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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Don’t Hesitate to Stay at Corral del Rey

We loved our penthouse room at Corral del Rey, a boutique property in the old quarter of Seville, where rooms are located inside a former 17th-century estate. We had a large outdoor patio with views overlooking the Gothic Cathedral, plunge pool, bath built for two, fantastic shower, and a heavenly mattress. It’s no surprise it was our favorite hotel of our entire stay in Spain. We took full advantage of the room, polishing off a bottle of Tempranillo with our nephew, Micah, who’s studying in Seville this semester, before strolling over to a hole-in-the-wall tapas joint with outdoor tables, Estrella. The place is popular with flamenco dancers, guitarists, and singers who perform at the nearby Museo del Baile Flamenco, as we would soon find out when seeing an hourlong flamenco show. The guy I just met at the bar was the guitarist for the show, and wow, was he good, along with two soulful singers, and three incredibly talented flamenco dancers. We made the wise move of booking the VIP show, where only two rows of audience view the show in an intimate setting inside a former wine cellar. The performance was so moving that I looked over at Lisa and saw tears rolling down her cheek. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/16/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, April 15, 2019

Biking Seville

All it takes is a 5-minute stroll from our spectacular hotel, Corral del Rey, on the winding, narrow cobblestone streets to reach the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe and its massive bell tower. When that clock tower lights up at night, Seville is truly magical. Built along the river, protected from the pirates that attacked the southern coast, Seville flourished in the 1500s and the 1600s, when gold and other wealth from South America arrived on its shores. It’s a wonderful city to bike, as we did on a 3-hour ride with SeebyBike’s Ivan, a recent graduate of art history from the city’s large university. Ivan provided a great overview of Seville as we crossed the river into the neighborhood of Triana, visiting two historic churches that will be the starting point of parades this week as the city celebrates Easter with Holy Week festivities. We biked along the river and downtown on bike paths, visiting Parque de María Luisa to see the roses, lilies, and peonies in bloom. At nearby Plaza de Espana, flamenco dancers and singers were performing while rowboats fought for space on the manmade canal. Afterwards, we grabbed lunch at one of Ivan’s favorite spots in the city for tapas, Baratillo, known for their delicious pork cheeks, grilled artichokes, and roasted chick peas. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/15/19 at 06:00 AM
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Friday, April 12, 2019

On the Road to Ronda

We were picked up promptly at 9 am in Granada by Damir, a driver and guide for a company we’ve been working with more and more in Europe, Daytrip. We could have rented our own car and made the 3-hour trek from Granada to Seville, but it’s so much more relaxing to have someone else drive, especially when you want to stop and visit another town along the way. Two hours later, after sitting in the back of a comfortable Mercedes sedan and peering out at the rolling hills and mountains of this bucolic region of Spain, we arrived in Ronda. Damir guided us around the town, walking along the edge of the famous gorge, touring the oldest bullring in Spain, the one Hemingway wrote about when he lived here (it’s also the town where Orson Welles retired and died), and the historic Moorish settlement at the bottom of the hill. After a lunch of tapas, we arrived in Seville around 4 pm. One of the most relaxing days of the trip. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/12/19 at 06:00 AM
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Thursday, April 11, 2019

A Serene Two-Day Stop in Granada

After an hour flight from Barcelona, we arrived in the peaceful mountainside city of Granada. We dropped our bags off at Hotel Palacio de Santa Paula, a Marriott Autograph Collection property. Nondescript from the outside, once we entered our superior room with a towering wooden ribbed ceiling and peered out onto the courtyard of this former 16th-century convent, you realize its charm. Breakfast was served in a spacious sunny room, and we also took advantage of the hamam, the resort’s steam room. The hotel is located in a great location for seeing Granada. We strolled the Romantic Road, Carrera del Darro, a narrow cobblestone street alongside the river, lined with tapas bars, boutique shops, and acoustic guitarists. Then we climbed the hillside past the blooming wisteria into the upscale neighborhood of Albaicín, where we had cervezas at El Huerto de Juan Ranas overlooking the buildings of the Alhambra and the snowcapped peaks in the distance. Such a magical spot that we returned to this outdoor patio the next day to watch the sunset. 

