About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.


Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

On French Pastry & The Ever So Scrumptious Croissant

December 20, 2014 by  

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Paris is famed for its pastry, but while millefeuille is marvelous and fans of the éclair abound, the heart and soul of French pastry is undoubtedly the croissant. A breakfast favorite and the source of inspiration for concoctions from the croissant-wich to the cronut, the croissant is nearly a cliché today. After all, what could be simpler and yet more delicious than layers of flaky, buttery pastry and a crispy outside layer?

And yet for years, food historians have disputed the origins of the croissant: is it truly a French pastry? Or is it Viennese, as the French term viennoiserie – encompassing croissants but also pains au chocolat and chaussons aux pommes – would have us believe?

croissant

Croissants. Photo courtesy of ilolab via Shutterstock.

A French Pastry…Or Is It?

The earliest story of the croissant dates all the way back to 1683 Vienna, Austria. The legend takes place during the Ottoman Turk siege of the city; a baker apparently heard the Turks tunneling under the walls of the city as he lit his ovens to bake the morning bread. He quickly sounded an alarm, and the military collapsed the tunnel, saving the city. To celebrate, the baker baked a crescent-shaped bread, in the shape of the crescent moon of the Turkish flag.

This story is one of many like it. A similar one sets nearly the same course of events in Budapest, Hungary. Food historians dispute both versions, but if the first of the two stories seems the most likely, it’s due to yet another legend as to how the croissant finally became French. The source is the same as that of the color puce – Marie Antoinette.

The French queen during the Revolution was not French-born; she arrived in France at age 15 from Austria. Legend has it that she so missed an Austrian specialty called the kipfel – German for crescent – that she requested royal bakers attempt a version.

Of course, the far less romantic version of this tale – which also happens to be the more likely version – is the story of August Zang, an Austrian artillery officer who founded a Viennese Bakery in Paris in 1839, after the French Revolution. Most food historians agree that he is the most likely one to have introduced the kipfel to France, a pastry that later inspired French bakers to create a crescent of their own.

crescent

Photo courtesy of Nailia Schwarz via Shutterstock

Which version of the story is true? It’s hard to say. The first mention of the croissant in French is in Anselme Payen’s 1853 Des Substances alimentaires ­– published nearly a century after Marie-Antoinette’s reign, which adds further doubt to the idea that the trendsetter queen introduced the pastry to Parisian palates. The first printed recipe does not appear until Joseph Favre’s Dictionnaire universel de cuisine, published 52 years after this first mention, a recipe containing powdered almonds and sugar that more closely resembles a Middle Eastern pastry than the laminated dough creation we know and love today.

One thing is certain: one year after the publication of the Dictionnaire universel de cuisine, Auguste Colombie’s Nouvelle encyclopédie culinaire published a “true” croissant recipe, with laminated dough as opposed to a more brioche-like dough that had been used previously. The croissant, as we know it, was born.

croissant ordinaire

Photo courtesy of cristi180884 via Shutterstock

A Staple Of French Culture

Wherever the croissant originally came from, it is firmly ensconced in French bakery tradition today. The most popular is undoubtedly the croissant au beurre, or butter croissant, not to be confused with the croissant ordinaire, which is made with margarine. In fact, the more beautiful, typically crescent-shaped croissants you see in your bakery window are often the ordinaires, a butter croissant is more straight than curved and is worth the extra centimes!

While a savory ham-and-cheese croissant sandwich is nearly unheard of in France, there are a few other varieties. A pain au chocolat, often called a chocolate croissant in English, is in fact the same sort of laminated dough used to make a croissant, but it is not usually rolled into a crescent shape, thus the absence of the word “croissant” in its French name. An almond croissant is filled with a frangipane filling and usually topped with slivered almonds and powdered sugar. And while the trendy cronut hasn’t hit France quite yet, only time will tell how international influence will continue to develop this beloved viennoiserie.

A Taste Of Paris

If you happen to be in Paris and want a taste of this specialty, you’ll likely find them at any boulangerie. But if you’d like an exceptional morsel, try these addresses:

  • Bread and Roses, 62 rue Madame (6th arrondissement) – Exactly what a croissant should taste like! Buttery, just a bit sweet, and with the perfect amount of chew.
  • Des Gâteaux et du Pain, 63 boulevard Pasteur (15th arrondissement) – Fat and slightly caramelized on the outside with an airy, puffy interior.
  • La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac, 24, rue Paul Bert (11th arrondissement) – These ones are pretty much just butter held together with a touch of flour. Exquisite.

Do you have a favorite croissant shop in France or delicious croissant recipe? Please share in the comments below.

By Emily Monaco, editor of Tomato Kumato

 

 

Specialty Liquor & Beer on the Greek Island of Corfu

December 18, 2014 by  

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corfu

While many people know Greece for its wine — especially Santorini with its assyritiko — there’s another island offering a completely different drink experience. Actually, it offers two.

