Sunday, December 30, 2007

South Africa Safari

"Oh my gosh. Look at that elephant."

We were on the second day of our three-day South Africa safari and participating in a "bush walk". My girlfriend Devon and I were joined by one other couple and our khaki-wearing, rifle-toting guide Jonathan.
Now, seeing an elephant on a safari is a common event. However, this elephant caught us by surprise, ambling towards us from over the horizon as our attention was on a nearby watering hole, our minds speculating whether the water buffalo we were watching would get close enough to the crocodile lurking in the water to create some excitement.

Now, however, our thoughts and eyes were diverted, flicking back and forth from the watering hole to the big full elephant coming for a drink, still far away but certainly impressive with his ears waving like flags in a soft breeze.

The funny thing was, either my geometry was off or the elephant was angling more towards us than the pool. "Now don't get excited", said Jonathan. "But I want all of you to very casually move behind that bush." Clearly, Jonathan's geometry calculation was the same as mine and he was wondering about the elephant's intentions also.

A few more minutes and the distance was closing. The elephant was clearly moving more towards us than the watering hole. "Now, again, I want you to move very casually from behind that bush to this tree", instructed Jonathan. "Get in single file behind the tree and minimize the elephant's view of us." I asked later and Jonathan told me the bush was good for concealing us but the tree made for better protection.

At this point, all of us were at least nervous. Except perhaps Jonathan. Devon was first in line. With her face buried in the tree, she had given up any thought of watching the elephant. I was next, poking my head out to keep on eye on the several tons of flesh ambling on a path that seemed to be directly towards us.

Ultimately, the elephant swerved and headed away from us and towards the pond, passing no more than 20 feet from our tree. We were all relieved and excited and I am sure all of us (except, again, Jonathan) still tell the story over a year later. It was an excellent example of how incredibly memorable a safari can be.

This was the only safari I have done in my life, which seems a little strange in hindsight since I have traveled over much of the world and have been to many places multiple times. I think I had always felt safaris were, well, overrated. A conversation I had just a few days ago confirmed this. I was telling my friend Rob, an avid traveler and outdoors man, about the elephant experience and he listened with a questioning look on his face. "Are safaris really that fun?" he asked.

Safaris are not overrated. They are an incredible experience for everyone ... and you don't have to interact on foot with elephants to enjoy them.

On our scheduled October 2008 South Africa Adventure, we will spend three days and two nights at the Chapungu Bush Lodge in a private reserve near Kruger National Park. The main game viewing is done on bush drives, in a very safe Landrover that allows us to cover long distances and go where the animals are active. These drives are amazing and will rate up there with any vacation you have done.

The foot safaris are offered each afternoon and are entirely optional. Me? I thought the foot safaris were the best part of the experience. I loved being out in the open, knowing I was unlikely to encounter any real danger but still excited at no longer being at the top of the food chain. (It was also nice to get a little exercise.) However, the foot safaris are optional so you can choose to participate or not.

Whatever you decide, you will love the creature comforts of our tented lodge. The meals are superb, the wine flows, the staff is nice beyond what we expect, and the tales we tell at night reflect the incredible sights and experiences we live each day.

P.S. For information on the active wine portion of our South Africa Adventure, see my Travels With Wine blog.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Inca Trail - A Woman's Perspective

A few days ago I received an email from a Zephyr traveler, Cathy, who was wondering about our Peru trip on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. She had questions about the camping, since she "very much dislikes camping". I thought about this and decided I was not the person to answer her, since I enjoy backpacking and sleeping in the woods. Instead, I recruited my girlfriend Devon, who grew up on Long Island far from any camping destinations but nevertheless loved our Peru trip this past April. Here is Devon's email to Cathy:

Hi Cathy,
Great to hear from you! I’m so glad that Allan told you to contact me,
because I can completely relate to all of your concerns. Before I went
to Peru, the idea of camping seemed extremely daunting to me. My idea of
a fun vacation has always included good, strenuous activity followed by
a nice, hot shower and a big, clean bed with a warm blanket.

