Hello my friends! In today’s video chat series, we are going to journey to the Caribbean and introduce you to a great opportunity to visit two islands that are literally two miles away from each other – yet offer two entirely different flavors. The islands? Saint Kitts and Nevis.
And joining me today to make the introduction is my fabulous colleague Greg Phillip - the CEO and Founder of Nevis Sun Tours Inc. - a destination management company based in Saint Kitts and Nevis. Greg’s enthusiasm, energy and infectious smile while talking to us about what these destinations offer is sure to have you texting me to ask when you can visit them in person.
Ready for takeoff? Well then buckle up because here we go!
About the Islands: Saint Kitts and Nevis are located just south of Puerto Rico, adjacent to Antigua, Barbuda and the Guadalupe Islands and north of Dominica - which means they are situated right in the heart of the Caribbean. Together Saint Kitts and Nevis are actually one country - a dual-island nation situated between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Nevis is the smaller of the two at only 36 square miles but according to Greg - the great thing about it is that once you're there - it doesn't feel as small as it actually is. Both islands offer you great beaches as well as beautiful panoramic views of the cloud shrouded mountains from pretty much anywhere you are.
Getting There: From the US mainland you fly directly into Saint Kitts - which as you probably have already surmised is the larger island of the duo. If you are staying in Nevis – the transfer from the Saint Kitts is seamless as you will be picked up at the airport via taxi and then proceed to get taken on one of the most wonderful introductory drives you can get in a destination that is new to you. The taxi takes you to the pier where you will board another taxi – this time a water taxi – over to Nevis. Now if you are concerned about being on boat – don’t be! The distance between the two islands is just two simple miles and it is only going to take around six minutes to get from one island to the other. And of course, being in the water is a great opportunity to see these gorgeous islands from another vantage point. The best part is that all of this is pre-arranged for you by myself and Greg as I build your itinerary - meaning you don't have to worry about planning all of these moving pieces because we take care of you from beginning to end so all you have to do is just relax and enjoy!
Accommodations: There are a number of different resorts, homes and villas that are available for you to choose from as far as accommodations. Some are on the beach, some are in the mountains but pretty much all of the properties you will find in Saint Kitts and Nevis really provide an opportunity for some incredibly unique stays - as they are not like anything you've ever seen anywhere else in the world. And – being that they all have a different flavor of their own you have an opportunity to – as Greg put it - pick the one that really and truly tickles your fancy.
If you have booked with me before you know that even though there are branded properties available – I tend to steer you toward the non-branded properties – meaning a lot of my itineraries focus on the small, boutique properties that exude the local atmosphere. That doesn’t mean that if you want a branded property I can’t help - I absolutely can coordinate that for you, just keep in mind that I really want you to have that full cultural immersion experience so I'm going to offer you something with more of a local flair, that has a boutique feeling and is not cookie cutter - because with me and Book Here, Give Here it's all about the curated travel experience.
All-Inclusive Packages (Sort Of): So, let me start off by reiterating what Greg did - in Saint Kitts and Nevis there are no all-inclusive hotels. However – what Nevis Sun Tours has done is through their partnerships they’ve created all-inclusive stays on the island regardless of fact that there are no all-inclusive hotels. What they have come up with is really something that is a great innovation because what they essentially present is an opportunity for you to come to an island and not simply be confined to a single hotel property as you normally are in an all-inclusive resort. So, with Greg’s help I have an opportunity to have a package created just for your specific requests.
For instance – should you want to participate in some tours while you are there, we can set them up and include them in the price. This means you are paying for only for the things that you decide that you want to experience. These packages also include your transportation and you get the chance to decide if you would like a car rental so that you can drive yourself around or if you prefer to take taxis. The same goes for dining – and Greg related a story about how creative they can be with these packages. Apparently in the past they had a group who decided that they preferred to eat specifically at one restaurant every evening for dinner – which was no problem for Greg and his team. They worked specifically with the restaurant to ensure that every evening there was a different menu so that it did not feel like they were dining in the same restaurant night after night.
Sightseeing and Activities: For those of you guys who like a little bit more activity there are all kinds of things you can do such as bike tours or walking tours. There is also a lot of history on the islands and the day trips Nevis Sun Tours offer are a perfect way to learn all about it. You can do a day trip in Nevis and a day trip in Saint Kitts – no matter which island you choose to stay on.
Greg also pointed out the one of the great things is that the islands cater to families with children. Which of course with more of you homeschooling the kiddos, you really have an opportunity here to make travel a learning classroom - and it is something that the kids will never forget. They will take with them as they grow older plus it helps to build that love of travel and adventure in them. Bonus – Nevis Sun Tours offers a day trip specifically geared towards families. It's fashioned in such a way that the family gets to spend time together and they get to do things that everybody is actually interested in doing – making for a very meaningful experience together.
Fun Fact: Alexander Hamilton - who thanks to a little Broadway show you may have heard of - is quite the popular fellow now was born on the island of Nevis. And because of that there are a lot of historical things related to him that even the children will find interesting and hence they created an Alexander Hamilton Island tour. The tour takes you to places that would have been here only when he was born back in the 1700s - so essentially, you're following in his footsteps. For instance, they can visit his birthplace, they can visit the place where he would have gone to school if he were able to go to school on Nevis and more. It’s really a great chance to have a fun vacation with your children.
For my athletes - you want to do a cross channel swim, a triathlon or run a marathon - Nevis has all of these things. And as Greg pointed out none of these events are events where they take themselves too seriously. For example, the cross-channel swim – which is that two mile stretch between Saint Kitts and Nevis - may sound difficult and challenging, but he promises it's something that's absolutely fine and safe to do provided you can swim of course. There are different categories you can participate in – like one for those people who are serious and want to race and one for people who simply want to do it for fun. The organizers will let you do it in snorkel gear or with floaties or whatever else you come up with and they kayak along while everyone is in the water for safety and to provide assistance should you need it.
For my water babies and sun worshippers there are plenty of beaches. In fact, when I asked Greg how many beaches there are between the two islands he laughed and said they don't count them. The reason is because honestly the beaches are everybody’s - there is not a single private beach between the two islands. Which means if you are out and about, just driving along and you see a beach you like – you are welcome to go to it.
And finally - don’t forget the famous Nevis Mango and Food Festival which is an entire weekend dedicated to that tasty little fruit - the mango - and the creative and oh so tasty cuisine made with it.
Side Note: Greg advised that really - no matter what time of year you visit - there's a chance that there's some significant activity happening at that you can actually join in.
Gastronomy: My favorite part of any trip is trying new cuisine and of course I posed one of the questions I always ask during my video chats – what is the national dish of Saint Kitts and Nevis? Greg advised that it is saltfish -in particular - saltfish with dumplings and noted that even though it's something that you can get everyday there - it is unique to them and not something you are going to easily find - if at all – back home. One great way to experience cultural immersion via food is on the Village Food Tour. As Greg explained you actually go into a village where you have the opportunity to walk through it and talk with locals who share some very intimate, specific things about the village, the trees, the plants and so much more. Now, there are three food stops on the tour and these stops are all at local eateries - not posh restaurants. As a matter of fact, these are the places that the locals frequent making them one - off the beaten path and two – say it with me - cultural immersion through food! And as opposed to mainstream restaurants where yes - you are interacting with the staff who are locals – here’s your chance to see the locals not at work – but at the places they go when they want to get something to eat and hang out with friends - so you're interacting with people who you wouldn’t have had a chance to interact with otherwise.
Saint Kitts or Nevis? Naturally, I asked Greg that if he had to pick between Saint Kitts and Nevis which island does he prefer and he did not hesitate in naming Nevis the winner. Why? Because it's smaller and thus more intimate. Physically it's about half the size of Saint Kitts and 1/3 of the population. There are around 12,000 or so people that inhabit the island and the fact that they have such a small population on Nevis means that the island has a different personality than Saint Kitts. It's not crowded – in fact, Greg said you are going to go to places and wonder where in the world everybody else is! You’re going to find yourself on a beach and it's the like the best beach you have ever been on and you are going to have it to yourself. In the meantime, somebody else is on another beach wondering where everyone is because it’s like the best beach ever. Sounds like the ultimate in social distancing to me!
Saint Kitts on the other hand is more hustle and bustle because there's more people and there's more activity there – making it a different type of atmosphere entirely. Per Greg it is so much more outgoing than Nevis with lots of opportunities to party and hit the bars and such. Not that there aren’t bars on Nevis – they just aren’t as hopping as Saint Kitts. There is also all different sort of activities that you can do on Saint Kitts that you won't find on Nevis such as ziplining and all the other activities that you will find in most of the Caribbean destinations.
The best part according to Greg? You are experiencing these two vastly different, distinct environments without the hassle of having to go to the airport, taking out your passport and flying for hours - because it's one country and once you are there you just get in a water taxi go.
Updated COVID-19 Information:
Saint Kitts: As of this writing all international travelers must submit a COVID-19 negative test result from an approved lab taken within 72 hours of travel, along with required embarkation form and all other supporting documentation. A form is required regardless of age. Forms must be submitted no later than 24 hours prior to travel.
Nevis: As of this writing travelers must complete the Travel Authorization Form on the national website and upload an official COVID-19 negative test result from an approved lab taken 72 hours prior to travel and bring a copy of the negative COVID-19 test for their trip, undergo a health screening at the airport which includes a temperature check and a health questionnaire and download the SKN COVID-19 contact tracing mobile app to be used for the first 14 days of travel or less.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Saint Kitts is click here and for and Nevis click here.
If you're looking for both a relaxing and a unique experience that you're truly going to remember the rest of your life - Greg promises you won’t be disappointed with Saint Kitts and Nevis - as they are small and are going to present you with things you probably haven't considered before on a vacation. As for me - I am thinking you want to get ahead of the game - especially if you want to be able to have a private villa or home – so now is the time to reach out to me to start planning your visit!
For more details on things to see and do in Saint Kitts and Nevis, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Howdy! Today we are heading back to Lake Tahoe. You may remember that we previously chatted about the Reno side of Tahoe, however this time we are going to the South Lake Tahoe side.
For this side of Tahoe, I had the pleasure of welcoming Tony Lyle – the Vice President of Tourism Development of Tahoe South, Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority who filled us in on all of the wonderful things to see and do in the city of South Lake Tahoe – so named due to the fact that it is indeed located in the southern part of Lake Tahoe.
Since Tahoe is a great road trip destination – let’s gas up the car, fasten our virtual seat belts and head to this stunning domestic destination.
Tell Me About Lake Tahoe. Think of Lake Tahoe as the base. As Tony so creatively put it - think of it like a basin or a cereal bowl and the rim of the cereal bowl are the peaks of the mountains. The land, the beach and the water fits in between the mountains. The mountain behind South Lake Tahoe is Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort where you can actually take a gondola from the downtown village up to. There is a strip of land that runs all around the lake and because this land is long and thin the town is only about five miles long and about half a mile wide. And - the downtown is not in the middle - it's at one with the California/Nevada state line running right through the middle of it. In fact, you wouldn't even know it was there unless you looked up and saw the signs that say Welcome to California and Welcome to Nevada. Which by the way is a very popular photo op! Actually, the entire area is filled with photo ops thanks to the unique landscape and surrounding beauty. Picture that you are sitting on the beach with the mountains behind you - often snowcapped. How cool is that?
How About A Multi-Destination Trip? Thanks to where South Lake Tahoe sits there are numerous options to make this a multi-destination adventure. We can add in stops in Napa Valley or San Francisco or perhaps you want to hit a little bit of Yosemite. Flexibility is easy here as you can fly into Reno International Airport which is just 55 miles outside of South Lake Tahoe or any of the bay area airports - San Francisco, Oakland or San Jose - then create an itinerary that includes a little bit more north like upstate California or even northern Nevada.
What Kind Of Accommodations Can I Find Here? On the Nevada side there are four full-service casino resort hotels for those of you who want that kind of experience. Sitting on the lake – right on the beach you will find Edgewood Tahoe – which is only a couple of years old and is a five-star, 154 room property. And you guys, if you think about it 154 rooms is really not that big of a resort. It is actually a medium sized resort which gives you an opportunity to have that social distancing room around the property and on the beach and lake. When you go across to the California side there are two Marriott properties in Heavenly Village as well as a variety of hotels in town. As Tony pointed out – it is a great day trip to Lake Tahoe but there's nothing like waking up in the morning, opening up your curtains and you're at a beachfront property looking straight out over the lake. Then in the evening you can enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sunset. I’m sold!
And of course, there is camping – via tent or RV or even glamping – all of which are fabulous ways to social distance. And there are camp sites located all over the place, all around the lake. Tony also noted that they get a lot of people who will camp but then they will come and stay the last night or the last couple of nights in a hotel because they want to clean up and go and eat in a restaurant instead of roughing it the entire time.
What Kind Of Activities Can I Find Here? There are quite a bit of different activities available in South Lake Tahoe. For instance, you can go bike riding and there are lots of places that you can rent bikes so you don't have to bring them and of course I can set that up ahead of time. There are bike trails that are flat that the go to all of the popular places everyone wants to see – like the nature trails, the lake and the waterfalls. But there's also a huge network of mountain bike trails that range from easy to intermediate to advanced - so you’ve got everything from just trail riding all the way to extreme mountain biking and everything in between.
There are plenty of hiking trails too and Tony said that this is something he does with his wife and kids and that it’s easy to get onto to the trail from the downtown area. Basically, you’re in the middle of it all downtown which means easy access to the outdoors - so in minutes you're out on trails with stunning views. And thanks to the gondola in the downtown area, you don't need a car once you are in South Lake Tahoe. It’s very pedestrian friendly as you can walk everywhere from all of the downtown hotels on both the California and Nevada sides including to the gondola. The gondola by the way runs almost year-round – in winter for skiing and in summer for sightseeing.
If you are one of my golfers, you are in luck because there are golf courses everywhere in this area! And that includes an 18-hole world class golf course at the Edgewood Tahoe. Then there is Eagle Falls which are at the head of Emerald Bay and they are quite easy to get to per Tony. You can drive, you can take a cruise boat, you can rent a speedboat, you can kayak, or you can walk. So whatever level you are you can still experience the same thing – whether via hardcore adventure or soft adventure.
And we cannot forget the famous Lake Tahoe sandy beaches where you can build a sandcastle if you would like. The sand is a bit grainier than the sand at the ocean – not quite as powdery – but it’s all natural. Along the lake you’ll find several marinas where you can rent anything that you would use on water. How about a power boat that you can pilot? Per Tony it's not difficult to handle and you can go to the supermarket beforehand and stock up on food and drinks for your boat trip. Another option are the super fun jet skis which are also easy to drive. However, if you don't want a motor you can rent a kayak or another type of non-motorized boat or even a paddle board. There are also all sorts of water sports going on in Emerald Bay along with one island - Fannette Island across from Vikingsholm - a Scandinavian style castle.
Then there is the color of the water in Lake Tahoe. It is like a giant mirror and it reflects the sky. It’s also 99.9% pure and you can see to the you can see to the bottom.
And don’t forget come winter there is plenty of skiing and other winter sports available which we will discuss shortly.
Wellness Opportunities? I am sure by now you have already realized that South Lake Tahoe is also the epitome of wellness travel thanks to all the different opportunities we covered whether it be soft adventure, higher-level activity or even full-on adventure travel. And it is off the beaten track and away from the crowds. You are actually in the Sierra Nevada mountains at around 6200 feet so there's little humidity, it doesn't get too hot and there are no bugs – sounds ideal! And you know just being at one with nature – from the smell of the pine trees to the sounds of a trickling stream, a waterfall or maybe some wildlife - you really do become one with nature and at one with Lake Tahoe. It's very unique, beautiful place and what I consider mind, body and spirit rejuvenation at is best.
What Else Will I Find Here? Well, there is Emerald Bay which is the most visited place in the area. Here you can take a cruise on the MS Dixie paddle boat. The paddle wheeler goes from the east side of Laker Zephyr Cove all the way across to Emerald Bay and features three decks with the top one being open. The middle deck features a bar and there is also a restaurant on board. You can opt for a daytime sightseeing cruise where you can buy lunch and drinks or in the evening you can do a dinner dance cruise with plated dinners and entertainment that is timed so that you are in the middle of the lake when the sun sets.
And yes - eventually events will be coming back to South Lake Tahoe although there is no date yet and they are not sure what they will look like. But in summers past, they have held a summer concert series in their outdoor amphitheater that seats 6000 people making it up close and personal. Plus, they get world class names like Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Elton John and Pitbull to name a few.
Then there are the casinos which we know some people love and some people don't – but that’s the beauty - you can take it or leave it. They are a great amenity and a huge draw for bachelor and bachelorette parties - because you've got 24/7 action going on in the casinos with dancing in nightclubs plus all the bars and restaurants. Then on the flip side there is Lake Tahoe to relax and enjoy during the day.
And in winter you can find a whopping 15 ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe area - with Squaw Valley being one of the most popular. There are different sizes for different levels of expertise and as Tony pointed out - remember the cereal bowl - three of the 15 are inside the rim so when you're skiing you get the fantastic views of the lake. And those three on the South Shore include Heavenly – which is the largest ski resort on the West coast of the US, Kirkwood – which is a little bit more hardcore and Sierra – which has more kind of a beginner/family feel to it – but all three are fabulous.
When Should I Go? It is a year-round destination - although a lot of people think of Tahoe as strictly a ski destination. But according to Tony they are actually busier in the summer than they are in the winter - especially in July and August when you get people escaping the heat of the cities and towns they live in. But the year is broken up as such: July and August are considered peak season, September and October - which are typically Indian summer weather and not as many people - so great rates are available, the winter of course which is November, December, January, February, March and then in April the ski season ends. It really changes quickly from winter into summer and once May hits you get great rates once more – June too – until you hit peak season again. The fall and spring season are short but extremely popular – especially for destination weddings and honeymoons. A large part of business are people who want to have their wedding on the beach at Lake Tahoe and there are numerous sites around the lake where you've got picture perfect backdrops for those weddings and subsequent pictures.
And if you are looking to go during ski season Tony suggests mid-week as a good time – where you will find better rates and it is not as crowded. He also noted that the storms that come up the Pacific go quite quickly up over the Sierra mountains where they then proceed to dump all the snow and move away quickly. So, the storms are short but bring a lot of snow unlike other destinations within the North America where they can linger for days - so you get maximum slope time without the bad weather. Bonus - you don't have to go out and buy or invest in ski equipment or even clothing as you can rent everything right there. And if you are not a fan of skiing you've got snowmobiles as another option which are great because you can double up and keep it cost effective. Plus, you have a guide to show you the ropes.
In addition, a lot of families that want to get out there and remain active while also social distancing but don't ski and don't snowmobile - they just bring the kids up sledding or just to take a walk or play in the snow. Also in winter there is a family-owned business called Borges that’s been there for many years and they will take you on horse drawn sleigh rides through the fields as well as on the beaches. Note: In the summer Borges offers horse drawn carriage rides – that depart from the Welcome to California sign downtown and take you for a ride around the streets downtown. Both are just a nice, relaxing thing to do for half an hour or an hour as you can just sit back and relax and be chauffeured around on the snow or on the road. It really is a great family destination no matter what you choose to do – and no matter what season.
How Long Should I Stay? Per Tony, in the winter people come to ski and they tend to stay maybe a little bit longer than they would other times of the year – like six or seven nights - because they're there for the specific purpose of skiing and although they might ski different resorts each day – more often than not the majority of the days would be at Heavenly because that's their base. FYI - Heavenly and South Lake Tahoe are one and the same.
In the summer it depends on if they are road tripping or they're just going to hang out here and do what they call basecamp itineraries. This is where they would use South Lake Tahoe as a base camp and then tour around to places that are within driving distance such as Carson City, Virginia City, Hot Springs and the wineries in the foothills in El Dorado County – just to name a few. That being said the absolute minimum would be three nights and that gives you two whole days but then you're going to regret it and wish you had stayed longer. So optimum would be four or five nights to get the full feel of it and actually get the benefit of a vacation and relax a little bit rather than rush things.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing both the Nevada and California side of Tahoe South are open to travelers with COVID precautions in place. Masks are required in both states. Since Tahoe South spans both California and Nevada it is important for visitors to be aware of the different restrictions and requirements between the two states and counties.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements Lake Tahoe Nevada click here and Lake Tahoe California click here.
That wraps up our South Lake Tahoe overview and I am going to end it with one of their current taglines that I already told Tony I was going to steal - “South Lake Tahoe - Keep a six-foot distance at 6000 feet!” With wide open spaces and plenty of social distancing room - let’s talk Tahoe!
For more details on things to see and do in Lake Tahoe, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
When your tagline is The Most Beautiful Place on Earth you better be able to back it up. And boy – Sedona not only backs it up – it takes it to a new level!
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Susan Boehnstedt from the Visit Sedona Tourism Board who gave us a fantastic introduction to stunning Sedona. The best part about this destination is that it is domestic – meaning no passport is needed – and it is within a couple hours flight from most destinations within the US.
If you are looking for a new city to explore, I am certain that this overview will have you heading to Arizona sooner rather than later!
Where Exactly In Arizona Is It? Sedona is pretty much centrally located within the state of Arizona. It is just two hours north of Phoenix by car. If you fly into Flagstaff, you are just about a 45-minute drive away. And then for those that might be coming to the area from Las Vegas it’s around a four hour but very scenic drive. So basically, it is quite easy to get to from three major southwestern US airports. Its also a great drive destination from neighboring states like California, Nevada and Texas.
Sedona itself is kind of spread out and consists of four main areas. They are West Sedona, Uptown Sedona and Gallery Row, the Village of Oak Creek and Oak Creek Canyon – all of which are really comprise the greater Sedona area. Sedona has just over ten thousand residents year-round, but they serve over four million visitors a year!
Tell Me About The Climate. One of the things that I personally love about Sedona is that it truly is a year-round destination, and every season is has its unique feel and flair. They do get snow in the winter – not much – but snow none the less – that would remind you of powdered sugar when it stays on the Red Rocks – although it normally doesn’t stick. But these mild winters really give you an opportunity to experience that cooler, crisper air. You can start out in the morning with the jacket and maybe gloves depending on how thin your blood is and by noon you're in a long sleeve t-shirt. Then come evening, it cools down but never fear as most of the properties and many of the restaurants have those amazing outdoor fire pits or heat lamps to keep you warm.
So yes, they certainly have four seasons, and one bonus is that the summertime is not as hot as Phoenix. Per Susan it is usually about ten to 15 degrees cooler than the Phoenix Area in Sedona. Typical higher summer temperatures are in the 90’s but it is not unusual that the mornings are cooler so that you can get out early, get your hiking and biking in and then you sit back during the hotter parts of the day and have a nice glass of wine on the patio at your resort.
Mother Nature Sure Has Blessed Sedona. Oh yes – it certainly has the most breathtaking landscapes you will ever see! And oh, those sunrises and sunsets! Thanks to the fact that there is no light pollution, seeing the stars when you are there is bound to be a brand-new experience for you. Especially if you're coming from a bigger city where there are a lot of lights – hence light pollution – as well as regular pollution. If you are not used to seeing the stars, it's kind of shocking to go out at night and look up because you kind of forget that they exist, and boy are they ever stunning! For those of you guys who are coming from cities like New York City or even here in Austin or in Atlanta here's an opportunity where you can actually see Mother Nature and what she has to offer. And Susan advised that they work with several companies that actually will take small groups or families out at night so that you can experience this in a really unique and special way. Then they have monsoon season which runs from mid-June through the end of September. When the rains come in, they are so beautiful to watch. They arrive in big puffy clouds and there’s often lightning as well. Then they end with dramatic rainbows that are magical.
What Kind Of Activities Can I Expect? Sedona has all kinds of outdoor activities including those for true adventurers as well as soft adventures and plenty of wellness opportunities. There are activities for all ages and all physical abilities making it a place that everybody can genuinely enjoy.
For example – there are off roading and ATV adventure options as well as a couple different Jeep tour companies in the area. Or you can opt to do some touring via horseback or even on a trolley car for a less bumpy ride. In addition, there are amazing opportunities via air such as helicopter tours and hot air ballooning. The hot air balloons are not available all year round but pretty much the majority of it. And those helicopters also have tours to the Grand Canyon giving you that birds eye view that is just incredible.
Sedona also has a whole trail system giving you the opportunity to hike and / or bike the area to get up close and personal and be one with nature. And renting a bike is extremely easy to do in Sedona – all you have to do is ask me to include it and when I build your itinerary, we make it happen!
There are two amazing state parks and one of them has something that I think everybody should do – a natural water slide! It is called – appropriately enough – Slide Rock State Park and thanks to the way the water comes in, it smooths the rocks making them like a slide. It is a super fun place to go and have a picnic or you can ride too or hike there as well. In addition to being family friendly there are places that are a little bit more flat and not as rugged so that people that might have mobility issues can still enjoy the park. Red Rock State Park is also awesome and to me I liken it to a Japanese feel thanks to the horsetail that resembles thin bamboo and the red rock that gives you that zen feeling.
