TOP FIVE: COLOGNE, GERMANY

Cologne, the 4th largest city in Germany (after Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich), is situated in the Western portion of the country along the Rhine River. I recently traveled to Cologne for a work conference and luckily, had a bit of free time to explore. While there isn’t a ton to see in Cologne, it’s definitely worth a visit as part of a German tour. Here are my recommendations for the top 5 things to see and do in Cologne:

dsc000341. Cologne Cathedral (Kolner Dom) is hands down the #1 site to see if you spend any time in Cologne. Construction began on this cathedral in 1248 and it now stands as one of the preeminent examples of Gothic architecture in Europe today. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is also the most visited landmark in all of Germany. The Shrine of the Three Kings is believed to hold the remains of the three wise men and is the reason that the church has served as a pilgrimage destination for Catholics since the middle ages.

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2. Old Town Cologne is very close in proximity to the Cathedral. Though small, it includes a smattering of colorful and charming old buildings that mostly house restaurants, bars and gelato shops. Situated just along the Rhine river and a small park, it’s a delightful place to sit outside for lunch or in the evening and enjoy some fresh air in the center of the city.

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3. Hohenzollern Bridge is Cologne’s very own “Love Locks” bridge. With a wide pedestrian walkway along the side, the bridge offers great views over the Rhine River. The amount of locks on this bridge is also truly astounding and makes for quite a beautiful art display as you walk along.

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Image via Wikicommons

 

4. Gaffel am Dom is one of Cologne’s best known beer halls, featuring Kolsch beer (a light beer native to Cologne) made by the local Gaffel brewery. This beer hall is also very close in proximity to the Cathedral. It’s quite large and is a great place to enjoy a round of Kolsch with a larger group and to sample some traditional German fare. The schnitzel in particular was excellent!

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5. The Lindt Chocolate Museum is located just down the river from Old Town. While this is a bit touristy, who can resist chocolate? I, unfortunately, didn’t have time to tour the museum but I definitely spent some time in the gift shop and purchased a few “souvenirs” if you will. There’s also a great cafe in back with some delectable looking cakes!

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Beautiful sunny day in Cologne along the Rhine River

US NATIONAL PARKS: CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

This past month was the 100th Anniversary of the US National Park Service, which was created in August 1916 through the National Park Service Organic Act. The NPS now manages 59 separate parks throughout the United States, encompassing 84.4 million acres!

When I was a kid, my parents made a point to take my brother and I to a new National Park once a year (when possible), so I have many wonderful memories hiking through these beautiful wilderness preserves. To this day, my “bucket list” includes every single US National Park I haven’t had the chance to explore yet. To celebrate the Centennial (a little bit late), I wanted to share some of my favorite National Park trips:

