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Here’s something new to offer our TravelWatch readers with the October-November 2019 issue. Your editor, Alison Gardner and her husband, Peter, have just completed a 2.5 month research trip through six European countries that began with a cruise of the Croatia coast in early August. For this issue, she shares five highlights of the trip from some of the countries visited and the adventures experienced. These are just a taste of each one, with more in-depth feature articles to come in the future that will expand on country visits. One example, already published, is our colorful story on what to do around Split, Croatia.
We sampled a one-week cruise of Croatia’s upper Adriatic coast, visiting historic coastal towns and jewel-like islands surrounded by turquoise waters.
We stepped aboard a seven-day Teeming River cruise of Germany’s Rhine and Moselle rivers, beginning in Dusseldorf and ending in Trier. Wine festivals are a highlight of this cruise.
We spent six days, 12 hours a day, at a lovely country resort to the west of Madrid, Spain, helping Spaniards improve their spoken English. This is a volunteer vacation we have wanted to do for 20 years, and it delivered in spades!
Come on a mini-bus small group exploration of the southern half of Ireland with Driftwood Journeys of Discovery, 13 senior adventurers exploring the byways, not the highways, of a magical country (and we didn’t meet any leprechauns).
If you have never heard of the town of Sintra in Portugal, you are missing a destination of rare delight. Check out our snapshot of Sintra, quite near Lisbon but a world away!
We invite you to check out our Feature Link of the Month and our latest Travel Product Reviews.
An Adriatic Cruise of Croatia’s Northern Coast and Islands
After several days exploring Split, Croatia, it was time to board the thoroughly-modern Ave Maria motor yacht, built in 2018 for Croatian cruise company Katarina Line Cruises. It would be our home for the next seven days.
Following the intense bustle of Split, it was like settling into a delightful bubble of full service from morning till evening while we explored by ship and land north along the picturesque Croatian coastline in the perfectly blue sky weather of mid-August.
We visited several historical towns like Trogir and Zadar, learned the finer points of wine tasting and olive oil tasting, and investigated some lesser-known, even unoccupied Croatian islands. Most days, the captain anchored on a deserted bit of coastline for the guests to have a swim off the back of the yacht in turquoise waters of at least 25 degrees C. That’s heaven!
With a ship’s capacity of 36 guests, we shared each day with fellow travelers from Italy, France, the UK, Canada, the U.S. and South Africa, in a very relaxed atmosphere. Topping off the Captain’s final dinner, a local musical trio came aboard to serenade us with an international repertoire of songs, as well as melodic traditional music. Altogether, a highly recommended way to get to know Croatia with a 27-year-old Croatian small-ship cruise line.
A River Cruise Along Germany’s Rhine and Moselle
Segments of the Rhine river have been sampled by many a European river cruiser in the last couple of decades, but less experienced by vacationers is the quite distinctive geography and small town and village personalities along the Mosel/Moselle river (German and French spelling, respectively). This modest-sized waterway flows through France, Luxembourg and Germany. However, we first met up with it in Koblenz, Germany, and disembarked near the Luxembourg border to spend some land days in the very historic and recommended town of Trier.
We chose Teeming River Cruises, because it is taking a different approach to European river cruising. Quite new on the scene, it is an independent, family-owned business with the expressed intent of being the low-price leader in European river cruises. This is accomplished because you only pay for activities and tours you choose, as opposed to a price which includes all excursions. To explore each port of call independently, you are given a free app to help you explore what you would personally like to see or do or you may book a guided tour locally.
Likewise, unlimited alcohol with meals is offered as a separate package at additional cost for those who wish to have it. These are some examples of cost-saving measures and increased flexibility that allow guests, as they say, to “Explore More for Less” or take an adventurous cruise for “Half the Price, Twice the Fun”.
As Florida-based owners Jeff and Gina Paglialonga say, “We equip our guests to get off the ship and explore on their own. There is no better way to see the world!” We did exactly that with our 8 city/8 day “Delights of the Rhine & Moselle” cruise. In 2020 based on the same philosophy, Teeming River Cruises is offering an African river cruise, their popular Rhone & Provence cruise in France, the Po River and Venetian Lagoon in northern Italy … among others. Check here for the whole 2020 menu.
