5 Hours in Punta del Este, Uruguay: From Beautiful Beaches to Urban Delights

Punta del Este is paradise defined.

With its glistening azure waters and stunning sandy beaches, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect place to drop anchor than this resort city on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast. While Punta, as the locals call it, boasts a population of fewer than 10,000 permanent residents, the city comes alive for two weeks in January each year, when hundreds of thousands of rich and famous sun seekers swoop in to take advantage of this coastal playground in its peak season.

In recent years, Punta del Este has become a popular port for some of the world’s most prominent cruise lines, including Costa, MSC, Celebrity, and Norwegian. One of the best things about cruising is that you get to sample many different parts of the world, and you can always revisit the ones that really stand out. Punta del Este is one of those places.

Cruise Ship Shore Excursions

With only a few hours to explore Punta del Este, it’s important to maximize your time. Cruise ships typically offer shore excursions that take you to the most prominent tourist sites. These types of excursions are a great way to ensure you get a good feel for the place you’re visiting. However, on this particular cruise, I found the options lacking. I decided to research other options for my day in Punta del Este. I wanted to create a custom experience that met my unique needs. That’s when I came across a company called ToursByLocals.

For nearly a decade, ToursByLocals has been connecting travelers with local guides in more than 150 countries around the world. They’ve sourced the best experts in each community they serve so they can guarantee an exceptional experience every time. What’s more, they offer port pick up, the option to create your own itinerary or select from a variety of excursion options, and a “no one left behind” return to ship guarantee.

While the cruise line offered only two ways to spend the day in Punta del Este, ToursByLocals provided a plethora of opportunities. From food and wine to walking and wildlife tours, there was something for every taste. There were also a variety of guides to choose from. You can read their bios to find out their areas of expertise and interests to select the one that’s right for you. I opted for the Punta del Este and José Ignacio shore excursion with the delightfully fun and exceptionally intelligent Mariana.

Getting Started

Prior to our arrival in Punta del Este, Mariana contacted me to arrange a meeting time and place—10 a.m. at the very end of the pier. Since we needed to tender ashore, this gave us plenty of time to relax in the morning before our excursion. From the moment your ship drops anchor in Punta del Este, you’ll be blown away by its beauty. Just taking in the sun shining over the marina while drinking your morning cup of joe is a enough to make you wish you had more than a few hours in this amazing resort city.

punta del este

We arrived at the pier a little before 10 a.m., and while Mariana was holding a sign inscribed with my name, it was completely unnecessary. We locked eyes on each other long before I was near enough to read the sign. Mariana looked just like her picture, and from the moment we met, it felt like I was reuniting with a long lost friend. After a quick embrace and official introductions (my mother was also traveling with me), we were on our way.

Mariana wasted no time jumping right into guide mode. Though she did it in such a way that you felt you were just slipping into a casual conversation. It was relaxed and easy. She showed us the dockside fish market where stout sea wolves anxiously await scraps of seafood from tourists who are all too eager to feed the massive marine creatures.

From there, we headed toward the car, where we met Mariana’s mother, who had graciously agreed to be our chauffeur for the day. This was a pleasant surprise—by not having to focus on driving, Mariana was able to give her full attention to my mother and myself. But this wasn’t our only surprise. Mariana had a few sweet treats for us to try, too. One of the two local delicacies included dulce de leche, which is made from sweetened milk that is heated until it forms a thick caramel-like substances, and it’s absolutely to die for. The second treat was an alfajor, which is made up of two round cookies with dulce de leche sandwiched between them—also delicious.

We enjoyed our treats as we drove along the coastline, taking in the magnificent mansions lining the shore. All the while, Mariana provided fascinating details about Uruguay, Punta del Este, and the sights we were seeing. Punta is built on a peninsula that extends well into the sea, and a 2.5-mile pathway lines the shore along the peninsula. You can get off the ship and enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the area as you walk along the water.

Embarking on Our Adventure

One of our first stops was to take in the rocky point that marks where the Rio de la Plata river and estuary meet the Atlantic Ocean, creating a completely unique ecosystem. It’s at this midpoint that we made a quick pit stop to take some photos and talk about how these two distinct bodies of water converge.

Mariana talked in detail about the diversity of nature found in this place, as well as recounted the discovery and history of the country. She then showed us the remains of two mermaid statues that once stood proud on the rocky shoreline, as well as the site of the first naval battle of World War II. Mariana added a personal touch by telling us how her own grandmother had witnessed the fighting first hand and would often share stories with her grandchildren.

From here, we hopped back in the car, pausing for a quick look at the lighthouse and the beautiful blue Candelaria Church located across from it. Mariana, who teaches touristic geography at the local university, is extremely well educated about the area and provided tidbits of knowledge and fun facts about every site we visited and Uruguay in general. Her zest for life and passion for preserving Uruguay’s natural beauty are infectious. It was immediately apparent we were in excellent hands for the day.

As we continued our drive along the coastline, Mariana explained that the river side of the water is called La Mansa, or tame beach, and it’s perfect for swimming and relaxing on the sand. The ocean side, called La Brava, or fierce beach, is known for its rough waves and is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts looking for a little adventure in the form of surfing and other water sports. It was here that we made our next stop for a picture with the infamous sculpture of the hand rising from the sand, or La Mano.

From here, we began our long and scenic drive along the Atlantic coastline. Mariana regaled us with countless facts about the scenery and landscapes we passed. She explained that Punta is located in the Maldonado Department, or state, of Uruguay, and we would be traveling to the entire length of this department on our excursion. To begin, we crossed over the wavy bridge—so named for its notorious ups and downs—into the town of La Barra. Located at the northern end of Punta del Este, this idyllic beach resort community is the perfect place to kick back and soak in the sun.

Passing through the countryside, we took in sights of kite surfers, local vegetation, and beaches en route to the town of Manantiales. According to Mariana, Manantiales’ Bikini Beach is the place to spot models and other celebrities during the peak season, and lavish condos are available to rent right along the waterfront.

On the next leg of our journey, we made our way to José Ignacio, an ultra chic beach town that serves as a quaint getaway for Latin America’s the uber elite. If you’re hoping to spot a South American celebrity, this is the place to be. We ventured through the city streets, getting a good feel for the way the other half lives—and boy, do they live. This exclusive community boasts some of the most expensive housing in the area and is the ultimate seaside paradise.

A trip to José Ignacio wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the picturesque lighthouse that sits astride the rocky shoreline. It was here that Mariana shared with us the details of some of the important work she does to promote sustainable tourism and environmental awareness.

Roundabout at Rocha

By this time, we were only about halfway through our adventure with Mariana. There was still much to see and do. We continued our journey to the edge of Maldonado via the incredibly cool circle bridge that spans across Laguna Garzón. Once we hit the border with Rocha Department, we turned around and made our way back down the same road. Mariana pointed out rare indigenous cacti and revealed even more interesting facts about Uruguay.

Prior to meeting Mariana, she emailed to ask our dining preferences. She tries to tailor the excursion to individual tastes and wants to ensure her guests have an exceptional experience. Some people are looking for an upscale eatery where they can eavesdrop on the stars. Others seek a seafood extravaganza. Us? We opted for a simple outdoor eatery in Mariana’s hometown, La Barra.

Before heading for lunch, Mariana treated us to a glimpse into her own life. We drove past her house and down her street. She even took us down a back road and through a farmer’s field where we could glimpse the city from afar. It was an extraordinary and unexpected experience that turned out to be the highlight of our day. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we found ourselves at the most delightful little restaurant. At first glance, it looked like nothing more than a tiny log cabin with a few picnic tables set out in the open air. But it turned out to be a truly gourmet experience. We were greeted with a warm embrace by a few of the locals, who seemed to know Mariana well.

