Best of 2019: Tours and excursions!

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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, tours and guides. 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 our choices for best tour or excursion of 2019!

Megan’s top tour: Santorini Sunset Cruise, Santorini, Greece

I had a hard time picking my favorite tour of the year since I had so many fantastic ones (including a magnificent Game of Thrones tour of Dubrovnik to an insanely delicious sugar filled pastry tour in Paris) but the one that stood out for me was also a favorite of my husband, son, and actually several different clients who reported back that it was a truly unforgettable tour. The Santorini Sunset Cruise we did was without a doubt my favorite of the year!

I was actually a little wary going into this, as in my head I had visions of a “spring break in Cabo” style (which would not be particularly fun or entertaining for my Italian husband nor our young son), but in the end, was pleasantly surprised and left with lasting memories of a fantastic adventure at sea. We were picked up at our hotel along with other guests in Firostefani and taken to the main port about 45 minutes away. We were greeted by a friendly, young staff, their captain and cook. Once on ship, a lovely young crew member named Diana took to us and we were in excellent hands for the better part of an hour hearing fascinating stories about the islands. Even Peetie was enthralled! 

The tour consists of a first stop for swimming at the Hot Springs area of the volcano with a chance to observe the mysterious lava creations and the dramatic black color of the rocks which was pretty spectacular.  We cruised passed the old lighthouse at the far southwest tip of the island before arriving at Red Beach for photos, swimming and snorkeling. Next, it was on to the famous White Beach, full of limestone, for more swimming and snorkeling, and best of all an amazingly delicious BBQ meal of souvlaki and Greek appetizers, such as stuffed vine leaves and salads, prepared on the spot. Of course, all this exploring and swimming and eating is joined by an open bar which you can use as you please. And all throughout we were “educated” by Diana and other members of the crew about more folklore and legends of this mysterious sea. Last but not least, we made our way toward Oia and Amoudi Bay for a spectacular sunset as promised and delivered. There was reason to celebrate, a wonderful afternoon at sea, new found knowledge of the area, the friendliest and most helpful boat crew I have encountered and the perma-smile on my son’s face as he danced with the captain. By then we were all dancing! 

As we made our way back to the hotel, I thought that this was just one of those perfect, one time events. I discovered afterwards, however, that several of our clients had a very similar experience and was at the top of their list of favorite experiences during their travels with us. It remains one of the highlights of my travel adventures over the past 15 years of Bella Vita!

Luigi loved: Lisbon Walking Tour with Kids, Lisbon, Portugal

One of my favorite tours was the kid-friendly Lisbon walking tour that I took with Megan and Pietro. It remains in my mind because the guide was so good at being able to involve Pietro thought the 4-hour tour. It can be hard to do a history tour with a small child, but at the same time, it’s a tour that you really do not want to miss, as Lisbon has such an incredible past. It can be challenging for a guide to transmit all of this information to the adults without boring the kids and our guide did an excellent job. She was wonderful explaining the history in a way that also entranced Peetie, but didn’t seem too superficial to the adults. By using some fun games and scavenger hunts, it makes the tour fly by, and children don’t seem to even realize that they are actually learning while they are playing!

Lisbon is also a vibrant city full of art, and she was able to cover these interesting areas as well, without boring him. One of the most important parts for us was the fact that with a local, we were able to navigate this city full of steps and hills in the easiest way possible with a little one, without carrying him the entire time (which would have made the tour quite difficult for everyone). Another treat you’ll find when visiting with little ones? The trams and cable cars (a little reminiscent of San Francisco, California), which are a highlight of any child’s visit. Going up and down the hills is an adventure of itself!

Lisbon is a beautiful city even on your own, but with the right guide, it can become even more beautiful as a local can impart all of the passion and pride she feels for her home, while winding you through the streets and hills with an ease that only a local can help you feel.

Kate’s pick: Small group half-day tour of the Museè d’Orsay in Paris, France

Paris has its share of world-class museums, namely the immense Louvre – which my colleague and friend Christine and I toured with one of our guides on a Highlights of the Louvre tour a few years ago- a great way to have someone navigate you through the vast quantity of treasures. When we returned to Paris this past year, we decided to visit one of Paris’ other great museums, the Musee d’Orsay, located right on the Seine in an old, stately, train station.

