July 29, 2014

Panama - Where a Modern Skyline, Historical Splendors, Pristine Beaches & the Panama Canal Await You!

As the plane hovered over Panama City before descending into Tocumen International Airport, I was struck by the city’s incredible skyline. There, shooting out of the ground, were hundreds of modern skyscrapers. Not what I imagined to find in the middle of Central America’s Pacific Coast.  

Dubbed the “Dubai of Latin America”, Panama City is the thriving cosmopolitan capital of Central America known for its international trading and banking. The city is a wonderful fusion of old and new with the centuries-old buildings of Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) juxtaposed against the dense skyline of modern Panama; a skyline that according to my tour guide Jesus, will transform before your eyes.

Panama City boasts a diverse range of culture along with a trendy selection of restaurants, cafés, night clubs and art galleries. The Old Town, declared a Historical Monument by UNESCO, is filled with cobblestoned streets and charming shops selling the famous Panama hat. Its beautifully restored buildings transport you to another era. Still, part of the charm lies in the dilapidated buildings you stumble upon. And there, in the middle of ancient ruins I enjoyed a delicious meal at The Fish Market.

The Panama Canal is celebrating 100 years of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the city is hosting festivities all year long such as the opening of Frank Gehry’s BioMuseo. While visiting the Miraflores Locks visitor center to watch a ship pass through the canal I learned that 38 to 40 ships make this crossing every day at a cost of $100,000 USD per ship that must be paid in cash by money wire. I was surprised to discover that the canal is only the fourth largest source of revenue for Panama; first being the country’s duty free shopping (second largest in the world) with an income of around 23 billion dollars a year; second is the banking industry; and third is the country’s rapidly growing tourism.         

Panama is surrounded by coastline and tropical rainforest, especially green and lush during the rainy season from May to November. Panama offers an incredible array of vacation options for travellers to enjoy a full Panamanian experience by combining their beach stay with a city break.     

During my stay in Panama, I relaxed on the beach and sipped cocktails poolside. I also enjoyed wonderful excursions like snorkelling and swimming at Farallon Island, a scenic drive through the Pan-American Highway, zip-lining over a waterfall in El Macho, shopping at a local market and lunch at La Casa de Lourdes. But I have to say that visiting local communities to witness firsthand the skillful creation of the Panama hat, carved woods and soapstone figures was truly an authentic, educational and humbling experience.

With so much to see and do and such a diverse range of experiences, Panama is a holiday like no other.

Book a city and beach stay in Panama with RIU Hotels and Resorts through Signature VacationsFor more images and information, please visit Travelweek.

July 04, 2014

Top 10 Family Summer Getaways

Each year thousands of families take a break from everyday life and share in some good old-fashioned fun on a summer getaway. It’s the best time to relish those long sunny days and warm balmy nights. Whether you have an extended family or small family, toddlers or teenagers, these great family-friendly destinations are the perfect place to create lasting memories.

This favourite summer destination is filled with fun things to do. Its location on the East Coast makes it accessible by car for those who enjoy family road trips. Cape Cod has 115 sandy beaches to explore, though Bayside beaches are much calmer for children. You can also take the ferry across to visit the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, or stop over in Boston for a few days. The options are endless.

Often referred to as the most European city in North America, Québec City is a closer and more affordable option. Besides the cultural heritage, great food, wine, cheese and outdoor cafés that the region is famed for, there’s also countless lakes, forests and a plethora of outdoor activities for the whole family to enjoy.

Go south of the US border for some family fun time in Ixtapa. Bask on beautiful sunny beaches or enjoy outdoor activities such as parasailing, jet skiing, swimming with dolphins, snorkelling and kayaking. You can also take sunset cruises, fishing trips and excursions to the charming fishing village of Zihuatenejo.

People have been raving about Myrtle Beach for ages and there’s a reason. Nestled on the Atlantic Coast, this family friendly location offers beautiful beaches, great theatre shows, countless golf courses, an exciting boardwalk, waterparks, children’s museum and many more adventures for you to enjoy.

