Category Archives: Destination Review

Don’t Listen to What They Say, Go See

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of us are different and we experience travel differently. While reading reviews, and listening to others’ advice is helpful when planning a trip, the only way to really experience a destination is to go see it for yourself. People are different, and their opinions vary widely. Here are a few of the opinions that I’ve heard about destinations:

THE FOOD IN ITALY IS BAD: Italy is comprised of many major cities – Rome, Milan, Naples, Florence, Genoa, Bologna, Palermo, Venice and Pisa are just a few. The cuisine varies by region. So it was hard for me to believe that ALL of the food was bad. As one of the world’s most beloved cuisines, it is much more than pizza and spaghetti. We made a point of tasting food in in several cities, including Rome, Naples, Florence, Venice, Capri and Vernazza. We had one of our best meals ever, at a picturesque little restaurant in Positano while driving along the Amalfi coast. The limoncello on Capri was fresh and flavorsome. The olives in Monterosso were like none I’ve ever tasted anywhere else. The pasta dishes were excellent everywhere we went. And don’t even get me started on the gelato.

THE PEOPLE IN PARIS ARE RUDE: I was very concerned about being treated badly in the “City of Lights”, especially since we don’t speak French. But bonjour, Au revoir, merci and big smiles went a long way…. We have been twice and shopped at stores, eaten at cafes, visited museums, even ridden on public transportation. We didn’t find Parisians particularly rude – no more than any other city we’ve visited.

PEOPLE IN CHINA TREAT BLACK PEOPLE LIKE ATTRACTIONS: I’ve heard people say that Chinese people pointed, stared and tried to touch their hair….and other body parts. I’m not disputing them, just saying that we didn’t have that experience. We went to Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai in 2015 and again in 2016 (there’s so much to see that it takes more than one trip to experience it all). Some people were curious and even asked to take pictures with us, but it didn’t make us feel like “attractions”. Many of the people in the major cities were Chinese tourists who appeared to be from outlying areas and probably had not seen many black folks. But it wasn’t too intrusive. In Suzhou we even explored the neighborhoods near the Grand Canal and no one even paid us any attention. After a while I even asked some of them to take pictures with us. It was fun.

THERE’S NOTHING FOR BLACK PEOPLE IN EUROPE: We have a rich history in Europe that would take years to study. For example, in 711 the Moors from northern Africa invaded what is modern day Spain and Portugal. Their rule in the region lasted until 1492 with the 8-month siege of Granada. When we visited Granada (in southern Spain) we toured the magnificent Alhambra Palace and fortress complex. It was constructed in 889 and converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. Moorish poets described it as “a pearl set in emeralds”. Touring those grounds was like walking back in history. We have visited several European countries and have seen black people everywhere we’ve gone. I met this young sister in Monaco. I don’t speak French and she didn’t speak English….but we managed to connect.

We’ve had some very positive travel experiences – and some negative ones too. No travel destination is perfect. But we never base our opinions on anyone else’s experiences. We prefer to draw our own conclusions.

Talk is cheap and everyone’s experience is different, so don’t listen to what they say, go see for yourself.

A Black Man Abroad

Leroy Tyler is one of our youngest and most widely-traveled group members. He has visited more than 27 countries. After following his travel posts for quite I while I was curious to find out how he came to be such a globetrotter. Here’s what he told me.

“When I was a kid, around 8 or 9, my mother got me a kids encyclopedia. I read through it, and got to the geography section, and was instantly hooked on all the buildings and stuff I saw. I made it a mission to go see those places I read about when I got older. When my mother died in 2005, I made it even more of a personal mission to see those places she never made it to, along with the fact that it helped with the ongoing depression from losing her to cancer. The rest is history….”

His travels include trips to Iceland, Ireland, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Ukraine, Czech republic, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, UAE, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Thailand, Cambodia, China, and Canada.

Recently he traveled to Ukraine. The following is how it all went.