Within minutes of our arrival, the small establishment was swarming with hungry patrons. We were delighted to find Mariana’s husband and young daughter had arrived ahead of time to snag a table under the shade of the extended rooftop. Immediately, we engaged in conversation, giving us unprecedented insight into life in Uruguay. And have I mentioned the food yet? My goodness, I can’t forget the food…it was the ultimate in deliciousness. The restaurant offers three different choices on its menu each day, and at least one is vegetarian. Seeing as I don’t eat meat, I opted for the pumpkin quiche, and I was not disappointed. The generous portion was enough to tide me over until a late night dinner seating back on the ship. And it was accompanied by a fresh-from-the-garden salad doused in vinaigrette and sesame seeds that tasted like heaven.

Since there were still a few sights left for us to see, we made quick work of our meal, bid farewell to Mariana’s family, and headed back out on the road. As we made our way back toward Punta del Este, we drove through a shantytown to balance the excessive wealth we’d witnessed earlier in our tour. We also drove past the Maldonado university where Mariana works and through Maldonado City.

The last leg of our journey took us to Punta Ballena, or “Whale Point,” a small peninsula in the Rio de la Plata. En route, we learned that Punta del Este is the perfect place to view southern right whales from July to November each year. In fact, they come so close to shore that you can “smell” the water they exhale through their blowhole. Mariana is an expert in this particular species and offers specialized whale tours during the peak season.

Punta Bellena is the perfect place to watch the sunset over the river. It’s also the ideal location to spread your proverbial wings for a little hang gliding or take a gander at the infamous architecture of Casapueblo. Looking like something straight off of a Santorini postcard, what was once a summer home and workshop for Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró is now a hotel, museum, and art gallery. You can take a tour of this incredible location if you’d like to get up close and personal.

All Good Things Must End

As it always does when you’re having fun, the time flew by all too quickly. With what seemed like the blink of an eye, our time with Mariana was up. We had spent five perfect hours in Punta del Este, enjoying the area and making new friends. And, just like a good friend, Mariana anticipated my mother and I would like to spend a little time wandering the main street on our own. She gave us the option to be dropped off at the pier or on Gorlero Avenue, where you can find souvenir shops, clothing boutiques, and more.

Needless to say, we opted for the latter, and after saying our goodbyes and snapping a quick selfie, we parted ways with Mariana and her mother. We spent an hour or so meandering in and out of Gorlero’s quaint shops. If you’re looking to take home a special reminder of your time in Punta del Este, an amethyst is the way to go, and you’ll find no shortage of them here.

From the center of town, it’s only about a ten-minute walk back to the pier. We grabbed a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the waterside restaurants and took another walk around the fish market—I just had to see those incredible sea wolves one last time. You’ll also find free Wifi near the pier if you want to tell friends and family back home about your awesome adventures in Uruguay.

I have traveled to about 50 countries on 6 continents. I’ve been on countless cruises and tours, but none have come even close to the amazing experience I had in Punta del Este. I can say with some authority that ToursByLocals has found something truly special in Mariana. If all of their tours are even half as good as the one I took in Uruguay, then they are well worth every penny.

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Five Hours in Halifax: From Peggy’s Cove to the Pier

Halifax is a pretty little city along Canada’s east coast.

 

Located in Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s Maritime provinces, Halifax is the country’s largest city east of  Quebec. At fewer than 400,000 people, it’s big enough to have lots to see and do but still small enough to get a lot done in one day. But what should you do if you only have a few hours to spend in Halifax? Follow these tips to make the most of your time there. Don’t fear if you don’t make it all the way there. You should be able to catch a glimpse of it from the bus as you leave town.

halifax

Shore Excursions and Tours

Due to its location along the east coast, Halifax was one of the first places Europeans settled in Canada. It’s got a rich and colorful history that dates back nearly 300 years. When you’ve got limited time in a city like Halifax, you can cover a lot of ground on a group tour. Some of the activities you can indulge in include whale watching, a guided walk through the public gardens, sailing on a tall ship, or reliving the past at the Citadel National Historic Site.

If you’re headed to Halifax via cruise ship, you’ll be able to purchase a shore excursion right on your ship. Cruise lines typically offer a selection of the most popular attractions, with a range of activity levels. It’s not likely you’ll find a better deal on land. And if you’re not sure what you want to see or do, you’re not alone.

A lot of people choose not to research the ports in advance and wait to hedge their bets when they get on the ship. For this reason, you can usually find a “Best of Halifax” excursion, or something similar, that will give you a brief look at a variety of places.

I was sailing on the Carnival Sunshine when I visited Halifax, and I had my choice of about a dozen shore excursions. I took the Halifax and Peggy’s Cove tour and thought I got amazing bang for my buck.

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Peggy’s Cove

If you’ve only got enough time to do one thing in Halifax, take a road trip. You won’t be disappointed with a visit to Peggy’s Cove. If you’re heading out from the cruise terminal, it takes about an hour to get there. Many of the shore excursions provided by the ship will offer a scenic drive through Halifax proper before getting on the highway. You’ll glimpse the Citadel, among other sights, such as the public gardens and residential areas so you can see how the locals live.

Halifax

Once you arrive at Peggy’s Cove, you’ll have about an hour to explore the area. While this may sound disappointing, it’s actually a goodly amount of time. This charming seaside community is picture perfect, with its colorful cottages and well-worn trawlers. But it’s home to only about 60 permanent residents, which means it’s small. Like really small. Wee, in fact. But that only adds to its cuteness.

The point is, one hour gives you just enough time to snap a few pictures of the infamous lighthouse and explore the handful of shops where local artisans sell their wares. You’ll find a solid mix of handcrafted goods, from jewelry and ceramics to clothes and crafts. I picked up a handmade kimono and tank top that were made by a local designer at a shop called Hags on the Hill.

Halifax

Your motor coach will likely park at the Sou’Wester. It’s located at the farthest end of the community. You’ll find no shortage of kitschy souvenirs at this sprawling restaurant and gift shop. But don’t get too caught up looking at the mass-produced trinkets here. Be sure to take in the sights of the nearby community. In fact, I recommend leaving this shop for last.

Halifax

Start with a walk on the rocks (not the black ones, or you risk falling into the rough waters and being swept away) for view of the lighthouse. Then, take a stroll through town. Grab a cup of Joe at Tilley’s. Or try some Nova Scotian lobster rolls at the carry-out restaurant next door.

Halifax

Halifax

Before returning to the bus for the hour-long ride back into Halifax, use the washrooms at the Sou’Wester, and pick up any last-minute souvenirs here. You can even touch a live lobster if you’re so inclined. The entire excursion lasts about three to four hours from beginning to end, leaving you plenty of time—about two to three hours if you’re on a cruise—to check out some of what Halifax itself as to offer.

Pro tip: Be sure to check out the William E. deGarthe monument made from a giant slab of granite that pays tribute to the local people of Peggy’s Cove. It’s located at the top of the hill near the tourist information center when you enter the community. You will need to walk at a fairly brisk pace to make it all the way here and back to the bus in one hour if you want to take pictures and do some shopping throughout the town.

Halifax

Cruise Terminal

Cruise ships conveniently dock a hop, skip, and a jump from the infamous Halifax Harbour Walk. It’s a lovely stroll along that waterfront that’s filled with fun activities, good food, and cute boutiques.

