second day in Saigon, Vietnam. I am lucky enough to get on a Saigon Tours half-day
trip to Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense
network of connecting tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which
the Viet Cong used to launch guerrilla warfare against the Americans during the
is the second leg of nine during a 23-day, around-the-world Global Scavenger
Hunt, “A Blind Date with the World,” where we don’t know where we are going
until we are given 4-hour notice. Under the Global Scavenger Hunt rules, you
are not allowed to take a commercial tour, or hire a private guide, or even use
a taxi for more than 2 scavenges at a time, since the object is to force you to
interact with locals. I knew that even though the visit was one of the “Bonus”
scavenges, I wouldn’t get points, also my teammate Margo, was doing her own
thing in Saigon, visiting the Botanical Gardens.)
The visit is profound, and though the script is written by the victors, is appropriate to represent the side that wanted to push out colonists (though in retrospect, I realized that there was no real mention of the fact that the South Vietnamese leadership didn’t want the Communist North Korean leadership to take over, either – nothing is simple, especially not in the world of geopolitics). You have to appreciate the commitment and courage and sacrifice of the Viet Cong in living the way they did – creating a virtually self-sufficient community under ground, planting boobie traps for the Americans, repurposing unexploded bombs into weapons and old tires into sandals, cooking only at night and channeling the smoke to come up in a different place (where it would look like morning steam, so not to give away the location of the tunnels). We get to climb into a tunnel, and go 20, 40, 60, 80 up to 160 meters, seeing just how tiny they were – you have to crouch all the way through and sometimes even crawl. There is also a shooting range where you can shoot an AK 47, M16 (extra charge), but the constant sound of gunfire gives you some sense of what they were living through. There was a hospital, a wardrobe sewing area, we watch a woman demonstrate making rice paper. At the end is a film that uses grainy black-and-white imagery with a narration that spoke of the commitment to save the Fatherland from US aggression.
the way back, the guide offered to make a detour to take us to a factory,
created by the government to employ people who were handicapped because of
coming upon unexploded ordinance, or who had birth defects as a result of the
chemical weapons used against the Vietnamese. Originally the factory produced
cigarettes, but today, they produce really beautiful handicrafts – mainly lacquered
and inlaid items.
trip provides an excellent opportunity to see other Vietnamese communities
outside of the urban center.
After returning to Saigon, I go off to continue my theme – visiting the buildings that the French built, starting with the magnificent Post Office (where I wind up spending close to an hour choosing from a stunning array of post cards, buying stamps and writing the cards), then onto the Reunification Palace (which I thought was open until 5 but closed entrance at 4), then on to the War Remnants Museum, where I visited until it closed at 6 pm, because there was so much to see and take in.
You should begin on the third level, which provides the “historic truths” (actually the background) for the Vietnam War, which more or less accurately presents the facts. On this level is a most fascinating exhibit that presents the work of the multinational brigade of war correspondents and photographers, along with a display of the dozens who were killed in the war. The photos are presented in an extraordinary way: showing the photo, then providing notes about the background, the context, and the photographer. Here too, the language (which was probably produced by the news organizations that put on the exhibit), was accurate. Among them is the famous, Pulitzer-prize winning photo of “Napalm Girl” where, for the first time, I notice the American soldiers walking along and one who looks like he is casually lighting a cigarette as this young girl is coming down the road in terror. The photos then and now are chilling, but today, they properly evoke shame.
only gets worse on the second level, where the atrocities committed during war
are provided in the sense of artifacts, and details that could have, should
have properly been used at war crimes trials. But none took place. Another
exhibit documents the effects of Agent Orange.
first floor, which should be visited last, addresses the Hanoi Hilton, the
place where American prisoners of war, including Senator John McCain, were
kept. Here,though, is where it can be said the propaganda offensive takes place
– there are photos showing a female nurse bandaging an American’s head wounds,
with the caption that noted she had put down her gun in order to care for him.
This exhibit brings things up to date, with the visits of President Clinton in
1994 (in another section in noted that Clinton’s visit brought the end of
economic sanctions, and with the country’s shift to market economy, produced
revitalization, as measured by the boom in mopeds.
But on the bottom floor, they show photos of
Obama’s visit and most recently of Trump in Vietnam.
floor also has an exhibit devoted to the peace movement in the US and around
the world, with some famous incidents, such as the shooting of the Kent State
are displays of captured American plane, tanks, and other items.
I looked around for an American who might have served in Vietnam to get an impression, but did not find anyone, and saw a few Vietnamese (most of the visitors were Americans or Europeans), but only one or two who might have been alive during that time and wondered what they thought. Clearly the conclusion of the displays was in favor of reconciliation when just as easily, and using a heavier-handed propagandist language, could have stoked hatred. The exhibit is careful not to paint all Americans and not even all American soldiers as monsters but one photo caption was particularly telling: it showed an American hauling off an ethnic minority and noted that “American troops sent to the battlefield by conscription knew nothing about Vietnam, thought the Cambodia people of ethnic minorities were living near Cambodia were collaborators for the enemy.” I left feeling that the experience was close to what you feel visiting a Holocaust Museum. And it is pain and remorse that is deserved.
by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We gather at 9 am on the first day of our 23-day Global Scavenger Hunt, a “Blind Date with the World,” where 10 teams of two people each don’t know where we are going until Bill Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt Ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer, tells us. We have come to the meeting prepared for anything – a 4 hour notice to pack up to our next destination, perhaps? – and learn that we will spend the day doing a practice scavenger hunt, to level the playing field between newbies (me) and troopers/vets (one of the teams has done it 12 times). He has prepared the same kind of booklet and score sheet as we will get on arrival at every mystery destination.
We can choose the scavengers out of the selections – they each have different points . Among them are a choice of “mandatory” including at least one “experience”. During the course of this day, we will have to complete 10 scavengers by 8 pm when we get together again. We are told this is a Par 1 in terms of difficulty, which can go as high as Par 6.
