Tour Diary: Belgian Treasures & Treats from Bruges to Brussels

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In July, guests joined us in Bruges for our Belgian Treasures & Treats Tour, an 8 day holiday by bike and barge that included stops in Ghent, Dendermonde, Antwerp, Mechelen and Brussels. The group also took part in a field trip by bus and bike to the World War I sites in Flanders Fields. The weather was spectacular, unseasonably warm, with brilliantly sunny blue skies, a gift from this small country with a reputation for gray skies, clouds and drizzling rain. The terrain we traveled on varied from bike lanes on city streets to dedicated bike paths and field trails that took us through meadows, forests and pastures. We were treated to a few character-building cobblestones thrown in for good measure. We were in Belgium after all, and they love their cobbles there! All of our travelers were on their first bike & barge tour and from what he heard throughout the trip, they want to travel with us again.

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From Bruges we traveled by bike each day, stopping along the way for sightseeing, picnic lunches, and, since it was a little warm for coffee, we opted for an afternoon ice cream or beer instead! While we rode our comfy hybrid touring bikes, our captain Harrie and his able crew sailed our “floating hotel” to a new city so that at the end of each day’s ride of 20-35 miles, we were greeted by the ship’s friendly staff. They loaded our bikes onto the ship, and offered us cold drinks and tasty snacks while we caught the end of the live daily broadcast of the Tour de France on the large flat screen in the barge’s air-conditioned lounge. After a hot shower (each cabin had its own private bath), we regrouped in the dining room for some lively conversation over a delicious three-course meal prepared by our talented chef Coen. After dinner, guests had the option of joining our knowledgeable and enthusiastic bike guide Ilse for a walking tour of the town.

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Several evenings included unique on-board tasting events featuring Belgium’s best: Bruges Chocolates and Local Ales, and Regional Cheeses paired with Belgian Ales. One night, we even got to experience a Belgian Ale Essence Tasting. Tour Director Stephanie set up glasses filled with the aromas that the beer geeks say we should detect when we smell the particular beer she selected to pair with our dinner of Indonesian Rijstafel. This popular Dutch meal dates back to the days of the spice trade and our version included six traditional dishes served family style. To complement the rich flavors of the barbecued beef, Balinese eggs, green beans with crispy onions, cucumber salad, coconut rice, and homemade Cassava chips, we enjoyed a celebrated saison, also known as farmhouse ale. The beer geeks report notes of fresh-cut grass, elderflower, peach, and black pepper. After a short history lesson on saison Stephanie invited  guests to smell the filled glasses, then smell the beer to see if they could detect the essences on the “nose” of the beer.

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Our first ride outside of Bruges took us along a tree-lined bike path to quaint Damme. From there we continued on to Blankenberge, a delightful seaside resort where a few of us got our feet wet in the cool waters of the North Sea while others strolled along the boardwalk and enjoyed some ice cream and people watching.

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Shopping for food souvenirs with purpose

Dallmayr tin soft edge.jpgI’ve had a lifelong fascination with food so naturally when I travel overseas, eating like a local is a high priority. I love getting lost in street markets, chatting up cheese mongers and butchers, grabbing a quick bite in a museum café. I even find foreign vending machines intriguing. I never go hungry when I travel. I’m a fool for food souvenirs, too. Local delicacies are ideal, especially in decorative packaging. Form meets function, so to speak. Not only do I come home with treats to enjoy or share, I can get creative and repurpose the empty containers. Who needs matching kitchen canisters when you can enlist unique souvenir tins to store stuff in and provide pleasant reminders of your travels?

Some of my most productive food souvenir hauls have been in the grand department stores in Europe. In the early 90’s I worked in The Cellar at Macy’s in Herald Square, near the end of its glorious reign as the showplace of gourmet specialty foods, so I have a place in my heart for department stores. There are many cities in Europe whose flagships are deserving of your sightseeing time. My kitchen counter hosts decorative tins that once held English tea, Scottish shortbread (from Jenner’s in Edinburgh), and more. During my first trip to Germany, I have to confess that I got a little caught up in Christmas market fever and, along with 85 stunning ornaments, I also dragged home a globe-shaped tin filled with Lebkuchen from Nuremberg and a coffee tin from Munich’s Dallmayr, depicting the 300 year old institution that touts itself as the delicatessen of kings. I also framed some beautifully illustrated chocolate bar wrappers I picked up there. They hang next to the beer coasters I “picked up” on a beer crawl in Heidelberg.

