Percolating Peace through Illy's Colombian Coffee Farms

Percolating peace through illy's Colombian coffee farms

By Matt Adams , April 30, 2018

This story appears in the September issue of Hemispheres

Our van lurched and rocked back and forth as we ascended farther and farther into the remote hills of western Colombia. On either side of the narrow washboard road, dense jungle stretched for miles. People sitting outside a cluster of small homes smiled at us in disbelief as we passed. They were accustomed to seeing motorbikes and horses -- not big, top-heavy touring vans -- that far up the mountain, in an area that was too dangerous for visitors just a few years ago.

Fernando spent years fighting for the FARC. Today, he is a successful coffee farmer and advocate for peace.

After nearly an hour of driving, we stopped at a promontory overlooking a humid, mist-covered valley and walked down to a cottage tucked away among plantain and papaya trees. We took a seat on the patio and waited for the arrival of Fernando, an ex-commander in the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the Marxist paramilitary organization that waged war against the Colombian government for more than fifty years. In his past life, he wouldn't have dreamed of talking to outsiders like us. But now he's part of a different kind of revolution, one in which coffee is at the center -- specifically, the illy coffee that United serves its customers every day, to the tune of more than 72 million cups a year.

When United announced its partnership with the Italian coffee giant this time last year, the news was met with excitement from the airline's customers and employees who had voiced their distaste for the previous brew. But there was more to the selection of illy than just great coffee.

For years, illy has had the reputation as a company that prioritizes people over profits. And while illy sources coffee from 25 countries across the globe, Colombia's Cauca departamento is a particularly interesting example of a place where that philosophy is making a difference.

Roughly a decade ago, Fernando negotiated a difficult and dangerous exit from the FARC. He was one of the fortunate ones; many of his comrades weren't allowed to walk away. Fernando's second in command was killed while attempting to leave the organization. Threats aside, there was also the looming question of how he would earn a living away from the only job he had known since he was a very young boy.

Landscape of the coffee fields in Colombia.

"When I was with the group, I began looking at the mountains and at the coffee growing on them, and it gave me the idea to change my life," he said. With backing from illy, he's been able to do just that, leading a farming cooperative made up of former guerillas who combine to produce more than 50,000 kilos of high-quality Arabica coffee each year, coffee that ends up at the illy roasting facility in Trieste, Italy, and, ultimately as a key component of the dark roast blend on board United's aircraft. But, as I had seen over the previous days in Colombia, Fernando's story was just one of many that illustrate the impact that United's choice of coffee has on the people who make up the front end of the supply chain.

On the first day of my week-long visit, I arrived in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city and the capital of Cauca, where I met Carlos Lopez and Oscar Lasso. Lopez is the director of ASCAFE (Colombian Small Coffee Growers Association), a cooperative in Cauca, and Lasso operates a tourism company based there. The two would act as guides for me and a group of foreign journalists as we visited small family farms where much of illy's Colombian coffee is grown. During the ride from the airport, Lasso and I passed the time by talking about the well-publicized troubles that have plagued his homeland for years, particularly narcotics.

To illustrate a point, he stretched his arms from his knees to his forehead. "Before, you could sell a bag of coffee this big for $10, and a one-pound bag of marijuana for $200. It was an easy choice for many people."

Among the goals of illy's business practices is to make that decision a harder one. An uncertain future in agriculture, due in part to falling coffee prices, forced many rural Colombians to cash in with illegal crops. Others took to the jungles to fight for the FARC, preferring an AK-47 and a steady paycheck to poverty. But with the guidance of local cooperatives like ASCAFE and the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), a national growers' advocacy organization, illy is committed to building economic, social and environmental sustainability by paying above fair value for beans that meet illy's high standards, supporting independent family farms, teaching eco-friendly growing methods and helping to weave together the fabric of a nation torn by half a century of war.

A fourth generation coffee grower, Lopez founded ASCAFE in 2004 and has worked diligently with companies like illy to, as he said, "To put producers in a better position to earn a better rate by changing the way that coffee is grown and sold." By forming the cooperative with his neighbors, Lopez found that they could have an influential voice and establish standardized growing practices to achieve the highest-quality yields, an area in which illy's expertise has been particularly valuable thanks to guidance from the company's agronomist. "One of our main goals is to recruit the brands to come to Colombia and bring their knowledge," said Lopez. "We don't want to just sell coffee, we want to build relationships with the people who buy from us."

