travel tips

Introducing: Piedmont – Italy’s great wine region

As you drive up and around the gently rolling hills of the Piedmont region in Italy, it becomes clear that the area is known for a specific key export:  wine.

Grape vines are everywhere.  AND if you have the pleasure of touring the area in the beginning of September as I did this year, you’ll be sure to spot several hardworking Italians tending their soon-to-be-harvested crops – just as their ancestors have done for centuries.

A Piedmont vineyard where a tractor has kicked up some dust while driving through the vines

A Piedmont vineyard where a tractor has kicked up some dust while driving through the vines

My boyfriend and I traveled to the region last month for a friend’s wedding and were shocked by the scarcity of American tourists. The region is about a two hour drive southwest of Milan and produces wines that rival those from Tuscany (in fact, the region’s famous Barolo wines are known as the “King of Wines”). The most famous of the Piedmont wines are from the towns of Barolo and Barbaresco, and we were lucky enough to tour both hillside villages while sipping their local products.

Tasting wine at Marchesi di Barolo

Tasting wine at Marchesi di Barolo

Vines in the Piedmont region

Vines in the Piedmont region

Because of the location of our friend’s wedding, we stayed in a very tiny town called Castiglione Tinella at the Albergo Castiglione B&B. While the hotel classifies itself as a B&B, I would argue that it is more like a small boutique hotel. Before the trip we decided to spend a little extra for a room with a shared balcony so we could sip our coffee in the morning while peering past the local buildings to the vineyards on the nearby hillside.

The door and window to our balcony at the hotel

The door and window to our balcony at the hotel

While the breakfast spread and friendly hotel staff were enough to justify the cost of our pleasant stay, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we wondered over to the hotel’s pool area on the outskirts of town! It looked like something out of a travel magazine.

The pool deck at Albergo Castiglione overlooking the neighboring hills

The pool deck at Albergo Castiglione overlooking the neighboring hills

Breakfast spread at Albergo Castiglione

Breakfast spread at Albergo Castiglione

They had an immaculately manicured garden area with an infinity pool that overlooked the surrounding hills. On one of the days we were there, the sky was so clear we were even able to see the Alps in the distance – roughly 100 miles away! If you squint, you can spot their snowy caps in the photo below. As someone who loves wine, scenery, and summertime, the scene felt like my personal Eden.

LOVING the view

LOVING the view

While the hotel experience and amenities were excellent, the location was about a half hour drive from the two aforementioned Piedmont towns that we were most interested in touring. Both Barolo and Barbaresco have their own distinct personalities, despite being quite close to each other as the crow flies. Barolo feels like a busy market town, complete with touristy kitsch, an old castle, and many enotecas (wine shops). Barbaresco is much smaller and more laid back, with the town running down a single road from the historic enoteca to the old tower (Torre di Barbaresco).

Marchesi di Barolo stores and ages its wine in these large oak barrels, which help add flavor

Marchesi di Barolo stores and ages its wine in these large oak barrels, which help add flavor

Wine bottles from the 1800's when the Marchesi di Barolo vineyard was first established!

Wine bottles from the 1800’s when the Marchesi di Barolo vineyard was first established!

Walking along the streets in the town of Barolo

Walking along the streets in the town of Barolo

View of the Enoteca Regionale from the main road in Barbaresco

View of the Enoteca Regionale from the main road in Barbaresco

After touring both towns, I find it difficult to recommend one over the other. When it came to wine, I preferred Barolo’s rich, luxurious reds. However, I enjoyed Barbaresco’s serene ambiance lacking crowds of tourists. While we were in Barbaresco, there was a point in the late afternoon (around 4:30pm) when we reached the top of the old tower and no one else was there – we had our own private 360-degree views for nearly ten minutes! How completely unfathomable to be alone at a tourist landmark in Europe in late summer!

Taking selfies on the top of the tower - because there was literally no one to take our photo!

Taking selfies on the top of the tower – because there was literally no one to take our photo!

View of the town of Barbaresco from the top of the tower (Torre di Barbaresco)

View of the town of Barbaresco from the top of the tower (Torre di Barbaresco)

We highly enjoyed our weekend in the Piedmont region, and recommend to anyone who loves wine that they should visit before it is “discovered” by more Americans.

