Puerto Vallarta-Mexico’s Best Beach Resort

This year Mexico has been the most popular international getaway destination for American travelers. Having just visited the beachy Pacific resort of Puerto Vallarta on beautiful Banderas Bay, I put it at the top of my list. In addition to sun-kissed sand beaches, aquamarine water, a lush tropical landscape and the Sierra Madre Mountains, you’ll also find an authentic, culturally rich town with an eye popping art scene, amazing gastronomy and happening night life. Not to mention the warm climate and friendly locals. It’s ideal for honeymooners, couples and families alike. Additionally, it’s LGBT friendly with a trendy downtown Romantic Zone. The enchanting town with cobblestone streets and terra cotta roofed white stucco houses with bougainvillea bedecked balconies has long been a favorite of artists and creative types. Downtown galleries open for an Art Walk Wednesday evenings late October through May offering exhibitions, cocktails and an opportunity to chat with the artists and gallery owners. Check out Kevin Simpson’s Colektika Gallery for remarkable yarn paintings and colorful bead art from the Huichol Tribes. Stroll the scenic malecon, the lively seafront promenade lined with palm trees and cafes while taking in a golden sunset. For great shopping head to Badillo Street where you’ll find fashionable boutiques and ateliers such as Pepe Cerroblanco’s Gallery and Cassandra Shaw Jewelry. As culinary capital of the Mexican Pacific and site of the annual International Gourmet Festival, Puerto Vallarta is a foodie paradise with standouts like Café des Artistes, Vista Grill, La Leche, Portobello and La Palapa serving everything from tasty tuna tacos to world-class cuisine. Top your evening off with some cool jazz by international stars at the just opened Jazz Foundation or kick up your heels and salsa with Cuban musicians at La Bodequita del Medio, an outpost of the famed Cuban nightclub. 


Take a scenic cruise to popular Los Arcos National Park to snorkel or to a secluded beach. Hop a water taxi to the seaside village of Yelapa, once a haunt of Bob Dylan, where you can walk to a waterfall and savor a lunch of fresh fish on the beach. Vallarta Adventures: www.vallarta-adventures.com


There is no shortage of top resorts where visitors sun, swim and laze. Here are some standouts.

Villa Premiere Hotel & Spa

This family owned adults only downtown beach front luxury boutique hotel featuring 83 chic, beautifully appointed suites with ocean view balconies is just a 10-minute walk from the malecon, and the many trendy restaurants and night spots. This gem of a hotel is ideal for those who like the idea of kicking back by day and being close to the action at night. Lounging beachside or poolside in a palapa on a cushy king size bed with a pina colada and soothing music felt idyllic. With its sophisticated ambiance and glamorous clientele, it’s no surprise that many magazines use this hotel for fashion shoots. Guests enjoy a welcome anti-stress massage, 3 gourmet restaurants and rapturous Andalusian music Wednesday evenings. Included in the pampering pleasures Villa Premier provides guests, their private butler service will unpack your luggage, set your in room Jacuzzi with candles, rose petals, aromatherapy and chocolates, and arrange romantic dinners. www.premiereonline.com.mx

Casa Velas

The gate opens to a verdant garden filled with banana trees, palms and resplendent peacocks strutting the floral wonderland. Handsome suites with plunge pools, accented in marigold and burnt orange areadorned with native paintings, artifacts and striking sculptures – including artwork by famous Mexican artist, Sergio Bustamente – at this country club like oasis. This all-inclusive adults only 83 suite luxe resort in the posh, leafy district near the marina delivers the ideal romantic getaway – perfect for honeymooners and couples. It’s a cozy cocoon with gourmet dining, expansive pool, 18-hole golf course plus oceanfront Beach Club with infinity pool, cabanas, eatery and attendants to clean your sunglasses and refresh your cocktails. Indulge in a deluxe treatment at the spa which also offers a beauty salon. Guests can swan around the property in true country club style. Resort boutique Tabaqeuria, offers a seamstress who does alterations on the spot. Ladies can borrow a designer evening bag from the handbag menu; men can wear the dashing Montblanc shoulder bag. www.HotelCasaVelas.com

