By Jim Ferri
Since I travel so much, every year around this time I like just to sit back and relax, and think of the best travel experiences I’ve had during the previous 12 months.
I just did it again a few days ago.
I spent most of 2018 on three continents – North America, South America, and Europe, enjoying a multitude of wonderful experiences.
All that travel got tiring at times, but the experiences were great. There were a few places/experiences I didn’t like – that’s par for the course – but overall it was a good year.
Allow me to share with you, in no particular order, the most memorable experiences from my meanderings during 2018.
The Best Market in North America
If you had to choose the best markets for food in North America, Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market would be one of them. In fact, National Geographic once tagged it as the top market in the world.
Formerly Toronto’s City Hall, today it’s an incredible food market where you’ll find just about anything you want. It’s heaven for foodies, and even if you’re not hungry, it’s still a great place to just wander about observing the energy and mix of nationalities. It’s also an excellent place to sample peameal, Toronto’s signature dish. An acquired taste, peameal merely is a Kaiser roll stuffed with Canadian back bacon. Thousands are served in the market every Saturday.
Best Urban Walkway in the World
New York City’s High Line is arguably the best city walkway in the world and another of my best travel experiences. Once a disused and crumbling elevated railroad track ¬– complete with rust, weeds, and garbage ¬– it’s been transformed into an elevated urban park planted with native grasses and other plants.
It’s an astounding place, a ribbon of serenity that runs across 1.45 miles of Manhattan. It’s transformed the West Side of the New York City and is now visited by about seven million visitors each year. (To put that in context, approximately 4.5 million people visit the Statue of Liberty each year). Since it was opened in 2009, I’ve been taking a walk on it most times I’m in New York.
Hidden Italy, In Plain Sight
During the past year, I was amazed to discover one of the best places in Italy is hidden in plain sight. It’s the province of Friuli Venezia Giulia, just northeast of Venice.
Snuggled between the tranquil Adriatic and the rugged Dolomites, Friuli Venezia Giulia forms Italy’s eastern border with Slovenian and part of its northern border with Austria. You can see remnants of it Austro-Hungarian parentage in its architecture and coffee-culture.
The province has fascinating historical sites, as well as incredible food and wines. In fact, the food and wines are so special The New York Times named the province “Italy’s secret garden,” making it one of their best travel experiences.
A Great Travel Experience and A Beer-Lover’s Nirvana
I tend to drink more wine than beer. That, however, changed dramatically during a June visit to Pilsen (Plzeň in Czech) in the Czech Republic, home of Pilsner beer and the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, where it’s been bottling its excellent brew since 1842.
The old ornate brewery buildings sit atop a maze of six-mile long cellars that were used to store fermenting beer for 100 years. Deep down in this maze of cellars, I enjoyed an all-you-can-eat and drink three-hour dinner for 500 Czech Koruna per person (less than $25).
The chicken, red cabbage, potatoes, and dumplings were delicious as was the constant stream of unfiltered and unpasteurized beer, crowned with a thick foam head, served in large, copper pitchers. It’s a near-nirvana evening for beer lovers.
There’s also a sizeable and popular restaurant up on the ground level with a more extensive menu of food and Pilsner Urquell beer.
The Most Spectacular Island in the Mediterranean
I hadn’t been back to Sicily for many years, and I was determined to return in 2018. My trip to this largest and most important island in the Mediterranean was, as I had expected, another of my best travel experiences in 2018.
If you’ve never been to Sicily, you’ll find it quite different from the rest of Italy. In fact, its people don’t even identify themselves as Italian but as Sicilian. That’s likely because so many different cultures – including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish – have dominated the island throughout its history. Thankfully, each of its conquering people left its cultural legacy on the island, which you still see today.
A tour around Sicily is like visiting several different countries. The east and south are decidedly Greek. In fact, the area has the most ancient Greek temples in the world, even more than Athens.
The western half of Sicily, on the other hand, is a mash-up of Arab and Norman, readily seen in its dazzling architecture. In the south-central area, the Romans left their footprint in a villa with the most exceptional Roman mosaics in the world.
And don’t forget to take a tour up Mt. Etna – it’s spectacular and was one of the most exciting moments on my trip.
A Table With a View
Comparatively few travelers have ever visited San Marino, and few can even tell you where it is. (For the record, it’s on the eastern coast of Italy about a two-hour drive south from Bologna, three from Venice.) What makes it so enticing for travelers is that it’s the fifth smallest country in the world and one of the oldest republics on earth.
