Regional Spotlight: An Urban Denver Adventure & Jackson Hole Escape

The entire Colorado and Wyoming region has so much to offer – you could spend weeks just eating your way through Denver, or bounce to one of hundreds of mountain adventures within hours. If I do my job correctly, this guide will help you better understand what each has to offer and what spots to hit whether you have a few days or a few weeks in the Denver / Jackson Hole regions.

jackson hole

My initial draw to Denver for this trip was Outdoor Retailer, held at the city convention center. I make a point at least once every couple of years of getting out to Outdoor Retailer, especially now that it has moved from Salt Lake City to Denver, i.e. the mecca of weekend mountain adventures.  For this particular trip, I wanted to also use the opportunity to do some city hopping around Denver, checking out the hotel, art, and brewery scene, followed by a long weekend getaway in Jackson Hole, easily one of my favorite places in the world (having been to the Alps, Dolomites, Andes, etc, Jackson Hole still remains towards the top of the list!)

Importantly, this trip took place during winter Outdoor Retailer in early November, which to Denver urbanites and Jackson Hole skiiers is considered the “off-season,” i.e. the season of waiting patiently for that first big snowfall which officially signals winter sports season.  But to me, this shoulder season should very much be considered ‘on’ season for tourists for a number of reasons: 1) there are less crowds, 2) the weather hasn’t turned for the worse yet (& is actually quite nice given the region’s reputation for having way more sunny days than not!), 3) lower hotel prices given the lower volume of traffic, 4) the roads are not yet iced over, making road trips and outdoor adventures easy and safe.

DENVER:

PLACES TO STAY:

Hilton Denver City Center hosted me on this trip, and I would stay there again 10 times out of 10.  They were within walking distance of everything I wanted to see/do, super useful in terms of concierge/front desk services, had a kick-butt breakfast, and have an incredible and diverse dinner offering at Prospect’s Urban Kitchen & Bar located conveniently on the lower level of the hotel. Not to mention, the hotel itself is completely affordable for the average traveler! An ideal spot for really anyone: business travelers, individuals, or families.

Another often overlooked but important qualifier is that a hotel be a place where you feel comfortable leaving bags if needed, as I did.  I had no worries in my mind about leaving all of my luggage there for 3 days while on another leg of my trip, and that peace of mind was worth every penny of my stay!

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denver city center hilton
denver hilton city center
hilton denver city center

Whatever you do, I would highly recommend finding a hotel in the city center or near union station.  You’ll find that a hotel in either location is reliable, convenient, and will have all of the amenities you could ever want.  Plus, being near highways (as the city center ones are) to get in and out on an adventure is another major perk. My friend who came from Golden to pick me up was able to get in and out of the city in a matter of minutes. Airport rides by Uber were also effortless. Win win.

AirBnB is also a good option in Denver, with many cute and well-located properties available. I would stay either near Union Station or in Capitol Hill.

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union station denver

FOOD:

DRINKS:

ACTIVITIES:

denver central market
denver

JACKSON HOLE:

PLACES TO STAY:

We stayed at two different hotels, which were completely different but each had their own unique assets, depending on what you are looking for. 

Let’s break them each down, shall we? 

HOTEL JACKSON

Always a sucker for a place with a bit of history, I fully appreciated that this hotel was started as a passion project of the Darwiche family, as Jim Darwiche and his wife Safaa spent many decades developing numerous businesses in Jackson and fell in love with the town and it’s heritage before deciding to start the new Hotel Jackson. I say “new” because the original Hotel Jackson was one of the first five buildings that made up the town of Jackson in the early 1900s, and this hotel being so aptly named is a nod to history.

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hotel jackson
hotel jackson

As for hospitality, this absolutely gorgeous, rustic, high-end hotel leaves no detail overlooked. They’ve got luxury dialed in: the front desk runs like a well-oiled machine, and when there, you truly feel as though you have nothing left to do but sit back and R E L A X and let them do the rest.

We noticed lots of little details, from the attentiveness of the staff, to the warm cookies, coffee/tea & adventure books available in the lobby, to the soothing music and bottle of water made available as part of the turn down service at night. We felt very well looked after here.  Not to mention, the lodgy western flair makes you feel warm and cozy, without isolating you from the mountains right outside the front door. Hotel Jackson successfully brings the outside in.

A final perk: Hotel Jackson boasts one of the best restaurants in Jackson Hole, it’s very own on-site Lebanese and Mediterranean fusion restaurant called FIGS, which I’d certainly recommend you at least stop at for a dinner. But be careful setting up too close to the restaurant’s two story fireplace: you may never end up wanting to leave.

Importantly, Hotel Jackson is also the first LEED-certified hotel in Jackson Hole, so is ahead of the curve.

ANVIL HOTEL

Living in Europe has given me a real affinity for hotels that have that lodge meets ultra modern/hip feel.  The lobby of the 49-room Anvil Hotel feels almost as though you’ve been dropped into a Huckberry catalogue. Fancy coffees are available for purchase, and the common area fireplace invites you to waste your day away cozied up in front of it. I have to be honest: I could’ve sat in their lobby and ignored the mountains outside all day long. Yes, it is THAT cozy and inviting.

Another perk: they have lots of fun trendy gear (including sunglasses from my friends over at Sunski!) and the entire hotel’s aesthetic just screams PENDLETON!  Don’t forget to set aside some money to purchase a takeaway from their lobby store... if you're anything like me, you’ll want everything in there.

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anvil
anvil jackson hole
anvil jackson hole

This hotel is a steal at a price point starting in the low 100’s, especially in shoulder season.  What we loved most about the rooms was that they felt upscale and hip, but also just cozy/small enough that you almost believed you were in a cabin in the woods. The room got cooler at night (by choice, we could’ve turned on the heater, but opted not to), and we loved bundling up under the winter-ready heavy wool blankets adorning each bed. It is safe to say that Anvil encouraged us to fully embrace the cabin feels.

