About Sherry Ott

Sherry Ott

Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of http://www.briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice. She posts over on https://plus.google.com/103115118174711820529/posts as well.

Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at http://www.ottsworld.com.com.


Latest Posts by Sherry Ott

Where To Go & What To Do In Cartagena Colombia

August 24, 2015 by  

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Surprisingly this was my first trip to Colombia; for some reason South America hadn’t demanded my attention yet in my travels. I was eager to leave the cold December in NYC behind to land in hot, steamy Cartagena. The best part –  it was so simple – no super long flight, and no jetlag. Poof! A quick flight from Miami and I was transported to a new culture.

I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by Cartagena. In fact I was sort of expecting it to be an over-touristed cruise stop, that had been cleaned up and wrapped in a pretty bow that really wasn’t representative of the rest of the city, country, or culture – sort of like old town Dubrovnik. But from the first night when I found myself having dinner with locals oozing hospitality and authenticity, I realized I had Cartagena all wrong.

In my 5 short days there, I did a lot – some more traditional tourist experiences, some local experiences, and some ‘are you sure you should do that’ experiences. A perfect mix of things to do in Cartagena that has nothing to do with cruise ships.

Get Oriented and Enjoy the View

If you are anything like me, then you love to read a map when you arrive in a new destination. And it’s even better, when you can get an aerial view of a place to help you understand where you’ve been and where you are yet to go. Be sure not to miss the ‘penthouse’ view at the top of La Popa in Cartagena for the best view in the city! Standing 150 m high, you need to traverse a number of switchbacks to reach Convento de la Popa at the top of the hill. You can simply enjoy the views of the city or go inside the convent to see artifacts and learn of the history of the area. Whether you go in or not, the view is heavenly.

More Info: Convento de la Popa

This is Not Your Typical Fruit Vendor

Your eyes are immediately drawn to the bright primary colored dresses peppered around the Old City of Cartagena – the customary attire of Palenquera women. They sit in the shadow of the old city walls in Cartagena selling fruit which is precariously balanced on their heads. The palenqueras represent the difficult, complicated history of their ancestors and the history of slavery in Colombia.
But on a lighter note, they also sell delicious fresh fruit; they speedily cut up a platter of fresh fruit for you from their large basket. A great cool snack for the afternoon heat and a glimpse into Cartagena’s past history.

things to do in Cartagena

Don’t Just Eat Salsa, Learn How to Salsa

It was a hot steamy night as I walked up the stairs into the dance studio and startled the tall man lounging on a metal chair. He didn’t speak English, but that was ok as all I had to do was follow his lead. He turned on the overhead fans, looked at me, smiled, and a barrage of Spanish started flowing. I just smiled and followed his steps. I learned different salsa steps including the Colombian and Cuban versions which seemed to me to have subtle variations, but to the locals it was very clear delineations. My hips seemed to loosen up as the music got louder and finally after following his every movement in front of the class he took my hand and we danced together.

 

columbian culture salsa dance lessons

Request a Miracle

Charms hang from the wall enclosed in glass because they are special – each representing a miracle come true. Every Feb 2nd the miraculous power of Convento de la Popa is celebrated through an elaborate procession up the tallest point in Cartagena. Traversing multiple switchbacks the procession stops at each of the stations of the cross along the route to say prayers and ask for miracles to be performed. The charms hanging in the chapel represent miracles that were answered.
Entry in to the convent – aprox. $5

things to do in Cartagena
things to do in Cartagena

Visit a Castle Without a King

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is not and was never a castle. It was actually a fort masquerading as a castle. With 53 canons and massive walls – this was not a place for fairy tales. The fort, which took 104 years to build, was created to defend an attack from the North and East. However, today it’s a major landmark of the city which has a lovely view of the city and provides a glimpse into Cartagena’s colonial history. Wander through the tunnel system and be sure to take aim with one of the big canons!

things to do in Cartagena
things to do in Cartagena

Visit an R Rated Market

We had all the usual warnings from locals – beware of pick pockets, don’t flash your phone around, and take off all of your jewelry before you go. I find the best places to visit in the world are the ones that people give you warnings about – Bazurto Market in Cartagena was no exception. You can listen to the warnings, but don’t let them stop you from going to one of the best markets I’ve ever been to in the world. A market full of gory, gritty, pungent animal parts, but mixed with smiles, dancing and enthusiasm like no other. Impromptu jam sessions, children running around playing, people drinking beer and socializing, men using razor sharp knives while not even looking at what they were cutting. Go early in the morning, don’t wear flip flops (like I did), and walk through the market sharing lots of smiles – you’ll get plenty back. End in the prepared food section and eat with the locals with newspaper for a plate!

Bazurto Catagena

Drink Away the Day

The sun dips down into the Caribbean Sea leaving the sky in a pinkish glow as the music in the background warms the scene. Sunset looking over the old city wall in Cartagena Colombia is something not to be missed. To take part in this daily ritual head to the far corner of the old city wall and head up to the top to Café Del Mar. The drinks are pricey, so grab your sunset cocktail and then move on after the sun has disappeared for the day.

Things to do in Cartagena 1500
Café Del Mar

Visit a Library – Yes, Library

You’ve heard of food carts that you need to try when traveling – but what about a book cart? You’ll find a library on wheels in the beautiful Parque de Bolivar in Cartagena. Martin Murillo will be pushing the cart and he’s hard to miss. Dressed in a white shirt with logo’s all over it, he reminds me of a NASCAR driver. Martin pushes a wagon full of books that acts as a mobile library & pulpit. He borrows to locals and tourists (free) to promote reading and literacy and often you’ll find him reading stories in the park to whomever will listen. His cart and mission is sponsored by various companies and when he’s not traveling the world spreading his literacy message, he’s entertaining famous Colombia guests like, President Clinton, with his mobile library in the park. So take a break from sight seeing, grab a book from Martin, a coffee from a street vendor and take a seat on one of the many park benches and enjoy a chapter or two!

