Monday, August 31, 2015

Trails, Caves, and Beaches in Mallorca

After a great week with friends we flew to Mallorca from the airport in Alicante, about 2-hours from the house in Turre. We landed in Palma, picked up our rental car and had a 40-minute scenic drive north through the mountains to Soller.

If you stay in Palma you will be crushed by German and British holiday-goers, huge resorts, lots of traffic, etc. But Soller is a charming town nestled in the mountains, once known mainly for its olive oil production. We stayed at the Finca Ca Quatra which is a restored farmhouse about a 10 minute walk from town. Our room had a balcony which allowed for fantastic views of the Tramuntana Mountains. It is an incredibly beautiful and peaceful location.
The town is divided into two sections, Soller which is the main part, and Porto Soller which is at the port. The two are connected by road or streetcar.
The hills of northwestern Mallorca are a hiker's paradise. We set out the morning of our first full day to hike to the tiny towns of Biniaraix and Fornalutx. Our hiking trail was a road at times, dirt paths at others, and sometimes we just had to do a little train blazing.

We walked through groves of orange, lemon, lime, fig, prickly pear, and olives. We passed thru villages and the backyards of farm houses. We crossed paths with lazy dogs, curious cats, and hungry goats.

In Fornalutx we had lunch of fresh grilled fish while taking in the amazing views of the valley at the restaurant Ca N'Antuna which our hotel host had recommended. She also recommended their lemon pie which was delicious!
Our round trip hike took about 4 hours, including lunch and time for a quick olive oil tasting. It was one of the prettiest hikes I've ever done and would highly recommend.

On the far east side of the island in Porto Cristo are the Cuevas del Drach. These highly touristy caves are also really incredible to tour, so you just have to grin and bear it! The tour takes about an hour.
Near the end of the tour there is a large lake in the cave. The tour includes a classical music concert on the lake, which sounds a little hokey but is pretty cool. The acoustics are amazing. Afterwards we boarded a boat and were rowed to the other end near the exit.
As Mallorca is an island there are some really gorgeous beaches to suss out. On the way back from the Cuevas del Drach we stopped at Le Truc for a bit of sun. First off you get to drive past the salt producers/farms! Anyone who knows me knows I love good salt! We didn't do it but you can sign up for a tour. I was happy to buy bags for myself and friends from this salt vending machine!!
If you keep driving past the salt you'll get to this gorgeous beach which has lounge chairs and a bar!
Another popular and stunning beach destination is the area of Puerto Pollença. About an hour and a half from Soller there are lovely resort towns with bars, cafes, shops, and restaurants. After a nice lunch we just explored the area, driving past coastlines overrun with beautiful windsurfer sails, and finally parked and spent the afternoon sunbathing on white sugar sand with clear warm blue ocean to dip in.
Of course close to home the Porto Soller has a lovely if a bit boring shoreline. You can absolutely sunbathe, swim, rent water-toys, etc. But my favorite thing about this area was sitting outside at the gin bar Albatross with its selection of over 60 gins all paired with complementary boutique tonics and special garnishes. Now that's a beach cocktail!

Not all the beaches are white sand and calm surf. Near Soller there are numerous coves offering incredible vistas but also some steep hikes in and out. The town of Deia has an absolutely amazing cove which is not easily found, but worth it if you have some patience. We braved the warm but very strong winds to have lunch at a wooden shack built into the rocks one afternoon. We were rewarded by an amazing lunch of some of the largest langoustines I've ever encountered, along with amazing scenery.
After lunch we carefully picked out way thru the rocky beach and found a large smooth boulder to soak up some rays on. Sometimes a great experience isn't always the easiest.

Mallorca photos here

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Summer Holidays in the South of Spain

Summer holidays spent in the south are a thing with the Europeans. I've been lucky enough to have a few holidays in Provence, soaking up the sun and the wine with good friends. One of my friends and her family leave Paris each August and rent a house somewhere for the month, inviting other friends and family for weekly visits. One year they decided to rent in the south of Spain and generously invited us to join. This gave us a chance to do a little southern Spain loop, starting in Madrid and continuing to Seville before flying into the Almeria area. This coastal province is famous for its beaches,  deserts, and the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world- over 64,000 acres best seen from the air.

Forest and Thibault were nice enough to pick us up and it was an easy hour drive to the tiny town of Turre near Mojacar. We arrived at the house, unpacked and then us girls headed out for a nice catch-up lunch at Adalina, the main restaurant in town.