 
The following morning we took a 3-hour tour of the Alhambra with Antonio, a guide that works with one of our preferred tour operators in Spain, Madrid and Beyond. Not only did Antonio grow up playing at the Alhambra when there were few visitors, he has led more 1200 private tours of this magnificent Moorish palace the past 15 years. He knew every nook and cranny of the buildings, including graffiti from a 16th-century Friar found behind a column, to translating every Arabic saying. And, wow, is there a lot of Islamic calligraphy on the walls along with the famous symmetric tiles, the Moorish arches, and fascinating ceilings that looks like bird’s nests from a distance. Add gardens in early spring bloom with irises, pools of water reflecting the arches and you have a dazzling aesthetic well worth the effort to get here. We soaked up all the history, then soaked up the octopus and fried calamari with fresh bread at Los Diamantes at the bottom of the hill. Perfect! 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/11/19 at 06:00 AM
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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Highly Recommended Hotel Neri in Barcelona

We stayed in the heart of the Gothic Quarter at the Hotel Neri, down a twisting alleyway from a recently excavated 4th-century synagogue. The bed was incredibly comfortable, especially after a long day of sightseeing, and Lisa especially enjoyed the outdoor tub. The highlight, however, was breakfast, where we would dine on our perfectly poached eggs and look out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the many families dropping off their young children at the school behind us. Kids would arrive hand-in-hand with grandparents, on the front of bikes with mom and dad, and holding onto dogs far larger than them. It was a wonderful voyeuristic look into the lives of families in Barcelona. 

 
Strolling the narrow streets, we would stumble upon opera singers belting out “Ave Maria” from behind the historic cathedral, art students selling their impressive wares at art fairs, and a hole-in-the-wall bakery where the guy made the strongest and best café con leche on the trip. So good, in fact, that we went back three afternoons in a row. Our daughter, Melanie, who’s studying abroad in Barcelona, made reservations at her favorite restaurants in town, all within easy walking distance of Hotel Neri. They included the delectable tapas found at La Luna, and sublime sushi and sangria at Ikibana. Friends in Barcelona also suggested another winning choice, Elsa y Fred, though it’s hard to go astray in this foodie destination.  
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/10/19 at 06:00 AM
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Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Barcelona Modernism in All Its Glory

You can thank architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner for the fantastic Catalan Modernism movement that swept the city of Barcelona in the latter part of the 19th century. Utilizing colorful mosaics, stained glass, and ceramics, he allowed a congested and often polluted city to bathe in the beauty of his nature-based designs, a joy to behold to this day. We started with a 40-minute tour of the Palau de la Música Catalana, the concert hall Montaner started to build in 1905. One look at the stunning ceiling and its floral motif, dotted with roses, and you can’t help but be impressed. The building is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with Hospital de Sant Pau, which would be the start of a 3-hour Context Tour on Modernism the following morning. Once a working hospital, the 8 buildings that surround a courtyard are now open to the public and are worth a stop to see the walls plastered in colorful tiles and glass. A 10-minute walk from Hospital de Sant Pau is the masterpiece of the Modernism movement, Gaudi’s Sagrada Família. Still under construction for over 100 years, there is hope that this sensational church will finally be complete in 2026 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. The interior is just as magical as the exterior, with twisting columns that climb to the arching ceiling and our guide, Mariana, gave us the perfect introduction to Barcelona’s rich history in architecture. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/09/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, April 08, 2019

A Must-Stop at the Miro Museum in Barcelona

While I found the Picasso Museum to be somewhat of a disappointment (it skips from 1901, the last of his formative years in Barcelona straight to 1917 with barely a word about his breakthrough early Cubism works), I found the Fundacio Joan Miro to be an utter delight. Inside the more than 20 galleries, you’ll find many of his whimsical large-scale paintings, sculptures, even a tapestry. Located in Parc de Montjuïc near the 1992 summer Olympics diving venue, we accessed the museum by first walking down to the beach to take a cable car up over Barcelona’s port. It was a wonderful way to view the sailboats and cruise ships plying the waters of the Mediterranean below. Once we arrived in the park, we walked 10 minutes to find the museum. Inside, you’ll find his colorful dots, lines, and familiar symbols, even some anguish-filled works during the time of the Spanish Civil War, all donated by his family and a top collector from Japan. Then venture outside, atop the museum, to see his works of sculpture and the city below. A real joy. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/08/19 at 06:00 AM
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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Hong Kong, Bangkok, and French Polynesia in the March ActiveTravels Newsletter

In the March issue of the ActiveTravels newsletter, we discuss our recent travels to Hong Kong and Bangkok. When we weren’t downing copious amounts of dim sum, we were checking out the art scene, the food markets, and the temples where residents were preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations. We also experienced 5 of the best hotels in the region. We now only bring carry-on luggage because we change hotels every two days to experience as much as possible of what our clients will encounter during their stays. Also in this issue is a deal on cruising French Polynesia and the family friendly delights of a relatively new Montage resort just outside of Savannah, Georgia.