  1. Glacier National Park (Montana) – While I’m not ranking this list per se, I have the fondest memories of visiting Glacier. The massive mountains, bright blue sky, crystal clear lakes, and pristine glaciers set a spectacular backdrop for a week of hiking and exploring with my family. Definitely don’t miss a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the 10-mile roundtrip hike (it’s worth it!) to Iceberg Lake
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    Glacier National Park, Montana [Photo Credit: Kerry Bollerman]
  2. Olympic National Park & Mount Rainier National Park (Washington) – This was our very first National Park trip and I still treasure the amazing photo of my brother and I in front of Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range. Both parks are an easy trip from Seattle. If you have extra time, I also recommend a visit to the Mt. Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, where the 1980 volcanic eruption took place.
  3. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) – While the majority of visitors to Yellowstone arrive in the summer months, I highly recommend visiting in the winter. A few years ago, I was skiing in Jackson Hole over Christmas and we decided to take a day trip to Yellowstone to go snowmobiling. It was an incredible day that I’ll never forget. Not only did we get to zip through the pristine winter wilderness with nary another soul around, but we also saw plenty of bison, thermal pools, and even a pack of wolves far off in the distance. 
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    Stopped by bison, while snowmobiling in Yellowstone [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  4. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), Zion National Park and Bryce National Park (Utah) – The Grand Canyon is indeed grand and an amazing natural wonder to see. On the South Rim, El Tovar is one of the top National Park lodges you’ll find and well positioned for a perfect sunrise viewing over the canyon. But, don’t skip exploring the less popular North Rim, which is much greener and still offers amazing hikes and magnificent vistas (with fewer crowds). A trip to the Grand Canyon can also easily be combined with two Utah parks – Zion and Bryce Canyon. My two favorite hikes in Zion National Park are The Narrows, where you actually hike through water (great for a hot day) and Angel’s Landing, a strenuous 5 mile hike that leads you to the precipice of a cliff for an awesome view. And while Bryce is much smaller than the Grand Canyon, the hoodoos are such a unique geographical phenomenon that it’s well worth the hour plus drive from Zion.
  5. Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii) – A must-see if you’re visiting the Big Island of Hawaii. A full day trip to Volcanoes National Park includes great hiking through rainforests and along the lava fields. But for a true volcanic experience, you can stay in the park past nightfall, when the lava in the caldera emits a bright orange glow and the night sky dazzles with The Milky Way. Unfortunately my camera didn’t do it justice!
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    Volcanoes National Park at night [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  6. Denali National Park (Alaska) – A cruise along the Inside Passage is a great way to see Alaskan wildlife, glaciers and coastal towns inaccessible by land, but if you have some time to head inland, Denali National Park is just spectacular. When I visited Alaska a few years ago, we didn’t quite have enough time to head into the park on foot, but from our base at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, just south of the park, we booked an aerial tour. The eagle’s eye view of the park from our tiny plane really put the grandness and jaw-dropping beauty of Alaska into perspective. We even flew directly over Denali, the highest peak in North America reaching 20,310 feet at its summit.
  7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina / Tennessee) – Surprisingly, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park, boasting 10 million visitors annually, almost twice that of the park in the #2 spot (Grand Canyon). A perfect time to visit is in the fall, when the leaves are changing and you can hike amid brilliant autumn colors. In 2001, the National Park Service, reintroduced elk into the park which had been absent since the 1800s due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Now the elk are thriving in the Smokies and are relatively easy to spot in the meadows early in the morning or in the evening. (While I have only visited the NC portion of the park, a dream of mine is to return and stay at Blackberry Farm, a luxurious, yet rustic Relais & Chateaux property just 15 miles from the park’s border in Tennessee). 

  8. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) – Only an hour and a half from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the easiest parks to visit! I wrote more about my visit to Rocky Mountain in my Denver post. I definitely recommend a stay at the Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park, Colorado (where the Shining was filmed).

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    Rocky Mountain National Park

There are so many more National Parks on my list, but the top parks I am dying to visit are:

  1. Yosemite National Park & Joshua Tree National Park (California)
  2. Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
  3. Katmai National Park (Alaska)
  4. Arches National Park (Utah)
  5. Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

What are your favorite National Parks?

 

SUMMER ESCAPE TO PORTUGAL

One of Europe’s most underrated destinations, Portugal is becoming increasingly popular with tourists looking for an easy and affordable summer escape. While Lisbon is a thriving cultural center, Portugal also offers plenty of options for relaxation, from lush wineries in the north to pristine beaches in the south. I recently spent a week with a good friend of mine exploring and enjoying this beautiful country.

First Stop: Porto

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View of the Cais de Gaia

Porto (or Oporto) is the second largest city in Lisbon, situated in the northern part of the country. Famous for its port wine production, Porto is also the gateway to the Duoro Valley, a world heritage site.

From New York, we were able to fly directly from Newark to Porto on TAP Portugal Airline. While in the city for two days, we stayed at the Premium Porto Downtown, which was a lovely and affordable boutique hotel well situated for exploring the city.

Our favorite moments in Porto:

Day Trip: Duoro Valley

While the city was just beautiful, the absolute highlight of the trip was the full day tour we took to the Duoro Valley. 

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The town of Pinhao in the Duoro Valley

About an hour and a half drive from downtown Porto is the town of Pinhao in the heart of the Duoro Valley. Our tour included lunch in town with traditional Portuguese fare, tasting at two different wine estates (1 with regular Duoro wine and 1 focused on port wine), and a river cruise on a traditional Portuguese riverboat. Not only was the scenery stunning, but we also learned a ton about Portuguese culture, history and wine from our very knowledgeable guide.

Next Stop: Lisbon

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Panorama of Lisbon perched at the Castelo de Sao Jorge

Just a three-hour train ride from Porto, sits Lisbon, Portugal’s capital and cultural center. The city is extremely reminiscent of San Francisco, from its hilly streets, to its cable cars, to the 25th of April Bridge, which mirrors the Golden Gate.

Where to Stay

In Lisbon, we stayed at the Memmo Alfama, a boutique hotel located in the heart of Alfama, Lisbon’s historic district. The accommodations were comfortable and modern, the free breakfast was fresh and delicious, and the rooftop dipping pool was the perfect break on a hot summer afternoon.

