Photo Of The Day: Summer By The Seaside

Photo of the day - Antalya beach club
Matt Shalvatis

We like to find unusual and impressive photos to share for the Photo of the Day posts, bringing you to exotic and interesting places you don’t see every day. But sometimes, we just like pretty pictures. This shot from Flickr user Matt Shalvatis is the perfect visual vacation: a summer landscape on the Mediterranean seaside in Antalya, Turkey. The chairs look comfy, the light is perfect, and the water looks just fine. Feel free to stay awhile.

Add your travel photos to the Gadling Flickr pool to be chosen for the Photo of the Day.

10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

Ljubljana travel
When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.

%Gallery-141605%

Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe - While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English - Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport - This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country - While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.

Exploring the Welsh coast: Aberaeron and New Quay

Welsh coast, New Quay
Yesterday I mentioned that Aberystwyth is a good base from which to explore western Wales. On our second day in Wales my wife, son, and I hopped on a local bus and went south down the Welsh coast to the ports of Aberaeron and New Quay. Aberaeron is about 40 minutes from Aberystwyth and New Quay is only about 20 minutes further south from Aberaeron.

While we didn’t have long in Aberaeron, we liked this tidy little Welsh town with its brightly painted houses and fine view of the sea. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and pubs and we got the impression that it might be a better place to stay than Aberystwyth. Like in Aberystwyth, we heard a lot of people speaking Welsh. Most signs are in both languages. It’s nice to know that the language is surviving in the age of globalized English.

At New Quay we stopped for lunch at a pub on a cliff overlooking a sandy beach and broad harbor. The view was nice but service was slow and the food substandard. Sadly, this was the case with all too many of our meals in Wales, even though we usually followed local advice as to where to eat.

%Gallery-129265%The famous writer Dylan Thomas lived here for a time and New Quay was the inspiration for his fictional town of Llareggub (“bugger all” spelled backwards). Visitors interested in literary tourism can follow the Dylan Thomas Trail.

We’d come to take a boat trip instead. My five-year-old had never been out to sea so we decided to remedy that by going on one of New Quay’s many dolphin tours. Dolphins are abundant in these waters; we’d seen several from the window of the Seabrin Guest House in Aberystwyth. We chose a tour run by the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre, which uses its profits to fund research into the sea life on this part of the Welsh coast. The sea was calm and the sun shone fine so we weren’t worried as we stepped aboard an inflatable motorboat with a half dozen other people.

This good weather was our undoing. The calm conditions had made the fish move further out to sea, and the dolphins had followed them. As we made our way down the coast on our one-hour ride we saw exactly none. Oh well. It’s best to remember that nature isn’t there for our amusement.

This stretch of Welsh coastline is beautiful, with jagged rocks rising high out of the sea. The strata of the rocks is clearly visible, which allowed me to give the kid a lesson in geology, and the cliffs are dotted with numerous caves that smugglers (our boat captain called them “pirates”) used to elude the customs agents. My son was more disappointed about there being no pirates than he was about the lack of dolphins! All was made better when he got to sit in the captain’s chair.

One local told me that New Quay isn’t the most pleasant place to be at night in the summertime. A lot of rough people come into town to get drunk and start fights, and two of his friends got knifed in one incident. We saw a big fight in Aberystwyth too. This isn’t unusual in the UK. When I lived in London, I regularly saw fights on the street on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s just a sad fact of life in this part of the world.

Still, we had a nice day and the kid had a great time and got to experience something new, which is what really matters. Tomorrow I’ll be blogging about a steam train we took through some beautiful Welsh countryside. Unlike my last two posts on Wales, this one will be entirely positive!

Aberystwyth: Exploring a seaside resort in Wales

Aberystwyth, Wales
When deciding where to go for a beach vacation, Aberystwyth in Wales probably isn’t the first place you think of. It wasn’t ours either. My wife and I picked it on the advice of an English friend who had never been there and about an hour’s research on the Internet. We like to travel by the seat of our pants because it usually leads to a great experience. Usually.

Since this will not be an entirely positive article let’s get the downsides out of the way. First, the beach is stony and smells of rotting seaweed. Second, in four days of eating out at restaurants recommended by locals the only decent meals we had were at our B&B and a Sunday roast at The Fountain Inn. Third, there’s no nightlife outside the pubs and we saw a bunch of football hooligans fighting on the street outside one of them. Blood flowing, police sirens wailing, the whole nine yards. I feel bad mentioning these things because the locals were generally very nice. Most of those football hooligans were actually Scottish. Let’s get on to the good things.

