Hiking the Basque coastline

While the Sierra de Toloño offers some amazing trails and views, the most alluring sights I’ve seen in the Basque region are along its coastline.

The coast of northeast Spain and southwest France along the Bay of Biscay is part of the Basque heartland. Inland villages played a key role in keeping Basque culture alive, but it’s the ports–Bilbao, San Sebastian, and many smaller towns–that helped the Basques make their mark on world history.

Today I’m hiking a stretch of Spanish coastline east of San Sebastian and within sight of the French border. Much of my trail today corresponds with the famous Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route stretching from France to Galicia on the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula became popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still one of the most popular trails in Europe, with a record 200,000+ hikers last year.

I can see why. Our route takes us past little towns where churches once offered medieval pilgrims spiritual solace, vineyards growing on steep slopes leading down to the sea, and wide views of the water. The coastline here is rugged, with jagged rocks jutting up from the foamy surf and numerous little islands, some topped by churches and homes.

%Gallery-124603%One of these islands has an important history. It makes up part of the little port of Getaria, home to Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque people’s most famous sailor. He was one of Magellan’s officers on the explorer’s circumnavigation of the globe.

The journey started in 1519 with 241 men. That number quickly dropped due to malnutrition, disease, mutiny, and storms. When Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521, two other officers took joint command. They were killed by natives soon thereafter. Another officer took over, but he proved unpopular and when his ship sprung a leak, some men decided to follow Elcano in the only remaining vessel. They finally made it back to Spain in 1522 with only 18 of the original crew.

His hometown, shown above, isn’t very big and probably wasn’t much of anything 500 years ago. I can imagine Elcano climbing to the top of that little mountain on the island that dominates Getaria and looking out over the sweeping view of the Bay of Biscay. It’s not surprising such a place produced one of the world’s greatest sailors.

Continuing along the coast we find a slope covered in thick grass. Looking out on the sea, there’s a good view of Getaria to our left and to our right, almost lost in the distance, we spot the coastline of France. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and we feast on Spanish tortilla (a bit like a thick omelet with potatoes), cheese, bread, and fresh cherries. I’ve been on a lot of hikes in Spain and I’ve eaten well on all of them. This picnic takes the prize for best view, though.

This coastline made much of its wealth from whaling. Whale oil used to be the petrol of the world, lighting up the streetlamps of Paris and London and used in a variety of products. While whales enjoy some protection today, they were hunted by the thousand until early 20th century and came close to going extinct. Basque whalers were some of the most adventurous. When stocks were used up in the Bay of Biscay and other parts of the European coastline, Basque whalers went further afield to Siberia, Iceland, Greenland, and even the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, they may have arrived in the New World before Columbus!

Our hike ends when we make it to the beach at Zarautz, an old whaling port turned resort. People are surfing and swimming, the smart ones wearing wetsuits to protect them from the cold water. When whaling died and the iron industry faltered, the Basque coast reinvented itself as a northern resort paradise for rich Europeans. San Sebastian, which I’m visiting in the next installment of this series, was one of the best. When you see the photos you’ll know why.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

In the Corner of the World: In & Around Auckland

With a population of around 1.5 million people, Auckland is no bustling metropolis. Heck, it’s not even the capital of New Zealand (go ahead, look it up – I’ll wait). It is, however, the country’s largest city and the hub for most international flights coming into the country. For Americans flying from Los Angeles and San Francisco, it is their first taste of Kiwi culture (though not kiwi birds). While it’s a small city, there is plenty to do in and around Auckland if you know where to look. I recently made my second trip to City of Sails and was reminded of how quirky it can be and amazed at the natural beauty that exists just outside the the city limits.


If you’re staying in a hotel in Auckland, odds are you will be in the Central Business District (CBD). While this is convenient for catching buses to destinations far and wide, it’s not exactly an interesting part of town. You’ll want to venture out a bit to see many of city’s best offerings. Though, there is one downtown landmark that you won’t be able to miss.

SkyTower – Towering over the limited Auckland skyline is the SkyTower. It is part of the SkyCity complex of hotels, casinos and restaurants and will be your point of reference when navigating Auckland. While the tower is not exactly the apex of architectural design (it looks pretty much like Toronto’s CN Tower and Seattle’s Space Needle), it is the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere and its observation deck provides the best views of Auckland and the surrounding area. The SkyWalk and SkyJump will give you a boost of adrenaline as you dangle or jump off of the 192m high platform. Be forewarned, though, that these activities (as well as the simple trip up to the observation deck) are expensive and some – like me – may even call them overpriced.

