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Europe's Coolest Cycling—and Wine Tasting—Tour

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
January 12, 2022
The beautiful town of Saumur in France
Spend your days cycling through one of France’s major wine regions, your nights savoring the fruits—and the feasts!—of the Loire Valley.

Terroir. Spend any time in one of the world's great wine-producing regions, whether it's Northern California's Napa Valley, Italy's Tuscany, or France's Loire Valley, and you'll eventually hear some version of this evocative term. Derived from the French word for "land," terroir officially refers to the combination of land and climate—the trees, the flowers, the rainfall, the soil itself—that produces a distinctive wine grape. (You may also hear the term used to describe varieties of cocoa and coffee beans and other products.) The best wine regions take terroir quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the names of wines—several hundred in France alone—are regulated so that, unless your grape is grown in a designated area, you can't just slap a name (or "appellation"), such as Côte du Rhône or Champagne, on your bottle. That's terroir in its literal, and commercial, sense. But I love how the term has also taken on a larger meaning, evoking the unique sense of place you experience when you immerse yourself in a destination. If the water running down from the mountains and the flowers that grow in the fields can affect the flavor of a grape, then certainly the personality of the people and the daily rhythms of work, food preparation, and leisure time can determine the flavor of a vacation.

And in that sense, terroir is exactly what you get when you rent a bicycle in the charming French town of Saumur and embark on the Loire à Vélo, a cycling trail through the towns and forests, past châteaus and farmland, of one of the country's major wine regions.

WHAT IS LA LOIRE Á VELO?

Loire-Valley-Bike-Path.jpg?mtime=20190107225535#asset:104385(David Elliott/Dreamstime)

La Loire à Vélo (it means literally "the Loire on a bicycle") is a one-of-a-kind cycling route that traverses more than 500 miles of the Loire Valley, attracting more than 800,000 cyclists each year. Still under construction, the route is literally growing by the kilometer to allow cyclists to explore the region at their own pace, hitting cities such as Nantes and Angers, and getting a taste of the land along the way at châteaus, in tiny villages, and in the dark, chilly, delicious tasting rooms of local wineries. More than a third of the Loire à Vélo consists of quiet roads that don't have much automobile traffic; nearly another third consists of green ways; and another third is closed to cars. Fully two-thirds of the route runs along the Loire River itself, and there are hundreds of spots for cyclists to stop. The Loire River Valley has been a popular cycling destination for years—it's just the kind of place that makes people want to feel the earth under their feet—or under their wheels. The Loire is often referred to as a "fairy tale" destination for its stunning, turreted châteaus (manor houses that were once home to nobility and other serious land owners, including French kings when they wanted to get out of Paris), beautiful forests, and not only the lovely Loire but also the Maine, Vienne, and Indre rivers. The central Loire Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the entire valley has been nicknamed the Garden of France not only for the vineyards that grow the grapes for extraordinary wines but also for the rolling farmland that produces bushels of fresh cherries, artichokes, and asparagus. (For Loire à Vélo maps and detailed routes, plus updates on the growing trail, visit cycling-loire.com.)

HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT CYCLE

Orleans-France.jpg?mtime=20190107230224#asset:104386(Ukrphoto/Dreamstime)

Bicycle rental shops such as Detours de Loire, (detoursdeloire.com) a chain that has a shop in Saumur, are plentiful in the region and, depending on how you arrive in the Loire, may be the most convenient way to get geared up for your ride. Rental-shop owners will usually speak English, and you should let them know your level of skill (be honest—there's no point pretending you know what you're doing if that just translates into mayhem or injury on the trail), and if you have a preference for any particular kind of riding—such as all-terrain cycles, road bikes, or hybrids. A rented cycle should come with a tire pump and repair kit, a bell, properly working gears, and a place to hold a water bottle. If you'll be renting for more than one day, ask about multi-day discount rates. A half-day bike rental typically starts under $20. Another alternative is to bring your own bicycle—high-speed trains allow travelers to zoom from Paris to the city of Angers in about 90 minutes, and local trains link the major towns and cities along the Loire à Vélo, including Orléans, Blois, Tours, Saumur, Angers, Nantes, Saint-Nazaire, and others. Cycling brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Loire each year, and local trains are equipped with ample storage space for cycles.

SAVOR THE TOWN OF SAUMUR

Besides the great service you'll get if you rent a bike at Saumur's Detours de Loire, the town is also a great place to base yourself for a few days. It happens to be the headquarters of the French national riding academy, produces 100,000 tons of mushrooms each year, and the nearby winery area, Saumur-Champigny, produces tasty Cabernet Franc (the basis of many popular red wines) and tasty white Chenin Blanc. (Due to the Loire Valley's cool climate, not only the white wines of the region but also the reds tend to be on the pleasantly crisp side.) Be sure to park your bike outside a unique restaurant, Bistroglo (bistroglo.com), and enjoy the wines—and the mushrooms—of the area at this bar/bistro that has been literally carved out of the limestone cliffs in nearby Turquant. (The caves of the Loire serve as underground mushroom farms and the perfect place for aging wine casks, helping to impart a certain je ne sais pas to the wine's taste.) When you're ready to take to the trail, head east—Château du Petit Thouars is an hour's leisurely ride from Saumur and you will pedal through the pretty villages of Candes-Saint-Martin and Montsoreau on the way. When you arrive at Château du Petit Thouars, (chateaudptwines.com) in Saint-Germain-sur-Vienne, get ready to spit. In the wine-tasting room, that is. The château has produced award-winning Cabernet Francs and welcomes visitors Tuesdays to Saturdays for wine tastings. If you haven't quite gotten that sense of terroir when you first stepped into Detours de Loire to rent your bike, by now the grapes, the mushrooms, and the limestone cliffs should have put you well on the way to understanding that "sense of place" that has been drawing people to the Loire for centuries.