We start in search of “Affluent Alley” – after all, we are staying in Vancouver’s famous Hotel Vancouver in a toney boulevard off Robson Street where we were told you had to drive a Rolls or BMW in order to park on the street. We look at a couple of streets which are called Vancouver’s Fifth Avenue and Los Angeles’ Rodeo Drive. We are only allowed to ask locals – not the hotel concierge or any actual guide – but no one has heard of Affluent Alley – possibly because everyone we ask is either too young or a transplant. One woman at a bus stop is extremely helpful when we ask where a certain shoe store is located, and about how the bus system works. As for Affluent Alley, I suspect that it actually refers to the opposite (maybe East Hastings), or is the red-herring (and doesn’t exist at all).
But we are in search of the high-end shoe store, John
Fluevog – go into several stores, finally Coach, and the salesperson directs us…
We walk the several blocks to the store – unbelievably wacky, creative,
magnificent (better art than the modern art I had seen at the Vancouver Art
Gallery). We learn we are the 6th team to ask
Walk to Olympic cauldron, take our selfies, record the time.
Pouring rain now when we walk to the bike rental shop on the list to rent bikes
to ride around Stanley Park’s seawall, find the Totem Poles, stop at the
Teahouse (fantastic carrot soup to restore our energy). Go to Gastown to find
more scavenges (Hotel Europe, Angelo Calori built 1908-9, no longer a hotel, is
“social housing,” ad haunted, looks remarkably like a smaller version of the
Flat Iron Building in NYC), see the statue of Gassy Jack, the garrulous bartender
that gave Gastown its name, and, of
course, the steam clock.
Scavengers give purpose to your wandering – more than that, they become a platform for a completely different perspective on a place and people. The Global Scavenger Hunt is designed to have us interact as much as possible with local people, to trust strangers, which we have been doing all day long, and finding how incredibly friendly and kind the Canadians are (even the many who have come here from all points of the globe and made Vancouver their home.
One of the scavengers is to write a haiku, and with time
running out to our 8 pm deadline, I write:
What a way to see
Vancouver’s many treasures.
By bike, bus, on foot.
We gather at 8 pm, and Bill,the Ringmaster of the Global Scavenger Hunt (he also refers to as a traveling circus) tells us we are off tonight on a 2 am flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, hands us our airline info and visas, and we are off.
After a whirlwind destination wedding in New Orleans and a relaxing mini-moon in St. Lucia, we took a few weeks to recover at home, and then embarked on a 3-week adventure to Vietnam and Cambodia. After researching some 30 different destinations, we chose this combination for a number of reasons: the landscapes (according to Google image search) are varied and breathtaking; the climate is still warm in December, but not swelteringly hot; the food is supposed to be unbelievable; we can do some sightseeing and also indulge in some down-time (Bai Tu Long Bay cruise in Vietnam and island-hopping in Cambodia); we heard the people are incredibly kind and traveling around the country independently is fairly easy even with the language barrier; and we would be able to live well and splurge when we wanted to without breaking our budget (as opposed to Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, Maldives and other honeymoon hot-spots).
Our honeymoon to Vietnam and Cambodia proved to be all of the above AND MORE. The following are from emails we wrote home to our families, with names added afterwards for reference…
Subject: Update from Vietnam!
Sorry to not have
written earlier! We’ve been having an incredible time in Vietnam. Seriously
every place so far has been a highlight, it’s pretty unreal. We’ve taken about
2000 photos each already so we’re starting an album of some highlights.
We started with 2 days in Hanoi walking around the old streets and eating some amazing food, and egg coffee, which is surprisingly delicious. Our first night we went with Hanoi Street Food Tours to sample some of the awesome street foods we wouldn’t have otherwise known to order.
The second night we took a $1 Grab, (the Vietnamese Uber that costs $1 to go almost anywhere) to Chim Sao, this non-touristy restaurant out of the city center, and had an incredible dinner of traditional specialties like water buffalo, mountain sausage, banana flower salad, baby mussels, and rice wine. Food here is out of this world—very different from American Vietnamese and we are constantly surprised by the dishes.
We had a great
experience with Hanoi La Castela, the hotel we ended up in after we
decided to leave our not so clean Airbnb. The staff at the hotel was incredibly
friendly and helpful and their breakfasts were huge and delicious. They set up
a car & driver for us to go to Ninh Binh, the gorgeous region
about 3 hours west of Hanoi in the countryside. Lots of beautiful karsts (those
tall mountain things jutting up from the land that you see in all the photos of
Ha Long Bay). We stayed in a beautiful secluded homestay, Ham Rong, where
the only sounds we could hear were the animals and insects around. We arrived
just in time to hike the 500 steps of the mountain-top above Mua Caves and
catch the sunset over an incredible panorama of Tam Coc and
The next 2 days we
rented scooters from our homestay and had an amazing time riding around the
countryside. Don’t worry, Dave was sure to drive very slowly and carefully, and
it was all country back roads so very safe. We took a little boat ride through
the karsts and caves in nearby Trang An, wandered through the back
roads of the little villages, and visited some very cool temples built into the
sides of mountains, like Bich Dong Pagoda. We also visited Bai
Dinh, apparently the largest temple in all of Southeast Asia with a giant
gold Buddha in one of the main halls–the whole complex was pretty ostentatious
and absurd, and very cool to see, especially all lit up at night.
Our homestay arranged for a private car to take us to Pu Luong, where we stayed for 2 nights and absolutely need to return. It’s a phenomenally gorgeous nature reserve with self-sustaining villages that was totally unknown to foreigners before about a year or so ago. Some people have caught on and now some of the villages have started making homestays for visitors, but it’s still very rare to see any other white people outside of the homestay. There’s no tourism infrastructure (yet) aside from these few clusters of homestays so it feels like a very special peak into authentic traditional Vietnamese village culture.
Most of the time you’re just surrounded by spectacular landscapes of terraced rice fields and mountains with scattered people tilling soil, herding water buffalo, cutting bamboo, harvesting rice, etc.
Throughout the national park there are amazing little villages with everyone out working together, and everyone was so sweet to us when they’d realize we were foreigners. Anytime we’d go through a village all the little kids would very cutely run out to say “Hello! Hello! Hello!” until we passed.