 

things to do in Cartagena
things to do in Cartagena

Get your ZZZ’s at the beach

The breeze gently rocked the hammock back and forth. As I lay there with my eyes closed swaying, I could hear the familiar sound of drum music wafting through the little village of Manzanillo. I imagine a giant speaker somewhere in the town center providing the beat of the village 24/7.
Khosamui boutique hotel was simple and outfitted in bright colors with white backgrounds. There were only 4 rooms which kept the whole atmosphere cozy and chill; it was designed with relaxing in mind. A big open-air lobby was filled with colorful flowers and throw pillows and just steps from the beach cabanas.
However upstairs is where the real lounging happens. The patio overlooked the beach and came with a fabulous and constant sea breeze. Hammocks and cloth swinging chairs hung from the rafters providing the perfect place for a lazy nap while lunch was prepared.

things to do in Cartagena

Dance All Night

It was as if the Pied Piper were luring in the dancers around the Old City late into the night as the restaurants closed. I followed the beat of the music around the corner of Plaza de la Coches and found a lively colorful scene with women moving their hips like I never knew was possible. The Colombians made it look so easy and carefree, like they came out of the womb moving their hips and feet in a rhythmic fashion.
I sat at the bar content to watch the sites of young, old, tourists, and locals all intermix in salsa beat. There was no real dance floor, but no one cared, whatever space was available was used. People bumped into each other and no one minded as eternal smiles seemed to be on their faces. It took exactly two songs before I was beckoned to join. I knew the locals wouldn’t let people sit around for long and just be a voyeur.

things to do in Cartagena

Eat with Locals

I got a real feel for local life in Cartagena by having dinner with a local family at their home. I was welcomed with open arms by the Perez Cuesta family in a suburb of Cartagena. The music was playing, the plantanos were frying up, and we all barely could get a word in edgewise while we had the ultimate night of cultural exchange learning about family traditions and food in our respective countries.
This was a unique chance to see how the a typical local family lived, and understand neighborhood and family dynamics in Cartagena. As well as have a fabulous home cooked meal!

things to do in Cartagena

 

Escape the City…For the Beach

A short boat trip from Cartagena will deposit you on the beach surrounded by turquoise water. A great chance to get away from the city bustle and enjoy a slice of paradise. You can lay on the beach sipping drinks, snorkel, kayak, play beach volleyball, or just make sand castles. I went for a day trip to the Rosario Islands, but you can also stay overnight on the islands – there are lots of options from budget to luxury.

things to do in Cartagena
things to do in Cartagena
things to do in Cartagena

Take a Walk on the Wild Side – Getsamani

If you want to get away from the tourist shops and cleaner side of Cartagena – then you’ll have to leave the old central city walls and take a walk. Head across the main street to Getsemani – a diverse neighborhood where locals still outnumber tourists. I walked around during the day taking in the smiles of locals, watching delivery men prepare for the coming night, and enjoying the eclectic street art.
At night the neighborhood comes alive as the hip part of Cartagena with the best night clubs, live music, and restaurants.

Fashionable Dining

Put on your hippest outfit and head to Tcherassi Hotel in Old town for a high end Italian meal by Chef Daniel Castaño, a former Mario Batali acolyte.  The hotel itself is a vision in white by fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi.  A modern inside to an old Cartagena home.  Eat aside a waterfall, surrounded by starchy-shirted waiters. The food is about as pretty looking as the interior of the boutique hotel.

vera cartagena
vera cartagena
vera cartagena

Drink the Night Away

Putting the RUM into RUMba, try out one of the Chiva bus night tours; a bar on wheels. Live music and all the rum you can drink can only make this an experience not to be missed. The Chiva takes you around the old colonial city  with a quick stop to sample the famous fried snacks of Cartagena (filled empanadas, corn arepas with egg, manioc cakes, etc.).  A fun, rum filled way to feel the rhythm of the city.

chiva bus cartagena

 

 

Disclosure: I was a guest of United States Tour Operators while in Cartagena, however all opinions here are my own.

Colombia’s Stimulating Mercado Bazurto in Cartagena

August 19, 2015 by  

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Bazurto Catagena

This is the stuff that is normally kept far away from most American’s eyesight; the carnage that happens before that lovely piece of prime rib or fish fillet ends up behind the glass in the grocery market case.

This is the stuff that is normally kept far away from most American’s eyesight; the carnage that happens before that lovely piece of prime rib or fish fillet ends up behind the glass in the grocery market case. Mercado de Bazurto Cartegena was a serious market, the kind where you get a glimpse into local food, eating culture, work habits, and traditions in an extremely ‘Bourdain Parts Unknown’ sort of way. And I absolutely loved it.

All of my senses were on high alert while traversing the loud, muddy Bazurto Market. It was sensory overload and I felt like a kid in a candy store – bursting with excitement and attention deficit disorder every place I looked. However, instead of being excited about pixie sticks and gumballs, in a twisted way I was excited about piles of intestines and pig heads.

Sound

Crashing through the din of background salsa music was a loud pounding noise. I panned around until I found the source; a middle age woman with a hair bonnet had her arm raised in the air holding a wooden club ready for her downward motion. The club slams down onto the top of a knife driving it into the belly of a large fish – THWACK!.

This motion was repeated over and over until the fish was scored into 1 inch strips. She suddenly put down the club and reached her arm, plastered in fish scales, across her body and grabbed a ½ bottle of open beer. In one swift fluid motion she picked up the beer and chugged the remainder of the bottle slamming the empty down on the table with the same force she used with the wooden club. She wiped her mouth with the back of her arm, picked up her instruments again and moved on to the next fish.