HOW TO TASTE TERROIR

As we've seen in Napa and other U.S. wine regions, the notion of establishing a great restaurant inside a winery has caught on in a big way. Think of it as "Ask not what wine will go best with my food, but what food will go best with my wine." One of the Loire's most noteworthy—and worth a $55 splurge—is chef David Guitton's La Table de la Bergerie (latable-bergerie.fr) at the Domaine de la Bergerie Yves Guegniard winery, in Champ-sur-Layon. With house-made ravioli, a fish of the day, and reds and whites from the winery, this is a meal you'll talk about when you get back home.

EXPLORE THE TOWN OF ANGERS

If wetting your whistle at wineries proves, well, intoxicating, pedal over to the Museum of Wine Growers and Wine of Anjou, in Angers, on the western edge of the Loire Valley. Here, you'll learn the history of the region, its vinocultural practices, and view exhibits of vineyard tools. Anjou is a wine subregion of the Loire that includes Saumur's red wines. ("No, I'm not guzzling more wine—I'm going to a museum!") Angers, a city of more than 250,000 with more than 30,000 students, has a much livelier vibe than some of its quiet Loire neighbors. If you crave nightlife, head to Place du Ralliement or Rue St.-Laud for a hoppin' bar and cafe scene. Angers is pleasantly placed on either side of the Maine River, with a major château dominating its historic center, where the "Apocalypse Tapestry," depicting the revelation of St. John, is on display. The tapestry, one of the most ambitious and accomplished of its kind, was lost during the 18th century but recovered and restored in the 19th. The Cathedrale Saint-Maurice d'Angers, also known simply as Angers Cathedral, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, is known for its stained glass windows, one of which includes an unusual portrayal of St. Christopher with the head of a dog. The "Apocalypse Tapestries" resided at the cathedral before their disappearance and partial destruction.

PACE YOURSELF

While the awesome trails and relative peace and quiet of the roadways may tempt you to turn your trek across the Loire into a road race, we respectfully suggest that you take your time. Linger at a comfortable hotel, like Le Clos des 3 Rois (closdes3rois.fr) in Thouarcé. Linger at the wineries to ask questions (and maybe get the kind of behind-the-scenes tours that aren't on the agenda), and don't measure your vacation in miles. Though you may arrive in the Loire with visions of the Tour de France, you may find yourself remembering humble—and more meaningful—details. Like the way the evening light plays over the surface of the Loire. The gentle arches of the Pont du Verdun. The unique aroma of an underground mushroom farm. And when those details—along with the feel of the breeze in your hair and the thrill of pedaling your way through France—come back to you, you'll remember the word: terroir.

HOW TO GET THERE

The Loire River Valley is in western France. A high-speed train from Paris to Angers takes about 90-minutes (raileurope.com).

BOOK A CYCLING TOUR

Biking France offers Loire à Vélo package tours that include accommodations in two- and three-star hotels, complimentary breakfasts, bike and equipment rental, and luggage transfer. Package tours include a six-day trip from Orléans to Tours, a seven-day trip from Saumur to the Atlantic coast, and four days in the Loire's château country, all reasonably priced (often well under $1,000).

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Adventure

"We Love the Outdoors and Just Have to See Alaska"