Well, I want you to know that trekking on the Inca Trail was definitely
the highlight of my year! Our group was made up of about 13 Zephyr
customers and 27 porters. The porters carried everything, set up our
tents, and cooked and served our meals. The only things we carried were
our water, snacks, and rain jacket. Our days were filled with great
hiking, beautiful scenery, and interesting discussions. Each afternoon,
when we arrived at the campsite, our tents were pitched and an afternoon
snack was being prepared. Each tent had a tarp underneath it, a tarp
inside it, and two nice pads to cushion our sleeping bags. The tents
were very high-quality. There was an entrance on either side and the
zippers were extremely easy to open and close.

In addition, the staff pitched a cooking tent, a dining tent, and a
bathroom tent. The dining tent, which zipped closed on both sides, had a
long table and chair for each of us! We would all huddle in there to
play cards and chat before and after dinner, so when it was cold, we
never had to stay outside. Also, there was always a variety of hot
beverages and soups to keep us warm.

The nights did get cold, so I slept in long underwear, a fleece, a down
jacket, and two pairs of socks. Some nights, I even slept in my fleece
hat, and gloves! Because the porters carry your bag all day, you don’t
have to worry about packing too many clothes, as long as you stay within
the weight restriction.

As far as sleeping is concerned, most people slept very well, since they
had physically exhausted their bodies each day. I don’t remember having
any problems sleeping.

Getting up in the middle of the night was not a problem. The Peruvian
guides insist that you keep your shoes inside the tent, so as long as
you have your headlamp or flashlight to guide you, it is quick and easy
to jump out and then back in the tent. I personally prefer the woods to
the bathroom tents, so I did not bother walking over to the bathroom
tent. When it is dark, in the middle of the night, and no one is around,
it’s safe to walk just a few feet away from your tent and find a good spot.

I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that
the trek involves “luxury camping.” Despite not having a shower or a
real bed, I didn’t really feel that we were roughing it. The hiking and
the views were so spectacular that I don’t remember missing any modern
“comforts.” We were served three hot meals (and one snack) each day, we
didn’t have to carry anything heavy, and the Peruvian staff was so
friendly and accommodating.

I hope that helps! Please let me know if you have any other specific
questions or if there is something that I forgot to address. (Definitely
take diamox to prevent altitude sickness in Cuzco and on the trek!)

I would highly recommend this trip!


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Update on our Friends in Tibet

Exactly one year ago I posted an entry titled Tibet Trekking. Scroll down to read the post. In that entry, I related the story of Dekay, the granddaughter of one of the elders of the village we visit on our trek each year. I had met her in the village and after a few translated discussions through our local guide Tenzin, decided to sponsor her for a year of English school in Lhasa, the capital, where she had never been.

What a life change that must have been for her! Would she miss her village? Would she study hard and learn English? Would life in the capital change her?

I did not return to Tibet this year, instead sending our trustworthy and accomplished guide Kathy in my place. Kathy had been an in-training guide last year with me and so knew the tour well. I asked Kathy to meet with Dekay and to give her my gift of another year's English school tuition if she judged all to be well. Here is her report:

"Dekay took her first day off from school in a year and spent it walking around with our group on our first full day in Lhasa. It was amazing to actually be communicating with her in English. She has obviously been working very hard and says she often spends weekend days in the Barkhor listening to tour guides speaking to their groups in English or conversing with friendly English-speaking travelers when she can.

On our last day in Lhasa, after the trek, Tenzin took me to visit Dekay's Aunt in the tea shop where she works and Dekay sometimes helps out. I drank tea until I thought I could hold no more and Tenzin translated for us while we chatted. Then Dekay, Tenzin and I went to see Dekay's school. It looked very run down by Western standards, with peeling paint and sparse classrooms, although they had painted cute motivational sayings in bright colors on the wall in English like "It's easy! It's fun!"

Dekay showed me her English book. It was book 5 of a series of workbooks. They do a lesson per day, which seems pretty fast. We also ran into her teacher in the street near the school. He says she is one of the best students. He is also young and handsome and I later asked Dekay if she thought he was cute and she just giggled. She's a sweetheart and I'm happy to report that city life does not seem to have corrupted her at all.

