Destinations

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Being described as "old school" can be a compliment but it can also imply outdated, like Hawaii's 2-lane Highway 19 that has been in the process of being widened for years and is subject to slow traffic on a regular basis.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. 

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.

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.

 

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.

Windstar Cruise - Costa Rica & Panama Canal

Two years ago we cruised with Windstar on the Star Breeze from Barcelona to Lisbon and fell in love with sailing the seas on this small luxury ship. So, when we found out the Star Breeze would be cruising Costa Rica and the Panama Canal we knew it would be an ideal ship to transit the Canal. The Star Breeze is just one of three power yachts in the Windstar fleet which the cruise line purchased from Seabourn back in 2013. The Star Pride, Star Legend and Star Breeze all underwent $8.5-million makeovers to enhance their all-suite accommodations, public spaces and dining rooms to create luxury cruising experiences for its guests.

Once aboard the Star Breeze, it was easy to settle in to the yachting lifestyle again. Thankfully for us, there were no formal nights or set times for dinner. (There is a dining room dress code though.) We liked having the breakfast options of the hearty buffet or smaller offerings of granola parfaits and smoothies found in the Yacht Club each morning. The casual, outdoor Star Bar was a great gathering spot for a drink before dinner and to enjoy the onboard entertainers - two different duos who performed nightly. On the second day we were on a first-name basis with crew and other guests and felt comfortable strolling to the ship's bridge to chat with the Officer of the Watch, who was always generous with information about the navigation system or questions we had. You really start to feel like you're on your own yacht!

With only 212 guests, the power yacht experience feels intimate and authentic. On our Panama Canal cruise we experienced the magnitude of the man-made interoceanic waterway but also felt fully immersed in the nature that surrounded us. At each port, the Star Breeze dropped anchor near small marinas or in picturesque bays where we were the only cruise ship and sometimes the only ship. Sporty inflatable Zodiacs, not smelly, lumbering lifeboats, were used to transport guests from ship to shore and back.

The service is extremely personal at every level and the food was very good. Windstar played to its strengths by hosting an elaborate dinner BBQ one night on its outdoor decks and showcased the talents of its predominantly Indonesian galley team with a buffet lunch of authentic Indian cuisine one afternoon.

I hope you enjoy the trip recap below and please feel free to contact us if you have specific questions about cruising with Windstar or any other cruise line. We've sailed on the Wind Surf and the Star Breeze twice. 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. 

For more information on Windstar Cruises 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 expressed 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. 

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Feb. 11, 2017  Embarkation: Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

We hired our own driver to pick us up at our hotel in San Jose and take us to Puerto Caldero where we boarded the ship. We were traveling with a group of six so we opted to hire private shuttles and schedule some private tours throughout the cruise so we could customize our excursions and have our own transportation.

It only took about 20 minutes from the time we stepped off our shuttle until we inserted our newly-minted keycard into the door of our spacious cabin and began to unpack while we sipped our welcome-aboard mimosas. With only 212 passengers, the boarding process is so fast and easy - no lines - just a quick check through security and you're aboard.

Our suite was a spacious 277 square-feet including a sitting area, desk, bar, flat-screen TV, walk-in closet and large bathroom with combo tub-shower and a generous supply of bath amenities from luxury label L'Occitane. The bed and comforter were dressed in Egyptian cotton linens and robes slippers were provided.

The public spaces are designed for intimate conversations or for groups who want to sit together. It's so easy to meet people on a small ship and by the second day we recognized everyone. Photos: Clockwise from top left - The Yacht Club; Star Bar; Compass Lounge, AmphorA Restaurant. 

There are plenty of lounges and sitting areas on the sun deck plus a jacuzzi and swim spa. We used the gym a few times which had ample space and equipment. The ship also has a Spa and Wellness Center. The spa offers a large array of services including facials, massages, mani/pedi, waxing, hairstyling and tooth whitening. The Wellness Center under the direction of the Fitness Director provides complimentary daily fitness classes and personal training, body composition analysis and nutritional consultation for a fee.

