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Why Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit Is the New Cancun

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Throughout the 30-minute drive from Puerto Vallarta to the brightly colored surfer town of Sayulita, there was one thing, besides the ocean views, that remained constant: New construction. The region of Riviera Nayarit, which got its name from Mexico’s tourism board of the same name, has a “made up” label of sorts, created in hope of differentiating this section of Mexico’s Pacific coast from its more popular neighbor, Puerto Vallarta.

The new construction, however, is about the only thing in common between each of the 23 distinct communities on this stretch of coastline. A vacation to Riviera Nayarit means experiencing different cultures, beaches, and activities, depending on which part you stay in.

Later this year the Conrad Playa Mita hotel is opening, and renovations are finishing at the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. Also new this year is the Marival Armony Punta de Mita. Come 2020, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts will open the Rosewood Mandarina. One&Only Mandarina Resort and One&Only Mandarina Private Homes will also open next year, at a location with breathtaking ocean views, cliffside bungalows, an ocean-fed pool, all on a long strip of a pristine and remote beach.

AMResorts’ Dreams Punta de Mita Resort & Spa and Secrets Punta de Mita Resort & Spa are also both slated to open in 2020. Coming in 2021 is Auberge Resorts Collection’s Susurros del Corazon. In 2022, a new development called Costa Canuva will open featuring a Fairmont and Ritz-Carlton Reserve.

And 2019 visitor numbers support the hotel expansion projects. According to the tourism board, the region saw a five-percent increase in North American travelers compared to last year, and the average occupancy rate was 82 percent in the southern part of the region: the Bay of Banderas.

Interested in seeing this up-and-coming slice of Mexico before the crowds arrive? Here are the best ways to experience Riviera Nayarit.

Best Places to Visit in Riviera Nayarit  

colorful banners in mexico town.

Puerto Vallarta, the closest airport, is only 15 minutes away from the start of the Riviera Nayarit. And the farthest part of the region where most tourists visit, San Blas, is about three hours away from Puerto Vallarta. Riviera Nayarit’s close proximity to Puerto Vallarta makes it accessible via many North American hubs: Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Diego, Toronto, and Calgary. And for those who want to explore more of Mexico, there’s a new toll road being developed between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta which will be about a three-hour drive. Within the region, there are also new roads being constructed to connect the towns along the Bay of Banderas.

Here are the best places in Riviera Nayarit to visit, in order of closest to farthest from Puerto Vallarta and the airport:

  • Nuevo Vallarta: A community of all-inclusive and family-friendly resorts on the Bay of Banderas; many properties have beach access.
  • Punta de Mita: A luxury development area where celebrities vacation.
  • Sayulita: A surfer-town made (in)famous by the reality show Bachelor in Paradise. It’s about 30 minutes to this section of the region, and the town is a popular place for surfing, shopping, and hanging out by the beach. It’s also one of Mexico’s famed pueblos magicos, a government designation for culturally significant towns.
  • San Francisco (San Pancho): San Pancho is what Sayulita was 10 years ago before the crowds found it. The sleepy town—about 15-minutes north of Sayulita—has a new eco-boutique hotel, remote beaches, and local charm.
  • San Blas: This is the northern-most point of Riviera Nayarit and a popular area for bird-watching. Back in the late 1700s, this was the most important port on the coastline and you can learn about its history as a fishing village. 

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Getting off the Resort in Riviera Nayarit

hidden cave beach in mexico.

While many come to the area to enjoy time at resorts, the region offers plenty of activities to enjoy off-resort as well.

For nature and water lovers, there are islands and national parks; Isla Marietas is the most famous one for its “Hidden Beach”. There are also two biosphere reserves: Isla Jaguar-Marismas and Isla Isabel National Park. And no matter what area you stay in, you’ll have opportunities to deep-sea fish, jet-ski, kayak, scuba dive, paddleboard, and more. During May through September whale sharks are spotted throughout the area, and the whale-watching season for blue whales, orcas, humpbacks, sperm whales, and more begins mid-December and ends in May.

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Birdwatching is a popular activity along the water, and there are also plenty of interior hiking trails and jungle walks to take that have gorgeous views of the coastline. It’s recommended to book an experience with a local guide, and you can learn more about Riviera Nayarit hikes here.

For culture visit the small towns along the coastline, like San Pancho. While perusing the towns, try a mezcal tasting class at a local mezcaleria like La Baba del Diablo. Isla de Mexcaltitan, which is often referred to as the “Venice of Nayarit” for its urban canals, is also a worthy day trip. And while resort dining is convenient and tasty, try at least one local meal off-site; the region is famous for pescado zarandeado (grilled fish) and aguachile (shrimp ceviche).

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Lastly, there’s plenty of golfing. The Punta Mita area especially is a popular vacation destination for golfers, home to two courses designed by famous golfer Jack Nicklaus. In total, the region has eight courses and is home to the only green in the world that’s on a natural island.

Best Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

stretch of beach on mexicos pacific coast.

From family-friendly properties to affordable hotels, there are plenty of hotels in Riviera Nayarit for every type of traveler.

All-Inclusive Resorts in Riviera Nayarit

All-inclusive resorts are the way to go if you want to check-in and forget about planning. The Nuevo Vallarta area and Punta Mita have concentrated sections of all-inclusive resorts. Here are three well-reviewed options:

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Luxury Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

Celebrities have flocked to the Punta Mita area of Riviera Nayarit for years. Here are two of the most famous luxury hotels:

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Boutique Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

Up-and-coming sections of the region are home to quaint, smaller, boutique hotels. Here are options in Sayulita and San Francisco:

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Family-Friendly Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

Riviera Nayarit is a haven for families on vacation. Here are three well-known, family-friendly hotels in the Nuevo Vallarta area:

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Affordable Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

Budget-conscious travelers will be happy to know that there are plenty of options for them as well; check out these three affordable hotels in the region:

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More from SmarterTravel:

What to Wear in Riviera Nayarit

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Ashley Rossi was hosted by Riviera Nayarit. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

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Beach Booking Strategy Student Travel

The 10 Top Destinations for Spring Break 2019

Ah, college spring break. The noblest rite of passage for our nation’s future leaders. With March around the corner, college students across the country are preparing for a week of fun and relaxation (much of which their parents will hopefully never hear about). So, whether you want to avoid them or join them, where is everyone going this year?

CheapOair looked at where 18 to 25-year-olds are traveling this year, and found that while “many are still traveling to popular spring break destinations, such as Mexico and Florida, booking data shows a significant increase in European destinations among travelers ages 18 to 25.”

[st_related]What to Pack for Spring Break: 35 Essentials[/st_related]

England, France, Ireland, Spain, and Croatia are the most popular destinations for spring breakers eschewing the traditional beach party scenario.

“For spring break, travelers are still spending an average of 5-6 days in popular destinations such as Florida and Mexico,” said Tom Spagnola, Senior Vice President of Supplier Relations at CheapOair. “An overall trend we’re seeing with this age group is that they’re taking longer international trips of 10-12 days in destinations such as Spain and Netherlands, and up to 22 days in destinations such as Thailand.” (Serious question: Which colleges give students 22 days off for spring break?)

Here are the top destinations and average airfares for spring break 2019, courtesy of CheapOair:

Domestic Destinations Average Airfare International Destinations Average Airfare
Orlando, Florida $291 Cancun, Mexico $434
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida $304 London, England $841
Los Angeles, California $268 Paris, France $669
Miami, Florida $354 Dublin, Ireland $596
Las Vegas, Nevada $281 Barcelona, Spain $542
Denver, Colorado $283 Bangkok, Thailand $797
Tampa, Florida $291 Amsterdam, Netherlands $674
San Juan, Puerto Rico $369 Zagreb, Croatia $520
Fort Myers, Florida $317 Mexico City, Mexico $372
Phoenix, Arizona $328 Madrid, Spain $620

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[st_deals_search search_type=air]

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Beach Cities Miscellany

10 Must-See Fort Myers Attractions

Fort Myers has more than enough enticements to keep visitors of all ages and temperaments occupied. From Fort Myers attractions that highlight the area’s fascinating wetlands to those that zoom in on the historical and cultural life of past and current residents, there are dozens of must-see Fort Myers attractions.

10 Must-See Fort Myers Attractions

Ready for a break from the beach or the pool? Check out these Fort Myers points of interest.

The Butterfly Estates

fort myers attractions

[st_content_ad]Butterflies are big in Fort Myers; several venues and preserves offer classes on butterfly gardening and the conservation of native species. The Butterfly Estates, a green-friendly effort located in Gardner’s Park in the Downtown Fort Myers River District, combines free workshops, (they take place on the last Saturday of every month) with boutiques packed with butterfly products, a café, and a 3,600-square-foot glass butterfly conservatory. Check the website of this favorite Fort Myers attraction for upcoming kids’ projects and activities.

Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium

fort myers attractions

This long-running, not-for-profit Fort Myers attraction is focused on educating guests about the environment. Its 105 acres feature three nature trails that are ideal for learning about the Southwest Florida wetlands, plus butterfly and bird aviaries for additional fact-finding missions. An on-site museum and planetarium provide plenty of fodder for curious kids (and adults). Calusa also offers programming including concerts and laser shows in the planetarium, staff talks about native animals including alligators, eagles, and butterflies; and even outdoor, nature-based yoga classes.

Edison & Ford Winter Estates

fort myers attractions

Learn about the surprising entrepreneurial history of Fort Myers at these side-by-side estates, where inventors Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford spent their winters inventing, gallivanting, and socializing. Today, the historic buildings have been preserved and include Edison’s Botanic Research Laboratory and the Edison Ford Museum. Take specialty tours (inventions, antique cars), or explore 20 acres of botanical gardens that include Edison’s thousands of experimental research plants and the family’s fruit trees. Grab a bite at Pinchers at The Marina at Edison Ford; or sign up for an art or gardening workshop.

After you leave, be sure to drive down majestic McGregor Boulevard. Formerly a road for cattle driving, it’s now a wonderfully scenic two-lane street planted on both sides with Royal Palms.

