10 Best National Parks Around the World

Posted October 18, 2013 by


National parks are kind of an American thing. After all, we established the first one (Yellowstone) in 1872. But it didn't take long for the idea to catch on overseas, and these days the international community can give even our most impressive parks a run for their money. If you love exotic wildlife, ancient ruins, and otherworldly scenery, you might want to add these 10 foreign national parks to your bucket list.


Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

Where else can you enjoy mountains, lakes, fjords, and rainforests in one park? Fiordland National Park, located on New Zealand's South Island, encompasses a massive almost 3 million acres (roughly 4,687 square miles) formed by glacial flows. The most famous of the park's 14 fjords is Milford Sound, which visitors can explore from all angles: Take a helicopter ride above it, cruise on the water, or go below (without getting wet) at the Milford Discovery Center's underwater viewing chamber, which offers 360-degree views of the ecosystem and rare black coral some 30 feet underwater.


Tikal National Park, Guatemala

You'll feel like you've traveled back in time at Guatemala's Tikal National Park, where ruins of an ancient Maya city-state (which housed approximately 100,000 people from the 6th century BCE to the 10th century CE) lie deep in the heart of the jungle. Remains of more than 3,000 separate buildings (including temples, palaces, and tombs) are preserved here. The massive archaeological site feels even more otherworldly as it is surrounded by 54,610 acres (roughly 85 square miles) of rainforest, now inhabited by a wide variety of wild animals such as monkeys, jaguars, snakes, sloths, and armadillos.


Kruger National Park, South Africa

Wildlife watchers, this is the park for you. Kruger National Park's almost 4.9 million acres (roughly 7,722 square miles) are home to an incredible variety of species: 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds, and 147 mammals—and of course that includes the "Big Five" of African game (elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo). There are numerous ways to traverse the park, from the wilderness walking trails (where you'll be accompanied by armed guards) to traditional safaris and 4WD trails.


Galapagos National Park, Ecuador

An astonishing 97 percent of the land area of the Galapagos Islands is part of this national park (the other 3 percent is the inhabited islands, on which tourists can find overnight accommodations, if they don't choose to do a cruise). To visit the park, you'll need to pay a $100 entry fee, and you'll have to be part of a tour that is accompanied by a Galapagos National Park certified guide—there's no doing this park solo. You'll be rewarded with one-of-a-kind wildlife spotting, including the giant tortoise, Galapagos Penguin, marine iguana, and blue-footed booby.


Kluane National Park and Reserve, Canada

Kluane National Park and Reserve is home to Canada's highest mountain (Mt. Logan), more than 100 species of birds (including golden and bald eagles), glaciers, and grizzly bears. Visit in the summer when this park, located in the southwestern corner of the Yukon, experiences up to 19 hours of continuous sunlight per day! Although more than 80 percent of the park's landscape is comprised of mountains and glaciers (more than 4,000 of them), the park still has plenty of greenery—there are meadows and forests that house wide ranges of wildlife, from mountain goats to Dall sheep.


Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Japan

This national park consists of four different regions: The Mt. Fuji area (home to the highest mountain in Japan, fields formed by lava flows, and five volcanic lakes), the Hakone area (famous for its hot springs and botanical garden), the Izu Peninsula area (featuring the Mt. Amagi volcanic mountain range and Atagawa Tropical and Alligator Garden, which houses 29 reptile species), and the Izu Islands (a group of islands formed by submarine volcanoes).


Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Chile's Torres del Paine National Park is one of the world's most visually arresting places. Its glaciers, lakes, green forests, and rivers are framed by mountains and towered over by the Torres del Paine (granite pillars that rise more than 9,000 feet above the Patagonian steppe). Amid the beautiful scenery, you'll find more than 100 species of exotic birds (including parakeets and flamingos), guanacos (similar to llamas), pumas, and the endangered Chilean huemul (a species of deer).


Canaima National Park, Venezuela

The star attraction of Canaima National Park is Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall, which drops for more than half a mile before hitting the rapids. The park itself is roughly the size of Belgium (12,000 square miles) and about 65 percent of its terrain is tepuis—plateaus of rock that create the amazing cliffs and mountains that make this park so picturesque. This national park is actually inhabited—it's home to the indigenous Pemon Indians.


Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

If you want to experience some of Africa's best wildlife viewing, Serengeti National Park is the place to do it. Every year, more than a million wildebeest, 200,000 zebras, and 300,000 Thomson's gazelles make their annual migrations from the northern hills to the southern plains, making for some amazing safari photo ops. Even if you come when the migration is not happening, you'll still likely see the Big Five, plus cheetahs, Nile crocodiles, monkeys, giraffes, and much more.


Swiss National Park, Switzerland

Switzerland's only national park is one of Europe's best-protected natural environments—hunting, mowing, off-trail hiking, and tree cutting are all forbidden within the park's more than 42,000 acres. (You can't even bring your dog.) The park's landscape is classic Switzerland, with Alpine forests and meadows, The Sound of Music-esque scenery (including edelweiss flowers), and mountain lakes.


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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Best National Parks Around the World.

Follow Caroline Morse on Google+ or email her at at


10 Amazing Wine Towns in Europe

Posted September 9, 2013 by


From medieval hilltops to breezy coastlines, European wine towns make for irresistible vacation spots. Local cuisines help form a food-wine symbiosis unique to each locale, and surrounding vineyards provide the perfect backdrop. Whether renowned or under the radar, these gastronomic playgrounds offer plenty to taste plus enough history and culture for days of exploration. So head down into the cellar, uncork a prized vintage or two, and toast to these 10 amazing European wine towns.



Beaune, France

Within its ramparts and narrow cobblestone streets, Beaune has one major priority: the production—and consumption—of wine. Dubbed the wine capital of Burgundy—itself one of the most famous viticulture regions in all of France—the small town has been obsessed with the drink since the Middle Ages, thanks in part to the lavish lifestyles of the Dukes of Burgundy. Today, it remains the region's center for wine trade and tourism. As you walk through town, undoubtedly in search of prestigious Pinot Noir-based vintages, stop at the Wine Museum, the Dukes' former residence, for a quick study in oenology, then enter the cellars at Marche aux Vins for a free tour and tasting. Across the way, the Hotel-Dieu, a medieval charity-hospital museum that hosts an annual wine auction every November, offers a sobering look into the lives of the sick and poor in the 15th century.

Uncork: Biodynamic wines at Joseph Drouhin, best tasted in the winery's historical Duke's cellar, built on top of 4th-century Roman fortifications.

Pair: In the snazzy, red-cloaked dining room at Loiseau des Vignes, opened in 2007 by Dominique Loiseau (wife of late chef Bernard Loiseau), choose from among 70 different wines by the glass to accompany the regional prix-fixe menu.



Bernkastel-Kues, Germany

Of the many wine villages on Germany's Mosel River, Bernkastel-Kues is one of the most well-known and oldest. Set in the Middle Mosel region, the town has the ideal terroir for growing prized Riesling grapes. Its steep, slate-covered hillsides are striped with vineyards and lead up to the ruins of Landshut Castle, a focal point for cruisers floating by in river boats below. In the town center, take time to admire the medieval market square lined with half-timbered houses, and stop to photograph the narrow and leaning Spitzhauschen ("Pointed House") that dates back to 1416. Continue on, strolling through small boutiques and breaking for a leisurely lunch at one of the many welcoming restaurants. Just be sure to open a bottle of the town's most legendary wine, Bernkasteler Doctor, which supposedly cured the 14th-century Archbishop of Trier of serious illness.

Uncork: More than 160 regional wines—including Riesling, sparkling Elbling, and fruity Kerner varietals—at the Mosel Wein Museum's Vinothek, housed in the cellars of the historical St. Nicholas Hospital.

Pair: Enjoy regional specialties complemented by a Riesling-focused wine list at Doctor Weinstube, a 17th-century hotel and tavern with an inviting, rustic dining room.



Montepulciano, Italy

Perched above vineyards and cypress-tree groves in the Italian province of Siena, Montepulciano is the biggest and highest medieval hill town in southern Tuscany. Panoramic views of the Val d'Orcia countryside render it a perfect setting for movies like The English Patient and Under the Tuscan Sun, but it is most famous for its Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a red wine made primarily from Sangiovese grapes. The town, lined with Renaissance palaces and churches, centers on Piazza Grande, where the Bravio delle Botti barrel race takes place every August. Food lovers will especially enjoy shopping in the Centro Commercial Naturale, visiting the olive mill, and learning how to make pici pasta with flour from local wheat at the Il Sasso school for language and culture.

