12 THINGS TO DO ON THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII

Hawaii is called the big island for a reason - it's big, really big! We wish we had scheduled at least two more days to really enjoy everything this island has to offer. Five days was not long enough to see and do everything we wanted. 

Besides the variety of activities we also loved the vibe on this island. It felt like "old school" Hawaii. The pace was slower than what we'd experienced on some of the more popular Hawaiian islands like Maui, Kauai and Oahu. (Sometimes it was too slow, but more about driving on Hawaii later.) The beaches were less crowded, the restaurants and bars seemed less trendy and we never needed a reservation or had to wait 45 minutes for a table. The locals seemed to genuinely enjoy talking with us and every conversation was unhurried. One word kept coming to mind about this island - authentic.

Being described as "old school" can be a compliment but it can also imply outdated, like Hawaii's 2-lane Highway 19 that has been in the process of being widened for years and is subject to slow traffic on a regular basis. Also, there are strictly-enforced 35-55 MPH zones on much of the island so getting anywhere quickly is not an option. Give yourself plenty of time to get to where you're going especially if you're driving across or around the island.

Also, if you are going to visit both sides of the island, consider flying into Kona and flying out of Hilo or vice-a-versa. It will save you at least 1/2 a day of drive time just going back and forth. 

Below is our list of things to do in Hawaii. Have fun planning your trip and please share with us in the comments below any activities you would recommend for our next trip to the Big Island. Mahalo.

 

1. Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 

If you have the time, consider spending two nights near the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We only planned on one night and wish we had seen more of what the park had to offer. The park rangers at the visitors' center can help you plan your visit based how much time you have. There are more than 150 miles of trails within the park, with hikes and walks for all ability levels, including paved walkways for strollers or wheelchairs. Elsewhere in the park visitors can explore a lava tube, walk on the hardened Kilauea Iki Crater lava lake or trek Devastation Trail. For the more adventurous, actual flowing lava can be viewed by hiking in from the parking lot at the end of Chain of Craters road. It's a about a 4-mile round trip hike. 

2. Take a dusk-to-dark hike along the Halema'uma'u Crater

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After talking with a park ranger about our limited volcano viewing options because of our late afternoon visit we decided to do a dusk-to-dark walk. We started our 4.4-mile walk from the Kilauea Visitor Center in Volcanoes National Park and headed towards the Sulphur Banks Trail to view the steam vents. We then crossed over to Crater Rim Trail to walk the 2.2 miles to the Jagger Museum and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory where we could get a great view of the Kilauea Caldera. There were a couple of professional photographers setting up to take some night photos about 200 yards shy of the museum so we chatted with them for a while. They told us the viewing area at the museum would be packed with people once the tour buses rolled in so we hung out with the photographers. They were right.  About 10 minutes later at the peak viewing time at least five large buses arrived depositing eager tourists to see the glow of the caldera at its peak - about 7:45pm. We stayed near the photographers and took our photos without any crowds near us whatsoever. After the crowds boarded the buses and left we walked over to check out the museum. Darkness set in pretty quickly so we pulled out our flashlights and started our walk back to the Visitor Center. The wind had really picked up and the temperature had dropped considerably. We had jackets on but could have used another layer of clothing for warmth. Luckily, we had borrowed a large, golf umbrella from our B&B and used it to block the wind on our way back. Thank goodness for the gravel path because in the darkness it would have been easy to get lost without a easy trail to follow. 

3. Visit Punalu'u Beach - Black Sand Beach

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The morning after our night walk at the crater we headed to Punalu'u Beach. This beach, located in the southern part of the island, is known as Black Sand Beach for its gleaming black sand - the result of the island's history of volcanic activity. The sand formed over time as hot lava flowed into the ocean and exploded into tiny fragments and washed ashore. The beach is also home to endangered Hawksbill and green sea turtles. You can view them by walking along the volcanic rock or take a swim in the water for a closer look. Just don't bother the turtles - they are protected. 

4. Make the trek out to Papakolea Beach - Green Sand Beach

Another popular beach on the southern end of the island is Papakolea Beach. It is near the very southern tip of the island and is one of only four green sand beaches said to exist in the world. (The other three are in the Galapagos Islands, Guam and Norway.) The distinctive green color comes from eroded lava crystals. The beach is only accessible on foot and the approximately 3-mile trail is hot and dusty. Once you leave the parking lot at South Point there is no shade, amenities or restroom facilities along the trail. If you like a good walk and have the time, it's worth it but I would suggest doing it early in the day before it gets too hot. We enjoyed a very nice view of the beach on our approach from the trail and then navigated a moderately steep descent to the beach. The beach was in a nice cove and the current was gentle on the day we were there but locals said it can get a little rough on some days. If you're not up for the walk back there are a few guys with 4-WD vehicles who will drive you back for a fee (about $12 ea.). Just be forewarned that this is supposedly illegal but quite a few people were doing it.

5. Spend a day at Kauna'oa Beach - White Sand Beach

Later in the week we visited Kauna'oa Beach at Mauna Kea which has some of the softest, powdery sand our feet have ever walked on. Mauna Kea consistently appears on lists of prettiest beaches in the world. The beach stretches about half a mile and the waters are usually calm. This is the type of beach where you just want to hang out all day and you can. Mauna Kea is a public beach but access to the parking lot is only accessible by passing through the Mauna Kea Hotel property. The public is welcome to eat and drink at the poolside restaurant of the hotel however the Mauna Kea is a 5-star hotel and the prices reflect that.

6. Go chasing waterfalls

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There are so many waterfalls both big and small on the island of Hawaii. Some plunge straight down hundreds of feet while others gently tumble over rocky facades. Some can be seen in a drive-by, others during a hike. However you you view a waterfall, don't miss out. Here's a short list of some of the most popular waterfalls - 'Akaka falls, Rainbow falls, Pe'epe'e falls, Umauma falls, Hi'ilawe

7. Snorkel

The big island doesn't have as many powdery-soft beaches as some of the other Hawaiian islands but if you're willing to navigate the rocky shoreline you'll be rewarded with good snorkeling waters. Such is the case with Kahalu'u Beach Park in Kailua-Kona. The rocky shoreline at this beach made getting in and out of the water challenging but it was the best snorkeling we experienced all week. The coral was colorful and we spotted quite a few sea turtles and many varieties of fish.

8. Go Flumin' the Kohala Ditch

An architect friend of ours in San Diego told us about "Flumin' the Ditch" when we told him we were going to Hawaii. I'm so glad we did it. It was one of our most memorable experiences. The Kohala Ditch is a fascinating feat of engineering that was designed to bring water to the people of Kohala and provide fresh water to the sugar plantations more than a century ago. The Kohala Ditch is a 110-year-old system of hand-wrought tunnels, elevated flumes and concrete channels that provide a leisurely, 3-mile float on inflatable kayaks in a remote and lush setting - much of it on private land. Our amiable guides, Vern and Josh told us detailed history of the area as we gently floated through thousand-foot tunnels dripping overhead with spring water or crossed above rushing streams in elevated flumes. The ditch winds its way through dense forest in some areas where we had some great photo ops with waterfalls in the background. At the end of our float, our guide Josh taught us the Hawaiian cheer - Cheehoo! - which is a sound of celebration or the noise of happiness. Click here for Flumin' Kohola info.

 

9. Take a "Doors Off" Helicopter Tour

Hawaii is a big island and getting around to see everything can be a challenge. We didn't take a helicopter ride on this trip to Hawaii bet when we go back we will definitely take a doors-off helicopter ride. These trips aren't cheap but you get amazingly-close views of active volcanoes before cooling off above rainforests and waterfalls. 

10. Drink the local beer

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There are four breweries on the island - Kona Brewing Company (Kona), Ola Brew Co. (Kona), Mehana Brewing Company (Hilo) and Big Island Brewhaus (Waimea). We looked for the local brews on menus and drank local when available. 

11. Enjoy a Mai Tai 

Whether it's at a dive bar or a fancy resort be sure to imbibe in a classic Mai Tai while you visit Hawaii. 

13. Savor the sunsets

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We never got tired of watching the sunset every night. 

Cruisin' in Cuba

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UPDATE - 

Unfortunately, Celestyal Cruises has put its sailings on hold due to large U.S. Cruise Lines saturating the Cuba market. Celestyal will evaluate the situation and consider re-introducing sailings to Cuba in 2020. As an alternative, we recommend AZAMARA Cruise Line's "10-Night Circle Cuba Voyage" for a similar small ship experience. 

 

I have to admit, I felt a little trepidation before our trip to Cuba. Questions swirled in my mind about safety and whether we would be warmly received by the Cuban people. I also wasn't sure if we'd come away with a genuine feel for the country since we'd be touring as part of an escorted "education experience" program. Cuba is still under the U.S. embargo, meaning Americans can’t just go to Cuba to drink mojitos and drive in cool cars (although we did do that one day). Americans must travel under one of the 12 categories of the the Cuba Travel Affidavit and most casual travelers visit as part of a guided “People-to-People" immersion program.*

Our booking with Celestyal Cruises included a "Discover the Authentic Cuban Experience" Program which met the criteria of the Cuba Travel Affidavit and would provide us with a broad introduction to Cuba's rich history and culture. We also liked the itinerary which called on three ports and docked for two full days in Havana. Celestyal handled all of the excursions, programs and tours so all we had to do was show up at the correct time to meet our local tour guide or catch our assigned bus. Our immersion experience wasn't limited to just our time on land. Onboard, we had the option to attend lectures by Destination Expert, Dr. Jorge Arocha, (Professor of Contemporary Philosophy of the University of Havana) on topics ranging from history, cuisine and art to music, cigars and rum tasting. I attended a few of Dr. Arocha's presentations and found him to be engaging, energetic and entertaining. 

* It is possible to visit Cuba on a self-guided tour but there are strict requirements to document your trip. 

Nov. 10, 2017 - Embarkation: Montego Bay, Jamaica

We spent a couple of nights at the Holiday Inn Montego Bay before the start of the cruise because it's never a good idea to fly to a destination on the same day as embarkation. We always recommend arriving a day or two before your cruise in case you encounter any travel delays. The Holiday Inn was perfect for our group - it was all-inclusive, near the airport and had the amenities we needed for two days - beach, pool, bar, restaurant and a place to rest our heads. If you prefer something in the luxury category, there are plenty of 5-star, luxury resorts including Half Moon, Round Hill and Secrets Wild Orchid to name a few. 

Aboard the Celestyal Crystal

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We scheduled a shuttle for our group of ten from the Holiday Inn to the port. The drive took about 45 minutes due to bumper-to-bumper, rush hour traffic but we boarded well before embarkation so we had no worries. The check-in process was a little confusing with multiple lines and some in our group were charged a departure tax (even though we would be returning to Jamaica). 

Our ship, the Celestyal Crystal was easy to explore. At 162 meters long, it featured ten decks with accommodations for 1200 passengers and 406 crew and was the first ship to offer around-Cuba sailings. The Crystal had everything large cruise ships offer but on a more intimate scale. The public spaces, lounge and restaurants had touches of Art Deco design but other spaces like the Sports Bar/Card Room and tiny casino looked tired and in need of some updating.

Our cabin was decent-sized with two twin beds, sitting area, desk, ample closet and storage space and a large picture window. The furnishings were stylish but basic and the beds were very comfortable. 