One of the keys to changing the outlook for Colombia's coffee growers is laying that foundation at an early age. La Venta, one of Cauca's tiny farming villages, is a place where options for young people are limited. Roughly three out of a hundred will have the chance to attend university. Some might elect to move to a city like Cali to look for work. Others, like many of their parents, might be forced to find more illicit means of earning a living.

Coffee beans in a workers hands after being harvested from the fields.

Today, however, there are 55 schools in rural areas such as this that have adopted the so-called "Escuela y Café" curriculum, where students age 12 to 18 learn modern coffee production methods with assistance from illy, the FNC and ASCAFE. At La Venta's Efrain Orozco school, the children are mastering the art of growing thanks to a holistic approach. Each of their subjects -- Spanish, social studies, mathematics and natural sciences -- is tailored in such a way to teach them everything that a successful coffee farmer needs to know. In addition to their classroom work, they spend a portion of their days outdoors learning the different stages of cultivation, from planting the beans to harvesting them to preparing them for shipment to the end buyers. It's the kind of education that can enable them to bypass mere subsistence farming and build a viable, profitable business.

And as we witnessed with Fernando, illy is using its educational and purchasing power to do more than battle financial inequality; it is doing its part to further the cause of peace in war-torn Colombia. At a technological park we visited, 120 former FARC and other paramilitary commandos are learning to become independent coffee producers, growing beans that will eventually be sold to illy.

When we arrived, 30 of the ex-guerillas were in the middle of a three month long immersive introduction to coffee as a means of re-entering society. The park's open-air campus consisted of dormitories, classrooms and a microbiology lab where the men and women are studying the finer points of agronomy.

Worker drying the coffee in Colombia

Several of the participants were barely a year or two removed from being teenagers. Each of them was in the midst of a critical moment in his or her life, living under constant threat of violent retaliation for abandoning their brigades. While they felt a sense of purpose and security at the learning center, there was still uneasiness.

One of the men spoke to me on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. At age 23, he had spent 13-years as part of the FARC and had run away only 14 months prior.

When I asked him why he had joined up with the guerillas, his answer was the same as most of those whom we encountered: "Economico," he said with a shrug. He was soft spoken and shy, never looking me in the eyes as he talked. "My father left my mother and me and we needed money, so I had to do something to help. But after I saw the suffering, I regretted it. Now, I want a family, I want pride in my life and I want to have a future."

Each of them shared a similar desire to move on from the bloodshed of which they had been a part. Though physical and psychological scars are evident, they all expressed gratitude for the opportunity to live in peace. In many ways, they reminded me of the school children at Efrain Orozco, proud of their new skillsets and anxious to demonstrate what they had learned. They led us on a tour of the campus, showing us the processes for separating, sorting, washing and drying the coffee beans, and guided us through a quality test, with one of the men teaching us the proper way to use a glass pour-over brewer to sample the product. When I sipped from the mug he handed me, it was some of the best coffee I had ever tasted.

One of the workers showing the proper way to sample the coffee

After departing the technology park we headed to a nearby farm where we met several victims of FARC land mines who had come together to create their own coffee growing association. The group's director was formerly a rancher who was seriously injured while tending to his cattle. Another member, a man named Wilmer, had been a coca farmer. It was while walking home after deciding to leave the drug trade behind that he lost part of his leg. At one point, as a woman named Naomi talked of her nephew who was killed, Lasso became too overcome with emotion to translate for us, excusing himself. Finally, a guitarist stood up and played for us a haunting rendition of "Sobreviviendo" – Surviving.

…While someone
Proposes death on this earth
And makes weapons for war
I will tread these fields surviving
All against the danger, surviving
Sad and wandering men, surviving…

At the end of the week, we traveled to Medellín to attend the first-ever World Coffee Producers Forum. Growers from major coffee-producing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia descended upon the city to hear luminaries including former President Bill Clinton, current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and illycaffè CEO Andrea Illy discuss the issues facing the coffee industry, such as climate change, stagnating prices and a volatile commodities market.

illycaff\u00e8 CEO Andrea Illy speaking at the World Coffee Producers Forum

"It would have been inconceivable to have a meeting like this in this place even a few years ago," President Clinton said, while speaking about how economic development through fair trade agriculture has helped countries like Colombia overcome their violent pasts. For years, Medellín and its namesake cartel led by Pablo Escobar represented the worst of Colombia. Those memories still make it one of the most beautiful places most foreigners wouldn't dream of visiting.

After dinner on my last night in Medellín, I caught a cab back to the hotel. Winding through the city in silence, my driver suddenly arched an eyebrow and looked at me through the rearview mirror as though he had a secret to tell. "Want to see Pablo Escobar's house?" he asked. We passed rows of nondescript mid-rise apartment buildings and storefronts, then turned into a short cul-de-sac that dead-ended into one of the former drug lord's compounds.