Halifax

Stop in at Rum Runners on the Halifax Boardwalk at Bishop’s Landing. Pick up a cake or two made from rum bottled locally on Cape Breton island. Or maybe you’d prefer a sweet treat, like an ice cream cone from Sugah!, the candy shop next door.

You can continue walking for miles, taking in dozens of shops, historic buildings, and eateries, while enjoying the seaside scenery. Here, you’ll also find the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, where you can grab a homemade bite to eat, or the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which features memorabilia from the Titanic. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is a fascinating stop for anyone interested in Canadian heritage. It was the gateway for more than 1 million immigrants into the country.

Halifax

You’ll also find plenty of places to whet your whistle and try the seafood. Waterfront Warehouse is hard to miss. Boasting fresh seafood and oysters, it’s a perfect place to take kick back and enjoy the view of the waterfront. We chose to grab some haddock bites from a carry-out restaurant. For dessert, we went to Beavertails, where you can get a funnel cake in the shape of—you guessed it—a beavertail. But it’s covered in Nutella, cream cheese, caramel, or a host of other decadent delights.

Halifax

halifax

You could spend an entire afternoon walking along the Halifax Waterfront. It’s hard not to get caught up in the hustle and bustle and just keep walking. With only a couple of hours, we didn’t have a lot of time for leisure, but we did get to take in a lot of the sights.

Halifax is much more than lighthouses and boardwalks, but this is the perfect way to spend the day if that’s all the time you have. What other places do you recommend in Halifax? Share your photos on Instagram using #WanderlustWayfarer.

Five Hours in Portland, Maine: From Lighthouses to Little Towns

Portland, the largest city in Maine, is a common port for East-Coast cruises starting out of New York City.

 

This charming seaside city is filled with fun things to do. But when you only have five hours to see it all, it’s hard to know where to begin. To make the most of your short time in Portland, consider taking a tour from a local company. If you’re cruising, there will be plenty of shore excursions offered through your ship. Typically, you’ll find an itinerary that covers all of the hottest local attractions.

For example, Carnival offers a tour called Portland Highlights and Kennebunkport. In just five hours, you get to take in the top sites, and you’ll still have a bit of time afterward to wander on your own. Here’s what you’ll see.

POrtland

Portland Overview

Your tour begins with a drive through Portland itself. You’ll coast along the seaside in a motor coach, taking in the local streets, including some of the most affluent homes in the area. Your guide will tell you about the rich history of diversity and how the homes along the water were once considered undesirable for this exact reason. Today, they are some of the most sought-after abodes in the state.

As you drive along, you’ll catch a glimpse of the stone fortress built to defend the city against the Red Coats, as well as the observation tower that boasts views of the entire city, though you won’t get a chance to test that theory for yourself, as there simply isn’t time to stop here.

As you drive through the heart of the city, you’ll see the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as hear old folk tales of other homes in the community, such as the heavily adorned Wedding Cake House that was built for a bride as her wedding gift many moons ago.

POrtland

Portland Head Light

The first official stop on the tour is to the most photographed lighthouse along the East Coast, Portland Head Light. Looking as picturesque as the many postcards on which it’s been featured, the little lighthouse stands tall as a beacon to sailors passing along the coast of Maine.

portland

You’ll have about 30 minutes to take pictures amid the craggy canyons and rushing waves. A small gift shop offers trinkets and a few locally crafted items at shockingly affordable prices. Snap a few photos, grab, and souvenir, and head back on board the motor coach for the next leg of your five-hour tour.

Kennebunk and Kennebunkport

Next, your tour will take you on a rural drive to see the summer homes of the rich and, well, richer. A few decades ago, the state offered plots of land for $20,000 each. While the land was reasonably priced, it came with a catch: You had to build a home with a certain price tag. The intent was to attract only the upper-middle class to the area. The plan was successful, and most of the homes exceeded the expectations.

POrtland

After about a 45-minute drive from Portland Head Light, you’ll arrive in Kennebunk. The charming little community looks like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel, and you half expect to see Ryan Gosling strolling the streets hand-in-hand with Rachel McAdams. Colorful cottage-like shops and restaurants line both sides of about a three-block radius and include everything from candy and coffee shops to kitschy souvenir stores and upscale artists’ havens.

POrtland

You’ll get a chance to take in the shops after a short drive through nearby Kennebunkport. If you’re here in the summer months, you’ll see surfers riding the waves on the local beaches, while families gather outside their summer homes for a bonfire and a glass of wine. The brightly colored “cottages” are far more lavish than any typical upscale community and make you long to be one of the next generation of family members who are sure to inherit the tradition.

POrtland

Perhaps the most notable—okay definitely the most notable—local family is the Bushes, who have been spending their summers here for many decades, long before father and son took on the presidential roles of numbers 41 and 43. Like everyone else, they paid $20,000 for their plot of land that stretches like a peninsula into the ocean. The locals tell stories of spotting the secret service in town and George Sr. jumping from airplanes like they are part of their own family histories. It’s just a fact of living here. You will run into one or the other at some point in your lifetime.

Once you’re done your drive, you’ll get about an hour or so to sweep through the Kennebunk shops. If you don’t dawdle, this should be plenty of time. There are an obscene number of stores catering to fashionable canines (my own got several new shirts). And we even had time for a quick snack at one of the popular coffee shops.

portland

Pro Tip: Be sure to have a whoopie pie, the state dessert. Rumor has it the famous cakes came to be after a woman, tired of the icing coming off the top of the cakes she would wrap in a kerchief for her husband’s lunches, placed an extra piece of cake on top of the icing. When her husband opened his lunch to find the icing still in place, he yelled, “Whoopie!”

Back in Portland

Once you’ve wrapped up your visit to Kennebunkport, you’ll arrive in town with about two hours to spare before you need to be back on board the ship. This will give you plenty of time to walk around the Old Port, which is only about a 10-minute walk from the cruise ship terminal itself. You’ll find lots of one-of-a-kind shops, as well as plenty of places to try the local seafood.

portland

If you’ve only got five hours in Portland, Maine, this is the perfect way to take in the best the area has to offer. What other must-see sights do you recommend? Visit the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group to share your ideas.

 

Five Hours in Boston: Tea Parties to Public Gardens

Boston is a big city with a lot to see in only five hours.

 

It’s quite possible to take in the best Boston has to offer in only a handful of hours if you play your cards right. A common cruise port for people sailing along the East Coast out of New York City, Boston has a rich history as one of the primary players in the American Revolution. Follow this packed itinerary to see the major sights in less than a day.

boston-me

Prepare for Your Visit

For a port like Boston, it’s important to have a good grasp on what you’d like to see once you get there. Spend a few hours surfing the Internet to refresh your memory of all of the events that occurred in Boston on the road to US independence. There’s a lot to take in.

boston-5

Most cruise ships will offer a variety of excursions, including ones that cover the highlights and even throw in a harbor cruise to boot. But consider taking a hop on hop off tour instead. The HoHo, as they’re called locally, stop at all of the major attractions, and you can pick and choose which ones you want to spend a little extra time at.

Pro Tip: If you book a HoHo online, you’ll receive access to all of the stops. But if you book it onboard the ship, you’ll get a special “express” version that only drops off and picks up at certain HoHo stops. While this makes it easier for you to manage your time, it also limits your options, and you can only get back on specially marked buses. It’s a bit challenging to figure out which stops are the “right” ones for your pass. Ask the driver before hopping off if you’re unsure.

