New Zealand: A Natural Beauty

Why traipse halfway around the world to New Zealand? Because it’s stunning! And you will have it practically all to yourself! Volcanos, rain forests, glaciers, mountains, bright-blue/green lakes and ocean, lovely vineyards, lush farmland, world-class fishing, white sand beaches, penguins and luxurious lodges. Road trip!

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Rippon Vineyard (photo courtesy of Julian Apse)

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Tunnel Beach, Dunedin (photo courtesy of DunedinNZ)

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Tongariro National Park (photo by Camilla Rutherford courtesy of Tourism New Zealand)

38773AM00: Aoraki / Mount Cook (3754m) and Lake Pukaki in winter. Mt La Perouse (3078m) left, Tasman Valley and Burnett Mountains Range right. Panorama with late autumn colours, Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, MacKenzie District, New Zealand. Photocred

Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, MacKenzie District (photo by Rob Suisted / www.naturespic.co.nz)

NZ is 2/3 the size of California with only 4 million people…that’s 16 people per square kilometer. So when you’re driving around NZ outside of its metropolitan areas, you will encounter no traffic, no competition to see its gorgeous sites, and lots and lots of peaceful space. Exhale…

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miles of undeveloped beaches (photo by Scott Venning courtesy of Tourism New Zealand)

SEE THE SIGHTS 

In preparation for our trip, I consulted with a friend-of-friend, who is a Kiwi (not a pejorative). He whipped out a map of his country and circled the places he thought we should see. He circled practically everything on the map! Message: All of NZ is worth seeing. Take Away: Choose a great hotel from the list below, consult its website’s Activities List, and take daily road trips from your lux lodge.

Canterbury (photo by Elite Images)

The following of NZ’s many sights are tried-and-true by Mimi’s Travel File:

South Island

  • Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park — home of the highest mountains and the longest glaciers…alpine in the purest sense
  • Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers in Westland National Park — While you can walk up to the base of these huge Ice Age glaciers, helicopter up the mountain and walk on top of the glacier. Such a thrill! FJ’s glacier is 100 feet deep and packed with ice that is blue due to lack of oxygen.
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Fox Glacier near Franz Joseph (photo courtesy of Gareth Eyres)

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He-man heli-pilot on top of Fox Glacier: He is wearing shorts because the heliport, at the base of this mountain, is set in a rain forest!

  • Drive from Franz Joseph to Haast along the Haast River and beach — so beautiful!

(photo by Scott Venning courtesy of Tourism New Zealand)

  • Lake Wanaka — lovely hiking and home of the dramatically-situated Rippon Vineyard

Lake Wanaka

  • Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park — dramatic peaks, dark blue water, frequent downpours that create numerous waterfalls

Milford Sound (photo by Rob Suisted courtesy of Tourism New Zealand): We saw nary a cruise ship on our trip.

North Island

  • Rotorua — Mauri central; on the drive from Coromandel Peninsula to Rotorua, you will see mountains, pastures on plains, steep, hilly terrain, sheep, cows, orchards
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Dairy is NZ’s #1 industry (photo courtesy of Helena Bay)

  • Wai-o-tapu (park with volcanic landscapes and the Lady Knox geyser)
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volcanic landscape

  • Lake Taupo (NZ’s largest lake) and Turangi
  • Napier and Hastings on Hawkes Bay
  • Coromandel Peninsula — rolling hills+tropical rain forest+mountains+ocean — the CP has it all! Its Pauanui, Cathedral Cove and Hahei beaches are especially stunning.
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Miles of tropical rain forests with two-story tall tree ferns! (photo courtesy of Whirinaki Forest Park)

  • Bay of Islands (144 islands, beaches, bays, whales, penguins, dolphins, sailing)
  • Heli­copter to Whakaari (White) Island and Mount Tarawera! White Island is sit­u­ated forty-eight kilo­me­tres from the east coast of the North Island and is New Zealand’s only active marine Vol­cano. Land­ing on the island’s crater floor, your pilot will guide you past the steam­ing fumaroles and boil­ing mud pools to look out over a steam­ing sul­phurous crater lake. The steam melted the coating off my mirrored sunglasses!
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Whakaari Island

This could be you, landing in the volcano on Whakaari/White Island! It’s expensive but well worth it. We had the island all to ourselves=heaven.

  • Tongariro National Park — Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a day-long hike with blue and emerald lakes &  a dual World Heritage site, ranked among the top ten single-day treks in the world.

STAY

Here’s where you will want to stay, as these lodges get the most glowing write-ups in the travel media. Small buzz kill: They can be African-safari-expensive.

North Island

Cape Kidnappers Peninsula

Cape Kidnappers

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Farm at Cape Kidnappers suite: I could be happy here!