Fort Myers River District

fort myers attractions

Downtown Fort Myers, also known as the River District, was first established in 1904, when the railroad was extended from Punta Gorda. Today, the Downtown River District is one of four declared historic areas (along with Edison Park, Dean Park and Seminole Park) where the architecture and heritage of Southwest Florida has been preserved. Stroll past fashionable boutiques, dine in trendy restaurants, or take in a show here. The Downtown River District regularly hosts events including art walks, outdoor concerts, and food festivals.

For a vivid sense of history, tour The Burroughs Home & Gardens, a Georgian Revival mansion, whose owners entertained the likes of the Edisons and the Fords.

The Great Calusa Blueway

fort myers attractions

As a tribute to the indigenous Calusa natives who once occupied the region, Lee County developed this awesome 190-mile paddling trail. Comprising three legs, it takes kayakers and canoers first through Estero Bay, next through Pine Island and Matlacha Pass, and finally into the inland portions of the Caloosahatchee River and its smaller tributaries. Paddlers can fish, view native wildlife like dolphins and manatees, and even camp for several days along the way.

The Great Calusa Blueway can be navigated by those with any level of experience, from beginners to experts, but those who are unfamiliar with the region should hire a guide or join a tour. A trail guide with 80-plus access points and highlights is also available to order.

Lakes Regional Park

fort myers attractions

Bird lovers, be warned. Once you start exploring the 300 or so acres of Lakes Park, you won’t want to leave. That’s because egrets, herons, ibis, and anhinga migrate in the fall and then nest here by the thousands, making this one of the most established rookeries in the United States. But there’s also more to Lakes than nature trails—which are both paved and unpaved for different levels of hiking and biking—boardwalks, and gardens. The name offers a good clue: You can rent kayaks and canoes, and fish here as well.

Younger guests find favorite Fort Myer attractions here as well: A railroad museum and miniature train are sure to hold their fascination, as will playgrounds and water parks.

Manatee Park

fort myers attractions

This must-see among Fort Myers attractions is a refuge for these gentle sea cows, a spot where you can paddle among manatees and observe them in their natural environment. But there’s a caveat: They have to choose to be in the area. And, of course, because this is a non-captive environment, there’s also no guarantee you’ll see them. Your best chances for seeing families of manatees here are when the temperatures drop during the winter months, when the water gets colder in the gulf and stays warmer in these shallower waters. Rent watercraft from the onsite outfitter, Calusa Blueway Outfitters & Gift Shop. Staff offer educational programs, including how to approach and leave manatee areas, plus fish and butterfly identification tips. Other park features include fishing opportunities, playgrounds, picnic areas, restrooms, walking paths, and a butterfly garden with native plants that serves as a model program for others.

Check the website to discover the current status of manatees in the park. And note that manatees, like other Florida wildlife, should never be touched, startled (intentionally or unintentionally), surrounded by vessels or prevented from leaving the area.

Mound Key Archaeological State Park

fort myers attractions

This island in the middle of Estero Bay was actually “filled in” between mangrove roots by the Calusa natives. They built all 125 acres of it from shells, creating pathways and mounds as they went. It’s a fascinating structure, rising 30 feet out of the water. Archaeologists believe it had spiritual significance. Dating back 10,000 years, it’s an incredible site to explore. However, it can only be reached by boat. Book a tour or rent kayaks or canoes to reach get there. While visitors are welcome to explore the park, relax in the sun, and picnic, there are no facilities or amenities here, including toilets.

Royal Shell Port Sanibel Marina

fort myers attractions

Fort Myers is the gateway to several environmental regions, including the Caloosahatchee River, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Everglades. To make the most of the area, head to Royal Shell Port Sanibel Marina to sign up for eco-tours, fishing charters, and watercraft rentals (boats, paddleboards, and more). This Fort Myers attraction is a great jumping-off point for everything from manatee tours to multi-day kayaking trips.

Pro tip: The marina has beautifully appointed marble bathrooms with showers. Bring a change of clothes so that when you return from your outdoor activity, you can freshen up and head straight to Times Square for cocktails and dinner.

Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve

fort myers attractions

First things first: It’s pronounced “sloo.” This 3,400-acre ecosystem is a fascinating freshwater habitat and tidal passageway that prevents flooding and provides protection for native wildlife and plant life, including several endangered species. Humans navigate the slough via a boardwalk built several feet above the wetlands. The boardwalk route is self-guided, but volunteers are also available to lead tours. Stop in at the LEED-certified Interpretative Center to explore the exhibits or to try to catch a tour.

More from SmarterTravel:

– Original reporting by Jen Karetnik

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Beach Budget Travel Cities Family Travel Holiday Travel Miscellany Student Travel

10 Cheap Hotels in Fort Myers

Take a cue from local college students, spring breakers, those traveling for sports tournaments, and families on a budget who have already discovered these clean, cozy and cheap hotels in Fort Myers.

Cheap Hotels in Fort Myers

Choose your Fort Myers motel wisely and you won’t even have to sacrifice extras like free Wi-Fi and complimentary breakfast. Here are 10 dependable cheap hotels to consider if you’re on a budget for your Florida vacation.

Holiday Inn Edison at Midtown

cheap hotels in fort myers

[st_content_ad]With its choice location in the historic Downtown River District, this colorful, value-driven facility (also known as the Holiday Inn Fort Myers – Downtown Area), shouts Southwest Florida. A shimmering, tropically landscaped pool is a highlight, as is the location: As the name indicates, it’s so close to the Edison-Ford Estates that you can walk there. Renovated in 2015, the hotel features upgraded, comfortable bedding and furniture. All rooms have flat-screen TVs and micro-refrigerators; there’s even a private-access floor for those business travelers seeking quiet.

Amenities: Free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, micro-refrigerators, private-access floor, 24-hour business center, meeting room, tropically landscaped pool, fitness center, laundry services, free self-parking, free shuttle, concierge services, and 24-hour front desk. (Pet-friendly.)

Book it: Find rates and dates for the Holiday Inn Edison at Midtown and other Fort Myers hotels

Riverview Inn

cheap hotels in fort myers

This clean, contemporary roadside motel is a real find. It overlooks the Caloosahatchee River, which offers stunning views of wildlife and sunsets alike. Done in shades of blue, gray, and silver, there’s an obvious effort made at design, with an Art Deco curvilinear sign outside advertising the space as the “Riverview Boutique Inn & Suites.” Inside, the compact rooms make great use of space with everything racked on the walls, including a flat-screen TV and an iron and ironing board. Friendly staff fronts the desk 24 hours. Most of Fort Myers main attractions—the River District, Centennial Park, and performing and visual arts venues—are less than two miles away, and plenty of restaurants and bars are within walking distance.

Amenities: Flat-screen TVs, iron/ironing board, and river view.

Book it: Find rates and dates for the Riverview Inn and other Fort Myers hotels

Econo Lodge North

cheap hotels in fort myers

Though travelers usually think of cheap lodgings as free of frills, Fort Myers’ Econo Lodge North does have a few extras, including complimentary Wi-Fi, free parking, and breakfast included daily. There’s also a business center and an outdoor pool. The location is central as well: The Harborside Event Center, the Franklin Shops, the Art of the Olympians Museum and the River District are all under two miles away. And multiple North Fort Myers restaurants and recommended businesses are in the immediate area.

Amenities: Free Wi-Fi, free parking, breakfast included, business center, and outdoor pool.

Book it: Find rates and dates for Econo Lodge North and other Fort Myers hotels

Holiday Inn Ft. Myers Airport-Town Center

cheap hotels in fort myers

Although not as inexpensive as other cheap hotels in Fort Myers, this new Holiday Inn delivers great overall value. Shuttle transportation to and from the main airport, only three miles away, is available. Clean, neat rooms and suites feature microwaves, mini-refrigerators and coffeemakers, as well as flat-screen LCD TVs with cable television, plus bathrooms with hand-held European-style showers. Outside, a fire pit overlooks a lake; there’s also a landscaped indoor/outdoor “Oasis” pool and hot tub.

Amenities: Free Wi-Fi; breakfast included; free parking; air conditioning; in-room microwaves, coffeemakers and mini-refrigerators, flat-screen LCD TVs with cable; hand-held European-style showers; indoor/outdoor pool; hot tub; fitness center; self-serve laundry services; dry cleaning services; multilingual staff; restaurant/bar; room service; live entertainment; fire pit; shuttle bus; and airport transportation.

Book it: Find rates and dates for Holiday Inn Ft. Myers Airport-Town Center and other Fort Myers hotels

Fairfield Inn & Suites Fort Myers Cape Coral

cheap hotels in fort myers

More inexpensive than cheap, these large, clean and comfortable rooms—recently renovated—are great for families. The in-room microwave and refrigerator offer a budget-friendly alternative to eating every meal at a restaurant. Don’t worry about breakfast, though—it’s complimentary. With its central location, this hotel makes it easy to attend the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox spring training baseball games, stroll through the Bell Tower Shops, take in the wildlife refuges and preserves, or see a show at night at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall.

Amenities: Pool, free parking, free Wi-Fi, fitness center, breakfast included, laundry service, self-service laundry, dry cleaning, multilingual staff, air conditioning, and in-room microwave and refrigerator.

Book it: Find rates and dates for the Fairfield Inn & Suites Fort Myers Cape Coral and other Fort Myers hotels

Rock Lake Resort

cheap hotels in fort myers

These quirky cottages—a total of 36 units—were built in the 1940s by architect James Morre, who constructed them around a lake. Don’t worry—the resort has been renovated since its historic beginnings, with all units featuring new furniture and BeautyRest mattresses. Many of the unites even include kitchens. The cottages have covered porches that face the lake. Billy Creek, which feeds right into the Caloosahatchee River, runs behind the resort, and there are plenty of places around the property to take a nature walk or play horsehoes or ping-pong.

Amenities: Free Wi-Fi, heated pool, nature walk, canoeing/kayaking Billy’s Creek, fishing, kitchens in 19 units, access to Caloosahatchee River, horseshoes, and ping-pong.

Book it: Find rates and dates for Rock Lake Resort and other Fort Myers hotels

Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fort Myers – The Forum

cheap hotels in fort myers

Upgraded digs and professional staff have made this Holiday Inn a pleasure to visit. Comfort, convenience, and value are the primary goals here: The business center, conference facilities and meeting rooms are available for use; breakfast is included daily; and a microwave and refrigerator are included in each room.