The dining room looked chic and contemporary and felt welcoming in soothing turquoise and tan tones.  The cuisine in the dining room was okay with some hits and misses. Every fish entree I ordered was great, however the beef dishes always seemed to be overdone. There was a selection of entrees off the menu that were available for additional charge which included lobster tail, which was very good. Breakfast and lunch had a good variety of options served cafeteria/buffet style. The self-serve coffee machine always seemed to leave an oil slick on the top of my coffee so I opted to order a cappuccino from a bartender instead. I know a lot of ships have those automated coffee/espresso machines and some work great but others I question how often they are cleaned. The meals were fine, just don't set your expectations too high or you will be disappointed. If you are into 5-star fine dining then this ship would not be a great fit for you.

Thalassa, the terrace bar at the aft of the ship, was a popular spot. The seating arrangement can feel a little tight and one side of the deck is the smoking area but it was a great end-of-the-day gathering place for our group. 

Nov. 11, 2017 - Port: Santiago de Cuba

Our first morning in port we met in the lounge to be assigned buses and guides. On this cruise it's important to attend these gatherings so you know what bus to get on. There are several buses each designated for specific groups and independent travelers and itineraries may vary depending on nationalities. Seating is limited and everyone must check in as they board their bus.

Our first order of business after we disembarked and cleared Passport Control was to exchange money. There was a kiosk and small trailer with teller windows on the dock where we exchanged money before boarding the buses. In Cuba there are two forms of currency - the CUP and the CUC. The CUP (Cuban Peso) is what Cubans receive with a government salary. The CUC (called the "kook") is the convertible peso you receive when you exchange foreign currency. You'll need cash for all of your purchases (you cannot use US credit cards in Cuba) so it's good to plan ahead on what you want to buy and exchange just enough money so you're not stuck with CUCs and the end of the trip. 

We boarded our bus and began a tour of the old colonial city of Santiago, the 2nd largest city in Cuba and a major center for banking and commerce. There is also a lot of political history to be found in Santiago, including bullet-riddled buildings, monuments on former battle sites, statues celebrating revolutionaries and museums full of imagery and artifacts of the country's tumultuous beginning of the Cuban Revolution. One of our stops was at the Moncada Barracks, the site of the of the failed attack by revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953. Although this attack failed and led to dozens of injuries and some deaths, it is widely accepted as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. Other stops included Plaza de la Revolucion, the El Morro, San Juan Hill and the African Cultural Center to watch a traditional dance performance. 

Before heading back to the ship our guide took us into one of the island's government-run stores where cigars, cigarettes and liquor are sold. We had planned to buy some cigars in Havana but since we were carrying quite a bit of cash we decided to buy in Santiago and reduce the amount of money we were carrying around. It turned out to be a good decision because when we checked the state-run stores in Havana some of the cigars that were on our list to buy were sold out and some of the prices were slightly higher. In these stores the prices marked are what you pay. There is no negotiating in the state-run stores.

Nov. 12, 2017 - Day at Sea

Our day at sea included many activities of a typical cruise - tour of the bridge, fruit carving demos, dance classes, towel folding, cooking lessons and Bingo. There was also a presentation by Dr. Jorge Arocha about "Cuban Cigars and The Story behind the Smoke." According to one of our local guides the top three Cuban cigars are 1. Cohiba, 2. Monte Christo and 3. Romeo & Juliet. 

Nov. 13, 2017 - Port: Havana, Cuba - Day 1

One of the reasons we selected Celestyal was because its itinerary gave us two full days in Havana. Some other cruise lines only have one stop on the island and some don't stop in Havana at all but dock in another city and bus passengers to the capital city for day trips or over-night trips which means you have to pack a bag and stay in a hotel. Our ship was docked right at the foot of Havana's old town and a just a short walk to San Francisco Plaza, one of the four major plazas in Old Havana where our walking tour began that morning. The tour took us through the "cobblestone core" of the colonial district with stops at some notable sites including some of Ernest Hemingway's haunts as well as the three other plazas -  San Viejo (New Square), Arms Square and Cathedral Square. Many of the buildings being restored in this area used to be homes of wealthy aristocrats in 18th century Cuba. The parks and squares were clean and well tended but it was here we could see the impact tourism was having on the city. Dozens of tour groups stood huddled around guides holding umbrellas or placards reminiscent of so many tours in European cities. After our walking tour we had the option of returning to the ship for lunch or staying in town for lunch. We had lunch at one of the seafood restaurants recommended by our guide. The service was good and the fresh fish plate lunch we had was great.  In the afternoon we boarded buses for a driving tour of the city. We cruised along the malecon past the new hotels, the American Embassy, and into the central district where many residents live. This area is "rent free" and is a little run down. Our final stop was at Revolution Plaza.

After dinner on the ship we boarded a bus to the world-renown Tropicana to see its famous cabaret show. Touristy? Sure, but it was definitely worth visiting this open-air nightclub to watch the dancers dressed in their over-the-top costumes. If you go, don't expect much in the way of comfort or service. We were seated at long tables arranged very tightly with the rest of the audience and then provided with a bottle of rum and a couple cans of mixer (cola or soda) to share. If you want something else, good luck. It's not likely you'll see your server again. We didn't. The show (weather permitting) is still performed outside under a gorgeous canopy of trees like it was during the casino's heyday in the 1950's.

Nov. 14, 2017 - Port: Havana, Cuba - Day 2

We began our second morning with a bus ride to the outskirts of western Havana to the mosaic wonderland of Fusterlandia. What started as a DIY project of Jose Rodriquez Fuster to liven up the facade of his house with mosaic embellishment has blossomed into a full-blown community project of converting almost every flat surface in the neighborhood into a canvas for shiny decorative shards. The whimsical and quirky designs stretch for blocks and can be found on walls, houses, flats, office buildings, schools and even the medical center. It all exemplifies the Cuban spirit through art and resourcefulness. On our way back to the ship the buses stopped at the Museo de la Revolucion which is a very well done museum full of photos and memorabilia from Cuba's revolution. Here, you will find all kinds of things on display including Che Guevara's beret, women's skirts lined with hidden pockets that were used to transport hidden guns and ammo and Granma, the small speedboat in which the Castro brothers traveled to Cuba from their exile in Mexico in 1956.

In the afternoon, we had a period of free time until our ship left at 9pm. This was really the only extended period of time we had to see Cuba unescorted. We hired three drivers in American vintage "taxis" to guide our group of ten around the city. The cars are referred to by the locals as almendrones (translation - almonds) because they think the cars resemble the shape of a giant almond. Most drivers pay a fee to rent cars from owners so they need to make enough money to clear a profit after covering the day's fee. Be sure to negotiate up front where you want to go and for how long you want to have the driver. Our first request was to stop at the Hotel Nacional, famed for its ties to the mafia and as a gathering place for Hollywood's elite in the 1930's, 40's and 50's. As it turned out, our drivers were also excellent guides who knew all about the history of the hotel and showed us all around the property. We gained entrance into the Hall of Fame bar after one of our drivers knocked on the locked glass door and made eye contact with one of the bartenders who let us in. We enjoyed a couple of "mafia mojitos" while we looked around at all of memorabilia, movie posters and photos of politicians, sports legends and celebrities who had been there. After leaving the hotel, our drivers suggested a trip to see the imposing sculpture of Christ of Havana on a hilltop overlooking the Bay of the Havana with fantastic views of the city. It provided great photo opps. Our last request before heading back to the ship was to stop at an authentic paladar - a restaurant/bar operated by a private citizen. Many of these privately-owned restaurants are quietly tucked into backyards, courtyards and spare rooms behind unassuming facades of private homes in modest neighborhoods and others look and operate openly on main streets. These are legal Our drivers parked on a normal-looking residential street and we followed them up the driveway and through a gate into the backyard of one of the small, single-story houses. Once inside, the entire place looked just like any tiki bar hangout with wooden tables, chairs and bar with a palm frond roof. There were some musical instruments in a alcove, a large Coca-Cola sign hung on a wall and a fountain in the center gurgling water. There were even a few ducks wandering around. We ordered a round of beers and some potato chips and enjoyed our last outing in Havana before sailing to Cienfuegos.

Nov. 15, 2017 - Day at Sea

Our last day at sea featured lots of activities including a bridge tournament, dance classes, cooking demos and a few quiz contests. Our Destination, Expert, Dr. Jorge Arocha also gave two presentations, one in the morning on "Cuban Culture" and another in the afternoon on "The Cuban Landscape in the 20th Century."

Nov. 16, 2017 - Port: Cienfuegos, Cuba

Our final port of call was Cienfuegos, a beautiful city in the south-central region of Cuba about 122 nautical miles from Havana. Upon entering Cienfuegos Bay we sailed past the impressive fortress of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles before docking at the pier. Known as the "Pearl of the South," Cienfuegos was originally settled by Taino indigenous people and later settled by French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana so a French and European influence can been seen in the elegant architecture of many of the city's buildings. The views looking out to the bay were breathtaking as we drove in buses through the beautiful neighborhood of Punta Gorda on our way to tour some of these historic buildings. The most beautiful structure we saw in Cienfuegos was the Palacio de Valle, a spectacular example of Spanish-Moorish architecture with touches of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque styles.

We also visited art galleries and were treated to a live street performance featuring dancers, artists, musicians and actors. Art was very prevalent in all the cities we visited, perhaps because it gives Cubans a way to somewhat express themselves in a country that still has many restrictions on free expression. Art collectives and cultural groups are sprouting up across the country to help new artists find their footing. The cost associated with having a studio make it nearly impossible for a new artist to get started so art collectives have been setting up spaces that provide multiple workspaces and art supplies. Tubes of paint, brushes and canvases can be very expensive and hard to find so these collectives offer a place where artists can share resources.

Our last day touring Cienfuegos embodied everything I had observed about the Cuban people during my time visiting their island. Despite the oppression they are under, I found Cubans to be optimistic, resourceful and proud. They seem to find happiness by expressing themselves through music, dance, art and conversing deeply with each other. I never once felt threatened or insecure; on the contrary, all the people we met seemed generally friendly. I have a feeling we will be visiting Cuba again in the future. 

Nov. 17, 2017 - Disembarkation: Montego Bay, Jamaica

After disembarkation, we headed straight to the airport for our flight home.

If you're interested in booking a own cruise to Cuba we recommend AZAMARA Cruise Line's "10-Night Circle Cuba Voyage."  We'd love to help with your travel plans. Contact us.

Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them.

 

 

 

An American-Guided Tour of Normandy

Making the journey to visit Normandy and the battlefields of WWII is always an emotional experience and one that most people will make only once in a lifetime so when planning a trip you want to make sure you get it right. You can plan your own self-guided tour but hiring a local, expert guide will certainly enhance the experience and provide a much broader perspective.

On this Veterans Day, as we honor those who served our country and remember those who gave everything, we'd like to introduce you to Trevor Standefer, an exceptional guide who provides various tours in Normandy. We've been on Trevor's tours and booked dozens of clients with him and everyone has always returned with rave reviews. 