Interestingly, Anvil also has a fun history. Bloomberg recently quite aptly called it “the Wild West’s Dude Ranch for Hipsters”. The hotel has been around a long time (since the 1950’s, when it was considered more of a ‘motel’) and first caught the attention of now-owner hotelier Erik Warner in the mid-90’s. Early in his hospitality career, Warner worked the front desk at the “old” Anvil Hotel, and knew then that it could become something special. But it wasn’t until years later, on a visit back to Jackson Hole in 2014, that he discovered it’s current owners were toying with the idea of selling it. Armed with a couple decades of experience in the hospitality industry, and many successful projects under his belt, the time was finally right. Warner made a successful sales pitch and the Anvil Hotel became his. The entire hotel was gutted to become what it has become today. I suppose the combination of city hotelier flare + traditional Jackson Hole rustic is what makes this place feel so special.

FOOD:

DRINKS:

SHOPS:

  • Stop into Spirit and Spice, try some of the many options on tap, and pick up some gifts for friends/family. They will ship!

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jackson hole
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ACTIVITIES:

FLY JACKSON HOLE AERIAL FLIGHT

My absolute biggest off-season activity recommendation for Jackson, if your wallet allows (and even if it doesn’t, because it’s absolutely worth the splurge), is to take in aerial views of the region with Fly Jackson Hole.  They’ve been around for about 4 years as of 2018, and their operation is based right at the airport, so you can easily get to them – no excuses.  What better way to see absolutely everything Jackson Hole has to offer than to see it all in one epic full swoop?

fly jackson hole
fly jackson hole
fly jackson hole
Image taken by @bryaneastmedia

Image taken by @bryaneastmedia

We spent a few hours with the pilots, Pete (owner) and Dave, and both are two of the nicest, most charismatic folks you could ever meet.  You get the sense that they really love what they do, love and take pride in Jackson, and simply feel it is their obligation/honor to show other people the place they love so much. 

Importantly, both absolutely know their stuff when it comes to flying, as they have over 50 years of charter flying experience between the two of them. This is an airplane ride you don’t feel even the slightest bit worried or on edge about, which allows you to focus all of your energy on the beauty all around you.

Fly Jackson Hole has 2 planes in their fleet: a Cessna 207 8-seater and a Cessna 172XP.  You can’t go wrong with either – it’s more a matter of how many people you’ve got with you.

fly jackson hole
fly jackson hole

We opted for their Alpenglow Tour, which meant we had 90 minutes in the skies before, during and after sunset.  The tour allowed us to see Jackson and surrounding areas by day, but then get over to the other side of the Tetons to capture photos of that coveted dewey pink just sneaking it’s way across the mountains before the day slipped into night. The best surprise for us was just how much our pilot Dave knew about the region – I’ve been coming to Jackson Hole for years, and felt like I learned more about the entire area in those 90 minutes than I had in a decade. The flight cost was worth the download on local history and knowledge in itself!

If you have any doubts about booking a trip, don’t. Just do it!

Now that we have covered that, here are other off-season activities (check on these before you go, as some are closed at certain points depending on exact timing):

DRIVING / HIKING AROUND THE PARK

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jackson hole car
teton national park jackson hole avis
teton national park

I can’t stress enough: the best way to experience Jackson is to get a rental car (even better if it’s 4WD or a fun adventure vehicle) and GO!!! To optimize your time in the region and see everything the park has to offer, you’ll want to be able to get around on your own without relying on hotel shuttles which will only take you to the airport/ski slopes and back. Here are a few must-sees in the park:

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jackson hole

*BONUS:  Because I attended Outdoor Retailer in Winter 2018, I wanted to share some photos / takeaways from the event for anyone interested in attending a future show.

OUTDOOR RETAILER:

outdoor retailer denver
outdoor retailer denver
outdoor retailer denver

The general consensus especially now that they have split the winter show into two is that it is a much slower show, which actually was nice. It allows people to take a bit more time to chat and feel a little less crunched on time/appointments.  At the 2018 November Winter show, I had a few important takeaways worth sharing around the show and trends across the industry as a whole:

  1. I’ve been really excited to see how many panels/conversations are being had around innovation in an industry that has been slow to change. We are entering a new era.

  2. Sustainability, transparency and a re-examined supply chain continue to be current and relevant issues across many industries - & it definitely applies here. Consumers are getting smarter & want to know what’s in their products, who’s making them, and where they’re coming from. 

  3. Retail and E-commerce as we know it are changing forever, thanks to behemoths like Amazon. Best for retailers to work with it, not against it. 

  4. There is still so much opportunity in the adventure foods landscape - particularly for companies that do things to stand out in a crowded market (i.e. like RXBar). Clif Bar / Larabar, etc. remain dominant players but are ripe for disruption. Bonus pts for clean labels, & fresh/natural trumps long shelf life. A newly discovered favorite brand adhering to this ethos was Four Points Bar. Check them out!

  5. The US & Rest of World operate very independently. Regulations make it hard for brands to export to Europe. Lots of room to improve / work through the regulatory systems in order to take brands GLOBAL.

  6. There’s a real buzz in this industry about using their retail platforms for good to effect real change in the US. Brands are investing a lot of time/resources/marketing $ into causes around public lands & its important work - & is being heard.

 

DISCLOSURE: This trip was sponsored or partially sponsored by Hilton City Center Hotel, Hotel Jackson, Anvil Hotel and Fly Jackson Hole. I thank each for their warm hospitality and partnership. 

Lofoten Islands: A 6-Day Winter Adventure

So you're like me and don't have 3 full weeks to spend taking the slow route through Lofoten, eh? Say no more. If you're willing to have a couple of "car days" to see as much as possible, you can see much of Lofoten in a short trip - and even have a couple of 'relaxing' days thrown in, to really bask in its beauty. No need to cash in all your vacation days.

One of the best comments I've heard about Lofoten was from one of the owners of Manshausen, where we stayed early in the trip.  Our new friend, the ever-wise Jesper told us, "everyone comes to Lofoten and immediately goes right to it, where they are at the base of the big mountains - but I think you absolutely must also spend some time looking at it from a distance." 

I couldn't agree more. Imagine going to Half Dome in Yosemite and only standing on the top or at the base of it.  You probably wouldn't appreciate it as much as if you had also seen that iconic photo of it in the distance, in the Yosemite Valley would you?  Lofoten is kind of the same way.  My advice: spend a bit of time out, then a bit of time in, a little time on the water, and you'll appreciate Lofoten and its surrounding areas for all of its different facets.

