Tag Archives: horseback riding

Traveling In the Year of The Horse.

horseback-safaris

Safari anyone?

On January 31, in galloped the Year of the Horse on the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

A 12-month cycle, the calendar is based on archetypes of 12 animals and 5 elements. 2014’s theme is actually the Yang Wood Horse. Yang represents activity, and the year is considered to be one of high energy, production, movement, and a perfect time to travel.

On that note, I figured why not focus on destinations where horses figure predominately in one way or another.

Whether you like sitting in a saddle or just gazing at these noble creatures, there’s something about being near horses that quiets us. If you’re a horse person, then you probably have an unbridled passion for these animals and know what I’m talking about. There’s something about looking at the world from between a horse’s ears that just feels right. Some folks may say yuck to the smell of a stable but to me it’s a welcoming scent, so let’s go!

The wild horses of the Carmargue.

The wild horses of the Carmargue.

Wild Horses
I’ve only ever seen the Carmargue wild horses on public television but their ghostly beauty is enough for me to get off the couch and book a trip. One of the oldest breeds in the world, they’ve been around since 50,000 B.C.  Carmargue horses live around Saintes Maries de la Mer in southern France, within an area that runs from the Rhone River to the Mediterranean. These pale grey horses roam the marshland and salt marshes of the region and are protected by French law. Their allure draws visitors far and wide who come to paint, ride, photograph or just be near these sturdy ponies. A major tourist destination, the Carmargue Natural Park includes a UNESCO designated biosphere reserve, where each year hundreds of thousands of migrating birds rest for a layover. In addition to the wild horses, the bird wildlife, especially the pink flamingoes, is a major attraction for bird-watchers. Located near Arles, if you’ve got any time on the front or back end of your next stay in Paris, consider a side trip.

Pink flamingos in Carmargue Nature Park.

Pink flamingos in Carmargue Nature Park.

Dressage & Design
Who needs an excuse to visit Italy? The food alone is enough of a reason but when you add the opportunity to take dressage lessons in a place like Castello di Reschio, sign me up. Located in Umbria, this luxurious retreat blends modernity with classic old world aesthetic design that the Italians are oh so good at creating. If you’ve got a thing for design and architecture, these digs will have you over the moon. Depending on how many folks you want around you, the Reschio farmhouse accommodations sleep anywhere between 2 to 14 and will blow you away. Once you see them, it’s a pretty sure bet they’ll have to pry you out by your fingernails. The proximity to Tuscany and the chance to explore the towns that dot its map, or take cooking classes, is another draw. Budget wise, it’s not for the faint of wallet but if you want to learn to ride, or perfect your moves, and feel it’s time to treat yourself to an all around, out of this world experience, then this might be the place for you.

All the pretty horses at Castello di Reschio.

All the pretty horses at Castello di Reschio.

A different point of view at Panagea.

A different point of view at Panagea.

Rawhide
If that’s too rich for your blood and you like it closer to the bone, then Panagea Estancia might be more your speed. This working cattle ranch in the north of Uruguay attracts visitors looking for the real deal of what the life of a South American gaucho, or cowboy, is really like. The ranch doesn’t promote itself from a tourist perspective, but they do welcome travelers who like to rough it. In terms of accommodations, we’re talking bare bones here but if you want to ride, or learn how, brush up on your Spanish, and live life off the grid then this is the place to do it. For $60 a day, you’ll not only get horseback riding lessons but the room and board to go with it. A steal if you ask me.

Race ya!  (Photo credit: African Horseback Safaris)

Race ya! (Photo credit: African Horseback Safaris)

Perfect after a day in the saddle.

Saddle Up On Safari
The only thing better than being on safari would be horseback riding while on safari. If you’re an experienced rider, then African Horseback Safaris can deliver that magic. With their Macatoo Camp located on the western side of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, you’ll find yourself in a mecca for wildlife as you race through floodplains, canter along side giraffes or zebra, gaze up at elephants, or follow on the heels of buffalo and antelope. With 4 to 6 hours in the saddle, you’ve got to love it and being able to ride in such a pristine environment is a dream. If your travel buddy doesn’t want to live your fantasy, no problem. Non-riders can enjoy a safari experience by boat or game drive, and whether or not you’re in the saddle the sundowners that’ll greet you at the end of the day will quench your thirst. This outfit also offers Eco-Safaris that you can tag on to your trip. If you’re looking for the ultimate riding experience, this is it.