Uncork: The celebrated reds at the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the local wine consortium made up of more than 70 producers, and its Enoteca Wine Shop in the historical Palazzo del Capitano on Piazza Grande.

Pair: Sample Pecorino cheese, meat, honey, and olive oil in the town's cantines (wine cellars), which are often linked by underground tunnels. Local favorite Cantine Contucci, in the 13th-century cellars of the Palazzo Contucci, is open for tastings every weekday.



Borba, Portugal

When in Portugal, many wine lovers make a beeline to Porto and the Douro Valley. However, the lesser-known Alentejo region to the south has plenty to offer as well, especially when it comes to smaller towns devoted to wine. Though the historical UNESCO World Heritage city of Evora has a regional tasting room and is a natural starting point for the Alentejo wine route, it's nearby Borba that truly lives for wine. From adegas (wineries) in the heart of town to the annual Festa do Vinho e da Vinha (Festival of Wine and Vine) in November, visitors to Borba have plenty of opportunities to sample its robust reds. However, it's also worthwhile to check out the architectural details throughout town: Because of several nearby quarries, Borba is dressed in fine marble, particularly at sites like the Convento das Servas de Cristo and the ornate Fonte das Bicas fountain.

Uncork: Touriga Nacional (considered Portugal's finest grape) along with other regional varietals such as Trincadeira and Aragonez at Adega de Borba, a cooperative that offers different labels from 300 wine-growing associates.

Pair: Dine among giant terra-cotta talhas storing wine while eating local specialties—including ensopado de borrego, a lamb stew, and migas, a traditional dish usually made with breadcrumbs, garlic, and pork—at tasquinhas, or small taverns and restaurants, in town.



Eger, Hungary

On the hills of the Bukk Mountains, nestled in one of Hungary's main viticulture regions, Eger is a popular wine town regarded for its whites and especially reds. Architecturally, the town presents a melange of Turkish, Baroque, and neoclassical styles, evident in well-touristed sites like the Eger Cathedral and the original Ottoman-period minaret. You can learn about the history of Eger's castle and its underground fortification system at the Istvan Dobo Castle Museum, then unwind (releasing any lingering anxiety from the museum's medieval-punishment exhibit) at the recently renovated thermal baths and Turkish spa. After climbing the 97 claustrophobic steps of the needle-shaped minaret, get a sweet fix at the Marzipan Museum and candy shop across the way. To taste wine, hop on the shuttle from the central Dobo Square to cellars in Szepasszony-volgy, or "Valley of the Beautiful Women," just south of town.

Uncork: The legendary Egri Bikaver, or "Bull's Blood of Eger," Hungary's best-known wine internationally. Blended with three or more red grapes—primarily Kekfrankos—the cuvee is matured in oak barrels for at least a year.

Pair: Taste dishes such as goulash soup, roasted pork tenderloin with creamy wild mushrooms, and smoked Hungarian sausage at Kodmon Tavern, an elegant spot that has been serving local cuisine since 1778.



Haro, Spain

With clay soil ideal for growing grapes, multitudes of wine bodegas, and an organized vineyard route, Haro has earned the right to be called the wine capital of Spain's Rioja region. Not only does wine drive Haro's local economy, but it is also taken quite seriously as a way of life—so much so that on the feast of San Pedro (June 29), the town hosts a wine battle, during which opposing sides launch liters of wine at each other, then throws an after party in central Plaza de la Paz Square. Oenophiles and casual visitors alike can delve into the study of viticulture at the Rioja Wine Interpretation Centre, which serves as a research center and museum, or taste the area's fine red wines at the many vineyards and cellars open to the public.

Uncork: Wines from area bodegas, such as the generations-old Lopez de Heredia or the more modern Roda, which specializes in Tempranillo-based wines.

Pair: In Haro's Herradura neighborhood, known for tapas bars and restaurants, seek out dishes like pepitos (steak sandwiches) or pincho moruno (skewered diced pork). For traditional cuisine, mixed vegetable stew, chorizo, and lamb cutlets with vine shoots go nicely with the local wines.