Feb. 12, 2017  Port: Quepos and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

The ship offered its own shore excursion to Manuel Antonio National Park but we pre-booked a private tour with our own professional tour guide prior to leaving home. The guides in the national park are professionals who undergo vigorous training and have a camaraderie that is evident on the trails. They are quick to share information with one another and inform fellow guides of animal sightings along the trail. Our private guide, Manuel, was outstanding and I would highly recommend him to anyone booking their own tour. He took some fantastic pictures for us though his telescope (the owl photo above was taken with my iPhone 6s through Manuel's telescope.) Before becoming a guide, Manuel traveled all over Costa Rica to surf the best spots but was always intrigued by the plants, birds and animals he would find in the jungles near the camps where he stayed. His passion for surfing eventually gave way to his passion for nature so when he returned back from one of his surfing trips he decided to train to be a guide. Please contact us if you'd like information about booking with Manuel.

Quepos, Costa Rica

We stopped for lunch in Quepos and bid farewell to our driver because we decided to walk through town on our way back to the marina. For lunch I had ceviche and fried plantains with a cold Imperial Light - the local beer. And we had time for a margarita at the marina before we boarded a Zodiac back to the ship.

Feb. 13, 2017  Port: Bahia Drake, Costa Rica

Windstar's excursions at this port included horseback riding, ziplining and other nature tours but we decided to stay aboard and enjoy this small bay by kayak, paddleboard and snorkel and fins. The Star Breeze has a watersports platform that opens at the aft of the ship and passengers have use all the sports equipment and water toys. If weather permits, experienced passengers can also waterski. We also spent the day enjoying the whirlpool and sun bathing on the deck.

Feb 14, 2017  Port: Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Puerto Jimenez, once a bustling little logging and mining town, is now home to just 1,780 residents. Located on the southeastern tip of the Oso Pennisula, the little town is a bit rustic with its dusty roads but the area is teeming with natural wonders. We had scheduled a private kayak excursion for our group of six and met up with our guide, Roberto, on the beach. We claimed our kayaks and and began the two-hour paddle on the calm waters of the Golfo Dulce. We tried snorkeling at our stopping point but visibility was poor and the water was very shallow. The shore was muddy and not conducive to swimming so we headed back with our kayaks tied end-to-end and towed by Roberto's little skiff. Back on land we enjoyed sandwiches and fruit provided by Roberto and watched parrots, macaws and monkeys in the trees above us.

Feb. 15, 2017  Port: Isla Parida, Panama

We've been on cruises that have hosted beach barbecues for guests on private islands but none as fun and relaxing as Windstar's BBQ on Isla Parida. There were plenty of lounges for guests to enjoy the view as well as full bar and impressive buffet. The water sports team brought the kayaks, paddleboards and snorkel gear to island so there were lots of activities to work up an appetite. A few guests made an impressive showing in a volleyball game with the crew and others showed off their waterskiing talents. 

Feb. 16, 2017  Day at Sea

Our day at sea was filled with activities and leisure time. The galley tour on the Star Breeze was one of the best galley tours I've experienced on a cruise ship in a long time. (Most big ships don't even have them anymore.) The Chef gave a very detailed history of the culinary hierarchy of a kitchen staff and spent time answering guest questions and introducing his galley team who were busy prepping, baking and creating desserts for our dinner. We rounded out the day with a bartending class, sun bathing, relaxing (a lot of relaxing), visiting the bridge (which is open to guests anytime the ship is underway) and attending the Crew Show. By now, we had gotten to know our waiters, bartenders, cabin steward and many other crew members so well that it felt like we were watching a family member perform.  