What makes Trevor's tours unique is his family's connection to the area. During WWII his grandmother was eight months pregnant and the family farm had become a strategic point for the Germans who took it over. As the liberation had begun, the family sought shelter in an abandoned farm in another town and it is here where American troops found them and sped Tervor's grandmother to a hospital where his mother, Danielle, was born on July 31, 1944. Danielle eventually met and married an American from Texas and that is where Trevor was born. He considers himself "Made in Texas, born in Normandy."  Trevor traveled with his mother to France frequently growing up and he eventually met and married a French woman. Trevor has lived in Normandy for seven years and operates his American D-Day Tours company from his home near Utah Beach. 

 Trevor with his wife, Solange

Trevor with his wife, Solange

His tours range from 1-Day, 2-Day and VIP experiences to visit Sainte-Mere Eglise, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, U.S. Military Cemetery, German Cemetery and military museums. Trevor is well versed in WWII history and his passion his evident as he recounts the events of D-Day on his tours. When we toured with him a few years ago I was impressed how he etched into the sand with a stick on Omaha Beach the entire troop landings and movements on D-Day. By the time he was done recounting the events of that day he had drawn a very large and detailed diagram of the troops and the obstacles they faced as they fought to overcome Hitler's defenses. It was poignant and left a lasting impression. He also meticulously planned each stop and timed our tour perfectly so we were at the American Cemetery at dusk when the flag was lowered while taps was played. 

We would definitely recommend staying at least two nights in Normandy when planning a visit. If you would like assistance planning a trip or have questions please feel free to contact us.  For information about Trevor's American D-Day Tours click here.

TOAD's (Not so Wild) Ride to Becoming Oxford's First Distillery

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On our trip to England last August we spent one night in Oxford which didn't give us a lot of time to explore but we did squeeze in a walking tour of the university and then ventured about 1.5 miles beyond the city to a new craft distillery where a talented team of visionaries was launching its first bottled spirits after years of building every aspect of the business from the ground up.

Five years is how long it took Tom Nicolson to lay the ground work and build the team that today is The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD), the first legal distillery ever in Oxford. Nicolson, the founder and CEO of TOAD gave us a tour just days after the distillery released its first bottles of Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. TOAD is also in the process of crafting an absinthe made with more than twenty organic botanicals and a rye whiskey that has been laid down but needs to age.

Nicolson, donning a wheat straw pork pie hat, picked us up at our hotel in the center of Oxford to transport us to the distillery just a short drive away. The distillery van was easily recognizable as it pulled in front of our hotel with its TOAD logo and illustration of the distillery's dapper, amphibian mascot, George, wearing a boater hat.

The distillery sits on a site which dates back to the 18th century when it was owned by a local family and the property was known as Cheney Farm. An original threshing barn still stood on the property now known as the Old Depot in South Park and is under the control of the Oxford Preservation Trust which has leased it to TOAD. 

There were a couple of carpenters working on projects around the property and the distillery seemed to be in "soft opening" mode with shipment boxes stacked on the floor and marketing materials laying around. Behind a counter, Chief Operating Officer, Tagore Ramoutar, was unpacking boxes of glassware and stocking the tasting bar where we would later sip the new vodka and gin. Nicolson and Ramoutar met at a networking event for start-ups in 2014 and soon after began working together on detailed plans and a strategy for Oxford's first craft distillery. Unpacking boxes seemed a rather mundane task for an experienced entrepreneur and new venture expert who had already notched many business successes on the global stage but Ramoutar had a relaxed smile on his face and looked as though he was having a great time as part of this distillery venture. 

Nicolson too, came from an impressive business background. His career in the music industry and creating successful recording studios in London had fueled his passion for business and creativity but in 2012 he was ready for a new challenge. That's when the wheels for the inception of TOAD were put in motion. He had become interested in craft distilling and started to investigate the possibility of opening his own distillery. Nicolson had come from a family with a history of working in the wine and whiskey business in Scotland for generations, a tradition that ended when his father left the industry to pursue life as a vicar. Nicolson joked that his father gave up one kind of spirit for another. After talking to people in the industry and doing his own due diligence, Nicolson decided to fully commit himself to opening Oxford's first craft distillery. 

We made our way to the distilling building where two impressive and gleaming copper stills with towering distillation columns were housed. These were not run-of-the-mill stills, they were custom designed and hand made. As Nicolson proudly patted the larger of the two he told us these stills had been designed and built by a man named Paul Pridham, one of England's last great steam engine boiler makers of the South Devon Railway. Nicolson had reached out to Pridham who worked for two years to create these custom, hand-riveted stills. The large 2200-litre still is named Nautilus and the smaller, 500-litre still is named Nemo - a clever nod to the author Jules Verne and his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

As Nicolson explained the distilling process he told us about the farmer who provides the grains TOAD uses in making its spirits - grains which distinguish TOAD's spirits from those of any other distiller in the world. The story of their origin was quite fascinating.

John Letts, an archaeo-botanist and well known organic farmer from Oxford discovered various ancient grains in the base layer of thatch removed from a medieval house from which he began to develop genetically diverse seed mixes of wheat, rye, oats and barley. Nicolson and Letts first met in 2013 at a farmers' market where the farmer was hoping to attract artisan bakers to buy his flour made from sustainably-grown, ancient and heritage grains. Nicolson was intrigued with Letts' approach to growing grains for this flour but saw another angle. "I think you're missing a trick," he told Letts, suggesting maybe these ancient grains could be used for distilling spirits. The two kept in touch and in 2015 TOAD signed an exclusive contract with Letts to use his populations of ancient heritage grains (in perpetuity) for distilling. All of the heritage grains come from fields within 50 miles of Oxford. TOAD claims to be the only distillery in the world to use populations of these types of grains in is distilling. 

Next, we took a peek inside the 18th century threshing barn where the rye whiskey would eventually be laid down to age after the distilling process. This is the only building from the original farm that is still on the site. Instead of seeing it as a preservation nuisance, Nicolson sees it as an enhancement to the story of TOAD and its historical connection to community of Oxford. 

We made our way to the lab where the work of Cory Mason takes place. It was a modest-sized room filled with beakers, scales, bottles, grain bags and other ingredients. Mason was not on site that day but he, like the other members of TOAD, comes from an impressive background. Nicolson and Mason met back in 2013 when opening a distillery was still just an idea but the two "clicked" and seemed to share the same vision. Mason, an award-winning Master Distiller who made a name for himself in New York City with management roles in bars and restaurants including "Employees Only," (once voted one of the best cocktail bars in the world). He honed his distilling skills at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and his long list of accomplishments include developing more than 15 commercially released spirits. Today he is the Master Distiller of TOAD. 

There is room to grow on the property and Nicolson has plans to add a bar, restaurant and visitor center. He's been busy getting the word out about TOAD and in addition to the regularly scheduled distillery tours, Nicolson has been inviting the local community to a few "Open Days" at the distillery where folks can get a behind-the-scenes look at the operation. Nicolson invites local food purveyors, beer breweries and car clubs to help with the festivities all the while educating his local guests about TOAD. He wants very much for TOAD to be part of the community and he wants the community to be part of TOAD. To prove it, the distillery will open up its shares to the public in an attempt to raise £1million in a crowdfunding campaign some time this fall. We just might buy in too!

We finally made our way back to the tasting room where Ramoutar was waiting to treat us to tastings of the newly bottled Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. Both were so smooth and very easy to sip straight up. We could taste a very slight toffee flavor in the vodka which Ramoutar explained was from the ancient grains. We tasted the gin mixed with some tonic, lemon and lime and it really was the best gin and tonic I've ever had. We bought two bottles of gin to take with us to the Cotswolds where we planned to hike for the next few days.  

 

The name of the distillery provided a basis for the apt acronym, TOAD, a happenstance not lost on Nicolson. One of his favorite books as a child was The Wind in the Willows, the story of friendship and adventures of a band of anthropomorphized animals in the English wood including the frolicsome standout character, Toad, who may or may not have been a source of inspiration for the distillery mascot, George. Similar to the characters in the children's book, Nicolson and his colleagues seem to be enjoying their own adventures and camaraderie as they build their distillery business in the English countryside. Cheers to them!

 

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For information about The Oxford Artisan Distillery and tours click here

For information about our four-star accommodations at The Buttery Hotel click here

A Walk in the Cotswolds

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The Cotswolds is a vast area which covers nearly 800-square miles spanning six counties and has a  seemingly endless number of trails to choose from - some circular, some linear, but all offering beautiful pastoral scenery and sweeping views of the English countryside.

Perhaps the most famous trail is the 102-mile Cotswold Way which stretches from Bath to Chipping Campden and can take 7-10 days to complete, but there are many other shorter routes already mapped and waymarked that traverse many of the same quaint towns and villages that you can complete in 2-5 days. Determining which route to take really depends on what you want to see, how far you're willing to walk, what type of accommodations you prefer and your budget. 

The Cotswold Round

Our group of eight decided on the Cotswold Round - a five-night, 4-day circular route - designed to take in some of the most picturesque villages and towns in the Cotswold countryside with a few steep climbs to breathtaking panoramic views. Our walk started and ended in Moreton-in-Marsh, once an important staging area for horse-drawn carriages making their way to London and many of the inns, pubs and homes in this town today were once coaching inns. We walked an average of 12.8 miles each day which didn't leave much time for sightseeing. We started our walks at 9 a.m. everyday and usually finished between 3:30-5:00pm. By the time we showered and had a drink it was usually time for dinner and shops were closed. If you want to have more free time in the towns then consider walking fewer miles each day. We ran into several people who were only walking 6-7 miles per day. There are many tour operators that offer walks of various distances along many routes and will transfer your luggage to the next town as ours did.

Waymarkers

Along the way we visited more than a dozen villages and towns and connected onto other trails for brief stretches which included the Monarch's Way, Windrush Way, Wardens Way and sections of the Cotswolds Way. Our first day on the trail proved to be a challenge with seemingly convoluted directions and elusive waymarkings which slowed us down. However, by the second day we found the directions much easier to follow or our navigation skills had improved - not sure which. We had two people reading directions while the rest of us looked for landmarks, waymarkers, fingerposts, gates, hedges, fences, stiles or other vital signs that would keep us on track. 

Trails

The scenery on our walk was ever-changing as were the paths we walked on. We climbed grassy hills, followed cuts through farm fields, walked down country lanes, shared bridle paths with horses and riders, hiked a single-track path through a wood and occasionally plodded through mud or wet, sticky clay that required a good boot scrubbing at the end of the day. There were also trails fringed with stinging nettle that got our attention but caused no real harm. We noticed a few restaurants and pubs provided plastic bags to ramblers wearing muddy boots and some clientele just left their boots outside and enjoyed a pint while in their stockings. One path even skirted a golf course where we came upon a friendly foursome who didn't mind us watching them tee off.

Pub life

Stopping at a pub for lunch was a highlight each day and we always tried to find something at the halfway point of our walk but sometimes it was a bit of a challenge getting the timing just right. I recommend keeping some snacks like nuts, cheese and fruit in your day pack in case you need something to nibble on before you find a place to stop. The food was always good and we drank our fair share of beers along the way. A few pubs where we stopped displayed a "CAMRA" decal which recognized the pub as one listed in the CAMRA Best Beer Guide. CAMRA, which stands for Campaign for Real Ale, has been around since 1971 and in addition to publishing a beer guide, its mission is to promote quality ales and bolster support for local pubs in hopes they can thrive amidst ever-growing competition and higher taxes. CAMRA believes local pubs play a critical role in English culture as the hub of community life but in some areas, as wealthy residents move in, pubs are left behind as new fine dining establishments crop up. Real estate has been on a roll in the Cotswolds and demand in the area of Gloucestershire has driven up home prices more than 15% over last year. The Cotswolds have become a favored destination of the well-heeled and in the posh area of Chipping Norton, David and Victoria Beckham (See what I just did there?) just plunked down £6million ($8.079million) for a home they plan to remodel. A local couple in one town did try to direct us to a different pub, saying it would be three times cheaper than where we were headed.