On the beautiful Corfu, home to attractions like Sisi’s Palace, Mount Pantokrator and Paleokastritsa Beach, those wanting a sip of the local culture need to savor the flavors of the local ginger beer and kumquat liqueur. I was introduced to these two libations — which are not made elsewhere in Greece — during a visit to Corfu by my island guide, Filippos “Philip” Azzopardi.

ginger

Ginger Beer

Along with kumquat liqueur, ginger beer — also locally known as sitsibíra (τσιτσιμπίρα) — is an island specialty, especially refreshing in the summer when it’s hot, delicious flavors of fresh lemon mixing with the spicy, pepper notes of the ginger. According to Philip, the recipe for ginger beer includes water, lemon, sugar and ginger, and can be purchased at street kiosks or cafes.

To learn more about the local ginger beer tradition, Philip puts me in touch with Maria Cheimarios, who helps to run a small family-owned ginger beer producer with her husband George called Cheimarios Ginger Beer Producers. They’ve been producing ginger beer since 1920 when 1920 when Christoforos Cheimarios, George’s uncle, used to produce it for his village cafe patrons. Today, they are the only ginger beer producer in Greece.

“The recipe was so successful that in 1940 he decided to buy some equipment in order to meet demand.The recipe was a carefully guarded family secret that was passed on to his nephew George Cheimarios (her husband) who eventually succeeded — with a lot of hard work and dedication — in setting up a small ginger beer production plant in 1975.”

ginger beer

 

If you’re wondering how exactly they make their tasty ginger beer, I unfortunately can’t tell you, as the recipe is still safe-guarded, and the family intends to keep it that way for generations to come. That being said, it does give you a good reason to visit Corfu and try some for yourself.

The history of ginger beer on Corfu dates back to the 19th century, when the British Army introduced it  — it originated in Yorkshire, England in the mid-18th century — during their occupation of Corfu. Even after the British left, island locals continued to make the drink, finding it very invigorating in the hot weather.

Today, drinking ginger beer is a way of life, and there are some rules that go with it. According to Cheimarios, it’s important to pour it slowly into the glass, as it’s naturally a fizzy soft drink. If the bottle is shaken then the beer comes out like “foamy bubbly Champagne.” Moreover, one should leave a small bit of the ginger beer in the bottle before gently swirling the bottle to kick up the ginger sediment. And while not a hard rule, ginger beer is typically an after-meal drink to help aid digestion.

Says Cheimarios, “It’s a popular remedy for treating seasickness and upset stomachs.”

candied kumquats

 

Kumquat Liqueur

Another important drink on Corfu is kumquat liqueur. The history of the kumquat — which means “Golden Fruit” — begins in China, where the fruit originates from, the first reference of the fruit appearing in 12th century Chinese literature. In 1860, an English agronomist named Sidney Merlyn brought the fruit to Corfu, and today you find a tree in almost every local yard.

To learn more I get to chat with Andy Mavrommati of the family owned and operated Mavromatis Kumquat Distillery, established in 1965. The current owners, Aris and George Mavrommatis, were inspired by the work of their grandfather, who owned this small distillery making ouzo and brandy.

kumquats

Explains Mavrommati, “As the fruit itself has a sour taste Corfiots back then didn’t use the fruit for any purpose. So, they decided to make kumquat liqueur, as Greeks prefer sweet tastes. The first liqueur was an orange color and made from the skin of the kumquat oranges.”

Today you can still sample the classic orange flavor; however, there is also a yellow-tinted variety made from the juice of the fruit. While the orange variety has a stronger flavor and sweeter taste and is typically used in cocktails or to enhance fruit salad and desserts, the latter is less sweet and drank as an after-meal digestive chilled or with ice. On Corfu, you’ll also find a number of kumquat-focused treats like sweet kumquats in drenched in syrup with sheep’s yogurt or ice cream, kumquat marmalade spread on toast or tarts, used to garnish drinks, as fruity kumquat cookies — they’re even turned into perfume!

A visit to the distillery offer the chance to view a small museum showcasing old hand-operated machines. There’s also a five-minute film focused on the history of the kumquat as well as the production of liqueur & sweets in the factory. Tastings are also available, as is the chance to purchase products.

corfu food

Tasting table at the shop. You’ll find these frequently in the little gift shops around Corfu.

I get to try the traditional orange kumquat liqueur for myself at a local gift shop called “Abundance Delicatessan”, where they have all types of local treats out for tasting: kumquat liqueur, candied kumquat, olives, olive oils, breads and almonds. First I try the candies, so drenched with syrup that as soon as I bite down my mouth fills with sticky sweet liquid. The liqueur itself is not very different, thick and saccharine with a scent similar to orange soda. When I taste it it’s extremely sweet with hints of spice and peppermint.

I’ll admit this isn’t something you would find me drinking back in New York; however, on Corfu it feels right. I’m tasting the island. The myriad kumquat trees I’d been passing throughout the day while touring were now rolling around my palate, influenced by the terroir of the destination and the processes of the distiller.

“Yamas!” I laugh, holding up my small plastic cup of kumquat liqueur and cheers-ing in Greek another taster. It was a quick but enlightening sip of local culture on Corfu.

Have you visited Corfu? What was your favorite taste of local culture? Please share in the comment below.

Photo credits: First photo credit: Jessica Festa, second photo: Ginger is the main ingredient in Corfu’s ginger beer. Photo courtesy of andresmh. Third photo credit: Ginger beer. Photo courtesy of Katherine. Fourth photo credit: Candied kumquats. Photo courtesy of Alpha. Fifth photo credit: Fresh kumquats. Photo courtesy of Lee Nachtigal. Sixth photo credit Jessica Festa.

