I would love to be the kind of person who could succinctly summarize a trip. When I travel, I seem to notice small things that are often unrelated to anything. Eyes wide open is not a bad thing...except when you try to write a blog :) So, in no particular order, here are my random reflections from my time in Japan.
Japan is such a beautiful, clean and organized country. It is a strange contradiction that there are almost no trash cans (it seriously takes some searching to find one…), but there is also almost no trash. However, there are just about as many vending machines in Japan as people. Ok, slight exaggeration, but it is something close to 1 vending machines for every 23 people!! In said vending machines are plastic bottles and cans---much like we have in the States. There is also lots of packaging for food and snacks and when you check out of a store, you are also given a plastic shopping bag. Sounds like America. Then why do the Japanese manage to keep such a clean, pristine environment…..while American has litter nearly everywhere you look. I don’t have the answer, but it puzzles me, so I thought I would put the thought out there.
Presentation is also an important component of Japanese society. Serving plates are artfully displayed and each item has its place (for example, a special small ceramic bowl for a block of sesame tofu...see my previous post about food). I’m not talking about 5 star restaurants…this is everywhere. Nice touches that make everything feel intentional (and beautiful). The photo below is of a piece of a chestnut candy. Less than $1 in a store and it looks like the fanciest piece of candy I've ever eaten (well, outside of maybe France...)
I found the Japanese people to be very gracious and friendly. These chestnut candies were a gift at one of the ports we docked. There was an accompanying letter welcoming us and placed in our stateroom. I understand this was a small port that doesn't see many cruise visitors---so it isn't like they do this every day---but it felt genuine and was much appreciated. Each guide we had welcomed us off the ship like we were family. They were excited to share their culture and knowledge and took pride in Japan when we complimented something (architecture, food, cleanliness of the vehicles). All of our guides gave us a small token of appreciation. For example, an origami of a shirt with a few toothpicks inside or a paper crane for peace. In Takamatsu (one of the ports), the tourist office offered a bowl of their famous Udon soup. They offered this to everyone on board the ship---for free. Just for stopping by and seeing their city.
The friendliness continued once we were off the ship. My husband and I took the train to Kyoto….we accidentally got on a local vs fast train and at one point there was a long message over the loud speaker in Japanese (it was rare to have announcements in English) and the fellow travelers were talking amongst themselves. Having blonde hair, I stuck out like a sore thumb. A random passenger turned to us and asked (in broken English) if we were going to Kyoto. When we said yes, she said there was some sort of signal problem and we had to get off the train. She basically said follow me. We would have NEVER been able to figure out what was going on without her and while we would have asked a train employee once we got off the train, we would have been delayed. The kind stranger took us efficiently to the next train with about a minute to spare before it left….probably saving us 30 minutes or more. On the return from Kyoto, I was looking at a map to make sure we were getting on the correct train back and within seconds, someone came over to offer help. He confirmed we were getting on the correct train and instructed us to wait in one of the lines to board. Super helpful. I’m not saying Americans aren’t helpful, but I’m not sure we (I) would be so fast to offer help (without being asked) to a stranger in our country. Something else to ponder...
We were traveling with a few other people and we started to play a game to try and find a dirty car in Japan. I don't mean a clunker/junker...those we didn't see....I'm talking about a nice Toyota with pollen or dirt or something on it. We searched everywhere and I think we found one :) This was even after a rain. Many drivers wear white gloves (more so private hired drivers than taxi drivers) and the interior and exteriors of cars are immaculate. There is white lace along the seat backs and door trims that gives everything a pulled together look. Many of the taxis are what we would call “vintage cars” to be nice….perhaps from the 1970’s or 80’s, but the inside looks brand new. The care given to maintain that level of cleanliness must be immense. The ferries and trains we took were also very clean. Not sure if it is pride in ownership or an unspoken cultural rule or something else.
Japan seemed very safe to me, so it surprised me in one spot (a Zen garden nonetheless) when someone suggested we put our shoes in a plastic bag instead of placing them on the shoe racks (you have to take your shoes off before entering) as to avoid the theft of our shoes. This was in a more touristy area, so perhaps that is where there was some concern?? Or perhaps this is a thing?? Again, a random observation....
One crime related note---Yakuza or organized crime in Japan is a concern. They are known for having tattoos and that is one way they advertise their affiliation. Well, my husband and I like to go to thermal baths and Japan is known for them. However, I learned quickly, that if you have a tattoo, you are not allowed in. No exceptions. This is true in other Asian countries as well as I learned in South Korea. Let me be clear, I have a colorful sun god tattoo on my shoulder---not violent or offensive by any stretch. However, the content of the tattoo has no bearing on the decision. I was surprised to find out this restriction even applied at the hotel spa at the Hyatt in Osaka. The spa is operated by an outside company and locals can purchase a membership, but I was still surprised by the sign at the spa desk. I think I could have swum in the pool, but I decided not to try (I think the restriction was for the sauna and relaxation areas).
