Category Archives: International Travel

Cities, Mountains, Boat and Beach: Letters Home from Honeymoon in Vietnam & Cambodia

Riding a scooter through the countryside © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

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!

Hi fam!

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. 

One of our favorite lunches (marinated fried catfish hotpot with fixings), Chả Cá Thăng Long, Hanoi © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Hanoi © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

View from our room at Ham Rong Homestay © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 Ninh Binh.

Mua Caves, Tam Coc, Ninh Binh © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Along the road in Pu Luong, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Pu Luong, Vietnam© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rice terraces of Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

A village of Pu Luong, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Our treehouse at Pu Luong Treehouse, Don Village, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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). 

Traditional weaving in Don village, Pu Luong, Vietnam© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Incredible lunch stop at Nhá Tung homestay near Les bains de Hieu, Pu Luong, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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!

Dragonfish meal with morning glory at  Nhà hàng 1946 © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Love yous! Us

Subject: Vietnam/Cambodia update 2, going off-grid!

Hi fam!

Angkor Wat, 12th century Buddhist temple, one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Photo: Senghuat Boun

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.

Dave playing his guitarlele with the children of the Temple guard at Ta Nei © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Laini watching the kids draw in her sketchbook at Ta Nei
 © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

First Light over Angkor Wat © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
South Gate of Angkor Thom © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Preah Kahn, 12th century temple built by King Jayavarman VII in honor of his father. Photo: Senghuat Boun

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.

Aboard Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend, Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Laini relaxing aboard Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend, Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Hoi An, rainy season © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Takeout from Morning Glory during the storm in Ocean Villa Hotel, An Bang, Hoi An © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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!). 

We try on our new clothes
at Thong Phi Tailors, Hoi An

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!


Bahn Mi assembly line during the lunch rush at the Parts Unknown favorite, Bahn Mi Phuong, Hoi An, Vietnam
© Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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. 

Sampling street food in Hoi An, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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!!

Miss and love yous! 

Us

Subject: Re: Vietnam/Cambodia update 2, going off-grid!

Crystal clear waters at Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia

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.

Morning to ourselves at Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia
© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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! 

Love yous! 

Us

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4 Days in Morocco: Desert Adventure from Marrakesh to the Sahara

Sandboarding from the mountain-like dune in the Sahara © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 itinerary:

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.

Tzikinitza: On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

Ait Ben Haddou at dawn, looking just as it did over a dozen centuries ago. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ait Ben Haddou has been the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Getting There:

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.

Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Our tips:

  • 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.

Day 2

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.

Our Tips:

  • 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.

Day 3

Our private dinner cave in Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Pouring “Berber whiskey” (honey mint tea), a Moroccan ritual for welcoming guests© Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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: +212629460239 whatsapp).

Our tip:

  • 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.

The sun was setting as we set out on our 7 km  camel trek through the Sahara to our desert camp, much of it in the dark © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Desert camps:

            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 MAD/person.

            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 it.

Our desert camp in the Erg Chebbi Dunes of the Sahara Desert © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our tips:

  • 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.

Day 4

Watching the sun rise over Algeria from a sand dune ridge in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

View of our desert camp from atop a dune ridge © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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!
Our host at Riad Ait Ali in Dades Valley © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com


On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A village on the way from Ait Benhaddou to Ourzazate © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

48 Hours in Lisbon

Palacio de Pena is a wildly colorful and richly patterned 19th century estate atop a steep hill offering sweeping 360 degree views of lush forest. © Dave E. Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is so much to do, see, and taste here, you should absolutely try to spend more than 48 hours in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital and one of the great European cities! That said, if you’re tight on time and just able to do a quick trip like we were, here are our recommendations for how to make the most of the destination!

Day 1

Morning: Head to Pasteis de Belem for breakfast. (open everyday 8am-11pm) Their “secret recipe” for their namesake pastries dates back to 1837 and it’s clear to see why they’ve been so famous for so long. There will probably be a line out the door, but it goes fast. And it’s absolutely worth it.

The namesake pastries served at the charming Pasteis de Belem is a secret recipe dating back to 1837 © Dave E. Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Afternoon: Take a train, bus, or drive to the magical town of Sintra (http://www.sintra-portugal.com/guides/Lisbon-to-Sintra.html). Parking is tough on weekends, but driving yourself is doable on weekdays during non-peak months. Once in Sintra, take a tuk tuk or bus (tuk tuk is more scenic, quicker, and about 7 Euros; bus is hop-on, hop-off and circles between Sintra, Pena Palace and Moorish Castle, 5 Euros/person. You can also hike up if you’re okay with hills.)

Pena Palace, a magnificent example of Portuguese 19th century Romanticism. © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

An instagrammer’s dream, Palacio de Pena is a wildly colorful and richly patterned 19th century estate atop a steep hill offering sweeping 360 degree views of lush forest. It exemplifies the 19th century Romanticism style of architecture with vividly painted terraces, decorative battlements and mythological statues. The interior has been restored to reflect the decor of 1910, when the Portuguese nobility fled the country to escape the revolution.

Outside the Palace you have several kilometers of park with lakes, greenhouses, and beautiful walking trails with ornate features and stunning views. Allow at least 2-3 hours to walk around the palace and park grounds, then go to Castillo de los Moros if you have time (we didn’t, but wished we had), or take a tuk tuk down to the village of Sintra and shop your way through the old narrow streets. The tuk tuk down the mountain was a fun adventure in itself that we’d highly recommend, even if you have a bus ticket. Just wear your seatbelt!

Entrance fee into the Pena Palace is €14.00/€12.50/€12.50/€49.00 (adult/child/senior/family); a cheaper ticket which provides access to the park and palace terraces (but not the state rooms) costs €7.50/€6.50/€6.50/€26.00 (adult/child/senior/family). This park/terrace ticket allows visitors to explore the exterior of the palace and is ideal for visitors who have little interest in the history or are limited for time. Further information regarding opening times and entrance fees can be consulted at the Parques de Sintra website: https://www.parquesdesintra.pt/en/plan-your-visit-en/opening-times-and-prices/

Return just in time for dinner in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto or Chiado neighborhoods. Bairro Alto felt a bit more touristy by day and younger/louder by night than its slightly classier next-door neighbor, the Chiado.

Visit a wine bar in the Chiado or the Bairro Alto for a more college-party-on-the-streets feel. Tasca Do Chico in Bairro Alto is a great little gem that has live fado music until 1am.

Enjoy dinner and nightlife in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto or Chiado neighborhoods. © Dave E. Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 2:

Breakfast in Largo do Carmo or the nearby Faca & Garfo.

Walk around the old streets of Bairro Alto and Chiado.

Head to the Mercado de Ribeira’s TimeOut Market to sample dishes from some of the city’s best chefs under one roof. Try Sea Me for inventive seafood from one of Lisbon’s famed restaurants, Pap’Açorda upstairs for a great view and excellent chocolate mousse, or any of the 40+ vendors lining the perimeter of the sprawling 2-floor historic Market. 

After lunch, grab a private tuk tuk to see the highlights of the city, ending up in the Alfama. Be careful which tuk tuk you hail, as some local drivers will bargain with you and charge under $15 for a streamlined guided tour, while others want to charge over $100 for a full sight-seeing route. 

Evening in Lisbon © Dave E. Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

Stop off at one of many wine bars in this area and catch live fado, or try the local ginjinha liquor.

Walk to El Chapito to see some local artisan crafts and enjoy dinner in their upstairs dining room with an epic view of the city. Catch a live fado show at their downstairs bar, or wine by the glass at Tágide, just a bit further up the hill with similarly epic views, open till midnight. 

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

A Mother-Daughter Spa Retreat in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains

The Adler Dolomiti Spa & Sport Resort nestles into Italy’s Tyrolean Alps (Photo by Geri Bain)

By Geri Bain

“Those snow-capped mountains are Austria,” says our guide as my 23-year daughter Jenny and I pose beside our e-bikes. The effort-boosting electric bikes had make it possible for a non-marathoner to pedal up amazingly steep slopes to Alpe di Siusi (a.k.a. Seiser Alm), a 2,000-meter high alpine meadow. This is just one of many guided hiking and e-biking options offered for varying fitness levels at no charge to Adler Dolomiti Spa and Sport Resort guests. In winter, these include ski and snowshoe safaris. Alpine skiers can tap into Dolomiti Superski, among the world’s biggest interconnected ski areas. Here, a single ski pass provides access to 14 kilometers of interconnecting trails and lifts, including Saslong, host to two annual FIS World Cup ski races.

About a 1.5 hour’s drive from Innsbruck and roughly three hours from either Munich or Venice, the resort is set in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. Part of the Tyrolean Alps, the region feels as much Austrian as Italian, and for good reason. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. German and Italian are two of the official languages in the region. The third is Ladin, whose roots go back to days when this land was part of the Roman Empire; it is still spoken in a number of formerly-isolated valleys.

E-bikes make it possible to pedal up the steep Alpine slopes of the Dolomites (Photo by Geri Bain)

This a region of wild beauty, with 18 peaks over 3,000 meters and expansive high meadows. Nestled along its deep river valleys are small villages with flower-box adorned chalets and ancient churches. No wonder this region was named a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 2009. It offers nature at its most accessible thanks to a system of interconnecting lifts and bus routes, with free tickets provided by local hotels, and well-laid out, sign-posted routes for hiking, e-biking, skiing and other outdoor activities.

The Dialogue Walk is punctuated by contemplative quotes (Photo by Geri Bain)

In addition to the resort’s guided expeditions, we go off on several of our own hikes—armed with maps and directions from the hotel staff. One day we take the “Dialogue Walk” up the mountain behind our resort. The walk features quotes from Mother Teresa, a Cherokee, and others, carved into paving stones and rocks along the way, designed to prompt meditation (and for us, the first step is to translate them into English).

Another day, we follow the Val Gardena Railway trail, which has tri-lingual explanations of the region’s history. It runs the length of the valley, past small towns, pastures and pretty pocket playgrounds, and through steep stretches of forest. Our steepest climb is up the pilgrimage trail to St. Jacob’s Church, which surprises us with gaily painted story boards along the way and rewards us with awesome views.