I didn't take many pub or restaurant pics partly because I don't like taking photos during meals and also there was really no extra time during our breaks. I also didn't take pictures of the inns or B&Bs where we stayed but all were nice and had great hosts. The larger inns with restaurants worked out the best for us because at the end of the day after walking 12-14 miles we really didn't feel like walking another couple of miles back into town for dinner. Everywhere we stayed included full English breakfast. 

Historic Sites

There were lots of buildings and structures of historical note throughout the Cotswolds including Civil War ruins, towers, dovecotes, castles, memorial markers, abbeys and wool churches. Much of the affluence in the Cotswolds centuries ago is attributed to the wealthy farmers and merchants who benefited from the wool trade and built large estates and donated generously to the churches, many still standing. 

Towns and Villages

Our trails led us through some private land at times and provided up-close views at the daily work taking place on a farm or a glimpse into a perfectly-manicured English garden of a stately manor. The honey-colored stone cottages and thatched-roof houses reminded me of fairytale illustrations from books I'd read as a child. One of my favorite memories from this trip was when a farmer released his cows into the field where we were walking and we watched as his working dogs herded them to another field. While the farmer strolled along and talked with us, his two dogs worked together to move the cows the length of the long field and into an open gate waiting at the other end. 

Some Final Thoughts

Even though we spent all day, every day walking during this vacation Larry and I still felt like it was one of the most relaxing trips we've ever taken. Walking the trail was quiet and scenic and we felt a sense of satisfaction in reaching our goal at the end of each day. We had moments of walking alone and times when we all were bunched together - talking and laughing, and there may have been a few expletives expressed while going up a steep ascent but we all had a great time. A few of us were a little sad when the trek was over and might go back to walk the entire 102-mile Cotswold Way in the near future. Thank you to Megan, Randi, Sally, Vikki, Bill and George for joining us on this adventure.

The Itinerary

Day 1:    Moreton-in-Marsh

Day 2:    Moreton-in-Marsh to Bourton-on-the-Water (12 miles) 

Day 3:    Bourton-on-the-Water to Winchcombe (13 miles) 

Day 4:    Winchcombe to Broadway (12 miles) 

Day 5:    Broadway to Moreton-in-Marsh (14 miles)

Day 6:    Depart from Moreton-in-Marsh after breakfast.

Other towns and villages along the route included Broadwell, Stow-on-the-Wold, Longborough, Donnington, Upper Slaughter, Lower Slaughter, Naunton, Guiting Power, Broadway, Wood Stanway, Stanway, Stanton, Chipping Campden, Blockley, 

Some Tips

Dress in layers and bring rain gear 

A light day pack is essential and a walking stick or hiking poles is recommended

Wear sturdy trail shoes or hiking boots and make sure you have trained comparable distances wearing them before your trip.

Train. We walked at least 4-6 miles four or five times a week for at least a month prior to our trip. We also fit in a few longer walks of 7-8 miles. 

Pack light. Most tour operators allow only one piece of luggage to be transported to your next accommodation each day.  

If you're interested in taking a walk in the Cotswolds and would like help planning your trip, we'd love to assist you. Working with a travel agent will never increase the cost of a trip but it will usually enhance it.

Lift Your Spirits with a Trip to Alameda Island

 Faction Brewery's 4,000 square-foot deck is kid and dog friendly.

Faction Brewery's 4,000 square-foot deck is kid and dog friendly.

Situated along an abandoned airstrip across the bay from San Francisco, a handful of craft distillers, brewers and wine makers have set their sights on reviving small-batch libations while offering tastings and tours out of WWII-era hangars on the site of Naval Air Station, Alameda which was closed in the 1990s. On a stretch of Monarch Street, dubbed "Spirits Alley," St. George Spirits, Hangar 1 Vodka, Faction Brewery, Building 43 Winery and Rock Wall Wine Company have created a convivial block where wine, beer and spirits enthusiasts can meet up to raise a glass and take in the sweeping view of the San Francisco skyline.

Coincidently, it was a sweeping ocean view in San Diego that had led us to this very spot. After tasting a cocktail made with Hangar 1 Vodka at a restaurant overlooking La Jolla Shores we were intrigued to find out more about the brand and learned about the tasting and tour facility in Alameda. We were already planning to be in the Bay Area for a family gathering and so we booked a tour to visit Hangar 1 for a tasting. We took a scenic 20-minute ferry ride from the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco to Alameda and then made the 15- to 20-minute walk from the ferry landing to Monarch Street. It was then we realized there was a whole craft collaboration happening along Spirits Alley.

In 1982, St. George Spirits was the first small American distillery to open after Prohibition and it was first to occupy space on Monarch Street when it moved its operations in 2002 to the 65,000-square-foot hangar that is now its current location. Its artisanal spirits include gins, vodkas, absinthe, whiskeys, rum, brandies and liqueurs. Unfortunately, its tasting room was closed on the day we were there so we didn't get to have a look inside. We did have time to kill before our tour at Hangar 1 so we redirected our attention across the parking lot to the lively crowd drinking beer at Faction Brewing and made our way over to see what was on tap - we found 27 beers ranging from pale ales and IPAs to porters and stouts. 

 The taproom of Faction Brewery.

The taproom of Faction Brewery.

Open since 2013, Faction Brewing began with just a 6-tap kegerator and a few seats but now boasts a 20-tap direct draw system, a 30-ft. redwood bar and plenty of seating inside and out. A variety of food trucks make appearances to supplement the modest menu of ready-made snacks available for order at the bar. Faction offers pints, tulips and tasters on site as well as 32 oz. and 64 oz. growlers and bottles to go. We found two seats at the end of a community table on Faction's 4,000 square-foot deck to enjoy our beer and made fast friends with others at the table. The brewery is owned by a husband-and-wife team and the place has a family-friendly vibe. Just beyond the deck, kids played games while adults imbibed and there were even a few baby strollers parked tableside. The majority of the crowd looked to be locals meeting up with friends, celebrating family birthdays or taking a day take trip out of the city to catch some sunshine in the East Bay.

The Faction Pilsner and Brixton Pale Ale we tried were very good but when we went inside to get another the line for the bar had grown long and now looked like a queue for an airline flight. So, we went across the street to take a look inside Building 43 Winery with its large metal door welcomingly open. The space was a former locker for military explosives but today it's a tasting room for handcrafted, small-batch wines primarily from the Sierra Foothills. We each ordered a glass of wine and took a seat at one of the high-top bar tables in the lounge area. In keeping with the history of the building, the winery interior is rustic yet refined with art and objects reminiscent of its military roots. You can order wine by the bottle, glass or tasting flight and enjoy it at the bar or in the various lounging areas - inside and outside. The winery was more suited toward couples with its intimate setting but there was also a party going on in a private room. We finished our wine and headed back across the street to Hangar 1 for our tasting tour.

We entered the hangar and checked in for the tour in the tasting room. The previous tour was just wrapping up so we browsed the bottle shop just off the bar. The bottle shop is a necessary adjunct for Hangar 1 to sell its vodka on premise. Due to post-Prohibition laws still in effect, sales of the liquor can only take place through a third-party distributor which they were smart to share hangar space with. We met up with Jacob, our witty and engaging guide and entered the lab to begin the tour. Jacob told us about the master distiller at Hangar 1 Vodka - a women named Caley Shoemaker who began her career in crafting spirits with a whiskey brand in Colorado before bringing her deft hand to Hangar 1 Vodka. She is a professed "spirits nerd" who loves to experiment with the fresh ingredients she sources from local farmers in the Bay Area. Jacob was a bit of a chemistry enthusiast which came through during his explanation of how the distilling process works while the alcohol rises through 18 chambers of two very large, gleaming, copper distilling columns. 

We moved on to my favorite part of the tour which was the "see, smell and taste" curio chest. The botanicals on the cabinet included fruit in jars, stems with fresh leaves, dried chipoltes, pink pepperberries, grains and even a jar of honey - all ingredients used in making Hangar 1 vodkas. . Jacob explained the process of Shoemaker's selection of fruit as he passed around a jar containing Budda's Hand used in making the Hangar 1 Citron vodka. The distiller chose Budda's Hand because it is not as acidic as regular lemons. The Makrut Lime vodka is infused with the leaves of the plant rather than the actual fruit because the leaves offer the most flavor and aroma. The story behind the flavor profile of every vodka was very interesting, especially the Distiller's Exclusives which are only available through the bottle shop at the distillery. Those included Pink Peppercorn, Chipolte and Honeycomb. Hangar 1 even has a vodka made from fog. Its Fog Point Vodka has a very limited run and won't be available again until the fall. It retails for a hefty $129 per bottle but 100% of the profits go back to water conservation efforts. If you don't want to buy the whole bottle you can order a Fog Point Martini for $43 at Epic Steak restaurant in San Francisco made with Hangar 1 Fog Point Vodka.

There is still a lot of available space for expansion and only the vodka bottled in Hangar 1's   signature graduated cylinder-style bottles are filled at the hangar. The bottling area was modest in size and was not in operation during our tour. With the knowledge we had gained we headed to the tasting room for the real reason we were all there - to drink some vodka.

We tasted six different vodkas including the Straight, Citron, Mandarin Blossom, Pink Peppercorn, Chipolte and Honeycomb. As Jacob poured our tastings he also offered ideas for drink recipes we could make with each of the infused vodkas. The tasting room is set up for walk-ins to have tastings at the four-sided, stylish industrial bar too but there are no cocktails available. And don't expect more than six small pours because there are strict laws governing how much alcohol can be served in distillery tasting rooms. However, Bonnie who manages the bottle shop said there are plans in the very near future to have a portable bar outside that would serve cocktails under the separate third-party license. 

At the conclusion of the tour we took a look around the tasting room which was fitted out with a vintage flight yoke, bomber jacket and a retail area with t-shirts, hats and accessories and also left our information so we'd know when the next batch of Fog Point Vodka was available. We ran out of time to visit Rock Wall Wine Company so we'll have to do that on our next visit.

And although Spirits Alley might seem like a great place for a nightcap the area does have a 7p.m. curfew due to a little, politically-connected neighbor named the California Least Tern. In the 1970's the birds decided the former airstrip on Alameda Island was an ideal location to hang out and it has become a very successful breeding site for the species. So much so, the government set aside 624 acres for the birds in 2014. This means the surrounding buildings cannot undergo any refurbishing that would disrupt the birds. So the structures and facades along Monarch Street will maintain their "authenticity" and you won't find electricity bringing light or music to this stretch of road.

Hangar 1 Vodka - 2505 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.871.4951

St. George Spirits - 2601 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.769.1601

Building 43 Winery - 2440 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.263.0399

Rock Wall Wine Company - 2301 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.522.5700

Fun and affordability in Paris' elegant 8th Arrondissement.

 The balcony of our room at Hotel Wilson Opera gave us a little view of the Eiffel Tower peeking up behind the building in the middle.

