European Labor Strikes Change Cruise Itineraries
When workers go on strike in Europe, travelers usually feel it the most at the airport (French airport workers even went on strike earlier this year to earn the right to strike). But the latest battle against austerity measures across the E.U. are also taking place at the ports, and that means diverting cruise ships or forcing them to stay at sea.
So far the strikes have been mainly at ports in Spain and Portugal. Cruise companies knew the strikes were looming and scrambled to change itineraries. According to an article in USA Today, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas replaced a call to Lisbon, Portugal with a stop in the smaller Spanish town of Lanzarote while the Seaborn Pride stopped in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, on Monday instead of Wednesday to still allow passengers time at the port before the strike commenced.
The strikes were planned to end later this week, but check with your cruise line if you have a European cruise scheduled this month. And don't expect compensation for skipped ports of call. Labor strikes typically fall under the "circumstances out of the company's control" rubric (same goes for airline tickets).
50 States of Great American Wine!
TEXAS HILL COUNTRY Even wine production is bigger in Texas. Take Hill Country, a 14,000-square-mile expanse in the center of the state. With 32 wineries, it’s America’s second-largest AVA (American Viticultural Area, or grape-growing region with unique geological features)—and one of the nation’s fastest-growing, too. Vintners can thank the hot, dry weather, which is perfect for growing Mediterranean-style grapes such as tempranillo and syrah. Visit: One of the state’s oldest wineries, Becker Vineyards has had its bottles opened at both the Super Bowl and the White House (beckervineyards.com, tastings $10, open daily). Eat: At Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, the meat is smoked for five-plus hours over mesquite coals and sold by the pound (coopersbbq.com, pork ribs $11 per pound). Do: Grab an inner tube and hit the horseshoe-shaped Guadalupe River, where you’ll find the locals floating away their lazy summer days (shantytubes.com, four-hour tube rental $15). Stay: Fredericksburg’s Full Moon Inn plays up the town’s German roots with its breakfast menu of sweet-potato pancakes and German sausages (fullmooninn.com, from $150). Other notable wineries: Fall Creek Vineyards (fcv.com, tastings from $5, open daily). Flat Creek Estate (flatcreekestate.com, tastings from $7, open Tuesday-Sunday). Fredericksburg Winery (fbgwinery.com, up to five tastings free, open daily). Spicewood Vineyards (spicewoodvineyards.com, tastings $5, open Wednesday–Sunday). PASO ROBLES, CALIFORNIA It’s roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and 240 miles south of Napa, but “Paso,” known for its zinfandel and syrah, might as well be on another planet. It’s uncrowded, unpretentious, and, best of all, unlikely to drain your wallet. Most of its small, family-run wineries charge just $5 to $10 to taste six wines—if they charge at all. Visit: At Eberle Winery, visitors can roam the 16,000-square-foot cave where its award-winning zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon are aged (eberlewinery.com, tastings free, open daily). Eat: Farmstand 46 in Templeton embodies Paso’s agricultural bent, growing much of the produce that tops its wood-fired pizzas (farmstand46.com, pizzas from $10). Do: Tour the olive mill at Pasolivo, a local farm that’s been pressing handcrafted oils for over a decade (pasolivo.com, tours and tastings free). Stay: The just-remodeled Paso Robles Inn has a heated pool and a central downtown location (pasoroblesinn.com, from $141). Other notable wineries: Justin Vineyards & Winery (justinwine.com, tastings $10, open daily). Pipestone Vineyards (pipestonevineyards.com, tastings $10, open Thursday–Monday). Tablas Creek Vineyard (tablascreek.com, tastings $10, open daily). Tobin James Cellars (tobinjames.com, tastings free, open daily). CENTRAL VIRGINIA It’s been more than 200 years since Thomas Jefferson planted vineyards at Monticello. Now, with six AVAs and 206 wineries, Virginia is the country’s fifth-largest producer of wine—including some of the best Viognier made outside of France’s Rhône Valley. Visit: Built on the grounds of a Thomas Jefferson-designed mansion and owned by Italian winemakers, Barboursville Vineyards is one of the state’s most renowned wineries (barboursvillewine.com, tastings $5, open daily). Eat: In Charlottesville’s historic district, Brookville specializes in contemporary American food, from braised pork breast to spicy raspberry jelly doughnuts (brookvillerestaurant.com, braised pork breast $22). Do: Explore Monticello, which contains Jefferson’s furniture, art, and books (monticello.org, tour $24), and scope out the University of Virginia, which he also designed (virginia.edu, tours