Aberystwyth has been a popular seaside resort for a century, although now it’s suffering from competition from easyJet and Ryanair. In the days before £100 round-trip fares, working class people could only afford to go to places like Aberystwyth or Blackpool. Now they can go to Cyprus or Spain. While this is bad for the local economy, it does bring prices down, making Aberystwyth a good spot for budget travelers. Our B&B, the Seabrin Guest House, was a ridiculously cheap £55 a night for me, my wife, and son. We got a delicious breakfast and a huge bay window overlooking the sea. Some of our best moments in Aberystwyth were lounging in front of the Seabrin drinking beer and watching the sunset with the owners.

%Gallery-129146%Aberystwyth has ancient roots. There’s an Iron Age hillfort just outside of town and the remains of a castle founded in the 12th century stand picturesquely on the seaside promenade. This promenade is good for some lazy strolls, especially in the late summer evening as the last rays of sunlight turn the sky a faint pink and the water a rippling cobalt. Many locals build fires on the beach and hang out enjoying the view.

Museum goers will want to see The National Library of Wales, which has exhibitions of rare books and manuscripts.The regional museum, called the Ceredigion Museum, makes the understated boast that it’s “sometimes described as probably the most beautiful museum interior in Britain.” Housed in an old converted music hall, it features displays of archaeological finds and historic artifacts from the area. While I was here I had the weird experience of showing my five-year-old a record player and having to explain what it was. A few minutes later I saw another parent doing the same thing!

My son loved the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway that rides up the steep slope of Constitution Hill and affords a sweeping view of the town and bay. At 778 feet it’s the longest cliff railway in Britain and is an electric cable train with tilted carriages. Once on top of the hill he got to unwind in a bouncy castle before we went to see the Camera Obscura. This is a clever device that uses a rotating rooftop mirror reflecting onto a white disc inside a dark room to give a view of the surrounding countryside. This gave me the chance to give the kid a quick lesson in optics that he then repeated to everyone who came in, especially a certain girl he’d met in the bouncy castle.

Despite my crack about the local pubs, I have nothing but good to say about The Ship and Castle. This is what all pubs should be: fun, friendly, and serving up great local real ales. It’s won awards for best regional pub in 2007 and 2011. If you go to Aberystwyth, don’t miss it.

Aberystwyth is also a good base from which to explore the rest of Wales. Tomorrow and the next day I’ll be talking more about what to see in the region.

Big Island Hawaii: The Resorts of the Kohala Coast

The Kohala Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island might not look like what you imagine when you think of Hawaii. While the grounds of the many resorts that line the coastline are lush and green, once you leave the confines of the property, you’ll see a land that’s almost barren, dotted with tiny shrubs and long expanses of hardened black lava from the last eruptions of the now dormant Hualālai volcano. It’s not the jungle filled with waterfalls that you might have envisioned (for that, head to the Hilo side), but the otherworldly landscape is still beautiful.

If you want exciting nightlife or are traveling on a budget, there are better places to stay on the Big Island. But if you want carefree luxury, beautiful beaches, seaside golfing, and waiters at the ready to cater to your every whim as you relax by the pool, check out the resorts of the Kohala Coast.

Divided into four main resort properties, the Kohala Coast is home to eight luxury resorts. I had the chance to briefly visit them all and to stay in two, and I saw that each one has its own style, advantages, and disadvantages.

Waikoloa Beach – Waikoloa Beach Marriott and Hilton Waikoloa Village
Best for families with active children.

The Waikoloa Beach resort complex seems like a great choice for those who want to be able to stay busy without renting a car or leaving the resort complex. I can see spring breakers, older couples, and definitely families with young children loving the amenities, but if you want something that feels a little more intimate, I’d recommend you go elsewhere.

The Hilton Waikoloa Village is the largest of the eight properties in terms of number of rooms. There are over 1200 rooms on the 62 acre resort. It looks like it’s been picked up from Disney World and transplanted here to Hawaii. In fact, like Disney World, there is a tram system that transports guest around the hotel. There are four pool areas (one is adults only) with swim-up pool bars, waterslides, waterfalls, and lazy rivers. There’s a beach and ocean-fed lagoon for swimming, kayaking, snorkeling and boogie-boarding, a fitness center, tennis courts, and golf course. The hotel offers a whole host of activities like hula classes, luau dinner, lei-making demos, pool parties, and live music.

The hotel also boasts the area’s only dolphin encounter, the Dolphin Quest. I had the chance to experience the encounter and while I thought it was well done, there really wasn’t the opportunity to “swim” with the dolphins as advertised. Instead, we donned life vests and stood in the water while we learned about dolphin commands and were able to pet the dolphin as it passed by. Then we floated in the water while the dolphin swam beneath us a few times and snorkeled as the dolphin swam around the small lagoon. I’d recommend the activity for kids, and suggest having a family member camp out on the shore and take photos – the ones sold in the gift shop are quite expensive.