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dinner at the Farm at Cape Kidnappers

  • Craggy Range (Hawkes Bay) — a winery with attractive cottage accommodations, per Andrew Harper
  • The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs (north end of island) — recommended by Andrew Harper, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Tablet Hotels; website looks beautiful
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Kauri Cliffs Lodge

  • Solitaire Lodge (Lake Tarawera, 20 minutes drive from Rotorua) — recommended by Small Luxury Hotels, Tablet Hotels, and Mimi’s Travel File (we stayed here in 2014)
  • Wharekauhau Lodge and Country Estate (Featherstone) — recommended by Andrew Harper
  • Eagles Nest (Bay of Islands) — recommended by Mr. and Mrs. Smith Hotels and Small Luxury Hotels; website looks spectacular
  • Helena Bay (east coast, between Auckland and top of the island) — recommended by National Geographic Traveler Magazine
  • Hotel DeBrett (Auckland) — recommended by Mr.  and Mrs. Smith Hotels and Tablet Hotels; Auckland is an attractive city on the Pacific (light/bright blue water) with many sailboats, including several America’s Cup past contenders…watched a sailboat race there for two hours during dinner sitting outside at Euro restaurant

South Island

  • Azur (Queenstown) — recommended by Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Tablet Hotels
  • Kinross Cottages (Queenstown) — Travel+Leisure (2016) described it as “simple and tasteful accommodations on a vineyard that also has a popular wine bar.” It’s also relatively inexpensive. (see comment at the end of this post from my friend who just came back from Kinross Cottages; she was not pleased)
  • Blanket Bay (between Queenstown and Glenorchy) — recommended by Andrew Harper, Tablet Hotels, and Small Luxury Hotels
  • Edenhouse (Nelson, Abel Tasman region) — highly recommended by Andrew Harper
  • Te Waonui Forest Retreat (Franz Joseph) — We stayed here. While it is the best hotel in Franz Joseph, it is merely okay.
  • Eichardt’s Private Hotel  (Queenstown) — recommended by Andrew Harper, Tablet Hotels, Small Luxury Hotels, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith
  • Fiordland Lodge (Te Anau) — recommended by Andrew Harper
  • Lake Timara Lodge (Hawkesbury, Marlborough) — recommended by Andrew Harper
  • Matakauri Lodge (Queenstown, southern end of island) — recommended by Andrew Harper, Mr. and Mrs. Smith Hotels, Tablet Hotels and the FT’s How to Spend It magazine
Matakauri dining outside

Matakauri Lodge–The lodges in which we stayed all had great food!

WARNING: Do not stay at Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet (Lake Wanaka), as we did. As I was reaching for my first hors d’oeuvres during cocktail hour, I was told that guests were allowed to take only two each (strike one). Dinner was at a long, group table. For two nights in a row, we dined with the owner, which could have been fascinating. However, she talked exclusively about herself  and dominated the conversation (strike two). The small decks outside of the bedrooms are not private at all, so other guests walked right outside of the big glass doors by our bed (strike three)…and we paid the big bucks for this!

EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY

Lots of good vineyards here! Click through to Tourism New Zealand‘s site for a suggested itinerary. Travel+Leisure (2016) likes:

In addition to being known for its lamb and venison, “The distinctive food and wine culture I found is vibrant — at once deeply rooted and globally attuned — and unexpectedly provided a glimpse of how the county has been shaped equally by its isolation and its transoceanic ties,” per Travel+Leisure (2016). Following is their list of best places to eat on the South Island:

  • Fleurs Place (Moeraki) — “Fleur Sullivan, the godmother of modern Kiwi cooking, draws diners from all over t her marvelously ramshackle seaside spot.”
  • Harlequin Public House (Christchurch) — “This is the place for platters of oysters, home comfort food, and a great list of New Zealand wines.”
  • Olivers (Clyde) — “serves some of the best food around”
  • Rata (Queenstown) — award-winning cuisine
  • Riverstone Kitchen (near Moeraki) — “a prime stop”
  • Roots (Lyttelton) — “a critically acclaimed bare-bones spot”

SHOP

The things to buy here are jade and sheep skins.

When to go: November-April is the best time to visit, though it can rain any season.

One last thing…ATM’s can be few and far between, so stock up on cash!

Horse-Treks

Though neither my husband nor I had been riding since our childhood, we saddled up in NZ and it was one of the most fun things we did on our trip. The huge, open spaces and gorgeous scenery made it soooo relaxing and memorable. (photo courtesy of Farm at Cape Kidnappers)

 

Swiss Driving Trip: Yodel-ay-hee-hoo!

 

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(photo courtesy of Jungfrau Region Tourism)

The sights featured on this trip were recommended by my French teacher, who is Swiss, and my father, who lived in Geneva for over a year. They are timeless destinations, rich in history and settings. So, hop in the car and let’s drive around Switzerland! My husband and I just took this trip and it was great.

