Surfing Adventures

Surfing Sayulita

I love the ocean; the colors, the waves, the underwater world full of fish and coral. The power of the waves amazes me, and the sound of them crashing relaxes me. Sadly, its churning motion, the ups and downs and rocking motion also have been known to make me sick. None the less, I’ve taken surfing lessons, gone on a week long sailing trip and been on countless boat rides for snorkeling, diving and transportation around the world without incident. Let’s not talk too much about the ‘with incident’ ones in St. Pierre & Miquelon, Koh Phi Phi and the Atlantic Ocean on my way to Bermuda.

It’s always a challenge for me to go anywhere on a boat as I know that I can get violently ill, and if I do, it is horrible. But, I keep the faith that I’ve been on far more rides where I have been fine than ill.

Other than seasickness, my second fear with surfing is getting pummeled by a big wave as it crashes and getting held under as it churns and throws you in every direction. It has happened to me twice; once in Lawrencetown beach, Nova Scotia while swimming with my sister and once in Sosua, Dominican Republic while trying to get past the waves to go for a swim. Clearly I survived both times, but those few seconds of confusion, no air and the pressure of the wave pounding you toward the sand were really disconcerting.

In 2015, when I was traveling in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I decided to take surfing lessons with a friend in a small town called Sayulita. It’s known for it’s calm waters and a great spot to learn to surf. After a one-hour land lesson and lots of practice getting into position, we were off to try our newfound skills on water. We paddled out to where the water was just over my head, turned toward the beach and the instructor told us when to paddle and gave each of our boards a little push to help us get the speed we needed. I stood up on my very first try and rode the wave in.

Surfing Sayulita

I remember the feeling of power as the wave pushed me forward and I slowly took my time to get in the upright position. It was like a friend coming up from behind you and jokingly pushing you, causing you to rush forward, but not fall.

I purposely jumped off the board at the end as I was in fairly shallow water. I was super stoked that I had stood up on my very first wave!

The second, third and fourth waves … well … Let’s just say maybe I had beginner’s luck.

I did manage to stand up on five or six different waves that day in Sayulita before becoming exhausted from paddling and popping up on my board. And it seemed by the end when this next photo was taken that I hadn’t really improved that much, but I did have fun!

Surfing Sayulita

When I visited Bocas del Toro in Panama to study and volunteer with Habla Ya Spanish Schools, I signed up for one day of surfing lessons. I expected a very similar experience to what I had in Mexico. I hadn’t done any research, and oh how wrong I was!

I was greeted by Michelle at Mono Loco, one of the best surf schools in Bocas Town. She was incredibly friendly, welcoming and I immediately felt excited to be doing surf lessons with a girl! I very clearly remember my internal dialogue saying ‘Wow. It’s really awesome to have a girl-instructor. I bet she’s really good.’ Surfing is a male-dominated sport, so I expected to have a male instructor and be with a bunch of guys in a class. Instead, I had a female instructor and one other girl in my class from Portugal.

Michelle exclaimed ‘The waves are so great today! I just got back in.”

Me, ‘By great, you mean small and good for beginner’s right?’

She chuckled a bit and said ‘No, they are really good.’

I responded with a nervous chuckle.

We would be surfing an area behind Carenero Island called Black Rock. We had a great classroom lesson on how waves work and how to paddle properly. The importance of scooping under the board was stressed because of the strong current in the area we were going to. I also learned (much to my dismay) that we would be surfing over a reef.

ALERT ALERT

All I could think of was being slammed by a wave and pummeled by the coral and then needing to contact my travel insurance on the way to the hospital with my open wounds.

Of course, Michelle quickly explained that the reef was 10 or 12 feet below and because of the type of waves, even if you got caught in the ‘foamball’, it wouldn’t push you far enough down to hit the coral. Somewhat reassuring I suppose.

She also explained that if we thought we were too late to catch the wave, we could wait for it and dive into it so that the power of the white water as it crashed would wash over us instead of taking us down with it.

I was really starting to wonder what I had signed up for. She was talking about three to five foot waves, in the middle of the ocean. Thinking back though, the waves were taller than someone standing on their board, so they must have been at least six feet, right? They’d be coming in sets and if we missed the first one, we’d just have to position ourselves quickly and we could catch the next. (mmm quickly? How quickly?) She told us how hard we would have to paddle, but then when we needed a rest we could get to the channel and stay there or we could get to the boat and hold on for a bit if we needed to rest.

On the flip side, what’s really cool about the spot where we went to surf is that it is like a giant wave pool, except it’s the ocean! There’s a lull where the ocean goes nearly calm and then a set of four to eight waves come in. If you catch the first one, it regenerates itself and gives you a second and then a third chance all on the same wave. How cool is that?! I could understand it on the classroom board, but would I be able to do it in real life? I was trying really hard not to think about my two fears: being seasick and being in the wrong spot at the wrong time sending me into the foamball.

We quickly positioned ourselves on a demo board and practiced our ‘pop-up’. Easy-peasy on the super steady floor with no rushing wave behind us! And then we were off to catch our boat, grab our boards and catch some waves.

