Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta, Canada have always been on my dream list. When I saw I had a window of time to travel this July, I went for it. I knew traveling in high (peak) season would pose some challenges, but sometimes you just have to go for it :)
As your travel advisor, I would highly recommend not planning a trip like this at the last minute. I started planning one month out and the trip revolved around the 2 nights that Jasper had availability. I looked at the entire months of July and August and found ONE option for a 2-night stay! (Henry, my dog, was on this journey with me and I needed a pet friendly place, so that narrowed my options)
I took my time driving from Oregon to Alberta and with each passing mile the scenery became more and more spectacular.
Traveling in peak season has its perks and for this trip is was beautiful weather. Jasper had had measurable snow one evening about a week before I arrived (which would have been fine with me), but the weather was 80 and sunny when I arrived.
Driving into Jasper village was a bit of let down. It was RV's parked as far as the eye could see. Little stores and restaurants lined the streets and at 6pm or so there were no shortage of people out and about. The hotel I stayed at was about 2 minutes outside of town which made it a little quieter (although a railroad runs right through town). The photo below is looking back into town from my hotel....certainly not a bad view!
I had heard that although crowds were bad (especially at Lake Louise and Banff), if you went out early or late in the day or walked a few minutes away from the main photo spots, the crowds thinned out. So, Henry and I got up early and headed to the Pyramid Lake area (about 10-15 minutes from town). I drove just a few minutes and came around a corner to see elk in the road....and 5 or 6 cars with people hanging out of them taking photos trying to get as close as possible. There are signs everywhere saying NOT to do the things these visitors were doing (the animals are not safe and the more used to humans they get, the harder it is for them to survive). I slowly drove around the mess and continued on my way. I parked and headed out to explore. The parking lot was full, but within 10 minutes, Henry and I had the trail to ourselves. That is until we came across elk...but after stopping a moment to let them continue on their way, Henry and I did the same. This path took us from Pyramid Like to Patricia Lake and beyond (it actually went back into town).
Henry and I found a quiet spot and sat undisturbed for quite awhile. People were walking across the bridge to Pyramid Island (the trees in the middle of the water), but we had a nice moment of tranquility. More people were starting to appear around 11:30am, so we headed back to the hotel for nap and lunch. We headed back out around 6pm and visited Maligne Canyon (pretty, but still very crowded!) and Lakes Edith and Annette---all about 15 minutes from Jasper. As the evening went on, we had more and more space to ourselves and Henry and I could just appreciate the beauty.
The next morning, it was time to eat breakfast and hit the road on the famous Icefields Parkway. It is a scenic 233km journey from Jasper to Lake Louise. There are lots of places to stop along the way and I was looking forward to a leisurely drive. I knew some stops would be busy, but little did I know how busy! I stopped at Athabasca Falls and while the parking lot was nearly full, I found a spot and got out to explore. The sounds of people were louder than the rushing water of the falls. People were everywhere! I think there must have been a hundred buses parked somewhere to have this many people. Henry was freaked and I can't blame him---we caught a small glimpse of the falls and left. Back on the highway, there wasn't much traffic and the scenery was beautiful. A few minutes later there was a similar sight as the day before with cars parked all over the road looking at something....this something happened to be a bear....and people were getting out to get a better picture. I just don't understand how people think this is a good idea. To my knowledge, no one was eaten or injured that day, but it is only a matter of time. Once I could get around the cars, we continued on our way and went to stop a couple of other times at what I thought were less popular places (more like picnic stops).....well each time I turned off I realized why there weren't that many cars on the road....they were all parked or trying to park somewhere! These parking lots aren't small mind you---some were as big as a football field and it still wasn't big enough to contain everyone. I knew the Icefield Center would be busy (most say this is the highlight of the drive---you can take a special vehicle onto a glacier, there is a museum and glass overhang view point), so we stopped at the Stutfield Glacier lookout about 10km kilometers before the Center.
This lookout was busy enough and the theme of my trip seemed to be to think crowds were big...until I went to the next place and I thought now, these are big crowds.....only to have notion toppled the next hour. The Icefield Center was crowded by anyone's standard. The view of the glaciers were gorgeous (I saw them out of the corner of my eye while driving) but the dominant view was not of the glaciers....it was of the hordes of people and all sorts of vehicles. The parking lots went on forever and there were still people finding no place to park. I am not a big advocate of limiting access, but if there was a case, I think Banff is one place where it may be needed. The environment can not handle all of these people.
