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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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!
One of my favorite counties in Europe is Slovenia. I love to be outside and appreciate natural beauty (trees, mountains, waterfalls), so Slovenia was perfect. We drove from Germany to Lake Bled (about 8 hours from Kaiserslautern) and brought Henry (our dog). Lake Bled was the busiest place we visited in Slovenia, but it is still a quiet area in comparison to most other places in Europe.
There is a beautiful walking path all around the lake. To get to the church on the island, you need to take a boat. Bled Castle is perched on top of a ridge and looks as if it could fall into the lake from some angles. You can walk or drive up to the castle and from there get some wonderful panoramic views.
My husband loves to scuba dive and is always looking for off the beaten path places to dive...usually more like Palau than Lake Bled, but he figured when else would he have this opportunity? The diving was ok---no huge fish or anything colorful, but the cold climate of the lake has some species of marine life that are not often found in other dive sites.
After Lake Bled we headed to the Soca River Valley. The GPS said something like 50 miles, so we thought an hour or so. What we didn't realize is the route is literally up and over a mountain pass. It is gorgeous scenery, but the road has about a million switchbacks and at some points is very narrow. We were happy once we reached the other side :) The Soca River valley is known for rafting in the summer and skiing in the winter (not world class skiing, but decent skiing). We traveled here in September and it was already turning chilly (even has some flurries at night...this was all new snow on the mountain).
We stayed just a couple of miles outside of one of the small towns and felt like we owned the place. There were more cows than people. We stayed in a small apartment that was part of a working farm. We ate dinner and breakfast with the owners and there were only a few other guests. It was a perfect place to explore....but if this is too quiet for you, stay in one of the main towns and there are restaurants, shops and bars to entertain you while taking in the natural beauty.
On our way to Croatia, we stopped to see the Lippenzzaner horses. Slovenia was one of the original breeding locations for these horses and the area holds on to the tradition. You can see the horses perform on-site. This isn't my thing (my husband was interested, I went for a hike with Henry), so I don't have any photos, but this is something that can done either as an overnight stay (there is a nearby town) or as a day trip. It is about an hour north of the Croatia border.
We stayed in Opatija, Croatia which is about 40 minutes across the Slovenian border. Opatija is a historic beach town and it has a beautiful wooded walking path along the coast. The beaches are all rocky in this area and there are only a few places suitable for swimming (mostly at established swim/beach clubs).
We drove inland to see Plitvice National Park. We arrived in the middle of the day (around 1:30pm), which in hindsight was a mistake. Even though we weren't there in peak season, it was still very crowded. Think about probably 30 bus loads of people.....all in a pristine beautiful park. The two don't mix very well. We started walking (the park is dog-friendly) and it was like a traffic jam...wall to wall people..so much so we considered leaving. After an hour or so of walking, we noticed most people were turning off the trail at a spot where the main trail continued. We learned from our innkeeper that is where the buses are and most leave around 3pm. Sure enough, after that turn off, we lost about 90% of the people and could finally enjoy ourselves (so early in the morning and after 3pm are the best times to visit).
I highly recommend a visit to Plitvice and it is worth taking your time to explore. There are trams that take you from one part of the park to another and you can either start or end with a boat ride across one of the larger lakes (saving about 2 hours of hiking time). I also recommend staying in the area overnight, so you have flexibility to go when it isn't as busy (it made a huge difference for us).
I often get asked where to visit in Europe after you have seen the main attractions (think Eiffel Tower, Rome, London, etc). One of my suggestions is to visit the former Soviet Republics, such as Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. These countries aren't far distance wise (there are several non-stop flights...Ryan Air even flies to some locations), but the experience is different from what you find in many other parts of Europe.
This photo is from a (restored) caste just outside of Vilnius, Lithuania (called Trakai Castle). I mention the restored part because many old buildings in Europe are as they have been for hundreds of years, with only minor restorations. However, in Lithunia the older buildings were allowed to crumble and were not maintained for many years (under Soviet rule). After gaining independence, they have restored many of the cultural centers based on what they looked like in their prime. If I didn't know this castle had been restored, I would have had no idea. The supplies used in restoration were as close to the original materials as possible.
Vilnius is the capital city, but has a smaller town feel with a river running through the city. It is one of the greenest capitals in Europe....both in terms of green space and environmental regulations. The city is very walkable and I found everyone to be very friendly.
As you may have figured out, I love food! Lithuania had lots of great food that I had never tried before---this photo is of potato pancakes (which I've had many times), but on the menu were probably no less than 30 varieties. This was with an egg and onion. Lithuania is also known for kibiny (spellings vary) which are handheld, dough pockets filled with one of many options. The best part is that it was easy to try the local specialties as the prices are quite low....this potato pancake dish was about $2 (even with table service in a restaurant) and kibiny were closer to $1 and two would make a meal.
Moving on to Estonia, many people experience the capital city of Tallinn on a Baltic cruise (I did as well---we were sailing on Seabourn). The old city is fairly compact and can easily be seen during the 6 or 8 hours of a port stop.
If you look close, you can see one of the cruise ships in the background. It is a short 5 to 10 minute drive from the port to the old town and many cruise lines have bus service (it is included in the price with Seabourn and around $10 for other cruise lines).
One thing I noticed in Tallinn was all of the churches of various denominations. There were more than 10 churches right in the city center, many open to the public and several with museums inside.
