I visited Normandy for the first time in 2012. I had just moved to Paris to start a new job and my parents traveled from the U.S. to visit me. They insisted that we get out of the city to see a different part of France, so I made some suggestions, fighting hard to sway them toward one of the wine regions. "How about Champagne, Bourgogne or the sunny south of France?" I eagerly proposed. My parents had a very different idea in mind. Armed with a rental car and guidebook, we embarked on a three-hour drive west through the bucolic countryside to Bayeux, the first town liberated by the Allies during World War II's Operation Overlord--codename for the Battle of Normandy.
I had never been too keen on history. I remember the many times I sat through old war movies with my Dad. I would often urge him-- sometimes beg him--to change the channel and at least let us watch something in color. So, you might imagine my trepidation of heading into a long weekend of touring battlefields, bunkers and museums. Boy, was I misguided!
As soon as my parents and I reached the coast of Normandy and stepped out of the car to see the view looking out over the Mulberry Harbor at Arromanches, those black-and-white war images I'd seen in my youth suddenly popped into color. The history books I read in high school and those D-Day documentaries where I struggled to stay awake started to connect in a way that they never had before. On June 6, 1944, the largest seaborne invasion in history took place. 156,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel attempting to liberate Western Europe from the Nazis. Their first stop - the beaches of Normandy...Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Being there, on the very spot where it all happened, really brought this piece of history to life for me. And I've been captivated ever since.
As a Backroads Trip Leader, I love discovering this region with our guests. On our biking and hiking trips in Brittany and Normandy, we visit the famous D-Day landmarks including the beaches where the Allied soldiers landed. But it's really when we cycle down the narrow roads that criss-cross fields and farms or when we hike along the bank of the Aure River as it flows through Bayeux toward the sea, that we can take a quiet moment to reflect on the events that took place here three quarters of a century ago.
Whether it's overlooking the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, meandering through the nearly ten thousand stone markers at the American Cemetery or exploring the German artillery battery of Longues-sur-Mer, each Backroads trip to Normandy is extraordinary in its own way. We meet locals who lived through the liberation who generously offer a personal story, anecdote or piece of history to take in. Sometimes fellow trip members describe their personal recollections of D-Day. Sometimes we have the rare privilege of hearing a first-hand account from a soldier who landed there.
This summer marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy.
Events celebrating the liberation of France are planned to bring this important part of history back to life. There will be military parades, fireworks, and even an airdrop reenactment involving 250 men and women who will descend into the historic drop zones. If a trip to Normandy has been on your bucket list, NOW is definitely the time to plan your own Operation Overlord.
Of course, there's much more to Normandy than its embattled past. No trip to the region is complete without some serious tasting of the four C's of Norman cuisine: cider, calvados, creme and camembert. On Backroads trips we always make sure we have enough time set aside in our schedule to adequately refuel. How about a picnic lunch at a famous Isigny-sur-Mer dairy farm or oysters fresh from La Manche? (You'll find out that it's only called the English Channel on one side.)
Back in 2012, after that first day of exploring Omaha beach with my parents, I collapsed in our hotel room exhausted from a day of visiting incredible and eye-opening places. We opted to enjoy a picnic of saucisson, camembert, baguette and wine in our hotel room instead of going out to one of the many local restaurants. My Dad turned on the in-room television and stumbled upon a channel featuring an endless loop of Saving Private Ryan, one of the most celebrated films about WWII. I watched the whole movie twice, not once evening thinking about changing the channel.
Why choose to sleep on the ground instead of a bed, in a tent rather than hotel, and some may say, a whole lot of nothing over an assortment of delightful amenities like TV, WiFi, room service and those fancy miniature soaps?
What's the upside of staying outside?
The not-so-secret secret about camping is that it's actually a LOT of FUN - and the reasons why have a lot to do with the very things camping has you go without...like work calls and emails that distract you from being present, bright city lights that conceal brilliantly starry skies and gridlock in urban centers that thwart your best efforts to get out into nature.
The other not-so-secret thing about camping, particularly with Backroads, is that it's nothing like a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where tarps leak and dad can't figure out how to light a fire and someone always seems to unwittingly rub poison oak on their face. Quite the opposite, camping with Backroads is such a treat, we refer to it as Deluxe Camping. Yes, you read that right. DELUXE camping.
A typical day on a Backroads camping trip delivers the same inspiring activities as our hotel trips, the same on-route support, the same gourmet lunches and the same talented Trip Leaders. But instead of heading back to individual rooms at the end of the day to get dressed for formal dinners that can be hard on kids (and let's be honest, some adults, too) you'll head back to a dynamic campsite where luxury service and comfort awaits!
Your team of tireless Camp Crew Assistants have already set up the tents (complete with very civilized cots, camp mattresses and sleeping bags). You'll find that your luggage is waiting for you there. There's an impressive kitchen area with Dutch ovens, a grill and multi-burner range, and a picnic table already set with cold drinks, delicious appetizers and healthy snacks.
grass nearby, the "Kids Kit" awaits. It's a bag of soccer balls, Frisbees, Wiffle
ball bats and more. Active group games are the norm at camp; no iPhone entertainment
needed here. And adults can do their own thing.
How does a hot shower sound? Or maybe a cold beer?
