Monday, August 31, 2015

Strolling through the Lavaux vineyards

I had no idea there was so much wine in Switzerland until I moved to Lausanne.  And I had no idea that Lausanne was just 10 minutes away by train to the best wine area in the country -- the Lavaux vineyards.

To get there, you take the train to Grandvaux and then you start walking through the vines and end at Lutry station.  It will take you about 90 minutes to walk there...and it's mostly downhill.

Or you could do it the way I did, which turned out to be the hard way.  I arrived in Lutry, which is located at lake level and then had to walk up the challenging hills to get to Grandvaux. That was not the best idea in the world, but I did get a fantastic glute workout along the way.

The traditional grape in this region is Chasselas.  If you've never heard of it, you are not alone.  I had never heard of it until I moved here. It's a white grape and about 75 percent of the vineyards in the area grow it. It makes a full-bodied white wine that goes well with most Swiss foods such as fondue and perch.  It's also a nice afternoon sipping wine, especially on hot summer days.

The do grow some red grapes in the area.  These are Pinot Noir and Gamay.  I'm going to be honest here and tell you that while the Swiss white wines are generally excellent, the red wines are hit and miss. They are worth trying, but not all are amazing.

The site is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.  One of the reasons is the countless terraces overlooking Lake Geneva. It's worth the hike.  Just bring your walking shoes as even going downhill can be challenging.

Santorini: Wine and Food

How could I go to Santorini and not check out the local food and the wine. But first, let me tell you some of the things I expected to find, but did not: pita bread, hummus and bowls of olives


 For some reason, I had assumed all of Greece would serve the exact same food as every restaurant in the Toronto Greek village. But nope…I was wrong. I’m not sure if just Santorini is different or this applies to the other islands, but I didn’t get pita bread and hummus with every meal. Instead the island is famous for fried tomato balls (delicious) and fava beans with olive oil.

Yes, I know hummus is made of beans (chickpeas), but the fava bean thing is different. It comes mushy and you eat it with a spoon. The texture is thicker than hummus so it’s not a dip. It is tasty though and they didn’t bring bread with it – so another hint that it’s not a dip. When I did get bread, whether it was a tavern, café or restaurant, it was never pita. Instead it was this crusty bread with a fluffy, airy inside. 

So what do you do with the bread? You spread your olive tapenade on it. I love olives so was expecting to eat bowls and bowls of them while there. I did get to have them in some places (just a few…and they were yummy), but mostly tapenade was what was on the menu. 

 Another thing on the menu was octopus. I was planning on eating seafood when there so was thrilled to see octopus almost everywhere. You could get it sautéed, fried, in stews, cold in salads or my favorite way – grilled. I admit I totally took advantage of this and had it every day. 


Santorini is a strange little island. It has volcanic soil which is why the cherry tomatoes and beans are so delicious. It’s also because this soil has very little organic matter, just a whole lot of minerals, it has a low pH level and high acidity. They tell me this combination makes good wine. I have to agree that the white wines I tried were pretty good, but to be honest, the reds were hit and miss. Maybe I needed to try more varieties.

What you will notice when visiting Santorini is that the vines aren’t upright like they are in other vineyards around the world. Instead, they are flat on the ground and wound in circles to form a basket. This is because it’s hot there, it doesn’t rain often and it can be windy.

 Keeping the vines close to the ground prevents the grapes from falling off and where they get their moisture is from the morning midst (or sea fog). The basket growing method apparently helps retain this moisture. 

 I went on a tour of one of the vineyards and they told me that Santorini is one of the only places that uses this basket method.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Hiking the Caldera Trail in Santorini

The Caldera Trail in Santorini

There’s more to Santorini than parties, weddings and honeymooners. There is also the Caldera Trail that takes you on a 10km hike along the cliffs of the island from Fira to Oia.

Fira just after sunrise

The trail starts in the center of Fira - or at least for me it did.  Other blogs I've read said it starts at a church or in different areas.  For me, the taxi dropped me off in the middle of Fira and I walked toward the ocean.  The person at my hotel who told me about trail said to follow the signs for the cable car and you'll end up on the right path.

Another shot of Fira as I got farther away

Once you do find the path -- on whichever route takes you there -  it leads you along a narrow path through the city past the hotels and restaurants. 

