Trip Coach: Spain, Portugal, and the Azores
When Sally Leiderman and Bob Woodcock got married in September, they weren't compelled to rush off on a honeymoon. For one thing, this is a second marriage for the 50-somethings from the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken. For another, Bob's a nurse-anesthetist and finds it hard to take time off from work.
"My sister and her husband gave us a fabulous wedding present," says Sally. "A gift certificate for one week at a time-share anywhere in the world." Sally and Bob are dedicating two weeks in February to their trip. They're interested in "history, politics, music, architecture, and the everyday life of people," Sally tells us, and both have a passion for food. They decided on Spain because Bob speaks Spanish and Sally fell in love with the country a few years ago while visiting her daughter, who was studying in Salamanca. Bob is especially excited because they are tacking on a visit to the Azores islands, the Portuguese territory where his grandmother was born and raised.
"I'm pretty good at travel planning, but I got frustrated," says Sally. "There was little information on the Azores, and we couldn't figure out where to choose a time-share in Spain." We advise the couple that Catalonia, the northeastern part of Spain centered on Barcelona, seems like a perfect location for them. They're traveling first to Barcelona using frequent-flier miles; for most other connections we're steering them to Azores Express, a U.S.-based tour operator that sells flights on SATA, the island chain's major carrier.
After struggling to find anything available near Barcelona through the time-share company RCI, Sally and Bob have decided to stay at a two-bedroom ocean-view condo about an hour's drive from the city. The resort, just outside Tarragona, a working port known for its well-preserved Roman ruins, is in a tourist development called Estival Park, which has a big theme park nearby. That kind of amusement doesn't appeal to Sally and Bob, but the locale, within easy reach of Barcelona and plenty of towns worth checking out, works nicely. Driving and parking in Barcelona is difficult, so Sally and Bob can use Plaça de les Glòries MetroPark, a park-and-ride, and then take public transportation into the city (onaparcar.bcn.es, $6).
"I remember everything in my life with regard to food," says Bob. He's certain to love Barcelona. The hottest neighborhood, El Born, is full of innovative restaurants, along with a few traditional spots to eat. At Cal Pep, a hidden Catalan tapas bar, locals fight for seats at the counter to watch chefs frying artichokes, steaming clams, and flipping tortillas (potato omelets). The snacks and drinks at Dulcinea, a 1940s granja (chocolate shop) on a pedestrian-only street in the nearby Gothic Quarter, warm up patrons on chilly winter afternoons. The thick hot chocolate is best enjoyed with a dollop of nata (whipped cream) and melindros, the Spanish version of the madeleine.
Sally asks us about any Jewish historical sites worth visiting. An hour northeast of Barcelona is Girona, noted for having one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. Amid the medieval walls and narrow streets dotted with restaurants, bookstores, and galleries is a former synagogue that serves as the Museum of Jewish History. There's a collection of Hebrew headstones that date from the 12th century, along with medieval jewelry and a commemorative stone from Girona's 14th-century temple.
"When I travel, I'm a participator," says Bob, an amateur chef who plans to do a fair amount of cooking in their condo. "I like to see the goings-on in a community, the way people interact over food, like at farmers' markets." About 45 minutes from Tarragona is Vilafranca, a market town and the capital of the Penedès wine country, which is famous for producing the sparkling wine known as cava. The Saturday-morning market is the region's best, and other markets are held throughout the week (there's a schedule at ajvilafranca.es). In addition, the Museu del Vi displays old wine bottles and other winemaking equipment in a 12th-century palace. "That's definitely Bob's kind of thing," says Sally.
Just outside Vilafranca, Sally and Bob can tour the vineyards and cava cellar and sample wines at Parés Baltà, family-owned since 1790. Unusually, two women--the owners' wives--are the winemakers. Another option is driving to Valls, a town known for its char-grilled calçots, leek-like onions. They'll just miss the Calçotada festival in late January, but there are many fine places in town, including gourmet restaurant Masia Bou, to enjoy the calçots, usually served as a messy first course. Patrons dip them into a giant bowl of romesco sauce--garlic, hazelnuts, almonds, and piquillo peppers.
The couple wants to visit San Sebastian, the Basque Country's culinary center, but since the drive is at least five hours, we suggest staying a night in the city at the Pension Itxasoa. "If it's clean and safe with a good bed, it'll be fine," says Sally. The Itxasoa is that and more, with ocean views and an old-quarter location. Nearby, there are plenty of bars--on Calle 31 de Agosto, in particular--with great pintxos, the Basque equivalent of tapas; the bite-size treats at Bar Bergara, a 20-minute walk from the old quarter, are so elaborate they resemble mini Christmas gifts.