Tell Me About These Vortex Spots. Sedona has a lot of different vortex sites - there's a very holistic, spiritual and wellness aspect to Sedona that has been there for years and has only been developed more and more by some of the companies that are in Sedona. A lot of international and domestic travelers come to experience these vortexes. Four of the most well-known ones include Cathedral Rock, Airport Mesa, Boynton Canyon and Bell Rock. For those of you who aren’t familiar - a vortex area is a place where you kind of slow down and really listen to what's going on internally, connect one on one with your environment, the atmosphere and earth. It’s a very zen, calming, peaceful experience. They are also known for their healing properties and many people who have health issues report healing that came as a result of spending time in these vortex sites. Not to mention that they are all stunning and all unique! If you prefer, we can book you a guide to help you through this and show you what you can experience.
Speaking of Wellness…So you're always surrounded by red rocks wherever you are in Sedona and to most – including me – that is a natural wellness opportunity like no other. Of course, there are plenty of other wellness experiences to be had there and they include the calming spas, meditation and yoga programs and so much more. Mother earth will help us heal in the vortexes we talked about above and of course there's also that spiritual piece of life and as we know, wellness is mind, body and spirit. Sedona is one of those destinations that really gives you an opportunity to get to all of those different levels and get down to that core of what is inside of us and how we can do better and be well. There are also a lot of medical spas here that we can talk about if you are interested in having that conversation.
Sedona As A Home Base. So not only can you make a whole vacation out of Sedona, but you can also make it your hub – or home base – and do day trips from there. The average stay in Sedona is three and a half to four nights which is great because you can explore Sedona and then just do day trips to some or all of the surrounding areas such as Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Grand Canyon National Park, Monument Valley, Jerome, Clarkdale, Cottonwood and Camp Verde – with the furthest point out of all these about four hours away. Many of these spots are famous and well known in the Arizona area but there are some that may not be so well known such as Jerome and Camp Verde. These are smaller communities along the Verde River that have amazing attractions and a little bit of a different climate then Sedona – not much – but because it’s along the River it's a different altitude and a different slightly all within a 30-minute drive. And if you like wine that means you don't have to go very far to get some because Arizona has an amazing wine country there. The Verde Valley River that comes through this area has the same kind of soil and texture and the clays and the dirt are very similar to what you might find in southern France. People don’t associate Arizona with winemaking but there are some pretty amazing wines. You can even kayak to some of these places and do wine day trips or have a driver take you. There are also wine tasting rooms within Sedona proper that you can visit.
Now Jerome is a funky little town with its own unique personality that also happens to be a ghost town. It is lots of fun and a great place to spend a day. Besides the ghosts they also have many awesome jewelry shops that you can frequent and since it is kind of built on a hill you get some really unique views from this city.
Right next to Jerome is the Verde Canyon Railroad which has a train that runs year-round. The entire trip takes about four hours. Throughout the year they will also run themed train rides. For instance, during harvest season they'll do a special wine train or they'll do a chocolate train or during Oktoberfest they’ll do a beer tour. Either way – theme or not – it is a really relaxing and fun four-hour round-trip adventure!
What Are My Accommodation Options? There are tons of lodging options so whatever kind of accommodation you're looking for you’re definitely going to find it in Sedona! Among those options are some incredibly unique resorts in West Sedona. Uptown there are a couple different properties that are actually located on the Creek which are stunning. And through out there are both smaller, boutique properties as well as larger resort properties. Sedona is a great destination for meetings, events, weddings, family reunions – you name it – and they have properties to fit every need and budget.
And Food Options? With over 50 restaurants you are certainly going to find one that suits your pallet and your budget. One of the things that I love though is that they have some celebrity chefs and probably one of the most famous in Sedona right now is Chef Lisa Dahl. Her newest luxury venue –Mariposa – which means the butterfly – features fabulous sunset views. She also has a couple different pizza shops as well as a lovely Italian venue in the Village of Oak Creek. Her food is quite popular – think very organic and natural - and she's been written up in all kinds of magazines as well as featured on cooking shows. In addition to Chef Dahl there are many other organic and healthy food options and choices – many that are tied into the spas that are so popular in Sedona. How great is it that you can book a spa room, have that full spa experience and also enjoy cuisine that's detoxifying and healthy – making it a full complement to your overall wellbeing.
Can I Get My Shopping On? Oh boy can you ever! They not only have the name brand stores but they also have a lot of local, amazingly talented artists that have shops. The artwork and the craftsmanship in Sedona is really unique and the pieces are one of a kind. Here you can have a piece of jewelry made with local stones such as turquoise or perhaps some handcrafted fabric goods or even beaded work. There are over 20 galleries and over 80 shops for you to choose from. You can even take classes like art or pottery in some of the studios and workshops. So, if you would like to add some art and culture and this is something that you'd like to do we can easily add this to your itinerary as we plan it. What a great opportunity for cultural immersion to get to know another American through art!
What Types of Travelers Would Be A Good Fit? As we already alluded to Sedona is a great destination to do if you are looking for a spot for a girlfriend or guys trips or a bachelor or bachelorette trip. It is also a perfect spot for multi-generational family get togethers as well as corporate offsites and retreats. And for those of you who are homeschooling it is the perfect opportunity for travel as a living classroom. You can incorporate those art classes we told you about as well as history class because you've got so many well preserved Native American heritage sites to explore such as Tuzigoot National Monument as well as Montezuma Castle National Monument. You can literally cover a number of different classes in real life so there is no need to worry about the digital learning piece of things because you're living it and sometimes nature is the best classroom.
Safety, Sustainability and Such. So, in 2019 Sedona created the sustainable tourism plan that is not just about a healthy economy but also the resident’s quality of life as well as the visitor experience in the environment. And of course, your Travel Guru totally loves this since it's a very similar mission to Book Here, Give Here which is all about socially responsible travel.
And as per Susan they are profoundly serious about it - not only for the four million guests that come to visit them during the year but also in keeping Sedona pristine for their community of just ten thousand. They are very protective of their beautiful environment and want to keep it keep it that way for the residents. However, they also want those tourists that are coming to visit to capture that same mindset and embrace the values that they are trying to maintain and be sustainable for the long term. And honestly you will see that all throughout the city when you're there.
Sedona also asks that you take the Sedona Cares Pledge when you are there as it is all about making sure that Sedona stays safe and sustainable. And personally, I like the part that says, “I'll make my own memories but not my own trails.” And as Susan said – with the 400 miles of trails that they have you're never going to be running into anyone, but they also want you to stay on those trails so that they can keep the trails well preserved and safe for everyone who enjoys them – but also being respectful of the environment that you're in.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing there are no travel restrictions or COVID-19 test requirements for individuals visiting Arizona. However, face coverings are required for everyone in all public places and they ask you adhere to all of their safety and health guidelines that can be found listed here.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Sedona click here.
And that my friends is your Sedona summary. If you went only to see the scenery it would still be worth it but as you can see there is so much else to do there as well. As Susan said come visit them because you won't be disappointed, and it won't be your only trip – that we both promise!
For more details on things to see and do in Sedona, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
It’s very appropriate – that since I find myself missing Germany and everything about it – as I spent a lot of time there when I studied in Switzerland and have not been back in a year and a half - that today’s guest is here to talk everything and anything Deutsch! And I could not be happier as it really gave me a chance to take a virtual trip down memory lane.
Today’s guest is Carolin Belcher the West Coast Sales Manager of the German National Tourist Office. Carolin was born and raised in Germany and now resides in the US – but loves talking about her home country! And there is so very much to explore here - Germany has sixteen federal states - that it was a fabulous opportunity to have her do just that – picking some of the country’s highlights to – well – highlight!
Tray tables stowed? Seats in upright positions? Great – make sure that seat belt is fastened too because we are off to Germany!
Getting There and Getting Around: Getting to Germany from the US is easy. For instance – from my neck of the woods Lufthansa has direct flights from Austin. And for my East Coast peeps – there are direct flights from most of the major city’s airports. And may I say I do recommend flying business class as it gives you the opportunity to lay down and totally relax during your flight!
Once you are there it is easy peasy to get around in Germany as all of the major cities are connected by train – a high speed train to be exact – called Intercity Express – or ICE for short.
And there is a train route from Berlin to Munich that comes in at under four hours! This is so cool because you can connect to two major cities - that couldn’t be more different or diverse than each other I may add - in just a few hours! The train transportation is awesome in Germany – all announcements are in English too so that’s always a plus. And Carolin pointed out that she always says “we Germans are OCD” – so the trains are very clean and very safe. And as I pleased to find out they have Wi-Fi!
This is also a very drivable country – unlike a lot of other European countries. It is a very safe place to drive on the highways or through the towns. And there are over 1300 car rental stations offering both automatic and stick shift vehicles so don’t be afraid to drive there - it is so much fun! And speaking of driving – for you car fanatics there is the Autobahn which everyone wants to experience once in their life – so why not rent a Porsche or BMW or Mercedes and drive it! Did you know that almost everywhere on the Autobahn there is no speed limit? And that you need to be very aware that they only pass on the left side – not the right side? Don’t worry we will take car of car insurance prior to your trip!
There are also plenty of of opportunities for travel by boat. There are many different companies that offer boat transportation and there are even private residents who offer boat rides! One of the best to do is the hop on / hop off boat on the Rhine River which affords you the opportunity to get off – visit a city – then get back on and continue to the next place you want to see. And Carolin noted that seeing Germany from the water is a great way to take it in. If you are worried about sea sickness - I can attest that the water there is very calm – it’s not like ocean cruising. It is actually very smooth and the views are beautiful.
Destinations: Below is a great look at that different flavors that abound in the cities throughout Germany and a great opportunity to start planning which you would like to visit based on your personal interests.
Berlin: Carolin describes Berlin as hip and fast moving - but not in a stressful way. She explained that it is constantly changing and each time she visits there is always something new to see. Here you can see a UNESCO World Heritage Site - Berlin's Museum Island. You will also have the opportunity to see the government district as well as where the Berlin Wall stood – such a powerful piece of history. It is also a culinary mecca and not to worry if you are vegan or vegetarian as they have many such restaurants and even a vegan street festival. The culinary tours here are abundant and can be done as a walking tour or on bikes. The best part? It is the locals that give the tours so they are basically guiding you through their home city and letting you taste food you wouldn’t have found on your own! As per Carolin you could be there for four full days and you still won’t have seen everything there is to see.
Dresden: Dresden has a very classical and medieval feel to it and is a cultural mecca well known across Europe. It is filled with historic sites dating back to World War II and many musical opportunities including the famous Semperoper Opera House.
Hamburg: Located in northern Germany, Hamburg is surrounded by water and actually has more bridges than all of Italy! And if you are a Beatles fan – this is a must see as this is where they got their start – where everything began them. Hamburg is also a magical city during the Christmas season, and you will find great Christmas markets throughout. And – being surrounded by water - the fish is a must eat while you are there. And a great place to explore? The fish market – which is only open on Sunday morning and very early so it doesn’t interfere with church.
Frankfurt: As Carolin observed Frankfurt is like Germany’s Manhattan. There’s a lot going on – including museums and the banking quarter. It’s got a metropolitan side with a towering skyline, but it also has areas that have a classical feel. And the gastronomy is very different here than in other parts of the country with things like Frankfurt’s famous green sauce and although they drink beer like the rest of the country – they love their Apfelwein as well – which is similar to apple cider. Bonus - it sits directly in the middle of Germany so it’s a good starting point with everything just a couple of hours away.
Cologne and Dusseldorf: On a personal note - Carolin has family in both these areas so she spends a lot of time in both of them and they are actually her two favorite cities. She describes Cologne as the most welcoming city ever – with so many great people that it’s hard to leave there without at least one new friend! It is also home to Cologne Cathedral – a true masterpiece that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Dusseldorf you’ll enjoy Rhine River cruises, fabulous architecture, great shopping and culinary experiences that will delight. They are both tremendously amazing cities with a lot of green so you able to do a lot of walking and picnicking in parks.
Stuttgart: Stuttgart is located in the in area of the Black Forest – which is personally one of my favorite parts of the country – where my heart lives. Here you can partake in cooking classes and learn to make maultaschen which are giant raviolis or the infamous Black Forest cake. During the holidays you will find Christmas markets in the castles which are amazing to shop in. And - you are surrounded by wine country when you are in Stuttgart so can get out of the city and into nature where you can participate in wine tastings and tour vineyards.
Munich: When I lived in Switzerland, I made the trip to Munich often and I just loved this city – there wasn’t anything I couldn’t find there! There is an amazing farmers market there - Viktualienmarkt - filled with stands that are all family owned. It is a great place to socialize and taste local cheese and olives and drink fine wine and beer! Munich also houses the Olympic Stadium where you can go up to the roof and zipline from one side of the stadium to the other! And for the less adventurous type there are the English Gardens. Here you can sit, eat pretzels, drink some beer and people watch! (My favorite!) You can also spot people on the river - surfing! This is also great starting point before you travel to Bavaria where you can have one off the beaten path experience after the other.
Sightseeing and Activities: Oh gosh – so many great things to see and do in this country. First off – they have marvelous landscapes which means lots of hiking to be had thanks to the mountainous terrain. And of course, those mountains come with great scenery and a healthy way to social distance. For those of you that aren’t about walking up hill – the northern part of Germany has plenty of flat areas where you can take leisurely strolls. And speaking of mountains - there is also the opportunity to do some skiing – not only within Germany but also in other nearby countries and I can hook you up with a pass that will let you ski at several different spots.
And then there is the culture! Now you may be surprised to hear that Germany is actually a rather small country - about as big as the state of California – but they are home to over six thousand museums! One of the best ones to visit – especially if you have German descendants is the German Emigration Center museum in Bremerhaven. This is where people left from in Germany when going to the US. Even if they were from other parts of Europe, they traveled to this port to leave to go to the US. The museum also works with Ancestry. com so you have the opportunity to not only find your ancestors information there but also when, how and why they left. What a super interesting museum! And might I add is definitely now on my list to visit the next trip to Germany!
There are also many theaters and operas in the country. And the opera houses have so much history – World War II history - as so many were bombed or burned down and then rebuilt. So even if you are not interested in music or attending the opera, they are mind blowingly gorgeous and absolutely worth visiting for the history and architecture alone.
Another thing you will find a lot of in Germany are casinos! Which was a surprise to me. And they are not your Las Vegas Style casinos where you can go in flip flops – these are quite formal, suit and tie venues and are extremely beautiful.
And – something I have done in the past and is a fun and unique experience is taking a Porcelain class. They have great porcelain in Germany – especially the Meissen Porcelain by Dresden.
Another unique thing you can do in Germany? Zeppelin Rides! Yup – they still have Zeppelins, and you can even book a shipyard tour through the Zeppelin hangar! Then afterwards you can take a breathtaking flight over Lake Constance – which is shared by Germany, Austria and Switzerland – allowing you to view all three countries from high above.
Castles and Palaces: Germany lays claim to some of the most magnificent castles you have ever seen – about twenty thousand to be exact. Below are highlights of a few of the most magnificent ones.
Neuschwanstein Castle: This absolutely gorgeous castle sits on a hill – which you can get to by carriage ride or shuttle - from which there are fabulous views. And there is an inn just a short drive from the castle that you can stay at that is home to a Michelin starred restaurant – making for a great cultural and culinary experience!
Heidelberg Castle: This stunning castle is filled with much history and is a great one to explore – and it has that ambience that makes you feel like you are in a fairytale! And the city is beautiful in itself and is filled with a lot of college students – including a lot of American students. And due to the fact that it is more budget friendly than some of the other cities.
Wartburg Castle: Carolin recounted that this was one of the first castles she saw as child – when it was a still separated East and West Germany. She recalls how big and beautiful this medieval German fort situated on the top of the mountain was - hovering over equally beautiful views. Wartburg Castle – another UNESCO World Heritage Site is over a thousand years old and very well preserved. It is very impressive and highly recommended – especially for people interested in traveling on the Path of Luther.
Stuttgart’s Castle of Solitude: Looking at this castle – which sits on a huge parcel of land – it’s amazing to think that it was just a hunting palace and summer residence! But - that it was! While you are here there are a number of wellness opportunities nearby – such as Baden Baden – known for its thermal baths. In fact, there are many hot springs within Germany to enjoy – although some are clothing optional so choose wisely!
Castle of Eltz: This 850-year-old castle is remarkably still owned by same family - the Eltz family – whom original lived there in the 12th century. As per Carolin it is totally Instagram-worthy and it is on her list to see as she has yet to visit.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing travel the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Germany.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements click here.
Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed your virtual tour of Germany and I am fairly sure you now realize why I am missing it so much! Until I can get there again – I am visiting #discovergermanyfromhome and invite you to do the same!
For more details on things to see and do in Germany, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Truffles and Wine and Olive Oil – oh my! Sorry – channeling my inner Dorothy there! But truffles, wine and olive oil are the topic of today’s travel adventure in my Dream Now, Travel Later segment.
Now as you are probably well aware of by now, I am a huge culinary freak and I even attended culinary school! Needless to say, I was extremely excited to welcome Alex Opacic from Taste Istria as our guest speaker to share his passion for this perfect gourmet trifecta with us! Not only that but we also got to explore three different areas of the world including Croatia and Slovenia as well as some of Northern Italy because Istria is a triangular peninsula that actually lies within these three countries!
So, grab a glass of vino and sit back and relax and enjoy this journey into the world of truffles, wine and olive oil – and more!
Company Background: Taste Istria has been dedicated to wine and culinary tourism since 2007 offering what they refer to as the perfect trifecta of truffles, wine and olive oil. Alex noted that there are other products as well in their tourism offerings, but these are the three he is focusing on during this chat. Now Istria – which as I said in the into is a triangular peninsula that is part of Croatia, Slovenia and Italy – is just a two-hour drive eastward from Venice and before you get to the Croatian part you have to pass through Slovenia which is a relatively short coast. Clear as mud? Basically, Alex surmised that when he leaves home to go shopping for some delicacies - he travels through two countries – even though the trip there is only 25 miles!
And while visiting Istria it as a fabulous trip in itself it’s also a great extension to an Italian holiday thanks to their proximity. From Rome or Tuscany, it only takes three to four hours by high-speed train to get to Venice and then another hour to get to Trieste which is the furthest city you can get two in Italy via train. From there you are only about 45 minutes by car to get to anywhere in Western Slovenia or to the part of Istria that resides in Croatia!
And for our guests coming from the bigger cities in Italy that were so crowded - once they cross the border, they’ll be pleasantly surprised! This off the beaten path destination with no crowds and plenty of elbow room is great for social distancing! Between its small population and a six-lane highway network created for tourist arrivals by car - even if by chance everyone was out on the highway at one time - it still wouldn’t be that crowded. And you’ll find the attractions, restaurants and wineries will always have reservations available. And my favorite part - Alex assured us you won’t arrive at a winery and find it’s overcrowded - you pretty much have the winery to yourself! Now that’s a no-brainer!
About Those Truffles… Truffles are generally known as coming from Piedmont, Italy. They are also occasionally found in Tuscany. Alex also noted that in Serbia they just found some, so it is on its way to becoming a great truffle destination, but it is still in the very early stages.
Piedmont is actually famous for the white truffle, but Istria has them as well. There’s a story here! Istria did not actually become known for white truffles until about two decades ago because prior to that all of the truffles in Istria were smuggled and sold as Italian ones! According to Alex about two decades ago is when they started operating their own truffle businesses with some government subsidies. But what really gained them popularity was when – in 1999 – one of their employees found the largest white truffle in the world! Yup – the people from the Guinness Book of World Records came and measured and it certainly was – and still is – the largest truffle ever found. There were offers from all over the world to purchase it, but they decided to pool all of their money together and buy the truffle themselves – then proceeded to make an omelet with 1999 eggs – with all the profits going to local children’s charities and children’s hospitals. Alex also let us know that there is a Michelin-starred restaurant featured in his tours where the cooking classes take place where you can actually view this strange brain looking cast of that very truffle!
Now in addition to the white there are also black truffles. They are the same ones that are also found in Provence, France which are called black diamond or the black Périgord. In addition to that black diamond truffle, they also have two other black truffles - a winter black truffle and a summer black truffle - meaning you can have truffles no matter what time of you visit. What is interesting here is there are actually laws for black truffles that are pretty stringent. You must serve them fresh. You cannot freeze them and then serve them unless you get a special permit! However, this does not apply to the white ones which only grow four months out of the year - between mid-August and late December depending on the weather.
And The Olive Oil…Alex proudly informed us that each year 10,000 samples of high-end olive oil are gathered from all over the world and judged by a panel of Italian jurors. And this year - for the fourth consecutive year - Istria topped everyone - even Tuscany - as the top region for olive oil. In addition, 90 out of the top 500 olive oils in the Flos Olei Guide were from Istria - with the majority from the Croatian part, some of them come from the Slovenian part and the others were from the eastern part of Italy. Needless to say, Alex is pretty proud of all this!
He also educated us on a part of the olive oil culture that many people don’t understand - that olive oil - just like wine - can be mono varietal or single varietal like a Sauvignon Blanc or a Cabernet Franc wine for instance. And different types of olives can give you different types of products - some are sweet, some are pungent, some are tastier in a different way. Generally, one producer can make twelve different types of olive oils from the different olives they grow on different trees.
And Now The Wine! So even though it sounds like an oxymoron the wine industry in Istria is referred to as internal exports. There exists here a perfect blend between many different types of wine and the winemakers are privileged in that they don’t have to compete in the world market - thanks to tourism and not having to worry about wine exporting and all those hassles. Instead, they sell their wine local. In fact, they sell 90% of their wine locally to wine bars, wine shops and restaurants. This gives them more time to dedicate themselves to personally welcoming their guests. Years ago, the decision was made that they wouldn’t be able to compete with the low prices other winemakers can offer. So, they went with the concept of offering a high-end product. And although it took some time, they now are considered and recognized as a place where you will pay slightly more for your wine - and this goes olive oil as well – but you will get a high-end product that is fabulous - and worth it!
Other Products: As I stated earlier – the area is home to other products. And even though this presentation isn’t focusing on them - Alex still shared what some of them are. For instance – across border - but still in in Istria - there are 1200 salt pans where salt flour is still collected by hand to this day. And quality wise it can be compared to the salts that come from France. Also, across the border there is wild asparagus to be found.
In Italy, the city of Trieste is the unofficial capital of coffee in the country. Not just because illy Coffee is based there but basically every single Italian varietal coffee is from there except for Lavazza. Here they offer coffee tours that include coffee tastings or experiences where you can learn how to make your own cappuccino and more.
There’s seafood too! And Alex also informed us that his region in Istria is famous for arguably some of the best Mediterranean Sea bass as well and sole, gold bass and scampi.
Going further south in Croatia to Dubrovnik - which is super famous thanks to the fact Game of Thrones was filmed there - they’re equally famous for their lobsters and oysters too!
And surprise - Croatia is one of the largest exporters of tuna fish! This is because of the fact that the Adriatic Sea is a bay of the Mediterranean Sea and the water is relatively shallow meaning the tuna is already salty or - it’s basically already seasoned!
Sightseeing and Activities and Tours:
Tour Overview / Culture: The Taste Istria tours have been designed so that you aren’t spending too much time traveling in the vehicle. As Alex said - they want you to be out and about enjoying all there is to see and do. So, while they concentrate on the main aspect of the tour - truffles or wines or olive oils - they also include cultural aspects. For instance, the tour may include a visit to the regional capital city of Istria - Pula - where you will see one of the seven best preserved Roman coliseums in the world. Or possibly you might take in one of the ten designated UNESCO World sites thorough the country. No matter what the tour – culture is always a part of it.
Truffle Extravaganza: One of the most important truffle festivals in Piedmont starts in mid-September and last until mid-November and it’s really an incredible experience. The tours they operate in September and October are held on Truffle Extravaganza days – which are on the weekends. On these tours you will have your own private truffle guide, participate in truffle hunting then afterwards you will either attend a cooking class or enjoy a multi course lunch or dinner with a wine pairing and /or olive oil pairings as well. The best part is that since a lot of people attend the festivals the price of a truffle-based meal is really inexpensive – or as Alex likened it to – “like the cost of having a burger at some joint in New York!” This is also because you’re really at the very source of the truffles - so there are no intermediaries or expensive transportation costs involved.
Olive Oil Experiences: Alex related to us that the largest meal they ever hosted was a twelve-course meal paired with twelve different olive oils and twelve different wines! And - get this - it lasted somewhere from seven to eight hours!
With every Taste Istria tour, you will visit some olive oil farms and they tend to bring guests to those that have exports to the US. The reason for this - as Alex explained - is because generally the majority of all oils in the world are forged. Not that they are lying to you, but they are able to sell different types of oil and market them as extra virgin olive oil because the regulations are relaxed. There is a huge difference between regular olive oil and high-quality olive oil and though both of them are marketed as extra-virgin olive oil only the high-quality ones give you all the benefits that’s is known and used for. Thus, they will always take you to the olive oil farms where you will learn how to properly taste olive oil and once you learn that it’s a game changer.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for each location these tours are offer in - please check with each country’s official website.
So, wow! What an opportunity we have here to combine a lot of these areas with additional countries on a 12-to-14-day trip. We can curate you an itinerary so that you can experience not only this gourmet trifecta – but also the culture, the gastronomy and the wellness opportunities that abound in these areas for a great recharging of your batteries!
For more details on things to see and do, where to stay in Istria, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
We’re keeping it domestic on this Travel Tuesday and this time we’re going straight to the top - the capital city of the United States of America - Washington DC.
