Destination Inspiration from the Headlines

Thanks to Arian Zwegers for the photo

Read the news headlines of late and you know that parts of Europe are going through some hard times with budget cuts and austerity programs. Read between those lines, however, and you can be inspired with trip ideas. With the dollar strengthening against the Euro and demand for hotels in those areas softening, now is the time to take that shoulder-season vacation to southern Europe. As such, we’re highlighting our favorite Greek Island, Santorini, as this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination.

There have been some sporadic demonstrations in Athens (hey, we have those here too), but Santorini is worlds away from any tension. You’ll feel all of your own tensions melt away when you arrive to this idyllic postcard come to life with its cobalt-blue-topped, white-washed buildings spilling down the hillsides of the crescent-shaped volcanic island. Winding alleyways, public walking paths, hillsides terraced with bushy grapevines and mesmerizing beaches await the traveler. What’s not to love?

Santorini, also known as Thira, is the southern-most island of the Cycladic group of islands located in the Aegean Sea. It’s 63 nautical miles north of Crete, has a population of about 14,000 distributed among 13 villages, and covers 28 square miles. Here are some of our recommendations should you find yourself visiting this light-bathed beauty:

Take a Walk
Our favorite times on the island have involved unscheduled exploration. The six-mile walking path from Fira to Oia, along a ridge that used to be the lip of the volcano, is not to be missed. You’ll follow the path through small villages and churches that practically demand dawdling. If you can time your meanderings to end up in Oia (also known as Ia) at sunset you’ll be rewarded with one of those moments that sears into your memory for years. Just follow the troops of Apollo worshipers to the zigzagged levels of walkways that offer the best viewing spots and watch a red ball of fire descend into the Aegean.

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The Best-Preserved Colonial Town on the Equator

 

Thanks to jrubenek for the photo

We took a few weeks off from the blog posts at TripTuner because we were doing some late summer traveling ourselves, but are now ready and raring to highlight more of the great destinations found on our site. Columbus Day is just a few weeks away, so now’s the time to start planning your trip. In honor of Columbus’ arrival to the new world, we thought we would highlight a destination in Latin America. This week’s locale is one of the most beautiful capital cities in the Spanish-speaking world: Quito, Ecuador.

Folded between green pleats of rolling hills and the Pinchincha volcano, Quito’s setting is spectacular. Terraced plots on the hillside are decorative mosaics above the shiny metropolis. The whitewashed buildings and colonial masterpieces of Old Town give way to expansive parks and modern edifices as you move up the valley. It really is quite staggering to find such natural beauty in a metropolis of about 2.5 million people.

My husband Bryan and I spent weeks on end in Quito while we were researching a guidebook on Ecuador. The town has it all – intriguing museums, excellent hotels, superior shopping opportunities, and unique colonial architecture. You might even find a Columbus Day (know in Ecuador as “Día de la Raza,” or “Day of the People”) parade while you’re there.

Here are some of my highlights of the city:

Old Town – Quito Antigua
There may be a higher concentration of colonial churches and religious art in Quito’s downtown than anywhere else in the world. That, and the fact that many of the buildings have been maintained in the colonial style, led UNESCO to name the entire area a World Heritage Site. I won’t go into detail about all there is to see downtown, but will simply call out some of my favorites. The tranquil Independence Plaza, with its spotless, manicured lawns, is a must-visit. Closed to traffic on two sides, it’s one of the mellower spots downtown. The soaring Gothic and Baroque-influenced Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the oldest in South America, sits on one edge of the plaza, while the Government Palace is on another. Also worth a visit is the San Francisco Monastery – take a look up to the choir area to notice the elaborate Moorish-style ceiling and large organ. The organ, capable of playing over 5000 notes, is only played once a year because the intricate wooden ceiling is made without nails or glue. Should one piece of wood be vibrated loose, the whole thing will fall.

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Supping Your Way through Seattle

 

Thanks to Acradenia for the photo.

