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One Day in Porto

Porto Cathedral

After a wonderful day touring the Douro Valley, the next day we did a tour of Porto. I found a walking tour on FreeTour.com. Similar to the free walking tour we did in Santa Barbara, the idea of these tours is that you pay nothing for the tour, and at the end, you tip your guide however much you deem appropriate. These tours are usually a fun way to get to know a city without breaking the bank.

Compared to Lisbon, the buildings in Porto are much older. The earthquake and fire of 1755 destroyed Lisbon but no such disaster has affected Porto. The Porto Cathedral (top) broke ground in 1110 AD.

São Bento Train Station AzulejosThe first stop on our tour was the São Bento train station which is home to beautiful Azujelo murals from the early 1900s (left). While looking at the murals, our tour guide told us the history of this building. Before it was a train station, the building used to be a convent. The city of Porto decided that they needed a train station so they took the building over, but they allowed the nuns to continue to live there until the last nun died. It was a while before it became a train station because the youngest nun in the convent was a child at the time. The building was transformed into a train station in 1893.

Our guide also detailed some of the less pleasant parts of their history. From 1933-1974 Portugal was under a dictatorship that separated them from the rest of the world. The dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for the name of the founder of Slytherin House), ruled the country, repressing the rights of the citizens until he died from falling off a chair. Democracy was restored through the Carnation Revolution only four years after his death.

Our guide also told us about the summer festival celebrating São João (St. John) that was coming up later that week (thus the decorations on the right). She explained that people flood the street during São João, grilling Sardines, and walk from the city to the ocean, hitting each other on the head with plastic hammers. I am sad that I missed what is known as Europe’s liveliest and least-known (outside of the city, of course) summer festivals. In the words of our Duoro tour guide, they celebrate summer and blame it on a saint.

Our tour ended with our guide serenading us with a traditional fado song. Fado music is a traditional Portuguese genre of music that dates back to the 1820s and is known for its mournful lyrics and tone. Saudade is a Portuguese word that captures this feeling of irrevocable loss that Fado embodies.  Later that day, we went to a Fado show at the Casa de Guitarra where we heard more of this music.

Port Barrels at Ferreira

That afternoon, we headed across the river to Villa Nova da Gaia to visit one of the famous port wine cellars we heard about on both our tour of the Duoro and of Porto. We chose to tour Ferreira because they are a historic port producer owned by a Portuguese family (most big port producers are British for some reason). It was interesting seeing how a big company differed from the smaller producers we toured in the Duoro. Of course, our tour ended with a port wine tasting. If you have a short time in Porto, this is a good way to get an understanding of the importance of Port. If you have more time, I recommend a tour of the Duoro instead of touring a port cellar. They are very similar experiences and I much preferred our full-day in the Duoro.

Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out Cruising the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain trip report. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

Wordless Wenesday: City Hall

Sintra City Hall

Wordless Wednesday: Pena Palace

Pena Palace

One Day in Sintra

Pena Palace

Sintra is a popular day trip from Lisbon and is known for its picturesque buildings and royal history. There are many private tour options that include round-trip transportation from Lisbon and there is also a train that runs to Sintra from Lisbon throughout the day. The train is included with the purchase of the Lisboa Card and the Lisboa Card offers discounts at several of Sintra’s monuments. Like many tourist destinations, Sintra gets busy during the day so it is important to get there early to avoid crowds. We decided to take an early train from Lisbon to Sintra. We used Bolt (Portugal’s version of Uber) to get around town.

Pena Palace is probably the most popular attraction in Sintra. As soon as we had our itinerary nailed down, I bought my tickets to Pena Palace online so I could get the earliest entry time and beat the crowds. For less than 3€ a person, I added a transfer from the gate to the palace to avoid a 30-minute uphill hike first thing in the morning. Lisboa Card offers a discount for entry to Pena Palace. I really enjoyed the view of the Palace from the terraces and exploring the surrounding Pena Park. If you are interested in historic furnishings and royal history, you may have appreciated the interior more than I did.