Westin Resort & Spa

Also near the marina is the family friendly beachfront Westin, with a recently renovated sprawling lobby in keeping with the brand’s commitment to sustainability. Built amid 600 palm trees on a formercoconut plantation this lush resort with an upscale clientele features 280 stylish rooms in beige and earth tones, with ocean view terraces. As part of the brand’s Westin Well Being Movement the hotel offers daily yoga sessions with Madonna’s famed teacher Wayne Krassner, a full service spa, the biggest gym in town, tennis courts and jogging maps plus rental of New Balance running shoes. The resort delivers culinary excellence with its outstanding international and Mexican cuisine including the best sea bass miso ever at amazing Arrecifes Seafood and Steak Restaurant. Guests, many of whom are loyal return visitors, relax by the enormous pool or on beach loungers a few steps from the sea. For MICE tourism, the hotel offers a facility with a separate entrance from the hotel. www.starwoodhotels.com/westin


An exemplar of sleek, modern design, the 72 room sumptuous Mousai which debuted November 2014 perched high on a hill is just a short drive from town. Lolling by the rooftop infinity pool with sweeping ocean views while savoring delectable delights, I felt like I was in heaven. There’s a beach down below but why leave the celestial realm. Except maybe for some divine pampering at their Imagine Spa. www.hotelmousai.com

Holiday Inn Express Puerto Vallarta

The brand new Holiday Inn Express near the airport and the International Convention center is the hotel of choice for business travelers. In Latin America the Holiday Inn is in a much higher category than its counterpart in the US. The gleaming glass walled lobby boasts colorful murals and a striking fountain. This IHG property features 115 spacious, modern rooms smartly decorated with floor to ceiling windows, large comfy beds, ample desk space, terrace and generous bathrooms, plus a guest pool and outdoor Jacuzzi. The hotel features facilities for meetings, presentations and to host events. Its location adjacent to the Amerimed Hospital makes it an ideal choice for the increasing number of medical tourists from the US. In high season many leisure tourists book the hotel, which is just a few minutes’ walk from the yacht filled marina’s outdoor cafes. A short taxi ride or convenient bus directly in front of the hotel makes it easy to explore the charming town and environs. www.igh.com

By Maxine Albert (from Jax Fax)


Turquoise Clouds – Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands

Shores fringed with miles of pristine, turquoise waters. Soft, white sand beaches that stretch for miles. And turquoise clouds?

Yes, looking up from the soft sands of Grace Bay, the cloud bottoms were actually turquoise.

“How can that be?” I mused as my eighteen-month old son stood holding a striped blue and white beach chair, his tiny feet immersed in the sugary white sand crystals that for the moment, were my refuge. He stared at the gentle waves on the beach, ready to run into the surf, arms outstretched with a little boy smile. I gazed at the endless blue water before me, and then up to the cottony clouds that were indeed tinted with a brilliant shade of aqua.

My question was answered. The breathtaking aqua water color was reflected …mirrored…on the bottoms of the clouds. Yet another affirmation as to why the Turks & Caicos Islands are still my favorite beach destination.

Nestled between Miami and Puerto Rico, the Turks and Caicos Islands have often been called “the forgotten islands”. Not easily forgotten are the miles of uncrowded white sand beaches, abundant reefs, excellent diving wrecks and some of the oldest coral communities known to man. Over thirty islands make up the Turks & Caicos, but only about eight of them are inhabited.

Provo – Venturing Out
Providenciales was originally named “La Providentielle” after a French ship allegedly wrecked near the island. Survivors washed ashore in the azure waters, and later the Spanish renamed the island Providenciales. Now a British territory, it is known by many as just “Provo” and has become one of the premier diving spots in the world.

Hotel accommodations in Provo are secondary to the incredible scenery, water and beaches. But after years of being somewhat unknown, Provo has grown and offers a wide variety of places to stay. Families with children can enjoy Beaches, and singles and couples will relish Club Med, The Palms, and the two Ocean Clubs nestled on a picturesque, crescent beach of Grace Bay. Most of the hotels share Provo’s signature stamp of powder white beaches that stretch for miles against striking aquamarine-colored waters.

This was our second trip to Provo. Our first was when we wed on the beach in Provo. Now a few years later, we were accompanied by our 18 month old son and his Grandma. We returned partly because Provo is a destination wonderful for all ages, due to its mild climate, safe and friendly accommodations, and calm, beautiful waters. But the adventures and sights beyond the hotel made us want to come back even more.

After settling into the hotel for just a day, we headed to Scooter Bob’s Jeep rental located at the Turtle Cove Inn. Even though the thought of trekking to remote beaches on rough-terrain roads with a toddler and Grandma seemed a bit venturesome, the most magnificent sites of Provo beckoned us for a second time. We rented the Jeep and some snorkel gear and gathered the locals’ directions to the most scenic and remote spots on the island. We were on our way to what has turned out to be three of my most favorite places in the world.

