Drinking Coffee in Sicily: An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

coffee cup
Travel and coffee, an excellent combination!

I never used to drink coffee.  In fact, when I was younger I couldn’t even stand the smell of it. Especially when some liquid residue of brewed coffee sat for hours or days on a burner in a workplace break room. But I bought the family an espresso machine for Christmas a couple of years ago and now I am as addicted to the holy bean as anyone.

When traveling, I don’t desperately need a cup of joe as soon as I get up. I can eat a leisurely breakfast and then seek out a café for my espresso and latté caffeine fix. In a pinch, I will go to Starbucks, but I think when overseas it is much better and nicer to find a friendly local place frequented by the natives.

Scopello view
The countryside near Scopello in Sicily.

I recently spent some time touring around the northwest corner of Sicily, just west of Palermo. I stayed in a villa out in the beautiful Sicilian countryside. The fields were full of olive trees and vineyards in one direction, and I had a delightful view of the Mediterranean Sea in the other direction. I ate breakfast every morning on the pool deck outside the house, but since there was no espresso machine (and I refuse to drink brewed coffee), I had to venture out by car to get a latté.

Scopello view of sea
View of a bay on the Mediterranean Sea near Scopello. No sand!

I found a small town called Scopello a few kilometers up the road. Scopello was built in the 16th century on the site of an older Moorish settlement.  The rocky coastline near Scopello is phenomenal with its crystal clear turquoise sea, beautiful bays, and jagged cliffs.  Scopello is located near a nature reserve called Zingaro, which is one of the finest and unspoiled areas of the Mediterranean. Near the town on the Mediterranean coast is an old tuna factory, where tuna was processed up until the 1980s. This region is certainly one of the most beautiful areas in Italy.

Scopello rocks
The famous rocks and old tuna factory of Scopello.

There was a small café in the main square of the town. I wandered in to practice my feeble Italian language skills.

Scopello cafe sign.
A cafe sign in Scopello.

“Un café con leche por favor,” I said to the grandmotherly woman behind the high counter. The old woman was clothed in traditional Sicilian country garb.  She was timeless. What year is this? Being in this town, in this café, with her behind the counter it could be 1850, 1950, or yesterday.

She stared at me with a blank look on her face. Shoot! That’s Spanish. I’m not in Spain. What am I thinking? I have to try again to not look like a dumb American tourist.

Scopello piazza
The Scopello piazza, with the cafe in the background, and a centuries old water trough.

“Un café au lait, s’il vous plaît,” I said.

The blank look had not changed on Grandmama. D’oh! That’s French, brain. Wrong language, wrong country again. What is my problem mixing up what few words I know in Spanish, French and Italian? I loudly cleared my throat and started over.

“Un latte per favore,” I said. I tried to clearly enunciate this phrase so she would understand my request.

Grandmama nodded her head and replied in English: “Yes, sir. A latte for you. Would you like any pastries with that?”

“Uhhhh, yes, please. I would like a chocolate filled croissant.” (They are my favorite).

Scopello baglio
The 800 year old “baglio” of Scopello, an agricultural estate headquarters.

I went into the café in Scopello each of the next few days. Each day I asked Grandmama for un latte e un cornetto al cioccolato. She would smile and rattle off a monologue of Italian back at me. I would not understand anything she said. I would simply nod my head like an idiot and smile back.

One day Grandmama was missing. Maybe it was her day off (I hope she hadn’t died during the night). A burly guy in his mid-30s was behind the counter. He had a New York Yankees baseball cap on his head.

“Un latte e un cornetto al cioccolato per favore,” I said to the man. He looked at me intently and then smiled.

“Sure, man. Coming right up,” said the guy in a strong New York accent.

Scopello chair
If you hang it on the wall you can call it art!

We got to chatting. Of course, he was from New York City; the Bronx in fact. He was born in Sicily but spent many years in the Big Apple. He was probably related to Grandmama somehow and came back to the ancestral home to help out in the café. He was a big Yankees fan so we talked about baseball and why Alex Rodriguez is such a jerk.

His name?

