12 Offbeat Travel Ideas For 2013

My annual New Year’s Eve tradition is to reflect on all the places I visited during the year and plot out where I want to go in the New Year. 2012 was a banner travel year for my family because we put all of our things in storage for five months and traveled extensively in Europe and North America. We gorged ourselves on donuts and thought we got scammed in Western New York’s Amish Country, learned how to flatfoot on Virginia’s Crooked Road, were heckled and intimidated at a soccer game in Italy, and drank homemade wine with the only two residents of the village of San Michalis, on the Greek island of Syros.


For those of you who have made resolutions to hit the road in 2013, here are 12 travel experiences and destinations, most of them a little or very offbeat, that I highly recommend.

12. Donut Crawl in Western New York’s Amish Country

Unlike Lancaster County and other more well known Amish areas around the country, Cattaraugus County’s Amish Trail is a place where you can experience Amish culture, and let’s be honest here – candy and donuts – without all the tourists and kitsch. I love the Amish donuts so much that I went in January and again in July. Because there aren’t many tourists in this region, you’ll find that many of the Amish who live here are just as curious about you as you are about them.

11. Soak Up Colonial Era History in Marblehead, Massachusetts

I’ve been visiting family members in Marblehead for nearly 20 years and I never get tired of this beautifully preserved, quintessential New England town. Marblehead gets a steady trickle of day-trippers from Boston – but don’t make that mistake – book a B & B in this town and dive into one of America’s most historic towns for a full weekend.

10. Save The Turtles, Eat the Fish Tacos and Ride The Waves in Safe, Scenic San Pancho, Mexico

If you want a low-key beach vacation in Mexico but aren’t into big resorts or large cities, look no further than San Pancho, which is only an hour from the Puerto Vallarta airport. It’s about as safe as Mayberry, and you can volunteer to help preserve marine turtles, eat the best fish tacos you’ve ever had and surf and frolic on a huge, spectacular beach.

9. Visit Gangi, Italy’s Most Charming Hill Town You’ve Never Heard Of

Italy is filled with enchanting hill towns, but many of them are besieged with tourists. If you want to check out a lovely hill town in Sicily’s interior that hasn’t changed much in centuries, check out Gangi, where you’ll find everything you could want in an Italian hill town: a perfect central piazza, a medieval street plan you will get lost in, and perhaps the world’s best gelato at the Seminara Bar (no relation to me).

8. Eat the Real Black Forest Ham in Historic Freiburg, Germany

Freiburg is a gorgeous, highly underrated city in Germany’s Black Forest region that is a pedestrian and gourmand dream. Here in the U.S., companies can get away with calling any old ham “Black Forest ham” but in Freiburg, you can sample the real deal and you will taste the difference.

7. Discover Old Time Music on Virginia’s Crooked Road

Southwest Virginia has a 253-mile music heritage trail that’s a glorious little slice of Americana where you’ll find terrific homespun music played by passionate locals who have Old Time Music in their blood. Don’t miss venues like the Fries Theater and the Floyd Country Store and bring your dancing shoes.

6. Check Out Evita Peron’s Ride at Italy’s New Ferrari Museum

I’m not even a car buff, but I loved visiting the new Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, a picture-postcard small city in Emilia-Romagna, near Parma, that doesn’t get nearly as many tourists as it deserves. The museum pays tribute to the founder of Ferrari, who was born in the house next to the museum, and the automotive heritage of the Motor Valley, home to Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ducati and other companies that make vehicles suitable for rap stars, professional athletes and others who like to be noticed.

5. Eat at the World’s Best Greek Restaurant in San Michalis, Syros, Population:2

Syros is just a short ferry ride away from Mykonos but it gets only a tiny fraction of the tourists and I’m not sure why. It’s a gorgeous little island, with a thriving port, great beaches and To Plakostroto the best Greek restaurant I’ve ever been to, located in a striking, end-of-the-world village where you can see six neighboring islands.

4. Experience Bluegrass Nirvana at the Rosine Barn Jamboree in Kentucky

Every Friday night from March through early December, local musicians gather to jam at an old barn and general store in Rosine, Kentucky, the tiny little town where Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music was born. This might be the best free music jam in the whole country and best of all, the regulars are the sweetest people you will ever meet.

3. Patmos & Samos Not Santorini and Mykonos

I’m obsessed with the Greek Isles. If I could spend my holidays in just one place anywhere in the world, it might be here. But I get a little frustrated by the fact that most Americans visit only Santorini & Mykonos. Both places are undeniably beautiful, but there are dozens of less expensive, less crowded islands that are just as nice. Patmos and Samos, in the eastern Aegean, are absolutely gorgeous and aren’t as crowded or expensive. Samos is known for its wine & honey, while Patmos is home to one of the most interesting monasteries in Greece.

