary abilities we could be heading towards a canyon wall or boulder jutting out of the water at full speed and turn at the last split second, barely missing the end of our life!

A hair-razing ride aboard the shotover river jet boat!

After we caught our breath it was time for a little down time to see some of the back country of Queenstown. One of the most renowned spots in New Zealand is set on the Kawarau Bridge, in the rugged region of the Kawarau Gorge the site of the original AJ Hackett Bungy Jump. Having had our share of extreme adventures for the day, we chose to sit this one out and watch several people scream at the top of their lungs, certain they were plunging to their death into the turquoise river waters below – only to be yanked up at the last second by a well secured bungy rope.

The front entrance to the AJ Hackett Bungy Jump center – the worlds first public commercial bungy jump location.

The long expansion bridge, now used as a bungy jumping off point.

A brave soul bungy jumping at Karawau Gorge – you can set the bungy cord to stop you above the water, so you can just touch the water, or so you can be plunged into the water!

We finished our day with a leisurely, albeit steeply vertical Gondola ride up to the top of the ski hill that overlooks Queenstown, to enjoy the panoramic views with a glass of wine to relax our highly activated nerves from a day of extremes.

The next day was a ‘kick back’ kind of day. We were loaded into a LandRover and taken on a half-day voyage through the scenic mountain and forest views of the New Zealand outback, stopping at many exact locations of filming for LOTR and Hobbit trilogies – ie. Isengard, Forest of Lothlorien, the Ithilian Camp, Mt. Earnslaw….we were even given a few swords used in the movie scenes to create our own LOTR photo-op.

The remains of the scene where Sam and Gollum are fixing supper for them and Frodo.

Sam & Gollum cook dinner while Frodo is pre-occupied in the background of LOTR.

The real life view of Mt. Earnslaw – the snow field in the background was the setting for the trek led by Gandolf in the LOTR 1.

Gandolf leads the trek across Pass of Caradrhas in LOTR 1.

A sword used in the filming of Lord of the Rings for the fight scenes in the Lothlorian Forest.

That afternoon we were escorted via a private car to some of the local wineries in the Gibbston wine district. New Zealand may not have the history of some other noted wine regions, but it is making its way into an industry that demands a lot of patience and a lot of time to make wines to compete on the world wine stage. And from what we tasted – they are well on their way. Very strong Pinot Noirs and Rose’s.

Brennan Winery just outside of the Queenstown.

As much as we were sad to leave the Queenstown area – we could’ve stayed for weeks – it was time to continue on our journey. Which included one more New Zealand stop before heading back to Australia. An early morning flight had us arriving in the ‘City of Sails‘ a/k/a Auckland, which sits on the north end of the north island of New Zealand. We only had a partial day to spend in this expansive city. We started out at the large marina, positioned at the edge of downtown – it was easy to see how the city got its name peering through the multitudes of ship masts, looking across the marina at the Sky Tower, the skyline focal point, looming high above the city and was our next destination. The Sky Tower high-speed elevator whisked us up the 328 meters to the observation deck where we had an amazing 360 degree view of Auckland. We watched with awe several tethered people jump off the balcony of the tower down to a landing spot at street level. No thanks!

The Auckland Sky Tower is the focal point across the marina that sits at the edge of this ‘city of sails.’

Tethered crazies jump from an exterior balcony on the Sky Tower in Auckland.

Cornwall Park, Auckland. Where the sheep roam free and inactive volcanic cones dot the horizon.

Next it was off to experience the black sand beaches just outside of Auckland, that extend 50km north – an amazing sight! Enroute we witnessed the largest Muriwai Gannet bird migration. . The ammonia tainted stench of the birds literally took your breath away, but the visual of thousands of birds on this one outcropping was a sight to see. Auckland also boasts one of New Zealand’s most amazing urban parks, Cornwall Park  – where sheep are free to roam, and the high point sits atop one of 48 inactive volcanic cones that dot the landscape in an otherwise fairly flat cityscape.