The easiest way for Sally and Bob to get to the Azores is via Lisbon, so they're flying there from Barcelona (on Spanair, for only $62) to spend a couple of nights at another nice pension, Residencial Geres, before heading on to the islands. Bob plays traditional mountain music on banjo, guitar, and mandolin, and wants to hear fado songs, which are said to reflect Portugal's soul. The touristy fado clubs in Lisbon are easy to find, but for something more special, A Tasca do Chico is a great hole-in-the-wall bar where singers might include taxi drivers and waiters. "We also like quirky museums," says Sally, which prompts us to mention the Marionette Museum, with more than 800 puppets. As it turns out, Sally used to put on marionette shows.
First up in the Azores is the main hub, São Miguel. The island's Furnas Lake, in a forest of bamboo and Japanese red cedar, is perfect for a romantic walk, even if the smell of sulfur permeates the air (it's within a volcanic crater). At 12:30 p.m., locals remove pots of cozido, a meat-and-vegetable stew cooked in the steaming earth. "It sounds like something my grandmother would make," says Bob. Their lodging is the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, which has a fantastic restaurant.
"I like seeing how things are made," says Bob. "As a kid, I always loved field trips to factories." He's likely to enjoy the Fábrica de Chá Gorreana, the island's oldest tea factory, in business since the late 1800s.
Bob's grandmother changed her name before emigrating to the U.S., and no one in the family knows her original surname, so he doesn't expect to find where she lived on their final stop, Flores. "We'd still like to learn about her roots," says Bob. "The food, festivals, traditions, and culture on the island." They have a few days to do just that, after checking into Aldeia da Cuada, a 19th-century village with cobblestone paths and ocean views that's been transformed into 13 black-basalt guest cottages. Each unit has a kitchen, so perhaps Bob can whip up one of his grandmother's favorite dishes.
"I'd love to surprise Bob with a culinary class," says Sally. And thanks to Barcelona's Cook & Taste, the newlyweds will get just that: a half-day, hands-on workshop focused on regional cooking, free of charge.
How was your trip?
"We had a wonderful honeymoon in Turkey," says Kristi Barnes, with husband Dave, who we coached on a trip back in September. "Cappadocia was unusual and breathtaking. The 'fairy chimney' formations are truly spectacular."
Ski Condos for Slackers
Rather than let units go unfilled in their prime season, ski-condo owners post discounted prices online to entice spontaneous folks (and procrastinators) to book at the last minute. Prices dip lower as the deadline approaches. "I tell my friends to search about a week in advance," says Tony Lopes, manager of Ownerdirect.com, which lists condo rentals all over the world, including at many ski resorts. Ownerdirect.com is heavy on British Columbia properties (600 units at the Whistler and Big White resorts alone), and has a good selection for the rest of Canada and the U.S. In one of its Rock Bottom Specials, which are discounted by at least 40 percent, a two-bedroom unit in Park City, Utah, dropped from $120 to $60 a night. Resortquest.com represents 17,000 condos and house rentals in North America--and you can search the site by activity (skiing, golf, etc.). Under its Hot Deals & Special Offers tab are last-minute incentives such as 20 percent off, free gas cards, or a free fourth night. At 11thhour.com, a clearinghouse for all-inclusive packages, cruises, and vacation rentals, a condo that's usually $699 per week can cost $499. Or go to a site that's strictly for skiers: Lastminuteskicondo.com. It lists offers from condo owners at 15 Colorado resorts and a handful of mountains in Montana, Utah, and the eastern U.S. Some sites focus on specific ski towns. Aspensnowmassonsale.com lists down-to-the-wire offers--seven days ahead at the most, sometimes for 50 percent off--on condos, hotel rooms, and house rentals in the Aspen-Snowmass area. Vailonsale.com works exactly like the Aspen site, but with deals in Vail, Colo. Visitbreck.com, for skiers heading to Breckenridge, Colo., has a Hot Deals section, which commonly features 10 percent discounts and third- or fourth-night-free offers, as well as an option for bidding at the last minute. You bid for available units during the two-week window prior to arrival; if your price is accepted, you have 24 hours before you must commit. But read the fine print before agreeing to any offer: A cleaning fee might be added later, and "slopeside" can be a relative term. Also, the trade-off for getting a deal is that cancellations and changes usually aren't allowed.