Woodcarvings of all styles and sizes are sold in picturesque souvenir shops (Photo by Geri Bain)

Our home base, the Alder Dolomiti Spa Hotel & Resort, is in the center of the picturesque, pedestrian-only center of Ortisei, a picturesque village in the Val Gardena (Garden Valley). Here, the region’s three cultures are evident. The Alpine art of woodcarving is displayed in traditional and modern forms in shops, adorning homes and churches and in the Museum Gherdeina, which showcases Ladin culture. Restaurants, both at the resort and around town, feature local cheeses, German-style sausages and regional varieties of mushrooms in creative Italian pasta dishes.

The Adler Dolomit Spa & Sport Resort (photo courtesy of Adler Dolomiti)

The Adler Dolomiti has been a family-run property since its opening in 1810, when the area first became known as a center for mountaineering and skiing. It has its own tiny museum with artifacts from the early days of the hotel and the region. We chose to stay here based on a stay at its sister property in Tuscany (Hotel Adler Thermae),where we had enjoyed its combination of complimentary guided outings, thermal pools, themed saunas and farm-to-table dining, and it is a great choice here as well. While each resort’s architecture, activities and cuisine reflect its region, the basic style of stay is similar.

Adler Dolomiti is ideally situated to provide stunning mountain views from every angle (Photo by Geri Bain)

At the Dolomites resort, cozy fireplaces and lodge-style decor combine with excellent free Wi-Fi and huge window walls to create a welcome blend of the traditional and modern. Our standard room feels like a suite, with a separate seating area and patio and spacious modern bathroom. The half-board plan we are on includes a daily expansive daily breakfast buffet and multi-course dinner as well as a teatime buffet and guided excursions including equipment. There’s even a complimentary kid’s program. During our stay, we set out after breakfast each day either on one of the hotel’s tours or one of their suggested self-guided hikes for which they provide maps, suggestions on places to eat, and a packed picnic lunch, if desired. Each day we return to a welcoming teatime spread of cheeses, meats, breads and other goodies.

The Adler Dolomiti Spa & Sport Resort’s pools, hot tubs and saunas are a world unto themselves (Photo by Geri Bain)

Before dinner each day, we make sure to allow time to enjoy the resort’s Water & Wellness World,” a park-like expanse of relaxation rooms, hot tubs, and indoor and outdoor hot tubs and pools with tucked away waterfalls and massaging jets and themed saunas and steam baths, each infused with distinctive scents such as organic hay, floral blossoms and lavender and lime—all available at no charge. We are surprised to learn while bathing suits are worn in pools and hot tubs, for health reasons, in the saunas, towels, but no swimsuits are permitted, and except in for a women-only spa area, all are co-ed.

The underground salt grotto offers a tranquil retreat. (Photo courtesy of Adler Dolomiti)

We especially love the outdoor hot tub, where we enjoy meeting fellow guests as we take in the mountain views, and find the underground salt pool and grotto magical, and worth the nominal entry fee. There are also free yoga, Pilates and other classes and a fitness center with cardio and strength training equipment at the gym; with more time, we might sample them, but we do carve out time to indulge in several of the spa’s excellent and reasonably priced massages, wraps, facials and other treatments, many featuring local ingredients.

Bounteous buffets offer diverse choices at every meal (Photo by Geri Bain)

Local ingredients also take center stage in the dining room. We love the expansive buffets, always complemented by waiter-service menus. The diverse cultures and local bounty are reflected in everything from fresh-baked dark and light breads to apple strudel. Each evening brings a new set of delectable surprises, with the chance to try regional dishes such as venison with lingonberries, spaetzli, dumplings with a local smoked ham called speck, and creative pasta dishes.

The resort shares facilities with an adjoining, 30-room adults-only sister property, Adler Balance, a medical/holistic health center focused on preventive medicine and anti-aging. There’s also a small sister lodge tucked into the Alpe di Suissa, for those looking for a total escape into nature.

Relaxation is the order of the day at Adler Dolomiti (Photo courtesy of Adler Dolomiti)

With all its pools, saunas and other facilities and its landscaped gardens, we are surprised to learn that Adler Dolomiti only has 130 rooms. Perhaps that’s why it never feels crowded and the service is personal. It’s also nice that fellow guests quickly begin to look familiar. We are told that the resort caters to families with children’s programs and some family-friendly accommodations, yet we are here during a school holiday and only see about a dozen kids.

E-biking up the Alpe di Suissa was one of the many activities travel writer Geri Bain and daughter Jenny enjoyed during their stay at Adler Dolomiti.

Speaking with fellow guests, we meet people from as far away as Australia, along with England, the U.S. and France. Understandably, most come from Italy and Germany, and we speak with a number of couples and families who come here several times a year. We agree that if this were within driving distance of our home, we would too! 

Daily breakfast, multi-course dinner, teatime buffet, spa juices and snacks, and guided excursions on foot and e-bikes (and in winter, on skis and snowshoes) were all included in our half-board plan. And for families, a kid’s program is also included in the rates. For more information, visit www.adler-dolomiti.com/en.   

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

A Mother-Daughter Cruise Aboard Windstar’s Star Breeze from Athens to Venice is Chance to Share History and James Beard Cuisine

Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze is anchored just off the Old Port of Dubrovnik (photo by Geri Bain)

by Geri Bain

My 23-year old daughter Jenny and I have carved out two weeks to travel together, something we haven’t been able to do since she graduated high school. Setting our sites on Greece and Croatia, we decide a cruise will let us see the most with our limited time—and still be relaxing. We select a ten-day sailing from Athens to Venice on Windstar Cruises’ 218-passenger Star Breeze motor yacht (www.windstarcruises.com); it maximizes the time in each port, often staying on long after the larger ships depart, and goes places larger ships can’t.  Plus, Windstar Cruises’ partnership with James Beard Foundation promises (and delivers) gourmet cuisine.

We fly to Athens two days before the ship’s departure and check into the elegant Grand Bretagne Hotel (www.grandebretagne.gr) in time for a late breakfast at its rooftop terrace restaurant, where the views of the Acropolis are as amazing as the extensive buffet spread, which even includes spanakopita.  At 11 a.m., our waitress suggests we look across the street and we catch the formal changing of the guard at the Greek Parliament building. Conveniently located on Syntagma Square, the hotel also is within walking distance of everything we want to see in Athens, and we enjoy being able to stop back “home” in between sightseeing for a cool drink in the lobby or a refreshing dip in the pool.

After settling in, we head to the Acropolis, but lines are long, so we go to the Acropolis Museum at the base of the site. The museum displays original treasures and finds from the Acropolis that were moved inside for safe-keeping. That evening, we join a free 2.5 hour walking tour (www.athensfreewalkingtour.com) with Euphrosyne, an excellent guide who is both informative and entertaining and gives us great touring tips.

Taking her advice, the next morning, we are at the side entrance of the Acropolis at opening and find virtually no line and have the site almost to ourselves for almost an hour, and on our last morning, we take her suggestion and walk up the wooded trails of Philopappu Hill for amazing views of the city. We also love strolling through Plaka, Athens’ old town, especially the picturesque Anafiotika area with its steep narrow streets lined by white-washed houses with brightly painted shutters. It’s especially pretty at night when strings of light twinkle about the small restaurants and shops.

Windstar Star Breeze’s cabins are large, with sitting and sleeping areas, a walk-in closet and a marble bathroom with a full-size tub (photo by Geri Bain)

We are sad to leave Athens but excited to board our ship. Our standard cabin is much larger than we expected; there’s a true walk-in closet, a marble bathroom with a full-size tub, and sleeping and living rooms that can be separated by a curtain. We also are happy to find there are no assigned dining times and tables and surprisingly, five different places to dine—plus room service. Throughout our cruise, we enjoy meeting our fellow passengers, and it seems the crew somehow learns everyone’s names almost spontaneously.

The well-preserved Theatre of Epidaurus still hosts performances. (photo by Geri Bain)

The next morning, we are excited to wake up and find our ship docked in the center of Nafplio. We will be here from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.  We start with a pre-booked four-hour tour to ancient Epidaurus, where we learn that theater was considered integral to good health in ancient Greece–just one of the fascinating tidbits our guide Elsa shared. Most of the temples and buildings are in ruins, but the Theatre of Epidaurus, among the largest and most beautiful of the ancient theaters, is still in use today. Guides usually demonstrate the near-perfect acoustics, but we are lucky. Just when Jenny and I reach the top row of the theatre, a group of German students stand in the center of the stage and sing, their lovely harmonies reaching us loud and clear.

Back in Nafplio, we accomplish our daily workout at the Venetian-built Palamidi Fortress, which fell to Ottoman control when the architect, who the Venetians neglected to pay, got his come-uppance by showing the Ottomans the way in. The fort is accessible by bus, or via stairs from Old Town; locals tell us there are 999 steps but we lose count! We quickly realize how hard it would have been to conquer. Once scaling the nearly 800-foot outer walls, intruders would reach not one fort, but a maze of enclosures. Areas that seem like they will connect, never actually do. Many times, we follow a path that seems to link to the next area only to reach a huge chasm or high wall, forcing us to retrace our steps. Our frustration is offset by the ever-changing and stunning views of Nafplio, the Aegean Sea, and the surrounding hills.

Geri Bain and daughter Jenny at Palamidi Fortress overlooking Nafplio.

Old Nafplio, the first capital of the modern Greek state, (from 1823 until 1834, when the capital was moved to Athens) is one of our favorite ports. We visit the site of the first Greek parliament. Saint Spyridon church and the small Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation museum, but what we most enjoy is strolling amid the pretty Venetian architecture, with its characteristic red roofs and colorful windows. We dine at Kastro Karima, tucked into a back street. It has scrumptious moussaka, and at reasonable prices.

Our next two ports of call are the ancient sites of Delphi and Olympia, which served as unifying forces for the many independent city states that made up Ancient Greece. Both were places the ancients would gather to pray, make offerings to the gods and compete in Pan-Hellenic competitions. As at Epidaurus, our Windstar Cruises excursions featured knowledgeable guides who shared insights with our group (about 20) about ancient and modern Greece during bus rides as well as at the sites.

Ancient Delphi perches high on a mountain overlooking a fertile valley (photo by Geri Bain)

Built on a high mountain slope guarded by steep jagged cliff faces, the site of Delphi is as awe-inspiring for its natural beauty as its temples. The extensive site is best known for the Oracle of Delphi, where people came from around the ancient world seeking advice. The Oracle’s messages often were cryptic and could be interpreted to provide opposing meanings, so accuracy was high.