The boat ride was only about five or six minutes and our surf spot was just behind Carenero Island. I’ve zipped past here many times on my way to Bastimentos, Solarte and Popa Islands and admired the crashing waves in the distance. This time, as we approached I got a little (more) freaked out by the size of the waves. They looked pretty big from the front. Oh and when we came around and approached from the back, they looked pretty big from back there too!

Remember my first surf lesson when I jumped off the board at the end because it was shallow? Ya, that clearly wasn’t happening this time. Nor was there any chance to rest with your feet on the ground.

Our boat anchored and within moments I knew I couldn’t sit in the bobbing boat, so I hopped in the water and waited for my board. After waxing up the boards to help us grip better, we set off paddling into the channel (the easy part) where we would go one at a time with the instructor out on the waves. I knew I was in trouble as soon as everyone started paddling and I started falling behind. I was having a hard time just balancing on the board on my stomach. I didn’t remember this part being so difficult.

Finally I caught up and we got the lowdown on where the safe zones were, what to watch for and where to “rest”. The other girl in my class has surfed a few times and was super excited, so off she went with Michelle to catch the first of the waves. Sure enough, she popped up and rode for a bit before paddling back to the safe zone.

I was off to give it a try. I very clearly remember Michelle telling me to get in position and yelling, ‘Get ready. Don’t look back. Just look forward. Start paddling…….. Now! Don’t look back!’ I followed orders and didn’t look back (thank goodness). I paddled as hard as I could until I felt the wave launch me forward like a javelin. I can remember feeling the water against my body, but somehow I was going the same speed, so it didn’t come over my head or take me down. I pushed into cobra position and stayed there. I was too wrapped up in the speed and power of the wave to even think about getting to my feet. As the wave slowed, it regenerated and there was that thrust forward again. This time I thought about standing but couldn’t quite figure out how to make it happen. Cobra worked just fine for me. The wave slowed again, regenerated and one last push put me to the end of the wave area.

I hadn’t made it to my feet but I was super happy to have caught the wave to begin with, to feel it’s incredible power and to have held my cobra position long enough to get me through all three waves.

High fives from Michelle as she had ridden the wave in with me and congratulated me for making it!

We started paddling toward the channel where we would be out of the wave zone and eventually Michelle kindly offered me a tow. I was tiring quickly and apparently despite my paddling, I wasn’t actually moving anywhere due to the current. How this tiny surfer girl who weighs about half of what I do could have enough strength to paddle herself and tow me out of this current was beyond me, but she did. She towed me as far into the safe zone as possible, made sure I was good and then took my classmate out on her next wave.

As I bobbed around in the channel, I was excited to watch each of the other students go out and stand up on the waves. I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t stood up, but reminded myself each of them had previously had one week or more of practice where as I had only ever had one, two hour class. And I gave myself a break.

I skipped my next turn and Michelle took one of the other students out and then returned for me. By this time, bobbing in the water was starting to make my stomach churn. We had been out in the water for a total of about 30 – 40 minutes at this point. I was determined to get another run in. We paddled out to the wave zone (much easier to paddle WITH the current), Michelle yelled at me to paddle and suddenly I felt the wave shove me forward. I got into cobra and held for a second. I started to pop up, but feeling a little tipsy, put my feet back down on the back of the board and rode the regenerations in cobra position again. So, I didn’t stand up … Next time I would get it!

As I struggled against the current to get into the channel, again I was stuck, moving nowhere. I’ve never been so tired from moving nowhere. It was exhausting! Clearly I needed to improve my paddling technique to make it effective. By the time I got back in the channel, the cold sweats were passing over my body. I knew there was no way around it. Soon, I would be sick. After Michelle congratulated me for my second run, I told her that I wouldn’t be able to go again, that I wasn’t feeling well. Disappointed, I headed back to the boat where she suggested I could at least hold on and not have to fight the current. Moments later, she was towing me toward the boat as I had no energy and was likely turning green.

We were within about two meters of the boat when I let go of Michelle’s line. As she turned to see why I had let go, I said, “I’m not going to make it to the boat.” A split second later I was in the water (instead of on my board), holding my board and ‘letting it all go’.

Vomiting while you are actually in the sea has benefits and downfalls. Downfalls, you can’t always keep your face out of the water, you might take in some salt water and you have to tread water to keep yourself afloat. On the other hand, there’s no clean up and relatively little smell, unlike being stuck with your face in a toilet.

Michelle tried to comfort me saying that I’m not the first one to get sick in these waves. That helped a little, but I was still disappointed.

While I was busy emptying my stomach, Michelle waved down a boat that would take me back to shore. She was concerned as she didn’t have any money to pay him, but I did! When they had recommended we leave whatever we could at the surf shop, I decided to take my wallet and cover up in my dry bag. At this point even if it was going to cost me $20, I needed out of the waves and back on land.