There are a few specialties of this region that I highly recommend. Most places offer freshly baked puffy bread with a whipped garlic aioli that is incredible (unless you plan on kissing someone who hasn't had it). Gazpacho is a trademark dish, as are caracoles (snails in a tomato sauce), and paella with seafood.

We spent most of the next 5 days just relaxing with our friends who I see so infrequently, swimming in the pool, playing with their kids, shopping the local market, and cooking dinners together.

There are some cute towns around here so we headed out a few times for brief explorations, never straying too far from our pool though! Our house sat half way up one of the low mountains and the guys hiked to the top a few times, passing wandering goats, fancy houses, and great vistas. It was just as easy to drive up for sunset and an apero :)

One afternoon we headed to Playa Mojacar and after a delicious lunch of tapas at Cava Restaurant, situated right on the beach, we took a dip in the ocean; it was warm, calm, and gorgeously clear!

The hilltop town that we could see across the valley, Mojacar Pueblo, not only was very picturesque from afar but it was a great little town for a drink after the beach. We met a local British woman who sat and spoke to us about the expat community. Seems retired English folks love to live in this area and actually outnumber the Spanish. Basically, besides paella and gazpacho, you can find a proper fry up breakfast at numerous places around town.

The sleepy fishing village of Garrucha was another great place for a nice lunch. We found the restaurant Ricónes del Puerto and enjoyed fresh seafood specialties like this octopus (pulpo) in olive oil and pimenton along with cold Spanish rosé.

Spain has the most Blue Flag Beaches in Europe, an award based on environmental and safety standards. There was one right down from Garrucha which we dipped into and soaked up some sun on the pristine sand.

To Nic, Luke, Luca, Naoise, and Charlotte... Hope you are having a fabulous time on your summer holidays! xo

All Turre/Mojacar photos here.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Jerez Day Trip

It's an easy drive from Seville to Jerez, just over an hour on the highway. We picked up a rental car not far from our hotel and arrived in the city just around lunch time. Our main activity was to tour the Lustau winery, as Jerez is famous for sherry there are many producer tours to choose from, Lustau was recommended and also had English tours at convenient times.

The town was extremely quiet when we arrived, most people were taking siesta. It was also crazy hot. We parked by the distillery and sat down at the first place we saw that was open and serving food.

You know those times when you stumble upon something so delicious at someplace so unexpected? Our bocadillos from this random bar were some of the tastiest we had in all of Spain! It was like finding gourmet food at a gas station (like in Hawaii!).

We headed over for our reserved tour time and joined a very small group of English speakers. Our tour guide led us through the open-air barrel rooms with dirt floors and explained the solera and criaderas systems. She even showed us a barrel that had a clear plexiglass window where we could see the dead yeast, or flor as it is called, resting on the bottom.

The winery is quite beautiful and the tour was very interesting, much different than the regular wineries I have been to. At the end of the tour we tasted through the Lustau lineup and learned a bit more of the different styles of sherry.
After our tour we headed to the center of town and had some not very good gazpacho from one of the restaurants in the main square. With temperatures near 100F we needed some shade and a beverage! Then we walked over to the Alcazar and caught the last camera obscura entrance of the day.

I had never seen a camera obscura before and it was really, really impressive. We climbed up into the tower and into a small room. The door was shut and we were in complete darkness. Then the guide opened a small hole in the ceiling and a mirror reflected the outside activity onto a large disc in the center of the room. As the guide rotated the mirror we got to view the entire town without taking a step! We could see birds flying, people walking, cars driving, it was all really interesting!

We spent some time walking around the Alcazar after, it is minuscule compared to the one in Seville. The building and the grounds are gorgeous though and you can see the ruins, ancient baths, and old olive grinding stones. If you are in Seville I highly recommend a day trip to Jerez, and if you are in Jerez I'd say the camera obscura is a do-not-miss.

Jerez photos here.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Seville, More Than Oranges

I had been wanting to go to Seville since my first trip to Europe, but didn't have time for it. I was really looking forward to spending a few days in what I heard was one of the prettiest cities in Spain. I'd now argue that it is one of the prettiest in Europe.

The train to Seville from Madrid is just 2 1/2 hours and we practically had the car in Preferenté class to ourselves.