Black sand beach just outside of Auckland stretches 50km to the north.

The Muriwai Gannet bird migration at a rock outcropping on the black sand beaches of Auckland.

These black sand beaches often play host to major surfing competitions.

Thus ends our exhaustive jaw-dropping awe-struck trip to New Zealand. And we can’t wait to go back! We lost track of how many people we came across who said they came to visit and never left. I so get it!! And we barely touched what this amazing country has to offer those open to adventure and the desire to be astounded at every turn.

Please check back for more pictures in the Global Gallery!

 

Down Under: Australia

The term ‘down under’ refers to the countries of Australia and New Zealand, because they are indeed below all other countries in the southern hemisphere. And across the largest expanse of water from the US vs pretty much anywhere on earth. To fly 15 hours (approximately 7,500 miles)on a route that is nearly 100% over water, other than the few minutes fly over Fiji, is a little disconcerting to say the least. But thankfully most flights from the US are red eyes, so you sleep through most of that anxiety.

Because I have a hard time sleeping sitting up, I splurged for a first class seat/pod. Starting out a two-week trip with no sleep just did not seem like a good idea. Plus you get a pair of pj’s to lounge/sleep in while imbibing in all the alcohol you can handle, stopping short of starting such a monumental trip with a hangover. But of course you are plied with enough gourmet food to bust a gut for good absorption factor. And alas a sleeping pod with a seat that reclines to 180 degrees. All for the nominal fee of several months mortgage payments – but so worth it if there is anyway to swing it.

I will break down the ‘down under’ posts into two posts. There is simply too much to cover in one. Even though Australia is home to some of the most amazing natural landscape – and grueling rustic areas such as the ‘outback, it is the major cities that were the highlights for us. Whereas New Zealand was all about experiencing the natural landscape. This post will be focused on Australia – the follow-up post on New Zealand.

My travel partner and I departed LAX on Friday, January 12th at 10:30pm and arrived in Sydney on Sunday, January 14th at 8:30am, as morning dawned on a somewhat ominous weather day. I pulled out my camera to get some aerial shots. The flight attendant took notice of my camera and said we would be turning soon and to watch for the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge outside my window. Not a bad start to our journey.

Aerial view of the Sydney Harbour, the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

I have used tour companies in the past to organize an itinerary for upcoming travel. When an area is new to you, having the help of local knowledge is priceless. We used a travel company I found through Wendy Perrin’s WOW travel service called Southern Crossings. Stuart and his team were amazing to work with in the short couple of months we had to organize this trip down under. They took our specialized requests for transportation, accommodations, tours, restaurants and created an itinerary that was ideally suited for us. Everything was included in our cost except for most meals.

Sydney

We were picked up at the airport by a private car service and whisked away through the heart of Sydney to our boutique hotel, Pier One Sydney Harbour that was located on the water at the base of the Harbour Bridge, within walking distance from the Opera House. We took the first day to acclimate ourselves to our new time zone – 18 hours difference from home in Arizona. We walked around the harbour area near our hotel – a small part of the 150 miles of the Sydney Harbour shoreline.

The Pier One Harbour hotel in Sydney sits at the base of the Harbour Bridge.

View of the Sydney Opera House framed by the massive steel structure of the Harbour Bridge.

View of the Harbour Bridge from a recently refurbished part of the harbour shoreline.

Our second day was spent touring the highlights of Sydney: historic Rocks precinct, Circular Quay, Bondi Beach, and lunch at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, before being dropped off at Darling Harbor to board our private small sailing yacht for a 2-hour harbour tour. It was a beautiful, albeit windy day, so our skipper opened the sail and we cruised at a high clip through part of the harbor with the boat lilting hard to one side, salt water spraying up on us. Giving us some of the best views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House and all the beautiful homes, many famous, that line the harbour.

Looking out over The Rocks historic precinct and the first church in Australia, from Observatory Hill.