Geneva to Vevey

Take the Lake Road (La Route du Lac)–not the autoroute–from Geneva to Vevey (1-1.5 hours, depending on traffic). TIP: Be sure to time your arrival for anytime other than rush hour!

Montreux Riviera: Vevey (recommend 4 nights)

SEE THE SIGHTS

  • Chateau de Chillon–Take on of the many beautiful 1900’s-era steamers from Vevey to the Chateau de Chillon, a highly photogenic medieval castle on Lake Geneva
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Chateau de Chillon (photo courtesy of montreuxriviera.com)

  • LaVaux Vineyards (a UNESCO World Heritage Site of terraced vineyards dating from the 12th century, on the north shore of Lake Geneva/Lac Leman): You can bike, hike or see the vineyards while eating lunch aboard on of the CGN Belle Époque steamers that cruise the lake frequently each day.
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Lavaux Vineyards (photo courtesy of REGIS COLOMBO/diapo.ch)

  • Vevey’s old town is small and lovely, has some charming shops, and is located on Lake Geneva.
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Vevey (photo courtesy of montreuxrivera.com)

  • Gruyères is 20 minutes’ drive from Vevey: HIGHLY recommend a visit to this “tres jolie” small town and its castle!
  • Neuchatel/Lake Neuchatel (Vevey to Neuchatel is 1 hour and 20 minutes’ drive)

STAY in Vevey

  • Hotel des Trois Couronnes in Vevey (NY Times 2011 & Andrew Harper 2016 & recommended by MySwitzerland.com as “typically Swiss” & gave it 5 stars), 71 rooms, half of which face Lake Geneva; while the bar, two restaurants, and some of the sleeping rooms could use a facelift, the lobby is dramatic, terrace wonderful, and staff is charming and service-oriented; and views onto Lake Geneva couldn’t be better!
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view of Lake Geneva from our room at Hotel des Trois Couronnes

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view from Hotel des Trois Couronnes

  • Grand Hotel du Lac in Vevey, 50 rooms, is a Relais et Chateaux & recommended by MySwitzerland.com as “typically Swiss”& gave it 5 stars; its lobby decor is prettier and more updated than that of Les Trois Couronnes but I read somewhere reputable that its service was not as good. It is also two blocks farther away from the center of Vevey’s old town.

EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY in Vevey

  • Ze Fork on the Water is zee place to eat in Vevey and is booked weeks in advance, so call ahead. Lovely terrace looking onto Lake Geneva!
  • Have lunch on board one of the CGN steamers that motor around Lake Geneva. Their dining rooms are very nice and it’s so much fun to cruise by the little and large towns as you sip champagne!
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dining room on CGN steamer

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one of the beautiful CGN steamers that cruise Lake Geneva

Zermatt/Matterhorn (recommend 2 nights)–via Sion

SEE THE SIGHTS

  • Rhone River valley–The first part of the drive from Vevey to Sion takes you along the Rhone River valley, which is lush, filled with fruit trees and the Lavaux Vineyards. So pretty!
  • Sion–Stop here for lunch on cobble-stoned Rue du Grand Pont, the main street in Sion’s old town, then walk to the two medieval castles that top Sion’s camel-like hills (see sketch below).
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Sion

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Sion: My photos didn’t capture this so I had to resort to this sketch. The two mountains topped with churches with Sion in between is what makes this small city unusual.

  •  Zermatt
    • Tour the Matterhorn Museum
    • Hike up out of Zermatt around the base of the Matterhorn
    • Shop: NOT! The shops are touristy and totally unappealing
    • Take the cogwheel train from Zermatt up, up, up to the Gornergrat (3,089 m) to see the highest peaks of the Alps and a glorious view of the Matterhorn (30 minutes each way)

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STAY in Zermatt

  • The Omnia Hotel: This is a great hotel! The photos don’t do it justice. Just go! You will love it. Get a room with a balcony facing the Matterhorn. Suggest Room X (that’s right, Room X), as its balcony is very private and it’s a big room. Plus, great service, e.g.: When I called down to the Omnia’s desk to ask for a restaurant suggestion for that night, our wedding anniversary, the concierge said he’d call me back in 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes later, exactly (so Swiss!), he called, told me the time of our reservation, and said a bellman was at our bedroom door. When I opened the door, the bellman presented me with a raspberry enshrouded heart-shaped ice cream, and my husband’s and my favorite drinks. Impressive!
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The Omnia with its perfect Matterhorn backdrop

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The Omnia has a sleek James Bond vibe!

EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY in Zermatt

  • The restaurant at the Omnia has one Michelin star and is very good.
  • Restaurant Blatten–Imagine this: You have just hiked around the base of the Matterhorn, far from the madding crowds of Zermatt, and want a genuinely Swiss lunch, like fondue perhaps, up in the mountains. Restaurant Blatten is for you! It’s a 20 minute walk from Zermatt. The owners are fun and welcoming.
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Restaurant Blatten: Those people huddled in the lower right corner of this photo have views of the Matterhorn!

