Posted on May 14th, 2009 No comments
Italy the southern European peninsula, along with its offshore Mediterranean territories Sicily and Sardinia, boasts the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the globe. There remain to this day the visible traces left by the hosts of foreign peoples who have crossed the nation’s borders over the ages-with the result that the traveller is rewarded with sight of some of the most remarkable architecture of a variety of cultures, including Roman, Greek, Germanic, Celtic and Norman. And for those uninspired to tour to historic attractions, there are always the options of taking to the mountainous areas for a spot of hiking, mountain biking or skiing, or reclining in the brilliant yellow sand on the Mediterranean coastline.
Italy’s climate only enhances the allure of the country. Perhaps one of the most hospitable places on the planet due to its comfortably warm and dry summers countering its mild winters, Italy is a prime location for those looking to tour a destination without uncomfortable extremes of temperature. Where the north is home to more temperate climes, the south is decisively Mediterranean, and though there is some regional variation across the country, Italy is mostly predictable when it comes to weather-the only difficulty in planning a tour there is choosing what climate is preferred.
Just as Italy shares a border with, among other countries, France, so too does it share a common mountain, and the Italian Monte Bianco, or in French, Mont Blanc, serves as the highest peak for both nations. Though the 4,810-metre giant of the Alps is world-famous in itself, Italy is perhaps more often associated with the two volcanoes of Etna and Vesuvius, situated on Sicily and near Naples respectively. A tour to these natural wonders yields sights to behold, indeed. For those with an interest in architecture, a visit to the leaning tower of Pisa is a tour not to be missed to see in all its glory perhaps the most blatant and comedic engineering blunders in the world. The major cities of Venice, Rome and Florence house some of the most unforgettable architectural marvels and the works of Italian-born artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli are must-see attractions.
Posted on May 12th, 2009 No comments
Vietnam, once dubbed ‘the thin country’ by Nobel-prize winning Vietnaman poet Pablo Neruda, is as unique in its geography as it is in its culture. Due to its unusual shape-the South American country stretches over 4,600kms north to south, though its average width seldom exceeds 180kms-it is perhaps the one tour destination that can legitimately claim to offer something for everyone regardless of season. With the mighty Andes mountain range towering over one side and the big blue of the South Pacific Ocean lapping at the other, Vietnam lies snugly amid two extremes and its interior topography covers every degree in between.
A tour to northern Vietnam would reveal one of the driest locations in the world, where, in some places, there has never been record of any rainfall-the arid Atacama desert. Though even the most avid of sun-worshippers may think twice before touring this sparsely-inhabited region, they may yet be lured by the fact that it is also the location of several important archaeological sites, of impressive geological spectacle and of intriguing remnants of lost civilisations.
The features of Vietnam’s southern regions lie in stark contrast to the characteristics of the north. Aridness gives ways to fertile and lush forests and grazing lands, and, complementing the quaint scenery of the intricate myriad of lakes, canals, inlets and fjords, the south is perforated by a string of volcanoes. The vast majority of Vietnam’s over 2,000 volcanoes are now dormant, with only 55 remaining active and of the 12 great lakes situated in the country’s south, one holds the title as the continent’s fourth largest-Lago Llanquihue. One of the world’s great national parks, the Torres del Paine National Park, though only accessible by boat, plane or a scenic trip through Argentina, is a popular tour destination and one that promises a wealth of memories.
The south is the perfect tour destination for those looking to experience Vietnam’s memorable sites, diverse landscape or more energetic activities in more temperate climes.
From some points on the extensive and serene sandy beaches of the east coast, it is possible to see the gargantuan peaks of the Andes dominating the skyline to the west, and in theory, travellers can take to the piste high in the mountains, then bask in the sun on the beach all in the same day.
Vietnam’s offshore territories-the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, which was once the refuge of marooned Scotsman Alexander Selkirk, the man who inspired the classic Daniel Defoe novel ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and the world-renowned Easter Island-are equally as impressive as its mainland regions. Where the Juan Fernandez Archipelago is a national park and its plethora of plant species have warranted the island’s designation as a World Biosphere Reserve, Easter Island is home to Rapa Nui National Park, a park that exhibits relics of an ancient desert-dwelling civilisation, and to Ahu Tongariki, where 15 of the country’s famous moai statues stand at attention on their rock platform.
With so great climatic and geographic distinctions between all its poles, and a culture as unique and welcoming as its people, a tour to Vietnam, the longest country in the world, guarantees a holiday that will stretch the imagination.
