Musings on the beauty of the road trip; by plane, car, boat, bike, foot…

Vacation

Portugal – Trapped in Time, and Right on Trend

“The thing about Portugal is that on the one hand it seems like nothing has changed and they’ve been doing things the way they were doing them decades ago, but on the other hand if you consider North America, we’re trying to change back to do what places like Portugal never stopped doing.”

Okay, so I bounced around some ideas for this post for a couple of weeks since being back from Portugal, but this quotation (said by my partner while we were there) kept swimming up to the top of my pool of ideas, so, I’m going to deviate from my usual documentation style blog post. Besides, these days anyone travelling and willing to invest a little planning time can easily google (or search social media) for the trendiest restaurants and hotspots, and seek the wisdom of professional travel writers for the “must see” historical sites of most places in the world. So instead I present you with some quirky and unusual (for non-Europeans anyhow)  facts that you may not know about Portugal; some things I once took for granted, but have since fallen in love with. Fret not, I will follow with some photos; the best part of sharing.

First, a little background: I haven’t been back to Portugal in 15 years. As a kid, I went often with my parents. My father was born in Porto, and my mom in a very small village in the Douro region called Pinhal do Norte. I was born in Africa, which if you know anything about Portugal’s colonial past you will recognize this as quite common. We moved here as a family in 1976 and left quite a bit of family behind. In my younger years we spent as many summers as we could afford vacationing in Portugal. Since then, most of my family members have moved or passed away, and I have spent the last 15 years discovering other parts of this vast world.

We planned for this trip over a couple of years, knowing it would be our longest to date, and that we would attempt to see Portugal from the top to the bottom as well as visit the family I still have there. In hind sight, we both agree that we should have heeded the advice of family who strongly encouraged us to visit for much longer than our 18 days, but we both came away with a new (for him) and renewed (for me) appreciation for this small, yet incredible country. Sometimes appreciation for the things we take for granted grows out of experiencing things through the eyes of someone else, and many of the observations that follow, in fact, came from my (Canadian born/non-European) partner, who is now equally enamoured. So, without further ado, here are some things you probably don’t know about Portugal:

1. Coffee culture is everywhere. You do not have to go to a trendy town and find the latest hipster coffee house; everyone is a barista. From the city coffee shops to highway rest stops, you can bet on an excellent cup of coffee (always espresso, unless you ask for something different). You can also bet on the fact that everyone sits down to enjoy their coffee; this time is expected and respected. Nothing is too important that you can’t interrupt to have a coffee, and I wish that mentality existed here. The other great thing about how the Portuguese consume coffee, is that there is NO WASTE, ever. You can’t get your coffee to go; you have to sit down and drink it. I think we call this being “environmentally friendly”.

2. Support for locally derived food and drink is not the latest trend, it’s just the way it is. Wherever you eat you will enjoy regional specialities made with whatever is in season. The wine list, in almost all cases, will have Portuguese wine exclusively. This may sound restrictive, but Portugal has 14 different wine regions which produce wines that celebrate a heritage of over 25o different grape varieties, some of which can not be found anywhere else in the world. We asked one restaurant why they didn’t have wines from, say France or Italy, and the reply was “why would we; we make lots of wine here”.

3. The “house wine” is usually the best. Here in North America, asking for house wine is akin to asking for the cheapest, crappiest wine a restaurant has to offer, but in Portugal (and this was confirmed by a number of servers we talked to), the house wine is selected “to represent the restaurant” and is often the best or favourite as selected by the owner or sommelier. You can also be sure, that in most cases this specially selected wine is very, very reasonably price.

4. There is so much natural and historical beauty to be seen in Portugal, and the Portuguese love it when people visit, but don’t expect them to make anything convenient for you. What I mean is, you won’t find signs leading you to the cliffs of Sagres to watch the sunset, you won’t find escalators, stairs or even walkways to the beautiful beaches in the Algarve, you won’t even find information easily online for the 66 wineries you can visit in the Alentejo, you won’t find convenient operating hours, and you definitely won’t find safety railings on any natural wonder to keep your kids from falling. But somehow, people get there, and this stoic determination to keep things they way they were is a marvelous thing.