The balcony of our room at Hotel Wilson Opera gave us a little view of the Eiffel Tower peeking up behind the building in the middle.

On previous trips to Paris, Larry and I always seemed to traverse the city in a frantic fashion, zig-zagging from landmark to landmark and spending too much time burrowed in the underground consulting the route map of the Metro. Sure, we checked off many sites on our to-see list but I always returned home feeling like we'd seen a lot but experienced little. So, this year we decided to tour the city differently - slow down, condense our sightseeing to a smaller area and really take the time to experience our surroundings. 

Our hotel was a great 3-star boutique hotel tucked in among the stylish apartment buildings that are so prevalent in the 8th Arrondissement on the right bank. I had been attracted to this area on previous trips because of its quiet, residential atmosphere and beautiful tree-lined streets and boulevards. There are dozens of 5- and 4-star hotels in this upscale area including the Hotel Plaza Athenee, Shangri-La Hotel and the Four Seasons Hotel George V, but we loved our 3-star Hotel Wilson Opera, located just a few blocks off elegant Boulevard Haussmann.  

Hotel Wilson Opera

We arrived on Easter Sunday around noon and to our great surprise we had been upgraded from a basic French balcony room to one with a wrap-around balcony and a much larger sitting area. Plus, the room was ready which meant we could change out of the traveling clothes we had worn on the three-hour train ride from Bordeaux and into something a little nicer to wear to Easter brunch. The streets around the hotel were quiet both day and night. The bathroom wasn't large but it wasn't tiny either and was appointed with Nuxe natural bath products. The room was perfect for our needs and we could not have asked for a better room and view at our rate ($190/nt.) in this location. We may not have had all the extras the luxury hotels only a short distance away offered but we had everything we needed and the rates at those luxury hotels were five to ten times the rate we paid. The service at Hotel Wilson Opera was excellent and we appreciated the 24-hour reception. 

Hotel Wilson Opera, 10 Rue de Stockholm, 75008

The view from our balcony provided an up-close look at the elegant apartment buildings which were the legacy of Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the Prefect of the Seine (similar to a governor of an area) in the mid-19th century. Between 1853-1870, Haussmann was tasked by emperor Napolean III (nephew of Napolean Bonaparte) to undertake the daunting task of bringing air and light to the city's dank, and overcrowded medieval neighborhoods rife with sickness, misery and very little fresh water. Napolean III had lived for a time in England and was impressed with London's wide streets, squares and public parks and wanted to incorporate those same elements into his plan to make Paris a modern capital city.

Haussmann's urban plan included long, straight boulevards to open up and connect the city and he established a standard ratio between the height of buildings and width of streets. I had always wondered why so many of the buildings in Paris have a uniform look to them and it was by Haussmann's design. He regulated not only the height ratio but how buildings should be designed. Buildings could not be higher than five to seven stories high and roofs had to have a 45-degree pitch to allow daylight on the sidewalks below. Buildings had to be constructed of stone blocks with basements and ground floors. Above the ground floor was a "between " floor with a load-bearing wall below. The ground floor was usually reserved for shopkeepers. Above that was the first floor and then second floor - known as the "etage noble" or noble floor because apartments on this level were most sought after by wealthy families of the time. It was required that the second floor have a wrought iron balcony and detailed stonework around the windows. The interior featured elegant high ceilings, multiple reception rooms and was an easy walk up from street level since there were no elevators. Most third and fourth floors had little or no detail on the exterior and the top floors had balconies. The buildings were capped with mansard roofs which at the time were lit only by dormer windows and usually was where the maid's chamber was located. Haussmann wanted each block to have a uniform look so balconies on each building had to be in alignment the length of the block. These buildings and boulevards today are still so representative of the classic images of Paris.

Brunch at Le Vraymonde at Buddha Bar Hotel

The French have never had a reputation for being big breakfast eaters but I read somewhere that in the last few years brunch had become "a thing" in Paris and that many restaurants were now offering elaborate weekend breakfasts. Since we would be arriving in Paris in the afternoon, we decided to make Easter brunch our "splurge" meal and after researching recommended places in the 8th Arrondissement we decided to give Le Vraymonde, the restaurant inside the Buddha-Bar Hotel, a try. I made reservations three weeks before we left for France because I was sure it would be impossible to just walk in and get seated on Easter Sunday so I booked the latest seating for brunch possible (2:30pm). It was only a 10-minute walk from our hotel to the very upscale Madeleine neighborhood where the Buddha-Bar Hotel was located just a street away from the Eglise de la Madeleine, the very large Roman Catholic church built to look like a Roman temple in the Neo-Classical style.

We were seated in the courtyard which was a little chilly but staff provided plush blankets. The brunch cost 92 Euro per person and included a glass of Champagne, endless appetizer and dessert buffets and a choice of a main course, cooked to order (Teppanyaki lamb chops, Foil-baked pollack, Cheeseburger or Noodles with Japanese mushrooms). The The sweet and savory appetizers were arranged on four extensive buffets and represented cuisine inspired by one the four elements - Water, Earth, Air and Fire.  Here's just a sampling - Water (Oysters, Live Sushi and Tartare); Earth (Country-style pate, smoked duck, Parma ham, sausage with truffle); Air (vegetable spring rolls, gazpacho); and Fire (chicken skewers, coriander-baked egg, spicy prawn tarts).

The dessert buffet was set up in a separate room and included and elegant assortment of pastries including eclairs, creme puffs, fruit tarts and pain du chocolate but the highlight was creating our own Samurai Easter Egg. After selecting from an assortment of chocolate-egg bodies, helmets, shoes, arms and eyes we handed over the "parts" to the pastry chef who worked his magic by melding the pieces together and adding fondant hands to clutch two Samurai fighting sticks. We thoroughly enjoyed the brunch but I was glad we booked the late seating because I got the impression the restaurant had been much busier earlier in the day with large groups and lots of kids. 

Le Vraymonde, Buddha-Bar Hotel Paris, 4 Rue d'Anjou, 75008

Champs-Elysees

After brunch we took a stroll along the Champs-Elysees beginning at the Place de la Concorde where the slow-rotating Big Wheel was transporting riders some 225 feet high for views of the city and especially the nearby beautiful Tuileries Gardens. I had planned a surprise stop for Larry at the L'Atelier Renault, the flagship store for the French carmaker. It's an interesting venue for viewing new, vintage and racing car models as well as interactive exhibits, retail space, cafe and bar. We each enjoyed a Stella-Artois beer overlooking the Champs-Elysees which was now bustling with pedestrians. 

As dusk fell, we continued our walk onto Avenue George V and crossed the Seine then headed toward the Eiffel Towel and purely by accident we arrived in time to watch the twinkling lights come on at 9 p.m. We strolled back to our hotel along the Champs-Elysees and stopped for a nightcap along the way. We noticed a nice little perk in this neighborhood when we stopped in for a beer or a glass of wine in these neighborhood bistros - free snacks. It wasn't uncommon to be served a bowl of nuts or olives to nibble on while we enjoyed our drinks. I don't remember getting complimentary snacks in other areas of the city.  

The morning of our final full day in Paris we shared a petit dejeuner breakfast at a nearby brasserie and sipped cappuccinos at our sidewalk table while we watched the hustle-bustle of the morning traffic at the nearby intersection. We wanted to get an early start to our day because we were headed to the Musee Jacquemart-Andre which is an intimate museum (one of the few in Paris open on Mondays) that can be subject to limiting admission to control overcrowding.

Musee Jacquemart-Andre

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable things we did in Paris was tour the Musee Jacquemart-Andre. I had never heard of this museum before but came across information about it while researching things to do in the 8th Arrondissement. It is the magnificent former mansion of a French couple who traveled the world extensively and acquired a vast collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture and other works of art. Edouard Andre was a descendent of a very wealthy banking family and spent his fortune on buying works of art and exhibited them in his mansion which took six years to complete. He married Nelie Jacquemart, a society portrait painter whom had painted Andre's portrait ten years earlier, and together the couple amassed one of the finest collections of Italian art in France. 

 The Winter Garden is a highlight of the mansion. It was designed by architect Henri Parent, who was rejected for the job of designing Paris' Opera House so he took the opportunity to show the world his design flair with the Jacquemart-Andre project.

The Winter Garden is a highlight of the mansion. It was designed by architect Henri Parent, who was rejected for the job of designing Paris' Opera House so he took the opportunity to show the world his design flair with the Jacquemart-Andre project.

Walking the exterior grounds and entering the salon of the mansion you immediately feel like you are in a home and not a cavernous art museum and could definitely imagine the high-society receptions hosted by Jacquemart and Andre in the mid-to-late 1800s' in their impressive mansion along Boulevard Haussmann.

The entire first floor was dedicated to their Italian Museum and during the couple's lifetime only very close friends or prominent guests were invited to view their collection including pieces by Francesco Botticini (bottom left) and Sandro Botticelli (below middle). Andre favored Venetian Art and Jacquemart had an eye for Florentine art. The couple had an exquisite eye for art and their Botticelli painting was not attributed to the artist until much later adding significant value to the piece. They also instructed their agents to be mindful when bidding at auction so as not to drive prices beyond the means of the city's museums.

Andre and Jacquemart never had children so when Edouard died in 1894, Nelie carried on with turning the house into a museum they had both agreed would be bequeathed to the Institute of France upon her death. Jacquemart died in 1912 and the home was inaugurated the Jacquemart-Andre Museum in 1914. The museum's extensive collection includes the works of dozens of world-renown artists including Anthony van Dyck, Rembrandt and Vittore Crivelli and multiple murals by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The Winter Garden is a highlight of the mansion. It was designed by architect Henri Parent, who was rejected for the job of designing Paris' Opera House so he took the opportunity to show the world his design flair with the Jacquemart-Andre project. Below are a few more photos of the Winter Garden which is an architectural masterpiece. We also toured the private apartments, reception rooms and informal salons. We highly recommend this museum.

 Musee Jacquemart-Andre, 158 Blvd. Haussmann, 75008

After we spent about three hours touring the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Larry and I walked a few blocks north and found the beautiful Parc Monceau, a 20-acre public park located in the 8th arrondissement. The park is English-style and features a large rotunda and elaborate, wrought-iron gates at the entrance. Inside, the park features many architectural structures including a pyramid, windmill, Chinese fort and Corinthian pillars. The park has free WI-FI too. We took another stroll on Champs-Elysees and found the macaron mecca, Laduree. The line to buy macarons was too long but we scored a free sample of chocolate and continued our walk. We cut over a few blocks to walk along Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, one of (if not the) most prestigious and fashionable street in Paris. The official residence of the President of France, the Elysee Palace is on this street as are the residences of the Ambassadors to France from Britain, Japan, United States and Canada as well as many embassies. France's most famous brands have flagship boutiques along this narrow street including Chanel, Lanvin, Hermes, Baccarat and many more. I was mesmerized by the window-dressing designs and gobsmacked by the price tags.

We veered off on Rue Royale and found ourselves in the quaint Place de la Madeleine and just steps from Boutique Maille, home of the famed gourmet mustard and vinegar producer. I had no idea Maille had been producing products for more than 267 years and made 84 mustard varieties and 120 vinegars. We were guided and encouraged by the mustard sommelier (yes, a sommelier of mustard), to taste as many varieties as we wanted. If you're in the area it is worth a peek inside to see the beautiful boutique and have a taste or two (or more). We only travel with carry-on luggage so unfortunately, we weren't able to buy a jar of one of the amazing mustards to take home with us. A few steps outside Maille, we found a bistro where we ate lunch. We shared a foot-long hotdog in a perfectly baked French roll buried in melted cheese. We were quite certain the mustard tasting had influenced our decision to order the hot dog. Not very French, but darn good.