Interlaken area (recommend 3 nights)

Near Interlaken, my Swiss friend recommends Oberhoffen (3 hours drive from Zermatt), Grindelwald & Wengen. We stayed in Grindelwald.

STAY in Grindelwald

  • Aspen Alpin Lifestyle Hotel, 4* by MySwitzerland, an excellent web site for finding hotels, train trips, and restaurants in Switzerland. The Aspen Alpin Lifestyle Hotel (despite its overkill of a name) is up above Grindelwald (5 minute drive), in a small, small village, with big, big views. Get a room with a balcony and make sure you are in the building with the elevator, so you don’t have to lug your steamer trunk up stairs. The corner rooms are the largest. While the check-in area is not pretty, the rest of the hotel is attractively decorated.
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Aspen Alpin Lifestyle Hotel: Check out those views!

SEE THE SIGHTS

  • Observe the locals: While gazing at the big valley views from our Aspen Alpin Lifestyle Hotel’s balcony, I saw the local farmers leading their cows down from the high mountain pastures to their homes for the winter on the lower part of the mountain. They walked right by the hotel. For this once-a-year occasion, the cows wore their extra big cowbells (an autumn tradition) and participated in a prettiest-cow contest–in the Aspen Alpin Lifestyle Hotel’s parking lot! The winner was awarded a crown of flowers and a BIG bell, which its owner later mounted on its barn to advertise his fine-looking bovine. So great!
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cow bells awarded to the prettiest bovine

  • Hike the Heidi-like hills and mountains around Grindelwald. They are heaven! We took the cable car from Grindelwald Grund to Mannlichen and then hiked 1.5 hours to the train station at Kleine-Scheidegg. Huge, breath-taking views and relatively flat hike. Once you reach the K-S train station, you can have lunch and then take another train to Jungfraujoch, the “Top of Europe,” for even higher views of the mountain peaks. Walk a short way from there for lunch at Monchsjochhutte, as recommended to us by a local Heidi.
  • Take the 1.5-hour train trip from Grindelwald to Berne, Switzerland’s capital, for the day. Berne’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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medieval building in Berne’s old town

Zurich area: Braunwald, St. Gallen, Schaffhausen (recommend 4 nights)

SEE THE SIGHTS

  • Schaffhausen–I haven’t been here but my Swiss friend highly recommends this  town that was an important center of trade from the early Middle Ages. Its Old Town is lined with Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo buildings.
  • St. Gallen (1 afternoon)–Beautiful old town, whose cathedral and library (est. 9th century) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. St. Gallen’s origins go back to 612! The stunning library, called the Stiftsbibliothek, has 170,000 works, of which 400 date from before the year 1000.
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St. Gallen Cathedral

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St. Gallen

  • Braunwald–Our last stop was Braunwald. Park your car Linthal at the base of the mountain and take the 7-minute cable car ride up, up and away to the tiny Alpine village (300 residents) of Braunwald, where the Ahorn Hotel’s taxi will pick you up and drive 5 minutes to the lovely hotel…The main activities in Braunwald are hiking and skiing but it would also be a great spot to “chillax” and observe Alpine village life from the comfort of your balcony overlooking the mountains. The suites come with their own saunas!
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hiking above Braunwald

 

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charming bee houses we saw along the trails in and around Braunwald

STAY

Ahorn Chalet Hotel Braunwald–This hotel consists of two BIG suites in the main building and five chalets. The decor is attractive and chef is EXCELLENT. He and his wife expertly manage this nice hotel with world-class views of the mountains and hikes to match. This is remote and yet, you can be back within reach of civilization in 7 minutes by cable care.

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Ahorn Hotel in Braunwald

Switzerland Summer

(photo courtesy of Switzerland Tourism/Andre Meier))

TIP on Tipping in Switzerland: By law, service is included at restaurants, so just leave a little something (“pour boire”), i.e., round up the bill.

TIP on Paying by Credit Card: You will be asked whether you would like to do the cc transaction in Swiss francs or US dollars. Before departing for SW, ask your credit card company for their recommendation, because it may differ from card to card.

Literary Traveling Companions: “Heidi,” by Johanna Spyri, of course; “Daisy Miller,” by Henry James, takes place at the Hotel Des Trois Couronnes in Vevey; and highly recommend the “Eyewitness Guide Switzerland.”

 

Panama: Hats Off!

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Sean Connery does the Panama hat

“Panama is an enchanting oasis, where easy island jaunts and mountain retreats are a way of life…

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(photo courtesy of Vogue magazine)

“Until recently, it was known more as Central America’s economic center, but that booming economy is also paving the way for a rise in next generation designers, artists and chefs.” (Vogue 2016)

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(photo courtesy of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Panama)

Soooo, Panama has an economic center capital city with a charming old section; mountains filled with coffee plantations; and beaches that rival the best of the Caribbean islands…Let’s divide those up and explore the sights, shops, hotels and restaurants of South Carolina-size Panama. Are they worthy of a visit from us??

