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Kid-Friendly Caribbean Destinations

It happens every year. No sooner do kids get back to school than Caribbean islands and resorts start rolling out their early-bird deals. The difference this year is a longer window of opportunity; some current deals are good for travel through the end of 2011. For parents able to plan months ahead, it’s a fantastic time to snag a vacation deal for fall, winter or spring break. Here are a couple of the best Caribbean destinations on the table right now:

Atlantis through the back door
Dream of heading to the Bahamas? Bringing your kids to Atlantis doesn’t have to empty the family coffers. Book a room at the Comfort Suites Paradise Island and you get a key perk: unlimited, free access to next-door-neighbor Atlantis and its 141-acre Aquaventure water park, 10 pools, beaches, lazy river rides, health spa, tennis, golf and kids’ camp.  Plus, you get signing privileges in all of Atlantis’s restaurants and lounges. Comfort Suites features a nice pool, restaurant, free Continental breakfast and rooms spacious enough for spreading out during family downtime.

No passports? No problem!
Never got around to getting passports? Consider Puerto Rico, where one of the island’s most lavish resorts just made a major splash with families. The recently-renovated, 750-room El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, Puerto Rico — a member of the upscale Waldorf Astoria Collection of hotels — just opened its brand-new Coquî Water Park, which boasts four water slides (including an adrenaline-spiking speed slide as well as a gentle one just for little splashers), an 8,000-foot lazy river, three pools and interactive elements such as a rope bridge.

The resort, close to the El Yunque Rainforest (brimming with coquî tree frogs), also has a private island and offers water sports galore, a spa, golf course and kids’ club.

There are plenty of other destinations out there, at very reasonable prices. Do your research, and I think you’ll be surprised at what you find out there!

Top Places To Eat And Drink In Barcelona

Those of you who have been to Spain already know that the Spaniards’ way of eating is a bit different than here in America; they usually – unlike us – tend to snack throughout the day, as opposed to ourselves, where we tend to eat three meals a day.

Barcelona (no Madrid this time) is a beautiful place, especially this time of year. Combine the fact that they’re on the Meditteranean coast (better weather than the Atlantic side) along with the history and culture of Catalonia, Gothic and Gaudi architecture all over this city and of course, tapas (the aforementioned snacks that prevail in Spain) and drinks.

And believe it or not, a tapas bar in Barcelona is not one of those typical type of places where you have your tapas, drinks and your run-of-the-mill Spanish entertainment (although that is there). Fortunately, I have been to a few of these places on my travels to Barcelona; having said that, here are my recommendations for those of you who are in a tapas-and-drinks state of mind:

Boadas
Carrer Tallers 1, Raval

Full of smoke, often too crowded and a little bit dingy Boadas bar just off La Rambler might not look too inviting at first glance. However, it is the oldest cocktail bar in Barcelona established in 1933 by Miguel Boadas who worked at the Hemmingway’s famous Floridita Bar in Cuba. You just have to push your way through regulars and after the first sip you’ll realize that you are in a classic cocktail bar where barmen know how to mix their spirits (not shaking, but pouring from one glass to another) and entertain their patrons. There’s no cocktail menu, the bartenders can fix an old classic or any other drink of your choice. Try a cocktail of the day if you want to be adventurous.

Dry Martini
Carrer Aribau 162, Eixample

Another Barcelona drinking institution. Much classier than Boadas, so you’ll feel better if you dress up a little bit. The waiters here wear white jackets and talk in low voices. The visitors smoke cigars, snack on nuts and (I think) talk politics. Try Dry Martini cocktail (the number of dry martinis sold is being counted since the opening) or a small bucket of Gin & Tonic served in a huge glass with lots of ice. The bar also has a private dining room, a restaurant through the kitchen at the back and its own regular transvestite selling roses.

Hotel Arts Bar & Terrace
Marina 19-21, Vila Olimpica

Hotel Arts is famous for its modern architecture, exclusive service and Frank Gehry’s (the same guy who did the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA) sculpture Pez de Oro or Gold Fish. The Bar serves a selection of malt whiskies, great cocktails and cigars. But weather permitting the terrace bar is the best – try a refreshing Negroni cocktail (gin, vermouth & Campari) and admire the Gold Fish (which is more or less right above you) as it changes the color as the sun moves across the sky.