On a not crime related note (or perhaps part of that conversation...), we learned that there is not much religious diversity in Japan. The vast majority of the population is either Shinto and/or Buddhist. The and/or part is significant as it is allowed/accepted/normal to practice both religions. The Shinto shines are typically used to celebrate events of the living---births, weddings and other celebrations while Buddhist temples are typically used when someone dies. The signature of a Shinto shire is the Torii (sometimes called Otorii) Gate. This is the entrance to the Shinto Shirne and marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred. Meaning once you step through the gate you have entered another space and will practice ceremonies to purify and pray. Overly simplified, but that is the overall concept.
I will stop for now. More from the trip to come in future blog posts....
I have so many thoughts and experiences from this last trip to Hawaii, Guam, Japan and Korea it is a bit overwhelming as to where to begin. So, I figure I'll start with that I know best....food :)
Yes, those are Kit Kats....and yes, I bought more than just these flavors. I knew the Japanese had something like 20+ types of Kit Kats and was planning to get a few as gifts. I was thinking they were like in the States….as in you go to a 7-11 (very popular there) and go to the candy aisle and pick whichever flavor you like and pay maybe $1 a bar. Well, that is not the case. It is somewhat of a scavenger hunt. Some flavors are regional and you can only get them in that area. Some are only available in big boxes and some flavors are pricer higher than others (some much more expensive…relatively speaking). I found a Kit Kat store in the the luxury food section of the local department store. The Kit Kat store was fancy---beautifully presented (like all of the Japanese food stores) and it would have been easy to spend $50 to $100 on just a few boxes of Kit Kat bars. Wow! That was a bit unexpected. I also learned there are only a few of these Kit Kat stores, so I was lucky to stumble across one (didn't buy anything, but a chandelier make only of Kit Kats is a once in a lifetime experience). I decided to make the pilmagrage to Donki (Japanese short hand for Don Quiote) which is a huge discount store/supermarket. I was told they have the best selection. Donki is completely different than anything else in Japan---they play loud music (it was heavy metal when I was there) and things are somewhat disorganized. They have a little bit of everything (food, clothes, appliances, luggage....and at some stores designer items). I stuck with the first floor which was mostly food. They did have a Kit Kat aisle and I bought all of the flavors they had. I knew I had seen a few other flavors at other smaller stores, so I continued the hunt for a bit before I needed to head to the airport. Once at the airport, I had heard there were a few airport only versions...and so my quest ended just before the gate with 14 different favors. Not bad for 2 days of searching!
On to some real food (back to sweet stuff in a minute...). We went to an Okonomi-Yaki restaurant on Miyajima Island---near Hiroshima. This is the Hiroshima regional variation...with noodles. They prepare it right in front of you on a hot grill. The pancake is poured from batter and left alone to cook for a minute or so and then cabbage is added (and pork, if you like). It looks like a huge amount, but the veggies steam down. The noodles are added and a cooked egg is put on top to complete the dish. Finishing touches of a sauce (similar to Worchestire sauce) and dried seaweed type flakes are added at the table. Hot, fresh and tasty!
Staying with regional specialities of Hiroshima, let's talk maple cakes. I was lucky enough to have a couple right out of the oven. There are several bakeries that make them on the spot. The maple leaf shaped cake is similar to a sponge cake with a slight maple taste. Each one is filled---some places had more than 25 options--the most common were red bean paste, green tea cream, custard cream and chocolate.
In one port stop, our guide took us to a typical Japanese business lunch. There were several small (maybe enough spaces for 20 people total) restaurants on the first floor of the office building. Nearly everyone eating was a man in a business suit. Each little restaurant had a speciality and ours was sashimi. It was a set menu with no variations (although they were able to make my egg custard without chicken with advance notice). The menu included a large bowl of raw fish and roe (fish eggs), miso soup, pickled vegetables, rice, cabbage salad, and egg custard (a warm savory custard). Each piece of fish was a bit different than your neighbors, but all included basically the same items. Total charge for lunch was right around $11, including a cold tea.
In Kyoto we had another set meal. The Japanese art of presentation really shows at meal times. Everything is placed very intentionally and each item has its place. Some items even have their own vessel...like a small ceramic bowl for a slice of sesame tofu. Many of the set meals include only fish and vegetables making it easier for a vegetarian or pescatarian to eat well, even if you can't translate every menu item. The meal below had tofu cooked in soy milk (upper left hand corner) in which you were supposed to dip in one of two sauces---one like a fish sauce and the other more of a vinegar. In the red topped bowl was a hearty grain and rice mixture (very good) and under the other top was white miso soup. The other items were sesame tofu, pickled vegetables, sweet bean paste and mochi-like sweet (covered in a peanut butter powder).
There were plenty of memorable meals, but I have to say my first experience with Korean BBQ was way more than I expected. First off, as a mostly vegetarian, I didn't think Korean BBQ had anything I could eat. Fortunately our guide, Frank, took care of all of the details so I could just sit back, relax and enjoy the show. There is an opening in the middle of the table for the grill and that is where the meat is prepared. That I knew. What I didn't know is that the meal comes with no less than about a dozen side dishes---varying kinds of kimchi, salad, pickled vegetables, bean paste soup with rice, and fresh lettuces and herbs to accompany the dishes. Everything was very flavorful and of course fresh. The fast cooking and atmosphere of the restaurant made it feel like lunch was an event. My favorite part was the cooked morning glory---something I always search out when I'm in Asia. I asked for several refills :)
Well now that I have made myself sufficiently hungry, I'll end for now. More of my trip to come soon...