Don’t discount food halls if you are in the mood for a memorable meal. I once gathered the fixings for a Thanksgiving dinner for two after a quick zip through Harrods in London. If you find yourself in Berlin, go to Ka-De-We and proceed directly to the Gourmet floor. Sit yourself down at one of its many dining counters. You’ll get a bonus cooking lesson as lunch is prepared before your eyes and, you can engage with your fellow diners who will likely be an interesting mix of local working stiffs, little old ladies, and travelers. Chances are pretty good that they will all speak enough English so you won’t have to consult any pesky foreign phrasebooks. I can still see and smell the Gruyere bubbling on the Black Forest Ham that was so skillfully draped over my Rösti plate…mmm.

globe tinJust one final word of advice, perishable food is a no-go with US Customs so, enjoy all the fresh meats, cheese, and produce you can at their sources, but make sure your food souvenirs are vacuum packed and labelled for export. I wouldn’t want you to have to surrender your goodies to an agent whose canine just sniffed you out at the baggage carousel.

Packing Light & Right for your Summer Cycling Vacation

Here are the best two words of advice I can offer to help you prepare for your vacation…PACK LIGHT! I don’t know anyone who’s ever returned from a trip wishing they’d packed more stuff.

Over the course of many bike trips and sightseeing holidays in Europe, I’ve learned (the hard way) what to bring and what to leave home. When you plan a cycling vacation, keep in mind that if your tour involves multiple hotel stays, your tour operator may restrict you to one piece of luggage and one carry-on bag which will travel to each hotel in a cramped van. If you are traveling by barge, there’ll be no daily luggage transfers but you’ll still want to pack the smallest piece of rolling luggage you can so you can move around freely in your cabin. Packing cubes will allow you to group similar items together, saving time and space. Pack a foldable tote or small duffel (that expands no larger than carry-on size) and you’ll have space for souvenirs you pick up along the way.

Read on for my packing suggestions and explanations, with click-able links if you want to know where to shop for them. Check out this printable Packing Light List . Then, trust me, pack light. You’ll thank me.

Backpack:

Easier on your back than a duffel bag, it does double duty as a carry-on bag if it also meets your airline’s size requirements.

Cycling Apparel & Accessories:

Thankfully, today’s cycling apparel not only keeps you cooler, it’s made of fast drying material. Be sure to pack some laundry detergent that’s made for technical apparel like Sport-Wash.

  • bike jerseys and padded bike shorts
  • arm warmers
  • lightweight waterproof jacket
  • sports bras or tech tees
  • cycling socks (love DeFeet’s)
  • cycling gloves
  • cycling shoes (if you plan to also bring your pedals) or running shoes (if you’ll be riding hybrid touring bikes with platform pedals)
  • chamois cream to prevent chafing which can occur during a long day in bike shorts!
  • headbands or cycling caps to manage sweat under your helmet
  • helmet, if not provided by your tour operator…Many Europeans ride without them. This is one of those times you should not embrace local customs. There’s no shame in riding safe.

Casual Clothes:

No need to weigh yourself down with lots of fussy wardrobe options. Remember you’ll spend most of your day in cycling clothes so you’ll only need a change of clothes for the post-ride sightseeing and evenings out if you’re up for them. Most nights you’ll probably be early to bed. I recommend you stick to clothes in color palettes that you can mix and match so you won’t need to pack more shoes. As a rule, when I fly, I wear the bulkiest pair of shoes I bring on the trip to free up room in my luggage.

