Portugal highlights on a 2 week roadtrip

Portugal is a great country for visiting for 10/14 days as it has a heap of varied things to experience and not vast distances to cover.  By basing yourself in the 3 major areas of Porto / The Douro Valley, Lisbon, and the Algarve, you can use each as a hub for adventures nearby and also be able to stop off on a few places directly in between that are great for a couple of hours or so

 

Big highlights for me were actually some of the smaller places that I’d never heard of before I arrived in Portugal.  In particular the gorgeous Duoro Valley wine region, the hilltop town of Sintra and the beautifully charming streets of Cascais.  Plus, the more famous highlights of port tasting in Porto and various neighbourhoods of Lisbon

 

Each piece that makes up this itinerary has its own travel post, but I’ve also condensed the key points and listed some more general tips below

Wine tasting around Pinhao in the Duoro Valley

What a surprisingly wonderful experience the Duoro Valley offers! I must admit that, like many others, I hadn’t heard of it before making the trip to Portugal and had mainly thought of the Algarve and Lisbon area when thinking of Portugal. . How wrong I was – the Duoro’s combination of vineyards, steep dramatic slopes and river views is one I can’t think of anywhere else in the world, let alone Portugal.  When you add into the mix that there is the more unusual Port wine to sample along with the normal table wine, then you have a real gem of an experience and, in my opinion, the highlight of Portugal

6 months trip of a lifetime around Latin America

My girlfriend and I went on a 6month trip around Latin America (excluding Brazil).  Started in the far South in the Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and, broadly, made our way up the west coast to the Yucatan Peninsular of Mexico.  Best large scale trip I’ve done, and wanted to share the overall itinerary and tips here to hopefully help those who are considering something similar

A few high level points:

  • Other than the flights there and the first hotel, there were only three things we booked in advance: the Inca Trail (which we knew we needed to for permits); plus for Patagonia a trip through Torres del Paine National Park and a ferry through the fjords (as we were going at peak season and only a couple of weeks after we landed).  Everything else, we booked when in Latin America and, in our opinion, that is the best way to do it – gives you the freedom to relax in the places you find that you love and be super flexible to do what you want to do
  • Total costs – my girlfriend and I went in our 30s, with no kids and on sabbaticals from work.  We’re not poor, but certainly not mega wealthy.  We didn’t stay in super expensive hotels (other than for the occasional splurge), flew economy and used a bit of common sense for timings of certain expensive items, but never held back on doing the things we wanted to do.  Some examples of big ticket items: US$5k for a week diving in the remote Wolf & Darwin Islands in the Galapagos; US$1.2k for 4 days in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia; US$800 for a helicopter trip to see the El Mirador Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle; US$700 for the Inca Trail.  Total cost of the whole trip was US$34k each.  This included all flights, transport, hotels, activities, food, drink, guides, screwing things up, credit card fees – the lot.  Expensive, but so are most Experiences of a Lifetime
  • It’s not about trying to “do everything” – in a place as large as Latin America, you couldn’t even if you tried – so don’t think of things as a big tick box exercise.  Brazil, for example, we knew we couldn’t do justice whilst also trying to enjoy all the other amazing places we’d heard of, so left it for next time
  • In the similar vain, make sure you give yourself big chunks of time to chill out.  Not only to recharge the batteries, but also because most places are enjoyed when you spend time to soak up the feel for the place.  There were some places . . . like Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, Bocas del Toro in Panama . . . where I could have spent weeks there just because the general vibe of the place was so wonderful
  • Safety – we weren’t robbed, but many people do either having a bag stolen or, unpleasantly, get robbed face to face.  Other than a couple of cities, we generally felt super safe the places we went and tried to just apply common sense to reduce our risks
  • Learn a bit of Spanish before you go – the app DuoLingo was great for getting us to a basic level that made a lot of difference.  But also don’t be afraid to pull out google for simultaneous conversation translations to really be able to have a conversation with someone – some long trips became some of our highlights just from being able to properly talk with the driver / locals.  I particularly remember a long taxi ride in Colombia where we went back and forward for 2 hours with the driver on everything from his home town to politics to football to his favourite movies to his family problems- never could have done that without Spanish or google.  In a similar vein, and using the right level of common sense, don’t turn down an invite for drinks / dinner / house visit with locals.  There are some truly unforgettable natural and cultural spots to see, but similarly an evening with a local family will be something likely to be just as unforgettable
  • Whenever checking out a place or must-do-site, its easy to get templed / churched / ancient site / beached out.  Always do a very basic bit of research to see if there is a more out of the ordinary way to experience it – by bike / drinking tour / kayaking / helicopter / whatever.  Thats what we tried to do, and I hope it reflected in some of the cool stuff listed below

Wine tasting and cycling around the vineyards of Mendoza

The most famous wine region in Latin America . . . making your way cycling from one superb vineyard to the next . . . stopping off for lunch overlooking the tallest section of the Andes range . . . sounds awful right?