It was more bunker than home, all concrete walls and concertina wire. The fortress that a wealthy and dangerous man constructed for himself, now sitting in shambles on a darkened street.

Escobar died nearly 25 years ago, and with him, a low hum of fear that hovered over Colombia. In the weeks prior to my visit, more than 7,000 FARC guerillas had handed over their weapons to the government as part of a new disarmament deal, choosing a path of peaceful political dissent to armed conflict. It would seem the country is waking up from a long, grim nightmare. After talking with people there, I walked away feeling optimistic. During one of our conversations earlier in the week, Lasso confided that he felt the same way. After living abroad for 12 years, he was back, anxious to see stability taking root.

If it's morning in Colombia, then coffee is helping to provide much-needed clarity. As President Clinton said during a panel discussion at the forum, "When given the chance, most people will do the right thing. But they'll also do whatever it takes to feed their children." By paying farmers a decent wage and protecting growing areas from environmental decimation, United's partners at illy are offering Colombians a fourth alternative to hardship, drugs and violence. So, as you relax and enjoy your flight, have a cup of illy. You'll be doing your part to drink to a better future.

United Journey

How traveling changed the course of our future

By Kelsey + Courtney Montague
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…Mark Twain knew this, and anyone who travels and gets out of their comfort zone understands this same concept.

This is one of the reasons we love to travel — our perceptions and stereotypes are constantly being challenged. This is also probably why we've built a business that requires us to travel regularly — we create street art pieces in cities around the world.

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But we weren't always like this. Our love of travel first began when our Mom took us backpacking through Europe for a month. At the time, we were both young teenagers who had never been out of the country. We carefully planned our outfits and fit them into one backpack each. Mom carried our Rick Steve's travel guide and off we went. We stayed in shabby hotels across the United Kingdom, France and Spain, visiting every museum we could find, eating every baguette, croissant and paella dish we could get our hands on, and loving every second of it.

We've been addicted to travel ever since.

Kelsey sketches at a street cafe in Paris Kelsey sketches at a street cafe in Paris

I (Kelsey) fell so in love with London on that trip that I grew determined to study there. Fast forward to years later when I graduated from Richmond University in London. That trip changed the course of my life because I learned about and experienced street art during my studies in London. Courtney fell so in love with Paris that she learned French and graduated with a degree in comparative literature from the American University of Paris. That first trip changed the course of our lives forever and opened our eyes to how massive the world was. I don't think our Mom could have given us a better gift than that first trip abroad.

As adults who travel constantly we feel like a MileagePlus® membership is another important piece of the equation and something we've benefitted from tremendously over the years. The various United Club℠ locations are little refuges we escape to in busy and overwhelming airports. Being able to board early, getting upgraded and having nice flight attendants on long haul flights really can mean the difference between arriving well rested and having a good trip, or arriving tired and having a rough trip.

At the end of the day a company is all about the people in it and the kindness we have experienced on United flights has been wonderful. I remember once on a flight, one of our captains wrote a personal note thanking each passenger flying in United First® class for traveling on United. On another, a flight the attendant saw I was not feeling well and hunted down an Airborne (vitamin pack) for me. Still another flight attendant asked about my art (I was sketching on the plane) and when I explained what I do they committed to buying my coloring book. It's these connections that really make flying United so memorable for myself and my sister.

So if you're looking to give your child a gift, take them traveling. And if you're looking for a present for yourself, sign up to enjoy the benefits of a MileagePlus Membership. You won't regret either.

Join MileagePlus to start earning miles from the world's most rewarding loyalty program℠ and share your story with #UnitedJourney.

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United and Special Olympics

Taking inclusion to new heights

Our shared purpose is to connect people and unite the world — and no organization better embodies that principle than Special Olympics.

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Welcome day brings employees and Special Olympics athletes together

By Matt Adams , July 13, 2018

As part of the weekend's festivities, our CEO, Oscar Munoz, joined a group of employees and retirees in greeting nearly 700 arriving athletes, coaches and volunteers at Seattle's Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA), as well as hundreds more at local light rail stations, all of which were decorated with our Special Olympics superhero campaign banners.

Oscar also had the honor of giving Special Olympics athlete Nikki Jones her first in person look at her superhero alter ego Lane Lightning, a moment that was captured on the video below.

Introducing a more personalized experience on united.com

By Gladys Roman , July 13, 2018

Our united.com homepage is getting some big enhancements. Yesterday, we announced the launch of the new site, which will offer a more modern, user-friendly design, allowing users a more personalized digital experience.