Mrs. Macquarie, (the wife of the sitting Governor of 1810) sat for days on end on this stone chair, waiting for ships to arrive from London with all the updated goods from a modern world and letters from home.

Bondi Beach – a large popular beach for the locals and tourists.

A private sailing tour through the Sydney harbour – not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

The Harbour Bridge and Opera House as seen from the water in Sydney Harbour.

The next day brought the trip’s biggest challenge – climbing to the top of the Harbour Bridge, a 2 1/2 hour experience. For someone who is afraid of heights, this was quite the test for me. We went through a short albeit rigorous training course and got all rigged up with a special cover-all and gear to attach us to a railing with a cable – all that kept us from plunging to the water 440 feet below. We climbed up through the menagerie of the massive structural supports – and popped out through an opening on the top of the bridge. As we did, the skies opened up and it began to rain with the wind blowing at 30 mph. My heart was pounding out of my chest, but it was worth every dropped heart beat! And the views were figuratively and literally breathtaking.

Standing on top of the Harbour Bridge, with the wind howling and the rain coming down – Opera House in the background.

After a much-needed rest and refreshing, we got dressed up and strolled over to the Sydney Opera House, where we had a private tour of the inner workings of the whole complex; an exquisite gourmet dinner in the on-side restaurant, Bennelong; and finished off the evening with a production of The Merry Widow. Our trip could’ve ended right now and it would have been worth the 15-hour plane trip to get to this corner of the world.

The stage from The Merry Widow inside the Sydney Opera House.

The Sydney Opera House all aglow at night with lights reflecting off the roof tiles embedded with bits of sea shells.

But alas end it did not – there was so much more to come! The next 6 days were spent in New Zealand which will be covered in the following post.

Great Barrier Reef

We returned to Australia to experience the Great Barrier Reef. This was our one stroke of bad luck. The most anticipated photo-op of the whole trip. We embarked on a small tour, full-day, boat excursion 1 1/2 miles out to the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, but the weather was so poor all we experienced was dull gray. Dull gray skies, dull gray surface water, dull gray underwater. We saw some vibrant colorful fish while snorkeling, but the coral was mostly colorless and covered with ocean sediment.

The next day was much improved as we headed into the world’s oldest rainforest, the Daintree Rainforest – a beautifully lush tropical forest. We started out with a short riverboat cruise to get up close and personal with some 9-12′ crocodiles. Then we embarked on a walk through the rainforest that was thick with amazing vegetation and streams. We saw several wallabies – one with a joey in her pouch; a bright green frog; and numerous spiders and their creative webs.

A 10′ river crocodile moseying along in the Daintree River.

A little wallaby hoping not be noticed by the pesky humans staring at him.

Our little bright green tree frog checking out the details on the visitor info board.

These rainforest spiders have some mad-skill at spinning some complex webs.

A momma wallaby with a baby joey in her pouch – at the animal reserve in the Daintree Rainforest.

A very bold junior wallaby, eating slivers of sweet potato out of my hand. He was very insistent.

Melbourne

Next we headed to Melbourne to experience the more cosmopolitan city in Australia. There is a very vocal, almost hostile rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney – each touting themselves as the ‘go-to’ city of Australia. These cities are so very different that I don’t even see a need for a rivalry, but an opportunity to tout each others strengths. Our main purpose in visiting Melbourne was to attend the semi-final and final matches of the women’s Australian Open, with a day in between to experience the vibe of Melbourne.

A good part of Melbourne is experiencing a renaissance of sorts – seeing people taking pride in their neighborhoods and creating unique expressions of the area by the food they serve, the culture they openly share, and the architecture to showcase the area’s innovations. Alleys along many of the bustling streets are go-to spots for boutique stores, coffee shops and dining experiences.

The city as a whole has embraced graffiti as a form of art that needs to be openly exhibited, not painted over. The city has commissioned several graffiti artists to paint murals on several large buildings that are amazing in stature, creativity and talent. Many of the above mentioned alleys have become oversized canvases for more detailed artwork and other forms of artistic expression.