Morning

If you buy your HoHo on the ship, you will be designated a boarding time. Buses leave at 15-minute intervals for 1.5 hours after your ship docks. The goal is not to have everyone rush the bus stop all at once. But you can start your tour whenever you want. And many people choose not to start until mid-day.

This means, if you arrive earlier than your designated time, you will be granted access to board the first available bus. For example, the day I took the tour, the first bus was scheduled for 9:15 a.m., and I had a 9:45 a.m. boarding time. I arrived at the stop a half hour early, as was able to board a bus right away.

boston-8

HoHo Stops

Boston is a beautiful city. It’s clean, rich with history, and full of diversity. With only five hours to spare, we had to be fast to get a good taste of what the city has to offer. HoHo was the perfect solution. The drivers were friendly and informative, giving the tour a special touch.

While the specially designed cruise tour only takes you to seven stops, you likely still won’t have time to do them all. I’m faster than a speeding bullet (my grandma’s maiden name was Kent, so I figure I get my speed from Superman), yet I only had time to hop off at four stops. Choose wisely, and budget your time well.

Stop 1 – Boston Tea Party

First up, you can take a step back in time to re-enact the events that started America on its path to freedom from British colonial rule. Board replicas of the ships involved in the Boston Tea Party and have a spot of tea at the tea room before picking up a souvenir—like a “tea” shirt—in the shop.

boston-tea

Pro Tip: Check the opening times before your visit to be sure you can enter the site and have a bite to eat. Sometimes, the tea room opens mid-day, so if you hop off your HoHo too early, you won’t get a chance to take it all in. The HoHo swings back around to this stop at the end of the tour before taking you back to your ship, so you could get off here later in the day instead, after you’ve seen the other sites.

boston

Stop 2 – Paul Revere House and the Old North Church

Next, take a walk along the red brick road, known as the Freedom Trail, to Paul Revere’s house. Stroll the same streets he took to reach the Old North Church the night he stalked its towers to watch for the infamous lanterns signalling “one if by land, two if by sea.”

boston-1

Stop 3 – USS Constitution and Museum

Want to check out “Old Ironsides,” one of the best-known ships of the American Revolution? Here’s your chance. Hop off at this stop to see the infamous wooden ship that’s now a museum.

Stop 4 – Boston Public and Cheers

Drive past TD Gardens and the colonial buildings of downtown Boston on your way to Boston Public. The lush gardens and public park are home to the Swan Boats that will take you on a 20-minute ride through the park. Across the street, have a drink where everybody knows your name, Cheers.

boston-cheers

Pro Tip: The good folks at Cheers know you need to get in and out fast. They’ll even ask if you want a pre-packaged mug tacked onto your bill to save you from standing in line in their souvenir shop. Be sure to say, “Bye,” to Tecumseh on your way out!

Stop 5 – Fenway Park

If you’re a Red Sox fan you’ll want to hop off at the big green monster. You can take a tour of the grounds, but be sure to check for availability in advance as the tours don’t run continuously and often fill up. You can also check out the official fan store and have a beer at a local hot spot.

Stop 6 – Prudential Center and Skywalk Observatory

For a 360-degree view of Boston, stop here and ride to the top of the Skywalk Observatory. There are also plenty of great places to shop and have a bite to eat.

Stop 7 – Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market

Whether you’re looking for a handcrafted keepsake, tacky t-shirt, or a seafood snack, you’ll find it at Quincy Market or Faneuil Hall. While there is a good variety of shopping, it’s mainly made up of local artisans rather than chain stores. So if you’re hoping to pop into Anthropologie of J.Crew, you won’t find them here. But you will find a variety of take-out eateries catering to just about every taste imaginable.

boston-7

Boston is a pretty compact place, and many of the attractions are within walking distance to one another. If you have just missed a HoHo, you may want to consider walking to the next stop instead of waiting 20 minutes for another one to come along. We walked from Stop 2 to Stop 3 to save a bit of time. It only took about 10 to 15 minutes, and we got to see a bit more of the city.

Still think you can’t see Boston in just one day? If you keep a steady pace and don’t dillydally in any one place, you can see the best of Boston in only five hours. Share your Boston pictures using #wanderlustwayfarer on Instagram.

Five Hours in Ensenada: Guacamole and Guided Tours

Ensenada isn’t the kind of place you dream of going. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a ton of fun.

 

I wasn’t expecting a whole lot when I signed on for a cruise with a stop in Ensenada, Mexico. I’ve been across the border from San Diego into Baja a handful of times, and I figured Ensenada would be pretty similar. But I was intrigued and hoped for the best.

Often, I research the ports before setting sail, but I didn’t have a lot of free time leading up to this cruise. I’ve sailed often enough to know that if there’s something worth seeing, you’ll find out about it. I always make a point of attending the shore excursions presentation the cruise staff put on the first day your arrive on board. They tell you all the top activities in each port so you can decide the best ways to spend your days.

Following the Ensenda excursions overview, I still wasn’t convince I’d be able to kill a full day in that city. Boy was I wrong. Here’s how to spend a perfect day in the port of Ensenada.

Disembarkation

ensenada

On this particular cruise, I was traveling with Carnival. Since we were able to dock right in port rather than tender into town, as soon as the captain gave the A-OK, we could walk right off the boat. And so we did. But it felt like we were the only people who were disembarking the ship at that early hour.

When we saw rows of buses waiting on the dock, we realized most cruisers were taking an excursion in Ensenada. Not us. We decided to make our own fun. We just weren’t sure exactly what that would be, and judging by our walk along the pier, we didn’t have very high expectations.

It’s not that it’s bad per se…it’s just not great. When you reach the end of the dock, you make a left and walk a path along the waterfront called Turistico. It was early, so there were next to no people outside or shops open. But random sailors did shout offers at us. I think they wanted to give us a ride on their boats. At least, I’m telling myself that’s what they were offering. You get the picture.

It’s about a 15-minute walk to town from the port. I felt safe, but at the same time, it was obvious we were tourists and had no idea where we were going. Tired of feeling like we had a giant bull’s-eye in the middle of our foreheads, we made a right when we reached what appeared to be the end of Turistico toward what we hoped was the city.

We found ourselves in an alley. People were setting up outdoor shopping stalls and street-side eateries alongside a small fish market. It was unusual and intriguing all at the same time. Still we kept walking, until we hit Federal Highway. We made a right, walked a block or two to the corner of Macheros, and stumbled upon a central area with a tourist information kiosk. And this is where things began to take a turn for the better.

ensenada

Morning

Next time, I would turn a block or two earlier along Turistico, but no matter which street you take, you’ll likely end up at this same tourist center on the corner of Macheros. It’s also where you’ll find the public restroom, which requires a small fee per use. Due to the early hour—about 9 a.m.—there wasn’t anyone working at the kiosk yet. But we found a map on a billboard outside and started planning our course of action.

It was looking bleak at first. But then a man wearing a tour guide badge approached us. He showed us a few different options before pitching us on a tour to La Bufadora. Located about 20 miles from Ensenada in a town called Punta Banda, it’s one of the largest marine geysers in the world. We were familiar with this local attraction. We’d heard all about it at the shore excursion presentation and had written it off as a rip off. But now that we had nothing else to do for the day, we decided to give it a go.

Pro tip: The ship charges nearly $40 for the La Bufadora excursion. The man at the kiosk offered it to us for $20, and I managed to barter down to $15. It was the exact same tour. Payment is in the form of cash only, so be prepared.