Lisbon Highlights:

  • Castelo de Sao Jorge – A Moorish castle set on a hilltop in Alfama; panoramic city views
  • Rua Augusta – Lisbon’s main pedestrian street with plentiful shops & cafes
  • Praca do Comercio – Waterfront square; served as the port of entry to the city
  • Minibar – Our best meal in Portugal! Make reservations in advance and order the tasting menu.
  • Park Bar – a rooftop bar on the top of a Parking Garage in Bairro Alto
  • Belem Tower – a 16th century fortress in Belem
  • Monument of the Discoveries – a stunning monument which pays homage to Portugal’s rich exploratory history
  • Pasteis de Belem – home of the original custard tart! You will find these mini custard tarts all over Portugal, but the original version at this Belem bakery is hands down the best. Worth the wait, they are served warm with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

Day Trip: Sintra

While there is plenty to see in Lisbon, a day trip to Sintra and Cascais is well worth it. Sintra is an adorable little hillside town about 30 minutes from Lisbon, home to the Pena Palace, King Ferdinand II’s summer home, which offers daily tours.

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Pena National Palace in Sintra

And Cascais, only about 15-20 minutes from Lisbon, is a popular seaside getaway for Lisbon residents.

Last Stop: The Algarve

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Private beach at the Vilalara Thalassa Resort

For the last stop on our Portuguese tour, we rented a car and drove 2.5 hours from Lisbon to The Algarve, Portugal’s beach region. We checked into the Vilalara Thalassa Resort, a 5-star luxury resort in the heart of the Algarve region. While we enjoyed exploring the Algarve region including a drive to The End of the World, swimming at Praia dona Ana in Lagos, and enjoying the nightlife in Albufeira, the best part of our three days here was relaxing at our resort! We spent plenty of time enjoying the private beach and buffet breakfasts. And not to be missed, is a small boat tour along the coastline to explore the Algarve’s famous caves and azure waters. 

 

SKI WEEKEND IN ZERMATT, SWITZERLAND

Following a recent work trip to Barcelona, Spain, my coworker and I headed off for a few days of skiing in the Swiss Alps.

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View of the Swiss Alps from the top of Zermatt

Getting There

Train travel in Europe is so easy and Switzerland doesn’t disappoint. From our flight to Geneva, we boarded a train in the airport that took us straight to Zermatt (well with a transfer in Visp). The total train journey is about 4 hours from Geneva Airport and about 3.5 hours if you fly into Zurich. There are no cars allowed in Zermatt, but the town is small enough to walk through. The train empties right in the center of town so you can easily walk to your hotel. Or, if you have a lot of luggage, most hotels will pick you up via shuttle or horse-drawn carriage.

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Alpenhotel Fleurs de Zermatt, a beautiful hotel very conveniently located to the center of town. The rooms at this boutique hotel were extremely clean and comfortable, with every amenity you could want. Including a private balcony, robes and slippers, rain shower and tub. The staff at the hotel was also incredibly helpful with suggesting ski rental places and making restaurant reservations for us. And last but not least, they have a fabulous spa complete with indoor/outdoor pool, steam room, and sauna which is excellent after a long day of skiing (Side note: definitely try the warm vegetable bullion in the spa – it’s amazing).

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Skiing in Zermatt

Skiing

Zermatt is a big mountain with amazing views of the Mattherhorn. Different from the US, the trails are numbered rather than named, and range from blue to red to black, in terms of difficulty (rather than green to blue to black in North America). The first day, we took gondolas (and a funicular) up to the tippy top of the mountain (over 12,000 feet). We then skied down 12.4 miles into Valtournenche, Italy on the 2nd longest ski run in the world, breaking for a delicious lunch of pasta and wine at Foyer des Guides. The second day, we stopped for cheese fondue and gluhwein at Iglu-dorf, a literal igloo village in the middle of the mountain complete with live music.