The pace on a Backroads camping trip is unhurried, the atmosphere inviting and the location beautiful. Afternoons can be spent however you like - whether it's reading that book you never had time for, heading out for peaceful walk or joining in an energetic kickball game. When dinner rolls around, the menu can range from grilled salmon to pineapple upside down cake, with kid-approved grilled cheese and s'mores on the side. Everyone tucks in together for a big family meal. When the kids finish and get antsy they can just run right off to play again, leaving the adults to continue enjoying their meal or relaxing over a glass of wine or mug of hot tea .
Later, an evening campfire draws people in and encourages conversation. There's something about watching the flames dance and listening to the logs pop that connects you to your fellow travelers faster and more intensely than you could have imagined. You may be so engrossed, in fact, that by the time you look up from the fire you'll find that the rest of the group has already wandered off to bed and you'll suddenly realize you're ready to hit the sack yourself. And sleep comes easy - oh yes, easy! - on your elevated cot topped with its plush mattress and cozy sleeping bag. Let's face it...if your warm, dry and spacious-enough-to-stand-up-in tent came with any more amenities, it just might be a hotel room.
Morning arrives when soft light filters through the leaves above and the scent of coffee wafts over from the camp kitchen. Cereal, yogurt and fruit tide the early-risers over until the hot breakfast appears. From pancakes to frittata, there's something new for breakfast each day. Dishes disappear like magic (thanks Camp Crew!) as your Trip Leaders outline the day ahead. From hikes and bike rides to rafting or kayak excursions, there's always a new adventure to get excited about. And because you're camping, you're already at your destination. Immersed in the beauty of our national parks and other wild places, you start the day on the threshold of a myriad of trailheads, put-ins and ride starts. This means that any necessary shuttles are short while the options for activities are endless - the perfect ratio for minimizing hassles and maximizing enjoyment.
By the end of it all, when it comes time to pack up on that final morning and say your goodbyes to fellow guests and Trip Leaders alike, chances are you won't find yourself wondering "Why camp?" It's more likely that you'll be asking yourself, "When can we go camping again?"
Summer is so close you can almost taste it. It's the time of year for graduations, grilling on the porch and staying up late to catch fireflies. The whole world seems content in May, looking forward to the long days and warm nights of the summer ahead. And if you're like us, you can't help but feel an eagerness to get out and experience it all! May offers milder temperatures and seasonal displays of spring and renewal. And it's a fantastic month to travel just about anywhere the world. Here are our top destinations for the month.
Utah's Canyon Country
In southern Utah, two magnificent national parks--Zion and Bryce Canyon--are celebrated for their spectacular rock formations, dramatic sandstone cliffs and winding river-carved canyons. May is the perfect time to visit this amazing place. Not only will you avoid the peak temperatures and crowds of summer, you'll get the chance to feast your eyes on the dozens of species of hardy desert wildflowers that sprout between the rocks in the canyons this time of year. The nights will likely be warm enough that you can sleep under the stars and the days cool enough to hike, bike and paddle comfortably. It's a cusp-of-summer travel experience that you and your family will always remember.
Far from the sun-baked plains of southern Spain, this unique region spanning the French-Spanish border is delightfully lush and green. This is the home of the Basques, believed to be the oldest ethnic group in Europe. They have developed a distinctive culture that makes this region feel almost like a separate country. Go here for food, architecture and a unique language--a fascinating and delicious medley. In addition, the region is famous for hiking and cycling as well as sailing and surfing. Whether you're looking for an adventure on land or water, you'll find it in the Basque Country! Though May weather can be a bit wetter than the summer dry season (June - September), you'll happily carry your rain coat in exchange for the solitude and tranquility of the off-season.
If you're looking to find a remarkable travel experience closer to home, why not pay a visit to Kentucky? This southern state is famous particularly for its whiskey, its horses and its music, as well as huge expanses of beautiful farmland and lush forest. May is the perfect time to visit: bike to your heart's content by day, then spend the night eating barbeque and listening to bluegrass while chatting with friendly locals. The oppressive heat of the summer hasn't arrived yet and the songbirds and flowers are out in full force. Add that on top of the yearly Kentucky Derby and its surrounding festivities and suddenly a sojourn to the south seems like the obvious choice for a May getaway.
It is sometimes said that Japan is a place where time stops moving ahead at a normal pace and seems to pile up on itself. In a matter of hours, you can move from the futuristic neon arcades of Tokyo and Kyoto to idyllic shrines and forests that seem like they've been undisturbed for hundreds of years. You can see the future and the past superimposed on each other like a photograph that's been exposed twice. The contrast is what makes Japan such an appealing travel destination. From the cities to the countryside and everywhere in between, you're sure to find something that interests and excites you. If you visit during the month of May, you'll be treated to delightfully warm summer temperatures and the earliest of the season's festivals, as well as the tail-end of the country's picture-postcard cherry blossom bloom. What's more, hiking in May is phenomenal in Japan! It doesn't get much better than strolling past an ancient shrine under a canopy of blooming pink trees while friendly locals show you the way. For an unforgettable May vacation, try Japan.
