Great Reviews: Where We Went in 2015
GoNOMAD prides itself on having staffers who travel. People who walk the walk, and experience lots of travel all year around. In this spirit, we again present our annual “Where We Went” column looking back at a year’s worth of traveling and sharing it with our readers. We hope you too got to explore the world in 2015, and that GoNOMAD might inspire you to more travels in 2016!
My traveling year began in California, a rare chance to take my partner Mary with me on one of my journeys. We took a road trip down the Northern California coast from San Francisco to the wine-producing region of San Luis Obisbo.
These rolling hills are spectacular, as was our hostess, Pattea, who runs a wonderful B&B in the village of Edna. We sampled the wines and then moved down the coast to Morro Bay, a romantic fisherman’s village with great kayaking and wildlife viewing.
In March, I joined a group of 35 travel writers on a rollicking tour of the state of Louisiana, as part of the Tavel South Conference. The highlight was the authentic and moving zydeco music we listened to in a beat up old juke joint in Lafayette.
In April I joined my traveling buddy Jack Dunphy on a visit to Annapolis Maryland. We took the Amtrak train and discovered a waterfront city that’s full of energy–and the beautiful US Naval Academy is another highlight. Paul Shoul and I returned to the Nordic world with a trip to Hanko, Turku and Helsinki, Finland, just in time for that city’s Restaurant Day, where anyone can open their own pop-up restaurant for a day. The Finns culinary ability was a big part of our research there.
In June I returned to my favorite foreign destination with a road trip to meet winemakers in France’s Loire Valley. The vineyards, the castles, and of course the splendid white wines of this fantastic region and perfect weather made this a fun time, though traveling solo was different than other excursions there. In July we sailed out to Martha’s Vineyard to stay in one of the island’s legendary hotels, the Harbor View Hotel, which overlooks beautiful Edgartown Harbor.
In September I met up with the folks who have developed the MEET program and traveled on two of their new ecotours, one to the Sinis Peninsula of Sardinia, and then to the Islands of Provence. I was enticed back down the Amtrak route to visit the Hotel RL in Baltimore for a trip that included cracked crab and exploring Fells Point in September. I capped off my year with a short trip to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, helping to celebrate the newest Michelin star chefs on the country.
2015 was another great year of travel for me with Gonomad. From fishing off the coast of Florida to the mountains of Italy, I kick myself at the end of every year just to make sure I am not dreaming that I have the good fortune to work with Max Hartshorne and Gonomad to travel the world.
First stop on the planet was in Finland for a road trip with Max. Starting in Turku, a beautiful historic and university town on the southwest coast and only a two-hour drive from the capital, Turku has a thriving new restaurant scene that is challenging Helsinki as a the top culinary destination in the country. In fact,we were honored to eat at what is considered by many to the best restaurant in Finland, Kaskis. These young chefs are creating a new direction for Finnish food.
In Hanko, A historic coastal port town and popular summer vacation spot, We stayed at Hotel Villa Maija, a historic Inn. We were honored to have lunch at the home of Leena and Timo Immonen. She is a local tourist guide and her husband is a retired industrialist who is now a prolific writer. She made a traditional springtime dish of Graavilohi (salt-cured salmon), new potatoes dill and ribbons of creamy Finnish butter.
In Helsinki we sat down with Chef Antti Tumola, the founder of restaurant day. Antti is first and foremost a wonderful chef. In typical Finnish manner, he is low key about such a huge accomplishment.He was not even in Helsinki the next day, when the parks streets and homes of will host thousands of people sampling the plethora of one day pop up restaurants. Since its creation in 2011, Restaurant Day has spread to 68 different countries.
Cape Breton Road Trip
Next up was a road trip to Inverness on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. I have come to love this region and have been returning to photograph the lobstermen fishing off the rocky coast. Cape Breton is spectacular. It is hard to match the views when you drive along the cliffs on the Cabot Trail, but a feast of endless Lobsters on the last day of the season was pretty damn good too!
Italy was my next stop to explore the 7,000 acre Monte Rufeno Nature Reserve on the borders of Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. I was a guest of the Lazio region partner project of MEET, The Mediterranean Experience of Ecotourism. MEET is cooperative of eight project partners in nine Mediterranean countries. Based around protected areas, their goal is to encourage conservation and create a model for sustainable eco tourism through authentic experiences with the local community and nature.