In ancient Olympia, walking through its open-air park strewn with marble pillars, platforms and statues, our guide reconstructs the site and events of the past. We learn that ancient athletes also cheated by doping and that their traditional race attire was none (nudity) and only men could enter the athletic competitions.

Magna Grecia Farm hosts an all-ship party, complete with traditional dancing (photo by Geri Bain)

The hills surrounding ancient Olympia are striped with olive groves and vineyards. We see them up close at a complimentary all-ship lunch at Magna Grecia Farm, a family-owned operation producing olive oil and wine. We see how olive oil is produced then have a family-style feast with tastings of olive oil, wine, ouzo, wonderful local sausages, tzatziki and a zesty chicken and rice dish. After lunch, a traditional Greek dance troupe performs and then leads us all in a line dance around the room that seems right out of the movie “Zorba the Greek”.

At Corfu, our last port in Greece, we hit our first bad weather on an island bus tour and walk around the beach in the rain before heading back to Corfu’s Old Town, guarded by two forts. Fortunately, the rain stops as we explore Old Fort and the pretty marina at its base, and then slowly shop our way back to the ship.

It’s all photographers on deck for the leisurely cruise through the Bay of Kotor (photo by Geri Bain)

Rough seas delay our departure for Kotor, and after taking off, we hit the only rough seas of the trip. I get a bit seasick but once in bed, the rocking is no problem. The next morning is clear and the approach to Kotor through the mountain-framed “fjords” (geologically a once-submerged river-carved canyon) is thrilling. Everyone is on deck, taking photos of gleaming white cliff-top churches and small villages nestled into rocky coves backed by steep mountains.  Around a final bend is the walled city of Kotor, its ramparts rising in hairpin-turns to a mountaintop fort.

Picturesque Perast comes into view as we sail through Kotor Bay (photo by Geri Bain)

Before exploring Kotor, we head to the nearby maritime town of Perast and its famed Our Lady of the Rocks, a powder blue domed Catholic Church and museum on a man-made island a short boat ride off shore. According to legend, a lame fisherman was cured by an idol of the Virgin Mary he found at the bottom of the bay. In reverent gratitude, the town built an artificial island over the spot and to this day, sailors make offerings here and in an annual ceremony, fill their boats with rocks to add to the island.

Back in Kotor, we are happy to find that the entire walled Old City of Kotor is a pedestrian zone. Its twisting medieval streets are easy to navigate since all roads lead to the main plaza, Arms Square, with its iconic Clock Tower or the square of the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, consecrated in 1166. The town traces its history to Roman times but it was the Venetians whose influence we see and we enjoy spotting the Winged Lion of St. Mark, symbol of the Republic of Venice emblazoned around the city, especially on its Baroque and Renaissance style palaces.

For our daily workout and photo op, we climb the fortified path to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy where the views of Kotor’s red-roofed Venetian homes and the fjords beyond are amazing. We’d planned to continue on to San Giovanni Castle, a bit higher above the city, but the sun is setting and we return to see the city lights reflected on its marble streets and sidewalk restaurants filling with patrons.

The walled city of Dubrovnik was built for defense (photo by Geri Bain)

We wake up the next morning at 8 a.m. anchored just off Dubrovnik. We have 12 hours here and have decided to explore it on our own. After breakfast, a five-minute tender shuttles us to the dock right in the heart of the Old Port, where Fort St. John guards one end of the harbor and Fort Revelin, the other. A walled cliffside city, Dubrovnik is stunning for its setting as for its pretty red-roof topped buildings that climb up and down its hilly streets.

The entire Old City is a pedestrian zone and despite massive bombings by Serb and Montenegrin soldiers in 1991, Dubrovnik has rebuilt itself back into the spectacularly frozen-in-time city you see today. No wonder Dubrovnik was selected as the setting for so many famous “Game of Thrones” scenes.  We marvel that for a relatively small city, Dubrovnik packs in a lot of museums that can offer fascinating perspectives, often in bite-size 30 to 60-minute visits. Among my favorites was the Jewish Synagogue. (Note, if you plan to walk the city walls and dip in and out of museums as we did, check out the Dubrovnik pass.)

The other thing about the city is its extreme hills. I wish I’d worn a Fitbit because by day’s end, we must have climbed up and down at least sixty flights of stairs following the guard’s walkway around the walls of the city, climbing the stair-stepping streets of the city, and exploring St. Lawrence Fort, which defends one of the ancient harbors from a promontory facing the city walls. The walls, reinforced by towers, forts and bastions, started in the 10th century and improved right up until the 17th century, rise to over 80 feet in places and we make a point of mounting each of them. All those vantage points make for stunning vistas—one more amazing than the next—and a great workout.

Our final stop before Venice is Hvar, and we are only there from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. so we make sure to get up and out early. Our ship anchors a short distance offshore from Hvar, a small gem with its marble streets and Venetian architecture. Despite being a trendy destination these days, it feels like a small town. We see children walking to school and locals chatting in waterfront cafes.

Of course, we have to hike up to the mountaintop Fortica Španjola (Spanish Fortress). Like the town, most of what is standing was built under Venetian rule, which lasted from the 15th to 18th centuries. Then we pick up towels and water at the Windstar launch and walk to a recommended beach, just outside town. The water is calm and refreshing and the beach is beautiful.

Windstar’s Star Breeze sails into Venice as explorers and traders have done since the heyday of the Venetian Empire (photo by Geri Bain)

The next morning, we are up at 6:30 a.m. so we can be on deck as we cruise into the city of Venice, just as explorers and traders traveling routes like ours had done in the heyday of the Venetian Empire. We are greeted by thick fog and I feared we wouldn’t get to see the sail in. I needn’t have worried. Everything stops when the fog is too thick. After a leisurely breakfast, we wait. Finally, the captain announces we will be sailing into Venice shortly and soon, we are sailing past St. Mark’s Square.

Nafplio, Kotor, Corfu, Dubrovnik and Hvar were all strongly influenced by the Venetian Republic for centuries and by the time we arrive in Venice, we recognize the grand buildings, richly-decorated churches and marble streets that characterize a Venetian city. Each port is stunning, but as we take in the splendor of the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Square, and the ornate architectural details at every turn, it is obvious that Venice was the capital of the Venetian Republic in every way.

Looking back at our cruise, Jenny and I are happy with our choice of ship and itinerary and marvel that we could comfortably explore nine different ports in ten days. We never visited the small casino and apart from the well-attended, informative port talks, our favorite entertainment was the lively Crew Show. Like the ship, the show was sophisticated yet informal, mirroring much of what we enjoyed about Windstar. We also enjoyed getting to know our fellow passengers; while they tended to be more my age than Jenny’s, the ship’s friendly, low-key ambience was just right for a mother-daughter cruise.

For more information on Windstar Cruises, visit www.windstarcruises.com,

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

New York Times Travel Show: Despite Trump Policy, Americans CAN Travel to Cuba!

Tour operators and cruiselines are still offering programs to Cuba. Abercrombie & Kent is offering a people-to-people program with A&K USA Chairman Phil Otterson, featuring 7 nights aboard boutique sailing yacht ‘Le Ponant’.

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

After President Obama threw down barriers for Americans to travel to Cuba, the island nation saw a surge in tourism – US airlines launched new flights, cruiselines set up calls, and hotel companies were looking to build. Then the Trump Administration reversed the Obama policy, creating confusion about Americans’ ability to travel, which even travel professionals say they are having a hard time deciphering.

“Tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited. You must obtain a license from the Department of Treasury or your travel must fall into one of 12 categories of authorized travel,” a spokesman for the US Department of State said.

“Travel to Cuba is regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Anyone located in the United States, regardless of citizenship and nationality, must comply with these regulations. Individuals seeking to travel to Cuba are not required to obtain licenses from OFAC if their travel is covered by a general license. If travel is not covered by a general license, you must seek OFAC authorization in the form of a specific license. Travelers who fail to comply with regulations may face penalties and criminal prosecution.” See the Department of Treasury webpage; also OFAC’s FAQl:
https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_faqs_new.pdf

The Department of State also has a travel advisory on Cuba at its travel.state.gov site. “Reconsider travel to Cuba due to health attacks directed at U.S. Embassy Havana employees.”

The change in policy specifically impacts independent travelers’ ability to visit under a broad People to People policy without joining some kind of licensed group – which those who have been advocating for opening travel to Cuba for decades say is not a surmountable problem.

Meanwhile, cruise lines like Norwegian are still coming in and even benefiting from the restrictions. “All of our ships are covered under People to People provisions,” Andy Stuart, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, said at the New York Times Travel Show industry panel. “The fact we are still going, added capacity, tells the story that this is fantastic way to visit, There is still pent-up demand. We have doubled capacity –we have the two largest ships that can sail into Havana harbor. We are excited about it. We have to get the word out that Americans can still go to Cuba.”

But USA-Cuba travel professionals argue that the Trump policy is only a blip that can easily be overcome by anyone who is interested in visiting.

“Yes You Can Still Go to Cuba!” 

John McAuliff, Executive Director & Founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, fields questions from interested travelers at the Cuba-US People to People Partnership booth at the New York Times Travel Show. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Despite Trump’s hard-line speech to shut down relations with Cuba last June in Miami, Americans can still travel to Cuba.

“All types of purposeful travel authorized by the Obama Administration remain legal,” stated John McAuliff, Executive Director & Founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (www.ffrd.org).

Travel with groups and on cruises are unaffected by the policy.

“Even hotel restrictions have a legal work-around,” he maintains.

Independent travel by individuals, families and friends is also largely unchanged but now falls under the re-written license category of “Support for the Cuban People” instead of “People to People.”

The withdrawal of 60 percent of US diplomats in October was connected to a still unexplained medical problem that affected only US and Canadian diplomats. “It is totally unknown what happened and who is responsible, but the goal of cooling relations succeeded.” On the other hand, Canada did not withdraw its diplomats.

“There has not been a single confirmed case of similar health symptoms from the 4 million visitors to Cuba last year, including 650,000 Americans. No other country has issued any kind of health advisory.

Indeed, the International Tourism Fair in Madrid recently judged Cuba “Safest Destination in the World.”

The State Department, under internal rules, issued a Travel Warning because with the reduced staff, it could not provide the normal level of citizen services.

‘Yes We Came’ poster. President Obama pulled down the barriers for Americans to travel to Cuba;  © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Those who want to travel to Cuba on their own can. Here are tips:

Book a ticket nonstop on JetBlue from JFK or United from Newark (about $300).