Speaking of crowds, Lake Louise certainly has them. I had seen photos of Fairmont Château Lake Louise (a very nice hotel right on the lake) for 20+ years and always wanted to stay there and so Henry and I booked one night. I thought one of the main perks would be to see the lake after the day visitors left....well, that wasn't really true. I asked at reception when things quieted down and she said between midnight and 3am is pretty quiet. What?!? That is crazy! To put this in perspective, there are several remote parking lots that shuttle visitors to Lake Louse and nearby Lake Moraine....in addition to parking lots closer to the lakes. After seeing the traffic, I decided the best perk of staying at the hotel was being able to give my name and drive right into the hotel parking garage :)
Lake Louise didn't disappoint and it was true that if you walked for 10 or 15 minutes, the crowds did thin out. I don't think you will ever be alone at Lake Louise, but with some effort, it isn't overwhelming like it is right at the start (where the shuttles drop off people and the main parking lot is located).
The Fairmont didn't disappoint either...it is a beautiful hotel in an even more beautiful location. The next morning was the first time we had rain on this trip, so I didn't get any morning photos from Lake Louise, but even clouded in, it is gorgeous. I understand why so many people want to see it.
We headed out for the short 50 minute or so drive to Banff. If you can't tell by now, I don't love crowds....so I booked a hotel about 2 miles from town and that was a great decision for me. There were hiking trails I could walk to from the hotel and I chose a package with half board (breakfast and dinner) so I didn't have go into Banff at all the 2 nights I was there. The drive though Banff to get to the hotel can hardly be described as a drive---I think I maxed out about 15 mph as it was all essentially a slow moving traffic jam from entrance to exit. Banff is great if you want nightlife and plenty of shopping and things to do (Gap is right on one corner...who doesn't need a new shirt when visiting a national park?).
The same advice worked in Banff---head out early or late and you lose the crowds even a bit outside of the city. There are lots of multi-purpose trails (mountain biking/hiking) and plenty of wonderful views. We saw maybe 5 people in an hour and a half hike on Tunnel Mountain. I consider that a huge success! What was really a success is that Henry and I sat in peace and quiet in the meadow for nearly 20 minutes before a few bikers passed through. Even in one of the busiest places, I'm always amazed when I find a hidden spot (although this wasn't very hidden--it was 5 minutes from my hotel).
After 2 nights in Banff, we were on our way. I would have loved to stay longer and explore more in the quieter areas, but the main lesson in traveling in peak season and booking only a month out is that accommodation is expensive. These areas are expensive even when you plan a year in advance (the recommended amount of time). Expect to pay between $300 and $400 per night for a pretty average hotel room (and $500+ for a luxury property). If it grew legs and walked 100 miles away, the room would likely go for more like $100 or $150, but that is old adage of location, location, location.
There are exciting ways like the Rocky Mountaineer train to visit these areas if you aren't into driving. You can also choose a home base and do day tours...or join a full tour so you don't have to think about anything other there where to take the best photos. For my travel style and for traveling with dog, I highly recommend having your own car (either driving there or getting a rental at the airport). These national parks are huge and the ability to get off the beaten path made all the difference in my trip.
I look forward to helping you plan your next adventure.
Todos Santos has become more popular in the past few years and I can understand why. This little sleepy town is the opposite of what many people think of when they think of a Mexican vacation (huge, all-inclusive resort where you never experience much, if anything, outside of the resort). To get to Todos Santos, you fly into San Jose del Cabo's airport---the same as if you were heading to Cabo San Lucas. The similarities end there. When I landed the other night around 9pm, it was a muggy, 85 degrees or so at the airport. I figured that is June weather in Mexico. My driver said the temperature would be nearly 20 degrees cooler when we arrived in a little over an hour in Todos Santos. I thought he was exaggerating. Well, sure enough it was a wonderful 68 degrees when we arrived. Cabo is known for many luxury resorts---both all inclusive as well as room only properties. The resorts can be large, but are still small compared with many in places like Cancun. Cabo certainly has a reputation for partying as many of my fellow travelers on the plane were loudly planning where to take their first drink. Todos Santos has a couple of main streets and mostly boutique size properties with a more hippie, artist, chill reputation. There are some options for surfing a few minutes out of town and this area (and La Paz) are known for whale sharks during the winter months. There are lots of marine animals year round and plenty of options to head out on boats to get closer to the action.
