Viva Fiesta!

Shouts of “Viva Fiesta!” can be heard all around us here in San Antonio during the end of April. Yesterday kicked off our annual Fiesta celebration. Now in its 126th year, Fiesta is a ten day celebration to commemorate the battles of the Texas Revolution. What started in 1891 as a parade of carriages decorated with spring flowers passing through downtown in front of the Alamo now comprises of over 100 events including 3 major parades, neighborhood festivals, musical performances and numerous cultural events celebrating all aspects of Texan culture. The town is in constant party mode day and night. Streets are littered with confetti, women dress in colorful Mexican dresses and flower crowns, tacos and beer are consumed all day long with relish, fireworks pop through the night, mariachi and polka bands compete for attention throughout the city and homes are adorned with streamers and wreaths. It’s a fantastic time to be in San Antonio and we locals wear our Texan pride with great enthusiasm and cheerfulness.

Festivals can be found around the world though out the year, celebrating all manner of things spiritual and temporal. It is always an amazing reason to visit a new place or discover something new and compelling about one of your favorite places. We’ve compiled a list of exciting festivals to add to your bucket list:

Chinese New Year

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Also known as “Spring Festival,” this runs 15 days through January and February celebrating the turn of the traditional lunar new year on the Chinese calendar. This celebration is traditionally meant to honor deities and ancestors and to sweep away ill-fortune, making way for good luck in the coming year. Cities are drenched in red lanterns, streamers and Chinese symbols. Dragon and lion costumes dancing through the streets are a common sight. Families hold a reunion dinner where consuming dumplings symbolizes wealth while fireworks are lit constantly, warding off evil spirits. Chinese New Year is celebrated all over the world, anywhere with a prominent Asian population, though some incredible places to experience it are Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore and Bangkok.

Carnival

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This raucous party falls the days before the Christian season of Lent begins, usually the end of February or beginning of March. It is a time of excessive consumption to preclude the time of austerity before Easter. Historically, it is a time when social norms and roles can be reversed without repercussion. Rio de Janero holds the title for largest carnival in the world. Parades of scantily dressed men and women bejeweled and befeathered in vibrant, sparkling colors gyrate through the streets of Rio and people party for days. In Venice, it is common to wear elaborately decorated masks and costumes, drinking, eating and chasing friends and lovers through the canals with laughter echoing through the night. In New Orleans, Carnival is known as Mardi Gras. The old French quarter is jammed with revelers tossing beads and drinking beer. The parades are world class and impressive. This is the kind of festival where moderation is frowned upon. Embrace it! Over eat, over drink, dress wildly, hug strangers. Get lost in the crowd of debauchery for a few days before returning home to normality.

Semana Santa

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After the reckless abandon of Carnival, you may need to spend a little time in Spain during Semana Santa. A highly religious celebration during Holy Week before Easter with origins as far back as the middle ages. The southern region of Andalucia holds some of the most fantastic of these ceremonies. Sevilla, Granada and Cordoba are inundated with solemn, somber and strangely glamorous, religious processions. Brotherhood organizations spend all year creating pasos – “floats” with different gospel scenes depicted on them relating to the Passion of Christ or the Sorrow of Mary. These huge pasos are carried through the streets on the shoulders of proud men. Accompanying these processions are people dressed in the “penitential robe” consisting of a tunic, cloak and hood with a conical tip. A spooky sight for many, given the connotations of this pointed hood, this dress is considered a way for people to demonstrate penance while masking their identity. It is a mystical thing to see with the aromas of incense and flowers filling the air as thousands of people line the streets to watch the processions. Religiously devote or not, it is an incredible event to witness.

Holi Festival of Colors

In India and Nepal, to celebrate the end of winter and the arrival of spring, signaling the victory of good over evil, the Holi festival is a riot of color and joy. Religious rituals and bonfires are held across cities and towns. People smear each other with colors and water in the streets, parks and temples. There is singing and dancing in the streets and a customary intoxicating drink called bhang is drunk with relish. Holi is considered a day to end conflict, forgive and forget. It is a bright, mirthful celebration and a unique way to experience the culture of these vibrant countries.