One of many building murals, commissioned by the city, to spruce up large industrial buildings.

Most of the cities alleys are clean, embedded with amazing restaurants, and showered with all forms of murals – many of local favorites AC/DC.

And although the city sits on the east side of a very large harbor, only a small portion of the city revolves it’s day-to-day workings on the waterfront. That is mainly reserved for the weekend when the city’s inhabitants pour out onto the beaches and soak up the sun and water.

Brighten Beach. One of the most popular city beaches in Melbourne. The colorful beachside structures, that have no rooms, running water or electricity, were built in the 1920’s for the women to change into their full-length swimsuits. Each ‘cabin’ now sells for a mere $340,000.

As if the trip down under hadn’t already been magnificent enough, we still had the main reason for coming to Australia to experience – the Australian Open. It was the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King‘s one win at the Aussie Open, and she was being honored with a special award – Australian Women of the Year. Being summer in Australia in January, we sweltered courtside while witnessing three of the best women’s matches I have ever watched – live or on TV. Luckily we had ample opportunity to quench our thirst with the tournament signature drink – Aperol Spritz.

Settling into to watch an exciting semi-final match between Wozniaki & Mertens at the Australian Open.

Kerber congratulating Halep on her semi-final win at the Australian Open.

Billie Jean King hugging Australian Open winner Caroline Wozniaki after presenting her with the winners trophy.

A very special moment recognizing Billie Jean King on her 50th anniversary of her only win at the Australian Open.

Refreshing Aperol Spritz drinks lined up at the Aperol bar at the Australian Open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And yes we even tried some ‘Vegemite‘ – not bad if I do say so myself. A salty spread that most Australians we talked to still eat on a regular basis. But sadly we never saw a koala bear or a kangaroo. Guess we’ll just have to make a return trip!

Be watching for my upcoming post on New Zealand, as well as a Global Gallery page showcasing more Australian culture that added to our whole ‘down under’ experience.

Brazil – Sao Paulo

Brazil. Where does one start? The food. The people. The culture. The beauty – natural and manmade. Brazil was never on my bucket list, not even an honorable mention. When my husband began traveling there for business my interest became piqued to see a destination not on many people’s bucket list. That interest was further inspired by the recent 2016 Summer Olympic Games. (FYI: a VISA is needed for Americans to travel to Brazil.)

Brazil, South America.

Every year my daughter and I, whether together or not, travel to a unique location somewhere in this amazing world of ours. The opportunity to travel to Brazil with my husband on one of his business trips was too great an opportunity for us to pass up. He had already been to Brazil multiple times, knew the lay of the land and how to navigate a region not regarded as overly safe. The locals we know cautiously reminded us to be extra vigilant and monitored our travel itineraries to be sure we weren’t going into areas they would not recommend. But like any place else, be smart and be aware and you’ll be safe.

And I am happy to report we had a very safe trip – we did not have one instance of concern. No clutching our purses to our chest or looking over our shoulders. Which would’ve been a travesty as there was something to behold in every direction. I have now added Brazil to my bucket list because there is so much more to see and do – we did not even scratch the surface in the 10 days we were there. We were however, able to experience some areas probably better known to locals than to tourists in the regions we visited, thanks to the local connections we have.

Because our experiences were as vast at the country itself I will break the Brazil post up into three parts: 1) Sao Paulo; 2) Angra dos Reis; 3) Rio de Janeiro. The proximity of South America to North America actually makes it fairly easy, but long trip to Brazil – about a 9 hour flight from the US mainland. Most flights out of the US depart from Atlanta (Delta) or Dallas (American) and fly directly to Sao Paulo. We flew out of NYC – which is another direct flight option. All flights to Brazil are red-eyes, mainly into Sao Paulo, so the flight goes fast since you sleep through the bulk of it, waking in time for a quick breakfast before touch down on the runway. The time zone change is minimal compared to travel abroad to the east or west. Example – from Rio de Janeiro to the west coast of the U.S. is 4-5 hours depending on time of year.

