Categories
Active Travel Outdoors Trip Ideas

9 Incredible Lakeside Retreats

Whether their waters are glass-like or rippling towards the shore, lakes have a calming effect and make for an ideal vacation base. So launch your canoe or settle into an Adirondack chair and get ready to take in the glistening views. From rustic luxury in the woods of Maine to down-low waterside cabins in Washington, these nine lakeside retreats are sure to mellow you out.

Lake Quinault, Washington

lake quinault washington.

Great for: Cabin living
What’s Relaxing: Solitude in the woods

Surrounded by the temperate Quinault Rain Forest, Lake Quinault straddles Olympic National Park to the north and Olympic National Forest to the south. With so much natural beauty, it’s tempting to quit your day job, head in, and hide away for life. But even if you can only visit for a few days, Lochaerie Resort on the lake’s north shore has the perfect solution: private rustic cabins. While part of the one-, two-, and three-bedroom structures’ charm is the Depression-era architecture, each cabin is tastefully decorated and comes well equipped with a fireplace, a kitchen, and stunning lake views.

Things to Do: Drive the 31-mile rainforest loop around the lake to scout for wildlife and see some of the biggest trees in the world. Canoe, kayak, and paddleboard on the lake, or go hiking or bird watching on land. You’ll never run out of things to do outdoors, but don’t forget to savor the opportunity to stay in the moment.

Cayuga Lake, New York

eb morgan house.

Great for: Oenophiles
What’s Relaxing: Sipping wine while enjoying lake views

What could be more relaxing than porch sitting by a calm lake? Porch sitting and drinking a glass of fine wine, of course. And you can do just that at the Inns of Aurora, which include the Aurora Inn and the E.B. Morgan House, set on Cayuga Lake in New York State’s Finger Lakes region. Amenities are ready-made for a perfect weekend getaway and come in the form of in-room dining, massages, fireplaces, and broad lakeside porches. Plus, wine tastings and cooking classes that feature local bounty from area farms and vineyards are available.

Things to Do: While the Finger Lakes region encompasses over 9,000 square miles and boasts more than 100 vineyards, Cayuga Lake has its own wine trail. Visitors can learn to make wine at Heart & Hands Wine Company or explore the historical village of Aurora.

Table Rock Lake, Missouri

table rock lake fall foliage.

Great for: Outdoor adventure
What’s Relaxing: Campfire time after active play

Tucked away from Branson, Missouri’s bustling music scene, Table Rock Lake is a hidden treasure that snakes and twists through the Ozark Mountains like a Chinese dragon. While the lake is technically a reservoir (made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), it delivers big in the nature and outdoors departments. Near Branson, Bavarian Village Resort offers affordable multi-bedroom duplexes, cottages, and cabins. Further out in Shell Knob, Stonewater Cove Resort and Club combines seclusion and rugged adventure with a bit of luxury in the heart of Mark Twain National Forest.

Things to Do: Table Rock Lake has all the components of a classic summer lake retreat. Plunge into the waters for a swim or glide along in kayaks. Or spend the most active part of the day boating, zip-lining, and biking before chilling out at night by gazing at gorgeous sunsets or into the mesmerizing flames of a campfire.

Lake Champlain, Vermont

lake champlain sunset.

Great for: Families
What’s Relaxing: A complete vacation with a break from the kids

Does a relaxing vacation with the kids sound like an oxymoron? At Tyler Place Family Resort on the shores of Lake Champlain in northern Vermont, it’s anything but. While children of all ages get the benefits of a summer camp, their parents can laze in lakeside Adirondack chairs, play tennis, take yoga classes, or rekindle romance over candlelit dinners and dancing. Accommodations range from private cottages to multi-room suites, all with living rooms, screened-in porches, and separate bedrooms for parents and children.

Things to Do: Whether the adults spend their mornings hiking, taking sailing lessons, or doing nothing at all, the kids won’t even notice, since they’ll be off having fun on counselor-led kids programs and activities like playing soccer and jumping on trampolines. However, a little family QT on the lake—paddleboarding, anyone?—is always an option.

Twin Lakes, California

mountain biker twin lakes california.

Great for: Mountain living
What’s Relaxing: Motor-free water play

In Mammoth Lakes Basin, Twin Lakes delivers an authentic mountain escape in California’s Eastern Sierra. Consider a stay at Tamarack Lodge, a rustic woodland resort with varied accommodations including restored cabins originally built in 1924, historical lodge rooms, and a newer LEED-certified cabin with three bedrooms.

Things to Do: Most of the Jet Skiers and motor boaters go to other, larger lakes in the area, so you’ll usually enjoy peaceful fishing, paddleboarding, and swimming at Twin Lakes. You can go horseback riding or hiking in the bordering Ansel Adams Wilderness and the John Muir Wilderness, or take scenic drives to Devils Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes or further out to Yosemite. Whether your day is rugged or serene, you can come back for a relaxing evening spent indulging on French-inspired cuisine at Tamarack’s acclaimed Lakefront Restaurant.

Lake Huron (Mackinac Island), Michigan

mackinac island waterfront.

Great for: Island seclusion
What’s Relaxing: The simple pleasures of a bygone era

Forget cars. Forget your worries. And forget the present. Staying true to its Victorian roots, Michigan’s Mackinac Island in Lake Huron will surely transport you to a slower pace of life. While many inns and resorts capture the island’s turn-of-the-century essence, two stand out for their tranquil lakeside settings away from the bustle of town. Hotel Iroquois, overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, is best known for its views and waterfront dining. Individually decorated rooms come with king or queen beds. Built in 1904, the Tudor-style Inn at Stonecliffe sits high on the island’s west bluff and offers bed-and-breakfast-style rooms and more modern suites, in addition to classic lawn games like bocce and croquet for guests.

Things to Do: Because no cars are allowed on the island, you have to get around by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriage. No matter how you explore the island, head to the Mackinac Island Butterfly House, admiring blooming lilacs or lady slippers along the way, or shop for handmade fudge in town in between strolling through the many shops lining Main Street.

Lake Austin, Texas

yoga class at lake austin spa resort.

Great for: Wellness
What’s Relaxing: Meditative lake activities

One of seven reservoirs on the Colorado River, Lake Austin in Austin, Texas, is popular for paddlewheeling and pampering. Touted as one of the top spas in the country, Lake Austin Spa Resort will help you de-stress while attending to your health and well-being, all within a tranquil lake setting.

Things to Do: Lake activities range from kayaking and hydrobiking (which allows you to literally bike on water) to a relaxing boat cruise along the shore in an authentic stern-wheel riverboat. Exercise junkies can take part in cardio or dance programs, while meditation, Pilates, and yoga will help you stretch and balance both mind and body. Completely decompress with the resort’s vast menu of spa treatments and recharge with healthy organic dishes made from the on-site garden.