Oktoberfest

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For 16 to 18 days in October the city of Munich holds an enormous festival devoted to beer. Well, not entirely to beer, but that is a huge focus. Oktoberfest has been celebrated for centuries but really took hold in 1810 celebrating King Ludwig’s marriage. It is essentially a large fair with amusement rides, games, traditional foods, horse-racing, music, dancing and of course beer. There are parades of local breweries, their horse teams lushly festooned with ribbons and banners pulling carts filled with barrels of beer. Embracing the spirit of the festival, men dress in the traditional German lederhosen and women in the dirndl. Beer tents fill to capacity early with people from all over the world. It is a celebration of the harvest and of German heritage and pride. Lift a stein of a cold lager with your friends at this renowned festival in this lively, beautiful city.

Dia de los Muertos

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Celebrated on November 2nd in Mexico and places throughout the American Southwest, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a gathering of friends and families to remember those who have died. With origins in an Aztec festival honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl this is now a Mexican national holiday including festivals and parades (the intro to James Bond Spectre takes place during Mexico City’s parade). This holiday celebrates death as a human experience and it is believed that the dead would be offended with grieving. Instead of grieving, people can be found partying in cemeteries, building alters decorated with calaveras (skulls) and marigolds. Catrinas, a specific type of calavera – a well-dressed, wealthy woman of the early 20th century with the face of a skull, are a popular decoration and offering to the dead. Traditional pan de muerto – a colorful, sweet, soft bread – is eaten and given as gifts. Don’t be shocked if you find mariachis playing in cemeteries and laughter ringing among the headstones.

Festivals across the world are an amazing way to experience the culture of a place. You can lose yourself in a crowd and become enriched by the noise, color, vibrations, smells, sounds that permeate a city during its festival. Far from stuffy museums, confusing airports, tour groups with headsets on; festivals are a way to truly immerse yourself in a culture. Live the party! Viva Fiesta!

 

Enchanting Ireland

It’s that time of year again. Spring break, flowers blooming, oak pollen dropping from the trees, rivers filling up, weather warming. Of course, in the midst of all this is that one holiday that everyone loves to love, St. Patrick’s Day. What started as a simple religious holiday celebrating Ireland’s patron saint has morphed into a raucous world-wide party to pay homage to all that is Irish. Coincidentally, we have had several office visits from sales reps from Irish hotels and tour companies come through our doors this very week, in addition to several calls from clients, new and old, asking about trips to the Emerald Isle. All of these things have us talking and wistfully dreaming of a long leisurely journey to this magical place. A few minutes of research turns up postcard worthy pictures of lush landscapes, stately romantic castles on windswept cliffs, groups of laughing revelers cheering pints of Guinness: things that have come to symbolize and define the small island west of England.

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There is so much to consider when thinking about a trip to Ireland. Let’s get a few basics out of the way. There are 2 parts of the island, 2 countries, really: The Republic of Ireland, consisting of 26 counties to the south, and Northern Ireland which remains a part of the UK to the north. There are 2 officially recognized languages, English and Gaelic, with English being the predominate language. The currency is the Euro in the south and the British pound in Northern Ireland. It is a small island only 300 miles from top to bottom and 150 miles across. It is relatively the same size as the state of Maine. There are 3 main airports: Belfast in the North, Dublin and Shannon in the South. The climate is mild and wet, with warm sunny days breaking through intermittently. The terrain varies from undulating green landscapes to craggy wind torn cliffs, from rolling mountains, hills and rocky out crops to otherworldly geographic formations. (Side note: fans of the Game of Thrones will recognize many areas from the tv show which uses Northern Ireland as its primary backdrop.)