Each one of our customers is unique and has different needs for his or her travel, and personalizing our digital offerings is just another step toward giving our customers the experience and the products that they ask for, said Digital Products and Analytics VP Praveen Sharma. "Our goal with this new homepage is to provide customers with a more seamless experience."

The new website will provide personalized content based on a customer's MileagePlus® status as well as upcoming, current or prior trips. It will also include a new display that will be fully responsive for optimal viewing on desktop and mobile devices. Later this year, the site will include a travel section that will provide customers with curated content from destinations United serves.

We began rolling out the new homepage in April and continued expanding it to more users while we added more functionality throughout the phased rollout. The site will be live to all customers in early August.

These efforts are part of our commitment to improve our customers' travel experience through every step of their journey. Earlier this year, we updated our mobile website, adding a more optimized display, additional flexibility to adjust flights throughout the site, Japanese language translations and more.

Our new homepage will also appear on our mobile website, creating a more seamless experience when customers are managing travel and bookings across multiple devices.

United Journey

Transcending borders and languages in Tanzania

By The Hub team

Story and photos by Davis Paul

I have been very fortunate to travel the world telling stories with a camera for the last decade. Being a United MileagePlus® member for many of those years has absolutely opened the world and eased my ability to get around. And, it enabled me to authentically document the way in which different people and cultures do life, which has now become an obsession. How can you make someone feel what you witnessed despite not being there?

Dirt road in Tanzania

The world is full of amazing stories and incredible lessons that can transcend borders and languages. I believe every location is uniquely beautiful on it's own, we just need to see it for what it is and not in comparison to others. Bangladesh can be just as beautiful as Tahiti if we remove expectation and appreciate the uniqueness each location has to offer.

However, of all the trips I have ever taken, out of every project I have embarked on, from X Games to Real Madrid, there is one that hit me in a very different way. That was my trip to Tanzania to work on the border of Burundi out of two Refugee Camps. I was contracted to help train and build soccer programs within the camp as well as create content that would provide impactful insight into the circumstances taking place throughout the region as well as to connect the outside world with these amazing people fighting for their lives. I had zero preparation for the trip, having only booked my flight a week in advance. I had never traveled to Africa, let alone a refugee camp that couldn't be more difficult to get to. In fact, it was roughly 38 hours of travel by myself including having an 8 hour drive on something that barely resembled a road. Because it was so last minute, I actually wasn't able to secure a driver to take me to the town of Kibondo which meant once I landed, I had to find any local with a car who would be willing to take me the distance. Luckily, I found a man named Frankie who had a Toyota Corolla which consequently broke down within the first hour of our journey.

Group of kids in Burundi, Tanzania

Once I arrived, I had never witnessed life in this manner. Hundreds of thousands of refugees all piled together within 2 square miles. Mud huts, tarps, tents, anything and everything to sustain life was being used. Almost everyone in this camp had lost a loved one to violence yet I had never seen so much hope and joy. It completely changed my perspective on life to live amongst these people for 3 weeks. I ate with them everyday in the camp, eating the local food with my hands. To hear their stories, to see how they live and to dream with them on the brighter future they all hope exists was truly humbling. I'll never forget the lessons I learned within this camp and from these people — their love and optimism despite having experienced unimaginable tragedy was uplifting. When I asked if there was one message I could bring back to the United States, they simply would say, "we just want people to know we exist". I hope that my time and efforts there at least provided that. Although I tried to make the biggest impact I could while there, it is safe to say I was the one impacted the most and I will be forever grateful for that. I just hope I can help in half of the way they helped me.

Davis Paul pictured in Tanzania

I'm never sure where the next story will exist, but I can guarantee you'll find me on the ground, always laughing with a camera in hand. Traveling is a gift that allows us insight into both our differences and similarities, and the more you travel, the more you realize we all share in the same struggles, same hopes and same dreams. I believe that despite bad things happening, the world is full of good — we just need to seek it in every situation.

Join MileagePlus to start earning miles from the world's most rewarding loyalty program℠ and share your story with #UnitedJourney.

How to experience the best of Prague in 3 days

By Nick Harper

Every bit as historic, as beautiful and as culturally enriching as the European heavyweights of Paris, London or Rome, Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic has emerged over recent decades to be a jewel in the continent's crown.

The city escaped significant bomb damage during World War II and its historic center remains magnificently intact, with a maze of cobbled lanes, quiet courtyards, chic cafés and ancient chapels just waiting to be discovered. To see enough of the city, we suggest visiting for at least three days.

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Getting into the city

Upon arrival, regular and reliable buses and trains will get you into the center of the city within 20 minutes. Unless you're heading outside of Prague, you shouldn't need to rent a car. The center of Prague is compact and easily to explore on foot, with excellent and cheap trams, buses and the subway if you don't want to walk.

Where to stay

Central Prague is broken down into 10 districts, with most visitors staying in Prague 1, the heart of the city. Here you have two good options: The Old Town or the Lesser Town – linked by Prague's most celebrated landmark, the Charles Bridge. The Old Town is at the heart of everything, full of historical sites, bars and restaurants but can be overpriced and often considered 'touristy' as a result. The Lesser Town is still close to the heart of everything but with a more tranquil atmosphere that's particularly good for families.

Old Town in Prague

What to see

There's too much to see in a single visit, however, one of the absolute essentials has to be Prague Castle, which is literally unmissable. The largest castle complex in the world, it dates back to the 9th century and is also home to the presidential palace, the vast St. Vitus Cathedral and Golden Lane — an original 16th-century street of tiny cottages that was home to Franz Kafka. The lookout tower of St. Vitus Cathedral gives you a bird's eye view of the city, as does Petrin Lookout Tower at the top of Petrin Hill, which climbs 206 feet to look down on the city.

From there head to the Old Town Square, which is the medieval center of Prague, surrounded by cobbled streets awash with cafes and restaurants. It's home to the Old Town Hall and Astronomical Clock, the Rococo Kinsky Palace and the stunning Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn. If you visit in December, it also hosts the city's largest Christmas market.

Also close by, Klementinum is a series of historic buildings worth visiting just to see what is arguably the most beautiful library in the world. If you're looking for a world-class collection of historical artifacts, minerals and zoological specimens, the National Museum ticks all of the boxes. It's located at the top of Wenceslas Square, which is not actually a square but a boulevard – and one of Prague's most popular shopping streets.

Kampa Island is a great alternative to the National Museum. Literally an island located beneath Charles Bridge, you'll find the museum of modern art, The John Lennon Wall and giant, slightly unnerving sculptures of crawling babies. Speaking of Charles Bridge, it is one of Prague's most popular and photographed sites for good reason. You'll no doubt use it to cross the Vltava River, but for the best photographs, visit at dawn, before the crowds arrive.

And if all this walking gets to be too much, see the city from a different perspective, floating gently down the Vltava on a river cruise.

River Vltava in Prague

Where to eat

Restaurants to suit every taste and budget dot the center of Prague. Great breakfast options include Coffee Room, Mezi Srnky and the always-popular Café Savoy, which is also great for lunch or dinner.

In a city full of carnivores, the Real Meat Society's porchetta sandwich is a lunchtime highlight, Dish is a stylish little burger joint full of fashionable people, while Lokál Dlouhááá offers a beer hall feel and Czech classics of pork, sauerkraut and dumplings washed down with beer.

The city's only two Michelin-starred restaurants are Field and La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, the latter creating modern takes on old Czech recipes using the highest quality local produce. Both restaurants require a reservation. Highly recommended 'Bib Gourmand' restaurants within easy reach of Charles Bridge include Sansho, Divinis and Maso A Kobliha, where the salty caramel pie may elicit happy tears.

Prague skyline at sunrise

Where to drink

In the number one beer-drinking nation on the planet, the locals refer to it as 'Liquid bread.' Prague is home to many of the nation's finest bars and ale houses, many of which brew their own beers. Two of the most historic are U Zlateho Tygra, which President Clinton visited in 1994, and U Cerneho Vola, which stands in the shadow of the castle. Letná Beer Garden offers an outdoor setting where you can enjoy a beer and views of the Old Town below.

And keep an eye out for 'tankovna' – tank pubs – where the beer is not pasteurized, as most beers have to be to be transported around the globe. In tank pubs such as U Pinkasu, the beer is probably the freshest you'll ever taste. But if pilsner is not your preference, head to Hemingway Bar, one of the world's finest cocktail bars. You may have to wait in line as it is a popular with both locals and tourists alike, but it's well worth the wait.

When to go

Prague is the warmest and busiest during the summer months, from April until October and peak season starts in July through August. The longer nights of spring and summer will give you more time to explore, while the celebrated Beer Festival fills the city's Letná Park in May. Spring and autumn are generally quieter and can be less costly than the summer months. If you can cope with the colder temperatures and darker days, winter is a magical time to be in the city.

Getting there

United, together with many of its Star Alliance partner airlines, offers service from multiple cities in the U.S. to Prague. To explore all that Prague has to offer and to book your trip, visit united.com or use the United app.

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The 10 best beach vacation destinations in Europe

By The Hub team

These spots offer the perfect beach day with a side of art, history and nightlife.

Europe is home to some of the world's most-celebrated seas — the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Aegean — and its cultural mosaic makes it a top choice for beach lovers looking to mix sun, fun, art, history and nightlife. Windsurf in the morning, visit ancient ruins in the afternoon, shop for the season's hottest beachwear before enjoying sunset cocktails and then partying until dawn. Sound good? Read on to discover the 10 best beach vacation destinations in Europe.

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Mykonos, Greece

Few places do charm and decadence better than Mykonos. This sunny Greek island's calling cards are almost-anything-goes beaches (expect plenty of skin), Instagram-worthy Cycladic architecture (whitewashed buildings with brightly hued shutters and cascading flower boxes), 16th-century windmills (a must-see at sunset) and legendary discos and dance clubs in Mykonos Town. As for the beaches, check out Ornos Bay for pretty views and excellent windsurfing, chic Psarou for celebrity spotting and Paradise and Super Paradise for hedonistic sun-worshipping and dancing until sunrise.

Mallorca, Spain

Mallorca, Spain Mallorca, Spain | Shutterstock

This beautiful Mediterranean oasis, the largest of the Balearic Islands located off the east coast of Spain, is a hot spot for northern Europeans, who flock here in summer to enjoy long days of sunshine and fresh air. Once you get beyond the urban sprawl of the capital, Palma, mountainous, bay-fringed Mallorca delivers some of the region's most amazing azure water and soft-sand beaches — there are more than 250, from popular 3½-mile Playa de Muro to secluded Cala Mesquida. The view from the water is pretty incredible, too: centuries-old hilltop villages constructed of golden stone backed by peaceful olive groves and vineyards.

Hvar, Croatia

Hvar, CroatiaHvar, Croatia | Shutterstock

In between swimming, sunning and windsurfing, visitors to this summer-resort island, located in the Adriatic off of Croatia's coast near Split, can tour a 13th-century fortress and cathedral, go wine tasting (if you haven't tried Croatian wine, you should) and in June and July, inhale the heavenly aroma of lavender, which grows in abundance here. Hvar's beaches are known for their intense scenic beauty — many are set in serene bays surrounded by cliffs and pine forests — and tempting options include Dubovica, Zavala and Ivan Dolac.

Saint-Malo, France

Saint-Malo, FranceSaint-Malo, France | Shutterstock

If it's seaside drama you seek, consider Saint-Malo, a walled city in France's Brittany region where the cobblestone medieval streets of Old Town are surrounded by a series of sandy beaches, some of which are only walkable at low tide and offer access to rocky islands (timetables tell you when to visit). When the tide's high, tour the Cathedral of Saint-Vincent (constructed between the 12th and 17th centuries) and the city's landmark fortress with its four round towers. Or you can always kick back and relax on Plage du Sillon, a vast beach that stretches for almost 2 miles along the English Channel.

Ibiza, Spain

Ibiza, SpainIbiza, Spain | Shutterstock

It helps to be young to enjoy the 24/7 frenzy that is Ibiza — the wildest isle in the Med thanks to its world-famous clubs blasting dance music. Should you be awake when the sun's shining, top activities on Ibiza, which is also one of Spain's Balearic Islands, include music festivals, beach-going (Cala D'Hort has a view of the distinctive Es Vedra rock formation or hop over to neighboring island Formentera, known for its white sand) and scuba diving, since visibility here is superb.

Sicily, Italy

Sicily, ItalySicily, Italy | Shutterstock

If you're a fan of old-school destinations — scenic, slow-paced and filled with tradition — you can't go wrong with Sicily. This Italian island, the largest in the Mediterranean, is home to stunning beaches, yummy treats such as ricotta-filled cannoli and meat-filled rice balls called arancini (both invented here) and ancient Greek and Roman ruins dating back several millennia. It also boasts Europe's most active volcano: Mt Etna. Book a beach resort for maximum access to sun and sand, or stay in charming hilltop Taormina and day trip to beaches such as Isola Bella or Giardini Naxos.

The Algarve, Portugal

The Algarve, PortugalThe Algarve, Portugal | Shutterstock

The hot Iberian sun shines along the southern coast of Portugal 300 days a year — and in summer, the region receives very little rain — so it's no surprise that the Algarve ranks among the top beach destinations in Europe. It's also incredibly pretty and quite affordable, with a variety of hotels, rental apartments and homes located in cities and villages stretching from Sagres in the east to Villa Real in the west. In between are more than 150 beaches, with Praia da Falésia near Albufeira, Praia da Camilo near Lagos and Praia da Marinha near Lagoa featuring photogenic limestone cliffs.