  • shirts: mix of long sleeve and short-sleeve
  • sweater or lightweight fleece
  • pants / skirts / shorts / belt
  • underwear (check out the fast drying microfiber options from ExOfficio®)
  • cotton-blend socks
  • shoes (one pair open-toed, one pair closed-toed, both pairs comfy!)
  • scarves – they weigh next to nothing and allow you to create more looks with minimal effort
  • jewelry – bring a few baubles and leave the family heirlooms home
  • sleepwear
  • swimsuit

Money, Money, Money:

Even though the exchange rate will likely be better from an ATM in Europe, I always order at least €150 Euros from my bank to bring with me so I can hit the ground running as soon as I arrive. I usually need to jump on a train and I welcome the convenience of buying a ticket at an Automat with cash. Also, small local restaurants prefer cash so it comes in handy.

  • money belt
  • money— mix of debit card (for ATM withdrawals), credit cards, cash (in local currency)

Documents plus photocopies:

Carrying paper print outs of important documents may seem “old school” to anyone with a smartphone and an iCloud account but, paper copies will be invaluable if your phone isn’t working, gets lost, or is stolen.

  • passport/VISA
  • driver’s license and a photocopy
  • credit card photocopies (store them outside your wallet)
  • printout of airline e-ticket
  • trip itinerary and hotel reservation confirmations
  • insurance card, prescriptions, and summary of your coverage overseas

Electronic Gadgetry and Accessories:

  •  mobile phone – check with your carrier about a short-term, affordable overseas plan
  • digital camera, extra memory cards
  • portable media player (smartphone, iPod) and ear buds
  • laptop or tablet (I stopped packing mine when I got a smart phone and, really, you’re on vacation!)
  • e-reader loaded with a good novel and some guidebooks
  • chargers for all electronics (I have a handy zippered bag to pack all of them into so I don’t have to hunt around for one when I need it)
  • plug adapters (or converters if you need them)
  • hair dryer, if your tour operator or hotel property does not provide one
  • travel alarm clock – the smallest one you can find

Miscellaneous Must-Haves 

  • compression socks helps with circulation on long flights and also with recovery after a day’s ride
  • ear plugs for a good night’s sleep in a noisy airplane or hotel
  • neck pillow for the flight (an inflatable one packs away nicely when you aren’t using it)
  • PSI Bands if you are prone to motion sickness on boats, or in passenger vans, buses…
  • umbrella – think small
  • guidebooks and maps (go lighter on these if you are on a guided tour)
  • address list for postcards
  • notepad, journal, pen
  • travel size toiletries (soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, deodorant, sunscreen)
  • hair brush, comb
  • cosmetics
  • medicines and vitamins (pack prescription meds in your carry-on, never in your checked bag!)
  • mini first-aid kit with pain relievers
  • glasses/contact lenses/sunglasses (with prescriptions)
  • sealable plastic bags (to prevent spills in your luggage or to pack food in for picnics)
  • clothesline and rubber stopper for the sink
  • small towel/wash cloth (I pack these in my carry on so I can wash up on the flight and freshen up before landing)
  • foldable tote bag for souvenirs

If you plan to carry on your luggage, visit http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information for the current list of TSA regulations.

Travel Insurance – protecting yourself and your travel investment

If you’re planning a trip, at some point you should give some thought to travel insurance. There are more than a few scenarios that might prevent or interrupt your trip, and most tour operators, airlines, and many online booking sites won’t issue you a refund if you or someone close to you becomes ill or dies, forcing you to stay home. Of course you want to protect your travel investment, but just how much insurance is necessary?

Before you buy more insurance than you need, check your homeowner, auto, life, and health insurance policies to see what coverage you already have. Then consider your risks, and shop accordingly to fill in the gaps. Keep in mind that you should purchase  travel insurance as soon as you make your initial deposit because some carriers may offer you additional coverage such as Cancellation for Any Reason, at no additional cost. At the least, you’ll be covered for any of life’s unexpected calamities that may railroad your travel plans. You should expect to spend 5-7% of the total cost of your trip on an insurance policy, depending on your age, health, and the level of coverage you want.