As the saying goes, the more the merrier, so why not travel with a group of your friends, family or acquaintances with similar interests (like food, wine, dogs or hiking).
More and more people are choosing to travel with friends and family because it accomplishes two things at once---vacation and spending time with people you like. Families and friends are often geographically separated, so instead of all coming to grandma's house for a visit, why not visit France or Jamaica or California?? There are less distractions and when planned well (by an agent like me!), there is something for everyone to keep busy and happy.
People are also more invested in their hobbies and interests than ever before and there are offerings in travel to help you meet or travel with other like minded people. Scrapbookers decide on a resort and use the week to create with new friends---in a location that leads to more amazing memories. A wine appreciation group may choose to apply the skills they have learned on a journey through Napa or Bordeaux. A faith based group may plan a trip to visit religious or spiritual locations. There are a million different opportunities!
Another example of this kind of group travel is where the people traveling together all love to travel and believe in an amazing cause (animal rescue, a local school PTA, preventing a disease). We plan a trip everyone will love and a portion of the trip costs are donated to a charity the travelers choose. I also donate to the charity as a thank you for using me as your agent. We can plan trips with a service component included (volunteering at a food pantry or bringing supplies to a local school) or a trip that is all fun and relaxation---whatever works best for your group. Organizations may choose to work with me to plan a trip and then advertise the trip or a group of travelers may approach me with ideas and we can work with a charity to be the benefactor of the trip. The sky is the limit!
One of the original forms of group travel was the destination wedding. Weddings are still a big reason people plan group travel, but now people are using travel to celebrate other events as well like birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. Celebrating in a new place can make the event more memorable.
So, how does this all work??
-Let's start with a conversation so I can get an idea of what you have in mind. It is ok to not know the details--I'm happy to offer suggestions.
-Many travel companies (think resorts, cruises, airlines), offer group promotions. This can be a % off, a free room when X number of rooms are booked, added amenities, or things like a free wedding ceremony or cocktail party. I work with the suppliers to get you the best offer possible.
-I handle all of the logistics of the travel---we communicate on the components of the trip and I coordinate payment and booking with each traveler or the group lead (whatever works best for you). The trip is customized to your needs (like all the travel I plan).
-I'm here to answer questions and provide support from booking to the end of travel. I'm here to help.
Have I planted some ideas in your head?? I hope so :) I offer a referral bonus for new groups, so spread the word and make sure to have the person mention your name when they get in touch.
I get lots of questions about day tours. Most of my clients choose to not go with an escorted tour (the kind where you travel with a group of strangers on a pre-planned itinerary set by the company) and prefer to travel independently. So, how do you decide when it is valuable to join a tour or hire a guide?
1) You ask a travel agent like me :) Seriously, I have traveled all around the world and plan trips for clients, so I hear and see feedback as to what places almost require a tour or guide on a regular basis. Working with an expert helps you determine where your time and money are best spent.
2) Is it a "must see" sight? If it is your dream to see a specific place during your travel, I encourage you to book in advance. This assures you that you will be able to see it. If a trip to Rome wouldn't be complete without seeing the Vatican or the Papal Audience, book it in advance.
3) Do you want to know the back story? There are lots of places in this world where you can visit independently and understand perfectly what you are looking at---either because the signage is great (and in English...or your native language) or because it just isn't that complex. However, there are places where signage isn't great or the history is complex. Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Pompeii in Italy are great examples. Sure, you know Angkor Wat is a temple complex and Pompeii is a city unfortunate enough to be buried by a volcanic eruption....but do you know anything else? These are sights where I recommend joining a tour or hiring a guide if you prefer not to join a group.
4) Do you want to stand in line all day? Yeah, me neither :) Seriously, if you are traveling in high (or even shoulder season) to a popular attraction, it so worth it to buy what is called Skip the Line access. I actually recommend it year-round. This ticket has gotten more and more popular over the years, so now even the line for Skip the Line can be a line---and you generally still have to stand in line to go through security, where applicable---but standing in a 5-10 minute line is a whole lot better than standing in line for 2 hours. The photo below was taken at Sainte-Chapelle (what I would consider a not so popular attraction in Paris...most people only visit the nearby Notre Dame) on a random Tuesday in shoulder season. Yes, you do lose some flexibility as Skip the Line is usually a timed entry, but it is worth it not have have waste your precious traveling moments in a long line!
Some Skip the Line tickets include a guide or audioguide and others simply offer the perk of not standing in line (but nothing other than the admission). In my experience, if you are book the Skip the Line with a tour or with a guide, the overall experience runs more smoothly than going with the audioguide or nothing. The places that offer a Skip the Line (think big sights like La Sagrada Familia or Eiffel Tower) are often confusing to navigate once inside, so having a person there to help you can save you valuable time.