I'm visiting for a friend's wedding and they rented out a property just outside of town called San Cristobal (down a long dirt road). It is part of Liz Lambert's Bunkhouse group and they have a reputation of building properties that reflect the culture of the area they are located.
This hotel is one of the bigger ones in Todos Santos at a big, whopping 32 rooms. It is right on a wide expanse of beach with rocky mountains to the left. The area next to the hotel is used as a launching point for boats heading out to fish. Not huge commercial boats...little boats with small town fisherman. What is caught locally is served locally. It is mostly quiet and relaxing. It makes Guayacura Boutique Hotel (where I stayed my first night in Todos Santos) seem like a bustling city hotel....which in its own way is true. Guaycura is a 3 minute walk to the main plaza of town and the entire town is within walking distance. The trade off is you hear traffic as it is on one of the main roads. A rooftop bar and restaurant help make it feel more serene. Photos of San Cristobal are above and Guayacura are below.
The next part of my journey began with some sun peeking out of the clouds...so on the drive back to Lahad Datu, I actually saw more monkeys than I did my 2 nights in the rainforest. Funny how life works! I wished I could sit and watch them for a bit, but my schedule to get to the next location was very tight. I had another driver waiting in Lahad Datu to drive me another 1.5 hours or so (this time on paved roads) to a boat jetty. This drive wasn't supposed to be scenic, but it turned out to be fascinating (and I don't mean that in a very positive way). Once outside the city, I started seeing palm plantations...and as the drive continued, that was pretty much all you could see in any direction. We passed huge trucks full of palm fruit headed for processing and small kids running with baskets trying to pick up what had fallen off. This industry has consumed large parts of Borneo. After asking some questions, I learned that most palm trees bear fruit for between 15 and 25 years and then they are clear cut and often burned to the ground only to be replanted with another palm tree to continue to cycle. To see the clear cut plantations were sad...nothing but burned out stumps well into the distance. I had heard the river valley where I was headed was full of wildlife which on first glance sounded amazing, but then I learned why---essentially all of the habitat in the surrounding areas was gone. There are laws about having a buffer zone between industry (the plantations) and native forest to allow for some transition for the wildlife and people. I learned that in practice, that is not the case. I was truly stunned to see the scope of the palm plantations. They were not spread out in between towns or just every so often...on this drive they were everywhere.
Not to be depressing....as I'm sure most of you are reading this to hear about the Orangutans...but this is the backdrop of this experience. Once I arrived at the river jetty--I was a mere 10 minutes ahead of the scheduled 1:30pm departure to the resort (the only one of the day) and was surprised to learned that there were no other guests at the resort. I had a private everything! We headed off for the 1.5 hour boat ride to the resort. I sort of questioned the craziness of the commute, but once I saw how remote I was, it was completely worth it!
The Kinabatangan River is the second longest in Malaysia and is the water is a beautiful shade of chocolate. Since it was just us, the guide stopped and showed me lots along the way. I saw a slumbering crocodile along the bank---a good 3 or 4 feet long---and after the guide said "oh, he is asleep after a big meal and is lazy"---the croc decided to jump up and leap into the water. We were probably 20 feet away and in a boat, but that splash made me jump :) We saw lots of birds--including eagles---and then the guide found an Orangutan. The photo is above. Can you find him in the tree??? Hint, he is towards the middle of the photo on a branch to the right of the trunk. To be honest, I was excited and yes it was an Orangutan in the wild....but I also thought really, is this as close as I'm going to get?? Expectations can be a trip killer and I had in my head that I would be able see Orangutans closer in. With binoculars I did see some definition...at least enough to know that I was looking at an Orangutan. The places we stayed did a good job of explaining that wildlife in a rainforest environment is much more difficult to see as part of a safari....as opposed to the wildlife safaris in Africa. The environment is completely different and even if guides tried to know the routines of each primate, the jungle offer millions of places to find cover. Lions and Leopards just don't have as much room to ride....and travel on the ground and not up in trees, so this is the nature of the experience.