Boutique Maille, 6 Place de la Madeleine, 75008

 The interior of Galleries Lafayette department store.

The interior of Galleries Lafayette department store.

After lunch, we made our way back to Boulevard Haussmann in search of the luxury department stores, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. The two stores occupy space in a massive Art-Nouveau iron structure each with its own soaring atrium enclosed with elaborate colored glass and both offer sweeping views of the city from their respective rooftop terraces. We chose to check out the terrace at Printemps because the store also had a Cafe Pouchkine outpost on its ground floor so we could pick up some pastries to take home for dessert. We ordered a couple of beers at the cafe on the 9th floor and went outside to enjoy the 360º view of the Paris skyline which included Opera Garnier, Eiffel Tower, Pantheon, Arc de Triomphe and Sacre Coeur. We were reminded of the nice view from our room at the hotel and decided to have dinner on our balcony for our last night in Paris.

Cafe Pouchkine, 64 Boulevard Haussmann, 75008

We selected two desserts from the Cafe Pouchkine patisserie before leaving Printemps and heading back to our hotel. The markets near our hotel were all closed so Larry came up with the idea of buying take-away from the train station (Gare Lazare), which was just a block away. There were so many options but we opted for a green salad and a quinoa salad with chicken.

Back at the hotel, I spread out my scarf for a tablecloth and Larry opened the bottle of wine we had brought with us from Bordeaux. It was a perfect and perfectly-affordable end to our two nights in Paris. We enjoyed our salads and sipped wine as dusk fell and again at we were treated to the Eiffel Towel light show just catching a few twinkle lights on the top spire beyond the rooftops and the sweeping blue beacon. We both agreed that on this trip we had enjoyed seeing an intimate and elegant side of Paris, somehow managed to spend less money and felt far more relaxed.

 

Uniworld Cruise - Bordeaux, Vineyards & Chateaux

The River Royale is a nimble ship allowing passage in narrower rivers which makes it an ideal vessel for sailing on the Garonne and Dordogne.

If you've read some of our other cruise posts you know we prefer small ships and Uniworld's River Royale was probably the smallest we've been on yet but it was just the right size to traverse the waters of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers with views of the Bordeaux countryside and its world-famous vineyards and chateaux on both sides. The ship carries just 130 passengers and on this shoulder-season cruise it carried about half that many which made for a very intimate cruising experience. The service aboard the River Royale was fantastic. Every crew member would go out or their way to help passengers with special requests or take the initiative to make sure everything on board was the best it could be for all guests. The polite and diligent waitstaff supported by an extremely attentive Maitre d' made every dining experience enjoyable and the sommelier dedicated to us all week was extremely knowledgeable about the great wines of Bordeaux.

Because we were sailing short distances on this cruise, we had many of the same local guides each day but they met up with us in different towns and villages which made it nice to have some continuity. All excursions were included in the cruise price (with a few optional ones offered at an additional price) and were very good. We visited vineyards, did some wine tasting and visited a few chateaux. Larry and I both thought the excursions on this cruise were the most authentic, professional, educational and interesting of any excursions we've taken on other river cruises. We especially liked the "Go Active" cycling tours provided by Bordeaux A Velo, owned by a husband and wife team, who led three excursions during the week. They were so knowledgeable and passionate about Bordeaux and the history of the entire region. 

Another benefit of traveling short distances was the free time we enjoyed on the sun deck most days after excursions or during breaks in the afternoon. The scenery on shore is much different along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers than say, the Rhine or Danube. There are no towering castles but instead rustic, old fishing cabins on stilts and remnants of medieval ramparts and forts. The wine that makes this region so famous today was the result of nature's gift some 50 million years ago when this basin was a tropical sea. The vast quantities of sediment left behind now provide the soils and sub-soils so ideally suited to wine-making. The soil on the left bank tends to have more gravel and pebbles and the soil on the right bank contains more clay and limestone. It is these properties that give Bordeaux wines the distinctive character and exceptional quality sought by buyers worldwide. 

Spoiler Alert: 2016 is being touted as a remarkable vintage. An Indian summer followed by early September rains brought the grapes to perfect maturity.

Some experts think the 2016 vintage will be the best in the last ten years and may prop up the dwindling interest in wine futures that the Bordeaux region has been suffering since the financial crisis of 2008 in the United States. Interest waned substantially and some big buyers in futures never came back.

If you love river cruises and wine, you should definitely give this itinerary on Uniworld a look. We hope you enjoy our trip recap below and please feel free to contact us if you have specific questions about cruising with Uniworld or any other cruise line. And if you would like assistance in planning your vacation, we are a full-service travel agency and would welcome the chance to work with you. Please click here to contact Putnam Travels or to read more about us. 

The Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, opened in 2013, is the longest vertical lift bridge in Europe and is named in honor of a former Prime Minister of France and former mayor or Bordeaux.

April 9, 2017 - Embarkation: Bordeaux, France

After spending one night in Arcachon and one night in Bordeaux on our own, we boarded our ship which was docked near the city centre of Bordeaux on the Garonne river. The river has a crescent shape that curves along Bordeaux's waterfront giving the port its name - Port de la Luna, or Port of the Moon. Europe's largest vertical lift bridge can be seen towering in the distance. The River Royale would overnight here giving guests who were just arriving in Bordeaux a chance to see the city. Bordeaux is beautiful at night so after dinner we took a stroll along the promenade to capture some of the evening's beauty. One site not to be missed is the Miroir d'Eau which was built in 2006 and is the world's largest reflection pool. Its field of granite covers 37,100 square feet and on some evenings a system beneath the granite turns the shallow pool of water into a fog of mist. The ornate Place de Bourse, is a city icon similar to Place de la Concorde in Paris and was designed by the same architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel. It makes an impressive backdrop to the Miroir d'Eau both day and night. The "Pont de Pierre" or stone bridge is beautifully lit at night as well. This bridge was constructed from 1819 to 1822 and connects the the left bank of the Garonne river with the right bank.  

Aboard the Uniworld River Royale

Once we boarded the ship we checked in at the lovely reception area highlighted by a Van Gogh-inspired mosaic mural. Finger sandwiches, fruit, beverages and pastries were laid out. This area became the "early risers" breakfast area for self-serve coffee, tea and pastries each day of the cruise. Our stateroom was small (151 sq ft), but had a large picture window for maximum river views and was designed efficiently for comfort and storage. Our stateroom featured a flat-screen TV, small table and chairs, built-in closets and a Savoir of England bed with Egyptian cotton linens. Bath amenities were from L'Occitane.

The decor of the River Royale is a stark contrast to many other river cruise ships that have been recently remodeled with sleek and modern furnishings and neutral color palettes. Although my personal taste tends to lean toward neutral colors and modern design, I found that the elegant furnishings, rich fabrics and bold colors created a distinctive and compatible ambiance in which to discover the history of Bordeaux and the legacy of one of the world's most acclaimed wine regions. 

The Executive Chef on our ship was young, energetic and very personable. He made a point of being accessible to guests and took part in the culinary presentations. The main dining room had a very elegant setting and the alternative restaurant located on the top deck provided lovely views in the evening. I don't take pictures during meals but trust me, the food on this ship was probably the best cruise ship cuisine I've ever had. The attention to detail and service was exceptional.

This was, after all, a wine cruise and Uniworld delivered on the theme. Our sommelier for the week was a young women named Aline who introduced us to the wines she had selected for each night's dinner. For guests wishing to order wine off the extensive wine menu (not included in beverage package), Aline was available in the dining room to assist with selections and make recommendations. There were three wine tasting sessions available aboard the ship with Aline during the week which took place in the Claret room. The session was included in the cruise but each guest needed to make a reservation. Aline gave an excellent presentation and we learned several new things about wine and how better to appreciate it. 

We did manage to carve out a little time to use the fitness center and the jacuzzi at the aft of the ship. The deck chairs and lounges were plentiful as were plush towels. The bartenders provided service on the deck and were constantly making the rounds to see if anyone needed anything.

April 10, 2017 Cadillac

Our stop in Cadillac (pronounced "caddy ack") included a full day in the vineyards of Sauternes with a visit to a chateau Grand Crus Classes vineyard and tasting followed by and exclusive artisanal lunch and wine pairing. During the wine tasting at Chateau de Myrat we learned about the painstaking work involved in making Sauternes which makes this wine so unique. The grapes can only be harvested by hand with several passages through the vines to allow the noble rot (made from a fungus) to settle properly on the grapes which gives them their high sugar content and exceptional aromas. Sauternes are made from three grape varieties: Semillon, which gives sweetness and texture (70-90%); Sauvignon Blanc, which adds freshness (5-20%); and Muscadelle, for aroma (1-3%).

Our group enjoyed a private, three-course lunch at Chateau de Cazeneuve, the royal palace first built in the 11th century and residence of King of France Henri IV and Queen Margot. Today, the estate is in the hands of their descendants, the ducal family de Sabran-Ponteves. Our lunch included a different wine pairing with each course so we could experience the vast differences between Sauternes. 

April 11, 2017 Medoc/Pauillac/Bourg

On this day we opted for the "Go Active" excursion which was a guided bike tour through Medoc vineyards with a stop for wine tasting at Chateau Legrange.  Our tour guide, Paolo (of Bordeaux A Velo) led us on easy roads through gorgeous and historic terrain within sight of many storied chateaus you've probably heard of like Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Latour, owned by Francois-Henri PInault, the seventh richest man in France, estimated to have a fortune worth US$ 19.5 billion. He recently bought the Araujo Estate in Napa Valley which he added to his holding company, Groupe Artemis which also includes Christie's Auction House and Stade Rennais Football Club. He's also the controlling shareholder of luxury-goods conglomerate Kering which includes the brands Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Puma and he's also married to actress Salma Hayek.

Chateau Latour, the famed first-growth chateau made a commitment in 2008 to farm all of its 230 acres biodynamically. As you can see above, the chateau uses horses (not tractors) to plow its vineyards.

Obviously, it takes a lot of money to operate a chateau and a sad fact about the chateau life in France is that many family owned estates have sold to large corporations, both foreign and domestic, because high operating costs and inheritance taxes have made it impossible for heirs to continue their family's legacy. China has emerged as a big player in Bordeaux wines. After the financial collapse in 2008, the U.S. buyers in Bordeaux wine futures dwindled and never really came back but China found favor with Bordeaux wines and began filling that void and eventually began buying chateaux. More than 100 Bordeaux chateaux are now owned by Chinese but it still only represents about 1.3 percent of the 7,400+ chateaux in the region.

Chateau Lagrange (above left); Our bike-tour guide, Paolo Saint-Laurent of Bordeaux A Velo

April 12, 2107 Bourg/Libourne

Citadel of Blaye

The city of Bourg is home to the Citadel of Blaye, a former Roman military base in ancient times. The headlands of Blaye became a Medieval village and the base was replaced by a fortress, the remnants of which can be seen today. Throughout history many changes were made resulting in the citadel becoming a modern system of defense. After WWII, the army sold the citadel to the town of Blaye and the site underwent restoration and protection. In 2007, the citadel was added to UNESCO'S World Heritage list.