Ken and Cathy Robertson of Springdale, Ark., take at least one major vacation per year with their triplet sons, Brock, Connor, and Quinn. They've been on cruises and to big cities, but the majority of their adventures have involved the great outdoors--the Everglades, a Colorado guest ranch, and Yellowstone, to name a few. "When the boys got old enough, I put together several options and we voted on where to go," says Ken. "It's become a tradition. Every year when we return from a vacation, I have a list of possibilities for future trips ready." Once a consensus is reached, Ken starts compiling information on flights, hotels, and sights in a spreadsheet. The boys usually help out with the planning, poking through guidebooks and brochures and weighing in. Alaska has been on the family's wish list for years, and this summer Ken and Cathy are finally going to make it happen. "There's so much we want to experience, but it's all so expensive," said Ken, who works in the Sam's Club division of Wal-Mart and knows a thing or two about saving money. "We're struggling to find the best value and the best combination of things to do. I know it's not going to be cheap. I just want to get my money's worth." They've allotted two weeks for the trip. Their first idea was to start with a one-week cruise, but they were worried that it would eat up too much time, and that the boys might grow bored after a few days. We suggested that they fly to Anchorage for a land-based trip that still includes some time on the water. There's no getting around the fact that Alaska is pricey, especially in the summer, so we put together an itinerary that balances the bargains and the splurges. We recommended a loop from Anchorage: down the Kenai Peninsula, a ferry ride across Prince William Sound to Valdez, and then a leisurely drive to Denali National Park before heading back to Anchorage. Such a trip can be hurried through in a week, so the Robertsons should have plenty of time for fun and flexibility, which Cathy will surely appreciate. (Ken tells us that he sometimes plans things a little too tightly for his wife's liking, "as she often reminds me.") On the way south to the Kenai Peninsula, the first stop is the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge--specifically Potter Marsh, where there's a boardwalk for viewing moose, waterfowl, and spawning salmon. Less than 15 minutes farther is Beluga Point, a playground for whales. At high tide, there are sometimes two dozen 13-foot beluga whales right offshore. We reminded the boys to periodically look up at the land side of the road, because the steep rocks are a favorite spot for Dall sheep. The Robertsons wanted to get on the water, so we pointed them to a day cruise in Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords with Native American-owned Kenai Fjords Tours. This is the Cliff's Notes version of Alaska: enough glaciers to make you feel as though it's the Ice Age, as well as puffins, seals, sea lions, and maybe even humpback whales. "The boys are super-excited to try dog sledding," says Ken. "They think it looks like the coolest thing in the world." They're right. A single 50-pound dog can haul a 500-pound sled by itself and still wag its tail the entire time. In Seward, a company called IdidaRide takes customers on two-mile wilderness runs (the sleds are on wheels because there's no snow, but it's a fun ride nonetheless). The boys should also end up happily covered in dog fur after touring the kennels and playing with the puppies. One of the first things that got all of the Robertsons jazzed to go to Alaska was the chance to see the salmon run--and the dozens of bears fishing--in the streams at Katmai National Park. "The whole family is really into wildlife and nature," says Ken. The problem is that no roads lead to Katmai, and the cost for a seaplane and tour is very, very steep; even day trips run more than $500 per person. But there are less-expensive alternatives. Traveling in July, the Robertsons will likely see bears by the roadside, at streams, and throughout Denali National Park. Talon Air Service flies out of Soldotna, on the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula, to a remote area where bears feed on spawning salmon. There's a near guarantee of encountering a grizzly bear. The six-hour tour is just under $300 a person. Gwin's Lodge, in Cooper Landing (roughly in the middle of the Kenai), is a good base for exploring the peninsula. The kids will love the loft beds; Mom and Dad can hike up to Russian River Falls to watch leaping salmon and maybe spot a moose. Cabins big enough for the family are $199 in peak season. The Robertsons opted out of a full cruise, but they can still hit the open water on the Alaska Marine Highway. We warned them that advance reservations are essential, especially since they'll be taking along a car. They'll hop on the AMH at Whittier and cruise across Prince William Sound to Valdez, a journey of roughly five hours. From Valdez, the family will drive past the waterfalls of Keystone Canyon to the Glennallen Junction. There they have a choice of heading north along Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, one of the largest protected wilderness areas in the world, up to Fairbanks and the chance to look over reindeer, caribou, and shaggy musk oxen at a farm run by the University of Alaska; or going west past Matanuska Glacier and the Chugach Icefields (nearly the size of New Hampshire) back to Anchorage. Either way, it'll take at least two days on the road from Valdez to reach the centerpiece of the trip, Denali National Park and Mount McKinley, the continent's tallest mountain. There's no telling when they'd want to stop, so instead of making reservations, we told the Robertsons to find a motel or campsite whenever it felt right. Private cars are only allowed in a small part of Denali, so to really see the place, it's necessary to get on one of the park's converted school buses. Kids under 15 go free on most tours, including the all-day trip to Wonder Lake (note: reserve early). The drive is filled with jaw-dropping landscapes of glaciers and tundra, and there are chances to spot Toklat grizzly bears, caribou, and wolves. From the lake, the mountain is so big it looks like a wall--when the weather cooperates, that is. Only about a quarter of visitors ever actually see Mount McKinley, which is so massive that it makes its own weather; it seems particularly fond of clouds. The Robertsons still wanted more excitement, so we told them about Nenana Raft Adventures. Based right outside Denali, it runs rafting trips on Class III and IV rapids--not unlike combining a cold shower with a roller coaster. "It's probably gonna cost me, but I've gotta get the boys up in a plane for the scenery," says Ken. K2 Aviation, in Talkeetna, gives a reason to splurge: The operation's Denali Grand Tour route loops all the way around Mount McKinley and includes a glacier landing. The cost is $265 a person, but worth every penny. Back in Talkeetna, the family can feast on moose or caribou burgers at the West Rib Pub & Grill. In summer, the sun doesn't go down until after 10 p.m., so there'll be plenty of daylight left for more adventures. Have an awesome time! How was your trip? Last fall we coached six members of the Red Hat Society on a trip to London for shopping, sightseeing, and pub hopping. Here they are with the faux Fab Four at Madame Tussauds. "We came back with fantastic memories," says Lucille McCaie, one of the ladies from Fitchburg, Mass. "Your tips were helpful. There was just too much to do--we ran out of time." Alaska Transportation Alaska Marine Highway 800/642-0066, ferryalaska.com, Whitter to Valdez $85, car from $102 Denali Park Reservations 800/622-7275, reservedenali.com, bus ride to Wonder Lake $32.50, kids under 15 free Lodging Gwin's Lodge Cooper Landing, 907/595-1266, gwinslodge.com Denali Grizzly Bear Cabins and Campground 907/683-2696, denaligrizzlybear.com, family cabins $188 Food West Rib Pub & Grill 100 Main St., Talkeetna, 907/733-3663 Attractions Kenai Fjords Tours Seward, 800/478-8068, alaskaheritagetours.com, $129 K2 Aviation 800/733-2291, flyk2.com IdidaRide Seward, 800/478-3139, ididaride.com, $49, kids $24 Talon Air Service Soldotna, 907/262-8899, talonair.com, $295, 12 and under $275 Large Animal Research Station Mile 2, Yankovich Rd., Fairbanks, 907/474-7640, uaf.edu/lars Nenana Raft Adventures Mile 238, Parks Hwy., Healy, 800/789-7238, raftdenali.com, from $75 Resources Alaska Travel Industry Association travelalaska.com

Adventure

Amazing Experiences Every Traveler MUST Try!