Moosehead Lake, Maine

lodge at moosehead lake maine adirondack chairs.

Great for: Luxury
What’s Relaxing?: Lakeside moose viewing

Only in Maine can you pair a moose safari with rustic elegance. At The Lodge at Moosehead Lake in Greenville, you get the very best the state has to offer, from lodge-style accommodations and local cuisine to mountain views and forays into the wilderness. Rooms don’t skimp on luxurious trimmings and are outfitted with amenities like fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs, pillow-top mattresses, and private decks.

Things to Do: Activities at Moosehead Lake are all about taking it slow. Paddle around the lake in a canoe or kayak, or take a guided pontoon boating excursion. The North Woods offers plenty of opportunities for bird watching and backwoods exploration, like viewing the pristine lake after a hike to the 800-foot summit of Mt. Kineo. And don’t miss the moose-sighting tours.

Lake Superior, Minnesota

grand marais lake superior.

Great for: Groups
What’s Relaxing: Listening to the waves from the warmth of your suite

Grand Marais in northern Minnesota makes for the perfect cool getaway. Not only does the town nearly reach the borders of Canada, but it’s set on Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, with average temperatures of 40 degrees (though harbor waters can warm up enough for summer swimming). But when the chill strikes, there are plenty of ways to warm up, such as by a fireplace or in a hot tub at one of the area’s hotels. In town, East Bay Suites offers anything from studios to three bedrooms and can accommodate various guest arrangements. A bit farther down the lake on a beach, Lutsen Resort‘s luxury condos, historical lodge, seaside villas, and log cabins have something for everyone.

Things to Do: Kayak the shoreline along the Lake Superior Water Trail, or get in the car and tour the wilds of the Gunflint Trail, a National Scenic Byway that starts in Grand Marais and ends at Saganaga Lake on the U.S.-Canadian border. Or stay local and hike to Artists’ Point, a half-mile walk through a small boreal forest that leads to a breakwall with views of the East Bay.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Fashion & Beauty Packing

6 Tips for Packing Toiletries Like a Pro

After years of traveling, I’ve found that less is almost always more, even when it comes to some of the smallest items you bring along. Seeming innocent at just a few ounces here and there, toiletries can actually add up, becoming the silent killers that push your bag into bulky burden territory. And often, you don’t use up most of what’s in your cosmetics kit. When it comes to figuring out how to pack toiletries for air travel, the magic word is mini toiletries. With downsized versions of your favorites, you can pack the toiletries you need and still travel light.

Every little bit helps, and with a concerted effort, you can significantly lighten your load with mini travel toiletries featuring your favorite products. With the following strategies, I trimmed my kit down to a third of its original weight. You can, too.

Individual Toiletry Packets 

mini toiletries products

At SmarterTravel’s HQ, we have a wall-mounted medical kit filled with all sorts of first aid supplies portioned into individual packets. I see it as pure packing inspiration. Small and easily tuck-able, packets are ideal for keeping things light (and complying with TSA rules), especially for short trips or for when you don’t need a lot of one thing. Plus, you can toss the empty packets as you go and avoid coming home with space-grabbing, half-empty containers.

While your local drugstore will have products similar to those in our wall kit, you can also think beyond aspirin and ointment. Here are some of our favorite packet products:

Hand Sanitizer: Giovanni Mini Sanitizing Towelettes and EO Products Organic Sanitizing Hand Wipes

Nail Polish Remover: Ella + Mia Soy Polish Remover Wipes, Alleyoop Acetone-Free Nail Polish Wipes, and Karma Naturals nail polish remover wipes

Makeup Remover: La Fresh Makeup Remover Cleansing Travel Wipes

Sunscreen: Squeeze Pod Travel Facial Sunscreen

Tip: La Fresh has a whole lineup of travel wipes that includes sunscreen, insect repellent, antibacterial lotion, face cleanser, antiperspirant, makeup remover, and shoeshine.

Razors for Travel

Razors for travel products

You try to keep those unwanted hairs at bay with a pre-trip waxing, threading, or good ‘ole plucking. But let’s face it: That scratchy stubble will inevitably come back, transforming you from well-groomed jetsetter to grungy backpacker in a matter of days. While the average razor isn’t a major space hog, more diminutive alternatives can help you shave a few ounces off your dopp kit.

For Ladies: I think Gillette’s Venus Snap with Embrace is as close as it comes to the most perfectly packable razor. Shaped like a flat mushroom and weighing in at about a half ounce, the tiny razor comes with an easy-to-grip handle, takes regular Venus blades, and packs safely in its own carrying case (though you can let it fly solo to save even more space). The beauty brand, Alleyoop, makes an all-in-one razor that lets you shave your underarms literally anywhere. The dial-like case includes a refillable water spray, a shea butter moisturizing bar, and two razor cartridges. Oh, and it’s TSA-approved, cruelty- and paraben-free, and vegan.

For Gents: Men have many options, both electric or manual, for manscaping on the go. SmarterTravel editors like the compact but classy Merkur Travel Safety Razor. Or go super light with Schick’s ST2 Slim Twin Sensitive Disposable Razors.

Tip: Let your hair conditioner do double duty as a shaving cream to save even more space.

DIY Mini Toiletries for Travel

shampoo and conditioner bars

Sometimes, your full-sized toiletries are miniatures in disguise. Unleash their packable potential by trimming them down, taking just a portion with you. This works especially well for semi-solid items like your favorite bar soap or deodorant: Just slice off a travel-sized chunk and place it in a container fit to size. Pieces of solid bars of shampoo and conditioner are another space-saving option.

Eye pencils and lip liners offer similar possibilities: Just save the stubs you’ve ground down through daily use and put them in your travel kit rather than tossing them into the trash.

Be creative. There are many other toiletries that you can cut down to size. Once, when I needed an eyebrow brush and couldn’t find a travel-sized version, I snipped off most of the handle (filing down the sharp edge first).

Surprising Travel-Sized Products

Suprising travel sized makeup products

Yes, purchasing sample- or travel-sized products is an obvious packing no-brainer. But you might not know the extent of what’s out there, beyond the mini deodorants and shampoos available in your drugstore’s travel aisle. Here are some options:

Mascara: Mascara tends to dry out quickly, so you might consider saving the inevitable waste by using these half-sized tubes (at half the price) for every day as well as for travel. Try Benefit They’re Real Mascara or Clinique High Impact Mascara, or see if your favorite brand offers a travel-size mascara.