Each stall was like a symphony of pounding, chopping, hammering all set to thebackground music beat that was always present in the market – and everywhere in Cartagena.

Sight

I watched the light dance in and out of the narrow alley ways of the market; sometimes making them look inviting, and sometimes making them look like a murder was about to happen. A local chef, Chef Javier, led us through the market greeting and hugging old friends, inspecting vegetables, talking to vendors, and pointing out various items that were new to us. The market was partially outdoor and partially enclosed. It was a maze of little alleys and tables. I was fascinated with watching the people and vendors interact; you could tell the relationships ran deep. Vendors joked among their neighbors, and it was often a family affair as kids helped their fathers butcher and sell.

Bazurto Catagena
Bazurto Catagena
Bazurto Catagena
Bazurto Catagena
Bazurto Catagena

Touch

The ground was soft and wet with little puddles of muddy water mixed with fish guts, scales, blood and who knows what else. This wasn’t a good day to be wearing flip-flops. I tried not to think about what I was walking in else I might not have moved a step the rest of the morning.

In the vegetable section of the market, I picked up a giant avocado and examined it. You could tell the avocados were in season as there were carts and carts of them piled as high as Mt. Everest. There were also stacks of peppers, and tomatoes that I wanted to gab and take home with me! Chef Javier sorted through the stack of avocados to find the perfect one for our ceviche he was planning for us.

Bazurto Catagena
Bazurto Catagena

Smell

The market smelled of death. Men with giant bellies and even bigger smiles were outfitted in plastic aprons covered in blood and guts, happily carving away on big wooden stumps. Pig heads dangled from the rafters, cow eyeballs were lined up on platters, and mountains of intestines and various animal parts were piled high for the eager consumers. It was super to have Chef Javier with us to answer the inevitable questions of, “What is THAT? And what is it used for?” We learned of soups, and various other dishes I had never heard of before, nor did I know if I’d be brave enough to try them myself.

I was on photo overload; I’m not sure why, but I love taking photos of butchers– and blood and guts.

Bazurto Catagena pig heads
Bazurto Catagena cow eyeballs

Taste

After all of this walking around I was starting to get hungry. Luckily for my stomach we finished up in the prepared food section of the market where large metal pots balanced on stands precariously filled to the brim with soup, rice, and seafood. Tables lined with newspaper had stacks of freshly fried fish on them. Javier saw me looking inquisitively at the various fried foods and soon he was handing me a piece of oily newspaper with a freshly fried ball of something, and a lime wedge. I eagerly bit into the fried food. It was salty and crispy and had a fishy taste – delicious. However I decided it best that I not inquire about what I was eating until I was actually done eating it. I had spent too much time in the market that morning seeing every (and I mean every) part of an animal that I decided sometimes it’s best to not know what you are eating.

Anything I was handed I ate, a bight red sweet banana that I was told was made with a local soda pop, fried fish, and cooked yucca.

Bazurto Catagena
Bazurto Catagena
Bazurto market salsa-ed it’s way into my top 3 markets in the world, I walked around the market all morning speechless and giddy. This was the real Cartagena in front of me; the Cartagena that speaks to all of the senses. And if you don’t think you can take the ‘real-ness’ of it, then no problem, simply enjoy what’s on your plate. Sometimes it’s easier to just enjoy the food and not know all the gory details of how it came to be…or how it died.

Oh yes, and the fried food Chef Javier gave me to try in the market? Well, I learned later it was fish testicles. Details, details.

 

I was a guest of the Unites States Tour Operators Association but all opinions expressed are my own.

How To Be Part of The Heartbeat of Colombia

August 11, 2015 by  

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I was expecting a handshake and I received a powerful, emotional hug – one that in my culture is normally reserved for close family or friends. I quickly learned being hugged with gusto was a normal greeting in in the Perez-Cuesta family home in the suburbs of Cartagena Colombia. Like mother, like daughters – each of the 4 daughters also hugged me appearing as if they were going to burst with excitement about the evening. Upon arrival in Cartagena, my first exposure to the local culture (besides hugs) was to actually set foot in a local’s house and be treated to one of the most genuine and heartwarming nights I can remember in my travels.

I was expecting a handshake and I received a powerful, emotional hug – one that in my culture is normally reserved for close family or friends. I quickly learned being hugged with gusto was a normal greeting in in the Perez-Cuesta family home in the suburbs of Cartagena Colombia. Like mother, like daughters – each of the 4 daughters also hugged me appearing as if they were going to burst with excitement about the evening. Upon arrival in Cartagena, my first exposure to the local culture (besides hugs) was to actually set foot in a local’s house and be treated to one of the most genuine and heartwarming nights I can remember in my travels.

As Ruth was busy cooking dinner, the daughters entertained us showing us the small but lovely 3 bedroom home and answering my many questions about life in Cartagena. More family members and neighbors seemed to pour in like a moth to the flame. I was struck by the affection of the entire extended family and random neighbors, all hugging and greeting as if they hadn’t seen each other for ages. I love seeing the sights of a new destination, but I enjoy seeing the family cultures of destinations even more.

Culture Clash

The whole neighborhood was twinkling in lights. One of the daughters asked me how we celebrate holidays in America, and I talked about church services, big family dinners in front of the fireplace, and then all settling in to watch a movie before bed. She looked at me in a horrified manner, “You watch a movie?” she asked in a confused tone as if she was trying to figure out if she had translated my response correctly.
“Yes” I answered sheepishly suddenly aware of how odd and sort of sad the movie tradition actually sounded. Especially in this neighborhood where it seemed as if no one was watching television but instead they were actually enjoying each other’s company and the constant music.

