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Jim’s Journal

Jim's Journal: Ireland

Flickr/Phalinn Ooi

It is hard to believe, but despite taking numerous trips to the UK and Europe, I had never been to Ireland — and that needed to change. This New Year’s, rather than head to a sunny destination, where hotel prices and airfare were exorbitant, I decided to book an eight-night stay to explore the Emerald Isle.  I wanted to enjoy the famed countryside, medieval castles, and the newly vibrant cities of Dublin and Belfast.  Also, I wanted an overseas destination that — in winter — would not be freezing cold.  Ireland fit the bill perfectly. Read more

Vienna Austria ParliamentI traveled to Vienna this year to attend the Life Ball, the largest fundraiser for AIDS research in the world. The event is televised on Austrian TV and is notable for the procession of elaborately costumed partygoers walking the red carpet to the ornate City Hall. This year’s event included President Clinton, Ricky Martin, and Conchita Wurst, the Austrian drag queen who won this year’s Eurovision song contest.

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Four Seasons Gresham PalaceI have been to Budapest several times and, on each visit, I adore staying at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace. In the off-season (winter, or shoulder season in fall or early spring), rates are quite reasonable relative to other 5-star properties in Paris, London, or New York City. (Think $280-$320 per night, compared with $500+.) The Gresham Palace is, in many ways, in a league of its own when it comes to Budapest’s hotel offerings. In fact, it was just named the number three hotel in the world in Travel + Leisure‘s 2014 World Best Awards. The majestic old-world structure was originally designed to be an insurance company before it became a hotel.

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620x400_iStock_BambergGermanyLots of American travelers make their way to Germany, and, in fact, it’s recently edged out France as our third most visited European destination, after the U.K. and Italy. The most popular German destinations include Berlin and Munich, but two delightful smaller cities to see Regensburg and Bamberg, both located in the Franconia region, not far from Munich. Both offer a rich taste of rural Bavaria. While many Danube river cruises stop at these towns, they’re also easily accessible from Munich by car or train.

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Protaras, Cyprus/iStock

I like traveling to resort destinations that aren’t filled with Americans. It isn’t that I dislike American tourists. I just find it so much more interesting to meet people from other cultures — something I couldn’t do back home in the States. Cyprus, not a typical destination for Americans, is a popular summer vacation spot for Russians, Lebanese, Scandinavians, and Brits.

I spent three nights in Ayia Napa, which is along the southeast coast of Cyprus. You might compare the vibe of the town to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. Ayia Napa, or Napa as the locals call it, has arguably the best beaches in Cyprus; they’re comparable to those in France, Italy, or Greece. Read more

Adventure in IcelandAfter spending five days in Iceland, I can’t understand what took me so long to visit. The country is a mere five-hour flight from New York (like flying to California) but it’s a world away in terms of the scale of its nature adventures. Iceland is truly an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise.

Reykjavik is a small, charming city with one main street, a cute harbor, excellent restaurants, and a handful of city sights to explore, like the new opera house. But if you want to get the best of Iceland, the prime sightseeing is outside of town. I hadn’t planned any excursions in advance so I had to work fast and learn about what I needed to see.

I short-listed a few activities after asking fellow hotel guests what they recommended. Here’s what I did: Read more

Limassol Cyprus EscapeWhen I began planning my trip to Cyprus, I didn’t have a good understanding of the island; few friends had been and I hadn’t read any travel stories about the destination. Naturally, some asked why I was going; well, I knew Cyprus was a popular vacation spot for Europeans, so something good had to be there, and I wanted to stop for a week somewhere that wasn’t far from Greece, my next destination. So I landed on Cyprus.

My ultimate impressions? I really enjoyed my week in Cyprus and highly recommend it as a beach destination. There are also a few noteworthy cities. The people are as warm as the summer weather, in fact, I found them to be much friendlier than the Greeks. Despite sharing a common language, the Cypriots pride themselves on a stronger work ethic and general friendliness.

I chose to split my time between two main vacation spots: Limassol and Ayia Napa. Here’s what you should do during your time in Limassol (and stay tuned for part two about Ayia Napa): Read more

Cartagena City GuideUpon arrival in Cartagena, you’re immediately struck by the Caribbean feel of the city. The pastel colored low-rise buildings, high humidity, and infectious salsa music reminds you that this coastal enclave is very much part of the Caribbean. The old town of Cartagena, a walled city, is charming and designed for casual strolls with its small shops, cafés, bars, and several inviting squares. Stop by the Charleston Santa Teresa around sunset for a rooftop ron punch (rum punch) or mojito and enjoy the sunset over the sea. Read more