Hotels:

Albergo Castiglione – Castiglione Tinella

Villa Pattono – Costigliole d’Asti

Restaurants:

Caffe Roma – Costiglione d’Asti

Verderame – Castiglione Tinella

Trattoria Antica Torre – Barbaresco

Divin – Barolo (good for a quick lunch)

Vineyards, Enotecas, and Tastings:

Marchesi di Barolo – Barolo

Ceretto – Alba (excellent tasting experience with great view)

Enoteca Regionale del Barolo – Barolo (automated wine tasting)

Enoteca Regionale de Barbaresco – (located inside a former 19th century church)

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A List of Technology I Bring When I Travel

Even if you plan to go off the grid, you should probably bring your cell phone and charger on your next vacation. Doing so will make navigating to your grid-less existence easier.

Not everyone has Sam's wilderness navigation skills (image source: amazon.com)

Not everyone has Sam’s wilderness navigation skills (image source: amazon.com)

Today’s society is rife with electronics. Free wifi – at one point limited to just hotels and internet cafes – is slowly proliferating stores, museums, bars, restaurants, grassy fields, and anywhere else a tourist may frequent. It’s a pandemic of sorts!

While technology was invented to be helpful, it often can be bulky. Cords on cords on cords may take up valuable room in your suitcase or carry-on. However, at this point we’ve become so reliant that it’s hard to live without! In my opinion, my techie gadgets provide enough utility to make lugging them around worth the weight (or wait…if you’re talking about the time spent untangling cords. Hah.).

So, without further ado, here is my list of gadget must-haves that I plan to take on my next vacation:

  1. Smartphone (for me, iphone5) and charger

    There are so many apps out there now that make traveling easier. A few that I always have on my phone are Spotify Premium, airline apps (Delta, American, etc.) and Google maps. I also recently downloaded Gate Guru after reading about it from Travel & Leisure, and I can’t wait to review it next time I’m at a new airport.

    Using Gate Guru on iphones (image source: http://www.gateguru.com/images/4.0/3_airportcard.png)

    Using Gate Guru on iphones (image source: http://www.gateguru.com/images/4.0/3_airportcard.png)

  2. Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and charger

    I love my Surface Pro 3. I left my Surface Pro 1 in a rental car last fall and ended up buying a new one because I loved it so much. The tablet functions exactly like a laptop but is compact for traveling. Plus, I can download informational PDFs, hotel confirmations, transit system maps, bus schedules, and more before I leave for my trip and have them all handy throughout my excursion. Further, I recently downloaded the apps for Kindle (books), Nook (books), and Next Issue (magazines) on my Surface in order to store numerous reading material options for my next trip. It’s a much lighter weight alternative to bring a bunch of books and paperwork!

    Guys. It's a tablet and a laptop. What more could you want!? (image source: http://www.techhapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/sur3.jpg)

    Guys. It’s a tablet and a laptop. What more could you want!? (image source: http://www.techhapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/sur3.jpg)

  3. International power adapters

    I just learned that Italy power adapters are actually slightly different than those of the rest of continental Europe. They have three prongs instead of two. For that reason I ordered a pack of three on Amazon to make sure I can always charge my equipment during my next vacation. Bringing power adaptors is so important so you can make sure all of your gadgets will charge.

    These chargers came in a small box for easy packing (image source: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007YL6HY6?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=detailpage)

    These chargers came in a small box for easy packing (image source: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007YL6HY6?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=detailpage)

  4. Portable charger for electronics

    I think the most famous (and probably most expensive) brand of portable chargers is the Mophie. I haven’t broken down and bought one yet, but instead I have a couple of smaller off-brand portable chargers that carry far fewer charges yet are still easy to throw in a purse (latest Jackery purchase can be found here). At this point I find it ESSENTIAL to carry around at least one portable charger in my day bag if I’m out and about…my iphone5 no longer holds a charge for a full day!