 

How Ghana Transformed The Way I View The World

December 18, 2014 by  

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ghana

I have a seriously love/hate relationship with Ghana, Africa. Love because, well, I truly loved the country and my time spent there, living with a family, taking day trips, exploring markets and volunteering. Hate because it was truly the most challenging trip I’ve ever been on, from the lack of plumbing and electricity to the diet of rice water and fufu so foreign to my digestive system.

Sometimes when I talk about my trip to Ghana I feel like I sound full of myself, talking about how not having a toilet was so hard, when a local family was nice enough to let me stay with them; however, the truth is this trip made me more grateful than I’ve ever felt in all my time on the road.

When I went to Ghana I was in my early twenties. I’d backpacked Europe and Southeast Asia, and was now ready to venture to a new continent: Africa. I’d heard Ghana was sort of the “Africa for beginners” — not to mention the flights were reasonably priced — so I booked a ticket and began preparing for the trip.

trotro

RIDING THE TROTRO.

Out Of My Element

I remember the week leading up to the trip, how nervous I had been. While this trip I wouldn’t be going alone, but with a co-worker of my boyfriend’s mom, Steph, who I didn’t know very well (but grew close with on the trip), I still felt unsure if I would be able to tackle the unexpected. I’d felt tremendous culture shock when I’d traveled solo to Thailand, although came to truly appreciate the culture shock. My hope was this would be a similar situation, where the feeling of being out of place quickly melded into a feeling of appreciation for having a new experience.

As soon as I stepped off the plane, that familiar feeling of fear — skin hairs prickling, a sheen of sweat coating my back, a nervous tension filling my chest — washed over me. Not that the airport was so unusual, but I could already feel that this trip especially would take me out of my element.

My driver was three hours late to pick us up, and Steph and I sat trying to picture what Ghana would be like beyond the airport doors. When he finally arrived I felt relieved; that is, until we started driving. The roads were filled with aggressive hawkers banging on the car windows, and one man even tried to get in until my driver quickly swung his arm over the passenger seat to lock it. The roads were cracked and full of potholes, and we bounced our way through a mix of stand-still traffic and Mario Andretti-style racing until we reached our hotel.

ghana

SHOWERING IN THE RAIN.

Going Local

Which is where we met Michael, who quickly became our local pal for our month-long trip. Michael was funny, seemed to be friendly with everyone, was always up to explore and, best of all, he was a local who could show us how to experience Ghana like a local. He was one of the reasons for the Love in my love/hate relationship with the country.

My homestay family in Achiase, a small village in Ghana, was another part of the Love, and another way we immersed ourselves in local culture. Not only did she cook us local meals, she brought us to church on Sundays, let us tag along to a wedding she was attending, talked to us about local life and taught me some words in the local language of Twi.

This all being said, the homestay didn’t come without challenges, the hardest for me was not having running water, aside for one hour per week when the community would turn the taps on. During this hour, myself and my housemates would scramble like crazy to fill every cup, bowl and bucket we could find. Then, we would ration it throughout the week, being careful to use only the smallest amounts to wash ourselves and flush the toilet once per day. As there were eight volunteers sharing the toilet — along with my house mom and her daughter — this for me was very difficult.

But, there were moments when having no water turned into a bonding experience. Like when it rained, and people would run from their houses with soap and buckets, lapping up the liquid pearls from the sky. There was a tangible happiness that felt akin to being wrapped in a warm blanket after getting caught in the rain. It felt nice to be a part of that, together.

fufu

FUFU.

A Change In Diet

Along with the bathroom issues, the food was challenging. While I usuallylove trying the food when traveling, rice water, fufu and kenkey did not agree with my taste buds or stomach. I tried all the local foods, even helping my house-mom make some of them; however, I often found myself wolfing down avocados and cereal — two of the very few familiar foods I could find in the local market — and fantasizing about my next cheeseburger. Actually, it got to the point where I took a 2.5-hour bus ride each way just to get a slice of pizza from the mall in the capital.

Don’t get me wrong. I always ate what my house-mom gave me, and always thanked her for her hospitality. But when you’re not brought up with certain textures, flavors and ingredients, it can be difficult to feel satiated.

There was one culinary adventure in Ghana, however, that brought me a lot of joy: eating snail. At night, myself and some the children we were volunteering with would put on headlamps and search for snails on the road, as this is a popular snack in Ghana, especially when boiled and put on a skewer. While I always gave all my snails to the children (I’ll stick with the fufu, thanks), one day I told a 14-year-old boy named Isaac that if he made one fried for me, I’d eat it.

“I have a present for you,” he smiled, holding up a fresh snail on a skewer.

I shook my head. “The deal was I’d eat it fried. This still looks like it’s still alive.”

He smiled. “I did fry it. In water.”

“So…you boiled it.”

I grabbed the skewer, not wanting to offend him, but also pretty positive that he knew exactly what he was doing (especially since he was crying he was laughing so hard). Counting to 23, slowly, I brought the slug-like creature to my mouth and bit.

Then spit.

I didn’t mean to, but the leathery taste and rubbery consistency would not allow my throat to open for the meat to go down.

To get the taste out of my mouth, I grabbed a bag of Sour Patch Kids I’d brought on the trip from NYC.