We were quickly shepherded onto a small bus, where a man inside was playing live mariachi music on a guitar. After a few minutes, he was replaced by Heberto, who was our guide for the morning. Within 10 minutes of paying our fare, the bus was full, and we were on our way.

As we rolled through the busy Ensenada streets, Heberto pointed out local landmarks, including the Plaza Civica and statues of Mexican heroes. For the next 40 minutes, we wound our way along the Riviera Del Pacifico. Our bus rattled and shook as the winding, narrow roadway rose ever higher, and the cliff’s edge seemed to draw continually nearer to the bus’ wheels. If you’re afraid of heights like I am, it’s a bit daunting, but I simply reminded myself the drivers do this every day. They know these roads well. Besides, it’s a beautiful view.

Finally, Punta Banda was upon us. Heberto walked us through the small community, which is mainly made up of a street market, restaurant, and gas station. Countless people attempted to peddle their wares, shouting flattering comments at the women as we walked by. Heberto pointed out “trusted” merchants, including a silver shop where you can pick up an “authentic” piece of jewelry to commemorate your visit. Some merchants even offered us free samples of churros, sweet breads, roasted nuts, and other local delicacies.

ensenada

Just before you enter the viewpoint for La Bufodora, there is a restaurant called Habana Banana. Here, you can sample a traditional Mexican margarita free of charge and use the washrooms. They also have free wi-fi. If you’re like me and didn’t spring for Internet minutes on the ship, this is your chance to check in back home and post a few pics on Instagram.

When we finally reached La Bufadora, I was pleasantly surprised. We knew water was going to shoot into the air and didn’t expect anything too fascinating. What we didn’t know was that the surrounding scenery was a sight to behold. At first, we stood back from the spray, being careful not to get wet. But within minutes of hearing others laughing and giggling, we couldn’t help but step into the action.

ensenada

As we took pictures and videos from every possible angle, salt water rained down upon us. We joined in the laughter and enjoyed the view. In that moment, we knew the $15 we paid for the tour was worth every cent. Wiping water from our cameras, we made our way back to Habana Banana for a quick pit stop and our free drinks.

With 20 minutes to spare, we ventured back through the bustling flea market toward our bus. By now, many other tour groups had arrived, and the street was alive with activity. We stopped in a handful of shops but left empty-handed. I simply didn’t need anymore trinkets and especially not a sombrero. After about an hour and a half in Punta Banda, we were back on the road.

Mid-Day

By the time we returned to town, it was just after noon, and we thought our day was done. We couldn’t fathom how we would kill any more time in Ensenada. And then we discovered Primera, or First Street. Leaving the tourist center, you’ll walk straight down Macheros, across the main road, Federal Highway, and up one block. It takes about two minutes, and you can’t miss it. Whether you turn left or right, you’ll be in the heart of the action. We turned left, for the record.

By now, we were getting hungry. And we wanted fresh guacamole, of course. We were leery of eating just anyplace, so we were excited when we recognized someone from our cruise at a sidewalk café (if you can call it that) called Tequila’s Restaurant Bar & Grill on one of the side streets, Miramar. When she confirmed the guac was good, we settled in for a snack.

Ensenada

It’s important to note that service in Ensenada can’t be compared to US standards. A seemingly random man walked over from the street corner to wait on us. We’re still not 100 percent sure he worked there, but we rolled with it. We ordered the fresh salsa and guac with chips and two cans of pop, so we were a bit surprised when he returned with two tequila shots. We politely turned them down, and he proceeded to drink one of them. I made a mental note to check the bill to be sure we weren’t charged for it, but I later learned any self-respecting eatery in the area provides a free tequila shot to every paying guest.

Our salsa arrived immediately, but the guacamole was another story. We waited, and waited, and waited. And it seemed our “server” had disappeared. I joked that perhaps he had gone to buy avocados, which wasn’t so funny when we saw him run back into the bar out of breath and carrying a grocery bag. Miraculously, our guac appeared two minutes later. I guess anything goes in Ensenada!

ensendada

I’m not the biggest guac fan, but this was the best I’ve ever had. It was tangy and flavorful, and it hit the spot. We enjoyed every last morsel, relaxing in the hot sun for about a half hour and enjoying the sights and sounds of Ensenada. When we were ready to leave, our server was nowhere to be found, so we headed inside to pay our bill. Odd, since I had seen him downing a beer just a few minutes earlier.

Pro tip: Be sure to check that your bill doesn’t include any extras. I inquired about the tequila shot, and the bartender assured me it wasn’t on the bill, which was written in Spanish, so I couldn’t be sure. We later Googled a mystery item, Tecate, to learn it was the beer we’d seen our server drinking. So, I guess the bartender wasn’t lying when she said there wasn’t any tequila on our bill. I never asked about beer. What’s a girl to do? C’est la vie, I suppose.

Afternoon

By now, it was well into the afternoon. We wandered along First Street, which mainly consists of bars and souvenir shops selling the usual trinkets. If you want shot glasses, maracas, or embroidered shirts, you’ll find no shortage of them here. And the shopkeepers are more than happy to guide you inside their stores to barter for their wares. While they will urge you to do business with them, they won’t likely heckle you or chase you down for the sale. If you’re not interested in what they have to offer, a simple shake of the head or a polite “no thank you” will suffice.

There were a handful of unique shops, but for the most part, once you’ve looked in one or two stores, you’ve seen about all there is to see. If there’s something you can’t live without, you’ll likely find it again at the shop next door for half the price. Decide what you want to pay, and then find a shop that will agree to your price.

We walked to the end of the street before crossing over to the other side, heading back in the direction we started from. Rather than making our way straight back toward the tourist center when we hit Macheros, we kept walking along First Street to what seemed like the end of the world. It was here that we found quieter, more upscale boutiques. I even stumbled across a designer pet store, where I purchased a Mexican jacket to go with a tiny sombrero we had found earlier for my five-pound Pomeranian. Don’t judge.

Pro Tip: If you want to avoid the flea-market-style shops, turn right instead of left from Macheros when you first get to First Street from the tourist center. You head straight toward the higher-end stores and restaurants.

After poking around a few shops, we once again crossed to other side of the street to make our way toward our starting point. About a block before Macheros, we made a left onto Alvadaro and found ourselves at a super cute chocolaterie called Maya Cacao. I highly recommend stopping in to buy some vanilla.

Mexico is known for its vanilla, and I always buy some when I’m there. We’d seen plenty of cheap souvenir vanilla along our walk and had thought about buying a bottle. But it wasn’t until we spoke with the staff at Maya Cacao that we were convinced we’d found the real deal. While they sell very expensive bottles of vanilla, they were eager to recommend the brand they use in their own baking, which cost half as much. And they even let us smell it first. Divine, I tell you.

From there, we walked to the end of Alvadaro, turned right onto Federal Highway, and walked back to the tourist center. There was a flea market where we first crossed, and we checked out one or two shops in the area that hadn’t been open yet when we were there prior to our La Bufadora trek hours earlier.

By now, it was after 4 p.m. and time to make our way back to the ship. The pier was bustling with both tourists and locals, basking in the mid-day sun. It was much less sketchy than it had seemed on our walk into town that morning.

All in all, we had an excellent time in Ensenada, despite what we would have believed at first sight. Have you been to Ensenada? Head over to the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group to share your ideas for fun things to do in this Mexican cruise port.

 

 

 

Five Hours on Catalina Island: Avalon Adventures

Catalina Island may be small, but there is no shortage of fun to be had once your feet hit solid ground in the city of Avalon.

