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Monthly Archives: August 2016

Hidden gems of Florida’s Emerald Coast

Dubbed the ‘Emerald Coast’ by a local junior high school student in 1983 (he won $50 for his efforts), the thin stretch of coastline along theFlorida Panhandle between Pensacola and Panama City has long been featured on the itineraries of motoring families and spring breakers. But these visitors have mostly stuck to the main sights off Florida State Road 30A, the region’s main drag. Here we shed some light on the Sunshine State’s little-known destinations.

Secret beaches

Florida’s breezy Gulf Coast beaches are some of the quickest ways to fend off sweltering weather and take a few deep gulps of fresh, salty air. Popular beaches are plentiful near main resort areas like Panama City Beach and Destin, but the area still has a few hidden treasures worth seeking out.

Not far from Panama City Beach, Shell Island is a favorite among locals and a few in-the-know visitors. An uninhabited island separating St Andrews Bay from the gulf, this pristine stretch of sand features none of the usual amenities – no concessions, restrooms, picnic tables or trash cans (remember to pack out what you bring in). Wander along sugar-sand beaches and through mangroves where the only other visitor might be a nesting shorebird. Bring a pair of binoculars to spot bottlenose dolphins, which are frequently spotted off the coast of this slice of paradise.

A bit further afield, Grayton Beach State Park exemplifies the region’s precious moniker, providing secluded beaches with azure waters, as well as biking and hiking trails and two rare coastal dune lakes that are made for exploring via kayak. Plus, thirty onsite cabins make for the perfect quiet getaway.

Under-visited state parks

Far away from Florida’s theme parks, the Emerald Coast offers a more feral alternative to the manicured entertainment found in the center of the state. Archaeological evidence suggests the area around Topsail Hill Preserve State Park was once used by Native Americans for hunting and fishing, and little has changed since. The park still features a stunning array of ecosystems, including cypress domes, marshes, pine flatwoods, scrub and wet prairies.

Just north of the pastel-colored planned community of Seaside, Eden Gardens State Park provides a glimpse of Florida as it was in the 19th century. Set on 163 acres of historic land, the park’s central focus is the restored Wesley House, a two-story mansion encircled by columned verandas. Elsewhere in the Spanish moss–shaded park there are ornamental gardens, a few hiking trails and boat access to the nearby Tucker Bayou.

Local haunts and hangouts

Once the sun sets or a thunderstorm roars overhead, head indoors to a warm and friendly spot for a bite to eat. With a squad of affable bartenders and budget-friendly food and drinks, Destin’s Red Door Saloon is the stay-until-last-call hangout where locals can be found after hours. Pizzas and bratwursts are available to soak up the booze.

On Front Beach Rd, Panama City Beach’s main commercialized artery, you’ll find more airbrushed t-shirts and cheap sunglasses than anything considered local, but there are a few diamonds in the rough. Serving up a slice of the Big Easy in Panama City, Red Rae’s Restaurant is just a few blocks away from the beach. With a menu that features cajun dishes like blackened shrimp po’boys or spicy jambalaya, Red Rae’s is easily a favorite with locals and visitors alike.

Undersea adventures

With nine wrecks just off the coast of Panama City Beach, this area of the Gulf of Mexico has been dubbed the ‘Wreck Capital of the South.’ Diving the Emerald Coast is a sure way to explore something secret to most. Fortunately, with several dive charters along the coast, exploring this area has never been easier.

Panama City’s newest wreck dive, the Red Sea, was a 125ft tugboat that was intentionally sunk in 2009. Now she sits just 40ft below the surface, and several species of marine life have already taken up residence. The Emerald Coast also features several submerged bridge spans, including sections of the Hathaway Bridge, which was originally built in 1929 and connected Panama City to Panama City Beach, but is now home to angel fish, grouper and the occasional barracuda.

For landlubbers who still want to get a glimpse of life several fathoms underwater, head to Man in the Sea Museum, which showcases the variety of gear and undersea habitats used to explore the mysteries of the ocean.

