Destinations

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.

IMG_1364.jpg

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

12 Reasons Why We Think You'll Love Budapest

Budapest is perhaps the most stunningly beautiful, yet overlooked city in Europe.  It's grand and majestic but almost in a demure way, waiting politely and patiently to be discovered.  And when you do discover Budapest you'll fall in love with the city like we did. There is so much history and tradition here, yet the city feels very modern and romantic too.  It's a first-class music destination boasting one of the premier opera houses in Europe and its local wine, Tokaji is world renown.  Its traditional Hungarian dishes are ever popular but Budapest's restaurant scene has been upping its game to include more sophisticated and internationally-inspired menus and it hasn't gone unnoticed.  The city currently has four Michelin-rated restaurants. 

The city has two sides divided by the Danube River - Buda and Pest.  Buda is the hilly and historic castle district and Pest is the more bustling business area.  There are 23 districts laid out and numbered very much like Paris' arrondissements in a widening circular fashion.  Budapest is very walkable but we did take Bus #105 which was a great way to get an overview of the city.  The route connects Hero's Square on the Pest side to the Buda side of the city and travels along elegant Andrassy Boulevard before crossing the Chain Bridge into Buda.  Andrassy Boulevard is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is lined with neo-Renaissance mansions once owned by the city's most wealthy families and the impressive Hungarian State Opera House. Today, those historic mansions are occupied by business offices, cafes, luxury boutiques, theaters and restaurants.

We fell in love with Budapest at first sight and will definitely be going back to see more but here's a list of the not-to-be-missed sites we did visit.

 

Climb to the top of St. Stephen's Basilica

IMG_1537.JPG

It's worth the small fee to walk up the 364 steps to the observation deck of St. Stephen's Basilica and take in the panoramic view.

 

Take a Bath

Pamper yourself with a day at Szechenyi Baths where you can relax in medicinal natural hot springs in 18 pools or book a massage and other spa treatments.  Save yourself time and money by researching discounts, booking online before you go and bringing your own robe and slippers. I'm sure your hotel won't mind if you borrow the ones from the closet just be sure to return them.

 

Walk Across the Chain Bridge

The most famous of Budapest's eight bridges, the Chain Bridge was the first permanent stone bridge connecting Buda and Pest and is considered one of the city's most iconic structures.  At the end of World War II, the retreating German troops blew up all of Budapest's bridges but the pillars of the Chain Bridge remained intact and so it was decided to rebuild it in the spring of 1947.  It was finally completed in the fall of 1949.

 

Take a Tour of Parliament

Located on the bank of the Danube River, the Hungarian Parliament is one of Europe's oldest and largest buildings.  The Changing of the Guard takes place at 12 noon and is free.  Tours of Parliament are available and we suggest booking online so you can skip the queue at the ticket office.

 

Explore the Buda Castle Quarter

The Buda Castle Quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and encompasses the historical Gothic castle and palace complex of former Hungarian kings in Budapest.  Today, you will find two museums within the Royal Palace - the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.  On Buda Hill you'll also find Matthias Church, Gellert Bath, Fishermen's Bastion as well as panoramic views of the Danube, Chain Bridge and the Pest side of the city. 

 

Ride the Funicular up Buda Hill

There's an easy footpath with switchbacks you can walk up to the top of Castle Hill but taking the nostalgic funicular is a fun, three-minute ride.

 

Dine in a bistro with Traditional Gypsy Music

Be sure to make a reservation to land a table at the restaurant you desire or ask your hotel concierge for help or suggestions. We dined at Rezkakas Bistro, a casually elegant restaurant in the 5th district serving traditional Hungarian dishes and international cuisine.

 

Visit the Jewish Museum

The Great Synagogue is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world.  Located in the 7th district on Dohany Street, it bordered the Budapest Ghetto during the Holocaust.  The complex includes the Synagogue, the Heroes' Temple, the graveyard, the Memorial and the Jewish Museum.

Take a Stroll Along Kiraly Street and Visit a Ruin Pub in the 7th district

Kiraly Street is Budapest's lively "design street" with boutiques, home decor and furniture stores, art galleries, cafes and even one of the city's popular "ruin pubs" - Kuplung.  Ruin pubs are old warehouses and abandoned buildings which were turned into rustic drinking places in the early 2000's by clever young men seeking places for cheap drinks.  The bars tend to have rough interiors, mismatched furniture and are decorated with a hodgepodge of found objects.  Kuplung means "clutch" and is housed in a former car repair shop.  There are several ruin pubs in the 7th district including the original one, Simple Kert, which was our favorite.

 

See the Shoes on the Bank of the Danube River

The "Shoes on the Danube" is a moving reminder of the Jews and others killed between 1944 and 1945.  The 60 pairs of rusty period shoes represent the men, women and children rounded up by Arrow Cross militiamen and shot by a firing squad at close range so their bodies would fall into the river.  The "Shoes" can be found in front of the Parliament building along the river bank.

Get a Budapest card

IMG_1958.JPG

The Budapest Card gives you free public transportation as well as free or discounted admission to dozens of museums, attractions, theaters, exhibitions, sights, restaurants, theme parks and tours.  Budapest is a very walkable city but it was nice to be able to jump on the metro or a bus anywhere in the city at anytime.