Saint-Emilion, France

If the scent of freshly baked macarons wafting through medieval streets isn't enough to lure you into Saint-Emilion, the wine certainly will. One of the most famed villages on the right bank of France's Bordeaux region, Saint-Emilion is built as much on Merlot and Cabernet Franc as it is on ancient limestone. After visiting the many wine shops in town, take a tour of the 800-year-old Monolithic Church and go underground to the cave where Breton monk—and hermit—Emilion once lived. Come back up to admire the eye-catching 173-foot-high bell tower before following the winding road that leads out to wine-tasting chateaux and rows of vineyards in a World Heritage landscape that span as far as the eye can see.

Uncork: Wines by innovative—but controversial—garagiste winemakers, such as Chateau Valandraud and the appropriately-named Bad Boy label by Jean-Luc Thunevin.

Pair: Decant a bottle of Grand Cru Classe then toast to seasonal market cuisine either indoors or on the shaded terrace at L'Envers du Decor.



Orebic, Croatia

On the southwestern tip of Peljesac, a peninsula on Croatia's Dalmatian coast, Orebic is a maritime town that attracts tourists looking to relax on its sandy beaches, dine on the local catch, and drink wine from the surrounding vineyards. Explore the Maritime Museum—and its collection of models and paintings of boats—at the foot of Mount Elijah, and find sea captain's homes (which you can often stay in) throughout town. The Franciscan monastery's observation towers afford views of the Adriatic, the old town below, and the fruit trees, cypresses, and olive groves that dot the landscape. Winemaking on Peljesac dates back to Roman times, and the Plavac Mali grape, called "the blood of the soil" in Dalmatia, thrives in the Mediterranean climate and takes center stage on the peninsula's pebbled hills.

Uncork: Dry, ruby-red wines such as Dingac, which is deeply rooted in the region's winemaking tradition and became Croatia's first protected wine, and Postup, the country's second protected wine.

Pair: In Orebic's taverns and cafes, seafood reigns supreme. The highlight is the local shellfish, in particular crab, squid, and octopus, but make room for the region's handmade cured ham and cheeses, local olive oil, and fresh citrus fruits and vegetables.



Barolo, Italy

Barolo, famous for its garnet-colored wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, is a low-lying town tucked into a valley in Italy's hilly Piedmont region. While the town has produced wine since at least Roman times, we can thank the last Marchessa of Barolo, French-born Giulia Colbert Falletti di Maulevrier, for realizing the potential of the noble grape in the mid-19th century and getting the town on the map. Visit her former home, the recently renovated Castello Falletti, which houses the WineMuseum (or WiMu) and tasting room, or head next door to the Corkscrew Museum in a former wine cellar. Stay in the neighboring countryside and use your rented villa or farmhouse as a home base for taking walks through the vast vineyards of Barolo and the rest of Piedmont's Langhe wine region.

Uncork: Wine from the 11 communes that produce Barolo at Enoteca Regionale del Barolo, located in the basement of the Falletti castle.

Pair: Choose dishes that can stand up to—and are often cooked in—the region's wine, such as mushroom risotto, braised beef, and gamey stews like bollito misto. Find similar items on the menu at Locanda nel Borgo Antico, a modern farmhouse restaurant tucked away in the vineyards.



Pico (Madalena), Portugal

It's one thing to be a wine town, but it's quite another to be a wine island. On the Azorean isle of Pico, coastal vineyards grow along the sloped edges of an enormous volcano, with their gnarled grapevines creeping up basalt stone walls that protect the plots, or currais, from whipping sea winds and saltwater. Get an introduction to this unusual World Heritage vineyard landscape at the wine museum in Lajido, then trail the coastline in search of clay-roofed wine cellars built with black lava rock, old stone ramps (rola-pipas) that barrels would roll down and onto waiting boats, and tracks (rilheiras) carved by ox carts hauling grapes over the rugged landscape. At the cooperative in the main town of Madalena, learn how the basaltic wines are crafted and, of course, taste them too.

Uncork: Regional whites and reds from Frei Gigante and Terras de Lava, plus aperitif wines and firewater, which will knock you clear off your axis if you're not careful.

Pair: At Restaurante Ancoradouro in Madalena, start by drizzling corn bread and Pico cheese with honey, then pair a glass of vinho branco with any one of the seafood specialties. Grab a table on the breezy terrace for views of the sea and the nearby island of Faial.