7 Best Craft Beer Bars in Amsterdam

 Proeflokaal Arendsnest

The word proeflokaal translates as ‘tasting room’ and with 50 full-flavoured beers on tap, no Amsterdam ale house quite earns the accolade like Arendsnest. Located on the grand Herengracht canal, the copper pipes, mahogany walls and waistcoat-clad bartenders will have drinkers thinking they have stepped back in time. If you’re feeling peckish, delve into a cheese or sausage plate from the chalkboard, the perfect accompaniment to a superior beer.

Bierfabriek

If you don’t go for the knock out beers brewed on site, go for the sheer thrill of being able to toss your peanut shells on the floor. Feeling the crunch under your feet on the way to the bar is all part of the Bierfabriek experience. If dinner is on the cards be sure to sample their famous grilled chicken, before washing it down with a pilsner, porter or ruby ale, all of which are prepared a peanut’s throw away.

Butcher’s Tears

Tucked away at the end of an industrial street in the Zuid neighbourhood, the secluded location of Butcher’s Tears only adds to its unpolished charm. This brewery-cum-tasting-room attracts an eclectic crowd from hipsters to pensioners, with a minimalist white-tiled interior that reinforces the fact that it’s all about the beer. The offerings on tap alternate regularly, and peckish patrons will often find a fresh loaf of bread to dig into.

Oedipus Brewery and Taproom

Take the free ferry to Amsterdam Noord for a tipple at the warehouse-style taproom of Oedipus Brewery. Started by four friends with a shared taste for international beers and experimental brewing methods, Oedipus has forged a legion of thirsty fans through  creations like their delicate and citrusy Mama pale ale. Oedipus beers are instantly recognisable by their colourfully illustrated labels and the taproom pays homage to their iconic branding with elaborately painted walls.

Kauffmann

Falafels and craft beer might not be a conventional pairing, but with a fabulously bright, Matisse-like mural and hanging plants bathing in natural sunlight, Kauffmann is not your average watering hole. The drinks menu pays tribute to some of the lesser-known craft beers from around the Netherlands, so expect pots and potions from Utrecht, Nijmegen and Tilburg, alongside prized portions of delicious falafels.

Craft and Draft

With an ever-rotating selection of 40 beers on tap, the encyclopedia of international and Dutch beers at Craft and Draft change almost daily. The bar itself is small and humble with exposed brickwork, wooden furnishings and friendly staff. If you’re finding the beer board somewhat overwhelming, opt for a tasting set of three beers.

Brouwerij ‘t IJ

Popular with tourists and locals alike, the novelty of enjoying a beer next to Amsterdam’s largest windmill never seems to wear off. However, this is more than just a photo opportunity. Brouwerij ‘t IJ brews some of the city’s best-loved beers (try the chocolatey Columbus ale at an eye-watering 9%) and boasts an attractive bar to boot. Located in an old municipal bath house, many of the original features remain, including separate entrances for men and women.

Top spots for outdoor activities in the Adirondacks

 Hitting the trail

Called the “Porcupine Mountains” by Native American tribes, this vast park offers swaths of old-growth maple and beech pockmarked with serpentine lakes, bogs, and swamps that provide the perfect habitat for wildlife large and small. You might see porcupine, you’ll certainly see beavers and their iconic dams, deer, moose, maybe even black bears. In autumn these rounded hills seem almost on fire from the brilliant reds, golds, and yellows as the deciduous forests submit to winter’s chill.

For visitors seeking a hike, the park is criss-crossed with trails that offer something for nearly any trekking ability, from easy, short meanders along a scenic overlook or waterfall, to routes only the most seasoned of hikers can attempt. Note that park trails require you to sign in and check out, as getting lost or injured in this wilderness can be perilous. Bring appropriate layers and know your way at all times. Cellphone reception is limited, so plan well and know what to do if there’s surprise weather or a health emergency.