Everyone knows something about Chernobyl. Any disaster with such horrifying implications tends to leave a mark on history. But Chernobyl is different. It has struck a chord with us somehow, and has become the inspiration for countless media and art, allowing us to venture off into fantasy worlds.

This wasn’t a fantasy world. This place exists.

Are the depictions in pictures and media true to life? Something out of a post apocalyptic movie? See for yourself.

But first, you have to get there, and you can’t go at will. You need to book a tour.

I booked mine with SoloEast, the oldest tour company that provides tours to the exclusion zone.

Upon arrival at the meeting point, the Kozatskiy hotel, I was greeted by my guide Andrew Vasylievych. Once the rest of the group arrived, we departed for Chernobyl, which is about 2 hours from Kiev.

When we got there, we entered the first checkpoint, where they checked our passports and entrance tickets. Once confirmed, we were allowed to enter. Upon entry I noticed a TON of stray dogs.

Our first stop was a kindergarten. When we walked in, we could just feel the desolation of this place.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Children’s beds with toys left behind, books, dolls, and even Soviet newspapers, just sitting there for the past 32 years. While there, Andrew used his Geiger counter to test the radiation levels outside. Needless to say, the soil is STILL pretty contaminated.

After that, we were provided lunch, consisting of soup, bread, chicken, and salad. Lunch was included in the tour package.

After lunch we entered the 2nd checkpoint. From there, we went to the giant steel structure that houses reactor 4 (the one that exploded). The fog was intense.

Andrew showed us before and after photos of what the reactor looked like, as well as teaching us about the radioactive mass in the basement of the reactor, called the Elephants Foot. This is deemed the most radioactive spot on earth!

From the reactor, we entered the abandoned city of Pripyat, where we explored an abandoned cafeteria with stained glass windows still intact, an amusement park that NEVER got to open, a sports complex, and the infamous swimming pool. We didn’t get to visit the hospital because there was way too much ice on the stairs and railings. Safety is paramount in the exclusion zone.

Our final stop was to Chernobyl 2, a secret military base that houses the decommissioned Duga Radar.During the dying days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union built an early warning detection system to listen out for NATO and U.S. ballistic missiles. This was used for that. The fog added a creepiness to the scene. This thing is MASSIVE!

Upon exit of the exclusion zone, we had to go through radiation detectors to check our radiation levels, then we drove back to Kiev. That 12 hour day was packed with history, great photo opportunities, and an amazing guide.

I highly recommend that everyone visit Chernobyl with SoloEast. Andrew is a phenomenal guide, hysterical and knowledgeable. When you go, tell him I sent you.

If you’d like to see more of Leroy’s travels, follow him on Instagram @ablackmanabroad, or subscribe to his YouTube channel www.youtube.com/leroy30590.

 

 

Cruising the Mediterranean

Malaga….Marseille…Morocco…..these are just a few of the ports that Sylvia Keys and her friends visited during their recent Mediterranean cruise that  sailed from Lisbon, Portugal. The itinerary also included  Barcelona, Spain and Genoa, Italy.     

These ladies have been globetrotting together for some time and have been to Dubai, the ABC Islands, Australia and Fiji. They work in various professions and each brings her special skills and talents to the group. Sylvia is the group leader and researcher who finds the trips, studies the travel books and scopes out the best shopping deals wherever they go (like the Jade Market in Tokyo).  The financial analyst maps out the costs of each trip.  Several of the ladies work in the medical field and focus on keeping everyone healthy. One is a doctor who has loads of Marriott points (a great benefit to everyone).

They selected MSC, an Italian-owned cruise line because it offered an itinerary with the ports that they all wanted to visit.

Since the ship sailed from Lisbon, they spent time exploring the city and learning about its rich history. Before long it was time to board the ship and set sail on the MSC Preziosa.

As an  experienced cruiser, Sylvia provided good information about the Preziosa and their onboard experience. The other passengers were mostly from Russia, Eastern Europe, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Malaysia and Portugal. There were only ~10 other Americans onboard. There were only 18 Black people, all total. The ship was large and very well maintained.

