Exploring Normandy, France: The Harbor Town Of Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue

The land of Calvados, Pont l’Evêque cheese and World War II history, Normandy, France, is one of those places that manages to pack almost everything into one region. Coastline, farmland, history, culture, food – in a trip to Normandy you can get it all.

Well known for some of its larger cities and the World War II beaches like Utah and Omaha, an often forgotten gem of Normandy is Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, a small fishing village just east of Cherbourg. A tiny village in the off-season, during the warmer months it explodes with French and Brits descending upon their vacation homes. Which makes late spring or early fall the perfect time to explore: the weather is nice and the streets are quiet.The first harbor to be freed by the Allied Forces in 1944, the village is also home to the La Hougue Fort and Tatihou, part of 12 groups of fortified buildings across France that have UNESCO World Heritage classification. Built by King Louis XIV’s famed engineer Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban, the Vauban fortifications include citadels, urban bastion walls and bastion towers. In Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue you’ll find one just east of town and the other on the island of Tatihou, both built after naval Battle of La Hougue saw twelve French ships sunk in the surrounding waters. Go to La Hougue Fort early in the morning and have the place to yourself, the waves crashing on the rock wall that surrounds the fort and, if you’re up for it, an excellent promenade.

In town you’ll find the infamous Maison Gosselin, a family-owned store that’s been in operation since 1889. It’s still set up like a classic store – you take your produce to be weighed before you pay for it – and it’s complete with regional products like Sel Guerande sea salt and plenty of options for Calvados. In fact the wine cellar almost seems bigger than the store itself. Foodie heaven.

From here you are a short drive to the WWII beaches, Utah Beach and the Utah Beach Museum being the closest. Omaha Beach, which houses the Normandy American Cemetery is just a little further east.

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When in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue:

Eat:

Le Pub le Creperie – Owned by an ex-Parisian named Philippe, this is the place to go for good crepes. You can also get the traditional serving of moules frites (mussels and fries). Be sure to accompany with the rose. 36 rue de Verrue.

Oysters – One out of four oysters in France come from Normandy, and Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue is a hub of oyster production. You can visit a local oyster production complete with a tasting at Ets Lejeune.

Shop:

Snag a classic striped mariniere French sailor shirt. Check out local boutique Cap Saint Vaast Marine (12 rue de Verrue) for the classic brand St. James. While you’re at it, stick to the maritime theme and pick up a few jars of flavored sea salts at Maison Gosselin.

Do:

Get up early and check out the La Hougue Fort; you’ll have it to yourself and the fortified walls are beautiful in the early morning light.

Go to Ile Tatihou. The island is limited to 500 people per day so make sure to book a time on the local ferry that shuttles visitors to the island.

Get outside. In the summer Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue is a hub of activity, from cycling to sailing.

Exploring Downtown Asheville, North Carolina

asheville north carolina

Asheville, North Carolina, is a town of many titles. Self Magazine considers it the Happiest City for Women, while to Rolling Stone, it’s America’s New Freak Capitol. Outside Magazine calls it one of America’s Best Outside Towns, while AmericanStyle names it among the country’s Top Arts Destinations.

Indeed, Asheville offers a little something for everyone. Many visitors are drawn by the city’s proximity to the historic Biltmore Estate, scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and famed Great Smoky Mountains. But Asheville’s charming downtown district is a treasure all of its own, with its array of Art Deco buildings, art galleries, socially conscious boutiques and gourmet restaurants. The “Buy Local” movement is strong in Asheville, with many store windows sporting signs that read “Love Asheville, Choose Independent” and “Local Is The New Black.” You won’t find any McDonald’s or fast fashion chain stores, but you will find an eclectic mix of places to eat, shop and see. Here are some highlights from a recent trip.

%Gallery-169243%Eat

Asheville’s array of artisan and ethnic food shops make it a perfect town for sampling. Start at the Laughing Seed Café, where you’ll find fresh, organic, farm-to-table vegetarian food. If the famed house veggie burger leaves you hungry, try a kathi roll at Chai Pani, a funky Indian street food joint. Then, unwind with a cup of Hotcha green tea and a book on Eastern philosophy in the pillowed recesses of Dobra Tea; their smoothies are also incredible. Cap off your eating adventure with sweet tea truffles at The Chocolate Fetish.