Sleeping Beauty Mountain

The rewards of donning hiking boots and hitting Sleeping Beauty Mountain are almost instantaneous: warblers and songbirds flit about in the canopy; the air smells fresh and clean; brooks gurgle beneath your feet as you ascend. These things have remained unchanged for centuries. Sleeping Beauty is a medium-level hike and a very doable day trip, assuming the access road to Dacy Clearing is open (visitadirondacks.com/dacy-clearing-road), which cuts the necessary walking down by 1.8 miles each way. Expect a gorgeous – often wet – ascent through beech and maple forest that slowly gives way to conifers towards the top. It’s rocky but requires no actual climbing, and while the runoff from snow or rain will make sections more like a stream than a trail, there are plenty stepping stones and detours to avoid puddles. If you’re careful, you might not even get your boots wet.

Upper, Middle, and Lower Black River

With numerous places boaters can get into the water, canoeists, kayakers, and fishermen make visiting Black River a top priority. Offering over 100 miles of top notch, often extremely remote riparian habitat, this gem can be extremely dangerous in flood season and any visitors should seek local advice about the hazardous stretches.

The river is loosely dividable into three sections, Upper, Middle, and Lower, with the latter being the most challenging due to Class IV level rapids suitable for experts only. Scenic canoeing is best in the middle section, which is flat and even pond-like at certain times of the year. Upper Black River is a mix, with some rapids and portages, all very scenic: the top items of interest are the old locks that once helped steam-powered boats navigate this portion of the river.

The Wild Center

No trip to the Adirondacks is complete without visiting the lovely Wild Center (wildcenter.org), with its new outdoor exhibit for kids of all ages, the Wild Walk. A multi-station suspension bridge that at times reaches above the trees, the Walk is part science exhibit and part amusement park: a giant spider tempts you to get caught in her web or you can pretend you’re an eagle chick in a giant nest. Visitors can also birdwatch, or learn about how woodpeckers slam their heads into trees with the equivalent force of a car hitting a bridge abutment at 26,000 miles per hour (Ouch!).

Inside, the gorgeous exhibits include a variety of Adirondack habitats: from river (with trout and turtles), to bog (with sundews and frogs), to woodland. The two rescued otters are the star attraction though, with antics that rival circus comedy. It’s a great indoor option for a rainy day, and again, has just as much for adults to enjoy as for kids.

Lake George

No other body of water is as synonymous with the Adirondacks as Lake George. Large and lovely, this 32 mile-long stretch of shimmering magic is often the primary reason so many people visit each summer. The Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and other tycoons had summer homes here, and the area even attracted Georgia O’Keefe as well as many other artists. There are so many lake-based activities it’s impossible to list them all, but they include some spectacular rock leaps (for those who enjoy the adrenaline rush of leaping off perfectly good cliffs into who-knows-how-much-this-will-hurt water) at Diver’s (15 feet) and Double Diver’s (30 feet…not for the faint of heart!). In summer, paddling, swimming, and jet- or water-skiing are popular attractions. Get above the lake in an amphibious plane or take a hot air balloon ride for high-altitude views that even the summit hikes can’t provide.

Roaring Brook Falls

Near Keene Valley on Route 73, this quick and pretty hike is a perfect place to stretch your legs. It’s a “two-fer”: shortly after starting you’ll see the path split. Take the low route to reach the base of the falls, an easy 0.3 mile journey that has a few logs to clamber over and some loose rocks here and there, but almost no incline. The more adventurous will veer to the left, up the incline, where half a mile later you reach the top of the falls (be aware that the rocks can be slick). In winter the water often freezes, producing a frozen waterfall popular with photographers and ice climbers.

A wine tour of the Balkans

 It’s often said that under the communist regimes the region focused on quantity rather than quality of wine; but with family wineries honing their craft in recent years, change is afoot. Here we present the best of the Balkans’ hearty local grape varieties and where you’ll be warmly welcomed for a tipple of each.

Vranac: the jewel of former Yugoslavia

Meaning ‘black stallion’ in Serbo-Croatian, earthy red Vranac is perhaps best known for the millions of litres of it exported each year byMontenegro’s primarily state-owned winery, Plantaže. While their cavernous Šipčanik cellar just south of the capital Podgorica is worth a visit, do yourself a favour and continue your wine quest to the southern coast of Lake Skadar.