A Gem of a Volunteer Vacation in Spain
My husband and I have known about Spain’s VaughanTown for over 20 years, and we have heard unqualified enthusiasm from friends and colleagues who have participated in the program during that time. 2019 was our year to jump in and give this six-day volunteer vacation a try ourselves, starting with a three-hour group bus ride from Madrid!
The key to each program is IMMERSION for those Spaniards, most of them in their early to mid-thirties up to early forties, who want to improve their spoken Spanish for their career prospects. Over four decades ago, Mr Richard Vaughan conceived the idea of renting a nice Spanish resort far from city life and encouraging volunteers of different professional and national backgrounds whose first language is English to apply to share the resort (nice four-star accommodations and all meals free of charge). These Anglo volunteers make up the other half of the conversational partnership in a very well organized 12- to 13-hour-a-day program that starts with sharing breakfast (9 a.m., two Anglos and two Spaniards at each table) and ends with dinner about 10 p.m.
Much of the time in between is spent in a rotation of one-on-one 50 minute sessions that go on each day as one Anglo and one Spaniard go for country walks together or share a coffee on the terrace or in the huge lounge overlooking a panorama of mountain scenery. Other times are spent on planning group activities … all in English! … like costumed skits or presentations with plenty of laughs and encouragement all round.
During the week, confidence in conversational English improves measurably, and both groups prosper in life lessons while exchanging points of view, knowledge about everything from cultures and sports to family life. Friendships blossom between people of very different generations and experiences. Yes, it is hard work for the Anglo volunteers as it is for the Spaniards, but the rewards are unique during this very special encounter! Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the Anglo volunteers, who came from the UK, the US, Canada and Australia in our session, are retired.
Ireland Via Its Byways, Not Its Highways
What makes a Driftwood Journey of Discovery so memorable that you want to go back to Ireland within a month or less? Small size (no more than 14 guests), great itinerary and a quintessentially Irish driver/guide who captures the peaks and valleys, the tragedies and triumphs of the Irish people over several thousand years while never letting up on the equally quintessential Irish sense of humor. That pretty well described Andrew, our man from Tipperary, who patiently shepherded our group daily despite our natural tendency to scatter in all directions as soon as the van came to a halt and the door opened. I also have to admit we occasionally pushed the boundaries on the return time to the bus!
Driftwood is a division of the long-successful small-scale Irish tour operator, Vagabond Tours of Ireland. While not prone to any drifting that I could identify on my seven-day trip, our tour was tailored to an older clientele. One that likes a bit more free time to explore and shop, a super-comfortable ride around the countryside, a slightly later start on at least some mornings of the tour, more shopping, maybe a stay in an Irish castle rather than just a tour through one, and plenty of traditional Irish crafts and culture. All this can be rolled into a mature traveler’s best friend as well as plenty of bathroom stops.
My choice of itinerary was “Castles and Kingdoms” of the southern half of Ireland with a diversity of places to visit and things to do, not to mention a deep understanding of key winners and losers during thousands of years of history that has shaped this little island with an influence well beyond its size right to the present day. There are five Driftwood Journeys between 6 and 11 days with itineraries visiting all parts of the island that is Ireland.
Portugal’s Magical Mountain Retreat
Long a sanctuary for Portugal’s monarchs and nobles, Sintra remains a magnificent town of opulent mansions and palaces set against a lush backdrop of pine-covered hills and menacing ruins of a large fortress, the Castelo dos Mouros.
This makes a wonderful day-trip from Lisbon, whether journeying by train, bus or rental car all equally possible in under an hour. Once at Sintra town, we discovered that the only sensible way to ascend the narrow, very windy single lane road is by tuk-tuk … as we did thanks to our expert, somewhat daredevil driver-guide Antonela. On three wheels, we passed traffic jams of cars and buses by making fine use of slim strips of tarmac and parking motorcycle style where no parking spaces existed.
Thanks to Antonela, we saw close-up the Palacio National de Pena with its unmistakable yellow exterior and an interior restored to 1910 style. Architecture was impressively whimsical in its color and extravagant design, reflecting mostly the elaborate 19th century design. Crowded in summer, I recommend June or September for a slower satisfying glimpse of gracious living.