Select “Support for the Cuban People” as the type of travel you are undertaking.

Use AirBnB to reserve a room or an apartment (known as casa particular) from a private owner.

You can dine in a private restaurant (paladar).

You can buy handicrafts and other items from self-employed shop keepers (cuenta propistas). (The Trump Administration was hysterical about Americans traveling to Cuba because tourism dollars, they say, support the military state and maintain the Communist regime.)

You can hire a guide privately, such as Enrique Nunez, an art historian, singer-songwriter, artistic director and ‘lecturer on wheels” who drives you around in an old Soviet Lada (“The Car of the Cuban Survivor”; iroko011@gmail.com.)

As much as possible, use private taxis, which are also available for travel 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’.” (What that means is up to you.)

Keep a journal or list of your “meaningful interactions” for five years.

Some two dozen travel entities were at the New York Times Travel Show with services related to Cuba travel, including Cuba/US People to People Partnership, Fund for Reconciliation & Development; Cuban Guru, LLC; Intrepid Travel; Access Trips Culinary Tours; Celestyal Cruises; New York Times Journeys; REI Adventures; Norwegian Cruise Line/Crown Cruise Vacations; International Expeditions; Intrepid Travel; Diving Unlimited International; smarTours; Dream Yacht Charter; Wild Frontiers; African Ventures.

Natural Habitat Adventures offers licensed tours to Cuba (photo supplied by NatHab.com)

McAuliff advises that the best, most economical group tour for Americans to get an overview of Cuba is on a fully inclusive one week cruise offered by Celestyal. Now in its fifth year, the cruise departs from Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica, and visits three ports in distinctive regions: Santiago, Havana and Cienfuegos. (Passengers boarding in Havana have the option of creating their own program before or after the cruise.)

“A unique feature is that more than 60 Cubans are with you for the whole voyage including lecturers from the University of Havana, musicians, dancers, animators, chefs, waiters, and room attendants.”

FFRD is circulating a petition to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs thomas Shannon, Donald Trump, House members and Senators:

“We urge the State Department to immediately rescind its politically motivated Travel Warning on Cuba and suspension of issuing US visitor and migrant visas in Havana.

“The freedom of independent and group travel to Cuba by all US citizens must also be protected by regulation and by law.”

To sign: http://tinyurl.com/travelwarningcuba.

For more information, visit Fund for Reconciliation and Development, 917-859-9025, director@ffrd.org, www.ffrd.org. See current US government regulations at tinyurl.com/regsnov2017.

See also:

State Department Implements New Travel Advisory System, New Info Hub for US Travelers

New York Times Travel Show: American Travelers Resilient In Face of Crises

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

New York Times Travel Show: American Travelers Resilient In Face of Crises

At New York Times Travel Show at the Javits Center, New York, demand for international travel was high. Travel professionals predict a record 2018, based on advance bookings which are coming in much earlier than in the past. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Travel professionals at the New York Times Travel Show had somewhat mixed feelings to the US State Department’s new travel advisory and alert system (travel.state.gov) because of the newness and how consumers are processing the information. Some said they appreciated the greater specificity, but others felt that destinations were unfairly tarnished. But they observed with some amazement at the resilience of American travelers to return to destinations that have had some crisis like a natural disaster or terror attack.

“When we had those [terror attacks] in London last summer, within 48 hours we were back to normal booking patterns,” said Guy Young, global brand engagement officer of The Travel Corporation.

Jennifer Tombaugh, president of Tauck Tours, said the tour operator used to plan for up to 12 months for tourism to recover to an area that suffered from some kind of travel disruptor. Now, it only takes three months for a rebound.

“We see, whether it’s been a natural disaster or a terrorism event or just overall economic disruption that all of our guests are rebounding much, much more quickly than they did in the past,” Tombaugh said.

“For better or for worse, there is a resilience about the American traveler that we haven’t seen in a long time,” she said. “I think we’re sort of redefining what uncertainty means, and I’m not quite sure if that word even resonates for people even more. I think they’re saying, ‘The world is crazy. Life is short. Let’s go out and explore.'”

But resilience might actually reflect the high degree of confidence that travelers have in travel professionals – the tour operators, cruiselines and travel agents who are there to advise them more accurately when they book, provide more security when they travel and handle emergencies should they arise.

Travel professionals bullish on 2018, saying “Americans are resilient”: James Shillinglaw, editor-in-chief of Insider Travel Report, moderates New York Times Travel Show panel with Andrew Stuart, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line; Guy Young, global brand engagement, The Travel Corporation, Jennifer Tombaugh President of Tauck Tours; Alejandro Zozaya, CEO, Apple Leisure Group, and, Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Citing robust advance bookings, the panel – reflecting a cross-section of travel entities – were all highly optimistic of strong sales for 2018, coming off a record 2017 for just about every destination, bolstered by a strong global economy. However, the United States, was one of only two destinations showing a downturn, with international arrivals down about 4 to 6 percent –representing  a $4.5 billion hit to the economy and loss of some 46,000 jobs. They said inbound travel was hurt by Trump’s rhetoric, the travel ban, concern about gun violence, and a general discomfort to visit the US. The United States, once the most desirable destination for international travels, slipped to #3, and dropped the 8 in terms of international arrivals.

On the other hand, outbound travel by Americans is strong.

Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group; Alejandro Zozaya, CEO of Apple Leisure Group; Andy Stuart, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line; Guy Young, global brand engagement officer of the Travel Corporation; and Tombaugh of Tauck reported the strongest advanced bookings in years – with travelers booking as much as a year ahead.

“2018 looks like a fantastic year, the best on record if bookings continue at the same pace,” said Guy Young, global brand engagement officer of the Travel Corporation, which has 30 brands in its portfolio, ranging from youth travel to luxury travel, and travel products all over the world. “Every destination is up except for the United States. In a given year, some brands are up, others are down, but in 2018, everything is up. It will be a phenomenal year.”

Get a Passport: Hilton Passport Project

Hilton Hotels & Resorts, in collaboration with the US State Department, has launched the Hilton Passport Project.

It turns out that having a passport is good for you.

Hilton Hotels & Resorts undertook a study and found that 53% of Americans with passports are content with their lives, compared to 34% of those who do not possess a passport.

Hilton, in collaboration with the US State Department, has launched the Hilton Passport Project, an initiative aimed at inspiring more Americans to apply for passports.

“For nearly 100 years, we’ve witnessed the profound impact travel has on the lives of our guests,” said Stuart Foster, vice president, global brand marketing. “With more than 570 hotels in the heart of the world’s most incredible destinations, Hilton Hotels & Resorts makes travel within reach. The Hilton Passport Project is our way of helping more Americans unlock the power of travel and realize the benefits a passport can bring them – whether that’s becoming more content with their lives or enjoying new experiences and opportunities.”

Every few weeks, a Hilton location in the United States hosts a Passport Concierge booth, where guests and the general public can have their passport pictures taken for free and apply for or renew a passport. Between one and three employees from the State Department will be on hand to answer passport-related questions and help fill out applications. For a list of coming locations, visit facebook.com/Hilton.

First-time applicants pay $110 and a $25 application fee. Passport renewals cost $110 and expedited passports are an additional $60. If you’re renewing your passport, you can do it by mail, but if you’re getting a new passport or if yours has been lost or stolen, you must apply in person.

There are more than 8,000 passport application locations around the country. Around 60 percent are post offices while the rest are courthouses and libraries. Visit the State Department’s Where to Apply link for more details. In addition, there are 27 passport agencies, where travelers can apply for rush passports – for example, if you are traveling within two weeks’ time.

This link has a list of these agencies; applicants need an appointment for a visit and can make one online at passportappointment.travel.state.gov.

See also:

State Department Implements New Travel Advisory System, New Info Hub for US Travelers

New York Times Travel Show: Despite Trump Policy, Americans CAN Travel to Cuba!

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

State Department Implements New Travel Advisory System, New Info Hub for US Travelers

A biking and wildlife safari in rural India: India has been issued a Level 2 Travel Advisory, with a particular warning for women not to travel alone since rape is one of the fastest growing crimes. Also it warns of terrorist or armed groups active in East Central India, primarily in rural areas. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

On January 10, 2018, the Department of State launched changes in how information is shared with U.S. travelers, replacing Travel Alerts and Warnings for countries that warrant them to a new system where every country has a Travel Advisory with a level ranging from 1 to 4.  The advisories are hosted in a redesigned hub for traveler information, travel.state.gov.

“These changes are intended to provide U.S. citizens with clear, timely, and reliable safety and security information worldwide,” the State Department stated in a press advisory.

  • Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions: This is the lowest advisory level for safety and security risk. There is some risk in any international travel. Conditions in other countries may differ from those in the United States and may change at any time.
  • Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution: Be aware of heightened risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.
  • Level 3 – Reconsider Travel: Avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.
  • Level 4 – Do Not Travel: This is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or leave as soon as it is safe to do so. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.

The Travel Advisories for each country replace previous Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts. While the State Department will issue an overall Travel Advisory level for every country, levels of advice may vary for specific locations or areas within a country. For instance, U.S. citizens may be advised to “Exercise Increased Caution” (Level 2) in a country, but to “Reconsider Travel” (Level 3) to a particular area within the country. Detailed Travel Advisories also will provide clear reasons for the level assigned, using established risk indicators, and offer specific advice to U.S. citizens who choose to travel there:

  • C – Crime: Widespread violent or organized crime is present in areas of the country. Local law enforcement may have limited ability to respond to serious crimes.
  • T – Terrorism: Terrorist attacks have occurred and/or specific threats against civilians, groups, or other targets may exist.
  • U – Civil Unrest: Political, economic, religious, and/or ethnic instability exists and may cause violence, major disruptions, and/or safety risks.
  • H – Health: Health risks, including current disease outbreaks or a crisis that disrupts a country’s medical infrastructure, are present. The issuance of a Centers for Disease Control Travel Notice may be a factor.
  • N – Natural Disaster: A natural disaster, or its aftermath, poses danger.
  • E – Time-limited Event: A short-term event, such as an election, sporting event, or other incident that may pose a safety risk.
  • O – Other: There are potential risks not covered by previous risk indicators. Read the country’s Travel Advisory for details.

The State Department stated it will review and update each Travel Advisory as needed, based on changes to security and safety information. Additionally, U.S. embassies and consulates will now issue Alerts to replace the current Emergency Messages and Security Messages. Alerts will inform U.S. citizens of specific safety and security concerns in a country, such as demonstrations, crime trends, and weather events.