Pena Palace

Pena Palace started out as a monastery but was severely damaged by lightning and then destroyed during the Lisbon Earthquake in 1755. In 1838, King Consort Ferdinand II set out to acquire the old monastery and other nearby estates and turn it into a summer home for the royal family. Construction of the palace was completed in 1854 in the Romantic style and it includes Medieval and Islamic elements. The Portuguese State purchased the palace in the late 1880’s and it was converted into a museum. In 1995 the Palace and the Cultural Landscape of Sintra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Quinta de Regaleira's Initiation Well From Pena Palace, we took another Bolt to Quinta de Regaleira. We did not pre-purchase tickets to the Quinta, but the line was short by the time we arrived and we were able to use our Lisboa Card for a discount. Quinta de Regaleira is famous for its Initiation Well (left). The Initiation Well is mysterious because it is a circular stairwell into the ground with no known purpose. It is recommended that if you want to walk down the Initiation Well you get there early because a line forms later in the day. We arrived around noon and had to wait a bit but it was worth it.

Quinta de Regaleira sits on more than nine acres so there is a lot to explore besides the Initiation Well. There are towers near the entrance that can be climbed, and a small chapel that be visited. Parts of the Romantic, five-floor Palace known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire” can be toured (below).

Quinta de Regaleira

After we got our fill of Quinta de Regaleira we found a little cafe for a late lunch before exploring some of the shops in Sintra. Then, we did the downhill walk to the train station for our return to Lisbon. There were so many more monuments we didn’t have time to explore. I really wished we had stayed one night in Sintra to really get a feel for the place when all the day visitors leave. As I always say, I guess we will have to go back another time!

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to check back next week as we take the train from Lisbon to Porto! To read more about this trip, check out Cruising the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain trip report. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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Wordless Wednesday: Belém Tower View

View from Belém Tower

Wordless Wednesday: Belem Tower

Belem Tower

A First Timers Guide to Mackinac Island

Main Street Lined with Bikes

Mackinac Island in the Evening

Mackinac Island (pronounced mak-en-aw) is a popular tourist destination in Northern Michigan, voted Best Island in the Continental United States by Travel and Leisure Magazine. Located in Lake Huron, Mackinac Island is only accessible by ferry or plane, and no cars are allowed. Main Street is dotted with dozens of fudge shops and horse-drawn carriages carrying guests to their hotels. A visit can feel like a step back in time.

The grounds of the Grand Hotel

The grounds of the Grand Hotel

Where to Stay

Staying on the island can be expensive so many people stay on the mainland (either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace) and visit for the day. If your budget allows, I recommend staying overnight on the island because the atmosphere changes when the final ferry of the day leaves the dock. If price is no object, stay at the iconic Grand Hotel. The Grand Hotel has won many awards over the years and is home to the world’s longest porch. If you would like to experience the Grand without paying the high price of lodging, you can get a reservation at one of the resort’s restaurants or pay the $10 entrance fee for a self-guided tour of the hotel. Be aware that the Grand Hotel does have a dress code. If you’re looking for a more relaxed stay, Mission Point Resort is located on the “Sunrise Side” of the Island and is home to five restaurants and a sprawling waterfront green where you can relax in an Adirondack chair and look out over the water. My go-to hotel on the island is the Chippewa Hotel, located on Main Street steps from the ferry dock. The rooms at the Chippewa face either the action of Main Street or the tranquility of Lake Huron. Probably my favorite thing about the Chippewa is the Pink Pony Restaurant and its waterfront deck where can watch the ferries come and go while enjoying dinner or a drink. Whether you decided to splurge on a hotel on the island or a stay on the mainland, I recommend Star Line Mackinac Ferry Company to get you to and from the island with ease.