The  cabins were comfortable with large showers and large balconies. They even cleaned the balcony doors several times when the ship was in port.

Customer service was excellent and Sylvia described the staff as FABULOUS. Most of them were from Madagascar, South Africa and the Caribbean; all spoke several languages.

Entertainment was different from other cruises they’d experienced – no musical or comedy shows – probably due to the fact that the passengers spoke so many different languages. Other onboard amenities were standard and included swimming pools, a casino, spa, hair salon and even a 4D movie theater.

Food was fresh and included fresh fish, Indian food and burgers.      As much as they enjoyed the shipboard experiences, the real fun began when they docked. Barcelona was the first port of call and they enjoyed its many sites, including La Sagrada Familia. Sylvia even remembered to send regards to our BFTT group.

In France they explored the port city of Marseille, gateway to the Provence region. Even though it rained some,  that did not dampen their spirits.

Then it was on to Genoa, one of Italy’s most underrated gems. One of the highlights of the trip (and there were many) was visiting Morocco. In Casablanca they shopped in the bazaar for about four hours, visiting vendors who sold herbs, textiles, rugs, Goyard items and other souvenirs. The bazaar can get pretty hectic, but they found someone who guided and protected them from the more aggressive vendors, and even helped them find ATMs and taxis.    The bazaar has ~400 kiosks, shops and stores. It really was the shopping experience of a lifetime.

It really sounds like these ladies had the trip of a lifetime. It must be great to have travel buddies that you can travel with regularly. If you’ve ever traveled with a group, you know that group dynamics can be “interesting”. But even with five different personalities and mindsets, these ladies seem to have it figured out. As a matter of fact they are already making plans for their 2019 trip.

 

My Favorite Place

 

 

 

 

 

My husband and I have been globetrotting for more than 30 years. In that time we have seen some breathtaking sights and had some amazing travel experiences. When people find out how much traveling we have done, they often ask, “What is your favorite travel destination?” We’ve had so many enjoyable experiences that it is difficult to pick just one. But after lots of thought and consideration, I’ve decided to answer that question. My favorite destination in the entire world is…..Istanbul, Turkey.

This bustling metropolis is one of the world’s most exciting cities. It is a kaleidoscope of culture, history, ancient architecture, modern urban energy, and fresh, delectable cuisine.

Experiences like watching the sun rise over the Bosphorus, shopping at the Grand Bazaar and hearing the call to prayer as we entered the Blue Mosque are indelibly etched into our travel memories. Yes, Istanbul is my favorite destination.

But wait….after our recent trip, I can’t possibly leave out Thailand.

The azure waters, balmy breezes and lush scenery of that tropical paradise are almost too beautiful to be believed. After a hair-raising speedboat ride we spent a perfect afternoon sailing around the islands and sunning ourselves on powdery white sand beaches.

Yes, that idyllic paradise has to be my very favorite travel destination.

But wait….when I think about azure waters and white sand beaches, I can’t possibly leave out another tropical destination….the island of Jamaica.

After viewing this beautiful beach in Montego Bay, it was easy to see why Stella got her groove back here. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy the island. We’ve partied on the beach, climbed up Dunns River Falls and zip lined through the tree tops at high speed what a rush!

We’ve also eaten the most delicious jerk chicken, Jamaican patties and washed it all down with ice cold Red Stripe Beer…and of course, rum punch.So without a doubt, Jamaica is my favorite travel destination.

But wait…how can I forget about China? In 2015 we visited Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai.

We were captivated by the architecture and history of this ancient country. In addition to the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Lingering Garden we shopped and dined in the modern metropolis of Shanghai. We even toured jade, silk and pearl factories. The highlight of the visit had to be climbing the Great Wall of China. I expected it to be amazing, but the experience was beyond anything that I’d imagined. I’d hear other people describe going up on a gondola, so I was prepared to see breathtaking vistas. What I wasn’t prepared for was the actual climb. Our tour guide took us to Juyongguan Pass, a section of the wall where there was no gondola. So it was all about the climb….and those 2000 year old stone steps were no joke.