Chalk Sound
I first caught a glimpse of Chalk Sound on our flight to Provo when we got married in 1999. From my plane window, I couldn’t take my eyes off of what looked like a turquoise mass of water dotted with tiny islands. I had never seen a color like that. It looked like a small aqua sea sprinkled with tiny masses of land, and it looked shallow. I could also see that it looked accessible by road and I knew I absolutely had to see it up close.

We drove the Jeep through town, winding down steep paved hills past historic architecture that was lightly splashed with pinks, corals and blues. Provo’s old world charm is somewhat misleading, as the island is one of the most advanced offshore banking and finance centers in the world and the home of many accountants, lawyers and bankers.

I knew we were getting closer as I saw the clouds’ turquoise bottoms becoming more and more vivid. Everyone in the Jeep was content. My husband was driving. Grandma was in the back seat with the wind in her hair, and my son entertained himself with his milk cup and board book. I was in the front with our pencil-scratched directions and map, and I felt a childlike excitement as we neared the Sound.

We rounded a bumpy paved turn. “There it is,” I gasped in a quiet, “we’ve finally arrived’ voice. My mother-in-law leaned out the Jeep window as we parked, taking in the beautiful site of this electric-blue ocean lake sparsely flecked with tiny mounds of land.

Chalk Sound lay before us. The three-mile bay still looked mystically tranquil…not a ripple and not a wave. This shallow blanket of azure water is at the most 20 feet deep, and studded with perhaps a hundred tiny islets, some the size of a house and some only the size of a beach towel. The small islands were formed about 3000 years ago when the Caribbean sea rose to its present levels. The bottom of the Sound is completely visible through the clear water and is an unblemished white, made up of heavy sand and silt. The vast lagoon is surrounded by majestic cliffside villas that overlook the calm water.

Chalk Sound is eerily quiet. Unless a car passes, you will only hear the wind and perhaps some muffled ocean waves from the sea that lies beyond the Sound. Every now and then, white caps appear in the far distance.

This is one of the most enchanting and ethereal places I have ever seen. There seems to be a calm but intense battle between the quiet of the Sound and its snow white floor and the loudness of the almost electrifying turquoise water. Above, the clouds stood still scattered in the blue sky with their tinted bottoms.

My only regret? Not bringing a raft so that I could float between the turquoise clouds and peaceful water. I will definitely pack one next time.

Sapodilla Bay Beach
Not the easiest to find and our directions were a bit scanty, but this is also a definite must-see if you are staying in Provo. The entrance to the beach is very easy to miss. “You’ll see a lane just before a big white house,” said Scooter Bob, and he was right. Turning left immediately before this home, a pebbly sand road took us to a small, remote and uninhabited beach.

Often referred to as the “children’s beach”, there were no waves in the calm water. The white coralline sand felt like velvet under our feet. We waded out about 100 yards and the water still only lapped at our waists. The sand below my feet was soft, white, pure and almost heavy. I bent down to pick up a handful of the thick, wet sand and watched it pass from my fingers and drop back into the clear water.

Homes with moored sailboats surrounded the protected cove and beach, but no one was in sight. Once again everything was still except for white-capped waves in the far distance. A villa was perched just behind the beach and I wondered who was lucky enough to live there. A walk to the east took us to Sapodilla Hill where old carvings of sailors’ names still exist from the days they were shipwrecked. A few are now on display at the airport, and I felt a comfort that perhaps they were overlooking and protecting this peaceful cove.

Northwest Point Beach
One might call us zealous attempting to visit this tiki-hut bejeweled beach at Northwest Point. This was our second trip to what many call Malcolm’s Road Beach, but now the roads leading to the beach had deteriorated from the previous years of rains that had washed through. The bulldozed roads to the beach were not clearly marked and they were completely deserted. Some of the route took us high on hills, overlooking the ocean. “Just drive toward the water,” said a local at Scooter Bob’s.

The rocky road dipped and turned more than we remembered, and at one point, we stopped and got out, gazing at a deep ravine in the road. We brainstormed a way to traverse the Jeep through and around the gully without popping a tire on the straggly boulders that feebly lined the road. Further down the road, large broken boulders blocked our way and we drove to the side, between scrub brush and cacti to get around the rocky obstacles. My mother-in-law nervously urged us to turn back, confident that we were the only brave travelers that had ever passed this way. But with the ocean in view and the turquoise clouds almost mapping the line of the beach, we forged ahead. We had done this before and survived, and finally, we arrived again.