Revamped Website, Travel.State.Gov

The Department’s newly-redesigned hub for traveler information,travel.state.gov, will host all Travel Advisories, recent Alerts issued for each country, and an interactive map in mobile friendly formats.

Country pages on the site will continue to include all travel information currently available, including details about entry/exit requirements, local laws and customs, health conditions, transportation, and other relevant topics.

To receive security and other important updates while traveling, U.S. citizens can enroll their travel plans in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (step.state.gov), and follow on Twitter (@travelgov) and Facebook (facebook.com/travelgov).

Enjoying a sailing adventure in the Philippines. The State Department issued a Level 2 Travel Advisory for Philippines: Terrorist and armed groups continue plotting possible kidnappings, bombings, and other attacks in the Philippines. Terrorist and armed groups may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities. © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We posed additional questions to a spokesperson for the Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs:

How was the new Travel Advisory system created? How has it been received by travel professionals and travelers?

“Over the past year, we received feedback about our consular safety and security messaging from State Department colleagues throughout the world and from our many outreach activities to the public and other government stakeholders.  This feedback helped us tailor our new Travel Advisories to the information travelers need most.

“The revisions to consular safety and security messaging improve the Department’s ability to inform the public in an efficient and comprehensive manner.  Information is easier to find, understand, and use. Travel Advisories ensure U.S. citizens receive important advice for every country, applying a consistent worldwide standard.”

“Our goal was to improve our communications with U.S. citizen travelers to provide clear, timely, and reliable safety and security information worldwide. So far, the feedback was been positive.

“One thing I’d point out: it’s important to read the full Travel Advisory for the country your visiting.  In some cases, we have different Advisory levels for different parts of the country.  Mexico, for example, is a Travel Advisory Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution, but some areas of Mexico are Level 3 and 4.  So it’s important to read each Advisory carefully.”

How do you determine the overall level for a country?

“We consider many factors to determine the Travel Advisory level for each country, including crime, terrorist activity, civil unrest, health, natural disaster/weather,  and current events.  We clearly explain the reason for the Travel Advisory level and describe the safety and security concerns.

“The information used to formulate Travel Advisories is collected from a range of sources, such as crime statistics and other information that is publicly available, information gathered from U.S. government sources, as well as assessments by our embassies and consulates.  Travel Advisories also take into account decisions made to protect the security of U.S. government personnel overseas and ensure that U.S. citizens receive appropriate security information.

“This analysis is undertaken without regard to bilateral political or economic considerations.  Travel Advisories represent our commitment to protect U.S. citizens traveling  and residing abroad by providing them important safety and security information.

“Travel Advisories are based on safety and security conditions that could affect the lives and interests of U.S. citizens abroad, not on political considerations.” 

Cuba-US People to People Partnership booth at the New York Times Travel Show: The US State Department’s Level 3 travel advisory (Reconsider Travel) for Cuba is controversial. The government says it is based on “health attacks directed at US Embassy employees” but Canada’s embassy had a similar episode and did not withdraw its diplomats, no other incidents were reported and tourists continue to come. Indeed, International Tourism Fair in Madrid recently judged Cuba “Safest Destination in the World.” © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the Obama administration there was an attempt to make it easier for travelers to come into US. How has the Trump Administration changed the way visitors are treated? Travel into the US from abroad is down 4-6% in 2017 – an otherwise a banner year for international travel – which is estimated to cost the US economy $4.5 billion and the loss of 40,000 jobs. Is this something the State Dept is concerned about?

“The Department of State remains committed to efficiently processing applications for legitimate travel to the United States.

“At the same time, every visa decision is a national security decision, and we must ensure that applicants do not pose a security risk to the United States.   We have never hesitated to spend additional time evaluating visa applications to this end.

“However, we do recognize the importance of international travel and tourism to the U.S. Economy. 75.6 million visitors traveled to the United States in 2016.  These visitors spent $244.7 billion and supported 1.2 million jobs here in the United States in 2016.  The U.S. travel industry (international and domestic) is a substantial component of U.S. GDP and employment, contributing $1.6 trillion in economic activity.

“Together with other agencies, we are in contact with industry groups and work with them regularly to discuss concerns and opportunities.”

Some 15 countries around the world have travel alerts about travel to the United States because of gun violence. Can you comment?

“Our responsibility is to provide information for U.S. citizens traveling overseas.  We’re aware that some countries have their own travel alerts, including regarding the United States, but we’d have to refer you to those countries for information on how they develop their alerts.”

During the Obama Administration, there also were programs to facilitate and encourage young people to travel abroad, take foreign internships, join programs like Peace Corps, coordinated through the State Department. Can you comment on such programs under the Trump Administration? 

“Again this year, the Open Doors student mobility numbers showed an increase in American students studying abroad, topping more than 325,000 American students in academic year 2015/16. Increasingly, U.S. colleges and universities are making study abroad an integral component of the higher education experience for Americans.  And more U.S. students than ever before are taking advantage of study abroad opportunities in a wide range of countries.

“To help facilitate this growth, the State Department launched the U.S. Study Abroad Office in 2015 with the goal of further increasing and diversifying U.S. participation in study abroad, including diversity of study, geographic representation and diversity of institutional types, as well as diversity of study abroad destinations around the globe. We work with U.S. and foreign institutions to expand opportunities and highlight the value of studying abroad. Our Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship Program increases participation in study abroad by providing resources to federal Pell grants recipients, and Critical Language Scholarship Programs provide training in over a dozen foreign languages critical to U.S. foreign policy priorities.

“Study abroad helps students understand the perspectives and values of others, enabling them to succeed in our diverse workplaces, communities and educational institutions. The State Department supports American colleges and universities in their efforts to increase study abroad. You can find more here: https://studyabroad.state.gov.”

Biking through Albania, a country totally unknown or misunderstood by Americans: The State Department designates Albania as Level 1: Exercise normal precautions. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What is the position from the State Department about the benefit of international travel – Americans going abroad and foreigners visiting the US – in terms of fostering people-to-people understanding?

“All of us who work in this field know how vital exchange programs and international study is to our shared future. It is one of the key means for the next generation of global leaders to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in our global economy, foster progress in our societies, and address shared challenges.

“When people go abroad, they make connections that broaden their worldview.  They become part of an international network of individuals with the shared experience of navigating new and unfamiliar languages, cultures and institutions, as they gain knowledge and develop resourcefulness and critical thinking skills. This experience is especially crucial for young people who will increasingly compete and interact in an interconnected world.

“The State Department sponsors exchange programs to increase mutual understanding and respect between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, as a goal of U.S. foreign policy.  These include the International Visitor Leadership Program and Fulbright Program, our flagship exchanges, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, Critical Language Scholarships, high school exchanges, as well as support for the global network of EducationUSA educational advising centers that provides information on U.S. study to international students worldwide.”

See also:

New York Times Travel Show: American Travelers Resilient In Face of Crises

New York Times Travel Show: Despite Trump Policy, Americans CAN Travel to Cuba!

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Day into Night at the Pushkar Camel Fair & Festival of Brahma, India

Negotiating at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The “Jungle Book” Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure chapter of our Royal Expeditions trip to India ends, but a new story begins when we leave our hotel in New Delhi, again in the darkness before dawn, to take a six-hour train journey to Pushkar in Rajasthan for the annual Pushkar Camel Fair. In many ways, this immersion into a centuries-old tradition transports us into the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 book even more tangibly than the game drives into the jungles of Mowgli and Shere Khan. See:‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park and continued with Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too? and Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

 

The Pushkar Horse and Camel Fair and Festival of Brahma takes place over a 10-day period in October/November every year, timed to take place during one of Rajasthan’s holiest festivals; the exact date varies on the western calendar but always falls during the full moon of the Indian lunar calendar month of Kartik. Pushkar is the only place in the world where Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, one of the Holy Trinity, is worshipped. A place of pilgrimage, the camel and horse fair developed out of this massive annual gathering.

The fair is a kaleidoscope of color, a swirl of motion, a cacophony of sound, unexpected up-close encounters (as with a camel), the crush of crowds.

Camel cart, Pushkar Camel Fair, India © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the greatest spectacles anywhere, in my mind the Pushkar Camel Fair is a combination of state fair, carnival and pilgrimage with a smidgeon of circus thrown in. There are snake charmers, musicians, dancing horses, magic show, ferris wheels. You can buy anything and everything – household items, decorative reins for camels and horses; street vendors selling drinks made from sugar cane, merchants selling every manner of goods from stalls and from blankets sprawled out on the road.

Traveling by Train

Our trip to the Pushkar Camel Fair starts with a fantastic six-hour train journey from New Delhi, enhancing the movie-quality of the experience.

We speed through the streets from the Sheraton Hotel, dark and amazingly vacant at 5 am compared to the chaotic snarl of traffic we navigated through when we arrived the evening before from Kanha National Park, flying from Jabalpur to New Delhi.

We pull in across from the train station and out of nowhere, fellows appear who will porter our luggage (on their heads) to the train. We follow briskly after – going through the airport-style security that we have come to expect at every hotel – and are immediately grateful for their help when we realize how we have to climb up stairs to a bridge that takes us to our track. We have time to wait – there are hundreds of people who have basically camped out on the platforms.

Our train departs just after 6 am. A porter comes through our first class car with newspapers, then tea and coffee, and then breakfast (the omelet was very good). Our Royal Expeditions guide creates a WiFi hotspot for us.

Our guide who will take us around the fair, Thurka Durga Singh, comes aboard and begins orienting us to what we will see at the fair. He is a regal looking gentleman, descended from the Warrior Class, who carries himself with grace and dignity. His voice is sonorous, and I soon discover, he is very much a poet and a storyteller, steeped in India’s traditions and culture.

Durga Singh © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, as he would describe himself, Durga “is a keen observer of history, culture, religion, current affairs, and is a bank of knowledge so vast that he has a point of view on anything under the sun. He is what one could call a modern traditionalist, actively seeking the use of modern technology and methods to support the principles of traditional living. The inquisitive can have endless conversations with him on a number of his projects like rain – water harvesting, biogas plant, solar heating and, even, healthy cooking.” It only takes a simple question for him to launch into an entrancing narration.