Amenities: Free Wi-Fi, breakfast included, free parking, flat-screen TVs, air conditioning, in-room microwaves and refrigerators, business center, meeting rooms, banquet room, conference facilities, heated outdoor pool, fitness center, self-service laundry services, dry cleaning, and multilingual staff. 

Book it: Find rates and dates for the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fort Myers – The Forum and other Fort Myers hotels

La Quinta Inn Fort Myers Central

cheap hotels in fort myers

Situated just east of the Caloosahatchee River on US41, the city’s main drag, this Southwestern-motif hotel highlights value, location, and amenities as its main attractions. Rooms come equipped with a coffee/tea maker, iron and ironing board, and flat-screen HDTV with more than 30 channels (as well as plug-and-play options to connect your own technology). Other perks include the chain’s free daily Bright Side Breakfast, a heated outdoor pool, and a tennis court.

Amenities: Free Wi-Fi, breakfast included, free parking, heated outdoor pool, dry cleaning, laundry service, self-serve laundry, meeting rooms, concierge, multilingual staff, tennis court, HDTV, coffee maker, and iron/ironing board.

Book it: Find rates and dates for La Quinta Inn Fort Myers Central and other Fort Myers hotels

Travelodge Fort Myers North

cheap hotels in fort myers

Just one mile from the Harborside Event Center and similarly close to JetBlue Park at Fenway South Hammond Stadium, this cheap hotel in Fort Myers is perfectly placed for sports fans. Free breakfast daily adds to the value. There’s also self-serve laundry and room in the lot to park buses and RVs. And you don’t have to leave Fido out of the action—this motel welcomes family pets, as does Dog Beach on Estero Island, about 30 minutes away.

Amenities: Free Wi-Fi, free breakfast, outdoor pool, free parking, room service, 24-hour reception desk, multilingual staff, laundry services, self-serve laundry, air conditioning, in-room microwave and mini-refrigerator, coffee/tea maker, flat-screen TVs, cribs available, rollaway beds available, daily housekeeping, and bus/truck parking. (Pet-friendly.)

Book it: Find rates and dates for Travelodge Fort Myers North and other Fort Myers hotels

Golf View Motel

cheap hotels in fort myers

A true old Florida roadside motel, this serviceable facility is a choice option for anyone looking for a cheap hotel in Fort Myers while exploring the area’s wildlife refuges, beaches, and attractions. The motel offers in-room microwaves and refrigerators, Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, a clean outdoor pool, and a front desk that’s staffed 24/7. 

Amenities: Free Wi-Fi, in-room microwave and refrigerator, air conditioning, outdoor pool, 24-hour front desk, and flat-screen TVs.

Book it: Find rates and dates for the Golf View Motel and other Fort Myers hotels

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– Original reporting by Jen Karetnick

Categories
Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Beach Cities Food & Drink LGBT Outdoors Romantic Travel

10 Best Things to Do in Puerto Vallarta

With so many things to do in Puerto Vallarta, it is a city that’s much more than its all-inclusive resorts. With an energetic downtown positioned between the beaches of Banderas Bay and the trails of the Sierra Madre Mountains, travelers can find lots of ways to explore the city. As experienced travelers know, every good trip itinerary has a variety of “must-sees” and “hidden gems,” and lucky for anyone with a ticket booked for Puerto Vallarta, the city’s offers are abundant.

Things to Do in Puerto Vallarta

Between sunny days on the beach and exciting nights on the town, here are the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta.

Walk the Malecon

Of all the the things to do in Puerto Vallarta, you’ll find yourself coming back most often to the Malecon, a lively boardwalk that draws visitors in to stretch their legs and explore. Along the busy edge of downtown, the Malecon has plenty of bars, restaurants, and shopping opportunities to scour. Not only is the Malecon a wonderful place to catch the sunset and hit the town, it’s also lined with unique and picture-perfect public art pieces, like the famous arches and the color-shifting sail on the Playa Los Muertos Pier. 

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SAVIA

SAVIA is a brand new show from Vallarta Adventures’ Rhythm of the Night that takes place in an outdoor jungle amphitheater. An incredible spectacle of acrobatics, contortion, and fire dancing, SAVIA is an artistic show sure to mesmerize audiences of all ages. The show is held on the private beach of Las Caletas and only accessible by ferry transfer, which is included in the price of your ticket. Also included is a candlelit dinner before or after the show and some time to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Las Caletas. It’s one of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta.

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Take a Taco Tour 

If you want a local experience in Puerto Vallarta, there’s no quicker way to dive in than with a Taco Tour with Vallarta Food Tours. In just a few hours you’ll try some of the most delicious tacos in the city and leave feeling like an expert on Puerto Vallarta’s street food scene. As you follow your guide through the streets of the city center and catch the bus across town (an adventure in itself), not only will you taste the city’s best tacos, you’ll also experience a range of Mexican flavors that are sure to inspire your taste buds from the classic al pastor tacos to the smoked marlin.

Take a Cooking Class

Once you’ve got a taste for the street food, you’ll want to learn how to bring those flavors home with you. Luckily in such a large city, there are plenty of cooks ready to welcome you into their homes and share their recipes. There are many different cooking classes to whet your curiosity, from Miriam’s Mexican Kitchen, which offers classes for every skill level to the more experimental menus available with the Traveling Spoon.

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Take a Day Trip 

If you need a day off from the bustle of the city, there are great places you can visit on a day trip from Puerto Vallarta, like the sleepy town of San Sebastian del Oeste, one of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos, or the Marietas Islands and Playa Escondida (Hidden Beach). You can take a day trip to the islands, however, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to land on the beach as the government only gives out a set number of permits per day and access is dependent on ocean conditions. Hedge your bets and look for a tour that offers the most of the day, like this offering from Vallarta Adventures, which includes snorkeling around the islands and whale watching on the return trip.

Go Shopping 

If you can’t find what you’re looking for on the Malecon, try your luck at La Isla shopping center—one of the newest offerings from this popular shopping mall chain, and the first with its own hotel. Here, you’ll find the comforts of a U.S. shopping mall, from Starbucks to Johnny Rockets, and plenty of Mexican brands too. It even has a movie theatre. This is a great place to bring small children who will love the turtle pond, jungle gym, and gondola rides.

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Catch the Sunset

It’s not hard to find a good sunset spot in Puerto Vallarta. Whether you’re watching from the beach or from the comfort of your ocean-view hotel room, you’re bound to have a wonderful view. However, to catch Puerto Vallarta’s best sunset angle, you’ll have to do a little bit of hiking. At the top of the city, Mirador de La Cruz is a lookout point adored by locals. Far from the commercialized downtown, this vantage point is a special place for travelers looking for a special sunset moment. Make sure you leave early and give yourself plenty of time to climb the steep staircase to the top so you don’t miss it.

Los Arcos

Getting out to Los Arcos is one of the most adventurous things to do in Puerto Vallarta. There are tons of ways to explore the city’s famous rock formations, which are located just south of downtown and very close to the beach. You can kayak, paddleboard, and even sign up for a snorkeling tour. Many hotels, such as the Costa Sur, supply equipment and are even situated close enough that you can actually set off for Los Arcos right from the beach of your hotel.

Explore the Romantic Zone

If you’re looking for a party in Puerto Vallarta, you’ll find it in the Romantic Zone, also known as the Old Town. As the city’s liveliest neighborhood, there are plenty of bars, restaurants, clubs, and theatres to explore, as well as some of the landmarks and homes of some of Puerto Vallarta’s most famous residents like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. The Romantic Zone is also the center of Puerto Vallarta’s LGBT community and especially festive when Vallarta Pride rolls around every June. 

[st_related]5 Cheapest Places to Go for Spring Break in Mexico[/st_related]

Whale Watching

The scenic Puerto Vallarta Bay isn’t just a draw to the city’s many human visitors, it’s also a very popular vacation spot for humpback whales. During the winter, humpback whales migrate south to the warm waters off the coast to raise their young. This means visitors have plenty of opportunities to spot them flipping and splashing around, particularly between February and April. It’s not uncommon for people to spot the whales while standing on the beach, but the best way to spot them is by signing up for a whale watching cruise.

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More from SmarterTravel:

Jamie Ditaranto visited Puerto Vallarta as a guest of the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.

Categories
Security

State Department Warns Against Mexico Travel, But Is It Unsafe?

Last week the State Department released a vague warning about Mexico travel to Playa Del Carmen, saying it had “received information about a security threat,” and prohibited government employees from traveling there for several days.

According to CNN, the Mexico travel warning came one week after a crude explosive device was found on a tourist ferry in the area. In its travel advisory, the State Department specifically noted that U.S. government personnel were “prohibited from using ferry services between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel” and that “U.S. citizens should not use ferry services operating between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel.”

Authorities reportedly ruled out terrorism and organized crime in the attempted bombing.

[st_related] 10 Travel Safety Tips You Can Learn from the CIA [/st_related]

“US citizens must have as much information as possible to make informed travel decisions,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement to CNN Thursday. “We take our obligation to provide information to US citizens seriously as evidenced by the clear, timely, and reliable safety and security information we release worldwide.”

The Mexico Tourism Board pushed back on the warning, which coincided with high-season spring break travel to the region, saying “messages like this, which imply safety issues without any basis in fact, are counterproductive to the goal of informing and educating travelers to Mexico and we strongly disagree with both this approach and the contents of this security message.”

So, how should travelers respond to this kind of warning? Ultimately, it’s a matter of your personal risk tolerance.

It’s worth remembering that Mexico overall is Level 2 country on the State Department’s new Travel Advisory system, which means travelers should “exercise increased caution” due to crime. There are several areas the State Department says travelers should not consider visiting; Quintana Roo, however (where Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Tulum, Cozumel, and the Riviera Maya are located) is listed as a Level 2, meaning travelers should exercise increased caution.

Mexico’s crime issues are well known: The worst of it tends not to affect or involve tourists, which makes this warning a bit unusual as the bomb was placed on a tourist ferry. But visitors to Mexico have been long encouraged to use extra caution and common sense, and to stick to tourist areas.

