Monday, September 27, 2010

Ever Thought of Visiting Macedonia?

No? Why not?

Sure, there is not a lot that's known about this small, land-locked country. And yes, it did only gain independence in 1991. Not to mention the tourism sector is definitely struggling in this down economy. Despite all that, there is only one thing that really matters about Macedonia: The wine.

Being the wine enthusiast that I am, hearing that Macedonia was an uncorked (pun totally intended) resource for delicious and unique grape blends made my ears perk up. But I must admit, I didn't know much about the country other than where it is located, in the Balkans. So, I decided to do a little research, and discovered some interesting facts about The Republic of Macedonia.

The fact that Macedonia is not on the radar does not surprise me, since the country has struggled with so many economic difficulties since their independence from Yugoslavia. They started off at the short end of things by being one of the less-developed regions of Yugoslavia, and when they seceded, many of their export routes through Serbia were lost. The ones that remain are unreliable and costly. The country has a high poverty rate and abundant corruption, stunting the economic growth even more.

However, despite these fallbacks, Macedonia has a lot to offer. Geographically, it does not have direct access to any oceans, but the Vardar River has created a beautiful central valley, and the rugged terrain boasts some breathtaking views. Those can best be appreciated from the top of the Šar Mountains or the Osogovo-Belasica Mountain chain. The intricate nature of the original architecture found in the capitol, Skopje, draws many people to the busy streets. Luckily, the population is not significantly high and visitors are minimal, so it does not feel overly crowded.

A trip out to the Macedonia countryside is a real treat. Here you will find stretches of vineyards that supply the locals with ripe grapes just waiting to be turned to wine. Wine has played a big part in Macedonia's culture since the Roman times. Wine grapes thrive in the transitional climate of Mediterranean and Continental, not to mention the rich soil. In fact, there are so many grapes that families often make their own batches. Macedonians even celebrate the patron saint of wine and winemaking, St. Trifun, every year when growers prune the vines on February 14. (A possible replacement of that made-up holiday everyone else celebrates.) But even with this wealth of wine grapes and great potential for mass production, Macedonia's wine industry has suffered. As a result, wineries are in short supply. But the ones that do exist have done an impressive job promoting their products.

Popova Kula Winery, built in the Tikves Valley, is modeled after the wineries of California. After 6 years, it boasts 17-acres of grapevines and uses the latest Italian machinery. Popova winery specializes in dry white wines, but has been growing its stock of reds, as well. Bovin Winery was the first boutique vineyard after independence, and it houses a tasting room where guests can sample the variety of whites and reds. Stobi Winery is a large facility located close to the capitol of Macedonia. It also produces many white wines and just a few rich reds.

If nothing else draws you to the borders of Macedonia, consider this: not only will you get to taste some exceptional wines, but you will also get to discover a country that most people have never seen. Macedonia appears to be hidden among its surrounding countries, but its history, culture and wine could turn it into a bustling tourist attraction. So maybe you should book this Balkan country for your next vacation, or at least give it a chance.

And just think, you might taste a wine that has never made it to the United States--what a rare find!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

New "Getting Lost" Section in Travel

As many of you know, I really enjoy reading the New York Times Travel section. The destination features, the travel tips, the beautiful pictures...there's just so much to love. And now there is one more column I will definitely be reading. It's called "Getting Lost," and it chronicles the events of New York Times columnist Matt Gross as he actively attempts to get himself lost in a number of different cities around the world. The column discusses what he ends up finding and who he runs into as he wanders through streets without  gps, a map, a compass or an agenda.

This kind of spontaneous travel is something to be admired, because how often do we all meticulously plot out our trips, from flight itineraries and hotel accommodations to scheduled tours and package deals? Imagine showing up at a city with no hotel reservations, no directions, no information about the city and even less of a clue as to how to get around. You might have a minor panic attack--I know I would. But this is what Gross is planning to do, and you know what, I'm seriously considering trying this sometime. (You know, if I can subdue my neurotic tendencies for even just a few days.) I figure, some of the most memorable moments are the ones that aren't planned.