I'm here to help you customize all of your travels. Please send me a message or call when you are ready to plan your next adventure!
I had the pleasure of sailing the along the Rhône river from Avignon to Lyon recently. I wasn't sure what to expect. As a good travel agent, I of course have taken all of the river cruise line trainings and you, my amazing clients, have also taken many river cruises I've planned. However, I haven't any planned trips with Uniworld Boutique Cruise Lines, so I went in with an open mind and plenty of anticipation :)
I chose to sail with Uniworld because of several reasons. First, while the boats are a similar size to other river cruise companies, they hold fewer passengers. On my sailing we had 121 people on board....and over 60 staff. This means the service was extraordinary! Uniworld also has a more inclusive pricing structure....meaning there are no mandatory charges once on board. The staff gratuities are included in the price, as are most alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages, meals on board and one guided tour or excursion per day. Finally, I chose Uniworld because the average age of people sailing on their ships is lower than many other cruise lines....meaning there are younger people sailing with Uniworld (they even have 2 new ships designed for travelers 25 to 45 years old...although people of all ages can sail).
This blog post is an overview of what I experienced. If you are interested in more details, please message me.
THE SHIP: The ship was S.S. Catherine. It is a newer ship (only a few years old) and is decorated very elegantly (all Uniworld ships are). At first, I thought it would be too over the top---I'm more of a casual person--but the decor fit perfectly for visiting France. There is lots of artwork throughout the ship---sort of like a floating museum. The foyer is beautiful and the first thing you see when boarding (photo below). The staterooms are all different--each has individual touches and colors. All of the areas of the ship are comfortable and there was room for everyone. The sun deck (the top of the ship) is perfect for afternoons of sailing. There are chaise loungers and tables (with bar service).
THE PORTS: I thought the itinerary was a good balance between small little towns and larger cities. We boarded in Avignon but sailed the first night to Tarascon. Tarascon is a small town right on the river, but other than a beautiful old castle and church, there isn't much to see. The tour that day was to the nearby city of Arles which has a long history and some of the best preserved Roman ruins of any place in France. This was a great balance---morning in Arles, back on board for lunch and then a few hours of free time to explore Tarascon (or other surrounding areas). That evening we sailed back to Avignon and then spent the next day exploring there. Uniworld offered several choices each day for excursions. For Avignon, there was an option to visit the nearly Pont du Gard (famous Roman aqueducts). I had wanted to visit there for years, so this was my selection. Same scenario---went on that excursion in the morning and then had free time all afternoon and early evening in Avignon. I had plenty of time to explore the city and see the Palace du Popes (highlight of Avignon). The third day we explored a little hilltop village called Viviers. We explored with a guide and then had a private organ concert in the smallest operating cathedral in France. It was amazing and something I couldn't have done on my own. The next day we were in Tain L'Hermitage which is known for its wines (and for the Valrhona chocolate factory and museum). I chose the active excursion which was a gorgeous hike up into the vineyards. There were a few wine tastings after the hike, but my friend and I decided that we wanted more time at the chocolate museum, so we left the excursion and started the free time early. That was the nice part of river cruising---there are excursions and guides if you want them or you can go off and explore on your own. Next was Lyon, which is huge compared to other ports on this sailing. We explored the old city and visited the Paul Bocuse food market---Paul Bocuse was very famous chef that helped put Lyon on the culinary map. The final port was on the Saône River (which also flows through Lyon---there is a confluence just out of town), but the water levels were too high for us (and all of the ships) to sail, so we stayed docked in Lyon and had to travel a bit further by bus to visit Beaune in the Burgundy region. We visited on Saturday, which is the market day, so that is always exciting. I chose to try one of Uniworld Masterpiece excursions that afternoon (these are optional and come at an additional cost) to visit a private château and winery owned by a count (sort of like a knight). We were a small group and were able to sample several of the wines before being treated to a a traditional lunch and tour of the chatâteau (that the count and his family live in). For me, this was definitely one of the highlights of the trip!
Aren't the photos beautiful?? Makes me miss France already :)
FOOD AND DRINKS: Like I mentioned, the price of the cruise includes most meals and drinks. Uniworld does offer premium alcohol at a surcharge. Many options were available in the included drink plan, including champagne. Breakfast is served in the dining room as a large buffet, with the option to order off a menu. There is a chef available for cooked to order eggs and omelets every day. There were always 5 or 6 hot options, fresh fruit, several yogurts, sliced meats and cheeses (European style), breads and pastries every day. Lunch is also buffet style with a chef hosted station every day (with a specialty item). Regional cheeses changed daily, as did prepared salads and hot entrees. There was always a salad bar and several choices of desserts. Ice cream was always available. Dinner was a seated service with 4 courses (an appetizer, soup, main course and dessert). The menu changed nightly and there were choices for all courses, in addition to some options that were always available (like a steak, chicken breast or salmon). There was a vegetarian or vegan option available on the menu each night. Room service was also available all day---and if you didn't want to eat in the room---you could order from one of the bars or lounges.