“Specifically related to Playa del Carmen, I would probably follow the State Department’s alert and suggestion, and stay away for a while,” Eric Olson, senior advisor to the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center and deputy director of the Latin American Program, told USA Today. “But there are tons of other places, wonderful places, to vacation in Mexico.”

Readers, what’s your take on visiting Mexico?

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Categories
Active Travel Family Travel Road Trip

An Epic California Spring Break Combining Beach Time and Snow

Spring break sits at the crossroads of winter and summer, a time to trade chilly school days for the promise of sun. But a California spring break offers an intriguing option: Embrace the best of winter and enjoy spring-break-worthy beach time.

California Spring Break Magic: Beach and Snow

Here’s a taste of what you can do with kids when you plan a California spring break road trip that includes beach-bliss in Santa Cruz and all the winter fun of Lake Tahoe.

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Santa Cruz

Its laid-back vibe means that kids are welcome almost everywhere in Santa Cruz. This stretch of coast is dotted with a tantalizing variety of sandy beaches and tide-pool-festooned rocky seashores. On weekends in winter and spring, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk—named the World’s Best Seaside Park by the amusement industry—is a family crowd pleaser packed with rides, all set against the brilliant backdrop of the Pacific.

Look beyond the beach for the sort of fun that makes Santa Cruz a top family-friendly destination. At the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, the Pacific comes to life with exhibits and touch pools that give families a front-row seat to the thriving underwater world just beyond the center’s windows. And the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Center offers exhibits and displays that allow families to explore the local marine environment from dry land.

With a few days, you can venture beyond Santa Cruz to nearby towns for more spring break family fun. Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton offers vintage train rides through redwoods and along a river, and just next door Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has a short family-friendly trail loop through a towering old-growth redwood forest. Head south to Watsonville to let kids belly up to the bar at Martinelli’s Company Store, where they can taste a full range of sparkling and still juices while learning all about how the company turns U.S.-grown apples into this favorite family-celebration drink.

[st_related]10 (and a Half) Tips for Road Trips[/st_related]

The Drive

About four hours separate Santa Cruz from your next stop on this California spring break. Power through the drive to maximize your time in each place, or take it slow and stop for some outlet shopping in Vacaville, lunch and a museum in Sacramento, or a peek at one of the many historical sites along the way.

You can bypass much of the Bay Area’s commuter traffic (traffic apps like Waze will give you the best real-time advice), but you’ll want to be strategic about timing your route through Sacramento, as that part of the drive gets significantly slower in late afternoon and early evening.

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Tahoe and Truckee

The towns and ski resorts that make up the Tahoe region offer family-friendly fun set against the beautiful backdrop of soaring peaks, dense forest, and, of course, the sparkling centerpiece of Lake Tahoe itself.

Hit the slopes with the kids without draining your family’s entire travel budget by choosing a ski resort that offers deals for parents. Full-day ski schools for kids cost less than the average at resorts including Boreal, Homewood, and Tahoe Donner. Boreal, Diamond Peak, Homewood, Sierra-at-Tahoe, and Mount Rose are among the resorts that offer single lift tickets that two parents can trade off using—a true gem if your kids are non-skiers or still need middle-of-the-day naps.

Kids who don’t ski or snowboard can still find plenty of snow-based action. Squaw’s SnoVentures zone has groomed snow tubing hills complete with snow tube rentals, a magic carpet so you don’t have to walk up the whole hill, and attendants making sure everyone stays safe and has fun. SnoVentures also has mini-snowmobiles for kids 6 to 12.

Some of Tahoe’s most kid-friendly winter activities take place indoors. Woodward Tahoe’s Bunker is a massive warehouse packed with trampolines, foam pits, half pipes, and more. In addition to daylong and weeklong camps, Woodward also offers drop-in classes including a ninja class, Super Hero Saturday, and parkour. At the KidZone Museum in Truckee, pirate ships, castles, and more creative spaces encourage imaginary play. There’s also a baby zone for pre-walkers and an art studio where kids can create projects to take home. Truckee’s newly redone Community Swimming Pool is the perfect place to end the day: Kids can go down a waterslide, play on the splash pad, or swim in the large heated pool.

There’s even the option to camp indoors with the debut of the Great Indoors Family Room at Basecamp Hotel in Tahoe City. This two-room suite includes a tented king-sized bed, picnic table, and faux-wood fire in one room and a bunk bed in a room-sized canvas tent in an adjoining space. Indoor plumbing completes the not-roughing-it package.

[st_related]6 Unique Winter Vacations to Add to Your Bucket List[/st_related]

If You Go

For a California spring break that includes Santa Cruz and Tahoe, you can mix and match your airports. To arrive or depart closer to Santa Cruz, check prices in and out of San Francisco International, Oakland International, and San Jose International. San Jose gets you closest to Santa Cruz, and since it’s a smaller airport, it’s easier to navigate.

To arrive or depart closest to Tahoe, fly into Reno-Tahoe, which is about 40 minutes from Truckee. Or consider Sacramento, which is about an hour and a half through the mountains from Tahoe.

More California Beach-to-Snow Vacations

You can pull off this magic act of a beach-and-snow California spring break throughout the Golden State. In Central California, pair Pismo Beach with Mammoth Mountain. In Southern California, head to Huntington Beach in Orange County for fun in the sun and then east to Big Bear for skiing and snow play.

More from SmarterTravel:

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Christine Sarkis visited Santa Cruz and Tahoe as a guest of Visit California. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Budget Travel Frequent Flyer Holiday Travel Money Travel Trends

Recap: The Week’s Biggest Travel Stories and Best Deals

Following is our regular summary of the latest travel news and best frequent traveler promotions reviewed during the past week.

If it was a good deal—or a notably bad deal—from an airline, hotel, or car rental loyalty program, you can read all about it here, and plan your travel accordingly.

These Are America’s 10 Most Sinful States

A new study purports to rank the 50 U.S. states by their sinfulness. See if you agree with the findings.

Airbnb’s 10-Year Plan to Rock the Travel World

Airbnb wants your lodging dollar. The hotels will have something to say about that.

Wallet Watch: Southwest Raising Drink Prices

Remember when all Southwest alcoholic beverages were $5? No more.

That NRA Travel Discount? Check, It Might Be Gone

A slew of travel suppliers have discontinued their discounts for NRA members.

Coming to Caesars Palace: Daily Room Checks

When does “Do Not Disturb” not mean do not disturb? At a growing number of hotels, it turns out.

United Is Now Selling Wi-Fi Subscriptions – Deal or No Deal?

United is now selling monthly inflight Wi-Fi subscriptions. Should you buy?

The 10 Worst Airports for Spring Travel

Here are the top-10 airports to avoid for seamless spring travel.

Wallet Watch: Price Hikes at Disney Parks

A visit to the happiest place on earth just got more expensive—by as much as 9 percent.

Here’s How You Can Win a 19-Night Trip to Antigua and St. Lucia

Prize includes a 19-night trip for 2 to St. Lucia and Antigua, worth $100,000.

Somebody has to win this trip, right? Might as well be you.

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Airport Booking Strategy

The 10 Worst Airports for Spring Travel

Springtime means a return to travel. Which means a return of flyers to the nation’s airports. Which means a spike in airport congestion, overcrowded flights, and flight delays.

Working around the predictable unpleasantness requires knowing where it will occur.

[st_related]That NRA Travel Discount? Check, It Might Be Gone[/st_related]

A just-released study, RewardExpert’s 2018 Spring Air Travel Forecast, attempts to precisely predict this spring’s airport pain points, down to the date and airport.

The worst dates to fly, by month, are:

  • March – Thursday, March 1; Monday, March 12; Tuesday, March 13
  • April – Tuesday, April 3; Saturday, April 7
  • May – Saturday, May 19; Tuesday, May 22

Of course, even on the worst days, not all airports will perform equally poorly. Based on on-time performance during the three-month period over the past five years, these are the 10 airports expected to have the worst records:

  • Newark Liberty Airport, NJ – Average on-time performance: 76.8%
  • Houston Hobby, TX – Average on-time performance: 77.0%
  • Dallas Love Field, TX – Average on-time performance: 77.6%
  • San Francisco, CA – Average on-time performance: 77.8%
  • New York LaGuardia, NY – Average on-time performance: 78.1%
  • Chicago O’Hare, IL – Average on-time performance: 78.3%
  • Chicago Midway, IL – Average on-time performance: 78.3%
  • Ft. Lauderdale, FL – Average on-time performance: 78.5%
  • New York JFK, NY – Average on-time performance: 79.0%
  • Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX – Average on-time performance: 79.3%

[st_content_ad]So, spring into travel, but do so selectively.

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Group Travel Holiday Travel

Top 10 Most Popular Spring Break Destinations

I’m not a spring breaker. And if I were a spring breaker, I’d be a contrarian one, the crabby old geezer who makes it a point to go where others weren’t going.

In either case, I’d want to know where travelers planned to go over the traditional spring break period—either to go where the crowds were going, so I could join in their revelries, or to avoid the mayhem and go somewhere relaxing.

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Handily, travel insurance company Allianz Global Assistance has compiled a list of the most popular domestic and international spring break destinations for this year, between February 23 and April 16. (Data is based on bookings made through its various travel partners.)

10 Most Popular Domestic Spring Break Destinations

  1. Orlando
  2. Phoenix
  3. Honolulu
  4. Fort Lauderdale
  5. Las Vegas
  6. Fort Myers
  7. New York City
  8. Los Angeles
  9. Miami
  10. Maui

And for those looking further afield:

10 Most Popular International Spring Break Destinations

  1. Cancun, Mexico
  2. San Jose del Cabo, Mexico
  3. Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
  4. Higuey, Dominican Republic
  5. Montego Bay, Jamaica
  6. Aruba
  7. Nassau, Bahamas
  8. Turks and Caicos Islands
  9. Cayman Islands
  10. London

Timing-wise, the busiest spring break travel days, for both domestic and international trips, will be March 10 and March 24.

Now that you know where and when, you can choose either to join the festivities, or to avoid them.

