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.

Egypt Protests Scatter Cruise Ships, Concern Tour Operators

Egypt’s tourism business has been suffering since the 2011 uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down. This week, in response to protests in Egypt, the vital industry received another blow as cruise lines and tour operators began making alternative plans.

“In an abundance of caution, Royal Caribbean International has decided to cancel Mariner of the Seas’ next port call to Egypt,” says a notice sent to travel agents Thursday. “Mariner of the Seas, which departs Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy, on Saturday, September 15, will no longer call on Alexandria, Egypt, on Tuesday, September 18. Instead, the ship will now call to Sicily (Messina), Italy, on, Sunday, September 16, and Valletta, Malta, on Monday, September 17.

That caution also applies to sister lines Azamara Club Cruises and Celebrity Cruises. It’s the up side to cruise ships, often called “floating resorts.” When trouble presents itself cruise lines simply sail in another direction.

Princess Cruises, the first to return to Egypt after the 2011 uprising, is staying the course, for now. “We haven’t made any changes yet to our upcoming calls to Egypt,” Princess Spokesperson Karen Candy told Gadling. “We’re closely monitoring the situation and will of course make any changes we feel necessary in order to ensure our passengers are safe.”

Security, it seems, is an ongoing problem in Egypt. Last Sunday, about 150 tour guides demonstrated outside of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, saying the lack of security is complicating attempts to lure tourists back.

“There is no security. This is not a joke,” Dina Yacoub, a 29-year-old guide told the Associated Press in a Washington Post article published just before this week’s anti-American violence in Libya, Yemen and Egypt this week. “We are asking tourists to come back … how would they unless there is security?”

The cruise line positions this week mirror their posturing after the 2011 unrest/chaos when they played it safe by keeping ships and passengers out of harms way.

[Flickr photo by archer10]

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.

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]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Making Peace With Malta

I’ve felt an odd kinship with Malta ever since I created a minor international incident with the tiny island nation by dressing up like Colonel Gaddafi in an 8th grade model U.N. exercise in 1986. When my teacher decided to throw me a curveball by assigning me the task of dressing up like a citizen of Malta, I was initially displeased. In the pre-Internet age, it wasn’t easy to ascertain how the Maltese dressed if you lived in Buffalo, New York, as I did.

I dressed up like Gaddafi because Malta and Libya seemed close enough on the map and I had no better ideas. 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. But I was a 13-year-old kid living in Buffalo. How was I going to do that?

My school was alarmed by the letter and sent it to the State Department. Several months later, the Desk Officer for Malta sent me a letter encouraging me to consider a career in diplomacy. I did just that in my 30’s. Over the last quarter of a century, I’ve traveled extensively in more than 50 countries, including most of Europe. All this time, Malta’s been on my radar, but I’ve been circling the place without actually landing there.Over the winter, I attempted to secure a phone interview with Mr. Cacciottolo via the Maltese embassy in Washington, but the Maltese ambassador said that the matter was closed. Mario accepted my apology but he didn’t want to speak to me. I wondered whether the embassy actually passed on my request and, if they had, why Mario didn’t want to talk to me.

In February, I watched a documentary on the Costa Concordia disaster and decided to look into going on a Costa cruise, with the idea that they’d be offering bargain rates. Perusing their website, the cheapest cruise I could find also happened to make a full day stop in Valletta, Malta’s capital. I was hooked.

Seeing the old port of Valletta, with its picturesque sprawl of shipping cranes and indestructible, uniformly sandstone colored buildings set against a perfectly blue sky had me chomping at the bit to explore the city that had been looming in the back of my consciousness for more than one-fourth of a century.

I was the first person off the boat and made a beeline for a tourist information hut in the port. It was 7.45 a.m. and 21-year-old Kathleen Polidano was having a coffee and getting ready for the usual onslaught of map-requesting tourists when I ambled in with photocopies of myself representing Malta in the St. Gregory the Great School Model U.N of 1986 and the indignant response I received from the Maltese.