May arrives at the tail-end of autumn in the southern part of Africa. It's a time of year that offers visitors the best of two seasons at once--when the oppressive daytime heat of the summer gives way to milder days and when the nights haven't yet reached their full winter chill. In addition, the month of May falls on the cusp of the rainy season in this part of the world so visitors can see the migrating birds of summer and fall as well as the epic migrations of elephant, rhino and lion that begin at the start of the Namibian winter. This dramatic desert landscape will make an impression on any visitor, and the majestic Victoria Falls will awe and humble you. May is the perfect time to explore this part of the world on an active safari vacation--you're sure to go home with a story to tell.
After traveling in Sri Lanka for six months, I reluctantly said my goodbyes and got into the car. I looked out the window to take in the fleeting sights of the vibrant jungleone last time during the ride to the airport. As we were passing through the area between Yala National Park and Udawalawe National Park, a major migration corridor for wild elephants, we encountered a huge elephant standing in the middle of the road.
As we got closer, it became evident that the elephant wasn't planning to move off the road. The driver grew impatient and tried to slowly maneuver around this major road block. As we approached, the elephant walked toward our car, heading directly toward my window. Then, suddenly, he raised his big ole' trunk and slobbered all over my window...it was as if he had given me a special Sri Lankan send off in the form of a juicy elephant kiss! I was speechless as the driver continued on and I looked back to watch as the elephant waved his trunk at my departure. It really was a magical moment in a country which I have been intrigued by since my first visit two years ago and have grown even more fond of each time I return.
When Backroads announced a new biking trip in Sri Lanka, I was instantly delighted with the idea of introducing Backroads guests to this part of the world via two wheels and by way of some amazingly luxurious accommodations.
Here are just a few of the many reasons you should consider Sri Lanka as the destination for your next Backroads adventure:
Now is the Perfect Time to Go
Sri Lanka is a country of inspiring beauty and intriguing culture. Formerly known as Ceylon, this small, tear-drop shaped island nation lies south east of India and north east of the Maldives. Infused with a variety of European influences--the Portuguese, Dutch and British traded here--Sri Lanka has a long history of exporting spices and has become the world's second largest exporter of tea. However, a 25-year civil war and the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami left parts of the country in shambles. As a result, compared to other countries in southeast Asia, the development of Sri Lanka as a tourist destination has been delayed. But that's precisely why it's now such a worthwhile place! This tropical paradise has been largely overlooked by tourists (particularly Americans) and remains an off-the-beaten-path destination, yet to be fully-discovered by travelers. These days, Sri Lanka is thriving and firmly on the cusp of becoming a new hot spot destination for international travelers.
A Sense of Adventure
For me, Sri Lanka evokes strong feelings of the exotic. No matter where I am on the island, it always seems remote and undiscovered. Yet, it's easy to get around...in no time you'll feel like an intrepid traveler whether you journey by car, train, tuk-tuk or even sea plane! The small size of the island (you could fit six Sri Lankas inside the state of California) means that you can see a great deal in a relatively short period of time.
During the day you can cycle along winding country roads, up and over emerald green hills where women adorned with beautifully colored fabrics pick tea leaves by hand. Music from nearby temples may lure you inside where you can learn about Buddhism and the local's sacred daily practice. When your stomach starts to rumble, the flavors of Sri Lankan cuisine will enliven all your senses. Mouthwatering curries, sambals (relishes), sundals (salads) and mallums (green dishes) will introduce you to aromatic spice combinations you may never have considered. By all means, don't miss the hoppers (crispy coconut pancakes with an egg cracked in the middle), pol sambol (coconut relish) and kottu roti (chopped flatbread with mix of vegetables, meat, eggs & spices)!
After a day of exploring in Sri Lanka, you may find yourself at a luxurious 5-star hotel, complete with exemplary service in your private bungalow or oceanside villa. Accommodations in Sri Lanka provide a diversity of experiences that often seem to surpass expectations.
Travel back in time with a stay at a 200-year-old palatial villa turned designer boutique hotel that originally served as a residence of the last Chief Minister of the Kandyan Kingdom. Or maybe you fancy a stay at the uber-luxurious Amangalla situated within the protected walls of the 17th-century Dutch-built Galle Fort? A UNESCO World Heritage site, it's considered the best-preserved colonial fortification in Asia. What about a lavish two-night stay on the coast, complete with infinity pool, detoxifying and restorative spa treatments, and walks along golden sand beaches just outside your room? These hotels are sure to be a highlight of your trip to Sri Lanka.
I believe the enchantment of Sri Lanka can be best experienced by spending time in the unique natural landscapes and among the flourishing biodiversity found on this island of rugged coastlines strewn with picture-perfect crescent beaches. There is a good chance to see tropical fish, dolphins, manta rays, and even the blue whale--the largest mammal on the planet--within the island's surrounding cobalt waters. There are also dense tropical rain forests and a variety of national parks where wildlife abounds including elephants and the elusive leopard. Sri Lanka has one of the highest number of endemic species of any country and is one of the top five "biodiversity hotspots" in the world.
Sri Lanka harbors a fascinating mix of religions including Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim traditions. Locals will adamantly insist that you visit the numerous temples, mosques and stupas that dot the landscape as well as the ruins of ancient cities and shrines that reflect the region's intriguing cultural history. Considered the cradle of the ancient spice trade, Sri Lanka's fertile and diverse soil types have nurtured the cultivation of a variety of spices since time immemorial...which have also attracted people from the far corners of the globe. The ancient Egyptians used Sri Lanka's native cinnamon as a preservative in cooking and as an important ingredient in their embalming process. According to Roman and Greek records, Arabian traders transported the island's clove, cardamom, nutmeg, vanilla, pepper and cinnamon to Europe starting in the 7th century A.D.