With over 700 islands of sunny beaches, turquoise waters and nature to explore, the Bahamas is a perfect choice for a long weekend getaway or an entire week of family fun.  Wonder at the tropical wildlife, go snorkeling, diving, fishing or swim with dolphins. Take a boat ride or catch a show. Whatever you decide, the Bahamas has many fun-filled activities for the whole family.   

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

How could a country that loves family and tradition not make the list? From the delicious gelato shops to the impressive historical sites to its glorious beaches and enchanted countryside, Italy is a great holiday choice. Summer festivals are held in almost every major piazza and provide loads of fun for everyone.  So start off in Rome, the country capital, and move on from there.  

A Disney adventure is high on every child’s wish list, so why not take the entire family on a thrilling adventure to the Disneyland Resort and Downtown Disney? Bask on the bountiful beaches, take a hot-air balloon ride over Orange County, or explore Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south. Anaheim is a great destination to discover the treasures of Southern California.

An inviting combination of culture, coastline, delicious food and wonderful climate make Barcelona a great choice for your next family holiday. Explore Gaudi's spectacular architectural creations, relax beachside, visit the aquarium, stroll Las Ramblas and indulge your culinary curiosity at La Boqueira Market, the best in the world. This is a cultural vacation the whole family will remember.

Who said Paris is solely for romance? That’s not to say that everyone won’t be falling in love with the City of Lights. Paris is filled with things that impress from the wonders at the Louvre to the striking Notre Dame to the iconic Eiffel Tower. There’s also an abundance of outdoor markets, parks with playgrounds, as well as its very own Disneyland.  And we can’t forget the decadent array of pastries sure to fill a craving or two.   

This beautiful Hawaiian island offers an abundance of activities to do by foot, bike, helicopter or submarine. The only difficulty is choosing which one to do first. Kids will especially enjoy the Maui Ocean Centre, the Atlantis Submarine underwater tour and Hammerhead Harbour. There’s also parasailing, surf lessons, hiking, cultural performances, stage shows and musical events. The list is endless.


Click on the link to download a copy of my article - Top 10 Family Summer Getaways - in the new issue of Whatever Vaughan Magazine Summer 2014.  

May 20, 2014

Seville, Spain - A City with Passion, Flair & Theatricality

On a balmy summer night, the scent of orange blossom thick in the air, I listened to the passionate lilt of flamenco guitar accompanied by a seductive voice that permeated my soul. A mysterious gypsy dressed in a colourful, long ruffled skirt began snapping her fingers and stomping her feet in swift rhythmic movements. So profound was this experience that to my surprise tears began cascading down my face. It was my first experience of Seville and as I later made my way back to my hotel through medieval lanes, I knew I had fallen in love. 

Lying on the banks of the Guadalquivir is the capital of southern Spain’s Andalucía region – SEVILLE - a city whose romantic past is beaming with exotic influences, religious festivities, passionate Flamenco, bull fighting and world renowned tapas. It is the city of Carmen, Don Juan and Figaro and has a reputation for flair and theatricality that is befitting.
There is so much to be discovered in this fascinating city whose Arab legacy and Catholic heritage is proudly displayed in the city’s colorful art, architecture and impressive collection of historical sights: the Catedral de Sevilla, the Giralda Tower, Alcázar, Plaza de España, the Jewish quarter of Barrio Santa Cruz, and the Triana.