“What’s that?” Isaac asked, eyeing the unfamiliar candy. I handed him a few.

“Watch out. They’re sour,” I warned.

Too late. Isaac was on the ground, sputtering like he’d been punched.

A classic case of cultural differences.

ghana

STEPH AND I DONNING OUR HAND-MADE LOCAL FASHIONS.

Being An Oberoni

And lastly, one of the largest challenges I experienced was the cultural differences when it comes to interacting with foreigners. As in, the locals shouted “oberoni!” (“foreigner!”) at me every time they saw me. I’m not exaggerating where I say that walking 10 minutes down the street would incite about 20 oberoni calls.

At first I felt nervous, as the more I heard these shouts the more I felt like a target. Then I felt angry. I hadn’t done anything to attract attention — well, aside for clearly looking like a foreigner — and didn’t feel I deserved to be called out in the crowd. Then, eventually, I felt acceptance. Despite the fact my house-mom explained to me numerous time that the locals calling meoberoni was not meant to be disrespectful, I couldn’t shake the feeling.

Until she instructed me to start striking up conversations with the shouting locals when it happened.

“See what they want,” she instructed. “You’ll realize they’re just curious.”

I’d be lying if I said I went up to every single person that called me the name, or that I eventually found it pleasing to the ears; however, as I started using the shouts as a way to approach locals instead of as a way to become angered by them, I was able to immerse myself in the local culture instead of shielding myself from it.

sailing

MY TRAVELS ARE FULL OF CHALLENGES (IN THIS PHOTO, SAILING). TAKING THEM HEAD ON SHOWS YOU JUST HOW STRONG YOU ARE.

Lessons Learned From A Challenging Trip

The point of this post isn’t to ramble on about how hard my time in Ghana was, or to sound like an ignorant tourist (so sorry if I do). Instead, I want to show you the value of hardships when traveling. Not only did each of these challenges come with an upside, but my trip to Ghana came with many lessons.

One, to appreciate what I had — but also to not pity those who didn’t. While dollars- and cents-wise I certainly had more than most in the community of Achiase I stayed in, there were so many beautiful parts of the culture — like how everyone was constantly singing and dancing, and how neighbors knew each other and helped each other out — that I found truly inspiring. Despite a lack of resources, there were so many ways this community was also rich.

I also learned just what I was capable of. I’m constantly touting this as a major benefit of solo travel, as when presented with a dilemma you’ll solve it, even if it’s something you didn’t think you could handle on your own. Traveling solo, you have to rely on yourself and be resourceful. And you will.

This is how I felt in Ghana. Okay, so I wasn’t on my own, and it was nice having others to lean on. But I still felt strong, especially when I moved past the “wow is me” stage and into the adaption phase.

Lastly, I learned the benefits of letting fear act as a guide without letting it overpower you. Sure, I was nervous to go to Ghana and immerse myself in the unknown, so different from what I was used to in NYC; but, I didn’t let that stop me from going. Thankfully. Because despite my love/hate relationship with Ghana, I’m happy to have a relationship at all with this eye-opening place.

What’s been your most challenging trip and why? Please share in the comments below.

 

Photo credits: Top photo courtesy of CIAT, all other photo credits: Jessica Festa.

British Fare & The Holidays: How About a Bowl of Smoking Bishop?

December 18, 2014 by  

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drink

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a holiday classic revisited every year, especially by fans of British food. After all, the story is heaped high with all the cozy comestibles of an old-fashioned English yuletide. From plum puddings to mince-pies to wreaths of spiced sausages and roasted chestnuts, it’s enough to get your seasonal taste buds salivating. That is, until we come to the final chapter and find Scrooge bellowing out the book’s first food reference that leaves something to be desired.

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken…we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop…”

If the great author will pardon the pun, what-the-Dickens is smoking bishop? While we might be able to reasonably rule out the literal (and very unseasonable) connotations of a conflagrated clergyman, it’s definitely time to get to the bottom of Scrooge’s celebratory bowl.

Starting on the surface, nicknaming drinks after church officials seemed to be a rather irreligious and rampant habit amongst Victorian Brits. “Pope is burgundy, Cardinal is champagne or rye, Archbishop is claret” says Cedric Dickens – great-grandson of Charles – in his book Drinking with Dickens. And especially for our purpose, Dickens’ says, “Bishop is port” – a name most likely derived from the resemblance of a bishop’s purple robe with the deep-purple hue of port wine. Combine this with the equal Victorian zest for mulling wine with fruits and spices and we get a good idea of smoking bishop as a sort of port-based wassail.

But more specifically, Dickens himself tells us in another Christmas tale that the drink is a perfumed “beauty…[with] odours as of ripe vineyards, spice forests, and orange groves.” And while he doesn’t exactly reveal how such spiced orange groves got into his smoking bishop, period recipes tantalizingly describe themes of roasted, clove-infused oranges bobbing in a simmering vessel of sweetened port. It’s a flavor medley most often described by modern merrymakers as resembling a warm sangria. And on a cold December night, a seething bowl of citrus and spice is about as good a way of conjuring up those warm Christmas spirits as it gets. And old Scrooge certainly knew a thing or two (or three) about that.