Flirting with a friend at Flag Is Up Farms.

Flirting with a friend at Flag Is Up Farms.

Join Up
If being on the back of a horse isn’t your thing, and you’re simply looking to get a better understanding of these creatures, consider a visit to Flag Is Up Farms. Owned and operated by Monty Roberts, best-selling author of The Man Who Listens to Horses, this farm offers courses on horse behavior, horsemanship, and how to communicate with these animals through the language of Equus. Roberts’ pioneered a non-violent approach to working with horses years ago, which he eventually coined Join-Up®. It’s a philosophy based on learning the  unspoken language of horses that creates a trust-based foundation in a cooperative environment. Through subtle body movements and gestures, students work individually with horses in a high-walled, round-pen and experience for themselves this silent method of communication. It was a pretty thrilling experience for this Brooklyn girl and drinking a few juicy glasses of local red wine at the end of each night was a pretty sweet treat. Flag is Up is nicely set amongst the rolling hills of Santa Ynez wine valley and while they don’t offer accommodations, there are a variety available in the nearby towns of Solvang and Buellton. With its emphasis on communication, the real value of Join-Up® is that it can be applied to any relationship and the course attracts people from all walks of life including CEOs, veterans suffering from PTSD, abused women, children, educators, and medical clinicians.  Even the Queen of England endorses Join-Up® and over the years of his providing services to Britain’s racing establishment, in 2011 Monty was made an honorary Member of the Royal Victorian Order.

A New Forest Cottage.

A New Forest Cottage.

Pony Up
Whether you want to ride or just be around horses, the inhabitants of the New Forest, in Hampshire, England, will intrigue you. Roaming freely through the land are the famous New Forest Ponies, a band of about 3,000 whose mere presence contributes to the country’s tourism. These pretty ponies have run wild in these woodlands for 2,000 years and are cared

New Forest Ponies.

New Forest Ponies.

for by New Forest Commoners (local land owners). Visitors come just to watch the ponies, attracted by their gentle nature and beauty, as well as the romance and history of these creatures. Whether you’re a novice or advanced rider, there are a handful of stables in the forest that will saddle you up for lessons, riding, or a leisurely trek. The opportunity to enjoy a car-free journey is another plus, as you can easily hop a train from London. Once there, renting a bike is one of the most popular choices for exploring the area. There’s also a coastline where you can enjoy a shoreline stroll or hop a small ferry to Hurst Castle & Lighthouse. Book a room in one of the New Forest Cottages, and you’ll really feel like you’re in an enchanted forest.

The Chinese believe that the Horse year represents freedom and that when it comes to travel the further away you go, the better.

It’s also believed that you have to act fast in a Horse Year.  So if you’ve got an itch to go somewhere, giddy up!

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Toronto—From Good To Great.

Super Toronto's Supermoon. (Photo credit: R. Gottardo)

Super Toronto’s Supermoon. (Photo credit: R. Gottardo)

Travel is discovery and it’s a delight when you stumble upon a new favorite thing. Whether it’s music, dance, food, a cocktail, beach, park, campsite, a person, exceptional experience or an intimate moment. Large or small—it doesn’t have to work for anyone else—it just has to rock your world. I discovered my new favorite thing recently in Toronto. It’s Coco Café—coconut water with a kick of espresso, a hint of sugar, and dash of low-fat milk. I popped into a café for an iced coffee but walked out with an obsession. Crazy for anything coconut, the coffee buzz was a bonus. So there you have it, that’s my new favorite thing.cococafe

But obviously Canada’s largest city has lots more to discover than my new favorite drink. As it’s grown over the years, Toronto’s sprouted neighborhoods with a fantastic mix of ethnic cultures, food, arts and entertainment. Leslieville is a working and middle-class area, celebrated for its artistic vibe, retro shops and good eats. Chinatown and Kensington are the most multi-cultural hoods in Toronto. If you’re not adverse to a group tour, you may want to check out Urban Adventures. They offer small (no more than 12 people) guided tours. You’ll learn some history and get to experience some of what makes these heritage neighborhoods standout. Looking for another angle? The Planet D offers photography tours.

