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Automotive Traveler Magazine: 2011 06 Spanish Wine Country Road Trip Page 1

Fly, Drive, and Cruise: Plotting a Spanish Wine Country Road Trip

Joseph Babiasz saves money on a repositioning cruise so he can splurge on a special automotive wine tour.

Looking ahead to repositioning cruises can pay big dividends for travelers who like cruising on land and at sea. Consider the transatlantic cruise on Royal Caribbean that departs Barcelona on 30 October 2011. Book now, and it will set you back less than $40 a night. With what you save, you could treat yourself to a five-day automotive tour of the wine country southwest of Barcelona.

It was while thumbing through Back Roads Spain, an automotive travel guide published last year by DK Books, that I found my inspiration for this fly-drive-cruise itinerary. Specifically Drive Nine, "Vineyards and Gothic Treasures, Sant Sadurní d'Anoia to Delta de l'Ebre"--a tour that encompasses the cava cellars of the Penedès as well as Gothic monasteries and the fortress of Montblanc.

The route comprises 210 miles through the picturesque hills and valleys that once separated the Christian and Muslim regions of Spain. Today the area is a food and wine lover's mecca.

I suggest flying into Barcelona on 25 October, making the walled medieval city of Montblanc your home base for three nights followed by a night in Tortosa. Then head back to Barcelona on the 29th, boarding the ship the following morning.

Now, the specifics:

Flying in from the States, you will likely arrive in Barcelona mid-day on the 25th. Do the usual tourist thing and rent a late-model car at the airport, then head southwest. Visit First Car Hire Direct to set your pick-up and drop-off dates.

I selected a luxury premium car for myself. When the results were returned, however, I was offered a Renault Megane convertible, not something I would call premium. And while a convertible would certainly be fun, not at $750 for five days.

More reasonably priced alternatives included familiar cars, such as a Ford Fiesta or a Volkswagen Golf for about $160 a week, as well as some interesting cars not available stateside, such as the diesel version of the Ford Fiesta for just $10 more. Since diesel is typically cheaper in Europe, that would be a smart choice. You'd also get a preview of an engine we might see here in a few years.

For those who want to tour Spain's wine country in something a little less mundane, ECB Rentals can get you behind the wheel of a classic MGA roadster, a classic Porsche 911, even a Ferrari 246 Dino.

The distance from Barcelona's airport to Montblanc is just 75 miles, so you'll have time to check out several of the locations listed in Back Roads Spain--especially in Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, the center of Catalonia's sparking-wine industry. The area is home to more than 80 cava producers.

I've budgeted $120 per diem for the five-day wine tour. So, at roughly $70 a night, Mas Carlons is a good choice for lodging in Montblanc.

For your first full day in Montblanc, consider using the local tourism board's interactive map of the city center to plot your own walking tour. Then it's time to explore the region's back roads of the region by car.

Your first destination should be Vallbona de les Monges, then Poblet, allowing you to explore two of the region's great monasteries before returning to Montblanc for dinner.

For day two, drive through Prades, Siurana, Escaldei, and then Falset, a village with fewer than 3,000 people that boasts a castle, two palaces, and legendary wines.

Then I suggest deviating from the book's planned itinerary, returning to Montblanc through Reus so you avoid backtracking along roads already driven. Be sure to reference the points of interest listed in Back Roads Spain, especially in Siurana, birthplace of architect Antoni Gaudí.

Checking out of Mas Carlons on the morning of the 28th, drive past Falset to Gandesa, site of the 1938 Battle of the Ebro, the bloodiest battle of the Spanish Civil War. Gandesa is home to an excellent wine cellar, the Cooperativa Agricola, and tours are regularly available.

Bed down for the night in Tortosa, the region's main city. Or consider Delta de l'Ebre, where, for less than $70 a night, you're sure to find the Hotel Can Batiste a solid choice not too far south off the outlined route.

Drive up the coast to Barcelona on Saturday. Plan to return your rental car that afternoon, and book a hotel in the city's Las Ramblas neighborhood near the port.

Consulting TripAdvisor, I see that the popular (and pet-friendly!) Villa Emilia is ranked number 11 in Barcelona. It would set me back about $200, though--more than my budgeted $120 per diem.

Since the airport and the Port of Barcelona are just 10 miles apart, you will have a wide selection of hotels, and even some B&Bs, from which to choose. Do book early though, as hotels tend to fill up for the night before the departure of a large ship.

Your land cruise is done. Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas will be your home at sea as you make the return trip to the United States.

With inside cabins starting at just $499 and stops in Cartagena and Cadiz, Spain, the Azores, and New Orleans, the 13-day repositioning cruise to Galveston, Texas promises ample time to relax. And since there's sure to be a wine-tasting class or two on the entertainment schedule, your enjoyment of the grape need not end when you leave Spain.

What about airfares, you ask? In my case, airfare from Detroit to New York, New York to Barcelona, and Galveston back to Detroit, came in at less than $900. (Booking individual one-way legs saves more than $1,000 compared to plugging in a complete multi-city itinerary on Orbitz.)

Add that to the $499-per-person cost of the cruise, less than $200 for the car rental, and $120 per diem ($600) for five days of food and lodging, and you have the makings of a spectacular (and relaxing) vacation this fall.

Such an 18-day vacation for around $2,000 per person is a real bargain. Keep in mind that the quoted rates for the car rental and hotels cover two people.