Robin Bennefield

Robin Bennefield is a freelance writer, digital media producer and author of the travel blog, Robins Have Wings. She has climbed a volcano in Nicaragua, shopped for knock-off designer handbags in the backroom of a Shanghai kitchen and watched camels meander through her tented camp in the Sahara. She often shares her stories with TravelChannel.com and anyone else who likes a good travel yarn.

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Rio Grande do Sul

Photography by André Maceira

When you think of Brazil, do you think of cowboys in wide-brimmed hats and red neck kerchiefs, verdant canyons and apple strudel? Didn’t think so.

These things happen to be as Brazilian as a pulsating samba beat; Technicolor carnival costumes and intoxicatingly beautiful beaches, and you can find them in the country’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is getting ready for its star turn during the 2014 World Cup.

The region will reveal a side of Brazil that few know with culture and customs traced back to fiercely independent gauchos, along with determined Portuguese, Spanish, German and Italian settlers.  These customs show up mostly in the region’s foods. There’s chimarrao, the evra mate tea sipped from a communal cup called a cuia; galeterias, restaurants serving the pastas, polenta and grilled chicken of Italian immigrants; and café colonial, serving plate after plate of German-inspired dishes, including strudel. And then, there is churrasco, the gaucho parade of grilled beef, pork and chicken, probably Rio Grande do Sul’s most well-known export. READ MORE

Brazil will face Croatia in the opening match of the 2014 Word Cup in Sao Paulo on June 12, while the US team battles Ghana in Natal in its first match on June 16. FIFA announced the World Cup draw today determining tournament match ups in 12 host cities across Brazil.

With the announcement of the draw, the Brazilian tourism board, Embratur, will work with airlines to release more domestic flights to World Cup cities to accommodate soccer fans traveling to Brazil to see their favorite teams. Airlines will have 15 days to present their new flight plans to the board and new fares will be determined shortly thereafter.

Throughout the tournament, teams will play in several cities, traveling to a new city as they advance in each round of play, which means plenty of chances for fans to see lots of Brazil. For example, the US team plays its first match in northeastern Brazil in the city of Natal, known for its beaches and surf culture. On June 22, Team USA moves west to Manaus, the capital of the steamy Amazon region, to play Portugal. Then, it’s back to the beach in Recife to face Germany on June 26.

World Cup travelers can find new flights and fares by searching airline booking sites or going directly to some domestic Brazilian airlines like TAM, GOL, Avianca and Azul.

Embratur says air travel will be a must during the World Cup, especially over long distances between places like Manaus in the north and Porto Alegre in the south, the equivalent of traveling between the East and West Coasts in the US.

“It will be a unique opportunity for tourists to discover even more attractions we are so proud of and want to showcase,” says Vincente Neto, Embratur’s special aide for major events.

“The 12 host cities showcase, with great ease, the variety and diversity of our country and I have no doubt that, regardless of which destination is chosen, tourists who visit Brazil will have a unique life-changing experience.”

The Zócalo

Photo: Robin Bennefield
The Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square, at night.

In a country that’s been getting a bad travel rap, Mexico City stands devoid of travel warnings, rich with cultural heritage, an impressive arts scene and cutting-edge cuisine. It checks all the boxes for the urban traveler seeking a cosmopolitan mix of stylish hotels, trendy neighborhoods and new foodie pursuits.

Just a 4 or 5 hour flight from the East Coast or West Coast, the city boasts over 170 museums, a burgeoning high-end shopping district, the oldest park in North America and one of the largest public squares in the world. So, if you go, put away any pre-conceived notions, pack some patience to navigate the city’s traffic-jammed streets and start by hitting these Mexico City hot spots.

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Photo: Robin Bennefield

First Lady and style icon Jacqueline Kennedy found refuge horseback riding in Middleburg, VA, 50 years ago, and in the very place where she once rode, a stylish new retreat has arisen. This weekend, Salamander Resort & Spa opened its doors as the only new luxury destination and spa to open in the US in 2013.

Just an hour from the White House, beyond Beltway gridlock, and where northern Virginia’s Route 50 undulates past old Civil War markers and new wineries, Salamander Resort aims to make its mark as an escape for politics-weary Washingtonians and a destination for discerning luxury travelers.

Salamander is well on its way, with a bucolic location at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, grand country estate design, top-notch gastronomy and state-of-the art spa facilities. The 168-room resort is all the brainchild of Washington-area entrepreneur, Sheila C. Johnson, who co-founded Black Entertainment Television and executive produced the movie The Butler.

As it turns out, it’s nice to be inside Sheila Johnson’s brain, which appears to be filled with pastoral greens, creams and pale blues as displayed in the “Living Room,” an airy, elegant lounge space overlooking a 100,000-square-foot lush, sloping lawn.  Johnson’s personal style and even her personal items have made it into every aspect of the resort, from bronze statues of a proud equestrian and her own children in the Living Room, which happens to be modeled after her own living room to her nature photography lining seasonally-themed hallways and guestroom walls. Nearly 20 percent of the art throughout the resort is from her personal collection, including a 14-foot tapestry once owned by Napoleon.

Photo: Robin Bennefield
Bronze statue from Sheila Johnson’s personal collection.

Photo: Robin Bennefield
The Salamander stables.

Her passion for horses and equine pursuits are equally apparent at Salamander with a full-service equestrian center and horse trails, suites named for her daughter’s favorite horses, right down to stirrup-embroidered bed linens. These little details are almost as striking as the property itself.

Here are a few other things that struck this traveler during Salamander’s opening weekend:

 The Library

It sounds cliché but this really is the perfect place to curl up with a good book, and there are plenty for you to borrow — from aspirational biographies to gripping mysteries. The dark, supple leather chairs feel like a warm hug. I almost wished for cold weather to see this room with its fireplace blazing. There are also dark library-appropriate games like chess and backgammon.

Photo: Robin Bennefield

Harriman’s Virginia Piedmont Grill

When I ordered the BBQ’d Shrimp and Grits for brunch, the waiter smiled and said “good choice.” I always pay attention to server comments and selections, so I got my taste buds ready. They weren’t disappointed when the savory and mildly sweet shrimp, atop a creamy bed of grits, reached my mouth. Johnson has gotten Todd Gray, one of the best chefs in the DC area to lead the culinary charge at Salamander, and I’d say that was a good choice. The 3-course brunch with all-you-can-drink bacon-decorated Bloody Mary’s and mimosas with fresh-squeezed orange juice is a palate pleaser.

Photo: Robin Bennefield

 

Photo: Robin Bennefield

Salamander Spa

If there is a crown jewel at the Salamander Resort & Spa, it is the spa, which turns out to be Johnson’s favorite space at the resort, according to the its director of public relations, Matt Owen. A world-class destination spa has been at the center of Johnson’s vision for Salamander since 2002 and she delivered, with just one feature, actually 2: the heated stone Tepidarium chairs that cradle and deliver warmth along every inch of the spine. My sister and I made a circuit between the chairs, the gurgling vitality pool and an aromatic steam room with a eucalyptus steam that won’t quit. We ended with a citrus drench wrap made from honey, orange juice and Shea butter, feeling completely rejuvenated.

Photo: Robin Bennefield

Photo: Robin Bennefield

 

The Salamander Resort & Spa joins Johnson’s other highly-rated luxury properties, Innisbrook, Reunion and Hammock Beach resorts in Florida, and aims for the same 5-star ratings. But even with all the high-end pampering and luxe appointments, Salamander feels surprisingly homey and inclusive. It’s kid-friendly, with a collection of books and DVDs for kids in the library, and pet-friendly with water bowls strategically placed around the property for the traveling pooch.

The fall may bring even more amenities, like ziplines and a tree-top canopy tour of the 200 wooded acres on the property, along with what I’d come back for: treetop spa treatment rooms.

Lindsey Simmons of Girls Gone Bayou

Some small towns are hot destinations. Take Bastrop, LA, for instance. Never heard of it? If you are a hunter or an avid outdoorsman, you have. Bastrop, just outside Monroe, LA, is home to Simmons’ Sporting Goods, one of the largest sporting goods stores in the country, drawing customers from across the South and selling everything from camouflage and camping gear to guns and ammo to ATVs and 4-wheelers. Bastrop also happens to be home to TravelChannel.com’s new exclusive web series, Girls Gone Bayou.