Where to Eat

  • Unique Hotel Post – An eclectic spot with casual bar fare or fine Italian dining. Also has several bars and rooms for live music and dancing.
  • Molino – Slightly upscale Italian if you’re in the mood for artisanal pizzas.
  • Chez Gaby – Traditional swiss fare with a focus on grilled meats – absolutely delicious. And don’t miss the chocolate fondue.
  • Laderach – Don’t miss this delicious chocolate shop on the main street – Bahnhofplatz. A great place to buy some edible souvenirs.
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The Matterhorn

EXPLORING DENVER AND ITS ENVIRONS

My friend Alyson and I both recently had a week off between jobs and decided to go on a last minute getaway. In choosing a locale, we were looking for a relatively cheap destination that was easy to get to from multiple cities (she lives in Boston and I live in NYC). Denver popped up on both of our flight searches and we were lucky enough to find flights that arrived/departed within 20 minutes of one another. I’ve flown into Denver many times for ski trips and work trips, but have rarely spent time exploring Denver and its surrounding areas. As I started to research for the trip, I was so impressed by the number of awesome activities, hotels and dining options I came up with. Denver is definitely an up and coming travel destination and I would recommend it to anyone as an easy long weekend getaway.

ESTES PARK

We flew into Denver on a Sunday morning and headed straight from the airport to Estes Park, a town just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park that is only about an hour and a half drive from Denver. In Estes, the Stanley Hotel stands perched above the town.

 

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The Stanley Hotel

A historic hotel dating back to 1909, the Stanley is also known as one of the most haunted places in America and was also the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining (they also filmed the movie there). The hotel is only 20 minutes from the National Park entrance so it’s a very convenient place to stay when visiting. We enjoyed several great meals in the hotel’s restaurant, Cascades, which features local American cuisine and ghost-themed cocktails (try the REDRUM).

We also signed up for the one of the nighttime ghost tours offered at the hotel. While a bit kitschy, it was a fun way to spend the evening and we enjoyed hearing the history of the hotel which was part of the tour.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

It’s such a treat to find a beautiful National Park so close to a large city, so I definitely recommend at least a day trip. Our favorite hike was a 5-mile roundtrip that we took to Cub Lake. It offered varied terrain, beautiful mountain vistas and a lake destination. Plus, we saw herds of elk, and even two males up close in the woods.

IMG_3710Depending on the time of year you visit, the Bear Lake area is also very popular for hiking, and offers access to several trailheads. But, given the high elevation of that area, it was too snowy for our visit in early November.

BOULDER

Boulder is only about 20-30 minutes’ drive from downtown Denver. And if you’re driving to Denver from Estes Park like we did, it’s on the way and makes a great pitstop for lunch. After our long hike to Cub Lake, the delicious meal we had at The Kitchen was delightful (although there is also a location in Denver, if you miss the trip to Boulder). Boulder also has a great pedestrian mall downtown on Pearl Street, and it’s definitely worth walking around and popping into the cute shops and boutiques. For an afternoon pick-me-up after shopping, definitely stop in at Boulder Baked, for one of their “baked to order” cookies.

DENVER

On to Denver! We stayed at The Art Hotel in the Museum District.  The hotel was very comfortable, conveniently located and a museum in itself! The hotel features several temporary and permanent modern art installations for guests to enjoy – everywhere from the lobby to the elevator. Our first full day in Denver, we headed out in the morning to Core Power Yoga near our hotel for a great yoga class. Then we headed out for lunch and local beers at The Source, an artisan food market in the River North (RiNo) District.

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I definitely recommend the tacos at Comida, a former taco truck serving Southern-influenced Mexican street food. My favorite was the Shrimp and Grits taco. That afternoon, we spent some time shopping on the 16th Street Mall (check out Tattered Cover Book Store for an old fashioned brick and mortar bookstore) and at the boutiques in Larimer Square. In the evening, we took a little drink tour before dinner. Our first stop was The Great Divide Brewing Company for a tasting (they offer 3 oz pours for $1 each!) and our second stop was Terminal Bar, located in the historic ticketing office of Union Station.

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Beer Flight at The Great Divide

For dinner, we headed to ChoLon Bistro and were completely blown away. The flavors were sublime and each dish was more innovative than the next.

On Day 2 in Denver, we got in a quick workout at Pure Barre in Cherry Creek and then went out to brunch at Sassafras. The food was delicious (I had cheesy grits with poached eggs and bacon) but my favorite was the make-your-own mimosa flight, which was just too cute!

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Mimosa flight at Sassafras

That afternoon, we spent hours exploring the exhibits in the History Colorado Center which were so well done. The highlighted exhibit featuring Toys from the 50s, 60s, and 70s was particularly fun, although we also enjoyed the more permanent exhibits around the history and environment of Colorado. The exhibits were very engaging and great for kids, but also fun and educational for adults.

For our final evening, we took a shop owner’s recommendation to visit Williams & Graham, a speakeasy posing as a bookshop in The Highlands.

