Down South – heading to Argentina and Uruguay

Down South — Heading to Argentina and Uruguay

If you’re one of the many, many people visiting Argentina this year then prepare for a feast for the eyes and senses. The cities and the landscapes of this gorgeous country are a real trip for anyone who makes the effort to travel to them. Not only that, you have the bonus of crossing the border into beautiful Uruguay for further exploration.

Appreciating one of the most beautiful spots on the planet

Argentina is an immense South American country, synonymous to many with wine, the tango and some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The country boasts some of the highest mountain peaks in the Americas, not to mention the mesmerizing Valdés Peninsula where visitors can spot whales, penguins and sea lions. You can tour the mountains and lakes surrounding the city of San Carlos de Bariloche for scenery which truly makes you realize what you were placed on the Earth for: it’s to appreciate gifts like this from nature.

Exploring the capital

The vast city of Buenos Aires is a regular South American stop for cruise ships such as those operated by Royal Caribbean. Buenos Aires is the heart and soul of Argentina and offers a real flavor of Latin America with its many restaurants, bars and live music venues where you can dance to the ever present bossa nova. Take a trip to La Boca to visit Caminito (little walkway) where you can view the tango dancers and street musicians perform in this colorful little neighborhood.

Crossing over to Uruguay

A trip across the border from Argentina to the Republic of Uruguay will reward you with idyllic little towns including Carmelo and relaxing cities such as Montevideo. Head to the Rocha Coast to experience one of South America’s most unspoilt and natural beach locations, which is now a mecca for backpackers and surfers. You should also visit the city of Piriápolis, which, itself, is another picturesque beach resort and has an immense Greek-inspired promenade overlooking a wonderful white sand beach.

Uruguay exudes a more tranquil (and some say more spiritual) vibe than buzzing Argentina. But if you have the chance to visit both of these countries you’ll enjoy many memorable and inspirational vacation experiences. You’ll come back with a refreshing new take on life.

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Amber in the Carribean

If have always associated amber with the Baltic Sea. Who hasn’t heard about the fabulous Amber Room in St. Petersburg? Therefore it came quite as a surprise when I found out that amber is also found in the Caribbean, in even more colors and shapes as in the Baltic Sea and once used very much like money in trade. And how did I find out? Simple.   Ask the locals! Pearl of travel wisdom #1! To find the best attractions of a foreign place, you can’t beat what comes up in conversation with the natives. Exactly what happened, when I ‘escaped’ my cruise the moment the liner docked in the very pretty harbor of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas in the US Virgin islands.

I already   saw the half moon bay of white, red and pink low houses along the shoreline when standing in deck and decided on the spot to make my way there on foot.

Of course, I knew about the 99steps and Blackbeard’s Castle on the top and the history of St Thomas, closely connected to pirates, smuggling and other very exciting adventure stories. There is much more to the island, like a butterfly farm, the sky ride up to Paradise point or Eco tours including snorkeling and kayaking, but given the limited time I had on the island I had to make decision. As I am a history fan, Blackbeard and pirates it was!

The walk along the waterfront is very pleasant and a lot more enjoyable that taking a bus or taxi. It seems that cruise ships arrive all at once and the infrastructure isn’t made for such a sudden influx of tourists, all heading in the same direction, which measn that 4 wheel traffic gets stuck in exhaust fumes, whereas the happy pedestrian just whizzes past, breathing the fresh sea air.

It’s about 2 ½ miles from the cruise ship dock to the center of Charlotte Amalie and I got thirsty. I stopped at a colorful stall,  selling a huge variety of freshly squeezed fruit juices and run by a very jolly island lady. Naturally, we got talking and I asked her what to visit apart from the obvious.

“Oh,” she said, after taking an assessing look at me, “you  will like  the amber museum.”  How did she come to that conclusion, I wondered.  And amber?  In the Caribbean?  That was news to me. I had to see. “Just walk up the 99 steps,” she continued, “half way up you’ll find a sign and then ask for Michael.”