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For such a small place, we recommend at least 7 days for the highlight reel. Of course, ideally, ten days gets you more time to explore some off-the-beaten path landmarks and to get a better sense of place. An obvious starting place for your trip is Dublin, the largest city on the island, founded by Vikings and currently full of great museums, architecture, pubs and theaters.  A few days here will give you time to see the Guinness Storehouse (don’t miss the 360 view of the city from the rooftop Gravity Bar), Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Kilmaiham Gaol, which is famous for imprisoning the founding fathers of the Irish Free State. A stay at the luxurious Merrion Hotel won’t disappoint. Located in the heart of Dublin’s historic center it consists of restored 18th century Georgian town-houses. Many of Dublin’s great sites are walking distance from the hotel. Also, as you may have heard, Ireland’s food scene is booming and The Merrion is home to Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, the only restaurant in Ireland to hold 2 Michelin stars. After your power touring of Dublin’s lovely city center, relax with a pint of Guinness or a glass of whiskey in any of the city’s pubs and soak in the warmth of the local people and sounds of Irish music.

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Leaving Dublin, travel southwest through the gorgeous countryside of Wicklow and Kilkenny where you can stop off at the Rock of Cashel, the ancient seat of Irish kings, and then continue on towards Cork and Kerry. Once in Cork, drop your bags for your stay at Hayfield Manor, where hotel manager Ettienne will welcome you with a whiskey or an afternoon tea (or both!) and show you the property before you are off for some sightseeing. St. Finnbar’s Cathedral is stunning and a stop at the English Market of Cork City is a great way to stretch your legs and hunt for Irish treasures. A side trip down to Cóbh (pronounced cove) is a must. A quaint seaside town south of Cork City known as the final port of call of the RMS Titanic before her journey west, Cóbh has an interesting heritage center commemorating the city’s maritime background. Between 1848 and 1950 millions of Irish passed through this port as they immigrated to America and other parts of the world. At Herff Travel we have great connections in Ireland who can help trace your Irish heritage if you are decedent of one of those millions of immigrants. North of Cork City is the Blarney Castle – be sure to lean over backwards to kiss the Blarney Stone and gain the gift of eloquence, as the folklore proclaims.

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Continuing west will bring you to the Atlantic coast and the sweeping vistas of the Ring of Kerry encircling the Iveragh Peninsula. This is an excellent place for outdoor pursuits like golfing, cycling, running, hiking and horseback-riding. You can marvel at the unblemished scenery and thousands of years of Irish history on display. With such things to see as Torc Waterwall, Muckross House (considered one of the finest stately houses in the country) Ross Castle and Skellig Micheal (a jagged rock island in the Atlantic with ruins of an ancient monastery occupying a series of terraces), this area is a photographer’s paradise. We recommend a stay at Sheen Falls Lodge in Kinmare or a night at Killarney Park Hotel, just minutes from Killarney National Park the first national park established in Ireland. This area is full of picturesque villages with countless opportunities to walk out in nature and enjoy the crisp Irish air and lush scenery.

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From here, travel up to Adare Manor for a round of world class golf. The links golf courses of Ireland are a bucket list for golfers around the world and many famous PGA players can attest that some of the best courses in the world are on this island. The Adare Manor’s already award-winning course is being re-vamped to make it even more amazing. They are installing SubAir technology beneath every putting green, only one of a handful of courses in the world to have this feature. Adare Manor is located in County Limerick in the town of Adare, known as one of Ireland’s prettiest villages. Take in a bit of the slower side of life and learn some of the local Irish lore while you enjoy a night or two in this historic manor house. Its opulence and majesty is wonderfully countered by the warmth and friendliness of the staff and the pastoral beauty of the countryside.

From there you can easily hop on a plane in Shannon and be on your way home, but you would be remiss if you did. Instead, opt for a short, inexpensive flight up to Belfast, a city not to be missed. Northern Ireland is home to St. Patrick, his final resting place is in Downpatrick at Down Cathedral not far from Belfast. A new addition to Belfast is the Titanic Museum, opened in 2012, it was recently crowned ‘World’s Leading Tourist Attraction’ at the World Travel Awards ceremony. Standing on the site where the ship was built, it is an artfully designed building with nine galleries dedicated to Belfast’s ship building history and the legend of the Titanic. Don’t miss the Ulster Museum, the Botanical Gardens and Belfast’s budding culinary scene, boasting everything from Michelin starred restaurants to Oyster Festivals. A side trip to Giants Causeway is a must. A UNESCO World Heritage site of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, legend has it that they were built by a giant as stepping stones to keep his feet dry as he walked to Scotland.