TripTuner reached a key company milestone last week when we exhibited at our first trade show in Seattle. What a wonderful place to “have” to visit when most of the country is breaking heat records. We were greeted with perfect 75 degree and sunny weather — just what Seattle’s Convention & Visitors Bureau ordered. We were so taken by our visit that we have decided to feature the city as this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday locale.

We were in town for the Destination Marketing Association International’s 2012 annual convention. Although the convention kept us busy most of the day and into the night, we still managed to delve into some of the city’s flourishing food scene. You might want to check out some of these spots the next time you are planning a trip to the Emerald City.

The event’s opening night celebration took place on the waterfront at Bell Harbor. Located just up the waterfront from foodie Mecca Pike Place Market, Bell Harbor offers stunning views of Elliott Bay, the Olympic Mountains, and the Seattle Skyline. Against this backdrop we were treated to some of the state’s top culinary and viticultural delights. Here are a few standouts:

Dusted Valley Vintners
This Walla Walla winery was the most memorable for us among the many excellent options at the event. The Syrah was smooth and flavorful with a silky finish and the Rosé was perfect for a warm Seattle evening — very similar to a Côtes de Provence. As the Dusted Valley owners say, “The first two glasses are for your health, the second two are for ours.” Let’s just say that the owners should be feeling pretty healthy these days. (Although the winery is located in eastern Washington, they do have a tasting room about 30 minutes northeast of downtown Seattle that would be worth a visit.)

El Gaucho
After treating our palates to an array of fine cheeses and slurping away at the oyster bar, we were looking for something a little more substantive. The tender and juicy steak from Seattle’s El Gaucho fit the bill. Serving 28-day dry-aged Niman Ranch Angus Beef, El Gaucho prepares its steaks on a one-of-a-kind charcoal grill in an open-exhibition style kitchen. Whatever the process, the outcome is pure delicioso. We were tempted to stop by their downtown Seattle restaurant another evening to sit outside on the waterfront deck and take advantage of the perfect weather, but simply ran out of time.

Theo Chocolate
This swoon-inducing chocolate is made by the first organic, fair trade, bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the United States. Theo’s growers earn a living wage, the factory is powered by green energy sources, and packing and printing methods are sustainable. Most importantly however, the chocolate is divine. The factory, located on Phinney Avenue in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, is open for public tours daily. In addition to learning all about how chocolate is made, you get plenty of tasting opportunities.
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100 Hours of Felicidad in Central America’s New Hotspot

FeThanks to SE Estep for the photo.

One of my favorite books is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. The novel’s fictional town of Macondo, where the illogical is viewed as normal, is as central to the book as the main characters. Although the story is supposed to be set in Marquez’s home country of Colombia, I felt as close to visiting Macondo as I ever have in Nicaragua, this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination.

Nicaragua is on my mind because a friend of mine just came to me asking for Central America trip ideas. She knows that I have lived and traveled throughout Latin America, so trusted me for some guidance on her next vacation. My advice to her (and to anybody that reads this blog post) is to book a flight to the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes. A perfect spot for a four-day – roughly 100 hours – visit.

Nicaragua offers a bit of everything for adventurous travelers – the country possesses jungles teeming with monkeys, parrots, and other exotic animals; pristine, empty beaches; charming colonial towns; vast lakes studded with volcanoes; and even Caribbean islands.

Most Americans know Nicaragua only from the headlines created during the Sandinista Revolution in late 70s and early 80s. Over the last twenty years however, the country has transformed into a peaceful and safe vacation destination. Discovered and frequented by backpackers in the last decade, the country is now developing a burgeoning sector of stylish boutique resorts as well. If you wonder what Costa Rica might have been like 20 years ago, then book a flight to Managua, Nicaragua to find out. Here are two don’t miss areas:

Granada
Founded in 1524, Granada offers a surreal mixture of the old and new about an hour southeast of Managua — horse-drawn carriages share the road with ox-carts and motorcycles while centuries-old buildings bear advertisements for cellular phone companies. Parque Colón, the town’s main plaza, comes right out of central casting. A yellow cathedral anchors one end of the tree-covered park and brightly painted facades grace the buildings surround its exterior. To the south looms giant Volcano Mombacho and to the east lays Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.