Exhausted from paddling against the current for 45 – 60 minutes and weak from puking in the sea, I had to find the energy to lift myself into the little boat. There aren’t any ladders to climb up, no sand or rocks to push off of, just pure upper body strength with a scissor kick of the feet. Attempt number one was hilariously unsuccessful. Attempt number two was successful but far from graceful. I lifted myself up to boat level which was well above my head and struggled to push up far enough to tip my balance into, instead of out of the boat. Chin first, I tumbled into the boat like a beached whale and sprawled out on the hard wooden seat. And then I giggled again at the ridiculousness of it all.

Michelle gave me my water bottle, dry bag and sandals from our original boat and waved me on my way. I thanked her for all of her help and sped off into the rolling waves.

I’m sure we took the long way back as the boat captain was looking for other tired surfers to take back to Bocas Town, but none were to be found. Everyone else was bopping around in the waves or popping up and riding the big ones in. When we docked, the captain asked for a measley $2. (I was prepared to pay up to $20 if I had to) I gave him a little over $3 and thanked him for getting me out of the waves.

Despite having been seasick, I don’t for a second regret the adventure. I just wish that I had done my research. If I had known I was going to open water I would have:

  1. Taken Gravol
  2. Not eaten pineapple pancakes for breakfast
  3. Maybe chickened out and not gone at all. Ok, probably not. I would have been nervous for longer, but I still would have gone.

If you are planning to try surfing for the first time, find out what the location is like. Prepare yourself if you are prone to sea sickness and enjoy every second of that pure natural energy behind you when you catch your first wave. Even for me, it is a feeling that I’ll never forget! I’ll give surfing another try one day. I think I’ll go back to the small, beach-break waves and maybe take some Gravol next time, but I’ll get the hang of it and you can too!

Royal Livingstone

Royal Livingstone

In the midst of planning my trip to Africa for 2016, I attended the Virtuoso Travel Week Conference in Vegas. Virtuoso is a consortia for some of the best luxury travel agents and suppliers in the world. I set my focus for the conference on learning more about Africa and connecting with the best of the best. I would say I met my goal with flying colours as I truly made some of the warmest connections ever.

One such connection was the lovely Emmanuelle who I met at the Virtuoso Active and Specialty Travel tradeshow. With a huge, warm smile she greeted hundreds of travel agents over and over and never seemed to fade. When I told her I would be visiting Africa she instantly said ‘You MUST come visit us.’ And so, it began. I contacted Emmanuelle with my dates and from there, the Royal Livingstone took care of my booking and making sure that my transfers were arranged seamlessly to fit in between my other two tours.

In all of my travels, I can honestly say this was the warmest, friendliest welcome I’ve ever received from a hotel. What a delight for my very first Virtuoso Experience! Not only were the staff wonderful, I was also treated to a welcome drink, canapés and check in from the bar/lounge instead of waiting at the front desk. I met the lovely on-site general manager and learned a bit about his history in the industry and how he had come to work at the Royal Livingstone. I was then taken by golf cart to my room, not allowed to lift a finger for my luggage and given a room introduction by my butler, Kennedy. Speaking of friendly, Kennedy had a smile that engulfed his entire face and although I didn’t call on him for much, he was there to assist with anything at all that was required. I’m not sure if all butlers are as good as Kennedy, but he anticipated my needs so well that he always seemed to beat me to whatever I might have needed!

The staff at the Royal Livingstone were truly professionals. They were attentive but not intrusive. Service was quick, friendly and always with a smile. Even the gardeners and maintenance staff smile and say hello as they go about their work. I hear that this service is part of the culture in Zambia in general, but I can say for sure that it far surpassed the service I had received in three other countries so far on my journey.

And the location. Oh the beautiful location with wild zebras and giraffe wandering around outside your patio window and on the grounds around the pool! And you could hear hippos grunting in the Zambezi River while you watched the sun go down on the most perfect day. Don’t worry, they have an electric fence to keep them off property.

Not only would I recommend staying at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, I would recommend if you are visiting Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, to make the extra effort to go to Livingstone, Zambia just for the hotel experience (they are bordering towns, separated by a bridge). And, of course, I can help you get there! Just drop me a line. I’d love to tell you all the details and help you decide if it is a good fit for you! Traveling solo? That’s ok, I was too! Don’t shy away from luxury hotels if you are alone. You deserve it too!

Check out a few of my favourite photos from my stay at my favourite hotel from my travels (so far), the stunning Royal Livingstone.

