Drink your way to Portugal with this new contest

portugalIf we weren’t traveling and writing about it for a living, we think it would be pretty cool to be a spirits writer. I mean, we get paid to travel and they get paid to drink.

Now, you can put your amateur mixologist skills to the test with Sandeman Port’s newest contest, where the winner will snag a five night trip for two to Oporto, Portugal.

To enter, create an original drink with Sandeman Founder’s Reserve Port ($16-$18 per bottle). Photograph your drink and e-mail it to The Don (that’s Dailo Calado, an acclaimed Portugese mixologist and cocktail expert). The company and Calado will judge your drink of choice on taste, creativity, and originality.

The grand prize includes airfare, hotel accommodations, breakfast and dinner daily, a tour of the Sandeman Port Wine Museum, two city tours and oh-so-important travel insurance.

Like most contests these days, you can enter on Facebook between now and June 15.


Psst – if you prefer wine, we’ve got another trip contest idea from a wine company that can take you to New Zealand.

[Flickr via flydime]

Weekending: Prague


While I’m living in Istanbul, I try to take advantage of all the amazing destinations a few hours’ flight away and travel there as often as possible. I like to focus on destinations that are harder to access from the US for just a few days (such as Turkey’s beach town Bodrum) and places best explored while I’m still relatively young and unencumbered (to wit: Beirut). Traveling as an expat takes on a different flavor as well, seeking culture and cuisine not found in my new city.

The place: Prague, Czech Republic

I really had no intention of going to Prague. Not that it doesn’t interest me, I’ve heard it is enchanting and a must-see city, but this particular weekend we were all set to go to Kosovo, one of the world’s youngest countries (by self-declared independence as well as population). A series of minor events caused us to miss our flight by minutes, but as we were already at the airport and ready to travel, we asked to be re-booked on the next international flight somewhere, which turned out to be Prague. We arrived in the Czech Republic with no reservations, research, or plans and through the magic of social media (and the Prague Airport’s free wifi), I was greatly assisted and reassured by the great advice and insight from travel writers and friends Evan Rail, Alexander Basek, and Gadling’s own David Farley. Turns out it’s not an overrated country and I can now say, “Oh, I’ve been to Prague.”

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  • Two words: pork and beer. Ask any meat-eating expat in a Muslim country what they miss most about home and they will invariably say pork. While it’s available in Turkey, it’s scarce and pricey. Alcohol is easier to come by, but anything imported will cost you and while Turkey’s national Efes satisfies, it tastes like watered down Bud Light after drinking Czech beer. Arriving in a city thronged with sausage carts and beer halls was like visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The beer isn’t just tasty and cheap, it’s available anywhere, pretty much anytime. For tips on the best pubs to drink at, trust anything by Evan Rail – Tony Bourdain did earlier this year. My last night in Prague was spent at the lovely Meduza Cafe, a near-perfect spot to have a coffee or glass of wine, write in your journal, and revel in Bohemia.
  • The city’s beauty is well-known, and one of the greatest pleasures is just strolling the streets and bridges and soaking up the atmosphere. It’s interesting to contrast the romantic castle and ornate Old Town Square architecture with some of the old Soviet buildings, like the modern art Veletzni Palace museum, and the wacky sculptures of David Cerny. Small but worthwhile attractions include the Museum of Communism (if only for the darkly funny posters such as “Like their sisters in the West, they would’ve burnt their bras – if there were any in the shops”) and the Museum of Decorative Arts, featuring a fascinating collection of costumes, design, and knick-knacks – as well as a great view of the always-crowded Jewish Cemetery from the bathrooms (a tip from Evan, thanks!).

Downgrades

  • Even after seeing Paris, London, and New York, Prague is the most touristed city I’ve been to yet. Long after being discovered as a “budget” European destination (it’s still cheap by Europe standards, but not quite the bargain it was in the ’90s), the streets are packed with package tourists from all over the world, backpackers, and worst of all – pub-crawling college students. True story: one night a shirtless American kid walked in a mini-market, talking on his cell phone about how drunk he was and how he tried to hook up with some other girls in his hostel. He hung up and told his friends he was talking to his MOM. By day in the areas around Old Town Square and Prague Castle, you’d be hard pressed to hear anyone speak Czech and it’s difficult to find a spot not mobbed with tourists, which all takes a bit away from the city’s authenticity.
  • Not quite a downgrade but perhaps due to the aforementioned tourists, service at restaurants can be brusque and some less scrupulous taxi drivers have been known to take passengers for a ride. If possible, let your hotel book taxis to ensure you get a fair price and find out what approximate prices are around town. Other than a few waiters having a bad day, I’d hardly condemn the Czech people as being anything other than friendly and helpful. The bigger deterrent is the disrespectful, entitled, and obnoxious tourists.