Feb. 17, 2017  Port: Panama Canal, Panama

The day of our Canal passage started early - 6:45am early! While we were sleeping off the previous night's revelry our crew was welcoming aboard the local pilot who would have full responsibility for navigating our ship through the Canal as well as a local expert who would provide commentary throughout the transit. It was our first time through the Panama Canal so when we heard the public announcement from the hallway that we would soon be entering the first lock we jumped out of bed, got dressed and hurried to the deck where we were greeted with urns of coffee and fresh pastries and many other guests who had risen earlier. The best part of being on a small ship was that there was plenty of room to move around and get a great view. It took just a few minutes to move forward to aft and check out different vantage points to watch the goings on. Traffic at the Canal can be unpredictable but we seemed to be entering each lock right on schedule. We had fantastic weather albeit a little windy. Every guest received a personalized "Order of the Ditch" certificate to commemorate their Panama Canal passage.

Feb. 18, 2017  Disembarkation: Colon, Panama

We spent our last night anchored off the Port of Colon amid many other ships within site of the busy port activities. The next morning we docked and disembarkation was again fast and easy. We had a late afternoon flight from Panama back to San Diego so we scheduled our own transportation from the the ship to Panama City which allowed us a little extra time to sleep in. We were off the ship by 8:30am.

We had time for a quick tour of Old Town and took some pictures of the downtown skyline across the bay. 

San Jose, Costa Rica - A Tale of Two Tastes

Sometimes when you travel and you're short on time you only get a taste of a place but during a short layover in San Jose we were able to squeeze in two tastes - beer and chocolate. Chocolate has a long and rich history in Latin America dating back to the time of the Mayans and Aztecs but beer didn't emerge on the scene in Costa Rica until the early 1900's and craft beer in this country is practically in its infancy but growing up fast. Costa Rica Craft Beer Company started the craft beer movement in 2010 and now dozens more craft breweries are making quality lagers, ales, IPAs and stouts. 

Our home city, San Diego, is one of the best U.S. cities for craft beers so we're always interested to taste what other brewers around the world are pouring. Costa Rica's craft breweries are producing about 100 different draft and bottled beers and we had read about Stiefel Pub in San Jose and it sounded like a great place to taste the local brews.

We were staying in a hotel in the Heredia Province so we took a cab downtown not realizing the bridge to the city was undergoing major repairs requiring lane closures that turned our ride into a 30-minute, bumper-to-bumper crawl. The traffic downtown wasn't much better so once we got to an area we recognized on our city map we decided to hop out and walk the rest of the way and I'm glad we did because we found San Jose to be a city best explored on foot. As we made our way to the pub, we passed massive souvenir shops and small boutiques, stately buildings with ornate architecture and bland buildings enhanced with murals and many hotels, restaurants and pubs. Some areas looked a little rough and some looked absolutely regal. 

 A statue of Juan Vazquez de Coronado overlooks a fountain in Parque Espana. The Spanish conquistador played a major role in the colonization of Costa Rica and was the province's first appointed Royal Governor.

A statue of Juan Vazquez de Coronado overlooks a fountain in Parque Espana. The Spanish conquistador played a major role in the colonization of Costa Rica and was the province's first appointed Royal Governor.

A few blocks shy of our destination we espied an ornate, domed structure surrounded by lush, green parkland across the street so we crossed over for a closer look. We entered Parque Morazan and learned the structure which caught our eye was the Templo de la Musica  - a concrete bandstand which looked like it had been recently renovated.

 The Templo de la Musica is the work of painter and architect Francisco Salazar. It is believed Salazar was inspired by the temple of love and music in Versailles.

The Templo de la Musica is the work of painter and architect Francisco Salazar. It is believed Salazar was inspired by the temple of love and music in Versailles.

The green space was actually two parks adjoined, Parque Espana and Parque Morazan. It was lunch time so many people were enjoying the shade trees, refreshing fountains and sitting areas. It was a pleasant, sunny day so we spent a little time people watching and enjoying the landmarks throughout both parks. Pleased with ourselves for sneaking some culture into our otherwise indulgently-planned day we headed off to the pub.

 The renovated underside of the Templo de la Musica dome.

The renovated underside of the Templo de la Musica dome.