Crete, Greece

Crete, GreeceCrete, Greece | Shutterstock

As Greek Isles beaches go, Crete has some of the best. But Greece's largest island is also its most geologically diverse — so beaches here range from sweeping and tranquil to compact and crowded. For the former, head to Balos Lagoon near Kissamos on the west coast or Elafonisi Beach, also in western Crete, with its pink sand. For the latter, there's Vai Beach near Sitia in the northeast, which is backed by Europe's largest natural palm grove, and Matala Beach on the south coast, where you can follow your swim with a seafood lunch at a local taverna.

Cornwall, England

Cornwall, EnglandCornwall, England | Shutterstock

There are hundreds of beaches along this rugged peninsula on the Atlantic in southwest England, some ideal for surfing, others for beachcombing and others for seaside shopping and dining. It's all incredibly wild and moody, the kind of setting that's equally inspiring to artists and adventure-lovers. For pure visual delight, it's hard to beat the beaches around St. Ives, especially Porthmeor, while Kynance Cove seduces at first sight with its unblemished natural beauty. Add in fishing villages such as Mevagissey and Polperro and you'll discover how Cornwall charms visitors with a raw authenticity that's ever harder to find these days.

Sardinia, Italy

Sardinia, ItalySardinia, Italy | Shutterstock

On this vast Italian island, the second largest in the Mediterranean, it's possible to be a jetsetter or a backpacker, to step back in time while strolling tiny villages or channel the 21st-century while sunning on a modern mega-yacht, to visit ancient temples or enjoy the latest youth-enhancing spa treatment. Long celebrated for its talcum-soft beaches and clear aquamarine water, Sardinia's alluring Costa Smeralda has been a summer hot spot since the mid-1960s. Yet the island also has a harsh interior landscape that has shaped the local mindset and cuisine (fava beans, sheep's milk cheese and lamb with artichokes compete with seafood and pasta on many menus). But it's Sardinia's coastal beauty that has made it envied the world over.


This article was written by Donna Heiderstadt from Islands and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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Rising tide of Special Olympics lifts employee's daughter

By Matt Adams , July 10, 2018

A dark green wave rises and crests, spilling over into a froth of white foam as it picks up steam and propels Alissa DiDomenico toward the shores of Fernandina Beach, north of Jacksonville, Florida. With her arms outstretched, Alissa kneels on her surfboard, eyes focused in concentration, and shifts her weight with the momentum, settling in for the ride as the water flattens over the hot sand.

Alissa's father, United's Jacksonville International Airport General Manager Paul DiDomenico, watches from nearby as she comes to a stop. Hopping to her feet, Alissa flashes a wide grin at her dad then turns, her board under one arm, and paddles back out to do it again.

It's late June, and Alissa, 18, is in the thick of competition season as she seeks to represent Nassau County at the Special Olympics Florida State Surfing Championship in Cocoa Beach this September. If she's successful, it will be her fourth consecutive state finals appearance, where she was a gold medalist in 2016 (the contest was cancelled in 2017 because of Hurricane Irma). Paul, a native Midwesterner more comfortable in the snow than in the sand, is nevertheless a fixture at all of Alissa's events and weekend practices, joined by his wife, Marta, in the cheering section.

The water is Alissa's sanctuary, the place where she feels most at home, like "a little mermaid," Paul says. Pool therapy helped her build her strength when she was young, and by the time she began riding waves in 2014 she was already an accomplished swimmer. When Nassau County Special Olympics introduced surfing, Paul encouraged her to give it a try and Alissa was immediately hooked, drawn to the speed and grace inherent to the sport.

Alissa and her dad at one of the surf competitions.

Apart from bringing her enjoyment, swimming and surfing have also had a transformative effect on Alissa as a person, helping to draw her out of her shell. She's on the autism spectrum and has difficulties speaking, but the look on her face when she's in the water says more than words ever could. Without Special Olympics, Alissa – and countless other children – wouldn't have these kinds of experiences, which is why Paul is so glad to see United expand its partnership with the organization, which includes flying nearly 700 athletes to the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle and sponsoring the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary Celebration in Chicago.

I see it as an opportunity for her to step out and do something that's out of the ordinary, but also ordinary at the same time, because every kid plays sports, says Paul. "This is her opportunity to play and socialize."