“Before trains, buses, cars, all citizens traveled by animals – camel, horse. From the 11th to the15th day of the waning moon, pilgrims would come by the thousands on horses and camels from near Delhi to have a holy day. A fair developed. If you come during the first eight to 10 days of the Pushkar Camel Fair, you see more animals; in the last three days, there are more pilgrims. (Indeed, Dugar had just come from guiding a horse-riding safari to the fair.)

A horse trade underway at the Pushkar Camel & Horse Fair, India © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rural farmers still use camels and horses as work animals and the Pushkar fair is one of the biggest camel, horse and live-stock fairs possibly anywhere, attracting buyers and sellers from all over the country, as well as visitors from around the world. At the peak of the fair, there might be 11,000 camels and 400,000 people coming from far and wide, dressed in their traditional and regional clothes. For days before the fair and after, you can see herders driving their camels and horses along the highway.

Seller grabs his buyer by the hand to pull him into the tent where negotiations can happen away from prying eyes © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

”At the fair, everything is everybody’s business. Our sense of privacy is different. Eavesdropping is a custom of the fair. People standing around give their unsolicited opinion – ‘Good horse’.” (We actually find ourselves doing this exact thing). “Now the deal is getting serious. Now the seller and the buyer don’t want others giving opinion. They clasp hands to clinch deal. Now bystanders have even more curiosity. ‘What is it your business?’ ‘I just wanted to know.’”

An ancient tradition is that when the horse is sold, it is never given with reins “because that would declare he would never have that horse again. So the buyer puts his own reins on [you can see stands that sell decorative reins.] Then the seller has money and gives a little money back, to get the horse extra food, a parting gift to the horse.

“In the western mind, business is business, there is no sentiment [recall the expression: It’s business. Not personal.]. In the Eastern mind, it is etiquette to offer tea. A Westerner would feel obligated to buy, but not an Easterner.

Getting closeup view of camels at the Pushkar Camel Fair  © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He gives us a tutorial on the different types of camels and how they are still used as work animals and why the reputation of camels as being mean and spitting isn’t really fair. One kind “can go sunrise to sunset, 60 km and has more stamina than horse. It can go without water for weeks.  Camels live 26 years; 4-16 year olds work, 16-24 year olds still work but not as hard. Five minutes before it drops dead, it still doesn’t refuse work, then it drops dead.”

I ask how much a camel costs: a young camel, 2 ½ years old (they start training and work at three years old) might cost 14,000-15,000 Rupees ($205-$220); a grown, trained camel might cost 55,000-100,000 rupees ($735-$1500).

“The camel is God’s blessing to us. It browses, eats species that others don’t, like the thorny bush. He doesn’t compete for food, but he is plow, car, tractor.”

But things are changing, he says. Alas, “Young people don’t want to be stuck with an animal. They prefer a tractor…. It’s likely the Pushkar Camel Fair will disappear in 10 years.”

In India’s cash economy (they don’t use credit cards or checks), there may be 15 million rupees in cash at the fair, in bags, clothes. “There are no locks, no safes.” So men wear a vest that has a hidden pocket and put a shirt over that. “A man may have 1 million rupees and no one knows. He can’t be pick-pocketed.”

The state must collects its tax, but since there are no written records of transactions, the tax department charges a flat rate when people enter the fair.

A whirl of motion at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This year, is unusual, he says. We are there just as the Modi government without warning canceled the 500 and 1000 rupee bills in circulation that are the basis for an economy that still runs on cash.

“The Fair has gone into a difficult time. There are many unsold animals, owners sitting desolate. They spent money to buy the animals but have no money to bring them back. Many will leave the animals behind.”

We should also look out for the camel’s haircut. “They decorate their camel like fellows decorate their motorcycles. You wine and dine the barber – it can cost 2000-3000 rupees. The Barber used to make lovely design – a lotus flower – but the Barber has gotten quite old, he is about to go to heaven. He made peacock design; an Islamic barber makes a geometric pattern. Now you see a Sikh shearer from Punjab who works fast.”

Farmers used to collect the camel wool to make rugs, sacks; “Now nobody collects.” Well at least one group does, who we come upon in the market, Camel Charisma.

Acquiring a horse at the Pushkar fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

He bemoans the disappearance, one by one, of traditions (“20 years ago, women would sing folk songs. No more: girls go to school now and don’t learn folk music”).

If you come during the first eight to 10 days of the Pushkar camel fair, you see more animals; in the last three days, there are more pilgrims. “Now pilgrims come in jeeps, buses – groups of pilgrims, in different dress.”

He paints pictures of what else we will see, and lo and behold, when we arrive at the fair later that afternoon, we see for ourselves exactly what he has foretold:

“When you go to cinema, you eat popcorn – well, for desert people, sugar cane is big – trucks and trucks of sugar cane come in from the neighboring state of Pradesh.” We see stalls (a little like cotton-candy machines) crushing sugar cane into a juice add lemon and ginger.

Traditional food at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We will see the “normal” food of the Indian countryside. “Who goes to the countryside? Hunters, nomads, pilgrims and animal trader and armies. They have to cook and eat in countryside. So they will collect dried cow droppings for cooking fuel (it’s free) [but you can actually buy cow dung patties on Amazon, I’m told] to prepare balls of wheat flour, served on a plate made of leaves.

“You light up a cow dung fire. When the fire dies down, you roast bread on the embers. It’s clean because after a half-hour of cooking, the cow dung is sterilized. Stores sell this round chat-patti fried wheat bread. It’s street food. The village pilgrims relish this food.”

The camel fair also involves a sprawling market (like a flea market), with all manner of goods for sale.

Interesting people at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

He also alerts us that we can photograph regular people –they don’t take money – but there are also “professional” photo subjects – they dress like in various costumes and you are expected to pay 100-200 rupees to take a picture (kind of like the naked cowboy in Times Square).

He warns us that “skunks” spoil the visit for Indians and foreigners. They solicit money – “Mafia like” =saying they want to take you to the lake. Tell them ‘We have been to the lake.”

He says he will take us to the roof of a restaurant to see the lake and watch the rituals.

The beauty of the fair is its randomness, a kaleidoscope of colors, a swirl of activity, he says. “No guidebook will tell you this aspect.”

His narration has made the hours spent on the train fly by. Before we know it, we pull into Ajmir.

Ajmir, A Holy City

We arrive in Ajmir and once we are underway in our van for the half-hour ride to Pushkar, Durga has us join in reciting a Hindu blessing, since Ajmir is one of the holiest places for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.

The story goes that when Sati died, Shiva cried so much and for so long, that his tears created two holy ponds – one at Pushkara in Ajmer in India and the other at Ketaksha, which means “raining eyes” in Sanskrit.

One of India’s first cities, Ajmir was the Chahamana capital ruling all India until the defeat of Prithviraja lll in 1192 when the city came under Muslim rule. And when India was under British rule and divided into 526 Maharajah states, the Viceroy, the direct link to the British Crown, was based in Ajmir.

Religious ritual underway in Ajmir, holy to several major religions © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ajmir also has one of the most important Sufi shrines, “next to Mecca and Medina, one of the holiest for Muslims.”

Moinuddin Chishti, an important Iman practicing the Sufi form of Islam, came to Ajmir from Iran, developing a large following, and gaining the respect of the residents of the city. Chishti promoted understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Sufism is a Muslim movement which arose in the 8th-9th centuries, whose followers seek to find divine truth and love through direct encounters with God. Sufis, Durga explains do not believe that nonbelievers are infidels (like the more extreme Wahabis). Every individual is God’s children. Music is an important part of worship, connecting worshippers to the divine. He has as much a following among Hindus as Muslims. Many Muslims live here.”

In some ways, it seems Ajmir is like Jerusalem in that it is the confluence of these different religions.

During our brief ride, Durga explains reincarnation, predestination and freewill (no mean feat), connecting reincarnation to Darwin. “Darwin talks of physical evolution, Einstein of the soul transfiguring. There is a zero balance account when you are born – that’s free will. Now you start creating your karma; that brings you back again and again. The aim of life is to go back to the Godhead, to break the cycle of birth and rebirth.” Reincarnation, rebirth and nirvana, he says, is not that much different than Christianity’s belief in resurrection and heaven. “There are many commonalities.”

Free will and destiny are not contradictory. “Destiny is that you find a note, then free will is what you do with it. You receive your past and create your future – that is the secret of happiness. In the East, there is no place for guilt” because actions have repercussions in future life.

As for why cows are sacred, it basically comes down to a very practical reason: people depend on the cow. “The cow was revered before it became holy.” We see cows with their horns that had been painted for the Diwali Festival.

Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We make our way slowly through a snarl of humanity, traffic cops doing their best to organize. Because of the traffic during the fair, we are led the long way around, traveling around the lake and over Nag Pahar, the Snake Mountain, separating Pushkar from Ajmer. We don’t mind at all because we get to see more of the city and landscape.

Coming into Pushkar, we bypass the entrance to the fair – it is wall-to-wall people, since it is toward the end of the fair now mostly pilgrims as opposed to camel and horse buyers – enroute to the Royal Tents, a luxurious tented camp set up by The Royal Jodhpur Camps specifically for the fair, where we stay.

Royal Jodhpur Camp provides luxurious accommodations at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Royal Jodhpur Camp is set up as a traditional “shikar” style camp: at a time when only royalty was allowed to hunt, these camps were set up to accommodate them. Ours consists of rows of elegant and luxurious twin bedded tents with verandahs with deck-chairs in front and attached bathrooms with running hot and cold water (even a shower), set out over an expansive sandy plain. There are electric lights, an electric heater, rugs on the ground. There is also a spacious Mughal-style dining tent and a recreation tent which serves as a lounge.  It is set on expansive private grounds surrounded by rolling mustard fields in flower and rocky hills, a walk or camel ride away from the fair.

It is the ultimate in glamping. We can tie a triangular flag to a rope outside the tent to signal if we want service (room service, hot water). We can order coffee delivered in the early morning.

We feel much as the royal entourage who would come on hunting expeditions and stay in these elaborate camps. The operative word is “royal.”

Royal Jodhpur Camp © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, The Royal Jodhpur Camps actually has a family connection to Royal Expeditions, the tour company that has organized our Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure and this extension to the Pushkar Camel Fair, Jaipur and Agra. Royal Expeditions was founded by a royal family of Jodhpur related to a Princess who also served in Parliament and as India’s Minister of Culture, and the Royal Jodhpur Camps is her brother’s enterprise. It makes it all the more fantastic. And like our other accommodations – the Pench Tree Lodge and the Kanha Earth Lodge during our time doing wildlife safaris in the national parks – it enhances our Camel Fair experience.