2. Eat an Obama Pasticciotto in Italy’s Heel

The fact that Salento, a peninsula in Italy’s heel, has a chocolaty, gooey desert named after President Obama is just one reason to visit this very special but relatively off-the-radar part of Italy. Lecce is a baroque dream, a lively place with a great passegiata, unforgettable food and wine, very friendly people and fine beaches in the vicinity.

1. Make Friends in Valletta, Malta

I had but one day in Valletta and I spent a big chunk of it trying to track down a retired Maltese civil servant who chided me for misrepresenting the country at a school model U.N. in 1986, but I saw enough of this city to want more. Valletta is a heartbreakingly picturesque port, with gently decaying sandstone buildings, warm people, dramatic Mediterranean vistas and artery-clogging pastizzis, which were my favorite treat of 2012.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Making Peace With Malta (Mario Speaks!)

Regular readers of this column will recall that I created a diplomatic incident with Malta by dressing up like Colonel Gaddafi in a grammar school model U.N. in Buffalo, New York, in 1986. A photo of me in Arab garb made it into The Buffalo News and once the Maltese got wind of it, they were none too pleased. In their indignant response, Mario Cacciottolo, the private secretary of the Prime Minister of Malta, told me that I should try to correct the misperception I’d created regarding their country.

I tried to do that, 25 years after the fact, earlier this summer. (Read Parts 1 and 2 of this story.)

I never found Mario and assumed I never would but the Maltese press got wind of the story and found the incident as hilarious as I did. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a popular columnist for The Malta Independent, wrote about it on her website and the post generated more than 40 comments, including at least one from a person who believed that I’d forged the documents and made the whole story up. (My imagination is vivid but not that good.)A reporter from the same publication wrote a piece about my attempts to find Mario, which concluded with my line: “Sorry, Mario. Please drop me a line someday. I owe you a beer.”

With Malta being a relatively small place, the story found its way to Mario himself and several weeks ago he finally contacted me via email. I was initially a little alarmed, because in the first paragraph of Mario’s message, he seemed more than a little annoyed with me.


“The affair of the Gaddafi costume had been forgotten until you brought it up again last year, and to tell you the truth I was not at all pleased to have my name and (former) address published in the international press with a repeat in a local newspaper,” he wrote. “I only hope that the affair stops here.”

But after those lines, he warmed up considerably. “There are no hard feelings, and I was really gratified by your great efforts to find me, to ‘make peace’ in person,” he wrote.

Cacciottolo, now 71, went on to explain that I had “earned” an explanation of what had transpired back in 1986 and again last year when I asked the Maltese Embassy in Washington to contact him on my behalf. Mario wrote that he responded to a series of questions from the Maltese Ambassador last year, forwarded to him on my behalf, but he was unaware of the fact that the Embassy never passed his response on to me. (In fact, they told me that he didn’t want to speak to me, which wasn’t true.)

Cacciottolo went on to claim that he didn’t understand back in 1986 that the matter concerned a schoolboy but maintained that he had “no shame or regrets for what I had written back in 1986!”

Given the fact that Mario referred to the photo of me, at age 13, in the letter, his confusion is, well, confusing, for lack of a better phrase, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Cacciottolo also insisted that his reaction reflected no specific anti-Arab bias, but rather a patriotic response to my mischaracterization of the country.

“We may be a very small nation living in a tiny state,” he wrote. “But we are as proud of our country as anyone else in the world.”

Mario also took issue with my characterization of the mid ’80s as a time of violent protests in Malta.

“No demonstrators were EVER killed in the streets by Maltese policemen,” he wrote. “Don’t be offended or shocked, but you repeated a lot of exaggerated hogwash.”

He also insisted that the source that briefed me on what Malta was like in the mid ’80s must have thought I was a C.I.A. agent. But after setting me straight on those scores, Cacciottolo apologized for not realizing back in ’86 that I was just a 13-year-old schoolboy, and said that he’d be looking for the card I left for him with his former neighbor.

Since receiving that first message from Mario, we’ve exchanged a few more emails and I feel pretty safe in saying that we are now friends. Someday, I will buy him a beer. The only bit of unfinished business is the fact that his former neighbor apparently ate the box of chocolates I left for him. Note to neighbor: you owe Mario a box of Lindt chocolates.