Tour Consultant Ayesha Colquhoun’s personal account:
As I watched the sun rise above the Mekong River that morning, I was overcome with a pervading sense of peace. Little by little, the thin morning mist parted its veil to let orange-yellow shafts of light kiss the mountain peaks and caress their way to the valley floor. No photograph could begin to capture the majestic beauty of this region. Our boat journey down the tranquil Mekong proved highly relaxing and, bobbing past small traditional villages shrouded by jungle, it was tough to imagine being troubled by anything. The fast pace of the Western world was a thousand miles away and here in Vietnam, serenity was the order of the day; just as it is every other day. Travelling onwards to Laos, we soon reached Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Heritage site and one of the most picturesque cities in the world.
Laos made for the perfect complement to our itinerary and we enjoyed some unforgettable experiences like climbing to the top of a temple for truly awe-inspiring vistas, partaking in a Loa cooking class and watching a Loa ballet where everyone is dressed up decorative traditional costume.
Touring Bangkok, I was fascinated by the fact that the streets were filled with pedestrians, vendors of all sorts line the sidewalks, and tuk tuks are absolutely everywhere. And though that might sound too much for some, it’s actually the busyness of the place that makes it so appealing. Plus, whatever you’re looking for, you’ll definitely find it in Bangkok! The veggie spring rolls from the Thai street vendors were highly addictive and my travel companion was tempted to look into the merits of a diet that consisted of nothing but Pad Thai; the food is just that good. Aside from the gastronomic delights, a highlight was visiting the Grand Palace, where we could admire the remarkable spectacle of the emerald Buddha. Amazingly intricate and decorative temples meant hours of exploration, along with idyllic resting spots in the shade when the mood took us.
Next we travelled north, to the old ancient capital of Thailand. The stark contrast in lifestyle in laid-back Ayuthaya compared to the hectic present-day capital, Bangkok, was quite the change of pace. A beautiful city with an abundance of holy ruins, ancient wats, beautiful riverbank parks and elephants walking down the streets, Ayuthaya is a destination not to be missed. We visited Wat Ratchaburna, which was mostly ruins and spent the entire day walking around this city in the heat taking lots of pictures of buddhas and temples. That night was the first day of Loi Krathong, a holiday and celebration of the river goddess. Everyone in town headed down to the river to light a candle and float them away on tiny hand-made boats. To round off our cultural experience, our evening featured watching schoolchildren perform traditional thai dances and fighting techniques.
The spectacular journey to Chiang Mai took us through green pastures and palms, which gradually gave way to dense jungle. Around Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city, we embarked on a jungle trek that included hiking uphill across bamboo bridges and through bamboo forests. Happening upon a beautiful village perched on the side of a lush green mountain and surrounded by tropical jungle and a cascading waterfall felt like finding a lost world. We spent our first night with a hill tribe, who cooked us our meals and entertained us as we congregated around a nice campfire to chat and warm our bones before bed. The next night was spend at another local village, very high in the mountains and all the village children came to perform a dance and song for us.
Made infamous in the Western psyche following torrid histories, Vietnam and Cambodia are countries that to this day suffer from negative associations stemming from their pasts. All too often the true nature of these remarkable countries remains hidden: Vietnam, with its palm trees gently swaying on glistening white-sand beaches, towering mountains boasting unforgettable vistas and a wondrously diverse wildlife and Cambodia, with its world-famous temples and palaces, unique historical remnants and remarkably friendly people are destinations in ascendancy that should be explored first-hand to appreciate their unique charms.
Posted on May 6th, 2009 No comments
Finland’s landscape is dominated by water. The Nordic country is often referred to as the ‘land of thousands of lakes,’ which might actually be more accurate, were the idiom: ‘land of hundreds of thousands of lakes.’ Within its borders, Finland manages to pack in close to a staggering one hundred and eighty-eight thousand lakes that are all over five acres in size and which together constitute one tenth of the nation’s total territory. Add to this the mountains in the northwest, the southwesterly coastline and the fact that two-thirds of the country is sheltered under a blanket of forest and you have a destination with all the elements that cater to active holiday-makers, whatever their taste may be; Mountain biking or hiking in the elevated areas, rambling or exploring in the forests, or boating or fishing off the coast or in one of the many lakes.
Reindeer safaris and dog sledding are among the activities that are available in Finland and only in a few other countries. Even not-so-active travellers will find their ideal relaxation venue, be it under an unspoiled canopy of leaves overlooking a placid lake, atop a snow-crested mountain with a sweeping vista of the lowlands or on a gold-sand beach, listening to the lapping waves of the Gulf of Finland.