Recipe: Charles Dickens’ Smoking Bishop*

Serves 8-10

  • 5 oranges
  • 1 grapefruit
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 bottle (750 ml) red wine
  • 1 bottle (750 ml) ruby port
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks

Instructions

1. Slice oranges and grapefruit in half, place them on a baking sheet and roast in a 350° oven for 30 minutes or until the fruit turns pale brown. Let cool.

2. Squeeze the juice of the roasted fruit and put both juice and fruit into a large saucepan along with the remaining ingredients.

3. Simmer mixture for one hour, carefully stirring to dissolve sugar.

4. Serve in warm glasses and sip like a newly-reformed Scrooge.

*Recipe adapted from Drinking With Dickens (New Amsterdam Books; 1998), by Cedric Dickens.

Documentation

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Dickens, Cedric. Drinking With Dickens. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1998.

Hewett, Edward and William F. Axton. Convivial Dickens: the Drinks of Dickens and His Times: Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1983.

Contributed by Bryan Koz who a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America with an insatiable appetite for British food history and literature.  Top photo credit: Delicious seasonal sips, a “Smoking Bishop”. Photo courtesy of Bryan Koz.

 

Wellness Travel: Where Wine & Yoga Converge Around the Globe

December 17, 2014 by  

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Photo courtesy of Ditty_about_summer via Shutterstock.

On first consideration, drinking and yoga may seem rather incompatible. If, like me, you’ve occasionally had one too many glasses of red wine before heading to an hour of vinyasa and downward dog, you may have reservations about combining the two. But trust me: these two contrasting activities can actually come together to create a truly relaxing and rejuvenating vacation.

For those who love wellness travel — wine and beer included — here are ten of the world’s top boozy yoga holidays:

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of ISchmidt via Shutterstock.

1. Yoga & Cocktails At A Maldives Retreat

In this retreat held at W Hotels Retreat and Spa and run by yoga guru Tara Stiles, you can relax into a routine of regular yoga classes, peppered with welcome drinks and cocktail evenings. There are also spa treatments, meditation and water activities available, plus plenty of sunset beach yoga in the tropical paradise of the Maldives. Prices start from $1,760; click here to find out more.

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of Westin Verasa Napa.

2. Wine, Women & Wellness In The Napa Valley

What better place to combine yoga and wine than in the California oenophile mecca of Napa? In the Westin Verasa Napa’s girls’ getaway program, female guests can take morning yoga classes, revel in four star French dining, enjoy world-class surroundings and attend evening wine tastings. There’s even a Superfood Cleansing Workshop, so there’s no guilt involved. Accommodation starts at $159 per night; click back here in the near future for updated rate information.

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of Samot via Shutterstock.

3. Yoga & Horseback Riding In Umbria

In the picturesque wine country surrounds of Umbria, Italy, indulge in a yoga and horseback riding retreat which also features Italian wine tasting sessions at the luxe Caimeli resort. Run by New Orleans-based company Shanti Yoga, this program combines yoga sessions, horse-riding and wine appreciation in the Italian countryside. Prices start from 1,430 euros; click here for a useful infographic.

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of Netfalls- Remy Musser via Shutterstock.

4. Yoga & Portuguese Viticulture In Madeira

On the stunning Portuguese island of Madeira, off the coast of Morocco, discover yoga and meditation at the Hotel Jardim Atlantico, where you can sample many local Madeira as well as Porto and Vinho Verde wines. The hotel also boasts a local cocktail, “The Poncha”: honey, sugar cane spirits, lemon juice and lemon peel. Accommodation starts at 74 Euros (about $92 USD)  per night and individual yoga classes are 19 Euros (about $24 USD); click here for details.

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of the Vines of Mendoza.

5. Grape Picking & Yoga In Argentina

At the Vines of Mendoza, in one of South America’s finest wine regions, you can pick grapes, make your own wine, blend a Malbec or simply sample award-winning Argentinian drops. Add yoga classes in a studio with 180-degree views of the Andes Mountains and you have the perfect vacation. Prices start from approximately $700; click here for further information.

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of Windstar Cruises.

6. Cruise Through Yoga & European Dining

If you like the sea breeze in your hair as you practice yoga, then a Windstar Cruise could be for you. Yoga sessions take place on the ship’s deck, as you cruise from Lisbon to London via Spain and France, stopping for fine wining and dining along the way. Full packages start from approximately $4,000; click here to learn more.

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of Wanderlust.

7. Winederlust in North America

Wanderlust runs yoga vacations across North America, with retreats that combine hiking, biking, paddle boarding and special “winederlust” events. These include wine and beer samplings from local wineries and breweries, with plenty of food and music for the perfect atmosphere. Locations range the East Coast to Hawaii; click back here soon for pricing and further information.

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of Anamaya Resort.

8. Yoga & Relaxation In Costa Rica

How would you like to practice yoga in a stunning tropical location while also indulging in waterfall swimming, massage, cooking classes, spa treatments and excursions to nearby tropical islands? Anamaya Resort in Costa Rica offers just that, with daily ocean-view yoga classes. Anamaya focuses on healthy and organic fare and offers local wine and beer offerings, paired with farm-to-table dining. All-inclusive packages start from $895 per week; find out more by clicking here.

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of Finger Lakes Yogascapes.