Panama City

The capital has 1.3 million people, is home to the fastest growing economy in Latin America, and a stable, democratically run government.

SEE THE SIGHTS

Casco-Antiguo

Casco Viejo (photo courtesy of Casco Viejo Walking Tours)

  • Casco Viejo–“…the seductive, burgeoning arts district of Casco ViejoFilled with a continuous hum of Caribbean music and decorated with the paint-chipped facades of Spanish and French colonial buildings, Casco Viejo—the city’s UNESCO-designated historic district—is Panama City’s vibrant, bohemian hub.” (Vogue 2016) Casco Viejo “is where Panama City was relocated in 1673 after the original Pacific settlement was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan…The 100-acre peninsula’s legacy of Spanish, French and American colonial, neoclassical and art nouveau architecture is unique.” (from Las Clementinas‘ web site)
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(photo courtesy of Casco Viejo Walking Tours)

  • Panama Canal“The first set of locks is a less than fifteen minutes drive from Casco Viejo. It is perfectly possible to see a vessel pass through the locks and be back at Casco Viejo in less than two hours.For those who are more curious about the Canal’s history and workings, visit the visitors center, called the Museum at Miraflores, or even do a half-day Canal transit.” (per Las Clementinas)
    • Mimi’s Travel File Tip: I just got back from Panama (January 2017). Two Tips: (1) The very best way to experience the PC is to do the half-day transit. (2) Our Panamanian friends said the Museo del Canal Interoceanic de Panama, located in Casco Viejo, is better that the Museum at Miraflores. We visited the Museo del Canal Interoceanic and, while it is a bit disorganized, it is informative and interesting.
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Panama Canal in the Azuleta (photo courtesy of Captain Rick’s Panama Sailing)

  • Biomuseo–Frank Gehry-designed (his wife is Panamanian) museum is a series of rain-forest-like gardens and biosphere galleries developed with the Smithsonian Institute, recommended by Travel+Leisure (2012). “The Amador Causeway is a narrow land-bridge, built with rocks excavated during the construction of the Panama Canal, that connects Panama City with four islands next to the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal,” per visitpanama.com. The Biodiversity Museum is located on one of these.
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(photo courtesy of e-architect.com)

  •  Pollera Dancing–Not to be confused with pole dancing, pollera is a folkloric style of dancing in which the women wear elaborate and colorful traditional Panamanian costumes. Ask your hotel to recommend someplace to see a performance. It’s beautiful!
  • Soberanía National Park (near the Panama Canal)–“a pristine tropical rainforest noted for its remarkably diverse species,” per Andrew Harper. “Soberania National Park, one of the city’s largest green areas and home to lush flora and varied fauna (such as caimans, crocodiles and iguanas), as well as the starting point to many outstanding birding trails.” (visitpanama.com)
  • Abutting Soberania National Park is the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, a 50-acre reserve of untouched forest and famous for its abundance of bird species, on the eastern bank of the Panama Canal. Check out the view of the rain forest from its 40-meter observation tower!
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(photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Panama)

  • Barro Colorado Island–“Barro Colorado Island is home to the world’s most important tropical research station, with over 500 scientists conducting experiments at any given moment. The Smithsonian allows a very limited number of visitors to the island each year for 3/4-day educational hikes. Due to the popularity of these hikes, several months’  advance booking is suggested, though there are occasionally cancellations.” (from Las Clementinas website)
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(photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Panama)

  • Why all this focus on birds, you may be wondering?–“When the North American winter sets in, Panama is flooded with thousands of species of migratory birds–so much so that the Audubon Society routinely sets and resets its records for most species seen in a day in the jungle just on the edge of Panama City.” (per Las Clementinas website)

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  • Punta Pacifica is a skyscraper zone (bars, restaurants, malls, boutiques) in close proximity to the ocean. The much-lauded Trump Ocean Club International Tower & Hotel (one of only two hotels in Panama liked by Andrew Harper) is located here. However, I have read PP described as “soulless.”
  • Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage site “where you can wander through grassy grounds, exotic trees and the 16th century ruins of the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The cathedral is the best preserved among the stone remains. Climb up 72 feet in its bell tower for expansive views of Panama in all directions. It once served as a lookout post for pirates.” (Forbes 2015)
  • “Just a short one-hour sail from Panama City is the candy-colored Taboga Island, known locally as the Island of Flowers. You’ll find no cars on this island—this white-sand stretch of coastline is a remote paradise where nature trails and flower-lined walkways comprise the local infrastructure…
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    Azuleta (photo courtesy of Captain Rick’s Panama Sailing)