Plus, if you go in the winter like we did, there isn't a whole lot of outdoor adventuring because it's just too darn cold, so you have a lot more time / desire to drive and see the sights.

Spoiler: You may even get the best Northern Lights in the areas surrounding Lofoten, like we did. See for yourself:

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DAY ONE:  BODO/TRYGSAVEN

We flew to Bodo from Amsterdam, which seemed like the best starting point for our journey, given we were first heading to Manshausen.  Some people choose to do the Lofoten roadtrip 'clockwise', but we were advised to do it 'counterclockwise' so that's what we did.  We arrived late at night, but you may have a bit of time to explore Bodo before starting your journey, so I've included a few Bodo recommendations here.  Otherwise, try to stay in Trygsaven the first night.

BODO/TRYGSAVEN

SEE:

EAT/DRINK:

PLACES TO STAY:

DAY TWO: SALTSTRAUMEN / MANSHAUSEN

We got an early start on the day and drove from our apartment home [we stayed at Tuvsjyen Saltstraumen]  to Saltstraumen, to take in the views.  Saltstraumen, as mentioned above, is a natural phenomenon and is the world’s strongest maelstrom. 

Supposedly the best time to go is in the morning, so we grabbed a coffee at the adjacent Saltstraumen Hotel, parked our car under the bridge down the hill, and watched the currents.  Pretty neat, if you catch it at the right time! 

After not too long, we were ready to go.   Biggest tip before you leave the area?  Make a pit stop at the COOP grocery store in Trygsaven to get snacks; mini marts and food shops could be very hard to find hereafter on our trip (in the winter, some were even closed on certain days).  After a quick stop, we were off to Nordskot! 

NORDSKOT

Nordskot is a very, very small coastal Norwegian town, where you will park your car [unless you've used public transportation to get here, which is possible.]  Jesper or Astrid, the owners of Manshausen, will then come to pick you up in the island boat to bring you to Manshausen Island.  Something to note: if you don't want to partake in all of the meals at Manshausen (for example, dinner costs extra every night), you have the option and the facilities to cook on your own, as each seacabin is equipped with a full stove and a loaded kitchen.  We opted out of a few meals, including lunch each day, and appreciated having this option. 

With that said, a tip: stop again at the small shop in Nordskot where you can pick up some goodies/snacks or easy-prepare meals, especially if you didn't stop at the COOP in Trygsaven.  You will appreciate having the option later!  If nothing else, grab a few of the local Norwegian candies for when you need a sugar rush.

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DAY THREE: MANSHAUSEN

The experience on Manshausen is meant to be all inclusive, and the fact that you are isolated on a very small island only reinforces this point.  The meals are slow, local and divine, and you are sure to enjoy great company whether from fellow guests (after all, you have to be pretty awesome to make a trek to this place), or from the owners themselves.  We enjoyed just being, and taking in our surroundings, with no true agenda.  Hours would melt away each day, which is how I knew this was exactly the place I needed to be. 

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For when you do start itching for a bit of activity, Manshausen offers plenty of daily activities for you to consider: hike the adjacent island, go on a kayak adventure, walk around the circumference of the island, or simply idle away in the common room filled with adventure-inspired books and magazines (there are more Nat Geo's here than you could even imagine! <heart eyes emoji>)

We were treated to absolutely incredible views of the Northern Lights both nights that we were there and enjoyed both photographing them from outside of the sea cabin, as well as from our humble abode within.  There aren't too many places where you can lay in bed and fall asleep to views of the auroras bouncing over your head, so the experience is not (and never will) to be taken for granted.  Truly infreakingcredible.

DAY FOUR: MANSHAUSEN/SOLVAER/HENNINGSVAER

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We got up and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast looking out over the water at Manshausen.  Breakfast was abundant, and highlights included fresh bread made on site, local jam, local fish, smoothies made from local fruit and vegetables (are you seeing a theme here?).  After saying our goodbyes to Astrid and Jesper who by this point felt more like friends than hosts, we were soon ready to be escorted back to Nordskot, as we needed to be on our way for a big day's road trip. 

We drove from Nordskot to the Skutvik ferry (timetables HERE) and were soon on our way to our first destination truly IN the Lofoten Islands: Svolvær.

SVOLVAER

SEE:

EAT/DRINK:

KABELVAG

SEE:

EAT/DRINK:

{We didn't spend too much time in these towns - maybe an hour each one, as we had heard that the views were the most beautiful at the final town we would hit later in the day... and we have no regrets about that decision; they were right! Pick and choose carefully, and save appetite for Henningsvaer!]

HENNINGSVÆR

Henningsvaer is known as the "Venice of Lofoten" and lived up to its name.  Plenty of fun shops, restaurants, and stunning 360 degree mountain views, as you walk along the water.  I think I like this Venice better.

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SEE:

  • Everything around you, literally. Pay attention to the painfully cute details on the buildings, water, and the fisherman working away all around you. The best views here are just the everyday ones.
  • Walk the main strip in town & you will run into lots of fun shops including a glass making shop
  • Keep an eye out for all of the fish hanging out to dry around houses around town
  • Supposedly, you can hike up Glomtinden, a short and steady walk up (419m) which ends with terrific views of the Lofoten Islands (we didn't do it due to weather).
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EAT/DRINK:

PLACES TO STAY:

DAY FIVE: BOSTAD / LEKNES / BALLSTAD / HAMNOY / REINE

Because we had a golfer in tow, we threw in a little drive over to Lofoten Links on the way out of town, even though it was slightly out of the way.  Though they were closed for the winter, it was very fun to see and try to imagine how beautiful the course would look with the ocean views during the summer.  Must go back.  From there, it was onto the ever-so-charming town of Bostad, the home of the world's most northernly surf school.  Same rules apply today: we cruised through each town pretty quickly to see the views and get to Hamnoy/Reine while it was still light out.  Again, those towns boasted the best views and food, so snack during the day, and save your eyes and appetite for later!