I could feel bass beat reverberate through my body and waft through the neighborhood as the night went on. The beat seemed to be as powerful as the hug I received when entering. The plantanos were frying in the kitchen as we shared beers in the living room, but all the while I was aware of the music in the background. The whole neighborhood had their doors and windows open and everyone seemed to be living to the beat. Thinking about all the times I wanted to scream at my neighbors for playing music too loud in their apartment, I asked if any of the neighbors ever complained about the music in the neighborhood. They looked at me surprised as if they didn’t even hear the music outside, and they had suddenly become aware of it now. “No, everyone loves the music” Ruth answered slightly confused at why I would even ask the question.

The Heartbeat of Cartagena

Cartagena Colombia is a symphony of sound more than any place I’ve ever been. The constant drumbeat you experience as you walk around is the city’s heartbeat. If it stopped, I think the whole city would just fizzle out and die. Musical scenes play out on every corner of Old Town, Getsemani, and even little beach towns like Manzanillo. People moved to the beat everywhere I went. Giant speakers in public were the norm as people spilled out of establishments and into the streets of Cartagena at all hours of the day. This music was the foundation to their bubbly free-flowing personalities.

“This was a culture with gusto and energy, they lived outwardly and

because of that, I immediately loved Colombia.”

As I walked around the Old City, I watched a waitress move her hips to the beat and pump her arms up in the air for a moment as if everything else around her has disappeared. The barefoot man in Bazurto market walked among big pots of oil with furious flames lapping up beneath them, and in perfect beat to the music he’d plop a whole fish in the hot oil. As he moved on to the next big pot he shuffled his feet as if he was salsa dancing with a ghost and then plopped in another fish. All the while with a big smile on his face doing what seemed to me to be one of the hottest, hardest, and thankless jobs I had seen in the market. I rounded the corner and found a crowd around 3 men playing music. One had an accordion, one had an old pail for a drum, and one had what resembles a cheese grater; together they made beautiful high-energy music. The crowd of locals moved to the beat and clapped along. All I could do was stop and smile at this scene of pure music joy.

So You Think You Can Dance?

I needed to find a way to get more involved; I was tired of being on the outside of this music looking in. I wanted to feel the music like the locals, and Eduardo, my guide, suggested I take a private salsa lesson in the Old City.

It was a hot steamy night as I walked up the stairs into the dance studio and startled the tall man lounging on a metal chair. He didn’t speak English, but that was ok as all I had to do was follow his lead. He turned on the overhead fans, looked at me, smiled, and a barrage of Spanish started flowing. I just smiled and followed his steps living out my (insert dancing reality TV show here) fantasy in Old Town.

I learned the Colombian and Cuban salsa versions, which seemed to me to have subtle variations, but to the locals it was very clear delineations. My hips loosened up as the music grew louder. Finally after following his every movement in front of the class he took my hand and we danced together. I could hear the crowd outside starting to rev up for the night and I bid my instructor adios and went out to test out my newly learned skills.

As I rounded the corner near Plaza de la Coches you could hear the music. It was as if the Pied Piper were luring in the dancers around the Old City late into the night as the restaurants closed. I followed the music to the corner and found a lively colorful scene with women moving their hips like I never knew was possible. That certainly wasn’t covered in my beginning salsa class! But the Colombians made it look so easy and carefree, like they came out of the womb moving their hips and feet in a rhythmic fashion. But with music as your cultural heartbeat, of course dancing would come as naturally as walking to them.

Colombian music culture
Colombian music culture
Colombian music culture
Colombian music culture

I found myself in Donde Fidel’s Salsa bar and found the salsa scene I was looking for; lively, loud, crowded, and everyone just drunk enough to take pity on a beginning dancer. I sat at the bar content to watch the sites of young, old, tourist, and locals all intermix in salsa beat. There was no real dance floor, but no one cared, whatever space was available was used. People bumped into each other and no one minded, as eternal smiles seemed to be on their faces. It took exactly two songs before I was beckoned to join. I knew the locals wouldn’t let people sit around for long and just be a voyeur.

Suddenly I was hip to hip with strangers, smiling, laughing and moving to the beat produced by the giant sound system behind the bar. Instead of being on the outside, I was on the inside now, my inhibitions slipping away with each step. After the set of songs, I gave my new dancing partner a powerful, emotional hug like Ruth gave me when I arrived in Cartagena. I didn’t even care that he was a stranger, it just felt right – now I really was a part of the heartbeat of Colombia.

Stay in a Luxury Costa Brava Villa & Pamper Yourself to the Nines

August 6, 2015 by  

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Costa Brava Villa Rental

Let’s talk luxury travel in one of my favorite places in the world, Costa Brava Spain. I recently spent a week traveling having my own luxury Costa Brava Holidays with a special guy who picked the right trip to accompany me on as we got to live the Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous for a week in Costa Brava staying in luxury hotels, sipping gin and tonics, throwing dinner parties at our villa, and exploring sights.  Here’s how you can go about spending money for an exquisite experience in Costa Brava Spain.

Sleep in Luxury

Costa Brava is a beautiful mix of little coastal towns and rustic countryside. It’s hard to choose where you should go spend your time and money, so why not do both!

Costa Brava Villas

Head to the coast and stay in the white-washed coastal town of Cadaques. It’s tucked away over a winding mountain pass that deposits you in a scenic little town near the home of Salvador Dali. There are no big luxury hotels here, instead there is something better, luxury villa rental. If you want to live the lux life, then rent Can Puig in Cadaques.

This 4 bedroom home is hard to find through the winding back streets of Cadaques, but it’s worth the hunt. Once an old fisherman’s house the current owners restored and enlarged it providing a level of ‘lived-in’ comfort like no other in the town. The front of the house is pretty typical, but when you walk in through the large living room and through the back patio doors you see the real luxury – a terraced garden and patio with a view of the town.   You can easily walk 3 minutes into town to sample restaurants and bars or you can head to the grocery store and stock the beautiful kitchen and do your own cooking.  We stayed there for 4 days and all I wanted to do was sit on the terrace, sip wine, do absolutely nothing – a decadent life. If I only could have gotten him to peel me grapes and feed them to me….ahhh…a girl has to dream.

