April 10, 2015

Cap Cana - Dominican Republic's New Tropical Paradise!

When Christopher Columbus called the Dominican Republic 'the most beautiful land eyes have ever seen' he must have been referring to the island’s sunny skies, lush natural landscapes, dazzling turquoise waters and soft white-sand beaches. And during my latest visit to the spectacular Cap Cana, I can confirm this is indeed true.

On a recent trip to Punta Cana, I was treated to a fun filled day of exploring Cap Cana’s new multi-million dollar resort destination - a place where the Caribbean Sea kisses the Atlantic Ocean and warm breezes had me seriously questioning a permanent change of address!

Cap Cana is just 10 minutes from Punta Cana International Airport (which I was happy to see underwent an expansion project in 2011), in the southeast of the Dominican Republic, and is located on 30,000 acres of unspoiled lush coast, with spectacular waterfront views and 3.4 miles of pristine beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see.  

My day began with a visit to Scape Park, a natural themed park located within Cap Cana. Here, visitors can enjoy a number of exciting adventures like zip lining through a canopy of trees or experience an off road buggy adventure on scenic trails in the midst of tropical forests. There’s also horseback riding, cruises, fishing, cave expeditions and much more.

I enjoyed a short hike along an eco-trail to visit the beautiful “Las Ondas”, where a woman dressed in traditional Taino costume stood guard outside the mouth of the cave. My guide then led me down a steep wooden staircase into the cenote - an underwater lagoon that shimmered in an array of dazzling blues. It was an invigorating experience to enter this mystical pool of water, and I could not help but be in awe of its natural beauty!

At Punta Espada Golf Club, designed by legendary Jack Nicklaus and ranked the #1 Best Golf Course in the Caribbean and Mexico by Golfweek publication, billowy breezes and magnificent views left me speechless!

Cap Cana - Dominican Republic's new tropical paradise - is home to a number of luxury hotels and spas, beach clubs, as well as numerous residential properties and stylish restaurants, bars and boutiques. The heart of this resort destination is the post-card perfect Marina Cap Cana. Its beauty is reminiscent of the French Riviera and the Caribbean’s most picturesque UNESCO inspired port cities, where pastel colonial buildings line their waterfronts and luxury yachts are ready to set sail in a moment’s notice. (Think CuraƧao or St Lucia).

Here, I boarded a catamaran to sail Cap Cana’s spectacular coastline and proximity, considered among the best spots in the world for fishing and deep-water diving. The water was crystal clear and the most brilliant shade of turquoise - the kind you would find in an ad campaign, so beautiful you think it’s photo-shopped. And there, in the midst of this paradise, I went snorkeling and walked along a picturesque sandbank - an experience I celebrated with a cold cerveza in hand, as I danced to the rhythmic sound of bachata.

I ended this incredible day with a delicious Italian meal in a seaside restaurant. Could anything be more perfect - I think not! As I sat there taking in my beautiful surroundings, a wave of excitement washed over me. The future of Punta Cana shined brightly and I could not wait to share the news with all of you. 

  Look for more of my travels in Travelweek!

April 06, 2015

Molise - A Journey off the Beaten Path into Italy’s Back-Country!

Amid the Apennine ridge and the Adriatic Sea lies a land of immense natural beauty, history, art and age-old traditions that will take you on a journey off the beaten path to experience another kind of Italy – one untainted by the hands of time.

Tucked between Abruzzo and Puglia along the Adriatic seashore in south-central Italy is Molise, the place where Italy transitions from north to south. This majestic mountain region with its wealth of colours and scents, unspoiled countryside, impressive ruins, green forests and deep blue sea, provides a glimpse of an authentic Italy.
Dotted with picturesque villages, olive groves, vineyards, beautiful abbeys, countless churches and castles, it is a wonder how this natural oasis remains largely undiscovered.     

