20 Years of Travel #14 – Galapagos

321037_10150282405697986_8079591_nThe 20 Years of Travel series continues with a very memorable family trip we took in 2011 to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. This adventure cruise was established with a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. This would not be your typical vacation with lots of relaxation. We were there to explore islands filled with unique creatures that are endemic to the Galapagos. Our days were filled with nature walks, snorkeling and lessons on Darwin, geology and photography. It was one of the most exhausting and rewarding trips we have ever experienced.

289249_10150281749112986_6851427_o

We flew to Guayaquil, Ecuador (pictured above) and then flew to San Cristobal (pictured below), where we would pick up our boat that would be our home for a little more than a week.

The National Geographic Endeavour (pictured on the right) was a smaller boat but had326327_10150281751942986_1913629_o everything we needed. Anyway, we wouldn’t spend a lot of time on the boat, except to eat and sleep.  Through an intercom radio in everyone’s room, the program director, Carlos, would make a morning announcement/wake-up call. These announcements would come normally between 5-7am in the morning.

Espanola Island

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We took many nature walking tours on Espanola. Our first stop was a beach full of lounging sea lions. Then we walked through piles of marine iguanas – never want to be that close to iguanas again if I can help it – to find one of the largest flying birds in the world…the albatross. We got to witness the albatross mating ritual, which was really fascinating. Our final stop lead us to some blue-footed boobies. These are marine birds that are known for their blue feet, hence the name. We got to see some babies that just look like little cotton balls – so adorable.

Champion Island

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We took smaller rafts around Champion Island to get a better visual of some of the water animals. The highlight was seeing penguins. After the rafting tour, we went snorkeling with all the amazing fish, penguins, and sea lions that like to play with you in the water.

Floreana Island

2018-08-17_9-26-58

On Floreana, we stopped to visit Old Post Office Bay. This post office box (which looks more like a barrel) has been there for hundreds of years. This postal system does not require stamps, you just leave cards for your family and friends and pick up other individuals’ cards who have addresses near you that you can hand deliver. This post office continues to operate just like this. We delivered cards and my family received their card as well.

Santa Cruz Island

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Santa Cruz is one of the four islands of the Galapagos that are inhabited by people. There is a lot to see and experience on this island. Here are some highlights from our time on Santa Cruz:

  • The Charles Darwin Research Station. At this station they look to provide safety and protection to grow endangered species. This was where Lonesome George lived, who was the last survivor of the dynasty of land tortoises from Pinta Island. While we did get to see him, he did unfortunately die one year later. It is estimated that he lived for almost 100 years.
  • The fish market. This market was bustling with activity and we were thoroughly entertained by pelicans and sea lions begging for fish scraps. Yet, the fisherman had no problem doing their work.
  • Sugar cane production. We visited a family’s farm that produced sugar cane in an old fashion style. They let us try some of their 65% alcoholic drink (130-proof) that they can produced from the sugar cane. They also produce their own coffee beans and chocolate there which were fantastic.
  • Giant tortoises. With our giant rubber boots, we wandered around in a field full of giant tortoises, who were bigger than us and didn’t mind us hanging out with them.
  • Twin Craters. We continued to enjoy the natural lushness and greenery of Santa Cruz by taking a hike to two huge craters, that were caused by the sinking of empty magma chambers.
  • Cerro Dragon. On the opposite side of Santa Cruz is a place called Cerro Dragon, where you can see an abundance of boobies, frigate birds and land iguanas.

Bartolome Island

We had more opportunities for snorkeling off of Bartolome Island. On one of these snorkeling excursions, white-tipped reef sharks were spotted. We also got to enjoy a presentation by two authors, Jonathan Weiner and Deborah Heiligman, who wrote about Charles Darwin and his research (specifically regarding his interest in the finches). As a book lover, this was a huge highlight for me. I own books by both authors (see picture above).

Genovesa Island

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The highlight of this island was the red-footed boobies and the nazca boobies.

This was such an amazing trip for so many reasons, but mostly because we found ourselves doing things we had never done. I, personally, was never an animal person, but on these islands we were walking side by side with iguanas, tortoises and hundreds of other creatures. We had only been snorkeling once before but went multiple times in the Galapagos. There is nothing like snorkeling with sea lions that are blowing bubbles in your face. We learned so much about the evolution of nature on these islands thanks to our fantastic guides and experts. These guides also gave us photography lessons that helped us capture all of these amazing moments. This was such a memorable experience!