Read the Entire Story: 10 Amazing Wine Towns in Europe

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Go Beyond the Grave in York, England

Posted November 17, 2010 by Kate Hamman

York York exudes English charm, especially along its winding medieval street called the Shambles. However, don't be fooled by its picturesque setting, as the city has plenty of secrets lurking in the shadows, including its reputation as one of the most haunted cities in Europe. Get to know the town by walking through its spooky history, dining with its ghosts, and drinking its tea inspired by an infamous ocean liner.

The Ghost Trail of York: The Ghost Trail of York takes you along darkened streets at night, while you listen to tales of murder, plague, heartbreak, and revenge beyond the grave. A costumed guide waits in front of the York Minster every night at 7:30 p.m., regardless of weather, to reveal the gruesome and tragic events of York's past. Tickets cost £4.00 (about $6.00 U.S.; check for current conversion rates) and the tour lasts about one hour and 15 minutes.

Golden Fleece: When you go to a pub for spirits, it's unlikely you're thinking of the dearly departed variety. The Golden Fleece, however, typically serves both. Built in 1503, you'll find York's most haunted drinking establishment across from the historical Shambles. Skip the drinks and go right to the main attraction of comfort foods, such as homemade Yorkshire pudding. Try not to be too alarmed if you catch sight of Lady Peckett, one of the five resident spirits. For a haunting good time, you can also rent one of the four rooms and spend the night with your newfound friends. Entrees start at £6.25.

Bettys Café Tea Rooms: Bettys Café Tea Rooms on St. Helen's Square captures the elegance of afternoon tea with absolute precision. Inspired by the founder's maiden voyage aboard the Queen Mary in 1936, the ornate and extravagant interior is reminiscent of the grand ocean liner which, incidentally, is haunted. A cup of the Tea Room Blend costs £2.95, but order Yorkshire Cream Tea, served in a piping hot pot with two scones, preserves, and clotted cream for £7.95, for a truly authentic experience.

To search for flights and compare prices to Leeds, which is home to York’s nearest major airport, please use our price-comparison tool.


Dance Among the Tulips in Lisse, Netherlands

Posted August 20, 2010 by Kate Hamman

Lisse With rainbow-colored fields of blossoming tulips surrounding the city, Lisse, Netherlands, is an ideal place to be in the spring. However, you don't have to spend a fortune to appreciate the beauty of the season. Here, you can walk among the flowers at Keukenhof, dine and dance the night away at a nearby restaurant, and stay at a hotel close to it all.

Keukenhof: Spring puts its best colors forward at Keukenhof, one of the world's largest flower gardens, where millions of bulbs blossom into a kaleidoscope of flora everywhere you turn. Try your green thumb at the Inspirational Gardens, where you're encouraged to grow your own tulips at home. The flower shows are a particularly special treat, as blooms from across the country are put on display and change weekly. You can also purchase bulbs and freshly cut flowers from several sellers at the park. Entrance costs €14.50 (about $18 U.S.; check for current exchange rates).

Restaurant De Nachtegaal: Located in the Golden Tulip Hotel, Restaurant De Nachtegaal offers a varied menu that changes on a whim.  From Monday through Friday, you can enjoy an array of different dishes at the lunch buffet. On Saturday nights, the chef prepares a special three-course prix fixe menu, and you may find yourself dancing in between courses as live music fills the air.

Hotel de Duif: The Hotel de Duif's rooms may not be fancy, but the location and price can't be beat. Situated in the center of town, not far from the fields of bulbs, you'll be able to sit on the patio and smell the flowers. The hotel's standard rooms come equipped with a shower and color TV, while the suites offer kitchenettes.

To search for flights and compare prices to Amsterdam, which is home to Lisse’s closest international airport, please use our price-comparison tool.


Fall in Love With Brussels and Its Savings

Posted July 26, 2010 by Kate Hamman

BrusselsWith a knack for indulging in the sweet side of life, Brussels makes for a romantic getaway any time of year—and it doesn't have to cost a fortune to woo your honey. Come satisfy your sweetheart's chocolate craving at a designer candy shop before heading out to a traditional dinner of mussels and frites at a local eatery. Then at the end of the night, you can return to an affordable and cozy hotel that will take you both on a journey around the world.