    We just bought this Jockery charger off of Amazon to bring on our trip (image source: amazon.com)

    We just bought this Jockery charger off of Amazon to bring on our trip (image source: amazon.com)

  5. Sony 16 megapixel digital camera, plus (2) charged batteries and (2) SIM cards

    My boyfriend and I bought a compact 16 megapixel Sony camera in 2012 and have loved it ever since. Due to the fact that we’ve had it for a few years now, the one that we bought is pretty discounted and you can get higher megapixel models now for the price we paid. However, ours is still working great. The camera itself is less heavy than a DSLR, making it easier to tote around all day – plus the picture quality is fantastic! Can’t ask for better.

  6. Suitcase with a built-in overweight indicator

    We just bought two new Delsey Helium Hyperlight 25” Spinner suitcases for our Italy trip that I’m really excited to try. As experienced travelers will admit, one of the most annoying things about traveling for long periods of time is learning that your suitcase is over the 50-lb limit when you check in. For this new suitcase line, if you pick up the luggage by the separate indicator handle, an small light will turn red if you’re bag is overweight. Pretty ingenious! Can’t wait to try the new suitcases out next month and report back. 🙂

Technology has always been defined as something that makes life easier. It fills a need. In order to travel meaningfully you do not need to buy all of the latest gadgets, but technology may help you get the most out of your trip. For example, by doing research and sending emails on your connected devices while in transit or relaxing in your hotel room in the evenings, you may be able to spend more time sightseeing during the day. Additionally, if you bring the right tools to take good pictures, you’ll be able to reminisce about your experiences for years to come.

With that said, I must divulge that I love paperback guidebooks. I don’t think I will ever stop buying them, and I have quite a collection! Although I may always bring guidebooks on my trips, it makes sense to save room and weight in my pack in other ways by converting all other forms of entertainment to digital.

Guidebooks come with me everywhere

Guidebooks come with me everywhere

Now that I’ve divulged my list of tech, I have a question for YOU, dear reader….

What do you think of selfie sticks?

How To Prep for a Big Trip: Six Things To Do Six Weeks Before Takeoff

Every summer for my boyfriend and my anniversary (Aug 25th) we go on a full-week trip. Typically I am the one who plans the whole shebang due to my passion for travel – go figure. 🙂

This year two of our close friends are getting married at a vineyard in the Piedmont region of Italy on September 5th, so we are traveling a week later than usual in order to attend. The wedding should be gorgeous, and we are very excited for the vacation!

View of the pool and nearby Piedmont vineyards from the Albergo Castiglione B&B (image source: http://www.piemonte-traveller.com/en/c/albergo-castiglione)

View of the pool and nearby Piedmont vineyards from the Albergo Castiglione B&B (image source: http://www.piemonte-traveller.com/en/c/albergo-castiglione)

We will be in the Northwest part of Italy during the entire trip. Our itinerary includes stops at several Piedmont vineyards, two days in Turin, two days in Lake Como, and two days in Milan. The general plan is to sip and taste our way through the region, coupled with a little bit of hiking and sightseeing to burn off the calories!

I've circled in red the cities we will visit in the NW part of Itlay (image source:  http://www.kandaclub.com/hot-destinations/italy/italy-regions.html)

I’ve circled in red the cities we will visit in NW Italy (image source: http://www.kandaclub.com/hot-destinations/italy/italy-regions.html)

That said, even though the hotels, rental car, and Da Vinci’s Last Supper tour have been booked for months, we are now officially in countdown mode. This trip will last ten days, and it gives me peace of mind to start a few of the preparations now.

Thus, I have created a list of six things I am doing six weeks in advance of our trip to prepare:

  1. Double-check our airline seating assignments and see if better seats are available.
    Right now we are booked to fly from New York to Milan on Emirates, which is an airline that I have never flown before. I’m looking forward to the new experience since I’ve heard great things about Emirates’ customer service onboard! With that, I find it important on long-haul flights to strive to be next to a window (for sleeping), as far forward on the plane as possible, have seats that recline, not be near a bathroom, not have a wing obstructing my view, and avoid sitting in the same row as strangers (preference two-seater rows if available). On top of that, I don’t want to pay extra money for my seat. Usually I have to make compromises, but I typically continue checking the available seat map before my trip to see if any seats open up that check-off several boxes on my nice-to-haves list.