Michael Corleone III


Best Beaches of the Big Island, Hawaii

If you’re a beach lover like me, taking a trip to the beach is one of the most relaxing vacations. Sink into a beach chair, curl your toes into soft sand, and watch the surf roll in.

Whenever I go to a place with beaches, I always want to find the “best” beach. But I don’t want to stay in one place all the time either. I like to explore different areas of an island or coast.

Recently I traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. Here are the best beaches on the island.

Hapuna beach
A local girl catching some rays on Hapuna Beach.

Hapuna Beach State Park

This is the best beach on Hawaii. It is located on the northwest coast of the island in an area called the Kohala coast. The beach is hundreds of yards long, with soft white sand. Entrance to the water is sandy, smooth, and fairly shallow. It is an excellent beach for families with children. The surf break is relatively mild and is good for easy body surfing. There is no shade at this beach so bring an umbrella if you have one.

Kekaha Kai beach
An empty beach at Kekaha Kai early in the morning.

Kekaha Kai State Park

This state park is just north of the Kona International Airport on Queen Ka’ahumananu Highway. There are actually two separate beaches. The access to the first beach (the one farther north) is via a paved road whose entrance is across the highway from the Veteran’s Cemetery. It has soft white sand and park facilities, but no shade. Snorkeling is good along the rocks on the left side of the beach (facing the ocean). A local told me that dolphins are frequently seen in the shallow waters just off the beach.

Kekaha Kai cove
A secluded cove at Kekaha Kai State Park.

The second beach (the one farther south than the first), is accessed from the highway over a rough, unpaved road across a lava field. The road twists and turns for a mile or so from the highway to the beach parking area. Drive slowly or be prepared to lose a muffler if you aren’t driving a high clearance vehicle. From the parking area, it is a short hike of about two hundred yards to a pristine curved beach fringed by trees. This beach is typically less crowded than the others, probably because of the rough drive to get to it. It is a fine place to spend the day because there is shade.  Bring a beach chair, a cooler full of food and drink, and forget about the rest of the world.

White Sand Beach
The magic sands of White Sand Beach.

White Sands Beach Park

White Sands is located a few miles south of Kailua town on Ali’I Drive. It is a small beach, but it has soft white sand and is known for its surf break. Locals and tourists alike come to White Sands to ride boogie boards in the surf. A couple of days I was there, the surf was high and rough. I only managed a few rides on my boogie board before I was done getting tossed around and ground into the sand. To the right of the beach are reefs with lots of fish for good snorkeling and resident turtles. The beach is also known as Magic Sands Beach because winter storms sometimes make the sand disappear.

big fish
I went fishing and all I caught was this one…


Kahuluu Beach Park

This beach is a few hundred yards south of White Sands Beach on Ali’I Drive. This is a popular snorkeling spot. The beach has ugly gray sand and is generally unimpressive, but the snorkeling is superb. There are a lot of reefs spread around the bay in shallow water. The inexperienced snorkelers tend to stay close to the left side, but I found that the best snorkeling is farther out into the bay near the reef line. This is the only beach that I visited that had any food or drinks for sale. At Kahuluu there was a food truck parked near the facilities, selling ice cream, snacks, and sodas.

black sand beach
Hot on the feet!

Punaluu County Beach Park

Punlauu Beach has Hawaii’s famous black sand. The sand is crushed black lava. This beach is on the southeast side of Hawaii. If you are taking a driving tour of the island, it is about 67 miles (and 1 hour and 45 minutes) from Kailua-Kona.

It is definitely worth the drive to see this beach. It is spectacular. However, the black sand gets very hot! Wear water shoes or flip flops instead of going barefoot to walk across this beach. Also, the surf is rough and there are lots of rocks in the water at the shoreline. So it is not a good beach for swimming or lounging, but it is an amazing sight.

After previously visiting Oahu, Maui, and Kawaii, I think I like the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii the best.

golf course view on Hawaii
Tropical paradise on the Big Island, Hawaii.

The 5 Best Castles in Wales

For anyone interested in medieval times, knights in shining armor, fair maidens, the struggles of kings and conquered peoples, and fortifications, the place to visit is Wales. This tiny country in the United Kingdom has the world’s best collection of existing castles from the Middle Ages.