Next we visited a stationery shop and I bought pens and pads of paper for her whole class of 40 students, plus some extra supplies just for her (pencil box, highlighter, etc.) and a coloring set for her Aunt's young children. I also bought a globe for her teacher and showed her where you and I live. It was hard to get her to select things for herself. Shopping for her was probably the highlight of my trip."

Needless to say, on my behalf Kathy paid the next year of school tuition for Dekay. Recently, Dekay has obtained an email address and we write once per week or so. For Dekay, it is an excellent opportunity to practice English. For me, it is a reminder of my friends in Tibet and how the world is so small despite our differences.

Note: I did not supply photos of Dekay for this post as it is sadly still best in China-occupied Tibet to downplay contact with locals. The photo is of our group of trekkers with guide Kathy (lower right).

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mosel Valley Skating

It was a tag team approach this year as we checked out the Mosel Valley for our new Skating Adventure. Zephyr's German guide Sabine, based in Switzerland, visited the area in May to see if it was a suitable tour location. I then followed up last month to set up the details.

The Mosel Valley, created by the Mosel River, actually starts in France, runs along Luxembourg, and then heads into Germany. It is known as a vacation area, for its wines, and more recently for the 535.5 kilometers of paved trail running along both sides of the river!

I must say, Sabine and her family got the best of this deal. Sabine, her fiancée Christian (who also guides for Zephyr), and her daughter Luisa made a skating vacation of their trip to the Mosel in May. And skating is pretty much what they did. I'll let Sabine explain it to you, in her typical email fashion:

"We had 5 days of great skating! We were skating every day. Luisa was skating around 200km, and take a day off. She was a good exemple, like a typical Zephyr Tourist… ( her speed, and how often she wand to take a time out). We were skating around 250km.Very nice scenery. The streets are all to skate. Most of them are very good. The towns are nice and some of them are really beautiful. The people were very friendly! It’s a good place for a Zephyr tour!"

Since Sabine had already checked out the skating, my girlfriend Devon and I were left with the organizational details! We checked out hotels, restaurants, transportation options - and of course got in some skating, too.

The Mosel Valley is beautiful. The river has cut a path through the hills, so both banks of the river rise up above the valley floor. Wine has become a major industry in the area and vineyards cover both banks for much of the valley's length. Cute German towns are spaced about 5-10 kilometers apart, making for nice destinations on the routes.

I think three unique items make this a wonderful skate tour. First, the Germans have done an amazing job at creating the paths that line the river. For much of the time, the trails are separate bike paths that run through fields or vineyards. Sometimes the paths are small side roads and at other times they are simply marked lanes on the side of a road. The nice thing is that with a trail on both sides of the river, we use the many bridges to cross back and forth so we can pick the best skating surfaces the whole way.

The second thing I really like about this trip are the "shuttling" options. Because we will essentially skate or bike in a linear path along the river from France to Germany (neither the river nor the trails are at all straight), the Long Routes each day will go from hotel to hotel. That means the Short and Medium Routes will require a shuttle. But instead of simply having a van shuttle, we use a combination of our van, the local train system, and ferry boats that ply the river to get people to and from the best skating parts of each day. It really adds a nice cultural twist to the tour.

Finally, I love that this tour involves three countries. We meet you in Thionville, France and spend the first night in Remich, Luxembourg before heading into Germany. It is a great mix - and if you like wine, so much the better!

We will run two tours next year in Germany and I am confident they will be full by October 31. Come join us July 13-19 or July 20-26 next year!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Colorado Family Multisport

I just returned from our Family Multisport Adventure in Colorado - the third Family Adventure in the past three years I had the pleasure of guiding.

For an introduction to our Family Adventures and how they operate, please scroll down to the post of last August about our Lake Tahoe trip. That posting will give you a good idea of our philosophy of providing activity levels for everyone, separating the kids and adults enough to let the kids bond and give the adults some relaxation, and keeping everyone together at other times as one big fun group.

Colorado is the perfect place for a family vacation. Once we left Denver and the airport, we had wide-open spaces, 14,000-foot mountains, and rushing rivers in our backyard. During this six-day tour we rode horses, rafted on a whitewater river, biked, skated, and hiked. We also watched a rodeo, visited a ghost town, and played with puppies at a local dog sledding operation. We had a ton to do during the day and good food to eat at night.