Sao Paulo, Angra dos Reis, and Rio de Janeiro – along the southeast border of Brazil.

Part 1: Sao Paulo

The geographical spread of Sao Paulo  is so expansive I couldn’t fit the whole city into my pictures taken from the plane. It is an urban setting of 24 million people spread out over an area of 85 miles from edge to edge. Sao Paulo is the international business and cultural center of Brazil. People in Brazil tend to work in Sao Paulo and play in Rio. Portuguese is the language spoken in Brazil, but like most places in the world we had no problem getting around not being fluent in Portuguese – although we certainly picked up a lot of Portuguese phrases throughout our stay, and locals appreciated our efforts to reply back to them in Portuguese. And according to a friend who speaks Portuguese, the Portuguese spoken in Brazil has a more fluid lilt to it then what is spoken in Portugal, and is a little easer to pick up.

The city of Sao Paulo spreads out, and out, and out….

We stayed at the Fasano Hotel, a high-end boutique-style hotel chain. Once settled into our rooms, it didn’t take us long to indulge in the first cultural experience of Brazil – a drink called the ‘Caipirinha‘. Muddled limes with a touch of sugar and a generous pour-over of a Brazilian rum called cachaca, shaken and served in glass full of crushed ice. The locals drink this as much as the tourists – but beware, one is just right, two will land you on your arse. Even the locals don’t push it and if they are going to drink multiple Caipirinhas they will use vodka instead of the local rum. This local rum is made from raw pure cane sugar where other rums are generally made from processed sugar.

A Caipirinha – a Brazilian drink even the locals drink. Refreshing and very potent!

Food is also a forte of Sao Paulo – one restaurant has ranked as high as 9th in the world: Dom. We were lucky enough to get in by booking our reservations well in advance. The focus at Dom is on using Brazilian grown ingredients in Brazilian created dishes. A prix fixe gastronomical dining experience worth every high calorie laden bite. And if you like your beer cold – Brazil is the place for you. They house their beers in an extra cold fridge, serve it in mini pilsner glasses so you drink it before it gets warm, and keep the unfinished bottle in a table side ice bucket.

Beer served in miniature glasses to the beer in it doesn’t have a chance to get warm.

Keeping the beer ice-cold in an ice bucket table side.

After a long deep sleep to recover from Day 1 travel and heavy eats, it was time to stretch our legs and see some of the culture of Sao Paulo. Off to Ibirapuera Park, their version of Central Park, where we walked on heavily treed paths along waterways, while quenching our thirst with fresh coconut water. Coconut stands dot the pathways – the vendor cuts a hole in the coconut, adds fresh cold water that mixes with the coconut juice and you sip it with a long straw. As the heat of the day increased we took our interests inside to the Sao Paulo Museum of Art which houses pieces of work from locals on the first floor, to pieces from the world’s most well renowned artists of all time on the second floor. The Museum sits up off the ground – during the week this covered space serves as a shelter for the homeless. And twice a week they clear this space out and it becomes a flea market.

Beautiful heavily tree-lined pathways of Sao Paulo’s version of Central Park.

Multiple vendors sell fresh coconuts along what waterways in Iberpuera Park.

An installation of artists from Renoir to Picasso and classic artists in between, at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Each painting is placed on an individual stand to create an illusion of the artwork floating.

After cooling down we walked down to Sao Paulo’s version of Rodeo Drive for some much-needed shopping on Jardins’ Rua Oscar Freire. My daughter and I simply couldn’t leave Sao Paulo without purchasing some Brazilian styled vibrant clothing. After all that bopping around and shopping around it was time for another refreshment – no better option than our new favorite drink, a Caipirinha, at a cute local eatery right around the corner from out hotel.