The phrase "adventure travel" has a bit of an image problem. For many, it conjures only images of summiting mountains, diving into underwater caverns, and, well, aching muscles. But when we asked ourselves what kinds of adventures belong on everyone's travel list, we cast a much wider net. Yes, we can get you underwater—snorkeling among corals off Belize, anyone? But we also think it's mighty adventurous to sign up for cooking lessons in the land that practically invented eating—Tuscany. Or mastering the dance in a Buenos Aires tango hall. Of course, if you insist on some good old-fashioned adrenaline pumping, we'll direct you to some expert hang gliding instructors in Los Angeles. All eight of our can't-miss adventures have one thing in common—you'll arrive back home with a heckuva story to tell. SEE OUR MUST-DO TRIPS! Snorkeling in Belize With knockout beaches on Ambergris Caye, Caye Kaulker, and Placenia, plus inland jungles, 600 species of birds (think toucans and motmots), and Mayan ruins, Belize is paradise for landlubbers. But nothing beats exploring the blue sea and getting up-close-and-personal with the underwater residents on a snorkeling adventure. A visit to the five-square-mile Hol Chan Marine Reserve with a good outfitter will include all snorkeling gear and the chance to hobnob with colorful coral, angelfish, grunts, snappers, rays, nurse sharks (it's okay, they're harmless!), and maybe even a manatee from June to September. Get started: Raggamuffin Tours offers day trips to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and other packages, including overnights on a sailboat. River Cruise in Europe River cruises are routinely touted as the "next big thing." And there's a reason for that. While Europe's long, winding, history-drenched rivers aren't exactly a secret, it's true that cruise lines are adding more river cruises each year. And cruising in a small, intimate ship on an iconic European river like the Danube, the Seine, or the Rhine means you're making frequent stops at charming little towns and even big cities like Paris, whose Port de Grenelle dock is walking distance from the Eiffel Tower. Add gourmet meals, local wines, and guided tours and you've got a dream trip in the making. The season runs from March to September, with a high season (read: more expensive) in May, June, and July. Get started: Viking River Cruises offers sails on the Rhine, the Seine, the Danube, and the Rhône, as well as the Volga. Safari in Kenya Think a close encounter with lions, elephants, zebra, rhinos, and hippos is out of your reach? Think again. Sure, they don't come cheap, but it's possible to have a full safari experience (including airfare, lodging, meals, and game-viewing drives) for under $2,500. A quality tour will give you time to spot animals in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Lake Naivasha, and Kigio Wildlife Camp, and guarantee window seats on drives through preserves with an experienced English-speaking guide. Get started: Gate 1 Travel offers a number of package tours to Kenya from major U.S. airports. Hang Gliding in Los Angeles We know, at first glance it's likely that you're not too keen on jumping off a cliff and letting a sail on an aluminum frame help you waft safely back to earth. But we're here to tell you it's a lot easier—and infinitely more fun—than you might think. In fact, of all the photo-worthy stunts attempt on vacation, hang gliding with the help of a qualified tandem partner is completely safe. While you may have heard that gliding over Rio is the ultimate glide (and it is), there are opportunities to fly right here in the U.S. Los Angeles, with its mid-size mountain ranges and stretches of beach, makes a terrific backdrop for a float. Learn to hang glide on the sand, and when you're ready to take the plunge, sign up for a tandem ride, in which you share the glider with a licensed pilot. Get started: Windsports offers beginners' training on the beach, tandem glides from mountains, and, if you're really bitten by the hang gliding bug, pilot training. Cooking Classes in Tuscany Anyone who has tucked into a plate of fresh pasta or seafood—or, for that matter, just about any dish—in Tuscany knows that ohmygosh moment when you wonder, how on earth do they do this? It's time to take the leap: Sign up for a cooking class with an expert in Tuscan cuisine. It may not sound quite as adventurous as hang gliding or snorkeling, but consider this: You're pushing the envelope of your abilities and that plate of hand-made pasta you put in front of your guests at the next dinner party may impress them more than any adventure travel story ever could. There are a number of opportunities to immerse yourself in Italian cuisine both in Florence and in outlying areas, where you find yourself learning to craft bruschetta, gnocchi, and even tiramisu while surrounded by olive trees, vineyards, and rolling farmland. Get started: Toscana Mia offers hands-on culinary training in a relaxed, friendly environment in either Florence or the Chianti countryside. Tango Lessons in Buenos Aires Argentina's cultural life may be defined by dance more than that of any other country. Visit a tango salon, or milonga, and you'll see extraordinary demonstrations of this seductive, mysterious dance, whose rapid turns and inherent drama were inspired by Argentine gangsters. But aside from the flamboyant styles of tango on display, there is also the opportunity for you, as a visitor, to learn a more subdued—and manageable—version of the dance. C'mon, we know you've thought about it: Arrive at a milonga early in the evening and you can usually participate in an affordable group lesson. (Experienced dancers won't show up till midnight.) If you're up for it, dress the part: That means dress shoes, suits, and dresses. Ready for even more adventure? Once you've mastered the basic moves, dance with a stranger. Get started: Academia Nacional de Tango (11/4345-6968) offers evening lessons. Volunteer Vacation Most experienced travelers are eager to find ways to make their world a better place, and there's no better way to indulge your Peace Corps fantasies—without the long-term commitment—than by signing up for a volunteer vacation. Book a trip with an experienced tour operator and make a difference by working with underprivileged children, teaching, or participating in a construction project. Examples of ongoing volunteer vacation opportunities include teaching arts and crafts to children in orphanages in India and assisting with food and water safety and building or renovating infrastructure on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Get started: GVI is a tour operator specializing in volunteer opportunities. It offers packages that can include working with children, construction projects, and wildlife conservation. Genealogy Travel There's never been a better time in human history to find a route to your roots. Heritage travel is big business, with Ireland leading the way with more than 120,000 overseas visitors per year. (One in nine Americans, including President Obama, have some Irish heritage.) Aer Lingus offers a "Discover Your Roots" tour that includes a night in Dublin, an hour-long consultation with an Irish genealogy specialist, and vouchers for car rentals to get you to your hometown. Similarly, African Americans have explored West Africa with the help of Palace Travel's Discover Senegal package; Chinese Americans have booked customized trips through Explore China Tours, and Italian Americans turn to the Pallante Center for Italian Research for genealogical research. Sure, results vary, but for some people a walk back into their family history is the greatest adventure they could take. Get started: Read "Find Your Roots in Ireland" for a BT writer's narrative of tracing her family's history on the Emerald Isle, plus tips for exploring other ethnic backgrounds.