1. Pack a few paper place mats. They can be useful anywhere there's an outdoor shower. By stepping onto a place mat after a bush shower in Botswana, I managed to keep my feet clean and avoided getting dirt in my clothes. Sandy S. Hogan, Las Vegas, Nev. 2. Don't assume a single room costs less than a double one. If you're traveling solo, compare prices. I recently booked a hotel in Spain online and noticed that rates were the same whether I booked a single or a double, but the single was much smaller and its bathroom had only a small shower stall and no tub. Don Carne, Lansing, Mich. 3. Postcards are helpful when there's a language barrier. Finding anything in Tokyo is difficult when you don't speak Japanese, so here's what I suggest: Buy postcards of the places you want to see; an English description of the landmark is usually found on the back. Show the postcard to a taxi driver and he'll take you to the spot. Jim Dinsmore, Northridge, Calif. 4. Carry the exact change for public transportation. In Venice, we were annoyed when a vaporetto (water taxi) ticket-taker refused to give us our 3 euros change. Later, we discovered that if you don't have the exact fare, ticket agents make no promises about giving change. Dana Hunting, Seattle, Wash. 5. If you're renting a car in England, remove the left front hubcap. The last time we were in England, I met another American at the car rental agency. He had just returned his rental and was annoyed he had to pay for a missing hubcap. He said that between negotiating the narrow roads, having the steering wheel on the right side of the car, and driving on the left side of the road, he couldn't judge exactly where the left front wheel was. As a result, he repeatedly hit the curb and eventually knocked off a hubcap. Later that trip, while visiting Hadrian's Wall, I noticed many cars in the parking lot were missing hubcaps. Sure enough, most of the drivers were Americans! I'm glad I had taken my new friend's advice and put mine in the trunk. Bernard Hershkowitz, Commack, N.Y. You can find more tips in the December 2005/January 2006 issue of Budget Travel magazine.
When Everybody's an Expert, Who Can You Trust?
In February 2004, something funky happened on the Canadian version of Amazon.com. Because of a temporary glitch, you could see who had written which anonymous book review--and an amazing number were written by the authors themselves. Everyone has an agenda, right? It seems obvious, but we all forget it: Not all opinions are trustworthy. Rather than following advice blindly, you should always bear in mind where it came from, and how it was gathered. Some may argue that this article is self-serving, but we hate to see people get duped. What's especially galling is when authorities claim to be fair and balanced, and are anything but. Guidebooks Writing travel guides seems like a dream gig. The truth is, writers are rarely paid enough to cover the expenses necessary to do the job properly, let alone earn them a decent wage. So, unlike the major travel magazines, the authors accept freebies--which skews what they write about, and how. Many cut corners on their research, glancing at menus and hotel websites rather than actually evaluating places. Some writers even crib directly from other guidebooks. Furthermore, while most printed materials have a built-in lead time, books are worst of all. By the time a first edition actually sits in travelers' hands, the information is probably at least two years old. Subsequent editions tend only to be updated via phone and Internet, meaning the writer might not have even set foot in the destination in five or more years. What can you do? Always check for the copyright date (though guides are famous for hiding it, burying it at the back or after pages of glossy photos) to make sure the edition is recent. Cross-referencing between guidebooks, and supplementing with Internet sources, also helps. User review sites TripAdvisor, IgoUgo, and other sites that provide platforms where millions of travelers post their opinions certainly have a democratic appeal. But do you really want the opinion of just anybody? There are probably people in your life whose recommendations you don't trust--like the neighbor who lives on fast food and vacations at the same beach town you avoid--so why plan a trip according to a message that was posted by cooldude23? It's easier to take anonymous advice if there seems to be a consensus. But on a recent visit to IgoUgo, eight of what were rated the top 10 hotels in San Francisco were based on the reviews of one person each. The remaining two had two reviews apiece--hardly mass approval. Even when a hotel gets several postings, opinions tend to be all over the map. Las Vegas's Cancún Resort received the lowest possible rating from one reviewer ("beds were thin and you could feel the springs every time you turned over... bathrooms clogged up a couple of times"), a top score from another ("a great resort for a family!"), and several ratings in between. It's all very confusing, and turns the viewer into a psychologist, trying to figure out which message comes from a like-minded traveler. The best idea is to approach these sites like an ice-skating competition and throw out the high and low scores as aberrations. Then read the remarks carefully, looking for specific gripes and compliments about the details that matter to you. Convention & Visitors Bureaus Visitors centers can be wonderful sources of information, often doling out free maps and lodging assistance, but they're rarely completely objective. It's not that they lie outright--it's that they only present a select, enticing assortment of details. A brochure from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce boasts of "559.6 miles of unspoiled coastline" yet never mentions that you'll run across more no trespassing and private property signs than you will public beaches. And the fact that parking on the Cape often costs $15 a day for outsiders? If all you read was the brochure, that's something you'd only discover upon arrival. Also, most CVB maps and information centers only list properties that are chamber members (meaning they pay dues), so you