The series follows the quirky adventures of Lindsey Simmons, as she takes over day-to-day operations of Simmons’ with some help from gal pals, Lori and Kila. Lindsey’s got to convince her overbearing dad, Jeff, that they are up for the challenge, and prove that she and her blonde bombshell BFFs can hunt, fish and trap better than any good ole boy in the bayou. You can watch all 9 episodes of the series, starting today, on TravelChannel.com

We asked Lindsey what people should know about Bastrop and to share her favorite places in her hometown.

“Obviously, one of the biggest attractions for our town is Simmons’ Sporting Goods,” Lindsey says. “We have people that drive from a 5 state radius just to come to our store! They bring their RVs or stay in hotels and make a weekend out of it.”

Lindsey also recommends a stroll through Bastrop’s Town Square at the intersection of Highway 165 North and Highway 425 North to visit its antique shops, jewelry stores and theater.

“It’s a great place to explore Bastrop,” she says. “I guarantee you, when you pass people on those streets, they WILL smile and make you feel at home. I just love that!”

Finally, there’s the Morehouse Activity Center, known as “The Mac,” on Marlatt St.

“On Saturday night you can find everyone in town there to watch a rodeo,” Lindsey says. “Talk about a good time!”

Bastrop has some famous frequent visitors, too. The Robertsons of Duck Dynasty have been doing business with the Simmons’ ever since they started making duck calls. The popular reality-TV family signs autographs at Simmons’ every year.

“They are a great family and are truly as wholesome as they seem on TV,” Lindsey says. “Willie is a hoot. He’s down to earth and hilarious.”

Sounds like another family we’ve come to know. Get to know Lindsey, her family and friends on Girls Gone Bayou. Watch the first episode, now.

If you’re a New Yorker, you may already be in the know. If you’re not, here’s what you should know: Queens, NY, may have the most diverse food scene in the world. Melting pot truly applies to the collection of foods and eateries in New York City’s fifth borough of 2 million people, hailing from places as far-flung as Bulgaria and Tibet.

We asked a couple of Queens food bloggers to give us the inside scoop on good global eats in their neighborhood. Joe DiStefano writes about his food adventures in Queens on his blog, Chopsticks + Marrow, and Lingbo Li shares her food musings on her eponymous blog, Lingbo Li. Both recently took Andrew Zimmern on an underground tour of their favorite foodie spots in their beloved borough. You can see them in tonight’s episode of Bizarre Foods America: Queens, NY: World’s Best Food Town at 9|8c. In the meantime, here’s what they told The Traveling Type:

TC: What gives Queens its unique flavor, so to speak?

Joe DiStefano

Joe DiStefano

Joe DiStefano: A combination of diversity and authenticity. When you go to a Nepalese restaurant in Queens you’re eating where Nepalese folks eat and work and getting a taste of what their food is like back home without having to travel half way around the world. The same holds true for Thai, Liberian, Ecuadorean, etc. In addition to all the ethnic restaurants, there are spots like Salt & Fat and M. Wells Dinette where chefs draw upon the borough’s many rich cultural heritages.

Lingbo Li: The gorgeous melting pot of immigrants! You can’t get quality food without the demand for it.

TC: Has Queens become a foodie destination or is it still off-the-beaten track? Is it the next big foodie destination?

JD: The corridors of Flushing’s Golden Mall have yet to be as crowded as Eataly. That said there is a growing interest and it’s not uncommon to see some tourists. I sincerely hope it becomes the next big foodie destination. There’s just so much great stuff here. Foodies who come to New York City and spend all their time — and money — in Manhattan are missing the boat.

LL: I think it’s always been on the radar for food enthusiasts, but it’s not yet completely mainstream. In college, people who lived a 15-minute walk off campus might as well have been living in Timbuktu. I think a similar geographic psychological distortion effect probably takes place [with Queens]. The LIRR [Long Island Rail Road] makes it really easy, though, so there’s no excuse!

TC: What are your top 3 favorite places to eat in Queens and why?

JD: There’s this Mexican food truck in Corona called Tortas Neza. It’s run by a dude from Mexico City who’s got more than a dozen tortas — overstuffed sandwiches — each named for a different futbol club. The Pumas, named for his favorite team contains everything but the kitchen sink and can feed a small family. And his tacos, particularly the carnitas, are stupendously good.

I’ve been eating there for more than 5 years, but Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall — a hive-like collection of regional Chinese deliciousness — remains one of my favorite destinations whether I’m leading a food tour or just grabbing dinner. The Henanese hand-pulled lamb noodle soup on the upper level is amazing.

And I have to get my M. Wells Dinette fix, at least once a month. In fact I am going tomorrow. Hugue Dufour is a genius. The dishes here — beef tartare, oatmeal with foie gras, escargot and bone marrow tart, to name a few — are decadent yet balanced. And he’s always running bizarre dishes like cockscombs and duck testicles in veal broth with wild mushrooms and sunchokes encased in a puff pastry dome.

Lingbo Li

Lingbo Li

LL:  First, the lamb noodle shop in the Golden Shopping Mall on the first floor. Everything — from the flavorful broth to the crisp wood ear mushroom to the chewy, toothsome noodles — combines to form a heavenly bowl of WTF-this-is-amazing. Actually, a lot of things in the Golden Shopping Mall, like that beef tendon in the basement. We ate it on the show, if it made it in. Just give me a bowl of white rice and some spicy beef tendon and I would be very, very happy.

Second, M & T, an unusual regional restaurant for Qingdao cuisine. I haven’t eaten here for a while, and am due to come back soon.

And third, Jmart! I’m appreciative of variety, so food courts are pretty much heaven for me, if you couldn’t tell. There’s a fantastic place there that will make a giant bowl of spicy things stir-fried together.

TC: What’s your best Queens food memory?

JD: I’d have to say hanging out at the Hog Days of Summer, watching a 200-plus-pound Heritage breed hog get loaded on the smoker and then eating it the next day. My buddy Tyson Ho is the Chinese-American king of eastern North Carolina whole hog barbecue. Seriously, he is.

LL: My favorite memory from my childhood, and one of the few moments where everyone in my family managed to get along, was getting food from one of the food courts in Flushing. Back then, the Flushing Mall was more vibrant (it’s since been replaced by Jmart), and I looked forward to their shaved ice, the spicy noodles, the Taiwanese oyster pancakes and the takoyaki stall that’s since disappeared.

TC: What’s your favorite food town? Other than Queens, of course.

JD: Lately Chapel Hill, NC. The pies and whole hog at Allen & Son BBQ are wonderful. And the soul food at Mama Dips can’t be beat.

 LL: I love spending weekends in Portland, ME. It’s just such a chill, adorable little town with amazing food (Fore Street, Duckfat, The Holy Donut), friendly, crunchy people, and beautiful scenery. Internationally, I’ve had such amazing meals in the cities of Tokyo, Penang and Bangkok. Mmm, Asian food.

 TC: What non-food stop would you recommend in Queens?

JD: Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam, aka the Ganesh Temple, in Flushing is truly amazing. It offers a window into another culture. If you get hungry, there are excellent dosas to be had at the temple canteen in the basement.

LL: OK, so here’s something that’s kind of awesome: There’s a super-cheap store called Pretty Girl at 136-21 Roosevelt that sells shirts and dresses for rock-bottom prices. A lot of stuff there is pretty trashy, but if you dig around, you can find clothing for mind-bogglingly low prices. I still get compliments on a print wrap dress I got from there … 6 years ago.

The word for local in Hawaiian is “kamaaina,” and to find out how to eat like a kamaaina, you have to ask one. On a recent trip to Honolulu, locals directed me to Kapahulu Ave, an unremarkable stretch of road in the shadow of Diamond Head, where the daily business of Oahu happens away from touristy Waikiki Beach. I got some of my best food tips on Waikiki Beach from a bartender at Duke’s Waikiki who drew me a map of Kapahulu on the back of a cocktail napkin. If you find yourself in Honolulu, play kamaaina for a day and take a trip down to Kapahulu Ave to one of these local foodie hot spots.