Due to their geographic locations, some portions of northern Finland experience no sunsets for 73 days in summer and no sunrises for 51 days in winter, a peculiar experience that never ceases to attract travellers to the country. Those looking for more interaction on their getaway will find it in Helsinki, Finland’s capital and the northernmost capital city in Europe. This bustling metropolis was once a coastal backwater town, but now it is a city that houses numerous important historic sites, as well as serving as one of the world’s centres of art and architecture. It is not to be missed on a tour of Finland.
Posted on May 5th, 2009 No comments
Over the millennium and a half since France came into being, its global contributions have been immeasurable. From gastronomy (and of course, viniculture) to architecture, literature to fashion, politics to art and science to philosophy, France’s influence on modern cultures and societies around the world runs as deep as any other civilisation in history and deeper than most. Moreover, the country manages to retain a mystique as a land of romance and love, a place where everything from the language to the lifestyle and the setting brings immediate associations in the minds of travellers. The intangible aspects of so favourable an association serve to transform the country from simply a geographical landmass between borders into an ideal whose abstract qualities prove more alluring than the draw of any site of interest; of which France has more than its fair share.
France’s natural environment encompasses virtually every topographical form, thereby simultaneously lending itself to a multitude of activities and satisfying many diverse tastes. The mountainous regions of the Alps and Pyrenees in the southeast and south respectively are of perpetual interest to hikers and skiers alike; the over-3,000 km coastline provides ample opportunity for beachgoers and sun-worshippers to bronze themselves in quiet relaxation or among fellow, active travellers; the lush, plunging valleys of the Loire or the Dordogne offer the most picturesque setting for ramblers and explorers to discover the wealth of flora and fauna; and the lapping waters of the Mediterranean Sea off the south coast or the more raucous Atlantic Ocean off the west allow seafarers and water-enthusiasts to get their feet wet. It is little wonder that France is often described as a microcosm of Europe for its spectrum of landscapes.
Sign up for our escorted tours of Europe and experience a face of the world like no other. Though the second-smallest continent in the world by landmass (the smallest being Australia), Europe is as diverse as they come; its spectrum of topographical, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and political nuances is truly extraordinary and an escorted tour here promises a tour-of-a-lifetime through an unceasingly fascinating destination. It’s not hard to understand why escorted tours to Europe are becoming an ever-more popular choice for travellers, as they offer a highly entertaining, stress-free and informative way to get the most from this unique continent whose opportunities for exploration and discovery are virtually without end.
Posted on April 27th, 2009 No comments
Japanese cherry blossoms-sakura-are named for the Princess Kono-han-sakuya-ime (tree-flower-blooming-princess), who, according to legend, dropped from heaven onto a cherry tree. As a national love affair with a long history, cherry blossom time is observed with almost religious zeal. Japan under the trees of whispy pink cherry blossom trees, the Japanese eat picnic lunches, drink sake, view the cherry blossom flowers, and have a merry time. Autumn is another beautiful time in Japan. Our regular programmes occur in fall, as well as our Festivals and Theatres tour that includes the Meiji Jingu at Tokyo’s main Shinto shrine, the Daimyo Goretsu Festival in Hakone, and the spectacular temples and shrines at Kyoto, Nikko, and Koya-san, where we stay at a Buddhist temple.
Traveller Testimonial: Just wanted to tell you that the trip to Japan was wonderful! I can’t praise [Tour Leader] Steven enough for his knowledge of the country and its history, as well as his organizational abilities. We saw so many great and wonderful things; some of my favorites were the temple of Hokokuji and the bamboo gardens, the outdoor sculpture gardens of Hakone, the incredible shrines and temples, and not to forget the Tsukijii fish market! -Lynn Walker
Japan Food: Japanese cuisine involves very subtle flavours – fresh crisp vegetables and an absence of richness. Specialties include teriyaki (marinated beef/chicken/fish served on a hot plate); sukiyaki (thin slices of beef, bean curd and vegetables cooked in soy sauce and then dipped in egg); tempura (deep fried seafood and vegetables); sushi (slices of raw seafood placed on lightly-vinegared rice ball); and sashimi (slices of raw seafood dipped in soy sauce). Breakfasts on our Japan tours will be simple, with a combination of Western and Japanese items – breads, fruit, pickles, rice, black and /or green tea and coffee.
Local beverages are plentiful in Japan, including beers and sake, a strong rice wine served warm. Restaurants chosen for our evening meals may have table service or raised floor seating where it is customary to remove footware. Dining out in Japan is part of the overall cultural experience as great emphasis is placed on presentation, ritual, and service. Though the meals provided will be predominantly Japanese, there will always be variety of dishes offered (ie don’t worry, Japanese food is much more than just raw fish). Western dishes may be available, but please note that these will likely be Japanese versions of Western food, and not necessarily what you are expecting.