We stayed at Pu
Luong Treehouse, the first night in an actual treehouse with the most
gorgeous view, then upgraded the second night to a bungalow at the same
place (same view) with private bathroom and a bigger space which was really
gorgeous and probably one of the coolest places we’ve ever stayed. The host,
Zoom, is from Hanoi, went to school in Alaska, has traveled the world, and has
amazing taste so the whole little retreat she’s created is designed into the
landscape with beautiful details everywhere. Basically everything is made of
bamboo or branches, all the linens made herself with traditional textiles and
weavings from Pu Luong. The chef she hired from the village is also incredible
so we’ve been eating VERY well (several course meals 3 times/day).
We’re currently in a car
back to Hanoi with Zoom (who’s 8 months pregnant and had to return home for a
few days) and two great Australian girls who were also staying at the homestay.
All 7 of us staying there got pretty close over the past 3 days, which seemed
to be a function of the sweet energy Zoom’s created at the homestay, and I
guess the type of people this very random, very peaceful province attracts, as
it takes a good amount of research to get there. We’re sad to leave, but so
excited for each next part of the trip!
Spending tonight in
Hanoi and leaving tomorrow morning for Bai Tu Long Bay (Ha
Long Bay’s apparently less touristy, equally beautiful sister). We’ll be on
Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend for 3 days, 2 nights.
We’re currently on a small prop plane from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville to catch a boat to Koh Ta Kiev, a tiny island off the southern coast of Cambodia. We had an amazing (but too short) 2 days in Siem Reap exploring the Angkor Wat complex. We hired a private guide/driver (Senghuat Boun) on the recommendation of a couple we met on our cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay, and he was amazing.
We saw all the main temples plus a few smaller “off the beaten path” ones, including Ta Nei in the jungle, a small temple that hasn’t yet been restored and is amazing to see how it’s been reclaimed by nature. When we were there this afternoon it was just us, the temple guard, and her 2 ridiculously cute children who played guitar with Dave (he has his guitarlele with him) and drew with me. It was a really sweet way to end the temple circuit.
Afterwards we had our driver drop us off at a restaurant we found last night but was closed then, and our lunch there today was actually one of the best meals either of us have ever had (Pou Kitchen & Cafe). In NYC it would have a 6-month waitlist. Four incredibly inventive dishes plus dessert and fancy iced coffee came to $22.
Before Siem Reap, the cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay was awesome. Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend is a 4-star ship with amazing food (and a ton of it), and makes an extremely relaxing experience on the bay.
We sailed to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is supposed to be less touristy and cleaner than Ha Long Bay, and we barely saw another boat on the water except for when we docked to sleep, since boats are only allowed to dock overnight in one specific spot). It was actually a luxury 45-person cruise ship, but only 14 people were on board so it was very sweet and intimate, and the perfect amount of people for the short day tours (kayaking, visiting a fishing village, learning about oyster harvesting). I loved spending the afternoons drawing and reading Adam’s book and Dave got to play a lot of guitar.
After a quick overnight in Hanoi the night we returned from the cruise, we went to Hoi An, about an hour flight south of Hanoi. There was torrential downpour from the time we arrived until 2 days later (completely forgot this is rainy season in the south). But it gave us a night in to chill at our beautiful hotel (Ocean Breeze Villa) in An Bang, the sleepy beach town just out of the city where we were somehow able to order delivery from Morning Glory, one of the city’s best restaurants.
We took another $1 Grab into the city and got an incredible 2-hour massage and scrub at 5 Senses Spa during the heaviest rains of the 2nd day ($26 for a 90 min massage!).
The rest of the time we mostly spent shopping and eating, since this is the town known for their great tailors, which are all indoors. From one shop we went into the first day, Thông Phi Tailors, Dave got a nice black suit, chinos, and 3 dress shirts, and I got 2 linen jumpsuits and a pair of linen trousers, all made to order with a few rounds of alterations so everything fits perfectly. The last day Dave started talking to a shop person at a different Tailor (Bai Diep)while he was waiting for me next door and he ended up getting 4 more shirts and an awesome patterned blazer for me all tailored and altered in just 3 hours!
Most of that last day
was finally sunny so we were able to see the beautiful colored walls (mostly
rich yellow) and multi-colored lanterns emblematic of the city without all the
rain. You can look up #hoian on instagram to get a sense. The city is
wild–it’s one of the oldest looking towns because the whole ancient quarter is
a registered historic site so they can’t do anything to alter its appearance,
though the entirety of this old town is catered to tourists, with shops selling
clothes, leather, tailored goods, and other stuff in just about every
storefront. It was great for a rainy 2 1/2 days.
So now we’re off to 5
days/nights on an island to do nothing but read and veg. We’re most likely
spending 2 nights in Koh Ta Kiev, the small island with no
electricity, so we’ll be out of touch for at least a few days. If we love it
there we’ll stay longer. If we decide we want a hot shower or fans we’ll head
to Koh Rong Samloen, another beautiful small island that’s slightly
more developed with Bungalows with real walls, showers, and AC. We’ll be in
touch when we’re back in wifi zone! Can’t wait to catch up with you all!!
Hi guys! Just wanted to let you know where we landed… We’re at Lazy Beach in Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia until we head to the airport. We have a perfect pretty large bungalow with a beautiful view of the water and the beach is quiet and awesome.
In total contrast to construction-hell Sihanoukville and even Koh Rong Samloen’s Saracen Bay that’s beginning to be pretty built up, all that’s built on this side of the island are about 15 bungalows stretching along the shore and one open-air restaurant where we’re able to order all our meals from an extensive menu of both Western and Cambodian specialities (the owners are from the UK, the kitchen crew is mostly Cambodian). Everything is wonderful. We feel very lucky to be here. No WiFi on this part of the island, but Dave’s phone seems to get sporadic service so text him if you need us. Otherwise we’ll be back in touch on the 18th when we land in JFK!
The New York Times Travel Show, which takes place each year at the Javits Center in New York City, is the largest consumer travel show in North America. Essentially, in the course of an afternoon, you can travel around the world on a single floor and 1000 steps.
The three-day showcase features global cuisine tastings, cultural performances, travel book signings, one-on-one conversations with travel experts, travel seminars and special discounts and offers from 600 exhibitors.