Ono Hawaiian Foods
726 Kapahulu Ave.

Photos: Robin Bennefield

When I asked a local named Larry the best place to have an authentic Hawaiian meal, he said Ono Hawaiian Foods, without hesitation. He also told me that “ono” means delicious in Hawaiian. According to Larry, the lau lau is ono. So, I had to go and give it a taste. Ono has all the characteristics of a hole in the wall: it’s tiny; the staff tells you to sit wherever you want; and there are framed pictures of famous Hawaiians all over the walls. One non-local catches my eye: Richard Chamberlain of Thornbirds fame, which boosts its quirk level about 10 points in my book. I order the pork lau lau and I get a hunk of taro leaf-wrapped pork, accompanied by small bowls of raw onions, lomi salmon, dried beef, poi and hanupia. I get an explanation of what I’m eating from Toyo, the gregarious manager, whose mother started the local favorite over 50 years ago. The lomi is a salmon salad with tomato that tastes like salsa, the dried beef is like bits of well-seasoned beef jerky, the hanupia is a slightly-sweet, Jell-O-like coconut pudding, and the poi is the purple, tangy, gooey by-product of pounded taro root, which Toyo tells me is very healthy and good for digestion. He also explains that the lau lau, which reminds me of a Southern dish of collard greens and ham hocks, is typically steamed in a pit in the ground. But the thing that he most wants to tell me, when he finds out that I write for Travel Channel, is that Anthony Bourdain once sat 2 tables away.

Side Street Inn on Da Strip
614 Kapahulu Ave.

Photo: Robin Bennefield

Bourdain also visited the original Side Street Inn on Hopaka St., but I stopped into its outpost on Kapahulu one Monday afternoon only to discover that this is the best place to watch Monday Night Football — at 3 p.m. — especially if you are a Seattle Seahawks fan. A rowdy bunch gathered to watch football over pupu platters of Chinese fare like eggrolls and spare ribs, along with heaping plates of fried rice. I elected to try the Hawaiian take on sliders: Kalua pig sliders with healthy heaps of pulled pork on top of fluffy Chinese buns served with a sweet barbeque sauce. Talk about ono, especially with a lychee martini, my favorite drink in Hawaii next to the mai tai.

Waiola
3113 Mokihana St.

 

Photos: Robin Bennefield

Going for a shave ice is probably the best way to eat like a kamaaina, and some will tell you that the best place to have one in Honolulu is at Waiola just off Kapahulu. A shave ice in Hawaii is not to be confused with Italian ices or snow cones on the mainland. The biggest difference is the powdery ice — the consistency of snow. Hawaiians like to have their shave ice on top of ice cream, azuki beans, a Japanese sweetened bean, or tapioca pearls, and top it with sweetened condensed milk, known as a snowcap. Like most shave ice stands, Waiola offers a rainbow of exotic flavors like lychee, passion fruit, guava and kiwi. Cars cram the few spaces in front of the small store, as brightly colored as its cold cones. Listening to people order here is a little like listening to someone order coffee at Starbucks. There’s definitely a shave ice lingo. I opt for the more tropical flavors — lychee, pineapple and lilikoi, or passion fruit — on top of ice cream with a snowcap.

Leonard’s Bakery
933 Kapahulu Ave.

Photos: Robin Bennefield

I love fried dough of any kind anywhere in the world, so there was no way I was going to pass up a stop at Leonard’s, known for its malasadas. The Portuguese-style warm balls of fried dough are sprinkled with sugar or filled with cream flavors like hanupia, that Hawaiian coconut pudding. Leonard’s first introduced malasadas to Honoluluans in 1952 and they’ve been beloved ever since. The old-school signage and tiny pink interior hint at the sweet yumminess inside. I order 3 malasadas, original white sugar, hanupia-filled and li hing mui sugar, a tangy, salty, sweet dried plum Chinese confection. They make me want to start saying ono instead of yum.

For more, local Hawaiian foodie suggestions, watch Andrew Zimmern turn kaimaaina in tonight’s episode of Bizarre Foods America: Undiscovered Hawaii at 9|8c.

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