Something tells me you won't have too much appetite anyway as you'll be seeing a lot of these guys all day:

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BOSTAD

SEE:

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LEKNES

SEE:

EAT/DRINK:

BALLSTAD

SEE:

  • Sarepta Hus {call ahead to make sure they are open! they were closed when we went}
  • Not much else to see here... carry on.

HAMNOY

<< You drive through here on the way to Reine, and this is where we stayed, but it's a VERY small town with only a couple accommodations and a restaurant, so we carried onto Reine; will come back to the Hamnoy tips in a minute!>>

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REINE/SORVAGEN

SEE:

EAT/DRINK:

  • Bringen {an absolute must for breakfast, coffee, & local pastries including more incredible cinnamon rolls - get there early, as they run out!}
  • Vertshuset Lanternen {best stop for an easy sit down meal: pizza + beer}
  • Anitas Sjomat {one of my favorite stops all trip; a great local fish sandwich shop with great ambiance / local delicacies for purchase to bring home!}
  • The Bakery at A {supposedly the best cinnamon rolls, though it was closed while we were there; a summer place!}
  • Maren Anna {slightly out of Reine, in Sorvagen, but worth the very short drive - possibly the best or second best meal all trip!)
  • Gammelbua Restaurant {did not go here, but heard great things!}
  • *TIP: Restaurants can be pricy, so if you are looking for a market, there are two in town - one is a smallish COOP grocery (though check the hours, as they are closed some days) and another is a Circle K gas station mart (which is surprisingly well-stocked after a recent remodel)

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HAMNOY PART 2

SEE:

  • Just walk around the red fisherman's cabins and stop at anything that feels like a good viewpoint on the way in.  There are very few actual lookout points. The classic Instagram photo of Hamnoy is from the bridge that you see just to the left of town as you enter.  Take photos at your own risk, as it is often very gusty (I lost my glove just trying to snap a photo!)

EAT/DRINK:

  • Krambua Restaurant, the restaurant of Eliassen Rorbuer where we stayed {order the fresh white fish of the day with a Lofotpils & you will not be disappointed!)

PLACES TO STAY:

  • Eliassen Rorbuer - while some of my other recommendations are up to you to take or not, this one is a non negotiable. Staying in a refurbished old fisherman's cabin was an absolute highlight of the experience - right down to the cold, windy night we endured when an unexpected snow storm blew through.  This is one not to be missed!

DAY SIX: REINE / BODO

We took the Moskenes ferry to Bodo (about 3.5 hours long), and upon arrival at the terminal, found that we were only 20 minutes from the airport, which allowed us ample time to fill up the tank with gas (there is a Shell station on your way to the airport from the ferry terminal), return the car, and get to our flight!

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

You can access our Google Map counter-clockwise trip map HERE.

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Israel in 5 Days: The Prettiest Place I Ever Dead Sea

In the interest of keeping this trip summary / guide short and sweet, I've decided to simply write out our itinerary and tips for easy access.  At first, I thought maybe a 5 day trip around Israel would be a bit too quick - but after having done it, I believe you can get a very good taste (literally, the food is amazing) of the place in this period of time. Without further ado, here are my recommendations:

DAY ONE: JUDEAN HILLS, JERUSALEM, ARAD

Land at Ben Gurion airport as early as possible. Rent a car. Head out of Tel Aviv.

JERUSALEM:

Stuff to See:

  • Old City of Jerusalem
  • Machane Yehuda market
  • Western Wall
  • Tower of David & The Night Spectacular
  • City of David
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Places to Eat/Drink:

Honorable Mentions:

If you have extra time, stop in Negev Brewery in Kiryat Gat or go exploring the Beit Guvrin caves (make sure to call in advance to find out when they close, as you usually need to be in them before 2 or 3pm).

JUDEAN HILLS:

Stuff to See:

ARAD:

Places to Stay:

camel bedouin negev
bedouin israel hanokdim

Places to Eat/Drink:

Eat dinner at Pizza Kaparuchka. While there, sample a local Negev Brewery beer or two. Go for a night cap at Muza sports pub

 

DAY TWO: ARAD, MASADA

ARAD (CONT'D):

Stuff to See:

Buy pastries at Bethlehem Bakery. Stop at the grocery store in town for some snacks. Head out for a day full of adventure.

Masada hike (best at sunrise).  Shvil Haratz is an alternative hike to the snake path up Masada. The path is 3 kilometers long, taking you around the northern side of the mountain and up the Roman Path, known in Hebrew as Shvil HaSolela.

Ein Gedi (Situated 800m up the hill from the Rte 90 turn-off to Ein Gedi Nature Reserve). 

Wadi Ze'elim hike.  The starting point, Birkat Tzfira campground is accessible by all cars from Arad-Masada road (3199). It takes around 3 hrs walk , but the idea is to spend some time stopping for tea or coffee, getting into the water or just enjoying the wild desert.  You definitely want to consider hiking it clockwise, and adding a jump to Birkat Tzfira (Tzfira Pool) at the end.

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Places to Stay:

Kfar Hanokdim is my strong recommendation.  This is one of the most unique experiences that you can have in the Middle East, essentially becoming a part of a Bedouin tribe for as long as you decide to stay.  You have the opportunity to learn about Bedouin culture from actual bedouin people ("I miss the days of moving, we can not move like we used to anymore because of Israeli law") and meet other travelers who are looking to share a similar experience.

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DAY THREE: ARAD, BEERSHEBA, SDE BOKER, MITZPE RAMON

 

Have breakfast at Kfar Hanokdim (if you stayed there, which you should). Take a morning camel ride across the Negev Desert (part of their all inclusive package). Get on the road by 10:30am. Stop at Yatir Winery for a quick tasting on the way to Beersheba.

BEERSHEBA:

Places to Eat/Drink:

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MITZPE RAMON:

The region is known for its organic farms and traditionally edible products like honey, wine, cheese, yogurt and olive oil. Follow the Wine Route and stop at wineries/farms along the way. You can also visit the kibbutz of Sde Boker and Ben Gurion’s hut. Here you’ll hear the fascinating story of Israel’s Prime Minister and his vision for the Negev. End the day in Mitzpe Ramon for dinner.