306884_10150282415942986_1574912_n

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #13: Mediterranean Cruise

11013271_10152884232492986_6008403866458871676_n

The 20 Years of Travel series continues with a Mediterranean cruise that we took for our wedding anniversary in 2015. It was our first big cruise line cruise. We had done a river cruise in the USA, transportation cruise to the Bahamas, and an exploration cruise in the Galapagos, but never one like this. For beginners, I think we handled this learning experience really well and had a lot of fun along the way.

ITINERARY

Trieste, Italy

11233772_10152884223307986_6822736057728287175_n-a

Trieste was the port where the cruise would depart and return to. We lived in Italy at the time, so we just took a train to Trieste from our hometown but allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to tour around the city for a bit. This town is the bridge between Western Europe and the Balkans. You can easily access Slovenia from here if you have time.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bari, Italy

11143303_10152884224052986_2833927610553154562_n

Our first stop on the cruise was the small coastal town of Bari in the Apulia region on the eastern side of Italy. It was a great walkable city, so we did not feel the need to take an excursion offered by the cruise line. There are forts to explore, a nice waterfront and the beautiful Cattedrale di San Sabino (Bari Cathedral).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Corfu, Greece

11233516_10152884233382986_7605386753115432545_n

Our first stop in Greece was the island of Corfu. We again didn’t take a cruise line excursion, which you might want to consider doing if you want to get to the heart of the town in a timely fashion. However, we decided to just find a cafe, where we indulged in a drink and enjoyed the atmosphere of some locals.

Mykonos, Greece

11225412_10152884261822986_6914988253311136928_n

Mykonos was a highlight for me as I’ve been wanting to go there since I was a kid. It did not disappoint. We took a jeep tour of the island excursion, which was an amazing way to see most of the island. Plus, my husband loved driving around on the rough passageways. This excursion also included lunch on the island with an ouzo tasting, which is an alcoholic shot that looks cloudy and tastes like black licorice. After the excursion, we had time to clean up and catch sunset on Mykonos. The island lights up with amazing colors at sunset. We decided to eat a fancy dinner for our anniversary on the island, which I highly recommend. Though it is tempting to eat only the food that is included on the cruise you paid for, it is nice to give some money to the local businesses. Mykonos was just stunning!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Santorini, Greece

10857750_10152884279502986_4185600147086316727_n

Our next island stop was Santorini, which was my favorite stop on the cruise. I had seen beautiful pictures, but pictures don’t seem to do it justice. We took the excursion transportation to Oia, which was 100% worth it. The guide gave us a great overview lesson of the island, its history and economics, and then we wandered around. We immediately found a cafe, where we could sit outside with coffees, enjoying an amazing view of the caldera. When you have finished viewing and taking pictures of the cliff-side architecture, I would do a wine tasting and purchase some bottles of wine if possible. Due to the eruption of the Santorini volcano many years ago, the soil on the island is rich for producing wine. You will have a lot of white wine choices, and Santorini’s specialty is the Vin Santo, which is a dessert wine. I loved everything about this island and especially Oia.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

10489769_10152884308387986_4539660142853532804_n

This was not part of the original itinerary, but due to some bad weather, we stopped in Dubrovnik instead of Split, Croatia. Dubrovnik was the last stop before heading back to Trieste, Italy, where our cruising adventure would end. I went to Dubrovnik ten years prior to this trip (I’ll discuss further in an upcoming post about the Balkans), and it has remained very dear to my heart ever since. I was happy to revisit some of my favorite places, including the cafe that overlooks the Adriatic, where the owners gave us coffee and drinks even though they were not officially open. The weather was not great but we still got to walk in the ancient city walls and visit the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lessons Learned