 

Live in the Lap of Luxury

We splurged a little on our trip to Budapest because we were celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary but we found the 5-star hotels and highly-rated restaurants (Budapest has four Michelin-rated restaurants in the city) quite reasonable compared to other European capital cities.  

WHY YOU SHOULD TAKE A RIVER CRUISE IN 2017

Putnam Travels offers a $300 per person shipboard credit on most AmaWaterways 2017 cruises. Contact Putnam Travels for details.

YOU'LL GET TO KNOW THE LOCALS

AmaWaterways' AmaSerena docked in Passau, Germany.

AmaWaterways' AmaSerena docked in Passau, Germany.

River cruise ships usually dock right in the heart of the city where you'll receive a warm welcome by an expert local guide who will see to your comfort and needs until you return to the ship.  All tours have individual headsets so you can easily hear and understand the guide. Or, you can opt to stroll right off the ship and explore the city on your own.

 

RIVER CRUISING IS ACTIVE 

We took the exhilarating 18-mile bike excursion to Klosterneuburg Abbey in Vienna during our AmaWaterways cruise in November.

We took the exhilarating 18-mile bike excursion to Klosterneuburg Abbey in Vienna during our AmaWaterways cruise in November.

Most shore excursions involve a bus ride into the port city and walking tour with a local guide but cruise lines now offer more active excursions like city tours by bike or hikes in the local hills for clients who prefer a little more action in their vacation. For example, AmaWaterways and Backroads have teamed up to offer river trips featuring Backroads' cycling itineraries.

 

RIVER CRUISING IS ADVENTUROUS

AmaWaterways offers private boat safaris along the Chobe riverbank.

AmaWaterways offers private boat safaris along the Chobe riverbank.

Although cruising in Africa can be luxurious it is better suited for the more adventurous traveler. You'll still travel aboard upscale ships, dine on gourmet cuisine accompanied by fine South African wines but air conditioning might be limited, dealing with bugs are part of the journey and you'll need patience at the multitude of boarding crossings.  

 

SMALL SHIPS ARE MORE INTIMATE

Most ships are usually around 400 feet in length and hold only about 150-200 passengers, depending on the cruise line. These smaller-scale vessels create a much more intimate atmosphere in which to interact with fellow passengers and crew. The public spaces are arranged for more intimate gatherings so making new friends is easy.

 

AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCES AWAIT YOU

Whether it's having lunch in a private family museum, tasting beer with a local craft brewer or wine tasting in the vineyards overlooking the Douro River in Portugal, almost every cruise line offers its own unique and exclusive experiences for clients.

 

EXPERIENCE THE EXOTIC

Although cruising is most prevalent along Europe's rivers, many cruise lines offer itineraries on rivers in more remote parts of the world like the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Ayeyarwady in Myanmar and the Chobe in Africa.

 

CELEBRATE THE CHRISTMAS SEASON

Photo by hanker81/iStock / Getty Images

Perhaps one of the most popular cruising experiences is during the yuletide season along the Danube or Rhine rivers to visit Europe's Christmas Markets.

Temporary Update: 12/20/1026 - Our thoughts are with the victims, their families and all citizens of Berlin after the attack on the Christmas Market in the heart of the city. We've visited dozens of markets in Europe and still hope to experience the holidays in Berlin someday. Our hope is for all Berliners to find the resolve to continue to celebrate their culture and beloved holiday traditions.

 

Putnam Travels has vast knowledge of the cruise industry and has booked hundreds of passengers on all types of vessels including mega cruise ships, clipper ships, expedition ships, river cruise ships, chartered barges, yachts, catamarans and even white-water rafts. Please contact us if we can help you plan your next cruise vacation at Putnam Travels.

Puerto Rico Food and Culture Tour

Guided city tours have long been popular with art, architecture, and history buffs but the growing trend of foraging a destination to find its best local fare is trending worldwide.  So, why not skip the typical guided walking tour on your next trip and instead book a culinary adventure with an epicurean host?  We've taken food and cultural tours in Hawaii, Seattle, Lisbon and most recently Puerto Rico.

We find the number of guests on gourmet walking tours tend to be fewer than on typical city walks making it more comfortable to interact with the host and the other guests.  These smaller groups are often welcome at even the coziest of bars and bistros so you find some real hidden gems on these tours.

On our trip to Puerto Rico last April we booked a tour with Flavors of San Juan Food & Culture Tours.  Our guide, Denise, was a young and energetic woman eager to share the history, architecture, and flavors of Old San Juan.  She had two goals for our group of ten - 1) make sure we had fun and,  2) impart an appreciation of the food, culture and history of her island.  If she could accomplish those two things, she assured us we'd leave at the end of the tour with a full belly and happy heart.

During our three hour tour, Denise took us to six places where we sampled a variety of dishes representative of Puerto Rico's diverse food scene featuring  Spanish,  Cuban,  Mexican, African, Taino and American influences.