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Stuff to See:

Places to Eat/Drink:

Places to Stay:

 

DAY FOUR: MITZPE RAMON, ZUQIM

 

Wake up and visit any of the places you missed the day before, as if you did it right, Day 3 was an absolutely packed day!  But don't idle for too long because you are going to want to get to Zuqim earlier in the day rather than later to fully appreciate the beauty of Zuqim (which is considered the Arava desert and sits just on the border of Jordan).

MITZPE RAMON

Stuff to See:

  • Ein Akev hike: You'll want to fuel up with a hearty breakfast for this one, go early in the day, and be sure you have lots of water with you.   The hike is a 12km loop and took us about 4 hours (don't trust the online guides which say 6-7 hours; if you're in shape, you'll be done in 4 or 5 hours max).
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ZUQIM:

Places to Eat/Drink:

  • Ursula (German food, is very popular despite the strangeness of German cuisine in Eastern Israel)
  • Route 90 (next door to Ursula; good place for grabbing the world's best popsicles called Paletas, sandwiches, and other snacks).

Places to Stay:

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DAY FIVE: ZUQIM, TEL AVIV / JAFFA

 

Our goal was to get back to Tel Aviv as quickly as possible (it's about 3 hours from Zuqim, with slight traffic), so we skipped all of the things we had hoped to do on our way back.  But maybe you'll have an extra day than us and want to know where to stop to make the trip back more enjoyable, so here are some honorable mentions of places that can be on the way (-ish) back into the big city:

 

TEL AVIV / JAFFA

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Stuff to See:

Sarona Market is a great place to stop on the way to the airport, as it's a bit out of downtown Tel Aviv hotel district. Think of this as the place where you can get any fresh Israeli fruits, nuts, delicacies, yummy gifts that you could ever desire.  And one final Paletas ice pop to fulfill a craving (my favorite was Pistachio).

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Places to Eat/Drink:

Places to Stay:

*BONUS TIP: Do not miss breakfast at the Mendeli Street Hotel, as it was by far the best meal of the entire trip. 

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Much of this trip was inspired by books and Netflix documentaries on Israeli culture / cuisine, so I wanted to list a few here so you could also learn/appreciate the knowledge ahead of a future trip.

This itinerary was also put together with the help of plenty of blogs that already exist; I merely compiled what I thought to be the best of the best of them. Because I'm a big fan of giving credit where due, here are some of those blogs for reference:

Manshausen Island: Skip Iceland, This is the Best Place to See the Northern Lights

“Exactly HOW good are they?”  I shouted out the window from bed, as I lazily rolled from side to side, fighting off post-dinner lethargy.  “Do you see any purple? Are they extra squiggly?”

northern lights

If you’ve seen them before, you know that the northern lights seem to have two extremes: 1) a light green hue in the sky - faint, but visible to the human eye, and 2) ABSOLUTE UNEXPECTED CHAOS; when the lights start to dance and vertical lines emerge from the black of night in such a way that purples and pinks surface in waves. In this stage, virtually anything can happen - and no two experiences are ever the same.

You know you’ve reached peak Northern Lights snobbery when you become arbiter of which lights are worth leaving the cabin for.  But after freezing my fingers off photographing impeccable auroras the prior night, a light hint of green beams reflecting across the channel just wasn’t enough to justify emerging from the balminess of the indoors.

architecture
room with a view

Luckily, Manshausen Island is one of the only places in the world where you don’t have to choose between comfort and auroras.  The island, situated 100 km above the Arctic Circle, contains only four cabins (soon to be seven, as new ones are in development) jutting out into the Grøtøya strait, each with floor to ceiling glass windows, from which you can take in the lights (or sunrise/sunset). 

Manshausen is run by a lovely young couple: Astrid and Jesper, who moved to the island together as their own personal adventure only last year.  These forces of humans are as important to the island as the land itself.  She cooks, organizes, handles guests – you name it. He – a former mountain guide – does the other half of the duties.  Partners in the truest sense, they have unmistakably made Manshausen their home and have become one with the place. And it’s contagious: while there, you feel as though you should too.  

During the day, you are encouraged to do your own exploring or take part in one of the activities available: kayaking, hiking on the adjacent island, fishing for some arctic catch, or even just walking around the Manshausen Island itself can keep you busy for an afternoon. There are many fun finds on the island itself: the resident sheep population, seashells, and sunrises/sunsets which you'll remember for a lifetime.  After a day of adventuring, you can either cook for yourself in your own cabin, or opt into an incredible meal with only the best ingredients sourced from the surrounding islands. 

lofoten beach
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The supreme immersion and belonging to everything local is exactly what I imagine the founder Børge Ousland had in mind when he came up with the idea to open Manshausen in the far reaches of northern Norway. 

A highly esteemed polar explorer, Børge spent years looking for a way to share the immense beauty of arctic landscapes which he had come to love with normal folk.  Quite the quest, coming from a guy who said his marital vows at the North Pole.

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The search for such a place turned out to be an adventure in itself.  Børge didn’t find Manshausen overnight.  It took years of travel, a bit of luck, a chance meeting with the eventual architect, and some convincing – as any new venture usually does.  But throughout, Børge’s paramount aspiration was to create a place where humans and nature could exist in harmony. 

Minutes after an Arctic seal surfaced in the water right underneath our cabin, I watched one of the largest sea eagles imaginable soar overhead.  I looked out at the Lofoten Islands in the distance, and inhaled the Barents Sea. Did Børge succeed? You decide.

Merano is not Murano: Sud Tirol, Alto Adige and the Dolomites

Merano is not Murano.  That seems obvious when reading it, but when told that we are staying in a centuries old hotel that once was a hunting lodge in that location, the immediate reaction was – ‘huh, that is really interesting…’  So I initially thought Murano…canals, gondolas, glassblowing, etc., all of which could not be further from the truth….even if you do fly in to the same airport (Venice)!

As a result of this phonetic mixup, Merano was more than a pleasant surprise – a spa town with restorative waters that people have been visiting since the 1930s.  It is surrounded by impressive peaks and is super quaint but yet cosmopolitan at the same time, Mediterranean influenced but with an alpine feel…  a half Italian, half German gateway to the Dolomites.