There was little room to park on the sand dune hill, but we inched our Jeep next to only one other. I am fairly sure that my mother-in-law felt a sense of relief, seeing that others decided not to turn back on that awful road. “I can’t believe someone else is here,” she said as she climbed down from the Jeep. “See?” I laughed. “We weren’t so crazy after all.”

The breathtaking seascape was below us, and it was a worthwhile reward. Down a small hill of rolling sand dunes lay a stunning beach with crystal clear water that was remarkable for snorkeling and abundant with white rock coral and small, colorful fish. The beach and view were wondrous, and I felt like I was on the edge of the world as I peered beyond the tiki huts that edged the tip of Northwest Point, to the sparkling blue water and white-tipped waves.

We took turns snorkeling and swimming and for a bit of shade, walked under the wind-battered huts left over from an old French game show once filmed here. The story is well known in Provo, yet I still wonder how they managed to get the host, contestants and game show gear down Malcolm’s Road. Perhaps, they came by ship.

These islands aren’t as much of a secret anymore. More hotels are building. I am happy to report that the road to Northwest Point is now partly paved due to the addition of resorts like Amanyara, an upscale resort featuring lavish pavilions and private villas. The drive will be smoother next time and the beach is still public, but the tiki huts are now gone. Despite the new hotels and increasing popularity, the magnetic blue waters and uncrowded beaches still remain.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at Sharkbite on Turtle Cove Marina for some conch chowder and watched ocean birds swoop down on the chartered fishing boats from our outdoor deck table. Just beyond Sharkbite and the marina is a dirt road leading to Smith’s Reef, one of the best snorkeling sites on the island. As I sipped on a refreshing drink, I watched with a bit of envy as some cars headed down the lane toward the beach. But I felt fulfilled, having seen my three favorite places in the world once again.

Our day was ending as we returned our Jeep to Scooter Bob’s. My son was contently sleeping, his sun-kissed hair tousled and sandy from the beach, and we were jubilant having shared the beauty and wonder of Provo with his Grandma. Captivated for a second time, I know that I’ll come back. I must see the color and serenity of Provo’s wonders like Chalk Sound again. I don’t believe there is anywhere like it in the world. And the next time, I will gaze even longer at the turquoise clouds, and the incredible waters that give them their hue.

About the author:  Linda Treese is a freelance writer whose articles on topics such as travel and parenting have been featured in several publications on the East Coast. She is currently a travel writer and also working on several children’s books. She resides in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband and two young children and enjoys the outdoors, travel and volunteering with her therapy dog.

Seeing Europe “PISA’S FOUR GLORIES” by Hippolyte Adolphe Taine

There are two Pisas—one in which people have lapsed into ennui, and live from hand to mouth since the decadence, which is in fact the entire city, except a remote corner; the other is this corner, a marble sepulcher where the Duomo, Baptistery, Leaning Tower and Campo-Santo silently repose like beautiful dead beings. This is the genuine Pisa, and in these relics of a departed life, one beholds a world.

In 1083 in order to honor the Virgin, who had given them a victory over the Saracens of Sardignia, they [the Pisans] laid the foundations of their Duomo. This edifice is almost a Roman basilica, that is to say a temple surmounted by another temple, or, if you prefer it, a house having a gable for its façade which gable is cut off at the peak to support another house of smaller dimensions. Five stories of columns entirely cover the façade with their superposed porticos. Two by two they stand coupled together to support small arcades; all these pretty shapes of white marble under their dark arcades form an aerial population of the utmost grace and novelty. Nowhere here are we conscious of the dolorous reverie of the medieval north; it is the fête of a young nation which is awakening, and, in the gladness of its recent prosperity, honoring its gods. It has collected capitals, ornaments, entire columns obtained on the distant shores to which its wars and its commerce have led it, and these ancient fragments enter into its work without incongruity; for it is instinctively cast in the ancient mold, and only developed with a tinge of fancy on the side of finesse and the pleasing. Every antique form reappears, but reshaped in the same sense by a fresh and original impulse.

The outer columns of the Greek temple are reduced, multiplied and uplifted in the air, and from a support have become an ornament. The Roman or Byzantine dome is elongated and its natural heaviness diminished under a crown of slender columns with a miter ornament, which girds it midway with its delicate promenade. On the two sides of the great door two Corinthian columns are enveloped with luxurious foliage, calyxes and twining or blooming acanthus; and from the threshold we see the church with its files of intersecting columns, its alternate courses of black and white marble and its multitude of slender and brilliant forms, rising upward like an altar of candelabra. A new spirit appears here, a more delicate sensibility; it is not excessive and disordered as in the north, and yet it is not satisfied with the grave simplicity, the robust nudity of antique architecture. It is the daughter of the pagan mother, healthy and gay, but more womanly than its mother.