9. “Chakratinis” In Finger Lakes NY

You don’t have to travel to exotic locations to indulge in a relaxing, boozy yoga retreat. In the calm surrounds of the Fingers Lakes region of New York State, Finger Lakes Yogascapes offers seasonal yoga and drink pairings throughout the year. These include the warm-weather “Chakratini” night: outdoor chakra-based yoga practice followed by martinis, plus wine/chocolate/yoga events. In the winter, you can even engage in “snowga”, a snow-bound yoga session followed by cocoa and peppermint schnapps. Events themselves are around $40; click here for details on accommodation.

Wellness Travel

Photo courtesy of Retreat in the Pines.

10. Mimosas & Yoga In Texas

With Retreat in the Pines, you can shack up in the woods of Texas for a relaxing yoga and wellness program. The retreat includes plenty of yoga classes, plus wine tastings, gourmet dining and mimosa brunches, with events like “Sip Stretch Savor” and “Wine Yoga Chocolate.” There are also plenty of meditation and nature programs, too. Prices range from $369 to $599 for packages; click here for details.

Have you been on a wellness travel -related boozy yoga vacation? Please share in the comments below.

Contributed by Gemma King

Bucket List: 5 Must Do’s in Trinidad and Tobago

December 16, 2014 by  

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Trinidad and Tobago is full of fun and interesting outdoor experiences. Here are some of my favorites:

Green-throated Mango Hummingbird

1. Pigeon Point

One of Tobago’s best beaches, Pigeon Point is where you’ll find white sand, billowing palms and a range of adventurous water sports offered by Radical Sports Tobago, a green water sports operation located right on the beach. In fact, their electric bill is only $8 per month, as the only motorized water vehicle they use is their kite-surfing rescue boat.

stand up paddle board

Through Radical Sports Tobago you can enjoy windsurfing, stand up paddle boarding, kite surfing, kayaking and more. Clinics are available, and if you want to see some of Tobago’s other beautiful water sport areas you can request to visit places like the Nylon Pool and Bon Accord Lagoon.

2. Buccoo Reef

A popular dive and snorkel site on Tobago — along with Speyside Gardens, home to one of the world’s largest pieces of brain coral — is Buccoo Reef. This is the largest coral reef in Tobago ,home to myriad marine species as well as coral gardens of Star Coral, Elkhorn Coral, brain coral, Starlet Coral and more.

Designated a marine park in 1973, the site can be explored via a dive or glass bottom boat tour. I recommend Tobago Waterholics, who will make the enhance the experience with booze and soca music. Additionally, a glassbottom boat tour will take you to the Nylon Pool, which supposedly brings eternal youth to those who swim in its calm waters.

3. Yerette

While Yerette involves more of a manmade experience than the rest of the sites and experiences on this list, it’s a truly worthwhile way to get to know the islands’ vibrant hummingbird culture. Located on Trinidad in St. Joseph, you’ll see hundreds to thousands of hummingbirds flocking to the yard of Theo and his wife, Gloria.

They have over 20 feeders of sugar water as well as a lush garden full of nectar, which makes up about 90% of the hummingsbird’s diet. On any given day you can see up to 13 different species — some of which include the Copper-rumped Hummingbird, White-chest Emerald, Blue-chinned Sapphire and Tufted Coquette — making it a special place not only on Trinidad but around the world. Inside, there is also a hummingbird photography art gallery and gift shop.

The basic entrance fee to photograph the birds, learn a bit about them, see an educational hummingbird film and enjoy a light meal is $25. Guided tours are also available.

argyle falls

Argyle Falls. Photo courtesy quillons.

4. Argyle Falls

At 175 feet (53 meters) tall, Argyle Falls is the highest waterfall in Tobago. It’s located in the virgin rainforest of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, recorded as the “oldest legally protected forest reserve geared specifically towards a conservation purpose,” established on April 13, 1776. In this 9,780 acres (3,958 hectares) of rainforest, you’ll enjoy a scenic stroll from the visitor center — where you’ll pay about $5 to $6 depending if you are a local or foreigner — learning about Tobago’s flora and fauna from a naturalist guide. Once at the falls, you can choose to hike to the top of it or simply enjoy the clear pool at its base.

5. Pitch Lake

A natural wonder, Pitch Lake in Trinidad is home to the world’s largest natural deposit of asphalt. It covers about 99 acres (40 hectares) and is 246 feet (75 meters) deep. It’s one of the planet’s most unusual landscapes, and is constantly pulling things into itself, eating something new and spitting something else out.

If that doesn’t sound enough like a horror film, Pitch Lake has “feelers” that stretch for miles. Oddly enough, locals swear bathing in the sulfur springs in Pitch Lake can cure almost any ailment. Even more quirky is the legend behind the lake. It is said a tribe of Amerindians were swallowed whole by Pitch Lake for eating some hummingbirds, which are now believed to host the spirit of their ancestors.

Stand up paddle boarding at Pigeon Point second photo – courtesy of Radical Sports. Top photo Green-throated Mango Hummingbird. Image via Yerette.

 

 

Adventure Travel Check List: How About Paragliding in Colombia?

December 15, 2014 by  

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paragliding in medellin

The unpleasant licorice-flavored spirit is all I can taste in my cotton mouth as I awake to a blaring 7am alarm. Blips of the night before play in my mind like a stomach-twisting drama as I attempt to figure out why I need to be up so early: dancing around in the DJ booth, mixed shots, an enormous plate of chicharron and…paragliding!