Tweezers: Tweezerman makes downsized versions of many of its grooming products, including the Mini Slant tweezers and a Mini Brow Rescue Kit that comes with a tiny brow brush, “Browmousse,” and brow highlighter in addition to the tweezers.

Makeup Brushes: EcoTools has an on-the-go set with petite versions of its normal brush line. Alleyoop also sells a handy 4-in-1 makeup brush which includes a sponge, blush, brow, and eyeshadow brushes.

Eyelash Curler: With a funky, three-dimensional shape, most eyelash curlers don’t play nicely inside a toiletries bag. But a travel eyelash curler, one with a flatter and boxier style, takes up less space. Though its unconventional grip might take a little getting used to, the tiny lash crimper tucks nicely into any corner of your bag.

Dental Floss: Next time you’re at your dentist’s office, ask for a few containers of trial-sized floss, and set them aside for your next trip. Or stock up on mini-containers of floss.

Hair Gel and Other Goop: When you just need dollops of creams and gels, Squeeze Pod offers individually portioned snap-and-squeeze pouches of hair gel, moisturizer, shaving cream, and hand sanitizer.

Tip: Buy in bulk, especially if you travel frequently, to save money on your per-item cost, as trial sizes are usually highly marked up compared to their full-sized counterparts. I buy mini Tom’s of Maine toothpaste tubes in packs of 12 from Amazon.

Mini Makeup

mini makeup products

Despite what the name implies, makeup compacts are often much larger than they need to be for travel. Luckily, many manufacturers make compact versions of compacts (and other types of cosmetics). Here are a few ways to find them:

Samples: Go to Sephora or your department store’s makeup counter and ask for trial sizes of your favorite products. You can also check with your favorite cosmetics company; Smashbox, for example, offers samples online.

Starter Kits: To entice you to commit to their products, many companies package cost-effective starter kits with small-sized versions of their lines. With a single kit, you can get many of your makeup travel needs fulfilled. My favorite brand, bareMinerals, offers a mini foundation, concealer, a face brush, mascara, and other products for about the price of a single regular-sized mineral foundation jar.

Stackable Makeup: This is the latest invention to hit the beauty world and as travelers, we’re thrilled at the concept. Subtl Beauty sells a “Starter Stack” which includes a shine control powder, highlighter, bronzer, lip cheek, and concealer all in one convenient stack. Alleyoop also offers a similar product, a multi-use face palette, featuring a blush, contour, highlight, and mini-mirror.

Smaller Sized Containers

Mini Containers

When you can’t find pint-sized versions of your favorite toiletries, find pint-sized containers and make them yourself. For instance, I found these super-slim Mini Sprayers from The Container Store, which I use to hold just enough pumps of hair spray and face toner for a few days on the road. The retailer has a page full of mini bottles, jars, tubes, and boxes for all your storage needs. Humangear, which sells tubes, tubs, and other tiny containers, is another great resource.

Featured Items

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Cities

8 Reasons You Should Go on a River Cruise


It’s springtime in the Balkans, and I watch the trees unfurl their leaves while plying the Danube on a 10-day Viking River cruise from Bucharest, Romania; to Budapest, Hungary. The shoreline is forever in view as we gracefully glide past small villages and the occasional riverside castle. Each day, the Jarl pauses long enough for us to explore a new port-of-call, sometimes an obscure medieval town with an unknown name and other times a capital city rebuilding its glory in this former war-torn region of southeastern Europe. The area’s history comes to life each day on this floating leisure classroom.

Like the water that pours into the Danube’s locks, slowly lifting the ship to a new level, river cruising is on the rise. From interesting destinations to high-quality experiences, here are eight reasons to book a river cruise right now in any part of the world.

viking cruise ship beyla in port

More Time in Port

Unlike ocean sailing, which is primarily about the onboard experience, river cruising focuses on the very places you’ve traveled so far to get to. According to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of SmarterTravel’s sister site Cruise Critic, “River cruises are destination-centric, and the ship is a backdrop. It’s like a boutique hotel that moves with you so you don’t have to pack and unpack.”

Most days on my Passage to Eastern Europe cruise, the Viking Longship set sail in the evenings during dinner service and continued moving along until it reached the next port the following morning. It docked right in town and passengers could either join a shore excursion—usually a combined bus-and-walking tour of the town and nearby sights—or wander off on their own.

Of the trip’s 10 days, just one full day was spent on the water, though sightseeing remained on the agenda. Not only did we get to fully enjoy the ship’s amenities (such as basking on the sun deck and having drinks delivered to our favorite reading nooks), but we also had front-row tickets in what felt like a mobile theater. Our program director, Cornelia, narrated our passage through Serbia and Romania’s famed Iron Gates, a dramatic transit between 1,600-foot cliffs with a glimpse of the larger-than-life rock sculpture of Decebalus, king of the Dacians. (Scroll down to watch this epic experience).

 

What to Wear on a River Cruise:

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SmarterTravel contributors occasionally accept free or subsidized travel in exchange for our unbiased opinions. We never accept compensation in exchange for a positive review.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ashley Rossi contributed to this article.

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Watch: The Jarl’s transit through the Iron Gates locks

Categories
Arts & Culture Experiential Travel Group Travel Island

How to Travel to Cuba Legally from the U.S.

It’s 5:00 a.m. at Miami International Airport as I file into Sun Country’s check-in line for my charter flight to Havana. Through my bleary, sleep-deprived eyes, I notice something striking. While I’m pulling a small roller-board suitcase, most other passengers are pushing large carts stacked high with shrink-wrapped plasma TVs, bicycles, and ottoman–sized wads of clothing. Their reasons for traveling to Cuba are different than mine: They come to see and assist family, and I to quell a curiosity that’s been building collectively in the U.S. since the trade embargo went into effect in 1960.

Yes, for U.S. citizens, legal travel to Cuba is now possible. However, you’ll face its complexities before you ever touch down in Havana. And while the rules continue to evolve as president Obama eases restrictions, here’s the latest on what you need to know for planning a trip (at least for the moment).

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Secrets of the Danube: 8 Inspiring River Towns of Eastern Europe


River cruising is a laid-back way to see many destinations in one trip. The elegant barges glide effortlessly from one port to the next, giving you ample opportunities for exploration and photo ops.