Joining me today dish on all things DC is my colleague Lindsay Hill, the Senior Manager for Tourism Sales at Destination DC. Now I’m well aware that when most of us who aren’t familiar with this destination picture it, our minds eye is filled with monuments, museums and politics. Which of course can all be found here. But there’s so much more to our capital city and it is mine and Lindsay’s goal to educate you on just how much more.
In fact, Lindsay was very vocal about the fact that the one thing she wants you all to take away from our chat is that Washington DC is a vibrant city with many facets. Of course, there is the Washington politics side – but there's so much more than just the National Mall strip - there is also an entire city to explore with many great neighborhoods that she is going to walk us through on a virtual tour today.
So, let’s do some armchair traveling to the District of Columbia to uncover all that it has to offer.
How Can I Get There? Super easy! There are three airports that you can utilize – Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Reagan National Airport (DCA) - which is the closest - as it is only which is 15 minutes from downtown and easily accessible via the Metro system (more on that later). And, if you're on the East Coast corridor, you can simply take Amtrak right into Union Station arriving just steps away from downtown DC.
And Where Exactly Is It? I now a lot of you are quite familiar with Washington DC but if you're not on the east coast - to give you an idea - it’s about four hours from New York City and just two and a half hours from Philadelphia. It is nestled between Virginia and Maryland meaning you can use DC as your base then take side trips to the Shenandoah Mountains - and the wineries! - or head to the fabulous beach towns in Maryland. What a great mix of opportunities – think about what an awesome multi-city tour this would make!
Demographics? DC – which is a lovely diamond shape - is home to 700,000 people mainly between the ages of 25 and 45 making this for a young and vibrant town with plenty of nightlife. There are also a lot of families that live in DC and that means there are also plenty of activities to explore with the kiddos.
How Am I Going To Get Around Once I’m There? One thing Lindsay was quite adamant about was that you do not need a car in DC. In fact, she came right out and said do NOT bring a car to DC. For those of you guys who are in metropolitan cities like New York the subway is something we all cherish, and you will be thrilled to discover that DC has a subway system too – the Washington Metro - that also includes buses. The Metro system is fabulous because it is not confined to the city limits as it travels to the outskirts as well giving you the ability to even link up with the Light Rail in parts of Maryland or Virginia. That being said one piece I will definitely add to your DC itinerary is a SmarTrip card to pay for all of your Metrorail and Metrobus rides. One great thing about this SmarTrip card is that it can be used on all of the city buses including the DC Circulator which is similar to a shuttle bus system and costs just a one dollar per ride. And I am a huge advocate of taking buses when you can as it is a great opportunity to get sightseeing in - whether you are passing along popular sites or sitting at a traffic light – I feel it just gives you a view that you wouldn’t get otherwise.
In addition to the Metro and the buses DC is a very walkable city that has been voted the number one most walkable city in the entire country many times over. It is also a very bikeable city and its flat so no hills to worry about! DC has trails everywhere due to the fact they are mostly constructed of national parks – making it a very green city. Fun Fact: You can rent a bike and bike all the way to George Washington’s Mount Vernon and then take the boat back for a relaxing view from the water for a great day excursion. And the beautiful thing about that is you can take the bike from one area to another and not have to worry about bringing it back to where you started.
And finally, there is the Potomac River Water Taxi that is relatively new – just over two years old as of this writing. It connects the new District Wharf area (more on this later) to Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria and the National Harbor.
Tell Me About The National Mall Area. Undoubtedly the most popular area of DC, the National Mall area is walkable as it is just a little over 2 miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the US Capitol with all of the monuments, the White House and a slew of Smithsonian’s – or what Lindsay refers to as Smithsonian Row – all there in the middle before you reach the capital making for a fabulous way to spend the day. And if you are not big on walking there are other
ways to tour the monuments and memorials such as a hop on hop off bus tours. In fact, there are all kinds of tours you can take, including National Mall tours done by professional comedians – I kid you not. (See what I did there?) Lindsay shared that her absolute favorite is the guided night tour because seeing the monuments all lit up at night is just gorgeous – so much so that she suggests even if you do the tour during the day to get all your pictures up close – still go back at night and seeing everything illuminated is a completely different experience and will take your breath away.
As for the Smithsonian Institution – which most of you are quite familiar with – but did you know that the Smithsonian is not just one building? Nope – it is 16 buildings interspersed around Washington DC with most of them on the National Mall. And even the DC Zoo – featuring those oh so adorable giant pandas - is a part of the Smithsonian – with its actual name being the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Best part? Every one of the Smithsonian museums and the zoo are free of charge. So, for those of you who are on a budget and want to do something fun that also counts as a travel as a living classroom that free admission factor lets you get your children up close and personal to learn firsthand rather than just reading it in a textbook. And as Lindsay so poetically put it - they actually stand in the footprints of history at many of these locations. Just incredible opportunities here you guys!
As you walk along you will come across the International Spy Museum which is in the L'Enfant Plaza near the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Now, the International Spy Museum has been with the DC family for over ten years but last spring they opened their new location which is twice the size of the old venue. So even if you've been there before you have to go back as it's completely brand new with new exhibits. And if you are not familiar with it, the International Spy Museum is a super interactive experience where you get to put on the persona of a spy and take on little missions and at the end, they tell you if you would have been a good spy or not. And if you have a group we can arrange for workshops on forensics and other areas of interest.
Two other museums that just opened in 2020 are the National Children's Museum - that focuses highly on STEM - so all of your science, technology, engineering and mathematics related stuff- and Planet Word which is really about bringing words and language to life and reminding you of the power of words. Per Lindsay she is quite excited about this one and said that if you like crossword puzzles and libraries and things along that line you are going to love this place!
What If I Get Hungry? Or Thirsty? DC has you covered with a great food scene that includes OVER 2200 restaurants! Bonus - you've got Michelin starred restaurants included in those 2200 too. Lindsay also pointed out that DC has close to 200 embassies in its backyard which is unique to any city in the entire world. And with so many embassies they have a ton of global influence added to their culinary scene. That also means they don't have one thing that's considered DC cuisine because they have so many flavors coming at them. As for those Michelin starred restaurants – DC is only the fifth city in the United States to be honored with the Michelin Guide which of course they are oh so proud of as they are of Jose Andres who is their hometown chef who's doing some really wonderful things within the communities.
Some of the more popular places to grab a bite include Ben’s Chili Bowl (and a half smoke) - which is the only restaurant that survived the riots after MLK's assassination, District Donuts and of course Georgetown Cupcakes that many know from the TV show DC Cupcakes.
If happy hour is your jam you will not be disappointed in DC! There are a lot of rooftop experiences – both for rooftop dining and bars - which is a great place to try a Gin Rickey which is DC's cocktail, and you grab some Ethiopian food. Why Ethiopian food? Because outside of Africa, Washington DC has the largest population of Ethiopians.
And of course – we all know I am huge into cultural immersion through gastronomy so I would love to make an entire itinerary of culinary exploration for my foodies out there as there is so much to see from the Wharf Fish Market to Union Market to Speakeasy visits to neighborhood food tours and more!
Anything There In The Way Of Arts? There are over 30 theaters in DC with the Kennedy Center as the mainstay for opera, ballet and their Broadway circuit. But they also have so much more in terms of homegrown theater productions as well thanks to a huge community behind those efforts. Besides theater there's a ton of art in DC including the hidden art within like the Library of Congress and mural art everywhere that was commissioned to highlight leaders of the city.
Sports? Truly you are going to find something for everyone here in the way of sports. You’ve got baseball, football, soccer, basketball, hockey - I mean there's literally pretty much every major sporting event imaginable here. And Lindsay proudly pointed out that in the past couple of years they have had a lot of championship wins with the Nationals, Capitals and even their women's basketball team the Mystics bringing home the trophy.
What Kind Of Activities Can I Participate In? So besides professional sports, DC is quite an active city, meaning there is a ton of outdoor activities to be had. Which is great news - especially now - as everyone wants to make spend a lot of time outdoors and engage in some social distancing. The city has a plethora of wellness opportunities – and remember – wellness isn’t just a spa treatment – it includes many other activities including soft adventures! In DC you are going to find plenty of soft adventures - and hard adventures if that is what you are looking for. From kayaking on the Potomac River to bike tours to paddle boats on the Tidal Basin and even yoga on the National Mall! Then there is Rock Creek Park – part of the National Park Service – which is twice the size of Central Park in New York City. Here there are trails and there's actually a horseback riding center in there so you can even ride horses in Washington DC!
DC is host to many different events and festivals but arguably its most famous is the Cherry Blossom Festival. I personally have seen the cherry blossom trees at different points – when it was early in the start of the season and when they were in full bloom and it's just absolutely stunning. There are over 200 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and Lindsay assures us not to worry about timing it right because even if for some reason the timing isn’t perfect there are three weeks of activities during the festival. You will still have the parade, the fireworks show, the kite festival and more - and you will still have a great time even if they're not in full bloom at that point.
You Mentioned Great Neighborhoods? Why yes, I did. And I can make you an itinerary for each one where you can spend one day exploring all they have to offer.
We Know You Like Your Off The Beaten Path Options Loulu. I sure do and I asked Lindsay to highlight some for us today so that we have a list of things not everybody knows about to take in during our DC trip. First there’s H Street that's definitely a part of DC that you want to see. It’s like raw DC – and is filled with nightlife, restaurants and festivals amidst a communal atmosphere. Then you have the Congressional Cemetery which is a really beautiful – and cool place to visit. Fun Fact: John Philip Sousa is buried there. There is the Saint John Paul II National Shrine featuring mosaics by Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik - so even if you're not religious my art enthusiasts would really love it. Or you can visit President Lincolns Cottage – a historic site and museum. And finally, there are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens where every summer when the lotuses and water lilies bloom, they have a Lotus and Water Lily Festival.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing, the travel requirements for anyone traveling into Washington, DC from a jurisdiction with more than ten COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people are as such:
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Washington DC click here.
Whether you travel for the history, the gastronomy, the culture, the wellness, the activities or the off the beaten path adventures – Washington DC offers them all – right here in our own backyard – no passport needed. I'd love to be able to start building an itinerary for you and your travel companions that includes what’s important to you – so let’s get that conversation started!
For more details on things to see and do in Washington DC, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
There are so many amazing places to visit on this wonderful planet of ours that sometimes we forget the beautiful destinations that are literally in our own backyards. Domestic travel is quite possibly all we may be able to do until the borders start opening which means there’s no better time than now to set out to explore this amazing country of ours.
By now you may have may have guessed that this week’s video guest will be chatting with me about a US city. And you would be correct! And that guest is my colleague Nicole Krekeler the Tourism Sales Manager for Experience Scottsdale (Arizona) who is relaying to us all of the marvelous sights, sounds and tastes there are to discover in Scottsdale - as well as some hidden gems that I didn’t even know about!
Grab your cowboy hat, pull on your boots, take a seat on your horse and trot along with us on this Scottsdale adventure!
Location, Landscape and Climate: Nicole first let us in on the fact that she’s an Arizona native - which is rare - from what she’s heard. And she advised that Arizona is known as the Grand Canyon State and cheekily added that “we own the entire Grand Canyon no matter what Las Vegas and Nevada say!”
Scottsdale itself is centrally located in the state and although it’s a suburb of Phoenix, it truly is its own standalone destination. Plus being right in center of state it’s a great place to hub and spoke out to Sedona, the Grand Canyon or south to Tucson or Tombstone. The city is long and skinny - measuring 32 miles north to south and 7 miles east to west. It’s also within close proximity to the airport as at the southernmost point it’s just 15 minutes from Sky Harbor - Phoenix’s international airport.
That, and coupled with the fact that there are 320 days of sunshine statewide plus no humidity – it’s a dry heat - which trust me - makes a big difference - means it’s a pretty safe bet you won’t get rained out! The average minimum temperature is actually 55 degrees – so it’s not 100 degrees all years round! Thanks to being located in the Sonoran Desert there is a temperature difference.
Popular Areas: One must see is Old Town Scottsdale. Filled with culture and life like it was back in the old west – they still have some original streets, the original post office and the First Bank of Arizona. That old bank is now a cool little (little is right – it only holds about 43 people) gem known as the Rusty Spur – a bar that opened after the bank closed down during the Great Depression and still stands there today filled with all its cowboy culture! They even still have the bank’s original vault which is used to store alcohol now instead of money. They also feature live music every day - plus every Saturday at 3:00 PM Gary and his horse ride in, strum a song, then back on outta there! You will also find numerous privately owned boutique shops as well as great chef driven restaurants in Old Town. It really is a great place to walk around, do some exploring and maybe buy a Mexican blanket or some stunning turquoise jewelry. Other areas of interest to explore - Tombstone a town that is just as if you are walking into the old west and recreating it – and it’s not a film set up – it truly is an actual town and also what they refer to as the Waterfront – which is Scottsdale’s canal system – featuring great shops, restaurants and scenery including palm trees, public art sculptures and fountains.
Sightseeing and Activities: Most of you probably associate Scottsdale with the desert but did you know that an entire one third of the city is a protected Sonoran Desert preserve? Meaning...there are outdoor activities galore! With over 30,000 acres of protected land - there’s over 200 miles of hiking, biking, horseback riding, rock-climbing trails and more!
There is also an abundance of Hot Air Balloon rides thanks to the temperate weather and low wind - which also allows Scottsdale to brag that they have the most flyable days in the US! Due to the heat in the summer only sunrise tours are offered - but from October through April you can take a sunset tour as well. What a great way to see the desert - by floating over! Especially if you aren’t into hiking and mountain biking. Bonus - you get a champagne toast at end!
Golf. Lots and lots of golf! In the Phoenix metropolitan area there are about 200 golf courses - and Scottsdale is home to 51 of them. (Side Note: This number represents both Scottsdale and Paradise Valley – a small town and suburb of Scottsdale). One really cool fact about these golf courses – to keep them green they use all reclaimed water and utilizing a very complex system it allows them to maintain green golf course without using up natural resources.
There are some really fun ways to explore that desert terrain – such as Jeep or Hummer Tours or renting a self-drive UTV’s that allow you to see - and learn about - the flora and fauna and the eco system up close and persona. Fun Fact – there is more plant life in the Sonoran Desert than in the Amazon thanks to all of the different species of plants.
Also home to Tonto National Forest where opportunities for kayaking, rafting and paddle boarding are plentiful and there are tour companies that will do these activities with you if you don’t want to give it a go alone. This area is actually quite green and in addition to manmade lakes you’ll also find the Salt and Verde Rivers – where you will see wild horses galloping around on any given day!
Arts and Culture: Culture is a huge part of who Arizona is as a state as well as is Scottsdale as a destination. Scottsdale actually butts up to one of the to one of the larger reservations in the state - the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian community. The state as a whole has 25 tribes residing there which is the most of any state in the country and they boast of great partnerships with festivals to honor those tribes being held often.
Art is actually a huge component in Scottsdale and a very interesting fact that Nicole let us in on is that 3% of any large corporate build’s total investment has to go back to community in public art. Thanks to this mandate - you’ll see numerous sculptures and interesting interactive art features throughout the entire city! In addition there are approximately 150 art galleries and art dealers in Scottsdale and just over 70 of them are located in Old Town which has an Arts district with a couple of walkable streets where every Thursday night they do an art walk allowing you to go in to the galleries and partake in cheese and wine while talking with the owners and possibly the artists themselves. You’ll also find a lot of handmade goods for sale by local artists and Native American communities sold throughout the town.
Then there is Taliesin West which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year! The story behind this is that Frank Lloyd Wright came out to Arizona to the desert for inspiration in the late 1920’s and built it as his home and a winter school for his apprentices. It is still an architectural school to this day! He also kind of founded the artist community that he stumbled upon in the 1930’s that is still a running artist community and compound today. A lot of the artist’s work with the local Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalow, creating all their artwork in the rooms and doing interactive art classes such as watercolors that are all free for the guests who stay there.
Scottsdale is also home to six world class museums – two of them being Smithsonian affiliated museums. The first is the Spirit of the West Museum - a beautiful museum that focuses on the cowboy and Indian culture of the seventeen most western states and how we all got out west. And the second is the Musical Instrument Museum which came about ten years ago thanks to the CEO of Target who had looked all over for a great location to open this fantastic, interactive museum and settled on Scottsdale. Per Nicole it is one place she ALWAYS takes her guest to when they visit, and it is awfully hard to pull them out of there! They have a lot of interactive exhibits, offer behind the scenes tours and are home to a bone flute from around 200 AD that’s quite fascinating!
Gastronomy: If you are in search of a gastronomic adventure there are about 800 restaurants in Scottsdale proper - more per capita than Manhattan! Now obviously there’s a difference in population but still! What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is a heck of a lot of food grown in Arizona and that they have chefs move there from New York and Chicago to embrace the local flavors and all the great things grown there to make a name for themselves. In fact, Nicole related that they are immensely proud of their local chefs and that last year Chef Charlene Badman was the James Beard award winner for the south and southwest! And for more social distancing opportunities there are lots of great patios to eat on! Food tours are available too for you foodies out there.
And there’s not just great food to be found here – Arizona is home to 70 vineyards – mainly located down south in Wilcox and up north in Cottonwood and Sedona. Yup – they can grow grapes in the desert – thanks to all that sunshine and great weather and reclaimed water! In Scottsdale you’ll find six of the larger Arizona vineyards/wineries have wine tasting rooms for you to try out those desert wines. There is also a company that does a walking wine tour and another one that does the tours on golf carts – telling you all about the history of wine making while you sip on wine! What a great idea for a bachelorette party (Nicole says they do host many of them thanks to this)!
Wellness: Wellness is also a huge component of travel to Scottsdale. Many of the resorts offer spas onsite and there are also a lot of stand-alone day spas bringing the total to more than 50 day, resort and health spas for you to choose from. There is definitely something very cleansing about the desert which is why you’ll see a lot of wellness groups hiking in the desert as well. The CIVANA Luxury Wellness Spa Retreat is a new property at the furthest northern point of Scottsdale offering all sorts of different styles of yoga classes as well as barre classes and more – and most of the classes are included in their experience fee (think resort fee)! How great would Scottsdale be for a corporate wellness offsite? Or for you wellness coaches - a perfect place to organize and lead your own retreat!
Accommodations: Home to more than 70 hotels and resorts with the beauty of that being that they are not skyscrapers – they are very well spread out (meaning social distancing friendly!) and of course are following all CDC guidelines and requirements to ensure their guests’ safety.
They also have smaller boutique properties with some being just eight room hideaways where if you so choose you can buy out the entire hotel to self-quarantine with your bubble! The Hermosa Inn which has 45 rooms was getting bought out for weddings prior to covid. Nicole advised us that this is one of her favorites and that it used to be an artist’s home - painter Lon Megargee back in the 1930s and when it was purchased by new owners they turned it into a bed and breakfast and it’s remained just that since the 1940’s. Domestic destination wedding anyone?
Types of Travelers: Great for families - especially those with younger children as it is a great living classroom experience - between the culture, history, and science of nature – as well as couples, honeymooners, babymooners, girls getaways, guy trips – ummm – it’s just great for everyone lets face it!
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing there are no travel restrictions or COVID-19 test requirements for individuals visiting Arizona.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements click here.
Scottsdale – as you can see - or as Experience Scottsdale and Nicole refer to it - hot, dry and wild - is much more than just the desert! And it is a destination that was well known for many years as a golf and spa destination, but it is so much more! It is also a luxury destination, an adventure destination, an arts and culture destination, a gastronomic destination … you get the idea! And Nicole also made certain to mention that is a very hospitable city to visit as well. For my Texans - Arizona is not far drive! And my East coasters - you can do a direct flight or if you aren’t ready to fly yet – what a great cross-country drive destination trip!
For more details on things to see and do, where to stay in Scottsdale, it’s price and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
In today’s video chat we are going to travel to a destination that I personally cannot wait to learn all about - as I have not yet had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country. And what beautiful country might that be? It is the largest country in the world - Russia!
Elena Ulko, owner of Ulko Tours - the destination management company for both Russia and Scandinavia - excitedly accepted my invitation to sit down and chat all about her homeland recently. And – I am willing to bet that most of you are going to be as surprised as I was to get a glimpse into what a lot of us envision to be a mysterious, somewhat dark and oh so serious land and its people. (Spoiler alert – that is so not the case!) And you will see right off the bat that Elena is very aware of the misconceptions about her beloved Russia and could not wait to show us why we have it all wrong.
Now let’s clear our minds of any pre-conceived notions and read all about the secrets and treasures that you will find there that Elena promises will entice you to visit and make you fall in love with her country.
Ulko Tours: Elena and Ulko Tours in general are great to work with because they let you decide what you want to see. Elena said their customers usually inquire as to what they should see while visiting but she prefers to give you a list of the everything there is to see and let you decide for yourself what it is on that list that interests you - that speaks to your heart. Whether you want to view the ornate residences or if you’re a museum fanatic or long to visit its churches and cathedrals – or all of these things – they will be more than happy to accommodate you. And of course – I will be curating your personalized experience with her assistance – so you can be assured you are in good hands!
Geography, Currency, Climate and More: Russia is home to 146 million people and occupies 6.6 million square miles or one-eighth of the worlds surface making it twice the size of the US. And it’s not only massive – but it is remarkably diverse as well. And how crazy is this – there are ten different time zones in Russia. So, if for instance you flew from Moscow across the country to the other side and landed in Kamchatka it would be a nine-hour time change!
Like I stated above – Elena mentioned that having lived in the US at one time she realized that most people don’t know much about Russia and that most of what they know they get from tv and movies which as she feels - portrays them as mobsters, very gloomy and perhaps a bit crazy. When in fact visitors are usually shocked when they arrive in Moscow and it’s not like they pictured it. Russians are really very friendly and enjoy meeting new people. Elena attributes a lot of the unfriendly perception to the Soviet times when life was so difficult for them and they just had to concentrate on their work and their everyday life in order to survive – which didn’t leave much space for happiness. But now life is getting better and they have the opportunity to travel and they love to welcome travelers to Russia in return.
The currency used throughout the country is the ruble which just so happened to be quite colorful currency. The exchange rate as of this writing - though it changes all the time, and we will need to check it for you prior to your trip - is 70 rubles to $1.00.
Getting There: There are direct flights available from numerous major cities in the US including New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago to name a few. And of course – if you know me – you know I do recommend flying business class as the trip is lengthy and this way you can lay down and be rested and ready to start your adventure when you arrive! Most visitors will fly into Saint Petersburg or Moscow - as they are the two cities where people usually start their adventure when they come over to visit. But there are also flights into other cities in Russia if you so desire.
It’s important to note that Americans do need to have a Russian visa to visit – along with a valid passport. And you want to make sure your passport is valid for the length of your visa. Elena related that 90 days prior to your trip is the earliest you can apply and though the questionnaire may look daunting it is in fact not difficult – just extensive. In addition to a visa, you will also need a letter of support to get the visa - which Elana said they can quickly and easily get for you. This letter serves as a confirmation that you are traveling with a certain company and that company is acting as a sponsor for the visa.
Length of Stay: In terms of how many days you should give yourself when creating an itinerary, it’s going to depend - of course - on what you want to experience. If you really want to do the whole country, Elena and I certainly suggest at least 15 days plus. This way you are not going to just be jumping from one destination to another but actually being able to do a lot of cultural immersion in each destination as well. Elana actually outlined some sample itineraries and the number of days for each:
Elena had a fabulous point – if you are going to fly all the way from the US to Russia it really makes sense to plan a little longer to be able to see as much as possible – because in reality for most of us it is a once in a lifetime trip. (Although Elena noted they do get people who come back over and over because they fall in love with the country.)
Getting Around: Being able to get around is key and there all different modes of transportation available. There are private vehicles, a public transit system, taxis, river and canal boat rentals, helicopters and hydrofoils. Ulko Tours will use more than one mode of transportation on their tours combining those that make the most sense. And of course, if you want to splurge a bit on a helicopter, they will happily do that.
Also on this list are trains. The Sapsan Train is the rail service which connects St. Petersburg to Moscow and Elena mentioned this because she knows that a lot of people think it is much easier to travel by plane when city hopping throughout Russia. And there’s no disagreement there – for instance it is just a one-hour flight between these two cities as opposed to a three-and-a-half-hour train ride. BUT – there is all the time – and hassle - spent prior to wheels up that adds on even more time. You must travel to the airport and be sure to arrive well in advance and go through the often-lengthy security checkpoint which ends up adding a few hours to that one-hour flight time. Now – picture this. You arrive at the train station which is right in the center of the city of Moscow, there is no hassle getting to the station and upon arrival you will board the train, sit down and settle in for the journey. And should you choose business class you get a meal and drinks as well ultimately ending up in the center of St. Petersburg easily, effortless and extremely comfortably. I am convinced!
And of course, we cannot forget about the Trans-Siberian Railway! The beautiful thing about starting out in St. Petersburg or in Moscow is that you actually can create an itinerary that includes the Trans-Siberian and if you chose to do the full route it is an amazing two-week adventure.
Destinations: Based on its size to see all of Russia you really need a lot of time so today we're going to talk about the major destinations that you should not miss when you come.
Here everything is extreme - large buildings, wide streets, expensive cars, couture shops never-ending traffic jams and big money. And yes, there is plenty to see, do and experience here - including gastronomy, sightseeing, art and culture, wellness and even medical opportunities - so for those of you guys who are maybe looking to travel for a medical procedure this could be an option. Hotel accommodations range from three to five stars and the recommended stay here is three to four days.