Kensington rickshaw. (Photo credit: ThePlanetD)

Kensington rickshaw. (Photo credit: ThePlanetD)

If you prefer not to run with a pack, the subway and streetcar system make navigating the city a breeze. Toronto’s easy to get around and you’ll be able to cover good ground, on foot as well, depending on the amount of time you have. From eating to exercising, here are some local, popular, and touristy things to see and do around the city.

Arts & Entertainment

Art Gallery of Toronto (AGO) – Culture vultures can get their art fix here at the one of the largest museums in North America. The AGO holds over 80,000 works in its collection and will soon premier the Ai WeiWei According To What? exhibit from August 17-October 27. The excitement this artist generates is drawing locals, and visitors from across the country and the border.

CN Tower – What would a visit to Toronto be without a peek inside of what the American Society of Engineers classified as One Of The Seven Wonders Of The Modern World? With a 360-degree view of city, the Tower also features a restaurant, entertainment, exhibitions and events.

The Toronto Islands – One of the city’s top attractions, these islands are just a 10-minute ferry ride from the city. Beaches, biking, canoeing, kayaking, festivals, picnicking—depending on how you like to hang, there’s something for you on one these islands. If you’ve got kids, there’s an amusement park and a petting zoo, too.

Distillery District, Toronto, Canada

Distillery District, Toronto, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Distillery – formerly a derelict zone of Victorian industrial buildings, in 2003 a group of creative developers transformed the area into an atmosphere that’s now heralded as one of Canada’s premier arts, culture and entertainment destinations. With one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants, galleries, theatres, and cafes, it’s a great place to hang out—day or night.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – this town is overflowing with film festivals but it’s this one, held annually for ten days in September, that set’s the city on fire.  TIFF has established itself as the premier event in the industry and built up Toronto’s city cred. Cannes and Tribeca have nothing on it, and it’s the world’s largest public film festival.  If you have any plans to visit Toronto during September 5-15, act fast—get some tix, see some flicks and don’t forget the camera.
Yummy Stuff

St. Lawrence Market – one of my favorite, previously mentioned, haunts in Toronto, I’m hungry just thinking about it. Bring an empty stomach and leave very happy and probably with lots of good stuff. The quality and variety of fresh food offered at this market from fruits, veggies, fish, meat, spices, herbs—you name it—is nuts, so go there and go crazy.

Good stuff awaits you at the Rooster Coffee Shop.

Good stuff awaits you at the Rooster Coffee Shop.

With no shortage of bars, cafes and restaurants, it’s challenging to list all the faves but here are a few standouts. For quality Italian fare, check out Buca. If you’re in The Danforth, pop into Mezes for authentic Greek cuisine served family style. Need a java jump? The Rooster Coffee House was voted one the best cafes by Toronto Life. With two locations, they make it easy for you to get your fix.

Exercise

Flemingdon Park Golf Club – This 9-hole public course is located in the Don Valley, just minutes from the city center. They rent clubs, carts, bags, and have a practice driving net.

Sunnybrook Stables – Like to ride? I do. These stables are in midtown Toronto but you’ll feel miles away. From beginner to advanced riders, the instructors—and the horses— are excellent.Horse play at Sunnybrook Stables. (Photo credit: Sunnybrook Stables.)

Sundara Yoga – When you stay in a hotel, it’s easy to just plod down to the gym. Break form, be adventurous and check out where the locals do it. Located in historic Cabbagetown, Angela Jervis-Read runs a yoga studio that’ll welcome you with open arms. Her specialty is Yin yoga and her instruction is encouraging without the woo-woo weirdness that can sometimes turn folks off to its benefits.

Sleepytime

There are loads of hotels all over the town. Depending on your budget, and the area you want to stay, here’s where a travel agent can cut your work in half. A few recs off the top of my head are The InterContinental on Bloor Street, which is well located; The Omni King Edward, in the financial district, and The Drake in the Queen Street West area.