Adventure

6 Wild & Beautiful Places in Europe You MUST See!

Ready to take a walk on the wild side? Keep reading to discover six of Europe's most unforgettable natural wonders—and how you can experience them on a budget. Connemara, Ireland Step back in time with rugged nature, authentic culture, and awesome views along Ireland's wild western coast. On Europe's edge, as far west in Ireland as you can travel, Connemara is a weathered, mythical and wild region, where travelers can immerse themselves in nature and Irish culture, history, and traditions. SEE EUROPE'S WILDEST PLACES! What to Do Rent a car for your own Irish road trip. Start in colorful, bustling Galway City, then drive west along the north shore of Galway Bay. Road signs in Gaelic, one-pub towns, and Blue Flag beaches are just some of the signals that you've hit Ireland's wild west. Explore the impressive and winding Sky Road, which you can drive or cycle for quintessentially Irish vistas of offshore islands and the Twelve Bens mountains. Stretch your legs in Connemara National Park, where hiking a few of the steeper trails of the Twelve Bens will earn you bragging rights and unfettered views of scenic mountain expanses and distant islands. Next, make a stop at legendary Kylemore Abbey, located northeast of Clifden on a private lake. Meander through the Victorian gardens before feasting on scones, made with the Benedictine nuns' special recipe, and hot tea. For a special treat, time your visit to coincide with a choral performance in the abbey's church. Where to Stay Clifden, about an hour's drive from Galway City, offers a variety of homey B&B's and guesthouses. Check out the family-friendly Clifden Station House, located right in town. Walking paths are situated right outside delightful Dolphin Beach House on the Lower Sky Road. Iceland Highlands Nature to the extreme in the "Land of Fire and Ice." Just south of the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic, Iceland captivates travelers with intense adventure opportunities along striking black sand beaches and vibrant green moss-covered lava fields. You can snowmobile on glaciers, saddle up for a wild horse drive with local farmers, or hike alongside sputtering geysers.  What to Do Head into Iceland's Southern Highlands to hike the popular Laugavegur trail, where hot springs, black arctic deserts, towering glaciers, and red-and-yellow-colored mountains reward the intrepid traveler. Sign up for a guided tour or go it alone on this 34-mile route that connects two nature reserves, Landmannalaugar and Thorsmork (Icelandic: órsmörk). During the summer season, buses depart daily from Reykjavik to the trailhead. The Laugavegur trail normally takes three to five days, but the difficulty of this trail depends on the weather, which can range from T-shirt temps to whiteouts—in summer. Feeling even more adventurous? Hike past Thorsmork to the small village of Skógar to view one of Iceland's mightiest waterfalls. Another alternative that I love is to saddle up and travel the way Icelanders have for centuries on the small but strong Icelandic horse. Whatever you choose, pack your bathing suit, because settling into a warm geothermal pool at the end of the day is a must here in the far north. Where to Stay Campsites with access to toilets and showers, and basic mountain huts with toilets, kitchens, and sometimes showers are located in intervals along Laugavegur trail. Travelers should book huts well in advance and pack a sleeping bag and their own food for the journey. At the Volcano Huts in the Thorsmork Nature Reserve, there is a restaurant and bar. Doñana Park, Spain A bird-watcher's paradise with exclusive, wild Atlantic beaches. Located at the tail end of Europe along Southern Spain's coast, Doñana National Park is one of Europe's best-known conservation areas. In a special spot where the Guadalquivir River delta meets the sea, this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve welcomes a limited number of travelers to enjoy a European safari complete with beaches, pine forests, flamingos, and the endangered Iberian lynx.  What to Do Once a favorite hunting reserve of Spanish kings, Doñana National Park is one of Europe's largest parks, encompassing beaches, marshland, lagoons, pine forests, and massive sand dunes. A haven for wildlife, the park is on an important migratory route for birds traveling from Africa to Europe. From the principal visitor center at El Acebuche, close to Matalascañas, travelers may easily hike along several boardwalks through the wetlands to observe flamingo, red-crested pochard, azure-winged magpie, or the glorious hoopoe. More in-depth guided tours via 4WD vehicles depart from the El Acebuche visitors center and take travelers through a variety of ecosystems, including one of the last undeveloped bastions of beach in southern Spain and through an area of dunes so large you may feel like you're lost in the desert. In marshes, scrubland, grassland, and pine forests, keep a lookout for wild boar, fallow