She is not yet an adult, sure in all her steps—she is somewhat awkward. The lateral façades on the exterior are monotonous; the cupola within is a reversed funnel of a peculiar and disagreeable form. The junction of the two arms of the cross is unsatisfactory and so many modernized chapels dispel the charm due to purity, as at Sienna. At the second glance however all this is forgotten, and we again regard it as a complete whole. Four rows of Corinthian columns, surmounted with arcades, divide the church into five naves, and form a forest. A second passage, as richly crowded, traverses the former crosswise, and, above the beautiful grove, files of still smaller columns prolong and intersect each other in order to uphold in the air the prolongation and intersection of the quadruple gallery. The ceiling is flat; the windows are small, and for the most part, without sashes; they allow the walls to retain the grandeur of their mass and the solidity of their position; and among these long, straight and simple lines, in this natural light, the innumerable shafts glow with the serenity of an antique temple….

Nothing more can be added in relation to the Baptistery or the Leaning Tower; the same ideas prevail in these, the same taste, the same style. The former is a simple, isolated dome, the latter a cylinder, and each has an outward dress of small columns. And yet each has its own distinct and expressive physiognomy; but description and writing consume too much time, and too many technical terms are requisite to define their differences. I note, simply, the inclination of the Tower. Some suppose that, when half constructed, the tower sank in the earth on one side, and that the architects continued on; seeing that they did continue this deflection was only a partial obstacle to them. In any event, there are other leaning towers in Italy, at Bologna, for example; voluntarily or involuntarily this feeling for oddness, this love of paradox, this yielding to fancy is one of the characteristics of the Middle Ages.

In the center of the Baptistery stands a superb font with eight panels; each panel is incrusted with a rich complicated flower in full bloom, and each flower is different. Around it a circle of large Corinthian columns supports round-arch arcades; most of them are antique and are ornamented with antique bas-reliefs; Meleager with his barking dogs, and the nude torsos of his companions in attendance on Christian mysteries. On the left stands a pulpit similar to that of Sienna, the first work of Nicholas of Pisa (1260), a simple marble coffer supported by marble columns and covered with sculptures. The sentiment of force and of antique nudity comes out here in striking features. The sculptor comprehended the postures and torsions of bodies. His figures, somewhat massive, are grand and simple; he frequently reproduces the tunics and folds of the Roman costume; one of his nude personages, a sort of Hercules bearing a young lion on his shoulders, has the broad breast and muscular tension which the sculptors of the sixteenth century admired.

The last of these edifices, the Campo-Santo, is a cemetery, the soil of which, brought from Palestine, is holy ground. Four high walls of polished marble surround it with their white and crowded panels. Inside, a square gallery forms a promenade opening into the court through arcades trellised with ogive windows. It is filled with funereal monuments, busts, inscriptions and statues of every form and of every age. Nothing could be simpler and nobler. A framework of dark wood supports the arch overhead, and the crest of the roof cuts sharp against the crystal sky. At the angles are four rustling cypress trees, tranquilly swayed by the breeze. Grass is growing in the court with a wild freshness and luxuriance. Here and there a climbing flower twined around a column, a small rosebush, or a shrub glows beneath a gleam of sunshine. There is no noise; this quarter is deserted; only now and then is heard the voice of some promenader which reverberates as under the vault of a church. It is the veritable cemetery of a free and Christian city; here, before the tombs of the great, people might well reflect over death and public affairs.

Seeing Europe | “MILAN CATHEDRAL” by Hippolyte Adolphe Taine

The cathedral, at the first sight, is bewildering. Gothic art, transported entire into Italy at the close of the Middle Ages,[3] attains at once its triumph and its extravagance. Never had it been seen so pointed, so highly embroidered, so complex, so overcharged, so strongly resembling a piece of jewelry; and as, instead of coarse and lifeless stone, it here takes for its material the beautiful lustrous Italian marble, it becomes a pure chased gem as precious through its substance as through the labor bestowed on it. The whole church seems to be a colossal and magnificent crystallization, so splendidly do its forests of spires, its intersections of moldings, its population of statues, its fringes of fretted, hollowed, embroidered and open marblework, ascend in multiple and interminable bright forms against the pure blue sky.