There was a sommelier on board and she chose a new white and red wine each day. Most of the selections were from the local regions we were visiting. There were 2 bars on board and you could order coffee specialties, tea infusions (my favorite was a ginger and lemongrass), along with your typical alcoholic beverages and soft drinks.
STAFF: Like I mentioned, the staff to guest ratio was phenomenal (one staff per 2 guests). Although my friend and I sat in different parts of the dining room, all of the wait staff seemed to know us and our preferences. The service was very attentive---service started within a minute or two of sitting down. The bar staff was also very attentive and often gave suggestions when we didn't know what we wanted. It was all included, so why not try something new?? Housekeeping came twice a day and every evening at turndown there was a little gift left on the bed. It was Hermes toiletries one night....a lot better than a little chocolate! I'm only saying that because there was a chocolate jar in our stateroom that was kept filled all week :)
STATEROOM: The ship had several different categories of rooms. We stayed in a middle option. The lowest priced options only have a small fixed window along the top of one wall. Those rooms don't have a view---just enough light to tell if it is night or day. Our room had a wall of window which could be lowered by an electric switch. This essentially made the room a balcony. A suite is the highest category and the main difference is that it is much bigger (the room and bathroom) and has several windows that open. The room was fairly big for a ship, but wasn't huge. There was ample closest space, but there wasn't a walk in closet. The bathroom was functional with a shower, a vanity and toilet (with a nice overhead blue night light, so you could see if you had to go in the night). I included our stateroom photos in the slideshow below, along with a couple of a suite.
OTHER GUESTS: Our sailing had guests from 12 countries. About half of the guests were American (no surprise here) and there was a large contingency of travelers from Canada, the UK and Australia. The other guests were from France, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal. While I didn't ask everyone their age, if I had to guess, the average age was around 55 years old. There were several people in their early 30's on honeymoons, several mother-daughter pairings (with the daughters in their 20's), as well as some older travelers in their 60's and 70's. There were no children under 18 years old on this sailing and that is typical except for Uniworld's family sailings. The other guests were generally fairly well traveled and probably 30% had been on a river cruise before. I thought the other guests were very friendly and open to conversation. In a nutshell, the other guests were people I would hang out with which is nice (and if you don't know me, I'm a 41 year old American).
I really enjoyed my Uniworld river sailing. I learned more than I usually do during travel because of the excellent local guides and I was very relaxed because I didn't have to plan every minute of my trip. I appreciated the balance between planned and free time and liked that nothing was "forced" on me. I could choose to spend my time as I wanted (up until the ship sailed that is...).
If a river cruise sounds interesting, please message me and we can start planning. Many river cruise lines sail this same route, so if Uniworld doesn't seem like a good fit, but the ports interest you, we can explore the other options. This is true of most European river sailings (the Seine, Rhine, Danube, etc).
Nicaragua had been on my list for years. I think I saw an eco resort in a magazine or something....all I knew is that I wanted to go :) Nicaragua didn't disappoint. I flew into Managua, which is the main international airport. There are non-stop flights from several cities in the US (Miami, Houston and Atlanta to name a few). I took a car service to Granada, one of the colonial cities. My destination was an island in the huge Lake Nicaragua---accessible from a marina just outside of Granada. There are several eco-resorts and they are all about a 10 to 20 minute boat ride from Granada. Pretty easy commute for the tranquility I experienced.
From my casita at the resort I had unobstructed views of the volcano Mombacho. There were more birds than people....by a long shot....and the stars were amazing at night with almost no light pollution.
Many of the eco-resorts have all of the creature comforts (electricity 24/7, hot water, well prepared food, spa services) that you would want on vacation. My massage therapist came over on the boat from Granada and I had my service in a small open area palapa. Very relaxing. My favorite meal were tacos made from homemade tortillas with fresh avocados and salsas accompanied by a fresh mango beverage (can be made with or without alcohol). My lodge also made homemade teas, ginger beers and smoothies.
After all that relaxing, I was ready to explore. The resort accommodates last minute requests and an hour or so after I asked for a guide to show me Granada, I was shaking his hand. Ishmeel took me to see the highlights of Granada--the museum, cathedral, bell tower, central square and the town market.
Just FYI...that is not a bag of rocks at the market. Those are cacao beans....what is used to make chocolate. Nicaragua is known for its coffee and chocolate...I can attest that both taste amazing!
Granada is a vibrant city, but isn't very big or very congested. If I had more time, I would have spent one night in town so I could explore the city some more. It was nice to come back to the tranquility of the island and know that I didn't have to go anywhere. Dinner is about a 2 minute walk away.
My second day, I chose to hike Mombacho. The top of Mombacho is part of a cloud forest eco system and as the name implies, is often under cloud cover. I got incredibly lucky---that day there was hardly a cloud in the sky and I could see for miles and miles. There are several options to get to the top---hike the whole way (a 4 to 5 hour hike), take a truck half way up and hike from there ( 2 to 3 hours) or take the truck to the top and walk along the crater and up to the summit. I chose the last option....I wanted to see the scenery, but didn't want to spend the entire day. There are also tours available where you tour a coffee farm on Mombacho and/or do a canopy tour via zip line. I didn't do either as I was more in the mood for a tranquil walk.