Colorful hillside villages, bustling train stations and steaming roadside pots of curry give visitors the chance to connect with the warm souls of the island. In my experience, Sri Lankans will welcome you with open arms and eagerly share their stories. Even if you don't speak the same language, it's amazing what can be communicated without words. I have found that these interactions are easy to find and ultimately give this destination a deeper personal meaning. Getting to know the locals and getting a glimpse of life in Sri Lanka will surely be a highlight of your visit, should you choose to make the journey to this wonderful place, 'the pearl of the Indian Ocean.'
Arthur C. Clark, a British science fiction writer who emigrated to Sri Lanka and lived there for over 50 years, made this observation: "It may well be that each of Ceylon's attractions is surpassed somewhere on Earth; Cambodia may have more impressive ruins, Tahiti livelier beaches, Bali more beautiful landscapes (though I doubt it), Thailand more charming people...But I find it hard to believe that there is any country which scores so highly in all departments."
Spring is almost here and it's time to hit the road! As winter disappears into memory, flowers are blooming in green spaces around the world and people are getting into the summer mood with festivals and celebrations in the sunny months ahead. Whether you're taking a spring break vacation or setting off on a tour around the world, April is the perfect month for a travel journey full of springtime surprises and outdoor adventure. Here are our top travel destinations particularly suited for an adventure in April.
Holland & Belgium
For biking in April, it doesn't get better than taking a scenic spin through the low countries. Combine the legendary cycling cultures of Belgium and the Netherlands--where there are more bikes than people--with enchanting medieval villages and the famous mid-April tulip blooms of Holland and you've got a picture-perfect vacation! Pedal through idyllic landscapes of windmills, wheat-fields, thatch-roofed cottages and fields of stunning pink tulips. Take a break to enjoy a sweet stroopwafel, a cold bottle of famous Belgiuan beer or some gouda cheese in the town where it's been sold since the 10th century. If you're looking for a break from the bustle of everyday life into a truly idyllic setting, a bike tour in Holland & Belgium is just the ticket.
Looking for an inspiring active travel experience under wide-open skies? Think about Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, where expanses of tranquil desert are sprinkled with gigantic boulders and shady palm oases amid statuesque Joshua trees that rise skyward like ancient prophets. This unique natural setting radiates a timeless beauty that beckons exploration unlike any you've had before. From the mild spring weather to the resilient wildflowers that sprout stubbornly from cracks in the rock, April is the perfect time to explore Joshua Tree and the surrounding area. Particularly for hiking and rock climbing, it really can't be beat. And if solitude isn't your thing, check out the nearby annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. No matter what route you take, you're sure to bring home something special.
While there is not a bad time of year to visit Toscana, the central Italian region celebrated for its rich cultural and artistic history, a visit during the month of April is sure to satisfy. You'll get to experience the best of Tuscany--quaint Italian villages, roads winding through rich green hills and delicious wine and coffee--all without the oppressive heat or crowds of the summer! April in Tuscany is an exciting time: you'll see workers pruning the olive trees, the vines in the vineyards are beginning to regrow their summer leaves and all the countryside is verdant and lush--the perfect backdrop for a cycling or hiking adventure. Be warned...the first day of April is called "Pesce d'Aprile," or literally "April Fish," the Italian version of April Fool's Day. Tradition calls for students to go around taping paper drawings or cut-outs of fish to the backs of unsuspecting strangers. So...watch your back!
April is the sweet spot for an active vacation in the Sunshine State. You'll be able to enjoy balmy summer temperatures while catching the tail end of the dry season--perfect conditions for wildlife-spotting in the Everglades, sailing over massive coral reefs or cycling along newly-built trails through the lush Florida wilderness. As well, you'll be able to savor the incredible culinary traditions of the Keys such as feasting on fresh seafood caught by local fisherman while enjoying warm nights and lively outdoor dining in small towns along the way. For a vacation that's both relaxing and stimulating, you can't go wrong with Florida in April.
From snow-capped Andean peaks to the enticing tropical waters of the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador is a place of surprising beauty and remarkable stillness. Visitors in April arrive in time to enjoy the tail-end of the dry season with a relative scarcity of tourists, setting you up for a memorable adventure in South America. Where else can you swim in clear-blue tropical waters with sea turtles, colorful tropical fish and sea lions followed by a trek through untouched jungle where the legacy of the ancient Incan Empire captivates your imagination? For exploring, wandering and hiking in April, Ecuador is the ultimate destination off the beaten path.
Long before roads crisscrossed the nations of Europe, it was mighty rivers that served as the superhighways connecting all the diverse and enduring landscapes and cultures of the old world. Flowing from one historic European capital to the next, these picturesque waterways have witnessed the rise and fall of empires across the continent.
Today, following the course of these rivers by bike or on foot (and even by Active River Cruises that combine it all!) is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a timeless world of medieval castles, quaint villages, flowing vineyards and endlessly scenic vistas.
Which are the best? And what makes each unique? Here are some of our favorites, as well as what you can expect to experience when you travel atop their currents or along their shores.