I explained my story and as soon as I pulled out the photocopy of the press clipping, she burst out laughing.

“This is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.

I told her I was looking for Mario Cacciottolo, and showed her the address and phone number I’d found in an online phone directory. Without my asking, she said, “Can we call him? I want to hear what he has to say.”

It rang and rang but Mario didn’t answer. I chatted with her a bit and she reassured me that I wasn’t the only foreigner who was clueless about Malta, a nation of just 122 square miles that’s been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the Hapsburgs and the British, among others.

“A lot of people don’t even know we’re an independent country,” she lamented. “We’ve been independent from Great Britain since 1964, but I guess the news travels slowly for some people.”

I walked uphill towards the old town and immediately noticed the British influence – hotels with British names, bright red British phone booths and an entrance to the city called Victoria Gate. And most people I stopped to ask for directions could speak English, in addition to Maltese.


Watching Valletta wake up was joy – old men labored to raise the shutters on their storefronts, women filed quietly into the St. Paul Shipwreck Church and murmured responsorial psalms, and a pleasantly quiet buzz pervaded the beautifully decaying streets. The streets are called triqs in the Maltese language, which sounds like an exotic, melodic mix of Italian and Arabic.

After a stroll through the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which offers a stunning panorama of the city, I saw a line of men outside a stall called Champ on the Old Theater Street near St. John’s Cathedral, and decided to join them. I followed their lead and ordered a Maltese ricotta cheese pastry called a pastizzi, one of the Malta’s national treats, and a coffee. They use the euro in Malta and the bill came to 70 cents – 40 for the coffee and 30 for the pastizzi.

I can’t remember the last time I had a cup of coffee for less than $1, let alone 50 cents, and the pastizzi’s artery clogging goodness was so satisfying that I ended up getting a second one. Every street I wandered down seemed to have new discoveries – a crumbling piazza, an old man in an ancient looking workshop, a time warp café that looked like a WW2 era postcard.

But I wasn’t in town to frolic on the ancient streets; I wanted to know what was going on in Malta in 1986, when I got the letter, and I wanted to find Mario. I paid a visit to the National Library and met Carmen Muscat, a Maltese librarian who wasn’t as amused by my story as Kathleen was.

“What were you thinking?” she asked, when shown the photo of me dressed like Gaddafi.

“I was only 13,” I replied, more than a little defensive.

“But we’re closer to Sicily than Libya, why didn’t you dress up like an Italian?”

The real answer is because it’s more fun to dress up like Gaddafi than an Italian, but I let it slide. Carmen read through the letter from Mario and then called her husband on the cellphone to see if he knew him.

“My husband used to know him,” she reported back. “But they lost touch a long time ago. My husband studied Public Affairs and so did Cacciottolo.”

She pulled out the local phonebook to look him up and found a different entry than the one I found online. She was certain that the entry she found was the correct one.

“Look, here,” she said, pointing to a line in the phone book. “He has a B.A. and a Diploma of Public Affairs, so this must be him.”

She explained that in Malta, people listed their degrees in the telephone book, and Mario had a Bachelor of Arts degree and a DPA, a Diploma of Public Affairs, listed after his name. She jotted down the rest of the address to me but it made no sense. She wrote, “Il Holma, Triq Xmiexi, Msida.”

Carmen explained that “Il Holma” means “The Dream” in Maltese. His home had a name, not a number. The street he lived on was called Xmiexi, which is pronounced shhh-mee-she in Maltese. Msida was a town just outside the center of the city. We tried to call the number listed for Mario in the phonebook, but once again, he didn’t answer.

I met up with my wife and children and spent a few hours visiting Malta’s stunning old capital, Mdina, a half-hour outside of Valletta. As we arrived back in Valletta, my wife said that she had no interest in tracking down Mario, so I was on my own. I bought a box of chocolates for him and felt a bit like a nervous schoolboy heading off to first date as I alighted onto a public bus bound for Msida. But would I find Mario, and if I did, what on earth would we say to each other, after all these years?

Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]