Conwy Castle
Conwy Castle on the River Conwy in Wales.

Between the Norman invasion in 1066 and the English Civil War in 1651, warring English and Welsh forces constructed, and in many cases tried to destroy, more than 400 great stone fortresses. That’s a huge amount for such a small place. Some castles were constructed by Welsh princes to defend their homeland from the English invaders. Other castles were built by the English kings William of Normandy and Edward I to subjugate the proud nation of Wales.

Here’s my list of the top five castles to visit in Wales: Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Harlech, and Raglan.

Conwy Castle inside view
Interior view of Conwy Castle.

I started my castle tour driving into Wales from the Roman town of Chester, England. The first stop was the magnificent Conwy Castle. Conwy has been described as “one of the most outstanding achievements of medieval military architecture.”  Conwy Castle was built from 1283-1289 to strategically protect the entrance to the River Conwy in north Wales. The English king Edward I withstood a siege in the castle in 1295 during a Welsh revolt. After climbing to the top of one of the towers, I could see for miles up and down the river. It was certainly built in the right spot to control the area.

Conwy Castle tower view
View from one of the towers of Conwy Castle.

Farther west along the coast of North Wales is Beaumaris Castle. This is the last of the many castles built by Edward I. Construction began in 1295 with 3,500 laborers on the job. After 35 years of building, the money and supplies ran out and the castle was never completed.

Beaumaris Castle entrance
The entrance to Beaumaris Castle.

Beaumaris was designed with geometric symmetry in a beautiful setting amidst marshland. Part of the castle was connected by a short protected channel to the Irish Sea, so ships could safely deliver men and supplies.

inside Beaumaris
Inside view of Beaumaris Castle.

The most famous castle in Wales is Caernarfon Castle. This fortress was modeled on the walls of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and begun in 1283.

Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle in North Wales.

Caernarfon was intended as the seat of English government in Wales. In 1284, Edward I’s son was born in the castle and thus was dubbed the “Prince of Wales.” This tradition of giving the heir to the English throne the title of Prince of Wales carried forward all the way to 1969, when Prince Charles became the latest prince in a ceremony held at the castle.

Caernarfon Castle view
Interior view of Caernarfon Castle.

Situated on the west coast of Wales, Harlech Castle has a concentric design and is noted for its large gatehouse protecting the entrance to the castle. It was also built by Edward I from 1282-1289 during his invasion of Wales.

Harlech Castle
The imposing entrance to Harlech Castle.

Harlech was controlled by various sides in the English and Welsh wars and later in the English Civil War in 1461-1468, and was the site of several sieges. The castle was heavily damaged during the sieges and was never rebuilt.

Harlech Castle view.
Spectacular views of the Welsh countryside from one of the towers of Harlech Castle.

The last castle I visited before leaving Wales was Raglan Castle. It is one of the oldest castles in Wales, having been established by the Normans in the twelfth century. It was modified throughout the late medieval period.

Raglan Castle entrance.
The entrance to Raglan Castle.

Raglan was lived in for hundreds of years before being ruined during a siege in the English Civil War.

Raglan Castle tower view
Interior view of Raglan Castle from one of the towers.
Raglan Castle bathroom.
One of the bathrooms in Raglan Castle.

It was interesting to see the parts of the castle used for domestic purposes, such as the kitchen with its massive fireplaces and ovens, and even a latrine with a stone toilet seat!

As we know very well today, war is expensive. When the English invaded Wales, I wonder if King Edward I had any idea how much it was going to cost his treasury to build all of these castles to protect his conquests.

Was it worth it? Probably not, but it left us with a rich array of stunning military architecture to appreciate.





How to Make Scotch Whisky

One of the things I wanted to do during a recent stay in Scotland was to take a tour of a Scotch whisky distillery. I don’t typically drink whisky, but I was in Scotland so I thought I needed to at least try the good stuff and see if I could distinguish it from the rotgut.

I joined a tour leaving from the Royal Mile of Edinburgh that wound its way out of the city and into the countryside. The Scottish geography is beautiful in the summer, on one of those rare days when the sun is out and the gray rain clouds have been pushed east into the North Sea. The rolling hills, the heather in bloom, the men in kilts, I could almost picture a man with bagpipes assaulting everyone’s ears.

famous grouse
How did that bird become famous?

After an hour of wandering down country lanes, the tour bus pulled up to the oldest Scotch whisky distillery in Scotland. The Glenturret Distillery near Crieff, Scotland, started perfecting the making of Scotch back in 1775, about the time that the first shots were fired in the American Revolution. Glenturret’s main brand is a blended Highland Scotch called the Famous Grouse; hence their tour is called the Famous Grouse Experience.

famous grouse statue
A giant grouse statute at the Glenturret Distillery.

A young local man named Colin was our tour guide and resident expert. Colin walked our group through each of the rooms in the distillery and explained what happened in each room. One or two steps of the distilling process was performed in each room. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photographs in the working distillery.

Scotch is made from malted barley, yeast and water. The distilling process works as follows. The barley is soaked in water for two to three days, then spread over the floor of a room called a malting house. The green malt is dried in a kiln over peat smoke. The malt is then milled into grist, which is like a coarse flour. The grist is then mixed with hot water in a mash vat called a tun at about 70 °C for about an hour. This is drained off and second, hotter water is added and allowed to run straight through. Finally, a third, even hotter water is added and allowed to run through.

Glenturret Distillery
A nice day in the Highlands of Scotland.

The resulting sugary substance is collected, cooled and fermented in large pine vats called wash backs. Yeast is added and after 48 hours of fermentation, a substance called the wash is made. The wash is pre-heated in a wash-charger and from there goes to a wash still. A wash still is a large pot made of copper and is of a shape unchanged in the history of Scotch whisky making. The wash is heated in the pot still so the alcohol vapor rises up inside the still, then cools and condenses in something called the low wines receiver. The low wines then passes through to container called the spirit still, where it is distilled again.

Famous Grouse bottle
A very old bottle of the Famous Grouse.

The spirit running through the pot and spirit stills can be sampled and tested by a specialist called the “stillman” to ensure everything is going right with the process. The spirit from the spirit still is divided into three parts, but only the middle part, called the “Heart of the Run” is suitable to be made into malt whisky. The other two parts are fed back into the low wines receiver to be re-distilled. The middle cut is then sent to an oak spirit receiver and from there to filling vats in a place called the spirit store.

At this stage, more water is added to reduce the concentration of alcohol from 75% to 64%. The Scotch is stored in oak casks, each of which is handmade and therefore unique, so each must be weighed before and after filling to determine how much Scotch is in each ask. The casks are stored in a warehouse for a minimum of three years. While in the barrel, the Scotch absorbs flavor from the oak. Generally, the longer the Scotch stays in the barrel, the darker the color of the liquid, and the higher valued is the Scotch.  Single malt whisky is kept in the oak casks to mature for 8, 10, 12, 15 or 21 years, or even longer for very special bottlings. Once the Scotch is taken out of the barrel and bottled, it no longer matures.

tasting room at Glenturret
Step right up and taste some fine Scotch!

At the end of the tour, Colin led us to the tasting room where we tasted different kinds of Scotch and Scotch that had been aged different lengths of time. Despite repeated attempts at tasting, I couldn’t really distinguish the differences between the drinks. Maybe my abilities degraded over time while tasting, I don’t know….

Of course, we exited through the gift shop. I bought several bottles of Glenturret Scotch. Someday I will open them for a special occasion, like maybe making a hole in one on the golf course, the start of football season, or the end of media coverage about the 2016 Presidential Election.

Scotch bottle
Standing next to the World’s Largest Bottle of Scotch.

Experiencing Formula One Racing at the British Grand Prix

The great engines whined at a tremendous volume as the race cars came around the turn and then accelerated with maximum throttle. As seen close to the track, the cars became a blur as they whizzed by at over 200 mph. I was 15 rows up in the stands and had a nice perspective view of the turn and the straightaway. On the giant screen in front of me I could see race information and driver’s eye views of the track in front of the race car as it sped by.

race car
The Formula 1 car is a blur at 200 mph.