But it was well worth it – the views from the top were spectacular! The experience was even more special since we shared it as a family.

But wait? I can’t possibly forget about Spain. There is so much to see and do in this country that I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been there. With cities like Barcelona, Valencia, Mallorca, Malaga, Vigo, La Coruna, Cartagena, Valencia, Marbella, Sitges and Puerto Banus it is impossible to see it all in one, or even two visits.

Barcelona is a city that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Its edgy, urban energy reminded us of San Francisco with the restaurants, street performers, street art and designer shops. The Gothic Quarter is a winding maze of narrow alleys that open onto charming plazas where you can hear street musicians, watch flamenco dancers or just sit and people watch, while sipping sangria. There are also great destinations to visit outside of the city. Two of our favorites are the Penedes Wine region, home to the Freixenet Cava caves and several other world-class wineries. We also enjoyed visiting the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, nestled high on a mountain peak; it’s only an hour train ride from Barcelona and home of the famous Black Madonna.

Malaga is another one of our favorite destinations in Spain. It’s a port city on southern Spain’s Costa del Sol, near the continent of Africa, Morocco is only a 70-minute ferry ride away. We were particularly intrigued by evidence of Moorish history. We toured the Alcazaba, a hilltop citadel and the nearby Alhambra Palace, another fortress built in the 13th century.

We’ve always been fascinated by Moorish history and discovered that the Spanish occupation by the Moors began in 711 AD when an African army, under their leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa and invaded the Iberian peninsula ‘Andalus’ (Spain under the Visigoths). So visiting this palace complex was like walking in the footsteps of those great warriors.

So that’s it…..Spain is my absolute favorite travel destination. Unless I overlook Italy….and I couldn’t possibly do that. From Rome, to Venice, to Florence to Capri, to the Cinque Terre, we’ve lived “la dolce vita” all over that country.

Although many of the famous sites (Colosseum, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Trevi Fountain) are often overrun by tourists, they are still amazing to visit. Regardless of religious beliefs, the museums and St. Peter’s Basilica of Vatican City are simply awesome. During our most recent visit we got an inside tour of the Colosseum and actually got to see it from a gladiator’s perspective. Wow!

Whenever we visit Florence, we take a day trip to the Cinque Terre, 5 charming coastal villages accessible by boat or train.

Whether you choose to hike between the villages or take the train, the views are simply stunning!

Foodies, can we talk? Italy is hands down one of the world’s top culinary destinations. We’ve enjoyed delicious meals at small trattorias, fine dining restaurants and neighborhood cafeterias. There’s much more to Italian cuisine than gelato, pizza and pasta. But I’ll admit that I could actually eat my weight in pasta….and have done so on occasion.

No matter where you are in Italy, eating gelato daily is a must….

 

So that settles it, Italy is my favorite travel destination.

Who am I kidding? I can’t pick one single destination as my absolute favorite. Each place offers something special that is unique to that destination. So I’ll just plan to keep traveling around the world…..discovering new “favorites”.

10 Things to do in Barcelona

Barcelona is the largest metropolis on the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the world’s leading tourist, economic, and cultural centers. With a population of ~1.6 million people, it is an urban kaleidoscope of culture, entertainment, media, food, fashion and architecture. It also happens to be one of my favorite European cities. In the last 10 years I have visited it more than 6 times and each time have discovered something new to enjoy. As a cruise port, it is often visited by tourists. But whether you’re in town for a few hours or a few days, there is always plenty to see and do. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Spend some time on Las Ramblas               Las Ramblas is a tree-lined pedestrian mall that is popular with both tourists and locals. It stretches for ~1 mile and both sides of the street are lined with shops, restaurants, tapas bars, and hotels. It is a perfect place to stroll, see and be seen – or just sip a little sangria.