Stiefel Pub is located in the stylish neighborhood of Otoya, the historical district of the city where wealthy and elite families used to live. Many of the mansions once owned by coffee barons have been converted into boutique hotels, cafes, business offices, and galleries. We spotted the big, beer boot logo on a building with green trim and entered the small but bustling pub.

The bold geometric-patterned tile floor and the walls papered in colorful handbills and posters of beer festivals from all over the world made for a cheery welcome. There were about a dozen tables, all but two were occupied and only two bar stools were open. We settled in at an open table and each ordered the beer sampler and an order of the chicken fajitas lunch special to share. The clientele seemed to be an even mix of locals and tourists.

Our samplers arrived on wooden paddles with the name of each beer, percent of alcohol noted and style written next to each glass in chalk. It had taken a little while to get our beers but when I saw the effort that went into the presentation I was impressed by the attention to detail even during the busy lunch rush. 

Larry and I got different beers so we could sample eight in total. Larry ordered the Calypso, a 7.5% IPA brewed by Costa Rica Craft & Brewing; Temporada, a 4.6% Golden Ale brewed by Primate; Ryd'ing Dirty, a 4.6% Rye Ale also by CR Craft & Brewing; and Perla Negra, a 6% Dry Stout brewed by Daba Daba Brew (my favorite brewery name). I ordered the Horizon, a 6.2% Pale Ale brewed by Bri Bri Spring; Tita, a 4.6% Golden Ale and the Stevie Wonder, a 4.6% Stout, both brewed by Baristas Brothers; and Malinche, a 5% Wheat Beer brewed by C Cimarrona. 

 One of my favorite features in the pub were the four pendant lights fashioned from plastic beer cups.

One of my favorite features in the pub were the four pendant lights fashioned from plastic beer cups.

Stiefel Pub has such a great variety of local draft and bottled beers and of the eight we tried there was only one neither of us cared for - the golden ale. But as I've mentioned in previous posts, Larry and I are just good-natured beer drinkers and not professional tasters. As we were finishing our beer a young couple from Green Bay, Wisconsin came in and the wife inquired about the sampler we had. Her husband suggested they share one and she looked at him like he was mad. "I want my own, " she said. We all had a good laugh at that. 

 The couple from Green Bay, WI. They were waiting to check into their nearby hotel and were already making plans to come back that evening.

The couple from Green Bay, WI. They were waiting to check into their nearby hotel and were already making plans to come back that evening.

We walked to the park to catch a cab to take us back to our hotel across the bridge and the return trip took even longer. Our driver told us the bridge, or "La Platina" as the locals call it, has been the subject of frustration for Costa Ricans for a long time. It is the major route from the capital city to Juan Santamaria Airport and the Alajuela province. If you're planning to travel to San Jose, keep an eye on scheduled closures. Our driver told us that sometimes the bridge is completely closed for 24 hours. On this day, it was only open to public transportation including city buses, tour buses and taxis. There are exceptions during the morning and evening commute hours.

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We had scoped out a quaint chocolate boutique next door to our hotel the night before so I wanted to check it out since we still had some time. Nahua Chocolate was tucked into the back of the Plaza Cariari Shopping Center (between the Country Inn Suites and Doubletree Hotel) in Heredia. It's really just a small tasting room but they do make truffles onsite. The packaged bars of chocolate, nibs and cocoa powder are produced at their nearby factory.

The gentleman behind the counter gave us samples of hot chocolate and dark chocolate chips to nibble on while we selected a couple of truffles from the glass case and looked over the milk and dark chocolate bars for sale. The bars came in a wide array of flavors including passion fruit, cinnamon, sea salt, pineapple, cayenne, mint, orange and several more.

 We bought two truffles - vanilla (left) and lime (right).

We bought two truffles - vanilla (left) and lime (right).