A quick cab from the train station took us to the 5* Hotel Alfonso XIII. This hotel was absolutely stunning. As it was August, when most people don't travel in southern Spain, I had gotten some great deals using for our hotels. Our room, on the 3rd floor, was huge! Marble bathroom, king size bed, chandelier, and a large balcony with a view of the Cathedral next door. And of course a wonderful pool area for a daily dip. Easily one of my favorite places I have ever stayed.

Did I mention the hotel's bar, Bar Americano? Awesome cocktails, and the perfect place for an evening nightcap.

Seville is a stunning city, especially at night when the buildings are lit up. It is very easy to walk around -- we never took a cab, but you can take a horse and carriage if you like -- and places were easy to find. Plaza Espanol is especially pretty!

A morning spent at the Real Alcazar is a must. From the moment you enter you are completely surrounded by the most beautiful gardens and architecture. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. Pictures just don't do it justice.

You'll want to be done by lunch as the heat is shocking. There is a lovely shaded square behind the Alcazar called Plaza de Dona Elvira that we enjoyed some refreshing gazpacho in.

I also loved walking across the bridge to the Triana area. This side of the Guadalquivir River has an interesting past and its residents feel they are separate from Seville. Unique. It reminded me of how residents of the 18th in Paris feel. We visited the Mercato and stocked up on jamon iberico, witnessed people queuing up and being interviewed for a restaurant job while having lunch at Las Golondrinas II (the Spanish unemployment rate in Aug of 2013 was over 25%), and shopped in the tile and ceramic district, one of the main things Triana is known for.
Crossing back over the Puente de Triana we walked past Seville's bullring which dates back to 1749.

Seville Cathedral is another eye candy stop. Chambers, alters, and chapels prove the city's past wealth. There are rooms completely filled with silver, gold, and bronze display items. Climbing the ramps and steps to the top of the Giralda (tower) gives you stunning views of the city.

A lot of the normally recommended restaurants were closed for the August holidays, but we still found deliciousness. As always, the only bad food we had was when we sat down at a restaurant that had the menu in every language and included pictures. Our own fault. La Autigua Bodeguita was very fun and served delicious trendy tapas like mini hamburguesas. It's just a tiny stand up place where people spilled out into the Plaza del Salvador with their wine and beer.

Las Teresas is another very old school style tapas bar. Its got a great atmosphere for a sit down dinner. Highlights here were the whole grilled mushrooms (champion plancha), fantastically tender octopus (pulpo), and meaty tuna collar(morrillo de atún).

Vineria San Telmo was perfect for a little nicer and modern style tapas dinner. It is very popular so we strolled around the neighborhood, which is incredibly lively, during our 45 minute wait. An amazing oxtail in phyllo, queso fundito, and banoffe pie were standouts.

We also had dinner at the highly recommended Meson de la Infanta which was good but not excellent. The space however is very cool.

I loved everything about this city and will look forward to visiting it again some day!

All photos of Seville are here.
Jerez is also an easy day trip from here.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Weekend in Madrid

The first time I visited Madrid was also my first time in Europe- 1999, wow that was a long time ago!

August 2013 we headed to southern Spain to do some vacationing and to meet up with friends who graciously invited us to spend a week with them in the Alicante region.

We flew into Madrid and checked into the Hotel Urban, originally we had booked into the Hotel Real but their A/C was TU and Madrid in summer is crazy hot, so they made alternate arrangements for us at their sister property just a few blocks away.

The Hotel Urban is a very nice, modern, 5* hotel fantastically located just steps from the Plaza Santa Ana. There is a wonderful rooftop bar and plunge pool, and the basement houses the Egypt Museum. Both the common areas and the rooms display an assortment of Egyptian and New Guinean artifacts. The lobby offers complimentary juices and Cava and the hotel's bar Glass has over 30 different choices of gin and tonic pairings. Obviously I approve and highly recommend this hotel when in Madrid.

We were only in town for a weekend so we didn't do too much, I had really liked the big city, masculinity of Madrid from my first visit so I was content just to wander. We would also be hitting Madrid on our way out of Spain 2 1/2 weeks later.

Multiple lunches/beer breaks were had in Plaza Santa Ana, there are numerous casual tapas places with outdoor seating, perfect for people watching and just chilling. It was an easy walk from here to the Plaza del Sol––a hubbub of political demonstrations, knock-off purse vendors, and pan-handling backpackers––and then on to the Plaza Mayor––a gorgeous enclosed square of beautiful building facades and street performers.