We had a very large group of 28 participants plus three guides. Even when we split in two groups, it was amazing to see all these people on horseback, riding through aspen groves on a real Colorado ranch. The river rafting, where we had a private group of five rafts floating down the river, was probably the highlight for many in the group. However, I know the younger kids loved being licked to death by the puppies at the dog sled kennels.

For me personally, the highlight of the trip was our "split" dinner in which we divided into the "fogies" and the "fun group". My co-guide Reno took the adults to a nice dinner while our other co-guide Sonya and I took the kids out for pizza. We had reserved an entire dance club and game room (not normally open that evening) for our evening kids meal. After wolfing down five pizzas, the group immediately spread out to play games: pool, air hockey, and darts. Funny enough, the hit game of the evening was shuffle board - at least until Caleb, Erica, and Mari took over as DJs to light up the dance floor.

The great thing about this evening was that we had kids from six different families who were winging darts, hitting pool balls, and throwing whatever it is you throw in shuffleboard as if they were fast friends with decades of past experiences together. These were kids from all areas of the country with different backgrounds and different ages. Yet, they bonded as one fun group.

I don't have kids myself but I do have a niece (Erica) and nephew (Brian), who were on this trip with my brother Dave and sister-in-law Sharon. I was also a kid myself once and remember squabbling with my two brothers in the back of our station wagon, asking repeatedly when we would arrive to our destination. I have the feeling that normal "family vacations" are at least as stressful as they are fun and rewarding.

This tour was not that way at all, neither for the parents nor the guides. We try hard to make these trips fun for the parents as well as the kids. We keep the group together at times, because we know parents love watching their kids have fun while experiencing new activities. At other times, we split them apart so parents can relax, have a glass of wine, and engage in some adult conversation - all while knowing their kids are well looked after by our guides.

As guides, frankly, these tours are not that difficult. The kids simply know how to have fun and that makes our job easy.

Come join us next year on a Family Adventure in either Yellowstone National Park or Glacier National Park, two jewels of the US park system and great places for family fun.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Peru Trekking: Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I just returned to the United States from one of our new trips launched this year, Trekking in Peru. The lost city of Machu Picchu is by far the most famous travel destination in Peru and the four-day Inca Trail is known worldwide as one of the greatest adventure travel experiences on the globe.

This was an Exploratory Adventure for Zephyr, which means we were contracting with a local outfit and, although we spent many hours researching the destination and working with the local outfitter to create a fantastic trip, I had not actually been on the Inca Trail before myself. I must admit I was a bit leery of the popularity of the Inca Trail and what that would do to the experience. In fact, I had already scheduled to spend extra time after the trip to research a new, alternative trek.

Our group of 17 met in Lima, took a flight as a group to Cusco, and immediately ventured into the Sacred Valley of the Incas which runs along the Urubamba River between Cusco and Machu Picchu. We spent several days in the valley, visiting Incan ruins, taking short hikes, and eating way too much Peruvian food. The real goal, however, for these two days is to acclimatize to the high altitude of the Peruvian highlands in preparation for our trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

The Peruvians realize they have a tourism gem in Machu Picchu and an adventure travel gem in the Inca Trail. While there are thousands of miles of Incan trails in Peru, to step onto the "Inca Trail" which runs from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu requires a permit. The government limits permits to 500 per day.

500 per day sounds like a huge number to me and was the chief cause of my concern that the Inca Trail was over-hyped and over-visited. I envisioned massive numbers of people tripping over themselves on the trail, competing for limited camping spots at night, and generally ruining the experience.

It wasn't that way at all.

All trekkers are now required to be with a local guide, which is not only great for local employment but an excellent way to make sure trekkers have as little impact on the local environment as possible. In addition, most everyone follows the system of "luxury trekking" with porters, cooks, and camp staff. The upshot is that of the 500 permits per day, perhaps only 220 actually go to trekkers.