This was my first racing event. I haven’t been interested in car racing in general, and know very little about Formula 1 racing. However, I was going to be touring the UK during the dates of the British Grand Prix, so with the goal of seeking out new experiences around the world I bought a ticket along with some English friends.

The British Grand Prix is held every July at the Silverstone Circuit, near the small village of Silverstone, England. My seat was in the grandstand seating area called Woodcote, located on the course right after the sharp hairpin turn designated number 7 on the map below. I had a great view of the sharpest turn on the course, followed by the straightaway before turn number 8.

Silverstone race course
The racing circuit at Silverstone.

My friends live in Bakewell, in the Peak District, a two hour drive north from Silverstone. Since all of the hotels near the racing circuit are booked many months in advance of the race, we had two choices. First, we could camp in a field near the circuit, which required lots of camping gear and opened us up to the possibilities of getting soaked by rain (this being England after all). Second, we could drive from their house to the racing circuit and back each day. We chose door number two. Although it was four hours round trip in the car, it was the best option.

race course view
Formula 1 race car in the straightaway after turn 7 at Silverstone.

The Grand Prix event takes place over three days. I had no idea that there would actually be a lot of car racing going on, not just one big race.

On Friday, the Formula 1 drivers take their cars for practice laps around the circuit. There are two other classes of race cars, called GP2 and GP3. These are older or slightly slower cars that up and coming drivers race before they are ready for the more advanced Formula 1 cars. The GP2 and GP3 cars race around the track in qualifying sessions to determine the starting order of the cars for the GP2 and GP3 races, respectively.

In addition, Porsche sponsors a series of races called Super Cup races. All of the cars in the Super Cup races are identical Porsche 911s. Only the skill of the drivers determines the champions in Super Cup, not any difference in car technology. On Friday the Porsches run their practice laps. (to see other cool Porsches go here)

Porsche 911
Close up of a Porsche 911 during the Super Cup race.

On Saturday, the Formula 1 cars race for their qualifying times. The GP2 and GP3 cars compete in a first race for each class. The Porsches hold their qualifying sessions.

On Sunday, the GP2 and GP3 cars competed in their second races (with combined times determining the champion), and the Porsches competed in their race. After much fanfare, including a parachute display by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Falcons jump team, and aerial acrobatics by some RAF  Typhoon fighter jets, it was finally time for the big race.

British Grand Prix race view
The start of the British Grand Prix at turn 7.

The race course is 3.66 miles around, and the race comprises 52 laps. The entire race takes about an hour and a half to two hours to run. The time is variable because there may be delays in the race due to crashes.

In searching for a particular shirt among multiple souvenir shops, I made the mistake of trying to walk around the outer perimeter of the entire racing circuit after the GP2 race. I kept walking to the next souvenir shop around the course looking for my desired shirt. By the time I got to the halfway point after 45 minutes of walking, I realized I might as well just keep walking around back to my starting point instead of turning around. I barely made it back to my seat in time for the big race.

The local favorite is British racing champion Lewis Hamilton, who drives for the Mercedes team. Every time his car came around our position on the track, all of the fans jumped up and cheered. Hamilton has won the race twice before, and was the favorite this time around.

Race car drivers at British Grand Prix
Driver parade before the British Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton is at left.

Hamilton was in the pole position when the race started due to having the fastest qualifying lap, but he was passed right at the start by two other drivers. He hung in third place until he stopped for new tires at lap 19. When the other two drivers were forced to change their tires, Hamilton took the lead.

He cruised along comfortably until late in the race when it started to rain. This is summer in England! Despite the rain, Hamilton stayed with faster dry weather tires while other drivers switch to slower wet weather tires. This gave him the advantage he needed, so that when he went into the pit to switch to the wet weather tires, the other drivers couldn’t catch him.

Mercedes team driver Lewis Hamilton, winner of the British Grand Prix.

I never knew how tire changing strategies and deciding when to take pit stops could make the difference between being the champion and having no place on the winner’s podium. As Hamilton crossed the finish line it seemed as if all 120,000 spectators cheered at once for the hometown hero.


Travel Stories from Around the World by Steve Skabrat