There’s a nightclub for adults, several restaurants, spa, and onsite shops. Basically, it’s dream come true for a family managing hyperactive kids, and a nightmare for honeymooners looking for privacy.

Average rates range from $260 – $400, though they do offer specials that start as low as $199 per night, making this an attractive choice for families who want a full-service resort but are traveling on a budget.

The Waikoloa Beach Marriott offers some of the lowest rates in the area. Basic rooms rates range from $199 to $320 per night, and the resort also offers some great package deals that can help you save on car rental, golf and spa treatments. The resort looks like a typical Marriott with a bit of Hawaiian flavor added into the decor. There is a restaurant, lounge, coffee shop, and commissary onsite and the resort hosts a luau dinner. Several other restaurants and shops are within a mile’s walk.

There is an onsite golf course, fitness center, spa, swimming beach, nature reserve, and two pools.

Mauna Kea Resort – Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and and Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel
Best for couples,honeymooners and families with older children who want a swimming beach.

The Hapuna Beach and Mauna Kea hotels are owned by the same company and are located on the same property (though they front different beaches) but the similarities seem to end there.

The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel opened in 1965. At the time, it was the most expensive hotel ever built and was the favorite Hawaiian retreat of many celebrities. Eventually it grew outdated, so when it was damaged in an an earthquake a few years ago, the owners took the opportunity to close it down and do a complete overhaul, spending $150 million sprucing up the decor and reducing the number of guest rooms (making each one larger). The 258 guest rooms are now stylish with colorful accents and modern furniture. They have flat screen tvs, iPod docks, and L’Occitane bath products. The hotel features a pool, sandy beach, fitness center, two golf courses, 11 tennis courts, several restaurants, luau, spa, salon, shopping, and Hawaiian culture classes.

Guest rooms all have private lanais, and room rates range from $450 to $850.

From what I saw of the Hapuna Beach Prince Resort during my three night stay there, it needs some of the TLC that’s been showered on its sister resort. With a perfect location on beautiful Hapuna Beach and ocean views from every room, the hotel has a lot of potential. But the decor is outdated (peach walls, carpeted floors, and comforters that have started to pill), the amenities are basic, and while the hotels lacks any “wow” factor in the romance department (making it an unlikely choice for honeymooners), it’s also not ideal for families with young kids. The single pool is just a basic pool – no crazy waterslides of fun fountains – surrounded by lounge chairs and “reservation-only” cabanas.

My biggest complaints about the hotel were the outdated decor, the lack of any safety latch on the room’s doors (a concern because non-guests could access the property via the public beach), and the less than enthusiastic service I received from staff. The friendly and caring service I was told about by resort representatives (who themselves were the epitome of friendly) was no where to be seen. Upon arrival, I pulled up to inquire where self-parking was. The bellman told me, but didn’t mention that it was quite a walk from the garage to the front desk – a walk with no signage directing you where to go once out of the garage. After stumbling around with my heavy bags for a few minutes, I made it to the front door where the bellmen watched me struggle to the front desk with no offer of help. The front desk person didn’t crack a smile until she checked my name on the computer and when I later called with a problem with my Internet connection, the response was similarly apathetic. Especially for the price ($415 to $615 for single room, $1350 for a one-room suite) I expected better service and higher quality rooms

There are four on-site restaurants, spa, salon, and kid’s club at the hotel, but the big draw is the beach. Connected to Hapuna Beach State Park, it offers sandy white beaches, mild waves, and reefs for snorkeling. There are beach chairs available for use, but you have to sign for resort towels. As an added bonus, guests at the Hapuna can use the amenities at Mauna Kea.

Hualālai Resort – Kona Village and Four Seasons Hualālai
Best for honeymooners and those seeking privacy, luxury and romance.

There’s more I’ll say about Four Seasons later, but suffice to say, it’s nice. Really, really nice. But it’s Four Seasons, and the resort was recently rated the number one beach resort in the US by Travel and Leisure, so you probably already knew that. With four pools, a kids club, three restaurants, golf course, culture center and unparalleled service, it’s worth every penny of the pricey room rate (which starts at $500 per night).

Kona Village is the perfect place for honeymooners or anyone who wants to feel like they are on their own private island. The resort definitely delivers “barefoot luxury”. Assorted hale (huts) are scattered around 82 acres of lava, black sand beach, palm trees, and ancient fishing lagoons. Dirt paths connect the hale to the pebbly beach and to the three resort restaurants. There are also three lounges, including the Shipwreck Bar, built from the resort’s founder’s boat when it broke apart on lava rocks. Guests can arrange for private candlelit dinners on the beach, and the resort’s luau is considered one of the best on the island.