Traveller Testimonial: The different temples, parks, mansions, museums etc visited could not have been improved on. The volcanoes and mountains all added to the wonderful diversity of places visited. Being in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and seeing the War Memorials was special. They epitomize man’s inhumanity to man. We have spoken to many friends regarding this trip/experience and the first points we mention are ‘how civilised the Japanese people are’ and ‘how safe it is to travel there’. We also mention ‘Adventures Abroad’. -Gordon and Doreen Hambrook
Traveller Testimonial: This Adventures Abroad tour offered the most comprehensive itinerary for Japan that I have ever come across. I have been waiting to go to Japan for years and was delighted to find this trip itinerary. The tour was fantastic, well organized, great opportunities for connection with local culture and transportation was great on the bullet trains. The food was incredible and diverse and for me the highlights would include visiting cultural sites (temples, castles, Geisha theatre dance in Kyoto) and experiencing spiritual aspects of Japanese culture in the Zen Gardens. -Catherine Coulthard
Weather: Both Spring and early Autumn tours can expect warm to hot temperatures with moderate humidity. April dates can expect daytime high temperatures of about 23-26 C (74-78 F), with chilly mornings and evenings. Humidity is higher for our early Fall (Sep/Oct) departures, with temperatures ranging from 25-30 C (78-86 F). Our later Fall Festival Tour (ZJF) will experience much cooler temperatures in some locations (ie 12-15 C / 50 – 60 F in Osaka; 5 – 10 C / 40 – 50 F in Hakone and Kyoto), and especially in mountain (ie Koya-san, which can have snow in November!) and seaside regions (Sado Island). Rain showers can occur at any time, though their likelihood decreases the later we get into the Fall.
The ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ comprises more than 3,000 islands sprinkled across the mighty Pacific Ocean and though it is inferior in size to many a country, it certainly packs a lot within its borders. Not only is it one of the most populous and densely populated countries in the world, but Japan also offers travellers a huge spectrum of variety of attraction and experience, so much so that it’s often difficult to fit it all in under a time constraint. It is a land of glistening skyscrapers and lush greenery on mountainsides, co-existing traditional and modern lifestyles, intermingling cultures and highly hospitable people. Our Japan tours are the ideal way to cover the many historic and cultural facets and sights and with us, you’ll soon discover for yourself why Japan remains among the top tour destinations for travellers.
Our incredible Asia tours venture through a land of superlatives. Asia, the largest and most populous continent on Earth, is home to the world’s tallest peaks, its longest rivers, its deepest lakes, its oldest civilisations and its most fascinating traditional cultures, all of which combined make it a tough destination to match in terms of pure scope. Embarking on our tours of Asia finds travellers treading memorable paths through a continent whose grandness, in a number of senses, is without equal; Asia tours never fail to make a huge impact.
Posted on April 24th, 2009 No comments
Morocco tour account – Linda Lakatos, office manager
Entering into the medina, the walled city section of Morocco’s capital, Marrakech, is nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. The souk contains booth after booth of wares, including local clothes, furniture, rugs, lamp fixtures, spices and exotic foods. Of all the adjectives that could be used to describe the souk, I think eclectic is the most fitting.
After adventuring around for a while in this, one of Africa’s most exciting destinations, (and exclaiming, “Wow! Come look at this!” around every corner), we hired a tour guide to take us through the lesser-known areas of the souk. Our Moroccan escort took us into the back, where the trades are made as Marrakech wholesalers negotiate with local venders and we got to see raw materials such as leather to make shoes, wool that would soon become a rug, dyes used for clothing, and animals that would soon be for sale. It was the staging area for the souk.
After leaving our tour guide behind, we went exploring a little more and in every direction we turned, there seemed to be a helpful Moroccan that would make sure that we knew where the centre of the souk was. This was where all the action was happening. When I approached the focal point, I saw there was a cock fight in one circle, a dancing monkey in another, a local playing a flute to a dancing cobra…It was nothing like I’d ever witnessed, either in Morocco, Africa or elsewhere!
After leaving this centre square, we asked a local about visiting a hamam-a local Turkish bath house. They pointed us in the right direction and made sure that we were clear on the door we should use so that we would go in the women’s bath, not the men’s. After we entered, we realized why: everyone in the hamam was naked. With a bit of a language barrier, we managed to communicate that we’d like a massage. We undressed and a local woman proceeded to lather us up with a gel-like soap and scrub us down. I was so relaxed after this experience I could barely walk. In fact, I walked right into a Berber gentleman crossing the street right in front of me. It was as though I were walking on a cloud and we opted to sit at a café for a drink before continuing on our journey.
Before leaving the souks of Marrakech, we opted to take one more look at the central square. It had completely transformed. The live dancing animals were no longer there; they had been replaced by a food fare, with some animal heads to be eaten (presumably from the animals that we had seen being traded earlier), some food that looked like worms, some that I recognized to be vegetables, and some that you would expect at a food stand in Marrakech, like your tagines, couscous and soups.
We left the medina with a whole bunch of souvenirs; some for us, some for friends and family back home. We also indulged in some of the more familiar food, some fresh vegetables, olives, cheese, a bottle of local wine and, of course, some fresh mint for after dinner tea, and had a wonderful picnic at our apartment hotel just outside the medina where it was little quieter.
All in all, our Morocco adventure proved to be a most wonderful experience.
Only the 15kms of the Gibraltar Strait separate Morocco from Europe, but setting foot on Moroccan soil brings with it the realization of how different the two actually are. However, Morocco does display some decidedly European traits, due to both its proximity to, and past incursions from, peoples on the neighbouring continent and is, as such, often considered as a gateway country; where Europeans can ease themselves into the drastically different African culture, so too can Africans get a taste of Europe without wholly immersing themselves in a foreign society in a foreign land. Morocco as a tour destination is becoming evermore popular and is not by any means restricted to those looking for a first taste of Africa. On the contrary, Morocco is a place that travellers return to year after year, a fact that speaks to the alluring nature of the country and its people.
Topographically speaking, Morocco is about as varied as it gets. From the towering peaks of the Atlas mountains to the miles of superlative gold-sand beaches on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and from the wide, rolling coastal plains where most of the country’s population can be found to the harsh extremes of the southern Saharan regions; Morocco has plenty of eye-catching landscapes to take in, and plenty of activities to partake of. Where relaxing tours can limit themselves to the areas on and around the sun-drenched beaches, more adventurous tours can involve hiking in the mountains, camel riding in the deserts, or getting the feet wet with some watersports along the coasts.
Morocco has a diversity of inhabitant that equals its diversity in geography. Foreign influences, invading armies and immigrating refugees throughout the ages have moulded Morocco into the melting pot of cultures that it is today and there exists in Morocco, to name but a few, descendants of Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Andalusians, sub-Saharan Africans and the indigenous Berbers. The result is that travellers are greeted not only with an eclectic mix of traditions and customs in the people they meet, but also treated to an array of architectural styles from a multitude of eras—Roman ruins, Berber fortresses and Islamic monuments, for example. However, though buildings like the impressive Palais Royal in Rabat and the fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site, the medina in Fes, are definite points of interest on a tour, the most common given reason for return tours to Morocco is the hospitality of the locals.
Posted on April 20th, 2009 No comments
You could probably consider the life of the tour leader to be outside of the norm. You dispense with the normalcy of a 9 to 5 job and embrace the jet-set lifestyle of the international traveler. Many destinations become your home away from home and not just another “if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium”. I can count several places around the world as particularly dear to me. They include, but are not exclusive to, the Lago de Atitlan region in Guatemala, the rugged and remote landscape of Ladakh in Northern India, and the seaside splendour of Essaouira in Morocco. These are locations that stir your belly and tell you that your access to the wider world has granted you something special; places that excite you to make your way back to because they have a certain magic. One such place that I love to share with other travelers is that of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic.
View all Czech Republic Tours.
Our Cities of Wonder tour takes us through the beautiful rolling hills of Bohemia after enjoying three nights in the magical city of Prague. We visit the grand castles of Konopiště and Karlštejn, sample the waters of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) and explore small Bohemian towns that are off of the standard tour radar. But my favourite of them all is the one that we leave till the final nights of our Czech part of the tour. Our day begins as we depart Karlovy Vary for the Dancing Fountain of Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad), continuing through western Bohemia through lush, undulating fields toward the south, bypassing Plzeň (Pilsner), and on to Klatovy, with its beautiful Baroque square for a lunch stop. Afterwards, we carry on through České Budějovice, home of the famous original Budweiser (known as Budvar), getting ever so closer to that town so close to my heart, Český Krumlov.