  • Make sure that you have a spare set of clothing (aka dress, underwear, shorts, etc) in the small bag that you carry on to the cruise boat. We had our luggage checked prior to getting onto the boat. The luggage check-in was located outdoors in the midst of a huge windy rainstorm. When we received our duffle bag full of clothes, everything was drenched. While the cruise line had all of our clothes dry cleaned for free, this took a couple of days, where we were wearing the same clothes.
  • The drink package is sooooo worth it! After finding out about our wet clothes and having my credit card canceled (even though they knew I was traveling – thank you Capital One), we wanted nothing more than to sit at the bar and have a drink or three. We decided to purchase the all-you-can-drink package, which we definitely utilized frequently. This includes water and coffee as well, so it is 100% worth it!
  • Pack multiple sets of dress clothes. Apparently dressing up for dinner on a cruise boat is sometimes mandatory. That bit of information can often be hidden on websites and can catch you completely by surprise if you have never been on a cruise before.
  • Find a good booking site. After getting frustrated on trying to figure out how to see some Greek islands on our own, without using an organized tour, I received an email from VacationsToGo, advertising a discount on a Mediterranean cruise for the time period we were looking to travel. It seemed like a sign, so I picked up my phone and called the 800 number on the website and within a few minutes an agent had us all booked on this cruise. It took barely any of my time to plan, cost a lot less than if I had set up travel to the islands on my own, and we even got our drink package for free as part of a special deal.
  • Plan excursions prior to being on the cruise. Before going on your cruise, check out the possible excursions and make a decisions on the ones you want to go on prior to being on the boat. We did not purchase excursions ahead of time and found at least one we wanted to do was fully booked.
  • Don’t be afraid to change dining tables. Cruises love to give you assigned dining seats, so you can meet new people. However, unfortunately we did not have a great experience with our dining table, and we waited too many days to change tables to sit with some friends. If after the first night, you do not enjoy your dining experience, talk to someone, so that you can be relocated.
  • Allow plenty of time before and after the cruise. Most people will travel to take cruises. If you are one of those people, make sure to leave a good cushion of time before and after your cruising experience. The cruise line took a long time returning passports to passengers at the end of the cruise (hours after we were docked) and madness erupted. Many passengers were furious, because they missed their schedule trains or planes home. While we had allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to catch our transportation home, it was hard not to feel for every individual who had to suffer missed connections because of this delay.

11210496_10152884233197986_6619390598345206023_n

While I am not sure I would recommend Costa cruise lines as the best option for cruising, we enjoyed our cruising experience overall. So much so that we have decided to take another cruise at the end of this year. If you have done some cruising, please feel free to leave some tips and recommendations in the comment section below. I would greatly appreciate it. Until next time…

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #4: Cuba

12371047_10153326894582986_5057510741805348242_o

My fourth destination on my 20 Years of Travel series is Cuba! As many of you know, as an American, this destination was not open to US visitors during my lifetime until recently. In 2015, Americans were allowed with some restrictions to travel to Cuba, so my husband, his parents and I jumped at the opportunity to visit. At that time you still had to provide an reason for being there, so we were on a People to People Excursion, which was also a photography tour.

I’ve never been on a photography tour like this before. It wasn’t just walk the streets and 10629491_10153326903992986_2203594805029205430_otake pictures. It was get up before the sun to learn how to take sunrise shots. There were no naps on the bus rides, because that was when you learned about your camera’s features and editing features by professional photographers: Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring. Then you get to have your photos critiqued (nicely…of course) by the other members in the group. It was a very intensive course, but I learned so much. I hope I am still using at least 10% of what I learned about photography during that week..

Trinidad

1016010_10153326901827986_4450895894152854810_o

I loved this town. It was comprised of vibrant colors and interesting people. We spent a lot of time wandering the streets here, getting a real taste of the Cuban culture. We found a few musicians, who were very talented. That convinced me that I should check out one12370645_10153326900147986_5447113127593441798_o of the Cuban salsa clubs in the evening, which was interesting and definitely not something I had experienced before. While taking a break on one of our daily walks, we found a man who was telling us about his daily routine of walking many miles down a hill outside of town to come and sell a few bananas for not even the equivalent of $2 US dollars. Then he would walk back up the hill every evening. His shoes were worn almost completely through, and it was a bit heartbreaking. Shoes that cost us $50 US dollars would cost Cubans 5 times that, since at the time they were imported from China. I really felt that I was gaining a huge understanding of basic Cuban life during our time in Trinidad.

Cienfuegos

If you have read Hemingway, Cienfuegos might sound familiar. It was featured in The Old Man and the Sea, which I read for the first time while I was in Cienfuegos. I thought it1933246_10153326904842986_8162388911926568875_o was quite appropriate. This town is located on a bay, so you will see a lot of boats – both yachts and fishing boats. While we did have some luxury time to indulge in some of Cuba’s famous liquor (see photo below), we spent a portion of our time at an art school. These young people were so talented. They just blew me away on how they could take any item and turn it into an amazing piece of art (see picture on the right where they were using just clothespins). They were so happy to tell us about their school and what art means to them.