Getting there

Delta flies direct from New York to Prague Airport, and British and American Airlines fly via London Heathrow. Budget carriers bmiBaby, German Wings, easyJet, and WizzAir service Prague from Europe. It’s an easy and cheap bus and metro ride into the city center from the airport.

Make it a week

Prague is surrounded by beautiful countryside (remember the sunflower fields in Everything is Illuminated? Filmed outside Prague) and the city is well connected to towns and cities around the Czech Republic. Spend a few days in the capital and then get out and explore Bohemia.

Exploring the Illinois wine trail

When people think about American wine, the region that comes to mind is the West Coast. And that makes sense – the majority of wine production in the United States does take place in California, Oregon and Washington. What many people don’t realize is that America is the fourth-largest wine producing country in the world, right behind the major heavyweights of France, Spain and Italy.

American wine is far more than just the West Coast. With a wide range of climates and soils, from arid to wet, rocky hills and grasslands, U.S. wineries produce a vast variety of wines from our more than one million planted acres and over three thousand commercial wineries. Napa Valley is peerless, but chances are, no matter what region of the country you’re in, there’s a wine trail or vineyard not far from you just waiting to be explored.

Illinois wine is just such an example. With a climate hospitable to wine production – some of the southern regions closely match certain climates found in Spain and Italy – there are over eighty different wineries operating in this state alone. That’s no reason to feel overwhelmed, though. This short guide will point you in the direction of a few of the ‘must-see’ wineries in Illinois. Keep reading below to see where…

Chicago and Region
Most of the Illinois’ grapes are grown downstate, but with so much of the population crowded into Chicago, there’s a huge market for wine, and a conscientious thirst for local product.

  • Glunz Family Winery and Cellars – Glunz is the main supplier of the seasonal, cold-weather wine Glogg. Most everywhere one goes in the city, if the restaurant is serving Glogg, it’s most likely from Glunz. The owner, Joe Glunz Jr., is very actively involved and has a love for Port. He’s most proud of his 1992 vintage, and he’ll happily put it up against it’s Portuguese counterparts.
  • Wild Blossom Meadery and Winery – On the far south side of the city, Wild Blossom works to produce one of the oldest beverages in the world. Mead, a specialty wine made from honey, is crafted here using the output from local beehives. Billing itself as one of the world’s most sustainable winemakers, this wine shows up on the shelves of organic retailers like Whole Foods. Wild Blossom’s “Meadery” also offers winemaking classes, supplies and tastings.
  • Vintner’s Cellar – A new trend in wine, Vintner’s Cellar is a franchise that allows the customer to craft their own personalized vintage. Using flavoring agents that simulate the aging process, customers can create as few as 24 bottles of custom wines however they like. An employee tells us that engaged couples like to create their own wines for their weddings. Locations usually have tastings as well.

Galena, Illinois
Galena is a picturesque town to the west along the Mississippi river, popular as an overnight destination for city-weary Chicagoans. Very different from the flat lands of northeastern Illinois, the Galena’s rolling hills work in the winemaker’s favor.

  • Galena Cellars Winery and Vineyard – Galena Cellars rules this region, with several locations in the area. Wine tastings at their Galena shops are common, and vineyard tours are available not far from town. Want to stumble instead of drive home? Stay in a cabin or room at the vineyard. Galena Cellars shines when it comes to sweet dessert wines, and their Choclat du Vin took home a gold medal from the Illinois State Fair.
  • Famous Fossil – In operation for only about six years now, Famous Fossil is heady when it comes to wine. Prizing what’s been termed their wine’s “somewhereness,” the husband and wife team crafting wine here want you to taste the land itself in each barrel they make. As the weather warms up, their chilled Fossil Rock White, with it’s blend of four different regional grapes, should be a perfect complement to the summer heat.

Utica, Illinois
Utica is a small town just at the edge of one of Illinois’ most beautiful state parks, Starved Rock. The former factory town would be nearly overshadowed by the husk of the industrial mill here, if not for the variety of sweet shops, antique malls, hotels and wineries catering to those visiting Starved Rock.