Travel Nightmares Part 4 – Night bus to Bocas

Panama City Rainbow
Bus travel has never been my favourite, but when given the choice between a $30 bus ticket and a $150 plane ticket (each way), I chose the cheaper one. On top of that, the planes from Panama City to Bocas del Toro are quite small and my luggage was considerably over the weight / size restrictions, especially after purchasing extra clothes and toiletries when my luggage was lost a week earlier.
After overlanding (large truck / bus like vehicles that you travel in for hours at a time) in Africa in October / November 2016, it was unusual that only minutes after starting to move on the bus in Panama that I did not feel well. The bus was dark inside and the sun was setting outside the window. I was squished against the window by the tiny human who had been maneuvered in between her mom and I in the seats made for two. I was annoyed, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
As the bus moved moved through traffic and across the bridge, I felt a wave of adrenaline pass through my body. It was a combination of the feelings you get when you trip and almost fall, and that which passes over you just before you vomit. As I sat there with this coldness that had passed over me, I didn’t quite know what to think of it. In my head I was trying to figure out if I was going to be sick or if the last turn on the bus just surprised me. As my mind went into overdrive and the cold claminess didn’t subside, I started doing mindful breathing to calm myself down.
And here I was 15 – 20 minutes into the bus ride doing what looked like Lamaze breathing. As much as I tried to calm my thoughts, they wouldn’t stop. I was obsessed with figuring out why I felt so strange. Was I getting sick? Was I going to puke? Was I having a panic attack? Was I scared? Was I uncomfortable? Was I having balance issues from the cold that I had had for the past couple of days? How could I stay on a bus for 10 hours like this? Over and over these questions ran through my mind at breakneck pace and I tried to answer them while breathing in and counting to six and then letting it go and counting to six.
This cycle continued for about an hour or a little more until the sun was completely down and the bus had gone completely dark. The mom beside me had picked up her child and was now breastfeeding, so I at least had a little more space to be comfortable, but that didn’t matter. It was time.
All of a sudden I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold it in. I knew that I was going to be sick, it was just a matter of time. My body was in a clamy, cold sweat and I had started to shake. I literally climbed on my seat to step over the mom and baby, as when I said I needed to get out, she just looked at me. I couldn’t wait, I needed out of that seat. I wobbled and rocked my way to the front of the bus as it charged along the highway. I knocked on the door that separates the driver and assistant from the passengers and as soon as the assistant opened the door, I immediately sat down on the floor, blocking the door from being shut.
The guy just looked at me, not sure what to think. I started to try and talk (in Spanish) and realized that I was breathless. I would say one word and then gasp for air before finding my next word. And then the tears started rolling down my face. In the best broken Spanish that I could muster I told the assistant that I was sick and that I needed to get off the bus. A combination of concerned and confused, he tried to explain that I couldn’t get off the bus at that moment. He asked what was wrong. Again I tried, through my breathlessness to spit out enough words that he would understand that I couldn’t breathe and that I couldn’t stay on the bus. It was in this moment that I realized I was having a full blown panic attack; something that has only happened to me once or twice in the past 10 years. Thankfully I recognized what it was and did not think I was dying, but none the less, I wanted off that bus. It’s a horrible feeling, not being able to control your breathing and not being able to calm yourself down, especially with no clear reason for why you are upset to begin with.
If you can imagine when someone close to you passes away and you find out suddenly. Then you start to cry, which turns into uncontrollable sobbing and thoughts swirling around in your mind like leaves in a wind storm. You cry so hard that you nearly forget to breathe and then you gasp for air before the sobbing starts all over again. For me, it was much like this except the tears were minimal and the gasping for air was amplified.
The assistant told me as nicely as possible that I couldn’t get off the bus because there was no where to pull over. We were on a twisty, turny highway going down the side of a mountain and sure enough, outside the window I could see there was no shoulder, just a ditch and forest.
He told me that I couldn’t stay seated there on the floor.
I told him that I couldn’t move.
He explained that our next stop (Santiago) was over an hour away and asked if I could wait until there. I told him no. Although I didn’t know what other option I had. It wasn’t like they could leave me on the road.

The assistant and driver chatted back and forth, but I couldn’t focus on their conversation (in Spanish). The best I could do was focus on breathing. They decided that there was a town coming up in about half an hour and told me they could let me off there. They told me there would be a couple of hotels there and asked if I could go back to my seat until then.

Wobbly and unbalanced, I made my way to the middle of the bus where I had been seated. Through my tears and exaggerated breaths, I asked the mom who was seated with me if she could move to the inside and she did. About five minutes later, the assistant came to the back to get me and brought me to the front of the bus to sit in his seat and he would stand.
Being too weak to carry anything and too sick to care, I left everything in my seat. My camera bag, my laptop bag, my money and my cell phone. Yes, I was THAT sick. You know it’s rough when you leave all of that stuff behind on a bus in another country. And yes, I knew I was doing it, I just couldn’t deal with it. The only thing I could deal with was trying to get enough air.
After the assistant got me seated and buckled in, he went back for all of my things and brought them to the front of the bus. He opened the window to give me a bit of fresh air, although it was hot and sticky, it was still appreciated. I couldn’t look down or turn my head to go digging through my bags as the motion was overwhelming, so I had to get him to find my cell phone for me so that I could try to call someone at my Spanish school to help me find a hotel at the next community. It would be even worse if I got off the bus and had no where to stay!

I tried one phone number, but being a Sunday night, there was no answer. So, I called one of the teachers from the school that I had a number for. And the process of me trying to spit out words while gasping for air and crying started again. It’s one thing to focus on your breath and try to keep yourself calm, it’s another to try and express yourself. Then, try to find words in another language because no one speaks English!