12374790_10153326906202986_2623961477902536572_o

Viñales

1933678_10153326907402986_6981883067760158010_o

This part of Cuba was the biggest shock to me. The lush greenery reminded me of something I would see on a South Pacific Island. I wasn’t expecting this. As we headed 12366043_10153326907947986_173294949960655377_ointo the hills, we saw a lot of farm land and stopped at one such farm. This farm grows crops, raises animals like chickens, and produces coffee (see picture below). The owners of this farm were really welcoming. It was interesting to experience farming without the giant machinery, though it has to be such hard labor (see picture on the left). The land in this part of Cuba seems to get enough rain that an advanced irrigation system is not necessary at least. I felt a little bad for invading on this family during their work day, but they were so friendly and even brewed some coffee for us.

After getting a true taste of rural Cuba, we headed into the hills. If you enjoy biking there are some great biking trails in this area. The scenery is just amazing. While our hotel (Hotel Los Jazmines) did not produce the most comfortable night’s sleep, the views were just stunning (see below). I almost didn’t regret getting up before the sun to capture these amazing photographs.

Havana

10320901_10153326924812986_3760880021142142387_o

We ended our trip with a few days in Havana. It has been a dream of mine to see Havana12377523_10153326893612986_8703232530813394301_o since I was a little kid (thank you Guys and Dolls), so I was really looking forward to this. Havana is not just a great place to learn about Cuba’s history (though we did visit the Revolution Museum, which was great) and view it’s amazing architecture (see picture on the right), but the arts are prevalent in Cuban culture as mentioned in my Trinidad section. We started our exploration into their arts scene by visiting the studio of Compas Dance. They performed for us as well and just blew me away.

We also went to visit a Cuban ballet company, where they were rehearsing for a performance of Giselle.

I enjoyed this trip so much! It wasn’t about being a tourist. It was about exploring a culture that had been so unfamiliar to me. Cubans are such hard workers with so much passion. The people there opened up their homes and their hearts to us, and I just couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to finally have explored Cuba.

Stay tuned for the next feature in the 20 Years of Travel series. Until then….

HAPPY TRAVELING!!!

10557661_10153326925317986_7178897272778420184_o

20 Years of Travel #3: Sahara Trek

456214_10150826944557986_1943871065_o

To continue with my 20 Years of Travel celebration, my third location feature is: The Sahara. In 2012, my husband and I decided to honeymoon in Morocco. This decision may have been completely inspired by the movie Casablanca, which we both love. However, while we enjoyed immersing ourselves in the cities like Casablanca, Rabat, Fez and Marrakesh, our favorite part of this trip was our trek through the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara, where we camped overnight.

Though the roads leading through the Atlas Mountains were windy and dangerous, the views were just stunning:

462064_10150826903577986_1948409656_o

469528_10150826889387986_1854260669_o

Of course no Sahara trek is complete without a little bonding time with some camels!

469072_10150826923467986_750402221_o

464211_10150826929372986_587876252_o

I really liked my camel. It was sweet to me (though a bit wobbly) – makes me almost regret eating that camel burger in Dubai a few years later…almost.

As we road a jeep into the Sahara, it was a roller coaster of sand dunes (see picture at very top of the post), and I prayed that the driver knew where he was going, because all I could see were miles and miles of hot hot sand with a few dust devils. I knew no matter how much I had my camera protected, with plastic bags and everything, there was no way I could avoid getting sand in it.

What seemed like at least an hour of driving we came to a tiny campground. How our driver found this place is still beyond me. There were just about seven tents total with a fire pit in the middle.

467333_10150826937367986_1573424350_o

That night I felt like this had to be the most peaceful place on earth. No noise except for a few individuals place music by the fire pit and no lights except for the fire in the fire pit. Thanks to a Reese Witherspoon movie I saw as a child called A Far Off Place, I was aware that deserts, while very hot during the day, get very cold at night, so I had brought my sweatshirt with me. Unfortunately, my husband had not and had a very cold restless night. I slept like a baby.

The next day was just beautiful, so we told our driver that we would like to explore the sand dunes a bit. He said he would meet us on the other side. It took us a good hour to get to him. Sand makes walking difficult. It was worth it though!

456694_10150761739107986_1288338592_o

It was one of the most amazing adventures I’ve ever experienced and would do it again in a heartbeat. I would like to give a shout out and huge thanks to the Naamani Groupe for organizing and guiding us on this part of our Moroccan adventure. You guys were the best!

HAPPY TRAVELING!!!