Arch Rock

Arch Rock

What to Do

I always recommend doing a guided tour on the first day of a trip to a new place. On Mackinac, I recommend Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. While riding in a horse-drawn carriage, your guide will explain the history of the island and give you a lay of the land. The tour stops at the iconic Arch Rock (above), the Butterfly Garden, and Fort Mackinac. After the tour, I recommend renting bikes from Ryba’s Bike Rentals and riding the 8.2 miles around the island. When you are done with your bike ride, spend some time shopping for souvenirs and fudge on Main Street. Once you have seen the most popular tourist attractions, don’t miss some of the hidden gems on Mackinac Island.

Fort Mackinac

Be sure to save some time to explore Fort Mackinac (above). Built in 1781, Fort Mackinac was occupied by the British throughout the American Revolution. The first battle of the War of 1812 took place on Mackinac Island when the British stormed the north end of the island on what is now known as British Landing (this is a good place to stop if you choose to bike around the island). Americans did not regain control of the fort until the end of the war in 1815. With tensions between the Americans and British declining after the War of 1812, Fort Mackinac’s military significance declined and the fort and most of the island was made the second National Park in 1875. In 1895 the park was transferred to the state and became Michigan’s first State Park.

Drink on the Patio overlooking the water

Enjoying a drink at the Pink Pony

Where to Eat

As mentioned above, my favorite restaurant on the island is the Pink Pony with its waterfront patio. I also enjoy getting a bite to eat at the Yankee Rebel Tavern and The Chuckwagon. For a unique experience, head inland to the west side of the island for a meal at The Woods. If you are looking for a fine dining experience, look no further than Chianti at Mission Point Resort or the Grand Hotel Main Dining Room. While Starbucks is now the first and only chain business to operate on the island, I would recommend the Good Day Cafe or Watercolor Cafe for a more Mackinac coffee pick-me-up.

Thanks for stopping by! To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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One Day in San Fransisco

Alcatraz as seen from the ship

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When talking to people about this trip and our time in San Fransisco, everyone told us to make sure we get our tickets to Alcatraz in advance. For whatever reason, I had no interest in going inside “the rock”. It was cool to see from the ship (top) and maybe if we had more than a day and a half in town it would’ve made my list, but what I really wanted to get out of San Fransisco was an in-depth experience in Chinatown. If you’ve read this blog for any time now you know one of my favorite things about travel is the food and trying food that I can’t get in my small town back home, so we booked the Chinatown Food & History Tour through Viator. We had to be back on the ship at 2 pm this day so that made choosing a tour relatively simple and I was really happy with the one we ended up with. It was a small group tour, there were only 5 of us, and our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly. We really got an understanding of Chinatown and its history and we got some delicious food too!

Terra Cotta Soldiers in San Fransisco's Chinatown

San Fransisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America and is home to one of the largest populations of Chinese people outside of Asia. In the 1850s people began immigrating to San Fransisco from China in search of their fortunes in California’s gold rush. Many of them worked to build the transcontinental railroad. Early on in its history, Chinatown became a hub of illegal activity from gambling to drugs and prostitution, and the city of San Fransisco had plans to move Chinatown to a less desirable part of the city. In 1906 an earthquake and fire practically destroyed the city and the residents of Chinatown quickly rebuilt using bricks that were salvaged from the wreckage. The merchants of Chinatown hired American architects to design buildings in Chinese-motif “Oriental” style in order to promote tourism to the new Chinatown.

Inside Old St. Mary's Cathedral

Our tour started at Dragon’s Gate which is the traditional entrance to Chinatown. From there we walked to Old St. Mary’s Cathedral (above), which is one of the only buildings in Chinatown that survived the fire of 1906. From the church, we walked along the streets of Chinatown and saw the architecture on our way to our first food stop which was supposed to be a bakery but they were closed for renovations so we ended up at Hang Ah, the oldest tea house in the United States where we got Shumai and soup dumplings. I was OK with this change because I have been obsessed with trying soup dumplings since the pandemic and no restaurants around us make them! They were everything I had hoped they would be and more!