I seemed to stop every few minutes as my eyes were drawn to a flower or bird or some beautiful view. At the summit there were a few fumaroles (vent holes for the volcano) and the wind was quite strong (thus the photo with my hair standing straight up).
One last photo that isn't of Nicaragua, but it is what I brought with me. The resort works with local communities living on the islands of Lake Nicaragua and has a small suggested donation list. I only brought a carry on bag for my 3 nights stay, but I managed to find some space (I will always prioritize donations over another pair of pants!). I post this to show the impact this small donation could make if we all tried to put a few extras into our luggage. The impact could be huge!
Nicaragua is a destination that has something for everyone. Please get in touch if you are interested and I would happy to plan your journey.
Those of you that know me, know that I love France. I love the pace of life and focus on the local....and of course the food (and wine!). I have visited more than a dozen times and I am dreaming of seeing Provence again next month, but in a completely different way. I have been planning more river cruises in Europe and I have never experienced one (other than little day trips...). I think it is important to have first hand experience to help you plan if it is the right choice for your travel. My river cruise is booked from March 25th to April 1st on Uniworld Boutique Cruise Lines. I'm very excited and will share all of the details once I get home.
Looking at my itinerary made me reminisce about some of my previous travels. Provence is a great area to travel independently. The small towns are within easy driving distance of one another and you can reach the Mediterranean easily for a combination beach and culture (or hiking or foodie) trip.
This is a photo of Apt. It is a small town that comes alive on market day--something true for most of the Provincial towns and villages. The towns are very walkable, so you can park the car for your time in each city (thankfully as many of the streets are tiny....so narrow that one car can hardly fit...I had many nerve racking moments!). I enjoyed moving from one place to another chasing markets. Each area is known for a speciality...and the offerings are mostly local and seasonal. As such, the markets in the Summer are larger than they are in the Winter.
The Provence area is also a great place to visit wineries....maybe not as famous as the Bordeaux or Champagne regions, but there are excellent vintners. If you favor reds, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the town to visit. These wines have a history back to the 1300's when Avignon (a nearby city) was home to a Pope....if the wine was good enough for the Pope, it is probably worth a taste :) This town isn't far from the Rhone River and is in between Avignon and Orange...two larger cities with lots to offer. That combo tour would be great for a long weekend.
Many people associate Provence with lavender. The area is one of the world's largest producers and in the summer the fields are purple. This is also the peak season and the traffic jams can reach from one city to another. Although I would love to see the lavender in bloom, that is too stressful for me. Lavender is a year long highlight in Provence....your sheets will likely be sprayed by a bit of essential oil to relax you into sleep and treats like honey and ice cream all come in lavender options in Provence.
I would happy to share some other suggestions for what to see and do in Provence. Please get in touch if you are interested in a visit (email@example.com).
Thanksgiving is only a couple of days away and I think it is an important time for reflection. I am thankful and grateful for many things in my life...including travel. Travel has opened my eyes to beauty, other cultures, food, celebrations, and new experiences. Travel has given me many moments of awe and taken my breath away. Travel has also given me moments of fright, uneasiness, confusion and frustration. Each of these moments has been a learning experience and has made me a better traveler, if not a better person. I'm not going to get all philosophical here, but I do want to highlight some of what I am thankful and grateful for from my recent travels.
Don't judge a book by its cover. I had only visited the Caribbean a few times before last December and had always visited lesser known islands in an attempt to stay away from the most touristed islands (Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, Jamaica...to name a few). I thought even if the beaches are gorgeous, why would I want to be on one with hundreds of strangers?? Not my thing. Everyone has different tastes and this isn't mine. Until it kinda was :) A friend said "Let's go somewhere next week" as she was switching jobs. Never one to turn down travel, I started to explore our options. Not willing to spend $$$, Jamaica kept coming up as a reasonable option. My friend had never even been to the Caribbean, so we were in the same boat about thinking it wasn't for us. Then I found a smaller resort called Sunset at the Palms in Negril. The rooms were like tree houses and the grounds looked like a botanical garden. There was a private beach and they used local ingredients for all of the food and drinks. There was an open air spa. It was not gated and guests were encouraged to explore the island. Hmm...not sounding so bad. Long story short, we decided seeing each other was more important than the destination and why not chat on a beach?? I came in with no expectations, but my experience completely changed how I saw the island. There is something for everyone---for me a small resort, for others that might be a large, all-inclusive resort. I am thankful for the reminder to keep an open mind.