Cervecería El Vaso de Oro
Carrer Balboa 6, Barceloneta

This is a great place for beer and snacks with Barceloneta locals. It seems everyone knows each other in this narrow tapas place – patrons bring their dogs and chat with barmen (who I imagine are working here all their lives). Barceloneta is a traditional district of sailors and fishermen and the Cerveceria has a similar theme – the lamps are in the shape of ships and the barmen wear white admiral jackets. Try simple tapas – green peppers (pimientos), Spanish sausage (chorizo) or some tuna with tomatoes and onions. The sandwiches are also delicious or you can just nibble on some almonds served with smoked ham while you enjoy a cold glass of beer brewed in-house. If you fancy some seafood just wander around the neighborhood and pop in a local seafood restaurant.

Taller de Tapas
There are four Taller de Tapas (or tapas workshops) in Barcelona and I’ve eaten in two of them. They serve tapas as well as specialties of the day and have a separate breakfast menu (I tried a fantastic sizzling pan of eggs, tomatoes and asparagus). For dinner I had lovely duck salad (a nice and a bit healthier break from fried tapas) and enjoyed a pitcher of Sangria (red wine, lemonade and fruit).

Aqua
Passeig Maritim de la Barceloneta 30, Villa Olimpica

Fine dining experience at pretty reasonable prices. This lovely restaurant on the seafront in Villa Olimpica has lovely atmosphere, a simple but trendy interior and serves great quality Mediterranean food. Seafood dishes is a must (though you can also order ham and foie gras on bread if had enough of fish). Order a glass or a bottle of Cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and the sun (or moon) will start shining brighter. Book in advance if you want to sit outside on the terrace in summer.

Tapas24
Carres Diputació 269, Eixample

This new bar offers tapas with a modern twist. You can enjoy food sitting at the table or on stools at the bar (the bar option is always a lot of fun as you can watch the busy life of waiters and barmen running around and not colliding in the tiny space). Tapas24 hot ham and cheese sandwich, octopus and beef stew are very tasty as well as the classic tapas such as patatas bravas (fried potatoes) or ham croquettes. My colleague Marko recommends McFoe (a sandwich with Spanish foie gras) and Bikini24 (thin toast with black truffle, mozzarella and ham). A mind boggling mix of perfectly suited flavors and textures, he says.

Sagardi
Carrer de l’Argenteria, 62, Born

Perfect place to stop for snack after a lazy day at the beach. The Basque tapas called pintxos are served on small pieces of baguette with various toppings, such as ham, hearing, crab meat or tortilla (Spanish omelet). At Sagardi pintxos are placed at the bar with a toothpick in the middle. You can help yourself to the most appetizing and eat as many as you want, but beware that the waiter with calculate the toothpicks on your plate and bill you accordingly. And don’t try cheating – one sandwich is about $2 and the toothpicks are not worth stealing.

Go Beyond The Beach In The Dominican Republic

Visitors can climb the tower at Fortaleza Ozama for a view over the rooftops and out to sea.

You’ve got your spot on a lounge chair angled into the hot Caribbean sun, with tall, slender palm trees jutting out over your head. As you gaze at the calm turquoise waters and sip that refreshing rum drink, you may ask yourself, “What more could I possibly want?”

For many travelers to the Dominican Republic, that chair — usually secluded inside a mega all-inclusive resort complex — is the sole destination.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s a great one. The Dominican Republic’s stretches of sand are some of the best on the planet. But if you never leave the high walls of your tourist compound, you’re missing out on a gem of a capital city.

Santo Domingo is the New World’s first city, with 16th-century buildings, quaint colonial streets, romantic ruins and a lively atmosphere. All you need is a full day to experience the city’s architecture, culture and food. Plus, it’s only a $9 coach bus ride from Punta Cana.

So when you begin to tire of the antics of the “animation team” at the resort, and the color of your skin starts to resemble the papaya or watermelon you’re eating, consider a short trip to Santo Domingo.

Founded soon after Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World, and run by his son Diego, the city became the colonial capital of the Americas and launch pad for further Spanish expeditions. Despite several raids by pirates, the oldest section of town remains largely intact. Known as the Zona Colonial, it contains many European “firsts” in the Western Hemisphere including the first street, cathedral, hospital and university.

How to see it all in a day

Start at the heart of the zone, Parque Colón, a square that borders the cathedral and is always full of life. You can sit and watch children chase pigeons as you gaze up at the simple beauty of the oldest cathedral in the Americas. Next, head over to the oldest fortress in the New World, Fortaleza Ozama, built in the early 1500s. There you can climb the tower for a view over the rooftops and out to sea.

Back on street level, walk up a couple blocks to the expansive Plaza España, site of two museums and a hangout for locals, especially in the evening, when kids crisscross the square on scooters or fly kites, and couples sit quietly together. The Museo de las Casas Reales and the Alcázar de Colón — Diego Columbus’ palace — show you how the wealthy Spanish lived when they came to the early colonies and provide some history of the island’s colonization — all for a buck or two.

Next, head over to a pair of impressive ruins. Gaze up at the towering walls and arches of the Americas’ first hospital, Hospital de San Nicolás de Bari. Then, just up a picturesque bend in the road lined with colorful houses, you’ll find the large ruins of Monasterio de San Francisco. Pirate attacks and earthquakes brought down the monastery. The hospital was merely abandoned in the 18th century, and later dismantled for safety.

Now let yourself wander a bit through the streets, checking out the colorful surprises around every colonial corner. You’ll discover the varied architecture of people’s homes, and get a view into Dominican city life. In just a few blocks, I ran across a pickup game of baseball, the national sport and passion, in the middle of the street, with adults using just a broom handle and roll of tape; several “kiddie” pools in the streets, where both children and adults were cooling off in the afternoon heat; and a handful of corner parks alive with activity.

After exploring, your final destination is the zone’s main drag, Calle El Conde. This pedestrian-only street is the place to shop. You’ll find street sellers hawking colorful artwork; music stores to pick up that merengue and bachata music you’ve heard blaring out of everyone’s stereos; and jewelry shops featuring native amber and the sky-blue stone larimar found only in the Dominican Republic.

By now, you’ve certainly worked up an appetite walking in the hot sun. Parque Colón and Plaza España each have a row of chic sidewalk cafés, although they’re a bit pricey and touristy. Consider wandering a bit through some side streets to find a more local establishment, where you can feast on typical cuisine such as la bandera dominicana (a red beans and rice dish), several stews, fried plantains or yucca and delicious tropical fruits.

And if you still feel like dancing the night away, hop in a taxi to the Malecón, Santo Domingo’s seafront boulevard, where the large hotels have popular dance clubs pumping merengue until the wee hours of the morning.

The bus ride

Getting to the capital city from the beach areas is cheap and relatively easy. Expreso Bávaro runs from the Punta Cana area for $9 in an air-conditioned and comfy coach bus. On your four-hour ride, you’ll get a glimpse of some smaller Dominican towns, a towering modern cathedral, distant mountains and vast sugarcane fields. Metro and Caribe Tours provide similar services from the beaches on the north coast around Puerto Plata.

The buses to/from Punta Cana don’t run long into the evening (they leave each side at 7 a.m., 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m.), so you’ll want to make this an overnight trip. The Zona Colonial has several boutique hotels that are quaint, clean and reasonably priced. You could even arrange to fly out of Santo Domingo’s Las Americas airport, rather than Punta Cana.

And you can rest assured that there are plenty of great air, hotel, combo and all-inclusive deals. To view the latest deals for the D.R. and everywhere in between, click here.

Costa Concordia Cruise Ship Runs Aground Off Italy

It looks like a scene from Titanic, doesn’t it? Scary stuff, I can only imagine what those passengers must have gone through trying to escape from the sinking ship..


The Costa Concordia ran aground after Captain Francesco Schettino veered from his approved course and gashed the ship’s hull on a reef, forcing the panicked evacuation of the 4,200 passengers and crew.

On Wednesday, the chief executive of Costa Crociere SpA, Pier Luigi Foschi, insisted that Schettino didn’t have approval to change the ship’s routing and was going far too fast to be so close to shore.

But he defended the practice of so-called ‘tourist navigation,’ whereby enormous cruise ships steer close to shore to give passengers a look at the sites. He said it was part of the ‘cruise product’ that passengers demand and that cruise lines are forced to offer to stay competitive.

‘It’s something that enriches the cruise product,’ Foschi told a parliamentary committee.

‘There are many components of the cruise product, and we have to do them like everyone else because we are in a global competition.’