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company

Our second food stop was the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company (left) where we each got a bag of fortune cookies and a reusable shopping bag to take them home in. Now, fortune cookies have never been my favorite part of the meal when I get Chinese carry-out at home, but these were really good! They were very fresh and didn’t taste like cardboard! I almost didn’t want to eat them when I got home because I didn’t want them to be gone. Our final stop of the trip was a very popular dim sum place where we each got to choose one dumpling or bun. Doing this tour with someone you feel comfortable sharing food with is a good idea as you will be able to try more things that way.

This tour was everything I had hoped it would be. We got to know Chinatown in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to explore on our own and we got to try more authentic Chinese-American food than I can try in my midwestern small town. I have been chasing dim sum since we got home and nothing I have found so far lives up to what we had in Chinatown. I guess we will have to go back! If you are going to be in San Fransisco and really want to get to know Chinatown and its food, I have nothing but good things to say about the Chinatown Food & History Tour.

Selfie as we went past the Golden Gate Bridge

The tour ended with just enough time for us to get back on the ship before we headed for the next port. We sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge on our way out of the bay. One thing that really struck me as I stood out on the deck was all the crew out there too. In between the guests, I saw a chef, a waitress, and a maintenance worker from all over the world watching the ship sail under this magnificent piece of engineering, taking selfies along with us.

Be sure to check back next week when I share about our free walking tour of Santa Barbara. Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out the Cruising the Pacific Coast Trip Report. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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Wordless Wednesday: Old San Juan

Old San Juan

Returning to Old San Juan

Old San Juan

After our white-knuckled TSA experience in Orlando, we had an uneventful flight and landed in the daylight in San Juan. Once on land, we headed to El Colonial Hotel. El Colonial is probably one of my all-time favorite hotels. It has a great location in the heart of Old San Juan and a rooftop patio to hang out and enjoy the beautiful Puerto Rican weather! And of course, you can’t go wrong with their 24-hour open bar.

Once we were checked in, we headed out to see the sights. We saw everything that we saw on our first visit to Old San Juan, both Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal. For lunch, we visited Cafeteria Mallorca, a historic eatery not far from our hotel. I had seen Cafeteria Mallorca on an old episode of Samantha Brown and it had not changed at all since that episode aired. They are known for their mallorcas, traditional Puerto Rican sandwiches dusted with powdered sugar. We enjoyed our meal so much, we came back in the morning for breakfast.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel and caught up on sleep and soaked up the air conditioning. When it had cooled down a bit, we headed back out to explore the city some more. We revisited our favorite popsicle stand from our last trip, Zip Pops. Nearby, Señor Paleta is more well known, but Zip Pops never had a line!

Christmas lights in Paseo de la Princesa

By this point the sun was setting and we noticed Christmas lights in Paseo de la Princesa (above). It was beautiful to walk through and enjoy the breeze without the hot Caribbean sun beating down.

This is about the time that we realized that we should have made reservations in advance for dinner. Every place we stopped had at least a two hour wait. We ended up getting seated at a restaurant and being one of the last tables served for the night. We are from a small town where most restaurants don’t take reservations, but we learned quick that that is not the case these days in cities. While there are some restaurants that book up a month or more in advance, you should probably start making plans a week in advance if you would like to eat before 9 pm.

Cruise ships in Old San Juan

One thing that made a big difference in this visit from the last was that there were three large cruise ships docked in Old San Juan on this day (left). I consider myself a bit of a cruise nerd and I was impressed that I recognized the Odyssey of the Seas from the air, but these large ships left off thousands of people into this historic city. At times, it was hard to get around on the old, narrow sidewalks there were so many people. Heaven help you if you needed to drive on the roads. This experience really made me consider the impact that these large ships have on the places that they visit. Yes, the ships pay to dock at these ports and the people get off the ship and spend money, but with free food and beds on the ship they do not spend as much as a land-based traveler. I’m not saying I am done with cruising, but it makes me want to figure out how to do it in a responsible way. Maybe we need to get away from the enormous mega-ships with all the bells and whistles and back to smaller boats that have less potential to overwhelm the ports they visit.

Thanks for stopping by! To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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