Costa Brava Villa Rental
Costa Brava Villa Rental
Costa Brava Villa Rental
Costa Brava Villa Rental
Costa Brava Villa Rental
Costa Brava Villa Rental

The villa rents for $7,700 to $10,000 a week and is great for a large family/friend gatherings.

Costa Brava Hotels

Be pampered in the middle of the countryside at Mas de Torrent, an old 18th century farmhouse turned into a unique luxury Costa Brava Hotel. Preserving the exterior façade they were able to keep the old farm feel, but insert luxury inside. The hotel reception used to be the stables and the bar was the old kitchen!

There are suites in the old farmhouse structure as well as 20 modern suites with private terraces in the gardens near the crystal blue pool. Complimentary room beverages (alcohol included), a beautiful pool, and bikes are available for anyone to use and visit the nearby towns. And if you want to amp up the luxury, then check out the masSPA. However I was pretty happy sipping gin and tonics on the terrace enjoying the countryside view with my man. The beauty of staying at a luxury hotel is that you get amazing service. Mas de Torrent had a team of people there to shower attention on your every need at any hour.

Costa Brava Hotel Mas de Torrent
Costa Brava Hotel Mas de Torrent
Costa Brava Hotel Mas de Torrent
Costa Brava Hotel Mas de Torrent
Costa Brava Hotel Mas de Torrent
Costa Brava Hotel Mas de Torrent
Costa Brava Hotel Mas de Torrent
Costa Brava Hotel Mas de Torrent
Costa Brava Hotel Mas de Torrent

A standard (it’s anything but standard!) room will run you $500 a night to start with and sometimes requires a 2 night stay.

Eat in Luxury

Sure, you could go eat at simple little cafes, but why do that when you have money to spend?

El Celler de Can Roca

Why not eat at the best restaurant in the world, El Celler de Can Roca. You’ll need to plan ahead for this opportunity to be treated to a gastronomical night you’ll never forget – reservations are taken months in advance. I was lucky enough to eat no less than 17 courses with 15 wine pairings for a lunch reservation. Three brothers (the Chefs) with different focus have found the perfect recipe to blow your culinary mind and pocketbook. The restaurant is run like a machine pumping out a mix of seemingly artistic creations and science experiments to its eager customers.

Celler de Can Roca Costa Brava
Celler de Can Roca Costa Brava
Celler de Can Roca Costa Brava
Celler de Can Roca Costa Brava
Celler de Can Roca Costa Brava
Celler de Can Roca Costa Brava

Prices range from $200 to $300 for tasting menus and wine pairings

Mas de Torrent Restaurant

Looking for a way to spend money on your companion? Then how about a romantic outdoor feast on the moonlight terrace at Mas de Torrent Restaurant. Using nature and the landscape for inspiration, the menu represents a combination of local, seasonal dishes from sea and countryside. The food was delicious, beautifully displayed, and hearty. And don’t forget you can spend more cash by getting something special from their well-stocked wine cellar.

Mas de Torrent Restaurant
Mas de Torrent Restaurant
Mas de Torrent Restaurant

The seasonal tasting menu will cost $86 per person plus wine/drinks – and worth every penny.

Hire a Private Chef

Want the ultimate luxury – how about having a personal chef cook for you?Chef Lee Pennington will work with you to make it a night/party you won’t forget! You won’t even have to lift a finger, he’ll do it all for you at your villa. We worked together with him on a menu and he did all the shopping, brought it to our kitchen, and we sat and  sipped wine while he cooked a Catalan feast. Our luxury dinner party in Can Puig villa complete with seasonal ingredients, cured duck, seafood and meat paella, and local dessert – oh and he’ll even bring wine if you’d like!

Chef Lee can work with your budget, but his average rates are $45 to $55 per person depending on the party size.

Hire a Personal Sommelier

And why stop at private Chef, how about a Personal Sommelier who comes to your home or restaurants, bars, hotels, apartments, cellars, and outdoor spaces.Laura Masramon knows the Emporda wine region and will lead you through a series of sensory exercises and then introduce you to the history of the Emporda wines. Laura entertained us with stories about the wineries, how they started, how the names were created, and the tales about the local winemakers. She also helped us pair the meats and cheeses we had bought at the market with the various wines she brought. Contact her directly to get pricing.

Costa Brava Holidays wine tasting
Costa Brava Holidays
Costa Brava Holidays
Costa Brava Holidays

Now when you go out to your money tree and pick a fresh, new batch of bills, you know where you can spend it and have a fabulous time – head to Costa Brava and start spending!

 

How About a Morning Air Balloon Ride Over Catalonia?

August 3, 2015 by  

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I can feel the heat on my skin as the flames scream upward as if it were a fire-breathing dragon next to me. It warms my goosebumps on this chilly, fog –filled, early morning in the Pyrenees and brings a smile to my face; a rare sight in the morning. My favorite part is the lift off. After filling the balloon with hot air, the liftoff it’s so subtle, quiet, and simple in a world which seems to get more loud and complicated by the minute. It’s an odd sensation to float, it gets me every time as the basket teeters, gently leaves the ground, and you feel as if you are learning to stand again for the first time.

As we lifted off the ground on the foggy morning I questioned whether we’d be able to see anything, but it turned out that the blanket fog ended up being what made the views so spectacular. It hung low in the Pyrenees and over the dormant volcanoes like tendrils of an octopus, slowing moving and crawling fluidly in an almost artist motion or brushstroke. As we floated above it all, you can only just take it in and marvel at nature in it’s glory. There’s something poetic about experiencing a region from above, it’s like seeing the puzzle all put together as opposed to the little pieces that you digest one at a time on the ground.