Travelers in the know describe this rural area of Italy as the undiscovered Tuscany. Rolling hills with endless olive groves? Check. Locally produced wine? Check. Stay in an ancient home on a working farm? Check. Sleep in a castle in a medieval town and have dinner with an opera singer performing around your table? Lazio has all this and and less. No hordes of tourists.
My final trip for the year found me in northern Italy, this time in the town of Treviso, a half an hour from Venice. A historic and prospering town, Treviso and the region are famous for Prosecco, the sparkling wine that originates from here. It is also the birthplace of Tiramisu, the world renowned dessert that legend has it was used as an aphrodisiac.
A happy new year to all my fellow travelers. See you somewhere on the planet in 2016!
In January, ‘Belize it or not’, Sonja escaped the frigid upstate New York temps for a gutsy dive off the coast of the island of Ambergris Caye in Belize. “The Great Blue Hole is easily considered the most amazing underwater sinkhole in the world!” exclaimed Captain Edgar of the Amigos Del Mar Dive Shop. Sonja explored the murky depths of the 480-foot deep hole with her recent PADI-certified companion George. A sudden surge of anxiety (vertigo, hyperventilation) overwhelmed the writer but her scuba buddy fared well, not the least bit fearful of sharks circling them or the isolating chasms.
48 hours later they bid the barrier reef adieu and flew to the foothills of the Sibun National Forest Preserve in Central Belize. Sleeping Giant resort treated the couple to an attentive staff, fancy dinners, quiet casitas and warm pools. Surrounded by acres of untouched wilderness they also went cave tubing, night hiking and, of course, mountain climbing.
In February, Sonja returned to documentary shooting on assignment with friends in the sprawling hillsides of Temecula Wine Country, California. The first episode of a sure-to-be wildly successful mini-series called “Roots to the American Dream” is about Dr. Joseph Roetheli, founder of the dog treat, Greenies. The program debuts in 2016. And, despite the work, there was time for hiking too. They looped around Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve where vernal pools teem with fairy shrimp (one of life’s oldest creatures) and native birds. Unfortunately, due to a dangerously dry winter in Southern Cali the ecosystem had mostly evaporated.
Something sweet was happening in Florida in March; the annual Strawberry Festival in Plant City. In between bites of wet shortcake, the Stark family listened to actor Kevin Costner perform heartland originals for an audience who sat loyally in the rain. Florida was followed up by an assignment in Salt Lake City where Sonja extended her stay for spring skiing at Deer Valley, Utah.
July was a month Sonja still brags about to family and friends. Breaking bread with a former Estonian Playboy bunny, singing with the traditional women of a World Heritage island, bog floating at Soomaa National Park and smelling roses at the “Versailles of Latvia” (Rundale Palace), this trip was beyond expectations. Sonja learned to be careful giving a toast in the Baltic states because the expression “Tervis Sulle, Seks Mulle” quite literally translates into “Health to you, sex for me.”
Back-to-school month brought about a return assignment in Hermann, Missouri during an annual celebration called Heritage Days. The area was settled by free-thinking Germans in 1837 due to its’ resemblance to the Rhine Valley.
The fertile soil, mild climate and rolling hillsides proved ideal for farming, brewing and wine making. PilotGirl brought the DJI Inspire for droning Civil war encampments, historic buildings and the Missouri river.
Biking in Canada
Later in the month, Sonja and her beau George biked to the Limestone City or Kingston, Canada from their camp at Three Mile Bay on the St. Lawrence River. They had unwittingly came upon outdoor entertainment in full swing for the bicentennial commemorations of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald, the Father of the Confederation and Canada’s first Prime Minister. They refueled with dark ale and cheesy poutine before biking home.
During leaf-peeping season, Sonja took her Mom and sister to Cape Cod for the 15th annual Wellfleet Oyster Fest. They waited with thousands of shellfish connoisseurs for plates of salt and slime drenched in lemon juice and hot sauce. An interview with a doctor reminded them of an expression by Leon-Paul Fargue who said eating oysters is “like kissing the sea on the lips.”
The end of the year marked a holiday retreat to the Nordic country of Sweden for köttbullar (meatballs), saffron buns and Glögg. Enlivened by the cobblestone streets and smell of reindeer jerky in Stockholm, Sonja circled the Christmas markets of Old Town (Gamla Stan) and the Skansen outdoor museum until nightfall, which comes quickly in winter, already by three o’clock pm. The arctic temperatures gave reason to ‘fika’ or pause for the obligatory cup of coffee and pastry. She toured countless museums including the iconic Vasa warship.