Here are the basic types of coverage and where to shop for it:

  • Trip Cancellation / Trip Interruption. Check for a policy that protects you in the event you have a medical emergency or a death in the family that will prevent you from taking the trip. Some policies will allow you to cancel for any reason, others will compensate you for travel delays that include reimbursement for expenses related to flight delays (for any reason) such as lost or stolen luggage, and missed connections.
  • Emergency Medical Care. It’s wise to have coverage for this on any trip but particularly if you are taking an active vacation. You’re probably at greater risk of injury on a bicycle tour than on an over-the-road motor coach tour but you could trip and fall on the walk from the rest stop to the bus so, protect yourself no matter what you’re doing on your trip! If you are covered at home through a HMO or a network provider plan, you may not be covered if you become sick or injured in another state or country and receive medical care outside your network.
  • Medical Evacuation. If you sustain a serious injury that requires transport to a hospital by ambulance (or helicopter) and eventual evacuation back home, that can cost upwards of $100,000. It may be worth it to insure yourself and have the peace of mind that comes with knowing you are covered for the worst case scenario.

Stephanie is now a licensed home-based travel agent who can assist you with travel insurance. Contact her at StephanieVentures.com to discuss your situation and she will be happy to prepare a quote that meets your particular needs.

Bike & Barge Vacations – the cool way to see Europe without breaking the bank

Bike & Barge holidays are all the rage in Europe these days, and with good reason. Today’s “floating hotel” barges, which can sleep between 6 and 36 passengers, offer convenience and comfort for today’s active traveler: cozy accommodations, tasty meals,  camaraderie, comfortable touring bikes (with cushy saddles), and bike ride options that average between 15-30 miles per day. Another plus: if you wake up and decide you don’t feel like riding a bike, you can stay onboard and enjoy an intimate view of life along the centuries-old canals of Europe from the comfort of a deck chair. You’ll arrive in the next town feeling refreshed and ready to sight-see on foot. Because the barge-able corners of Europe are fairly flat, and the traffic-free bike path network is extensive, a trip like this is not only perfect for novice cyclists, first-time bike tourists, or those who want to immerse themselves in a new culture, it’s also ideal for a couple traveling together who may not share the same level of fitness (or enthusiasm) for cycling. ­

Along with my bilingual Belgian guide and onboard crew, I am excited to be hosting a bike & barge tour in Belgium this summer from July 16-23, 2016. The itinerary for Belgian Treasures & Treats includes Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Dendermonde, Mechelen and Brussels. You’ll experience all the charms of Belgium: art, architecture, ale, chocolate, waffles and frites and you’ll visit some fascinating sites not widely known to American travelers. The end of the trip coincides with the final stage of the Tour de France so if you decide to extend your trip, you can hop on a high-speed train in Brussels and you’ll be in Paris in time to welcome the yellow jersey and the rest of the field when they arrive on the Champs Elysees.

If you are a fan of craft beer, the Belgians brew what many argue is the best in the world. You will have opportunities to learn about the different styles of Belgian ales and taste several fine examples during our unique interactive tastings on and off the barge.  We will make a pilgrimage through Flanders where we may have the opportunity to drink the elusive Westvleteren 12, the Trappist ale made by the monks of St. Sixtus Abbey. Later, we’ll pay our respects to those who gave their lives during WWI during our informative visits to the monuments, cemeteries, and battlegrounds of Flanders Fields.

Other highlights on this tour include a scenic bike ride out to the North Sea, a visit to view the stunning Ghent Altarpiece at St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, a tour of the Antwerp home and gallery of Peter Paul Rubens, and a walking tour of Bruges, whose entire old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Harper’s Bazaar recently named Bruges #1 among its “Top 10 Most Underrated European Cities To Book Your Next Vacation To.”  You will only need to taste the city’s world famous chocolate pralines (there are shops on nearly every block) and you’ll know why!

Check out my brochure for more about the extras we include that make this tour so unique. I’m very proud to offer you such amazing value for your travel dollar.

Contact me to reserve your cabin today!