Best of 2019: Overall Travel Experiences

One of the most important, fun and (believe it or not) challenging parts of our job is constantly staying up to date on old favorites and new discoveries in the Mediterranean travel world. As the year starts winding to a close, we like to go through some of our favorite trips for business or pleasure, and put together some favorites for our past, potential and future clients.

Part of what makes Bella Vita Travels so special is that we hand-pick our properties, tourss, guides, all of the travel experiences we provide. The excursions we suggest to you are ones that we have done ourselves, and the hotels are ones that we know personally. Travel continually changes, as do destinations, and it’s one of the most interesting parts of our job to research how to make your dream Mediterranean vacation absolutely perfect.

Here are what we found to be the best “overall” travel experience of 2019!

Megan loved: Dubrovnik and Split, Croatia

A true confession: until last April I had only been to Northern Croatia, so a trip to Dubrovnik and Split were long overdue. I had 5 days to squeeze in what seemed like endless hotel site inspections, several tours and transfers, meet with suppliers, try different restaurants, and finally write it all up for the team to read. It’s a part of the job I absolutely love but also, believe it or not, a ton of work.

I was so excited to see Dubrovnik for so many reasons. To see how a city nearly destroyed 28 years would be able to rebuild itself emotionally and structurally, to see if the cruise ships and day trippers are as overwhelming as they say and lastly, I am as proudly self-proclaimed “Game of Thrones” geek, and Dubrovnik was the setting for much of the filming of the TV show. Dubrovnik is a seaside “city” that enchants its visitors with its famous stone walls looming over the sea and its fairy tale looking dwellings peering over the walls, surrounded almost entirely by the blue Adriatic sea.

My first full day I was swept off by one of our fabulous suppliers to visit 6 beautiful hotels in spectacular settings (Bellevue gets tops for design and Excelsior takes the prize for setting). My first evening I was able to get a last minute reservation at the top restaurant in the city which ended up also being my Best of 2019 Dining Experience.

The next day started with a half-day tour of the city which was fascinating. Learning the story of the war from someone who actually lived within the walls at the time was incredibly humbling. I also met with an official GoT guide who had all sorts of fun tidbits to share about the making of my favorite TV show of all time (and the final season was going then so it made it a double wow for me). That afternoon 2 more hotels and finally a walk on the walls…INCREDIBLE!

The next day my driver/guide Ante (Tony!) took me wine tasting and lunch on the Peljesac Peninsula, then oyster tasting near Ston. This is a wonderful way to break up the 3-hour driver to Split, my next destination. 

Split is a complete contrast to Dubrovnik.  It’s busy and big (as Croatia’s second largest city) and can even seeming unwelcoming from the “outside”, but in truth it is a dynamic and vibrant port city dramatically stuck between mountains and sea. It is the economic and cultural center of the Dalmatian coast, as well as drop off and pick up point for many island hoppers. But by far the main attraction is Diocletian’s Palace, a World Heritage Site.

I only had one full day here which was put to great use. After a terrific half-day tour with another exceptional guide (we are so lucky to have found these people!), I was able to visit 4 hotels and enjoy a fantastic lunch at Bokeria in the old town. Note, in Split, the majority of hotels, especially within the city walls, are boutique and adhere to the laws of preserving the city, so don’t expect lavishly large settings or rooms, often lots of stairs and absolutely no cars. in fact, luggage is often delivered by porter or gold cart.

Before my flight on the last day I was able to visit the charming village of Trogir just a 30 minute drive from the city. The historic town centre is pedestrian only and feels like an outdoor museum. Gorgeously-carved facades, elegant churches and palaces, Renaissance gates and medieval streets reflect Dalmatian art and architecture at its best. It is a lovely day trip from Split (and don’t forget to eat a scrumptious lunch in the garden of TRS restaurant!).

While it was very work intensive, I look back on this trip as an amazing adventure and eye-opening experience. The people are welcoming and proud, coupled with an incredible history, their perseverance is humbling, the architecture is perfection, the sea and coastline sublime and the food is mouth watering. I absolutely loved my time along the Dalmatian coast and cannot wait to return. It was the best travel experience of the year!

Luigi’s favorite: Palermo, Sicily, Italy

One of my biggest surprises of traveling this year was the city of Palermo. The capital city of Sicily was named Italy’s “capital” of culture in 2018. And it is a city full of interesting things to see and taste. The list of churches runs on and on! You can visit spectacular food markets and taste some delicious and unique Sicilian street food. Sicilians have a special culture that is markedly different from other regions of Italy. And they are rightfully proud of it. Its history is influenced by a variety of religions. Given its location, parts of the world, from North Africa to Greece, have added to this incredible mix in the sites, architecture, and food of the city today. Arabs, Romans, and Byzantines all contributed in the past 2000 years to what makes Sicilian culture so special today. Palermo is a great place to experience all of this.

I have been here before, about 10 years ago and I already liked the city then.  But this time, I found a different Palermo. Cleaner, more lively, safer, and with very positive energy regarding tourism. They are really concentrating on tourism. Making things better in terms of restaurants, hotels, and services in general. In fact, two of the best hotels in the city now are owned by two very famous high-quality family companies who bring a nice vibe to the city. There is a very lively at night. Lots of quality bars and restaurants. The city is well lit, and I personally very safe. Palermo has made incredible changes in the past decade. It’s a wonderful destination for clients exploring Sicily.