Jean M. Spoljaric
My year in travel for 2015 was less about getting on an airplane and more of a deep emotional journey. Sadly, 2015 brought on the loss of my loving Mother and my beloved dog, Buddy. As life itself can be fun and exciting, at times, it can also be a whirlwind of emotional upswings and low pressure areas.
In between life’s challenging moments, I was lucky enough to escape to the ‘Holy Land.’ I made it all the way way around Israel coming up short and missing only the southern tip, notably, the Red Sea. I managed to swim in the Med, bob in the Dead and almost walk on water in the Sea of Galilee where I experienced communal living and slept in a Kibbutz. I hiked to the ancient City of Masada where the view of the Dead Sea left me breathless.
I took a jeep tour through the Judaean Desert and crawled into a cave to cool off and see bats. I walked the stone pathways of Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall. And, I was reduced to tears as I toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s’ Holocaust Museum. Israel is a giant melting pot of religions, cultures and nationalities. For the most part everyone goes about their everyday life without interruption. Where else in the world do you have Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Arabs, and Israelis all living and working together? The world should take a deeper look at this country, as for the most part, they respect each other for who they are.
In May of this year I found myself in Slovenia’s Goriska Brda wine country where I was introduced to Rebula and Malvazija – wonderful light white wines. Visiting the tasting rooms was like an invitation into the owner’s home…in fact, one vineyard turned out to be just that. The owner, easily in his mid 80s, graciously invited us into his home for wine, lunch, and stories of his life as a vintner whose big customer was Tito himself!
A year can’t go by without a visit to Italy. Venice’s romance never gets old and this year did not disappoint. Exploring back alleys and lesser known squares introduced me to a Venice few tourists see -– the city where the locals live, work, love. Appetizers and spritzers along the canals was our favorite way to end the day.
Just a few hours by train is the seaport city of Trieste whose large open squares and architecture reflect the various empires that have controlled it. For me, lover of all things Italian, one of the most interesting afternoons was spent at the Italo Svevo/James Joyce Museum. The two novelists were great friends and the small museum documents their work and the impact of their friendship on each other.
Earlier this month, December 2015, I headed to a completely different landscape on the Caribbean island of Montserrat – not to be confused with Monserrat in Spain for which it was apparently named by Columbus. This is not the Caribbean of casinos, resorts, and duty free shopping – it’s a naturalist’s dream surrounded by the sea and pristine coral reefs. Great place to get away, as did British music producer, Sir George Martin who recorded the music of the Fab Four. Martin’s home there is now a guest house when he’s not in residence. Stay tuned for my story on GoNomad.
In July, I had a wonderful trip to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where he slept in a teepee at an ancient Native American gathering place, took a canoe ride and a riverboat cruise on the South Saskatchewan River, and sampled the wonderful cuisine, the lively nightlife, and the many cultural attractions of this happening prairie boomtown.
In November he stayed at two great luxury hotels in Toronto, the Hazelton and the Soho Metropolitan and hit all the hotspots: Drake’s new restaurant Fring’s, Top Chef Mark McEwan’s restaurant ONE, and Top Chef Susur Lee’s restaurant Luckee. He also played pingpong, ascended the CN Tower, and visited the year-round home of the Toronto International Film Festival, the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
After two personal trips in the early part of 2015 to The Berkshires skiing and Lancaster PA to explore Amish country, both trips, story worthy, I landed in Sicily on assignment for GoNOMAD. Sicily screams romance and my story focuses on a fantasy vacation– how I would explore this dreamy island if I were more than friends with a handsome Sicilian.
July and August was sun seeking with trips to Ventura, CA and Punta Cana, DR. Like any GoNOMAD follower, I planned these trips linking to GoNOMAD stories for tips and advice.
I’ll be writing a girlfriend’s get away story for Travelgirl magazine on Ann Arbor, Michigan, a terrific town I visited this December. Ann Arbor’s creative food scene rivals any major American city, bringing the term farm fresh to a whole new level. Culture abounds, and I can’t wait to submit this story to Travelgirl. Trust me, Ann Arbor is much more than just a college town.
2015 was filled-to-the-brim with both adventure and travel.