Known as Crmnica, Montenegro’s primary wine region is home to dozens of family-run wineries. Though most owners don’t speak English, local British expats Emma and Ben Heywood of Undiscovered Montenegro are happy to organise day trips and even week-long adventures through wine country. Here, you’ll be welcomed into the modest home of Miodrag Leković – nestled in the ruins of the 14th-century village of Godinje – for a taste of his award-winning oak-aged version of the varietal, or taken to Klicić Winery in Limljani village for a glass of Sveti Toma, named after the 7th-century chapel that endured sliding down a hill nearby.

Plavac Mali: Croatia’s island red

‘The Dalmatian sun is literally soaked into this wine,’ Balkan wine expert Dušan Jelić says of Plavac Mali. The Serb who has spent time working in the South African wine industry says he still compares every wine to the varietal his father drank. ‘It’s as powerful as it is irresistible: after one glass, your ears will turn red.’

Like Vranac, Plavac Mali is related to Zinfandel – the American favourite. Just one of the Dalmatian coast’s 30 indigenous varieties, it’s undoubtedly its most important. While Croatia’s northern region ofIstria has really boosted its wine tourism in recent years, you must venture to the Dalmatian islands to find this robust varietal. Hardship, we know.

There’s no match for the ambience of the wine tasting on the serene island of Vis. Occupied by military forces for decades – from WWII until the dissolution of Yugoslavia – the lush island and its viticulture are pretty quirky. You can either try a glass of Plavac Mali inside a cave once used as a Yugoslav military bunker at Vina Lipanović (facebook.com/Vina-LIPANOVIĆ), or sip some while overlooking the field used by the Vis Cricket Club at Roki’s – the restaurant and winery owned by the club’s founder.

Kallmet: Albania’s holy wine

The Illyrian winemaking tradition, which is thought to have predated the Roman Empire by several centuries, is carried on in the flavours ofAlbania’s native Kallmet. With both red and white varietals, it’s rumoured that Albanian producers even paid their taxes to the Vatican with this wine during the Middle Ages. More recently, it was served to noted oenophile Pope Francis during his visit to the country in 2014.

Kallmet is mostly found in Albania’s breadbasket, the northern region of Lezhë; you can taste some great iterations at the eponymous Kantina Kallmeti. However, the country’s most impressive Kallmet comes from the small winery attached to Uka Farm, the organic farm and restaurant just outside the capital Tirana. If you’re lucky, in-house winemaker Flori Uka will give you a tour of the cellar behind the farm and may even open a bottle of his reserve.

Mavrud: the taste of Bulgaria’s mountains

The rounded Rodopi Mountains form the backdrop for one of Bulgaria’sfive major wine regions, the Thracian Lowlands. Wine has been part of Bulgarian DNA since the times of the ancient Thracians, and one taste of the multi-faceted local favourite Mavrud is a journey back in time. With most wineries located around the second-largest city, Plovdiv, the Thracian Lowlands make an excellent weekend break from elsewhere in Europe or part of a longer exploration of Bulgaria. While there, head to Todoroff Winery and Hotel in the wine-centric village of Brestovitza (where you can even bathe in wine), or slightly further afield for some tantalising Mavrud blends at Villa Yustina.

Kallmet: Albania’s holy wine

The Illyrian winemaking tradition, which is thought to have predated the Roman Empire by several centuries, is carried on in the flavours ofAlbania’s native Kallmet. With both red and white varietals, it’s rumoured that Albanian producers even paid their taxes to the Vatican with this wine during the Middle Ages. More recently, it was served to noted oenophile Pope Francis during his visit to the country in 2014.

Mavrud: the taste of Bulgaria’s mountains

The rounded Rodopi Mountains form the backdrop for one of Bulgaria’sfive major wine regions, the Thracian Lowlands. Wine has been part of Bulgarian DNA since the times of the ancient Thracians, and one taste of the multi-faceted local favourite Mavrud is a journey back in time. With most wineries located around the second-largest city, Plovdiv, the Thracian Lowlands make an excellent weekend break from elsewhere in Europe or part of a longer exploration of Bulgaria.