Kate’s best travel experience: Basque Country in Spain

What’s not to love about Spain’s Basque country? This year I found out what this small region of Northeast Spain has to offer. And it’s pretty much everything for anyone who appreciates food, wine, and gorgeous landscapes.

First of all, the food and wine. This is an area that takes both very seriously. The Rioja wine region is located here. The reds wines, as well as the less famous whites, are spectacular. And don’t forget the coast’s funky sparkling white, Txacoli! Wineries of all sizes are located around the region and are very welcoming to the curious wine enthusiast.

Reaching from the ocean to the inland, the variety of food is immense. Gorgeous seafood, tasty cheeses, pasture-raised meat, and colorful fruits and vegetables make for inventive and delectable meals. Dining establishments go from the smallest cafe to 3* Michelin restaurants.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is worth visiting, even if you don’t enter. The impressive titanium structure is a work of art in itself. Plus, outside there are sculptures. Inside, there are massive installation pieces that you can walk through…my favorite kind! Along with an interesting permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. I loved this museum so much that I went twice in one day!

The hotels that I stayed at were all fantastic. Each unique and a reflection of the local area offering genuine hospitality, really making my stay as pleasant as possible.

Most of all however was the people. From the excellent guides that accompanied me on the tours, to the passionate winemakers to the large group of older people line dancing in the plaza under the pouring rain (they were armed with umbrellas) one Sunday in San Sebastian. I couldn’t stop smiling the entire time I was there.

Lisa best travel experience: Porto and the Douro Valley

I love Portugal! The people, language, food, WINE, culture, and history. It’s such an amazing country. I always encourage my friends to check it out if they have the chance. Most people hear about how fantastic Lisbon is and how beautiful the beaches of southern Portugal are. This of course is true. But I think you’re missing out if you don’t go up to northern Portugal to explore Porto and the Douro Valley. 

This past fall I had the opportunity to go to Porto with two of my best girlfriends. We met our fabulous guide Joel at the Lisbon airport. He recommend some stops on our way north to Porto. He showed us the stunning walled medieval village of Óbidos, which has breathtaking views of the valleys. Before arriving in Porto, we also stopped in Nazaré where we watched the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen! Nazaré is famous for surfers as it has the biggest waves in the world. 

After this trip, I have to say that Porto is one of my new favorite cities. Our guide Pedro took us on a city tour of the charming winding streets, beautiful churches, and the enchanting Lello bookstore. Of course, we finished the day off with Port wine tasting. The next day, Pedro took us on a tour of the Douro Valley. Here, we enjoyed the spectacular views of the vineyards and learn more about Port wine. I’ve seen a lot of wine-growing regions, but the Douro Valley extremely special. I think the pictures say it all. We visited the Quinta da Pacheca to enjoy tasting their fabulous wines. Their 40 Year Tawny is out of this world. If you have the chance to visit Portugal, don’t miss out on Porto and the Douro Valley!

Christine’s best travel experience: Northern Lazio and the region of Umbria, ItalyThis part of Italy has been on my destination list for a long time. My husband, is a restauranteur. So for us, food is the most important part of a vacation. And for gastronomes, it is pretty hard to top Umbria. Truffles, salumi, cheese, legumes (lentils, chickpeas), meats and sausages, and great wine. It’s a dream come true. This year, we had a new addition (a little baby girl, Lilia), so we decided on a good old fashioned road trip, Umbrian style.

We spent the first few nights outside of the city of Orvieto, which we loved. But for us, the most amazing experience was visiting the small town of Cività di Bagnoregio. Located in the northern part of Lazio, Cività di Bagnoregio is a place you have almost certainly seen in photographs. It is truly one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever seen. Not just in Italy but in the world. Although when you see that long bridge leading up to this village of 14 people, think twice before loading up your stroller as you have to push it up the almost vertical slope! We also stopped at the peaceful Lago di Bolsena in Northern Lazio. It is a large, lovely lake that you have to yourself in the offseason.

We explored the hilltop towns of Spoleto and Terni before heading deeper into Umbria to Norcia.. Again, if you are traveling with a baby, remember that your stroller gets heavy! 

Norcia was a poignant surprise. Devastated by an earthquake in 2016, I expected to see the city more “rebuilt”. But it was instead still pretty much destroyed. The cathedral and many buildings are still rubble, and much of the center of the tiny city is still a “red zone” and cannot be inhabited. Having said that, we would return to Norcia in a heartbeat.

The hotel we stayed at survived the earthquake without a scratch and was our favorite of the trip, and it’s Michelin starred restaurant was one of my favorites of the year. We found the people to be wonderful. They were helpful, kind, humble, and strong. We were happy to stay in the city and contribute what we could economically to these small family businesses trying to rebuild. From here, we explored Assisi, which was magical, especially if you are Catholic. But even if you are not, it’s a picture-perfect postcard of an Umbrian hilltop town. Then we stayed a night in the bustling university city Perugia eating our weight in chocolate, pigeon, boar, and truffles (not all at the same time) before heading home.

Umbria was a fantastic week-long trip, but there was still so much we wanted to see. It was also relatively easy with a small baby (Italians love children) and we found that even Michelin starred places didn’t blink an eye when we showed up with Lilia. Traveling with a child is a whole new experience! I would love to return in the future, to see the rest of the small villages we didn’t have time to stop in and to buy more salumi, lentils, and local cheeses. We already finished the carload we brought back!

What has your best travel experience been???

We’d love to hear from you! What have you recently been that warrants the grand prize of best overall travel experience?

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