Open your eyes and take it all in. I was looking forward to seeing Halong Bay in Vietnam and was not disappointed. As I mentioned in another blog post, our time was going to be cut short due to an incoming cyclone (hurricane), so we only had one night on the boat instead of two. I tried to savor every moment and enjoy the time we did have, but it was hard to silence the disappointment of "but I want more time". I was taking photos until daylight ran out and I thought, what if I didn't even get a good photo? The voice of many years of yoga teachers were in my mind saying "live in the moment", but sometimes that is more challenging than others :) I went to dinner and enjoyed conversation with our new friends and drank some wonderful French wine. We had been in Vietnam for 3 days and been going like crazy, so we had mostly been sleeping through the night with hardly any jet lag. Well, for whatever reason, that night I woke up at 1am and was wide awake. I tiptoed to the balcony as not to disturb my husband (something else to be thankful for....a spouse that doesn't wake you up when one of you has jet lag!). The sea was still mostly calm and the karsts (the limestone formations growing up from the sea) were eery shadows in the night. In a good way :) It took my breath away. It was if I was on another planet. So serene...the literal calm before the storm. While I would have never asked to not be able to sleep from 1am until around 3-something, I am so thankful for the experience it gave me. I finally could just sit and take it all in and appreciate the beauty.
Friends that travel. I am so thankful and grateful for my friends, family and clients. I learn so much from them everyday. You may be wondering what a candy bar has to do this with thankful sentiment?? Well, this summer I spent time with a friend who had just visited Norway just before I was heading there. One reason we are friends is we both love to eat...and try new food in each place we visit. Somehow the conversation turned to this "amazing chocolate bar that was so much better than a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup". Now that is a statement! I wasn't going to visit Norway without finding this spectacular treat. So, while I spent most of my time appreciating the beauty of Norway and hiking (and hopefully burning off a calorie or two), I did have a bit of time before my fjord cruise so I started to explore all of the little stores. Let me say, Norway has many, many products with both chocolate and peanuts (or peanut butter). I didn't try them all and texts to my friend never quite confirmed if I had in fact found the "one", but it is a wonderful memory of my trip and I'm smiling thinking about it now. Thank you all for being in my life.....and for my clients, I'm thankful you allow me to help you plan your traveling adventures :) Happy Thanksgiving!
Norway had been on my "bucket list" for years....I had seen photos and fallen in love. Then I would search for flights or hotel and gasp a little in shock at the price (how much??) or look at cruises because they can be much more economical and you see so much more than you possibly could on your own only to realize my schedule didn't work with the cruise schedule (7-10 days days can be a long time to be gone). So, years passed and I still hadn't visited. I was going to be in Europe anyway and I thought I'm not getting any younger, I should go.
The time I had available wasn't long enough for a cruise, so I decided to do a short trip. I still gasped when I saw the prices and was thankful to have some miles sitting in an airline account so I could use those for the airfare from Germany (it is amazing how such a short flight can be so expensive...especially last minute). When I said short trip, I meant it. I chose one place (Bergen) and visited for 2 nights. I would have one full day to explore the neighboring fjords and all Bergen had to offer (plus a couple of hours the next day before my flight back). A little crazy, yes??? Well life isn't perfect and I had hyped Norway up so much in my mind I actually thought it might be a let down when I arrived. How many places live up to your expectation? Not many. I also thought while the fjords are beautiful, would I really want to look at them for 7 days? Only one way to find out...
I arrived in Bergen with an hour or so of daylight left. After checking in to a modest hotel in a wonderful, city center location I was off on my journey. The colorful houses of Bryggen were vibrant and a stone throw from the harbor. I walked to the old fort where I followed music to an open air concert (an act that was the equivalent of the Norwegian Justin Bieber...or so I'm told...or more like the thousands of teens and pre-teens decked out in all of their gear screamed). I walked back to the hotel along the coast and admired the mountains in the distance.
I'd been looking at the weather for days hoping my one day in Norway would be beautiful. I am so grateful and thankful to say the sun was blazing and it got up to nearly 70 degrees (I visited the end of August). I started with the funicular up to the nearest mountain and took in stunning views....
After admiring the 360 degree views (and meeting a few of the friendly mountain goats), I decided to walk back down into town (you can take the funicular down as well). Around every corner, there was the most amazing view. Then the next corner delivered a view even more stunning. Spoiler alert....it took me a long time to get back to Bergen :) I took a fjord cruise in the afternoon....the main event in my mind....and even though I wasn't going to be able to see the most amazing, most visited fjords, I was going to the fjords. (side note: you can get to the more famous fjords on a really, really long day trip from Bergen). After leaving the harbor, the landscape changed almost immediately. As we headed further out, the rocky outcrops got closer and much higher. It was stunning. There were small waterfalls cascading down in places and there were little outbuildings stuck on little peninsulas along the way. The atmosphere was serene.
The cruise was only about 3 hours, but it gave me a taste. And now I want more :) For me as a nature lover, Norway is amazing! My experience confirmed my impression that a cruise if for sure the way to go when seeing Norway. You can't get immersed in the scenery from land the same way you can from the water. I am now trying to find a week or so in my schedule for a return trip :) Norway has more to offer than scenery, but for me that was the highlight. The food is fresh and very good (simple, but with amazing flavors), there is a lot of history and culture (I was lucky enough to see an Edvard Munch exhibition in one of Bergen's many museums before my flight...he is the artist of the famous painting "The Scream") and the people are friendly. I highly recommend adding Norway to your list.