Wittamer: When chocolate and style collide, you get Wittamer's delicious, designer sweets. The sleek-cubed confections make the perfect treat for that special someone. With two shops downtown, you can either sample the homemade chocolates and pralines, or enjoy a decadent pastry with your sweetheart while sipping tea in their cafe.

Chez Léon: Serving an array of homemade mussel dishes for more than 100 years, Chez Léon is the place to go in Brussels for your mollusk fix. The restaurant, however, serves more than just seafood, and you can find a variety of traditional Belgian dishes, including Belgian waffles.

Brussels Welcome Hotel: With a name like Welcome Hotel, it's not surprising that this small inn makes you feel at ease. Owners Sophie and Michel go to great lengths to familiarize you with the city, offering insider tips and suggestions. However, you can also travel around the world if you prefer to stay indoors. Each of the 16 rooms is decorated to emulate a different country, with representative items adorning the walls. The hotel is ideally located in the middle of St. Catherine square, with a subway stop literally across the street. Rooms start at €100 (about $129 U.S.; check for current exchange rates), and include breakfast.

To search for flights and compare prices to Brussels, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: PhotoDisc)

Sweet Dreams in Amsterdam

Posted June 23, 2010 by Kate Hamman

Amsterdam Take in the sights and smells of Amsterdam's sweeter side with a dynamic chocolate shop and an array of pancake flavors. And the sugary goodness continues as the scent of cakes and confections lulls you to sleep.

Puccini Bomboni: Charlie would abandon the Chocolate Factory without a second thought for Puccini Bomboni's inventive chocolates. Think tamarind, thyme, ginger, and fig. Everything is handmade on the spot, and people claim to be drawn in off the street by the scent of melted cocoa and spices. Browse the unique pyramid-style display of chocolates, and sample the liqueur-filled and herb-flavored treats.

The Pancake Bakery: When the griddle gets hot, the Pancake Bakery gets hopping, with more than 75 different kinds of pannekoeken (a combination crepe and an American pancake), including international flavors such as Greenlandic, Egyptian, and French. For the more traditional Dutch-style taste, you can pick from a range of sweet and savory toppings such as apple and Grand Marnier, bacon and cheese, and raisins in brandy.

Cake Under My Pillow: Whoever coined the term "sweet dreams" must've stayed at the Cake Under My Pillow. Here, the scent of cakes, pies, and confections literally drifts through your window each morning, as there's a bakery and cafe beneath the B&B. You will find free coffee and tea service in the upstairs kitchen throughout your stay.

To search for flights and compare prices to Amsterdam, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Sebastian Duda/

Sleep in the Heart of Rome, Italy

Posted May 17, 2010 by Jaclyn Liechti

Rome-PonteStAngelo Rome is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, and with so much to do there it might be difficult to squeeze it all into one trip. The jaw-dropping elegance of the Colosseum, the immense holdings of the Vatican Museum, and the delicate splendor of Trevi Fountain are well-known attractions, but in a city like this, it's easy to get off the beaten path, too. Tiny ristorantes and gelaterias can be found around every corner, and the gardens of Villa Borghese offer a welcome respite from the tourist strip.

Hotel Boccaccio: The Hotel Boccaccio is a charming apartment-turned-hotel in the heart of Rome, near the Trevi Fountain. From here, you can walk to most of the popular attractions in the city, or jump on the metro right around the corner. The 1937 building is also the living quarters of its proprietor, Pati, and guests will feel right at home in one of the eight spacious guest rooms. The hotel is a member of the first group of environmentally friendly establishments in Italy. Double bedrooms with a private bathroom start at €100 (about $124, see for current conversion rates).

You can use our tool to compare airfares to Rome from multiple travel providers.

(Photo: courtesy of APT - Rome)

Indulge Your Senses in Montelimar

Posted April 12, 2010 by Jaclyn Liechti

Montelimar With an enviable location in the south of France, Montelimar offers visitors a charming escape from everyday life. Feast your eyes on the 12th century residential palace; take in the scents of thyme, rosemary, and lavender at the Garden of Fragrances; or listen to the chatter of locals during the Saturday market at Church Square. And you can’t leave the area before giving your taste buds a treat by sampling some Montelimar nougat, the region’s specialty.