Part 1 and Part 2 of this story.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

Video: Malta Cliff Diving

Storror Summer: Malta Cliff Diving” from Sacha Powell on Vimeo.

Malta cliff diving into clear, teal water and living to do it again and again: a short summary of time spent on vacation for the young men in this video, it seems. Rust-colored sunsets and fuchsia sunspots meet slow motion falling and the smiles worn before the falls in this video from Sacha Powell on Vimeo. With music by The Naked and Famous, this video speaks of summertime fun loudly, with conviction that’s difficult to ignore. You might just feel more refreshed and inclined to hunt down a good spot for cliff diving yourself after watching this one.

Knocked Up Abroad: Lessons Learned From Traveling With A Baby

Long before I became a mother, people told me that the first six months is the easiest time to travel with a baby – before they walk, talk or require children’s activities. Others told me to travel as much as possible before you have children, as it’s too difficult to go places for the first few years. I can confirm that you don’t have to turn in your passport when you have a baby, as my daughter Vera turns one year old today (they really do grow up so fast), and I’ve traveled with her extensively since she was six weeks old, as well as frequently when I was pregnant. As she was born in Turkey, far from our families and home country, I knew travel would be a factor in her life, but never expected I would love traveling with her and try to fit in as many trips as possible (nine countries and counting).

I’ve written here on Gadling a series of articles on planning travel, flying and international travel with baby, and expanded on these topics on my blog, Knocked Up Abroad Travels. I still stand by all of those tips and tricks, but below are the most important lessons I’ve learned from traveling with a baby in the first year.

Do a test run trip
Just as a baby has to learn to crawl before they can walk, start small with your explorations. Before you plan a big trip with a baby, take a shorter “test run” to see it’s not so hard and learn what your challenges might be. Taking a short flight to an unfamiliar place, especially with a time change, language or cultural barrier, is good practice before you take a bigger trip. If you live in the U.S., a long weekend in Canada or the Caribbean, or even Chicago, could be a nice break and a useful lesson on traveling with a baby. While we live in Istanbul, travel in Europe is (relatively) cheap and quick, so taking a vacation in Malta with Vera at six weeks old was an easy first trip. For our first trip home to visit family and friends, I flew to and from the U.S. by myself with Vera. If I hadn’t traveled with her before, it might have seemed daunting to fly 10 hours solo with a baby, but it was smooth sailing. Confidence is key, especially when you learn you’ll do just fine without the bouncy seat for a few days.Stay flexible
Parenting experts may say that babies need structure and routine, but recognize that they are also very flexible, especially in the early months when they mostly sleep and eat. As long as you can attend to the baby’s immediate needs, it doesn’t matter much where you do it; a baby’s comfort zone is wherever you are. Babies also make planning near impossible. You may find that just as you planned to visit a museum, you’ll need to find somewhere to sit down to feed the baby, with a decent bathroom for changing a diaper. You might eat dinner later than expected as you walk the baby around the block a few more times to get her to sleep. We kept our first trip with Vera to Malta simple, relaxing by the sea in Gozo and wandering around the old city of Valletta: no itinerary, no must-sees, no ambitious day trips. We missed out on a few “important” sights and spent a few days doing little more than reveling in the joys of cheap wine, trashy novels and ham sandwiches, but it was stress-free and helped us to connect with the place as well as each other.

Re-consider where you stay and how you get around
Once you start planning a trip with a baby, you might be spending more time on AirBnB than Hotels.com. When you travel with a child, you care less about hotel design or public amenities like a gym (ha!) and more about in-room comfort and conveniences like a separate bedroom space or kitchenette. On an early trip, we stayed in a friend’s home in Trieste, in a vacation apartment in Venice and in a room above a cafe in Ljubljana, and each had their advantages. In Italy, it was nice to have access to laundry and space to cook a meal with friends when we were too tired to go out; while when I was on my own in Slovenia, it was handy to go downstairs for breakfast or a much-needed glass of wine, and someone was always around if I needed help with the stroller. You’ll also have to think differently about how you get around town with a stroller or carrier and plan some routes in advance. In London, I spent a lot of time on the excellent Transport For London website mapping out which tube stations had elevators and what days I would use a carrier only (I love the Boba wrap). In Venice, I didn’t bother with a stroller at all for the city’s many stairs, bridges and cobblestone streets, but needed to stop more frequently to rest my tired shoulders and was grateful for extra hands to hold the baby while I ate pasta.