As the fog started to burn off and disappear, we were left with hazy views and we cracked open the traditional bottle of champagne. Our pilot bobbed us up and down over ancient volcanoes so stealthily that I was surprised when we were skimming over treetops and floating just above the little village of Besalu. We reached altitudes of 4,200 feet moving at 24 mph, and as we came closer to the ground we’d slow to speeds of 5mph. Since hot air balloon rides are so quiet, it surprises me to find out that we were moving that fast and spinning around so much.

The Vol de Coloms Balloon Rides was one of the most professional I’ve experienced. They even had their own take off point complete with coffee shop, snacks, and gift shop! It’s a family business that has been operating for 23 years with 6 balloons. After the morning hot air balloon ride, they whisk you back to the starting point and treat you to a massive brunch with the typical Catalan meats, cheeses, wines, and sausages. Vol de Coloms doesn’t stop there, they also do a number of package tours as well as exclusive tours where you can even eat a romantic dinner in the balloon!

hot air balloon rides spain

Foggy morning over the Pyrenees

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hot air balloon rides catalonia

hot air balloon rides catalonia

Besalu from above

hot air balloon rides spain

hot air balloon rides spain

hot air balloon rides

hot air balloon rides spain

I was a guest of Costa Brava Tourism but all opinions expressed are my own.

The Pyrenees, The Land of Mountain Villages, Snowy Peaks & Dormant Volcanoes

August 1, 2015 by  

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A region filled with mountain villages, snowy peaks, and dormant volcanoes is bound to be full of adventure. Whether it’s soft adventure, cultural adventure, or heart pounding adventure, there are plenty of things to do in the Pyrenees.  In fact, the Spanish Pyrenees has something for everyone!

Biking in the Pyrenees

Experiencing the rural cultures and day-to-day life on two wheels, is a super way to get deeper into an area. I biked through the dirt roads and forest trails in the Les Preses area with Bicicarill. We started in town but soon wound our way down farm roads and into the forests where we were greeted with a series of paths and trails to choose from. And don’t be surprised when you come across an old church tucked away deep in the forest. It made it all seem like a fairy tale as if a little gnome was going to walk out and greet us.

If you would like a little help on the hills, the try out the electric bike options around the Pyrenees. I rode with www.cercleaventura.com through the backroads and fields near Bolvir, along the Sant Jaume road. They offered electric bikes, which were perfect for cruising and providing just a little boost to get you up and down the hilly terrain.

Hiking in the Pyrenees

There’s plenty of hiking options in the Pyrenees. In fact, there is an extensive, long distance trail system (550+ miles) traversing the length of the Pyrenees that I now have my eye on called GR 11, also known as the ruta Transpirenaica in Spain. But if you are looking for something a little shorter, then try hiking around Vall de Nuria. A magical little valley and winter ski area nestled among the peaks. You can take the train up to Vall de Nuria and hike the 3 ½ hours back down on a stunning trail, or you can hike up and down and skip the train. My friend Pete and I chose to train up and hike down to get a little exercise after eating like royalty for the last few days in Garoxtta. We were able to see the waterfalls up close, cross little bridges and get a feel for just how challenging it was to build the railway on the steep, rocky cliff.

If you want to go higher up in Pyrenees and even stay overnight, then head to Lake Malniu near Meranges. We had a personal guide and a well known ‘personality’ in the area, Eduard Jornet. Eduard is father to phenom ultra runnerKilian Jornet as well as the founder of one of the most grueling ultra races in the world – the Volta Cerdanya Ultra. As we hiked with Eduard through the last remaining snowpack from winter, we traversed Malniu Lake finishing at theMalniu Refuge where Eduard managed, lived at, and raised his family for years. You can rent rooms there and enjoy the mountain air as well as a number of hikes in the area.

Pyrenees by Horseback

Giddy-up through the Pyrenees with Mas Rodonell and traverse the hills via horseback in the little enclave region of Llivia. The horses took us through farmland, rivers, and up some rather steep hills to see the best view in Llivia at the remnants of the old fort.

Balloon Rides in the Pyrenees

Get a new perspective on the Pyrenees from above. Float above the mountaintops and medieval villages while sipping Cava. Check out my detailed article and get the complete view of Vol de Coloms morning hot air balloon rides.

Stay in a Farmhouse

Get a feel for the rural life in the Pyrenees by staying at Mas Garganta near Olat in the Vall d’en Bas. Sit on the patio, lie on the grass, take a swim, sit by the fireplace, walk in the woods, pick vegetables from the garden, gather eggs; this is your place to relax, and unwind in a rural setting. The farm house is filled with antiques and simple details that express the warmth and history of the home. Each room is unique and the food is hearty, comforting, and sourced from their own farm.

Visit a Medieval Village

Tucked into the mountains only reached on winding, narrow, nail biting roads you’ll reach Beget, one of the most special villages in the region. I loved Beget for it’s remote location and because it was a functioning village with more real life than manufactured tourism. Visit the Romanesque church of St. Cristòfol de Beget, a historical and artistic heritage site. Then wander through the cobblestone streets where time has elapsed. Cars can’t enter the village and its streets and houses are the typical stone ones of a medieval village. Head to the town square for the chance to hear some musicians and learn the history of the local music man. If you are lucky you may even hear some music by local singer songwriter, Monik Bargalle, who puts poetry to music singing Catalan poetry.

Enter an Ancient Portal

The town of Ripoll is home to the Santa Maria de Ripoll, a monastery created in 9th Century and the 1st monastery of Catalonia. Today you can see remnants of the old building and portal. The portal, although damaged by fires and restored in modern times, is an example of Catalan Romanesque sculpture. The frontal section features a relief from the mid-13th century divided in seven horizontal bands. It’s the type of relief where you can sit and stare for hours and still see something new pop out at you. Also take a moment to pop into the cloisters which contains more of the original monastery structure than the church itself.