Reader Reality Check

Spring break (and all that implies), or not?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Women's Travel

Marrakesh, Essaouira and the Atlas Mountains

Author: metravellongtime
Date of Trip: March 2005

I was a few blocks from the hotel, speaking to my mom on a rusty pay phone by the side of the road when a man on a motorcycle pulled over and began to sputter at me in Arabic, inches from my face. The man’s clamoring promptly defeated what had been the purpose of my call — to assure my mother of my safety. I was a junior in college, and had traveled to Marrakesh for spring break. Surprisingly, my mom accepted my plans with no contest when I told her I would be spending a week in Africa with my best friend. Perhaps she had envisioned traditional undergraduate spring break revelry – wet T-shirt contests and uninhibited drinking – and thought Morocco might be a smarter choice. Regardless of her reasons to trust that I would be safe in a predominately Muslim nation with no male escort, my mom’s assurance was completely shattered by that phone call.

I was having trouble calling the U.S. from our hotel room. Most of the staff at our hotel, the Kenzi Semiramis, could speak English; however, the concierge was not fluent enough to explain how to make a successful international call with a phone card from our room and I had tried and failed repeatedly. Frustrated, I walked down the road in the dark to where I had seen a public phone.

I was mid-conversation, happily describing to my mom the wonders of Morocco, when the motorcycle man appeared. He pulled his bike so close that at first I thought he was going to hit me. I shouted “No! Go away!” and “Police!” over and over again, although the man seemed to have no grasp of English and persisted to attempt communication above the roar of his bike. He stayed for a few minutes, steadfast in his goal, loudly prattling god-knows-what in a foreign tongue as the bike’s deafening engine grated and churned before he finally drove away. Needless to say, when I turned back to the call my mother was beside herself.

Unsolicited attention became one of the themes of our trip to Morocco. The conspicuousness of our pale skin coupled with the capitalist motives of many of the residents in tourist-filled Marrakesh drew both men and women to us, offering various goods, as we strolled through the city’s alleys. However, men in particular seemed to assume that if we were not accompanied by a gentleman, then we were in need of one and many a Moroccan vigorously set out to fix our “problem”.

Although I would never discourage anyone from traveling to Morocco, if you are a female who is uncomfortable with excessive male interest, I do not recommend touring Marrakesh without a guy or two in your group. We watched men target other single foreign-looking females as well as ourselves, repeating phrases in three or four languages to see which one would elicit a response. Once, we were even followed by a pack of pre-teen boys, one of whom was bold enough to reach his hand into my purse. Luckily, the boys ran away the second I yelled for the police.

Djemaa el Fna, the famous market square in the center of Marrakesh, was where I felt most like an obvious outsider in the ancient city. The square harbored a motley mix of performers, tourists, henna artists, snake charmers and salesmen and every Moroccan with something to sell will purposely cross your path if you look like a foreigner. Men in elaborate costumes slid into our pictures and demanded to be paid for their modeling services. Henna artists grabbed our arms and swiftly applied clumsy gold designs, then held out their hands for some coins.

As we were peering at a collection of tiny caged monkeys ($200 each), the animal handler placed a monkey on each of our shoulders. My gut reaction was to remove the animal, as the marginal cuteness of the filthy shrieking monkey failed to distract me from the likelihood of it biting me or depositing fleas in my hair; yet I pretended to enjoy the experience for the sake of international diplomacy. When the owner returned his animals to their cages, he insisted that we pay him for the experience. We quickly learned that if one appears foreign when visiting Djemaa el Fna, absolutely everything has a price!

If you’re seeking something that you might actually intend to pay for, Marrakesh offers a variety of unique and interesting items for the shopping enthusiast. Spices abound and saffron, the most sought-after of Moroccan seasonings, is for sale everywhere from authentic Moroccan spice boutiques to hotel gift shops and the airport. Silver is a major Moroccan export. You will find many jewelry shops in Marrakesh selling beautifully-designed rings, necklaces and earrings. Wooden carvings are another popular product in Marrakesh.

My favorite purchase was a hand-carved puzzle box, which called for a clever mind to slide its compartments and locate a hidden key, rewarding the winner with the warm, nutty smell of fresh wood. My friend bought a dead, stuffed lizard and managed to sneak it through customs to the delight of her little brother. When shopping in Marrakesh, don’t forget to bargain – think of the sticker prices as merely an overstatement. I bought many items that I bargained down to roughly a third of the price that was advertised. However, if the price you offer is too low, you may offend the vendor and lose your shot at the acquisition (and give audience to some strong opinions in the process).

As much as I would have loved to spend all of my money shopping in the Djemaa el Fna and the shadowed alleys of Marrakech, my friend and I decided to save some of our cash for the guided excursions that were offered by the concierge of our hotel. We chose to visit the seaside town of Essaouira (pronounced eh-swear-ah), a two-hour drive from Marrakesh. A tour guide picked us up shortly after dawn and we rode in a van with other travelers, who were mostly Europeans.

Essaouira was well worth the drive. The town framed the Atlantic Ocean with magnificent 16th century Portuguese fortresses, which towered above thousands of jagged black rocks that cut through sprays of ocean foam. Behind the impenetrable rocks and ramparts was a maze of bleached white houses tucked along alleys too small for cars. The houses had tiny, delicate doorframes, built centuries ago for when people were smaller. The wind smelled of brine and shipbuilders were lined along the bay, wielding and boats by hand. The sky was dotted with hundreds of swirling seagulls. Essaouira felt like another century, as if the battlements that once kept out violent invaders now guarded against the incursion of progress and time.

When we visited Essaouira, there were hardly any tourists. We saw a few hotels in the process of construction and visited the inside of one, which was extravagant and grand and foretold a sad change in the timeless magic of this pre-historic port town. I recommend a visit to Essaouira to any traveler, yet I hope that the inevitable influx of tourists will never conquer its mystery.

Our second excursion was to the Atlas Mountains, a trip that required another van ride of about an hour (from our hotel). We parked at the bottom of the mountains and walked for about fifteen minutes. The Atlas Mountains, which hang in the sky above the pink defensive walls that surround Marrakesh and can be seen from many points in the city, were lovely to visit up close. There were a number of tiny Berber towns in the mountains, where villagers harvested their own food, raised chickens and cows and washed their clothes in the fresh mountain streams that seemed to pour from the clouds.

The villagers were friendly and welcoming. We visited an underdeveloped town nestled into the side of the mountain base and were served green tea by an old woman who did not speak any English , but graciously posed for pictures – no charge! In Morocco, it is customary to pour the tea from a few feet above the glass in order to aerate it; the serving of green tea is an elegant ritual that I suggest every Marrakesh visitor experience. Small groups of children followed us as we explored their village, chattering and laughing to each other in Berber. The children were elated when we handed out pens and pennies from our purses.

On the way back to the van, we insisted that or tour guide wait as we snapped pictures of each other on one of the rope bridges that we saw swinging in the wind above a deep, rocky mountain gorge. I am enthralled by the danger of old rope bridges (maybe from watching Indiana Jones movies as a child), and navigating the splintered planks high over a snaking river was my favorite part of our trip to the Atlas Mountains!

Excursions to sites near Marrakesh are unforgettable, but don’t overlook the hundreds of exciting things to see and do within the city walls. Majorelle Gardens, a jewel-toned landscape of exotic plants and flowers owned by French designer Yves St Laurent, are open to the public and are a must-visit in Marrakesh. The gardens were a respite of cool peace within the crowded city. The saturated aqua blues, greens and yellows and intricately-tiled fountains of the gardens formed an agreeable contrast to the dry and dusty salmon-pink streets of Marrakesh. Don’t forget to bring your camera – especially if you love unusual flora.

A second fun place to visit in Marrakesh is La Mamounia Hotel. A favorite of Winston Churchill, this opulent Art Deco five-star hotel is an oasis of luxury. My friend and I took a cab to La Mamounia, which we had read about in our guide books, because we wanted to see its casino. Unfortunately, the casino did not impress us and we left after a few minutes. We attempted to see the inside of the hotel through one of the doors in the casino, but we were prevented from entering by hotel security. We left the casino and on our way out, my friend decided she had to use the bathroom. She tried a door on the side of the building and it was open — we were inside the Mamounia (although I was very skittish that we were going to get discovered and thrown out)!

The hallways were decked with thousands of red and gold Moroccan tiles and mammoth chandeliers drew our eyes to dramatic ceilings. I noticed a glass case in one of the walls that displayed expensive-looking jewelry and Louis Vuitton bags for sale (prices were not displayed). A woman wearing a lush fur passed us and shot a cold look in our direction. I was impressed by the Mamounia’s splendor, but felt that the palatial atmosphere of the hotel was too removed from the Marrakesh outside – its presence seemed like more of an escape from the unpredictable streets of a developing country than an opportunity for cultural immersion.

The Kenzi Semiramis was certainly not as ritzy as the Mamoumia, yet it was comfortable and had a terrifically landscaped pool, a night club and three restaurants, which served mediocre food. The concierge had an attitude (I think he was frustrated by our sad attempts to speak French), but the waiters and hotel staff were very pleasant and helpful.

We went to the hotel’s nightclub on our final night, as we were prodded to visit it by more than one staff member and had begun to feel like we were missing something. The club was populated by Europeans dancing stiffly to early 90’s dance music and many Moroccan women who were prostitutes (we found this out by talking to the women, who were surprisingly frank about why they were at the club). The sight of middle-aged European men leaving the club with young girls on their arms depressed me. The nightclub was by far my least favorite place that I went to in Marrakesh.

The prostitutes in the club, the feverish aggression of Moroccan craftsmen and performers and the hundreds of ragged, barefoot children who cupped their hands and held them out to tourists alluded to the poverty that blankets this African nation. When traveling from a wealthy country to one whose history has yet to deliver wide-spread prosperity, you must be prepared to take the good with the bad. Marrakesh offers travelers snow-capped mountains, the Sahara desert, and the beach, all within one-day’s travel time from its center, in addition to a strong dose of reality. I went to Marrakesh prepared to be amazed by scenery and history, yet I was most affected by the dignity its people, whose warmth and color defy the divisive power of money. To me, one of the best things about traveling is identifying with people whose daily lives are remote from mine. Marrakesh offers this experience and much more, and my trip to Morocco was the best spring break I could imagine.