Tonight, we’re heading off to Spain to visit our daughter who is studying in Barcelona. We’re also seeing Granada, Ronda, our nephew in Seville, and Madrid. We’ll be back April 8th with more of the best topical travel content you’ve come to expect from ActiveTravels. Thanks again for your interest. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/19/19 at 05:59 AM
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Monday, March 18, 2019

Deal of the Month: Winvian in Litchfield Hills, Connecticut

When the Smith family decided to transform their 113-acre estate into one of New England’s most unique and exclusive resorts called Winvian, they spared no expense. In 2006, they hired 15 architects to create “cottages” nestled into the meadows, ponds, and rolling farmland that flanks their circa-1775 Main House. Today, these 18 finished works are rare architectural gems where inside each spacious abode, you’ll find hidden wonders like an intact fully restored 1968 helicopter that now serves as the bar and entertainment center in the Helicopter Cottage. The Treehouse Cottage is a two-story structure 32 feet off the ground, suspended atop a tree. We stayed in the Library Cottage, inspired by the libraries of yesteryear and dominated by double-story shelves of books. A ladder accesses a wraparound second level balcony surrounding a glorious stone fireplace.

 
When not admiring the cottages, you can stroll through the wildflowers to a pond where we spotted a great blue heron or take a much longer hike in the surrounding White Memorial Foundation, a 4,000-acre wildlife sanctuary. Afterwards, opt for a facial or massage at the spa. Winvian is a Relais & Chateaux property as you’ll soon realize at dinner or the exceptional breakfast where I dined on poached eggs carbonara, over a bed of fresh eggplant and zucchini just plucked from their garden. Dinner was a 4-course feast of tuna crudo, rabbit tortellini, and veal cooked two ways. Lisa’s Atlantic halibut was also tender and fresh. After dinner, we played a game of pool downstairs before walking outside and looking up at the shimmering stars in the night sky. This retreat is as close to perfection as you get in a New England country estate. 
 
Winvian reopens Wednesday with the best rates of the year, $399 a night. The rate is only available for stays from March 20 through April 4. So if you need a quick escape at a one-of-a-kind resort, please contact ActiveTravels and we’ll check availability. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/18/19 at 06:00 AM
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Friday, March 15, 2019

Ecuador, So Much More Than the Galapagos! Last Stop, Mindo

Guest Post and Photo by Amy Perry Basseches

One last outing from Quito to describe: the Mindo Cloud Forest, a premier destination for outdoor adventure. Although relatively small in size, the Ecuador cloud forest is considered one of the top biodiversity hot spots, containing approximately 15 to 17% of the world's plant species and nearly 20% of its bird species.
 
Led by our guide, Antonio Jaramillo, who runs a company called Wild Ecuador, we ventured 2 hours northwest of Quito to Mindo. This outing is best started in the very early morning to get the optimum weather in the cloud forest and the chance to do the most -- we did not understand this fact, and had it scheduled for an afternoon visit. My loss is the reader's gain.
 
While it is possible to visit Mindo as a day trip, spend at least one night to enjoy bird watching, hiking, butterflies, chocolate making, orchids, and adventure activities (tubing and rafting in rivers, ziplining over ravines, waterfall rappelling). Antonio is an expert birder -- there are 1680 total bird species in Ecuador, and he has 1125 on his life list! Mindo itself is home to over 450 species. After we rode a chairlift high above the clouds, we really enjoyed sitting with him drinking a local beer at Sachatamia Lodge (which provides a link to all local service providers), while he named the birds we were seeing. Sachatamia is a rustic wood hotel with 13 comfortable rooms and a pool; I would have been happy there. There are many other options for overnight as well, plus places in the small town to grab food and beverage. Plan ahead and participate in more of the available fun.
 
Thanks to Brandi at Kensington Tours for connecting me with Antonio for this part of the trip. His expertise made it special. 
 
In general, Ecuador has 3 geographical regions beyond the Galapagos: the Coast, the Highland areas (including Quito and environs), and the Amazon (for example, Tena). Did you know that most of the roses in the US and Canada come from Ecuador's Highlands? Make sure to explore as many areas as you can. Please contact ActiveTravels for advice and assistance. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/15/19 at 06:00 AM
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Longtime Boston Globe travel writer, Steve Jermanok, dishes out his favorite travel locales and provides topical travel information that comes across his desk.

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