Well, while everything I just wrote it true....I got lucky :) In the afternoon and morning boat rides, I saw so much! I was grateful to be able to see the rare sight of an Orangutan sitting on land (as opposed to sitting in a tree) and so, so many Proboscis monkeys (found only in Borneo) along with several other kinds of primates, trees that had spikes along the bark as a defensive mechanism, snakes, birds, monitor lizards.....and the list goes on and on. To be on their turf and just observe gave me chills on more than one occasion. I was a guest in their world and it felt very primitive....like I had gone back in time. Well, until other guests joined me on Day 2 and took cell phones photos of everything we saw. That pushed me right into the 21st century!
We had a guided night walk along the boardwalks of the resort and saw animals I had never even heard of like a mouse deer and some kind of huge scorpion who THANKFULLY keep hiding from us!. The other night it was a night boat ride and we went to a section of the riverbank that has a special kind of tree that attracts fireflies. If you are like me, you are thinking of the lighting bug type of fireflies...flashing neon green in the back yard. Well, these fireflies are the size of ants and congregate in this type of tree and communicate with light. It looks like someone hung Christmas tree lights...it is crazy! The guide pointed the flashlight towards the tree and it was an instant reaction of a million bright lights. They were trying to figure out who was trying to chat with them. What a cool, unexpected surprise!
The journey to leave the resort was also 1.5 hours, but I was headed to a new place. I decided to add on a visit to the world famous Orangutan rescue center and nursery in Sepilok---just in case I didn't see an Orangutan in the wild. More on that and the rest of my trip in the next installment....
I'm not a huge "bucket list" type of traveler...running around trying to tick something off a list isn't typically my style. However, I think we all have bucket list or dream trips....and Borneo has been one of mine for many years. If you are like some of my friends, you may not even know where Borneo is :) Borneo is an tri-country island in Southeast Asia--part of the island is Malaysia, part Indonesia and part Brunei. I visited the Malaysian part and spent time in the Sabah region.
I have so much to share from this trip that I've decided to break it up into sections. This part will be about my first destination (I flew into Kota Kinabalu the night before...the main city of Sabah, but only slept a few hours before heading out). I flew into Lahad Datu and began the 2.5 to 3 hour drive into the rainforest of the Danum Valley. Let me go back a bit---the reason this was a dream trip of mine is that I love animals and support efforts to keep them safe in their natural habitat. Orangutans are only found in the wild of Borneo and their numbers have been dwindling in the past few decades because of habitat destruction. One of the main economic activities for people living in Borneo is palm oil production. Primary rainforest (the home terrain for Orangutans....and other creatures) is torn down to build palm oil plantations. Those plantations are just as they sound---mass planting of palm trees designed for maximum output of the part of the tree used to make palm oil. The few remaining areas of wild forest--especially primary forest (meaning it has never been torn down)--are now areas for eco-tourism. Me (and my money) came to these areas in the hopes of seeing Orangutans in the wild.
Back to the journey---the drive from Lahad Datu is mostly on unpaved roads. With each minute that passed, I felt like I was going deeper and deeper into another world. Most of the drive is in what is called secondary forest---forests that have been replanted in the hopes that the eco system (and all its critters) will return to what it was years ago. The rainforest grows fairly quickly, but you can tell secondary from primary.
I stayed at Borneo Rainforest Lodge--a leader in the eco-tourism market of Borneo. I knew it was exceptional because of its location, but I had no real idea what the lodge would look like as the website is out of date. I didn't care---I was going for the wildlife and if I was in rustic accommodations, no big deal. Well, was I in for a pleasant surprise! We arrived around 10am and were greeted by a team of staff---fresh drinks and fruit and taken directly to our gorgeous room. The rooms were recently upgraded and looked to be out of a design magazine. One wall is all windows overlooking the Danum river....there is also a balcony with a plunge pool and an indoor/outdoor shower. I was completely immersed in the rain forest and the design was very sensitive to the unique location, but it is 5 stars all the way.
I visited in the shoulder season---a time when the weather is pretty good and the crowds are less. The resort can hold more than 80 people in the 30 chalets, but there were just 6 people when I was there. There were many more staff than guests and my experience was phenomenal! The food was excellent (buffet and food stations to order al la minute) and there was lots of variety. I had my own guide for excursions and they were scheduled at 3 per day-- morning walk after breakfast, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
I knew there were leeches in the rainforest. I have had leeches on me before (in India) and while I wasn't looking forward to having another get attached to me, it was the price to pay to be in the rainforest. The resort sold leech socks and I knew they would know better what I would need than me trying to order in advance from the States (what do leech socks even look like, right??). I got a quick lesson from my guide and proceeded to get prepared for our afternoon walk.