Truly is it the mystic candelabra of visions and legends, with a hundred thousand branches bristling and overflowing with sorrowing thorns and ecstatic roses, with angels, virgins, and martyrs upon every flower and on every thorn, with infinite myriads of the triumphant Church springing from the ground pyramidically even into the azure, with its millions of blended and vibrating voices mounting upward in a single shout, hosannah!…

We enter, and the impression deepens. What a difference between the religious power of such a church and that of St. Peter’s at Rome! One exclaims to himself, this is the true Christian temple! Four rows of enormous eight-sided pillars, close together, seem like a serried hedge of gigantic oaks. Their strange capitals, bristling with a fantastic vegetation of pinnacles, canopies, foliated niches and statues, are like venerable trunks crowned with delicate and pendent mosses. They spread out in great branches meeting in the vault overhead, the intervals of the arches being filled with an inextricable network of foliage, thorny sprigs and light branches, twining and intertwining, and figuring the aerial dome of a mighty forest. As in a great wood, the lateral aisles are almost equal in height to that of the center, and, on all sides, at equal distances apart, one sees ascending around him the secular colonnades.

Here truly is the ancient Germanic forest, as if a reminiscence of the religious groves of Irmensul. Light pours in transformed by green, yellow and purple panes, as if through the red and orange tints of autumnal leaves. This, certainly, is a complete architecture like that of Greece, having, like that of Greece, its root in vegetable forms. The Greek takes the trunk of the tree, drest, for his type; the German the entire tree with all its leaves and branches. True architecture, perhaps, always springs out of vegetal nature, and each zone may have its own edifices as well as plants; in this way oriental architectures might be comprehended—the vague idea of the slender palm and of its bouquet of leaves with the Arabs, and the vague idea of the colossal, prolific, dilated and bristling vegetation of India.

In any event I have never seen a church in which the aspect of northern forests was more striking, or where one more involuntarily imagines long alleys of trunks terminating in glimpses of daylight, curved branches meeting in acute angles, domes of irregular and commingling foliage, universal shade scattered with lights through colored and diaphanous leaves. Sometimes a section of yellow panes, through which the sun darts, launches into the obscurity its shower of rays and a portion of the nave glows like a luminous glade. A vast rosace behind the choir, a window with tortuous branchings above the entrance, shimmer with the tints of amethyst, ruby, emerald and topaz like leafy labyrinths in which lights from above break in and diffuse themselves in shifting radiance. Near the sacristy a small door-top, fastened against the wall, exposes an infinity of intersecting moldings similar to the delicate meshes of some marvelous twining and climbing plant. A day might be passed here as in a forest, in the presence of grandeurs as solemn as those of nature, before caprices as fascinating, amid the same intermingling of sublime monotony and inexhaustible fecundity, before contrasts and metamorphoses of light as rich and as unexpected. A mystic reverie, combined with a fresh sentiment of northern nature, such is the source of Gothic architecture.

Seeing Europe | “IN THE STREETS OF GENOA” By Charles Dickens

The great majority of the streets are as narrow as any thoroughfare can well be, where people (even Italian people) are supposed to live and walk about; being mere lanes, with here and there a kind of well, or breathing-place. The houses are immensely high, painted in all sorts of colors, and are in every stage and state of damage, dirt, and lack of repair. They are commonly let off in floors, or flats, like the houses in the old town of Edinburgh, or many houses in Paris….

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Belgium – The Best Kept Travel Secret

The secret of Belgium’s capital city, Brussels, is to go with the flow and allow yourself to become part of its charming everyday life.

Having previously been ruled by Spain, the Netherlands and France, Belgium is one of those countries that finds it easier to describe itself by what it is not: it’s not French, nor is it Dutch, nor German. Belgium is a country with an identity crisis, in the most positive sense of the word, as its population speaks French, Dutch, German, Arabic, and even English, due to a large segment of expat foreigners. With all the variety, Brussels takes the mix in stride and pulls everything together into an offbeat, almost bizarre sense of place.

With this cultural diversity it’s no wonder that Brussels has seized the new century with a fresh vigor, leaving other European cities wondering who stole their tourists. One source of the tourism influx is Belgium’s fashion market â?? while other European cities rested on their laurels, Belgium became a might in style, surpassing France, while the buzzing sidewalk café scene has outmatched that of Paris.

Yet the urbanization of Brussels will not leave you woozy with its splendor, rather you will feel compelled to seek out its intimacy and explore its secret treasures.