Check out Matt Gross first "Getting Lost" entry where he loses himself in Tangier.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Onion Article Touches on Travel Truth

I was flipping through The Onion the other day as I waited for the train, and I came across an article about how colleges are encouraging students to go abroad and "dick around." A quote from the article states:
According to a report published this week by the U.S. Department of Education, an increasing number of universities now offer dick-around abroad programs that give students the chance to hang out and do jack shit in another country.
 As anyone who reads the newspaper knows, the stories are completely fabricated and contain no real names or facts. But this article got me thinking about the time I spent abroad in Rome during my junior year of college. Yes, I had classes to attend, homework to do, tests to take, but in reality, I didn't work nearly as hard as I did when I was back in the U.S. I would skim through chapters, spend only an hour studying rather than my usual four and I never spent a Saturday sitting in the library writing a paper--except for that one final essay due for my Italian Literature class, but whose counting? Europe turned me into a bit of a slacker, or at least as much of one as I could possibly be. Then I really thought about it...I went out a lot, partied until the wee hours of the morning, drank way too much wine for my own good and met some interesting people along the way. And I was not alone in my escapades, my classmates were right by my side. Perhaps The Onion is on to something.

While the article takes it to the next level with statements like, "The chance to spend every night partying in pretty much the same way they would have at home is an experience they'll never forget," and "many students won't even apply to a school that doesn't provide programs that allow them to take bong hits in major world cities for academic credit," there is a hint of truth in their satirical wit. Students traveling abroad have the luxury of a more laid-back schedule. Many programs do not offer classes on Fridays, so students can have more time to travel around the country, or venture over to other countries, a privilege their colleges at home would never think of giving them. For many students, classes only count for credit, the grade does not affect their GPA; so as long as they pass, that's all that matters. This takes a lot of pressure off students to perform well, so they can spend less time studying and more time exploring--or partying.

The article exaggerates the point that students are wasting their time abroad, spending all their free time doing absolutely nothing of consequence. (Obviously, I know the writers do not actually believe that, but for the sake of argument...) I disagree. I would say all of my activities abroad were very worthwhile, even the nights out at the bars. I got to explore an ancient city, visit gorgeous monuments, learn about Rome's bloodied past and witness true works of art. A day walking around the city was not a waste, but an eye opening experience to another culture. The free time I was granted gave me the chance to do things I never thought I'd be able to do: take a tapas tour in Barcelona, shop in the streets of Vienna, ride a gondola in Venice, go skydiving in Switzerland. I would not say any of those experiences were moments of "dicking around."

The classes that I took over there educated me to a certain degree in the areas of literature and philosophy, but it's the stuff I learned outside the classroom that really stayed with me over the years. So I will proudly tell all those college students out there to go ahead and sign up for one of these dick-around-and-do-nothing study abroad will truly be one of the best things you ever do.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Venturing to Nova Scotia

I was browsing through the latest news stories on Hospitality Net when I saw the announcement that the Culinary Tourism World Summit would be held in Halifax, Nova Scotia. What peaked my interest about this was not the renowned culinary leaders or special events or fabulous dinners that would take place at the event, but rather the location itself. Nova Scotia? Really? So I did a little research, and as you may or may not have guessed, I'm adding another destination to my list.

Nova Scotia is located directly East of Maine. (This truly surprised me, because I had this idea that Nova Scotia was way further North than that, closer to say...Greenland. I was way off.) Halifax is a bustling port city said to be the gateway to Atlantic Canada. It's rich maritime history and eclectic modern vibe make it a place worth visiting. But don't let my praises sway you, just listen to all the things you can see and do in Halifax.....

The heart and soul of this seafront town is, of course, it's harbor. If you are a history buff, make a trip to Pier 21 and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Canada's version of Ellis Island, Pier 21 was the doorway for over one million immigrants who came over to Nova Scotia between 1920 and 1970. Genealogists will truly appreciate this testament to Halifax's ancestors. The Maritime Museum is the largest one on Canada, housing artifacts, photographs, charts and maps relating to Nova Scotia's marine history. Exhibits feature the Halifax Explosion of 1917, the Royal Canadian Navy, the merchant marine, the Halifax connection to the Titanic and the many local shipwrecks that occurred around the harbor. At Fisherman's Cove, you can watch the local fisherman come in with their daily catch, or take a boat ride out to McNab's Island. Peggy's Cove is a picturesque destination known for it's breathtaking scenery and traditional lighthouse--which is also a working post office.