Foschi stressed that such deviations from charted routes are supposed to follow strict protocols that ensure safety: ports are informed, the company is informed, and certainly no ship of the Concordia’s size would be charging 200-300 yards off shore at 16 knots.

‘For anyone who knows that zone, that ship with those characteristics shouldn’t have been there,’ he said.

Schettino is under house arrest, facing accusations of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning a ship before all passengers were evacuated.

At last count, 16 passengers were confirmed dead, and 22 were still unaccounted for.

Belgium Has More To Offer Than Just Beer

Travel Expert Pauline Frommer offers great tips on travelling to Belgium.

Secrets of the Napa Valley

While the Napa Valley region of California is a very popular wine destination, you don’t necessarily have to do what the natives do, so to speak. There are some off-the-beaten-path things that are available in Napa which are every bit as enjoyable as the usual things. Here’s a sampling:

There aren’t that many vineyards in the Napa Valley

Although it has casually been dubbed California’s wine country, Napa Valley is hardly the state’s largest wine-producing region (that honor goes to San Joaquin Valley, 80 miles southeast). Napa’s 400 wineries produce only 4 percent of the state’s wine. The focus here is quality, not quantity. But I suppose that is old news, especially if you frequent the area on a regular basis.

A kitchen shop with character

Shackford’s Kitchen Store in downtown Napa has a seemingly endless selection of gleaming gizmos: cupcake molds, paella pans, cappuccino makers. But the most compelling item in the place is John Shackford himself, a true Napa legend who runs the shop with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. At 80, Shackford works in the store six days a week, just as he has for the past 34 years, punching an antique cash register, hand-printing receipts, and calling his customers by first name. 1350 Main St., Napa, 707/226-2132.

A wine tour using legs, not limos

In the town of Napa, 18 tasting rooms stand within easy walking distance of one another, and a $20 Taste Napa Downtown card gets you a pour at 13 of them. Officially, each winery is supposed to charge you 10¢ to do the tasting, but most won’t take your dime. napadowntown.com

The Preiser Key tells all

Consider Monty and Sara Preiser your all-knowing wine country guides. They’re the couple who in March 2007 launched The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, a free booklet that comes as close as possible to listing every Napa wine label (over 800) and restaurant (170) — but no chains! The Key also includes detailed maps of the region. They put out a new issue three times a year and distribute it all throughout the valley. Visit: preiserkey.com

It’s all casual, all the time

In Napa, there’s no such thing as a dress code, even in the poshest places. So that bearded guy in weathered blue jeans sitting at the next table? He’s probably just the billionaire from next door.

Fainting goats. Yes, fainting goats!

In Calistoga, a town near the top of the valley known for its hot springs, there’s a regularly erupting geyser called — you guessed it — Old Faithful. You’ll want to tread lightly; the area near the geyser is also home to a herd of Tennessee fainting goats, a quirky breed with a nervous-system disorder that causes them to keel over (harmlessly and temporarily) when startled. 1299 Tubbs Ln., Calistoga, 707/942-6463; $10 adults, $3 kids 6–12. oldfaithfulgeyser.com

The road less traveled

When the traffic bottlenecks on Highway 29, Napa’s central thoroughfare, find salvation on the 35-mile Silverado Trail, a pastoral road along the valley’s eastern edge that’s lined with world-class, often small-batch wineries whose labels you’re unlikely to find at your local grocery store. Visit: silveradotrail.com

The two-wheel option

Founded 22 years ago, Napa Valley Bike Tours is an area fixture. Among the staff’s favorite routes to lead you on is the Rutherford Loop, a 16-mile spin that meanders through the Rutherford and Oakville appellations, known for their cabernets, before depositing you back at the shop. If you’d rather go solo, you can pick up a map with other suggested routes. 6795 Washington St., Bldg. B, Yountville, 800/707-2453; tours from $134, rentals $35 per day. napavalleybiketours.com

There’s a respectable oil industry – olive, that is

Forget grapes — olives are another treasured Napa crop. Round Pond Estate, one of the valley’s top olive oil producers, offers guided tours that lead you from harvest to mill and culminate in tastings paired with cheese and freshly baked bread. 886 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford, 888/302-2575, tours $25, by appointment. roundpond.com

There are lots of great deals to be had in this wine nirvana!