Our group had two guides (Juan and Santiago), a cook, assistant cook, camp assistant, and over 20 porters! This was indeed luxury camping, with a cooking tent, dining tent, tea in the morning delivered to our tent doors, hot water to wash each afternoon, and delicious meals served three times per day. I think all of us were wowed by this, including those who trekked with Zephyr in Tibet (this was even more luxurious) but especially those who were new to camping.

We in the Zephyr office spent a lot of time finding the right local partner for our Peru trip and we ended up with one of the best around. Our local operator is small, run by a great guy who treats our groups with priority importance, and has a few practices that are simply superior to other local companies. Among my favorite was this: Each morning on the trail, while the other trekkers left early to seemingly compete for first place, our group took our time, enjoyed breakfast, and was almost always the last to leave the designated campsite. This meant the large number of trekkers was at the worst of times not an issue and for most of the trip invisible to our group.

That left the Inca Trail practically to ourselves. The Trail presents its main challenge on Day 2, rising up to Dead Woman Pass at almost 14,000 feet in elevation. This was daunting to some and a challenge for many. After that, it passes ruin after ruin, each somewhat unique and always fascinating. Juan and Santiago took us through each ruin and we learned about the Inca's life, culture, and architecture. The views throughout were incredible and the trail itself is amazing, a combination of local dirt paths and the fitted stonework of the Inca masons. Camp life was fun, consisting of great meals one would never expect in the middle of the wild and stimulating conversations among our group and with our guides. No words I write here or photos I can post will do justice to the experience.

By the fourth day, everyone was a little sore, a little tired, and ready for a shower and bed. We made a push up one last hill through the Sun Gate for our first view of Machu Picchu. Hanging out above the lost city for over an hour, we took in the view of this amazing place. To be honest, however, I think many of our group felt as if Machu Picchu was the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae, nice but not necessary. I felt that way myself.

We had just spent four days on the Inca Tail. We had strained and perspired, enjoyed wonderful views and explored amazing ruins, bonded with each other, and in essence lived the highs and lows not just of the trail but of life itself. We had lived the Inca Trail for four days and I, for one, thought of it not anymore as a great adventure travel destination but as a means to understanding the Incas and Peru itself.

We did visit Machu Picchu the next day and then spent time in wonderful Cusco but the experience of the trail remained with us as the highlight of the trip. The Inca Trail is difficult and not for everyone but any concerns I had about it being overcrowded or past its adventure prime vanished in the mists of the Andean mountains. The Inca Trail is indeed one of the great adventures on earth. We'll be back next year. (Thanks to Janet Hoffman for the first photo.)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Self-Guided Vacations in Italy

I spent 17 days in Italy this past month helping to create Zephyr's newest business division: Self-Guided Adventures in Italy. This is a totally new concept for us and a fairly new concept in the travel world, so I'll explain.

Self-guided adventures are sort of a middle ground between taking a guided tour and going it alone. On a Zephyr Self-Guided Adventure, you will go to our website and select your activity (biking, hiking, or driving), your desired route in Italy, and your preferred travel date. We then book your hotels for you, give you detailed route directions, and provide you with a bike on biking tours. We also have a local representative who will meet you upon your arrival and help you in case of emergency. In short, we make it easy for you to have a vacation in Italy on your own.

The really cool thing is that we are taking the self-guided concept to new levels. We spent much of our time in Italy videotaping our local guide, Giovanni, as he explained the sites, culture, food, and wine of the area. We will place these on "personal video players" and loan them to our self-guided participants. It's like having your own e-Giovanni with you as you travel through Italy!

What's more, we are converting our printed route directions for the driving tour into a GPS system that will work in your car, just like at home. That way, you'll never get lost driving in Italy, which we know is a big concern of those who consider driving there.

Self-guided tours are not for everyone. If you don't have a group with whom to travel or prefer the support of a van and professional guides, a guided tour is a much better option. In plain English, if you aren't sure you could make it to the next hotel on your own, best to go on a guided Zephyr tour! However, if you are confident in your abilities, have your own group of travelers, or want flexibility in your dates, this is a good system.

We are starting only in Tuscany and Umbria, because we know it so well. Next year? How about Self-Guided Adventures in France! Check out the website: