Getting away from the populated cities of the East Coast, the West Coast offers plenty of remote and nomadic pleasure. The national parks of the West offer back road trails, forests, deserts and the adventure of exploring the nature and wildlife of the beautiful coast. USA tours are the best way to visit these places, where the organization is taken care of and you can be secure in the knowledge of experts in small groups.

San Francisco

Start your trip in the iconic city with a trip to the equally iconic Golden Gate Bridge, which opens San Francisco up to the Pacific Ocean and spans a length of over 2,700 meters. From here this diverse city has a lot to offer, where you can shop and stroll through Union Square or go to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art within a day. Visit the Coit Tower for a 360 degree view of the city and see the cities 1930s architecture in downtown San Francisco. As a city, it doesn’t disappoint with its nightlife, although there are many monuments to see there are also comedy shows, music concerts and bars and clubs in each district for night-time adventures, especially the artsy Mission district. There is a reason it’s famed one of the top 50 destinations in the world.

Olympic National Park

Moving away from San Francisco and towards the remote areas of the West coast start your visit to the Olympic National Park at the visitor centre where you collect all the maps and information you need, as well as the tours. This park lies off the coast of Washington and teams 6,000 miles of mountains with 3 different ecosystems: subalpine forest with wild meadow; temperate forest; and the rugged Pacific shore. There are picture perfect views in each of these locations that are unspoiled because of its World Heritage status, won in 1981, which preserves the site and its natural beauty.

Sierra Nevada

This mountain range, running along Eastern California and inhabiting inland USA, extends over 250 miles. The physical beauty of the snowy mountains of this alpine region can be unforgettable for walking tours through the rugged mountains or for visiting the many ski resorts that take advantage of the climate. The area has a low population but the facilities available to tourists are run throughout the year. Due to the large area the Sierra Nevada takes up; take advantage of the tours and facilities. Here lies the largest sequoias in the world, as well as containing one of the largest peaks in the US; Mount Whitney.

Zion National Park

Continuing a nomadic trail, this national park lies in Southern Utah where the rugged rocky landscape is perfect for hikers and climbers. It has some incredible trails including the Riverside trail through a river and the Subway trail through a natural rock formation that looks like a small gorge. To reach the highest point of the park, a workout is unavoidable. However for those unafraid, hike the 8 miles to the Observation point where you can look over the Zion Park and view the main canyon from great heights. For those less inclined to take the incline, hike the shorter 1 mile to Canyon overlook trail where you can stop a natural cave and still get a great view of the Zion Canyon. Remember to take lots of water!

Grand Canyon

Travelling from Nevada to the Grand Canyon is often a suggested route. If it’s your first time the South Rim has the most services with visitor centres, information points and tours whilst the North Rim is better for the trail less traveled. Remember the North Rim has fewer services and is therefore limited in its schedule (from May through to October). Apart from hiking, there are plenty of activities like kayaking and train tours so it’s impossible to tire. To take everything like weather, comfort of hiking and altitude sickness the best time to visit is late spring or early autumn. Although as long as you manage to fit in a sunrise and sunset then any time of the year will be worth it!

There are plenty more national parks that are worth a visit, without the queue of tourists at the door, including Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park and Mojave Desert where you can discover and experience a new way of travelling.

After a night of partying, my college friends and I had a whirlwind of a plan: we decided to go to Apo Island the very next day. We went home at a quarter past 12:00 and needed to get up really early to go to the island. If that’s not a crazy plan, I don’t know what is.

I was the one to set the alarm, and get up early. I knocked on their doors to wake them up one by one. Good thing we live in the same apartment. After knocking around for an hour, while everyone was still in a groggy mode, I started packing my swim wear, snorkeling gear, sunblock and wallet.

The Bumpy Ride to Apo Island

Jeepney Ride to Malatapay

Jeepney Ride to Malatapay

If you’re from Dumaguete City, you need to take a bus or a jeep going to Malatapay Market. It’s around 30 minutes from the city; you just have to tell the driver or conductor that you want to be dropped off at Malatapay. If you’re don’t want to go to Apo Island, you can still visit the market during Wednesdays because they sell all kinds of delicious Filipino food especially the world famous roasted pig called “lechon”.

From the bus drop-off point, you have to walk around 5-8 minutes before reaching the market and the mini seaport where all the pumpboats are docked. After signing the waiver and paying PHP 3,500 (USD 87.5) for the roundtrip ride, eight sleepyheads went aboard the big pumpboat. Expected duration of travel is 45-60 minutes.

Big waves made our white vessel bob up and down the deep blue sea; I didn’t know the ride would be this bumpy. If I had known, I wouldn’t have volunteered  for the trip. After  50-minutes of excruciating sea travel, the now wide-awake gang became giddy with excitement. I made arrangements with the pumpboat captain to wait for us ‘til 3 in the afternoon.