Today, the Citadel of Blaye is like a town within a town and includes a hotel, restaurant, souvenir shops and artist studios where you can purchase handcrafted, jewelry, linens and wooden toys. Certain days of the week the local market is set up within easy walking distance of the citadel. Blaye is also known for its marathon which snakes through the Bordeaux wine region and runners have the opportunity to do a little wine tasting at dozens of chateaux en route to the finish line.

April 13, 2017 Libourne/Saint Emilion

Saint Emilion is a quaint medieval village located in the heart of the Bordeaux region and is easily identifiable by the bell tower of its monolithic church. Saint Emilion is named after an 11th century monk who fled Britain to escape persecution by the Benedictine Order and lived in a cave for 17 years and was believed to be a performer of miracles. Guided tours of the cave and the rare underground monolithic church are available and there are many very good restaurants and wine shops in this village. Many bottles of wine for sale in these elegant shops had eye-popping price tags in the thousands! My favorite winery that we visited was Soutard which had two crystal chandeliers hanging in the vat room and a very James Bond-esque glass elevator to take guests down to the tasting room.

April 14, 2017 Libourne Village Day and Farmers' Market

Today, we started off with a tour of Libourne's city square and a stroll through the busy Farmer's Market to join the locals gathering fresh fish, produce and cheese for their weekend meals. Later we were joined by Christiane Saint-Laurent, wife of our previous bike guide, Paolo, who led us on the day's bike ride along the banks of the Dordogne river. Christiane was the first guide to offer cycling tours in Paris and later met Paolo. The two opened Bordeaux A Velo and know this region and its history so well which adds so much to their tours.

April 15, 2017 Bordeaux - Cycling Tour

On our last full day aboard the River Royale we were docked back in Bordeaux where we would overnight until disembarking the next morning. We opted for the "Go Active" bike tour with Christiane again. We cycled along the banks of the Garonne river and rode through the backstreets of Bordeaux. Again, Christiane impressed us with her knowledge of the viticulture, history, art and architecture of Bordeaux.

April 16, 2017 Disembarkation: Bordeaux 

On the evening before our disembarkation, Uniworld provided a bus tour through the city to capture the sights of Bordeaux at night. I was glad I had taken my night pictures at the beginning of the cruise because on this night Bordeaux was bustling with thousands of runners for the Bordeaux Marathon. And yes, the Bordeaux Marathon takes place at night. The run starts around 8pm and continues into the wee hours. To read more about the city of Bordeaux read our blog post - 12 Reasons Why We Think You'll Love Bordeaux

The Place des Quinconces is one of the largest city squares in Europe (about 31 acres). The two columns in the foreground were erected in 1829 - one symbolizes commerce and the other, navigation. The column in the background was erected in between 1894-1902, in memory of the victims of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. The statue on top represents the spirit of liberty.

This was probably the most active, yet relaxing river cruise we have ever taken. Each excursion was well executed, authentic and definitely complemented the wine theme of the cruise. The itinerary left us with plenty of free time to see more of a port town on our own or return to the ship and enjoy the views from the sun deck. We left Bordeaux with a very good education and appreciation for its wines, history, landscape and people. If you'd like to contact us directly for more information about this cruise please click here.

Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them.

For more information on this Bordeaux Uniworld Cruises click here.

12 Reasons Why We Think You'll love Bordeaux

I have to admit before we visited, I only thought of Bordeaux as a region and not a city, but it's both - an amazing food and wine region as well as a beautiful, vibrant and up-and-coming city. Lonely Planet voted Bordeaux #1 in its List of Top World Cities to visit in 2017 and the city has lately been a top-ten nominee in Europe's Best Destinations and the World Travel Awards ranking it among other prestigious world cities such as Milan, Paris, Vienna, Lisbon and London. These accolades are the result of a smart revitalization plan which began in 1995 under the guardianship of the Republican Mayor Alain Juppe who brought a "tough love" approach to governing the city. He offered tax credits to residents and business owners to incentivize them to clean the filthy facades of their buildings and fines to those who didn't. The bank of the Garonne river was opened up to the city by removing old, industrial warehouses and replacing them with a wide promenade created to accommodate walkers, runners and cyclists as well has restaurants, bistros and boutiques.

Another of Juppe's projects was the city's hi-tech tram network which began service in 2003 and now provides three lines of service linking the city centre with commercial areas and the outlying suburbs while easing traffic congestion. The tram cars feature large windows giving riders unobstructed views of the passing cityscape and is powered by underground control units, negating the need for unsightly overhead cables.

Bordeaux began to shine with its scrubbed, cream-colored facades, dazzling riverfront renovation and careful blending of modern urban growth with its historic buildings and spaces created in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Bordelais were rewarded for their hard work when the city was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 and the rest of the world began to take note. Bordeaux was now clean, current, welcoming and its people were proud.

Dozens of construction cranes are now part of the skyline as multiple condo projects are in the works to accommodate the expected growth in population due in part to Bordeaux's popularity, proximity to Paris and the more affordable living costs in the Aquitane region. Bordeaux is a three-hour TGV train ride from Paris but soon to be only two hours when a faster TGV train begins service in July 2017. Many who work in Paris and used to live in its suburbs have moved here because of the favorable cost of living and they prefer the commute by train from Bordeaux to sitting in a car in traffic. Bordeaux is also attractive to young Millennials and Gen Xers because of the well-respected university here and availability of entry-level jobs.

The wine in this region has always been world-class but now so is the food. There are dozens of Michelin-rated restaurants in Bordeaux including those of celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Philippe Etchebest but there has also been an influx of talented young chefs focusing on market-driven, bistro-style fare at affordable prices.

There was so much we loved about Bordeaux but here are our top 12 reasons we think you'll love this region and city too. Enjoy!

1. Dune Pilat in Arcachon

 The Grand Site de la Dune de Pilat is Europe's largest sand dune and is just a one hour train ride from Bordeaux and short drive or bike ride from Arcachon. You can rent bikes in Arcachon and pedal 12 kilometers to the dune to scale its 110 meters (for those who don't like to sink their toes into the sand there is a stairway that leads to the top too). The views from the top are impressive and you can scamper down to the Atlantic Ocean below and a beautiful stretch of beach but remember the only way back up is to hike. The effect of the wind moves the dune one to five meters each year and little by little it is covering a unique forest that dates back to the middle ages.

The Grand Site de la Dune de Pilat is Europe's largest sand dune and is just a one hour train ride from Bordeaux and short drive or bike ride from Arcachon. You can rent bikes in Arcachon and pedal 12 kilometers to the dune to scale its 110 meters (for those who don't like to sink their toes into the sand there is a stairway that leads to the top too). The views from the top are impressive and you can scamper down to the Atlantic Ocean below and a beautiful stretch of beach but remember the only way back up is to hike. The effect of the wind moves the dune one to five meters each year and little by little it is covering a unique forest that dates back to the middle ages.

2. Arcachon Oysters

 Arcachon is a lively beach town with a wooden boardwalk, plenty of bike paths and charming vacation homes, some dating back to the 19th century when Arcachon was a resort town for the wealthy. Arcachon Bay is a tidal estuary that provides an outlet to the sea for the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Across the Bay from Arcachon is the still-posh resort area of Cap Ferret where many celebrities have vacation homes including Zinedane Zidane, the retired footballer and current manager of Real Madrid. The biggest draw to Arcachon is perhaps the oysters which are harvested from the bay. Tens of thousands of oysters are cultivated at some 350 oyster farms around the bay and are considered some of the best in the world. Paired with a local white wine the experience is sublime.

Arcachon is a lively beach town with a wooden boardwalk, plenty of bike paths and charming vacation homes, some dating back to the 19th century when Arcachon was a resort town for the wealthy. Arcachon Bay is a tidal estuary that provides an outlet to the sea for the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Across the Bay from Arcachon is the still-posh resort area of Cap Ferret where many celebrities have vacation homes including Zinedane Zidane, the retired footballer and current manager of Real Madrid. The biggest draw to Arcachon is perhaps the oysters which are harvested from the bay. Tens of thousands of oysters are cultivated at some 350 oyster farms around the bay and are considered some of the best in the world. Paired with a local white wine the experience is sublime.

3. La Cite du Vin

 In the city of Bordeaux,   La Cite du Vin   will celebrate its first anniversary on May 31. This unique museum of wine culture was officially opened last year by President of France Francois Hollande. It makes a stunning architectural statement on the edge of the Garonne river and houses ten levels of experiences dedicated to the world and culture of wine. Visitors pass through the building like a river - following a fluid path to hands-on exhibits, films, videos amid sensual surroundings that culminate on the top floor tasting room with sweeping views of the Garonne river, Bordeaux and beyond. Your ticket gets you a tasting from a choice of wines from all over the world.

In the city of Bordeaux, La Cite du Vin will celebrate its first anniversary on May 31. This unique museum of wine culture was officially opened last year by President of France Francois Hollande. It makes a stunning architectural statement on the edge of the Garonne river and houses ten levels of experiences dedicated to the world and culture of wine. Visitors pass through the building like a river - following a fluid path to hands-on exhibits, films, videos amid sensual surroundings that culminate on the top floor tasting room with sweeping views of the Garonne river, Bordeaux and beyond. Your ticket gets you a tasting from a choice of wines from all over the world.

4. Bordeaux is a Shopper's Paradise

 Rue Saint Catherine is Europe's longest pedestrian shopping street at 1.2 kilometers. Saturday is typically the busiest day of the week and the street is jammed with people shopping the large retail chains, small boutiques, wine and food shops. Another option is the many outdoor markets which take place in the towns and villages throughout the Bordeaux region. We found a great hat vendor at the weekly market held in the Citadel of Blaye. The purveyor, Betty Millerate, spoke perfect English and was very helpful in helping Larry and I find hats to take home and wear to the Kentucky Derby.   Click here   to see our hats at the derby.

Rue Saint Catherine is Europe's longest pedestrian shopping street at 1.2 kilometers. Saturday is typically the busiest day of the week and the street is jammed with people shopping the large retail chains, small boutiques, wine and food shops. Another option is the many outdoor markets which take place in the towns and villages throughout the Bordeaux region. We found a great hat vendor at the weekly market held in the Citadel of Blaye. The purveyor, Betty Millerate, spoke perfect English and was very helpful in helping Larry and I find hats to take home and wear to the Kentucky Derby. Click here to see our hats at the derby.

5. The World's Largest Reflection Pool is in Bordeaux

 "Miroir d'Eau," the world's largest reflection pool, sits on the door step of the Place de la Bourse and is a refreshing place to cool off on a warm day. It's like a day at the pool for kids and at night, the reflecting pool is a stunning setting for couples looking for a little romance.

"Miroir d'Eau," the world's largest reflection pool, sits on the door step of the Place de la Bourse and is a refreshing place to cool off on a warm day. It's like a day at the pool for kids and at night, the reflecting pool is a stunning setting for couples looking for a little romance.