San Marino clings to a mountaintop and its capital city, also called San Marino, is a medieval city complete with cobblestone lanes and ancient crenelated walls. As you might expect in such a lofty postage-stamp-size nation, the views can be spectacular, and since the place is surrounded entirely by Italy, you can expect to have some delicious meals, two reasons it became one of my best travel experiences in 2018.
On one of my two days in San Marino, I had a wonderful lunch in one of the outdoor cafes atop its city walls. The food and wine were good but what really grabbed me was the view that went on forever.
One of the Most Fascinating Museums Anywhere
While in Boston I visited the spectacular Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and was shocked I had never visited it before on my many trips to the city.
The Stewart Gardner’s collection contains works Titian, Rembrandt, Raphael, Manet, Degas, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Whistler, Sargent, and many others. The collection includes more than 7,500 paintings, sculptures, furniture, textiles, etc.
But what really makes the museum a knockout is the building itself, a Venetian-style palace that surrounds an inner courtyard filled with magnificent sculptures. Like her other treasures, Isabella Stewart Gardner acquired them on her art treasure-hunting jaunts about the world.
It quickly earned a spot on my list of the best travel experiences of 2018. If you’re heading to Boston, don’t miss it.
Experiencing the Most Colorful City in the World
If you’re in search of Crayola chic, head for Valparaiso, Chile. It’s a port city on the Pacific coast of Chile, an easy 1½-hour drive from Santiago. Arguably it’s the most colorful city in the world, which later last year became another of my best travel experiences for the year.
Built on numerous hills, Valparaíso is famous for its steep funiculars, cliff-top houses, and as one of the residences of the late Pablo Neruda, Chile’s national poet. It was an influx of 19th-century immigrants that provided the city with its architectural character, but the colors have been added more recently. When that was, I can’t tell you.
As with many graffiti-covered places, it’s not for everyone. One German tourist I met in Santiago told me she thought the paintings made the entire city look dirty. While I can understand her perceptions of the place, I instead found it near mesmeric.
I suggest you take a day trip to Valparaiso from Santiago. If you find you don’t like it, head back to Santiago and instead enjoy some time in one of the many wineries you’ll pass along the way.
A Fascinating Experience: A Gourmet Meal In A Mendoza Winery
I’ve heard a lot about Mendoza, Argentina over the years, and finally went there for the first time in late 2018. I can’t wait to go back.
But while the city of Mendoza is a lovely place with substantial old trees shading its streets, you’ll find that it’s the 1,500+ wineries in the surrounding countryside that are the real stars of the show.
My wife and I hired a driver for a day and asked him to take us on a tour of the vineyards. We stopped at three, the last being Belasco de Baquedano (Calle Cobos 8260, Luján De Cuyo, Agrelo, Mendoza). We took the obligatory tour, which was relatively short since we had mainly come to the winery for its popular lunch.
The delicious lunch – a six-course meal with wine pairings – was accompanied by a delightful view out over the vineyards. The cost was approximately US$50 per person.
Experiencing One of the World’s Best Markets
Returning travelers often complain about how much a place has changed since they first visited it years earlier. The neighborhood of San Telmo in Buenos Aires is just the opposite. I’ve visited it three times over the past 30 or so years, and each time it’s always remained its beautiful, lively self, always being another of my best travel experiences.
With its cobblestone streets and hundreds of little shops, bars, and restaurants, some consider it Buenos Aires’ most romantic area. It’s the city’s Bohemian neighborhood with plenty of shops selling antiques. Go visit on Sunday when a market fills the main street. You’ll find authentic antiques at the southern end of the market, with plenty of knock-offs elsewhere. There are also plenty of artists, numerous restaurants and cafes, and street performers galore, including tango dancers.
Head for Plaza Dorrego, and you’ll be in the heart of it all. Just watch your wallet.
A Spectacular Hotel Bar
If you’re visiting the Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires, paying homage to Evita or just viewing the spectacular cemetery, leave time to pamper yourself. No, not in the cemetery, but at the Alvear Palace Hotel (Avenue Alvear 1891), about two blocks away.
Enter the hotel and head straight for its spectacular Lobby Bar, one of the poshest and comfortable you’ll find anywhere. From a visual standpoint, it is over the top. Ditto that for both the service and the drinks. Two excellent Argentinian wines cost us about US$9 per glass.
Go have a drink and say hello to bartender Hernan Tipa. That’s him in the photo above.