As the morning session draws to an end, Alissa bobs in the water on her surfboard. A line of waves swell as they near the shoreline and she readies herself in a crouch. Before she can find her balance, though, her feet are swept out from under her, sending Alissa splashing into the Atlantic.

In an instant she's back on her board, waiting for the next set of waves to roll in, and with them, her next chance. Before long, she's gliding toward the beach once more, exhausted but happy, in a way that looks effortless. Competitions and medals are the farthest thing from Alissa's mind as Paul meets her with open arms, her smile matched only by his. In that moment, she's already won all there is to win.

Brazil’s big three: Rio, São Paulo & Salvador

By Bob Cooper

Brazil is nearly as large, populous and diverse as the United States. So where does a tourist begin? In the U.S., the answer might be to visit New York City, Chicago and L.A., each with its own personality. In Brazil, the best answer is Rio de Janeiro for its festive vitality, São Paulo for its cosmopolitan culture and Salvador for its history and beaches.

Aerial view of Rio de Janeiro at sunset

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Rio de Janeiro

The world came to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and left with a big grin. The energy of the city, the splendor of the beaches and the spirit of the people — including a passion for sports — made the games the global success story of the year.

From the Lapa district's samba clubs to the beaches, Rio de Janeiro is a colorful city where the party never ends. Copacabana Beach's two miles of sand are routinely packed with tourists and locals alike while adjacent Ipanema Beach is more sedate, located alongside the Ipanema and Leblon neighborhoods' upscale shopping streets and restaurants. Two steep, iconic mountains tower over the city, letting you see it all from high above. Take a gondola ride to climb to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, or a cog train to ascend up to Corcovado Mountain's 130-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue.

Estaiada Bridge in Sao Paulo, Brazil

São Paulo

With 12 million people, São Paulo is the Western Hemisphere's most populous city, boasting more residents than New York City and even Mexico City. But that's not the only reason to visit. It's a must-see global city because of what the diverse, relatively affluent population has built — many of South America's finest museums, architecture, culture and more.

Several museums are found in the old city center. Walking distance apart are a neoclassical Brazilian art museum (The Pina), a neo-Byzantine cathedral and a Belle-Epoque covered marketplace. Elsewhere in the city are the São Paulo Museum of Art, boasting the largest collection of Western art in the Southern Hemisphere, and Museu Paulista, a colossal history museum surrounded by Versailles-inspired gardens at the University of Sao Paulo. Every Saturday, live samba music is played in many of the city's bars, but the place to experience this is at Bar Samba in Vila Madalena. And when you're hungry, it's good to know the restaurants are the best in Brazil, especially in the Jardins district. Among them are countless sushi spots and pizzerias, thanks to a vast population of Japanese and Italian immigrants and descendants.

Salvador

Among the major cities on Brazil's northern coast, none offer as much to visitors as Salvador, the original capital city of Brazil. This city of three million has stunning beaches, superb restaurants and bars, plus an historic city center (Pelourinho — a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site) that dates to the 16th-century dawn of the city.

Similar to Rio, almost everything worth experiencing in Salvador is on the water or close by, starting with beaches on the Bay of All Saints and Atlantic Ocean — ideal for swimming, surfing and sunbathing. Also found near the shore is the Elevador Lacerda (the world's first elevator—now a tourist attraction) and many museums devoted to South American, modern and decorative art. Also found in the Old City nearby are more museums, six cobblestone squares and a 17th-century cathedral. Many of Salvador's restaurants serve Afro-Brazilian food, a relic of the city's past.

Practicalities

All three of these Brazilian cities are closer to the equator than Miami, so expect balmy year-round temperatures that almost always hover in the seventies and eighties. The only months to avoid are the rainy season: December to February in Rio and Sao Paulo; April to June in Salvador. Transportation in all three cities is easy via Uber, buses and subways. Don't bother with pricey taxis or rental cars. And while in Brazil, be sure to try the national beverages — Brazilian coffee by day, caipirinhas by night.

If you go

United Airlines offers flights to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo from numerous U.S. cities, including nonstop flights from Houston Intercontinental to Rio de Janeiro and nonstop flights from Chicago O'Hare, Houston Intercontinental, New York/Newark and Washington Dulles to São Paulo. Salvador is served by Star Alliance partner Avianca Brasil, with frequent flights from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. You can also get to any of these three cities via one of our partner airlines, Azul Brazilian Airlines. MileagePlus® Rewards can help pay for your hotel room. In addition, before you go make sure to submit the proper documentation to receive a tourist visa. Go to united.com or use the United app to plan your Brazilian adventure.

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