In the heart of Moscow, you’ll find the Kremlin which is the oldest fortress in the city. Featured inside are churches - or cathedrals. Part of the Kremlin is open for visitors so you can actually go in inside and explore all the centuries old churches – the history here is amazing and Elena guarantees you will come away in awe.
Another famous place you will find in Moscow is Red Square which is home to St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Tower of Kremlin and the Kremlin Clock all of which are symbols of Moscow that you will often see featured in all brochures.
And attention all my shoppers - Moscow is a great place for shopping! At Manezhnaya Square - which is located on the other side of the Kremlin – you will not only enjoy walking through the park and taking in the beautiful fountains – but they also have a shopping mall underground! This actually reminds me a little bit of Montreal and their underground city and is a great opportunity if you visit in the winter to shop in the warmth of the underground as opposed to outside shopping centers!
Elena shared that a huge chunk of the visitors coming to Russian request to do a Soviet Moscow tour and no wonder why! It is famous for its 1950s architecture that was created during the time of Joseph Stalin and is quite impressive – in fact, everything back then was impressive - even the subway stations! So much so that people request tours of them (which she noted is unlike most places with subway systems – for instance New York City) but in St. Petersburg and Moscow the subway tour is an extremely popular tour! The Moscow Metro or subway is a stunning triumph of Soviet architecture.
You can also have the theater experience in Moscow and Elena shared that a lot of people request seeing ballet at the Bolshoi Theater - in fact, she joked – unless it’s something that puts you to sleep - it is on almost on everyone’s list.
If you want to hobnob with the local’s head to Gorki Park as it is one of the places local residents spend their free time thanks to its plentiful outdoor space. And make sure you sample the local ice cream while you are there as it is one of their specialties!
Another must do is to partake in a Moscow River Cruise one evening. You can choose one with or without dinner – either way it is a marvelous opportunity to catch a glimpse of the beautiful sunset as it illuminates the city.
Ok so there are tons of Soviet artifacts that can be found throughout the city but for my history buffs here is something you are NOT going to want to miss! There is a Soviet secret bunker that you can actually visit – in fact - it is the only one open to the public. As you know - during the Cold War both in the US and in Russia everybody was convinced that something horrible was going to go down – and mainly that fear was of a nuclear war – leading to the beginning of the nuclear shelter craze. How cool is it that you get to descend deep down into one such shelter and explore this underground corridor! Even cooler is that you can actually even have a meal while you are there thanks to the canteen built for the young government employees that is open to visitors.
The Hermitage is a splendid imperial palace with stunning interiors located on the Neva River that was once the house of a Russian royal family. It contains the world's largest collection of art with pieces by da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and others and in fact is really all about the art!
Another popular attraction is Peterhoff Park and Palace located just a one-hour drive from the city on the shores of the Baltic Sea. What was once the summer palace of the tsars actually consists of several palaces on the grounds that can be visited, jaw dropping fountains and is an overall amazing place to wander around in.
Catherine's Palace was another summer residence for Russian tsars - a royal countryside resort named after Peter the great's wife.
As for which churches and cathedrals you may want to visit, they include Spilled Blood Church – which is richly decorated with mosaics inside and out, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral – which is one of the largest churches in the world has an observation spot in it’s done that offers great views, Saint Nicholas Cathedral and Kazan Cathedral just to name a few!
Canal Rides on the Neva River are – according to Elena - one of the greatest experiences in the city and her absolute favorite thing to do there thanks to the great opportunity it gives you to view this amazing city from the water!
Russia's best – and oldest - ballet school - Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet and its number one theater - Mariinsky Theatre - are located in St. Petersburg - and just as seeing the ballet is on almost everyone’s list who visits Moscow it is also on the lists of those who visit St. Petersburg. You can catch ballet performances year-round in one of ten different theaters and the infamous Swan Lake is performed daily during the summer for everybody to attend. And for my ballerinas out there - we can arrange for you to do a ballet master class – which wow – what a unique experience! And if by chance ballet is not your thing – there are fabulous Russian folk shows - folk and dance and Cossack shows – which are filled with culture and wonderful to see live.
And for some hands-on experiences in the city, you can tour the House of Faberge facility – which is one of the largest jewelry factories in the world – where they will introduce you to the entire process of how they are produced, casted, decorated and certified. And you can also make your own Faberge pendant. If you prefer dolls over jewelry you can take part in a Matryoshka Doll class. This is a great activity for the end of a long day of touring as you meet in a café where you can sit down with a pastry and a cup of coffee, where an artist will join you and tell you all about the history of doll making. Afterwards you get to decorate the dolls with the design of your choosing – be it a traditional Russian design or even as a Minion!
Now, one of the things that your Travel Guru likes about St. Petersburg is that it's also a very quick way to get to some of the Scandinavian countries - so should you wish to do a combination trip we can make that happen quite easily. For instance – you can start in St. Petersburg and then hop over into Finland. And Elena took it one step further by letting us in on this great tidbit - for those who don't want to go through the trouble of getting a Russian visa there is a way around it! If you go to Finland first and then travel from Finland to Russia, you can do so for three days or 72 hours! So, granted it will be a quick trip, but you will get to experience some of St. Petersburg! You simply hop a ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, get a hotel, tour for three days and then take the ferry to return to Finland and all with no visa needed!
From here you can travel to Vitoslavlitsy which is a wooden architecture museum as well also a small village about a ten-minute drive outside of Novgorod. It features small wooden houses - preserved and moved from all over Russia – set up in one place and assembled into a small town. Here you will be exposed to the different types of architecture from different periods and as you walk into the houses you will get an idea of how they lived in different eras – from livestock to arts and crafts.
Now Karelia is not a town - it is an entire district. Elena shared that this is one of her favorite destinations to head to when it’s time to recharge and be one with nature. She absolutely fell in love with it and shares the beauty of it with everybody that visits her. Between the pine tree forests, the clean air that you breathe and the amazing sunsets - it's really an awesome opportunity to connect with nature and feel the rejuvenation of your mind, body and spirit. Here are some cool activities – pun intended - to take part in while you are there.
Other Ways to Experience Russia: Should you decide that you want to see Russia via boat or train there are some fabulous options to do both!
Now of course there are different types of train accommodations ranging in price all the way up to $16,000. And that super expensive train is the luxury train my friends. That means when you board the train it is similar to boarding a cruise ship. You unpack once and then as the train stops during the day, you hop off and spend the day in that city sightseeing. Later you return back to your train for some dinner and shut eye – and as you sleep - the train travels on to the next stop.
Yes – there is a cheaper train which is for you adventurous backpacker types as it’s the regularly scheduled train which means you get to travel with locals and get to know more about them. This unique experience provides you with the chance to travel in 3rd class and according to Elena a lot of her clients choose to do this as they are super curious about life in Russia and want to hear it straight from regular Russian citizens. Now these trains do travel nonstop so if you want to stop and explore a destination you have to leave the train and then get another ticket on the following train to catch up – making it a true backpack-like experience perfect for my adventurers!
Below are some more destinations that you would have the opportunity to explore should you choose to travel via the Trans-Siberian railway.
Health and Wellness: I found this part of my conversation with Elena remarkably interesting – enlightening if you will! Did you know Russia has become a great destination for medical and wellness tourism? Yup - since 2016 the number of international patients has almost doubled! Dubbed health care resorts you can choose from a one day stay to a week – or more!
And their offerings are plentiful and include detox and destress programs, weight loss programs, plastic surgery, genetics, general therapy, cosmetology and aesthetics. Heck you can even get massages here! So, my thought is if you want to actually add a number of days onto your vacation - whether you're having some type of surgery or what have you – we can coordinate the wellness part of your journey with the sightseeing part. There are some people who go to Russia to have an entire medical checkup then like to spend a week there resting, recharging and recovering. And Elena tells us – from firsthand knowledge mind you – that the food you will be served here is restaurant quality and that you really don’t feel like you are at a hospital - more like you're at a spa but are receiving full medical assistance and attention.
Oh, and the cost? Well as she put it – imagine getting several procedures, every for a week in the US? Yeah – we all know that cost would be astronomical to say the least. However - here it’s less than $3000 thousand US dollars - for all that plus full board and all done at a lovely center! I may not leave – just saying!
Gastronomy: Oh gosh the opportunities for gastronomy experiences are abundant in Russia! You can participate in professional cooking classes, you can take part in family dining experiences, you can visit private farms and taste authentic farm to table meals, you can sample art cuisine at gastro bars and gastropubs, you can take food tours, you can visit food markets and you can go bar hopping and experience the nightlife! Whew – told you the opportunities are abundant! And you know I 100% feel that the best way to experience cultural immersion is through food! Elena also let us in on the fact that she herself offers those family experiences and loves being able to personally meet some of her clients and participating in an intercultural exchange over a great meal.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Russia.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Russia click here.
So yeah – we have obviously covered quite a lot about Russia in just a short time. And since this was just a high-level overview, I would love to hear from you guys which ones you would like to be covered more in depth or what other ones that were not covered would you like to learn about. This way I can invite Elena back to share even more with us! Hopefully, this took the “mystery” out of Russia for you as it certainly did for me! It is an amazing country full of adventure, history, wellness, gastronomy and more. And talk about a living classroom! What a fabulous place to take your children to get an up close and personal history lesson that they are never going to forget!
For more details on things to see and do in Russia, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Let’s reel our travels back into the good old USA and chat about one amazing destination that houses several distinct regions filled with history, outdoor activities, gambling and so much more – the Reno / Lake Tahoe area.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Jamie Lokan the Tourism Sales Manager from Reno Tahoe in one of my Travel Tuesday video segments. Jamie brought with her a love and passion for this area that was infectious – so infectious that I by the end I was seriously contemplating hopping in the car and doing a road trip there myself!
If you are not familiar with the area – or even if you are – I think you are going to enjoy this virtual visit out west as much as I did. Let’s get started – shall we?
Getting There: The beautiful thing about Reno is that it's super easy to get to thanks to all of the airlines that service the area with direct flights – including for my peeps in both Texas and New York City! You can also make it a road trip from anywhere in the US and I would love to help you plan things to see and do along the way. Or we can always make it a multi-destination vacation and include California – as San Francisco and Napa Valley are only about a three and a half to four-hour drive and its only five hours to Yosemite National Park. Bonus -
Jamie said the drive to Yosemite is probably one of the most beautiful drives you can experience as it's on a scenic highway that takes you right up through Nevada. You may also consider adding Salt Lake City as a stop as it is just seven and a half hours away on the wide-open Highway 80. And if you aren’t into road tripping – how about the train? The Zephyr Line goes from Chicago all the way out to San Francisco with stops in Salt Lake City and Reno. So, in reality the options are plentiful as you can make it a fly, drive, rail or just a fly and drive or simply all rail! You decide.
Accommodations: With over 15,000 rooms just in Reno - that's not including Tahoe – there are plenty of properties to choose from - everything from the well-known brands in both arears to four diamond and four-star casino hotels in Reno. Most hotels feature multiple restaurants at multiple price points with the major resorts also having spas, pools, health clubs and shopping - as well as complimentary round-trip airport shuttles and free self and valet parking.
Destinations: There are a couple of different regions that make up the Reno / Tahoe destination – each with its own distinct flavor.
And if you prefer to stay on dry land - about a mile and half from the river you will find a really nice bike path that goes for about ten miles – which of course not everyone is going to do. But you can easily peddle up to the Hub Coffee Roasters shop for a cup of java and while you are there check out one of Jamie’s favorites – Dorinda’s Chocolate – which by the way is all homemade and features homemade ice cream sandwiches too. Yum! I’m in!
There are some great museums to be found in Reno too - including the Automobile Museum which boasts over 215 cars – none older than 1970. For my bowlers – Reno is home to the National Bowling Stadium and you probably already know this if you are a fan of the sport – but they also host a couple of really large tournaments every year.
Do I have any rock climbers out there? Well even if you aren’t you can still try out the rock-climbing wall outside of Whitney Peak which is a non-gaming, nonsmoking hotel. The wall is 150 feet high above the street and features panoramic views of Reno and in the surrounding area. So cool!
One must see here is the Bucket of Blood Saloon which is very famous in the region and was so named thanks to all the fighting between the miners – every night when they cleaned up – or mopped up – it would be bloody water. Yuck!
There are quite a few different tours you can take here – including several train tours – there are 600 miles of train routes - that range from 25 minutes to an hour and a half. Jamie shared that one of her favorite things to do is the tour via a tram car pulled by a tractor. At just six dollars it takes you around town and gives you the history of all of the different buildings. It runs about 20 minutes and is very interesting as well as educational. There are also mine tours you can take and plenty of museums to see including The Way it Was Museum – which is also one of Jamie’s favorites. Here you can see what the mines were like above and below and how they crossed each other in different levels.
Hot air balloon rides are another great thing to do here. Most of them go out of Tahoe verses down in the valley. They also offer them in Carson City – from the airport - which happens to be the state capital and about 30 minutes from Reno. Carson City has some great museums too – including the Nevada State Railroad Museum and the Nevada State Museum.
The Truckee River also has some rapids so for my adventures there is the Truckee River Whitewater Park. And for my golfers you will find over 40 golf courses in the 90-minute drive around the area. And come winter there is even more to do! It’s home to the largest concentration of ski resorts in North America – including Heavenly Resort and Squaw Valley Ski Resort and there’s cross country skiing at Royal Gorge. Fun Fact: Something that's fun to do - which not a lot of places can brag about - but that California and Nevada can - in the springtime you can ski and golf. And Jamie said she has done it – skied in the morning then golfed in the afternoon.
And of course – at the lake itself – there are many different types of water activities to partake in. There are many different paddle boat cruises to choose from – both during the day and in the evening - with dinner cruises as well – it just depends on how long you want to go for. The MS Dixie on the Nevada side has some that travel through Emerald Bay which is one of the most iconic photo areas in the Tahoe. Parasailing is also available – as is taking a guided fishing trip. Another fun thing in Lake Tahoe is viewing all of the Old Woody’s – or old wooden boats – even though you can't rent them as they're privately owned - but they are beautiful to see. But you can rent a powerboat for the day and when you get hungry – or thirsty – just pull up to a restaurant – they all have docks - and order it to go or dine outside! And the clarity of the water is absolutely amazing – it really is Caribbean like – though not quite as warm since it is snow fed! At it’s deepest it is about 1600 feet deep.
A visit to the Thunderbird Lodge is also amazing as they do really interesting tours that tell you how Lake Tahoe was settled. You can do this via foot, or you can do a kayak tour that will take you there to visit as well. They also do guided hiking and guided biking tours and there is plenty of mountain biking and road cycling as well as snowmobiling in the winter.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the state of Nevada has strong systems in place to help protect Nevadans and visitors but continue to urge all those who have tested positive and not yet recovered or who are exhibiting symptoms to avoid travel to the state at this time.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements Reno / Tahoe click here.
So, wow – this is one destination that my active vacationers and my nature lovers need to get on their bucket list asap! And one of the best things about Lake Tahoe that Jamie mentioned – near the end of our chat - is how well it's been preserved thanks to an abundance of rules and regulations. For instance – when it comes to building at the lake - to keep it clean you aren't allowed to build in April because the spring runoff is happening, and they don't want all of that dirt to go into the lake. Now – let’s get you booked to see this crystal-clear water for yourself!
For more details on things to see and do in Reno / Tahoe, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
You may have heard of it, but can you pronounce it? Juliana Leveroni, Director of Communications at Experience Kissimmee Florida said they always say that it doesn’t matter how you pronounce it – just come and experience their destination! And for the record - here in the US we tend to pronounce it Kiss-em-ee but our friends in the UK and some other European countries pronounce it Kiss-a-me.
I had the pleasure of having Juliana join me to talk about this domestic destination that often gets overshadowed by its neighbor Orlando and it’s oh so popular theme parks – but that has many wonderful things to see and do that you probably didn’t know about. I know I sure didn’t – but now that I do I know that it certainly makes for a great add on to when you are in the area!
So, set down the ears and wand for a moment and take a peek into what this other Central Orlando area has to offer.
So, You Said It’s Neighbor Is Orlando? Correct – and a lot of people don't know that it's only 25 minutes from Orlando International Airport and just ten minutes from the Walt Disney World Resort. And while the theme parks are usually the main reason people come to Central Florida, the area has so much more to offer in addition to them – especially now that people are looking for more outdoor adventures, stay-cations and vacation homes. Vacation homes – by the way – are the main attraction here and as per Juliana and Kissimmee is referred to as “The Vacation Home Capital of the World!”
And this makes it the perfect place to take a work-cation as well as to take that remote learning on the road – because when the work and school day are over there are plenty of opportunities for evening activities. Especially for those of you that may live in a smaller apartment or in a crowded city – what a great way to get a change of scenery – and lots of elbow room. With over 50,000 vacation homes from two bedrooms apartments to a 15-bedroom mansion with a lazy river, arcade and game room – you can do a multi-generation or combined family work-cation and at the end of the day you have your private pool in your backyard to hang out around or plenty of outdoor activities to partake in and spend quality family time together! And for the kids it’s a great travel as a living classroom experience – as you will see below.
Tell Me About That Travel As A Living Classroom Concept. Central Florida has its own ecotourism due to its own culture of swamps and the fact that it is home to the headwaters of the Everglades. Thanks to that there are thousands of species of birds – they are a one of the top destinations in the US for bird watching - plus all kinds of wildlife including gators and turtles. So, the kids – and the adults can learn about the Everglades and the wildlife that surround it. A living science class – which translates into the best way to learn!
There is a cultural side as well, to bring in the history and social studies lessons. The Osceola Welcome Center is also a museum that includes the Osceola County Historical Society Museum's local history exhibits. Per Juliana it’s a wonderful place with a lot of resources for you to learn about how Kissimmee and the Osceola County area became this amazing cultural mix thanks to the different people that settled here and the industries that took over the destination. In addition - right behind the welcome center there’s what is called Pioneer Village that you can visit. Here you will see houses that are from the beginning of the 1800s that show you how people used to live. The village also includes a general store, a school and a church and is a great way to experience a typical village in Kissimmee in the beginning of the 1800s - before it became this huge touristic place.
What’s There To Eat? Glad you asked! Head to downtown Kissimmee and you’ll find over 30 locally owned restaurants. In fact - it has the distinction of having the most privately owned restaurants on one street in the United States! Thanks to Central Florida’s great mix of nationalities, you’re going to find everything from ice cream shops to Hispanic flavors to bakeries to Jamaican fare. What a fabulous opportunity for cultural immersion through food! Plus, since you’re supporting local businesses it’s sustainable travel as well.
On Broadway you can enjoy a piece of pizza or burgers and wings at Three Sisters Speakeasy. Off 192 before you arrive in Margaritaville you have Sunset Walk - where you can shop and dine. Food options include Cuban at Estefan Kitchen from Gloria Estefan and her family, iconic burgers at Ford’s Garage and candy shops and ice cream parlors to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Another option is Disney Springs which is just 15 minutes from downtown Kissimmee. With restaurants from award winning chefs like Japanese cuisine from Chef Masaharu Morimoto at Morimoto Asia and comfort food such as fried chicken and southern mac and cheese at Chef Art Smith's Homecomin' Kitchen.
Finally, you have downtown Celebration which a lot of people don't know about. Celebration is a town that was originally developed by Walt Disney company and is now owned by an independent builder. It looks like a movie set city and was inspired by the real housewife type of suburban houses. It reminds you of a postcard and is quite beautiful. The oldest restaurant in Central Florida is located here – Columbia Restaurant – along with amazing flavors from different regions of Cuban and Hispanic food.
So Where Can I Find Off The Beaten Path Things To See And Do? So obviously the destination lends itself to be off the beaten path because you’re already removed from the theme parks and International Drive in Orlando. But to take it a step further not a lot of people know that when you’re in the middle of 192 (192 is the main avenue that goes from west to east in Kissimmee) in the midst of souvenir shops and hotels and then you make a quick left right across from the Welcome Center and you will come across The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek. At The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek you can rent a kayak or paddle boards or if you prefer to stay on dry land you can simply walk the trail along Shingle Creek.
Another fun thing to do right outside of Kissimmee is Wild Florida. This is a place where you can go and do a safari in your own car – which is perfect for social distancing! No lines or crowds here – you drive through the safari from the comfort and safety of your own vehicle. You also have the option to rent an air boat here which is an amazing experience. It’s so much fun and it goes quite fast, but you also learn about nature thanks to an amazing guide who’ll explain about wildlife conservation and the geography of the region as well.
Any Wellness Ops Here? So, Juliana shared - and I love this, “In Kissimmee you can find the perfect balance between being overwhelmed and underwhelmed – you’re just whelmed.” In other words, there’s a balance to be had here – you can choose the thrill and the chill of your own activities.
For example, you can start the morning in a beautiful and breathtaking sunrise hot air balloon adventure at 5:00am. In the quiet calm of the morning as you lift off, you’ll see the sun rising as well as the entire destination from above from the theme parks to the swamps in the Everglades.
Or you can keep your feet on the ground and head to the Cat Cafe for a coffee. Here you can hang out, read a book or just listen to classical music amongst the kitties. (It’s also an adoption center!) Or if wine is more your speed – there’s a winery called Formosa Gardens where you can go and taste the local wine from local fruits.
However – if you are up for adventure and an adrenaline rush you can always zip line on tree tracks or you can go to Gatorland and zip line over the gators! And of course, there are plenty of waterparks as well as those infamous theme parks.
You decide the pace of your activities - it’s your vacation and it’s full of options.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing there are no travel restrictions or COVID-19 test requirements for individuals visiting Florida.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements Kissimmee click here.
So, you guys – bet you didn’t know that just 15 minutes from Disney a whole other world of fun and excitement awaits! Now that you do know – let’s get the conversation started and get you down to sunny Central Florida this year!
For more details on things to see and do in Kissimmee, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
So, you want to do a Caribbean vacation, but you don’t want to deal with getting a passport, adding an international plan to your cell phone, exchanging currency or the lines and hassles of customs and immigration. Do you forgo that Caribbean experience? Heck no! You travel to Puerto Rico!
Puerto Rico is the best of both worlds for Americans – it’s US Territory (and has been for the past 120 years) that also happens to be a Caribbean island! So, all of those deal breakers I listed above are not applicable to this destination!
I recently invited Francisco Blanch the Director of Leisure Sales of Discover Puerto Rico back to share more about Puerto Rico with us (you may remember we talked to him at the height of COVID-19 as well) and he was all too happy to share his passion for it once again!
So – pack your bags and your dancing shoes (you’ll see why later) - but leave your passport at home because you don’t need it here! You’re coming with me to a place that will mirror an experience of an international destination – but is actually a US territory and close to home. Let’s get started!
Getting There: Puerto Rico has what Francisco calls a privileged location in the Caribbean - meaning thanks to where it lies it is an average three and a half to four-hour flight depending on where you are coming from. And bonus - New York and most of the east coast have access to direct flights but don’t worry my Texas friends – it’s just one easy connection for us! There is also plenty of lift to get you there with a wide choice of airlines available for you to choose from. Once you arrive at the San Juan International Airport, you’ll find a modern facility that isn’t too big making it easy to navigate!
Transportation and Getting Around: Puerto Rico measures 100 miles long and just 35 miles wide so everything is within reach in a matter of just a two to three hour driving distance. And drive it you can – and should! First – all you need is your US driver’s license to rent a car then all the rest is the same as driving in your hometown – as it is a US Territory. Same signs, rules, road rage (ha – kidding!) – but you get the idea. Second – they have invested a lot of money into the entire island since Hurricane Maria hit three years ago causing extensive damage - and therefore the island is in top shape and – per Francisco - has one of the most amazing and modern network of roads you will ever drive on. His words? “The roads are impeccable”! (Now that sounds even better than driving on some of the roads in the continental US!)
What’s New: Speaking of Hurricane Maria – here are some stats Francisco shared with us regarding recovery efforts which he credits to being a US territory. They actually already had a great infrastructure of roads so that helped hasten their recovery. The other infrastructure improvements were thanks to over 20 billion in government funds that were spent on response and recovery efforts. IN addition:
Language, Climate and More: First – Puerto Rico is the most advanced and up to date island in the Caribbean according to Francisco. As for language - both English and Spanish are widely spoken across the island. And the climate? It is tropical but thanks to the El Yunque Rainforest in the east and the Central Mountains region - Puerto Rico is a unique climate - temperatures stay at a range between 70- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit making it always feel like spring or summer.
Francisco told us he refers to Puerto Rico as a Continental Island – so - is it an island or is it continental? It’s both. Of course, it’s an Island but its offerings are very continental. It is not just all not just nature and recreation. it’s great for families too with plenty of museums including interactive ones for kids.
Breaking It Down Into Categories: This is certainly one of those “there’s something for everyone” destinations – and then some - just see below!
Destinations: Just like the categories I broke it down into, so too can we break down each destination.
Also close by is the infamous Bacardi Rum Distillery which you can reach via a ferry that leaves from old San Juan and travels across Old San Juan Bay to the distillery. Here you can tour the factory and sample some of their wares. There are other distilleries to tour across Puerto Rico as well and another fun fact - 70% of all of the rum consumed in the US is produced in Puerto Rico. I’ll drink to that!