I recently embarked on a five-country, Viking River cruise that took me from Bucharest, Romania, to Budapest, Hungary, along the Danube. We visited former communist capitals regaining their pre-Iron Curtain glory, stopped in small villages flanked by medieval fortresses, and passed through locks that moderate the waters between Serbia and Romania. Here’s the path the ship took, highlighted by photos I snapped along the way:

For more itinerary specifics, here’s some background on each of the ports and what we did there either through group tours or independent excursions:

Bucharest, Romania

Our trip started with a pre-cruise stay in Bucharest, a short drive away from the port of Giurgiu where we later transferred to the ship. Now that Romania is a democracy, the capital city has shed its communist cloak and added layers of modern sophistication through significant growth and development. The Old Town has been restored, and new restaurants, clubs, and shops have popped up all over town. Our day in the city included a walking tour of the historic district (with a break to see a statue of “Vlad the Impaler,” better known as Dracula), and stops at the Palace of the Parliament (the world’s largest administrative building for civilian use) and the Village Museum, an open-air collection of authentic peasant homesteads from all over Romania.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Crowned by the Tsarevets Fortress, the town of Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria during the Second Bulgarian Empire in the 12th century. Nowadays, the town attracts legions of shoppers to its cobbled streets, where craftsman carve wood, paint, and make pottery in their workshops right before your eyes. Bulgaria is known for is rose oil, and the town is also the perfect place to purchase lotions and creams with the distinctive rosa damascena scent. After our shopping escapade, we enjoyed a traditional Bulgarian lunch in the nearby village of Arbanasi and then walked to the Cathedral of Nativity to marvel at its biblical and humanistic-themed murals.

Vidin, Bulgaria

Despite what TV commercials tout, the world’s best yogurt isn’t made in Greece, but rather in Bulgaria (or so the Bulgarians say). The reason, as I learned at a cooking class in the town of Vidin, has to do with the type of cow the milk comes from and the strains of lactobacillus bacteria that you can only find there. After the lesson—and a feast on banitsa, a local dish made with filo dough, feta cheese, and the special yogurt—I walked through town to the restored Baba Vida fortress, which faced sieges from Byzantine, Hungarian, and Ottoman forces throughout the Middle Ages.

Iron Gates, Serbia and Romania

Sailing through the Iron Gates gorge (part of Derdap National Park) was one of the highlights of the cruise’s itinerary—and we never left the ship. The day of sailing between Serbia and Romania started with a transit through a series of locks that were so narrow you could almost touch the cement walls from our stateroom balconies. We then sailed passed the Mraconia Monastery (in the Romanian town of Orsova), the rock sculpture of Decebalus (a 130-foot high cliff carving of the last king of Dacia), and further down, Golubac Fortress (a 14-century Serbian stronghold with 10 towers).

Belgrade, Serbia

At the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Serbia’s capital is an ever-evolving city with a mix of socialist bloc and art nouveau architecture, lively pedestrian walkways lined with shops and cafes, and landmarks representing its Ottoman past. Our tour took us to the Church of Saint Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, and Republic Square marked by the statue of Prince Michael (the prince of Serbia from 1839 to 1842). We also had some free time to shop on Knez Mihailova Street and to sample the famous cake at the nearby Hotel Moskva.

Osijek, Croatia

Located where the Danube meets the Drava River, Osijek is a cultural and agricultural town that has faced turmoil over the ages due to its strategic position along the Croatian boarder. And while it recently sustained significant damage during the Croatian War of Independence in the 90s (you can still see demolished houses and bullet holes lodged in building facades), its beauty endures. We walked through the narrow streets of Old Town while admiring the baroque-style St. Michael’s Church and Tvrda Fortress. We ended our day tour with a home visit in nearby Aljmas, where local hosts fed us homemade cakes and plum brandy while telling stories of life during the war.

Kalocsa, Hungary

Considered a national treasure, paprika (or “red gold,”) is one of Hungary’s most popular commodities, and there’s no better place to find it than in Kalocsa, where much of the country’s supply is grown and transformed into the sweet, hot, and smoked spice. But there’s more to the town than the famous chili pepper. On a tour of Holy Trinity Square, we paused to look at The Archbishop’s Palace as well as the cathedral, which houses a magnificent pipe organ once played by Franz Liszt. We also ventured a few miles outside of town to the Bakod Puszta Horse Farm, where riders perform stunts such as racing carriages or standing upright on a chain of nearly a dozen galloping horses.

Budapest, Hungary

Our cruise ended in Budapest, which couldn’t have been more of a pièce de résistance as a port of call. I was lucky to wake up early enough to watch the city go by as we passed under bridges (including the distinctive green iron Liberty Bridge) while the sun began to rise. Once docked, we boarded buses for a tour of both the Buda and Pest sides of the Danube, stopping at popular sights such as Matthias Church in Buda’s castle district. During my free time, I shopped for Hungarian spices at Great Market Hall and took the waters (and got a relaxing massage) at Gellért Thermal Bath. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish the trip.

Photo: Budapest from Fishermen’s Bastion (Anne Banas)

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SmarterTravel contributors occasionally accept free or subsidized travel in exchange for our unbiased opinions. We never accept compensation in exchange for a positive review.

Categories
Fashion & Beauty Packing

What I Packed: Miami – Cuba – Eastern Europe


I traveled to Miami for a travel editors conference, and then onto Cuba with a shortened version of smarTours’ People-to-People program. From there, I headed across the Atlantic to join a Passage to Eastern Europe Danube cruise (from Bucharest, Romania, to Budapest, Hungary) with Viking River Cruises.

Where: Miami, Florida; Havana, Cuba; Bucharest, Romania; Veliko Tarnovo, Arbanasi, Vidin, and Belogradchik, Bulgaria; Belgrade, Serbia; Osijek, Croatia; and Kalocsa and Budapest, Hungary.

When: April 23-May 12.

Packing Challenge: My biggest packing challenge was preparing for two different types of climates (tropical and temperate). I also had to pack several kinds of attire: casual for touring, business for the conference, and more formal for special ship dinners. To solve the problem, I stuck to a color palate of mostly white, yellow, and blue so that everything could be mixed and matched, and then layered for different temperatures or for dressing up or down.

Weather: Every destination I visited experienced unseasonably warm weather, except for Miami. Miami was predictably hot and sunny and in the 80s. Cuba hit the 90s (temperatures the country usually only sees in July and August), and the Balkans reached temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees during the day (about 10 to 15 degrees higher than is usual for springtime).

Type of Trip: The Miami portion was a business trip with indoor meetings and one day of walking tours. Cuba was a guided tour, and Eastern Europe was a river cruise with daily shore excursions involving a good amount of walking and sightseeing.

How Long: 17 days on the ground; three days in the air

Mouse over the photos below for detailed explanations of the items I packed. Any time you see the Thinglink icon on a photo (bottom right), you can mouse over it to interact with the image.

'""''""'What I Should Have Left Behind: Given the unpredictability of spring, I planned for rain and fluctuating temperatures, especially for the European portion of the trip. However, it only rained twice (a short downpour in Havana and one misty evening in Bucharest) and stayed consistently warm throughout my travels despite the range of destinations I visited. I really didn’t need the coats, umbrella, and pair of rain shoes.