Rum is the national drink here and Puerto Rico is the world's leading rum producer so it seemed logical that our first stop was rum tasting.  Our group huddled around the Rum Bar, a little kiosk inside the Princesa Gastropub, located on Paseo La Princesa, a main thoroughfare in the La Puntilla section of Old San Juan.  The bartender introduced us to the many types of rum, ranging from complex sipping varieties to simple spirits that would blend well into any tropical cocktail. The small, but well-equipped bar, stocked many light and dark rums - many produced in the gran enejo or super-aged style similar to Tequila or barrel-aged whisky.  A few guys purchased a shot of the high-end stuff but the rest of us enjoyed our complimentary pina colada. We also got our first bite of the tour with servings of Iberian ham croquettes, and breaded eggplant topped with beef stew.

After a brief stop at Señor Paleta to select an all-natural ice pop to go, we took shelter under a sprawling mango tree at small park overlooking the San Juan Bay and enjoyed our cool treats while Denise gave us some history about the island.  We made our way to a local art gallery and craft boutique which also housed our next stop - Cafe El Punto, where we were greeted with trays of fried plantain fritters and a ceviche appetizer made with grouper, avocado and homemade salsa.  We admired the artists' work while we enjoyed our appetizers.  A short walk took us to our next destination, Spicy Caribbee, where we sampled provisions from Puerto Rico and other neighboring Caribbean islands.  The little boutique had an impressive selection of exotic spice blends,  jerk sauces and condiments including banana ketchup and jams featuring guava, pineapple, mango and papaya.  I think everyone purchased something to take home from the vast array of delicacies and gift items like candles, soaps and lotions.

As we strolled the centuries-old cobblestone streets en route to our next stop, Denise made sure we were taking in the Spanish Colonial architectural sights - from the colorful and ornate facades and balconies to secret courtyards and not-so-secret parks like Parque de las Palomas, or Pigeon Park, home to hundreds if not thousands of the meandering birds.  

The next tasting on the tour required some work on our part to make mofongo, a local Afro-Puerto Rican dish.  Once seated at Rosa de Triana (the building was a former jailhouse), we were each given a wooden pilon, also known as mortal and pestle.  Inside were fried plantains (picked green before ripe), garlic, butter and salt.  Our job was to pummel the concoction with the pestle until it was well mashed.  To that, we added creole chicken, rice and beans from a platter served family-style at the table and quenched our thirst with either sangria or the local beer.

P1010041.JPG

The last stop of the day was bit of a chocoholics dream.  Casa Cortes ChocoBar is an artsy chocolatier with a wildly imaginative menu featuring chocolate in both sweet and savory dishes.  Here you'll find chocolate pastries, cakes and truffles but also entrees like salmon in chocolate butter sauce, sandwiches pairing grilled cheese and chocolate and salads dressed in balsamic chocolate vinaigrette.  Our group was seated in a little alcove where we were treated to cups of decadent hot chocolate served with pieces of dark chocolate atop a small slice of cheddar cheese.  The recommendation of our host was to drop the chocolate and cheese into the cup of hot chocolate and let it melt.  It sounded weird but I did it and liked the slightly tart taste and creaminess it added to the hot chocolate.   Next came warm, mini churros accompanied with a rich chocolate dipping sauce which we all politely devoured.  

Denise walked us back to our starting point where our little group Air Dropped photos, shared email addresses and said our goodbyes with full bellies and happy hearts! 

For more information on Flavors of San Juan Food & Culture Tours visit sanjuanfoodtours.com  To book a culinary tour in San Juan or any other city, contact Putnam Travels.

Wheels and Wine in Napa

On a recent side trip to Napa before heading to a wedding last month we visited a few wonderful vineyards and dined at a couple of great restaurants but our favorite discovery wasn't a winery or an eatery it was a cool tasting room in downtown St. Helena named Velo Vino. You might be familiar with Clif Bar, the energy bars created by a former baker and mountain guide that rode a wave to success during the natural food movement in the early 1990s, but maybe you didn't know that same visionary is now also making wine. The company's creator, Gary Ericskon and his wife, Kit Crawford, owners and co-chief visionary officer's of Clif Bar & Company, started Clif Family Winery and Farm in 2004 on 130 acres in Napa Valley and opened Velo Vino in 2011. Velo Vino is the tasting room for Clif Family Wines but it's also an espresso bar, specialty food store and an excellent hangout for cycling enthusiasts. Former professional cyclist, Levi Leipheimer is a frequent visitor who lives in nearby Santa Rosa. Everyone is welcomed here like a local and the vibe is spontaneous and personal, a refreshing change from so many other structured and scripted wine tasting experiences. Parked just off the Velo Vino patio, is the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck which serves Northern Italian-inspired menu items using the bounty from the Clif Family Farm and ingredients from local purveyors.  

Cliff Family's Bruschetteria Food Truck

Cliff Family's Bruschetteria Food Truck

Midway through our wine tasting we were asked if we'd like to try a "Tire Patch" which the barista explained was a double-shot of espresso served alongside a tasting of Clif Family 2014 Gewuztraminer, a dry Mendocino wine.  It sounded like a strange pairing but it was really quite good and gave us the picker-upper we needed to continue our Napa Valley adventure.

Velo Vino, 709 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574