Culture: For a small island Puerto Rico has a wide array of culture to offer its visitors. And you all know what that means – say it with me – travel as a living classroom!
From music to festivals to celebrations - 400 years of Spanish culture that lived there and developed traditions that are continued in present day. For instance - every town has their own patron saint and they each also have a festival honoring that saint. Did I mention there are a lot of festivals? And then there is the dancing – from the salsa to the bomba to the plena – which is African rooted – all of these dances along with the music and sounds make it an incredibly fun experience. Now do you see why I said to pack your dancing shoes? Whatever you do - don’t forget your dancing shoes!
Then there is it’s Pre-Columbian Culture. Being that Puerto Rico was so fertile and rich in resources the Taíno people – an indigenous tribe - chose to settle here. The Taíno Indians were actually still there when Columbus arrived. Not only can you find artifacts and engravings from them – but you can also find a lot of things that pre-date them – thus there are plenty of archeological sites and museums that are worth visiting to learn more about pre-Taíno and the Taíno native Puerto Ricans.
Gastronomy: There are more than 4000 restaurants in Puerto Rico so it’s safe to say you won’t go hungry! In fact - you’ll find all kinds of delicacies - and they want you to. That’s why you won’t find All-Inclusive properties here – they want you to get out and explore what they have to offer.
In fact - Culinary Adventures are plentiful here! There are even special roads – such as the
Pork Highway – where you will find one after another pork specialty restaurant lined up and people sampling each of them along the way! And just tasting all of the flavorful, marvelous foods is an adventure in itself – from churros to surullitos to empanadillas to arepas to alcapurrias and pionones there is a huge variety, and it is all so very delicious! Oh, and I can’t forget the pasteles which are made with a dough that is created from plantains then wrapped in banana leaves and filled with all kinds of meats and spices – yummy! And one more – mofongo. Mofongo is a staple in Puerto Rico and has become a major delicacy as now they’ll mix it with seafood or chicken or pork – your choice – making it right at your table and seasoning it however you want! If you haven’t had mofongo you are missing you!
The fertility of the island has paved the way for the farm to table concept to take root in Puerto Rico. So much so that as per Francisco - eating organic is a way of life – it’s there, it’s what they expect and they know nothing else. Some of the history of the food available includes the Taíno people bringing the Yuca Root which is a staple for many dishes to this day. In addition, when the Spaniards arrived they brought crops they gathered from other areas the visited including plantains, bananas and banana leaves - all of which play a strong part in the combinations of what existed before mixed with what the Spaniards brought.
Puerto Rico also boasts of its many celebrity chefs. As Francisco explained many of their chefs left the island and travelled to Europe and the US where they worked in fantastic restaurants – many of them Michelin-starred restaurants. When they returned to Puerto Rico, they would open up their own restaurants – taking the original food that is there and giving it their own signature taste – resulting in an abundance of new varieties and recreations of original dishes.
Accommodations: Puerto Rico offers all of the hotel brands you are accustomed to, but they also have Paradores. Paradores are small bed and breakfasts or small inns – think mom and pop type hotels. I always recommend that you stay at one of these properties in order to have a complete cultural immersion and experience the amazing local culture. Francisco also gave us the background on Paradores. The concept was brought to Puerto Rico by a tourism company about fifty years ago and the rule is they must be family run and those families must be Puerto Rican families as the idea was to develop the island AND allow the locals to deliver their hospitality to visitors.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing travel the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Puerto Rico.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements Puerto Rico click here.
In case you thought it might be – I have to point out now that Puerto Rico is NOT just a pre or post cruise destination. It is so, so much more and if I am being honest, I recommend one and a half to two weeks to drive around this amazing island and see all of its nooks and crannies.
For more details on things to see and do, where to stay in Puerto Rico, it’s price and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
I know when a lot of you think of Panama the first – and quite possibly only thing that comes to mind – is that engineering marvel the Panama Canal. But I am here to tell you today that although that is definitely a highlight in the country – it is actually one of numerous highlights!
In keeping with my travel off the beaten path theme due to the awareness that this is going to be a preferred way for a lot of you to travel – I have invited Aiden Mullen from NAMU Travel Group to share all of the secrets of this somewhat lesser-known vacation destination. Aiden is my eyes and ears on the ground for me in Panama and although he hails from Ireland, he has been in Central America for nearly a decade.
Below you will come to realize that Panama – which is the southernmost country in Central America - certainly has much more to offer and explore than just it’s famous canal – although of course you want to experience that too! So, sit back - maybe throw on Van Halen’s popular Panama tune from the 1980’s - and read on to learn more about this country truly blessed by nature.
Getting There: Good news – you can easily get to Panama City - which is where you will fly into - from the New York area as well as from the Atlanta area and even from Texas where there are direct flights out of Dallas or Houston. And for my local Austin peeps it would be a quick and simple connection through Houston, Dallas or Mexico City.
Destinations: The only major city in Panama to visit is Panama City however there are plenty of other destinations around the country for you to check out.
Casco Viejo is the old town of Panama City. It is a quaint little colonial city featuring incredible boutique properties and an up-and-coming food scene thanks to their amazing chefs who have been all over the globe and then returned back home to open up restaurants to showcase the cooking skills they gained.
And of course – the Panama Canal - which runs right through the middle of the city and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean - is an amazing piece of engineering as well as being beyond historical - especially on this side of the world. If you haven’t done a European river cruise and have never gone through locks - this is certainly an opportunity for you to experience what it is like to sail through a set of locks. The lock mechanism is pretty similar to what you would experience on a European River Cruise - but it is just a whole different experience. And Aiden was quick to note that the canal is not just about the experience - but also about what it has given to the city. Because of the Americans coming down to take over the building of the canal at one point – you will find quite a bit of American influence in the city as we left a lot of our culture behind. So much so that they use US dollars in Panama – so no need to exchange currency here! And not only American influence can be felt here – they are actually a multicultural city because of the French influence that was here before the American’s arrived.
While in Panama City there is also the opportunity for some beach time as the Pacific Ocean is only about twenty to thirty minutes outside of the city. Although Aiden did note that Panama is definitely more well known for its Caribbean side beaches.
Another popular spot is the San Blas Islands which are also in the north but little bit more east. This is an archipelago composed of hundreds of islands and a lot of people will rent their own catamaran or sailboat - complete with their own captain - and sail around these beautiful islands. Ummm…count me in!
Sightseeing and Activities:
Gastronomy: Aiden joked that Panama in general certainly has a little bit of an identity crisis when it comes to their cuisine as there are a variety of dishes to be found from a lot of different locales. Of course, they have traditional Central American foods such as patacones, tostones and pico de gallo.
And as I mentioned above – they are also home to some incredible international food especially in Casco Viejo (Panama City’s old town) thanks to the young men who have gone all over the world, studied with Michelin-starred chefs and the like, then returned back and opened fabulous boutique style restaurants in small little townhouses.
There is also the Panama City Fish Market where you can pick out your favorite fish right there and the chefs upstairs will cook it up for you just how you like it! And I also asked about fishing charters – and Aiden confirmed that if you go out on a charter and catch some fish just bring it back to the chefs and they will prepare it for you. In fact, he said the chefs can’t wait to see what you come bac with!
And we cannot forget the coffee! Aiden informed us that it’s always a competition when it if comes to my favorite beverage - because Columbia says that they have the best coffee - and Guatemala says no we have the best coffee - and now Panama says you’re both wrong - we have the best coffee! Panama’s most famous coffee is referred to as black gold – and it comes from the the geisha plant in the Boquete region in the highlands. And it is a fact that it actually fetches the most dollar per kilo anywhere on planet and is usually sold in Japan. Now that’s a claim to fame! The reason for the high price? The lack of beans - as each plant only grows a few beans. And per Aiden it is delicious but it’s definitely for a different pallet as it differs from the coffee we in the US might be used to.
Accommodations: Panama is home to world class lodges like Isla Palenque Resort in Boca Chica. This beautiful lodge has the distinction of being one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World and is located in the Gulf of Chiriqui off the coast of the Pacific. Boca Chica is easily accessible as it has an airport nearby that is only a one hour from flight from Panama City and then it is only a 20- or 30-minute boat ride to the island where the resort sits. Here you will find just eight beachfront casitas and one estate villa with six standalone rooms. The beachfront villa estate is tucked away and is sold as a whole for groups of two to 14 people. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? How great would it be to hold a multi-generational family reunion here!
Another fabulous property is the El Otro Lado Private Retreat in the Portobello area - which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located about an hour and a half by car from Panama City and then a quick 20- or 30-minute boat ride, after which you are in the middle of the rainforest in a boutique luxury lodge! Now that’s social distancing!
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Panama.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Panama click here.
And there you have it my friends – your nickel tour of the beautiful country of Panama. One thing I think we can all take away from this is that Panama is great for the mind, body and spirit and is made for social distancing! And, since Panama is very small like the other countries in Central America that makes it very accessible for an eight, nine or ten-day trip to see it all. Also, thanks to its location it would be easy to combine with other countries that are close – such as Costa Rica – to make it a multi destination trip. As Aiden said even if you choose to just do Panama City it is still a very fulfilling trip in a short amount of time.
For more details on things to see and do in Panama, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Norway may not have been on your radar as a must visit destination before you started reading this overview – but I bet it will be by the time you are done!
I recently had the pleasure of having my favorite colleague from Norway join me for a video chat and that colleague would be Mats Fredriksen from Lost in Norway – which is a destination management company / tour operator based in Norway. Mats presented us with a fabulous look at what Norway has to offer as far as culture, gastronomy, adventure and so much more.
But don’t take my word for it – read on to see just why this small country made such a huge impact on me! On your marks, get set, go!
Company Background: Mats first made it clear that Lost in Norway doesn’t focus on the entire country – but rather six destinations where you can explore mostly everything that’s considered a highlight – or something you would want to experience - in the country. But that doesn’t mean they won’t create itineraries for you elsewhere – it’s just that their main focus is on the six we are going to explore below.
Country Background: As Max referred to it – it’s a magic little kingdom that is a hidden gem in Northern Europe. And he pointed out that a lot of Americans love Norway due to the fact that a lot of Norwegians left to become Americans in the past and thus there is are deep connections between the two countries. Fun Fact: He had twenty-five families looking to reunite with their Norwegian roots just last summer alone! The country itself is very small – just five million residents – but it is an exceptionally long country – with the second longest coastline in the world – only beaten by Canada. As for its topography – the roads in Norway were built by Germany during World War II and hence they didn’t have time to blast through the mountains and fjords - so you’ll find many of them zig zagging through the mountains making for some interesting drives!
Destinations: As I previously stated, Lost in Norway focuses on six major destinations within the country where they offer their experiences. Let’s check them out!
Oslo: Mats advised that the best way to travel to Norway is to fly into Oslo – as it is a major hub and easily accessible to the rest of the country by train, bus or flight. It has the distinction of being the only major city in the country and has a population of about 700,000 residing within the city and 1.5 million residing in the Oslo region.
Bergin: There are three ways to get to Bergin from Oslo. You can travel by car – which is about a six to eight hour ride depending on how many stops you make, you can fly – which is about a forty minute flight or you can take the train – which Mats assured us it the best way to go!
Stavanger: Stavanger is known as The Oil City due to the fact that a lot of the oil workers live here. To get to Stavanger you can take the train from Oslo (in fact the only train to here is out of Oslo), you can drive, you can take a flight or you can take a boat ride from Bergen. Stavanger is home to many different soft adventures.
The town also contains a historical section called Old Town. Here you will find numerous wooden buildings from the turn of the 18th century with most of them being small, white cottages. The area also has many galleries and arts and crafts shops.
You can spot The Swords of Stavanger on the coastline – which is a monument composed of three gigantic bronze swords that are in homage to a Viking battle of the past.
Pulpit Rock is extremely popular tourist attraction. Preikestolen (which means pulpit rock) is actually very steep cliff with a very flat top. One nice thing about Pulpit Rock is that you can take guided tours to the top that will take you off the beaten path, so it’s not so crowded on the way up. And here is a great time to point out that Norway is very conscious of over tourism and implemented tours like these to get a handle on it. Fun Fact: Pulpit Rock was featured in a scene from the last Mission Impossible movie.
The Fjords: I’m quite sure you heard of the term fjord before – maybe you aren’t sure exactly what a fjord it? No worries! According to dictionary.com a fjord is “a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, as in Norway, typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley.” You’re welcome! In Norway there are numerous fjords – all breathtakingly beautiful – each with their own history.
The most popular ones are Sognefjord Fjord and Hardanger Fjord, and both are close to Bergen which is why Bergen is referred to as the Gateway to Fjords. Mats told us he is actually from a small village in Sognefjord and that those magnificent views meant nothing to him growing up. That all changed once he started working in travel and began to appreciate them in different way. He also is in awe of the history of it all – the fact that glaciers formed these fjords as they were retracting, and the result was this gorgeous landscape.
Via Ferrata is a steel cable that runs along the mountainside that enables you to climb it as they did in the old days. However – if you are not up for that kind of adventure there is a cable car that goes to top. Your reward is a restaurant that is 1000 meters above sea level (0.62 miles) with incredible views The views are an amazing part of the wellness that resides in Norway as they are a spiritual experience that really bring you back to being one with nature.
History: Also, in Sognefjord you can visit Urnes Stave Church a 600-year-old wooden structure. Side Note: According to Wikipedia a stave church is “A medieval wooden Christian church building once common in north-western Europe.”
Alesund: Alesund is known as The Adventure Capital – soft adventures that is! It is also a great place to recharge your batteries and make a spiritual connection to nature – offering a host of meditational views - which used to be inaccessible - but thanks to cable cars it is easier for those who don’t hike to reach them and thus to take advantage of them.
Tromso: So because Norway is so long it actually has two high seasons – one in the northern part of the country and one in the southern part of the country. Turns out that Tromso is good for both seasons! Why? Well in the winter from September to March it is a great opportunity to spot the northern lights – with the end of January to March being the best time thanks to not much rain or snow. And in the summer? The chance to experience the midnight sun – which means no darkness as the sun does not set - which runs from mid-May through to mid-July.
Sightseeing and Activities: This is also the most professional destination in Norway according to Mats as everything is interconnected. There are lots of activities that are created around northern lights viewing such as snowshoe hiking under the northern lights, eating dinner at a reindeer camp and catching a glimpse of the norther lights, evening dog sledding with the northern lights or – my favorite - renting a small cabin about two hours south that features a glass roof so you can lay in bed and watch the northern lights!
You can go whale watching in Tromso too! It is seasonal and the highest chance of seeing them is from November 1st through to the end of January.
And all my dog lovers out there - you must visit Tromso’s wilderness center to see and pet 300 adorable huskies!
Accommodations: The hotels tend to be smaller hotels in small villages and can be likened to a 3- or 4-star property – however Norway does not use star ratings. Mats was quick to point out – proudly – that the level of service is always 5-star in any of the accommodations he uses.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing travel the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Norway.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements click here.
Thoughts? I know you just added it to your list! Wink, wink. Besides the awe-inspiring views the mountains and fjords offer Norway is very accessible. It’s super easy to get around the country via train or ferry making it a country that you can see in just one trip there. And remember – Mats is my on the ground contact and together we can curate the perfect itinerary for your Norwegian adventure!
For more details on things to see and do in Norway, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
The following overview is actually a combination of two separate video chats that I conducted to highlight one of my very favorite places on this earth – actually two of my very favorite places on this earth – Greece and Cyprus.
One of those chats was with Maria Athanasopoulou, founder of Respond OnDemand and Chrissa Krassa, founder of Top Tourism – whom I met through the World Food Travel Organization. This one touches on the more classical, traditional, historical and cultural side of Greece as well as Cyprus. The other was with my colleague Mina Agnos, Founder and President of Travelive which touches more on the modern – or as I like to say the more Instagramable - side of Greece.
This really is more of a high-level introduction to Greece as we cover a number of different islands - but certainly not all of the islands or we'd be here for hours! Think of it as all of the pieces I tend to see people looking for when they're considering Greece as their next destination to explore.
Here I have taken both conversations and pulled out the most pertinent information and categorized it - so that you can get the best possible overview of both sides of this magnificent slice of heaven on earth. And so, to Greece – and Cyprus – we go!
Why Greece? For the history, for the culture, for the classical side, for the spiritual side, for the wellness, for the gastronomy, for the beaches, for the beautiful views. There are just so many different ways to experience this amazing destination! Plus, Greece has such an amazing way of living that we all want to emanate, as it is great for the mind, body, spirit and soul.
When Should I Visit? Greece is a 365-day destination which means you can visit Greece year-round. They are most famous for their islands which are mostly seasonal but there are other things throughout the year that you can experience - including skiing. It truly is a destination that you can visit any time of the year.
How Do I Get There? Typically, a Greek adventure will start by flying into the Athens airport which is about a nine-hour flight from the east coast. I have done it from New York - and Delta as well as some other airlines - offer direct flights. As always, I do recommend premium economy seats at the very lowest because on a longer flight such as this you are going to want that extra space. And if you can splurge then by all means go for that business class seat so that you can lay down!
I Hear There Are New Travel Trends. Mina advised that since the pandemic came along, they have seen a shift - which she feels is most likely happening across the board. The trend is towards ways of travel that are more sustainable, safer and offer the opportunity to social distance. And she assures us that Greece has put a lot of protocols in place around the country to ensure all of this. People are not only focusing on different off the radar islands but also alternate, more private ways to travel. For instance, private yacht charters are super popular for those looking to see the islands without being on a cruise ship with thousands of other travelers. People are also booking private transfers - so instead of traveling via commercial flights and ferries that are scheduled - Mina said they're seeing more along the lines of the private helicopters, private speedboats and private transfers to get people to and from destinations so that they're not having to take the scheduled transportation.
As for accommodations they are also seeing more private villa stays as well as staycation's where people work from home in villas or all-suite hotels. And finally, there is a shift to more authentic experiences – such as private cooking classes. And really all of this is a great way to travel with your crew or your bubble – so that you are all together - but separate from the masses.
And there’s definitely been a shift in terms of how much traffic there is as they don't have the same crowds that they did – for instance cruises have not returned - and it makes these destinations available to be experienced in ways which they have not been able to in decades. So, it’s a huge opportunity for people who really want to come in and see Greece and get more of that authentic feel and miss some of the over tourism that we've seen in the past few years.
OK – Tell Me All About The Destinations I Should Try To Include In My Itinerary!
Cyclades: The Cyclades – located southeast of the mainland in the Aegean Sea - are no doubt the most popular of the island groups with Mykonos and Santorini the top of the requests that Mina sees coming from the US. Mina also explained that they find no matter where people want to go in Greece when they hear from them Santorini is always on that list. In addition, there are a lot of repeat travelers now coming back to Greece. It used to be that it was just a once in a lifetime trip to Athens, Mykonos or Santorini but that's not the case anymore and its really great to see there's so much interest in coming back and experiencing a lot of these other less popular spots around the country.
Athens: The capital and largest city of Greece - it was once a powerful civilization and empire that was at the heart of ancient Greece.
Thessaloniki: Also Known as Salonika it is a port city on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea.
Dodecanese Island Chain: This is a group of over 150 Greek islands in the southeastern Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean - off the coast of Turkey that belong to the wider Southern Sporades island group.
Crete: Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus and Corsica.
Chalkidiki: A wide peninsula in Northern Greece, it features great beaches and is part of the Region of Central Macedonia.
Chios Island: This is the fifth largest of the Greek islands and is situated in the northern Aegean Sea.
Ionian Islands: This island group can be found on the west side of Greece between the Greek mainland and Italy. Due to their location they're not easily connected with some of the Cyclades destinations, so you don't necessarily want to do something with Mykonos and Santorini and then go to the Ionian Islands - because you're going to have to connect in Athens and you’ll spend a lot of time traveling. That being said they are definitely gaining popularity with Americans and is a wonderful place to sail. It tends to be very flat but it's very lush and you have a lot of greenery making it a stunning landscape. With so many of the Greek islands being very dry here you have the green mixed in with the blues so it's something for Greeks that’s quite different. As for accommodations you've got everything from the very simple to the very high end here. Porto Zante Villas and Spa is an ideal place if you are looking for something very upscale and want your own villa with your own pool AND your own private piece of the beach. It’s somewhere you can go and have that exclusive experience with your family.
Epirus: A historical region in southeastern Europe, now shared between Greece and Albania and laying between the Pindus Mountains and the Ionian Sea.
Peloponnese: Peloponnese is Maria’s homeland, so naturally she was quite excited to speak about it. It is a peninsula located in southern Greece. And per Mani Peloponnese truly has everything - you've got the history, the culture and wellness galore. There are just many different villages and ways to experience around here but you'll also have that that ancient Greece feeling making it a totally enriching and experiences. So, you have all of the different variations of ancient Greek culture of in one spot plus you're really close to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Ancient Olympia’s not far away and ancient Mycenae is usually visited on the way plus you're in the area of Sparta so there's so many things that you can do.
Saronic Islands: The Saronic Islands aren’t far from Athens making them ideal day trips. They're quite easy to connect to thanks to the ferries - with it being about 30 minutes to an hour to get to Aegina and an hour and a half to Hydra. Then you have Spetses that is very close by as well. In reality these are ideal for those with less time who want something that's a little bit different. They are not as well-known but they're very accessible from Athens making it easy to visit either as day trips or as shorter stays for weekends or even island hopping via boat. I love to do island hopping and something for you guys to consider is to charter your own yacht. And I know that sounds really expensive, but it can actually be worked in within your budget thanks to our travel financial planning. Think about it – just you and your travel companions and a crew to yourselves - not a whole cruise full of people. Mina also mentioned chartering a catamaran as another, cost effective option as well.
Life As A Living Classroom Must Be Amazing Here! Greece is a living classroom and for those of you who are doing home schooling this is a great trip to take the kids on. Athens is written all over our textbooks - everything in Greece and civilization as we know it - and a lot of things that we do today are based off things that born in Greece. So why not take your kids and immerse them in all of this because it’s guaranteed the essays that they write will be with them forever. There is no better way to learn than by firsthand experience. You will be giving your kids something that will differentiate them for the rest of their life. In Greece you will really be able to make a lot of those lessons come alive and it's wonderful to see it happen to your children!
Tell Me About That Greek Gastronomy. You guys know that I always add that cultural immersion through gastronomy element to your trip. I honestly believe that breaking bread with someone, sharing a meal or learning how to cook with somebody that's local is the best way to be in touch and find your way in their culture. One thing I love about Greece is the fact that there are no GMO's in their food. And what a difference that makes! It is so fresh and so much better than the food that we get here in the states and the flavors are amazing – not to mention natural and authentic. Pretty much nothing that you're going to find anywhere else in the world - it's mouthwatering. And it consists of everything from their world-famous feta cheese - to a lot of products from ancient years including their unique bread, honey, olive oil and seafood – and boy do they know how to cook seafood!
The Island of Cyprus
Cyprus is one of my most favorite countries that I had the marvelous opportunity to explore just a few years ago. And to tell you the honest truth when I was there, I felt like I belonged there and that someday I am going to live there – I just don’t know it yet! Maria said that Greeks think the same about Cyprus as they do Greece – as they share the same language, the same history and the same religion - so for Greeks they are one nation - and every time she is in Cyprus, she feels like she is home.
Lefkosia (Nicosia City)
With its distinction as the only divided capital in the world, Lefkosia and the surrounding area combines the heartbeat of the islands commercial and business center with an interesting past. It also has rural areas where escape is possible in beautiful green environments.
The capital itself is steeped in history and culture with a charming old city surrounded by massive Venetian walls and the island's largest concentration of museums, art galleries and religious and historical monuments that all tell stories of the island through the ages.
I loved Paphos! For me was an area where I felt like the world was at a standstill. I was able to enjoy some beach time and to enjoy really great food - it was super relaxing. Comprised of both old and new towns, rural villages and picturesque resorts - the region is home to some of the most stunning areas of natural beauty on the island as well as many archaeological sites that are historically invaluable, with the neighborhood of Katos Paphos declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lemesos is the Greek word for beautiful city and here you will find the legends of kings and kingdoms and the origins of the island’s wine making industry characterize the region. Known as the Region of Wine, celebrations and ancient realms, Lemesos is comprised of its main city - which sits between two important archaeological sites - the ancient city-kingdom of Amathus to the east and the ancient city-kingdom of Kourion to the west - along with rural areas and charming mountainous villages, where old traditions and crafts are still practiced. I was here as well and it was absolutely awesome. I remember going into the different villages with our guide and we were wine tasting and doing the olive oil tasting and it was just amazing. We even saw some areas that that were still being excavated.
Another beautiful region – this one is mountainous. With pine-scented air that feels more invigorating the higher you climb, the Troodos mountain range is the island’s green heart, that is immersed in endless forests, valleys and orchards. Comprised of many different, traditional villages, every twist and turn of the mountain roads leads to something different. The chain of winemaking communities has practiced their art for centuries, while others are famous for their intricate handmade folk-art - from lace and silverwork to pottery and basket weaving. There are agricultural villages known for their different fruits and waterfalls and springs that offer a cooling drink to both humans and wildlife.
Sparkling, crystal waters and powdery, golden sands are one of the defining features of this region as well as scenic landscapes featuring quaint windmills and its mineral-rich earth growing some of the island’s tastiest, fresh produce. Comprised of the main holiday resorts of Agia Napa and Paralimni-Protaras, the once-tiny villages have seen their popularity and boundaries expand into bustling resorts that continue to attract visitors in droves.
When I was in Cyprus this was pretty much my home base. It is an ancient district where east meets west and hundreds of years of contrasting civilizations, architecture and culture have left their mark on an authentic and diverse region. Both Christianity and Islam have important religious sites in Larnaka. Popular sights are the Medieval Castle, the palm tree-lined promenade of Finikoudes, and Larnaka Salt Lake, which fills with vibrant pink flamingos during the winter months.
Beaches in Cyprus: There are many more than just the two we talked about below – but we wanted to include an overview of some of the more popular ones.
Located 30km west of Lemesos - Pissouri Bay is the tourist resort of the village of Pissouri. The coast has seen its popularity soar thanks to its stunning, natural beauty and the resort facilities now found in the area. The beach has fine, golden sands, multicolored small pebbles, and its clean waters are relatively calm.
The beach of Vathia Gonia is a beautiful coastal stretch that is located east of the more crowded Nissi Bay. As a sandy beach with a natural rocky bay, it is covered in fine, golden sands and its crystal-clear water is relatively calm as there is a complete lack of headwinds at the beach. This is the birthplace of Aphrodite which is called Petra tou Romiou - translated to “a Greek stone.” Aphrodite’s mythical birthplace is an interesting geological formation of huge rocks along one of the most beautiful coastlines on the island, located on the southwest coast of Paphos. According to the legend, the Ancient Greek Goddess of Love and Beauty - Aphrodite - was born of the sea foam here. Legend tells that she rose from the waves and was escorted on a shell to this particular beach.
And How Is the Gastronomy in Cyprus? The ritual of sharing good, fresh local cuisine is an important part of the island’s culture and is intrinsically linked with every social event, from family gatherings and special occasions to religious festivals with each being marked with its own distinct delicacies and recipes. From hearty meat dishes and specialty cheeses to unique desserts of carob and grape, the Cypriot cuisine is an exotic blend of Greek and Middle Eastern cultures, sprinkled with remnants of ancient civilizations. And it is no secret that the Mediterranean diet is considered to be of the healthiest, thanks an abundance of heart-healthy olive oil, lean meat, local herbs and freshly grown fruits and vegetables. Add to this the favorable climate that gives the produce its intense flavor - and a celebration around every corner - you will find a big gastronomic adventure awaits on this tiny island! And as per Maria don’t forget to get some Halloumi while you are there – it is a famous Cyprian white cheese that you don’t want to miss!
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Greece and Cyprus.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 in Greece click here and in Cyprus click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements Greece click here and in Cyprus click here.
Oh gosh – there you have it - Greece and Cyprus – literally in a nutshell! There is so much more we can talk about but since time is limited, I think this give you a darn good idea what they are all about! Now, let’s get you to this amazing destination to experience it firsthand!
For more details on things to see and do in Greece and Cyprus, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Ahhh Mexico! One of my favorite destinations in the entire world! And so close and easily accessible from the United States. I even have an apartment in Cancun because it is only a two-hour flight from where I am in Texas!
Now, most of you are probably familiar with Cancun, Cabo, Cozumel, Puerta Vallarta and a few other of the more popular beach destinations – which are all fabulous. However – there is a lot more to discover in this diverse country than just those gorgeous beaches including a lot of cultural and historical richness.
That being said – I asked Kitzia Morales Torres from the International Association of Destination Wedding Professionals (IADWP) to talk to us about all those other somewhat unknown and / or off the beaten path areas as not just destination wedding possibilities but also as vacation destinations for anyone interested in seeing more of Mexico. Kitzia is 100% Mexican and her love and pride of her country is truly infectious!
Below is an overview of the areas Kitzia and I spoke about during our chat. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the options Mexico offers if you have always thought of it as only a beach destination. Read on and you will see what I mean!
Why Visit Mexico: As I noted in the opening paragraph – Mexico is a very convenient destination to get to with most of the major US cities offering plenty of direct flights.
The landscapes themselves vary from white sand beaches with turquoise blue water to jungles to mountains to deserts and valleys. Here you’ll find archeological sites, historical cities and magical towns. Mexico is a very colorful country – they just love their colors there! And it is reflected in the way they dress, eat, in their art and the way the decorate houses and churches – you’ll find color everywhere! But according to Kitzia - one of the country’s biggest assets is their people - who grow up with a strong sense of hospitality, close family ties and pleasing each other – and this all shows in the way they warmly welcome visitors to their beloved country.
Beach Destinations: There are fabulous beaches on both coasts of the country – each offering their own unique treasures and flavors.
Colonial Cities: More than just beaches – Mexico is home to beautiful cities and towns as well.
Hidden Gems: A fact that I found quite interesting is that on the Yucatan Peninsula there are no rivers above ground - only underground rivers as they all flow under the soil. And because of that cenotes exist – which are absolutely beautiful places to go swimming! There are over six thousand of them – each unique in its looks and formations and most are easy to get to - although some can be more of an adventure to access! Even one of the Costco’s there has its own cenote! Between Kitzia and I we will make certain to help you discover and enjoy them as they are a unique experience and since they are not very crowded, they are a great way to social distance!
Haciendas are another must see and can be found through the peninsula. Yucatan was very rich in the 18th and 19th centuries and there are still a lot of the haciendas built back then in existence and some are even transformed into five-star hotels with amazing spas and views. Outside of these haciendas and around the small towns they reside in you will find authentic craft shops. And one thing about these that I found out while visiting is that many are working haciendas – and are very similar to the dude ranch experiences we have in the US.
There are many Natural Reserves throughout Mexico that are wonderful places to visit. The Rio Lagartos and Celestun mangroves are both home of hundreds of different kinds of beautiful birds and of course those majestic pink flamingos! They are truly a paradise for bird watchers and nature lovers alike. Oh, and at night there is the watching of the crocodiles! There really is a lot to do and see in both town and once again they are easily accessible as Celestun is just one hour from Merida and Rio Lagartos is on the way from Cancun to Merida.
Gastronomy: Mexico has a truly diverse gastronomy filled with plenty of exquisite food and drink and their delicious cuisine varies by region, based on the ingredients grown in each area. Now – granted you may eat Mexican food in the US BUT the true authentic experience must be done in Mexico. While most of us think of Mexican food as simply spicy – in reality - the flavors aren’t just spicy as you will find they have a diverse gastronomy throughout the country. This is due to the fact that right now there is a lot of interest in rediscovering and giving attention to the local flavors they grow. And thanks to these home-grown ingredients it is quite easy to eat healthy yet flavorful food. Gastronomy in Mexico is influenced by Spaniards and as well as Native Americans. The main ingredient or element of most dishes is corn, however they have a lot of other vegetables and spices that came from Asia and Spain.
Mexico is also known for its beer and spirits. It is the home to tequila and now mezcal as well. Mezcal has become very fashionable and is similar to tequila as it is made of agave also - but it is stronger, and the flavor is smoky. Kitzia let us in on the fact that she is in love with this spirit and that it’s great to mix with pineapple or lemon. Tequila comes from the central region of Jalisco and there is actually a town named Tequila where you can find out everything you want to know about tequila and more! Mezcal comes from Oaxaca in the southern part of Mexico – which is a very rich region culturally. In fact, visiting one or both of these cities t would be a great off the beaten path kind of adventure that we could arrange – including a distillery tour and gastronomic experiences!
And don’t forget its vino! The primary wine region in Mexico is Ensenada in the Baja California area. Here you will find great fresh seafood as well as the delicious wine – but be aware that the wine in Mexico is produced in small quantities and pretty much stays there in that region.
Type of Traveler: Mexico has a lot of accessibility in both its airports and attractions making it possible to travel with family members of all ages. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are - or if you have a condition that needs special attention - as it is also very accessible to the handicapped as well. Of course – Mexico is not only for families – it’s great for girls’ trips, guys trips, solo travelers, couples and more!
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing visitors arriving at Mexican airports may be subject to health screenings including temperature checks. A negative COVID-19 test is NOT required, and US citizens are NOT required to quarantine.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Mexico click here.
As Kitzia noted in her presentation – between Mexico’s fascinating history, vibrant art scene and stunning architecture it’s so much more than just a beach destination as so many surmise. And you can keep going back – either to the Cancun area or other areas of the country and have new and different experiences each time – without breaking the bank as Mexico is a great value for your dollar!
For more details on things to see and do in Mexico, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
*NOTE: Starting April 1st all international visitors over age 15 to the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, which includes Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Cozumel and Tulum, will have to pay a new tourism tax of 224 pesos.
Back to the Caribbean we go! To the island that made one man and his reggae tunes famous worldwide, jerk a tasty word instead of a not so nice one and all-inclusive resorts the way to stay and play in the islands.
By now I am sure you have guessed that I am talking about Jamaica and I am thrilled that my colleague Tamara Christie, Business Development Manager in the Southeast for Visit Jamaica agreed to come chat with me about this beautiful pearl of the Caribbean. Completely surrounded by the Caribbean Sea making for a fabulous destination in terms of location – here every day is a beach day thanks to the abundance of beautiful beaches.
Ready for a glimpse into why they say it is the heartbeat of the world? Shore – pun intended – you are! Let’s talk about Jamaica Mon!
Getting There: Getting there is super easy from the US or Canada thanks to an abundance of nonstop flights - and even if you are behind the gateway - it's so easy to connect smoothly. And the airlift available comes from numerous airlines including American, Delta, United, JetBlue, Southwest and more. And – keep in mind that even if you are not near a gateway city that doesn’t mean I cannot get you a non-stop flight. I work with certain vendors who give me the opportunity to book direct flights via charters from many different departure cities.
VIP? Why Yes! Jamaica is home to two international airports – Montego Bay and Kingston and one of the things that I love about arriving in Jamaica the best is Club Mobay and Club Kingston. The idea behind these clubs is that when you arrive at the airport you are treated like a VIP. Imagine that moments after stepping off the plane you come across your escort holding a sign with your name on it for that personalized meet and greet service. From there, they fast track you through immigrations and customs – meaning once you are met with the sign, they take you straight through both without having to wait in what can sometime be incredibly long lines – especially if several planes arrive at the same time. Once you are done with arrivals, they have a premium bar on the inside of their private lounge that they will escort you to. And it makes no difference the nature of your travel - they cater to everyone whether you are there on business, getting married, traveling with family or a corporate group, are an unaccompanied minor or a senior citizen - they have a personalized service for you. Bonus – they do this for departures as well! And both myself and Tamara agree - once you experience it you wonder how is it that you used to fly without this service, and you’ll insist on booking it every time you travel. And trust me – I always offer this to my clients – in fact, I don’t recommend booking Jamaica without it because it saves you from spending so much time in the airport and will expedite your arrival to your final destination – the resort.
Destinations: The three most popular – or should I say well-known – destinations are Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril. But there are others that you definitely need to consider when we create your itinerary. Read on for an overview of each.
Did you know that you can ride seahorses? Not the seahorse that is a fish – but rather actual horses who absolutely love the water! Tamara shared that she has done this tour and said that you once they're getting close to the beach you feel that pep in their step because they know they're going to get to swim making it absolutely joyous for both you and the horses.
How about a leisurely float down the river on a bamboo raft? Per Tamara – do this and all of your troubles will melt away as you just lay there and relax and let someone else take you on a ride. You can even opt to do a nice spa experience while you are on the raft. Be prepared for a history lesson along the way too as you're going through areas that have much history behind it them and most of the rafter guides have been around for many years and can't wait to tell you all about the area that you’re rafting through. It really is quite a lovely experience.
For a totally unique wellness experience there is something called Stush in the Bush. Fun Fact: In Jamaica Stush means posh. This is one of those experiences where you truly feel like you are on an island far away from the real world. It is a holistic, health and wellness experience right down to the organic farm to table food. This is a must do for those of you who are into wellness as it’s something that's unique to the island and that you won’t find in any other place.
Where there are rainforests there is zip lining! Jamaica is so green and lush and zip lining gives you the chance to view it from up high as you glide over rivers and streams. Here too your guides can't wait to relate to you the history of the area and teach you about all of the flora and fauna that you see around you - making it both fun and educational.
Speaking of educational the Falmouth Heritage Walking Tour is a great history lesson in itself. Falmouth – 18 miles east of Montego Bay – is one of the oldest and best-preserved towns in Jamaica and was one of the first places in the Western Hemisphere to have electricity and running water - so it certainly dates back in time. It is filled with historical facts and building that have been there for many, many years as well. The tour is very professionally executed, and you really come away with a lot from it. Fun Fact: When Prince Harry visited Jamaica, he took this tour.
For my shoppers - you will find many craft markets in this area - most filled with handmade items made with the mahogany wood or redwood that can found on the island. One of the awesome things about this is that when you purchase these crafts, you're actually helping locals who are entrepreneurs and small business owners like me - using their art to sustain themselves. What a great opportunity to give back and make your trip one of sustainable travel. And the best part is that you are getting unique one-of-a-kind piece of art plus you're bringing back a piece of Jamaica with you.
Then there is the infamous Rick’s Cafe that is situated right on the water and is known for its front row seats to spectacular sunsets that are jaw dropping. As the sun starts to go down it’s simply amazing how everyone stops what they are doing and focuses on that orange glow over the blue water as the reggae band starts to play a serenade to the sun. And don’t forget the locals who put on cliff diving shows for their visiting guests and are often accompanied by some daredevil tourists too!
Another thing I really enjoyed here was the catamaran cruise which is the epitome of what a party boat should look like with dancing and eating and drinking and watching the sunset from the water – such a great experience! Just being on a catamaran sailing in the Caribbean Sea is the icing on the cake to a Jamaican beach vacation.
Negril has some great national parks where you can participate in safaris via boat that give you a great history of the area. What a lot of people are unaware of is that Negril has the wetlands as a backdrop, and this gives you the opportunity to see part of those wetlands that are very vital the maintenance of the beaches and the whole environment there.
And it’s also home to another type of park - Kool Runnings Adventure Park – a water park that sits right in the front of the beautiful scenery of the wetlands. With water slides, a lazy river and even paint ball - it’s fun for the whole family.
While the cliff side doesn’t have beaches never fear because there’s plenty of white sand elsewhere in Negril – seven miles to be exact hence the name Seven Mile Beach. And if you’re looking for something more private there’s the cove of Bloody Bay as well as several other coves scattered throughout. You’ll find plenty of activities near the water too. For instance, just as in Montego Bay you can take the horses for a swim in Negril as well because the horses here totally enjoy the water and love to swim too! There’s also an opportunity to Swim with the Dolphins in Lucea which is an area in between Montego Bay and Negril meaning you don't have to drive all the way out Ocho Rios to enjoy these marvelous mammals. And don’t miss out on Island Lux Beach Park which is a lovely beach area featuring restaurants and ice cream shops and more. It a private beach so there is an admission charge but it's well worth it!
Negril is great for nightlife too whether it’s visiting Margaritaville for dinner and drinks or strolling along the Caribbean Sea listening to the live reggae bands that perform nightly on the beaches.
You can find bamboo rafting in Ocho Rios too on the White River. Or you can grab a tube and float down the White River in that as well. Be sure to stop at the rope swing for a jump into the river and some good old fashion fun!
For adventure of the drier kind head to Mystic Mountain Park and try out the Sky Explorer which takes you up 700 feet above sea level for magnificent views of the Mystic Mountain tropical treetops and the nearby Dunn’s River Falls. Or you can hop on a Jamaica Bobsled on rails that plunges 3280 feet of twists and turns down the mountain overlooking the town of Ocho Rios and the blue hues of the Caribbean Sea. Or take a flight through the forest canopy via zip line for glimpses of the beautiful flora and fauna that's growing wild. The choice is yours!
One of the things that I love is that Jamaica has tons of festivals and Kingston you will find the Reggae Carnival as reggae was born here and Bob Marley recorded his music here. And speaking of Bob Marley, you can visit the Bob Marley Museum here in Kingston – which gives you a great history of his rise to fame. You can also opt to take the Trench Town Tour which is actually a birthplace of reggae tour that gives you the history of Jamaica’s music and the role Trench Town played in the start of reggae. On this tour you will also get a chance to see where Bob Marley lived when his reggae first took off and he became a success.
Jamaica has amazing coffee – which has a different taste than what you are probably use to, but it is quite smooth and is very popular so be sure and visit a coffee plantation while in Kingston for a tour, a cup of java and a real farm to table meal.
Another area of Kingston not to miss is Port Royal – which has a great history to it and was the inspiration for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies with Captain Henry Morgan. For those of you who are not familiar - Henry Morgan was a pirate and plunderer who called Port Royal his home during the time when it was filled with – well – pirates and plunderers.
Similar to Dunn’s River Falls - in South Coast the Y.S. Falls are the big attraction. They are a bit different in that these waterfalls are in a garden setting whereas Dunn’s River Falls is on the beach. Here you can take a guided tour of the entire area which includes lunch and plenty of background on the falls.
The Black River Safari which is the on the longest navigable rivers on the island – is an amazing adventure that gets you up close and personal to the friendly Jamaican crocodiles – but Tamara warned - don’t try feeding them – leave that to the guide! Fun Fact: It’s called the Black River because of the peat sediment at the bottom of it. It's really crystal-clear water but the peat ignites when it gets really hot and makes it look black.
A trip to South Coast would not be complete without visiting The Pelican Bar which is a quirky and very charming bar that sits out on a sand barge in the Caribbean Sea. You need to access it via boat and once there you will see it has a very rustic feel to it, so you definitely get that Jamaica and island experience here.
Accommodations: There are no shortage of accommodations throughout the island and you guys have plenty of fantastic choices of hotels and resorts - as well as opportunities to indulge in your own private villa, bed and breakfast or even a home. So really depending on where you want to be on the island, we have the opportunity to get you just about anything. For instance - in Port Antonio there are no all-inclusives - but it has my favorite - small, unique boutique accommodations. It's very private so for those of you who are looking for major social distancing and connecting with nature you're going to find a lot of that right here. And because this area also has smaller properties if you are looking to do a buyout for a retreat or a small destination wedding this is a great area to do so. And in Kingston as well, you aren’t going to find any all-inclusive resorts - but rather more of the brands like a Marriott or a Hilton and those types of hotels - as it is a big business and corporate traveler destination.
Gastronomy: You know it’s going to be good when you are on an island surrounded by the Caribbean Sea – right? Absolutely. You are going to get to eat the fresh catch of the day everyday thanks to the fishermen that go out and bring back that fresh fish – no frozen fish here!
And Tamara advises to be prepared to sample some food that you might not necessarily be used to – because it is all great food and they have got some great chefs. For instance, you must try their national dish - akee and salt fish - or even the akee and cod fish. She promises you won't be disappointed and instead you will be happily surprised.
In Negril and South Coast, you are going to find plenty of restaurants where you can get some authentic Jamaican meals so be sure to try out the Jamaican jerk and Jamaican beef patties. Per Tamara they jerk chicken, lobster, fish, sweet potatoes – pretty much everything. Fun Fact: Port Antonio is where jerk first became popular – and is home to the annual jerk festival. In Ocho Rios my foodies will have the chance to do farm to table spice tours as well as an opportunity to take Jamaican cooking classes in the Yaaman Adventure Park.
Culinary events abound here as well! Among the most popular are:
Destination Weddings: As you all know I am here and oh so happy to help plan any type of romance travel - whether it's a destination wedding or a vow renewal or a surprise engagement. And this island has amazing opportunities for all of these events thanks to the jaw-dropping views. Bonus - it's also extremely easy to get married here making for a simple process that means you can start enjoying married life quickly and happily with no stress - and its legal in the US!
Festivals: Jamaica is passionate about partying, enjoying life and being happy and I think that especially now we should take a little bit of their culture and remind ourselves that we need just loosen up and just enjoy or as Tamara said - just be irie! There are a lot of different festivals that happen in Jamaica throughout the year and here's a just a few of them:
Sporting Events: For my sports enthusiasts and especially my runners there are plenty of opportunities to catch major events or even to participate in a marathon or triathlon including:
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Jamaica.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Jamaica click here.
So, mon – what do you think? Jamaica certainly is a fun-loving destination and when you are there - trust me - you definitely feel the vibe! And as you can see there is much to explore in Jamaica – and I am more than happy to help you narrow down what is important to you to experience while you are there and help you curate a trip to remember. Let’s get that conversation started and get you to Jamaica this year mon!
For more details on things to see and do in Jamaica, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Top of the mornin’ to ya! Sorry – I just couldn’t resist! I adore an Irish brogue but if you listened to this native New Yorker try one out on my Travel Tuesday video chat with a representative from Ireland – you know that this is one accent I definitely need to work on!
Anywho – for this chat I welcomed my eyes and ears on the ground - straight from Ireland - Cairin O'Connor from Ireland Less Traveled and a National Tour Guide as well! Cairin grew up in Dublin and studied at 400-year-old Trinity College Dublin. She then travelled the country extensively for 15 years marketing those yummy Irish cheeses before eventually setting up her business – Ireland Less Traveled. After organizing tours for a number of years, two years ago she trained to become a licensed tour guide and also studied genealogy. And all of this makes Cairin a wonderful partner to help me curate your Ireland adventure.
Now, let’s take a peek at what that adventure could include, shall we?
Background and History: Cead Mile Failte means A Hundred Thousand Welcomes and Cairin promised you would be assured of that when you visit this friendly country! Ireland is actually an island off the Atlantic Ocean and a small one at that. It is not much more than 30 miles long, about 200 miles wide and that makes it 36,000 square miles – which for perspective is similar in size to the state of Indiana. Their population is 6.5 million people and 1.5 million of those reside in the northern part of the island. There are a total of 32 counties throughout Ireland with six of them also situated in the northern part of the island.
Cairin cautioned that many people think you can see Ireland in four or five days but since a lot of the great scenery and the “must see” places to visit are along the west coast this is not very likely. Why? Traveling the coast is primarily on one to two lane roads and highways so for that reason you will need more time than most think.
Ireland’s history dates back 10,000 years with Waterford claiming the title of its oldest city. It was founded in 910 AD when Vikings invaded and is home to that famous Waterford crystal we all bring out for special occasions.
One interesting fact that Cairin pointed out was that the population in Ireland was eight million at one time. But during the famine over one million residents left and went to seek work in the United States (and Canada). The result? There are now over 40 million Irish Americans and many who come back to see where their relatives came from. It is a great place to visit if you are into genealogy – and if you let Cairin and I know exactly where they came from in Ireland, we can get you there and it’s guaranteed you’ll feel a connection with the area. Thanks to the fact it’s a small country we can certainly fit this into any itinerary. She did note that the records aren’t that great before 1850 but still there is enough there and you’d be surprised how much you can find out!
As for some cities you may be familiar with – there’s Dublin – which is the capital of Ireland, Belfast – which is the second largest city in the country, Cork, Galway and Limerick. And Cairin was also sure to note that their Gaelic language – which is their own Irish language that everyone is taught in school - has shaped who they are including their history, culture, writers, music, food and drink. All of that - combined with being an island nation - makes them very proud of Ireland and its uniqueness.
Getting Around: Driving the world’s longest defined coastal touring route – the 1600-mile Wild Atlantic Way is the best way to see and visit some of Ireland’s most dramatic sites - from wild beaches and jagged cliffs to lively cities and colorful towns. The route traces Ireland’s rugged West Coast from Cork in the south to Donegal in the north. Along the way you will find there are numerous beautiful pitstops to make.
Start your adventure in the south and cross the foot bridge at Mizen Head in County Cork for views of Fastnet Rock and its spectacular lighthouse – which was the last site of Ireland for emigrants sailing to America.
Moving up the coast - Star Wars fans may recognize Skellig Michael which recently appeared as Luke Skywalker‘s hideaway. It’s also home to a unique colony of puffins!
You’ll then head to the Dingle Peninsula for traditional Irish music and “the craic” – otherwise known as good old-fashioned Irish fun! Loop Head is a perfect spot to get out for a stroll with a great hiking trail between its tip and the village of Kilkee. Continuing on you’ll come across the dramatic Cliffs of Moher rising 214 meters from the sea and take in this incredible view.
Next - for the feeling of being at the edge of the world and the traditional way of life catch a ferry or fly to the isolated Aran Islands.
Once back on the mainland make a stop in lively Galway for sea-fresh oysters and a warm Irish welcome! Make sure to stop in the pretty town of Westport in County Mayo on your way to the peak of Benbulben - which was immortalized in the poetry of W.B Yeats.
You will ultimately reach your journeys end at Malin Head - famous for its history and folklore. It is the country’s northern most point and one of the final landmarks on the Wild Atlantic Way.
As you can see - Ireland’s coastline is packed with breathtaking landscapes, cultural hotspots and of course classic Irish charm so it’s always worth taking the scenic route!
Destinations aka Counties: Ok now that we laid out some of the highlights to check out – lets take a look at the counties individually!
Aside from the plentiful food options Cork is also home to the two hundred plus year old Jameson Distillery which is located in the eastern part of the town and an extremely popular place to visit. Gee – I wonder why?
Cairin’s Favorite Places: Cairin didn’t want to leave our chat until she let us in on some of her favorite places to see and we are so incredibly grateful to her for doing so!