The Danube The second longest river in Europe and the once impenetrable northern edge of the Roman Empire, the Danube escorts you in style through some the most intriguing landscapes of Central and Eastern Europe. Originating from a spring in the southern part of Germany's Black Forest, the Danube surges eastward to the Black Sea, passing through ten different countries including Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and more. It flows through numerous world-famous cities, including four national capitals. From Vilshofen to Passau, Vienna to Bratislava and Durnstein to Budapest, the Danube River is as integral to Europe as Johann Strauss' elegant Blue Danube waltz is to classical music.
The Rhine The regal Rhine begins its journey from high in the Swiss Alps, flowing northward through numerous historic cities and gorgeous countryside as it makes its way to Amsterdam and its terminus in the North Sea. Like the Danube, the Rhine has been an important navigable waterway since the days of the Roman Empire - a medieval superhighway that fostered trade among Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France and Holland. Evidence of its history is readily visible in the numerous castles and fortifications found along its shores. One of its highlights is a 40-mile stretch in the middle called the Rhine Gorge. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this section of the river cuts through majestic mountains and meanders between medieval hillside fortresses and fields of wine-producing grapes. It's one of the great fairytale journeys in Europe!
The Douro Flowing from the mountains of Spain and into the Atlantic Ocean at the Portuguese city of Porto, the Douro River and its enchanting valley offer an idyllic place to discover hillside villages and sun-soaked vineyards. One of the major rivers of the Iberian Peninsula, the Douro rolls past numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the Douro vinhateiro (winegrowing region) and the Prehistoric Rock-Art Site of the Côa Valley. What's more, the Douro River Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world! Though the river itself initially carved the sloping valley walls, centuries of human innovation terraced the hillsides into beautifully crafted vineyards that seem almost too perfect to be real. This remarkable landscape is just one reason for a visit to this gorgeous region of Europe - where you can savor the delicious reward of these centuries of passionate cultivation. Fun fact: It's believed that the Douro gets its name from the Portuguese word for "dourado", meaning "golden."
The Loire The Loire is the longest river in France and lends its name to a charming region that flourished around its middle section - the world-famous Loire Valley. Not only considered one of France's premiere biking regions, the temperate climate of the Loire River Valley provides a diverse range of flora and fauna as well as an ideal environment for growing wine. The area's popularity among 16th century French royals left a wonderful legacy of opulent châteaux and manicured gardens. Sometimes called "Valley of the Kings, " the Loire Valley is a treasure-filled destination waiting to be experienced on your next trip through France
The Seine Named after Sequana, the Roman goddess of the river, the Seine offers a fresh perspective on the poetic union of art, passion and history that is the French Republic. Originating near the medieval city of Dijon in eastern central France, the Seine flows through the glitz and glam of Paris with views of Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower and into the serene pastoral landscape that inspired impressionist painters like Monet. It then pays homage to Joan of Arc's last moments in Rouen before reaching a dramatic conclusion into the English Channel, near the historic D-Day landing sites of Normandy. For anyone with a love of France, a journey down the Seine is one of life's greatest pleasures.
The Elbe Rising near the mountainous border of the Czech Republic and Poland, the Elbe River traverses part of northern Bohemia before making its way west through Germany and into the North Sea. One of the major rivers of Central Europe, the Elbe and its connecting waterways carry travelers to many of Central Europe's most worthwhile highlights, including Hamburg, Berlin, Prague, the Baltic Sea and more. But perhaps more than grand cities and their storybook histories, it can be said that equally magnificent are the wide-open plains that frequently line the shores of the Elbe, where farmland and pastures stretch from horizon to horizon, decorated by small villages. While the Elbe has marked borders and frontiers for centuries, from the Middle Ages to the Cold War, today it serves as a peaceful and serene symbol of unity.
Do your friends keep saying that you MUST visit Italy's Cinque Terre...but you're not sure how to start planning your adventure? First off, they're absolutely right--this string of colorful centuries-old seaside villages that cling to the rugged coastline of the Italian Riviera is a true bucket-list destination!
As a Backroads Trip Leader, I've been introducing our guests to this enchanting Mediterranean destination for over five years. Along the way, I've cultivated a deep understanding of the natural and cultural wonders of this unique and isolated locale that you can use to jump-start your trip planning.
Introduction to the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre, which translates literally to "Five Lands," is a group of five villages along a six-mile stretch of the Ligurian coastline in northwest Italy. Evidence of civilization here dates back to the 11th century. These villages, along with their coastlines and hillsides, are part of Cinque Terre National Park, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and a favorite destination for just about any traveler who has had the good fortune of visiting this magical destination.
One of the defining characteristics of Cinque Terre is its landscape of rocky terraces. Shaped by a network of ancient, permeable, dry stone walls that have been constructed over the centuries, these terraces are the reason these villages haven't slid down into the sea! The walls of tightly-fitted rocks are designed to absorb water as it flows downhill during heavy rainfall and then slowly release the runoff. This intentional design naturally creates pathways and trails that connect the villages. Other routes have been added over the years so that walkers and hikers can explore this fascinating area on foot. These routes can be walked in a single day or over the course of several days. The villages are also connected by local train and ferryboat service so you can choose your own adventure with as much or as little hiking as you like.