The Halifax Citadel is a star-shaped naval station nestled atop a hill in the middle of downtown. This living history museum offers guided tours from an costumed patron, who will show you the musket gallery and garrison cells. At noon every day, the 78th Highland Regiment fires the cannon. Halifax is brimming with antique buildings that transport visitors back to the early years of the city's settlement. St. Paul's Church, built in 1750, is Halifax's oldest building and the first Protestant Church in Canada. One of the most famous structures in Halifax, Old Town Clock started keeping time for residents in 1803. Other buildings of note are Province House--a Georgian building that housed the first government in the British Empire--and Government House--home of Nova Scotia's Lieutenant Governor and the oldest government building in Canada.

Halifax is a outdoor enthusiast's paradise; with kayaking, hiking, fishing, golfing and more, guests will never run out of things to do. You can take a deep-sea dive to explore the graveyard of shipwrecked boats around the harbor, or relax in the sun on one of the many gorgeous beaches. Surfers can enjoy great waves on the Eastern Shore at Lawrencetown Beach, while hikers can huff up the 14-mile trail at Taylor Head Provincial Park.

As far as entertainment and nightlife go, Halifax doesn't disappoint. The city is known for it's vibrant music scene, and visitors can experience exceptional shows at Symphony Nova Scotia or Neptune Theater. There are also a number of festivals and events to attend, like the Halifax Pop Explosion, Nocturne: Art at night and Atlantic Film Festival, just to name a few. The nightlife thrives with packed bars and contemporary restaurants, most of which are in walking distance of downtown.

The culinary experience in Halifax is one guests won't soon forget. They are known for their seafood dishes--I can't imagine why--and the award-winning chefs are meticulous with their dishes, creating true masterpieces on the plate. Visitors can indulge on Digby Scallops and Nova Scotia Lobster, the savory delights can be found on many restaurant menus. But the dining experience doesn't have to be super fancy, there are casual eateries up and down the waterfront where tourists can grab a quick bite. There are way too many restaurants to name, but you can trust that you'll find something great no matter where you go.

Halifax, Nova Scotia is a wonderful city full of Canadian culture and heritage. (Those Culinary experts may be on to something.) With it's beautiful beaches, active harbor and exciting nightlife, Halifax seems like a great place to travel to. And since I've never been there myself, I think it's time I looked into a little trip across the border.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Business Trip....With the Family?

Ten years ago, bringing a child into a business-focused hotel was unheard of. But now, it's becoming the norm for many families. With parents traveling so much for business, they are forced to spend less time with their families. So they figure, why not bring them along? This new trend of mixing business with leisure is aptly named "blended travel."

According to travel industry experts, combining business travel with leisure travel by bringing along family or friends is growing in popularity. Research has shown that in the last ten years, more and more families have participated in blended travel, and it's mostly because of the amount of dual income families has increased. Since both parents are working, there is more money available for travel, but less time to actually take a vacation together, so blended travel has become a way for families to spend time together. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Which is definitely helpful nowadays. A quote from a recent MSNBC article states:

A new “Wellness in Travel” survey commissioned by Westin...found that more than half of the 1,500 respondents failed to take all their vacation days . “They worry about losing their jobs,” Nancy London, Global Brand Leader for Westin Hotels & Resorts, said. According to the survey, 64 percent canceled or postponed vacation this year due to work worries.

Blended travel will aid people who are concerned with missing too much work for vacation, because they can combine the two together. Many business travelers will book midweek flights and hotels, take care of their meetings and appointments while their spouse takes care of the kids, and then spend their evenings and weekends with their families. It's a win-win situation.

And now hotels are jumping on the bandwagon, offering incentives for business travelers who bring along their kids. Some are offering free meals for children, complimentary drinks and snacks in the room and even a kids' concierge who will arrange a variety of activities to make the vacation even better for the little ones. Other hotels have put together special events, particularly around the holidays, to spark more interest in booking their rooms. Resorts and hotels are hoping these kind of unique ideas will help boost the hotel occupancy rate, which significantly dropped last year due to the recession. But with blended travel's potential--and there seems to be a lot of it--things in the travel industry may start turning around. Not to mention families will get to spend more quality time together, even if it has to be combined with some business here and there.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A City's Hidden Places

I found myself in the Fulton Market area last week, a grungy looking industrial neighborhood with meat packing trucks lining the streets. It didn't exactly feel like a hip locale, at least not at first. Sprinkled in amongst the desolate buildings and vacant lots are a handful of quaint restaurants, galleries and boutiques that would otherwise go unnoticed if it weren't for the energetic crowds out front. The Publican was my first indication that life did exist here. This unique gastropub is famous for their pork dishes, communal dining and signature brews.And while I was intrigued to enter this bustling food mecca, I walked on past the outdoor tables and toward my destination. Another block up and I faced a building front made completely of glass windows and doors, with a small fluorescent sign that read Otom. It took me a moment to register that this was the place where I was meeting my friend, it seemed so quiet, practically dead. But after some intoxicating cocktails--practically couldn't put mine down--and an incredible meal--a delicious spin on mac and cheese--I was hooked on this place, and the neighborhood where it resided.