    “Skip the ferry lines and opt for a day aboard the Azuleta, which includes an entire day of sailing on a wooden sailboat. You’ll spend your day kayaking the clear open waters, diving from the highest rungs of the ship, and wandering the paths of quaint Taboga Island.” (Vogue 2016)

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Taboga Island (photo courtesy of Vogue magazine)

STAY

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American Trade Hotel (photo courtesy of Vogue) in Casco Viejo

  • American Trade Hotel: “Stay to enjoy the relaxed tropical ethos of the rooms, but venture out to explore the open-air environment of the first floor communal spaces, where a mosaic-tiled floor makes every step an Instagram opportunity…” per Vogue 2016; Travel+Leisure, 2015, also approves; small swimming pool; 50 rooms, of which all but 13 have balconies. Be sure to get a room with a balcony!

EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY

Panama City’s culinary scene is on the rise. Casco Viejo is at the heart of Panama’s culinary revival…here you’ll find Panama’s best chefs and creative minds.” (Vogue 2016)

  • The American Trade Hotel’s Danilo’s Jazz Club–“where notable Panamanian jazz singers fill the hall with soulful tunes until the early morning hours. Before the night ends, cross the street to…
  • Grab a sunset drink at the rooftop bar, Casa Casco, directly across Plaza Herrera from the American Trade Hotel. Such dreamy pretty views of all of Panama City!
  • Las Clementinas –“Panamanian comfort food” (T+L 2012 and NY Times 2013)
  • Caliope –“…enjoy a farm-to-table feast with a menu designed to reflect local ingredients and culture.” (Vogue 2016) A Mimi’s Travel File favorite!
  • “After dinner, opt for a raucous night of dancing at Casa Jaguarin Casco Viejo (Vogue 2016)
  • ” If you still have energy, leave Casco Viejo for a nightcap at the recently opened Hooch Panama in the San Francisco neighborhood. Built in a speakeasy style…” (Vogue 2016)
  • Intimorecommended by the NY Times, 2015
  • Humo-“adapts American barbecue to Panamanian ingredients,” per NY Times 2014.
  • Maito-near Humo, Maito “has an organic garden of more than 1,000 square feet, growing culantro, ají chombo, ñame (a root vegetable) and micro sprouts. The restaurant offers 10-course-tasting menus ($50) reflecting the history of the canal, incorporating the different ethnicities involved in its creation and the plants and animals around it,” per NY Times 2014.
  • “The most eclectic menu can be found at La Trona on the second floor of the former residence of a queen of the traditional folkloric pollera costume, known for her over-the-top style…decorated with coffered ceilings, red curtains, wrought-iron windows and gaudy Renaissance-style oil paintings. In this two-year-old restaurant, the young chef Alfonso de la Espriella’s menu jumps around from the Mediterranean to South America.” (per the New York Times, 2014)
  • Riesenin a small space in El Cangrejo. There are fewer than a dozen plates driven by what he can get that day from local farmers and fishermen…” (per the NY Times, 2014)

SHOP

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Karavan Gallery

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Karavan Gallery: I want these pillows!

  • Papiro y Yo–“Accessories made using recycled papers”  (T+L 2012)

The Mountains of Western Panama: Boquette

“Shrouded beneath a canopy of clouds, Boquete is Panama’s mountainous refuge: Birds chatter symphonically and volcanic peaks yield to a flourishing landscape of bucolic coffee plantations.(Vogue 2016) “Boquete is a delightful small town 4,000 feet above sea level in the cool highlands of Chiriquí Province… Tucked away on the slopes of the dormant 11,000-foot Barú Volcano, Boquete is surrounded by the country’s richest agricultural land…a dense cloud forest that is teeming with plants and birds, including resplendent quetzals and toucans. We reached Boquete from Panama City via a 50-minute flight to the town of David on the Pacific, followed by a one-hour drive.” (per Andrew Harper)

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(photo courtesy of Vogue magazine)

  •  Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation and Boutique HotelHere, every room comes with a hammock on its front porch—the perfect spot to sip the property’s own “Geisha” coffee, which happens to be one of the world’s most exclusive blends. If you can pull yourself out of the hammock, take a hike or a plantation tour.”-Vogue (2016)
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Finca Lerida in Boquette  (photo courtesy of Vogue 2016)

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Panamonte Inn & Spa

  • “The most venerable hotel in the area is the Panamonte Inn & Spa. All of the 25 rooms are set in a lovely garden, whose rolling lawns are punctuated by noble old trees and flowering bushes.The newest accommodations are the most desirable…Activities include birding, coffee plantation tours, whitewater rafting, hiking, horseback riding and golf; hot springs nearby.” (one of only two hotels in Panama recommended by Andrew Harper)