Everywhere is nice in a “baby bubble”
You should be prepared to be self-sufficient when traveling with a baby, from boarding a plane to getting on a subway, but you’ll be surprised by how helpful strangers can be, especially outside the U.S. Not touching strangers’ babies seems to be a uniquely American concept, while in Mediterranean Europe, waiters will often offer to carry your baby around or give them a treat (say thanks and eat it yourself). After Istanbul, I found Budapest to be the most baby-friendly, and even trendy restaurants had changing facilities and bartenders who wanted to play peekaboo. I expected Londoners to be rather cold, but their stiff upper lips were more often smiling and cooing. A tube employee helped me carry the stroller up several flights of stairs when an elevator wasn’t working, and I got table service in a cafe that normally only had counter service. Don’t expect special treatment because you have a baby, but enjoy it when it comes.

Stay calm and carry travel insurance
Having a sick baby is scary for anyone, especially when you are in a foreign country far from home. Statistically, it’s more likely that your child will get sick or hurt at home, but it can happen on the road as well. Before you take off, figure out what you will do in an emergency: can you get travel insurance that covers a visit to a pediatrician? Can you change or cancel travel plans if the baby is sick? If you rent an apartment, do you have local contacts in case something happens? In Budapest, by myself, I had a few incidents getting stuck in an elevator, locked out of our apartment and having the baby slip out of a highchair. Everything worked out fine, but staying calm was key as upsetting the baby would have just added to the stress. Coming back from Belgrade last month, our daughter woke up with a cold and a mild fever the day we were supposed to fly home. Our wonderful AirBnB hostess got us medicine and we ultimately decided to fly the short trip as scheduled, but if it had been more serious, I could have paid the change fee to delay our flight and visit a local doctor. The baby was fine the next day, though I still have some Serbian fever reducer for her next cold.

Don’t let the turkeys get you down
Perhaps I’ve become more sensitive to the idea, but I’ve noticed recently that screaming babies on airplanes have become the catch-all complaint for everything that’s wrong with air travel (though in Gadling’s Airline Madness tournament of travel annoyances, children didn’t make it to the final four). Look up any news story about children and airplanes and you’ll find a long list of angry commenters complaining about how they don’t want to sit next to your “brat” on the plane, and that you shouldn’t subject other people to your lifestyle choices. A crying baby is not an inevitability, and planes are still public transportation, so don’t get psyched out by the looks and comments from other passengers. After 22 flights with Vera without a tantrum or crying fit, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to pay attention to your baby and be considerate of others. I still tell my airplane “neighbors” that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her quiet and happy, and by the time we land, we’ve made more friends than enemies.

Enjoy it while it lasts
The first two years are the cheapest time to travel with a child: domestic air travel is free for lap children, international tickets are a fraction (usually 10 percent) of the adult fare, and most hotels and museums allow babies free of charge for the first few years. This time is also the most “adult” you’ll have for awhile, before you have to consider the whims and boredom of a child. Vera’s first year has been delightfully kid-menu and Disney-free. In a few years we may have to rethink our itinerary and even our destinations, but so far, not much has changed. We still love going to post-Soviet cities, wandering around oddball museums and sitting outside at wine bars to people watch, though our bedtime might be a bit earlier.

Share your lessons learned while traveling with a baby, or tell me what I’m in for in year two in the comments below.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Making Peace With Malta (Part 2)

I was sitting aboard a battered old bus in Valletta, Malta’s capital, on my way to search for Mario Cacciottolo, a retired Maltese diplomat who sent me a gentle rebuke after I misrepresented the country by dressing up like Colonel Gaddafi in a grammar school model U.N. in Buffalo, New York, in 1986. It was an insane quest, but I felt like I had to try to find him, so I could apologize in person, and let him know that I intended to correct the mistake I made all those years before.

(Read part 1 of this story here.)

On board, I showed the address I’d found for Mario in the phone book to a woman sitting next to me and she was able to tell me where to get off the bus, but couldn’t provide further details on how to find Xmiexi (shh-mee-she) Street. I ambled around what appeared to be an old, working class neighborhood lost in time, showing people Mario’s address like a lost child.”Ah, shmee-she street,” they’d say. “You’re very close!”

But no one seemed to know precisely where it was. I asked again at a shop that sold delicious looking pastizzi for 23 cents, and a woman in a dirty apron led me across the street to confer with a friend who directed me to a police station to ask for further help. Feeling like perhaps Il Homa really was just a dream that wasn’t a real address, I flagged down a taxi, but alas, he had never even heard of the street.