Watch Giants Dance

Gigantes y cabezudos, roughly translated “Giants and Big-Heads”, or, in Catalan, gegants i capgrossos are cultural staple in the region. Each town has it’s own giants that represent some overarching theme of the town. Much like a town mascot, they are seen dancing at festivals and town events. The giants are hollow figures several feet tall, with a painted paper maché head and arms. Sometimes they all gather for Giant festivals and luckily we ran into one such festival in Puigcerdà.

 

A Look at Indianapolis Well Beyond the Indy 500

July 31, 2015 by  

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things to do in Indianapolis

It would be easy to think that Indianapolis wouldn’t have much going on beyond the Indy 500, but I quickly learned that I was oh so wrong. There were many surprising things to do in Indianapolis. This was a city of fast cars, but it was also a city of creators, innovators, and artists.

When I arrived in Indianapolis I had this strange feeling; it felt familiar. I looked out over the flat, green landscape and felt like I understood it, This was the first time I had been back to this part of the Midwest in a very long time. I grew up nearby, in Peoria, IL, a 3-hour drive from Indianapolis. When I left the Midwest 20 years ago I had sort of written it off as I started to experience what larger cities like San Francisco and NYC had to offer in the way of art, nature, food, and experiences and I hadn’t looked back However, this was my chance to see what had happened to Midwestern cities in the last 20 years, and I was excited to see what Indianapolis had to offer.

Of course I arrived at the same time thousands of other people were descending upon the city for Memorial Day weekend and the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500. It would be easy to think that Indianapolis wouldn’t have much going on beyond the Indy 500, but I quickly learned that I was oh so wrong.

There were many surprising things to do in Indianapolis. This was a city of fast cars, but it was also a city of creators, innovators, and artists.

Indianapolis Museums

Think outside of the box, Indy isn’t just about the traditional museums; it shows off its artistic side everywhere in the city.

Traditional Art

I walked into the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) and looked up. The building was modern and open and I felt as if I had been swallowed by art when I stepped in the front door. I was there to see the Classic Car Exhibit, a beautiful display of what cutting edge car technology and design looked like through the years. Most of it reminded me of the Jetsons cartoon! After going through the IMA car time warp, I was excited to walk through other areas of the museum and interact with various employees and take in the big space.

things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis

Outdoor Art

Sculptures and outdoor art was spotted all over the city in parks and public spaces. This was not the Midwest that I used to know! If museums make you feel claustrophobic on a summer day, then check out 100 Acres Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park; a part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. True to its name, this merging of contemporary art in nature is located on 100 acres that includes untamed woodlands, wetlands, meadows and 35-acre lake. The park is one of the largest museum art parks in the country, and features the ongoing commission of site-specific artworks.

Hotel Art

The Alexander Hotel is Indy’s hip art hotel curated by the Indianapolis Museum of art. Not only can you get a bed there, you can also get a dose of art.

Indianapolis Trails and Canals

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is all about speed, but I loved slowing down and seeing Indianapolis at a slower pace

Canal Trail

The Canal Trail is part of the Indiana Central Canal, which was dug in the early 1800’s. Recently refurbished, the Canal Walk winds through the downtown area as a waterside promenade for walkers, runners, bikers and Segway-ers! Topping out at 10mph, a Segway is no Indy Car, but a Segway tour is a great way to get around and see downtown Indy. The canal is reminiscent of San Antonio river walk but less commercialized and more family oriented. Every corner I turned on my Segway revealed a new form of transportation around the canal – family group bike, sitting bike, kayaks, group paddle boats, a Venetian gondola complete with a gondolier singing for you under bridges, skateboarders, and of course our cool Segways.

Cultural Trail

If you prefer to cover more ground, then check out the 8 mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail (currently vying for the #1 cultural trail in America!). This biking and walking trail connects all six of Indy’s Cultural Districts. From Mass Ave to White River State Park and Fountain Square. The trail is well maintained and used and has been the driving force behind much of the neighborhood revitalization throughout Indy. As a visitor the best way to experience the trail is by utilizing the easy city bikeshare. Rent a bike for a day or for an hour and get around the whole city while enjoying parks and public art along the way.

things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis

Restaurants in Indianapolis

I used to just think that the foodie scenes were only on the coasts, but apparently gastronomy has reached the middle. It appeared that Indianapolis had taken on the local food movement whole hog. As I experienced Indy cafés, fine dining and the classics I was consistently thinking, “wait a minute, where am I again?”

The Classic

A visit to Indy seems to require a stop at St. Elmos where food and the wait staff are an institution. This place is one of those serious old-time restaurants serving traditional foods in big portions; a place where being a waiter is a career path. Known for the spiciest shrimp cocktail in the world, big steaks, and an equally big menu; it was impossible for me to decide what to order. Our waiter, Dave, was close to retirement and had been working there since 1986. Once I heard this, I trusted Dave with my evening completely. When I asked him to simply order for me, he surprised me and said, “First, I need to learn about you…” A smile crept across my face as I adore it when someone surprises me with exactly what I want to hear. Now this was a waiter who was more than a waiter, he was a food therapist.

The Hipster

Built in an old garage, and filled with tattoo-laden chefs and wait staff, one might think that Milk Tooth was a café in Brooklyn. Specializing in morning menus, chef/owner Jonathan Brooks is committed to using only local ingredients and pouring the best coffee in the city. The bright, hip design was the perfect atmosphere for their inventive food and flavor combinations. It was so hard to choose from their brunch menu that we got 3 items between the 2 of use and shared!

things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis
things to do in Indianapolis

Fine Dining and Drinking

If you prefer your food to look like work of art, then head to Cerulean where the plate is like a canvas; just about too pretty to eat. You can get a little of everything with the chef tasting menu or enjoy nibbling the cheese and meat platter. And if you are looking to quench your thirst and your creative side head upstairs to Plat99; a mixology bar where the drink menu rotates regularly. Bartenders look like a crazy scientists as they blend ingredients and flavors you would never imagine drinking.