Eating in Brussels

The capital’s restaurants rival those of Paris and London – both in value and excellence. While it’s not an inexpensive city for dining, it has high standards, and restaurants that fall short of the mark simply close.

Mussels and chips is the classic dish and can be found in nearly all Belgian restaurants. However, certain districts of Brussels specialize in specific food: Ixelles has excellent Thai, African and Italian bistros, mainly around St-Boniface church. Place du Grand Sablon has an abundance of these restaurants, although they are a little more pricy.

Drinking in Brussels is a national pastime. The Grand’ Place is lined with terrace bars, full of life in the summer. Le Roi d’Espagne has the most ambiance, and Place St-Géry has designer bar terraces with oodles of mood, and the timeless art deco bar of L’Archiduc, which is claimed to remain open until dawn.

Sleeping in Brussels

Most visitors to Brussels are on business, therefore hotel rates drop significantly over weekends, so don’t write off the five-stars entirely. The most celebrated, newer luxury hotel is the five-star Amigo, only a few steps from the Grand’ Place.

Of the mid-range options, the Mozart is oddly kitsch, and often noisy, but located just off the Grand’ Place. Overlooking the flea market in the Marolles is the Galia; and The George V is a budget favorite near the bars of St-Géry.

Shopping in Brussels

The main pedestrian drag, rue Neuve, is full of soulless chain stores selling clothes and shoes. Inno is a big department store, and the City 2 shopping mall has a number of shops, the highlight of which is the impressive Fnac music and bookshop on the top level.

Escape the shopping malls and try something more idiosyncratic, like the shabby area between Boulevard Lemonnier and the Grand’ Place, where you’ll find second-hand book shops and music and clothing stores. Off the Grand’ Place is the Galeries St-Hubert, filled with designer boutiques and quirky sidewalk cafés.

Sightseeing in Brussels

The lower city is centered around the superbly ornate

Grand’ Place, considered by many as the most beautiful medieval square in all of Europe, with its elegant 17th century guild houses and narrow, atmospheric lanes leading off. In the summer, it hosts daily flower markets, often accompanied by concerts. Nearby, St-Géry flourishes with stylish bars contained in an old, covered market on Place St-Géry. The cafés, restaurants and nightspots buzz in the summer months, as does St-Catherine, a canopied terrace lined with seafood restaurants. Immediately south of Grand’ Place, amid the grimy old stores in rue de l’Etuve, is the symbol of Brussels â?? the little statue of the urinating rascal â?? Mannekin-Pis.Further south in the earthy Marolles quarter, rue Haute hosts the daily flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle. Throughout the lower town are murals of Belgium’s comic-strip heroes like Tintin.

The upper town boasts dramatic architecture and parks, with a string of grand names along its Boulevard. The Royal Quarter overshadows everything else with the palace and the fountained Parc de Bruxelles leading through to the Belgian Parliament. The Fine Arts Museum boasts old masters like Bruegel, Rubens, Magritte, Delvaux and Monet.

A short tram ride from Brussels Montgomery to Tervuren takes you through several parks and the beautiful Ambassadorial district. Tervuren is home to the African Art Museum and Léopold II’s spectacular monuments and parks.

Outside of Brussels

10 miles southwest of Brussels is the small Flemish town of Leuven. It has a big university and an even bigger history. Inhabitants amount to around 90,000 people, of which, students number around 22,000 – remarkable by European standards. The entire city lives off and with the University, founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V. It is considered to be the oldest catholic university in the world.

St. Peter’s Church is certainly worth a visit for its rich interior decoration. Go to admire the beautiful rood loft dating back to 1488, above which hangs a triumphal crucifix from around 1500. The chairs in the choir were sculpted between 1438 and 1442. Admire the magnificent 40-foot high sacraments tower and a baroque wooden pulpit in the nave. St. Peter’s Church holds two world-famous masterpieces in its treasury: ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus’.

Leuven also boasts “the longest bar in Europe”, as it is generally called by locals -lining up more than 60 pubs that serve a great many of the 360 types of beer produced in Belgium. The Old Market Square offers plenty of choices to fit your mood. ‘Stella Artois’, the pride of Leuven, is probably the most uttered word on this square.

If you are seeking beer history, Belgium is full of it. In 1717, the master brewer Sebastian Artois gave his name to one of Belgium’s best-known export products â?? Stella Artois. And don’t miss the Den Horen – the oldest brewery in Leuven, dating back to 1366.