The quick overview is that leech socks look sort of like a Christmas stocking....larger than normal socks. You pull them on over your normal socks and pants and cinch the drawstring above your knee (they come in multiple sizes). You then put your shoes on over the leech socks. Wearing leech socks do nothing to deter the leeches from getting on you...but it does add another level of protection from them getting attached to your skin---as some can attach to you through a layer of fabric.
All dressed and ready to go, we headed out into the forest. There were all sorts of sounds--of birds, frogs, insects and occasionally monkeys. We got about 10 minutes of dry weather before the rain started falling....and it poured. It was still fun to explore, because it is a rainforest and it rains....sort of adds to the atmosphere. We saw lots of little critters and smelled some Orangutan (think monkey house mixed with a man that needs a shower and wet fur...not exactly a scent I would bottle and sell as perfume!). However, Orangutan....and other primates...don't like rain. They retreat to nests in the trees and cover themselves with leaves. Super camouflaged, you could be right under one and not know it. We were lucky enough to see some very playful red leaf monkeys once the rain calmed down a bit. Photo NOT attached because I had on the wrong lens to get a good photo (good lesson to learn early in a trip!). We headed back to the lodge and the real skill isn't getting dressed to go into the forest....it is trying to get undressed without getting one of the leeches on your skin. They are all over your clothes and you have to slowly pluck them off and make sure nothing is attached. I am not exaggerating when I say it takes about 30 minutes. Once naked, the shower feels great as after every adventure, I was soaking wet and dirty.
It was raining for the night drive, so all we saw was a glimpse of an elephant....who made it known that he was NOT happy to see us! So, the driver decided it was wise to get out of there. The next morning it was raining again but I decided to try the hike with the guide up to the lookout spot. I figured it wouldn't be a view for miles like it can sometimes be, but I wanted to explore. I saw several monkeys on the way up---more red leaf monkeys, Gibbons, and long tailed Macaque, as well as all kinds of insects and bugs. The view from the top made me feel like I was on top of the world....and alone in the world (in a good way!). Very peaceful.
In the afternoon, I tried the canopy walk. It is a great way to get above the rainforest and see things in the trees at eye level. It was dry when I started but after getting to the highest platform and hoping to see some primates.....the skies opened up again. This was not the part of the trip where I would see the Orangutan, but wildlife sightings are never guaranteed and I left the Danum Valley the next morning hoping I would see Orangutan at my next stop (spoiler alert: since I have a photo of Orangutans...you probably know how stop 2 went!). More on that later....
It is that time of year to reflect on the previous 12 months and look forward to what the next year has in store. I'm grateful to all of my wonderful friends, family and clients that made 2018 wonderful....and truly an adventure! Looking back at 2018 in photos, I enjoyed re-living several awesome travel experiences :)
I'm looking forward to new adventures in 2019. I'm heading to Guam on New Years Eve to see my husband and continue to explore more of Asia. In January, we will be going to Borneo which has been a dream of mine for years. We are staying deep in the rainforest and hope to see Orangutans, Proboscis monkeys (both only found in Borneo), pygmy elephants, the largest flower in the world (supposed to be as big as a truck tire!) along with lots of other wildlife.
In June I will be headed to Todos Santos, Mexico (about an hour or so from Cabo San Lucas) for my friend's wedding. I will also be checking out several properties that opened in 2018 to help give you all some perspective on where to stay.
In between, who knows what life has in store??? I'm hoping to see Alaska in 2019 and of course plan to head back to Europe for a visit (Germany for sure, but maybe also another visit to Italy??). I hope to make it to Hong Kong or Shanghai in fall and I'm sure I will add on a few other destinations to make 2019 amazing!
What is on your travel list for 2019? I would love to help you plan your journey!
It is hard for me to believe that 3 weeks ago today I was getting off the Windstar ship in Osaka. In many ways it feels like months ago. In my last random thoughts post, I focused mostly on Japan. For this one I will describe the time we had in Busan, South Korea (with one follow up item from Japan at the end).