If you decide to go beyond downtown Asheville, don’t miss the inventive Mexican fare at White Duck Taco Shop, like the Banh Mi Tofu taco or the delectable Chips and Queso. Down at the Biltmore Village, you’ll find the Corner Kitchen, which offers gourmet but unpretentious cuisine that is sourced from area farmers and producers. The Obamas are said to be fans.

Shop

If you’re in the market for handblown glass terrariums, hemp tunics and natural oatmeal soaps, you’ve come to the right place. The historic Grove Arcade and Woolworth Walk are Asheville’s shopping epicenters, playing host to a variety of local artists, crafters and small business owners. The Mountain Made gallery at Grove Arcade is a highlight, with artisan products from across western North Carolina. Book lovers will get lost at the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, a cozy spot that combines two of life’s greatest pleasures: books and bubbly.

For clothes shopping, head to Spiritex, an eco-fashion boutique that sells organic cotton clothing produced within a 120-mile radius. Both Frock and Minx offer expertly curated selections of women’s apparel, much of which is also made in America.

See

At the turn of the century, Asheville was a popular mountain resort for luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Today, the city is home to an impressive array of Art Deco architecture, second only to Miami in the Southeast. The most famous example is George W. Vanderbilt’s famed Biltmore Estate, located just out of town. But downtown Asheville has a fair share of highlights too. The best way to tour the city’s architectural wonders is the free self-guided Urban Trail Walking Tour, which consists of 30 educational stops around the city. After winding up the two-hour tour, it will be clear why Asheville is regularly named one of the Most Beautiful Places in America.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Roadside America: Princeton, New Jersey, The Quintessential College Town

Breathe it in: the warm aroma of fall leaves and cable-knit sweaters, the musty scent of old buildings and library books, and the added jolt of freshly brewed coffee.

It’s the smell of a college town, but not just any college town: Princeton, New Jersey, home to the fourth oldest Ivy League university in America.

Princeton particularly shines in the fall, when the energy from the start of the school year is fresh and deciduous trees light up the collegiate Gothic campus in shades of red and orange. Driving into town on Washington Road, it’s clear why the Princeton Review consistently ranks Princeton University among the ten most beautiful college campuses in the country.

Located in the south-central part of New Jersey, Princeton is an hour-and-a-half drive from both New York and Philadelphia and an even easier train ride, making it the perfect city getaway. A day trip into town isn’t complete without the following stops.

%Gallery-168518%Nassau Street and Palmer Square

The epicenter of Princeton, Nassau Street is a charming road dotted with restaurants, boutiques, bookstores and a fantastic independent movie theatre. Much of the action is clustered around the historic Nassau Inn in Palmer Square, with artisanal chocolate and olive oil shoppes, along with preppy chains like J. Crew and Kate Spade.

Food-wise, you have an extensive menu to choose from. For a quick bite, grab a salad or sandwich at Olive’s, at 22 Witherspoon. A few doors down, Small World Coffee offers the perfect caffeine fix; try the Grumpy Monkey Blend. For a sit-down meal, Teresa Caffe is a popular date spot among students, with thin-crust pizzas, inventive pastas and delicious house bread, freshly baked down the street at the Terra Momo Bread Company.

And then there’s the ice cream. Three different shops cater to different tastes. Thomas Sweet, at 183 Nassau Street, offers an extensive menu of classic and wacky flavors, including their signature “blend-ins” with candies, nuts or fruits. Halo Pub, at 9 Hulfish Street, excels at richer, heavier flavors, like classic chocolate and vanilla. And my personal favorite, The Bent Spoon at 35 Palmer Square West, specializes in local and artisanal flavors, like New Jersey honey and heirloom tomato sorbet. Their cupcakes are ridiculously delicious too.

Princeton University

The best way to enter Princeton’s campus is through the FitzRandolph Gate on Nassau Street, which leads you directly to the front lawn of Nassau Hall. For several months after the American Revolution, this colonial landmark served as the capital of the United States, hosting the early American government and Congress of the Confederation. It is now home to the university’s administrative offices.

Just to the right of Nassau Hall is a pathway leading to “up-campus.” The imposing Alexander Hall sits on your right. According to Princeton lore, a student designed the building for his architectural thesis and received a failing grade. Later, when the student amassed his fortune, he donated a large sum of money to the university, on the condition that it be used to bring the building to fruition. It holds the Richardson Auditorium, which hosts campus events.

On the left is Blair Arch, one of the university’s prettiest and most photographed landmarks. The arch often plays host to university a cappella groups, who take advantage of its incredible acoustics to perform preppy favorites from days gone by. If you happen to be on campus late on a Thursday or Saturday night, you might be able to elbow your way through the crowd of tipsy coeds to catch a performance.

Left of Blair Arch is a small road leading to the Princeton University Art Museum, which is home to a tightly curated but impressive array of artwork. Current exhibitions include “Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom” and “The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art and Society.”

For a full tour of the Princeton University campus, book a free Orange Key Tour, intended for prospective students, at the Frist Campus Center.

Carnegie Lake

Canoeing through the foliage of the D&R Canal to the man-made Carnegie Lake is a quintessential fall experience. Princeton Canoe & Kayak Rental offers four-person aluminum canoes, three-person adventure canoes and kayaks for reasonable rates until November 4. Go in the afternoon, and you may catch the Princeton Crew teams at practice.

[Photo Credit: Flickr via Calgary Sandy]

Travel Planning: Choosing Between A Big City Or Small Town

sao pauloOne dilemma I often face when traveling is whether to take a trip to a big city or a small town. While both worthwhile, each provides its own inherently unique experience. Before booking your next vacation, take these factors into consideration.

Finding things to do

In a big city, you’re never at a loss for things to do. There are street performers, markets, parks, shops, theaters, clubs, bars, restaurants, museums, art galleries, spas and more. Doing something as simple as riding the subway or people watching at a cafe can provide hours of entertainment, as big cities tend to attract some of the most interesting people in the world.

This doesn’t mean small towns are boring. You just may have to get creative or choose a place that offers an activity that you will be happy doing often. For example, on a trip to Germany I spent some time in the tiny, cobblestoned village of Bacharach. While there were no shopping malls, big theaters or nightclubs, there were endless opportunities for hiking, wine tasting and sailing on the picturesque Rhine River. Most importantly, not a moment went by that I felt bored or unhappy with my travel decision.Finances

For the most part, big cities tend to be more expensive than small towns. Accommodation, activities, food, and transportation will usually cost more. Even if they don’t, you’re less likely to enjoy the free things nature has to offer – like in a small town – and more likely to splurge on costly shows and events. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending what your budget is and what you want to get out of the experience. It is just something to keep in mind.

gimmelwald Getting to know the culture

Every place has a culture. Whether you’re in a highly populated, bustling metropolis or in a rural village with a population of 10, the inhabitants of the area have certain ideals, beliefs, customs and behaviors. When I visit a new place, it’s always on my agenda to learn as much about its culture as possible. I ask locals what their favorite foods are, hostel owners what a normal day for them is like and taxi drivers how they went about asking out their last boyfriend or girlfriend. What I’ve found during my travels is, while there are more people to bombard with my incessant questions in big cities, it’s easier to have an in-depth conversation with a local when you’re in a small town. In small towns, you usually end up seeing the same few people, who all go to the same few places. Your bonds become closer and you’re able to ask more personal questions. Furthermore, whether you do a homestay or stay in a hotel in a small town, it’s usually a very cozy accommodation. Big-brand chain hotels tend to favor big cities, so there are more family-type hotels in small cities where you can really get to know the staff. However, if you’re more on the shy side or don’t love the idea of interacting with strangers, big cities may be a better option for you, as you’ll be able to frequent many educational museums, theaters and institutions.