Additionally, because Miami wound up being more casual overall given the heat and laidback vibe, I could have also done away with the sport coat and closed-toe heels, which I packed specifically for the conference. I wore my only pair of shorts once (on the hottest day in Cuba), but got kicked out of a cathedral. I quickly learned that lesson and didn’t attempt to wear them again. Next time, they’ll stay home and I’ll pack an extra skirt instead.

What I Should Have Packed: I wish I had packed a few more short-sleeved t-shirts and more sunscreen. I wound up wearing a lot of tank tops because of the heat, and had to slather on SPF nearly every day—and eventually I ran out. Another casual skirt would have also gone a long way in helping me stay appropriately comfortable.

Categories
Food & Drink

Cool London Eats: A Tale of Two Tantalizing Culinary Tours


The days of boiled vegetables and stodgy puddings are long gone. London now ranks as one of the world’s top food cities, and its menu is endless. Like an immersion blender, the city melds flavors from a diverse range of cultures (from around 70 different countries and regions), allowing you to taste the world in a matter of hours. And nowhere is this more possible than in London’s transitioning (but trendy) multi-ethnic neighborhoods like the East End and Brixton.

To lead you to the best options (and eat as much as possible in one day), tour companies like Eating London and Fox & Squirrel will walk you through it all, bite by bite.

East End

Once associated with gritty slums and the notorious Jack the Ripper, it’s hard to think of London’s formerly dodgy East End as tantalizing, but it is. In just a few blocks, you can essentially tour the world, sampling anything from Bangladeshi curries and French cheeses to proper British fare with contemporary twists.

Old Spitalfields Market: There has been a market on the grounds of this revamped indoor collection of trendy eateries, boutiques, and clothing and craft stalls for more than 350 years. Not to miss: Androuet cheese shop, where Alex Guarneri sells mostly raw-milk French cheeses aged in cellars below the market.

The English Restaurant: The name says it all at this classically English dining spot on the corner of Crispin and Brushfield streets. With sections dating back to 1670, its dark paneled interior complements traditional menu items like steak and onion pudding and guinea fowl au jus. Just don’t end your meal without trying the to-die-for bread and butter pudding baked with vanilla, orange, and brown sugar, and then doused with a rich custard sauce.

Bricklane: Slum-like and grimy turned artsy and edgy, this eclectic, ever-changing ethnic neighborhood is now pleasantly overrun with galleries, street art, hip bars, and Bangladeshi and Indian restaurants. In fact, there are more than 50 curry houses on one street—such as Aladin, favorite of Prince Charles—dishing out some of the best masala and vindaloo London has to offer.

Poppies: Travel back to the 40s and 50s at this award-winning fish and chips bar designed to evoke the thriving post-WWII era. Fried in a perfectly crunchy batter, the sustainably caught fish (such as cod, haddock, and halibut) wouldn’t be complete without the traditional sides of fries, bright green mushy peas, and homemade tartar sauce.

Pizzaeast: In the sub district of Shoreditch, across from BoxPark and its hipster-filled pop-ups, this “industrial chic” pizza joint set in a former tea warehouse entices with its fine wood-oven pies, antipasti plates, and salads. You could also just stop in for a decadent dessert; the salted chocolate caramel tart stands alone.

Craving more East End? Sample these spots and others on a walking tour with Eating London.

Brixton

If you’re headed to up-and-coming Brixton, one of the city’s most vibrant retail sectors, you’re gonna have to rock down to Electric Avenue, the first street in London to have electric lighting (and yes, subject of the ’80s pop Reggae hit). To take it higher, delve into the eclectic Brixton Market and neighboring cafes emanating a mélange of African, Asian, Caribbean, and other ethnic flavors.

Brixton Market: A maze of shopping streets and covered arcades, this culinary enclave is more than just one market to behold. It’s an entire market village. Indoors or out, you could easily get lost for days perusing exotic produce stalls, rummaging through bric-a-brac, and eating yourself into a stupor at dozens upon dozens of cafes, bakeries, and takeaway joints.

Brixton Brewery: Compared to U.S. standards, this independent craft beer maker might be considered a “nano” brewery, but its style is equally as hoppy (especially compared to the more bitter and less bold traditional English ale style). Stop in for a tour and taste the unfiltered, unpasteurized brews, including the Electric I.P.A., inspired by the famous street.

Abashawel Habesha Cafe: Indulge the senses by sipping on coffee brewed from quality Arabica beans while inhaling the piney aroma of frankincense burning softly on the table. When digging in, use your hands Ethiopian-style by picking up bits of stewed lentils and vegetables with thin, spongy injera bread made from a gluten-free teff flour sourdough that’s been fermented and cooked in a crepe pan.

Fish, Wings N Tings: Feel the beat of Reggae on the streets as you approach this tiny restaurant at the entrance of Brixton Village Market. Outdoor picnic tables and a cheerful Caribbean vibe brighten even the grayest of London days. Trinidad-born chef-owner Brian Danclair cooks the simple menu of jerk chicken, goat curry, and rotis with a lot of love. And although some dishes come with a healthy dose of heat, it’s easy to cool it down with a Red Stripe or glass of homemade ginger beer.

Lab G (Laboratio Artiginale Del Buon Gelato): In Granville Arcade, this bright yellow gelato parlor heightens the natural chemistry between cream and sugar, scoop by scoop, with its homemade artisan ice creams and sorbets. Flavors like tutti fruitti, stracciatella (with flecks of chocolate) and the ever-popular salted caramel are a finale to any Brixton food tour.

Eat your way through more of Brixton with Fox & Squirrel’s food walk.

Find more London food experiences at Visit London.

Have a question for Anne about her trip to London? Want to share your own London experience? Leave a comment below! You can also follow Anne on Google+.

(Photos: Cover: Stuart J Beesley; East End: Eating London Tours; Brixton: Stuart J Beesley and Gerard Puigmal/Getty Images)

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SmarterTravel contributors occasionally accept free or subsidized travel in exchange for our unbiased opinions. We never accept compensation in exchange for a positive review.

Categories
Budget Travel

7 European Countries Where Your Dollar Will Go Further


If you’re aware of the euro weakening considerably against the dollar in recent months, you’ve likely contemplated a trip to Europe. But one question remains: In which destinations will your dollar go the absolute furthest?

The short (and quite welcome) answer is that all of the 19 Eurozone countries are virtually on sale, and no matter where you go, you’re essentially getting a sizable discount on ground costs like hotel, food, and activities. According to Tom Meyers of EuroCheapo, a website devoted to visiting Europe on a budget, “That 65 euro dinner is probably still going to be about 65 euros. However, it’s going to cost only about $70, rather than $104 (in 2008 dollars).”