Categories
Student Travel

Spring Break in Ireland

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: April 2003

My four days in Ireland were the last part of a month-long spring break during my year studying abroad at the University of Glasgow. I spent the first two weeks of break in France, and then another week and a half in Tuscany. This trip report is the third of three describing my spring break. You can find the others on this site too, under Spring Break in France and Spring Break in Italy. Check them out if you’re interested!

Since there wasn’t much time left, I chose to spend a day in Dublin and then take a three-day Shamrocker tour to Western Ireland — basically a tour geared to backpackers. It was reasonably priced, though the two hostels we stayed at, plus all food, were extra.

Dublin
I woke up early and made my way to Trinity College, a lovely green campus with all the trees in full flower. I saw the famous Book of Kells in the Old Library; it was neat, though a bit of a letdown after going through about four exhibits about it — not sure it lived up to its hype! After that I went to see Christ Church and St. Patrick, which were gorgeous but couldn’t quite compare to the churches I’d seen in France and Italy.

The highlight of my day was meeting up with a high school friend on St. Stephen’s Green, which was absolutely breathtaking at the height of spring’s blossom — lots of tulips! It was good to see my friend (she was studying that semester in Dublin); we ate lunch on the green with a few of her friends.

After lunch I visited the National Gallery, which was bigger than I expected. I spent a lot of time there — lots of artists I wasn’t familiar with, particularly from Ireland. Then I poked my head into the Writer’s Museum (a place after this English major’s heart). Too bad I’ve never actually read any James Joyce!

I finished off the day by crossing the Liffey and wandering the colorful Temple Bar area. Nearby Dublin Castle had closed by then, but I was able to walk around the grounds to get a sense of the place. It was unlike any other castle I’d ever seen, I must say — part gray stone, part brick, part blue and red modern-looking architecture — a bit bizarre, frankly.

I liked Dublin and wished I had a bit more time to spend there, but the next day I had to leave for my tour…

Shamrocker Tour of Ireland
I met up with our youthful tour group on Friday morning, hitting it off right away with a Kiwi named Sarah. We left Dublin and headed southwest, stopping first to tour a distillery and get some free samples of Guinness (BLECH!). We also made a brief visit to a monastic ruin, about which I can’t really remember anything … hmmm.

We proceeded to drive through the Burren, a region that looks nothing like the stereotypical deep green hills people picture when they think of Ireland. It’s rocky and barren, with only a few tiny little plants managing to grow through the stones — a bit otherworldly. Our last stop of the day was the Cliffs of Moher, which were steep and jagged and beautiful in the early evening haze. It reminded me a bit of the cliffs near Tantallon Castle in Scotland, but these were significantly higher.

The bus dropped us off for the night at our hostel in the microscopic town of Doolin. It was still light out, so Sarah, I and some other folks from the tour decided to wander around and see what there was to see. We found a ruined church and a graveyard, and then searched for a while for the “Doolin pier” — which ended up not being a pier at all but rather a pebble beach looking out to the sea. We sat for a while and chatted as we watched the waves come crashing in.

The next day dawned sunny for our trip around the Dingle Peninsula, made up of dramatic cliffs and a few nice beaches. Our tour guide, Patricia, told us a bunch of legends about the area, aided and abetted by our Irish bus driver, Khris. We stayed overnight in Killarney, where we went to a local pub and watched a show by this crazy storyteller/actor — funny stories and manic Guinness drinking! Then we went to a pub, but I didn’t stay long before heading back to the hostel for some shuteye.

Our final day mostly consisted of driving back to Dublin, but we made a few stops — first at Blarney Castle, where I duly kissed its famous stone. (It’s kind of crazy the way they have you do it…you basically lie on your back and lean over, supported by a guy who must have one of the most boring jobs in the world, and kiss this big rock upside down. I mashed my nose in the process.) The rest of the castle wasn’t all that big, but there were some extensive, pretty gardens.

Our other stop was at the Rock of Cashel, basically another ruined castle, before arriving back in Dublin around 5 p.m. I was sad the trip was over, but I was looking forward to getting back to my room at the University of Glasgow — and really missing Scotland! Ireland and Scotland have a lot in common: castles, sheep, beautiful craggy coastlines and cute little towns. Ireland seems to have more farmland, and the towns seem a bit more colorful — probably due to Scotland’s Calvinist heritage.

This month-long spring break was the longest trip I’d ever taken, and though I was eager to get back to Scotland, I was also already planning my next journey!

Categories
Student Travel

Spring Break in France

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: March 2003

During a year abroad at the University of Glasgow, I was fortunate enough to have a month-long spring break between my second and third terms. I spent it backpacking around France, Italy and Ireland with an American friend. It was the longest I’d ever spent traveling at one time, and I learned a lot. One: Traveling can be tough on a relationship. My friend and I tried to give each other space on occasion — splitting up for an afternoon, doing separate things in the evenings — or else we got rather snappish with each other. Choose your traveling companion wisely! Two: Traveling can be quite tiring, so it’s important to schedule in some down time. There’s such an impulse to go go go, since you never know when you’ll be in any particular place again, but if you’re pushing yourself too hard you won’t enjoy what you’re seeing anyway. Three: Pack less. No matter how much you packed…pack less.

My friend and I mapped out our route pretty thoroughly in advance, since there were certain things we definitely wanted to see. We would start in Paris, and then make our way through Bordeaux down to Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Nice. That would take two weeks. Then we’d spend a week and a half in Tuscany before splitting up — me to Ireland for a long weekend there and her to England to stay with another friend. A lot of backpackers don’t bother making hostel reservations, preferring to have freedom to change their itinerary at any point. Since we had a pretty clear idea of where to go (and since, I admit, I’m a bit of a planner at heart), we booked all of our hostels ahead of time — mostly online. We also purchased combination France and Italy Eurail passes.

We left only a few days after the U.S. started bombing Iraq and a bomb had been found in a French train station — both incidents that made me a bit nervous about traveling. My friend and I agreed to try to play down our American-ness as much as possible (“We’re from Canada, eh?”) just in case. Luckily, we didn’t feel unsafe at all during our trip; locals ranged from indifferent to friendly everywhere we went.

Paris
We flew on Ryanair from Glasgow’s Prestwick Airport to Paris’ Beauvais Airport, then took an 80-km bus ride to get into the center of town. I got such a thrill when we first saw the Eiffel Tower, all lit up in the distance. We found our hostel — the Friend’s Hostel — quickly enough, but were we glad we did? It was a dumpy place in a slightly seedy area (at least at night; it looked okay in the morning), and the guy at the desk had put the two of us into a dorm room with about seven or eight guys and no other girls. It made me a little nervous, but I just curled up around my bag and tried to sleep.

Sleep took a while though. The bed didn’t have a pillow, and one of the room’s doors opened to an outdoor courtyard that was letting in the cold March air. Brr. Then there were these two guys talking (out in the courtyard perhaps?) in American accents about their travels, rather ridiculously trying to one-up each other. “Yeah, today I went and saw the Arc de — the Arc de Tri-oomph? It was okay, but couldn’t really compare to…” “I speak English, French, Spanish, a little bit of Russian, a little bit of American sign…” I drifted off when they finally gave it a rest, only to be awakened by some absolutely incredible snoring (“phlegm-rattling,” in my friend’s words). First there was the guy in the bunk below me, who was making these horrible wet-sounding noises, (luckily he let up when I shook the bed). But the worst was coming from the guy across the way — loud and obnoxious and never-ending. My friend and I couldn’t stop laughing over it (in a semi-hysterical way), especially when he got so loud that he woke himself up with a combination gasp/sigh/moan; my friend compared it to a thirsty man in the desert drinking sand (I told you we were semi-hysterical at this point).

In the morning, all memories of our night from hell were eclipsed by a wonderful first day in Paris. I’d seen so many images of the city that I felt like I was walking around in a movie. We walked first along Sunday-quiet streets to the Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre, a beautiful white cathedral that was already crawling with tourists. After grabbing breakfast (a croissant and a pear-vanilla muffin, mmm) we went into the church, where — bizarrely — they were holding Mass but letting the jeans- and T-shirt-clad tourists walk around the outer aisles anyway. The interior was beautiful, as was the Mass (sung and spoken in French), but I felt pretty bad tromping through a church service.

We had ham and cheese paninis for lunch and then wandered around for ages trying to find the Pantheon (never managed it!) and Notre-Dame. We made it to the latter only after pausing at the Sorbonne for an outdoor string quartet concert; we sat on a bench and enjoyed the music (Pachelbel and Bizet, among others) and the gorgeous weather. We enjoyed a quick stop at Notre-Dame; the line to climb the towers was really long, so I planned to stop by the next morning. Then we walked over Pont Neuf and along the Seine (there were a bunch of locals sunbathing), past the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, and several important-looking palaces before we reached the Eiffel Tower. I must admit that the top part looks cheesy as you approach it — think big radio tower — but the whole thing, in its green, Washington Mall-like environment, is very imposing (and gorgeous at night).

It was my friend’s 21st birthday, so her dad treated us to dinner (from afar) on his credit card. We ate in a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower, and boy was it good. She started with a salad with hot goat cheese (divine), and then we both had roasted chicken. I topped off the meal with creme brulee-flavored ice cream with caramel and whipped cream. Mmmmmmm. We sat out on the green in front of the Eiffel Tower until it grew dark, and then headed back to the hostel. After the fiasco last night, we were given our own private room with bathroom, hurray! (So what if we had to kill a cockroach and a few ants…at least we didn’t have to deal with the snoring.)

The next day I climbed the Notre-Dame towers as promised, and enjoyed the view over the city, including the Sacre-Coeur — which I’ve decided was my favorite building in Paris. Then I hit the Louvre, which was overwhelming. I knew it was big, but I had no idea how big until I got there. I saw the requisite famous stuff (Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo), as well as some neat objets d’art and the medieval walls/turret bases of the castle that used to be located on this site. Then I met up with my friend to walk along the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe.

The day after that I ventured out of the city to Versailles, which was neat but also one of the biggest tourist traps I’ve ever seen. That plus the obscene entry prices, the fact that none of the fountains in the gardens were turned on, and the huge roped-off “being renovated” areas almost canceled out my pleasure in being there. I’m glad I went, but it was a tad disappointing. The day was saved by an evening back in Paris, sitting and relaxing in front of the Sacre-Coeur as night fell.