5. As a tourist, Portugal is the best deal in Europe. Even in some of the upscale restaurants in Lisbon and Porto we were unable to spend more than 100 Euros despite copious amounts of food and wine. Again, because the wine and food is locally produced and there aren’t ridiculous rules and taxes associated  with and imposed by government bodies (ahem, I’m talking to you Ontario LCBO) excellent wine is very inexpensive (and very readily available), and food is very affordable. Lodging options are also plentiful and affordable, but my suggestions to you is to stay in a bed and breakfast, small inn or Posadas where you will enjoy the personal attention and suggestions of your hosts.

And now for some photos; a short slide show from the different areas we visited:

Lisbon:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Douro Region (the North): 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Porto: 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 Coimbra:

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lagos, Algarve:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Évora:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thanks so much for reading and viewing. I hope one day you can visit this marvelous place.

Advertisements

Prince Edward County – A Perfect Getaway

PEC has a special place in my heart because it is the first road trip we ever took together about eight years ago.  Back then beautiful landscape, a charming B&B, and delicious local restaurants were all we looked for out there.  We did pop into a few wineries but were horribly disappointed by the offerings.  Fast forward five years, and the wine scene changed drastically, I suspect, in response to many city-transplants who saw a golden opportunity.  Prince Edward County has since become one of my favourite areas to visit for incredible farm to table eats, and local award winning wines. Our most recent visit started with a fantastic Countylicious lunch at East and Main, followed by a one night stay in Bloomfield at Angéline’s Inn, a family run property with charming suites, coach houses and the newly renovated Walter Motor Inn. Saturday evening we also had an opportunity to enjoy the culinary delights of Chef Elliot and the wine wisdom of Sommelier Laura at The Hubb eatery and lounge. It was a perfect spot from where we headed out to visit, taste and buy some of the incredible wines of the area.  This time around we visited Hubbs Creek VineyardLighthall Vineyards, Casa Dea Estates Winery, Rosehall Run, The Old Third, and Hinterland Wine Company for their latest (& greatest) offerings. It was, indeed, just what needed to forget about the stresses of everyday life, and the horrible winter we’ve had this year.

.

20140417-064522.jpg

20140417-064545.jpg

20140417-064718.jpg

20140417-064738.jpg

20140417-064818.jpg

20140417-064836.jpg

20140417-064902.jpg

20140417-064930.jpg

20140417-064947.jpg

20140417-065006.jpg


Lucky Travels

When our connecting flight from Bonaire to Toronto was cancelled on Sunday and we found ourselves stuck in Newark, I felt very unlucky. In fact, I experienced quite a lot of self pity, which at the time was unnecessary since we were immediately rescheduled and (due to a booking mixup) ended up at a pretty luxurious Marriott hotel for the evening. A decent meal and good bottle of wine was hardly grounds for “poor me” feelings, but I harboured them with unyielding emotion well into the following day, which we spent working out and shopping; again, hardly reason for feelings of despair. But when the text came Monday evening that the second flight was cancelled again, I moved quickly into panic mode and fear took over; fear of missing work; fear of the worry I’d be causing my Mom; fear which morphed into dread; fear which jump started the exploration of other possible ways to get home. At this point I was ready to drive home. These moments of desperation all led to an interesting series of events (that some might call fate, God’s will or Karma, but which I call luck) that eventually got us home.

Today I am strangely overwhelmed with the feeling of luck; lucky to have secured tickets for an Newark-Ottawa-Toronto flight after the second flight home was cancelled; lucky to have had a super New York taxi driver who drove us from Newark to Laguardia in less than 70 minutes; lucky to be waiting at the same gate as the last flight to Toronto boarded and to have a partner with the foresight to ask if there were any available seats; lucky to deal with an amazing Air Canada agent and ground crew who went out of their way to get our bags off the Ottawa plane and onto the the Toronto plane; lucky to have a seasoned flight crew that safely landed the plane in terrible weather after twenty minutes of being bounced around the sky like a ping pong ball; lucky we only sat on the runway for one hour; lucky I remembered that at Pearson your bags don’t always come on the indicated bag carrousel; lucky that, still wearing our summer clothes, we caught a cab as soon as we stepped outside; lucky to be home when others still are not; lucky to feel the warm sun through the cold trees today.

