Reflections of our adventure in the Amalfi Coast

The first time I went to Italy, I was 22 years old. I had saved for years to be able to spend a few months backpacking through Europe, my ultimate dream for as long as I could remember. More so than any other country I visited that summer, my expectations of Italy were high. I dreamed of sitting in cobblestoned squares with a glass of cold white wine, church bells in the background. I dreamed of rolling green hills, of turquoise Mediterranean waters. I dreamed of wandering tiny towns with even tinier streets, getting to glimpse just a bit of Italian culture and history with my own eyes.

Thankfully, Italy met all of my expectations and then some. My trip to the country was brief, my adventure a whirlwind, but I saw enough of the country - of its architecture, of its food, of its jaw-dropping beauty - that I knew I'd return one day.

What I didn't know then was that, over the next 13 years, my travel blog would develop into a full-time career. Travel blogging and writing would end up taking me back to Italy again and again; whenever I had a few days to spare, I'd eagerly look into ways of visiting a new city or region in Italy. After visiting over 100 countries, Italy keeps me wanting to return.

Timing is Everything

Despite my frequent trips to Italy - over a dozen in total - there was one region that always seemed to elude me. I had traveled around Northern Italy on my own many times but had never made it to Naples, Sorrento, or the Amalfi Coast in the south. Despite the Amalfi Coast being at the very top of my "must see" travel list, the timing never seemed to fit.

There was also the question of logistics; despite being an avid solo traveler, I knew I didn't want to see the Amalfi Coast on my own. I knew that the drive along the coast itself was one of the most beautiful in the world and that there was no way I could trust myself to keep my eyes on the road when there was so much beauty just outside the windows. And as much as I love traveling on my own, there's no denying that, sometimes, you just want someone to take care of things for you, to not worry about which train to take or how to find the hotel.

The solution to all of my Amalfi problems, then, was a tour. When I first read the Club Adventures itinerary for Naples, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast, it almost seemed too good to be true: a food tour in Naples, the birthplace of pizza; a day spent exploring Vesuvius and Pompeii, learning about the ancient volcano and the lives it claimed; limoncello tasting near Sorrento, including a tour of a lemon farm; wandering the winding streets of Capri; and finally, of course, having a full three days on the Amalfi Coast, taking in some of the most beautiful sights in the world.

Travel through a Local Lens

I'll be honest. Despite how amazing the tour sounded, I still felt nervous; I'm used to traveling solo, to doing things my own way. But from the moment I met Andrea, my local leader for the small group tour, I felt at ease. I loved that the tour group was small enough that we could all get to know each other well, and a fantastic dinner at a local trattoria in Naples on our first night cemented instant friendships.

Over the next nine days, I realized the small group tour was helping me discover so much more of Italy than I would have on my own. Firstly, we had Andrea, who was not only a wealth of information of history and culture of the region but an excellent resource for recommending the best local food and wine in each restaurant (we all agreed that Sorrento really does have the best limoncello). But we had so many other local people join us, too, not only experts in their fields but people whose passion for their culture and their hometowns became infectious.

  • There was Lilli in Naples, who insisted we try one of each of the local Neapolitan pastries, then took us for pizza in one of the most authentic restaurants in the heart of the Old Town.
  • We met Luigi near Sorrento, whose entire family runs a lemon farm; he showed us how to make the best limoncello possible before treating us to an incredible meal, all made with homegrown ingredients.
  • There was also Maria, who picked oranges grown in the sunshine on her family's farm near the Amalfi Coast for us; we learned about the way of life there, and how her family has lived on that same land for generations.
  • There was the family at a vineyard in Tramonti, a short drive from Amalfi, who gave us a tour of their property and prepared a traditional meal for us... which included, of course, a sampling of wine from their 500 year old vines.
  • And then there was Giovanni, the man who got us safely from Point A to B. Finally, I got to experience the road trip I had dreamed of for so many years. Along those twisting roads that took us from Sorrento to Amalfi, the coast unfolded in brilliant bursts of blue and green: the emerald hills and vineyards, the aquamarine sea, the endless azure sky. And while the entire tour was wonderful from start to finish, it was experiencing this - this Italy of dreams, this Italy that you can’t believe exists until you see it with your own eyes - that will forever stand out in my mind.

Over the next few days, we explored the towns of Amalfi and Positano by bus, boat, and foot, including the stunning hike of the Path of the Gods. Our small group spent some time together, and some time apart; we could choose how much time to have on our own, which was perfect for a person like me, used to independent travel. But more often than not, I chose to be with the group. We really had become like family, and every night we laughed and shared stories over plates of pasta and bottles of wine.

On the final morning, as I took the boat from Amalfi one last time, I watched the town for as long as I could until it disappeared from view. There's no denying I love Italy, and that I will return one day, but I knew that even before I started the Club Adventures tour in Naples. What I didn't expect was to create such strong memories on the tour. I didn't expect to meet so many local people who would show me things I'd never seen before, never in all those previous solo trips.

I thought I had already seen the best of what Italy could offer, but I was wrong. It turns out there was so much more to see and learn, and this time I had a group of new friends to experience it all with.

And honestly? You have got to try that limoncello. It really is the best.

Brenna Holeman is the blogger behind This Battered Suitcase, which specialises in long form narratives and solo travel tips. With over 100 countries under her belt, she’s a big fan of window seats, souvenir shopping, and local whisky.

Discovering the Balkans with Club Adventures

When I stumbled off the plane in Belgrade, Serbia, I was jet-lagged and haggard, but ready for an adventure. I was one of the lucky few who got to head out on Club Adventures’ first small group tour, and I had packed accordingly. Though I would be spending 8 days touring the Balkans, I’d only brought a backpack and a Club Adventures tote bag.

Club Adventures, powered by AAA Exclusive Vacations, is a brand-new small group travel company focused on culturally immersive and adventurous travel opportunities. Joining me on their maiden voyage were Bethany Hodge – the Travel Product Manager for Club Adventures (AKA the architect behind all of their trip itineraries), Lucas Bialecki – Club Adventures’ National Account Director, and ten AAA travel agents. Most of us were complete strangers, but that would change fast.

We were greeted in Belgrade by our Local Leader, Filip Friskich. Filip was tall, charmingly blunt and almost exclusively wore punk rock T-shirts. Like all Club Adventures Local Leaders, Filip was local to the area – having grown up in Croatia. He would be our guide throughout the trip, leading us through a total of four countries: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia. After a dinner out in Belgrade, we fell asleep in our local hotel.

The next day, we loaded into a stylish red minibus, helmed by our quiet and pleasant driver, Vlado. (In all the time I spent with him, Vlado only said 3 words to me: “Feeling okay?” and “Cold!” They each felt like gifts.) We were on our way to Sarajevo.

History with a Local Lens

When we arrived in the city, we met up with our Insider Expert (our city-specific guide), Muhamed Vlajčić. Since we were all starving, Muhamed treated us all to Bosnian burek, a flaky, spiral pie with various delicious fillings, from spinach to cheese to meat. Burek quickly became a tour group favorite. After we were full up with pastry and yoghurt, Muhamed took us on a tour of Sarajevo’s Old Town. We started to learn about this great city at the intersection of Eastern and Western culture. And we also started to learn about its painful past, like when we come across souvenirs made from old bullet casings.

The next day in Sarajevo, Muhamed took us on a tour called “Times of Misfortune,” which detailed the Siege of Sarajevo and the Bosnian Genocide. Our normally chatty and cheerful group grew quiet as Muhamed told us about his own experience growing up during the siege – and the literal scars he still carries. We headed to the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum and learned about the secret tunnel that became a lifeline to the people of Sarajevo. We even went through a small section of the tunnel, which was cramped and dark. I’m not a tall person by any means, but I had to double-over to walk through. Claustrophobia rose in the back of my throat like bile, and I scrambled out of the exit like I was being chased. I’d only walked about 80 feet. I can’t imagine going through that tunnel for 370 yards.

We returned to the city proper, and Muhamed guided us up to the top of the Yellow Fortress, so that we could view the city from above. It was a beautiful tapestry of red-roofed buildings and winding roads, nestled among the mountains. To see a city that survived so much was incredibly moving. Sarajevo was a trip favorite. None of us wanted to leave.

Travel Unscripted

On the bus the next day, Filip said, “Anyone sitting on the right side might want to move. Because of the cliffs.”

We were driving to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro, along winding mountain roads. Also, every couple of minutes I would look out my window and see nothing but a sheer drop down a cliff-face. It was beautiful, but it was also a little like being on a rollercoaster for six hours. At one point, the bus pulled off the road and we all actually screamed – but we weren’t plunging off the mountain. We were stopping for a surprise picnic.

“This was all Vlado’s idea,” Filip said as he opened a box of burek.

“Vlado!” We all cooed, and Vlado shrugged demurely.

When we reached the highlands, it felt like we were in a different world – a world of rugged mountaintops and sky and green grass. We came across a group of wild horses on the road and stopped to gingerly approach them.

“This,” Bethany said while she snapped some photos, “is really travel unscripted!”

I could write a novel about all of the beautiful things we saw on our ride to and through Durmitor National Park. We were unendingly spilling out of the bus to take pictures. At one point I started shouting about “Lord of the Rings.” When we reached the little ski lodge where we were spending the night, we were drunk on the scenery (and possibly the altitude).

In the morning, we left the mountains and arrived at the Adriatic Sea’s Bay of Kotor. Kotor is a beautiful beach town, crowded with tourists and locals alike. Our insider expert led us through Kotor’s Old Town, where fat feral cats roam around medieval-era buildings. We were then invited on a small boat tour, where we visited Our Lady of the Rocks, a church built on a man-made island in the middle of the bay. Some of us also took the opportunity to jump off  the boat for a sunset swim.