After my weekend in Indianapolis I learned that the things to do in Indianapolis are never ending. Indy is for everyone; the jock, the artist, the foodie, outdoor enthusiasts, gay, straight, ethnic, hipster, families. Indy welcomes all.

What’s your favorite Midwestern city to visit?

 

 

I was a guest of Indy Tourism but all opinions are my own.

 

Indy 500 Live: Taking a Spin Around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

July 19, 2015 by  

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Indy 500 Live

We all pulled the chairs up close gathering around our stereo cabinet. My dad was ready; he had his number 2 pencil and yellow legal notepad.  He was meticulously filling each line with a number – 1 through 200 representing each lap. In the late 1970’s, this is what we considered family time, all sitting around the stereo radio (the HUGE stereo console complete w 8 track tape player) listening to the live coverage of the Indianapolis 500. Back then it wasn’t televised live, the only Indy 500 live coverage was on the radio. My dad would intently listen to the announcers and write down the leader of each lap recording the play-by-play action. And we would all ooohh and aahhh when the announcers described a big crash; leaving my imagination run wild.

However no matter how wild my imagination got, it never – NEVER – could have dreamt that 35 years later I would be at the Indy 500 in person driving around the track in the pace car with the hottest young driver in the field of 33 cars. It was more likely that my wild dream of becoming the abominable snowman would’ve come true before riding in the Indy pace car.

Take a Spin Around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Fast forward to May 23, 2015 (the day before the Indianapolis 500) and I find myself in the passenger seat of the Corvette pace car buckling up for a spin around the track.
“How old are you?” I ask my young driver.
“I’m 24…old enough!” said Josef with a twinkling eyes and a mischievous smile. And with that he hits the accelerator, the engine roars so loud it makes my body vibrate, and we peel out heading into the famous 1st turn of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As we were speeding down the straightaway at 160 mph I had no idea that I was with the up-and-coming Indy driver, Josef Newgarden, who would be starting in 9th poll position the next day at one of the biggest races in the world. Instead, at that moment – he was just the guy making me scream as we came within inches of the concrete wall.

This experience at the Indy 500 was easily in my top 3 experiences in the ‘perks of being a writer’ category. Going to Antarctica might be the only thing that topped it thus far. However, driving a lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an activity that actually anyone can do, but you have to be willing to drop a decent amount of cash. And you won’t get the handsome Indy Car driver Josef Newgarden to take you around the track – sorry.

However my media pass didn’t stop with Josef and the pace car, this was a dream weekend for me. I went to a press event to hear team owner/driver, Ed Carpenter, speak to a small group of VIP guests and journalists.  I was enthralled to learn more about how complex it is to focus when driving in the race in a nearly reclined position where you can’t move, watching data/info on his dash/wheel and listening to his engineers talking to him via earpiece while driving at 240mph in traffic passing 32 other cars. Makes driving in India seem pretty simple. I also learned that being an Indy Car driver may be the best form of weight loss; Ed loses 7 to 8 pounds during a 3 hour race due to the heat in the car and the fire suits they wear.

Check out the Video of my pace car lap with Josef Newgarden

Indianapolis 500 Race Day

When I woke up race morning I was tingly with excitement, and honestly I had no idea why I was SO excited about seeing the Indy 500 live. Maybe it had to do with my family memories, or that it is the biggest single day sporting event in the world, or maybe it was the familiar sounds of the engines, or the fact that we had amazing seats. Whatever the reason I loved the feeling of anticipation.

A police escort to the track drove us by the thousands of campers, fans,  and traffic that was at a complete stand still; I felt like royalty. When we arrived at the track and I walked underneath it into the infield I felt like I was walking onto the Super Bowl field – and in the world of racing – I was. The media credentials provided us access to the garage and pit areas. Cars were rolled by us so close that I could touch them if I dare. They moved the cars out on the track in their poll positions and then let us out there to walk around. As I was walking on the track checking out the cars before the start, David Letterman walks by, Patrick Dempsey is above me practicing his flag wave on the balcony, and the pit crews surrounded the cars like body guards. As I watched the drivers’ families hover around their cars wishing them luck, I was transported back to my childhood and hovering around the stereo. I felt as if I had to pinch myself that I was actually here, in person, looking at this scene that I had listened to so many times over the radio and imagined.

After the national anthem, they ushered the media off the track and as we were walking to our suite I heard the engines start up. It was comforting to hear that familiar noise. In the suite we could drink and eat to our heart’s content, sit outside above the final straightaway, and even use headsets so we could listen to specific teams communicate at the race.  This was the royal Indy 500 treatment for sure.

As the checkered flag flew, my magical day came to a close. I didn’t have a yellow notepad filled out with race data at the end, but I did have some great photos to keep these Indy 500 memories alive.

Indy 500 Live

Scott Dixen’s team preparing for the race and the #1 poll position.

Indy 500 live

There were 2 female drivers in the race. Pippa raced for the cure in her hot pink car she was easy to follow!

Indy 500 Live

Media, teams, and family are allowed on the track as the cars are placed in their positions.

Indianapolis 500 Fans

Always wear sunscreen!

Indy 500 Live

A ground view of an indy car and pit crew

Indy 500 Live

Drivers on the track and getting ready for the start. This was the last pic I took before leaving the track.

Indy 500 Live

Race Time!

Indy 500 Live

My vantage point for the race thanks to #VisitIndy

Checkered Flag Indy 500

Close finish!

Indy Car Press Pass

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 – don’t miss it!

Have you ever attended something that you dreamt about as a little kid?  Share it in the comments!

 

Disclosure: I was a guest of Visit Indy for the weekend, however all opinions are my own.

 

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