Nevertheless, some places offer more value than others, whether because they’ve struggled economically or remain virtually undiscovered by tourists. From the Iberian Peninsula to the Baltic Sea, here are the best Eurozone countries for stretching your dollar.

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Categories
Food & Drink

Borough Market: A Food Lover’s Paradise in Central London


When the Southwark Cathedral bells toll, it can only mean one thing: The bread is ready to come out of the oven. In late 2013, Bread Ahead bakery and cooking school entered London’s Borough Market with religious enthusiasm. Bakers Matt Jones and Justin Gellatly had their sourdough starter blessed inside the Gothic church, and they time their large, crusty “Cathedral Loaves” with the sounds and rhythms of its clock tower. Offering a slice of British life with its artisan baked goods, Bread Ahead isn’t just part of the market, it’s the essence of the market.

Like many other shops and stalls before it, Bread Ahead has added a new chapter to Borough Market’s culinary history book. Here, on the southern end of London Bridge, food “traders”—the butcher, the baker, and the aged English cheddar maker—have been hawking and selling for more than 1,000 years, keeping a tantalizing legacy alive.

Considered the oldest food market in London, Borough Market has undergone many transformations over the years as both a wholesale and retail food hub, from a medieval trading center riddled with criminals to an independent market built by decree “for the convenience and accommodation of the public.” Today, it remains a blend of old and new, traditional and trendy. Under the railroad tracks leading to London Bridge Station, old Dickensian architecture intermixes with sharp, modern angles and glass entranceways, while celebrity chefs commingle with local farmers.

Borough Market is now owned by a charitable trust and boasts more than 100 British and international food purveyors selling anything from fresh fish, meats, vegetables, and dairy products to breads, pastries, ciders, and other prepared foods. The market also has a conscience: Its recycling rate is 100 percent (meaning no food waste goes into landfills), and many vendors carry local and sustainable items.

Open for retail Wednesdays through Saturdays, Borough Market offers travelers a taste of England (and the world) in one lively communal setting. So dive into its wonderful chaos, taking in the competing smells and sounds while meeting the passionate traders (many of whom offer free samples).

Don’t Miss

Bread Ahead: Peek through the large glass windows to see bread dough being kneaded in 50-year-old vintage mixers, or come inside and join a baking class such as “Wild About the Yeast” or “Oath to the Loaf.” At the stall inside the market, purchase Eccles cakes, gingerbread, Gellatly’s famed doughnuts, and, of course, Cathedral Loaves, fresh from the shop’s ovens around the corner.

Gelateria 3Bis: Conceived by owner Francesco Prati and Italian ice cream maker Paolo Raffaelli, this Slow Food-approved gelateria proves you don’t have to fly off to Italy for authentic gelato. Using British cows’ milk and fruits, the silky ice creams are made in the traditional way, in fresh batches every day. Each waffle cone gets a drizzle of liquid chocolate before taking on scoops of up to two different flavors, such as fig and mascarpone, panna cotta, cherry, and pistachio.

Neal’s Yard Dairy: Stand in awe at the enormous cheese wheels stacked high on shelves and along the seemingly endless counter as you choose from classics like Cheddar, Stilton, and Red Leicester from around 70 cheese makers in the British Isles (many are aged in Neal’s Yard Dairy’s own maturing rooms). Must try: the gloriously runny Stinking Bishop washed-rind cheese from Gloucestershire.

Rubies in the Rubble: Jenny Dawson has a thing for “ugly” fruits and vegetables and brings them to Borough Market every Saturday in the form of fine homemade chutneys and jams. By using surplus—but still delicious—ingredients, she’s not only preserving produce but also the environment by combating food waste.

Konditor & Cook: At this popular London cakery, German baker Gerhard Jenne brings a touch of whimsy to English-style cakes such as the Curly Whirly, Victoria Sponge, and Almond St. Clement. For those super-special occasions, indulge in the cheeky, made-to-order “Blow Me” cake (referring to the candles, of course). Baking classes are also available.

Shellseekers: Darren Brown and his team of divers collect scallops by hand off the Devon coast and sell them fresh, along with crabs, prawns, and other types of sustainably caught shellfish, on beds of ice. Want a quick bite? Then look no further than his cooked scallops with stir-fried vegetables and crispy bacon, portioned onto beds of bean sprouts.

Learn more about Borough Market and other things to see and do in London at VisitLondon.com.

Have a question for Anne about her trip to London? Want to share your own London experience? Leave a comment below! You can also follow Anne on Google+.

(Photos: Cover: Cultura Travel/Gary John Norman/Getty Images; Neal’s Yard Dairy: Chris Mellor/Getty Images; Bread Ahead Cathedral Loaf: Anne Banas; Konditor & Cook: Anne Banas)

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Adventure Travel Island

Guadeloupe: The French Caribbean’s Best Kept Secret … for Now


Land on the ferry docks of Terre-de-Haut and be greeted by the tourment d’amour, or agony of love. On this small island in Guadeloupe, sorrow comes in a deceptively sweet form—half tart, half cake, and infused with a seductive mix of shredded coconut, cane sugar, rum, and wistful longing.

For generations, island women baked these small round gateaux in anticipation of their lovers’ safe returns from sea. If the cakes staled, heartbreak ensued. Today, ladies wait patiently by the pier, enticing arriving visitors with their pastry-lined madras baskets. They keep the recipe secret, so you can only eat them here. And one taste will leave you spellbound, forever yearning to come back again.

This is Guadeloupe, where sensory pleasures captivate. Breezy and unpretentious—and largely undiscovered by U.S. travelers—this group of French islands in the Eastern Caribbean Sea is perhaps best known for its French-Creole gastronomy, but it’s equally enchanting for its carefree beaches, painted villages, colorful festivals, and majestic, misty volcano.

As an archipelago, Guadeloupe is many destinations in one. The two largest islands, Grande-Terre (with the biggest city, Point-à-Pitre) and Basse-Terre (home to the capital and iconic Soufrière volcano) are like two wings of a butterfly separated only by a narrow sea channel; cross over the bridge and you’d hardly know you were on a different isle. To the south, rural Marie-Galante is blanketed in as many sugar cane fields as white-sand beaches, while Îles des Saintes or Les Saintes (a collection of several smaller islands including Terre-de-Haut) boasts one of the most beautiful bays in the world. La Désirade, the least developed of the group, is a true escape from time and the modern pace of life.