After a short nap it was off to one of the most interesting restaurant settings I have ever experienced, at the Figueira Rubaiyat. The open air entrance is guarded by a ficus tree with a trunk diameter of over ten feet and branches jutting out under and through panels in the all clear glass ceiling. That evening we were treated to the most amazing rainstorm I have ever experienced. The area of Sao Paulo we were staying in is built on a very steep hill – our hotel and the restaurant were near the base of this hill. The rain came down so fast and furious there was a raging river racing down the street knee-deep – we couldn’t even make it back to our hotel a half block away. So we indulged in local fresh seafood and wine and waited the storm out.

Apparently this Ficus tree loves the tropical weather of Sao Paulo.

A tropical rainstorm hits Sao Paulo leaving us hostages in the Rubaiyat Restaurant.

Sao Paulo may not be the area to spend the bulk of your time in when visiting Brazil, but it does have enough to sufficiently fill a couple of days. Next it was off to another area the locals love to get away to called Angra dos Reis, an archepegio of 365 islands situated between Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro.

Check back soon for the next two Brazilian posts and an upcoming Global Gallery for all of our stops in Brazil!

Lisbon, Portagul

Another guest blog by my daughter, Allison Malecha. A recap of the second part of her summer trip to Spain/Portugal.

Lisbon, August 2015

Last year, I went to a personal finance workshop sponsored by the startup LearnVest, thanks to a cousin who is a client. The part that stuck with me was a lecture by a Harvard professor who spoke about happiness. He discussed a survey where children were asked a fairly standard question: What do you want to be when you grow up? The children responded in expected ways: a doctor, a lawyer, a what-have-you just like my mom/dad. But the professor was not completely satisfied with these answers. The children had named career goals, professions. They had not said: “When I grow up, I want to be happy. I want to be fulfilled.” They had not been taught that these were things worth striving for.

New York, where I live, is a city where most everyone is trying to be something, or someone. We are future writers, hedge fund managers, ad agency executives, Nobel Prize winners. When I arrived in Lisbon, I had the feeling that perhaps, there, a few more children might wish to be happy when they grow up. To be fair, I spent three days in the city, and one of those days mostly on a sad little ferry back and forth across the Tagus. But the air had a different quality, people’s faces were more prone to smiles, and I felt, even looking up the three flights of dirt-studded white stone stairs up to our street, inexplicably, deliriously happy.

Lisbon is not counted among National Geographic’s “Top 10 happiest cities” nor was Portugal named one of the Top 20 happiest countries in the recent United Nations World Happiness Report. It is entirely possible that my perception of the place is more attributable to the fact of being on vacation than to the place itself.

We didn’t have the most obvious start to what turned out to be the highlight of the my Spain/Portugal trip. My travel mate and I missed our train to Lisbon. We were coming from Porto (Portugal) with tickets purchased online and sent to my Brooklyn mailbox. It turned out that we had bought vouchers, not tickets, and the ticket collector was kind enough to tell us so—4 minutes before the train’s departure. So I waited in the 20-minute ticket line and we caught the next train. My first experience of Lisbon was running through it, a backpack slamming against my spine and a camera drumming my chest as we followed the blue dot on my friend’s iPhone to the front door of our Airbnb. We were about to make our temporary landlord late for a work meeting, but she gave us a tour: roomy bedroom, a kitchen of mint-green cabinets, a corner bathroom with gas-lit hot water, a washing machine and clothing lines out the window, a fifth-floor view onto, on one side, a church courtyard, and on the other, a view of the entire red-roofed and white-spired city. She pointed out the square where we would find the train station to take us to Sintra. She didn’t look a bit like she was already late to somewhere else.

My friend in our Airbnb kitchen.

My friend in our Airbnb kitchen.

The Sao Cristovao Church, on our street.

The Sao Cristovao Church, on our street.

The view from our Airbnb apartment.

The view from our Airbnb apartment.