Our last day in Paris, I paid yet another obscene amount to take an elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but the view was neat and at least I can say I’ve been all the way up there! I also browsed around the Musee D’Orsay, which specializes in Impressionist art — lots of Monet, Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, etc. Really enjoyed it.

Bordeaux
We rode the train to Bordeaux, in the western part of France. Once there we discovered that what we thought was a hostel was really a budget hotel, and we had our own private room with a bathroom/shower, TV, clean sheets and pillows, and even a small balcony! It certainly wasn’t the Hilton, but it seemed like it after the mighty Friend’s Hostel in Paris. The walls were a bit thin, unfortunately — one morning we were treated to the sounds of conjugal bliss from the next room.

Our two days in the Bordeaux area were cloudy and rainy. Our first day we explored the city a bit, which would have been prettier if half of it hadn’t been under some sort of (re)construction. The cathedral (St. Andrew’s, I believe) was beautiful inside, but there was no way to get a decent photo of the exterior without getting cars, cranes, scaffolding and/or hard-hatted construction workers as well. We also spent some time in the old city, which was quiet and charming.

The next day we took a brief trip to St. Emilion, a medieval town surrounded by vineyards. We enjoyed wandering the cobblestone streets and looking out over the vineyards, though unfortunately it was a bit early in the season for them to be green and growing yet. Unfortunately we got totally poured on a few hours into our visit and had to hide out under an archway. Emily read a book, while I amused myself watching a waiter dashing through the rain to serve the two lone customers at a nearby restaurant (the diners were under an umbrella).

Avignon
We spent one night in Avignon (in the southeastern part of France) at the Foyer Bagatelle, a camping/caravanning/hostelling place all in one. Quite cheap — my friend and I paid less than 13 euros each to share a private room. It was just over a bridge from the walled city of Avignon, an easy walk. Once there we saw lots of cobblestones and winding streets, a few nice churches and courtyards, and one humongous Gothic palace, the Palais des Papes, built in the 1300’s. I took my time wandering through the palace and also going out onto the Pont d’Avignon, a ruined bridge. (Two very chatty audioguides were included with admission, so I figured I might as well listen and learn something.) I also spent some time just meandering around town with no particular goal in mind, which went fine until a local came up to me and started babbling in French. I kept saying “no,” not sure what he was trying to ask (or sell me, probably). He asked, “English or American?” to which I responded, “Canada.” He kept following me even after I repeated “no” several times, so I ended up turning around and going in the opposite direction just to lose him. But luckily that was only one small annoyance in a generally very enjoyable day.

Aix-en-Provence
We took the train from Avignon to Aix-en-Provence, changing trains in Marseille. We were staying at an HI hostel there, which took us forever to walk to from the train station. We ended up arriving pretty late at night, 15 minutes past when we were apparently supposed to. We were lucky to be let in. Then the guy at the desk got completely confused by our HI member cards and the way I had printed out our reservation info and confirmation numbers. “I’ve never seen like this,” he kept saying as he riffled through my whole eight-page itinerary. I ended up circling and underlining the relevant information (after he started writing all over confirmation info for later hostel stays). Meanwhile my friend and I were both apologizing for being late, having weird cards, printing the info wrong and being alive in general. It took us a half-hour to check in, but finally we were admitted to our very clean dorm room. Whew.

Our first day in Aix was similarly rough. We spent an awful lot of time getting lost — first trying to find the tourist office to get maps, etc., and then searching for a TGV (high-speed) train station that ended up being some 10 km outside of town. So we scrapped the original plan to take a day trip out into the countryside and instead went to see the old city, but couldn’t find Paul Cezanne’s studio (ended up in a pretty sketchy area) and then couldn’t get in to see the cathedral because they were holding a funeral. We did end up treating ourselves to a decent dinner at a place called Mandarine — figured we needed some sort of consolation after a rough day.

The next day was better, particularly my frame of mind; we’d been so frazzled over getting lost yesterday. I tried the cathedral again and was able to get in, though it appeared that the cloisters were closed. (Amazing how much one’s travel experience is impacted by when you go.) I walked around the old town a bit more too, and treated myself to some Haagen-Dazs ice cream: one scoop of caramel pie and one of vanilla macadamia nut, with rainbow sprinkles! The pleasure was worth the 4.55 euros (ouch) I paid for it. Aix definitely wasn’t my favorite stop on our trip — there wasn’t all that much to do since we couldn’t really get out of town into the countryside — but I was able to see a bit more of its charms on that second day.

Nice
We took a rather scenic train ride from Aix to Nice, part of it along the Mediterranean coast, and arrived uneventfully at our next hostel, the Belle Muniere (sp?). We were put into a room with three Australians, two girls and a guy. It was a pretty nice place, though they charged you two euros per shower — what a racket!

We headed straight out for the beach and the Promenade des Anglais as soon as we arrived. It should be noted that Nice doesn’t really have a “beach” as such — it’s all stones, with a waterfront promenade. Still gorgeous though, with lots of lovely palm trees. We ate dinner at a Chinese place, which was a nice change from all the croissants and ham/cheese baguettes we’d been subsisting on.

The next day we took two separate day trips, neither of them far. First we took a bus ride to Eze Village, winding along steep rocky cliffs overlooking the sea. The bus let us off right at the base of the village (the train would’ve let us out further down, leaving us to hike some 40 minutes uphill). The village is basically on a big hill, so we immediately headed upwards, trying to keep track of where we were in the maze of narrow streets. There was an exotic garden at the very top, filled with cacti and home to a ruined fortress. From there we got some amazing views over the sea and the coastline.

Then we went on to Monaco, where everything was really built up, and the weather seemed to change almost immediately from clear and sunny to windy and overcast. We looked at Prince Rainier’s (ugly) palace and went through a church/cathedral, and then wandered kind of blankly, not really too impressed (the part of town we were in wasn’t really that pretty, or as ridiculously opulent as we’d expected from reading guidebooks). We did the requisite visit to the Monte Carlo casino, however, and that redeemed our afternoon a bit. We found it and were marveling at how few tourists there were there when we realized we were actually around the back; when we made our way to the other side it was like a whole different universe, with all sorts of traffic and tourists and activity. One random and unpleasant thing happened here; an old man came up to us, kissed us each on both cheeks, and then copped a feel of my friend’s chest before she could respond. Lovely.

When we got back to Nice, we sat out on a bench overlooking the sea for a while, watching the waves, the seagulls, and this stupid but very cute and enthusiastic dog who kept chasing the pebbles his mistress threw and never managing to find them. His tail was wagging hard though — A for effort!

We stuck around Nice the next day, climbing up Le Chateau to see the park and waterfall there, and then walking quite a ways to get to the Chagall Museum, which was fabulous! I wasn’t really familiar with his work at all before I went, but I walked out with a bunch of postcards — well worth the visit. We walked back to town and had chef salads for dinner somewhere. After, we wandered around Old Nice and stumbled upon this incredible gelato place — I’ve never seen so many flavors.

During our last day in Nice I made my way alone by bus to St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a little peninsula not far from Nice. The town of St. Jean was simply gorgeous, with brightly colored flowers, orange trees, palm trees and lots of beautiful villas. I walked all the way around the peninsula, looking out over the rippling blue waves and spotting a few topless ladies bathing on the beach. I even managed to get myself sunburned. There was only one more thing I wanted to see in Nice when I got back there, but I’d underestimated the amount of time it would take to walk there — so I only had time to snap a quick photo of the Russian orthodox church before I had to go sprinting back across town to meet my friend. I got lost in the old town and ended up being late, turning my whole mood from relaxed/happy to tired/irritable/sweaty/stressed. But we did manage to catch our train to our next destination, so no harm done!

This is really long, so I’ll continue in Spring Break in Italy and Spring Break in Ireland, both separate trip reports also on this site.

Categories
Student Travel

Spring Break in Italy

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: April 2003

This is a continuation of Spring Break in France, also on this site. Check it out if you’re interested!

Italy was the second country an American friend and I visited during spring break from the University of Glasgow, where we were both studying for a year. We spent the first two weeks of break in France, and then took the train from Nice to Lucca, a small town in Tuscany. And that’s where I’ll pick things up…

Lucca
We arrived in Lucca after four separate train rides (all on time, which we rarely experienced in France). We studied our map for a very long time before setting off for our hostel, and we still managed to get lost. At one point we were standing at the juncture of two narrow streets, wondering which way to go, when an old man on a bike came up and asked us where we were going. He didn’t speak any English, but he walked/biked with us all the way to our hostel — a free personal guide! He even pointed out a few of the local sights.

Our hostel was great! It’s the only HI one in Lucca, big and clean, with high ceilings, lots of lounges with sofas, firm beds and free showers. Breakfast is 3.70 euros, but it was reasonably filling and tasty.

Lucca itself is very small, at least the part within the old stone walls, and seems to have a church every couple of blocks. We wandered into one our first day, the San Frediano (right next to the hostel); after dinner I sat on its steps as the sun was going down and soaked up the atmosphere … a quiet, open square with a few little shops closing their doors and a few people walking or biking through on their way home.

One thing I noticed as I walked through town (and earlier, as we rode the train through Genoa) was these rainbow-colored flags that said “PACE” (peace) hanging from people’s windows. I assumed it had something to do with the war in Iraq, which had just started a few weeks before I took this trip.

The next day I took the train to Pisa. Touristy? Sure…but you can’t come this close and not do it, right? I paid the obscene 15 euros to climb the leaning tower, and then shelled out another two euros to go through the Duomo (cathedral). It was funny — I walked through Pisa from the train station, and it was just an ordinary town, with locals going about their business, road construction, etc., and then you round a corner and BOOM! Tourist central. The tower and the cathedral were neat though; I’m glad I went.

In the afternoon I went back to Lucca to explore some more — walked on the city’s amazingly thick stone walls for a while, poked my head into the botanic gardens, stopped in a few churches (the cathedral and San Michele and possibly one other one) and then went in circles for ages trying to find the Palazzo Pfanner. I was due to meet up with my friend in 20 minutes, so I just quickly went through the palace’s gardens — not my best idea ever since it was early April and nothing much was in bloom yet. Ah well. My friend and I met up and grabbed dinner at a grocery store — roasted chicken, mmm!