Island Gastronomy

While subtle differences in character set these islands apart, the local food culture unites them. A mélange of traditional Creole and classic French cooking with a dash of African and Indian spice, Guadeloupe’s cuisine is both local and exotic, rustic and refined. It’s as easy to feast on made-to-order street food as it is to linger for hours over a meticulously prepared multi-course lunch.

Down-to-earth and comforting, typical Creole dishes center on the land and surrounding sea, seamlessly blending fresh-caught fish with island-grown fruits and vegetables. Like other sleepy, open-air restaurants, Le Rivage in Capesterre-belle-eau (on Basse-Terre) begins its meals with accras (deep-fried cod fritters) with garlicky “dog” sauce and then graduates to hearty mains like conch fricassee or goat curry served alongside plantains, rice, and beans. Of course, it all goes down better with fruity—and potent—rum cocktails like le planteur or ti punch.

Down-to-earth, maybe, but the islands are essentially French, after all, so life here is imbued with a certain Gallic elegance. Rum might be the local go-to drink, but Champagne reigns supreme (Guadeloupians toast more bubbly per capita than any other people in the world, even out-consuming the mainland French). So it’s no surprise to see a bit of haute cuisine enlivening local dishes. For example, talented chef de cuisine Philippe Dade infuses classic technique into local seafood delights like coquilles St. Jacques in red wine reduction and tuna carpaccio dressed with passion fruit vinaigrette at Ti’Kaz’la, a waterside restaurant on Les Saintes. His final flourish is his signature dessert, an over-the-top mango soufflé served beside a pool of raspberry coulis.

Offering authentic flavors in their simplest forms, the streets reveal yet another chapter in Guadeloupe’s culinary story. Direct from mom-and-pop sellers to eagerly waiting locals and tourists, portable foods like grilled conch in a cone, hand-churned coconut sorbet, and, of course, the tourment d’amour make for affordable, spontaneous snacking at festivals, by the beach, or simply in town squares. Sold from takeout windows alongside French crepes, the uniquely Guadeloupian bokit—a pita-like sandwich made from risen bread that’s been deep-fried and folded over fillings like cheese, egg, vegetables, meat, and tuna—is the West Indian answer to guilty-pleasure fast food.

For those thinking of recreating island dishes in their own kitchens, the spice markets—particularly Marché Saint-Antoine in Pointe-à-Pitre and the beachside market in Saint Anne (both on Grande-Terre)—are the epicenters of local flavor. Among the bustling stalls, you can find anything from aromatic vanilla beans and colombo (a local curry powder) to bois bandé (a type of wood said to have aphrodisiac properties). And if a few recipes and a little skill are what you need, Popots Maison in Saint-Franĉois (Grande-Terre) will teach you the secrets of island cuisine through interactive French and Creole cooking classes.

For further culinary immersion, learn how Guadeloupe’s prized “Bourbon Pointu” coffee is produced at Le Domaine de l’Habitation la Grivelière in Vieux-Habitants (Basse-Terre), or delve into the cacao-growing process in the botanical gardens of Le Maison du Cacao in Pointe-Noire (Basse-Terre). For rum, distilleries like Domaine de Bellevue on Marie-Galante offer a taste along with a brief education on the islands’ prized rhum agricole and rum-based tropical fruit infusions like punch coco.

Island Adventure

As tempting as it is to think food is Guadeloupe’s be-all and end-all, it’s not the complete story. Natural wonders, history, and cultural heritage offer a whole other world.

Supermodel and DJ Willy Monfret, who serves as the islands’ adventure ambassador, reveals in a series of YouTube videos (called “Let Me Show You My Islands”) how hiking, diving, sailing, and even simple sun-seeking are all possible in this French Caribbean paradise. Follow his lead and you’ll discover the wonders of Guadeloupe.

One of the best places to start exploring is La Soufrière Volcano, the archipelago’s most iconic attraction, which towers over Guadeloupe National Park (on Basse-Terre)—that is, if you can see the top though the cloud swirl that often shrouds it. Hike up and down a well-marked path, spotting land crabs and tropical birds along the way, and then relax in Les Bains Jaunes, a natural geothermal pool at the base of the trail.

At Jardin Botanique in Deshaies (also on Basse-Terre), a tropical Eden teeming with flamingos and exotic flowers awaits. Have lunch above the trees at Restaurant Bar Glacier overlooking the arboretum and sea, and then visit friendly lorikeets dressed in green, blue, yellow, and red plumage at the aviary.

Classified by UNESCO as one of the 10 most beautiful bays in the world, Les Saintes Bay and its shallow reefs draw camera-toting travelers and glass-bottom kayakers alike. For panoramic views of the bay and red-tiled village below, climb to the top of Fort Napoleon, a history museum and Les Saintes’ highest point. Spend a lazy afternoon shopping for gauzy sarongs or madras plaid dresses in the pastel-shaded boutiques in town.

Guadeloupe wouldn’t be a Caribbean destination without beaches galore. But instead of sprawling, resort-front bays, the sands here are intimate and cove-like. At Pain de Sucre Beach (Les Saintes), you have to make a small effort to walk down a gnarly path through the woods to reach the semi-secluded swimming haven. The beach is narrow (and uncrowded), but the calm, shallow waters offer additional square footage for fun (or pure relaxation) in the sun. Find similar respite on the sugar-soft beaches of Marie-Galante, such as La Plage Vieux Port and La Plage Feuillère. Climb up the cliff tops while taking on strong trade winds at the dramatic Pointe des Châteaux peninsula (on Grande-Terre) and be rewarded with epic sunsets.

For many years, residents from mainland France have basked in the many wonders of Guadeloupe. Now it’s time for U.S. travelers, who are just a few hours away by plane, to get in on the secret. If you’re thinking of going, though, don’t wait too long, as people are starting to catch on to this destination on the rise. In 2013, Guadeloupe Islands Tourist Board saw a surge in hotel-room bookings compared to the previous year, and the organization has started to heavily promote the islands to U.S travelers through tourism campaigns and air-inclusive themed vacation packages.

When to Go: Visit during one of Guadeloupe’s festivals for an especially vivid and lively time. Every August, the Association Les Cuisinieres de la Guadeloupe hosts the Fête des Cuisinieres, a procession of women chefs dressed in aprons and madras headscarves, in celebration of St. Lawrence, the patron saint of cooks. Other major events include the Route de Rhum, a trans-Atlantic yacht race held every four years in November, and the annual Carnival, which begins on the Epiphany in January and runs through Ash Wednesday.

Getting There: Since 2013, American Airlines and Seaborne Airlines have been offering weekly flights from Miami and Puerto Rico to Pointe-à-Pitre.