Today would be my first experience hurling myself off a cliff over Colombia’s second-largest metropolis, Medellin.

The thought alone is enough to jolt me out of my stupor.

paragliding in Medellin

I throw on some warm clothes, shove a slice of toast into my mouth and run to hail a taxi over Medellin’s tourist-popular El Poblado neighborhood. You can show up any morning there at 8am to sign up for the day’s paragliding with Aeroclub, although I’d recommend confirming the day before. I pay 80 COP (about $40 USD) for the flight, and then wait for their driver to pick me up (70 COP/about $35 USD split between everyone in the car).

I am happy when I’m told the driver will arrive in 40 minutes, as it gave me time to take a much-needed hammock nap. Even without, however, my adrenaline and sweaty palms are enough to keep me going.

paragliding in medellin

Once the driver arrives we set off, rolling through the city until we begin heading up into the countryside, driving along a scenic finca (small farm) trail. We twist and turn along the mountain, my anticipation growing quickly. Signs boast fresh vegetables and fruit juices, until we finally reach our destination.

Well, almost.

After filling out the necessary forms and renting a GoPro (about $15 USD for the renal + $15 USD for the memory card), I’m instructed to climb a steep staircase to the actual takeoff point. The aerial view from the Aeroclub office is dizzying in itself, and I cann’t imagine what it will be like at the top.

At the summit the ambiance is like a fairytale — complete with flying humans. People sunbathe on the green grass watching the colorful parachutes launch, while others do yoga or pose on the cliffside for spectacular (and somewhat terrifying) photos. Gazing out over the city and surrounding mountains, with giant black birds gliding in front of a background of lush green dotted with colorful specs, my anxiety about the experience dissipates into complete calm.

My guide for the day, Antonio, runs over to me with a bag of water as he sees me huffing and puffing from the hike up. From there, everything happens at rapid pace. One second he’s tying a GoPro to my arm, the next he’s strapping me into a parachute. And then, without more warning than Antonio shouting the word “Run!” I am suddenly propelling myself off of a cliff 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) in the air, just missing my death as the parachute opens and lifts me into the sky.

Despite having gone skydiving, bungy jumping and canyoning numerous times, I can’t help but feel my Aguardiente coming up. Luckily, Antonio plays house music to distract me, and also helps me practice my Spanish. Once I settle down, we lift higher into the clouds, and I’m able to concentrate on trying to capture great video and photos of the experience. As you may be able to tell from the photos, it’s my first time using a selfie stick.

The trees, which seem so tall on the ground, look like the broccoli on a dinner plate from above. Actually, a dinner bowl, with the city’s surrounding greenery resting on the edges, gently swooping down into the base where houses resemble multi-colored beans. Wavy mountain and hill textures enhance the scene.

At times, the clouds envelope me so I can’t even see the rainbow bright parachute. At other times, the swing seat wiggles — sometimes even tilting so much I am sure I will fall out. In my mind the straps don’t feel tight enough, the swing secure enough. But, in the end I have a thrilling (and safe!) adventure.

My landing isn’t exactly graceful. Again, my instructor doesn’t speak English, and my Spanish isn’t fluent, so I’m not 100% sure how to land. As I’ve been skydiving before, I decide to try the “legs out, land on your butt” tactic. While this ends up being correct, I don’t exactly execute it flawlessly.

Either way, this instantly became a major highlight of my trip to Colombia, and I highly recommend it to all of you.

Tip: Wear a shirt or pants with a zipper pocket so you can bring a small camera or your phone to use after the flight. Once you’re done they’ll need to take the GoPro back, and you’ll definitely want to grab photos from the top of the hill. Feel free to get creative. My friends and I took yoga pose photos, cartwheel photos, sitting-on-the-fence photos, looking-out-over-the-valley photos and more.

Have you ever gone paragliding in Colombia or anywhere for that matter? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

 

A Very Therapeutic & Ayurvedic Massage in India

December 14, 2014 by  

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massage

I’d heard so much about Ayurvedic massage in India, with many locals telling me the herb- and spice-rich Kerala — the state I was traveling through — was the best place to do it. Sumptuous images of being wrapped in turmeric and covered in lemongrass while a gentle-handed masseuse massaged my aching muscles (I was traveling India by bike, you know) filled my mind. And when I found out a 60-minute Ayurvedic massage with head, face and scalp at a non-touristy centre — I wanted a true cultural experience in line with my bus-free through Indian trip — was only 1000 INR (about $16 USD), I had to try it.

What Are Ayurvedic Therapies?

Ayurvedic therapies are natural and holistic, and look to prevent disease and cure it at its roots. It’s also about life balance, and believes different people are prone to different habits based on their natural constitution, which falls into specific doshas. These doshas then affect everything from our diet to our emotions. Ayurvedic therapies work to heal and balance the body without disturbing a person’s natural intelligence.

There are a number of benefits believed to come from Ayurvedic treatments, for example, relief of pain, tension and travel fatigue; improved circulation; rejuvenated skin; better flow of oxygen to body tissues; increased stamina and sexual vitality; the flushing out of waste products; looser joints; and an improved immune system.

While this was all true, there was one very crucial element that was left out: you get massaged completely nude.