460516_10150826917567986_1917478756_o

20 Years of Travel #1: German Class Trip

Per my last post, I am celebrating 20 years of travel by writing about my top 20 travel destinations over the last 20 years. It seems fitting that I would start with my first oversees travel experience.

In July of 1998, I got to go on a trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy with my high school German class. While that was 20 years ago, I’m going to list the places and events from this trip that I remember most. Enjoy a look at these places through the eyes of a sixteen year old (including pictures taken with disposable cameras):

20180604_215533 (1)

Cities visited in order of the Itinerary (see picture above):

  1. Frankfurt, Germany
    • To overcome jet lag, our teacher/tour leader signed us up for a Rhine River boat tour with a wine tasting. That may have been my first taste of wine. Lesson learned: drinking wine might not be the best way to overcome jet lag.
  2. Rothenberg, Germany
    • What I always pictured a European town to look like.
    • Largest Christmas store I’ve ever seen.
  3. Munich, Germany20180604_214421
    • Seeing a 1998 World Cup Soccer game on a big screen in the main square
    • We stumbled across a large crowd of people outside Planet Hollywood. I sat on my friend’s shoulders for 45 minutes. We had know idea what was going on. Eventually, we realized that this crowd was waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He threw me a t-shirt that I actually still have.
    • My teacher bought us giant mugs of beer at the Hofbrauhaus.
    • The Glöckenspiel. – Munich was one of my favorite places, and I would finally revisit it 18 years later.
  4. Berchtesgaden, Germany
    • Saw my first mountains as we headed in to the Alps.
    • We all had a snowball fight in July.
  5. Salzburg, Austria
    • Obviously the birth place of Mozart, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the Sound of Music. We took a Sound of Music walking tour, which I thought was perfect as I was “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”.
  6. Lake Maggiore, Italy
    • The lake district of Northern Italy is just gorgeous. We stopped on Isola Bella and toured the stunning Palazzo Borromee.
  7. Innsbruck, Austria
    • I was unimpressed with Innsbruck. It was a brief stop anyway.
  8. St. Moritz, Switzerland
    • My first of many European train rides. The train from St. Moritz to Tirano, Italy has the best views (see picture above).
  9. Lugano, Switzerland20180604_212955
    • With some allotted free time, a few friends and I rented a speed boat on Lake Lugano. See pic on the right of me driving the boat. My friends and I also got into a lot of trouble for this, because we missed our curfew, and apparently everyone was looking everywhere for us. However, I have no regrets. It was amazing…just sitting in the boat with the wind blowing your hair and looking at the mountains coming out of lake. It was the most memorable moment of the trip for me.
    • While Lugano holds a special place in my heart for the enjoyable boating experience, I have not returned, which may have something to do with the cockroach infested accommodations we stayed at while we were there. Insects everywhere…in the shower, in the beds….
  10. Zermatt, Switzerland
    • It is pretty remarkable that my first experience with mountains also included viewing the Matterhorn (see picture at the top of the page). We took a train to a higher elevation to view it. Then some of us walked back down to the town of Zermatt, which was just a beautiful little Swiss town. I loved it there.
  11. Gruyere, Switzerland
    • CHEESE!!!!
  12. Lucerne, Switzerland
    • Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) – I remembered seeing this bridge in picture albums my Grandmother had, and it was really amazing to be able to see it in person.
  13. Heidelberg, Germany
    • I vaguely remember a boat ride, but I think I was so exhausted by the end of this tour that I have little recollection of doing anything in Heidelberg.

20180604_192222

Since this trip almost 20 years ago, I’ve been back to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland many times and lived in Italy for a few years, so this area of the world has always meant so much to mean. While this trip was not the beginning of my love of world travel, it was the beginning of making world travel a reality and a way of life for me.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane with me. Next post on the 20 Years of Travel series will be a location a bit closer to home.

20 Years of Travel

Travel

2018 is a special year for me, as I celebrate 20 years of travel. Traveling is something that has been important to me since I was very young (see my post Why I Travel). I think I was always meant to be “a goer,” as my mother-in-law calls it. 20 years ago this summer, I had an amazing opportunity to go abroad for the first time with my high school German class. Since then, my travels have taken me to 38 countries on 5 continents.

To celebrate my last 20 years of travel, I will be posting my top 20 favorite travel locations and experiences from now until August 31, 2018. To receive updates on these travel posts, please use the side bar options on the home page to follow this blog or follow the Facebook page.

It is only fitting that my next post will be about that infamous first trip abroad, so stay tuned and HAPPY TRAVELS!

sunset