Here are some highlights
from our “tour” around the floor at this year’s show:
Chernobyl Tour, Ukraine
The world’s largest
radiation catastrophe at a nuclear power plant took place at the now infamous Chernobyl,
in the Ukraine. An area the size of a small state was abandoned. Today, it is a
tourist attraction, visited on daytrips and multi-day trips.
I meet Katoryna
Aslamova, the chief guide for Chernobyl Tours, who
has been leading tours there for years, and asserts that visiting is absolutely
Though people love to post selfies
of a Geiger counter beeping when it hits 0.3, she notes that the level of
radiation during the course of a full day tour is equivalent to what you
experience on an hour-long airplane flight (she says that the flight from
Ukraine to London showed 2.82; to NY 3.91); 160 times less than a chest x-ray;
3600 times less than a whole body CT scan. It is even safe for pregnant women.
The only ones not allowed are people under the age of 18, mainly because they
cannot be legally prosecuted if they break rules, take out any of the rocks or
disturb the soil (that could unleash damaging material).
(You can order a personal dosimeter “it
will make your experience more enjoyable and memorable by making the radiation
level visible and show your exact radiation dose at the end of the trip.)
“It is so easy to set up the mood, the perception
that visiting Chernobyl is risky. There are some hot spots on the ground– the size
of a coin or tennis ball and the closer you come to it, the higher the
radiation. But it can’t influence health because it would need long term
exposure. Even if you measure a hot spot in the radiation zone, no place is high
enough to risk health. The only place that would be dangerous would be inside
unit, which is covered (double-sealed).
What could be risky
hypothetically is the radioactive dust
(that give off alpha rays) that is still in ground have particles –“ if you would dig it up or ingest it, that
would cause dangerous exposure – so it is prohibited to dig or plant there.”
There is no restriction
for pregnant woman if not prohibited to fly.
To take the tour, you
are picked up in Kiev, capital of Ukraine, at 8 am for the 1 ½ hour bus ride.
Over the course of a full day (the bus returns about 8-9 pm), you visit several
The first stop is the
village of Zalissya, which was the biggest in the area. “We are trying to tell not
only about the accident but how people lived.”
Next the town of Chernobyl,
which is 18 km from the powerplant (and not the ghost city that is so
frequently pictured). People still occupy Chernobyl – scientists and foresters –
who live there for 15 days a month in dormitory. “It is a unique place for
research.” Visitors who do the overnight tours stay in hotels in Chernobyl.
There also are “self-resettlers”
here and in other villages in the contamination zone – people who were
evacuated after the accident “but sneaked back into the houses in the zone.
They were homesick or had no place else to go.”
The accident took place
in 1986, and many believe it contributed to the collapse of Soviet Union. “People
stopped trusting government and the economy collapsed.”
She notes, “Nobody knows
how many affected by Chernobyl explosion – the Soviet government tried to hide.”
The tour visits Radar
Duga-1, a secret Soviet base known as Chernobyl 2 –which would have launched
nuclear weapons. It is the only remaining antenna.
This reminds me of a
documentary, “The Man who Saved the World,” about
a Russian Lt. Colonel, Stanislav E. Petrov, who on September 26, 1983,
despite radar showing the United States had launched nuclear missiles against
Russia, refused to give the order to launch Russia’s missiles, literally saving the world from nuclear holocaust (for which he was
disgraced and lost everything). No one knew of him for 25 years, but she knows of
him. “He was a hero but not appreciated.” In that moment, I had such a sense of
connection with this young woman from the Ukraine through our mutual knowledge and
appreciation of Petrov.
The tour continues on to
Kopachi Village which was buried under ground because there was too much
radiation, but there are still some buildings (that’s where the famous photo of
a kindergarten is from). You come up to the side of the power plant – 300
meters from the accident (but still, she says, 4x lower radiation than on an airplane.”
Then the Red Forest,
famous because it was consumed by the cloud. “We don’t go inside, but measure
Then on to the famous
ghost city of Prypat. This is not just where people lived – it had a population
of 50,000 – but was a model city of the
Soviet Union. The average age was 26 – every third person was a child. They were
employees of plant. It was supposed to be model of the great Soviet life, if Communism
would have worked.”
Chernobyl was biggest
nuclear accident ever, but what does the whole world know? That there was an
explosion, people died, it can’t be inhabited. But it is also a story of
victory – of the mitigated areas.
All of this in one day,
but there are multi-day tours, as well.
Every year 30% more
people come on the tour (which is offered year round). Last year 70,000 people
came (there are at least five tour companies, of which Chernobyl Tour is the
largest.) Most take the one-day tour $89 – includes insurance, transfer, guard,
permissions (can book day before, but it costs more).
There are also tours
inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and other limited access facilities;
airplane and helicopter tours over the Chernobyl Zone and Ukraine; military
tours to the shooting ranges, rides on armored vehicles and visits to a nuclear
missile base; underground tours in the drainage systems, subway, tunnels and
caves, and sightseeing tours in Ukraine.
Travel from the US to
Cuba is expected to rebound in 2019 after declining in 2018 after Trump renewed
restrictions on travel and issued a State Department warning. That didn’t deter
visits from Canada, Europe and Russia, and visits to the island nation
increased. Cruise arrivals continued to increase in 2018, and were expected to
exceed 850,000, with 70% of the cruisegoers coming from the US. Travel
companies continue to offer tours that meet the Trump requirements, and all
forms of “purposeful” travel authorized by the Obama Administration remain in place
(heritage, family, journalists).
Independent travel by
individuals, families and friends is largely unchanged but now falls under the
rewritten license category of “Support for the Cuban People” instead of “People
to People.” But Americans are cautioned not to stay or use facilities that
support the regime; staying homes (Air BnB), is okay. “Keep your receipts for
five years,” a woman who traveled independently through Cuba in 2017 tells me.
“I used Air BnB, stayed
with beautiful families, visited schools, brought school supplies,” Shay Pantone of NY, who traveled to Cuba in 2017, tells me,
adding “You need to speak Spanish if you are going to travel independently.”
Despite the Trump
Administration’s branding Cuba with a Level 2 travel advisory (“Exercise
Increased Caution”), the same status as 57 other countries including 12 in the
Americas and 7 in western Europe, Cuba is judged by most as one of the safest
destinations in the region with less crime and disease.
How to go? The Fund for
Reconciliation and Development (www.ffrd.org),
a group that has been advocating for opening travel and overturning sanctions
against Cuba for years, advises:
Book nonstop to Havana
on Jet Blue from JFK or on United from Newark; American, Delta and southwest
have connecting flights. American or Jet Blue flies from Miami or Ft.
Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Holguin, Varadero, Carnaguey and Santiago (from May
Select “Support for the
Cuban People” as the appropriate license category from the airline menu.
Use Air BnB or Trip
Advisor to reserve a room or apartment (casa
particular) from a private owner.
East in private restaurant
Buy handicrafts, art and
clothing from self-employed craftspeople and creators (cuento propistos).
If you need a guide,
hire privately (preferably in advance)
As much as possible, use
private taxis (also available between cities)
“Whatever you do, wherever
you go, be intentional and responsible that your goal is ‘a full time schedule
of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people.. and that result in
meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.’ (The judgment of what
qualifies is yours.)”
activities like concerts, dancing and the beach as in a normal work week.
Keep a journal or list
of your ‘meaningful interactions’ for five years.
If you are on a cruise,
exercise your right to explore independently or with a local guide.
Current US government
for independent travelers: tinyurl.com/Cubabasics
Fund for Reconciliation
and Development is offering a fam trip May 3-10 to explore Santiago and
Guantanamo; and for Carnival, July 20-28.
Fund For Reconciliation and Development, 917-859-9027,
director @ffrd.org, www.ffrd.org.
Safaris with Social Benefit
Zulu Nyala promotes animal conservation in its six-day, six night safari
packages using four-star lodges, in its own safari park the family has had for
35 years. “The owner was out with his family and stopped to look at a giraffe,
saw a for-sale sign, and bought 15,000 acres.” The park accommodates up to 300
guests in three lodges (50-units, 56 suites, 48 safari tents). The
all-inclusive program is hosted by a game ranger and offers two activities a
day (walking or driving). (www.zulunyala.com).
The organization also
offers the opportunity for organizations to use the $6,000 safaris as a charity
fundraiser – for example, starting the auction at $2500 for two for a six-night
stay, where the organization keeps 50 percent and gives the safari company 50%.
“There’s no money or risk on the part of the organization; we’ve been doing it for 15 years, and supported hundreds of American organizations.” (Contact Debbie Bosman, African Safari Donations, 800-595-5810, www.safarisforcharity.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Off Season Adventures: The idea here is to safari in Tanzania and Zanzibar off-season, when there are fewer people, it is less expensive, while also supporting local communities. The company reserve 5% of clients’ total package cost to invest in the communities and wildlife through a 501(c)(3) public charity Second Look Worldwide. “These community and environmental investments are tangible projects which our clients can see during their trip. All projects are determined by the communities and dependent on their most direct needs, however, we are focusing on projects that support water management solutions. Our goal is to become a sustainable, net-positive travel company by replacing and building up all resources used by our clients during their tours.”
company’s first community initiative, the Kakoi Water Project , is a project
that will provide a year-round source of water to the village of Kakoi and its
surrounding communities, which include three other villages, two schools, and a
dispensary. “By supporting these local communities that border Tarangire
National Park in Tanzania, we contribute to their well-being and encourage them
to make an extra effort to protect animals in the area.” The tours include an excursion to the Kakoi
Water Project. Visitors get to visit a
relative of theirs – go into hut, gather honey, seeds, roots, experience how
The tour company also offsets all
carbon emissions through a partnership with Carbon Tanzania, which conserves
huge tracks of forested land in Tanzania, a more productive way of offsetting
carbon. “To date, we have offset 83.84
metric tons of CO2 and protected 69 trees by helping Carbon Tanzania preserve
35,000ha of forest in the Yaeda Valley, an area that the Hadzabe tribe have
called home for thousands of years. This way of offsetting not only has a
positive environmental impact, but also has a positive impact on the local
population of the Hadzabe.”
has the power to transform not only the traveler, but also our world. This
belief forms the foundation of our business. We have a deep commitment to
protecting and preserving the destinations we visit, and building a better
world through sustainable travel.
believe in integrating sustainability into all components of our business. We
are committed to providing experiences that have a positive impact on the
environment, community, and economy of each destination visited. We work
closely with our local partners to ensure that travelers are respectfully
visiting in a way that showcases authentic experiences.”
Tours by Locals has now grown to a network of 3100 independent-contractor
guides. The company facilitates the trend toward independent, “authentic,” experiential
travel. The company marked a milestone: 10 years and 1 million travelers. You can
find a guide for Vietnam ($50 US for 8 hours private, with car; less if walking
or cycling city). The most northerly guide in the registry now is in Svalbord,
Norway (where the Svalbard Global Seed
Vault is located); the newest is inMogadishu, Somalia (the guide comes with
security); and there is an uptick in requests for guides in Cuba.
Israel for Foodies
I found it intriguing
that Israel was the sponsor of the Taste of Travel section for the second year.
Israel, after all, is not top-of-mind for cuisine.
“Israel has wonderfully diverse gastronomic. We have James Beard Award-winning chefs,” Chad Martin, Northeast Region Director for the Israel Ministry of Tourism (www.israel.travel), says. “Israel is 70 years old- we now have fourth and fifth generation Israelis. Israel is a pot that hasn’t melted – In Israel, you might have four grandparents from different ends of the earth: Argentina, Morocco, Russia, East Asia – all Jewish and intermarrying. They borrow the best recipes from every grandparent, the spices mix together
What is Israeli food? “Israeli
food is a mix of 70 cultures. The combination of cultures and innovation
together – Israel, after all, is the Innovation Nation with the most
start-ups.- it has a culture of creativity and that manifests in the food. We
invented the cherry tomato. We’ve made numerous innovations in agriculture – we
made the desert bloom, and there, things grow sweeter.
“The Israeli food scene
is based around fresh ingredients. We are the size of New Jersey but have our
Culinary experience is
just one of the ways Israel is reaching out beyond the most traditional sources
of visitors- Jewish Heritage and Christian Pilgrimage. For the first time,
Israel surpassed 1 million visitors from the North America, posting 42% growth
over a two-year period. People are coming for food and wine experiences, meetings
and incentives, even adventure and outdoors travel – mountain biking in the
Negev where the country’s first Six Senses resort is opening and a new airport
is opening in Eilat. Hikers can travel Trail Israel – it takes a month – and kayak
in the grottoes of Rosh HaNikra, a geologic formation on the border between Israel and
Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea coast in the Western Galilee.
“40% of our visitors are returnees, but not just for heritage, but because they realize that can’t really ‘do Israel’ in one trip. The ‘sophisticated travel’ segment has skyrocketed.”
New York Times Travel Show, now in its 16th year, is the largest and
longest-running trade and consumer travel show in North America, hosting 10,000
travel professionals during a Travel Industry Conference, and some 22,000
travelers at Consumer Seminars, Meet The Experts Pavilion and an interactive
Exhibition with more than 600 exhibitors representing travel to all seven
continents, positioned within 16 pavilions (including Adventure, Africa, Asia,
Australia/South Pacific, Canada, Caribbean, Cruise, Europe, Family, Global,
Latin America, L.G.B.T.Q., Mexico, River Cruise, Travel Products, and U.S.A.
Pavilions). In addition to discounts and special offers, the show provides
educational seminars and live entertainment for families, individuals and
couples and seniors.
Everything about a trip from Marrakesh to the Sahara is epic. We didn’t know if we would drive ourselves or hire a tour, so from finding the right desert guide, then traveling the 8+ hours through roads filled with switchbacks and harrowing drivers, to the climactic landscape of red-hot sand dunes reaching literally as far as your eyes could follow, this was an adventure we could never have anticipated.
There are several ways
to do this trip. You can book a trip online through Tripadvisor, Getyourguide,
Viator, or any of the other aggregator sites with real reviews. The average
price we found was around $250/person. Or, you can wait until you arrive in the
country and try to haggle a better deal through your riad/guesthouse, or any of
the endless storefronts advertising excursions to the desert.
With four days or more,
you will be able to experience more of the desert landscape and not feel quite
as rushed. Since we knew we wanted to spend a night in Aït Benhaddou, we made
our own way there by bus and had our riad host arrange our desert excursion
from that point.
Our main advice is to
budget at least 4 days. Anything less and you won’t really experience the heart
of the Moroccan Sahara. All standard 3-day desert tours offer the same basic
Day 1: Leave Marrakech early AM, arrive in Aït Benhaddou in time for lunch, quick tour of the Kasbah then back on the bus, pass through Ourzazate for a brief visit, then overnight at a hotel or riad in Dades Valley. Day 2: Full day drive to Merzouga, stopping in the old town of Tinghir (a guided tour will probably take you to a berber carpet showroom). Arrive in Merzouga just before sunset, Berber guides will escort you on camels into the desert sand dunes, have dinner in the camp, sleep overnight in a tent or on a wool blanket on the sand. Day 3: Leave just before dawn to return to Merzouga where you’ll meet your driver for the 9 hour ride back to Marrakech. Some trips will give you a little more time in the morning to experience the dunes in the daylight for an extra fee. Absolutely do this if you have the offer.
Here is what we did, what we learned, and tips that we wished we’d had before we went…
Day 1 – Aït Benhaddou
This fortified ancient village, currently home to only five families, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and other epic dramas. We took the CTM bus from Marrakesh to the village of Wade Melah, where the host of our riad met us to drive us to the old town of Aït Benhaddou. No one knows exactly how old the town is, but they estimate that it dates back at least 500 years, and looks much older. It was once a hub of Jewish and Berber people who lived harmoniously in the town. In fact, if you stay in the Riad Dar El Haja, you will be staying in the former home of the old village’s Rabbi and his family, which we were told is one of only two guesthouses in the Kasbah. Today this riad features several well-appointed rooms with comfortable beds, ensuite bathrooms with hot water, 2 terraces to enjoy dinner or breakfast al fresco, and an original natural cave that makes a magical setting for a tagine dinner cooked on premise (breakfast is included in the stay, 3-course dinner was about 13 Euros/person).
Luxury: In Marrakesh you can find several private taxis or tour companies that will take you directly to Aït Benhaddou. We were quoted prices between 1500-4000 MAD (1000 MAD equals $104), haggling mandatory.
Budget: Take the CMT bus from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate (100 MAD), then a taxi to Aït Benhaddou (~90 MAD). Or you can try to convince your bus driver to drop you off in Wade Melah as we did, to meet someone from your riad willing to pick you up.
Adventure: Rent a car in Marrakesh. You can drop the car off in Ouarzazate if you decide to join a tour to the desert, or go rogue and try it all on your own. The road from Marrakesh to ABH is insane with about 2 hours of tight switchbacks as you pass the Tizi n’Tichka, but if you’re a (very) comfortable stick driver it seemed like it would be a lot of fun to drive, IN THE DAYLIGHT. The roads between Tinghir and Merzouga are more harrowing and we were happy we opted for the tour.
Stay the night: Most tour buses arrive at the Kasbah around noon and leave around 3 or 4, so spending the night before means you have the old town virtually to yourselves in the morning, and you can see the Kasbah before the stalls open for the day.
Break up the drive to the desert: Make Aït Benhaddou a one-night stop on a longer desert tour to break up your first or last day of the 8+ hour drive (more on this below).
Catch the sunrise: Most tourists seemed to hike to the top of the Kasbah for the sunrise. For an even wilder 360-degree view, walk out of the Kasbah toward the big hill at the base of the east part of the town (right next to the famous filming spot of Gladiator and Game of Thrones), and watch the sunrise to the east with a movie-perfect view of the Kasbah to your west.
Lunch away from the main bus pick-up area: Most people meeting their tour groups seemed to be directed to the main large hotel/restaurant complex, which all had long waits and apparently mediocre food. We had an excellent lunch of lamb and prune tagine and Merguez sausage at Riad Maktoub, just down the road. This is also a highly-rated riad, if you decide to stay across the river from the Kasbah.
Rashid, our riad host, referred us to a 3-day small group tour with Nature Dream, that we were able to join in Aït Benhaddou (they had started in Marrakesh at 7am that same morning, arrived at noon for lunch and had 2 hours to tour the Kasbah before getting back on the bus). We joined 4 other young travelers in an old van and drove to Boumalne Dades, an area of dramatic mountains and breathtaking views at every turn.
If you do go with a tour, ask ahead of time about your accommodations. Once we entered Boumalne Dades we saw many cool-looking riads with incredible views. The one arranged by our tour company was not one of these, although it ended up being all we needed for a quick night’s sleep with the typical chicken and vegetable tagine dinner.
If you drive here on your own, make sure you arrive before sunset because the views are really worth seeing in sunlight.
We left our riad at 8 am and drove to Tinghir, where we met a lovely guide named Rachid. He showed us around the Kasbah and informed us about its history as a Jewish and Berber community until 1948 when the Jewish people left for Israel or larger Moroccan cities. Now the Kasbah is mostly abandoned, inhabited by nomads helped by those in the village who give them jobs in the farms and share their food. There are now only about 15 families living in the Kasbah, with close to 1 million people occupying the greater city of Tinghir.
While in the Kasbah we were taken to a home of several families that specialized in Berber rugs. We were given the classic “Berber Whiskey” (mint tea), and learned about traditional rug-making, from the way the wool is cleaned and spun, to the pigments used to tint it, and the meanings beyond different typical Berber rug designs.
Rachid then took us to Todra
Gorge, and then to a nice lunch spot nearby. We would recommend contacting
Rachid even if you do not do a tour, as he was one of the sweeter, more gentle
people we encountered in our 3 days, and his English is excellent (Spanish is
even better). He lives in the greater village of Tinghir and often takes groups
hiking and climbing in Todra Gorge, and if you have a few days he’ll take you
to visit the nomadic families living deeper in the caves. (Rachid Haddi:
The range for rugs in
each of the small villages we visited fluctuated from 6000MAD (1000 MAD equals
$104) down to 2000MAD for a 4 x 6 ft rug. The general rule of thumb seemed to
be to suggest at most 1/3 of the first asking price, and walk away until they
meet you close to your price.
Day 3 Continued:
After lunch we left
Rachid and continued to Merzouga. We had learned from Rachid that wet
season is August to October, and we definitely experienced this first hand
during this part of the drive. There are 3 roads to Tinghir. We took the most
direct route in the middle, which passes through many small towns on little
maintained roads. Because of recent storms, many roads were completely flooded
and may have been unpassable in standard cars. Even with a driver from the
Sahara with 20+ years experience driving tour groups, we were still worried we
wouldn’t make it several times and on one occasion our driver was harassed by a
swarm of 20+ teenage boys trying to get 50 MAD for them to push his car across
the road with the motor off. We saw a rental car with foreigners turn around at
this point and I guess attempt a different way. We don’t have experience with
the north and south routes, but by the look of the map they seemed like bigger
roads if slightly less direct.
Finally around sunset we arrived at a riad in Merzouga, where we waited for our camels with about 30 other travelers who had been dropped off from similar tours. About half hour later, all of us were escorted on camels through the dunes of Merzouga to our camp in the middle of it all. We were surprised to be on the camels for an hour and a half (7 km)! Once at the camp we were assigned beds in 4 or 5 person tents, and had the expected chicken tagine dinner. The camp itself was very bare-bones, with no sheets or pillowcases, just one wool blanket on top of a mattress and another for warmth in the night. We found the tents to be quite stuffy at night, and sleeping under the stars was in all ways the better alternative. The stars at night were spectacular. The air was crisp and cool, but not freezing, and if not for the scratchy wool blankets, it would have been a pretty magical night’s sleep.
Luxury: We were quoted prices for a private driver for
just the 2 of us, “stopping anywhere we wanted to”, with 3 days and 2 nights (1
in the desert), with luxury accommodations for 4000MAD/person (1000 MAD equals
$104). We got this driver down to 3000 MAD for more budget accommodations and
private driver. Luxury accommodations seemed to have beautiful glamping-style
beds with sheets in large private tents.
Standard: Just about every 3 day/2 night tour seems to
spend one night at a hotel or riad in the Dades Valley (Boumalne Dades), stop
on day 2 at Todra Gorge followed by a sunset camel ride out to the desert, camp
overnight, and drive 8hr 30min back to Marrakech on day 3, leaving the camp
just after sunrise. These tours all include 2 night accommodations and
breakfast and dinner, with lunch spots determined by the driver and paid
individually by the travelers. Standard tours ranged from 1250 – 2500
Budget: Since we joined a tour in Aït Benhaddou, we paid
900 MAD/person in a 6-person van and budget accommodations. Right as we arrived
at the camp, our camp hosts told us we had the option to ride the camels back
to Merzouga at 4:30am (before sunrise!), or be driven in their SUV over the
dunes after sunset for 10 Euro/person. Of course opt for the latter or else
you’ll miss the most spectacular time in the dunes. Or better yet, opt for a
tour that has the van-ride back their default and doesn’t try to charge you for
BYO Sheets: If you do go on a standard tour, this is a MUST: bring a cocoon travel sheet or sleep-sack. We were really jealous of our tour friends who had heard this tip before-hand and enjoyed a full night’s sleep.
Don’t bring food unless it’s sealed in an air-tight container. We saw a mouse in our tent earlier in the evening and woke up to see the plastic bag of our trail mix nibbled into, and one of our thin linen sweaters destroyed (still can’t imagine what was appetizing about that!).
Head-wrap: Bring a thin scarf for the night and morning as it can get quite chilly and is nice to wrap around your head if sleeping out under the stars (you can pick this up for 30-40 MAD at every single stop along the way, or at any stall in any medina. Beware that the really cheap ones will bleed and stain your other clothes in the laundry). It also looks cool wrapped as a turban as you’re riding your camel.
Sandboarding: If you’re comfortable on a snowboard and want the exercise (and amazing photos), rent a snowboard from Merzouga town before heading into the desert. Our camp hosts rented one to Dave for 200 MAD and brought it out in their truck while we rode the camels. Of course there are no ski lifts so you’ll have to trek up the highest dune with it yourself in order to get the best ride down.
After catching the sunrise over Algeria and sandboarding a bit, we took the SUVs back to the riad where we were given the classic breakfast of Moroccan pancakes and bread with jams and honey, and had a chance to wash up in their WCs before the long haul back to Marrakesh. They don’t supply towels, but if you bring your own you can even have a shower. The last day is a full driving day, stopping every 2-3 hours for our driver to have a coffee and take a quick break. As with most of the stops we had lunch at a random place on the route where other drivers brought their tours. Expect about 100 MAD/person for an app, entree, and dessert at each of the lunch spots (a la carte is not offered, but can be an option if you ask nicely).
We arrived back in Marrakesh around 8:30pm, just enough time to settle at the riad where we had a relaxing dinner, and a much needed shower.
Our lodging tips:
Riad Al Nour: In the Marrakesh medina, Youssef and Younes will take great care of you while staying at their riad. They know the best street food spots and will even run out to pick something up for you if you want a relaxing dinner in their courtyard after your long trip back from the desert. The riad is gorgeous, beds are big and comfortable, showers are hot, and AC works! Book directly with the riad to avoid booking fees.
Riad Dar El Haja: One of the few riads in Aït Benhaddou, enjoy a hot shower, big comfortable bed, great food, and epic location, on the actual set of Game of Thrones!
As we discovered, climbing in a gym is very different from climbing a real mountain face. One of the best places in the world to learn how to climb is practically in our own backyard: the Shawgunk Mountains, affectionately nicknamed “The Gunks,” is just six miles from New Paltz and offers some of the best rock climbing in the East.
The Mohonk Preserve, New York State’s largest private, nonprofit nature preserve with over 8,000 acres, owns this section of the Shawgunk Mountains and charges a $20 day-use fee for climbers (a season pass is available, also). Of the 200,000 visitors that the Preserve welcomes in a year, 80,000 are climbers who have more than 1,000 climbing routes – five linear miles of cliff face – to venture out on, with near access to parking and sanitary facilities.
In the early 1950s, there may have been 50 climbers on a busy day in The Gunks. By the 1990s, that number grew to 500-800. Today, The Gunks have become a world-class climbing area, offering some of the best climbing in the eastern United States. What is more, The Gunks offer particularly friendly terrain for people (like us) who have never climbed real rock faces before. The vertical cliffs and their overhangs create a wide variety of high-quality climbs of varying levels of difficulty. The distinctive, stark, white cliffs of the Gunks are as tough as they look – with sharp angles testing your skill and with quartz pebbles and deep fissures providing multiple holds.
It’s also an ideal place to climb safety, with some of the best-trained, vertical rescue teams in the northeastern United States. Indeed, guide companies have to be registered with Mohonk Preserve. In collaboration with climbing guides and groups, the Preserve regularly hosts climbing clinics.
And so, for our first climbing venture, we went out with with Bobby Ferrari of High Xposure Adventures ($350 for two for a full day program, 9 am to 4:30 pm). The conditions were ideal: bright sun and cool temperatures for a summer’s day.
High Xposure was founded in 1974, and has been guiding rock and ice climbing trips in the Gunks and Catskills Mountans for more than 40 years. Its accreditation with American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) dates back to 1986, when the accreditation program was established.
High Xposure works with climbers of all abilities and experience – from total beginners, introducing them to outdoor rock climbing, to avid climbers visiting the Gunks from other regions and interested in climbing the Gunks classic routes. The company also organizes group climbing trips – corporate outings, family retreats, adventure groups. “We have extensive experience working with kids – during school breaks, we guide rock climbing outings for summer camps and boy scout groups.”
High Xposure offers a wide range of climbing programs – rock climbing techniques, rope management and anchors, multi-pitch, and lead climbing.
It was an ideal program for us to make the transition from climbing in a gym to climbing the real thing.
Mohonk Preserve is also popular for bouldering, with acres of boulders that offer hundreds of problems – from basic to advanced; climbers come from all over the country to try out the new problems put up almost every day.
This is a year-round destination with ice climbing. The best active time of year, and when the guide companies are most active is from April through November.
Mohonk Preserve is one of the few private, nonprofit (NGO) climbing areas in the United States and is financially supported by members and visitors. It is open to the public 365 days a year. (You can join online now, or you can buy a day pass or membership at a trailhead or at the Visitor Center.)
Here is more helpful info from the Preserve’s website:
Be aware that you climb at your own risk on the Preserve, which isn’t responsible for the condition of the cliffs, climbing protection, climber behavior, or training or supervising climbs. For your safety, read the Preserve’s Climbing Policy.
Help protect the resource. Prevent damage to the cliffs and to the fragile life found here:
Use only established trails and carriage roads.
Use the yellow-blazed climber approach trails in the Trapps.
Avoid damaging lichen and vegetation growing on the cliff and treat the rock gently: tree cutting, rock trundling, hold chopping, and bolting or gluing of holds are prohibited.
Minimize chalk use and brush off heavily chalked holds.
Leave only rock-colored slings at rappel stations.
Parking is extremely limited on weekends and holidays. During peak seasons, parking lots fill early. Ease traffic congestion by carpooling or coming at off-peak times.
Dogs must be attended and leashed at all times. To avoid having your dog disturb others, don’t leave your dog tied-up at the base of a climb. If you leave your dog unattended, it will be removed by an animal control officer.
Keep the trails at the base clear so others can pass by.
Camping is available at the Samuel F. Pryor III Shawangunk Gateway Campground on Rte. 299. For more information, click here (mohonkpreserve.org/camping).
For other hotel and lodging information, see the Area Guide (mohonkpreserve.org/area-guide).
Becoming a member helps keep the cliffs open to climbers and provides ongoing support for the preserve’s climbing management program – recognized as a model by the UIAA (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation).
You can also:
Volunteer for trail maintenance and other projects that ensure climber access.
Donate to the Thom Scheuer Memorial Fund for Land Stewardship, which helps build and maintain climber facilities, including trailheads, parking areas, and sanitary facilities. To contribute, contact the Development Department at (845) 255-0919 ext. 1240.