We have a superb lunch in an enormous dining tent (complete with ceiling fan), before setting out for our visit to the fair.

Day into Night at Pushkar Camel Fair 

Durga has timed it so we arrive at the fair in the afternoon and will be here after dark, to get the full color and atmosphere.

Ferris Wheels light the night at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Soon we are caught up as we watch a transaction for a horse, just as Durga foretold we would during our train ride: “At the fair, everything is everybody’s business.” And just as he described, we watch a fellow eyeing a horse. And just as he described, soon we find ourselves chiming in as if it is our business, “Oh, that’s a fine-looking horse.” And just as Durga had described, moments later, the seller grabs the customer’s hand and pulls him inside the tent, where he most likely will be plied with tea so the negotiations can commence out of the gaze of prying eyes and gossipy critics.

The vast, bustling market at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Durga leads us through a vast market with just about every item you can imagine for sale: shoes, scarves, household items; saddles and decorative reins and leashes for the camels and horses.

We see albino horses for sale, which Durga says are used for weddings. He introduces me to Bakshu, a prominent horse breeder he knows from Gudrash, and Raika, a professional camel breeder.

We pass by a tent where there is magic show on our way to the market.

Worshippers jam into a temple on a hilltop above the market at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He takes us to what is probably the most distinctive shops at the fair, Camel Charisma, where you can buy paper out of camel dung; scarfs form discarded camel hair (and silk), 2500 R ($36), fresh camel milk, camel milk soap and just about anything you can imagine from camel. We taste chai made of camel milk. He takes us to his favorite textile stall (I’m still kicking myself for not buying an embroidered wool wrap for $25).

He takes us passed temples, jam-packed with worshippers, to where we can go to a rooftop to look down on the holy lake and the religious rituals underway. We watch as the sun sets, the lights come on and a super moon rises over the Pushkar Lake.

Temple of Brahma, Pushkar Lake, © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Pushkar is the only place in the world where Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, one of the Holy Trinity, is worshipped. The Brahma Temple, which officially is dated from the 14th century but is believed to be 2000 years old, is set on the lake, and during the night, lights of changing colors come on. In the distance, on a hilltop, we can make out the Savitri Temple, dedicated to Brahma’s consort, Savitri, but to visit involves an hour long trek uphill.

Rituals at Pushkar Lake © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Around the lake are numerous bathing ghats, where thousands of pilgrims take their holy dip in the sacred waters of Lake Pushkar, as religious chanting and pealing bells resound. We get to peer down on these activities from our perch on the roof, watching people gather around open fires.

We make our way back through the market and the carnival, now lighted up and festive, with five giant ferris wheels looming over the fair. We pass a crowd watching a dancing horse.

When we return to the tented camp, where we have a marvelous dinner (with Sula champagne!).

Dancers, musicians at the Royal Jodhpur Camp © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We comment on how good the papadom is – a seasoned dough made with mung bean flour fried or cooked with dry heat. “In my grandmother’s day, they used to invite women for lunch, sing, everyone came with a rolling pin, they would sing and make the papadom and put it out in the sun to dry,” Durga says.

There is a fireeater, musicians and dancers to entertain us around a bonfire.

I return to the fair the next morning by myself. Durga has arranged for the driver to pick me up at 7 am. As we pull up, I watch as a hot air balloon rises over the fair. (Hot air ballooning is a relatively new adventure activity in India and the desert state of Rajasthan is the most popular place.)

The bustling market at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get to the fair and just wander around – I am one of a scant few Westerners at this point. It is amazing to me how busy it is even this early in the morning. There are only a few camels left for sale and I watch what looks like the end of a transaction.

Leaving the fair, I see pilgrims arriving in open-back trucks, and in trucks that have been outfitted with bunkbeds.

Durga has told us that it can take 10 days to travel from Agra with the camels, and that we will see people in their camel carts traveling along the highway, as we drive to our next destination, Jaipur. And we do!

Camels being led home along the highway from the Pushkar Camel Fair   © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In Jaipur, we learn more about this regal gentleman and his family, when we visit his boutique guesthouse, Dera Mandawa – his family’s century-old estate which, back in the day, accommodated dignitaries when they visited the Maharajah. The family lost their property and position when India nationalized such estates in the 1949, and families like his were forced to turn their estates and palaces into commercial enterprises or see them torn down. Instead of the path of a warrior as his ancestors would have taken, Durga has been involved in tourism for 35 years. (www.deramandawa.com) 

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

____________________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

In the last moments of our last game drive, we see not one but two tigers – male and female – at Kanha National Park in central India © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Our Royal Expeditions ‘Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure’ in central India began with our experience cycling through villages and the wildlife sanctuary, itself. See:‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park and continued with Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?)

It is approaching 5 pm, the final moments of our fifth and final game drive in six days of exploring India’s Pench and Kanha national parks, famous for tiger. So far, though we have seen amazing animals, birds, insects, the ultimate prize of a tiger sighting has eluded us. I have new appreciation for how elusive they are, particularly with the massive amount of forest territory and the fact they tend to be active before 8:30 am, then settle down in the jungle, coming out again in the evening in this season which is approaching winter.

I have also come to suspect they have also figured out the schedule for our safari vehicles which announce our coming with loud rumbling sounds.

The light is fading. This entire drive hastily arranged in Kanha by Royal Expeditions because none of us had spotted the tigers after the four scheduled game drives so far. Nara, our naturalist/guide from Taj Safaris, is laser-focused on finding a tiger for us. We have already gotten to see most of the animals for which these parks are famous – it has been thrilling to see them in such close proximity (I even got a brief sighting of a leopard!). But we have yet to catch even a glimpse of the star attraction: the tiger.

Langur mother and baby monkeys in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have seen and followed tracks left on the sandy road; listened to the “alarms” sent up by the black-faced langur monkeys (that look like wise men) that provide our guide and naturalist the best clues as to the location and movement of the tigers. The scene is quite fantastic, in fact, when one guide gives a scouting report to another, and we all tear off at great speed.

But we have yet to have the luck of being in exactly right place, right time to view.

We only have 2 hours this afternoon, so he races to get to the most likely territory known for tiger – it takes 20 minutes to travel there from the entrance gate even driving so fast, bumping on the rough road and holding on tightly to the railing in the open vehicle, the park is so vast. It is quite a thrill ride.

Kanha National Park is a bird-watchers delight © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Periodically, especially where the trails cross each other, he stops, turns off the engine, and just listens. Sometimes there is just complete (eerie) silence, but soon a fantastic cacophony jungle sounds come into focus. We hear various bird calls, which Nara identifies for us, and we find ourselves searching the trees and the sky, contenting ourselves with shooting photos of fantastic birds.

Nara and the park guide examine prints in the trail – and can tell how long ago they were made, whether a male (more rounded) or a female (more rectangular and pointed).

It is just after the rainy season, so the forest is thick, verdant and cool (actually cold in the morning); but in the intense summer heat and drought, the forest becomes dry and brown and the tigers come out to water holes (some made by the park) more predictably. So while the conditions are generally more pleasant this time of year for viewing, sightings are trickier.

Nara and the park guide who is assigned to us confer. We move on.

If we meet up with another jeep (there aren’t as many in this section of the park), they share intel, sometimes strategizing.

Whenever he stops, Nara explains his strategy for finding the tiger, based on its patterns, which is really insightful.

Other safari goers we chance to meet during our drives- particularly where we stop for breakfast – tell of their luck. A British woman makes us jealous when she shows photos she snapped off a tiny point-and-shoot camera of a mother tiger with her cub, while we are there armed with our superduper DSLRs and 300 and 400 mm lenses, with nothing to show.

Starting the game drive in Kanha National Park as the sun rises © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The best time to see the tiger is either very early – moments after arriving in the park (when I chance to spot a leopard on a ridge), or late in the afternoon. The park doesn’t open before 6 am, so we head out from the lodge by 5:30 am (they send us off with hot coffee and tea and biscuits, plus a blanket and hot water bottle for the safari vehicle), and it can take 40 minutes waiting at the gate in the surprisingly cold air, before we are processed, assigned a guide and a zone in the park, and allowed to enter.

So we race to get to some spot that our naturalist and guide believe has a good likelihood for spotting tiger. Of course, along the way and throughout our tour, we see an amazing array of animals and the guide patiently waits for us to take our shots before moving on, imparting information about the various animals we see. The landscape is really beautiful, and in the morning and afternoon light, dramatic. You never know what you will spot or when, so it is constantly thrilling – you are literally hunting (with a camera).

Barasingha (swamp deer) were endangered in 1970s when there were only 66 left but at Kahna, they made breeding pairs and are repopulating © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the first couple of game drives, we all were a lot more casual, so spent a lot of time with the langur monkeys, rhesus monkeys, the jackals, the wild dogs, the wild pigs, the spotted deer and the swamp deer, and the myriad birds, not to mention the insects and trees that prove quite fascinating. But as we realized our window of opportunity for seeing the tiger closing, we were a lot more single-minded in that pursuit, rushing passed scenes of animals we had already seen before.

The naturalist and guide who accompany us are earnest to the point of frantic to succeed for their tourists. “Until people see a tiger, they can’t relax or do other things,” he tells us.

So when they get a hint of a tiger, they race with unbelievable speed, even dashing in reverse (hold on!) despite how crude the road (more of a trail) to get to a spot. Sometimes so many vehicles converge in both directions no one can move (this is particularly the case on a day that school and scout groups have come out by the dozens) – but the driver manages somehow to maneuver with tremendous skill.

This happens repeatedly with no sightings (which is why you will typically organize 3-5 game drives during your visit).

But here we are, at 5 pm, when Nara picks up on the alarm sent up by the langur monkeys. He says a steady alarm means the tiger is moving; intermittent means the tiger has stopped.

It’s our last game drive, hastily arranged by our tour company, Royal Expeditions (no small feat since permits have to be applied for in advance), our last chance. We follow the ‘alarm’ sent up by the monkeys. When their calls are not continuous, Nara can tell that the tiger has stopped moving, and calculates that it is in the middle of the forested area.

Nara has to guess which direction the tiger will move. After about 10 minutes waiting and listening (while we happily shoot photos of birds gathering in trees above us), he picks up again and goes to the last best spot, in the direction of a meadow with tall grass that leads to the water.