I’m sure the teacher didn’t actually know what was going on, but he understood that I was sick and needed off the bus. After a moment, I passed the phone to the assistant and asked if he could talk to the teacher on the phone. He looked at me like I was crazy, but said hello. The assistant was able to explain where we were and what town was nearby. From there, the teacher told me that he knew the area well and he would help me. My mind was so relieved, but unfortunately it didn’t help  me calm down.

The cold, claminess of my body had not passed, but all of a sudden another wave of chills rushed through my body. I had a plastic bag in hand, turned my head away from the driver and well, you know the rest. I don’t need to describe it. There I sat, in the assistant driver’s seat being violently ill while gasping for air through a panic attack.

The next few minutes felt like an eternity; it was relentless. Once my stomach had fully emptied out, the dry heaves continued.
I wanted to hide.
I wanted to stay still.
I wanted to breathe.
I wanted off the bus.

I felt horrible that I was vomiting in close quarters with two men who were complete strangers and were seeing me at my worst, not really knowing what to do with me. On the other hand, I was glad that they now knew I was really sick as well. The assistant handed me some paper towel and offered to take my plastic bag. I wasn’t ready to tie it up and part with it quite yet though!

As the dry heaves wained, I was able to check my cell phone messages again. Looking down and reading were not particularly easy, but I managed. I had to ask the assistant driver to respond to the messages as I wasn’t able to look down long enough to type. The motion was overwhelming. The teacher was able to secure me a hotel in a small town called Anton. The town was along the highway so the bus could just pull over and let me out.

I was glad to have not parted with my plastic bag as my heaves continued right up until the route flattened out and we could see a row of lights from the businesses along the highway. I certainly didn’t feel well, but I sure was happy to be getting off the bus.

The bus slowed and pulled over in front of the small hotel the teacher had told them about. The assistant helped me down the stairs and out the door as I was very shaky. And he carried all of my things for me. He rearranged the luggage under the bus to find my large, heavy red suitcase and took it inside the hotel for me. I didn’t think quickly enough to give them a tip, but I was able to say ‘Muchas gracias’ from the heart.

I’ll never really know if I was going to be sick, therefore I had a panic attack because I was worried about it, or if I had a panic attack that induced vomiting. Either way, they came together and were horrible. I wasn’t feeling particularly troubled by anything while I was sitting on the bus. I wasn’t worried about the journey. I was settled in for the next 10 hours. It really just came over me like a stormy ocean with lots of swells.
The best I can devise, without talking to a professional, is that the stress of a missed connection, lost luggage, arguing with Air Canada, the heat of Panama, being tired of traveling and the unfriendly turnstile lady, all exploded at once.
What I can tell you is this. Just like sobbing for hours and gasping for breath leaves you exhausted, so does a panic attack. After my things were in my room at the hotel, I went to buy water, brushed my teeth and went to sleep at around 9pm, with no idea of what the next day would hold for me. I would need to find a way to continue my journey (another 8 hours by bus and then 30 minutes by boat) to Bocas del Toro. Or, would I go back to Panama City and fly to Bocas? I knew that I was in no place to be trying to make decisions at that point.  Sleep was the only option.

River Cruise 101

Douro River, Portugal

River Cruising

For the past couple of years, the river cruise industry has been booming. What once was only for the retired and wealthy, has become a bucket list trip for many and a trendy way to travel for 21 – 45 year olds. It is not just for 60 plus anymore! Be careful though, it’s addictive! You may think it’s a once in a lifetime trip, but river cruise companies boast incredibly high repeat business stats which means you may find yourself floating down a different river each year!

Don’t be surprised if your friends are talking about their amazing vacations on the rivers of Europe, or the excitement of an upcoming trip! You’ll probably hear them swoon about the mouthwatering food, the free-flowing local wines along with the castles and quaint towns to get lost in. It’s a picture perfect get-away.

Why choose river cruising over ocean cruising
River and Ocean cruises have a few things in common, but yet a few big distinctions too. If you are looking to only unpack once and visit various ports, both options have you covered. You can even choose from standard ships to ultra-luxury and various room categories from small porthole windows to balconies or the Captain’s suite, depending on your budget.

Although millions of people take ocean cruises each year, more and more people are looking to River Cruising for a more intimate, cultural experience, making it one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry. Companies are adding new ships each year to keep up with the demand.

Here is what you can look forward to on your first River Cruise:

Destinations – One of the biggest draws of River Cruising is the opportunity to visit smaller, lesser-known ports along the waterways. While many River Cruises start and finish in big cities such as Amsterdam, Porto, Paris or Budapest, you’ll also be treated to smaller cities and unique excursions along the way. In France you might take a steam train ride in Tournon or visit an olive farm in Arles. You might do a Medieval City tour in Nuremburg, Germany or taste port wines in Pinhao, Portugal. And, did you know that you can do River Cruising in Asia, Russia and Africa too?

Food & Drinks – Be prepared for a culinary treat. You’ll be dazzled with a fresh variety of delectable creations, often made with local produce and meats that the chefs shop for along the way. Each meal will be unique and paired with local wines. Every night will be a fine dining experience for your taste buds, but rest assured, you can dress comfortably and casually. No need for a suit and tie!