free). Stay: Guest rooms at Dinsmore House Inn are named after presidents (including Madison, Monroe, and, yes, Jefferson) and have hand-carved mahogany beds (dinsmorehouse.com, from $109). Other notable wineries: Blenheim Vineyards (blenheimvineyards.com, tastings $5, open daily). Chrysalis Vineyards (chrysaliswine.com, tastings from $5, open daily). Horton Vineyards (hortonwine.com, tastings free, open daily). RdV Vineyards (rdvvineyards.com, tours $40 including food, by appointment only). LEELANAU PENINSULA, MICHIGAN This low-key Michigan spot sits on the 45th parallel, which also happens to run through France’s Bordeaux region. Adding to the peninsula’s appeal: an exploding food scene (Mario Batali owns a home here) and powdery beaches. Visit: At Black Star Farms, you can pair pinot noir and merlot with fromage blanc from the on-site creamery (blackstarfarms.com, five tastings $5, open daily). Eat: The Cove serves local seafood several ways, including in pâté form and as a garnish for Bloody Marys, a Batali favorite (thecoveleland.com, Bloody Mary $12). Do: Take in the 64 miles of public beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes (sleepingbeardunes.com). Stay: The 32-room, Bavarian-style Beach Haus Resort fronts East Grand Traverse Bay (thebeachhausresort.com, from $90). Other notable wineries: Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery (fortyfivenorth.com, three tastings free, open daily). L. Mawby (lmawby.com, two tastings free, open daily). Peninsula Cellars (peninsulacellars.com, up to four tastings free, open daily). Two Lads (2lwinery.com, six tastings $5, open daily). FINGER LAKES, NEW YORK Long eclipsed by West Coast wine hubs, upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region is finally snagging some acclaim. With good reason: The country’s largest wine producer east of California, it’s also a prime travel destination, with green forests, glistening waters, and a smattering of charming small towns. Visit: Unlike many wineries, Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards harvests all the grapes for its celebrated Rieslings by hand (wiemer.com, tastings $3, open daily). Eat: The menu at Red Dove Tavern, a gastropub in Geneva, changes weekly to highlight the freshest seasonal ingredients—such as an appetizer of duck leg in rhubarb-barbecue sauce, paired with green-chile grits (reddovetavern.com, duck leg $10). Do: Go waterfall-spotting. Among the most impressive (and accessible) of the area’s cascades: the towering, 215-foot Taughannock Falls near Ithaca (taughannock.com). Stay: The wide porch at Magnolia Place B&B, in an 1830s farmhouse, overlooks Seneca Lake (magnoliawelcome.com, from $140). Other notable wineries: Bloomer Creek Vineyard (bloomercreek.com, tastings free, open Friday-Sunday). Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars (drfrankwines.com, tastings free, open daily). Heart and Hands (heartandhandswine.com, tastings free, open Saturday-Sunday). Heron Hill (heronhill.com, tastings from $3, open daily). WALLA WALLA, WASHINGTON Tucked away in remote southeastern Washington (more than 150 miles from Spokane), Walla Walla is a farm town traditionally known for wheat and onions. But its current cash crops are the ones squeezed into its excellent cabernet, merlot, and syrah. In the past two decades, the number of area wineries has shot up from six to about 125—they’re everywhere from Main Street to the local airport. Even actor (and Washington native) Kyle MacLachlan couldn’t resist: He cofounded a label (named Pursued By Bear, a Shakespeare reference) here in 2005. And thanks to a $53 million facelift, the city’s downtown is lined with cafés, art galleries, and gourmet restaurants. Visit: The family-owned L’Ecole No. 41, run out of a 1915 schoolhouse, is prized for its signature red blend Perigee (lecole.com, tastings $5, open daily). Eat: For greasy goodies, locals love the divey Green Lantern, where MacLachlan swears by the burger (509/525-6303, burger $10). For more highbrow eats (house-cured duck prosciutto, yellowfin tuna crudo), visit the tapas-style Jim German Bar in Waitsburg (jimgermanbar.com, tuna crudo $14). Note to java junkies: Get your fix at Walla Walla Roastery, where the coffee beans are roasted on-site (wallawallaroastery.com, latte $3.50). Do: Meander through mountains of the Umatilla National Forest, which offers 19 trails of varying difficulties; the scenic, 2.6-mile Jubilee Lake path is good for beginners (541/278-3716). Stay: Exposed-brick walls and loads of original art create a cozy vibe at Walla Faces, in a 1904 building on the town’s main drag (wallafaces.com, doubles from $145). Other notable wineries: Buty (butywinery.com, tastings $5, open daily). Dunham Cellars (dunhamcellars.com, tastings $5, open daily). Gramercy Cellars (gramercycellars.com, tastings free, open Saturdays). Woodward Canyon (woodwardcanyon.com, tastings $5, open daily). 