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Ireland, as with most places, is best to be discovered in person. We haven’t even begun to cover all the magical things to see and do in Ireland. Truthfully, I haven’t scratched the surface of the wonderful folklore and traditions that add to the allure of this country. To be sure, of all the beautiful and interesting things to do and see in Ireland, the best part of any visit to this island is the people you encounter. The Irish people are renowned for their warmth, hospitality, sense of humor and good will. I have heard tales of people who had the most engaging cab rides of their lives while cruising around Dublin while the cabby talked endlessly about all aspect of life in Ireland. The people will welcome you with open arms and most likely chat your ear off at the pub with wonderful tales of their homeland. They will raise up a pint of Guinness to toast your journey and show you the true meaning of “craic.”

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River Cruises

There is a great Sting song, All This Time, that starts “I looked out across the river today. Saw a city in the fog and an old church town where the seagulls play.” I love this song because it tells a story: the story of a river. Rivers are the highways of the past. They are waterways that have fostered and housed civilization since the beginning and can tell us magical stories. Most of the cities that have dominated history have sprung up on major rivers. Rivers wind through enchanting scenery and chart courses through cities and towns that embody the culture of a place.

The buzz phrase around the office of late has been “river cruise.” I hear it every day. I see articles and web posts pop up in my social media feed all the time. It is the next big thing. Scratch that, it is the big thing. And, personally, I am obsessing about getting one scheduled as soon as possible. For those of you who have never heard of them or have been reluctant to explore them, please allow me to enlighten you!

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River tours run all throughout the world and, for the most part, are exceedingly well run. They are plentiful in Europe but they can also be found throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas. (We had 2 calls just the other afternoon for a Hudson river cruise. How lovely that would be in the fall with the colors resplendent in the New England sun!) Generally, these cruises embark and disembark in major cities of beauty and importance. Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Calcutta, Cairo and more. Often if a major city is not located exactly on the river there are included excursions, sometimes even with short flights, that will make sure to include them on your itinerary.

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These cruises are more like intimate voyages. The ships generally carry about 150 passengers, as opposed to some ocean liners that can pack in thousands of your closest friends. They are boutique cruises that can cater to all different tastes and preferences. You can experience the wines of Bordeaux, the temples of India, the sounds of New Orleans jazz. Ama Waterways even offers a golf tour down the Danube. These tours aren’t specific to just one season either. Picture yourself cruising down the Rhine, stopping off in the world-renowned Christmas markets of Germany, shopping, dining, exploring in a storybook winter landscape.

River cruise boats are meticulously designed and furnished with an exceptional eye for detail and the goal of luxury and comfort for all. They are floating luxury hotels with uniquely designed suites, well-appointed public spaces inside and out, spas and fitness areas, pools and sometimes even running tracks, over-sized chessboards and putting greens on deck. Additionally, they offer sumptuous food and wine experiences on board. Locally sourced and themed meals, providing a enticing farm to table experience. The cruises are generally all inclusive of meals and drinks, although this varies by cruise provider.

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On an adventure such as this one wants to disembark, to explore, to taste the flavors, to hear the sounds and to see the sights. River tour operators incorporate included shore excursions to appease all. You can experience castles, museums, vineyards, cathedrals, temples, farms, breweries, restaurants and bars. The list goes on and on. Guided tours are offered or you can explore on your own, on foot or borrowing the ships bikes for a ride along ancient city streets. Often, these tours are exclusive to the cruise company. Uniworld does a magical private night-time tour of St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice that includes a tour of the crypts below, something that the average tourist would not be able to do without some serious string pulling.

Rivers are truly a trip through time. They are an inspired way to explore a land and a culture. I have a wistful vision of floating along the calm waters of the Seine watching the sunset along the French countryside, a glass of the local wine, a warm blanket around my shoulders, the promise of tomorrow bringing a day full of newness. Rivers are timeless and important and tell innumerable stories. Again, the lyrics from Sting’s song swirl in my head, “all this time the river flowed endlessly to the sea.”