Getting There

Depending on where you hail from, Toronto is easily accessed by rail, bus, or car, and of course…air.  If you’re flying, check out Porter Airlines. With this carrier’s excellent service, they’re at the top my list. The biggest plus is that they fly directly into Billy Bishop Toronto Island Airport, which will put you right smack in the city so you can hit the ground running.

Toronto is all grown up but its evolution is nowhere near over.  Been there? Share your story…and your new favorite thing.

Small Town Pleasures in Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur

San Juan del Sur (Photo credit: Daniel Fajardo Valenti)

The Pacific coastline region of Nicaragua around San Juan del Sur seems to be on every list of best places to go in 2013.   Recently, I had the chance to visit and found a destination whose chill-out factor suited me just fine.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from a country listed as the second poorest in the Western hemisphere, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Nicaraguans are friendly, hospitable and mellow, and while their country may have attracted unwanted attention in the 1980s during the Iran-Contra affair, it’s now being noticed for all of the right reasons.  As one of the few places left to visit that won’t break your bank account, it’s easy to see why so many Americans and Canadians retire here.  San Juan del Sur is a tranquil fishing village that surrounds a crescent-shaped stretch of beach dotted with small bars and cafes. The town is simple to navigate and offers lots of options for eating, drinking and booking activities.  Taxis are plentiful, making it easy to check out the other lovely and uncrowded beaches up and down the coast. But if you’re looking for a bit more than soaking up the sun, here are some ideas to help plan your trip.

Five Cool Things to Do In & Around San Juan del Sur

1. Catch the Surf
Surfers helped put this area on the map and this town’s been operating as a hub for them ever since.  If you’re not ready to plant your feet on a board just yet, pitch a blanket and watch the experts.  Otherwise, no matter your age, you won’t be at a loss to find a surf camp that’ll suit you up.  Ladies, for the adventurer in you, check out CHICABRAVA—an all girls surf camp whose motto is – Get Stoked…In Style!  Founded in 2003 by 6-time Nicaraguan National surf champ, Ashley Blaylock, this retreat style camp will both challenge and pamper you.

An intermediate student gets stoked.  (Photo credit:  CHICABRAVA)

A CHICABRAVA intermediate student gets stoked. (Photo credit: CHICABRAVA)

2. Grab a Horse and Giddy-up
There are a handful of outfits around San Juan del Sur that run horseback tours for much less than what it costs to ride in the U.S.  Rancho Chilamate, an eco-friendly ranch owned and operated by an ex-pat Canadian couple, guide half-day tours at sunrise or sunset, depending on the tides.  They’ll suit and saddle you up, and include a photography tour of your ride.  In addition, a portion of the ride revenue goes back to the local community to help with healthcare and education costs, as well as other types of assistance projects.

Sunset ride on the beach.  (Photo credit:  Rancho Chilamate)

Sunset ride on the beach. (Photo credit: Rancho Chilamate)

3. Learn Spanish
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the culture and improve your high-school Spanish, then consider adding some lessons to your itinerary. There are several language schools in and around San Juan del Sur that can easily fit into your budget, and your new skills will have you chatting with the locals in no time!

4. Grab a Mat and Get Centered
When you start your morning doing sun salutations on the beach, the day only continues to get better.  From teacher-training camps to retreats to community classes, there are several top-notch yoga schools and studios to help you “be here now.”  Several of the surf camps also offer yoga.

Bondi Beach Yoga

(Photo credit: tarotastic)

5. Get Your Munchies In the Jungle
Pizza is definitely on my desert island list of foods and as a Brooklynite, I think I can vouch for the good stuff.  Munchies Blues Cafe is a Monday night, reservation-only experience in the jungle out by Playa Marsella. They serve Roman-style pizza that rivals some of the best stuff in my own neighborhood.

This list barely scratches the surface of activities you can enjoy in Nicaragua.   Tourism is rising but there’s still time to enjoy its simple pleasures.  With a landscape made of volcanoes, jungles, lakes, lagoons, rivers, beaches and lush rainforests, this country seems to offer something for everyone.   So the next time you’re wondering where you should go, think about discovering the beauty, tranquility and people of Nicaragua.