  • August Hill – A bit of big-city sophistication on this rustic small town’s quaint main street, August Hill’s wine shop and tasting room would look just as at home in downtown Chicago’s Gold Coast. The vintners grow their grapes on land that’s been in the family for generations, and have a passion for supporting both local artists and theater troupes as far flung as Chicago and St. Louis. Much of the art for each label is family-produced.
  • Illinois River Winery – The employees at the Illinois River Winery are so friendly they don’t seem to want to let you go. Whereas other wineries can sometimes rush, or make you feel like the tasting is all business, Bob, the tasting room manager, invites you to pull up a stool and taste as much as you like, for as long you like. For free, even. The Oktoberfest wine here is a major standout, and they have trouble keeping cases in stock, especially as autumn nears.

Shawnee Hills
Shawnee Hills is home to over a dozen Southern Illinois wineries, all within about twenty miles of one another. About fifteen minutes or so south of Carbondale, IL and the resplendent Giant City State Park, this area sees tour groups shuttling along the windy, hilly roads, especially in the summer.

  • Owl Creek Vineyard – The story behind Owl Creek is one that everyone who loves wine and wineries dreams about: a young couple, successful but unfulfilled, throw off the trappings of the corporate world and risk it all to become vintners. The owners will take the time to talk to you all about it for hours on a rainy afternoon, and, in at least one case, are happy to sacrifice one of their own towels in the event that one of your party fell into a creek while hiking in the nearby state park. The 2007 Zengeist, a crisp white, is worth owning several bottles and alone justifies every risk the couple took.
  • Starview Vineyards – In what seems to be a sprawling, white one-story cabin up against a small man made pond, Starview holds tastings, serves light cafe fare, and throws the occasional incredible party. With long rows of tables inside and a giant patio overlooking the pond outdoors, Starview likes to invite musical guests to entertain the crowds, whether it’s outdoor-heating-lamp weather or actual, natural shine. All of this is explained by the affable owner as his daughters shyly hide behind his legs. The Conchord here tastes like jam that was freshly made earlier in the day, and it may well have been. White wines are the true stars here, and they may have the best Traminette on the trail.

Grafton, Illinois
This small town is at the very edge of southwestern Illinois, where the Illinois and the Mississippi Rivers converge. Once home to a strong Native American presence, the town is now a getaway for St. Louis residents just across the river to the south. The land between the rivers to the immediate west is home to low, rolling hills filled with vineyards and fruit orchards, and is most easily accessible by ferry.

  • Piasa Winery – Piasa’s stone cottage sits at the confluence of the Grafton’s two rivers, flanked by a sunny outdoor patio and musician’s stage. Named for the mythical creature of Native American legend, Piasa has its own traditions of award-winning wines. The counter staff remembers you, even if it’s been months between visits, and keeps fans up-to-date via a Facebook page. The Piasa Blush, when cold, is incomparable as a summer wine.
  • Grafton Winery & Brewhaus – A bit further up the hill is the Grafton Winery. A full-service establishment, serving beers, food and wine, this winery boasts a view of the two rivers at sunset that’s unique to the entire Midwest. This venue doesn’t have the folksy charm that Piasa does, but it’s a well-polished operation, with the ability to cater to large parties and provide tours of the wine making facilities. In particular here, the 2003 Cabarnet Sauvignon is worth noting for it’s blend of Missouri and California grapes, and notes of cocoa, tobacco and cherry.

Related:
* The 25 greatest cities in the world for drinking wine
* The 24 greatest cities in the world for drinking beer
* The 20 greatest cities in the world for foodies

Sail from local ports to save on airfare – Cruise tip

As a resident of Richmond, Virginia, I discovered that cruise ships leave from Norfolk after being refurbished at a shipyard in Newport News. When they leave port, the rooms have been thoroughly cleaned and upgraded. The ships are like new again.

The best part is that you can hop on board and cruise down to the Caribbean. The trips usually come back to Norfolk, so you can save on airfare both ways. For each person that cruises, you can save as much as $200 on airfare.

Selecting the perfect shore excursions – Cruise tip

I took the vacation of a lifetime last summer on an Alaskan cruise. Before I selected my shore excursions, I attended an informative session put on by the shore excursion staff. It was totally free to attend.

During the presentation, they showed me slides regarding the excursions and offered an excellent overview the hundred-plus shore excursions available throughout the cruise.

I was so inspired by the informative session that I went immediately to the shore excursion office to register for my excursions. I was not disappointed in a single shore excursion that I signed up for during the cruise!

Related: Purchase your excursions onboard – Cruise tip
Counterpoint: Research, and get off the beaten (excursion) path – Cruise tip