The Atmosphere – You’ll find only 100 – 200 passengers per ship on a river cruise in comparison to 3000 – 5000 on an average cruise ship. Think of an ocean cruise as a floating city filled with lots of activities and people. Think of River cruise as a quaint community. There will still be great experiences and activities, but they’ll be more cultural and intimate, less Vegas. You won’t find a disco or a casino on your river cruise, but you will be treated to top-notch local entertainment from nearby communities. And, you’ll also have the opportunity to stay in port some evenings to enjoy the nightlife, a rare find on an ocean cruise itinerary.

The Views – Instead of whiling your time away staring at miles and miles of ocean, sit back and relax with the ever-changing views of rolling hills, Medieval Towns and grand castles slowly drifting by your floor to ceiling windows while you sip a glass of regional wine.

Ah! Doesn’t that sound perfectly relaxing?

With the appeal of visiting several ports, but only unpacking once and the option to explore smaller cities on foot, bicycle or by tour … no wonder river cruising is one of the hottest trends in travel!

What are you waiting for?

INSIDER INFO:

Local wines, beers and spirits are often included with your meals, but make sure you know if they are for purchase outside of meal times or included. Each company does it differently.

Did you know that some ships will pack a gourmet picnic lunch for you to take ashore?

River cruises often sell out nine months to a year in advance, so you’ll find better deals for an early booking bonus rather than a late space special.

Need help deciding what River Cruise is best for you or finding the best value for your hard earned money? Let’s set up a time to chat by phone, or drop me an email. I’ll be happy to help you with your dream vacation!

Phone: 902 402 7646

Email: stucker@tpi.ca

 

Douro River, Portugal
Douro River, Portugal

Photo Essay: Birding in Chobe

African Jacana

I never in my life thought that I would be interested in birding as a hobby. Going out and looking for birds in trees seemed, well, boring to me. And then I arrived in Botswana (2016). With over 450 bird species just in the Chobe National Park area, the search for the prettiest birds was on. It was like a little mystery as I would hear the birds but didn’t know what I was looking for!

Having birds, such as the Lilac-breasted Roller, which boasts 13 different colours on it’s body, and little itty bitty blue-cheeked beeaters which are bright green in colour, I just couldn’t get enough! I found myself looking at every bird, big and small and asking my guides what they were. Then I began listening to all of the amazing bird calls and asking which birds claimed each of the beautiful, happy and annoying calls. Take a look at just a few of my favourite bird photos from Chobe National Park and the Chobe River area. How could you not enjoy their beauty!

A big thanks to the guides with Ama Waterways and the Zambezi Queen on the luxury Chobe River Cruise who answered all of my questions and clearly were passionate about their jobs. If you have questions about taking a river cruise in Africa or birding, drop me a message. I’d love to chat with you.

Photo Essay: Light of Lisbon

Lisbon Tram

The famous ‘Light of Lisbon’ is no joke. If you’ve never heard of it, you should trust me and go experience it for yourself. With all of the intricate shining tiles of all different colours adorning the old houses, light reflects in every direction and creates a warm diffused glow. The light is especially spectacular in the late afternoon and early evening as the sun starts to wind down it’s day and slowly falls into the Atlantic Ocean for the night.

Below I have selection of my favourite photos from my time in Lisbon early in 2016. I hope they will entice you to visit Lisbon.

Enjoy!

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

As soon as I knew I was going to Nairobi, I knew that I wanted to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. It is a well-known organization started back in 1977 that rescues abandoned or orphaned elephants (and rhinos), hand raises them and then reintegrates them back into the wild by the age of 10. Many of the elephant’s mothers have been killed by poachers for their ivory. Others have been left behind because they were injured or fell down a hole or well. Without it’s mother, a baby elephant can only live for a very short time. They are dependent on their mother’s milk for the first two years of life. The Sheldricks started rescuing the animals and eventually found a formula to give the babies the milk they needed to grow and thrive.

When the elephants are reintegrated into the wild, they join other past orphaned elephants raised by the Trust and have an extended family. However, they also share the land with wild herds. One of the most exciting things is that they then are able to have families of their own which increases the dwindling population. This is a main part of why the Trust has won world-wide acclaim for it’s Elephant and Rhino orphan project.

When I visited, they had 24 baby elephants (up to 2 years old) at the orphanage and some who were over two, but under 10 years old. While one of the Trust’s employees told visitors about the orphanage and introduced each of the babies, the playful animals coated themselves in the red sand, drank from the water holes and approached the crowd a few times for short opportunities to pet them.

At lunch time, the handlers brought out large bottles of specially formulated milk to feed each of the babies. After their quick meal, a brief call and the elephants followed one of the handlers in single file out of the ring and off to enjoy the rest of their day, while the older ones galloped in to see the onlookers.

There were easily a couple hundred visitors for the hour long viewing that only takes place once per day. Although the presentation is from 11am – 12pm, ensure you arrive early so you can find yourself a spot close to the rope for optimal chance at interacting with the wee ones.