might not be getting the whole picture. Small establishments, in particular--cafés, B&Bs, galleries--don't often find it worthwhile to participate. Sometimes, the maps and materials distributed at rest stops and hotels aren't even produced by the CVB. One of our editors, while in Spearfish, S.D., noticed that an interesting-looking restaurant--the Bay Leaf Café--wasn't mentioned in the brochure in his motel room. "The big hotel chains contract out to companies who make other brochures, and they try to get us to buy ads in them," says Taffy Tucker, one of the restaurant's co-owners, when we called for an explanation. "If they're $225 a pop, that's over $1,000. That just doesn't work for us." The editor, who considers himself fairly aware, hadn't even realized that the guide wasn't civic-sponsored. The bottom line: You're wise to ask for a local's unvarnished opinion, and to keep your eyes open. Spokespeople Large companies such as American Express, Travelocity, Expedia, and Priceline employ staffers who present themselves as industry experts always available to the lazier members of the press. Expedia plays no role in house exchanges, but that didn't stop the Chicago Tribune from quoting Expedia spokesperson Cari Swartz on the topic. "Most people," she said, "prefer to stay in hotels." Expedia, of course, is in the business of selling hotel rooms. Some even have journalistic-sounding titles, such as editor-at-large--but they're not bound by journalism's traditional code of ethics. We just can't say it enough: Everyone in this industry has an agenda. And it's not always the same as yours. Before You Post That Nasty Review... A friend of mine recently stayed at a little hotel in Europe. He had a terrible time, so he posted a bad review on TripAdvisor once he got back. The hotel figured out who wrote it, and threatened to sue if he didn't take it down. American reviewers on bulletin boards such as TripAdvisor and IgoUgo might be surprised to learn that the rest of the world doesn't protect free speech the way the U.S. does. "Libel law overseas usually lets Americans be sued for any statement that stings a foreign business or resident," says Kurt Wimmer, a media lawyer at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. "And countries are taking the view that their courts can hear any dispute about content that can be accessed over the Internet in their country." As with so many things, you need to know your risks. Say you criticize a French hotel online, and the hotel sues you. "If you don't plan to make a habit of visiting France, you can ignore it," says Wimmer. "If a French court issues a default judgment, you can only be forced to pay if they 'execute' the judgment. And unless you live in the E.U., that's tough to do. If they were to try to execute the judgment in the U.S., they'd have to go to a U.S. court. Our courts have steadfastly refused to enforce foreign judgments that don't comply with our standards under the First Amendment." But what if you do plan on returning to France--or worse, own property there? "I'd be careful," he says. "You may not want to post quite so freely." But another thing to consider is that foreign lawyers don't usually take suits as easily as U.S. lawyers. "If a French hotel wants to sue you for libel, it'll need to pay a lawyer," says Wimmer. "France doesn't have contingency fees, where a lawyer will just take a case for free as long as he gets a cut of the winnings. Frankly, the hotel would know that its chances of collecting anything are slim, and be more likely to try to convince the site to just take a negative post down." All we'll add is that don't assume you'll be able to persuade TripAdvisor to remove your own review. My friend had a devil of a time, pulling every string he could find before getting some help. --Erik Torkells
There's no stopping Stelios. A serial entrepreneur who prefers to go by his first name only, the 38-year-old from Greece has launched over 16 ventures, most of which fall under his easyGroup brand umbrella. Stelios is best known for easyJet, Europe's largest low-cost airline, which he founded at age 28. Just this year he debuted two more travel companies: easyHotels (currently in London and Basel, Switzerland only), and easyCruise, which set sail in the Mediterranean in May and is slated to cruise the clear waters of the Caribbean in mid-November. His introductory cruise rates--an astoundingly low $16/day--made budget travel history. Window or aisle? Always aisle, so I can stretch my legs and go to the loo without disturbing other passengers. Also, it has more elbow room which I value more than legroom on a flight. What was the last thing you ate from a minibar? A bar of chocolate--unfortunately. I won't leave home without....? My Blackberry and my easyMoney.com credit card The best trip I've ever taken? And why? Difficult to select one--I have been taking 2-3 flights a week for the last ten years--they all merge into one another! My dream trip? It is probably one that I will probably never do, but I'd love to tour Latin America by road. The movie or book that inspired me to pack my bags? I have not done the trip yet, but the movie "The Motorcycle Diaries", which chronicles the tour of Latin America on a motorbike by Che Guevara and his friend the doctor, is still on my mind...perhaps one day when I stop creating new businesses all the time I will take the time to do a long trip like that My greatest travel pet peeve? Paying for things that I don't really need nor use most of the time: the free meals on planes, the chocolate on the pillow of the hotel, etc. How I deal with jetlag? Make sure you get some sleep on the flight and stay up when you get there to adjust to local time zone as soon as possible If I could travel with any living person... A bunch of my good friends--not a celebrity I'll never go back to _____ And why? Loads of boring places but I would go back even there for work... If I could be anywhere right now.... I have the luxury to be where I want to be at any given time (more or less). So, at the moment, I am in my London office working, but tomorrow night I will be on my cruise ship on the Italian Riviera. I like variety.