Docked at Apo Island Port

Docked at Apo Island Port

Fees before Snorkeling

On the way to the Marine Sanctuary

On the way to the Marine Sanctuary

You need to pay an environmental fee before you go swimming, and since we were locals and students at that time, we paid PHP 10 (or was it 15, I can’t really remember) each. A local guide, who also served as our snorkelling guide, led the way to Apo Island’s Marine Sanctuary. We paid PHP 100 (USD 2.5) for each of our bright orange life-vest, and PHP 150 (USD 3.75) for our guide, we chose to have him because not all of us are swimmers and the strong currents might take us away without someone to lead us.

Water Paradise

Getting ready to Snorkel

Getting ready to Snorkel

We  got into groups of five so it would be easier for our guide to keep count of his disciples. I was one of the first to go snorkelling. In all honesty, I was really troubled because a lot of people had already mentioned that Apo Island is said to be shark-infested due to its teeming marine life; and being the selacophobic that I am, my anxiety level was quite high. My beloved friends already knew about my unique condition so they made sure I was always in the middle; even our humble guide made sure that I was always near him so that he could easily guard me, if ever something unexpected came our way. And to be honest, I was really touched with all the effort in making me feel comfortable as much as possible.

But when I first dipped my head in the deep waters, all my anxiety evaporated into dust; I was dumbfounded, I even forgot about my worries about seeing a shark, all because of the beauty I saw underwater. I’m not really knowledgeable about the names of marine fauna and flora, but with the little knowledge that I have, it’s already enough to say that Apo Island is indeed a water paradise!

Colorful corals tower up to give shelter to variety of fishes. There seems to be a busy metropolis of sea creatures down there. It’s just too bad I didn’t save for an underwater camera to bring on this trip. My SD card would have been fully loaded with pictures of eels, star fish, big stone fish, and colourful familiar fish with names I can’t even remember. There’s always a lot to see and I could spend hours just swimming and observing the marine animals doing their daily routine. It already felt like eternity but when I did a time check it was only 12 noon.

So much to write but not enough space so I guess I have to cut this post into half. TO BE CONTINUED :)

“I changed my mind about tomorrow,” he said. “I think we should just do this one again.” I was a little bit taken aback.  We go hiking together a lot and returning the same way we came is practically against his religion.  And now here we were in Silver Falls State Park with miles of unexplored trails and he was suggesting that we repeat the one we’d already done.

But he had a point.  Nothing can beat the Trail of Ten Falls.

The Trail

Anyone who knows me, and knows what a klutz I am might think I’m talking about ten unexpected encounters I made with the ground.  Not so. It’s water that does the falling.

SKimchee's photo of Silver Falls.

Silver Falls. Photo by SKimchee.

David Berry's photo of Silver Creek, along the Trail of Ten Falls at Silver Falls State Park.

Following the creek. Photo by David Berry.

Frank Kovalchek's photo of the South Falls at Silver Falls State Park.

South Falls. Photo by Frank Kovalchek.

Regardless of which of the three trail heads you choose, you will start at the top of a waterfall and then descend down into a magical canyon, filled with ferns, carpeted by lush green moss and protected by a canopy of Douglas Fir. The path meanders alongside Silver Creek.  At one point, the trail diverges from the creek for a short (very short) time, and when we were once again next to the creek, I had to consult a map to address my confusion.  The water was flowing in the opposite direction.  The map confirmed the only logical explanation, two different branches of the creek were flowing down from the mountains to join together below.

This eight-plus mile trail is rated as moderately strenuous due to its 800 foot elevation change.  Regardless of whether or not you find it strenuous, you are guaranteed to find it rewarding.  Over and over again, you hear the roaring sound of pounding water, see the fall in front of you, and later feel the spray as you pass behind it.  Hiking doesn’t get much better than this.


History of the Park

Land for Silver Falls State Park was purchased from Marion County beginning in the 1930s.  Over the years, additional acquisitions were made and today the Park covers over 9,000 acres.  The site was considered for a National Park, but it was decided that the area had already been too altered by humans and that it would be more appropriate as a State Park.  Like many of America’s great parks, Silver Falls boasts the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who as part of the Roosevelt-era Works Progress Administration built the South Falls Lodge as well as many of the trails and picnic facilities.

In places like this, however, it is the natural history which takes precedence.  Water descending from the Cascade Mountains down to the Willamette Valley passes over basalt lava.  The basalt rests on older, softer rock which eroded away over time, providing easy access for a trails behind the falls.

Visiting Silver Falls 

Silver Falls State Park is located about 25 miles east of Salem, Oregon.  The Park is the main destination in this area, but on the way you will pass through the picturesque small towns of Mount Angel  and Silverton, both of which are worthy of a meander.