Much to my chagrin, it seems other people have known about this area for years. How it is possible I had never ventured here before? The whole experience made me realize that there are way too many places around Chicago that I've never visited, who knows what I'm missing out on. But it made me think about the hidden gems in other cities. So I went online to search on the secret neighborhoods of major metropolitan areas, and I came across an article about a quaint area in East London. It talked about all the unique shops, bars, markets and restaurants that were hidden from London's more touristy locales. I am a huge fan of London--in fact it's probably the European city I would most likely live in, apart from Rome--and I had honestly never heard of Regent's Canal or the old industrial sector of the city, not to mention neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Hackney Wick. (Yes, those are their real names, it's England after all.) And even though I have never been to this part of London, I can certainly appreciate what it has to offer. Because it seems to me that some of the best places are off the beaten path, they make a city what is it, add a little more flare--as if there wasn't enough.

I fully intend to visit this part of London when I have the privilege of returning. For now, I might try to venture further outside my comfort zone in Chicago. And I encourage everyone else to do the same, you may be surprised with what you find.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Vote For Me!!

Vote for my On The Road story on and I could win a trip to any Fairmont Hotel. Why vote? Because you all love me so much!

The steps are simple. Go to the link above anytime between now and Sept. 30, click the save button, create a username and password--its free--and your vote will be counted. If my story is among the top ten, I'll be sent on an amazing two week trip. Here are the details of the contest:

So vote away my friends and loyal readers, I appreciate all the help!!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Common Misconceptions of an Eastern European Gem

As I was skimming through my movie selection the other day, I came across one of my favorite comedies: Eurotrip. For those who have never seen it, I'll try not to spoil it, but basically the movie follows the travels of these four, recently graduated high school students as they trek through Europe trying to find the lead character's German pen pal--who happens to be a smoking-hot blonde girl. At one point, the crew finds themselves slightly off course when they end up in Bratislava, Slovakia, or as they grudgingly call it "Eastern Europe." Now here's where I start to get skeptical, because the movie depicts Bratislava as a grungy, dirty, dilapidated city with practically no one around except a creepy guy who loves old American television shows. But this is completely wrong.

While it used to be relatively dead many years ago, Bratislava is now a bustling metropolis filled with boutique shops and hotels, fine dining establishments, eclectic art galleries and crowds so thick you can barely cross the street. Streets are lined with baroque palaces nestled near quaint coffee shops. The Gothic church, St. Martin's Cathedral holds political and historical significance--11 monarchs were crowned there. It's common to stumble upon a lavish beer garden, a lively art exhibit, a wine museum or even a Slovakian tea room.

Bratislava is conveniently located at the crossroads between Vienna, Prague and Budapest, which is why so many locals from these cities visit for long weekends. In fact, many Europeans are realizing the allure of Bratislava and taking advantage of cheap flights to Slovakia. Along with its geographical benefits, Bratislava also holds many intellectual opportunities. Bratislava Castle holds a number of museums that feature exhibits on the region's Celtic, Roman and Moravian history.

The one part of Bratislava that Eurotrip did get right is its over-the-top night life. After the sun sets, the people come out in troves to enjoy everything from casual dining to crowded bars to underground dance clubs. There is a place that is literally underground, in a former nuclear fallout shelter that now plays techno and trance music. Many of the outdoor cafes get pretty busy once the kitchen closes and local musicians set up shop; people are literally dancing among the tables.

The countryside surrounding Bratislava is also worth noting, with upscale wineries and mountain towns selling ceramic masterpieces. These are nice if you are looking for a day trip out of the city.

I have only flown into the Bratislava airport, where I caught a shuttle that took me over the border into Austria to visit Vienna. In all honesty, I thought by missing the city, I had dodged a bullet. But my misconceptions of Bratislava were all due to Eurotrip and the negative picture it painted. So while it is an amusing part of the film, and I still enjoy it, I'll make sure to learn a little bit more about a place before I make another judgment like that.