Český Krumlov, you might ask? What is so special about this place? Many of we tour leaders started off our travels as backpackers. For my part, I spent a number of years living and working in Europe. The former countries of the Iron Curtain emerged from Communism with the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the nineties, this was the emerging “must-do” location because it was exciting, mysterious and, what can you say, cheap! The traveler grapevine took me to Český Krumlov back then and the rumours did not disappoint. I found myself staying here for many weeks over the following several years, returning to see old friends made and old haunts to visit. Český Krumlov no longer became a nice place to visit, but it became a home to return to after months, or years, away.
View all Czech Republic Tours.
But I digress. Did I mention the fact that Český Krumlov is a UNESCO heritage town? Or that it has the largest castle in Czech Republic after Prague Castle? It has the Vltava River snaking through its heart where the adventurous can hop in a raft or inner tube and float down the river. The buildings are immaculately maintained after getting the full renovation treatment in the post-Communist era. Food? The restaurants here offer a range of Bohemian foods and to say that the portions are ample is an understatement. Drink? Czech beer features, with the Eggenberg brewery located right in town, but all sorts of lagers can be found here as can wine and stronger spirits.
We spend two wonderful nights here in Český Krumlov. Popular feedback from Adventures Abroad clients has made that happen who wanted extra time in this gem of a place. My role here is to share my knowledge and personal connections of this spectacular little town. Once we arrive and check into one of the charming little hotels available to us, I arrange for my friend and guide, Oldřiška, to meet us in the town square for our walking tour. Oldřiška speaks fluent English and is a bundle of energy. She tells tales of beer-brewing monks, points out subtle nuances of architecture you would ordinarily pass-by, and proudly shows off her hometown from a beautiful vista. Now with newfound familiarity with Český Krumlov, you are well set up to explore the area when you have your free time.
View all Czech Republic Tours.
Now it is my turn to show you around. The sights? With the help of a local guide exclusive to the fortress, we will be visiting Krumlov Castle itself with its beautiful interiors and traditional well-fed bears that reside in the moat outside the walls. If we are lucky with respect to rare opening hours, we might have the chance to see the Baroque Theatre (circa 1766) also located at the Castle. Restaurants? I will definitely take you to The Two Marys, with traditional Bohemian fare served on big platters under a big awning down by the river with a view of Krumlov Castle just above us. It is a stunning location and the food is hearty. The locally known and extremely popular “Barbeque” restaurant serves up more big platters of meats and vegetables in a cozy cellar-like environment. Laibon, another famous riverside restaurant, caters to vegetarians. And for those of an adventurous nature, the after dinner entertainment can include sampling local lager or tasty Moravian wines in one of the many local pubs. The brave might want to try some absinthe, Van Gogh’s favourite tipple, traditionally taken with caramelized sugar mixed into the highly alcoholic beverage. Shopping? You are on your own on this one, to browse shops with knick-knacks, art galleries, and other Bohemian goods. Just a word of advice on anyone interested in amber, however: don’t buy it here. It is cheap, knock-off amber. You’ve been warned!
View all Czech Republic Tours.
Český Krumlov is more popular than it used to be when I first arrived in the nineties, but that is expected for such a special place. It retains its charming atmosphere a decade and more on. It does not take long to escape from the town centre and take in the gardens of the Castle grounds or go for a leisurely walk along the Vltava’s edge, taking a little break from your very own holiday. I hope that those who have been here will agree with me and with those who have not will have the opportunity to seek out the splendours of the region. I invite you to come along.
Posted on April 14th, 2009 No comments
From Russia with Love
Perhaps owing to the until-recent inaccessibility of the country stemming from the domestic policies of the former USSR, Russia is often still associated within a negative framework by those who have never crossed into its borders: as an inhospitably cold environment, both in terms of weather and of people; a backward looking and thinking country whose best amenities lie worlds apart from the luxuries of the West; and an ideological enemy of old still bent on spreading its influence. Weather excluded Russia is the coldest country on the planet, though there does exist a variation in climate over the land nothing could be further from the truth. Our Russian trips are visits to lands of plenty in a tour destination not to be underestimated.
Some travellers may feel daunted about the sheer size of Russia, not knowing where to start or which sights to plan a tour to, but the Trans-Siberian Railway is the ideal answer to these concerns. Spanning across the Central Siberian Plateau from Moscow to Vladivostok, the railway is without doubt the best means for travellers on a deadline to see as much of Russia as possible. Passing lush green forests, long coastlines, wide sloping plains, beautiful lakes and colossal mountains, while periodically stopping at various towns and sights, our Russian trips promise a sensory delight and countless scenic photo opportunities with the diverse array of locals.