I started the year off right — a trip to Mexico, where I volunteered at El Rancho Del Rey, a home for boys in Santiago, just outside of Monterrey. I was floored by the amount of LOVE for the boys shown by the dorm parents and full-time staff at the home — most of the boys come from drug-infested houses, with parents who are, in one way or another, incapable of taking care of them.
Soon after, I embarked on an exhilarating trip with my girlfriend (Brianna June) up the eastern-most coast of the United States; from Massachusetts, to Burlington, Vermont, to Acadia National Park, and finally, through New Brunswick to Nova Scotia, Canada.
I found out what the sunrise looks like from the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, listened to The North End Honey’s (a talented local music group in downtown Burlington), and ate fresh mussels steamed over a communal fire at Murphy’s Camping by the Ocean (situated in Murphy’s Cove, a town with the same family name as the owners of the campsite).
A few weeks later, I covered the First International Day of Yoga at Times Square in New York City. When I laid my mat on the pavement I couldn’t help but think about the juxtaposition of practicing yoga in the center of the busiest city on earth.
After New York, I had the opportunity to go to Burlington, Vermont again — this time to cover the Burlington Jazz Festival. It seemed as if the culture of the New York Metropolitan music scene had come to the foothills of Vermont. There was something sweet about the gorgeous landscapes combined with sultry cellars filled with lustrously saturated saxophone notes and gorgeous, smooth jazz rhythms.
In the fall, I experienced the beautiful West Coast of Sweden. I stayed in Gothenburg for a few days, where I ate lavishly and explored the surrounding islands, before I went to the quiet fishing villages of the coast. While on the coast, I sea kayaked and hopped onto a boat headed through the Weather Islands.
My travels in 2015 made for some marvelous memories. In spring I met GoNOMAD editor Max Hartshorne and Michigan travel writer Kim Schneider in Lafayette, Louisiana, and in New Orleans where we had lunch at Antoine’s, dinner at Broussard’s, and breakfast at the newly reopened Brennan’s, which has been beautifully reborn in the French Quarter. Then Kim and I stayed in the elegant guest houses of Houmas House Plantation.
My next adventure took me to magical Kenya, where I was thrilled to be awakened by giraffe each morning and feed them from my window at Giraffe Manor in Karen, outside Nairobi on land that was once part of Karen Blixen’s (Out of Africa) coffee plantation. While in Karen, I also spent a night at Hemingways Nairobi, a luxury property at the foot of the Ngong Hills. From there, I flew to a remote safari camp Saruni Samburu at the heart of the Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy, near the Northern border of the Samburu National Reserve.
I was also able to visit schools and villages in the area. From there, I flew to the Masai Mara and stayed at Naboisho Camp in the Naboisho Conservancy (a 50,000 acre area) that lies to the far east of the Mara/Serengeti Ecosystem. From there, I went to Diani on the Indian Ocean and stayed at the Baobab Beach Resort and Spa.
From there I made a solo pilgrimage to the place where “Born Free” author Joy Davidson and her husband George lived at Elsa’s Kopje in Meru, a luxury safari camp sculpted into Mughwango Hill, above the site of the Adamsons’ original camp where they raised and released orphaned lions. I then travelled by car to a remote desert area of Shaba to visit Joy’s Camp, where Davidson lived and died.
The love of such wild places led my family and I to go to Big Bend National Park for spring break, too, and we enjoyed staying at the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon and visited the ghost town of Terlingua.
In July, my son Reid accompanied me on assignment in Northern England, where we began a three-week adventure starting in Newcastle. There in the Northumbria region we walked along the Roman ruins of Hadrian’s Wall and visited seaside castles, museums, country manors and pubs.
From there, we went to London where we reconnected with old friends (see my GoNomad story about them, “The Boys of Summer”) and stayed in their flat and visited their country house in Surrey. Next we spent two nights at the luxurious Stafford Hotel at St. James Place.
From there, Reid and I went to Paris, then went to see friends in Mallorca, and then went up to Scotland where we spent a week with family friends in Edinburg. In northern Scotland near Forres, Reid and I walked amid the tombs of our forefathers.
Fall was full of excitement, too, as I went on to explore the wonders of Wales. After that, I returned to London and stayed at The Wellesley. From there, I flew to see food writer and friend Jody Eddy in Dublin. By December I was back in New Orleans once more before going home to Texas for Christmas.