2. Shop Around La Boqueria

La Boqueria is one of Europe’s oldest markets. Since 1217 it has been used to sell meat, fish and many other goods. Although it is a major tourist attraction, it is also frequented by local residents. It’s easy to find since it’s located right on Las Ramblas.

There are so many choices – fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, juices, baked goods, meat (including some of the best ham in the world)that it’s difficult to know where to begin. You can even purchase tapas to eat onsite at one of the many food counters. Everything is artfully displayed, so it is as visually stimulating as it is delicious. Prices are quite reasonable, so it’s a perfect place to eat on the cheap.

  1. Take the hop-on-hop-off bus

One of my favorite ways to explore a city is by hop-on-hop-off bus and Barcelona offers two companies to choose from; Bus Turistic and City Sightseeing. Both have 3 different lines, so they are the perfect (and affordable) way to tour the entire city. They run frequently, so you can get off and spend as much time as you like in any location. It’s easy to purchase tickets online ahead of time, or just get them on the bus.

  1. Get lost in the Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter is the center of the city of old Barcelona. Located near Las Ramblas, it is one of the most fascinating areas of the city. It was built primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, but some buildings date back to medieval times. The area is filled with charming narrow streets and alleyways that open onto plazas. It’s a perfect place to wander around and enjoy the many shops, eateries and even churches. On a recent visit our hotel room looked out onto the Church of Santa Anna, a medieval church dating back to 1300.

 

 

  1. Eat a sandwich at Conesa

Barcelona is known for it’s delicious tapas and they can be found everywhere. But there are also other dining choices. I’ve had some scrumptious kebobs at several eateries all over the city. On my most recent visit I discovered Conesa, a sandwich shop in the Gothic Quarter. It’s a perfect place to enjoy a hot, tasty pannini.

 

  1. Take a day trip to Montserrat

Montserrat is a multi-peaked rocky range located not far from the city, in Catalonia, Spain, so it is a good option for day trip. It is well known as the site of the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat. Located high on a hill, it is impressive, and views of the valley are spectacular.

  1. Tour wineries in the Penedes Wine Region

Located less than an hour from Barcelona, this is another great option for a day trip – especially for wine lovers. It is one of Spain’s best wine-producing regions, particularly known for it’s Cava production. We spent a day touring the Jean Leon and Torres wineries and the Freixenet Cava caves.

At each winery we were greeted by a knowledgeable guide and each tour ended with plentiful wine tasting and tapas.

  1. Eat tapas – lots of tapas

Tapas are snacks or appetizers that are enjoyed in the early evening. Since dinner is usually served between 9 and 11pm, Spaniards often go “bar hopping” in the hours between finishing work and having dinner. They can be served hot or cold and can include bread, meat, cheese, shellfish, olives, and other delicious fried delicacies. I must confess, that after visiting several tapas bars and enjoying a few sangrias, I’m usually too full to eat a large dinner.

 

  1. Check out the street performers on Las Ramblas

The street performers on Las Ramblas are some of the most imaginative that I have ever seen. Their costumes can range from cute, to kitschy to downright scary.

If you want to take a picture of or with them you’re expected to leave a tip. Each one is unique and puts on a good show.

10. Visit La Sagrada Familia

Barcelona is famous for it’s architecture, the city is full of beautiful and imaginative buildings. One of its most famous architects is Antoni Gaudi. One of his most famous buildings is La Sagrada Familia, a large Roman Catholic church. Construction began in 1882 and is still ongoing; with a projected completion date of 2026. It has been called the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages. It is both ancient and futuristic. In a word, it is AMAZING.

Since it is such a popular tourist destination, it is often crowded and lines can be very long. I definitely recommend purchasing a guided tour with skip-the-line access.

These are just a few of the attractions available in this vibrant city, with the cool urban vibe. Whether you choose to take tours around the city, or just sit in a plaza and relax, it is