I just returned from Vietnam about a week ago and had an amazing journey! My husband and I visited Hanoi, Halong Bay and Ho Chi Min City (still sometimes referred to as Saigon). The plane journey is far from the States, but the experience is well worth it!
The older I have gotten, the less I seem to like cities, so I thought I would enjoy Hanoi more than HCMC (abbreviation used all the time so you don't have to spell out the whole city name). Hanoi does have a smaller town feel, but I wasn't sure that was a benefit. The smaller town feel meant the old city the streets were quite narrow....however, there will still millions (I may not even be exaggerating...) of people on the road. The motorbike is the preferred method of transportation in Vietnam and they are everywhere. The sidewalks are narrow (if there are sidewalks at all) so many times when we were walking, we were trying to step out into traffic to get by and that was a little perilous. However, there seems to be an unwritten system and although people are driving in all sorts of directions, it somehow works. If you were to wait for a break in traffic, you would wait for days, so you just slowly start to make your way across and walk slowly and calmly and everyone just drives around you. Not for the faint of heart, but not that different from the rest of South East Asia.
This was us stopped in traffic approaching an intersection (not a parking lot like it appears). We walked to the Temple of Literature which is a Confusion Temple and site of the first university. It is very old and a peaceful refuge from the city--the location is right in the old town, but the gardens give the area a sense of tranquility.
After a couple of days in Hanoi, we headed to Halong Bay in the Northern part of Vietnam (the first picture is from Halong Bay). It is about 3.5 to 4 hours by car from Hanoi to the dock. I knew there were lots of options for boats in Halong Bay---from day boats to boats where you travel the surrounding area for a week or more. I also knew the area had become very touristy and that some of the boats were quite large....and filled with shall we say more exuberant travelers (meaning drunk and loud). As a travel agent, I have a network of what are called Destination Management Companies---essentially local agencies in countries around the world---that work only with travel agents. These DMC's know their local area better than anyone else and have the resources to make really exceptional events happen (think behind the scenes tours, meeting local chefs, etc). I reached out to my contact in Vietnam and asked for advice. I told her what we wanted (a smaller boat, local food, the opportunity to visit places off the tourist path) and within hours, she had narrowed down 100+ boat options down to 2. Talk about saving some time and getting an expert recommendation from someone who knows the area well! I looked at the two options she suggested and booked a 3 day/2 night cruise. I knew going in September there was a chance of a cyclone, but it wasn't a very high chance. Flash forward to an e-mail popping up while we were in Hanoi saying a cyclone was on its way to Vietnam. We were able to go for one night of our cruise, but then everyone on Halong Bay was forced to evacuate. Halong Bay was gorgeous and the scenery very peaceful. I'm grateful we got to spend some time there before having to move on to another area.
We found ourselves with some time and no plan. Thankfully we had travel insurance and knew some of our change fees would be covered (along with getting a refund of our unused time on the boat). So, my husband and I decided to head back to Hanoi and go to the airport and see where we could go. It was fun not knowing where exactly we were going to end up....just stepping up to the desk saying we are supposed to fly in a couple of days, but we want to go today instead. The place that was top of our list---Hoi An---was also under threat of the cyclone, so we headed to HCMC. There were 3 flights sold out before the flight we got on (we weren't the only ones trying to get away from the cyclone) but by evening we were relaxing at the Park Hyatt. We were lucky to have amassed lots of points and ended up using them on a 4 night stay at this amazing property! We started the next day off with the "must see" attractions---the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace (also called Reunification Palace). I knew I didn't know that much about the Vietnam War, but I didn't realize how little I knew. I usually am not a museum person---I stay maybe an hour or two---but the exhibits at the the War Museum held my interest and churned my stomach all at the same time. To see the horrors of war...even all these years later....were impactful and told a story. There were certainly areas of the exhibits that were biased towards the Vietnamese (I think it is human nature....don't we have a US bias in our museums??), but a lot of it was neutral...more than I was expecting. Particularly an exhibit on loan from Kentucky which looked at the last photos taken from photojournalists that died in the war. There were journalists from many nationalities and all had a very powerful story to tell. We spent probably 4 hours here and left feeling a little shell-shocked. The walked to Independence Palace seemed to just continue the journey as this was the seat of the government for the South until the war was over and the country unified. The building is much as it was left in the 1970's and the exhibits tell of how the president handled politics during the war.
After such a emotional day, we headed for the spa. There are spas across Vietnam (and South East Asia) that provide an hour long foot massage for something around $10. The massage tends to focus on accupressure points which can be painful, but at the end, you feel like you have new feet....even after walking the entire day! The next few days we explored different areas of HCMC and saw some amazing temples, ate some wonderful food, braved the local market, and hit the spa on several more occasions :) I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed HCMC and felt it was easier to walk and get around than in Hanoi. Our time there went by very quickly. I'll leave this very long blog post with some photos of the markets and foods we enjoyed....because those of you that know me, know that is my favorite part of travel!
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.