Molise’s history mirrors that of Abruzzo having recently gained independence in 1963. Initially occupied by the Samnite tribes, Molise was then taken over by the Romans and later dominated by the Lombards, the Goths and the Normans, who gave the region its name. Their collective influence is evidenced throughout.
This mountainous region is comprised of the provinces of Isernia to the west and Campobasso (the capital of Molise and the province of Campobasso) to the east. Though the cities lack the luster of Italy’s more renowned areas, they possess a humble authenticity and charm that provide a window into Italian life and culture.  

Rising between the Carpino and the Sordo rivers is the ancient town of Isernia with its quaint lanes and narrow alleyways. Its close proximity to Rome and Naples makes it a wonderful starting point for exploring the region. Isernia was once the capital of the Samnite people. A recent excavation in the nearby site of Pineta unearthed a 700,000-year-old settlement whose ancient relics are now displayed in the National Museum of Paleontology and Archaeology. Though most of Isernia’s historic centre was destroyed by earthquakes and wars, its beauty remains. The city’s most famous sites are the 14th century Fontana della Fraterna and the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul with its famed dome and arch.
When it comes to art, the ninth-century frescoes in the crypt of San Lorenzo in San Vincenzo al Volturno are a must see.  In nearby Pastena, travellers can admire the spectacular Sanctuary of the Addolorata, on the steep mountains of Castelpetroso.

Campobasso sits along the Biferno River surrounded by the Sannio and Matese mountains. The city’s historic streets are teeming with monuments and churches, the imposing fifteenth-century Manforte castle stealing the spotlight. Sites worth visiting are the Romanesque churches of San Bartolomeo and San Giorgio, the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate with its collection of carvings and wooden sculptures of sixteenth-century masters of Molise, and the Church of San Leonardo. History lovers will appreciate the Provincial Samnite Museum with its treasured exhibits from past civilizations and the Fair of the Mysteries. About fifteen kilometers from the city, rising from the mountain is the Romanesque Santa Maria della Strada with the fifteenth-century Gothic sepulchre.
At the foothills of the Matese mountains, near Sepino, you will find one of Molise’s hidden treasures  - the ancient Roman city of Saepinum - where the fascinating remains of a basilica and theatre are surrounded by medieval houses and intensely green fields and forests. Sepino is also renowned for its thermal baths, perfect for unwinding and relaxing.   

In Molise, old-world customs and traditions thrive and perhaps it is this “old-fashioned world” that visitors seek. Ancient traditions, such as the “transumanza,” the seasonal migration of herds along ancient sheep-droving routes (tratturi) has remained intact for over 3000 years. Today, these scenic trails are also used as mountain-bike and horseback-riding trails.
Molise, with its hidden emerald lakes and succession of hills gently sloping or steeply inclined creates a dreamy landscape. It is the perfect haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Walk, hike, raft, camp or zip line through the unspoiled beauty of WWF Nature Reserve in Guardaregia-Campochiaro. Adventure seekers can revel in the thrilling ski slopes of Campitello Maltese and the renowned cross-country ski trails of Capracotta. It is fun for the whole family!

On the east coast is Costa dei Trabocchi, Molise’s Riviera, beach lovers can partake in a variety of watersports or sunbath on a succession of dazzling white sand beaches that stretch along the region’s 35kms of striking coastline. Termoli, the main beach resort and the region’s only major port, is a modern city filled with pastel-coloured homes. Its enchanting borgo antico (old town) is situated on a coastal promontory and preserves traces of its glorious past. From the port, visitors can set sail to explore the Tremiti Islands; a beautiful archipelago renowned for its crystalline shallow waters, jagged coastline, abundant grottoes and coves, as well as archaeological ruins.
South of Termoli are several centuries-old Albanian towns that pay homage to the language and traditions of their Albanian ancestors. In the village of Ururi, locals still celebrate the annual Corsa dei Carri, a chariot race held each summer.