That night we zigzagged our way to Mesa de Frades, a place my friend had recommended to me to listen to live fado, a type of folk music specific to Portugal. We arrived at 10:40 and were told to come back at 11. We made a few loops on the cobblestone streets and returned to be seated in two extra chairs pushed up to a four-top, where a middle-aged couple and their in-laws had just finished dinner. A hush fell over the tiny, mural-wrapped dining room as the restaurant door was pulled closed and the musicians positioned themselves in front of it: a mandolin player, a guitarist, and a singer. All younger than I expected, quick to laughter in the moments between songs. But what happened during those songs was pure magic—not a single fork tine scratched, no iPhones lit up, no one whispered. The brunette clasped her hands in front of her and lavished her voice upon the room: rich and mournful, resonant without the help of a microphone. After the first set she was replaced by an older vocalist, with a deeper, more dexterous voice and a leopard-print poncho, clearly recognized by some in the room. My travel mate and I walked home afterwards in a bit of a trance, not yet wanting the spell to be broken.

One of the many tiny, beautiful cobblestoned streets on the way to Mesa de Frades.

One of the many tiny, beautiful cobblestoned streets on the way to Mesa de Frades.

Mesa de Frades, Lisbon.

Mesa de Frades, Lisbon.

Our first full day in Lisbon we rented bikes from bike Iberia (word to the wise: budget bikes are exactly what they sound like) and hopped onto the Poetry Bike Lane, which was more of a series of pedestrian paths and sidewalks and parking lots than a bike lane. It also left the poetry up to the riders but hugged the broad and glittering Tagus all the way to historical Belem. Things got dicey when we wheeled our bikes onto the aforementioned ferry. We missed the stop we were supposed to get off on, so instead of a beach, we found ourselves staring at a large hill with only one way to go: up. We narrowly avoided turning onto a freeway and I was close to tears after my gear got off track, but even this misadventure had a happy ending—on a long, winding downhill back towards the (correct) ferry port, self-made wind in our hair and a vibrant palette of green and blue before us. Back on the bike lane, we made our way to the Monument to the Discoveries, a striking mass of carved stone aimed out toward sea, and ended at Belém Tower, with a pit stop at the sumptuous National Coach Museum.

Along the Tagus, Lisbon.

Along the Tagus, Lisbon.

A pit stop along the Poetry Bike Lane for sardine sandwiches and beer at Sol e Pesca.

A pit stop along the Poetry Bike Lane for sardine sandwiches and beer at Sol e Pesca.

A happy ending to an unintentional detour.

A happy ending to an unintentional detour.

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon.

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon.

In front of Belem Tower, Lisbon.

In front of Belem Tower, Lisbon.

On our last evening, I stood in our kitchen slicing chorizo and ladling olives into a bowl. My friend took her glass of port out onto the balcony and called me over. A crowd was gathering around the church steps, and two chairs appeared from somewhere. A mandolin player sat in one, a guitarist in the other, and the singer stood behind them—an impromptu fado concert to send us on our way.

Fado graffiti near our Airbnb.

Fado graffiti near our Airbnb.

A plate of incredible grilled octopus at Solar 31.

A plate of incredible grilled octopus at Solar 31.

 

Madrid on a budget

This summer found my daughter and a girlfriend of hers taking in the sights and sounds and flavors of Spain and Portugal. This post is a recap of their time spent in Madrid. A testament to the abilities to eat well and live well on a budget.

Madrid: a real-life grown-up vacation by Allison Malecha

View of Madrid from Tartan Roof (completely worth the 4 euro entry fee).

View of Madrid from Tartan Roof (completely worth the 4 euro entry fee).

During college, the Barcelona-Madrid duo was popular among the study abroad crowd. The general post-trip consensus was: Barcelona—so fun! Madrid—so much art! (but kind of boring.) This year, as I was planning a trip with a friend who’d traveled around Spain the previous fall, I was a little skeptical to only have Madrid and (in Portugal) Porto and Lisbon on our itinerary. But from my first morning in Spain’s capital city, I loved it, and I soon realized that my priorities weren’t to “go out” or meet fun new people. I do enough of that in New York. I felt tired. I wanted days spent walking along gorgeous old streets instead of sitting at my desk; evenings full of cheap, delicious food, even cheaper, more delicious wine, and comfortable conversation; and a bedtime several hours before dawn. Madrid was happy to provide.