K’ Road –
While Kiwis do a decent job of preserving Maori culture and language, when you name a street Karangahape Road, you have to assume it’s going to get abbreviated eventually. K’ Road is a bohemian boulevard 10 minutes from the CBD that is home to cafes, boutiques, restaurants and a thriving adult entertainment industry. While you’ll probably be solicited by a transvestite prostitute during your walk down K’ Road, you’ll also find some great thrift stores, cheap eats and fantastic people watching. And when a girlie boy tells me that I have a nice smile, I just accept the compliment.

Ponsonby – Thrift stores and trannies not your thing? Walk 20 minutes west of the CBD and you’ll find yourself in Ponsonby, an upper-middle class “suburb” within Auckland’s city limits. The boutiques, restaurants and nightlife in Ponsonby cater to a wealthier clientele than K’ Road but won’t break your budget. On Friday and Saturday nights, 20- and 30-somethings in their pointy shoes and tight jeans are out and about drinking and carousing. Many of them in outfits they purchased in the neighborhood earlier that day.

Waitakere Ranges & Piha – West of Auckland is a landscape that appears to be a world away from urban life. The Waitakere Ranges provide gorgeous hiking trails along streams, waterfalls and more tree species than I could ever hope to list. Meanwhile, Piha boasts black sand beaches and jagged coastlines cloaked ominously in ocean mists. Surfers flock here for some of the region’s best waves. If you’re without a car or eager to have an expert give you a lay of the land, Bush and Beach Tours takes small groups to the ranges and Piha for the same price as a SkyWalk. Definitely a better use of your money. And for you nerds, scenes from Xena: Warrior Princess were filmed there.

Waiheke Island – A mere 35 minute ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke corners the market in quaint. It has no traffic lights. Only 8,000 people are permanent residents. And yet is has nearly 30 vineyards. While Waiheke is small, the vineyards are spread out (as is the nature of vineyards). Ananda Tours will gladly take you to several of the island’s wineries, art galleries or shops and set up tastings along the way. If you want to have a self-directed experience, I’d recommend renting a car and bringing it over on the ferry. But who wants to be the designated driver during a day of wine tasting?

Are you heading to New Zealand just to hang out in Auckland? Probably not. But odds are you will begin and end your trip to New Zealand in its largest city and it’s worth a 48 hour stay to explore, shop and get over jet lag. It has a wonderful mix of urban conveniences and natural beauty. Just don’t stick around long enough to become a Jafa.

Mike Barish traveled to New Zealand on a trip sponsored by Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand. No editorial content was guaranteed and Mike was free to report openly on his experiences. He never spit out the wine and managed not to cry during any of the death-defying activities that Kiwis love. At least not in public. Read more of Gadling’s In the Corner of the World series here.

Top 10 wine spots, none in U.S.

I realize that, on the world stage, our homeland isn’t exactly the most popular place right now. Part of it stems from eight years of political buffoonery, and a healthy dose comes from traditional “old world” bias against the United States. Like most of us, I’ve learned to adjust for a touch of this when I read international news coverage. To a certain extent, I understand it … we’re more like France than we realize. But, it’s tough when our country doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

This is especially the case for wine.

In an article detailing the top 10 wine spots in the world, Forbes deemed none in the United States worthy of the list.

1. Castello Banfi, Tuscany, Italy: not an adventurous pick for the top spot
2. Montes, Colchagua Valley, Chile: trying to seem enlightened, succeeds
3. Ken Forrester, Stellenbosch, South Africa: see #2, with the same results
4. Fournier, Mendoza, Argentina: doubling up on South America in the top five? Trying too hard …
5. Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River, Australia: could call for the middle of the pack
6. Felton Road, Central Otago, New Zealand: again with the doubling up …
7. Bodegas Ysios, Rioja, Spain: classic location, should probably be higher
8. Quinta do Portal, Douro Valley, Portugal: this would have been more exciting at #3 or #4
9. Chateau Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, France: obligatory, but at #9?
10. Peter Jakob Kuhn Oestrich, Rhein/Mosel, Germany: obviously added to the list out of a sense of obligation

And, where are we? No Sonoma? No Napa? Or, a break from the norm with Oregon?

The collection of wine destinations seems to a certain extent like a Little League awards banquet. No country is on the list twice, giving the impression that the reporter sought to dish out as many trophies as possible. The wide reach, of course, makes those absent even more evident.

As you can see, the list is more likely the result of a careful analysis of balancing out different regions and meeting reader expectations than it is a genuine reflection on the most interesting wine destinations in the world.

This is why I hate “listicles”: they have less to do with the content than they do with managing perception. Blech.