Arnaud Soubeyran Nougat Factory & Museum: Montelimar was the first to replace the walnuts in nougat with almonds, and there’s no better place to sample the sweet treat than the Arnaud Soubeyran Nougat Factory & Museum, which is the oldest factory in the area. First, learn about the process and the ingredients at the museum, then head to the kitchen to watch nougat being made. Individual tours and tastings are free, but you don’t have to leave empty-handed. You can purchase your favorite varieties, plus chocolate-covered fruit, pralines, and more at the museum store.

You can use our tool to compare airfares to Lyon, the closest major airport, from multiple travel providers.

(Photo: iStockphoto/@laurent)

Lesser-Known Villages Hold the Secret to Affordable Tuscany

Posted March 24, 2010 by Amy Westervelt

As one of, if not the, most popular destinations in Italy, Tuscany can be fairly pricey. Still, if you follow the lead of Italians visiting the region and steer clear of the tourist traps, la Toscana can be downright affordable. There are numerous well-priced lodging options in the lesser-known villages of the region, and really no matter where you stay, you're always within close driving distance of the hot springs, vineyards, and amazing restaurants that have made the region famous.

Le Ragnaie
: Nestled in the hills of Montalcino, overlooking its very own vineyard, Le Ragnaie is a local farmstead that doubles as a B&B. Rooms in the stone farmhouse are simple and pleasant, with large windows opening out over the heated saltwater pool. The on-site restaurant and homemade wine are also fantastic, plus its location is ideal for exploring the rest of the region. Rooms start at &eur;90 per night and include breakfast.

La Torre di Gnicche: To get a taste of the local wines and rustic fare Tuscany is famous for, head to one of the dozens of osteria (neighborhood restaurants) in the region, which typically serve up large platters of delicious local food for very reasonable prices. At La Torre di Gnicche (8 Piaggia di San Martino) in Arezzo, for example, you can pair one of the 800 area wines from its cellar with regional favorites such as crostoni (open-faced toasted sandwiches) and make it out the door for less than $30 a head.

Fattoria dei Barbi
: Wine tasting the way we do it in the U.S. isn't typical in Tuscany, but some of the larger vineyards do offer tours and tastings. They can sometimes get a bit touristy, but are worth it for the vineyard views alone. At the Fattoria dei Barbi vineyard, one of the oldest estates to make Brunello di Montalcino (one of the region's most famous wines), tastings are free and guided tours of the vineyard for groups of eight or more can be booked in advance.

You can use our tool to compare airfares from multiple travel providers.

(Photo: Emma Lee)

Unearth Chinon's History, but Not High Prices

Posted March 10, 2010 by Kate Hamman

Chinon Situated in the shadow of the 12th-century royal fortress where Joan of Arc first met the future King Charles VII, the city of Chinon exudes history everywhere you turn. Come immerse yourself in its past without paying a high price. Learn all about the city's fascinating history, taste regional wines in a cave, and stay in a surprisingly charming chain hotel.

Royal Fortress of Chinon
: Sitting high above the city, the Royal Fortress of Chinon stands as a reminder of the city's intriguing past. Today, visitors can immerse themselves in the area's history by learning about the lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who lived and died here; seeing the Royal Lodge where Joan of Arc met the future King Charles VII; and touring the apartments filled with the Flemish tapestries and furniture of the castle's heyday. There is also a Joan of Arc museum, which offers insight to the life and death of this heroic woman. Admission costs €3 (about $4 U.S.; check for current exchange rates).

Plouzeau Chateau de la Bonneliere: At Plouzeau Chateau de la Bonneliere's tasting cave, you won't have to dig too deep to unearth a wealth of wines. Built into the foundation of the fortress, the cellars are the perfect place to store and sample wines of the Chinon and Loire valleys. Open from April through September, the shop sells a variety of reds and whites.

Best Western Hotel de France
: It may surprise you to learn that this Best Western is more like a charming historic inn than a basic chain hotel. Located in a 16th century building in the heart of the city, Hotel de France transports you back in time. Enjoy the view of the famous fortress or listen to the fountain below your room's balcony. Rooms start at about €75 per night.

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(Photo: iStockPhoto/Jowita Stachowiak)

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