Beaches & Islands of Panama

  • Island-hopping escapades are just a short jaunt away . Located off the northern Caribbean coast of Panama, the 365 islands that make up the San Blas Islands (2.5 hour drive from Panama City) all seem to come standard with white-sand beaches, coconuts for purchase, and leaning palm trees that will make any city-dweller contemplate life off the grid. Explore the region with a tour from Thread Caravan—visit with the indigenous Guna people, learn the complexity of hand-embroidering mola textiles, and spend your days snorkeling and sailing the pristine ocean waters.” (Vogue 2016)
    • Mimi’s Travel File Tried and True Rec: Just back (Jan. 2017) from chartering a captained catamaran through Susan Bruce Travel. She and her staff are good!
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(photo courtesy of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Panama)

  • Portobelo (on the Caribbean, a 90-minute drive from Panama City)–The hotel here looks GREAT! In addition to being recommended by the Wall Street Journal (2013), InStyle (2012), and Condé Nast Traveler (2013), Mr. and Mrs. Smith love it: “Tucked away across a cerulean Caribbean bay from the historic port town of Portobelo, El Otro Lado hotel is a laid-back, yet luxurious, outpost of traditional Panamanian culture that’s right at home in the jungle-blanketed wild. With original artwork adorning every room, local woodworkers carving sculptures on site, creative Caribbean cuisine and an ambitious list of activities for outdoor enthusiasts, this jungle retreat is the ideal mix of art and adventure.

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El Otro Lado is perfectly positioned for history buffs curious about the lore-loaded colonial town of Portobelo…For a glimpse of life in one of Panama’s native tribes, journey to Charges National Park where you’ll travel up the Charges River by canoe to spend the day in an Embera village. Once there, you’ll listen to music, watch native dances and admire the highly detailed woven baskets and vibrant beaded necklaces created by the Embera.” (see Mr. and Mrs. Smith for more details) –7 rooms

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(photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Panama)

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(photo courtesy of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Panama)

TIP: December-April is the best time to visit.

 –posted July 2016

Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Trail

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Road trip! Did you know that the first-recorded bluegrass music came out of southwest Virginia? And that June Carter Cash’s roots are there as well? And that June comes from country music royalty?! The Crooked Road Music Trail is a 330-mile driving trail through the mountains of SW Virginia, along which are many live bluegrass venues, from the neighborhood Dairy Queen that hosts jam sessions, to regular Friday night jamborees at the 100-year old Floyd Country Store, to the 100+ seat Carter Family Fold in a beautiful hollow, where the man responsible for the first recording of bluegrass music used to host Saturday night performances of local musicians behind his general store.

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photo courtesy of the Floyd County Tourism Office

Southwestern Virginia is rich in culture. In addition to its wonderful music, you can find beautiful, high-quality woodwork (turned-wood bowls, furniture, etc.), well-executed, artistic pottery, and more. Plus, driving along the country roads in the Blue Ridge Mountains is sooooo relaxingly beautiful.

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FLOYD, VA–a nice, small town in the mountains

SEE THE SIGHTS

  • Floyd Country Store–Friday Night Jamboree, Americana Afternoons, Sunday Music Jam, and the Floyd Radio Show–take your pick! You are guaranteed an authentic experience of traditional Appalachian music and dancing (clogging, anyone?) in this 100-year old country store…a real country store. At the Friday Night Jamboree, to which I have been twice, everyone gets up to dance, from the young to the old to the toothless to the graduate student. It’s fun! No drinkin’ or cussin’ though, as Granny’s Rules apply.

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Here’s a little background from the FCS website: “The Floyd Country Store is renowned as a place to experience authentic Appalachian music, and is home to a group of musicians, flatfoot dancers, and cloggers who are carrying on the tradition of their families, who’d pass the time playing music and dancing together. Everywhere they could, these folks would gather with their friends and families from their front porch to the neighbor’s kitchen. In the 1980’s, folks in Floyd took to coming out to the General Store and began the Friday Night Jamboree tradition that continues today.”

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photo courtesy of the Floyd Country Store

  • After watching the bands at the FCS’ Friday night Jamboree, wander along Floyd’s main street and you will find impromptu jam sessions, small groups of people playing banjos, etc. and gently singing. I have never been to a more musical town, except Vienna, Austria (no exaggeration!).
  •  Blue Ridge Wine Trail–While I haven’t done this so cannot personally vouch for it, click through to the web site to see what you think.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway–lovely drives along gently curling roads with pastoral views of mountains and countryside
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photo courtesy of Hotel Floyd

  • Crooked Road calendar–check it out because my guess is that Floyd and the other little towns along the Crooked Road would be at their most charming to visit when there are no music festivals going on; on the other hand, those music festivals might provide great people watching!