In every shop, restaurant, or café one is greeted with “Bitte, Prego” as this area with its interesting history (Italian, Austro-Hungarian… World War challenges and annexation only fully resolved as recently as 1972.. check Wikipedia If interested)  is today almost 50/50 German and Italian speaking.  We did not hear any other languages while there (leaving behind the well-documented tourist masses that flock to the other ‘Merano’ near Venice) – and enjoyed what feels like an undiscovered, un-touristy corner of the world.

Merano along the river

Merano along the river

We’ve come to the conclusion that this region has to be ranked in the list of top unsung destinations in Europe- especially in the non-winter sports months… unknown by all except for the maybe the German and Italian regular visitors who, it seem, very much prefer to keep it that way…

And high above the town sits Castel Fragsburg, the aforementioned former hunting lodge now five star resort that has been sympathetically and thoughtfully restored by the Ortner family. It is almost impossibly located – perched on the side of a South Tyrolean peak among the regions ubiquitous grape vines and apple trees, with views that honestly have to be seen to be believed.

Caste Fragsburg Sud Tirol Dolomites Italy

This small area of Sud Tirol or Südtirol or Trentino-Alto Adige has a microclimate (more mild in the summers, cooler in the summer with 300 days of sun per year) that has lured visitors for over 350 years for various pursuits.  Castel Fragsburg is unique in that it has the feel of one of the top grand European hotels, but yet it has just 20 suites. It initially appears that it may be over the top luxury when you first drive through their entryway, but then the property reveals a mountain lodge feel, which is complemented by a nod to its past with faultless décor, the staff’s traditional regional clothing, and the fact that the Ortner family has instilled a level of service that blends impeccable hospitality with being welcomed as friends.

South Tyrol / Sud Tirol: &nbsp;where apple orchards meet vineyards

South Tyrol / Sud Tirol:  where apple orchards meet vineyards

On top of this all it has a Michelin starred restaurant, with full 180 degree views of the mountains across and valley below which can be enjoyed from a terrace literally clinging to the edge of the property during the warmer summer months.  A truly fun menu is a reference point for the abundant produce of the region.  It allows you to explore the best of Italian, Austrian andGermanic influences on the local diet, and is complemented by a wine list that highlights the again fantastic but yet somewhat underappreciated (by the rest of the world) wines of the area…  we’d suggest a local Nosiola from the Trentino DOC!

Castel Fragsburg Restaurant Terrace

Castel Fragsburg Restaurant Terrace

I cannot think of another location where we have dined with such a spectacular setting.  The quality and presentation of the food distracts from the amazing views and the fact you feel like you are suspended above the scenery, while the ever-changing light on the surrounding mountains and valley below distracts from the food and wine in front of you…. and then eventually you succumb to the additional distraction of your suite.

Summer Dining - Castel Fragsburg

Summer Dining - Castel Fragsburg

Castel Fragsbug Suite

Castel Fragsbug Suite

Castel Fragsburg is a perfect place for a vacation/holiday. A property where one could stay and rest (and dine) comfortably for weeks at a time without leaving, or alternatively it is perfectly located as a jumping off point to explore the forests, lakes, waterfalls (one of which is just an easy 15 minute walk from the hotel) and the mountains of the Dolomites and Tyrol Schistose Alps with epic day hikes and adventures available within easy striking distance.

One day hike falling in to that category that we might categorize as a ‘must do’ is the often Instagrammed but has to be seen in real-life Seceda, or Seceda-2500m depending on what your search preference is.  Just an hour from Merano and short on time we took the Ortisei to Seceda cable car up and then quickly separated ourselves from the groups beginning their day hikes in this area of the Dolomites.  The geology here is very unique – striated pyramids jutting up from green alpine fields and cliffs plunging off on one side.  In the other direction: panoramic views complemented by the often changing and variable weather conditions that only add to the dramatic setting. 

Day Hiking Seceda 2500m

Day Hiking Seceda 2500m

It continues to amaze us that such spectacular settings are so accessible as day hikes, and that there is such an abundance of hiking opportunities seemingly from every picturesque town that you stumble upon (we’d highly recommend a visit just to see the quaint  Ortisei / Urtijëi and the Val Gardena).  

We are on a mission to explore this area more broadly and further lift the veil on this fantastic region. Each return trip home results in a feeling that we need to go back again soon… and we will!

A Focus on Zermatt: Mountain Views and Culinary Delights

Red! White! Yellow! Green! Indigo! Black! White!

We sat on our almost too-good-to-be-true balcony at the aptly named ‘Matterhorn Focus’ hotel, looking up at the still dimly visible Matterhorn set upon the starry backdrop, noticing the oddly sporadic and countless colors blinking on the light on the Schwarzsee side of the mountain.

“What do you think those lights mean?” I asked. 

A quick Google search revealed that there were three lights of this kind visible from Zermatt, and between sunset and sunrise, they could be easily changed at will by a simple telephone call.  As it turns out, all you need to do is own a cell phone and you can make your own impact on Zermatt.  The Yeti club originally came up with the idea, aptly named Lumorama, in celebration of mountain guides who give their time and unfortunately, sometimes their lives to the mountains.  All funds from the calls go towards a fund which is given to families guides in times of need.  The spirit of the Lumorama, to us, embodies exactly what Zermatt, Matterhorn Focus, and the people of this region of Switzerland stand for:

Creative, thoughtful, and ever focused on and toward the mountains.

MATTERHORN FOCUS: A SHINING STAR

We arrived at the Matterhorn Focus Hotel on an unseasonably warm afternoon, and were immediately struck by the friendliness of all of the staff – as well as a much-needed welcome drink.  The people we met quickly felt like friends, eager to share with us their insights on the town, the best places to catch the right light/views at each time of the day, weather-dependent.  While one might expect the hotel to be modest assuming the views of the Matterhorn would do the heavy lifting, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The hotel itself is a shining star, and the views of the Matterhorn and surrounding peaks from the room are merely a cherry on top of the exceptional experience within. 