By the Sea and Beyond

Did you now that seven out of ten diamonds come from Antwerp, which has been the world’s largest diamond center for more than 700 years? Diamonds from mines all over the world are skilfully cut and polished, praised and appraised, bought and sold in Antwerp.

The coastal town of Antwerp also fizzes in fashion and the effect reaches far beyond her borders. Belgian designers have a solid international reputation, selling designs being sold around the world and showcasing them in spreads in today’s most authoritative fashion magazines. Antwerp has become one of the most important European trendsetters in the fashion world, drawing 6,000 visitors each year to the Antwerp Academy of Arts fashion show, the highpoint of the Antwerp fashion season.

Antwerp has unmistakably positioned itself as a unique, fashionable city. It is a mini-metropolis, culturally loaded and strategically packed-out, full of diverse physical characteristics and stark evidence of its finger-on-the-pulse global connections, still somehow behaving like an oversized village, albeit a happily peculiar version of one.

Antwerp is also the fourth largest port in the world and the second largest in Europe. It stretches for more than twelve miles along the banks of the River Scheldt, reaching up to Rotterdam and out to the North Sea.

Another seaside town is what every European country seems to have: a city that thoroughly encompasses all that the place holds dear. Bruges is such for Belgium, sitting proud and pretty, epitomizing the grandeur and perfection otherwise relegated to storybooks.

Its tag, ” Venice of the north”, is securely fastened. With canal boats, horse-drawn carriages and bicycles as readily-available transport options, the ethnic spirit is available for the visitor to swallow whole, hastening appreciation of the cultural niceties that zoom into view from every direction.

Inland, south of Brussels, is Liege, a sizeable and dynamic town on the banks of the River Meuse. It’s the intellectual capital of Wallonia and the birthplace of Georges Simenon, the prolific thriller writer. Despite some grim architectural reminders of its industrial days, the old center remains attractive and overflows with bars, cafés and restaurants.

Further south is Namur, a university town known as the gateway to the rivers and forests of the Ardennes. An eerie presence may overcome travelers walking through the cobbled squares, as this was where the 1992 serial killer docu-drama ‘Man Bites Dog’ was filmed.

Hop on the train in Namur and head still further south to Dinant at the center of the Meuse Valley. Dinant is a pretty little town hugging the river beneath craggy green cliffs about 18 miles south of Namur – a handy base for venturing into the surrounding countryside either by boat, bike or on foot. Dinant is dominated by its two main buildings: the Citadel, which overlooks the town from a 320-foot cliff, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, outsized against the surrounding structures and capped with a bronze dome. A famous native of Dinant is Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone.

Nearby is the castle of Jehay, which was built in the 11th century and has, through the centuries, been home to aristocrats and royalty. It is a magnificent example of medieval Renaissance architecture, surrounded by a moat. Today it is owned by the Province of Liege who has opened it to the public. The castle is full of rare furnishings, silverware collections, antique lace, china, tapestries, books dating back to the 11th century, sculptures and paintings by the masters, and many other precious artifacts.

The marvel continues in the castle’s gardens, along the paths, arbours and fountains all along the main alley, bordered by cascades and nymphs, which are delicate works by Count Guy can den Steen. Ten contemporary sculptors take us on an artistic journey full of original works and installations in the surrounding woods. Between early June and the end of September, these wood magicians invite travelers for a stroll in the gardens and parks surrounding the castle.

Belgium is a quiet treasure, and there’s something about it that enchants its visitors. Maybe it’s the friendly welcoming people who, with three official languages, still find it easy to converse in English, the fourth language. Maybe it’s the stunning architecture decorating the quaint cobblestone squares. Or perhaps it’s the incredible cuisine. Whatever it is that excites you, you will find it here.

Did You Know…

The science of anatomy was founded by Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, who went on the write the first complete textbook of human anatomy
The world’s first collection of maps in book form was published by Abraham Ortelius of Antwerp
The Belgian inventor Jean Joseph Lenoir developed the world’s first internal combustion engine in 1860
Filled chocolates, known as Pralines, were invented by Jean Neuhauss, whose 19th century shop still remains in the Galeries St Hubert in Brussels
Millions of cartoon fanatics enjoyed the adventures of Tintin, created by the Brussels cartoonist, Hergé
Whooping cough medicine was invented by Belgian Jules Bordet

Cindy-Lou Dale is an award winning photo-journalist who has been featured in numerous publications around the world; and is a regular contributor to TRO.

©Copyright 2006 Travel Research Online. All rights reserved.


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