44 OTHER NOTABLE WINERIES Alabama (13 wineries): Until 2002, vineyards here were limited to the “wet counties,” where alcohol sales were legal. Now vintners make sweet wine from heat- and humidity-friendly muscadine grapes grown statewide. You can pick them yourself in September, when Morgan Creek Vineyards in Harpersville hosts an I Love Lucy-style stomping party. morgancreekwinery.com, open Monday–Saturday, bottles $10–$20. Alaska (8 wineries): Grapes don’t fare well in Alaska, so Bear Creek Winery, in Homer, imports concentrate to blend with local fruit (gooseberry, black currant) for hybrid concoctions like Blu Zin, a zinfandel infused with wild blueberries. bearcreekwinery.com, open daily, bottles $18–$27. Arizona (48 wineries): Arizona’s high-desert climate is similar to that of wine mecca Mendoza, Argentina. At Caduceus Cellars in the Verde Valley, Maynard James Keenan (better known as the singer from the band Tool) cranks out robust reds such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and Sangiovese. caduceus.org, tastings $10, open daily, bottles $17–$28.Arkansas (15 wineries): Some of Arkansas’s oldest vines belong to Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, founded by a Swiss winemaker who settled in the Ozarks in 1880. The winery is even listed in the National Register of Historic Places. wiederkehrwines.com, open daily, bottles $5–$18. Colorado (107 wineries): Colorado’s wine industry is flourishing in the Grand Valley, a trio of quaint towns 250 miles southwest of Denver. Canyon Wind Cellars offers gorgeous mountain views along with its award-winning Petit Verdot. canyonwindcellars.com, open daily, bottles $13–$40. Connecticut (24 wineries): No matter where you are in Connecticut, there’s a winery within a 45-minute drive. A must-try is Hopkins Vineyard, set among scenic hills in a converted 19th century barn and known for its sweet ice wine, made when grapes—though not the sugar inside—freeze on the vine. hopkinsvineyard.com, tastings $6.50, hours vary, bottles $12–$17. Delaware (3 wineries): This tiny state isn’t big on wine production—craft beer is more its speed—but 18-year-old Nassau Valley Vineyards wins awards for its merlot, pinot grigio, and cabernet sauvignon. nassauvalley.com, open daily, bottles $13–$30. Florida (31 wineries): Florida’s muggy climate and intense rainfall plague most grapes, so vintners have started replacing them with the state’s favorite export: citrus. Florida Orange Groves Winery in St. Petersburg makes their wines from key limes, tangerines, and other tropical fruits. floridawine.com, open daily, bottles $18–$23. Georgia (30 wineries): Three Sisters Vineyards in Dahlonega is the state’s good-time winery. Come in September and October for its Swine Wine Weekends, complete with BBQ and live music. threesistersvineyards.com, tastings $5–$25, open Thursday–Sunday, bottles $10–$45. Hawaii (3 wineries): Two miles outside Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, Volcano Winery is a popular post-climb spot for thirsty adventurers. The 64-acre winery uses macadamia nuts and guava in some wines, as well as muscat and Grenache Gris grapes that thrive in volcanic soil. volcanowinery.com, open daily, bottles $18–$24. Idaho (48 wineries): Most of Idaho’s wineries sit in the Snake River Valley, where blazing days and chilly nights make for well-balanced bottles. The Cinder Winery, located in a warehouse outside Boise, is known for its rosé, named Best in the Northwest in 2009. cinderwines.com, tastings $5, open Friday–Sunday, bottles $18–$27. Illinois (98 wineries): In 1979, Fred Koehler, then a country-club manager, turned a basement booze-making hobby into the state’s first wine label. His Lynfred Winery has classier digs now—a mansion with a four-suite B&B. lynfredwinery.com, tastings $9, open daily, bottles $10–$30. Indiana (63 wineries): Bloomington’s Oliver Winery specializes in strawberry, mango, and black cherry wines (many grapes can’t survive Indiana’s winters), plus Camelot Mead, made from fermented orange-blossom honey. oliverwinery.com, tastings $5, open daily, bottles $10–$14. Iowa (82 wineries): In the past decade, the number of Iowa wineries has jumped nearly sevenfold. Perhaps the quirkiest is the Renaissance-themed King’s Crossing Vineyard & Winery, dotted with faux medieval torture devices. kingscrossingvineyard.com, open Saturday–Sunday, bottles $13–$28. Kansas (22 wineries): Every bottle at Oz Winery is a friend of Dorothy’s—after all, this is Kansas. Best of all, you can sample wines such as Drunken Munchkin, Auntie Em’s Prairie Rose, and Yellow Brick Road for free—Kansas law prohibits tasting fees. ozwinerykansas.com, open daily, bottles $18–$30. Kentucky (61 wineries): Be warned, bourbon: Earlier this year, Lexington-based Jean Farris winery snagged a gold medal at the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for its cabernet sauvignon—the highest honor for a Kentucky grape to date. jeanfarris.com, tastings $5–$12, open Tuesday–Sunday, bottles $11–$65. Louisiana (6 wineries): Sixty miles north of New Orleans, Pontchartrain Vineyards is the only Louisiana winery using exclusively European-style grapes. Bonus for foodies: Its wines pair well with spicy gumbo, crawfish, and shrimp. pontchartrainvineyards.com, tastings $5, Wednesday–Sunday, bottles $10–$20. Maine (20 wineries): In the coastal town of Gouldsboro, Bartlett Maine Estate Winery incorporates local, hand-raked blueberries into its acclaimed Blueberry Oak Dry wine. bartlettwinery.com, open Tuesday–Saturday, bottles $16–$45. Maryland (51 wineries): Maryland wineries largely depend on out-of-state grapes (California, Virginia, New York). Black Ankle Vineyards, founded in 2008, is leading the charge for homegrown fruit, producing 12 varietals on its land 35 miles from Baltimore. blackankle.com, tastings from $7, open Friday–Sunday, bottles $28–48. Massachusetts (40 wineries): Since the small, family-owned Westport Rivers opened on Massachusetts’s southeastern coast 25 years ago, its wine has been poured at both the real White House (courtesy of Bush Sr. and Clinton) and the smallscreen one (via The West Wing). westportrivers.com, tastings $8, open Monday–Saturday, bottles $20–$45. Minnesota (38 wineries): At Carlos Creek, Minnesota’s largest winery, wines are made from Frontenac grapes, developed by the University of Minnesota to withstand temperatures as low as 20 below. carloscreekwinery.com, tastings $5, open daily, bottles $15–$25. Mississippi (6 wineries): At the Old South Winery in Natchez, wine is made exclusively from Mississippi muscadines and not barrel-aged, which would interfere with the candy-sweet, fruit-forward taste. oldsouthwinery.com, open Monday–Saturday, bottles $8.25–$11.25. Missouri (118 wineries): Home to the country’s first Viticulture Area in 1980, Missouri has added 30 wineries in the past three years alone. The 165-year-old Stone Hill, in the German-style town of Hermann, brought home over 100 medals just last year, at competitions from New York to California. stonehillwinery.com, open daily, bottles $8–$25. Montana (8 wineries): Montana’s short growing season means its handful of wineries have to get creative with their recipes. Flathead Lake Winery—the only state winery to exclusively use native fruit–finds its preferred grape substitutes in local cherries and huckleberries. flatheadlakewinery.com, open daily, bottles $10–$20. Nebraska (25 wineries): Founded in 1997 with 100 grapevines imported from New York, James Arthur Vineyards has grown into Nebraska’s largest winery—and has one of its coziest tasting rooms, too. There, visitors can warm up by a roaring fireplace with a glass of semi-sweet Vignoles, named the best white wine at 2010’s Monterey (California) Wine Competition. jamesarthurvineyards.com, tastings from $4, open daily, bottles $10–$25. Nevada (3 wineries): Parking is never a problem at Pahrump Valley Winery–if you have a helicopter. The mom-and-pop spot, which has won more than 300 national awards, has its own landing pad for high-rollers visiting from nearby Las Vegas. pahrumpwinery.com, open daily, bottles $12–$25. New Hampshire (25 wineries): After demand shot up for LaBelle Winery’s fruit wines (like cranberry and apple), the owners traded their 1,500-square-foot barn for a facility 13 times the size; the new space opens this September. labellewinerynh.com, open Wednesday–Sunday, bottles $14–$25. New Jersey (34 wineries): At Unionville Vineyards, set on an 88-acre farm, the head winemaker is a Napa expat fond of European-style grapes like syrah, grenache, and mourvedre. One to try: The Big O, a blend of merlot, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon. unionvillevineyards.com, tastings from $5, open daily, bottles $12–$46. New Mexico (46 wineries): New Mexico’s hot, arid climate and high elevation give a boost to its prolific wine industry (production is expanding by nearly 15 percent annually). Sparkling wine is the main draw at Albuquerque’s Gruet Winery, owned by a pair of siblings from France’s Champagne region. Gruet’s bottles, many of which retail for less than $20, have graced wine lists at restaurants in all 50 states, including many with Michelin stars. gruetwinery.com, tastings from $6, open Monday–Saturday, bottles $14–$45. North Carolina (109 wineries): The number of North Carolina wineries has more than quadrupled since 2001, but the most popular is Biltmore, on the picturesque, 8,000-acre Asheville estate of the same name. In fact, it’s the most visited winery in the country, with roughly 60,000 folks dropping in each year. The sparkling Blanc de Blanc has been served at New York’s James Beard House. biltmore.com, tastings from $49 including guided tour and access to the historic Biltmore House, open daily, bottles $10–$25. North Dakota (9 wineries): In 2009, less than half of 1 percent of the wine sold in North Dakota was made in-state. But in tiny Burlington, the owners of Pointe of View aim to change