Several vehicles are already parked there and in an instant, excitement:

“People lose their minds when they spot a tiger.” The naturalist tells us. The drivers, also.

A female tiger crosses the road just in front of our safari vehicle in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just then, the tiger emerges from the forest and crosses the road, just a few feet from the vehicle ahead of us – but we aren’t in great position to see and I am thinking how ironic this is to finally be where the tiger is, but not to actually see it.

But Nara is not to be thwarted. He maneuvers our vehicle through this enormous crowd, going off the trail into the thicket, to get us into a good position.

Meanwhile, we are holding on in open vehicles, trying to snap shots before the tiger disappears again into the forest growth.

I snap, snap, snap – get a shot (I am thinking it isn’t great, but a shot nonetheless, but actually, afterward I see I got more than a few) –before the tiger disappears into the woods.

Nara moves the vehicle again and lo and behold, the tiger remerges from the wood, now crossing the road directly between our vehicle and another one, to a grassy area on her way to the water. Amazingly, a male tiger emerges and walks after her.

On the last game drive in Kanha National Park, in the last moments as the light fades, a tiger! © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of the other vehicles have already headed out because it is literally closing time and the drivers are fined if they are late to the gate. But Nara stays. We get shot after shot as the light fades to dusk. I’m lucky, standing up on the highest perch, to get some shots of both tigers together.

I shoot frantically, not knowing how many moments I will have. I can’t even take the time to check if my setting is right. I’m going on instinct. I fight between needing fast exposure and high ISO to compensate for fading light, the darkness of the woods, and the tigers’ motion, and fear I might actually be overexposing.

Getting the shot of the tiger in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By now, we are the only vehicle still remaining. We watch as the female sits in the grass, looking back at the male as he approaches her. It is quite a scene.

Finally, Nara says we have to leave and he tears off at great speed to make it back in time, while we are giddy with our good fortune: We saw not one, but two tigers!

It’s an intense, thrilling feeling. I realize I have barely taken a breath.

The game drives have been fascinating. It is thrilling to not know what you will see, or when. Then momentary, serendipitous flashes.

Seeing the animals in their habitat, all sorts of questions and considerations come to mind.

And the landscapes are just beautiful.

Kanha’s Abundance of Animals

It is remarkable how this short distance away from Pench National Park where we spent the first three days of our “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure,” the ecology changes so much. The Kanha forest (“jungle is the Hindi word for forest) is much thicker, and because of the higher elevation, is much cooler. The Kanha National Park spans nearly 2000 sq km (only one-fifth open to tourists), and currently has an estimated 49 tigers.

Setting out in safari vehicle through the jungle of Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Instead of a teak forest like Pench, this forest is mainly sal – a wood that was used for railroad ties; three kinds of bamboo (bamboo gets flowers only once in its life, then dies), the saga tree (the tree, with bark that looks like crocodile hide, is worshiped by the people who harvest water from it to drink when necessary); and the Mahua tree (the flowers are made into a liquor which is a big money-maker for locals. “People only collect the flowers that have fallen from the tree, which drop after midnight, to make liquor. If animals eat the flowers, they also get drunk – that’s why you might see a drunk monkey.”

The first evening at the Kanha Earth Lodge, where we stay during our time here, there is a slide presentation by the naturalist about the animals in the park”

The male spotted deer (chital) has antlers to attract a female. “He will put grass into the antler to look more handsome.” (I actually saw one which had managed to find some blue plastic string for decoration).

Male spotted deer finds some blue string to decorate his antlers in order to be more alluring to a female © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This park also has sambar (Asia’s largest deer, it depends on its sense of smell, but will foolishly go right up to a tiger to smell it); the Indian Muntjac (barking deer), which is only found in a bamboo forest. We even get to see all of these, including the Barasingha (swamp deer) which was endangered in 1970s when there were only 66 left (it only gives birth to one baby a year, but at Kahna, they made breeding pairs and are repopulating).

There are also wild pig; gaur (like a big bull with horns), jackal (they can get drunk eating the Mahua flowers; dhole (wild dogs; only the alpha male and alpha female are allowed to mate); sloth bear.

There are more leopards than tigers, and unlike the tigers, are not endangered.

Leopards are sly, he tells us – they eat dogs, goats on periphery (that is, in the villages). They can climb trees so have more food options (monkeys) and hunt at night (which is why they are harder to spot during the day). “They call the leopard the ‘Ghost of the Jungle’ because one minute you see it and the next, disappears.”

Meanwhile tigers are more discriminating about mating – the male can mate with three females (depending upon food) and if the female he wants to mate with has cubs, he will kill the cubs in order to mate with her.

Sunlight filters through the branches in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are up before dawn for our first game drive in Kanha, which is supposed to be our last (we’ve had three in Pench National Park so far).  It is quite an experience to be at the park as the sun rises, and we head out on these dusty dirt roads with the red sun in our face, mist on the meadow, and later, as the sun filters through the trees.

We are so earnest to spot tiger, we tell our naturalist/guide not to bother with the breakfast gathering, but that we want to spend as much time as possible in our hunt to see the tiger.

He thinks there is a sighting and speeds off, frantically. There are five jeeps doing the same thing, one driving backwards at a furious pace.

Then we all stop still. Listen. A hand signal, and we all take off again.

A young cub crossed road, the guide announces. We missed it.

We hear an “alarm” from the langur monkeys and speed off again, bouncing, rocking,

No tiger. But we content ourselves with a sighting of White throated kingfisher  and a gathering of hard ground swamp deer found only in Kanha – a female and one young male (with just the beginning of antlers) and two babies (as adults, the males stay separate from the females).

Munna  ©2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we leave the park, we actually meet Munna, the park guide for whom the park’s famous tiger was named. “Munna” means “small child” and the fellow never liked the name very much. He had a limp, and the tiger was injured and had a limp, so they named the tiger “Munna” also. “After a tiger was named after him, he didn’t mind his name.”

On our way driving back up the forest road to the Kanha Earth Lodge, I spot the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo – the bird I have been dying to photograph – and our guide pulls over. We become engaged in chasing after this bird, then another, then a staggering array of birds: a scarlet minuet (male), a black-hooded Oriole, a Lesser Golden-backed woodpecker – more birds in this small area than you might see in an aviary. He tells us it is a hunting flock.

While seeing leopards or tigers might be the brass ring, just being on this carousel is sheer delight – the number and variety of animals we see at close range, the birds, even the insects are fascinating.

Drongo © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Kanha National Park Kanha, one of the first tiger reserves established by India under Project Tiger (1973), is also one of India’s largest National Parks, encompassing nearly 2,000 sq. km of deciduous forest, grasslands, hills and gently meandering rivers and home to literally hundreds of species of animals and birds. Prior to this, the whole area was one enormous regal hunting ground, its game the exclusive preserve for high-ranking British army officers and civil servants seeking trophies for their colonial bungalows.  One vast plain where we see a herd of deer used to be a village of 500 people, who were relocated when they created the park.

Deer, Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This picturesque reserve presently boasts of having large tiger population, as it has the ideal habitat. The meadows (called maidans) are surrounded by thick forests that create ideal grazing spots for the hundreds of chital deer, barasingha and sambar deer, which means they are ideal hunting ground for tigers, leopards, jackal and wild dogs (all of which we get to see). Kanha offers the last remaining habitat of the hard ground barasingha (swamp deer), which was brought back from the brink of extinction (which we get to see). During our visit, we also get to see many of the other animals that live here: wild pig, Rhesus Macaque, Langur monkey (my favorite). I think I even got a glimpse of a gaur (Indian Bison) before it retreated into the woods.

Other animals that are here but we don’t get to see include sloth bear, striped hyena, muntjacs (barking deer), chousingha (four-horn antelope), jungle cat and mongoose.

This diverse landscape also supports more than 250 species of Indian birds including migratory species. The Indian jungle fowl, which is the ancestor of domestic hens, is common here.

Crested Hawk Eagle © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For bird watchers and photographers, Kanha’s diverse landscape also supports more than 250 species of Indian birds including migratory species, a mind-boggling number we actually get to see during our brief time: Green Footed Pigeon, Pygmy Woodpecker and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher. Little Minivet, Scarlet Minivet and Long Tailed Minivet can be seen at Parsa Toala grasslands. Resident common raptors as the Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, Crested Honey Buzzard, White Eyed Buzzard, Shikra and Common Kestrel can be sighted hunting and nesting in tall trees.

Kanha Earth Lodge

My villa at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Like the Pench Tree Lodge which we enjoyed during our time at the Pench National Park, the Kanha Earth Lodge (www.kanhaearthlodge.com) enhances our safari experience. It is also an ecolodge made of all natural materials that is stunning in its design that blends so perfectly without adverse impact on the environment, uses local and traditional art (there is even a fellow who paints tigers), has its own organic garden and a lovely swimming pool, a stunning lodge (WiFi available in the office), and each night, offers fascinating presentations by a naturalist about the wildlife and the national park, while serving appetizers.

The dining room reminds me of a castle, actually, with the stone and wood, vaulted ceiling, candelabra and local artwork.

Dinner by firelight at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

One evening, dinner is served outside in a garden by firelight. The food –and presentation – is superb.

The service is impeccable, which you note immediately with the staff on hand as our van pulls up, with moist towels and a refreshing beverage. The lodge supplies coffee and tea and bottled water in the rooms. When we leave for our game drives at around 5:15 am, they have coffee and tea and biscuits on hand, blankets and even hot water bottles for us in the jeeps.

The room is actually an entire villa, with massive living spaces and has its own patio that faces out to the forest.

In the evening, with the turn-down service, they provide a hot water bottle, and we are told that our rooms are inspected for possible intruders which might have hidden away in dark places.

The lodge is located away from a very busy tourist area – you feel you are in the national park – but very close to villages and farms, so you feel very much a part of the local culture. At night, we hear drumming of a festival.

Kanha Earth Lodge is located among villages and farms that surround the national park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Both ecolodges (only operated October to June) that we enjoyed are part of Pugdundee Safaris (www.pugdundeesafaris.com), which operates six ecolodges (Kings Lodge and Tree House Hideaway in Bandhavagarh; Denwa Backwater Escape in Satpura; Ken River Lodge, Panna; as well as Barahi Jungle Lodge in Chitwan, Nepal) as well as wildlife safaris, which means a kind of seamless quality.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

Next: The Pushkar Camel Fair

 

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