Here are a selection of photos from my time spent with the elephants in October 2016.

New Orleans Photo Essay

New Orleans architecture

In November 2010, I attended a photography conference in New Orleans. Years later, I still look back with incredibly fond memories of the people I met and the beauty within a city only a couple of years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I fell in love with New Orleans. I hope you’ll enjoy my New Orleans Photo Essay.

Mayan Riviera Photo Essay

Snorkelling with sea turtles, Mayan Riviera, Mexico

I’m not the biggest fan of resort travel, but I’ve done enough of them to know why such a huge portion of the population love them! For me, I’m not into the all-inclusive alcohol and I get bored sitting on the beach all day. So, when I go on a resort vacation, like this one to the Grand Sirenis Mayan Riviera, I have to get out and have some adventures! The Mayan Riviera is full of great adventures to be had from visiting the Tulum or Chichen Itza ruins, snorkelling, rappelling or zip lining into cenotes and amazing theme parks like Xcaret. Don’t stay on the resort the entire time, get out and enjoy everything the Mayan Riviera has to offer! Hope you’ll enjoy these Mayan Riviera photos. Feel free to ask me about the Grand Sirenis Mayan Riviera Resort. I’ve visited twice and loved it both times!

Small Group Travel – Middle Agers

Photo Tour 2013 in Peru

As a travel agent over the past few years, I’ve heard all the excuses. The general consenses is that small group travel means 50 seniors on a big coach bus going at a turtle’s pace, following a colorful umbrella and stopping at each boring monument.

Please, let me educate you on a whole world of small group travel options that you are missing out on because of this widespread misconception! Please, open your mind for a few minutes and let me share with you my personal and professional experiences.

What if I told you that you can have a super-fun, yet still relaxing, vacation that combines the best of travel without all of the stress of planning it and booking every single minuscule detail?

What if I told you it doesn’t matter if you are single, in a relationship, married or divorced that travel is for everyone?

What if I told you that people from 18 – 99 travel in groups by the thousands every year with other people around their age and with similar interests?

What if I told you that you can travel anywhere in the world and never HAVE to be alone? (although if you choose to be, you certainly can)

I’ve done my fair share of solo travel over the last few years. In fact, I’m sure that’s what most of you think I do all the time, but that’s not true! I’ve been on several amazing small group tours in the last four years as well, not to mention a whole bunch of day tours that I adored!

Myanmar – Tucan Travel
Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand – G Adventures
Chile & Argentina – Intrepid Travel
Belize – G Adventures (this itinerary is now a National Geographic Journey.)

There is small group travel for everyone and some are specific to an interest, such as photography or cycling. Others are specific age groups, such as 19 – 20 somethings or seniors. Then there is a whole world of options for the middle agers, as well as for the mature 20 somethings and the extra active 60 – 70 somethings.

I hear these comments all the time …

“I can do it on my own.”
* Yes, you can. And, if you want to because you want to prove to yourself that you can, that’s great. However, if you simply don’t know the other options, you should learn why they are so awesome. Group travel isn’t any less adventurous, less rewarding or less worthy. It is often less stressful and better value though!

“I can do the same thing for cheaper.”
* Hmmmm …… No, actually you can’t. You might be able to book your flights, accommodations and entrance fees to the sites for slightly cheaper than a group tour, but you won’t have a local guide with you to share his or her stories and opinions (which, in my opinion is worth far more than the $200 bucks you saved and all of the hours it took you to book everything online!) You may or may not have a qualified guide to explain each of those sites you paid to get in to. You probably won’t have any meals included (maybe breakfast). Are you skilled at paying off people at the border to let you into a new country without a hassle? hmmm … And, if things go wrong at any step of the way, you are on your own. So, yes, you can book ‘something’ for cheaper, but NO, it will never be the same.

“I don’t want to travel with strangers.” (My favourite)
* So, you think you already know everyone you are going to see in the new country? (sarcasm). If you don’t want to travel with strangers, why are you traveling at all? If you want to be surrounded with your old familiar friends, that’s great, stay home. But, as soon as you head to the airport, you are with strangers (sorry to break it to ya). So, embrace the fact that you are surrounded by strangers, get out of your comfort zone and get to know them.

Oh, you meant you “don’t want to travel with other travellers”. You want to meet locals.
Alright, so I agree, traveling in a group of other travellers is not the same as meeting locals. However, if you think you are just going to arrive in a new country and locals are going to flock to you and become your friend, well …. it’s not really like that. It takes work to get to know the locals. So, if you are the extroverted type who can go hang out at a bar and talk up the bartender, or you go to the same market every day and chat with the lady selling fruit, that’s great. Not everyone can do that and don’t forget about the language barriers. If you think that you are getting to ‘know’ the locals by going to an all-inclusive resort … don’t forget, they are being paid to serve you. Chew on that for a few minutes. Is that what getting to know the locals looks like to you?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent lots of time with amazing locals in many countries, but personally, I find it takes a lot of effort and a lot more than just five or six days to get to know people. Most times you have one encounter with a local. It might last five minutes or five hours, but you can hardly really understand an entire culture in that amount of time. You are only just scratching the surface.

Traveling with other travellers isn’t a bad thing! You get to learn about cultures and people from all over the world while you explore a destination that you are all interested in. You meet new friends (which you can then go visit in their countries – they are ‘locals in their own country you know!) and you have that little bit of comfort in knowing someone nearby likely understands why you are uncomfortable with the thought of eating a bug, a worm or spider.

“You’re so good at traveling by yourself. Why would you want to ruin that with a group tour?”
* Traveling solo is tough. It’s a whole other blog post (or series). Yes, I love my freedom and my alone time, but I also hate being lonely, going to dinner by myself and often being overwhelmed at the ‘newness’ of everything. Sometimes, it is just better to be with people who are seeing things for the first time with you. And, sometimes it is just a whole lot easier when someone else is in charge and deals with any mishaps or problems that arise! So, yes, I love traveling solo, but every time I’ve taken a group tour I’ve loved my experience and appreciated that things were just taken care of for me. I’ve also always loved my local guides and picked their brains for all kinds of information for further travel in their homeland … you know, the things you don’t find on the internet and in the guide books!

So, just what happens on one of these group tours?

For starters, most of them run in a similar fashion but all have their key features. In general, what will happen is you’ll meet with your group and tour leader on day 1. You’ll likely go out for a group dinner to get to know each other and go over the itinerary for your tour. Often (although not planned) this will turn into your first night on the town with your new friends, exploring the local bars or street foods. Sometimes your local leader will join you and other times, they will direct you to the best local spots, avoiding the tourist traps. You are not obligated to take part by any means, but it is a great way to get to know the people you’ll be traveling with. I’m not a drinker, but I often join in on the first night out just to chat with people.

Itineraries vary a great deal depending on destination and level of activity, but I can tell you from both personal experience and from selling hundreds of group tours, that there is something for everyone.

You’ll have a mix of included activities and free time. You’ll have some timelines that must be followed (for example 8am in the lobby to catch your 10am flight). And then other times your leader will say ‘this isn’t in the itinerary, but how do you feel about … ?’ However, don’t get wrapped up in thinking that you are tied to the group the entire time. Often the group will have a guided tour and then free time to explore further on your own, or with other group members. Often tour leaders will give options for free time, but that doesn’t mean you have to do any of them. Almost all tours have half or full free days scheduled in for you to take in specific activities of interest, to relax, shop or explore. Group tours are a good mixture of having friends and organization, but having freedom to do your own thing as well.

Picture yourself exploring a turtle sanctuary on a beautiful Costa Rican beach, hiking the inca trail in Peru, swimming with turtles and rays Mexico, meeting local farmers and helping with their harvest in Vietnam, hot air ballooning over Love Valley, Turkey, searching for the big five on a safari in Africa, enjoying wine tastings in France or Italy, climbing to the top of ancient ruins in Belize … the list goes on and on. And you don’t have to do it alone!

When I’m on a group tour and there is free time, I’m the first to go off on my own and do my own thing. I’m an introvert, so after two or three days spending a lot of time with a group, I find I need my own time. However, many of the people in my past groups have become great friends and spent all of their free time with other members of the group, exploring common interests in the new destination. It’s your choice. Go with new friends or chill on your own. Read a book in the sun or play cards with your new mates! Whatever makes your vacation perfect, that’s what you should do! Your local guide will be around to help you make plans and book tours whether you go it alone or in a group of new friends.

On the last night of the tour, there is usually another group dinner to enjoy the local food and beverages, which often turns into an evening outing drinking beer or wine with your new friends. It all depends on the group whether this becomes a wild and crazy goodbye party or a few friends at the pub sharing laughs. And, believe me, I’ve seen many a 50 or 60 year old have one too many and the 29 year old heads off to bed early. You just never know! And then the next morning, everyone parts ways to return home or continue on their journey.

It paints a little different picture than a group of 50 seniors on a coach bus stopping at monuments, right? And, I should point out that the 30 to 50 somethings love to nap on buses, likely more so than the seniors!

No matter what you are looking for, or where in the world you want to travel, don’t ever think that doing it on your own is the only option! It is AN option and many people love doing the research, the challenge of struggling with the language barriers, paying off police officers and border crossing guards, finding their way in a new land on their own. Many people love the challenge of saying they survived all of the obstacles. But, for many, all of the unknown is enough to make them want to stay home.

What I’m saying to you is get out there and travel. If you want to do it on your own, do it! If you’re apprehensive about doing it on your own, go with a group. And, don’t let your ‘do it yourself’ friend convince you that group tours suck. Group tours might suck for them, but might be perfect for you. After all, the same ‘do it yourself’ friend is probably great at fixing the electrical and plumbing in his / her house too, does that mean that you are?

Have you travelled on a small group tour before? Drop me a note in the comments about where you went and what you loved about your group!

If you are interested in exploring the plethora of options for group tours out there, get in touch. I’d love to help you, your friends or your parents get away and see something new in this beautiful world of ours!

Contact me by phone 902.402.7646 or email.