We have fantastic guides in all of our destinations, and they can bring to life and help you understand not only the what you’re seeing, but also the context of the museum, monument or even food and wine within the country, city and region in which you find yourself.

Our guide for this tour (who held a PhD in art history) was phenomenal and skipped the ‘easy’ pieces which we could easily visit on our own, and concentrated on helping us understand what he found to be the most representative works of art in the museum. The three hours that we spent together gave us insight into a very important window of French art history, the impressionist and post-impressionist eras, and left us walking away feeling much more intelligent as a result.

After we left our guide, he instructed us on where to find other important works of art located inside the building and even where to go get a bite to eat afterwards nearby (Cinq Mars51, Rue de Verneuil – get an omelette!).

After our guided tour of the Musee d’Orsay, inspired by our new-found knowledge of impressionism, we continued on to the Museè de l’Orangerie to see Monet’s immense Waterlily paintings on our own. I would highly suggest that if you have time, that you do the same.

Christine’s choice: Small group wine and tapas tour, Seville, Spain

My husband comes from a family of highly acclaimed restauranteurs (and owns a restaurant himself as well), so we take food very, very seriously. It’s not uncommon for us to plan a whole vacation around a restaurant reservation. We travel for food, and spend more time figuring out where to eat in many cases than figuring out where to stay! A food tour is a great way to introduce yourself to new delicacies and cuisines, and since my husband and I love chatting and meeting new people, a small group tour is our favorite choice as we can meet other travelers along the way.

We fell in love with Seville on our short 4-night stay, and one of the highlights of our trip was our evening tapas and wine tour of the city. Seville is charming and extremely walkable – and this food tour was a wonderful way for us to experience some small, family run establishments that we might not have found on our own. There were four different stops included, ranging from a third generation enoteca with traditional snacks to a modern, funky tapas bar throwing out the rules and experimenting with local ingredients in an international tone.

For me, one of the highlights was our guide’s enthusiastic passion for sherry, and tasting manzanilla, a type of pale, delicate fino sherry. We also tried the manzanilla olorosa, which we learned can be aged up to 30 years (we would up buying a bottle to bring home we loved it so much). It turned out to be one of my favorites, and I was happy to have sampled a kind that was of a high quality- my memories of sherry were more of the cooking wine my mother would use when I was little! We never would have tried it on our own, and that is the beauty of a food tour. Besides the experience of getting to taste dishes like mussels in escabeche or grilled oxtail, we loved getting to sample so many Spanish wines which are difficult to find in Italy.

The company was wonderful too – after a few glasses, everyone got to know each other, and the rest of the tour seemed like a fun, “walking” dinner with friends as we wound our way through the enchanting backstreets of the city.

Lisa’s favorite: Cichetti Row, Venice, Italy

I know I’m biased because I’m also a proud member of Row Venice (we are a non-profit, female run cooperative), but it’s honestly the best thing to do when visiting the city. The Cichetto Row is a Venetian rowing lesson and food tour on a beautiful traditional Venetian rowing boat called a batela. This is what I do with my Venetian friends in the summer and it’s what I would recommend to anyone coming to Venice. It’s a two and a half hour experience of learning how to row “Venetian style”- standing up, facing forward and made famous by the gondoliers- and a food and wine tour. Basically, all my favorite things combined!

The tour begins with a short introduction to Venetian rowing technique. First you have to learn to row “a prua” so you can get a feeling of how to move in the boat. After gliding along a quiet canal and enjoying Venice from the perspective of the water, the lesson continues in the lagoon, where you can try to steer the boat. Going out to the lagoon is one of my favorite parts of living in Venice, and is an incredibly special experience for a visitor. Since the lesson is in the evening in the summer, this is usually when the sun starts to set. We then head back to Venice to grab some cichetti (Venetian appetizers) and wine. After stopping at two bars, and enjoying food, wine and conversation, we row our way back to the meeting point. It’s the perfect way to spend an evening in Venice.

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