that. Their Terre Haute Rouge, a semi-sweet blush, is made entirely from local grapes. povwinery.com, open daily May–December, bottles $12–$14. Ohio (148 wineries): Ohio’s winemaking history dates to the 1820s, and the state now churns out more than 1 million gallons annually. Most Ohio wineries are in the northeast, where Lake Erie tempers the cold, but don’t miss Kinkead Ridge down south. Its Viognier-Roussanne and cabernet franc were featured in the 2011 book 1,000 Great Everyday Wines from the World’s Best Wineries. kinkeadridge.com, tastings from $3, hours vary, bottles $10–$23. Oklahoma (21 wineries): Sleek and urban, Girouard Vines in downtown Tulsa plays up the city’s Art Deco history. The labels on the five award-winning Tulsa Deco wines feature local landmarks like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Westhope residence, built in 1929 on the city’s southeast side. tulsawine.com, tastings from $10, open Thursdays, bottles $18–$25. Oregon (450 wineries): Oregon is responsible for some of America’s best wines—in particular, the pinot noirs of the Willamette Valley. Left Coast Cellars in Rickreall uses only estate-grown grapes to make theirs—in a winery partly powered by solar energy. leftcoastcellars.com, tastings $5, open daily, bottles $16–$55. Pennsylvania (180 wineries): Thirty years ago, Pennsylvania had 20 wineries; now, it counts 180 (plus five AVAs and 11 wine trails). About 30 miles west of Philadelphia, Chaddsford Winery’s colonial-era barn is a cozy spot to taste award-winning merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and Naked Chardonnay, which foregoes oak-barrel aging to let its citrus flavors shine. chaddsford.com, tastings for sweet wines free, dry wines $10, open Thursday–Sunday, bottles $13–$50. Rhode Island (5 wineries): Portsmouth’s Greenvale Vineyards capitalizes on southeastern New England’s coastal climate to produce subtle chardonnay and crisp Vidal Blanc. Its sprawling Victorian farm also makes a lovely setting for Saturday jazz concerts from May to November. greenvale.com, tastings from $12, open daily, bottles $15–$28. South Carolina (12 wineries): Don’t be fooled by the name: The vineyards at Victoria Valley (elev. 2,900 feet) claim some of the state’s highest turf. The altitude aids in making European-style chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. victoriavalleyvineyards.com, tastings $5, open daily, bottles $8–$25. South Dakota (19 wineries): The rural Strawbale Winery combines unorthodox ingredients—currants, coffee, and jalapeños—and unconventional packaging: Wine bottles can be dipped in a half-pound of gourmet chocolate around Valentine’s Day and Christmas. strawbalewinery.com, tastings $5, open Wednesday–Sunday, bottles $12–$13. Tennessee (41 wineries): Founded by country-music star Kix Brooks (of Brooks and Dunn), Arrington Vineyards, set among verdant 25 miles south of Nashville, puts a Southern spin on grapes imported from the Napa Valley. Their spicy red Antebellum, for one, is aged in Tennessee whiskey barrels. arringtonvineyards.com, open daily, bottles $18–$50. Utah (8 wineries): Tours of Moab’s Castle Creek Winery, on a working ranch 4,000 feet above the Colorado River, are enhanced by its views of rugged red-rock cliffs and swirling white-water rapids. castlecreekwinery.com, open daily, bottles $9–$13. Vermont (24 wineries): Northern Vermont’s bracing winters produce fantastic ice wine. Some of the best is made at Snow Farm, on an island in Lake Champlain: It’s wowed the critics at Wine Spectator and the judges at 2011’s Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition. snowfarm.com, tastings from $1, open daily May–December, bottles $12–$45. West Virginia (14 wineries): West Virginia makes up for its short supply of grapevines with a bounty of pears, apples, and peaches—which are made into sweet, all-local wine at the 22-year-old Forks of Cheat, in the Appalachian Mountains. wvwines.com, tastings free, open daily, weather permitting, bottles $10.50–$15.50. Wisconsin (90 wineries): Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy–often called the father of California viticulture–spent two years planting grapes in Prairie du Sac, Wisc., in the 1840s before he ever set foot in Sonoma. Today, you can imagine what the fruits of his labor might have tasted like at the family-owned Wollersheim Winery, built on his former stomping grounds; the winery has won raves for its Fumé Blanc and Riesling. wollersheim.com, open daily, bottles $6.50–$22. Wyoming (2 wineries): When University of Wyoming student Patrick Zimmerer planted grapes on his family’s farm in Huntley (population: 30) as part of a school project in 2001, he singlehandedly doubled the tally of Wyoming vineyards. Eleven years and a $10,000 business-school grant later, his Table Mountain Vineyards has graduated to making 10-14 varieties of wine. wyowine.com, open by appointment, bottles $15.
Intimate Italy Like You've Never Seen It!