deer, and the rare Retuerta horse. While much of the park is restricted to guided tours in order to protect the fragile environment, travelers may also trek along footpaths at the visitor center at La Rocina and also at El Palacio del Acebrón. Housed in an old palace, this visitors center showcases special exhibits on the park's history and natural environment. Where to Stay The nearby resort area of Matalascanas has a variety of accommodations. Funky El Rocío's Hotel Toruño is a must-pick for flamingo and heron watchers. Be careful if you're attempting to book in late May or early June, as prices soar and rooms are scarce during the popular Romería del Rocío, an annual pilgrimage. Scottish Highlands Where romance, castles, and whiskey combine for a surprisingly family-friendly escape. If your vision of "Wild Europe" involves romance, head to Scotland's Highlands, where endless heather-covered moors undulate under misty skies and men and women with thick brogues share a laugh between drams of whiskey. What to Do Explore the southern edge of Cairngorms National Park, Britain's largest national park, using Blair Castle as your jumping-off point. The traditional seat of the Dukes of Atholl, this classic, stark white castle set amid the lush green rolling hills has hosted a variety of important guests throughout history, including Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria. Tour this 13th-century castle, which boasts the last remaining private army in Europe. Next, enjoy the outdoors as the Scots do through country sports. Saunter along rugged tracks on sturdy Highland ponies or fish for salmon or wild brown trout along a peaceful Scottish hill loch or rushing river. Modern adventurers may also choose to travel by mountain bike or Land Rover. Just down the road, Scotland's smallest traditional distillery, Edradour, beckons adult guests for a tour and tasting to soothe muscles and warm up after a day outdoors. Where to Stay Stay on the estate and historic grounds and choose from a variety of family- and group-friendly accommodations, including Woodland or Highland Lodges, with impressive views of the surrounding hills. Close to the castle in the small village of Blair Atholl, the Atholl Arms Hotel offers wallet-friendly rates in a charming B&B setting. Cappadocia, Turkey Bizarre geological formations, centuries-old underground cities, traditional villages, and delicious cuisine. Hiking from village to village amid Cappadocia's enigmatic, pastel rock formations called "Fairy Chimneys" is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. These rock formations, also known as hoodoos, have fueled visitors' imaginations and local legends for centuries. What to Do Set off by yourself to hike one of the many trails through Cappadocia's valleys or take a guided tour by foot, bus, or horseback. The trails run from village to village past vineyards and apricot groves along the old Silk Road, with many villages carved out of the area's volcanic rock centuries ago. Keep a lookout for rock-carved churches and the entrances to centuries-old underground cities where early Christians sought refuge from aggressors. Step inside to cool off and get stunned by well-preserved, ornate Byzantine frescoes. For a special treat, take a hot air balloon ride to enjoy Cappadocia's surreal landscapes at dawn. Where to Stay Kirkit Pension, in Avanos (a historic pottery center with thriving local markets), is a boutique, family-owned, and budget-friendly cave hotel that delights travelers with tasty, locally sourced meals and live Turkish music. Carpathia, Romania Legendary—and spooky!—castles, gourmet cheese, untamed mountain peaks, and traditional villages. Stretching across Central and Eastern Europe, the Carpathian Mountains encompass some of the wildest terrain in Europe, with dense forests, picturesque castles, alpine meadows, cavernous gorges, curious rock formations, and traditional Romanian villages. This part of Europe is truly for those with a keen sense of adventure and love of history.  What to Do Take a hike! In Piatra Craiului National Park, that is, home to a variety of caves, gorges and the longest and tallest limestone ridge in Romania. Keep a lookout for brown bears, wolves, and lynxes. Stop in unique villages, where the locals hold fast to a traditional way of life. Visit imposing Bran Castle, also known as "Dracula's Castle" after Bram Stoker's famous (fictional) vampire, and take in the legends surrounding this centuries-old fortress. Continue your hike in the Bucegi Mountains, where shepherds make Branza de Burduf cheese, which gets its distinctive taste from aging in fir tree bark. Where to Stay Budget-friendly pensions, campsites, and chalets are located throughout Piatra Caaiului National Park, including in the villages of Pestera and Magura. Pensiunea Pepino in Magura, in a beautiful location complete with its own private garden, serves up delicious, home-cooked Romanian cuisine right inside the park.  

Adventure

Coast-to-Coast by Word of Mouth!