I downed my pineapple/mango juice and turned right towards the 99 steps which, really, are 103. Built by the Danes in the early 1700 the steps were meant to facilitate going up and down the mountainous island and the bricks used had actually come over from Europe  as ballast on the sailing ships. I started my climb and, sure enough, came upon a small sign which  read “World Amber Museum” with an arrow.

So far, so good, but each level of the steps is quite a labyrinth of connected buildings and it is no small feat to find the entrance, leave alone Michael. I finally located him in a wonderful little café, he sells you the ticket at$2 and tells you to “enter where you hear the roaring and see the jungle”. As it turned out, an apt description because the entrance to the museum is made to resemble a rain forest complete with taped rather frightening animal sounds.

The start may be a bit garish and ‘disneyesque’ but the museum which lies behind is glamour pure. Distributed over three mystically lit rooms, the exhibits, all made from amber are stunning. Replicas of historical pieces from Russia and modern art sculptures alternate with explanations of the history of amber in the Caribbean . Exit the museum and you can gape in awe at a 20 feet high waterfall, made entirely from amber pebbles.

Chess board made from amber

Chess board made from amber

 

An amber chest

An amber chest

 

amber

 

The waterfall

The waterfall

 

 

To my great delight, the last room is a small jewelry  shop. They sell beautiful pieces, necklaces, rings and bracelets set in gold or silver. Amber doesn’t come cheap but I couldn’t resist and bought a bead bracelet with all the colors of amber from the lightest green to black.

The museum only opened in February 2009 and that’s why it’s not yet such a big tourist attraction but it´s getting there. As I said, just ask the locals…

 

 

 

 

Where to go for your honeymoon?

The honeymoon trip is probably the most important vacation of your life. Wedding stress over, it`s a time to send your marriage off to a good start, to be remembered and cherished over the years, often to be repeated either to renew the vows or to rekindle romance when the marriage has hit the rocks. Get your decision of where to go wrong and it can have dire consequences not like any other trip where reality did not meet your expectations.

The choice of your destination depends (apart from the budget) entirely on the taste of the newly weds and their ability to agree. I have divided my suggestions in three ´themes´so to speak, Luxury and Glamour, Adventure and Romance. And I have added a forth, which, although often a favorite, can, in my very personal opinion lead to an early divorce.

Luxury and glamour

My favorite for that category is Miami in Florida. You can´t beat the glitz and glamour of South Beach, the plethora of clubs for entertainment at night and the fabulous shopping in Lincoln´s Road by day.

There is no shortage of 5 star hotels for the vacation of a lifetime in South Beach either, although my favorite remains the time honored Delano. There are less expensive hotels too , all along Ocean Drive with the added advantage that some of them are located in the famed art deco buildings.

When you have enough of lounging on the beach or dancing the night away, you may want to head for Downtown Miami, polish up on history at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Flagler Street, visit the Bayside Market of the Mary Brickell Village and have the best  (biggest and cheapest) steak in Miami´s oldest pub: Tobacco Road near the Miami River.

tob-300x224

Talking about that, many visitors to Miami do not realize that there actually is  a river, a big and busy one at that. You can take a boat trip along the river and learn more about Miami history along the way.

Another trip not to be missed is  a ride on an airboat in the Everglades. And if you want to venture further afield, drive across the bridges with stunning views all the way to watch the sunset in Key West.

Adventure

The choice for adventure trips is huge, you could actually honeymoon all year long to catch them all. Few will have this luxury, so my suggestion is Jordan.

Not to be missed is a visit to Petra, the rose colored ancient city discovered by chance. Arrive early in the morning before the tourist buses descend, make your way on foot or horseback along the narrow gouge and alight with an ‘ohhh’ of admiration on your lips when you catch the first glimpse of the stunning treasury.

Petra

Petra

But there is more to Jordan than Petra. Rent a car and venture out on the highway leading through the desert, but watch out for wild camels which cross the road at their leisure. Visit the best Roman ancient site  and temples outside Italy in Jerrash and the castle of Ayun.