Small Group Experiences, a Lifetime of Memories

The next day, we had some free time in Kotor. I took the opportunity to wander around the Old Town myself, before retiring with a pastry and a good book to my hotel balcony, which overlooked the city and the water. I felt very European. That evening, a few of us got together for dinner and talked about how close we’d gotten over the course of the trip. It was amazing, the way we were willing to open up and share our life stories with what had previously been a group of strangers. I guess that’s what small group travel does, though. It brings people together.

My final stop was in Dubrovnik, Croatia. We were greeted by our local guide and headed to Dubrovnik’s Old Town – a medieval fortress that serves as King’s Landing on “Game of Thrones.” We walked along the walls around the city, which provided picturesque views of the Adriatic Sea. Afterward, we toured through the streets and heard ancient stories about Dubrovnik’s past.

That night, we had our last dinner as a group, in a restaurant at the base of the building that doubles as the “Game of Thrones” Red Keep. We were already feeling a little sentimental, but then Filip put us all over the edge by gifting us each a copy of “The Bridge On the Drina,” a famous novel about the history of the region we’d traveled through together. I couldn’t believe the trip was coming to an end.

In the morning, I shared a cab with Julia Ivey, another member of the group. We hugged at the airport like we were sisters, and then parted ways.

“Was that your friend?” asked a young couple who were also New York-bound.

“Yeah,” I replied. They all were.

Flavorful Forays: 10 Places Around the World Where You Must Try the Food

Nothing brings out the foodie in anyone more than a trip abroad. Every Anthony Bourdain wannabe knows that to truly experience a culture, you must experience its cuisine. Here are 10 places to travel and savor every bite along the way.

1. Japan

Everyone knows Japan for its sushi – in fact, the dish is now ubiquitous in many parts of the world. Sushi isn’t the only delicacy hailing from this Asian nation. Head to Osaka, home of takoyaki (balls of savory batter filled with diced octopus), or to Hiroshima for okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made with eggs, cabbage and other ingredients.

2. Singapore

Singapore’s long history as a major trading port of Asia has influenced its palate, fusing the culinary styles of the Malay, Chinese and Indian traditions. It’s easy to sample it all at Singapore’s famed food hawker centers, found in many spots around the island city-state, serving everything from entry-level Hainanese chicken rice to spicy laksa noodles.

Read more about traveling to Singapore.

3. Philippines

With roots in Malay tribes, the former Spanish-turned-American colony now has an independent identity that is influenced by its past – especially in its cuisine, where the flavor profiles are salty, savory and sour. Sisig – spiced minced pig head and liver served on a sizzling platter with a tangy splash of calamansi (Philippine lime) – is a culinary crowd-pleaser.

4. Montreal

France meets North America by way of the Canadian province of Quebec, where the French influence on provincial cuisine is evident. However, the quintessential Montrealer dish is poutine, a platter of french fries smothered in brown gravy and topped with cheese curds. Some eateries even take this base recipe and add on another true Montreal delicacy: smoked meat.

5. Italy

Pasta is often associated with Italian cuisine, with so many varieties hailing from different regions. When in Rome, do as the Romans do: Eat bucatini all’amatriciana, a typical pasta dish of Italy’s capital city – with pecorino Romano cheese, of course. When in Piedmont, have agnolotti with white truffles. When in Tuscany, do gigli with a nice ragu.

6. Spain

Beyond the Valencia-born paella, there are many other must-try dishes when traveling through the 17 autonomous regions that comprise Spain. In Catalonia, sample the noodles of fideua de peix. Up north, try polbo a feira, an octopus recipe from Galicia. Want to sample a variety of dishes in one sitting? Order tapas – small plates intended to share.

Read about food and sights in Barcelona, Spain.

7. Hungary

Hungry in Hungary? There are delicious ways to satisfy your craving with classic dishes like chicken paprikash or goulash, a traditional stew of meat, potatoes and vegetables. If you’re a fan of all things fried, a real favorite is langos – a deep-fried bread typically smothered in a garlicky cream sauce and cheese. Add bacon, if you’d like.

8. France

France is synonymous with good food; so much so that the English word “gourmet” is borrowed from French. Each region of the country boasts a proud local cuisine, so you’re bound to find a great meal wherever you travel, from the fish bouillabaisse of Provence to the coq au vin of the Burgundy region. Bon appetit!

9. Thailand

There’s spicy and then there’s Thai spicy, which is a whole other level of heat. If you’re keen on embracing it as the locals do, go beyond the trite orders of pad thai by dining on panang gai (chicken in a spicy red curry from the southern region) or yum jin gai (a spicy chicken soup from the north).

Read our tips for traveling in Southeast Asia.

10. Peru

Peru’s dishes are as diverse as its landscapes. Citrusy ceviche, a popular seafood dish, hails from the shore, while papas a la huancaina (potatoes in a creamy yellow pepper sauce) are farmland fresh. Meat eaters on their way back from Machu Picchu will appreciate a tender steak of alpaca, a lean red meat similar to bison.

Now that you know what to order in these countries, make sure you show your manners. Check out our slideshows on the appropriate behavior when dining in some of these countries.