In our modern world, we’re more connected by technology than ever before, but I can’t help but feel that we’re actually growing further apart. Travel is all about connection—that sense of belonging. So I decided to seek out travel advice from the people I met on a solo road trip across the U.S. We start on the California Coast. You ready? See the photos from my coast to coast road trip!  Days 1–3: Los Angeles, CA to Yuma, AZ The scenic Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) just south of Los Angeles couldn’t have been a more inspiring start to my trip. Travel is a funny thing: No matter how seasoned you are, there’s nothing more encouraging than meeting an impossibly earnest person with a contagious spirit in the face of a long, unknown path ahead. Warm, lovely Allie Rose, working at a strawberry stand in Long Beach, reminded me why I decided to take this journey in the first place: I needed to look up from scrolling through my iPhone, put down my guidebook with its carefully dog-eared corners, and appreciate fleeting moments and enlightening people. I call them the “darlings” of the road, placed there seemingly on purpose. I bought two pints of ripe red strawberries from Allie for $4 before taking in the scene at Tamarack State Beach. So many cars were pulling over that I thought there must be a festival. Nope! The pre-sunset tides were so ideal that droves of surfers were racing to catch the perfect wave. I’m a surfer poseur, so after snapping shots of them suited up and expertly skimming the water, I sat on the beach and ate the fresh, sweet strawberries while looking out over the Pacific Ocean, at times seeing nothing but the heads of agile surfers bobbing up and down in the distance. As I dipped 24 miles south on the PCH, picturesque vignettes of the ocean kept appearing over my right shoulder, one after the other. I reached La Jolla Cove—famous for its hundreds of seals—just in time to catch the sunset. Daybreak at San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs Natural Park came dressed in a mellow haze of light fog—peaceful weather ideal for yoga at dawn. I was soon back on the road, on Route 5, in search of a dish true to the area. A local truck driver’s recommendation? Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill. Less than five bucks bought me a hearty mahi mahi taco and a fresh-outta-the-sea flavor I’ll spend my whole life trying to find again. Turning onto I-8, I traced the Mexican border, weaving close to it, then skirting away when the highway leaned north. Coming from the coast, the ocean vistas twisted into a mountainous desert landscape, which transformed into hills seemingly made of tiny pebbles. The roadside flatlined into desert followed by fields. Just shy of Yuma, Arizona, the almost Moroccan-looking Algodones Dunes came into view, the sand’s curves resembling perfectly whipped chocolate meringue, the peaks folding into valleys again and again. Ten miles west of Yuma, I motored to Felicity, California, dubbed the Center of the World. The strange compound’s pyramid holds the “official” center-of-the-world plaque. A sun dial made of a bronze replica of God’s arm juts out from the ground, as does an original spiral staircase from the Eiffel Tower. I felt that pleasant disorientation that road tripping is all about. At Yuma Territorial Prison Museum, I met Louie, the kind of guy who refuses to take his sunglasses off for a portrait but will let you see into his big, open heart. As I left, he said, “Good luck on your trip. Don’t take any bullsh*t from anybody. If people try and tell you bullsh*t, just ignore them and go on your way. Keep holding true to your instincts.” Days 4–6: Tucson, AZ to El Paso, TX Green chiles and desert peaks: Check and double-check! The southwest, by way of southern Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas, offered me spicy eats, cool drinks—and a pickup line that's so good you might want to write it down. After cruising past the unmistakable desert silhouette of Picacho Peak on I-10, I discovered my new favorite drink: kombucha on tap—literally pourable probiotics!—at “plant-based” (a.k.a. organic, locally sourced, and vegan-friendly) Food for Ascension Café in Tucson. While exploring the city center, I crossed paths more than once with a curious kid along East Congress Street. When we finally spoke. I thought I had just heard our generation’s latest pickup line (“You on Instagram?”), but it turned out he was a local filmmaker likely just interested in my heavy-duty camera and what I was shooting. A self-proclaimed Chuck Taylor sneaker enthusiast, José suggested I head to Fourth Avenue, a stretch of road saturated with hyper-local establishments and colorful characters, not technically downtown and not quite into University of Arizona territory. Fourth Avenue feels like it’s growing by the minute yet manages to maintain a humble, familiar energy—a nostalgia, even: the rare up-and-coming area that’s not trying too hard to be hip. Afterward, I hopped back on the road to Las Cruces, New Mexico, specifically the village of Mesilla. I’d gotten word that La Posta de Mesilla dishes out the “best green chiles in town,” so I pulled up a chair and ate next to a group of friendly folks who recommended I take Route 28 to El Paso. Reason being: It runs south through a string of pecan farms, with trees reaching out from either side of the road to form a gorgeous natural leafy archway that continues for miles and miles. Around the West Texas border, I noticed my “I’s” turning into “we’s.” My rented Prius (I’d named her Penn) and I had been through a lot: unexpectedly rugged terrain, shameless karaoke-worthy playlists, and eerie green skies in El Paso, where I feared flash floods and tornadoes that never appeared. Yes, I had formed a bond with an inanimate object. Penn was officially the Rocinante to my Don Quixote. My noble steed. Days 7–9: Marfa, TX to Lockhart, TX Take one nail-biting traffic stop and mix in wild animals and a barbeque joint, and you've got my first taste of the Lone Star State. Border police, if you're reading this, I vow never to mess with Texas again. Three hours southeast of El Paso, the artsy celebrity haunt Marfa, Texas, appeared like a mirage. I stumbled on the Food Shark Truck, where hipsters in combat boots, families, and in-the-know seniors were grabbing falafel sandwiches (“marfalafels”) and tacos. On advice from Laura in El Paso, I cruised to Big Bend Brewing Co. in Alpine, Texas, where I admired amber-hued ales and met hard-scrabble Randy. When I asked about his hat, he