Temple in Jerrash

Temple in Jerrash

Dip your toes and cover yourself in healing mud at Amman Beach, a Dead Sea resort, or relive the stories of the bible by a trip to Mount Nabo where Moses first caught sight of the Holy Land.

Amman beach resort

Amman beach resort

If you want truly adventure, book a trip to Wadi Rum. This is something you cannot do on your own as guides and 4x4s are required to reach the wild, wild destination where you will camp and sleep under the stars. As you can see, a touch of romance is added to the adventure.

Romance

Why not head for Europe if you chosen honeymoon  theme is romance? In particular to Salzburg in Austria, city of Mozart and Sachertorte. Maybe my association with romance and Salzburg results from the fact that on my fist visit I happened upon a lavish wedding in one of the many parks, complete with sunshine and horse drawn carriage.

Wedding in Salzburg

Wedding in Salzburg

Salzburg invites to leisurely strolls through the old part of town rather than physical exhaustion unless  you decide to make your way to the impressive Festung Salzburg on foot. You can easily take the cable car and enjoy the view from the top.

And then of course, there is the world famous Café Sacher and the chocolate cake called Sachertorte. Sit  and look at the wall of fame and the river Salzach which flows at your feet.

Cafe Sacher

Cafe Sacher

Visit Mozart´s birth house and the museum and if you don´t happen to be there at the time of the Festspiele you can still listen to concerts  year around.

If you feel like an excursion, you might take the train to Munich or the Chiemsee to look at King Ludwig´s last (and unfinished) castle Herrenchiemsee.

The people of Salzburg have a soft spot for honeymooners. Just mention the fact and you´ll find that you´ll  get even better treatment  including a few extras than you would get anyway.

 The danger choice: cruises

I know that what I have to say about cruises will probably invite controversy. However, I am only expressing my personal experience and what I thought of this choice as a honeymoon destination at the time.

It sounds fabulous, gliding across the sea on a swimming palace, never to have to deal with luggage, food no end and at any time of day or night and your every whim catered for by countless  stewards and maids.

This is of course all true, but…..after two days I started to feel claustrophobic. By then you have explored every nook and cranny of the boat and there is nowhere else to go. Your ability to live together as a married couple is tested to the limit. The same applies to your co-passengers. It´s always the same people you happen upon, whether you like them or not. You share the same table  unless you opt to eat a la carte or use the self service facilities , gym space and deck space is also limited.

Sure, there are land excursions  but unless you decide to go off on your own, as I did, it´s guided tours and, again, the same people all the time.

Cruise ship in St. Thomas

Cruise ship in St. Thomas

From start to finish you are tagged and processed, there is little room for individual freedom and all of this may put a strain on a brand new marriage and, in the worst of cases, lead to an early divorce!

I´ll be interested to hear your opinion if and how I am wrong.

 

 

 

 

Where to spend Christmas on your own

Unbelievable how fast this year has gone by. Only a few months and Christmas is coming around again, and with it, for me, the question where to spend the holidays.

Of course for people who have family, the question is mute. Christmas is a time of family reunion, of going home and sharing with your loved ones. If, on the other hand, like me, you have no family, you’ll want to make arrangements.

I do have plenty of lovely and well meaning friends who invite me because they do not want me to spend Christmas alone. But, it deeply depresses me to participate in other family’s merriment, bad memories come back and I have to make a supreme effort to put on   a happy face covering a very black mood. I can’t say this of course, because it would deeply hurt their feelings, so my only alternative is to quietly disappear.

In December, I return to my home in Miami. Being a person who hates the cold, winter in South Florida suits me just fine. I also love the incongruity of the Christmas decorations under a blue sky and burning sun. It amuses me no end to look at Santa and huge Christmas trees and glittering spray on snow in shop windows, wearing flip-flops and a summer dress. But, I have well meaning friends in Miami too, so I better start thinking about where to go.