Whilst Mendoza has a sea of vineyards spread out across a wide area, Chacras de Coria is jam packed with vineyards in a manageable sized area that is geared for cyclists who can easily make their way between them.   If you can, give yourself an extra day to head off to some of the other regions, but make Chacras de Coria your base

3 week European roadtrip for mountains and wine

If you look through a typical European highlights itinerary it will invariably be dominated by the cities.  For instance, the Lonely Planet’s top itinerary for Europe is 12 cities and nothing else, and of its 24 overall European highlights, only 6 are not cities (the Norwegian Fjords, the Matterhorn, Greece’s Santorini, Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, Transylvania, North Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid . . .  if you’re interested).  It’s understandable – Europe is a centre for culture and stunning capital cities, but it also has some world class experiences to be found outside of the cities and this itinerary gives you a flavour of those with a focus on its mountain and wine regions

 

With this itinerary you will enjoy:

  • Mountains – the most spectacular views of Europe’s premier mountain regions with Switzerland’s “big three” of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau from Interlaken, and the Pyrenes’ Cirques de Gavarnie
  • Wine regions – 4 of the best wine regions France has to offer with Bordeaux, Provence, Alsace and Champagne
  • Lakes – 2 of the world’s truly stunning lakes with the simply magnificent Lake Como and the Swiss Lakes surrounding Interlaken
  • Coastline – the epitome of luxury and style with the most famous stretch of coastline in Europe with the Cote d’Azur, its trio of corniches and Monaco
  • Hilltop villages and rural regions – the prettiest in Europe with the hilltop villages and elegant treelined streets of Provence and the timbered fairytale villages of the Black Forrest
  • Roman Ruins – some of the best preserved Roman Ruins with the Pont du Garde and the Arles Amphitheatre
  • Driving – and of course, some of the best driving scenery in all of Europe as you pass from one mountain range to another and along some of the prettiest countryside on the continent

Driving the Alsace Wine Route

There may be more famous wine routes in the world, but The Route des Vins d’Alsace might just be the best overall package when you consider a few factors that makes this such a great experience.  Firstly, the countryside for the route is an appealing combination of rolling lush green fields, misty mountains and castles perched on top of outcrops throughout the 170km / 105mile route, which, as it sounds, is just awful.  Secondly, and continuing the awful theme, the villages dotted along the route with their small alleyways and central squares look like something straight from a fairytale

Now, for those first two factors, I realise that there are other wine routes in the world that offer such equally dreamy surroundings, but consider the third factor – the Alsace region’s history of swinging between France and Germany provides a intriguing mix of culture that is basically unique – think French attitudes, but speaking German.  And, finally, the Alsace region does not have the reputation of the likes of Bordeaux, Tuscany, Napa Valley and the Garden Route, so with that comes reduced visitor numbers and, to be honest, a much more down to earth and less douchey vibe.  You can enjoy in a bit more quiet as you spend a couple of days stopping in the quiet fairytale towns and deciding which of the wine cellars spread every mile or so you want to visit

 

A highlight of France

 

I haven’t written a detailed review as I only spent a few days in the region, but for a good route guide, I’d suggest this site – https://blog.ruedesvignerons.com/en/travel-guide/alsace-wine-route/ – which gives a good overview of the places to stop

Sampling wines in Saint Emilion

The Bordeaux region is arguably the most famous and respected wine region in the world.  Whilst staying in Bordeaux the city is indeed lovely with its UNESCO World Heritage listed old town and architecture and wide variety of wineries and restaurants, if you are visiting the region I would suggest staying overnight in one of the villages that sit within the world-famous vineyards themselves.  And St Emilion represents the crème de la crème of the villages.  A medieval village sitting just above the vineyards for views all across the valleys (also UNESCO World Heritage listed), the opportunity to learn directly about how the wines are produced in the vineyards themselves and, critically, those wonderful summer early evenings when the temperature is dropping, the day tourists have left and you are there to enjoy a world-class meal in a village in a small part of paradise . . . the French, I must say, do this all very well

 

No particular tips as its hard to get wrong.  Sign up to a wine tour with one of the vineyards, and book one of the lovely spots for your evening meal.  Enjoy!

Sampling wines in the Champagne region

Driving through the rolling countryside or wandering through the Champagne-mad streets of Reims and Epernay, stopping at cellars ranging from small family run wineries to some of the largest and famous in the world, all whilst sampling and learning about how the crème de la crème of drinks is made.  Spending a few days in the Champagne region is a world-class experience and one that should be right at the top of the priority list when visiting France

Niagra Falls and Niagra on the Lake

Yes its eclipsed in size and power by other waterfalls round the world . . . and the tourist infrastructure around it is 10/10 tacky . . . but it’s a must see.  Watching the power of the water rushing over the horseshoe-shaped arc of the falls is mesmerising and, lets face it, one of those places that as a kid you always wanted to visit

 

If you’re visiting from the Canada side, and as a day trip from Toronto, I’d suggest be sure to:

1. Head up the Skylon Tower for great high up views of the falls

2. Take the Maid of the Mist boat to get up close (and wet) with the falls themselves.  You’ll wear a poncho, and get lost in it

3. Visit Niagra-on-the-lake – give yourself a couple of hours to wander through the well-preserved, and just really cute, 19th century town

4. If have time, head over to one of the ice wine vineyards to sample the relatively unusual, and super sweet, ice wine.  We went to Dan Aykroyd’s, bizarrely

Wine tasting in the Barossa Valley

South Australia’s hot, dry summers and moderate winters, have allowed the Barossa Valley to develop into one of the world’s great wine growing regions that produce around 20% of Australia’s wine and with a focus on big bold reds.   Maybe a little bit controversial, but its rolling hills are more pretty rather than stunning compared to the scenery of the Margaret River or wine spots in Tasmania, but its less than one hour trip from Adelaide and the compact cluster of wineries (its only 25km / 16miles long) make it a must for any wine fans in this part of the world

 

Two tips for the visit:

  1. Cycle – whilst we drove around, I think it would be a better experience cycling as its compact and relatively flat.  Plus, it allows you to work off the wine and get more stuck in!
  2. Taking a tour – often better to avoid the mass tourism nature of a tour, but in the case of the Barossa it may be worth it as there is German heritage in the region that would be good to have explained to you