Our waiter, Giado, covered his eyes in dismay when we told him we were setting off the next day on a weeklong walking tour of Tuscany. "You really want to walk? It's sometimes 16 kilometers [about 10 miles] from one town to the next, with nothing in the middle to eat or drink." His concern seemed genuine, and given that we'd just demolished two of Osteria le Logge's most amazing desserts—a mascarpone terrine with port granita and a chocolate panna cotta with lavender cream—somewhat justified. Nearly every window in the city of Siena displayed something I wanted to eat: biscotti, lardo, wheels of pecorino, bresaola, cones of gelato. I knew we wouldn't find much of that while footing it through hay fields. TOUR TUSCANY'S GLORIOUS CAPITAL, FLORENCE! But my mom, my sister, and I had come here to start a seven-day trek through Italy's villages—we wanted to really experience the countryside, not just drive by it. Everyone has a fantasy of what Tuscany looks like: old stone farmhouses, rolling fields, lines of cypress trees. (Admit it: You've seen Under the Tuscan Sun at least once.) That was certainly our terra cotta-colored vision, and we were convinced that a self-guided tour was the only way to live the dream. Countless companies offer walking tours in Tuscany; we chose an outfit called Girosole because it was run by locals passionate about their homeland and intimately familiar with the best walking routes. The company allowed us to start our trip on any day and add extra nights in a given location, in the event that we couldn't tear ourselves away from a favorite sliver of la bella vita. For $1,390 per person for eight days (in high season), the company booked our hotels, provided walking directions (and a cell phone in case we got lost), and supplied a driver who transported our luggage—and sometimes us—from hotel to hotel. The self-guided option left us free to start our days whenever we pleased and walk at our own pace without contending with anyone else's schedule or group dynamics. Neither my mom nor I are regular hikers, but my sister is a marathon runner, so having the services of a driver gave Mom and me an out: If we were too lazy-or worn out-to walk one day, we could always hitch a ride with the bags. Our driver turned out to be not one person, but two: Paolo Forti and his son, Giacomo. Giacomo, 27, wore oversize Ray-Bans and was exceedingly (and adorably) polite when he picked us up in Siena. He opened doors, carried our bags, and on the way to Montalcino, where we started our trip, he narrated the scenery, pointing out the small town where he grew up, offering advice on his favorite wines, and telling us to look for rosebushes planted at the end of every vineyard row. "The rose and the grape, they take the same element from the ground, so the farmer, he can know if the land is good for the grape," he said, in charmingly accented English. When we reached Montalcino, Giacomo handed over a set of maps and customized directions, and then we were off and walking. For us, a typical day started at 9 A.M., and we often set out right from the front door of our hotel-in this case, Hotel dei Capitani. We'd wind our way down from one of the jewel-like hilltop towns we stayed in, looking back to see the fortified castle of Rocca d'Orcia recede behind us on one day, the walled town of Montalcino the next. Then we were crossing fields of hay that waved in the wind, fording rivers next to stone bridges destroyed during World War II, and passing row after row of heavily pruned grapevines, all while following our endearingly quirky walking directions: You arrive at another open meadow. Keep right through the next fork just past the small ruined church. The trail bends into a gap in the brush. They seemed cryptic out of context, but on the trail they made perfect sense. One leisurely walk led to Bagno Vignoni, a spa town where people have taken the waters since Roman times-thermal pools still bubble and boil there. We scrambled across cliffs that spewed hot, sulfurous water into turquoise pools, dined at a restaurant beneath a fragrant acacia tree, then soaked our feet in the warm mineral water that flowed through channels carved into the rock. Heaven. We'd usually make it to the next town for lunch, but twice we stopped at a grocery store before setting out and bought picnic provisions: prosciutto, pecorino made from local sheeps' milk, Sicilian blood oranges, fresh-baked bread, and a thermos of red Brunello-we were, after all, in wine country. One day we waded through knee-high grass into an olive orchard and sat beneath the trees, our jackets serving as a picnic blanket. I picked a tiny stalk of wild onion sprouting delicate purple flowers and presented it to my mom, who wore it in her buttonhole. Mom was almost giddy from all the gorgeousness. She couldn't stop hugging us and saying "I'm so lucky!" My sister and I rolled our eyes, but secretly we agreed. Girosole sent us on a path through the Orcia River valley (Val d'Orcia). It's an area of such well-preserved agrarian beauty-where cypress trees and crop rows trace the same lines they did when this land was first farmed-that it's been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's the place where the concept of man-made landscape began, when the wealthy merchants of Siena laid out plots of land in the 14th and 15th centuries with the aim of making them not just manageable, but also aesthetically pleasing. We felt like we were walking through a 600-year-old period set piece, where every field, tree, and house was placed just so, and around every corner was another equally cinematic view. Let's just say we took a lot of photos. Throughout the trip, we were in daily contact with Giacomo or his father, and when they came to collect our bags, we'd pepper them with questions. One morning, we asked Giacomo about a massive building we'd seen in the distance, which he explained was a hotel dating back to the Middle Ages built to house religious pilgrims. During Caesar's time, the main north-south byway cut through the Val d'Orcia. Later, in the 7th century, Christians traveled by foot on their way to Rome, and it remained a pilgrimage route for a thousand years. Monasteries and inns sprang up to serve the travelers, but by the 17th century, the road fell out of fashion. But those earlier journeyers left behind a province perfect for strolling, where scenic lowlands were punctuated with hilltop fortified settlements, most of which were located less than 10 miles-a manageable day's walk-from another town. Remnants of this once-illustrious route are sprinkled throughout the Val d'Orcia. Just after passing through the hamlet of Villa a Tolli (which was so deserted I had to use my camera's self timer to photograph the three of us in front of a dreamy stone house covered in climbing roses), we rounded a corner and saw the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, its bell tower peering above the countryside. The abbey was built and rebuilt many times, first in the 700s by Lombard kings to house pilgrims. Its current form is gracefully curved