 

I usually prepare for each cruise port well in advance, but I booked my Baja cruise at the last minute. I had little time to research what to do once I arrived on Catalina Island. My plan was to wing it, but a lovely couple onboard our cruise had me thinking otherwise. And boy am I glad they did.

After talking to the couple, we learned the “thing to do” in Avalon is rent a golf cart. The couple had pre-booked one online before setting sail. They suggested we do the same thing, but we were already well away from land. It would cost us a fortune to use our cell phones to surf the net. We vowed to get up at the crack of dawn so that, as soon as we were close enough to shore to use our cell phones without racking up enormous charges.

Morning

catalina island

The water off the coast of Catalina is too shallow for cruise ships to come into port. Instead, they anchor at sea and “tender” cruisers ashore in small charter boats. On this particular cruise aboard Carnival Inspiration, if you chose to leave the ship between 8 and 9 a.m., tenders were first come, first serve. From 9 to 10 a.m., people on ship-sanctioned shore excursions got priority, which could result in long lineups for anyone else. After 10 a.m., you could once again take the first available boat. My friend and I decided the night before we would cut our losses and get out ahead of the crowd. We had a plan in mind and wanted to make it happen. We set our alarm for 7 a.m.

As we ate breakfast, we madly searched for golf cart rentals in Catalina. Sadly, the first three companies we contacted were fully booked. So, rather than sit on the ship wallowing, we decided to make our way to the tenders. It was just prior to 9 a.m., and we didn’t want to miss our opportunity to get on a boat right away. We figured we would hit up some of the places on the boardwalk to see if they had any carts left.

But we never gave up hope. As we sailed under sunny skies, we continued our plight. Finally, we found success! The fellow who answered the phone at Island Rentals told us if we got there by 10:30 we would likely be able to get a cart. It was now 8:55 a.m., so we hoped we would make it. When we told the man on the phone we were sitting on the tender, he replied with, “See you in five minutes.” Our hearts swelled. We did it!

The Adventure Begins

catalina island

Island Rentals is, literally, a hop, skip, and jump from where the tender docks. About half a block up the street on the left side, you’ll stumble upon a tiny building with an outdoor counter. You can’t miss it—there’s a bison on the roof that you can see all the way to the dock.

Just walk right up and request a cart. After signing a few release forms, you’ll be on your way. Just be sure to bring cash—they don’t accept other forms of payment. It’s $40 per hour, and if you pre-pay for 2 hour, you get the third hour for free. And, to sweeten the deal, for every half hour you return prior to the two hours you pay for, you get $20 back. But be sure to bring cash. They don’t accept credit cards.

There is a set 12-mile route for golf carts that takes you all around Avalon. The rental center will give you a map, but the route is also marked with numbered signs throughout the city. You begin your ride driving seaside along the main roadway. The locals are used to maneuvering around the carts, so there’s no need to worry about rolling with the regular traffic. Drive at your own pace, and they’ll pass you if needed.

The view is amazing as you ride along the cliff wall leading to the peak of the island. Along the route, there are various places where you can stop briefly for a picture and to take in the scenery. You’ll get stunning shots of your ship and all of Avalon from here.

catalina island

Continuing along the pre-planned route, you head back downhill and through residential streets, catching a glimpse of island life as you scoot past the colorful houses. Climbing uphill along Avalon Canyon, you’ll reach the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, where you can park your cart and take a look around. Admission is $7, and you’ll get to see the monument built to the owner of the largest chewing gum company in the world, as well as a beautiful view of Avalon Bay.

After your stroll through the gardens, jump back in your golf cart to complete your tour. Sights you’ll see as you motor through along the route include Descanso Beach Club, Catalina Island Casino, and the Zip Line Eco Tour. You’ll even coast through town center.

catalina island

According to the rental center, you can complete the entire golf cart route in one hour if you don’t make any stops. We paused a few times for pictures—once to let a few deer pass by—and we were done in an hour and a half. We got back $20 when we returned the cart, and we’d had the time of our life.

Pro tip: When we got back to the rental center after our tour, there were scads of people waiting for carts. We saw this all over town. Get off the ship early to make sure you can get your hands on a golf cart, and enjoy the sights before they get too busy.

Town Trek

catalina island

After our golf cart adventure, we went for a walk through town. There are lots of cute boutiques. Most sell beach wear, dive gear, or souvenir trinkets. But others, like Latitude 33, Catalina Gear, Afishinados, Catalina Potter, Bath, & Body offer designer clothing and pieces from local artists. Thee are just a few of the shops you’ll find in the seaside community.

Next, grab a mid-morning snack to refuel before heading to the beach. Scoops has homemade ice cream, or you can head to Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co for a caffeine fix. For every type of candy and confection imaginable, stop in at Lloyd’s of Avalon. A bite of creamy fudge satisfied my sweet tooth.

catalina island

Beach Break

catalina island

By now, the mid-day sun will be casting down upon you. It’s time to hit the beach and cool off. We considered parasailing since the day was still young, but ultimately decided against it. Looking back, I highly recommend giving it a try. Watching from the sidelines as friends rode tandem through the sky over this quaint community would be a wonderful experience. Don’t miss out like I did.

Instead, we found some open space along the water and relaxed on the beach for an hour. The ship provides towels you can take ashore, just be sure to bring them back onboard so you don’t get charged for them at the end of your journey. The beach near the boat gets really crowded quite quickly, so don’t dally reserving your spot in the sand.

Don’t worry if you don’t want to get wet. There’s plenty of people watching if you’re not into swimming. Plus the calm bobbing of the boats on the water makes for a pleasant sight. Kick back, and enjoy the moment.

Pro tip: Descanso Beach tends to be much less busy than the main area near the dock. It’s a short walk past the town center, and you can find a bit of peace a quiet there. There’s even a restaurant where you can enjoy lunch or cabanas to help keep you cool in the hot sun.

Afternoon

catalina island

By early afternoon—around 1:30 p.m.—we were ready to head back on board our ship. We managed to secure loungers in the adult-only pool area at the back of the boat with a view of the island. We spent the rest of the day watching parasailers being whisked through the cobalt sky, laughing and screaming in delight.

Avalon is an adorable community with many other exciting sights to enjoy. To share your ideas for the best way to spend the perfect day on Catalina Island, head over to the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group.

Five Hours in Tangier: From the Medina to the Markets

When the ships come in, Tangier comes alive. With only a few hours in port, you’ll need to hustle to take it all in.

Tangier, Morocco, is a sensory explosion. The sights, sounds, and aromas surround you, sweeping you into the culture and flavors of this enigmatic North African port city. I’ve wanted to spend time in Morocco since I was a teenager, taken by the rhythmic sway of a belly dancer’s hips and the mosaic of zaffer tiles lining the walls of Disney’s Epcot pavilion.

For a variety of reasons, every time I’ve made an attempt to see the real deal, it was thwarted, until last March. Finally, I stepped foot on Moroccan soil. And though it was only for a few hours, it was enough to know I’ll venture back again soon. Here’s a look at how to spend five hours in Morocco.

tangier

Disembarkation

On this trip, I was traveling with my mother. We contemplated taking a shore excursion to one of the many historic sites surrounding the city. Ultimately, we decided they were too high priced and would leave us little time to explore the city afterward.

Depending on how much time you want to spend sipping mint tea–a local favorite–in a corner café or shopping in the souk, you can see the main sights in just a few hours. So you can choose to take it easy in the morning and get off the ship later in the day if you need a few extra hours of sleep.