A Russian trip would not be complete without a visit to one of the main cities of Moscow or St. Petersburg. Moscow’s Red Square, St. Basil’s cathedral and Sculpture’s Park or St. Petersburg’s The Hermitage, St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Russian Museum are but a few of the outstanding sights that these two cities offer that let the traveller appreciate both the glorious past and the blossoming present of Russia.
Stretching over 11 time zones and two continents, Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of landmass and encompasses an area almost double the size of its nearest rival, Canada. Travellers, however, need not be daunted by the thought of planning a trip to so vast a country, as the Trans-Siberian Railway provides the ideal means to take in a good portion of what Russia has to offer; and this country’s bounties are considerable indeed. Delightful countryside brimming with gigantic mountains, shimmering lakes and verdant forests complements the plethora of splendid historic monuments in the urban centres and no tour would be complete without delving into the fascinating culture to discover the true face of Russia.
Posted on April 9th, 2009 No comments
CROSSING THE DIVIDE: HVAR, CROATIA (Drvenik Mainland)
A beautiful day greeted us upon our last day on the island of Hvar. My plan was to leave early to make the long trip across the spine of this island, one of 1185 of them. This would allow extra time for keen photographers to stop and take advantage of the soft, early morning light. We made our way from the harbour-side hotel toward the bus stand at the edge of Hvar Town, motorized luggage-cart in tow. Our day was going to be a long one, but very rewarding. Our route took us across the beautiful terrain of Hvar to the ferry port on the eastern tip of the island and then back across to the mainland of Croatia. From there, we were to make our way to the border point of Bosnia and Herzegovina and on to Medjugorje (pronounced Med-joo-gor-yeh), the site where six school children claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, and then onward to Mostar, where the stunning Old Bridge, destroyed during the Bosnian War of the Nineties, has now been rebuilt.
It being an early Sunday morning, the town was particularly quiet and we drove out along the main west-east road, encountering very little in the way of traffic. Stupendous views down toward the coast from our high vantage points allowed us to stop for some very scenic photos of the gorgeous island landscape. However, on one such break our bus gave us a couple of signs that it wasn’t up to the task at hand. A bit of sputtering and hiccoughing later, we were off again, but with fingers crossed.
It should be noted at this point that we did need to make it to the ferry point by a certain time and time was not a luxury that we had much of, despite the earlier than usual departure. There were only two ferry departures per day from Sucuraj to Drvenik on the mainland. We were aiming for 11 am, while the next wasn’t until 5 pm. Our progress across the island soon necessitated another stop, for more pragmatic means than photos, and that is when things got a bit more complicated. As we prepared to set off again, our bus decided that it had had enough. I guess it thought it should have the Sunday off. Now we sat stuck in the middle of the island with another hour or so to get to the ferry point and with a couple of hours before the ferry actually left. Finding a replacement bus would not be easy at the best of times. And it was Sunday, of course.
With the sun getting higher in the sky and the bus interior heating up, everyone grabbed the chance to catch some fresh air. Some pontificated on the nature of the bus problem, scratching chins. Some sheltered in the nearby shade; Hvar is the sunniest island in Croatia and, according to the tourist brochures, in Europe too. Some wandered over to a nearby family-run winery: the local family thought that it was Christmas come early.
In the meantime, my driver and I called for a replacement bus. Time was of the essence after all. Being a Sunday, the replacement bus was not as quick as we would have liked. It eventually arrived and I gathered the much happier winery visitors and the others into our new bus and off we went, as fast as we dare, to Sucuraj.
Alas, we missed our ferry by 10 minutes. Ten! Sigh. Our next ferry wouldn’t be for another six hours. That would mean no Medjugorje and a very late arrival into Mostar. Such is the nature of travel. But, wait! What if that fisherman across the way could take us over to the mainland in his boat? With new plan of action in mind, I phoned our agent to organize a bus to meet us at Drvenik over on the mainland, negotiated with the fisherman to take the 16 of us over in his boat, and took the opportunity to have a leisurely lunch by the water in this tiny village. The sense of adventure had seized everyone and all agreed to the exciting, if unorthodox, means of transport off of the island. Meanwhile, our original, newly serviced bus and trusty driver arrived at the port and we planned to have them meet us in Mostar after it took the later ferry.
With plan in place and everyone nourished after a fine meal, we boarded the boat and set off across the narrow strait to Drvenik. The wind was in our hair, the smell of sea salt filled our noses and the potentially catastrophic day had turned into an adventure! Engine puttering along, our vessel leisurely crossed the water, captain peering out from his little window in the stern. The group grinned at one another as they soaked in this rather novel addition to the itinerary. In very little time, we arrived at the mainland and waited very briefly before we were picked up by our new bus sent down from Split. We jumped on board and headed to the Croatian/Bosnia and Herzegovina border. With easy border formalities we left the coast behind us and drove into the dramatic hills and beautiful landscape that the region is famous for.