in a rare French-Romanesque style, dotted with prehistoric-looking carvings of monsters and oxen and men. Close up, its massive building blocks seemed to glow from within. There were other visitors at Sant'Antimo, but we spent most days in splendid isolation, encountering almost no one-just us and fields of poppies, thorny brambles of wild roses, stone walls blooming with irises, and clumps of rosemary as big as bushes. We walked right up to the iconic Cappella di Vitaleta. Flanked by two rows of towering 40-foot cypress trees, this tiny chapel is reportedly the most photographed church in Tuscany, but it's reachable only on foot. We had it all to ourselves for almost an hour; to celebrate our private tour, my sister and I turned cartwheels right on the lawn. Similarly deserted was the Collegiata church, in the slumbering town of San Quirico d'Orcia. Its entrance is flanked by delicately knotted columns resting on the backs of fantastical lions while scaly monsters tangle in battle above the door. Though it was designed to make 13th century pilgrims cower before the power of the church, we modern-day travelers were just as awed, dwarfed and alone before those spectacular stone beasts. When we saw Giacomo again, we asked him where everyone was. "The Italians, they don't walk," he said. "They come by car, they have lunch, they have a coffee, then they get back in the car." The under-populated countryside stood out in blissful contrast to the teeming villages where we spent our nights. One day, as we lingered outside a ceramics shop, surveying the valley we'd just walked through, we overheard another tourist. "Okay, this is our third town today. Are we done yet?" While they rushed on to Florence or back to Rome, we spent leisurely afternoons and evenings poking around in boutiques, gaping at medieval architecture, and strolling the narrow lanes. In Pienza, we saw a group of little old ladies gathered at the end of a cobbled street, knitting. In Montepulciano we sat outside drinking glasses of the famous Vino Nobile in a piazza and slept in a hotel, L'Agnolo, that felt more like a cathedral, with glorious frescoes painted on the ceiling of our room. And we happened to be in Montalcino on the day the town celebrates its patron saint, Maria SS del Soccorso, so we were treated to July 4th-worthy fireworks bursting over a fortress; afterward, a DJ blasted tunes in the square, and we found ourselves dancing in the streets to "Another One Bites the Dust." In truth, our appreciation for these towns was heightened because of the effort it took to get to them. Which is another way of saying that touring Tuscany by foot wasn't always a walk in il parco. Take, for example, our march to Montepulciano; the hike took longer than expected, and after five hours without food, we could hear one another's stomachs growling. We were so hot and tired that when we skirted an olive orchard and the Temple of San Biagio suddenly rose above us, we thought we were seeing a mirage, conjured up to give strength to hungry passersby. Glowing golden in the sunlight, drawing us in, its dome looked like something out of a Renaissance masterpiece.And yet, despite our grumbling bellies, it was impossible not to stop. Inside, the church's cool air and silent beauty seemed to cure our weariness. A diffuse light fell from the dome in a perfect circle, and we were surrounded by arches and rosettes and Greek columns, all carved out of the same linen-colored stone. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw an automated tour guide called an ArtPhone. I dropped a 1 Euro coin into the slot and learned that in 1518, a fresco of the Virgin painted on this spot suddenly seemed to smile. Many people witnessed the miracle, and public funds were collected to build a commemorative temple. San Biagio, one of the world's finest examples of Renaissance architecture, has been providing refuge for religious pilgrims-and weary hikers-ever since. When we headed back outside, our empty stomachs were filled thanks to another miracle. Directly across from the church, far from the city center, where we least expected to find a restaurant, I spotted La Grotta, reportedly home to the best food in Montepulciano. We weren't exactly dressed for a fancy lunch. Yet when the maitre'd, impeccable in his tailored navy suit, heard that we'd walked all the way from Monticchiello-five miles, uphill all the way-his eyes widened and he ushered us (shorts, hiking boots, and all) to a prime table in the back garden. He brought an extra chair for our hiking gear, recommended a bottle of the house red, and let us order dessert long after the restaurant had closed. We were several paces down the road when he came running after us with a half-empty bottle of water we'd left behind. "You will need it for your walk!" he said, sending us on our way with a wave and a "Ciao!" Bustling Montepulciano was full of trattorias and wine shops, but our favorite town was the emptiest: Rocca d'Orcia. There we found a crumbling castle looming over stone streets barely wide enough for cars (not that we cared about that!). When we arrived, an elderly man, navigating rocky steps worn smooth by the footfalls of several centuries, greeted us with a "Buon giorno." Otherwise, all was silent. We were staying at Cisterna nel Borgo, a three-room hotel above the town's only restaurant, where owner Marta Catani also gives cooking lessons, though she herself has no formal training. "Italians don't go to cooking school," she explained. "You just watch your grandmother." At dinner, we stuffed ourselves with tender, tangy wild boar cooked in yogurt and sauteed pork in a honey sauce that was salty and just a bit sweet. Since we were the only guests, we each got our own room; mine had a wood-beamed ceiling and windows overlooking the town square, which was dominated by a massive well. Marta told us that until the late 1950s, the city gates were locked against intruders every night, and today just 26 souls live within the town's walls. For two glorious nights, we were happy to push the population to 29. On our last morning, we were feeling lazy and not up to the challenge of a nine-mile walk. When Giacomo's father, Paolo, came to collect our luggage in the morning, we asked if he would drop us off at the halfway point. "Si, si," he said. That morning, instead of huffing up hills, we strolled through Monticchiello, a beautifully preserved walled town. We craned our necks to get a look at the top of the thick defensive tower at the town's entrance, then passed beneath a stone archway and into the winding medieval streets, flanked by the high walls of houses made of uniformly honey-colored stone. We walked down lanes no wider than a horse, took photos of laundry hanging from shuttered windows, admired a vintage red Fiat parked by a church with a vaulted interior covered in flaking frescoes, and read the plaque on an obelisk-shaped World War I memorial. On the way out of town, we encountered a crew of maintenance men. They waved. We waved back. "Ciao bella!" they exclaimed. Yes, we thought. It was beautiful.