I was able to attend the Wednesday Night Hula Mana Luau, featuring authentic kalua pig (smoked in an underground imu), mai tais and entertainment. During the luau Hawaiian dancers perform hula, sing and chant, and tell the stories of Hawaiian history and culture. While the food didn’t floor me, I loved that the Luau was more than just fire dancers (though, there was a fire dancer) and hulu girls. The stories behind the dances and chants were presented well and included lots of insight into Hawaiian history and traditional Hawaiian culture.

There is a pool onsite, but with all the water-sports offered, you might not ever use it. The resort offers SCUBA certification and diving, snorkeling, stand-up paddle-boarding, outrigger canoe paddling, deep-sea fishing and surfing.

Rooms feature traditional Hawaiian patterned quilts, mini-fridges stocked with soft drinks, and twice-daily housekeeping service. They don’t have tvs or phones, which means staff member communicate with guests through notes left on the door. A coconut serves as a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Just leave it on the stairs and you’ll be left alone.

Rates that include three meals a day range from $700 to $1200 per night, but frequent promotions help bring the cost down.

Mauna Lani Resort – Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows and Fairmont Orchid
Best for families and couples looking for a luxurious, intimate setting that still offers lots of activities.

The Mauna Lani Resort complex hours both the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows and the Fairmont Orchid, two distinct hotels that are connected to each other (and to the surrounding shops and restaurants) but a system of free shuttles. Both offer luxurious rooms, beautiful beaches, and lots of family friendly activities.

The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel puts a strong emphasis on preserving Hawaiian culture and educating visitors about the ways and traditions of the Hawaiian people. Cultural tours of the historic royal fishponds (which date as far back as 250 BC) as well as the ancient petrogylph fields are led by the incredibly informative resident historian Danny Akaka. The resort is also quite proud, as justifiably so, of its green efforts. Condé Nast Traveler named it one of the world’s top luxury eco-friendly resorts for its solar energy innovations, which have resulted in the resort generating more solar electric power than any luxury resort in the world. Golf Magazine also recognized the resort for its environmental stewardship during the construction and use of its eco-friendly golf course.

Awards and accolades aside, the Mauna Lani has a lot going for it as a luxury hotel for families and active couples. There’s an onsite fitness club, free snorkeling equipment, and bikes available for riding around the sprawling property. The kids club includes a 9-hole kids golf course and an intro to snorkeling class. Each of the 343 guest rooms, which start at rates of $270 per night, has a private lanai, mini-fridge and flat screen tv. 90% of the rooms have ocean views. Two-bedroom bungalows also feature gas grills and private plunge pool. There is a spa, four restaurants, 24-hour room service, and guest laundry. Like other resorts in the area, the hotel also offers wedding packages, which start at $550.

The Fairmont Orchid is ideal for honeymooners and couples who want a luxury experience but still want a range of activities to choose from. It’s also great for adults who may be traveling with kids but still want a bit of romance in their vacation. The 540 guest rooms have AC, internet, private lanais, and are decorated in muted tones and with plush linens. 10 tennis courts, 24-hour fitness center and a 36-hole golf course keep guests busy, and a kids program with arts and crafts and educational tours will entertain the kids. The grounds, while quite large, still manage to feel intimate thanks to lush landscaping and romantic torches that light the way at night.

The Fairmont Orchid, like the Mauna Lani, works hard to be eco-friendly. The Fairmont is the only resort in the area that recycles 100% of its waste. It uses low wattage bulbs, landscaping is done with indigenous plants that are drought-resistant and require less watering, and herbs and produce grown onsite are used in the hotel’s seven restaurants. I sampled the sushi at Norio’s Sushi Bar and Restaurant, which uses “locally sourced, organic, and sustainable items whenever possible,” another way the Fairmont works to be eco-friendly in its practices.

One of the biggest draws of the Fairmont is its “Spa Without Walls.” This alfresco area offers guests the chance to have a relaxing massage to the sound of a trickling waterfall while a warm breeze blows on their skin. The massage I enjoyed was one of the best I’ve ever had. My masseuse was knowledgeable and made me feel comfortable, and the sensations of being outdoor made the experience even more pleasant.

Rooms at the Fairmont Orchid generally start above $500 per night, but some great promotions and discounts have dropped the prices as low as $199 per night recently, allowing guests to afford the hotels romance and luxury even on a small budget, and keeping occupancy rates as high as 79% even during low-season.

The trip was paid for by the Kohala Coast Resort Association, but the views expressed are entirely my own.