said, “A hat? This is a lid, kid. I was born with this thing on.” En route to San Antonio, I had my first—and only—run-in with the law. I had innocently taken a long-cut around Brackettville to avoid stirring up my fear of wind turbines (it’s a real thing called anemomenophobia!), which is a no-no: The route is often used by shady types to avoid the border patrol checkpoint on I-90. Two cops swiftly pulled me over. I told a very serious-looking officer about my windmill phobia, and they sent me on my way—after searching my car. The trouble was worth the beauty I saw next: five antelope with prominent spiral horns. After a stop at Pearl in San Antonio for some souvenir jewelry, this leg of my trip ended on a high note: Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, Texas. I eagerly dug into my pile of smokehouse meat served on butcher paper. Days 10–11: Austin, TX to Houston, TX I didn't have to look too hard to find exactly what keeps Austin weird (hint: peacocks and two-stepping play a major role) before heading east to Houston and eventually leaving my inner cowgirl behind. Next on the map? Austin. And the close wildlife encounters were just beginning: Back in Marfa, I received a true Keep Austin Weird–style suggestion to visit Mayfield Park, a “peacock park” that is not a zoo. The pretty beasts unfurled their plumage as I snapped them mid-mating dance. Later that night, I got my ultimate Texas experience at the Broken Spoke in Austin, a dance hall dubbed the “best honky-tonk in Texas,” where locals pay $12 to two-step to live music, sip beers, eat barbecued brisket and potato salad, and watch newcomers try their best to fit in. Soon after I arrived, an older amiable fellow in a cowboy hat, Levi’s, and leather boots named Polo, who says he comes every Saturday, introduced himself. He knew right away that I was a newbie—not because I was green to the scene, but because he seems to have met everyone who comes through the Spoke’s door. I was honored when he asked me to dance. That night, a legend was in the house: Dressed in a flashy red shirt studded with rhinestones, Broken Spoke founder James M. White made his way through the crowd, which treated him with deference and respect, as though he were a beloved local politician. A soothing punctuation mark to my Texas travelogue was a sunrise visit to artist James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace: a grass, concrete, stone, and steel structure with a rectangular window to the sky designed to function as a mind-bending play on color when the sun rises and sets. As I lay on the ground, I watched the colors of the sky change as the pavilion’s artificial light glowed around it, tricking the mind into thinking the sky is a different color than it is. You could call it an immersive, highbrow version of the “blue or white dress” debate. Visits are always free. Before I headed to Louisiana, I grabbed a bite in Houston at Local Foods, where Nina shared with me her favorite New Orleans staples from her days at Tulane, despite the long, long line of people waiting behind me: “When you are downtown, make sure to look at the antique shops on Royal Street and see some live music on Frenchman. New Orleans is my favorite city in the world... so far.” Days 12–13: New Orleans, LA to Tallahassee, FL A little-known beignet joint, a stroll down Frenchman Street, and a conversation with a New Orleanian who tried to beat me at my own game were all highlights of my journey through the Deep South. Swinging low from Baton Rouge to N’awlins and back up again to Slidell via I-10, I found myself deep in southern Louisiana. If you’ve been to NOLA, you probably know Cafe Du Monde’s beignets. Instead, on the advice of a photographer couple, I went north, toward Lake Ponchartrain, to Morning Call Coffee Stand, which serves beignets off the beaten track—and has fewer tourists waiting to steal your table. There, I met Robbie, exactly the kind of server you’d expect to find at a 24/7 coffee stand going on its 145th year of service in the south. Even though I only wanted to try one hand-rolled beignet, Robbie informed me, with an infectious grin and persuasive shrug, that I could get three for the same price. When I asked to take his portait, he said yes—but only if he could also take mine. Pretty clever, and a first on this trip! My beignets appeared on a white plate, plump and golden, a sugar shaker at the ready. After giving them a powdery coat, I bit into the first one. Bliss. Sugar State bliss. Days 14–15: Savannah, GA to Charleston, SC Is it over already? After two weeks of unique sights, good food, and unbeatable chats with locals, I pumped the brakes to settle into Georgia's slow southern pace, eventually winging my way up to South Carolina for one last sunset. Dusk in Savannah. As the sun melted like hot butter on the horizon, over the rooftop of my hotel, I plotted out my journey to the Olde Pink House for dinner the next day—the restaurant has a stellar reputation for shrimp and grits, specifically its “southern sushi,” smoked shrimp and grits rolled in coconut-crusted nori. Since my hotel was nearby, I stopped by to scout it out. While doing so, I met Jasmine, an effervescent young hostess who asked me if I would take her portrait—but quickly caught herself: “Tomorrow! Can you come back tomorrow? I’ll wear pink.” My second day in town, I hopscotched among Savannah’s 22 lush, grassy squares to iconic Forsyth Park, draped in the Spanish moss that's inseparable from the idea of Savannah as a city. After capturing the scene on camera and doing some serious people-watching and music- listening—musicians constantly play in the park—I meandered along the river, stopping at Savannah’s Candy Kitchen for a candy-dipped apple crisscrossed with ribbons of chocolate. One last state loomed large as I zoomed up I-17. Folly Beach, South Carolina, grabbed my attention with its classic Atlantic Coast vibe: locals eating ice cream, playing volleyball, and dipping their toes in the surf. I bellied up to the Folly Beach Crab Shack, ordered crab balls with rémoulade for less than 10 bucks, and set out for a marina between the beach and Charleston: the best place to watch the sun set, Bonnie at the crab shack shared. As the horizon shifted from orange to pink to navy, I let my mind drift back to the start of my trip, my thoughts running backward across the country, up and down the south’s peaks and valleys, past its ocean vistas, along the open road, accompanied by my camera, now filled with freeze-framed natural beauty and the faces of new friends.