Breathtaking views along the Caldera Trail in Santorini

As Fira is spreading, you’ll spend about 30 minutes surrounded by the white homes and buildings before you actually break free and are on the rugged cliffs. But even here the trail is well marked and easy to follow. It is also here that you’ll start to leave the throngs of people behind as the less adventurous wander back.

You also pass Skaros rock. Skaros was one of the five fortified settlements in 1200s and offered protection from pirates.  There was apparently a bunch of other little buildings and homes on the rock, but now there isn't much. It wasn't pirates that destroyed it, but earthquakes in the 17th and 18th century.

Skaros Rock

The longer you hike along the Caldera, the more breathtaking it becomes as you get a panoramic view of Santorini with the white buildings of Fira on one side and the blue domed churches of Oia in the distance in the other direction.

The journey is hilly, but not too extreme if you have no trouble walking 10km – however, the only thing to pay attention to is the heat. I left at 6:30 am and by 8:00 am it was already sweltering hot. Once you leave Fira, they won’t be any place to buy water until you get to Oia so come prepared.

It took me just over 2 hours to complete the hike –perfect timing to arrive in Oia for breakfast.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Hermitting in Santorini

The Caldera
This year has been a busy one. I’ve traveled a lot, I moved to a new country where I don’t speak the language and I started a new job. I’ve also had more house guests in the last two months than I have had in 5 years. It was time to go into hermit-mode and rejuvenate myself.

Some people retreat into their man (or gal) cave. Me? I retreat to a hotel where the rooms are built into a cliff like a cave.


Originally my plan was to do a safari in Africa, but after I checked how long the flights were (and how expensive), I changed my mind. Besides, as I mentioned, I was tired and needed some peace and quiet – which was not exactly what the safari tour places were offering. Then someone at work mentioned they had gone to Greece for a long weekend. Greece? It’s close? I keep forgetting that Switzerland is close to things that normally would be inconvenient to get to and Santorini was one of them.

One of the private pools at the Ambassador Aegean Hotel
Because I’m a travel procrastinator, I didn’t start looking for a hotel until early July (for late July bookings). I had no idea that summer was going to be so popular. Plus, Greece was in the news with their economic crisis so I had assumed no one would be visiting the islands. Ha ha ha ha...I was so wrong.  

Looking at Expedia and seeing all the reasonably priced hotels that were booked during my time slot, I decided there was no way I was going to stay in Fira or Oia. It would be too crowded and I wouldn’t get the quality hermit time I needed. 

All I wanted a nice hotel and a great view to look at the sunset. I also wanted to eat really good Greek food. Oh…and I needed internet. Reliable internet.  I was taking a course at Drexel and my mid-term exam was going to happen during my vacation so I needed to be able to complete it online.

So that was it: Food, shelter, sunsets and internet…the essentials of my life.

Complimentary drink of your choice when you arrive at the hotel. I was jet lagged coming from Tampa and Pina Colada always says "I'm on vacation" to me.


My answer came when I came across the Ambassador Aegean Hotel. The website said it was near Red Beach, Ancient Akrotiri (could be interesting) and each room had a private pool. But these are the words that got me hooked “located in one of Santorini’s least exploited areas” and the “ultimate Santorini escape.” Ooohhh…that translate to hermit-time with wine and olives to me.

The private pools at the Ambassador Aegean hotel

While I was a little worried that this place was not booked up like all the other ones I had looked at, I shouldn’t have been. It turned out to be peaceful perfection with five-star service.

My amazing cave room
I loved the lantern-lit cave hallways and the rooms were private and incredible. Every room had a panoramic view of the caldera so I could enjoy the sunset from my room, terrace or pool. Plus, breakfast was included and it wasn’t buffet. I’m not a fan of buffets as the food is usually subpar. At the Ambassador Aegean, you ordered from a menu the day before and it arrived at your desired time the next morning.

Lantern lit hallways leading underground to your room.

And yes, the hotel was away from all the tourists, but close enough to Fira and Oia that you could take a short cab there for an evening out. If you want a loud party weekend, then this is not the place for you, but if you want a quiet escape from reality, then forget the man cave and go for this cave hotel.

Relaxing dinner with a view.