Accommodations: Ireland is home to a lot of boutique hotels which are owned by local hosts who are willing to be your guide and tell you their secrets. And they are genuinely interested in meeting and talking to you too.
Miscellaneous: So Cairin was also kind enough to give us some time frames to keep your travel to Ireland in perspective. If you want to see both the North and the South regions of Ireland as well as the entire Wild Atlantic Way and Dublin – you need at least ten days. If you are ok with only seeing some of the Wild Atlantic Way and want to see Dublin too – you can do that in about seven or eight days. Side Note: If you want to leave Dublin entirely out, you can substitute something else in its place – perhaps a boat trip to Skellig Michael or the Aaron Islands.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing travel the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Ireland.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 in Ireland click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Ireland click here.
And that me lasses and lassies completes our tour of Ireland. And remember – with Cairin as my contact together we can curate an itinerary based on what YOU want to see and make it an amazing trip that you will never forget. And Cairin reminded us that they have a fabulous tourism board in Ireland that is gearing up for 2021 travel so contact me to get your itinerary started today!
For more details on things to see and do in Ireland, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Brazil. Home to Rio de Janeiro and its flamboyant Carnival, the Amazon (the rainforest not the online giant) and the infamous Christ the Redeemer statue. Just those three sights alone would make it a memorable trip – but there’s definitely more to Brazil than just these highlights!
I recently had the pleasure of welcoming Fernanda Freitas from Personal Brasil Incoming Destination Management Company on one of my Wanderlust Wednesday video chats. We chatted about all the wonderfulness that is Brazil including its culture, gastronomy and natural resources.
Grab your dancing shoes or your hiking boots, put your seat in the upright position, fasten your seat belt and away we go!
Getting There: Getting to Brazil is not difficult by any means and there are actually three major airports you can fly into - Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or Iguassu Falls (Foz do Iguacu). And coming from the US there are plenty of direct flights to the fist two (Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro). Bonus – Americans do not need visas – just your passport will suffice!
Statistics: Brazil is a country found in South America and is actually the largest country in both South America and Latin America measuring at 3.2 million square miles. Its population is around 209.5 million people and its’s capital is Brasilia.
Accommodations: Brazil offers the opportunity to experience both all-inclusive hotels as well as those that only offer breakfast. For instance - in Rio De Janeiro – the hotels normally just include breakfast as there is so much to explore there and they realize you will most likely be gone the majority of the day and will eat out – exploring all the local flavors. However, should you find yourself at the hotel at lunch or dinner time most of them do have a restaurant on site that you can frequent. The cities outside of Rio de Janeiro that are located in the beach areas is where you are going to find those handy all-inclusives. Fernanda also told us about a luxury accommodation in the middle of the Amazon jungle - Anavilhanas Lodge - which offers fabulous views of the jungle and the river. In fact, she noted that there are several nice properties in the middle of the Amazon – offering pools, spas, yoga and more!
Sightseeing and Activities: You have culture – you have sun and beaches - 4,650 miles worth of coastline! There’s gastronomy – each region has its own special dish. And there’s wellness thanks to nature and spas.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing travel the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Brazil.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements Brazil click here.
And that concludes our Brazilian journey! I sure hope you found plenty of reasons to add it to your list of must-see destinations. If so - let’s start planning your 2021 adventure to Brazil now!
For more details on things to see and do in Brazil, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Iceland. Conjures up images of well - ice. And with ice you pretty much think freezing cold weather, blizzards, whipping winds…you get the idea. But what if I told you that is really not what Iceland is all about? And that in winter you can actually experience warmer temperatures in Iceland than in New York City?
It’s true! And there’s probably a lot of other interesting facts about Iceland that you didn’t know – but you will after reading this overview! I recently hosted Ryan Connolly of Hidden Iceland on my weekly video chat session - who shared some fabulous insight into Iceland’s misconceptions, treasures and more. Ryan is one of my favorite people – we actually met at a Family Travel Association event – and share the same passion for doing things off the beaten path.
Read on to discover just what you’re missing if you don’t include Iceland on your list of must-see destinations!
Company Background: So, Ryan is actually one of the founders and owners of Hidden Iceland – which is a small company that keeps their adventures and personalized and focused on customer experience. They create your itinerary based on what you want and then add in hidden spots - giving you more of the off the beaten path of Iceland experience – as that is what they specialize in after all! Think glacier hikes and volcanic rocks and traversing all around the island in summer and the northern lights and ices caves come wintertime. Their tours are typically either small – a maximum of twelve people in a spacious vehicles and Ryan feels – as I do – that we are going to see a lot more family and private trips as people venture back out.
And it is also very important to note that the guides that Ryan and his team work with are local experts - the best guides to have - as they are either glaciologists, volcanologists or geologists!
Destination (Climate and Landscape): So, I touched on the misconceptions surrounding Iceland in the intro – like that it’s always freezing cold and a destination that is only for the adventurous types. The reality is that Iceland is a tiny island in middle of Atlantic Ocean that enjoys unseasonably warm weather year-round! Yup – and this is all thanks to the gulf stream coming up from Gulf of Mexico that spins around the island all year long. The result – it is possible that in the middle of winter they may be averaging temperatures at 35 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit while the Northeastern US states are at a bone chilling ten degrees! But yes - snow and cold winter weather happens – but its not necessarily as cold as everyone seems to think it is.
Another reason it’s not so cold? Well Iceland is known as The Land of Fire and Ice thanks to an abundance of moving glaciers and 132 named volcanoes – some active. Due to this it can be quite mountainous and rocky and that actually stops bad weather from coming in sometimes. The reality of Iceland – as Ryan put it – is that’s it’s warm and cold at the same time!
Sightseeing and Activities: There is just so very much to see and do in Iceland – I actually suggest six or seven nights to get to experience it all and get a glimpse of those famous northern lights. And really – any time spent out of Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital and largest city) is pretty much off the beaten path!
Being so close to the Artic Circle your chances of seeing northern lights is exceptionally good. Ryan said that some of the most incredible he has seen were in the last few days of August and that you may even see them in mid-September. Typically, December through March are popular times to view them, but Ryan has also had sightings the first week of April. So – just when is the best time to see this stunning phenomenon? Per Ryan – it is NOT dependent on the time of the year. What you are looking for is darkness and good weather – as seeing them is also weather dependent. And they say that they hunt for the northern lights because that is pretty much what they are doing – as you have to get as far away from any unnatural light as they can to find clear skies and then you spend quite a bit of time searching those skies for them. Which by the way – is a great way to social distance!
Now these volcanoes on the island – that heat of theirs is deep underground is warm enough to heat water. And when it does it either creates hot springs all over the country – think the popular Blue Lagoon - or sometimes it get so hot that it boils the water and makes it explode - thus creating erupting geysers – like Strokkur (the biggest geyser in Iceland). Now these
hot springs are a fabulous wellness experience as immersing yourself in one is great to rejuvenate you and your circulatory system! In the age of social distancing this is another great option to do so – as Ryan and his team will take you to less popular and thus less crowded hot springs than the Blue Lagoon.
Want to know what’s really, really off the beaten path? Hiking a glacier! And yes – you will have the opportunity to do just that. And you don’t even have to pack any special equipment as Ryan and his team will provide you with the correct spikes needed for the bottom of your shoes. They will also provide harnesses if you are using ropes which generally aren’t used unless requested – as they try to make this adventure as easy as possible for first timers. As Ryan said - they don’t make it difficult or challenging as they assume you’ve never been on the ice before and just want you to experience these giant beasts before they disappear. Yes – these glaciers are moving and melting and that is what makes this experience so unique – because every time you step onto the ice it is a place no one has ever stepped on before! (Ryan’s take – he loves guiding these tours because its new to him each time too!) As for the movement – they move one to two feet every couple of days and are simultaneously melting down by a few inches every day. Of course, I asked if you can actually feel this movement for nervous nelly’s such as myself – but Ryan assured me that since glaciers cover 10 to 11% of the entire island there is a very small chance of feeling a shift (but it happens and when it does its cool!).
Another unique experience? Ice caves! So, you can walk on top of glaciers all year round but from November onwards the temperature gets cold enough that the shapes created by the glaciers freeze in time and stop moving until March – making it safe enough for you to go into the glacier. Yes - you can actually go underneath the ice and venture into these awe-inspiring ice caves! And, since the melting in summer will cause all of these ice caves to disappear – you will have new ones each winter – meaning once again you are stepping into something no one else ever has. So cool! Literally! And speaking of cool – I asked Ryan just how cold these ice caves get and guess what? The average temperature in an ice cave is 32 degrees. So, you won’t be colder inside the cave and if the weather is windy or otherwise bad outside it is actually warmer to be inside of it! And this is where they usually stop the tour to eat lunch or a snack due to just that fact.
Animals and Wildlife: Animals and wildlife can be difficult one to plan a tour around. In the winter, the only animals you are 100% guaranteed to see is the Icelandic horse. The rest of the animals that are reared in farms – sheep and cows - are indoors due to the snow.
To see the actual wildlife, you are going to have to do some hiking! To see reindeer for instance, you have to travel to the southeast for a day and a half to get to their breeding ground and it must be done in winter as once summer arrives it is too hot for them and they run into the mountains. To see Artic foxes, you would have to take a boat ride over to an island where they reside to catch a glimpse of them running around. And everyone’s favorites – the Atlantic Puffins – to see them in the wild you would most likely have to climb to the top of a cliff and look down to see them wondering about.
Now another way to see those adorable little Atlantic Puffins (Listen up Jamie from The Wandering Puffin – this is for you!) is to head to the Westman islands -a volcanic island that erupted in 1973 – but you can only go there in the summer. Here you will find the Sea Life Trust – which has two parts – the Puffin Rescue Center and the Beluga Whale Sanctuary. Now you may catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat if you walk along the cliff edges. But you will definitely see them in the rescue center! And you will actually see baby puffins (awwwww) or puffling’s as they are called - that got stuck on the island before they flew off into Atlantic to spend the rest of year and thus are brought here to be rehabilitated then released back into the wild.
And if you head to the Beluga Whale Sanctuary, they currently have two beluga whales that were brought there sick and will be released into the wild once they are better.
Puffins, whales and a walk around a volcanic island! Now this is what you call travel as a living classroom! What an amazing way for children to learn about wildlife preservation efforts in other countries!
Gastronomy: In Iceland they use the heat produced underground by the volcanoes to heat green houses. This allows them to grow things they wouldn’t be able to normally – such as tomatoes, bananas and peppers. And as of 2017 – they were able to grow coffee and cocoa beans – so we may see Icelandic coffee and chocolate in the future! Sign me up!
Being an island, naturally they have their fair share of seafood. The types of seafood you see most often in restaurants are lobster and mussels, as well as a hybrid fish called Artic char that is a mix between salmon and trout (which Ryan says is the best fish he’s ever had in his entire life!). As a rule, Iceland doesn’t believe in importing fish - or other foods - from outside – so you are always getting served local, fresh food whether it is sea to table or farm to table.
Accommodations: Most of my clients like boutique hotels and Ryan said that they do tend to pick hotels that are boutique. With a caveat or two. It may be a 4-star hotel that is also a horse farm or a 3-star guest house in the middle of nowhere and there are lambs running all around and you can see northern lights! They tend to pick the places they like to go to – which are unique properties with unique styles – involving wildlife, farm and rural settings.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing Iceland is open to passengers inside the Schengen Area but all arriving passengers must choose between a 14-day quarantine or a double testing procedure with a quarantine for 4-5 days. The double border-screening procedure requires all passengers arriving in Iceland to undergo two PCR-tests: one upon arrival and another 4-5 days later to minimize the risk of a false negative causing infection to spread in the community. During this period, all arriving passengers must stay in quarantine in case of a possible infection. Passengers are charged ISK 9.000 for a single test at pre-registration but ISK 11.000 if paid on arrival. The second test is free of charge. This process was designed to prioritize safety, but also to work for visitors and Icelanders, based on Chief Epidemiologist’s medical and scientific guidance.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Iceland click here.
Ready to pack your bags for the Land of Fire and Ice? If so – be rest assured that Ryan and his team are my eyes and ears on the ground and are able to vet a lot of the things that I haven’t seen or experienced – yet. As my local contacts I am in full coordination with them while we curate your trip and while you are there!
For more details on things to see and do in Iceland, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Today we are traveling to an amazing country where we will discover wellness opportunities, off the beaten path locations, gastronomy and more. And speaking of gastronomy, I guarantee you will not actually go hungry – although the name of this destination happens to be – Hungary!
I had the absolute pleasure of having one of my fabulous contacts and colleagues – Zsuzsanna Sarmon the Regional Head of Business Development, North America at WOW Hungary on my video chat series to chat with us about everything and anything we need to see and do when we visit her marvelous country. Zsuzsanna is my on the ground eyes and ears go to who assists me in curating the most incredible itineraries for my clients.
Let’s hit the ground running and whet our appetites for Hungary!
Transportation - Getting There and While There. There's so much accessibility into the country itself including plenty of non-stop flights from the East Coast and easy connections throughout the US. Once you're there you've got an amazing rail system to help you get around or if you prefer you can hire a driver – or heck – even drive yourself! One of the cool things about Hungary is that there's so many countries that connect to it – and it can boast of something quite rare in Europe – there are three capital cities within a three-hour driving radius - Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest – so in reality you can cover three different countries by car!
Budapest - the Spice of Europe! At one time Budapest was actually three separate cities – Bud, Pest and Old Buda. At the end of the 19th century, they came together as one and was then named the capital city of Hungary. Zsuzsanna shared that what she really loves about Budapest is that it's walkable despite the fact that it is really spread out. She went on to explain that if you just pick one part of the city to explore for a day then you can easily walk around. To give us an idea of what is in store for us here she broke it down into The Five Brand Pillars of Budapest and they are as such:
Let’s Go Off the Beaten Path! I asked Zsuzsanna to let us in on some spots that are not as well known to tourists – some secret but fascinating areas within Budapest and she did not disappoint. In fact, she let us in on three of them and added that even the locals may not be aware of their appeal.
North, South, East or West?
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Hungary.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Hungary click here.
What do you think? About ready to put it on your vacation list? It really is a colorful country that caters to all different types of vacationing - active, cultural, gastronomical, historical (nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites!), travel as a living classroom, wellness, wine tasting – gosh – I think it's time for me to go back!
For more details on things to see and do in Hungary, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Ever heard of the Guadeloupe Islands? If you haven’t – you are not alone as these fascinating islands are pretty much undiscovered and one of the best kept secrets of the Caribbean! And you know how I love my off the beaten path destinations – making this relatively unknown slice of heaven a perfect place to visit in the age of social distancing.
Michel Kozminski - the Trade Production Assistant for the Tourism Board of the Guadeloupe Islands – recently joined my video chat series and presented us with a marvelous overview of this archipelago of five islands in the French Caribbean – giving us a glimpse at the beauty that awaits for any traveler who chooses this destination for their vacation spot. And believe me – you will want to choose it after you read this!
Pull up a lounge chair, apply your sunscreen and sit back and relax while I tell you all about it!
Getting There: Guadeloupe is a French territory located in the southern Caribbean between Antigua and Dominica which means for my East Coast folks its quite easy to get to. There are a host of direct flights available including JetBlue - three times a week (Monday, Wednesday and Saturday) - from New York’s JFK which is a three and a half to four-hour flight time. And it’s an 8:00 AM flight making it easy to connect to if you are coming from Boston, Burlington or LAX. One note – this schedule is seasonal and only runs in the winter from November through to the end of April. There are also two weekly direct Air France flights from Miami on Tuesday and Saturday and American Airlines has one out of Miami as well a direct flight on Saturday – with both airlines running this schedule year-round. The flight times from MIA come in at a little over three hours. And another plus? As of this writing JetBlue’s tickets started at $159 one way – so very affordable flights!
Language and Currency and More: As I noted in the intro - the Guadeloupe Islands are actually an archipelago of five islands. There are two main islands – Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre - connected by a bridge and they just so happen to be shaped like a butterfly - which is why Guadeloupe is nicknamed the Butterfly Archipelago! Marie Galante, Les Saintes and La Desirade make up the remaining three islands. Oh - and of course they have an international airport where you will arrive – and it is located in middle of the two main islands.
Guadeloupe is on Eastern Standard Time and as I mentioned it is a French Territory so it is part of France and the European Union – so you will need your passport to travel here. The official language is French, but English is widely spoken as well. And Euro is the currency used on the island – with banks and ATM’s widely available throughout.
They have an E.U. Standards infrastructure which in a nutshell means that medical services and equipment are extensive throughout the archipelago, tap water is safe to drink everywhere and no vaccinations required. They also boast an excellent and well-maintained road network.
Transportation: Guadeloupe is considered a premiere island-hopping destination with an excellent inter-island connection system via ferry. The three islands surround Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre are located within a mere 20 to 45-minute boat ride and ferries run every day, several times a day. You can take an early morning ferry over to the island of your choice, spend the day and return on a late afternoon ferry. As for the two main islands – it is very easy to rent a car there and you can actually drive across them both in about two hours - so you can do a one day rental if you like.
The Islands of Guadeloupe: As Marco relayed – the islands are a slice of France in the Caribbean and the Guadalupe archipelago is like a box of chocolates where there is always something new to discover. And - as you will see - each island certainly has a different flavor. And since they are so close together it is quite easy to experience each and every one while you are visiting.
Sightseeing and Activities: As Michel exclaimed – this is the ultimate French Caribbean experience with countless activities for everyone - a cool mix of French art de vivre and Caribbean simplicity where you are guaranteed to have a good time!
The destination screams wellness and soft adventure. There are a lot of green activity thanks to the rainforest! And there are activities for the more adventurous too – such as zip lining, mountain biking, canyoning and a few adventure parks.
This archipelago is preserved - with an impressive 77% of its territories classified as natural reserves. And here you can find over 250 unspoiled beaches, over 50 waterfalls and 256 miles of way marked hiking trails. These breathtaking untouched beaches mean there are a lot of blue activities – as Michel said – it’s an aquatic dream!
They have a very strong cultural heritage with over 80 historical monuments across the five islands including the Memorial ACTe Museum – which is the largest memorial in the world dedicated to the slave trade.
You can also find the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve here – which is their rain forest and home to the Jacques Cousteau Underwater Reserve for diving (they do offer certification classes fyi) and snorkeling. Here you can also go sailing, surfing, kite surfing, deep-sea fishing and more all-in crystal-clear water.
Michel also let us in on a little secret by the rainforest in Basse-Terre in a little town called Gourbeyre. It is called Les Bassins Bleus and is a 30-minute hike through the lush tropical flora of the rainforest with picnic areas along the way. The reward? At the end you will come across a series of heaven like blue natural pools to cool off in. What a perfect adventure!
There is always something going on too – as they play host to great music festivals all year round. There’s the Saint George’s International Music Festival featuring classical music and opera and takes place in March. (Side Note: Saint George is considered the black Mozart and he hails from Guadeloupe.) In June you can find blues and reggae music at the Terre de blues Festival and if you like electronic music there is the All Day In Festival every July. The Karukera One Love Festival has plenty of Caribbean music and is held in August and come November there’s the Hot Jazz Festival for you jazz fans. And of course, the entire month of February you can celebrate Carnival!
Accommodations: Guadeloupe offers many different types of accommodations and features everything from 3 to 5-star to eco-properties.
In the News: So, Guadeloupe is becoming popular – better get there before everyone finds out about it! For instance…it was on the New York Times 52 Places To Go List in 2016, on the Best of the World list in National Geographic in 2017 and has been featured on several travel shows. More recently it became the filming location of the comedy crime show Death in Paradise a popular show you can watch on Netflix!
Safety: The Guadalupe islands are very safe. They are a French department and they benefit from the French regulations in terms of infrastructure’s health etc.
Types of Travelers: It’s for everyone – families, friends, couples, seniors, athletes, foodies, eco tourists, cultural tourists and Francophiles!
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Guadeloupe.
Note: Guadeloupe has enacted post COVID-19 sanitary measures that all hotels and excursion companies will enforce. These are strict rules and regulations of the French health agency which include employees wearing masks and gloves, reinforcing cleaning at each contact point, as well as applying social distancing. In addition to these sanitary measures hotels will add more flexibility with their cancellation policy in order to facilitate business.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for the Guadeloupe Islands click here.
So, what do you think? I told you that you’d want to go! It really is a hidden gem – so great for social distancing! For more details on things to see and do in the Guadeloupe Islands, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Welcome! Today we are heading across the Atlantic Ocean to visit Georgia and unearth all there is to see and do in this delightful destination. What? You don’t have to cross the ocean to get to Georgia? It’s on the east coast? Ohhhh. Wait a minute. You must be thinking of the wrong Georgia! I am not talking about the land of peaches, peanuts and pecans here in the US. I am talking about the transcontinental country of Georgia!
Situated at the crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe – this Georgia is a hidden gem just waiting to be explored. And luckily Lauma Trika, Management and Marketing Director from Georgia Travel RSP accepted my invitation to a recent Wanderlust Wednesday to show us just how shiny this gem is.
So – let’s get on our virtual plane and take off for the other Georgia!
Location and Language: So yes - this Georgia is a country in the Caucasus region that sits at the juncture of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It is bordered to the west by the Black Sea, to the north by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia and to the east by Azerbaijan. The capital of Georgia is Tbilisi with a population of around one and a half million people. Georgia has its own language and one of the things that distinguishes Georgia from others is that it is spoken only by the four million people who reside in the country. Plus - it has its unique alphabet as well!
Getting There: There are three main airports including one in Tbilisi - which is located in the middle of the country, one in Batumi – which is a seaside resort - and the other in Kutaisi. Getting there from the US is typically on Turkish Airlines. Bonus – no visa nor vaccines are needed – just you and your passport.
Currency: Georgia has its own currency - the Georgian Lari and as of this writing it was coming out to be around three lari would equal one US dollar. Lauma advised that although credit cards are accepted in the major cities you want to carry little bit of cash with you while traveling across the country most of the guest houses and restaurants in smaller towns won't accept credit cards.
When to Visit: There are 11 regions in Georgia and for such a small country the climate here is quite diverse and thus every season has its charm. Winters are snowy everywhere except in the capital of Tbilisi, spring is sunny and mild with a few rainy weeks in April, summers tend to be hot especially in Tbilisi and autumn is similar to spring but a bit colder. You should also be prepared because even in the summertime temperatures vary - for instance - in the mountains it tends to be colder and at the seaside it's more humid. Fun Fact: If you visit in November, you can tour the big plantations and can participate in the tangerine harvest. Bonus – you can take as much as you want and Lauma shared they have guests who come every year for those tangerines and always take at least a box home.
Destinations: Georgia is divided into several different destinations and together they make it a country that you can visit any season as in summer there is the beach, in fall there is the harvesting of the grapes and in the winter there are the ski and mountain resorts.
One thing Lauma said to be aware of is that the medical resorts must be purchased as packages starting at a minimum of seven days. The beautiful part for those of you who are interested in visiting these therapeutic options to deal with medical issues in a more natural way is that we can a combine your treatment along with exploring a new land. For my health coaches, fitness instructors and yogis – how cool would it be to take a group here where you can really use mother earth to heal and promote wellness?
Side Note: Lauma also mentioned that phage therapy is now being practiced in Georgia – which is an effective treatment solution for patients who have bacterial infections that do not respond to the antibiotics.
Types of Travelers: Oh gosh – all types – from families to companies to destination weddings – and more!
Gastronomy: The gastronomy is diverse so if you are a foodie who loves trying lots of different cuisines then Georgia won't disappoint! And - even though it tends to be heavy on the meat and pastry there's also a large variety of vegetarian dishes as well. And for those of you who do have dietary restrictions there are many opportunities to work with you and ensure you will be able to enjoy their amazing food. They offer gastronomic tours as well that typically include some food masterclasses so you can learn even more about the local delicacies. You will find some of the most popular dishes below:
Georgian National Dances and Music: We cannot talk about Georgia without talking about the Georgian folk dances. Each region has their own dances that weave both history and art. One of the most popular is the Acharuli dance – which is a bright cheerful dance that originates from the region of Adjara and features a playful flirtation between men and women.
Miscellaneous: Below are a few things Lauma wanted to make sure we are aware of prior to visiting this fascinating land.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Georgia.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Georgia click here.
I am so excited that we had an opportunity to have Lauma here to showcase Georgia because again it's not a destination that is on everyone’s radar and it really should be! So, all my nature and adventure lovers, let’s have this conversation for travel in 2021! What a great remote, off the beaten path experience when we need it most!
For more details on things to see and do in Georgia, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
If you are like most people, when you think of France you think of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe or the Notre Dame Cathedral (that as of this writing is currently being restored / rebuilt following a devastating fire in 2019). And all of those are certainly well-known, popular tourist attractions – in Paris. However, France is so much more than Paris. Don’t get me wrong – I adore Paris. There is nothing I love better than to sit in Café du Monde by the Arc de Triomphe and people watch while sipping on coffee.
But when you venture out of the cities in France, you find vast countrysides, beaches, vineyards, and history – a lot of history. I recently had the pleasure to speak with Fanny Cadudal of France Private Travels who just so happens to my main contact and my go to person when a client wants to experience a true cultural immersion in France. (Side note: A big positive is that outside of Paris you can do the whole social distancing thing very easily because there’s a lot of countryside!)