Focus Matterhorn Royal Suite

Being American, living in London, and having an ongoing obsession with the Nordic culture of minimalism and simplicity, we tend to favor places that have a perfect fusion of all of the above.  We were shown to our Royal Suite and to say that it did not disappoint would be an understatement.  A mountain view? Check. Minimalist, clean and welcoming rustic design? Check.  Easy access to endless miles of trails? Check. Walkable distance to good food & the town? Check. Matterhorn Focus has it all, without swinging too far into the red-and-white-checkered-everything, old-fashioned Swiss-chalet style.  It makes those of us non-Swiss who come from other places and are experiencing a bit of a culture shock feel comfortable and right at home.

MOUNTAIN VIEWS

You can’t go wrong with a room at the Matterhorn Focus.  You are either positioned in a room with breathtaking unobstructed views of the Matterhorn, or given the chance to look over the entire town of Zermatt and all of the other surrounding peaks from the other side. We were treated to the Matterhorn views, which made waking up for sunrise a little less painful, as we could watch the very tip of the mountain turn that specific shade of alpenglow pink that is worth waking up for every time – and then head straight back to bed for another hour of shuteye.

While we were there in the summer, it’s also worth noting that for winter visitors, this would be an ideal place to check weather conditions from bed, rather than by iPhone, and decide whether or not to hop on the lift right away or give yourself another few hours to doze.  The lift is painfully convenient in proximity, and allows you to expend more energy up on the slopes, rather than getting to them.

 

Balcony View at Matterhorn Focus

Balcony View at Matterhorn Focus

RUSTIC MINIMALISM

When coming off of the mountain, even in the summer, there’s nothing more enticing than a frosty cold beer and a nice place to sit down and relax.

Our suite was cozy and loaded with ample plush fixtures: a free standing bath with soaking salts, a personal Nespresso machine, several fluffy blankets and pillows; as well, multiple sitting rooms in the main lobby were equally inviting and rustic without being too pretentiously lodgy.  Every room just begged to be sat in and enjoyed – whether for a quick rest before taking on the next activity, or for curling up with a book for a few hours and lazying away the day.

Matterhorn Focus Lounge Area

Matterhorn Focus Lounge Area

TRAILS GALORE

Getting away from the crowds, selfie sticks, and souvenir shops is an imperative for every trip we take, even if just for a little while – and having been to Zermatt as very much classic “tourists” before, we made it our mission on this particular trip to stay somewhere that was well positioned to escape and hit the trails conveniently and easily.

Matterhorn Focus is just a hop skip and a jump out of the downtown, so as to be convenient to the train station and trails, but far away enough from the riff raff that you can enjoy the mountain experience without feeling surrounded by day visitors and tourists.  We found it to be effortless to get in and out of the downtown (quite different from prior experiences where we dreaded heading into town, only to face a monstrous uphill climb back to our chalet after indulging in a few too many post hike/ski beers). 

While we had originally planned a “rest” day for our first day, the accessibility of the trails was too good to pass up, and we set out for the enviable Trift trail hike, leading up to the Platthorn and Mettelhorn.  We geared up with a hefty breakfast at Focus’ incredibly ample buffet (eggs, bacon, yogurt, fruit, cappuccinos, a plethora of breads and cheese – what more could we ask for?), knowing we would need every calorie we could get and soon thereafter (well, after one more coffee), set off for the mountains.

Within 10 minutes, we were well on our way up the Trift trail, navigating rocks and roots and sketchy cliff drop offs.  We spent the entire day far away from civilization, seeing only a handful of other hikers, and summiting the Platthorn mountain a couple hours before dinner.  From up there, visitors willing to work for their views are treated with absolutely astonishing views of Zermatt and 360 degree panoramas of the Swiss and Italian alps from an entirely new perspective.  The walk down certainly led to sore legs, hungry bellies, and dusty legs after a few lazy falls, but we emerged into Zermatt and wobbled the quick 10 minute stroll back to the Focus, where we were treated to a cold beer, a hot shower, and free afternoon treats to reward our efforts.

Trift Trail Hike above Zermatt

Trift Trail Hike above Zermatt

 

UNPARALLELED LOCAL CUISINE

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the proximity of Matterhorn Focus to our absolute favorite restaurant in Zermatt, the Sonnmatten.  After a full day of uphill hiking and showering the dirt off, we were starving but not in the best form to walk far – so our favorite restaurant being a 3 minute walk away from the hotel was quite possibly the biggest treat of the day.

Sonnmatten boasts absolutely incredible views of the Matterhorn, which are only surpassed by the scrumptiousness of their cuisine. During the winter, they offer a daily fixed menu, which we had enjoyed when last in Zermatt over the winter, but by summer, the fare is a la carte and features local delicacies, fresh salads, a wide variety of Swiss meats, oversized hamburgers, and of course, endless amounts of the favorite local craft beer.  We watched the sun go down and wrapped ourselves in blankets as we enjoyed a meal of homemade house salad, goat cheese honey bruschetta, and deer with spätzle – all delicious (and you must try the homemade hay schnapps)! 

Sonnmatten Zermatt

Sonnmatten Zermatt

From work to mountains in 2 hours, a Swiss microadventure

I walked out of my final client meetings in Zurich at 3pm on Friday, basked in a few moments of sunshine, and then promptly hopped onto the train headed towards Kandersteg.  Two hours later, I was in the most quintessential alpine town I may have ever seen, and hopped onto a gondola up to Berghotel Oeschinensee.  Kandersteg welcomed me in true alpine fashion; as the lift headed up into the mountains, I found myself in the midst of a snow storm and visibility was about 10 feet all around.  I briefly thought of the sunbathing Swiss back in Zurich only a mere hours earlier drinking their Aperol’s and chuckled to myself.  What a weird world.

As I reached the top of the lift, Christoph, one of the Berghotel owners (the hotel has now been passed down through 6 generations), greeted me and drove us to the hotel.  “You got here just in time,” he said. “The weather would have been too dangerous to get in here if you had come even an hour later.”  I was shown my room, adorned with intricate yet simple Swiss details, and opened my lake/mountain facing window to reveal “the view”: snow, clouds, and more snow. 