One afternoon was spent window shopping on the spendy Calle de Jose Ortega in Barrio Salamanca while strolling to the Prado. On our way we stopped for a wonderful lunch at Meson Cinco Jatas. Modern tapas, a nice outdoor patio, and good service. There are a few around Madrid (including one in Plaza Santa Ana).

What can one say about the Prado? It is such a different collection of art than most of the museums in Europe have. And it's a very interesting building close to the park Retiro; and again, just near our hotel.

As previously mentioned, August in Madrid is hot, so a dip in the rooftop pool followed by some drinks and a siesta were the perfect accompaniments to our afternoon.

Dinner at Botin that night might sound cliché but I really wanted Dayne to experience the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Madrid, not to mention the exceptionally crispy suckling pig. Is it touristy? Yes. Is it over-rated? Probably. Is it a really fun experience? Without a doubt.

The evening started with sherry at La Venencia which is an incredibly old bar next to our hotel. If you are interested in sherry and looking for a true local experience don't miss this gem. We ended it with churros and chocolate at the famed Chocolateria San Gines and then huge, Madrid style gintonics (not a typo, that is how they are referred to in Spain) at a random bar on the way home. As it is in Paris, Madrid closes down a bit in August for annual vacations so many places that we would normally check out were closed, but there are still so many good and inexpensively priced places in the city that you can get along just fine without a bunch of pre-planning.

The next morning we had breakfast at the Museo de Jamon, a local chain with all things ham, and relaxed a bit back with a few beers in our neighboring Plaza Santa Ana before grabbing out luggage and heading to the train station to take the 2.5 hour train to Seville.

All Madrid photos here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Warmer New Year's Eve in Phuket, Thailand

The opposite of spending New Year's Eve in Lapland was spending this last one in tropical Thailand. Specifically we were on the very south tip of Phuket Island, in the town of Rawai. That morning after breakfast at our villa, we met our hired longtail boat driver (who we reserved the day before), and had a quick ride out to Bon Island.
Our driver let us off after we agreed on a pick up time for later in the afternoon. Bon Island is tiny and uninhabited except for an outdoor restaurant that sets up daily for lunch. Every day the owner Dawn, a British transplant to Phuket, comes over by longtail with her crew. They bring everything they'll need to open and run the restaurant for lunch; fresh fish, beverages, ice, etc. The island has no electricity- they have a generator for some kitchen equipment- and the open-air restaurant is the only building so nothing is left after hours.

There were a few people when we arrived but they left shortly after, and a small group on a tour came a bit later. But all in all it was incredibly peaceful. We just had to share space with the Hermit crabs.

The island has two beaches, one quite rocky but also protected from the wind and waves. The nicer beach had a larger surf that day but was less rocky and easier to swim in. We sunbathed a bit, swam a bit, dozed under the coconut trees, and then grabbed a table in the restaurant when Dawn and her team were set up.
Our lunch was made up of piña coladas, beers, fresh fish with garlic, chilis, and herbs, green papaya salad, and prawns. Everything was simple but quite good. It's really just a little beach shack and a nice place to get away to for a few hours.

After lunch our driver came and picked us up for our short ride back over the bay. If you're looking for a spot for a casual, toes-in-the-sand kind of quick get away, I'd recommend a ride to Ko Bon. (Ko means island in Thai)
photo courtesy of Forest Collins
Back on the main island we had planned to check out Karon Beach for the afternoon, but after circling the town multiple times in search of parking we decided it was too busy and we headed to the smaller beach Kata, just south of Karon. This was absolutely perfect! We easily found street parking and on our way to the beach passed a banana pancake vendor- it was our first taste of the completely addictive snack on the trip!

The beach was beautiful, busy but not over run. We swam in the warm water and soaked up some sun. Forest and I decided to go have an hour foot massage at one of the places just across from the beach (which cost us 300 Baht or $9). We met the guys back on the beach and bobbed around in the surf as the sun started to sink.
photo courtesy of Forest Collins
We drove back at our villa and had aperos with champagne in the pool. Well I was in the pool! Fireworks were going off all around in our neighborhood. Then we got cleaned up and headed to Rawai beach for more champagne, grilled skewers from a street vendor, and fireworks at a sea side restaurant called Nikka.  It was warm, the breeze smelled of the tropics, and there was sand everywhere. We headed home to drink more champagne, so that part is not totally the opposite of Lapland!

All Phuket photos here