Could 'Marijuana Tourism' Be Next For Colorado and Washington?
With new legislation effectively legalizing marijuana for recreational use in two U.S. states, Amsterdam-style entertainment could be right around the corner. Under the new state measures in Colorado and Washington, marijuana is legal to use if you are at least 21 years old and possess no more than one ounce (or 28.5 grams) for recreational use. Similar to alcohol, the recreational marijuana would be taxed and sold only at state-licensed specialty retail stores. Public use is still forbidden in both states, and residents would now be permitted to grow up to six plants at home in Colorado (though home growing is not allowed in Washington). So what could this mean for tourism? According to an article by the Associated Press, tourism officials in Colorado are downplaying a pot-tourism spike while ski resort directors are "watching closely." The head of tourism for Denver, Richard Scharf, was quoted as being concerned that legalizing marijuana would actually lead to a decline in travel, since the state's "brand will be damaged." On the other hand, being able to tax marijuana use will bring in some much-needed money for each of the states. It should be noted that visitors to Colorado and Washington must purchase and use the substance while in the state—no pot-related souvenirs allowed. And keep in mind that marijuana is still technically illegal in the U.S. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, an opponent of the new measures, recently told the The Denver Post, "the voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don't break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly." In other pot-related news, those of you still planning trips to Amsterdam for psychedelic purposes you will be happy to know that the Netherlands recently killed their plans for a national "weed pass" that would have only allowed access to marijuana cafés to Dutch residents, effectively blocking tourists from visiting them. According to an article by USA Today, a new provisional government pact does allow cities in the Netherlands to ban foreigners from their cannibis cafés, but the authority to enforce this is left up to the cities themselves, a move Amsterdam, which relies heavily on tourism, is not willing to make just yet.
Travelers' Top 20 Rants And Raves About Hotels
We recently asked our Budget Travel audience to tell us about their biggest hotel pet peeves, a question that sparked 39 comments on our blog post and 31 more on our Facebook page. Conversely, this got us wondering what your favorite things about staying in a hotel are—is it the fluffly towels, comfy beds, or friendly service? It turns out we aren't the only ones thinking about the best and worst parts of the hotel experience. The site TrustYou recently released a study revealing travelers' 20 biggest complaints and 20 compliments about hotels around the world. The lists rank customer complaints and compliments by the number of mentions they received in one million online comments and hotel reviews written on more than 200 websites or on various social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The results show that customer service is number one for travelers, taking up multiple spots on both lists—it ranked higher than clean rooms or affordable prices. The top 20 things hotel guests like about hotels:1. Friendly, professional, efficient service 2. Great, well-situated location3. Good room 4. Great food 5. Great breakfast 6. Clean room and hotel7. Large room8. Good, affordable price9. Good bed10. Nice view11. Good pool12. Good bathroom13. Easy, available parking14. New room15. Free internet16. Good sauna and wellness facilities17. Quiet room18. New hotel19. Free parking20. Efficient reception The top 20 things hotel guests complain about:1. Unprofessional and incompetent service2. Small room3. Expensive or overpriced hotel4. Tasteless, bad breakfast5. Bad food6. Dirty room7. Unfriendly service8. Bad bathroom9. Bad service10. Loud, noisy room11. Tasteless food12. Bad bed13. Small bathroom14. Hard to find or the hotel was in an isolated location15. Internet not available or scarce service16. Old room17. Bad location18. Dirty bathroom19. Expensive or overpriced breakfast20. Bad parkingDo you agree with the placement of the items on the list? What factors are most important to you when you stay in a hotel?