Where to Stay: Instead of mega resorts, you’ll find mostly smaller, independent hotels and inns like Les Petits Saints (Les Saintes) and Tendacayou Ecolodge & Spa in Deshaies (Basse-Terre). For those wanting the pampered resort experience, La Toubana Hotel & Spa (Grand-Terre) and Auberge de la Vielle Tour (Grand-Terre) offer low-key French Caribbean elegance.

Have a question for Anne about her trip to the Guadeloupe? Want to share your own Guadeloupe experience? Leave a comment below! You can also follow Anne on Google+.

(Photos: Anne Banas; map: (Photo: Guadeloupe/Shutterstock)

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Miscellany

Hottest Food Trends for Travelers in 2015

Wondering what’s on the menu for 2015? Culinary tourism is on the rise, fed by a growing passion among travelers for local cuisine and an inexhaustible appetite for sharing their food pics online. From cutting-edge ingredients (insects and invasive seafood) to going back to the basics (foraging and communal tables), today’s chefs and food purveyors are finding new ways to feed people’s passion for food, enabling them to feast their way around the world. So head off the eaten path and look out for these hot food trends in your travels this year.

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Categories
Beach Cities Island

Taste of the Caribbean: A Culinary Tour of Guadeloupe

As an overseas department of France, Guadeloupe is, unsurprisingly, a gastronomic paradise. But when you add in a fusion of Creole, African, and Indian culinary influences, the West Indian archipelago becomes unmistakably Caribbean.

No matter which island you visit—Grande-Terre, Basse-Terre, Marie-Galante, Îles des Saintes (Les Saintes), or La Désirade—you’ll discover a vast menu of flavors rooted in rich agricultural traditions from both the land and sea. And whether you indulge in exotic fruits and spices, cod fritters with an addictive “dog” sauce, or potent rum cocktails, you’ll surely be treated to a memorable tropical feast.

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Arts & Culture

10 Things You Must Eat (and Drink) in Copenhagen Right Now

Copenhagen is often considered the happiest city on Earth. Could it be because of the food? Once a veritable culinary Siberia, Denmark’s capital has grown into a true gastronomic metropolis. And while traditions run deep, new innovation continually adds flair to the city’s ever-evolving tasting menu of flavors. From trendy New Nordic cuisine to souped-up street fare and “recycled” meals, here are 10 of the most progressive, exciting, and enticing food finds in Copenhagen right now.

Watch Now: Visit Denmark: Five Senses

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Miscellany

Nature in Action: Flying Over Iceland’s Hottest New Attraction


Code red (and orange and yellow)! Iceland is on fire … again.

With images of Iceland’s disruptive Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced eye-a-fyat-la-jo-kult) volcano still burning in our collective memory, one might approach the country’s recent volcanic rumblings with trepidation. But unlike in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull’s billowing ash cloud stopped air traffic, the latest eruption—this time from Bárðarbunga—is encouraging it.

Deep inside Iceland’s desolate interior, the Holuhraun eruption, which began in late August, is a welcome one from what many would call a “behaving” volcano, whose sleeping caldera lies miles away under the thick Vatnajokull glacier. Instead of unleashing a large plume of ash, Bárðarbunga’s flank fissures are spurting symphonic fountains of fiery magma that glow, even in daylight, against the blackened Holuhraun lava fields. (And yes, its name is easier to pronounce, too.)

You can witness this rare, natural form of visual theater from the relative safety of an airplane (or a helicopter). I had the opportunity to fly over the volcano in September just days after flightseeing tours got clearance for takeoff. The verdict: It’s nothing short of spectacular.

While several companies offer tours, I signed up with Saga Travel, which has departures from the northern city of Akureyri. The small Norlandair prop planes accommodate a dozen or so passengers, and view-obsessed flyers can take heart: Everyone gets a window seat. By flying figure eights over the volcano, the pilot ensures equality, with four passes over the eruption on each side and each pass seeming better than the last.

The anticipation builds moments after takeoff as the plane navigates over barren stretches of land (for about 20 minutes) until glowing lava trails, which flow gracefully from the fissure crack, come into view. A light turbulence shakes the cabin, and, less than a half mile below, the eruption reveals itself, all ablaze, churning molten rock and venting steam. At first sight, it’s part terror, part awe.

For 45 minutes, passengers take turns gluing their heads to the windows, snapping pictures and gasping in disbelief. Rather than the expected violent unleashing of fire and ash, this eruption is more subtle. The lava bursts not from a large cone but from a gaping ridge in the hardened lava field, which looks as if someone took a massive blunt knife and ripped open a new wound in the previously cauterized earth. From a series of craters, the continuous explosions bubble up like fountains, shooting sky-high before splattering back down to earth.

My advice: Don’t strain your neck looking toward the opposite row’s window, thinking the view is better on the other side. It’s not. On my flight, those on the left got the first exciting glimpses, but those on the right (like myself) got to look directly down into the eruption on the last pass as the pilot tilted the plane before peeling away back to Akureyri. And while tempting, don’t spend the whole time snapping photos; instead, allow at least one or two passes to take it all in. Stay in the moment. Be mesmerized. The cinematic image will remain in your mind long after the plane has landed and will be brighter than any snapshot.

(I apologize for the low video quality. The plane was really getting bounced around.)

Many companies offer flyovers for upwards of $2,000 (departures are typically more expensive from Reykjavik, which is farther away from the eruption site), so it pays to shop around. With Saga Travel, flights (offered daily) last for 90 minutes and cost 60,000 ISK per person (about $500). Note: Tours might get canceled at the last moment due to unfavorable winds and the potential for dangerous sulfur dioxide pollution, so book early in your trip in case you have to reschedule.

Experts say the Holuhraun eruption might continue for a year, so now may be the perfect time to plan a trip to Iceland. Icelandair has many North American gateways and offers free stopovers to mainland Europe. Fares for the next few months will be cheaper as Iceland moves into its winter low season. Plus, it’s a great time to see the northern lights, so why not have two once-in-a-lifetime experiences in one trip?

Have a question for Anne about her trip to the Iceland? Want to share your own Iceland experience? Leave a comment below! You can also follow Anne on Google+.

(Cover photo: Global Panorama via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike); other photos and video: Anne Banas)

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Adventure Travel Photography

Penobscot Bay, Maine: From the Land to the Sea (in Photos)

Rich in maritime heritage and bountiful soils, the towns and fishing villages of Penobscot Bay make up an idyllic destination that is both seafaring and earthbound. From shanty to gourmet, restaurant menus highlight farm-fresh produce as much as lobster, while local wineries and inns offer culinary surprises unique to Maine. Tall ships and lighthouses are ready and waiting for when the sea inevitably beckons.

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