Nahua Chocolate is made from 100% Costa Rican cacao beans from smallholder growers who are held to the highest standards of social and environmental development. Nahua owner, Juan Pablo Buchert has helped implement programs to support sustainable farming practices which in turn has helped rural farmers revitalize their cacao forests, increase productivity and their incomes as well. Although the chocolate was delicious, I wouldn't go out of my way to come here but if your hotel is within easy walking distance it is definitely worth a stop. We bought a few chocolate bars for our family and friends who would be joining us for a Panama Canal cruise the next day.

Chinese New Year at the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas

The Year of the Fire Rooster

Perched atop a 35-foot stone structure, a Fire Rooster strikes an impressive pose as the celebratory figure in this year's colorful floral Chinese New Year display at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Each year the Asian celebration is the kick-off floral theme in the hotel's Conservatory and attracts thousands to celebrate the annual Spring Festival and its traditions and customs to bring luck and prosperity in the coming year.

The stunning showcase is located just beyond the lobby and front desk and has dazzled guests since the hotel's opening in 1998. The Bellagio will celebrate its 20th birthday next year (I know, it's hard to believe. Vegas hotels grow up so fast!) and with so many new glitzy hotels popping up along the strip I could have easily been tempted to look elsewhere but I still love the European style and elegance of this hotel and it's where I most enjoy staying in Las Vegas.

During Chinese New Year you'll find adornments of the festive holiday throughout the hotel from the cherry blossom banners swaying from the ceiling in the promenade of shops to the large urns filled with red flowers, orchids, lanterns and strings of red and gold firecrackers gracing the front desk but the centerpiece of it all is the 14,000-square-foot Conservatory bedecked in floral grandeur. This year's display was created by Ed LIbby, a favorite event designer of New York society, in collaboration with the Bellagio's horticultural staff and Feng Shui Master George Yau. Don't ask me how, but after a night of revelry I awoke at 5am one morning and scurried to the Conservatory and had the space all to myself while I took these photos.

To reach the center of the garden visitors walk beneath four 17-foot tall rose stems, arcs of shooting water and a 16-foot high Moon Gate flanked by ding-pots burning incense to protect against bad fortune. There, beneath the 50-foot high glass Conservatory ceiling, is the imposing Fire Rooster standing on its mound guarding its flock and brood of fuzzy, yellow chicks. It took 60,000 man hours to build the giant bird which was modeled after a Rhode Island Red rooster and is covered with 10,000 red, brown, gold and black feathers. It's also bedecked with Austrian and Swarovski crystals which glisten when the rooster mechanically wiggles its tail and stretches its neck to crow.

Traditional decorations of the spring festival are evident all around including hanging and pedestal red lanterns which drive away bad luck. The pedestal lanterns were custom made for the Bellagio Conservatory and provide illumination to the garden.

More light shimmers from round windows inset into stone and decorated with paper-cutting designs. Chinese paper-cutting is a centuries-old tradition used to decorate doors and windows to celebrate festivities and happiness.

My favorite vignette though, was of a boy fishing in a Koi pond at the foot of a quaint, wooden bridge shaded by a brilliant cherry blossom tree. The pond actually holds 21,000 gallons of water and is filled with 50 live Koi fish. The cherry blossom tree was also custom made for the Conservatory and stands 18-feet tall and has a 20-foot-wide canopy made of 300 water jet/heat-formed acrylic blossoms and leaves - a process that gives each blossom its own unique form.

A long-standing tradition of ringing in the Chinese New Year is to set off firecrackers and the louder they are the luckier they are considered to be. As the tradition goes, first a string of small firecrackers is set off, followed by three big firecrackers which symbolize chasing out the old year and sounding in the new year.

In the Conservatory, LEDs provide the fireworks in the form of eight- and six-foot diameter lights dangling from the ceiling. Each node contains four colors - white, red, blue and green and the colors come through acrylic rods that each have a one-inch sphere on the end. 

Chinese New Year is a very happy time for young people as depicted in the playful figures of six children on display in the garden. Schools in China are usually closed for a month and children typically receive red envelopes filled with cash from their elders to symbolize good luck and to ward off evil spirits. I'd be happy too!