While the trails of Cinque Terre may find you breaking a sweat, they will reward you with breathtaking panoramic views of the coastline. Be aware that some of the trails are narrow with surfaces that can be uneven at times due to exposed roots and rocks and many, many stone steps. But don't let the steps and stones scare you off--there are many different options for exploring these villages and the Backroads Cinque Terre & Tuscany Walking & Hiking Tour takes you on a journey that offers plenty of flexibility. We'll help you find the right option to match your ambition and fitness level!
It is not advisable to hike in the heavy rain as the impressive stone staircases and pathways can become muddy and very slippery. In any weather, hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes are highly recommended, as is a sun hat and a daypack with ample water and some snacks. This simple bit of advance planning will set you apart from others who may arrive outfitted in flip-flops, an experience that usually prompts the question, "Are we there yet?"
Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre was first designated as a UNESCO World Hertiage Site in 1997 and, two years later, became Italy's first national park. There are in fact many trails in the park - not just the four sections of Trail No. 2 - the most well-known trail that connects the five villages closest to the coastline. Two sections of this coastal trail--between Riomaggiore and Manarola, and Manarola and Corniglia--are mellow and boardwalk-like but have been closed for many years due to unstable rock conditions. It is uncertain when or if ever they will re-open. Fortunately, there are higher and less-trafficked trails that connect these villages.
The trails between the northern-most villages, Monterosso and Vernazza, and the adjacent trail between Vernazza and Corniglia are consistently open, comparable in both distance and level of difficulty. An average hiker could expect to take about two hours for each section. Keep an eye out for vendors selling freshly squeezed lemonade along the way! The Instagram-worthy views abound, and nothing can beat the sense of awe and discovery as you round a corner to gain your first glimpse of the next village. The excitement only builds as you descend the steps to reach the next village, the bustling sounds of voices and inviting smells of eateries growing closer with each step.
The Five Villages of the Cinque Terre
Riomaggiore is the southern-most village with most of its activity taking place on the main street, Via Colombo. You can expect to find shops selling lovely, locally made jewelry, cards, shirts, and artwork inspired by the villages. The name stems from the Latin "big river," referring to the rivers that flowed from the hillsides to the sea.
Heading northward, the village of Manarola boasts some hiking-focused shops if you need to upgrade or replace any of your gear. The name comes from Latin and means "big wheel," which is a reference to the water mills of the town, one of which can still be seen. The higher trail from Manarola to Corniglia via the tiny hamlet of Volastra is a wonderful alternative, offering sweeping coastal views along long sections of stone staircases. Stop and catch your breath at the large nativity scene overlooking the town. The longest section of stone steps takes you into the town of Volastra where you are greeted by a welcoming water fountain.
Corniglia is the only village that is set on a hilltop above the coast, rather than directly above the crashing waves like its four neighbors. To travel between the village and the train station, there is a shuttle bus that runs frequently during the day or you can take the modern brick staircase with 365 steps! Corniglia is a lovely place to grab a snack before embarking on the hike to Vernazza. Be sure to try a slice of doughy focaccia or flavorful farinata, a local chickpea flatbread (it's gluten free). Check out Km 0, a tiny eatery that boasts local-only food and drinks (from "zero kilometers away," as the name describes).
Vernazza is considered the gem of the region with a beautiful harbor, a scenic castle tower and an inviting, semi-hidden pebble beach. Eating options abound here including the upscale Ristorante Belforte in the tower (try the fish soup!) and the take-out joint Batti Batti, which serves delectable fried fishes in paper cones. Don't forget to grab a scoop at Gelateria Vernazza--the local lemon sorbet is a favorite!
The last village, Monterosso, is in fact two villages connected by a passageway. It consists of an old village and a modern beach town that sprang up in the 1950s. What's special about it is that it's the only village of the group to have both a large beach area and selection of hotels. The other villages are better served by rental apartments and B&Bs. The name Monterosso means "red beard," referring to a red-bearded Germanic ruler that once inhabited the prominent waterfront castle.
What You Should Know Before You Go
It's no surprise that this unique destination attracts 2.4 million tourists a year. This means that you can expect to see many fellow hikers on the trails and significant crowds during the peak summer season. Summertime also brings very high temperatures that can seem even hotter on the exposed, sunny sections of trail or on a crowded train car. If you choose to visit in the summer, practice your deep breathing and embrace patience as a virtue. Or, take my advice, and visit during the shoulder season--April is lovely and typically warm, as is October. September is a must for anyone wanting to witness the impressive sights and smells of the grape harvest.
You can traverse the villages in either direction, which may be dictated by which airport you use. If you fly into Genoa, it is logical to go north to south. If you fly into Florence or Pisa, however, it makes sense to travel south to north--starting in Riomaggiore and ending in Monterosso al Mare. You can easily take a train to the city of La Spezia and then a train to Riomaggiore to start your adventure.
You will need to purchase a Cinque Terre Card from the national park that allows you access to all the trails and trains between the five villages. (You can purchase a walking-only pass for a discounted price if you don't plan to use any train transport.) Either can be purchased at the railway station info points within any of the five villages or even ahead of time online at the Park's official site. It's a good idea to check beforehand to be up-to-date on any trail closures or other urgent information.