A parade of humanity uses the plaza as its living room. Old men play cards at rickety tables, women sit gossiping on benches, kids snap old-fashioned clappers, and birds chatter in the trees. The tropical heat slows all movement down to a dreamlike pace.
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My Sedona: Playing Hooky on the Rocks

Thanks to bill85704 for the photo

Sometimes trip ideas come to you in the blink of an eye. One minute you are sitting at your computer wishing you were outside and an hour later you’re in a car driving through a stunning red rock canyon.

Nothing says summer like blowing off responsibilities and heading outdoors for some fun in the sun. I was hard at work yesterday when my daughter asked if we could go to swimming. Like Tom Sawyer ditching piano lessons to go to go for a dip with Huck, I decided that a morning of swimming holes and natural water slides in Sedona, Arizona would be just the ticket for both of us – and luckily we didn’t have an Aunt Polly to answer to after visiting this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination.

Sedona, about two hours north of Phoenix and 45 minutes south of Flagstaff, is justifiably famous for the magnificent red buttes that ring the town. The year-round mild climate and surreal, cosmically-imbued formations attract travelers to Sedona like the healing magnets found in the town’s many New Age stores. Less well known are the waters that run through the area which have played their part in carving the majestic slabs. Oak Creek, slicing its way south from the Colorado Plateau near Flagstaff, has sculpted many world-class swimming holes in this spectacular natural setting. Here are some of our favorites:

Slide Rock State Park 
Named by Life Magazine as one of America’s ten most beautiful swimming holes, Slide Rock is the gold (or should I say “red”?) standard for fun in the creek. Located on an old farmstead and apple orchard along the creek, the park offers natural water slides, picnic areas, and cliff jumping. Extremely popular in the summer, the park’s parking lot limits how many people are allowed in the water. As soon as it fills up, no more visitors are let in until somebody leaves. My daughter and I hustle down the canyon and make it just in time, as the lot closed three cars after us. Whew.

We walk through the orchard to get down to the water’s edge. Stunning red rocks, worn smooth by the flow of water, have created natural water slides. Although the air is warm, the water is bracing, making for a refreshing contrast. We start on the lower, tamer set of slides and then work our way up to the larger and faster shoots. S is now old enough to also enjoy hurling herself off the 20-foot ledges down into the water – something that I love to do but that scares me when she does it.
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Go Under-the-Radar in Europe this Summer

Last year my husband Bryan and I were kicking around trip ideas. TripTuner had not launched yet, so we weren’t lucky enough to be able to fine tune a range of personalized options for our summer vacation. We had to do the research ourselves. I wanted Italy for the fantastic food and romantic scenery, but felt like that would have been too easy since I’ve been a few times already. Bryan was leaning towards an active trip with mountains and outdoor adventure. We found all of that and more when we stumbled across the tiny country of Slovenia.  It’s capital Ljubljana is this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination.

With a population of only two million, Slovenia is an unknown travel spot to many American vacationers. Sandwiched between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, the tiny country — which is part of the E.U. — is about the size of New Jersey (but all similarities end there). Slovenia offers towering alps, Italianate wine country, Adriatic coastline, and abundant outdoor adventures all within a few hours’ drive.

Logistically, the country is easy to get to and travel around. We arrived on the national airline, Adria Airways, just a short flight from Zurich. Renting a car was the way to go, as the highways are excellent, it offered us great freedom, and the price was right. We could even use our iPhones to navigate.