Bogota, ColombiaThe first thing I noticed when I arrived in Bogotá was how new, clean and organized its international airport is (I wish JFK were as pleasant). Around the capital city there are new buildings going up alongside gleaming office and apartment towers. Colombia is showing off a new face to the world – one that has left behind the constant fear of drug dealers and domestic terrorists. Nowadays, a democratic, free-market-focused central government is making progress, and a rising middle class is supporting a boom in restaurants, nightclubs, and retail. As people exude optimism about their future, Colombia is on the rise, much like its more noticed neighbor, Brazil. Read more

Vista GrillWhen I travel to a new destination, I always like to ask for advice and tips from my well-traveled friends who might have been to that place and probe for any suggestions before I get on the plane. And then, upon landing, I try to check those recommendations with my hotel and with locals. When it comes to finding places to eat, I find this type of research to be critical. I asked around for restaurant ideas before on my recent trip to Mexico. Here are my top picks after having spent a week in Puerto Vallarta.

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Garza Blanca Puerto VallartaI had never been to Puerto Vallarta, so I was very excited about the prospect of visiting over the New Year’s holiday. Coming from New York, it is, obviously, a longer trip than heading to the east coast of Mexico. However, it is worth the extra few hours of flight time. Puerto Vallarta is a charming seaside town and the old city is eminently walkable. There is a popular promenade along the water, and a not so surprising assortment of tourist shops, restaurants, and bars line the blocks. Most of one’s time, however, is likely spent at a resort and not at beaches around town.

I stayed at the Garza Blanca Preserve, Resort & Spa, located about 15 minutes south of the old town. This was the perfect choice. While the Four Seasons is about an hour north of town, I feel that the Garza Blanca is a great pick in that it is upscale, a very good value, and located not far from town for those evenings when one may want to go out to eat off property. Unlike the congested hotel zone north of Puerto Vallarta, the area south of the city, where the Garza Blanca is located, is less developed and far more secluded. Read more

St. PetersburgComing to St. Petersburg is a special treat for me since I was last here as a student 25 years ago, before the fall of communism. I wanted to return to see just how much the city had changed. Back then, the average person waited in line for several hours a day just to buy life’s necessities. The city was run down, without color, without any zest for life.

How times have changed. I spent a delightful five days in St. Petersburg during the “white nights” of summer, when it remains light outside until after 10pm and people can enjoy long days of walking (residents are quick to point out that the city is far more walkable than Moscow). It’s often referred to as “the Paris of the North” for good reason: both cities are bisected by a major river (the Neva standing in for the Seine), with majestic 18th-century buildings (albeit here they are often pastel colored), wide boulevards, and manicured parks. Read more

Revolution MuseumIt’s been 25 years since I was in Moscow, when I was a student of the Russian language. I wanted to return to see all the changes since the end of Communism. To start off with some context, nothing is better than a visit to The State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History, which is commonly known by its former name, the Museum of the Revolution.

Actually the name should be plural because it covers Russia’s three 20th-century revolutions. There is the 1905 Democratic Revolution, which led to the Tsar abdicating and the election of the Duma, or parliament. World War I began, which greatly damaged the government’s credibility and helped lead to the second revolution in 1917, when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, shot their way into power. Lenin ushered in his policies of state planning and the collectivization of farming. The museum does a great job of reviewing the good, the bad, and the ugly of this period in history. Lastly, there was the third revolution (albeit a peaceful one) when Gorbachev introduced Perestroika and began the unraveling of the USSR and communism. Read more

Grand Hotel StockholmI arrived in Stockholm for what would be the start of a seven-week journey through Europe. I figured I would start up north and make my way to warmer climates in the days ahead. Stockholm in summer is terrific because the days are long and the way the sun hits the city makes its colors come alive.

However, when planning a summer trip to Stockholm, it is important to bring along some sweaters and a jacket. I have made this mistake before in packing shorts and t-shirts thinking the Baltic countries are just like the rest of Europe. Not so. The weather can be quite rainy and cool, so be prepared.

Stockholm can best be summarized as civilized. In my opinion, Sweden is probably the most civilized country in the world. Everyone is incredibly friendly and helpful. And unlike in some cultures where they are friendly and, rather than not give you any information, they sometimes give you wrong information, the Swedes are very precise and accurate. I grew to love this in my five days exploring the city.

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The Jefferson HotelI must admit that I have not visited our nation’s capital in some years, so I was pretty unfamiliar with the D.C. hotel landscape. Fortunately, I found my way to an absolutely charming boutique luxury property, the Jefferson Hotel, which seems like a home away from home (if your home is a modest mansion) in many ways. It’s small enough to feel intimate and cozy, but large enough (99 rooms and suites) to have excellent hotel amenities, including a first-rate restaurant, spa, and gym. It also happens to be ideally located just a couple blocks away from the Smithsonian museums, the Washington Monument, and the White House. Read more

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