6. Bordeaux is for Active Travelers 

 Greater Bordeaux boasts hundreds of miles of bike paths both in the city and the surrounding area and is one of France's most bike-friendly cities.   Bordeaux A Velo   (Bordeaux by Bike) offers tours by highly-experienced guides along the wine routes to visit chateaux or through the streets of Bordeaux for an intimate look at the city. There is a very popular skate park on the promanade and on weekends paddle boarders glide along the Garonne with the Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas bridge beyond. Another active past time in the city is running and it's very common for the Bordelais to run together in the evening as a date which may explain why the   Marathon of Bordeaux   takes place entirely at night.

Greater Bordeaux boasts hundreds of miles of bike paths both in the city and the surrounding area and is one of France's most bike-friendly cities. Bordeaux A Velo (Bordeaux by Bike) offers tours by highly-experienced guides along the wine routes to visit chateaux or through the streets of Bordeaux for an intimate look at the city. There is a very popular skate park on the promanade and on weekends paddle boarders glide along the Garonne with the Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas bridge beyond. Another active past time in the city is running and it's very common for the Bordelais to run together in the evening as a date which may explain why the Marathon of Bordeaux takes place entirely at night.

7. Bordeaux is for Foodies

 The food scene in Bordeaux has everything from take-away shops and brasseries to tapas bars and Michelin-starred restaurants. The markets are also filled with fresh local products including seafood from the nearby Atlantic Ocean. We enjoyed a table-side preparation of Crepes Suzette at Le Bordeaux Gordon Ramsay.

The food scene in Bordeaux has everything from take-away shops and brasseries to tapas bars and Michelin-starred restaurants. The markets are also filled with fresh local products including seafood from the nearby Atlantic Ocean. We enjoyed a table-side preparation of Crepes Suzette at Le Bordeaux Gordon Ramsay.

8. The Chateaux and Wine

 From Saint Emilion in the east to Medoc and Pauillac in the northwest to Sauternes and Graves in the south, the wines of the Bordeaux region are varied and very good. Whether your preference in wine is red, rose, dry white or sweet white you will find a lovely wine here and a very passionate sommelier or vintner to share its story with you. And every wine from this region seems to have a rich history. The chateaux here don't just hire people to pour tastings and collect drink tickets, they have extremely knowledgeable staff who really want you to understand what makes the wine in this region and their wine particularly so special. I've never seen such passionate people speak about wine. The Bordeaux region is home to some 10,000 wine chateaux and represents about 1.5% of the wine production in the entire world.

From Saint Emilion in the east to Medoc and Pauillac in the northwest to Sauternes and Graves in the south, the wines of the Bordeaux region are varied and very good. Whether your preference in wine is red, rose, dry white or sweet white you will find a lovely wine here and a very passionate sommelier or vintner to share its story with you. And every wine from this region seems to have a rich history. The chateaux here don't just hire people to pour tastings and collect drink tickets, they have extremely knowledgeable staff who really want you to understand what makes the wine in this region and their wine particularly so special. I've never seen such passionate people speak about wine. The Bordeaux region is home to some 10,000 wine chateaux and represents about 1.5% of the wine production in the entire world.

9. Saint Emilion

 Saint Emilion is a quaint medieval village located in the heart of the Bordeaux region and is easily identifiable by the bell tower of its monolithic church. Saint Emilion is named after an 11th century monk who fled Britain to escape persecution by the Benedictine Order and lived in a cave for 17 years and was believed to be a performer of miracles. Guided tours of the cave and the rare underground monolithic church are available and there are many very good restaurants and wine shops in this village. It is definitely worth a visit.

Saint Emilion is a quaint medieval village located in the heart of the Bordeaux region and is easily identifiable by the bell tower of its monolithic church. Saint Emilion is named after an 11th century monk who fled Britain to escape persecution by the Benedictine Order and lived in a cave for 17 years and was believed to be a performer of miracles. Guided tours of the cave and the rare underground monolithic church are available and there are many very good restaurants and wine shops in this village. It is definitely worth a visit.

10. Art

 The city of Bordeaux is brimming with museums and art galleries but for those short on time and thin of wallet it also has an impressive array of street and public art to enjoy.

The city of Bordeaux is brimming with museums and art galleries but for those short on time and thin of wallet it also has an impressive array of street and public art to enjoy.

11. Architecture

 The architecture in Bordeaux is rich in history but modern buildings such as the Law Courts (lower left) and the new Cite du Vin add some modern interest to the skyline. Grosse Cloche (above), the medieval bell tower and gate belonging to the former city hall was built in the 13th and 15th centuries and is a popular pedestrian thoroughfare. The result of Mayor Juppe's effort to clean up the facades of the city's buildings can be seen below, right. (Formerly, these facades wold have been black or dark gray.)

The architecture in Bordeaux is rich in history but modern buildings such as the Law Courts (lower left) and the new Cite du Vin add some modern interest to the skyline. Grosse Cloche (above), the medieval bell tower and gate belonging to the former city hall was built in the 13th and 15th centuries and is a popular pedestrian thoroughfare. The result of Mayor Juppe's effort to clean up the facades of the city's buildings can be seen below, right. (Formerly, these facades wold have been black or dark gray.)

12. And finally dessert - Cannele Bordelais

 The cannele bordelais is the local confection of the Bordeaux region. It's a cake with a rich custard interior enclosed in a thin caramelized cake shell baked in a copper fluted molds which gives it a unique shape. The tale of its origin is a bit unclear but two versions that seem to have the most credence are 1) nuns from a convent in Bordeaux (before the French Revolution) prepared cakes made from donated egg yolks from local winemakers who needed only egg whites to clarify their wines and 2) residents who lived along the river Garonne gathered spilt low-protein flour from the loading docks then used it to make sweets for poor children. The cakes come in a variety of sizes but the traditional size is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and enjoy with a cup of coffee or glass of wine.

The cannele bordelais is the local confection of the Bordeaux region. It's a cake with a rich custard interior enclosed in a thin caramelized cake shell baked in a copper fluted molds which gives it a unique shape. The tale of its origin is a bit unclear but two versions that seem to have the most credence are 1) nuns from a convent in Bordeaux (before the French Revolution) prepared cakes made from donated egg yolks from local winemakers who needed only egg whites to clarify their wines and 2) residents who lived along the river Garonne gathered spilt low-protein flour from the loading docks then used it to make sweets for poor children. The cakes come in a variety of sizes but the traditional size is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and enjoy with a cup of coffee or glass of wine.

Pendry Hotel, San Diego

It wasn't that long ago on our travels when people learned we lived in San Diego we'd get responses like, "Oh, that's near Mexico, isn't it?" or "We've been to LA. Is San Diego near there?" But in the last few years, people that we've met around the world now know exactly where San Diego is because they've visited - and they loved it! It seems hotel developers have gotten the message too and the city is in the midst of a hotel boom. San Diego's downtown already has its share of good convention and family hotels but could definitely use more properties in the luxury, boutique or cool-factor categories. The Pendry Hotel hits the mark in all three categories as we found out when we stopped by for lunch after attending the San Diego Travel and Adventure Show last weekend. The 12-story hotel has an ideal location in the Gaslamp Quarter on the corner of 5th Avenue and J Street and is just a short walk to the San Diego Convention Center and Petco Park.

Pendry is an offshoot of the luxe brand, Montage Hotels and Resorts, a management company which oversees such distinctive properties as Montage Laguna Beach, Montage Beverly Hills, Montage Deer Valley and Montage Kapalua Bay. Pendry is the company's second brand which skews to a younger clientele with its edgier design and personality. A second Pendry hotel, in Baltimore, is slated to open this month and there is a third in the works for West Hollywood. I can't ever remember a time when San Diego got a cool hotel before L.A. did.

The tenet of the Pendry brand as it states on its website is simple luxury, clean design, well-crafted restaurant experiences, vibrant bars with a perfect balance of polished comfort and modern edge and a taste for rebellion. It was all on display as we were lucky enough to get a peek inside after we introduced ourselves as local travel agents to the concierge in the lobby. Ryan offered to show us a couple of the hotel's 317 guest rooms and invited us to take a look at the rooftop pool deck and spa before heading off for our lunch at the hotel's Provisional Restaurant.

The lobby reminded me of a grand train station from the Art Deco era with its wood paneled ceiling, curved polished lobby desk, tufted velvet settee, mosaic-tiled floors and wrought iron and brass accents on furniture and lighting fixtures. The lobby was bright and airy with large windows, lush plants and an inviting sitting area with a fireplace situated beneath a giant birdcage pendant light.

We rode the elevator to the second floor where Ryan showed us a Premier Room with large windows and modern furnishings in soothing ocean-inspired colors. The king bed was dressed in luxury linens and the nightstand held a Bluetooth-enabled Nixon speaker for streaming music. The only separation between the bed and bath was the floor-to-ceiling glass shower enclosure which could be concealed with a curtain. I thought it was odd but after pondering for a moment I realized this feature speaks to Pendry's slightly rebellious character and I think its young, edgy clientele would likely embrace the concept. The bathroom had luxurious touches like a marble vanity, chic Waterworks accessories and custom amenities from the east coast parfumerie MiN New York.

On the third floor, Ryan showed us one of the Deluxe Suites which featured a separate living room with wet bar and floor to ceiling windows offering views of the city skyline. The luxury bathroom included a dual marble vanity, MiN New York bath products and a dual-head, walk-in shower.

We passed through the spa on our way to the rooftop deck and Pool House lounge which overlooks the Gaslamp Quarter's bustling 5th Avenue and city views beyond. The Pendry's penchant for simple luxury and clean lines are evident on the deck. The poolside lounges and cabanas are decorated with classic striped cushions, pillows and light, billowy drapery. There is also a 1,082 sq.-foot Cabana Pool Suite with full kitchen, dining room and entertainment area that opens up directly to the pool deck. The bedroom has 180-degree views of the Gaslamp Quarter.

We didn't get to see Lionfish, the hotel's fine dining restaurant specializing in seafood and prime cuts or the Oxford Social Club, a cocktail lounge open Thurs. - Sat. from 10pm-2am. We checked out some of the special event spaces, looked in on Nason's Beer Hall (which wasn't open at the time) and Fifth & Rose, the elegant and chic bar just off the lobby. I was really impressed each space had its own personality but blended well together. The design team did a great job bringing together classic elegance, industrial detailing and modern flare throughout the property. 

We bid farewell to Ryan and went to have lunch at Provisional, the all-day dining option in the hotel. It's a restaurant-marketplace with dining room and bistro seating or carry-out options from the coffee/pastry bar or gelato counter. We ordered light lunch from the Cafe Menu and added two beers from the nice selection of bottled craft beers. The staff was amazingly attentive (and because we live in San Diego we can attest that some wait staffs tend to be a little too laid back) and saw to our every need. We asked our waitress if Provisional had been busy since opening and she said lunch was their busiest time as it draws a good local business crowd and many residents from the numerous nearby condos. We shared a gelato and our waitress gave us two samples of coffee from the elaborate cold-brewing contraption on the counter. We had inquired about it while we were having our lunch and she just thought we'd like to try it. Nice!

I know new hotels can have service issues when they first open but every employee we encountered was exceptional, poised and exceedingly helpful. We had just stopped in to check out the hotel and have lunch but ended up getting a tour and were treated as if we were guests. Obviously, we didn't stay at the hotel but will definitely come back to try the other restaurants and have cocktails before a show, concert or ballgame at nearby Petco Park. If the Pendry staff is this nice to "drop in" visitors I can only imagine how well it takes care of its guests.