If your idea of a great vacation includes miles of hiking trails, back-country huts, mountain biking, rafting, spelunking, or canyoning, Slovenia is just your place. If you’d also like gourmet meals, surprisingly good wine, and wandering cobblestone streets, then Slovenia works as well. Here are a few highlights from our trip (please feel free to add your own tips and experiences to our comments section below):

Trekking the Julian Alps

Stark and menacing compared to the soft green foothills at its base, the craggy limestone peaks of the Julian Alps straddle part of the border between Italy and Slovenia. Dominated by 9,300-foot Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak, much of the Julian Alps lie within Triglav National Park. With miles of hiking trails and an established back-country hut-to-hut camping system, the park was one of our first destinations. We drove the scenic winding road over the pass and stopped for an alpine hike along the way. We took our trip in late June, a fantastic time to travel the country. School is not out yet, so there are no crowds, but the weather is warm enough to enjoy a wide array of activities. We only saw one other couple, Austrians who had crossed over for the day, on our two-hour hike.
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A Local’s Tour of Summertime Austin

Thanks to TimothyJ for the photo.

No matter how far removed from school we are, by the time June rolls around many of us still yearn for a few months of freewheeling childlike fun. I still long for the summers I spent growing up in Austin, Texas. It provides all you’d expect of an epic summer experience, so please join me for a local’s tour featuring a few personal highlights in this week’s installment of #WhereToGoWednesday.

Austin deserves all the press and praise it gets for its world-famous music scene and the innate coolness that comes from being a high-tech hub, but there is far more to do than simply club hop and shop for skinny jeans in the heart of Texas. Here are a few tips for spending some summer vacation time in the town that we’d all like to keep weird.

On a Lake
Austin is an anomaly to people who think of the Lone Star state as one vast expanse of flat, dry land. Hilly and green, it’s blessed with a string of lakes that course through town, and on the water is the place to be during the summer. I spent every weekend on a boat as a kid, and even more time when I could finally drive the boat to waterski and hang out lakeside with friends. You should, too! Rent a boat on Lake Travis, a paddleboard on Lake Austin, or a canoe on Lake Bird Lake right in downtown.

In a Texas-Sized Pool
Speaking of water, the most famous pool in Austin is also one of its most refreshing. Barton Springs Pool, located within the downtown area’s 358-acre Zilker Park, is one of the city’s most famous landmarks and because it’s spring fed, stays a refreshing 68 degrees year round. Drawing an eclectic crowd, Barton Springs is almost as good for people watching as it is for swimming. Topless sunbathing is legal and although not as popular as it was in the psychedelic 70s, it’s still practiced by some visitors. Part of the pool has been left as natural limestone, so you can spot fish and sea plants while you swim laps in three acres of water.
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Adventure Travel Within Reach, Baja-Style

Thanks to Bryan Estep for the photo taken at Villa del Palmar

I LOVE outdoor adventure travel. But logistics can be a pain. If I am planning a trip with limited vacation time, and just getting to the activity from my hotel is going to take longer than the activity itself, I’ll bag the whole deal. On the other hand, some of my favorite trip activities — like hiking, kayaking, and scuba diving –generally involve advanced coordination and transport time. (Sigh). What’s a girl to do? Well, you can travel to Loreto, Mexico – this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination. You can fly directly there in under two hours from Los Angeles, and once you’ve arrived, Loreto provides some of the most accessible adventure travel options anywhere.

Last week my husband Bryan and I stole away to Loreto for the long Memorial Day weekend. Loreto is a picturesque colonial town tucked between the rugged Sierra Gigante Mountains and the placid, cobalt Sea of Cortez, about two-thirds of the way down Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Although the town itself is quite appealing — with a well-preserved, centuries-old Jesuit mission and leafy square — the Bay of Loreto National Marine Park is the real draw.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, the marine park covers over 500,000 acres and includes a number of uninhabited islands easily reachable from shore. It’s North America’s version of the Galapagos Islands, with some 695 plant species, 891 fish species, and 39% of the world’s total species of marine mammals. This makes it a Mecca for ocean activities like scuba diving, kayaking, and sport-fishing. The calm waters of the Sea of Cortez are the perfect place to paddle around to quiet, isolated beaches. But what amazed us was how easy it was to experience these off-shore delights.