We had one port stop in Busan. Due to a typhoon in the area, we had to readjust our itinerary and cancel two port stops in Japan. We docked in Busan for 3 days instead of the original one. That gave us more time to explore. South Korea isn't far from Japan geographically, but culturally, Koreans are quite different. The atmosphere was different, as well as things like food, fashion and architecture.
Day 1 my husband and I headed to the fish market. It is the largest in Korea and they are known for on-site preparation of whatever it is you would like to eat. The fish and seafood are kept alive in small tanks and the expectation is you point to fish #1 and say I'd like to have that for lunch. The fish is killed and prepared in a restaurant upstairs. As someone who is mostly vegetarian and believes that all creatures should live and thrive in their environment, this market made me uncomfortable. The holding tanks were small and crowded. My husband, on the other hand, was thinking of eating one of the local delicacies....baby octopus....which is served alive. Even after hearing stories about how some people nearly choke because the tentacles stick to your throat as you eat it...the cost is ultimately what made him change his mind (thankfully!!).
This fish market also extended outside and continued along several streets. The fish part slowly turned into more of a general market with kimchi, vegetables and spices. The outside section of the fish market did not have as much live fish---most were on ice or dried or salted.
Day 2 was with a private guide and I think we literally saw every inch of Busan. Frank did an excellent job of showing us everything we wanted to see. Our first stop was at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple---supposedly the most beautiful temple in Korea (I've only seen two, so I probably shouldn't chime in on the issue). It is built along the ocean into the cliffside. The views are amazing and the architecture is gorgeous. As you enter, there is a walkway with stone tablets symbolizing each of the Chinese Zodiac animals (each representing specific years of birth). For example, I was born in 1976 and that was the year of the dragon. Once you complete that path, you start down a series of stairs down to the main temples. The area is forested and if you didn't know you were heading towards the ocean, the view around the bend would be surprising.
Next we headed back towards the city. Busan is a beautiful city---there are several bridges with jaw dropping views and it is an interesting juxtaposition with all of the tall skyscrapers.
We visited the United Nations cemetery in Busan. The remains of soldiers of all nationalities are interred here. I knew some about the Korean War, but after hearing the presentation at this cemetery, it was clear I only knew a small part of the equation. I learned that Turkey sent a large contingency to Korea during the war as they are considered brother countries---with ancestors going back hundreds of years sharing the same (or similar?) lineage. I only know enough now to know that I don't know enough. The cemetery itself is immaculate and well maintained. There are memorial plaques from many of the counties involved in the war and there is a large wall of names with a reflecting pool and eternal flame for all of the lives of Americans that were lost in the war.
The last stop of the day was at Beomeosa Temple. This temple is outside of the city in the mountains (takes about 45 minutes to get there). We arrived later in the day and there were only a few other visitors. It gave the experience a surreal feel. There were lanterns with wishes attached at the bottom that are burned once all of the slots are full--bringing the wishes (or perhaps better to say prayers) to the heavens.
In response to a comment from my last blog post, I will end with TOTO. When I visited Japan for the first time more than 20 years ago, it was a are sight to see a Western toilet. On this trip, nearly every restroom had not only a Western style toilet, but one with bells and whistles. I of course should have taken a photo of a TOTO toilet and all of its functions (to be clear TOTO is a brand of toilet, but there are other manufacturers of electric toilet seats) to help illustrate this point....but I guess I was so excited to use all of the buttons I forgot :) In all seriousness, I was a little scared of the options at first. Nearly all of the toilet seats had a heated feature and that one was usually turned on automatically, but others you had to choose. You could have water spray on your front side, back side, both sides at once. You could choose the water temperature (from cool to warm) as well as the strength of the spray (high-medium-low). There was an option to play music on some models as well as a button to have a flushing type sound play if you were embarrassed by the sounds your body was making. There were buttons that I had no idea what they did....even with the helpful pictogram shown on the button (some things just can't be explained with a stick figure person!). Once I got over my fear, I was hooked. It became part of my routine and now back in the States, it seems boring to only have a the option to flush. Japanese ingenuity at play again. There are still Japanese squat toilets available in restrooms (somehow I did take a photo of this) and it seemed to be a 50/50 split in most restrooms. It would be fascinating to know which demographic prefers the fancy toilet vs the squat toilet, but I imagine that is a conversation for another day :)
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!
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.