    Looks like there are no rows of only two seats - bummer.

    Looks like this plane does not have two-seater rows…bummer.

  2. Review Emirates’ baggage policy and limitations.
    One reason why we chose to fly Emirates to Milan this summer instead of other airlines is because they allow two 50-lb. checked bags free per flyer, even though we are neither part of their awards program nor have an Emirates credit card. While we won’t be taking that much luggage with us, it is comforting to know we will not need to worry about busting our budget on luggage fees. With that, it is always wise to double-check your airline’s luggage policies for weight, quantity, and dimension to ensure you have no surprise costs. Every airline differs.

    Check the baggage policies for your specific airline and qualifications to avoid fees

    Check the baggage policies for your specific airline and qualifications to avoid fees.

  3. Make sure our passports aren’t expired.
    Check! We still have a couple more years before that becomes an issue. That was easy. Next…

    Generally U.S. passports expire every ten years (image source:  http://www.bbc.com)

    Generally U.S. passports expire every ten years (image source: http://www.bbc.com)

  4. Look up the average weather during the time of year we are traveling at each city we’re visiting.
    Additionally, I also try to read online forums where other people have written about their own travel experiences during the week (or month) I plan to travel. In that way I am able to arrive mentally prepared.Example:  In May in Miami will the weather be sunny most of the day but usually rain from 2pm-3pm in the afternoon? Yes. After learning from surprise situations like that, I’ve found it is best to read other travelers’ ideas online that help me avoid getting drenched during my afternoon spent poolside and still have a great time.

    It rained off and on EVERY DAY when we went to Betws-y-Coed, Wales in late August 2012, so I always needed to carry an umbrella and wear a raincoat and waterproof shoes - just in case!

    It rained off and on EVERY DAY when we went to Betws-y-Coed, Wales in late August 2012, so I always needed to carry an umbrella and wear a raincoat and waterproof shoes – just in case!

  5. Brainstorm what we will need on our trip (but don’t start packing yet).
    My boyfriend and I learned this tip after a stressful experience. In 2012 on the day we were supposed to fly to Manchester, we darted around midtown Manhattan trying to find a place that sold hiking shoes that we could wear during our Mount Snowdon climb the following day. Needless to say, the shopping excursion was exhausting since the number of people who need hiking shoes in Manhattan is minimal and our deadline was tight. (We ended up buying Clarks WaveTrek Waterproof walking shoes instead of legitimate hiking boots.) Thus, moral of the story is that you should take a lesson from our book and identify if there is anything you will need (i.e. new suitcase, power converters, selfie sticks, comfortable footwear, jeans, money belt, raincoat, etc.) while you still have enough time to order online and/or search several stores.

    I ended up buying that hat when we got to the base of Mount Snowdon because I didn't realize how cold it would be - but at least we had the hiking shoes!

    I ended up buying that hat when we got to the base of Mount Snowdon because I didn’t realize how cold it would be – but at least we had the right shoes!

  6. Figure out how I am going to pay for things while in Italy.
    I’ve written about this before in tip #6 of my budgeting hacks, but I’ll repeat that it’s very important to determine how you will pay for things ahead of any foreign travel so you can make the necessary arrangements and save money on fees.

    I was recently convinced that I should open a Charles Schwab account since their debit cards have no foreign transaction fees. However, I have not been able to receive the debit card yet because I still need to transfer funds into the new account. Before I can transfer the funds online I need to authorize an external account, get it approved, and then transfer the money – all of this takes time. As a result, I’m grateful to have started this process in advance so I can hopefully receive the new card in the mail before our trip! Also, if something goes wrong, I have enough time to brainstorm a Plan B. (This blogger goes into more detail in point #6 of this entry for why Schwab is great for travelers.)

With the above list I hope to prove that it’s always better to prepare as much as you can in advance. In fact, I often buy a guidebook and skim through the local tips to see if there is something I have not thought of regarding my destination. If you have the time, you might as well  use it to avoid feeling stressed before you go!

Are there any other tips that I’ve missed? If you have any other pointers for vacation prep six weeks in advance, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!