No time to plan a trip for yourself? No need to fret, my friend! Check out our Cinque Terre & Tuscany Walking & Hiking Tour, which gets you to the heart of the five villages as well as a behind-the-scenes look at Liguria and neighboring Tuscany. Join us!
March is the time of year for passionate renewal. As the cold winter draws to a close and the frozen earth begins to thaw, new life is triggered to embark on a timeless journey. Plants and flowers make their way through the darkness of the underworld to meet the nourishing rays of the springtime sun. For us, mere mortals, springtime arrives to rekindle within us an intense desire to connect with the beauty of the natural world. And if you need a little nudge to get into that springtime mood, there's no better way than to pack your bags and hit the road. March is a great time to travel...where festivals, friendly weather and untouched trails await you in the far corners of the globe. Put a little spring in your step and get out there!
Traveling in Iceland during the month of March means you get the unique pleasure of experiencing the best of two seasons at once. After a long icy winter, the stubborn snow starts to melt and with it go the long dark nights of Icelandic winter. In the early springtime you'll be able to enjoy some of the things that make Iceland a famous summer destination like camping, hiking and the country's beautiful waterfalls and cliffs. Lucky for you, visiting Iceland in March means that you'll also be able to enjoy the advantages of Iceland's winter months. March is the last month of the year when it's still safe to explore the country's famous ice caves. You've also got a good shot at seeing the Northern Lights. Add to that the shoulder season's relative lack of crowds and March is the perfect month for an Icelandic adventure. Skal!
Don't let the name fool you...California's Death Valley is a place of extreme beauty--from sprawling desert landscapes, to surprising displays of thriving flora and fauna, to the colorful mountains rising in the distance. If you long for a taste of summertime biking in March, this is the place to get it! Set your course for Death Valley where the average temperature at this time of year tops out at a mild 80 degrees. And if there's been a rainy winter, the desert will put on a floral display that is absolutely stunning. It gets too hot for the flowers in early April, so don't miss it!
There's nothing like an Indian summer south of the equator! In Chile, the month of March arrives at the tail-end of their long hot season. Just when it's starting to cool off in Patagonia, home of endless untouched plains and the famous gauchos, it's still quite pleasant in central Chile and the Chilean Andes, where you'll find some of the best views, the tastiest food and the friendliest people you'll ever encounter. Explore quaint German villages tucked away in mountain passes and the living history of indigenous Chilean cultures. Take in views of the stunning landscapes of rolling hills, cliffs and waterfalls. On top of all of that, March happens to be the peak of the Chilean wine season! You can find dozens of festivals celebrating the grape and its long history in Chile. For enjoying delicious food, wine and hiking in March, Chile is the place to be.
March is the ideal time for an active vacation in the vast desert setting of Arizona. By now, the winter chill has faded away, leaving you with temperate weather and blue skies. Best of all, the late-spring crowds have yet to arrive! It's just you and the colorful desert...dramatic red cliffs, rolling blue rivers and the freedom of the open road or trail to enjoy at your leisure by bicycle or by foot. Early spring is also a time of cultural events like the Tucson Festival of Books and of course, the Cactus League Spring Training! Who says the desert is boring?
This Mediterranean island paradise is a popular year-round destination for cyclists, hikers and lovers of adventure. Although there isn't really a bad time to visit Mallorca, the month of March holds a special place in the hearts of locals and tourists alike. Every year since 1983, on the first day of March, Mallorca and the other Balearic Islands celebrate their status as an autonomous region of Spain. Then, just as those festivities slowly dissipate into the mild spring air, the extravagant Spanish Easter celebrations begin! This is the perfect combination of time and place. The towering peaks and dramatic cliffs of the Serra de Tramuntana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will thrill your eyes and challenge your legs whether you tackle them on foot or by bike. The beautiful white beaches and bright-blue waters of the island will make you feel so at ease you'll forget you ever left home. Treat yourself to a Mediterranean March this year in Mallorca!
In my mind, before I started leading Backroads trips in Norway, this part of the world was all about the glistening fjords, glacier-capped mountains, quiet forests, rustic fishing villages, and quaint farmsteads. But now, having led several trips in Scandanavia, I consider Norwegian hotels to be a reason in and of itself to venture to this remarkable part of the world.
Traveling with Backroads, of course we're all about getting out and exploring rugged places but we also love extraordinary hotels to retire to at day's end. Just like its varied landscape, Norway offers a diverse selection of beautiful and unique hotels--accommodations that provide a comfortable place to warm up, luxuriate or enjoy a delicious meal while offering the opportunity to become immersed in the history and culture of this fascinating Nordic country.
Here are just a few of the special places we stay on our Backroads trips in Norway:
Walaker Hotel is a slice of heaven located in the charming, peaceful village of Solvorn, on the shores of Lustra Fjord. With over 374 years of history, it's the oldest family-run hotel in Norway. Owned by the Nitter family since 1690, it has become a favorite of both Backroads guests and leaders alike. The food at Walaker, in particular, is quite memorable. Breakfast includes a gorgeous spread of hearty homemade breads, jams made from berries picked next door, farmhouse cheese, (including the not-to-be-missed gamalost, also known as "Viking era cheese"), refreshing pressed juices from locally grown fruit and delicious and freshly baked morning pastries. Dinner is a 4-course affair with a wonderful wine pairing. The menu, which changes daily, is thoughtfully crafted to incorporate the freshest local ingredients, unique flavors and creative presentations. The current owner and manager of the hotel, Ole Henrik, represents the 9th generation of the Nitter family. He takes the time to share with guests entertaining stories about his family and the history of the property which often involves an invitation to view the family's private art collection showcased in a renovated 19th century barn. For many guests, a stay at Walaker is a highlight of the Backroads Norway Walking & Hiking Tour.