We’re early risers, and we like to get ahead of the crowds, not to mention the mid-day heat. We had our feet firmly on land within an hour of arriving at port. Once you’re off the ship, it’s just a short walk to the old town–10 minutes or so. Since the port is also home to a ferry service, you will need to pass through a terminal on your way to the medina.

As you’re passing through the terminal, men will begin to approach you, offering you tours around town. They are very pleasant and will back off the moment you refuse their offer, but there are hundreds of others who will all ask the same question, especially once you step outside the terminal. Here, you’ll find dozens of taxis just waiting to take you on a tour. If you’re unprepared or haven’t traveled to other places where people heckle you, this could be overwhelming.

I prefer to make my own tour. I like to walk the streets at my own pace, stopping and starting wherever and whenever I want. So, I politely refused every offer. As a savvy traveler with a bold personality, I have no problem expressing myself. But even I found it a bit of a challenge, but mostly, I simply found it annoying. I just wanted to be left alone. I was truly relieved when we made it to the main street, Avenue Mohamed VI, and could see the medina just up ahead.

Just when we thought we were in the clear, a pedestrian approached us, asking if we wanted to be accompanied on our walk. Again, we refused. A few hundred feet later, two more pedestrians approached us. Once again, we refused. By now we were at the base of the Hotel Continental, a landmark 3-star hotel marking the entry to the medina from the port. We began our ascent to the top of the stairs, where we could see a gate leading into the old town.

Tangier



Booking.com

Lost in Translation

In the distance to our left, we could see a few men gesturing to us. Tired of fending off local “guides,” we opted to turn right at the top of the stairs to avoid them. Unfortunately, this path led only to the Hotel Continental lobby. We had no choice but to turn back around, only to find one of the men standing a few feet away. As per the others, he offered his services, and we once again refused, making our way past him and toward the gate into town.

It wasn’t long before we realized he was walking only a few feet behind us. After a few steps, he began hollering something at us. We assumed he was simply trying to change our mind about taking his local tour. When we reached a locked gate a few minutes later, we realized he’d been trying to warn us we could not go that way. He pointed us in a new direction. We thanked him kindly and carried on.

We meandered through a few streets, completely uncertain where we were headed. Normally, I kind of like it that way. But for every five steps we took, a new man would pop out of the shadows and ask if he could accompany us. It was tiresome and frustrating. Not to mention I was having trouble focusing on my adventure. All I could think about was finding a way for us to explore in peace and quiet. I was starting to sweat, and it wasn’t even hot out. Not good. That’s when I realized our “friend” was still only a few steps away. He’d been following us the entire time. Suddenly, I had a revelation.

This guy seemed pretty nice. He was letting us do our thing and simply making sure we got around safely. What if we adopted him as our guide? It would keep the others away, and we could do walk around freely without any hassle. So, I half turned and asked him a quick question about which way to go. He took a hesitant step forward, pointed to the left, and smiled. And that was that. We had ourselves a guide.

tangier

Walk the Kasbah

At first, Eduardo, stayed a half block ahead of us, pointing here and there at various buildings and signs. He spoke very little English, but we managed to sort out the basics. He took us to the top of the Kasbah, telling us when to stop and look at the place where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. Then he walked us through the streets, pointing out buildings owned by the elite. At some point, he must have realized I like colored tiles because we found ourselves a bit off the beaten path. He would take us down side streets just to point out a pretty door. It was sweet, and I didn’t see a lot of others from the cruise ship getting the same special treatment.

Before we knew it, we were walking side by side with Eduardo, conversing with hand gestures and head nods. By now, we realized every single tourist we passed had acquired a guide. And life was certainly easier with one. We had only a few hours to enjoy this lovely place, so there was no time to waste.

Tangier

Pro Tip: If you’re only in Tangier for the day, relent, and hire a guide. It’s the best 10 Euros you’ll ever spend, even if all he does is keep the other guides from heckling you. Eduardo knew where to take us to see the hotspots, and he kept us from being harassed. Choose someone who is nice and polite, and he will treat you well for the day.

Socco it to ‘Em

After the Kasbah, Eduardo walked us through even more streets, making sure we didn’t miss a single mosaic. He even took us inside a local house to watch a man bake homemade bread in a traditional oven. Eventually, we wound our way down to the Grand Socco. Here, new meets old, as the narrow alleys of the old town converge with modern city streets. This plaza and green space is mostly a meeting place, but it also acts as the gateway to the medina.

Socco is another word for souk or suuq, which means “market.” Across the street from the plaza is still an open market, where vendors peddle fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish straight from the ocean, and baked goods. They spill into the crowded aisles, showcasing their wares to the locals.

Tangier

After a quick walk through the market, Eduardo took us on a traditional walking tour of the local shops. Though he wasn’t an accredited guide, he still made sure we were treated like royalty. At the rug shop, they rolled out the red carpet…and blue, purple, ivory, and orange. Anyone who has been to a North African country has seen the spiel. In a shop overflowing with hand-woven rugs of all shapes, colors, and sizes, two or three men roll out dozens of styles and tell you about their many features as you sip freshly brewed mint tea. It’s fun, and a little awkward. Though we declined to purchase anything, they still let us view the entire area from their rooftop patio. And what a beautiful view it was.

Tangier

From here, Eduardo took us to a beautiful shop filled with silver accessories, adornments, and décor. It was lovely and utterly impractical. But the owner was a hoot and joked about how ridiculous it would be for us to purchase an overpriced item from him. In much the same fashion, we visited spice shops where we were surrounded by savory aromas and stores filled with Moroccan oils for every part of your body. One of my favorite stops was the silk shop, where scarves, bags, dresses, and more are woven on site. Here, they demonstrate the process, and also take time to wrap women in the perfect hijab made from a scarf of their favorite color. So much fun.

Tangier

While Eduardo was ready to wrap up the tour–we figure he was hoping to grab a new set of tourists to make a few extra bucks in the afternoon–we weren’t quite ready to leave. I was desperate for a pair of babouche, or Moroccan slippers. So, we asked Eduardo to make a few more stops. Of course, we couldn’t find anything we liked at the first two shops, but we struck gold at the third. We practically emptied our purses here buying shoes, trinkets, souvenir tiles, hair oils, and more. Eduardo sat quietly in a chair and nodded appropriately when I asked him which shoes he liked best. He was adorable, like a man who’d been watching his wife shop for 50 years.

The shop owner was fluent in English and joked with us heartily. He even sent someone to find items at another shop if he didn’t have what we were looking for. Turns out he had just opened his doors and was competing with his father for sales. We felt like we got a good deal after bartering a bit, but I’m still pretty sure they took us for twice what it was worth. We had fun anyway.

Fond Farewell

Lastly, Eduardo took us to the infamous Café Baba, where the Rolling Stones and other musicians would often hangout during their time in Tangier. It was empty while we were there so we got to take a good look around. It was a rare treat.

After about four hours with Eduardo, it was time to say goodbye. He walked us all the way back to Hotel Continental, where we hugged and took pictures together–leaps and bounds from the distance we’d kept at the start of our day. Though we didn’t have an agreement with Eduardo to pay him anything, we had heard others saying they expected about 5 Euros for a tour of the old town. My mom and I had already decided we would each give him that much, but after forcing him to shop with us for an extra hour, we doubled down. Our lives in North America are blessed with luxuries Eduardo will never know. We spent thousands of dollars to be in Morocco, what was a few bucks more?