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The cocktails were fantastic, but the atmosphere was just perfect – complete with walking through a fake bookcase to get to the bar. For dinner, we ate at Linger, which is housed in an old mortuary and features globally-inspired plates. The food was delicious and more wallet-friendly than ChoLon Bistro, although the portions were a bit large. The food is meant to be shared, so with only two people it was a little difficult to taste a variety of things without being overwhelmed by food.

All in all, we had a fabulous trip exploring Denver and its environs!

HOTEL REVIEW: COSTANOA LODGE

Costanoa Lodge is nestled just south of San Francisco (just over an hour’s drive) in Pescadero, California – the perfect setting for a weekend getaway off the grid. The drive down from San Fran is beautiful, winding south along the coast on Highway 1.

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View of the California Coast in Pescadero

When you arrive at rustic Costanoa Lodge, you have three different options for lodging: you can bring your own camper and park in one of the RV spots on the vast property; you can opt for a more traditional hotel experience and stay in the lodge building itself or one of several cabins; or you can opt for the full glamping experience with one of Costanoa’s “tent bungalows.” I chose the third option, and it was absolutely lovely. The tented cabin was quaint and clean, complete with a queen-sized bed, wood floor, electricity, and 2 Adirondack chairs out front to soak up the woods view or stargaze. The cabin also comes with towels, a robe, and a shower basket (complete with shampoo and soap) to take to one of the many “comfort stations” located around the property. The comfort stations are also clean and well-lit and even have outdoor shower options to add to the rustic camping experience.

When we arrived at Costanoa, our first stop was the spa, which is small, but offers delightful massages. Next, we headed over to the Pine Tent area in the campground for a glass of wine and to enjoy some live music.

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View of the California Coast in Pescadero

The Pine Tent also serves up some BBQ options for casual dining. (It also serves coffee, tea and breakfast burritos in the morning). For a more fine dining experience, head over to Cascade Bar & Grill, which serves delicious food (although the service was a little off the night we were there).

Costanoa and the surrounding area offers plenty to do: from hikes along the sand dunes (look out for seals) and up in the hills, to horseback riding, and exploring the downtown strip of Pescadero. But one of my favorite things about my stay at Costanoa was the time to relax and unplug. While Costanoa does offer free Wifi throughout the camp, unless you turn it on, you won’t have any cell phone service. The views are beautiful and the stargazing is tremendous. We spent lots of time, sitting outside, drinking wine and enjoying the camping experience. There is definitely something rejuvenating about spending a few days out in nature to put life in perspective.

Sunset in Pescadero
Sunset in Pescadero

FOODIE GETAWAY TO PORTLAND, MAINE

While Portland, Oregon has gotten quite a bit of press lately as a hot destination Portland, Maine is also hitting the map – especially on the foodie circuit. While Maine conjures up images of rugged coastline, blueberry picking and quaint villages, Portland – only a 2 hour drive from Boston – has a bit of a hipster vibe, not unlike the Portland of the West Coast. I recently took a trip up to Portland, Maine in July. And, if making the drive from Boston as I did, I definitely recommend a pitstop in Ogunquit for a stroll along the Marginal Way Cliff Walk and possibly lunch at one of the many seafood restaurants in “Perkins Cove” (the starting point for the Cliff Walk).

Portland has many activities to choose from – paddleboarding or kayaking along the coast, brewery tours, and shopping along the historic cobblestone streets, but the highlight of my trip was the food. My top spots were:

  1. The Portland Hunt & Alpine Club – offering craft cocktails, gourmet popcorn, and Scandinavian small bites

    Cocktails and Popcorn at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
    Cocktails and Popcorn at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
  2. Union Portland – a new farm to table spot in The Press Hotel
  3. Duckfat – sandwiches, milkshakes and fries. Known for their fabulous poutine – a must!

    Poutine at Duckfat
    Poutine at Duckfat
  4. Central Provisions – small plates and punch bowls for sharing. Definitely worth checking out for brunch as well (opens at 11 am) – and be sure to order the cornbread skillet.
  5. Holy Donuts – Made with real Maine potatoes (!), these donuts come in a multitude of flavors and are nothing short of delicious
  6. Eventide Oyster Co. – a favorite for oyster lovers, but don’t miss their signature lobster roll served warm in a brown butter sauce.

    Lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co.
    Lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co.
  7. Slab – a nice spot for groups with outdoor seating, live music and giant slabs of pizza.