The region is host to many yearly festivals and events that keep local traditions alive such as the ‘Fuochi di San Antonio,’ an ancient folklore festival in Jelsi; the International Bagpipe Festival in Scapoli; the Feast of Corpus Christi in Campobasso; the White Truffle Fair in San Pietro Avellana; ‘La ‘Ndocciata,’ a Christmas torch-lit procession in Agnone; Pezzata, the Lamb Festival in Capracotta, and many more. 
One of the oldest wine regions in Italy, Molise’s combination of sun and hilly terrain create the ideal conditions for producing excellent wines such as the Biferno and Pentro.

From rolling hills to seascape, Molise’s culinary delights are a bountiful fusion of local, northern and southern cooking traditions. Locally-grown ingredients such as sheep, sheep’s milk and lamb are abundant in regional dishes. The Pecorino, Scamorza, Caciocavallo and Provolone cheeses are extremely delicious, in particular when accompanied by local wines and cured-meats. The second-largest producer of truffles in Italy, Molise is known for its white truffles and scorzone truffles. The traditional cavatelli pasta is renowned, as is the extra-virgin olive oil. Seafood recipes include anchovies, swordfish, mussels and clams. This combination of ‘mare e monte’ is absolutely delizioso!
The next time you are visiting the Bel Paese, take a journey off the beaten path to Molise, an enchanted land of natural beauty to experience a genuine Italian holiday.

Look for this article in the new issue of Panoram Italia Magazine.

* Note: Images for this post are not mine.

April 02, 2015

Quirky London Hotspots

The lovely Ginnie from QUIRKY LONDON – the ultimate guide to alternative London - is guest posting today to share some interesting hotspots to hang out in the British capital. If you are headed to London, you may want to check these out.

London never ceases to amaze us when it comes to cool and quirky haunts. There really is an endless amount of unusual things to do if you're looking for them, so to save you time we've compiled a shortlist. Enjoy! - Ginnie 

Ziferblat, Shoreditch
London's first pay as you go cafe. The aim is to pay for the space and not for the food/drink that you consume so this little place is rather different. Ziferblat is a great place to hang out with friends and really feel at home as you can help yourself to tea/coffee and even use the kitchen for yourself. You are supplied with a stop clock to keep tabs on how much you're time you're spending. But really, this place is about chilling out, sharing ideas, making new friends, even participating in workshops, and generally creating something special!

Electric Cinema, Notting Hill
The ultimate retro cinema experience- sit back in a big red leather armchair in one of the oldest movie theatres in London. Sip on a glass of wine, enjoy some delicious bar snacks, and kick back whilst watching a film on the big screen. Definitely the more sophisticated cinema experience and totally worth it! Go there yourself and feel the magic of the place.

Opium, Soho
You may be hard pressed to find this secret establishment as you trudge your way through China Town and the mass of Chinese restaurants dotted around the place but it's worth the effort. Behind a very unassuming door next to another Chinese, is Opium. As you make your way up the stairs you'll discover there's three floors and each one has it's own unique theme- The Bartenders bar showcasing a unique selection of drinks, The Apothecary bar specialising in spirits served in Chinese medicine bottles and The Tea Parlour serving Chinese teas and serving up delicious dim sum.

Drink Shop & Do, Kings Cross
Cafe by day and bar by night serving afternoon teas, light meals and delicious cocktails, creators Kristie Bishop and Coralie Sleap have also dedicated to hosting an array of alternative workshops, classes and themed events. Upcoming events include Inappropriate Christmas Card Making, Tea Towel Print Screening and Coffee Tasting. Check out their site for the latest kooky parties you can attend!

And finally, a seasonal one-

Winterville Christmas Market, Victoria Park
This place is a wonderful alternative to Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland. Yes you have the usual rides, the mulled wine and then hot dog stands but this place has something different. There is a magically quirky tent containing different stalls selling various handmade products such as jewellery, paintings and antiques. There is a very cool and vintage roller disco. A mulled cider tent, (we love mulled cider.) And not to mention the two food squares with a huge range of delectable delights to feast upon, from Holy Cow Free Range Burgers and the Homemade Fresh Pasta stall to the Crabbieshack serving all things, crab and even authentic Philly Cheesesteaks. There is so much that's great about this market, we love it!

Thank you Ginnie!