Our resort, Villa del Palmar, is perfectly situated south of town and directly in front of the islands of Loreto. Sitting on our balcony the first morning, we were transfixed by expansive views that included layers of corduroy mountains, a calm, blue bay with a few anchored sloops, and multiple craggy desert (and deserted) islands just off shore. We couldn’t wait to get out there — and luckily, we didn’t have to. After a quick stop by the activities desk, we walked down to the beach where we were outfitting with snorkeling gear and a two-person kayak. Total time investment—about ten minutes. How easy was that?

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A Contrarian’s Summer Travel Options

Call me contrarian, but I often find myself planning trips when others don’t want to go.  Instead of visiting destinations during the crowded high season, I try to hit them when they actually need travelers.  Of course, given the realities of the typical work or school schedule, it can be hard to time an off-peak trip.  But for those who seek it out, lower prices and a less hectic experience is their reward.  So as the masses rush to the beach this summer, I’ll be whizzing by them in the opposite lane on my way to the mountains – they’re this week’s theme for #WhereToGoWednesday.

Maybe it’s the fact that it was 102 degrees in Phoenix today, but I couldn’t help but play around on the TripTuner sliders and daydream about escaping my puddle of sweat. Just the act of moving the slider all the way from Bikini to Parka made my office feel ten degrees cooler. Moving the next one from Beach to Mountain had me envisioning snow-capped peaks and lush wildflowers instead of the sizzling heat waves I could see through my window. Here were two of my top matches:

Thanks to katalicia1 for the photo

Vail, Colorado
Vail is known as a prime winter destination, with 5,300 hundred acres of skiing and boarding terrain and a sophisticated infrastructure of hotels, restaurants, and shopping to support all that schussing. It used to be that ski mountains put all of their eggs into the winter basket, but recently resorts have started catering to summer crowds as well to help that infrastructure make it through the rest of the year. Vail is no exception.

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Three Memorial Day Trip Ideas from a Panicked Mom

Ten days till Memorial Day weekend.  Work’s been crazy, so I haven’t had a chance to even think about trip ideas.  But I’m not going to let the start of summer slip away. Here’s what I did…

Being new at TripTuner, I figured that I need to become an expert on on the site quickly — what better way than to use it to plan my family’s own getaway? I hop onto the homepage and start adjusting the sliders.

Relaxing vs. Active? Adults vs Kid-friendly? Hmmm.  I’ll definitely need to balance this well.  My energetic nine-year old will need some outdoor options for running around, but since I’m wearing the trip-planning hat for this one, my husband and I better like it, too.  So the first slider moves to active, and I’ll keep the second one in the middle. Beaches and mountains are both fine with me, and I can either liven things up or go remote for this trip so I’ll keep those in the middle as well.  (Mom and Dad would push it all the way to remote, but with daughter in tow and a shorter vacation time frame, we’ll keep it in the middle). I know, I’m not going out on any limbs here, but I’m open for suggestions.  Here are the top 3 that TripTuner came up with:

thanks to monikomad for the photo

Flagstaff, Arizona
Wow. TripTuner nailed it. This funky mountain town just a few hours north of Phoenix is my family’s favorite in-state getaway. With 50 miles of urban trails and thousands of acres of National Forest, it’s a place we can all get our fingers in the dirt while biking, hiking, and playing in the pine and aspen woods. We’ll explore haunting 800-year-old pueblo ruins or star gaze at Lowell Observatory, where the now-demoted Pluto was discovered. The 7,000 foot elevation means temperatures that are 20 to 30 degrees cooler than Phoenix – something you won’t hear any complaints about from my crew. Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the summer in Flag with free Movies on the Square on Friday nights, free Summer Concerts, and the first Sunday Farmer’s Market of the season. Oh yeah, and the Grand Canyon is only an hour away.
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