Perhaps one of the most important activities of the spring festival is the Reunion Dinner when families gather to enjoy their New Year's Eve feast together. Chinese make every effort to attend which accounts for 4% of the world's population traveling during this time of year. It is estimated that 3.5 billion people around the world are traveling to visit family and Las Vegas is a very popular destination to meet. I can think of no better place to test one's new year's luck than in a Vegas casino. The Bellagio has two very popular restaurants where families can enjoy their Reunion Dinner. Jasmine, with its garden and lake views, is an elegant option which is well known for its signature dishes of Imperial Peking Duck and Chilean Sea Bass. The other, Noodles, offers a wide array of authentic noodle dishes from all over Asia including Thailand, Japan, China and Vietnam.

Chinese New Year kicks off January 28 and the celebration period lasts for about 2-1/2 weeks. However, the floral display in the Conservatory will be on display through March 4 before it goes dark March 5 - 10, and returns on March 11th with a new exhibit to celebrate the season of spring.

Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Garden is free and open 7 day a week, 24 hours. www.bellagio.com  Want to learn more about Chinese New Year traditions? Click here

Going to Las Vegas? Please contact Putnam Travels. We'd love to assist you.

BREWS AND VIEWS - A BEER TASTING TOUR IN PRAGUE

 Selection of bottled beer for sale at Pipa Beer Story

Selection of bottled beer for sale at Pipa Beer Story

The Czech Republic is a beer-loving nation so we decided there was no better way to immerse ourselves into the country's culture and traditions than with a beer tour of Prague. This city has dozens of beer gardens, beer halls, pubs and breweries to pick from so we decided to enlist the help of Eating Prague Tours and its "Brews and Views Beer Tour." If we were going to do a pub crawl in a foreign city we wanted to do it with a local professional.

Our tour began with meeting our host and fellow guests at the sprawling beer garden in Letna Park which sits above the banks of the Vltava river and offers a sweeping view of Prague's Old Town. Jan, our guide, was trim and fit and not exactly what I anticipated a beer tour leader to look like but he was well informed about beer brewing and beer culture in the Czech Republic. On this tour I had expected we'd get small, tasting-size cups but the bartender at the outdoor bar poured each of us a full pint of Gambrinus, one of the most popular lagers in the country. It's made from 100% malt and Czech hops and is quite similar to the more internationally known Czech brand, Pilsner Urquell.

Our group was small, just seven of us. In additional to Jan, there were four other Americans - a young couple from the midwest and two guys from southern California. We introduced ourselves and took pictures of the view while Jan pointed out the major buildings in the distance and gave us a little history about beer making. On this cold afternoon we donned gloves to hold our plastic beer cups and Jan suggested we begin walking to our next stop to warm up and because walking the streets of Prague with a beer in your hand is perfectly legal. 

The Czech Republic is far and away the #1 country in beer consumption at almost 160 liters per capita. That's nearly double the per capita in the United States. And the Czechs make no apologies. In fact, they are quite proud of the distinction. As Jan explained, "Czechs don't drink beer excessively, they drink it regularly." And they have been brewing beer regularly for centuries as the first beer-brewing textbook was written in this country in the 18th century.

 We made a sweet stop at Pernickuv Sen

We made a sweet stop at Pernickuv Sen

We made two quick stops along the way to our next beer tasting. The first was a quaint, little shop named Pernickuv Sen where traditional Czech gingerbread is made and we were treated to our very own "beer cookies." The other stop was a modest-sized butcher shop in a passageway in the Old Town section of Prague that we would never have found on our own. The efficiently designed Nase Maso is well known for its aged and matured beef and Prestice pork but it also has a fan base for its takeaway hot dogs. Hot dogs were included in the price of our tour and I opted for the spicy paprika dog which came nestled in a roll that had been impaled onto a toasting rod to create a crisp bun within seconds. Our hot dogs dressed with condiments were wrapped in butcher paper so we could take them to go. We exited the passageway onto the elegant Rybna Street and headed toward our next beer tasting at Maso A Kobliha, a pub and butcher shop located in the New Town.  