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Milano – Italy’s underrated treasure

Most visitors to Italy use Milan as a stopover on the way to Como or Venice from some other fabulous European location. Those who just pass through are truly missing out. This city is easily the most underappreciated city in Italy and should be enjoyed and celebrated! It is an exciting juxtaposition of ancient and modern, where Roman ruins lie exposed below rising 19th century apartment buildings. The name Milan traces its roots to the ancient milliners who helped make the city famous for its textiles and fashion. It is the banking capital of the country and is certainly the most progressive and modern city in Italy. You can appreciate its dramatic Italian Gothic cathedral, wildly different than any other cathedral in the country, as well as admire such modern architectural feats as the renowned Vertical Forest, a towering residential development in the city’s Porta Nuova district consisting of two skyscrapers covered in trees and other foliage. It is a city full of contrasts and innumerable things to do and see.

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No stop in Milan is complete without seeing the Piazza del Duomo. The beautiful white jagged cathedral sits proudly in the center of the crowded piazza flanked by the stunning shopping area Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II on one side and the Duomo Museum on the other. All three sites are worth any amount of time spent there.

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On the other side of the Galleria is the world renowned La Scala Opera house, recently renovated, it glitters majestically inside and out. If you can get tickets for a performance there consider yourself lucky. I spent a blissful few hours on a Sunday afternoon listening to a rehearsal performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto (luckily the backs of the seats have small monitors that can translate the opera into various languages for those who may want a translation of the performance). A few blocks from La Scala is the historical Brera neighborhood. Full of boutiques and tratorrias, it is a lovely way to spend a few hours of strolling. The lanes are narrow, winding and intimate with vendor stalls set up along side streets full of antiques, jewelry and artisan brickabrack. The Pinacoteca Museum, located in the Brera district, is one of the best museums in Italy and should not be missed. Lines can get long, I recommend a visit early on a weekday, if possible.

When the weather is nice, as it often is in the fall and spring (summers can be hot and sticky) a trip to Parco Sempione, the huge park a few blocks down from the Duomo, is a pleasant way to spend some time outdoors and away from the tourist traps. While there you can wander the grounds of the Castello Sforzesco and tour the museum there. This castle is steeped in Italian history and is like walking back in time to a land of knights and chivalry.

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For those who have the time and would like some off-the-beaten-path sites, I can’t go on enough about the amazing Cimitero Monumentale di Milano, Milan’s beautiful state cemetery! It is a short metro ride from the city center, in an area not often visited by tourists. The outside is imposing and the grounds fascinating. The Italians really know how to celebrate the dead as exhibited by this endless and haunting place.

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For a taste of the hip, vibrant nightlife you must visit the Navigli Grande, a series of canals designed by Leonardo (his influence can be found throughout the city, he is considered a treasured son of Milan) lined with quality restaurants, bars, night-clubs, cafes and shops. Stop into any one of them for an early evening aperitivo, a classic Italian happy hour consisting of a drink of your choice and several complimentary light snacks.

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The shopping in Milan is chic and extensive. Via Monte Napoleone is the place to be if you want to shop the high-end designers and exclusive boutiques.

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Several gorgeous hotels are near the Piazza del Duomo, Brera and Monte Napoleone areas that are the perfect spot to rest your weary head after a day of sight-seeing. The Mandarin Oriental Milan is a sophisticated property with perfect proximity to all the important sites and surrounded by interesting galleries, shops and restaurants. It inhabits four classic 18th century buildings and provides the perfect stepping off point for your stay. The Spa at the Mandarin is also the city’s first offering a holistic approach. The Park Hyatt Milan is a bit closer to the action being adjacent to the Galleria and just steps from both La Scala and the cathedral. The rooms are spacious and decorated in a classic contemporary style with original architectural and design details. Both hotels offer Virtuoso amenities.

A trip to Milan will surprise and engage any traveler. It has attractions and charms in abundance. Contract your Herff travel advisor for assistance to book a trip to this sophisticated, vibrant city soon.