The Church of Santa Maria de la Sede, known as the Cathedral of Seville, is set like a crown jewel in the center of the old city and houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus. It is the largest Gothic building in Europe and the third largest cathedral in the world, after Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s in London. Beside the church is the minaret of La Giralda, this bell tower that is the symbol of Seville. Here you will find beautifully horse drawn carriages ready to take you on a romantic tour of this lovely city that I highly recommend.
Next to the Cathedral you will find the Alcázar. This royal palace is the legacy left by Arab kings who occupied Seville for over 500 years. It is regarded as one of the finest surviving examples of Moorish architecture, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside you will find striking ceilings and wonderful plaster-and tile-work. Outside (my favourite part) there are small linked gardens, flowers, fruit trees, pools and fountains. It is the kind of garden that draws you into a world of serenity and peace.
Another must see is the Plaza de España, Seville’s most impressive building after the Cathedral. This semi-circular brick square with four bridges and a canal that runs around the perimeter is known as the “Venice of Seville.” You can rent a row boat to relax and take in its grandeur. The inner part of the square showcases a series of glazed-tile depictions of historical scenes from every province in Spain. It is magnificent.

At night, the cobbled streets of Seville come to life with crowds of fun loving people who gather in the many tapas bars, restaurants and old-world streets to enjoy life. I’ve eaten some of my best meals in Seville. One of my favorite barrios (neighborhoods) is the former Jewish quarter - Barrio Santa Cruz - with its narrow, medieval winding streets and white washed houses. Another neighborhood with authentic charm is the Triana, famous for its azulejos (ceramic tiles). Once home to the city’s sailors, bullfighters and flamenco artists, it has a buzzing nightlife and great restaurant scene. Other barrios worth noting are La Macarena and San Bartolomé.

You cannot visit Seville without enjoying a stroll along the riverside promenade before heading to the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, the oldest bull ring in Spain, to see young matadors gracefully move around the arena as they unfurl their scarlet caps and captivate their audience. Though I personally found bullfighting to be a somewhat gruesome act, the ritual is a key part of the history and culture of the Spaniards of Seville. On one particular evening, I had the honor of meeting one of Spain’s legendary matadors who invited me to join him for tapas and drinks. All night people surrounded him in utter admiration, snapping pictures and asking for autographs. I felt privileged to be in the company of such a cherished matador and will always remember that evening with fondness.
After a day of sightseeing or an evening of dancing, I highly recommend a visit to the Aire de Sevilla for an authentic Hamman experience in an ancient roman bath. The ambiance alone is worth a visit. I’ve gone there with each visit and always look forward to returning again one day.  

Seville is filled with wonderful historical sites, beautiful boutiques and great tapas bars and restaurants. How lucky for us there exists a place so beautifully immersed in old world traditions and romance it takes your breath away…

When to Visit Seville

Seville is a great place to visit all year long, but keep in mind that summer temperatures can reach well into the 40’s. A good time to visit and witness the extraordinary flair of the Sevillians is during the annual Fería de Abril, a week-long celebration where you’ll see men parading on fine horses and women dancing in brilliantly colored gypsy dresses. There’s also the Holy Week, Semana Santa, where hooded penitents march in long procession followed by large baroque floats with 17th century images of the Virgin and Christ. This may be a religious festivity but that does not stop Sevillians from filling up the local bars and having fun until the early morning hours.

Day Trips

I highly recommend visiting the Alhambra Palace in neighboring Granada. Alhambra (al-qalca al-hamra) meaning the red castle for its beautiful crimson hue, was home to the Nasrid Sultans that ruled the region.  It remains one of my favorite palaces of all time with its lovely courtyards, ancient fountains, flower gardens and tree lined walkways.

If time permits, it is also worth visiting the cities of Cadiz, Córdoba and Gibraltar.

When possible, I like to end my holidays with a few days relaxing seaside and when in Andalucia that would be the seaside town of Marbella, the Costa del Sole’s most stylish beach resort. This lovely old town is sheltered by the hills of the Sierra Blanca and is home to many lovely boutiques, restaurants, bars and cafés where you can sit back and look beyond to the mountains of Ronda.  About 6 km further along the coastline, you will find the marina of Puerto Banús where the super-rich vacation in hilltop villas or laze around on luxurious yachts. You can relax on a beach or go sightseeing. The choice is yours.