 Maso A Kobliha

Maso A Kobliha

The English translation of Maso A Kobliha is Meat & Donuts and we got a taste of both in addition to a very good summer-style IPA by Matuska, a microbrewery located in Broumy, about an hour's drive from Prague. Maso A Kobliha always has a craft beer on tap and is a big supporter of the new wave Czech brewing inspired by American craft beer. The pub is bright and has a quirky and nostalgic vibe. Its casual seating area consists mostly of wooden tables and benches which is conducive to larger groups and conversation. The owner, a butcher from England,  brought a bit of the UK's pub fare with him to Prague with his Scotch eggs, which we got to try along with potato fritters with ham and fried pork skins. The platters were laid out family style and we all politely shared the portions until a couple of puffy vanilla custard donuts were set before us. Then, the knives and forks flew wildly as we devoured the famous namesake specialties. I would say if I had to pick only one restaurant to eat at for the rest of my life this would be the place.  Beer. Meat. Donuts.

 Jan explaining brewing styles at Pipa Beer Story.

Jan explaining brewing styles at Pipa Beer Story.

Next on our tour was a glass of Bernard Bohemian Ale at Restaurant U Benedikta, a very traditional beer hall where we were also treated to a typical snack often paired with beer in Prague - cheese marinated in oil and paprika. The beer had a 8.20% ABV (Alcohol by Volume) and was brewed in the Belgian Strong Pale Ale style. It was citrusy and had a little carbonation to it which Jan pointed out was a bit like Champagne so we all raised our glasses and he taught us the Czech toast to good health, "Na zdravi!" An easy way to remember the pronunciation is to say "Nice Driveway."

Next, we headed to T-Anker, which could be Prague's best kept secret - a beer garden on a terrace atop a department store with amazing views of the Prague skyline. We arrived at the "blue hour" - that magical hour after dusk when the sky provides the perfect lighting for photo ops. It was too cold to sit outside but we took advantage of the perfect lighting to take photos and enjoyed the much needed fresh air to give us the gusto we needed to make it to the end of the tour. 

 View from the beer terrace at T-Anker

View from the beer terrace at T-Anker

We settled in at a large communal table inside the restaurant as mugs of T-Anker Light Lager were passed around. The bar featured several Czech microbrews as well as Belgian classics and the place was lively. Here, we were also served a cheese pairing to enjoy with the beer.

 Marinated and baked cheese snack at T-Anker

Marinated and baked cheese snack at T-Anker

As we left T-Anker, half the group took the stairs with Jan and the others took the elevator down to street level to regroup. Jan seemed relieved to see we all made it because by this time, well, let's just say everyone was fully-participating in the beer tour and it would have been easy to lose someone at that moment.

Our happy group walked to the final stop of the tour, Pipa Beer Story located in the basement of the Food Story food hall. This place specializes in beer and food pairings but also offers more than 160 types of bottled beer for sale in their Beertheque. It looks and feels like a tavern and we had the most attentive staff waiting on us. They wanted us to try everything. And we did! We began with a bottle of Permon IPA Sherpa 16˚ which had a creamy, long-lasting head. That was followed by two lagers - one light, one dark, a hefeweizen and we finished with a Primator Stout.

 Permon IPA Sherpa 16˚

Permon IPA Sherpa 16˚

I would classify Larry and I as good-natured beer drinkers and we thoroughly enjoyed the tour with our amicable guide and group. The tour delivered on brews and views and the hearty snacks were a great addition and much appreciated (and needed!). There are certainly many pubs to visit in this beer-drinking city and I'm sure self-proclaimed beer geeks and beer snobs have their own list of must-see places off the tourist trail but for us, this tour was a perfect first taste of the beer scene in Prague. For more information about Eating Prague Tours visit www.eatingpraguetours.com