Tangier

Back on the Boat

We contemplated heading back to the souk for a bit of time on our own in Tangier, but we knew we would end up acquiring yet another guide whether we wanted one or not. Instead, we headed back to the port, where the lovely NCL Epic was waiting for us to board. We met an elderly lady on our way who was just arriving at the main road. She was insistent on deflecting all offers from locals for assistance. We advised her to give in, but she just brushed us off. I wonder to this day if she made it on her own.

We left so early that morning there hadn’t been any vendors outside the port. By the time we returned, they were lining the street. If you aren’t interested in visiting the old town, you can pick up some dandy souvenirs here. I had meant to buy a traditional top, something I had dreamed of since I was that teenager back at EPCOT. I managed to find exactly what I was after just as I was about to get back on the ship. I was delighted.

Tamgier

Tangier was just the tip of the iceberg for me. I plan to head back to Morocco for more adventures on the mainland. But this was a wonderful way to sample the culture. Have you been to Morocco? Head to the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group, and let me know where I should visit on my next trip to Northern Africa.

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Five Hours in Funchal: From Gondolas to Street Toboggans

One of the best parts of cruising is going to places you might not have otherwise considered, like Funchal, Madeira.

 

This picturesque city has slightly more than 100,000 people and is the capital of Madeira, a Portuguese island in the North Atlantic Ocean. Funchal is magical, but before my ship entered its port, I had no idea I wanted to go there. Heck, I had no idea it existed. Within 15 minutes ashore, I knew it was one of my new favorite places in Europe, and even though I still had the whole day ahead of me, I didn’t want it to end.

I had no idea what to expect so I thought about taking a ship-sanctioned shore excursion. In the end, I decided not to take one. Instead I chose to take my chances on making my own itinerary. I studied the ship’s recommendations and decided I could see the main city sites and still have plenty of time to stroll the streets if I did things on my own. And I was right! I packed in a ton of fun and never once felt rushed. Here are my tips for the best ways to spend five hours in Funchal.

Disembarking

Funchal

To make the most of this beautiful port, I urge you to rise early and beat the crowds. If you get up at 6:30 a.m., you can be dressed, have a bite to eat, and be ready to go by 8 a.m. This was the projected arrival time for NCL Epic.

As soon as I heard the captain give the A-OK to get off the ship, I headed toward the gangway. Trust me when I tell you not to waste a single minute of time you have in this lovely place. I was the very first person to disembark for the day. And I was glad to have the quiet streets to myself for a few hours before most of the other cruisers made it off the ship.

It’s a bit of a jaunt from the ship to the heart of the action, but it’s a well-designed route once you get past the ship dock. Simply walk off the ship and keep going until you reach a fork in the road. Make a right on Avenida Do Mar, and keep on walking. The level pathway, scenic view along the waterfront, and smattering of shops make it an easy stroll. You can turn left at the first main intersection to head straight into the tourist area. But I decided to up the ante and keep walking. I had a special plan for my morning.

Morning

I walked all along the pathway for about 45 minutes at a brisk pace. I had an ulterior motive: to get on the cable cars or, as they’re called locally, Teleférico do Funchal, before the crowds of tourists arrived. I made good time, arriving by 8:45 a.m. Sadly, they didn’t open until 9 a.m. so I could have walked at a more leisurely pace and enjoyed the sights. Still, even as I waited to get inside, throngs of tourists arrived. In fact, three busloads were waiting just behind me.

I swooped in as soon as the doors were unlocked and bought my ticket to the hilltop village of Monte. Monte has lots to offer in its own right, including beautiful gardens. You can purchase tickets to various attractions at the same time as you buy your cable car fare. Just remember, Funchal also has lots to offer too. Watch the clock so you have time to enjoy both places.

Monte

I bought a round-trip ticket and boarded the very first car of the morning. I’m terrified of heights, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t so bad. Treetops and roofs appear to be just a stone’s throw away for most of the ride up. There are a few places where you’re suspended fairly high above the ground, but the journey lasts only 15 minutes. You can do anything for 15 minutes, I promise. And the view is so worth any anxiety you may experience.

When you reach the end of your journey, there’s not a lot of signage telling you where to go. Because I was the first tourist at the top, there wasn’t anyone to follow. If you turn right, you’ll head toward the gardens. If you turn left, you’ll make your way toward the Church of Our Lady of the Mount. It’s a short walk either way you turn.

I was hoping for a few shops and cafés where I could while away the morning in Monte, but there were no such thing. After you walk the stairs to the church and take in the exceptional view of Funchal, there’s not a lot else to do…except for maybe the most amazing experience ever. Read on.

Mid-Morning

So the real reason I wanted to make my way to the hilltop town of Monte was so that I could ride in a wicker basket back down the hill. A wicker basket! I believe the locals call it a toboggan, but I call it like I see it. For the high, high price of 25 Euros for one person or 30 Euros for two, you can sit in a basket while two men push you through the village streets at relatively fast speeds. You can’t make this stuff up.

Funchal

The men wear special boots that help them glide along the well-oiled streets. Occasionally, they slow the pace to let a car pass along at a cross road. Along the way, men will pop out from the side streets to snap your picture. You can buy it later for 10 Euros, along with a cute history of the toboggan ride. I figured no one would believe me when I told them what I’d just done without evidence, so I snapped it up. There’s also a little market where you can haggle for souvenirs and a place where you can grab a bite to eat.

Pro tip: If you plan on taking the toboggan ride down the hill, you only need to purchase a one-way ticket for the cable cars. I learned this the hard way and could have saved myself a few bucks. Oh, and try to have cash for the toboggan ride. In theory, they take credit, but it’s a hassle. My “drivers” were quite unhappy about not being paid cash.

Downhill

It’s important to note the basket ride only takes you partway down the hill. There’s still a long way to go to reach the bottom. You have three options, take a tour bus, hop in a taxi, or walk. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I like a good walk. But I can tell you, I am the only person who chose this option. And it was a long walk at a steep angle. I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it, unless you’re really keen.

I stopped a few times along the way to take some snaps of my ship in the port. I also caught a few glimpses of locals going about their daily business. I like that sort of thing. It feels more intimidate, which can be hard to achieve with only five hours in Funchal.

Mid-Day

I’d promised my traveling companion I would return to the ship by 11 a.m. so we could spend the rest of the day in town together. Believe it or not, I had already accomplished all of that excitement and got back to the ship 15 minutes early. To my delight, she was already waiting for me outside, leaving us even more time to explore Funchal.

We spent the rest of the day meandering through the city streets. We went into every shop, walked down every alley, and ate gelato. From trendy boutiques, like Dona Hortensia, to the local market, Mercado Dos Lavradores, there are endless unique shopping options. Zara, Mossimo Dutti, Mango, and all of the other major chain stores are present too.

Funchal

It’s hard not to fall in love with the stunning scenery of town square. Quaint cafés, like The Ritz, lush greenspaces, and white buildings and cobblestone streets give Funchal a romantic glow. Praça do Município, the main square, the statue of João Gonçalves Zarco, and Sé Catedral do Funchal are not to be missed. I could spend a month just sitting at a café taking in Funchal’s beauty, writing a romance novel and enjoying the atmosphere.

In the Old Town, the Rua de Santa Maria features a public art project that’s helping to revitalize the area. Known as Arte de Portas Abertas, it features more than 200 doors painted by local artists. It’s a feast for the eyes.

Alas, with only five hours in Funchal, by mid-afternoon, it was time to make our way back to the ship. I was sad to sail away from this fairy tale town, and dream of visiting Funchal again soon.