We upgraded from college hostels to an Airbnb, and stayed in a spacious second-floor apartment that doubled as a gallery space for the artist-owner. Mixed media sculptures and moody paintings on the walls. Tea sachets and little bowls of brittle biscuits on the kitchen counter. Fresh, not-entirely-absorbent towels neatly folded in the bathroom. An Ikea-outfitted space right near the center of everything.

Our beautiful Airbnb in Madrid.

Our beautiful Airbnb in Madrid.

My traveling partner and I are both serial snackers, so we easily slid into the eat-and-mosy-and-eat-a-little-more pattern of tapas dining. Tapas (derived from the Spanish verb “tapar,” to cover) are strongly associated with Spanish cuisine in general, but the tradition originated in the southern region of Andalusia, and is not as deeply ingrained in the north, where Barcelona is. In Madrid (Spain’s belly button geographically), many dishes are offered in either small-plate portions (the traditional tapas) or meal sizes (“raciones”), but why have one when you can have four (or five or seven)? We consecrated the beginning of our first morning in the city, a Sunday, with slushed sangria and huge hunks of toast topped with iberico ham and olive oil-soaked octopus from El Capricho Extremeno. My traveling partner taught me her favorite Spanish word, “bacalhau” (cod), and I fell in love with saying it too—the way the l opens into the h. At some point in the day, we stopped for bacalhau with a smear of olive oil on toast and a less-than-two-euro glass of house vermouth on ice at Bodegas Ricla, operated by a mother and her two sons. We ate 2-euro (lightly, barely, beautifully fried) calamari sandwiches just off the scaffolding-smothered Plaza Mayor and a 15-euro skillet of luscious paella at La Barraca. We did the traditional food-march along Cava Baja: vino tinto and queso at Tempranillo, vino tinto and jamón and teeny sardines at Txakolina, vino tinto and tomato-rubbed toast at the place across from a place that ran out of empanadas. For good measure, we ate a plateful of salty ham, with pork haunches hanging all around, at Museu del Jamón. The menu prices in Madrid are reasonable, cheap even, but at each tapas place, with each drink, you also get a freebie of sorts: a tea plate filled with dry sausage slices and pretzel crackers, a dainty wedge of manchego on toast, or patatas bravas (which we never actually got, but apparently they’re everywhere). By bedtime, we had inevitably consumed a small pig and a loaf or two of pure carbs.

From El Capricho Extremeno.

From El Capricho Extremeno.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid.

Seafood paella at La Barraca in Madrid.

Seafood paella at La Barraca in Madrid.

Museu del Jamón.

Museu del Jamón.

Pre-dinner reading break around the corner from La Barraca, Madrid.

Pre-dinner reading break around the corner from La Barraca, Madrid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To let our stomachs settle, we saw art. Goya, Velázquez, and the deliciously imaginative Bosch at the Prado. A Vogue-sponsored exhibit of waifs in saturated states of dress and undress, in gilt Versailles halls and algae-wrapped bathtubs, in the basement of the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Paintings made melancholy by age and a gorgeously show-offy staircase at the Cerralbo. We rode the glassed-in elevator and played a high-brow version of I spy with the Reina Sofia’s Salvador Dalí paintings (. . . a Hitler mustache . . . . a swarm of ants . . . two tiny humans on the horizon).

"Vogue, Like a Painting" exhibit at the Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

“Vogue, Like a Painting” exhibit at the Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

I started day three with a 9 a.m. run through Retiro Park (the full Spanish name translates to “park of the pleasant retreat”). Un-hungover, ready for another day of flexing our legs and stomachs and consuming all the wonderful culture of a grown-up city.

Vermouth and vacation reads at Café de Ruiz, Madrid.

Vermouth and vacation reads at Café de Ruiz, Madrid.