It’s not an easy choice, because I have so much of it! All of the glorious Caribbean lies at my doorstep and so does Middle and South America. Hurricane season is over  and, as far as I am concerned, there is no better place in the world to be in winter.

I like the Caymans. Seven miles beach is all it promises to be, but even better is Rum Point, the old l smugglers nest always populated with a hopping and colorful local crowd. Or Little Cayman, with no cars and endless snorkeling expeditions. On the other hand, I have visited many times and something new is called for.

I fancy Puerto Rico. I have only been once, very briefly, during a cruise stop which lasted no more than a few hours and was at night. I loved the dreamlike atmosphere of Old San Juan, in moonlight, but I really want to see more. What appeals is the tropical rain forest in the northeast, the volcanic origins of the islands and the many other things to do and see. So, yes, I think my choice has been made.

Sunset over San Juan

 

Castle at the harbour entrance

Panama hat shop in Old San Juan

Instead of lighting candles on a Christmas tree, I’ll sniff the orchids in a rain forest and, finally, get around to buying a chic Panama hat.

Aren't they beautiful?

 

Tortola BVI – the tiniest of everything!

If you plan to travel in that part of the Caribbean, do not miss out on Tortola. Again, I have to thank ‘that’ cruise for having made a stop there, allowing me at least a few hours of great discoveries and fun with what I call ‘the tiniest of everything’.

Starting with the island itself. Tortola is actually the largest of the British Virgin Islands with Road Town as the capital of the entire group. But, it’s still only 13.5 miles long and 3.5 miles wide, so, I guess I’m justified in calling it tiny.  If I remember correctly, I read somewhere that the entire island has something like 10 traffic lights!!

Traffic it does have though and my first experience, when I rushed off the cruise ship and headed for the town center was what goes there by the name of High Street. A main thoroughfare it is, but narrow, winding with a sidewalk you have to step on and off of all the time because otherwise you fall into house entrances and basements.  The cars however thunder down High Street like it’s the Rally in Monte Carlo and you better watch out, particularly as they drive on the left.

Otherwise, High Street is downright romantic. Wooden houses painted in all the colors of the rainbow line the street and many of them are tiny shops, boutiques and art galleries. Tiny again being the imperative word. This must be the smallest bookshop I have ever come across, but look what they have on display.

My favorite bookshop in Tortola

I went in search of an island museum I had heard about and, again, I wasn’t disappointed. It took some doing to find it, but then there were just two rooms in an old wooden house with plenty of artifacts from Tortola’s history and the pirate days of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd who were the first real inhabitants of Tortola. And the dolls. Made from straw, dressed in island outfits and, as the custodian of the museum told me (yes, they had a young girl guarding the treasures!) not to be messed with because they could cast a curse.

Native art in Tortola

She also had a story to tell about her cousin who was a poet and quite mad, but a fixture of the island, always dressed in a three piece black suit and bowler hat. Sadly, he committed suicide out of depression but there were many photographs of him and manuscripts by him in the museum. Local folklore at its best and, again, I was the only visitor. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures though.

After that I headed for the world’s tiniest botanic garden, Joseph Reynold O’Neal Botanic Garden. You can walk around the entire park in 10 minutes, but it’s beautifully kept and I just loved the mural which decorates – of all places – the restroom and the tiny hut which shelters the visitors’ book.

This is where the visitors book lives!

Many people who visit Tortola don’t bother with Road Town. They come for the sailing and water sports, to swim with the dolphins or to visit The Bath on nearby Virgin Gorda. Understandable but a shame because  Road Town is the epitome of Caribbean life style. Which includes: laid back atmosphere, nobody but the cars on High Street is in a hurry, music sounds everywhere, people smile, alcohol, especially rum, is running hot and cold at all hours and the biggest fruit smoothies made from at least five different tropical fruit each. They are so huge they don’t fit in one tall glass, you get a top up, or, if you have to rush off in order not to miss the departure of your cruise liner, a plastic container with a lid to enjoy the overflow on board. I was very reluctant to leave, but then, I will be back at some time in the future.

Colorful former trading point