We arrived at Medjugorje with enough time for people to explore the town whose tourist industry has benefitted greatly from the sightings (although the Catholic Church has declared the sightings of the Virgin Mary to be unsubstantiated). Curiousity satisfied, we again boarded our bus and headed to Mostar, arriving as darkness fell, as we drove past lasting evidence of the Bosnian War with bombed out buildings lurking like ghosts. Tired but elated, we arrived at our hotel and checked in, happy to have made it safely to our home for the night. The cherry on the sundae to this exciting day showed up 15 minutes later with our bus, driver and luggage. Perfect.
I suppose it’s one of the funny things about travel. It would be nice if everything went to plan, but if everything went to plan, then it doesn’t allow for the freedom of spontaneity. Ever Garrison said “Adversity enhances this tale we called life” and I was fortunate to have a great group of travelers ready to seize the sense of adventure that adversity had laid in our path. And we all came out the better for it with a tale to tell.
Our group makes the trip across the strait from Hvar to Drvenik on the mainland of Croatia.
Our group makes the trip across the strait from Hvar to Drvenik on the mainland of Croatia.
Posted on April 8th, 2009 No comments
Iran By Lindsay Mackenzie
Perhaps more than anywhere else I’ve led tours, Iran has a tendency to exceed expectations. From experiencing the grandeur of the sites we visit, to witnessing first-hand the dramatic pace of change in this young and politically significant country, to constantly encountering the unbelievable kindness of the locals, almost everything is surprising to travelers new to Iran, who have heard so much and yet know so little about the country.
Iran saturates the senses, from gardens drenched in the fragrance of orange blossoms in Shiraz, to the bright colors of the tiny village of Abayenah (population 300), to the taste of tamarind tea enjoyed with impossibly sweet dates on an afternoon break in Esfahan.
Many sites leave profound impressions: the immensity of the third largest public square in the world in Esfahan; the simple ingenuity of the ubiquitous wind towers in Yazd; the solemnity inside the tomb of Ayatollah Khomenini in Tehran; the power and historical significance of Persepolis.
It is the warmth of the locals, however, that leaves the most lasting impressions. Wherever we stopped during our two week tour a giggling group of local schoolgirls would creep closer to us as we listened to our guide’s explanations. Knowing that his voice was no match for a group of shrieking teenage girls, our guide would usually stop for a moment to allow the girls to ask their questions.
Generally, after being prodded by her friends, the bravest of the group of girls would shyly greeted us with a reluctant “Hello, how are you?” before hiding behind her headscarf. She would stay hidden for a moment, then her curiosity would get the better of her and she’d reemerge to observe our reaction.
“Well hello! How are you?” one of the members of my group would reply, their response always met by an eruption of shrieking and laughter from the girls. They would move closer to us and, emboldened by their first success, begin to debate among themselves how to construct the next English phrase. After a few more questions, any semblance of order and restraint would break down and they’d gleefully shout whatever came to mind between fits of giggles: “How are you! I love you! Where are you from!”
Then someone would ask for permission to take photos and after a moment of hesitation, the girls would smile, agree, and pulled their cell-phone cameras out from within their black chadors. A shoot-out would ensue, with both ‘sides’ pointing cameras at each other to document the encounter in a delightful chaos of camera clicks and broken-English, the small mob of kids just as eager to ask questions and take photos of us as we were of them.
My group of American and Canadian men and women were consistently greeted by locals with curiosity and kindness. One day in Yazd, for example, a man talking to his friends in the hotel lobby overhead a member of my group mention he needed to find replacement hearing aid batteries. The young man, who was not a staff member at the hotel, picked us up in his own car early the next morning and took us to a store he knew would have them. He expected nothing in return. Later in the afternoon on the same day, another member of my group and I climbed to the top of the Amir Chakhmagh complex during our free time, where we had a brief conversation with a group of local men who were serving in the Iranian army. After climbing down, one of the men asked us if we’d like to see the practice of a traditional sport called Zurkhaneh. We said we would, and followed him around the corner to a gym where a ceremony was underway. Without our knowing it, he paid both of our entrance fees. When we realized what had happened and attempted to pay him back, he told us to enjoy the ceremony and disappeared out of the building.
In perhaps no other place in the world is there such a wide chasm between outsider’s perceptions and the in-country reality than in Iran. I hope many more travelers have the opportunity to bring home new impressions of a truly spectacular country.