20140107-131028.jpg


New Year’s in Bonaire

I’ve seen many fireworks in my lifetime, and they have always brought me gleeful, albeit short lived, moments of joy, but I never imagined a place so in love with these shows of light as Bonaire. The firecrackers started as soon as we arrived (on Dec 27) and did not let up until New Year’s Eve, when it seemed everyone on the island held their own hour long display (yup, I said hour and some “shows” continued well past 2am). We stood on the rooftop of the Djambo and watched all around us as the people of Bonaire competed for our attention; it was an incredible sight indeed, and was the perfect way to cap off a fantastic BBQ dinner hosted by the Djambo owners Dick, Liselotte, Martin and Isle.

New Year’s Day was equally entertaining. I must add here that I have mad respect for places that don’t bow to the whims of the tourist; everything on Bonaire is closed on Xmas and New Year’s Day including National parks and the so-called “tourist attractions”. I think if you visit a place it is because you want to experience the place in its everyday workings; I don’t want anywhere to change for me. We planned another day of exploring the beautiful reefs, and lucky for us the Cadushy Distillery was open and provided an interesting morning stop on our way to spend the day in the ocean. Run by yet another couple who came on their honeymoon and never went home, The Cadushy Distillery is Bonaire’s only distillery. They specialize in spirits and liqueurs made from cactus and other locally grown ingredients; a homage to the family of islands and the history surrounding them. The tastings, tour and accompanying history of the island makes this worth a visit, and in our case, was a great way to start off the year.
20140102-104823.jpg

20140102-104847.jpg

20140102-104733.jpg

20140102-111234.jpg

20140102-111334.jpg

20140102-111258.jpg

20140102-111351.jpg

20140102-111307.jpg


Staying in Bonaire

I’ve only ever stayed at all-inclusive resorts when in the Caribbean, and while the convenience of not having to worry about food or drink might seem appealing, being locked up in one place doing the same thing every day is definitely not how I like to travel. This time down south we rented an apartment; this is how most people set up shop in Bonaire, and the fact that there are really no resorts on the island testifies to the fact that this is a place for people who like to do things (scuba, kite-board, snorkel, hike, bike, etc.). There’s something great about hitting the local supermarket to stock up your temporary home with all the food and drink you love, and if you so choose, also have the option of hitting the local restaurants and bar. This, my friends, is really the best of both worlds. All the apartments here at the Djambo open up to the centre courtyard pool & bar, which (along with an outdoor kitchen) pretty much makes this the best accommodation I’ve ever stayed at.

20131231-123929.jpg

20131231-123914.jpg

20131231-124015.jpg

20131231-124059.jpg


Kite Surfing and Cactus Blue

Yesterday was a glorious day here in Bonaire. We keep meeting people who arrived on vacation and never went home, and it’s easy to see why. One of those transplants is Haiger, owner and chef of the famous Cactus Blue food truck, which finds its permanent home on Kite Beach. Although we didn’t get to taste his famous lion fish burgers, we did enjoy beer and stories with him; this was a perfect way to end a day of kicking back on the beach and watching our guys on the water.

20131229-074043.jpg

20131229-074121.jpg


Cuisine Surprises in Bonaire

There are many many things I expected from a vacation in Bonaire, but incredibly inventive cuisine was not one of them. On an impromptu recommendation from some locals and other visitors we stumbled into At Sea and enjoyed a Chef’s tasting menu (& wine parings, of course) that rivals restaurants I’ve visited in New York and Chicago. A fantastic surprise, and needless to say, we’ll be returning next Friday.

20131228-112010.jpg

20131228-112020.jpg

20131228-112001.jpg

20131228-111952.jpg