Oeschinensee Interior dining area and stove

“I think we will be in for a surprise later; we’ll see” said Christoph, smiling, as he left me to unpack and settle into my room.  There’s something about mountain folks that just makes them know when the weather is going to turn just right and allow for unbelievable views at the most unexpected moments.  Boy, would he be right.  Only 2 hours later, I was treated to unobstructed lake views and an impeccably perfect weather window in which I was able to go on a 5-mile roundtrip hike up into the mountains, affording me the most Instagram-worthy views of Lake Oeschinensee from above. 

Oeschinensee lake valley view

The hotel was built in 1892, so has had plenty of decades to build up a loyal hoard of annual visitors. But more recently, the hotel and region have been discovered and frequented by tourists from around the world.  The communal bathrooms and shared lounge space subtly encourage you to get out of your shell and spend time with other travellers staying there, as well as learn what brought them to this beautiful place high up in the Bernese Oberland.

Berghotel Oeschinensee Room View

But what makes this hotel better than any other hotel is their dedication to the principles and history that have brought them here.  On my last day visiting, I sat down for breakfast with Christoph and his adorable kids, assumedly future owners of the hotel.  We chatted about his hopes for what the Berghotel could and should be; what it means to him in the context of his own life decisions. “I – and we don’t want to go away from what the Berghotel has always been; we don’t want to expand, make it larger, or lose control of what we set out to create… if anything, the opposite is true” said Christoph.  At first, the sentiment struck me by surprise. Coming from the world of business/finance, perhaps I have become too accustomed to the idea that the goal is always to sell more, make more, spend more – but the very principles which Christoph and his family hold so dear are what make this such a special place: it takes true heart, character, and dedication to values, to not move away from what is true just because the world is calling for it. It takes grit to say “no” to those who try to commercialize it, even if it means turning away money or what some may deem as bigger opportunities. 

And so for that reason, this hotel will continue to offer the most authentic and classic experience available to the true alpine vacationer.  That, and the fact they have the best access to the most epic alpine slide in the world – it’s a toss-up.

Slovenia, Cormòns Italy and La Subida

Our adventure originated unexpectedly: with a weeknight’s viewing of Netflix’s Chef’s Table…

For us, this innovative documentary series has already resulted in three different restaurant reservations in three very different locations so far (Slovenia, Sweden, and Chile)… and they are often made impulsively during the 45 – 60 minute period of watching the show.

(*hint NFLX – this is an obvious ecommerce tie–in)

In the case of Slovenia and Italy, we were already aware of the region’s natural beauty, but had not really focused at all on the very high quality and distinct food and wine options that were available and equally worth traveling for.  As we watched the episode profiling Ana Roš we intuitively knew that a trip to Kobarid was required and an email to the reservations team at Hiša Franko was sent. 

The perfect foundation to a trip, and an excellent meal was had (the week after we made our reservation Ana was named world's best female chef for 2017 – timing is everything) as we enjoyed Ana’s unique take on reinventing traditional regional dishes of the Soča valley area.

However -  the trip expanded further when we learned a bit later in the episode that Ana and her husband had frequently visited, and were in part inspired by, another restaurant which was just across the border in Italy: La Subida.  “My husband brought me to that restaurant and it would make my heart race,” said Ana, of La Subida. It was at La Subida where Ana’s love and talent for creative food began.

“Let’s drink more shall we!?” was the jocular question posed to us near the end of a thoroughly enjoyable meal and experience at that very restaurant, La Subida, which sits just outside of Cormons Italy and situated on the border with Slovenia.

La Subida is not only a restaurant, but also a rural residence where people come to get away.  It is an entirely unique destination, capturing that ‘country elegance’ or ‘rustic luxury’ that so many properties today attempt (and fail) to manufacture or conjure up from new facilities, while here it is done effortlessly.

La Subida exterior.jpg

While known for years for its restaurant Trattoria Al Cacciatore;  La Subida is now embarking on an effort to refine their image as a destination… spoken best by their own website: “a place where one goes to feel well, relax, stay on a little to unwind!”

The Sirk family is essentially welcoming you in to their country home, opened in 1960 as an inn and osteria, and now a Michelin starred (but this is not necessarily promoted…more accepted humbly) facility with an eclectic-in-a-very-good-way group of dwellings that go by the charming and appropriate names: Countryside, Grandma’s, Of the Wood, Of the Vinegar Factory, The Barn (Kozovci), and The Nest.  There is also no question about the main focus of the area when handed the key to your cottage: wine is what makes the world go round in this region.

Subida Key
Trattoria Al Cacciatore

Trattoria Al Cacciatore

Everything about our accommodations just felt comfortable, from when we arrived and were asked to sit on the courtyard sofa with a glass of sparkling and a local cheese snack before Mitja provided us with an overview of their property and the region, to enjoying the scenery from the terrace of the Osteria with a glass of the local Friuliano white wine (we found a preference for those from the Collio region of Friuli) to exploring the property and the neighbouring countryside before just relaxing and noting just how quiet it is in this part of the world at night.

La Subida Room.jpg

Then there is the food – thoroughly authentic and based on local cuisine (and hyper local produce) but at the same time refined with little touches and bursts of flavor – and a palate cleansing course of vinegar sorbet from their own on-site wine vinegar factory of which I could have easily had seconds (or thirds). 

La Subida Vinegar Factory

La Subida Vinegar Factory

Having eaten the evening prior at Hisa Franko, this was the perfect follow up to that dining event.  The two restaurants are connected by produce, wine, people, and history which is evident but at the same time a very different experience. That sense of rustic luxury again evident in the casual tenor and flow of the meal without any sacrifice on quality – again, in a completely comfortable, almost understated atmosphere.

La Subida Reception

For all the beauty of the Collio / Cormons area, scores of adventures and visual treats are available just across the border… all within a 90 minute to 2 hour striking distance from La Subida which allows you to travel from the vineyards to the snowy peaks of Slovenia (we started our trip in the mountain passes of Kranjska Gora) over the milky turquoise rivers of Slovenia and back in one day if you wish – further enhancing one’s stay in this sometimes overlooked but remarkably attractive part of the world.

Kranjska Gora Hike
Kobarid

We cannot wait to return.