I realize to some people this may seem prude, but let me explain. Coming from the United States, where when getting a massage you undress in a private room, usually leaving your underwear on underneath your robe, and then disrobing in the treatment room in private to get under a sheet before anyone sees you, it felt very awkward. At home even when it’s time to roll over, a towel is held up to shield the masseuse from seeing anything. It doesn’t matter if you buy a cheap or expensive massage, this is almost always standard procedure.

As someone who loves spas, I’ve also gotten massages in many other countries as well: Peru, Argentina, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Tahiti, Switzerland. And while there are usually differences in the procedure one thing has always remained constant: your chocha is not showing to the public.

But, I guess these differences are why travel, aren’t they?

Taken Out Of My Comfort Zone

It all started when I walked into the Mayura Ayurvedic Centre in Periyar,India. The place seemed very simple, with no paperwork to fill out and no questions asked. I was then led into a homey room that felt more like my grandmother’s house than a treatment room. Pale purple walls bulged with water spots and dry running paint, while beige curtains splattered with ostentatious red flowers ensured nobody could look inside. A shiny metal sink stuck out from the wall, with a bright orange bucket sitting underneath. Classic Indian music filled the room — which was illuminated by a harsh bare bulb — and was emitted from two bulky grey speakers overhead. Then there was the table, which looked more like something a pediatrician would use than a masseuse.

Still, I was excited for a relaxing dose of local Kerala culture.

Paper Thongs

My masseuse didn’t speak English, and as I didn’t know what to do she simply kept saying “take off, take off” to indicate I should strip down further. Off went the raincoat, the button down, the sweat pants, the tank top, the sneakers and the socks. As I stood awkwardly in front of her in my bra and thong, she continued to say “take off.”

“Take off…my underwear?” I asked, pointing to my red and grey g-string.

She nodded.

Luckily, my masseuse pulled out a paper thong that went between my legs and tied behind my back, which made me feel a tiny (very tiny) bit better.

From there, I sat down on top of a long thin sheet with my legs dangling off the sit of the table. It was time for the scalp massage, or should I say, hair-removal. As she scratched and pulled my hair, I could feel strands falling out and flittering down my back. Then came the head pounding, where my skull was treated like a door and she was a delivery man, angry that nobody was answering.

Afterward, I was instructed to lay on my stomach with my butt in the air.

“At least I have this paper thong on,” I thought, as it was simultaneously ripped off of me.

Or not.

How Does My Butt Look?

Talk about feeling exposed. Not to mention it was chilly in there! My masseuse massaged what smelled like cardamom and cocoa oil into my skin — almost an entire bottle. In fact, at one point the oil had pooled so deep on my back it began dripping over my shoulder onto my chest like an Infinity pool.

While I often question how my butt looks in a pair of jeans, I couldn’t help ponder this as I lay ass up on the massage table. Without thinking I clenched my cheeks together, trying to make myself look more toned, then stopped realizing without pants on every movement was visible. I was especially aware of this when she massaged my calves and feet — two areas I’m extremely ticklish in — but was afraid to breath, giggle or twitch at the thought of something jiggling. And unlike Swedish massage which focuses on relieving tension and undoing knots, the Ayurvedic seemed to concentrate on soaking the oil into the skin with fast, aggressive circular motions, which didn’t help my predicament.

I couldn’t help but wonder what other tourists must think when coming to get an Ayurvedic massage — I can’t imagine everyone is completely okay with getting massaged by a stranger stark naked. I never considered myself prude until then, but maybe I was? Then again, my best friend won’t even get a Swedish massage under a sheet with underwear on in New York because she’s afraid they’ll touch her butt, so I know I’m not that weird.

I would also like to note that on the centre’s brochure the drawings show people wearing a sheet, but I digress.

Flipping Over

Next, I was instructed to lay on my back. I closed my eyes tightly shut, as my only other option was to stare at this completely stranger as she massaged oils into my boobs and thighs. Luckily, I was given my stylish paper thong back for this part.

As the massage went on, I began to feel more comfortable with my nudity. That is, until the part where I had to be massaged sitting up. While eye level with this woman, she continued the rubbing, which was more awkward for me than the time I accidentally showed up to school volleyball in my underwear (you know that nightmare you had growing up where you forget to puts pants on for school? yepp, it happened to me in real life).

One part I will admit I thoroughly enjoyed, which I had never experienced, was the ear massage. Who knew getting your ears rubbed felt so good? I hope my boyfriend is reading this.

A Happy Ending (No, Not That Kind!)

Once the massage was over, the masseuse took a rough towel and pulled off the 1,500 pounds of oil that drenched my skin. And to completely finish, she rubbed my head one last time and put a red streak of powder in my hair. I wasn’t sure what this was — although a local later told me it was too keep you from catching a cold — but it actually looked kind of pretty.

While somewhat awkward, I will admit I felt rejuvenated — not to mention very soft — after the treatment. Would I do it again? No. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely! It was an interesting cultural experience that was also good for me. Plus, it took me out of my comfort zone to try something new, and possibly made me more comfortable in my own skin. And in my opinion, that’s never a bad thing.

Have you ever had an Ayurvedic massage? What was your experience like?

MASSAGE. PHOTO COURTESY OF GAELX.

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