We then headed back to our luxurious hostel, meeting up with a few new arrivals in our dorm room and hanging out in one of the comfy lounges. We played cards and chatted for a while with an Italian guy, who knew as much English as we knew Italian; obviously our conversation consisted of sign language, slow talking and blank stares. Quite frustrating, actually!

The next morning my friend and I went first to the Torre Guinigi, this rather odd-looking tower with trees growing from the top. We got some nice views over the red roofs of Lucca. Then we went to the birthplace of Puccini, which has been converted into a small museum. After that we wandered, visited an Internet cafe and enjoyed a very nutritious lunch of gelato (yum). Then it was time for our train to…

Florence
After arriving at the train station in downtown Florence, we wandered around for a bit looking for the bus that would take us to our hostel, Il Poggetto. We knew it was a bit outside the city, but we hoped we’d be able to walk into town — so we tried to map our route as the bus began to move. Wrong. We quickly drove beyond the limits of our map and kept going, and going, and going … The countryside was beautiful, but as my traveling companion said, we didn’t come to Florence to see the countryside! At one point I went and asked the driver whether we’d missed it, but he assured me we weren’t there yet. And finally he did announce our stop, a good 45 minutes outside the city. Ugh.

We went in and attempted to cancel our next three nights, but they told us we’d have to pay anyway, so we were stuck. It was basically a combination hostel/campground way out in the boonies. Our room was pretty cruddy — thin mattresses, no sink, no windows to speak of, and a bathroom with communal showers, eek! Luckily another girl in our room had found another building that had private shower stalls, so we used that. It wasn’t much fun walking outside in the cold with wet hair, but that was infinitely preferable to showering in front of 10 other people.

Knowing how far outside the city we were, my friend and I woke up early the next morning to get in a full day of sightseeing in Florence. We started at the Uffizi Gallery, the most visited museum in the city. We stood in line for two hours waiting to get in; luckily there was a sweet English couple behind us that we chatted with for a while. The museum itself was impressive and worth the two-hour wait, but what sticks in my memory from Florence is what we saw next, after we’d grabbed sandwiches for lunch. I remember walking along the street, headed for the Duomo, and then suddenly turning a corner and being utterly unprepared for how enormous and magnificent it was. We went inside too, but my guidebook seemed to be right in saying that whoever built it had spent all the funds on the exterior and left the inside a bit on the spartan side … it was like a huge empty arena or something. I mean, there was some art and whatever, but really all the ornamentation was on the outside of the building. We made the requisite “climb 500 steps to a high place for a nice view” trip up into the dome.

The next day we went by train to Siena for the day. Unfortunately the weather was lousy — rainy nearly the entire time. We did get to see the campo (the main “square,” actually a huge fan shape) and the Palazzo Publico there, and take a tour through the Museo Civico. Then we saw the duomo, which was neat — the interior was striped with white and green marble (sounds weird, but it worked). By this point I’d seen so many cathedrals that they were starting to blend together. We also saw one other church and wandered a little bit around town until we were too soggy to enjoy it anymore.

The next day we stayed in Florence, and I had an all-church day. I started at Santa Croce, huge and white and pretty and featuring the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. Then I moved across the Arno River to San Miniato al Monte, which was the highlight of my day despite the wet/rainy walk to get there. I paused on my way at the Piazzale Michelangelo, which had a replica of the famous David statue as well as a nice panoramic view over the city. Then I climbed up a hill to get to the church, which ended up being the only one all day that didn’t charge me an admission fee. It was practically empty, and actually felt like a church rather than a big fat tourist attraction. It was dim and quiet and absolutely gorgeous, situated on a green hill with lots of trees and flowers.

I crossed the Arno again via the famous Ponte Vecchio (it’s pretty much all jewelry stores, and clogged with tourists) en route to San Lorenzo (unremarkable) and Santa Maria Novella (lovely, with some neat frescoes). I topped off the day with a pasta dinner (quite a treat for someone who’s been living off sandwiches, and little munchies from grocery stores like nuts and fruit).

Our last stop in Florence was the Accademia, an art gallery that’s pretty much famous for housing Michelangelo’s David. I wasn’t sure what to expect — after all, I’d seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and was decidedly underwhelmed, so I figured David might be over-hyped as well. But we were quite pleasantly surprised; he was much larger than I thought he’d be, just absolute perfection. I must have circled him three or four times! It was a fitting last stop in Florence.

Cortona
Our train ride from Florence to Cortona was uneventful until the time came to get off — and we couldn’t. I was tugging on the door handles, and my friend suggested pushing this random button beside the door, but no dice — and suddenly the train was moving again! Agh! After a brief period of cursing and hyperventilation, we managed to get off at the next stop (ahh, lift the door handle UP, as indicated on the diagram…). We asked the guy at the train station how to get to Cortona. He had very limited English, but directed us to the “autobus. Autobus.” But when the bus finally arrived, the driver told us, “Cortona, today, not possible.” Apparently this was the day of a major car race in Cortona, so certain roads were blocked off, etc. So we figured we’d have to catch the next train back to our intended stop, but the train station guy kept saying “Autobus. Autobus.” Back we went to the bus stop, where he and the bus driver and another local conferred and told us to take the bus to Carmucia (the original stop where we’d wanted to get off the train).

The bus dropped us off in Carmucia at the bottom of a big hill, upon which Cortona is perched. So up we walked — three kilometers with our enormous backpacks. (I was regretting every single tiny thing I’d ever packed by the end!) We stopped frequently to take pictures and/or catch our breath. The countryside around Cortona is beautiful, with mountains and a lake in the distance, flat green farmland, cypress trees, cute buildings and small gardens.

After our scenic hike we reached our hostel, which the guy at the desk claimed was full. “Oh, but we have a reservation,” I told him, whipping out my confirmation printout. He was saying stuff in Italian, looking a little worried, mumbling about moving people from different rooms and such. He told us to come back in an hour. So we did, killing a little time on the Piazza Garibaldi. But when we went back, the guy told us he had no room; guess our reservation didn’t count for much. He scribbled some stuff on a map and sent us to Betania, which he called a “monastery,” instead.

Well, okay. We followed his map for a while, but then got lost when we realized there was no X marking the spot where we needed to end up — just a line going off the map and a few random Italian words. We tried a little side street, went in a big circle, and finally asked two local ladies for help; turned out we were right in front of the driveway! We went up to the building and proceeded to knock on three or four different doors, circling the building aimlessly until we got lucky (must’ve been the Virgin Mary by the door) and were greeted by a young-ish guy, a 40-ish woman and a very elderly woman in a nun’s headgear. They didn’t speak much English, but we were finally ushered into a nice double room with soft, comfy beds. It ended up being quite a nice place to sleep…very quiet.

The next morning we went back to our original hostel to try to check in. We at least got to eat breakfast there (the most tasteless bread I’ve ever had, accompanied by some truly awful tea), but he again told us to “come back later.” We left our bags and headed out to the ruined fortress at the top of Cortona’s hill. It was a gorgeous sunny morning, and the view was incredible from the top of the hill, looking out over an old church whose bells were ringing for Sunday mass. Back in the main part of town, we visited the Etruscan Museum and explored the streets a little. We found a market where we bought lunch (this whole trip we pretty much lived out of supermarkets — lots of bread, yogurt, cookies, nuts, cheese, apples and oranges). That afternoon I checked out the town’s cathedral (pretty humble) and a large cemetery outside the city walls. I had it all to myself as I wandered among the tombstones, many of which had photos of the deceased affixed to them.

That night we were finally able to check into our original hostel — yay!

The next day we lucked out with absolutely marvelous weather for our trip to Assisi — sunny and warm. We got up early, hopped on a bus to the Carmucia train station (the driver told us exactly where to get off, thank goodness — people were so nice about that sort of thing here) and had a pleasant train ride to Assisi. Then we walked up another incline (who knew it was another hill town?) to get into the town, which was similar to a lot of the ones we’d seen before — narrow cobblestone streets, little churches, and lots of charming little corners that I wanted to explore. What was different was the high number of nuns and monks wandering around! The main draw is the big basilica where St. Francis is, so we started there. We also climbed up to the castle ruins to get an amazing panoramic view of the countryside. I also checked out a few other churches, met some American nuns and got some gelato (one of the best parts of this trip is trying the wide variety of gelato flavors available here).

On our bus ride back up to Cortona, we struck up a conversation with a Danish guy who was currently living in Italy. He was very enthusiastic about American movies and music (Eminem, Aerosmith, Mel Gibson) and spoke excellent English. I had realized the night before that I’d left my shower shoes (a $3 pair of plastic flip-flops) at the monastery, so I asked the guy if he knew how to say “sandals” in Italian. He wasn’t sure, but did give me the word “scarpi,” for shoes.

Armed with this knowledge, my friend and I made our journey to Betania to see if we could reclaim the lost shower shoes. The resulting conversation gave new meaning to the word “painful.” No one answered the door when we knocked, so we hit the intercom button and wound up talking two different languages with the two female voices on the other end. There was a lot of “Camera doppia? You want single room?” and “I forgot my scarpi…I don’t need a room…Can you aperto the porta? Open the door so I can point and talk to you? Mi scarpi?” and “Sorry…sorry…”

Finally I think they just wanted us to go away — we must have sounded like loons, with my friend giggling helplessly in the background and my own voice unnaturally high with suppressed laughter — so a nun came to the door. I was able to show her our receipt and point to my shoes, which seemed to get the message across. And then we heard our favorite message: “Come back tomorrow.”

I did so the next morning wihout much hope; we had a train to catch, and I had visions of spending so long spouting English/Italian gibberish at the nuns that I’d miss the train. But they buzzed me in right away and led me to my long-lost flip-flops! “Grazie, grazie!”

It was the end of our stint in Italy; at that point my traveling companion went to visit a friend for a few days, while I decided to spend the last of my spring break in Ireland. But that’s another trip report…

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Senior Editor Patricia Magaña looks forward to exploring ancient Maya sites in Cancun during an upcoming trip. Follow her on Instagram @PatiTravels.

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