With Fanny we will touch on several different regions - there are twelve total – to highlight the vast differences between each and the different experiences you can have in them. As you read on you will get a good sense of the flavor of each destination where we – along with Fanny’s assistance - can arrange private tours. You will also get an overview of some of the most important parts of each area that are not to be missed. So, pour a cup of coffee – or a glass of wine - and fasten your seat belt for our virtual tour through some of France’s most beautiful locations.
Destinations: As stated above, France is traditionally divided into twelve different regions which all vary historically as well as gastronomically. Today we are looking at four of those regions which include Paris and Normandy, Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Dordogne Valley and Provence and French Rivera.
Another way to re-visit history in Paris is through their many cafes. Most of the cafes in Paris have a history to them and offer an opportunity for you to go in and speak with a writer who is there to present that history to you. Cafes were and still are a space where the French come and have great conversations on politics, gourmet food and life in general. They are places to have meetings, exchange experiences, laugh, eat and drink and thus the decor and ambiance are very important to the French and are lovely sites to behold.
One such story of hearing about history that Fanny told us while visiting the Normandy beach, was about a man she met who has a castle nearby. He relayed the emotional, true story of how the castle came to be his – and it goes back to the war. His father used to assist with the war efforts and at one point the castle was taken over by the Germans. However – when the American’s came to save the French, they took over that castle and housed their army there. Eventually it became his father’s castle once again and the story is a testimony about what happened between our countries back then. Fanny also stated that you can arrange to have lunch in the castle with this gentleman and hear more on the history of the war. What a great way to spend an afternoon in Normandy!
Normandy also has fantastic landscapes and great gastronomic experiences for you to discover as well. Think oyster farms - thanks to its location near the ocean - as well cheeses – lot of great, different tasting cheeses! One of the great cheeses of France is Camembert and in Normandy you can visit a farm, see how it is made and get to taste the different flavors of Camembert. According to Fanny they can taste different depending on how the farmer made it. And you can enjoy it hot or at room temperature – while sipping white wine or cider – what an amazing gastronomical story to tell!
Although Loire Valley has less farmers than Bordeaux or Burgundy - it’s very rich on the different kind of wines that they can produce there. And you will have the opportunity to visit the private vineyards as the owners open their land to you to taste and explain their wines.
In addition to visiting the countryside around Bordeaux and can also venture to Arcachon which is a nearby seaside resort – thus giving you an extension of your trip from the Bordeaux wine experience to a beach experience! And what a wonderful beach experience it is for the family as here you can walk up the Dune of Pilat – the largest sand dune in Europe - and take in fantastic views of the bay!
One of the things Dordogne Valley is famous for is truffles. Truffles can be found in wintertime – from October through January or February - and this is the best time to actually take a truffle tour. The tour can be taken in summer, but you will find the taste is not the same – as it is a stronger taste in the winter. Truffles are one of the best delicacies to test in the region and can be eaten in a plethora of ways! For instance – oils are made out of truffles and used to cook and marinate meats. Or you can eat truffles with strawberries or a chocolate dessert. There are so many ways to eat them that Fanny and I suggest you experiment with them all!
Provence also has a striking village - Roussillon - that is known for its red rock and cliffs. Here you can stroll through the village or you can hike or bike through the fascinating landscape on the Ochre Trail.
And we cannot forget the perfumeries! My friends I have taken an amazing workshop here where I had the chance to create my own perfume and would be super happy to set you up with this experience! Making your own fragrance is like a part of you that you are taking home from France. It is such a mind, body and spirit, experience and it is so very fulfilling to create something for yourself. And – many of the perfumery’s will keep your recipe and you can order it online once you are back home!
Transportation: It is quite easy to get around in France because everything is connected by train – high speed trains to be exact! The Train à Grande Vitesse or high speed train is known as the TGV and believe me – I have been riding it since I was little and it is much better than the rail service you find in the US!
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing travel the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to France.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for France click here.
So as you can see I didn’t break this overview down into separate categories such as hidden gems, history, wellness, sightseeing and gastronomy like I normally do because, quite frankly, the entire country is all this - and more - rolled into one!
On a personal note - I discovered my love for culinary art and hospitality in France and its actually what drove me to study in Switzerland and eventually to embark on a career in hospitality. A lot of my passions for travel and gastronomy started at a young age thanks to the travel opportunities I had, and I think it is so very important to instill these - and really any positive passion - in our children at a young age.
That being said - for more details on things to see and do in France, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
Have you ever thought about adding Finland to your bucket list? I must be honest – it wasn’t really on my radar. However – and this is a big however – in the summer of 2019 I was invited to visit, and I had an absolutely amazing experience! In fact – I fell completely in love with it and truth be told - I did not expect to fall in love with it as much as I did! But it happened!
I recently had the pleasure of revisiting those marvelous memories and images of the county while chatting with Heli Mendi who is the head of Visit Finland North America. Our talk focused on what to expect when you visit this beautiful country and below are some of the highlights. Speaking from experience – I must say it is everything Heli said and more – much more.
Fasten your seat belts because Finland here we come!
Background: So Heli immediately brought up a great point. Most Americans are aware of Scandinavian countries and they assume Finland is a part of them. But Finland is actually NOT part of the Scandinavian countries - which consist of Sweden, Norway and Denmark geographically - although they do share a lot culturally with the Scandinavian countries.
Truth be told they consider themselves a Nordic country. They have a totally different language, they no longer have royalty - unlike the other Scandinavia countries - and are a republic and a parliamentary democracy. (Note: Although Sweden, Norway and Denmark have royalty they are still a parliamentary democracy as well.)
Destinations: In land space Finland is the eighth largest country in Europe – however there are only 5.4 million people residing there and most of the population is located in southern part of the country in the Helsinki Region.
Finland is divided into four regions – Helsinki Region, Coast and Archipelago Area, Lakeland and Lapland.
Sightseeing and Activities: Finland is country of a lot of contrasts – i.e. – in the winter there is a lot of darkness due to a long period of short days and long nights. The winter in the north - it’s darkness - is a very different experience then most will ever see. Starting in September and continuing through April the nights get longer and darker and northern lights season starts.
With snow covered lands and the opportunity to see those northern lights – also known as the Aurora Borealis – it is a wonderous sight to behold.
For you animal lovers - you can get up close and personal with some of the reindeer population in Finland. Here you have the opportunity to visit an actual reindeer farm where you can walk with - and feed - the reindeer and learn all about this mysterious creature. And where there are reindeer – there must be…Santa! That’s right folks - Santa Claus lives in Finland! You can find him in his hometown at the Artic Circle in the town of Rovaniemi in the Lapland Region.
Finland is known in general for design and architecture – getting its influences from Russia in the east as well as western European countries and Sweden (Note: Finland was actually a part of Sweden for a while who then lost them to a war and Russia took over). They are home to a lot of new modern architecture as well and one of the masterpieces is the public library Oodi in Helsinki. Per Heli it was a “birthday present from us to us” as Finland turned 100 years old in 2017. Oodi was voted the Best Public Library in the world in 2019 by Time Magazine as well as one of the 100 Best Places to Visit in the World. Finish people love to read so if you can’t find them out in nature – they are probably reading!
Wellness: Nature is one of Finland’s biggest secrets and is very deep rooted in the lives of the Finish. Seventy percent of Finland is covered by forest and there are many green areas and parks throughout the country - even in Helsinki. From the time they are very small children Fins are dressed appropriately and taken - or sent - outdoors to play. Subsequently, they grow up spending a lot of time in nature playing year-round. As Heli said – “no bad weather here - just bad clothing!”
It’s very calming to be in a forest and to listen to sound of nature and Finland has shared those sounds, putting out an entire album on Spotify called Scapes that contains the sounds of Finnish Lapland. Did you know that just being in a forest for 15 minutes calms your pulse and your body starts to rest? Translation? Being in a green environment for that small amount of time is good for the blood pressure!
And finally – the air and water in Finland are both clean and serene. In fact, the water is so clean you can actually drink out of the rivers!
Saunas: Saunas are such a huge part of Finland that they get their own category! Finland is
well known for its saunas. In fact, sauna is a Finish word. Saunas were invented for practical reasons - as a warm place to wash - around 10,000 years ago and now are widely utilized for relaxation purposes.
There are an estimated three million saunas in the country. So, in addition to every single house having a sauna - there is also one in every summer house at the lake or on the coast (everyone in Finland has a summer home in addition to their home). As Heli said – it is a part of their Finish DNA – she even has one in her apartment in Helsinki!
One popular type of sauna is called a Smokey Sauna. They are actually modeled after ancient saunas which were originally constructed as earth pits where people could build a fire for heat when they washed. Eventually they realized that they could build a cottage or hut in this space and heat the room to wash in. The very first ones had no chimneys, so they built very small windows to release the smoke when they were ready to wash up – hence the name Smokey Sauna. You can still find this type of sauna in the countryside today.
Public saunas are quite popular as well in the cities in Finland – where life is very different. They are quite modern and often have bars and restaurants and even outdoor pools attached to them. Note - unlike the private saunas you do need to wear a bathing suit!
Another very Finish thing they do is combining a sauna with icy water in the winter. Basically, this means you would jump into the cold lake then go back to the sauna and repeat several times. Of course, they don’t stay long in the freezing water – just enough to get their blood moving. As soon as you as you are out of the cold water your circulation kicks in and your body starts to warm up and makes you feel happy. That’s your body is producing the mood balancing hormones serotonin with dopamine. Stress literally starts to melt away after just a couple minutes and it makes a great way to start the day. Try it yourself with a cold shower!
Gastronomy: Finland is one of the biggest coffee consumers in the world and one thing they like with their coffee is pastries – in particular cinnamon buns. The cinnamon bun is one of their local, traditional pastries and in Finland it is called korvapuusti – translation – slapped ears! You can find many cafes where you can sit, enjoy a cup of coffee and try a local cinnamon bun. According to Heli, Fins are pretty obsessed with these cinnamon rolls and call coffee and korvapuusti together pullakahvit – which literally means bun coffee.
Miscellaneous: Did you know…Finland was ranked as the “Happiest Country in the World” by the United Nations three times in a row? It’s true – and that ranking was measured on how happy their citizens were which was based on life expectancy, healthiness, perception of corruption and generosity - or - how much people give to charity and help others. Not only that but there also an index called unexplained happiness that Finland ranks high on as well!
Language and Currency: The currency in Finland is the Euro and they have been a member of the EU for a long, long time. Most locals speak English as they all learn English in school usually starting around age seven or so. You will find to be very friendly although a bit more shy and reserved than say…your typical American. (Note: No visa required for US or Canada residents.)
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing they recommend a 10-day self-quarantine if traveling from the United States and Canada. However - if the person has a negative coronavirus test certificate that is less than 72 hours old at the time of arrival in Finland and will stay in the country for less than 72 hours, a second test and voluntary quarantine are not required.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Finland click here.
So, I know we usually talk about Hidden Gems in these overviews - but in reality - Finland is actually one destination that is truly an entire hidden gem in Northern Europe! And as always this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as far as things to see and do and eat in this amazing destination. For more details on things to see and do, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
I am willing to bet you have heard of Ecuador but are more familiar with the Galapagos Islands - which are actually a part of Ecuador. And whether or not my assumption is correct I am also willing to bet that you will be pleasantly surprised to find out all there is to see and do within Ecuador before flying over to the Galapagos Islands – both of which are quite the exotic destinations.
In order to introduce you to them I invited Diego Escobar - one of my partners in South America - from Condor Travel - to one of my weekly video chats to share the beauty of both. And once you have discovered all of what makes them amazing destinations – Diego and I will work together to get you those experiences that you just can't find on the Internet – which is why so I love working with Diego and his team because they really do help me create these amazing memories for all of you.
Let’s get right to it, shall we?
Country Background: Ecuador is a relatively small country that consists of four clear regions – The Amazon Rainforest the Andes Mountains, the Pacific Coast and the Galapagos Islands – which are located about 600 miles away from the mainland. Fun Fact: It is said that Ecuador is a summary of Latin America because you have a little bit of everything in just this one small territory.
Located at the equator – and named Ecuador because of the equator line that crosses the country - it truly is at the center of the earth. Diego started the chat with a great quote by explorer Alexander von Humboldt who visited Ecuador in the 18th century and had this to say: “When you travel Ecuador, from the high snowcapped mountains to the Amazon rainforest, it is like you're traveling from Argentina to Canada in terms of the variety of environments and landscapes that you can find.”
And that indeed is true as here you will the Cotopaxi Volcano which is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world as well as so many dramatic landscapes. For instance, there is the Amazon rainforest - and even though Ecuador is home to just a small part of it – around 5% - it’s one of the most accessible ones. Then there are the magnificent Andes Mountains which are considered the backbone of Ecuador. And of course, the Pacific Coast with its incredible beaches and finally - the Galapagos Islands that are simply the cherry on top of it all. It truly is a natural paradise brought to you by mother earth herself. As a matter a fact – it also happens to be the most biodiverse country in the world per square kilometer – so you can expect to find many species of reptiles, birds, insects, mammals and more – giving you wilderness and wildlife in one adventure!
Getting There: Most visitors typically fly into Quito where there is an international airport -although there is also another international airport in Guayaquil on the Pacific Coast. If you are coming from the US - say from Miami or Atlanta it is about a four-hour flight and from Houston it is about a six-hour flight. So, it really is quite close and once you are there you have the chance to change the environment you are in quite easily – as each different region is just a 25-minute flight from each other. As Diego said - you can have breakfast in the Amazon rainforest, lunch in the Andes Mountains and dinner on the Pacific Coast!
One of the things that I like to do when the itinerary we are planning are the Galapagos Islands is to give you a pre- and post-night in Quito so you can so you can discover this amazing city the capital of Ecuador. (Note: the Galapagos Islands are a two-hour flight form Quito.)
Destinations: Read on to see what each region of the country can offer!
Quito: The city of Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was declared as such in 1978 thanks to having one of the largest and best-preserved historical centers in all of Latin America - as well as tons of history – including museums and churches and amazing colonial art as well baroque as neoclassical style.
Quito is actually a very long city but it's also easy to visit and it's really well divided between the modern part and the older part. There are great hotel options in the modern part as well as restaurants – one of the best being Terra which is fusion restaurant and that showcases all of the regions of Ecuador in their dishes. Also available here - thanks to local beer producers – is beer tasting! And something that would be my favorite to do? Chocolate tasting! Everybody loves chocolate and chocolate is a must when you visit Ecuador as they have the best cocoa bean variety - Arriba - in fact - some of the highest quality beans in the world come from here. Diego let us in on the fact that Swiss chocolate is made with Arriba beans and Ecuador is producing the best bars that you can find in the world featuring really nice mixtures such as chocolate with lemongrass.
The Cloud Forest: Just a two-hour drive from Quito – and a total change in environment - this is one of the most intriguing things you will ever see – and it is off the beaten path so hello social distancing! So, it’s all about the outdoors here and three days is the suggested length of stay in this area. For my bird watching peeps – this is the perfect spot for you. You can find up to 600 species of birds here to spy on and plenty of biodiversity. There are exotic bird watching excursions through the forest where you not only check out the birds - but the waterfalls as well. Per Diego if you are an avid bird watcher you would want to visit the Cloud Forest for at least at least three days to see the amazing diversity of the birds and with a good local guide you would be able to see a good hundred or so at least. For a different point of view, you can hop on the Dragon Fly and take a ride on this super cool open cable car for amazing views of the flora and fauna. Or you can choose to pedal high above the forest canopy on a Sky Bike where you will be 196 feet above the ground checking out the different species and vegetation at your own pace.
As for accommodations we discussed a fer options. One is Mashpi – which is a really modern and a luxury property and El Monte Sustainable Lodge which is a more traditional eco lodge. There is also another property where you can stay in a treehouse in the jungle!
Otavalo: Otavalo is a small town in the Andes located two hours north of Quito. The highlight here is the culture as the residents here are indigenous people who are also called Otavalos and are very happy to share their culture with the visitors. Here you will find one of the largest indigenous markets in South America – the colorful Otavalo Market - full of textiles and handicrafts. Bonus – Condor Travel offers have an experience called May I Introduce You where they will take you directly to the workshops of the artisans who are producing the textiles and handicrafts giving you a direct experience and contact with them.
This area is also known for its ecological reserves and is famous for its lakes as well. There are some activities to do on the water – per Diego - it’s cold - but it’s possible to do so! Otavalo is home to many colonial haciendas and rural casita's that are famous in Ecuador which you can visit while there to get an idea of the local way of life. And the Condor Project which is another must do which is a trek through a nice park where you will get the opportunity to check out the local birds - of which many are rescues. And for my cheese connoisseurs you can pay a visit to a cheese factory here where the cheese is made by the locals.
And as far as accommodations - the haciendas here have been upgraded so that we have all of the comforts that we're accustomed as well as all the amenities you would find in a city hotel - but in a more remote area near nature and the local culture. Some of the properties Condor works with in this area are Cusin, Zuleta and Piman and all offer really amazing experiences in terms of services, accommodations and activities.
Cotopaxi: Diego shared that this is one of his favorite places that is not far from Quito – about an hour and a half drive – it is home to Cotopaxi National Park and featuring fabulous views of the mountainous landscape. The recommended stay in this area is three to four days to enjoy all it has to offer. For my hikers they offer daily excursions here to reach the summits and also you may catch a glimpse of the local cowboys known as chagras. If you are here, you will certainly want to visit Cotopaxi Volcano and Diego assures us it's really easy to get to the mountain refuge as you can get quite close by car and then you just have to hike for one hour or so reach the snow caps making for an amazing experience. There are other things to do here such as the Illinizas Ecological Reserve where you can find waterfalls and rivers to hike by, a train ride to explore the area via rail and the opportunity to mountain bike or horseback ride around the national park.
As for lodging that Condor works with? They include properties such as San Agustin Del Callo, El Porvenir, Santa Ana and Cotopaxi Pungo - some of which are a little bit more rustic - but you also have some luxury options here as well making this a great opportunity so to feel immersed in the area. For instance, Diego tells us that the San Agustin Del Callo is a luxury hacienda built on the rings of the Incas so you can find the actual stones of the Incas in some of the walls. There really are options for everyone – including if you just want to be with your family - there are villa options to stay in and have a private experience. Another option is to do a buyout for you and your entire family because these are smaller properties with a great for social distancing.
Avenue of the Volcanoes: Moving south of Quito this area is amazing because when you are out on the open road you feel surrounded by the mountains and volcanos. This is why explorer Alexander von Humboldt named the area the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Diego recommends scheduling five days for this amazing journey from Quito to Cotopaxi National Park where you will head south and make stops at traditional haciendas and indigenous markets along the way. On this route you will also come across Chimborazo which is the land of the llamas – the highlands of Ecuador features lots of those oh so popular llamas and the communities near Chimborazo are famous for llamas and alpacas and most of the locals work with llamas doing textiles as well. There are also and some famous markets like the Guamote Market that you can visit on certain days. Fun Fact: Chimborazo Mountain – which is the highest mountain in Ecuador, and because of this it is often said that when you come to Ecuador you are closer to the sun. And per Diego they say that if you measure it from the center of the earth that it is the biggest mountain in the world - even bigger than the Everest.
A ride on the Devils Nose train is a must as it famous for being the most difficult train route in the world to build as it zig zagged up and down the mountain – meaning unfortunately several people died during the of the construction of the railway.
At the end of the Avenue of Volcanoes you will reach Cuenca City in the southern part of Ecuador, which is a small, charming town featuring fabulous architecture and nice, small boutique hotels. It’s also in close proximity to El Cajas National Park which is home to many lakes as well as the paramount ecosystem in the region and is a remarkably interesting place to hike. Cuenca is also famous for the Artisan Route where you will witness special techniques to make textiles, jewelry and the famous Panama hat - yup – it’s not made in Panama – it’s made in Ecuador!
The Amazon Rainforest: The portion of the rainforest located in Ecuador is small compared to other countries. But it's really easy to access. For instance, you can reach the Amazon via car in just about four hours leaving from Quito. And bonus – you can visit some cocoa plantations on the way along The Chocolate Trail where you will have the chance to see the process from the start until it becomes chocolate. As you journey along the Guayusa Trail you’ll learn about the local leaf they call Guayusa which contains a lot of caffeine and is made into what can be likened to an energy drink- a local energy drink that’s all natural 100% natural! They – the local indigenous communities - actually start cooking it early in the morning and you can share it with them if you so choose. Something a bit more adventurous that you can do here is rafting on the Jatun Yako River. This is considered a Level 3 River so it's really easy for families with children to do as a fun afternoon activity.
As for accommodations – there are several lodges along the Cacao Route that offer great opportunities for honeymoons or even as backdrops for a proposal – and Diego confirmed it is a very romantic place to do both. But don’t worry – there are great family properties available as well so we can find you whatever it is you need.
Yasuni National Park: This national park is located inside the Amazon rainforest – and its the deepest part of the Amazon in Ecuador as well as one of the most biodiverse places on earth. To reach it you would take a 25-minute flight from Quito to the city of Coca in the Amazon. Once you reach that point there are several lodges in the area so to reach them you must take a motorboat for about two hours on the Napo River - which is one of the main tributaries to the Amazon. Depending on the lodge you stay in you will then transfer to a canoe for the final leg of your trip for anywhere from one to two hours. Talk about remote! Talk about social distancing! What an amazing experience!
The Pacific Coast: So, one of my absolute favorites - Anthony Bourdain - visited Ecuador a couple of years ago - a small fishing village called Salango to be exact. I used to watch him all the time and I so loved watching him just explore the world through his love of food. As with me - travel to him was gastronomy related so I love that here is a restaurant we can visit where he too broke bread. And the food on the Pacific Coast is nothing short of amazing and includes fresh fish, lobster and Ecuadorian shrimp - the biggest shrimp that you can find in the world!
Here you can visit both Puerto Lopez and Isla de Plata not far from Salango. In Ecuador they refer to Isla de Plata as the small Galapagos or the Galapagos Chiquita. It’s a small island near the coast where you’ll find wildlife similar to that of the Galapagos. There’s also plenty of activities including water sports like snorkeling and great accommodations such as Hacienda La Danesa which is one of Condor’s favorites to use. It’s also another region - so once again it's totally different. The climate is warmer and it’s a good chance to just relax - perhaps after returning from the Galápagos Islands where you can stay the night and treat yourself to a massage.
Some of the first settlements in Ecuador were actually are on the Pacific coast and it's a great place to discover local culture. You also have the humpback whales here as they visit from June to September - so if you visit at this time you have the chance to see the hundreds of humpback whales that are searching for warmer waters.
Also, on the Pacific Coast you have Guayaquil which is a quick flight from Quito. Home to some wonderful hotels such as Hotel Del Parque - featuring a level of service that we're accustomed to as well as great food. Speaking of food - the local food found in the lowlands in the Pacific Coast are some Diego’s favorite foods found in Ecuador. For example, they have ceviche which he tells us is quite different from the Peruvian or Mexican ceviche. Depending if you're in the northern part or one of the provinces they change the flavor. It’s made with lemon and local fish and it has more juice than the other ceviche and is simply delicious – and it is typically served with fried green plantain or patacones.
Galapagos Islands: So once again during this chat I'm so excited because Charles Darwin is one of my most favorite scientists of all time – a real mastermind - so it’s pretty cool Darwin visited this place and that it was the inspiration for his theory of evolution! Darwin saw that the finches there had different types of beaks depending on the island he visited and realized it was dependent on the type of food they had whether it be insects or fruit or cactus.
Its a unique place all about wildlife and I love what the islands do in terms of caring for that wildlife. And there are plenty of things to do here with one of the top activities being able to rent your own boat - or even a mini yacht - and go and get up close to the wildlife and nature.
There are different ways of traveling the islands. For example, you have the sea-based option which is cruising through them. This is the classic option to reach the Galapagos Islands and there are many different itineraries available - ranging from four days up to 10 days. But there are also land based options available where you can stay on one island or island hop and then go out daily on different boat excursions. The islands offer various kinds of accommodations from luxury properties to tented camps – with options for everybody.
Culture: Ecuador holds many cultural opportunities - there are almost 30 different ethnic groups found there - and I work with Diego and the team at Condor to ensure that you get to experience remote communities while you are there - allowing you to see how people really live as they did for many, many years – or as I say old country style. You will have the opportunity to learn from them as you join their community and are totally immersed in their indigenous cultures. And for those of you traveling with your home-schooled children what an awesome opportunity for travel as a living classroom! We can even set up some voluntourism for you to do as a family as well.
Safety: Per Diego they are ready to receive visitors again as Ecuador has applied all of the protocols and are in line with the mandates that the World Travel and Tourism Council has passed down - meaning that you can have that peace of mind when you visit this bucket list destination.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands click here.
So, what do you think? I say let’s add and Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands to your bucket list and get to work curating the perfect itinerary for you! You know I can - and love to - help you with financial travel planning too – so even if we start planning for a year or two out – it will all still be there!
For more details on things to see and do in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
During the shutdown of Covid19, Loulu Lima began interviewing many tourism boards, destination management companies and suppliers whom BHGH works with in the curation of your itineraries.
Here you will find the videos as well as written summary of each. Summaries are transcribed by Carole A. Peck.
Video post production managed by MotionDash.Media
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