The most memorable part of my visit was my stop at the Museum of Occupations. As the title hints at, this museum is dedicated to the history of Estonia told through who was occupying the country. It is a fairly small, but the exhibits tell the very personal story of Estonians and how their life changed during the time the country wasn't independent. I learned so much from this museum, I would 100% recommend it. It is about a 5 minute walk outside of the old city.
I visited Riga, Lativa in 2009 and it was my first exposure to an Eastern European country. There is a similar museum of occupation in Riga and I left feeling completely ignorant as I knew nothing about this part of the world (other than it has been under Soviet rule). I also had no idea that there were concentration camps in Latvia. I literally found out this fact looking a tourist brochure showing tours available. I hired a guide and went to the camp about 40 minutes outside the city---I was expecting something along the lines of Auschwitz in that it would be a surviving camp...like with buildings. What I saw was much more powerful in a lot of ways....the camp is now completely in ruins with a simple monument documenting the location. When news spread that troops were coming to liberate the camp, the guards set fire to the camp. There were very few survivors. All that is left is a few concrete foundations. My mind filled in too many blanks and I was quite emotional. My guide also took me to a mass burial site which is marked today with a simple marker. It was an uncomfortable visit, but I felt like I wanted to know more about the history and the guide was essential in giving me that background---had I hired a driver only to take me there I wouldn't have known what I was looking at.
A visit to Riga isn't all depressing. In town there is a new section with high rise buildings next to the old town, so it is easy to mix current day life with history. I wish I could post photos, but after searching for hours, I can't seem to find my jump drive from 2009 (a hazard of moving all the time!!). Trust me, the city is beautiful and worth a visit. A few cruise lines stop near Riga or the airport is just a short drive from the city.
All of the cities I mention are great to visit over a weekend or 3 days. They all have plenty of accommodation and restaurant options and the prices are very reasonable. In addition the the history I mention, there is also plenty to do in terms of entertainment (Riga is known for having an excellent ballet), shopping and a thriving culinary scene. Please feel free to get in touch if I can help you plan a visit.
Not like the book of the same name....a different kind of wild. I have clients on safari now and it made me remember my own safari experience a few years ago. There are many things I loved about being on safari, but the most important was a sense of awe and amazement. In a world where so much is predictable and many experiences choreographed down to the tiniest detail, it was nice change to know that each time I went in the vehicle or set out on foot for safari, I had no idea what I would see. My husband and I went in July which is winter in South Africa. We chose a small safari lodge in a private reserve because we wanted to observe animals in the wild with as few human interruptions as possible. We stayed at Chitwa Chitwa in Sabi Sands and it delivered as promised.
This photo was taken from our back deck, the ledge you see on the bottom right was our plunge pool. We didn't really use it because it was too chilly, but one night we heard a huge splash and in peeking out the window, a leopard had fallen off (or jumped off) the rock wall into our pool. Talk about being close to nature! These elephants came for a visit shortly before our afternoon game drive on the last day. I couldn't take my eyes off them and decided why do I need to get in the jeep when I can sit here in a robe and be on my own private game drive :) The watering hole was full of hippo and the bathroom wall was all glass...so I could literally see a hippo wading in the water while I waded in the huge soaking bath tub inside. Again, my own private safari. The lodge location was excellent and the staff very knowledge about the area and wildlife. Yes, this experience was expensive (about $700 per night), but it included meals, many drinks, two safari drives (about 4 hours each), a choice to go on a walking safari, and a room with probably the best view I've ever had. Our safari jeep always had less than 8 people in it and the private reserve has restrictions as to how many jeeps can be at an animal sighting at one time (a total of 3). The guides are all in radio contact to alert each other when they see something special (for us it was the endangered wild dogs...that just had pups). For many people, a safari is a once in a lifetime experience (the flight is a long one!) and this is not the time to cut corners. It is possible to do a safari at a lower price, but you may not even stay in a park. Or you are in a jeep with 20+ people with a guide not as familiar with the area or the animals. This was my first safari and I really didn't know what to expect (ok, I thought I would see lions and elephants...). I had no concept of how close I would come to these beautiful creatures. Our guide knew so much I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge. One recommendation I have (and something I give to all of my clients going on safari) is bring an animal identification book with you. Once you see something in the wild, it peaks your curiosity as to what they eat, how long they live, who are their enemies, etc. The lodge had a book, but I wanted to make notes so I could reference it again the next day.
The little slideshow gives you a small glimpse of all of the animals we saw on a 3 night safari. I left in one photo where you can see part of the jeep so you have perspective as to just how close you can get to the animals. These photos were not taken with a long zoom lens! We arrived on day one just in time for the afternoon game drive and had to leave before the morning game drive on the last day....so that gave us a total of 5 drives. My recommendation is to stay between 3 and 5 nights on safari. We were in Africa for about 10 days total--we started in Cape Town and went to Victoria Falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe after our safari. This was a nice balance of safari vs non-safari activities (Africa has a lot to offer!). The journey to the safari lodges is a long one in South Africa. You fly from Cape Town or Johannesburg (or you can do a long drive from J-burg) and then it is about 1.5 to 3 hours by road from the airport---about half on dirt roads. We were lucky enough to see some animals on our drive to the lodge.
I would be happy to help you plan your safari experience. There are lots of locations to choose from (South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania to name a few) and some safari lodges are family friendly. Most lodges do have a minimum age requirement to go on game drives.
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.