Atmosphere

In a big city, you’ll feel a constant buzz. There’s a lot of energy, a fast pace, a lot of noise and many people moving about at all times. It can be hard to focus sometimes, in a good way, as different things grab your attention all at once. Maybe you’re hungry and you see someone barbecuing and it smells really good, but then you notice an Ethiopian restaurant serving food you’ve never tried. Then again, there’s always the eatery down the street that features live bands and free tapas.

In a small town, the pace of life is usually a lot slower. People aren’t in a hurry and it can be easier to take things in one at a time. This can be in your favor, as it means locals usually have a lot of time to spend with visitors. Many small towns also have a lot of natural experiences to take in, which can help to relieve stress and find an inner peace.

thailand Comfort

In a big city, you’ll be able to find any type of accommodation, tour, or restaurant your heart desires. Whether you want frivolous luxury or comfort on a budget, you’ll be able to find it. Depending on how rural you go when staying in a small town, this may or may not be the case. For example, when I was in Ghana I started my trip in the capital city of Accra. Here I stayed in a hotel with amenities like flushing Western toilets, hot water, and onsite restaurants and bars. When I traveled two hours out of the city and into the rural village of Achiase, however, these comforts were not as easily found. What I do find is when staying in a small town or rural area is that a homestay is a great accommodation choice. You’ll at least get the comforts of home, even if it’s not the same you experience in your own. Best of all, you’ll really get to know the area firsthand.

Why not do both?

If you can’t make up your mind and have the time, why not opt to do both? There are a few ways you can go about this. First of all, you can opt for a homestay and then take weekend trips to other cities. You could also simply travel continuously during your trip, starting in one type of city and then moving on to another. Personally, I think having a homebase to come back to is always comforting, but that usually works out better if you’re traveling for a minimum of two weeks. If a week is all you can spare, separate the trip into two parts and spend half your time in a big city and half in a small town, giving you two unique experiences and the best of both worlds.

Watching a small village parade in Malta

village parade
I just returned from a week in the small island country of Malta. For our first trip with our nearly two-month old baby, we decided to rent a house outside the village of Xaghra on Malta’s smaller island Gozo. Picking us up from the ferry, our landlady explained how the town was gearing up for the national Victory Day holiday on September 8th as well as the village patron saint’s feast celebration, and each night there would be smaller festivities building up to the main event. Every night we’d walk to the square, choose among the handful of restaurants to eat (with a population of 4,200, it’s among the more cosmopolitan of Gozitan villages), and watch the square fill with people chatting, eating, and playing bingo, as it turned out. We saw girls in outfits that would be considered skimpy in a Miami nightclub flirt on the church steps with boys wearing shirts with religious icons. On our last night on Gozo, the square was more packed than usual and soon we discovered why: a parade was about to start!

%Gallery-133057%The village parade consisted mainly of a marching band and a large statue of the village’s patron saint, Our Lady of Victories, carried by a team of local men, many who had been enjoying a few Cisk beers. The make up of the band’s members was motley but memorable, including a tiny man carrying a drum that nearly dwarfed him, a boy barely in his teens playing among musicians decades older, a pretty young woman in high wedge heels. The band started out in the square, playing various Gozitan and Maltese anthems, before moving down the main road under a rain of confetti. We followed the band along the street until we were stopped in a bottleneck in front of Our Lady of Victories. You do NOT want to get in front of Our Lady, lest you want to be scolded by the man in charge of her and her (increasingly drunken) handlers. We moved aside and let the band continue down the street, leaving a thick carpet of confetti. Every child in town came out to gather bunches of confetti, build forts in it, and throw it at their friends.

As the crowd began to disperse, we stopped at a snack bar where they played a recording of the songs we had just heard, in search of a nightcap. Even a dozen years of living in New York with its legendary parades couldn’t compare to the fun we had at a small Gozitan feast, and this was just a warm up celebration! In New York, you wouldn’t see a child rolling around making confetti angels. In New York, you can’t touch the floats. In New York, you couldn’t buy a magnum of good local wine after hours and be told apologetically that it would cost 4 euro. But in Gozo, a family of Russian/American New York City expats from Istanbul could feel dazzled by a small village feast.