Located on Norway's picturesque Bjørne Fjord, Solstrand is an exquisite Swiss-style hotel & spa with a colorful history. In 1895, Bergen ship owner Christian Michelsen--who would become Norway's first Prime Minister--bought this parcel of land that had served as a working cotter's farm for nearly 700 years. On it he constructed a magnificent guest house where each bedroom offers a panoramic view of both mountain and sea. Today a majority of the hotel's guests are western Norwegians although the property also attracts many international visitors. The selection of beverages at the hotel brings the chance to try some local Norwegian drinks, including wines, fruit juices, or "aquavit," a distilled spirit made from grain and potatoes, flavored with a variety of herbs, spices and fruit oils. This drink has been a Scandinavian favorite since the 15th century! Perhaps enjoy one during the evening on the hotel's veranda while chatting with Norwegians or fellow travelers on the Backroads Norway Family Multi-Adventure Tour.
Tens of thousands of years have shaped the spectacular natural setting of Larvik, the small coastal city about an hour and a half south of Oslo. This location boasts the country's only natural mineral spring, Farriskilden. Farris Bad, a beachfront spa hotel, was strategically built here to take advantage of the fresh spring water flowing from the 55-meter-deep aquifer that dates back more than 10,000 years to when melting glaciers filled the underground hydrologic system with incredibly pure and nutrient rich waters. The spa at Farris Bad, named one of the best in Europe, takes advantage of these natural spring waters. There are a wide variety of body treatments on offer from classic massages, to Hamam (using hot towels to reduce tension and balance the body's energy circulation while allowing the skin to regain its shine and harmony), and Rhassoul (steam and mineral-rich mud treatment). You might want to try their signature treatment - Kneipp (a traditional Scandanavian hydrotherapy) that uses the temperature of the water as a stimulus to enliven the body and senses. The spa also contains warm saunas, steam baths, whirlpools, and ice baths - a wonderful opportunity to try out your choice of therapy on all the muscles you will be using during yourBackroads Norway to Sweden Bike Tour.
Within the remote reaches of the Lofoton Islands on Norway's northern west coast, lies the small fishing village of Reine, just above the Arctic Circle. This far-flung destination is characterized by the summer's midnight sun, colorfully painted buildings, jagged peaks and the pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean. And while it may be a bit of a challenge to get there, it's well worth the effort. This region of Norway is just starting to make its way into the spotlight as an international travel destination. Reine is a place where visitors can really take a step back in time and embrace a quieter way of life. Here, nestled along the shoreline of this village, is Reine Rorbuer, a collection of cozy restored traditional fishermen's cottages called 'rorbuer.' These 'rustic-chic' cabins are situated perfectly to provide dramatic views of the natural landscape that evokes the remoteness of northern Norway.
Curl up with a good book next to a wood-burning stove or step into town to visit a historic church and the Lofoton Stockfish Museum. The hotel's restaurant and bar, 'Gammelbua', is located in the old Reine general store and serves fresh fish caught in the waters right in front of the hotel. Or maybe you just need a charming spot to relax after a big day of hiking on Backroads NEW Norway's Lofoton Islands Walking & Hiking Tour.
Extending Your Stay in Norway?
If you are looking to extend your stay in Norway before or after your Backroads trip, here are two more of my favorite unique and interesting Norwegian hotels that are well worth checking out!
Located just south of the Lofoton Island chain, Manshausen was one of three islands that became the largest trading post in Norway in the 1800s. A 55-acre island with a protected harbor, Manshausen was originally utilized as a location to store and to export fish from. However, in the early 20th century, the booming fish trade here came to a halt and the island became dilapidated. In 2010, the island was re-imagined by the famous Norwegian explorer, Børge Ousland, (look him up - he is seriously incredible!) and reborn as an exclusive tourist destination. Guests from all around the world travel to this remote, private getaway to stay in its unique, modern sea cabins. The distinctive design of the cabins includes floor to ceiling windows that make you feel fully immersed in the surrounding natural landscape. Manshausen also offers activities to explore in the area such as kayaking, fishing, diving or even rock climbing.Perhaps you'd like to relax with a good book, savor a delicious locally sourced meal, go for a dip in the hot tub or the salt water swimming hole or spend time in the sauna. This place is truly a unique property and worth every bit of the venture to get there.
Mark your calendars...in 2021 the world's first 'energy positive' hotel is scheduled to open in Norway! Svart, a new concept hotel that aims to minimize its ecological footprint is scheduled to be built within the Arctic Circle at the base of the Svartisen Glacier. And it's design is so revolutionary that the hotel is expected to become a destination until itself. The innovative circular structure of the hotel will extend into the crystal-clear waters of Holandsfjorden at the foot of Almlifjellet mountain. This prime location and panoramic views will let you experience the immense natural beauty of this very remote part of northern Norway.