Inside the police station, I approached a bored looking officer sitting at a counter. Rather than simply asking for directions, I decided to tell him my story, just to gauge his reaction to my quest. Like most Maltese, he spoke English, and listened patiently as I told my tale. As he studied my letter from Mario, I waited for his reaction, but got none. Instead, he looked at me like I was crazy and then proceeded to give me extremely complex directions.

“You go up this street,” he said, vaguely pointing behind him. “Continue on until you see a mailbox – then look for a little set of stairs on the right. That’ll take you to St. Luigi Street, go up and take the first set of stairs on your left. That will lead you right to Shmee-she street.”

I wrote it all down but felt intimated, so I flagged another taxi. But the second driver appeared even more confused than the first. “I have never heard of this place,” he said.

I followed the police officer’s instructions, and after climbing the second set of stairs came upon a street where all the tidy little newish homes had names rather than numbers. I assumed it was Xmiexi Street and felt triumphant a moment later when a passerby confirmed it. I walked up the street, butterflies in my stomach, taking note of every house name. Some were in Maltese, but others, like “April Showers” and “Goodfellas” were in English. Halfway up the street, I saw a home on my left called Il Homa, but felt a wave of disappointment as the place looked dark and empty.

I rang the bell several times but no one answered. I went to the home next door on the right, rang the bell and a woman answered in Maltese on the intercom.

“Hi,” I said. “Do you know Mario next door?”

“Who?” she asked.

“Mario Cacciottolo,” I said. “He lives next door to you.”

She said she just moved in and didn’t know him. I told her I had a gift I wanted to leave for him and asked if she could come outside so I could explain. A few moments later, she called out to me from her side porch, up on the second floor.

I looked up and struggled to explain my story from a distance. After hearing the Cliff Notes version, she said, “You are in the United Nations?”

“No, no, it was the Model United Nations,” I said, feeling ridiculous. “Back in 1986. Mario sent me this letter.”

I held up the letter, and then the news clipping with my photo, circa 1986, and the woman burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know him and I can’t help.”

And with that she went back in her house. I tried the house to the left of Il Homa and a man in his 70s came outside to speak with me.

“Mario moved a few years ago,” he said, as my heart sank.

The man explained that Mario moved to a town I didn’t quite catch the name of. Apparently it was nowhere near Valletta and I had just 2 hours before my ship sailed for Catania. I left the man a folder with the letter and clippings, a note from me, and a business card, along with the chocolates I bought for him. In my note to him, I apologized to Mario and told him that I hoped to correct the wrong impression I’d given of Malta back in ’86, as he asked me to in the letter. I asked him to send me an email or a letter. The man promised to pass the items on to Mario and I left wondering if I’d ever hear from him.

I didn’t find Mario, but I was fortunate to strike up a conversation with a gentleman who worked at Valletta’s archeological museum who was able to help me understand Maltese politics, circa 1986. When I showed him my documents, he had a good laugh.

“I’m not surprised they were angry at you,” he said. “The truth is that we’re a bit defensive and we don’t really like Arabs.”

The man’s cousin is a former political leader of the country and he asked me not to use his name in the story. He said that Malta’s Prime Minister at the time was Carmen Misfud Bonnici, a socialist who won a disputed election that touched off a period of political violence in the country.

Bonnici forged strong ties with the Soviet Union, Gaddafi, N. Korea and other communist states. Relations with the U.S. were frosty, at best. There was an open campaign against Catholic churches in the country, some were raided and vandalized as were newspapers that were critical of the government.

As the teachers at my little Catholic school in Buffalo were wondering about the somewhat aggressive tone in the letter we received, the streets of Valletta were awash in protests – some broken up violently with police firing on and killing demonstrators in some cases. We had no clue, but the country was deeply divided. In 1990, conservatives took power and relations with the U.S. improved. The country has made great strides in the last two decades, managing to grow its tourism industry and joining the EU in 2004, but Bonnici, now retired, still publicly agitates for Malta to pull out of the EU and go back to the old days.

But that’s not going to happen. Malta’s future is in the EU and the increasing flow of tourists into the country means that gaffes like the one I made years ago are unlikely to happen again. When I turned up at our model U.N. in Buffalo representing Malta as a Colonel Gaddafi look-alike, no one batted an eyelash, or rebuked me for being dead wrong. These days, if a student tried it, they’d certainly be laughed out of the room.

More than a quarter of a century late, it’s time for me to correct the false impression I gave about Malta. Malta is a beautiful, independent European country with a fantastic climate and friendly people – people who dress in modern fashions. I had no idea, but now I do. Sorry, Mario. Please drop me a line someday. I owe you a beer.

Read Part 1 of this story here.

Read Part 3 of this story here.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]