STAY

  • Hotel Floyd (Floyd, VA)–This hotel really hits the spot. Why? Because it is right in downtown Floyd and as such, a two-minute walk to the Floyd Country Store.   It is nice to come “home” to Hotel Floyd’s spacious, comfortable, clean rooms. I stayed here last year and highly recommend it. It is not fancy but neither is Floyd. Rocking chairs outside of many of the rooms, two of which are pet friendly. (40 rooms)
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The Mountain Rose Inn–lovely, isn’t it?!

  • Mountain Rose Inn (Woolwine, VA)–This 100-year-old country house B&B is my second choice only because it is 14 miles from Floyd. I stayed here three years ago and the ride back from Floyd after the Friday night Jamboree along the winding mountain roads seemed a lot longer than 14 miles. The Inn is charmingly decorated and has the softest sheets in the world (Comfy brand). It accurately describes itself as “country elegance in the shadows of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.” Its 100 acres offer hiking as well as hammocks strung along the banks of its creek…very country and relaxing. Lovely front porch! This is a nice place. No dogs allowed inside the Inn/no on-site kennel for overnight pets. (5 rooms)

EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY

  •  Chateau Morrisette Winery–While I cannot personally attest to this, the Mountain Rose Inn recommends it and the photo looks nice, doesn’t it?!

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  • Floyd Country Store–it’s cheap, it’s fun, and you’re right in the heart of the action before the bands start performing
  • Pine Tavern Restaurant–This may be a dump or it may be great. I haven’t been here but it looks loaded with potential! Check it out and let me know.

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SHOP

  • 16 Hands–Recommended by a close friend with very sophisticated taste in pottery, as well as by several travel articles, 16 Hands is an artisans’ collective, featuring potters and woodworkers from the Blue Ridge region.

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  • Farmers MarketSaturdays 9-1, May to November-lovely, low-key with good products

ABINGDON, VA–charming small town (pop. 8,000+), with some lovely old houses

SEE THE SIGHTS

  • Carter Family Fold–Now THIS is a memorable-in-the-very-best-way experience! The CFF is in tiny Hiltons, Virginia, a beautiful 45-minute drive through rural “hollers” (i.e., valleys) dotted with farms and cows. You can hear live bluegrass and “old-time” bands every Saturday night and watch the locals dance, uninhibited, clogging the night away, alone or with a partner. It is so much fun! We also ate here at the little carry-out: $11 for two.
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photo courtesy of the Carter Family Fold

Per Wikipedia: “The Carter Family Fold is dedicated to the preservation and performance of old time country and bluegrass music. It is named in honor of the original Carter Family (A.P., Sara, and Maybelle), who were among the earliest recording artists in country music, with their first records on RCA Victor being released in 1927. The Fold was founded by Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter, in 1979. Most of the participating performers at the Fold are not famous outside the communities of bluegrass and old-time country music. However, Johnny Cash performed at the Fold many times, and played his last concert there on July 5, 2003, a few months before his death. Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, was a daughter of Maybelle Carter.

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Maybelle Carter and her daughters, including June Carter Cash doing a jig (photo courtesy of The Winding Stream)

The concert venue, the “Fold,” is the centerpiece of the Carter Family Memorial Music Center, Inc., a non-profit organization. This includes the 1880’s cabin where A. P. Carter was born.” Bonus: The CFF also has a wonderful museum of Carter family memorabilia.

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A.P.’s boyhood cabin

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close-up of A.P.’s front porch

  •  Heartwood –A 10-minute drive from Abingdon, Heartwood has good gift shop showing off the crafts of SW VA, including rocking chairs, turned-wood bowls, pottery, and lots of good CD’s and DVD’s on bluegrass music; we saw an excellent and fun band here, despite the somewhat antiseptic environment
  • Abingdon–lovely, small town (incorp. in 1778), with charming old houses and the mildly interesting Barter Theater
  • beautiful biking trails

STAY

  • The Martha Washington Inn–Located in Abingdon, this hotel is red brick with white wood trim, long, deep porch with rocking chairs along the front of the building, like a cross between a low-key version of The Homestead and a really nice girls college of old–which “The Martha” actually was for over 50 years; no pets allowed though the MWI can recommend a local kennel & told me that the Holiday Inn Express (charmless) accepts pets for an additional fee; this is a very comfortable, nice place but the restaurant is uninspiring, so ask the front desk for restaurant recommendations in Abingdon (63 rooms)
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photo courtesy of The Martha Washington Inn

DVD Traveling Companion: “The Winding Stream” contains much info about the Carter family, including the establishment of the Carter Family Fold. There are interviews with Rita (A.P. Carter’s granddaughter), who now runs the Fold and emcees performances. “The Winding Stream” shows how huge the Carter Family’s place in music has been ever since the 1930’s or so (country, folk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll).

Literary Traveling Companion: “Gray Mountain,” by John Grishom

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photo courtesy of Hotel Floyd

posted June 2016