Along with hiking, the Park also has bike and horse trails (click here for a brochure and trail map), tent camping, cabins and RV sites. Other amenities include a lodge, café and gift shop. The Park is open year round and there is a $5 day use fee.



My mind was being assaulted with unexpected visions of devil masks and Picasso pictures; flashbacks of peyote-induced yarn paintings.  My friend and I were completing our second day in Zacatecas and we were both suffering severe cases of PMED – Post Museum Euphoria Disorder.

Like the city where I live, Zacatecas is one of Mexico’s colonial “silver cities”.  The people are super friendly.  The weather is perfect and it is home to some fabulous art collections.

Museum Rafael Coronel

The Museo Rafael Coronel is reason enough to make a trip to Zacatecas.  Ruins of a 16th century convent hold this incredible collection of Mexican folk art.  Pre-hispanic pottery, musical instruments, incredibly detailed puppets and drawings by Diego Rivera are among the attractions.

Marco Paköeningrat's photo of the museum grounds, Zacatecas, Mexico.

The grounds are reason enough to visit the Rafael Coronel museum. Photo by Marco Paköeningrat.

But the main reason people go to the Museo Rafael Coronel is to see the amazing compilation of masks.  Indeed, it is often referred to as the “mask museum”.  There are literally thousands.  Masks made of wood, leather, hair, even of armadillo skins.  Faces of men, animals and devils look back at you.  Generally speaking, the masks were created to be used in dances. Some, especially the animal masks, are used in indigenous ceremonies.  However, many of the masks and dances – such as the dance of the Moors vs. the Christians, reflect the Spanish heritage. (This epic battle, La Morisma, is re-enacted every year in Zacatecas during late August or September.)

nmarritz' photo of devil masks in the Rafael Coronel museum.

The devil on the wall…Photo by nmarritz.

Contemplating a collection of devil masks, I concluded that the modern image of the devil must have evolved from the Greek god Pan.

Museo Pedro Coronel

Entering the Pedro Coronel Museum, we passed through a library of old books.  Really old- some were brought here by the Conquistadors.  But books aside, the overall flavor of the Pedro Coronel Museum is modern.  And it can stand with the best modern art museums of the world.  This 17th century former Jesuit college holds a fabulous collection; Picasso, Miró, Chagall, Kandinsky, Ernst, Dali.  Wandering gape-mouthed through the halls, I couldn’t help but thinking, “What is this doing here?”

Marco Paköeningrat's photo from the Pedro Coronel Museum.

Painting by Pedro Coronel. Photo by Marco Paköeningrat.

Museo Zacatecano

Keeping up with the high standards of the other Zacatecas museums, the Museo Zacatecano also has an intriguing collection focused on the history, archeology and art of Zacatecas.  The museum has a lot to offer, but we had come with a purpose – to see Huichol folk art.  The Huichol are an indigenous group who live in north-central Mexico.  Best known for their peyote-based spiritual system, the Huichol transplant their visions into incredible works of art.  Millions (there is a piece in the museum which contains over two million beads) of vibrantly colored, tiny beads are pasted on boards, egg shells or animal shapes to form brilliant mosaics.  Intricately embroidered cross-stitch decorates the clothing they wear to cross the desert.  Yarn is wound back and forth and pasted onto wood to make brilliant  “paintings”.

Along with examples of all these handicrafts, the museum offers up a peyote-simulation experience. (Unless, you are a Huichol, the use of peyote is illegal in Mexico.) Holograms and a small tunnel allow you to better imagine what a peyote trip is like.  I cannot speak to the accuracy, but I enjoyed the museum.

Patti Haskins' Huichol yarn painting

Huichol Yarn Painting. Photo by Patti Haskins.


Other Sights in Zacatecas

There are two other art museums in town that I still need to visit.  A converted seminary is home to the Museo Arte Abstracto Manuel Felguérez which specializes in work by Felguérez and is said to be excellent.  Another fine art museum, the Museo Francisco Goitia, is housed in an old Governor’s mansion (which we were told was built as a replica of Tara from the Gone With The Wind, but who gives a damn).  Other popular sight-seeing activities include taking a cable car to the top of “Cerro de la Bufa” to enjoy a spectacular view of the city, and touring the El Edén Mine (which is a bit on the cheesy side, but still fun).

I’ve been to Zacatecas three times and I can’t wait to go back – a first rate destination for any art lover!

Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau – Place of Refuge

You have committed an infraction against ancient Hawaiian law.  The system of justice is simple and efficient.  You are sentenced to death.  Since you live on an island, there is no chance of escape.  Or is there? All you need to do is reach Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau, the Place of Refuge.  If you can get there before your pursuers, all will be forgiven.

That’s how it was back in the day. Today Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau (called Place of Refuge by those of us who can’t speak Hawiian) is a National Historic Park, providing an opportunity to see how the upper echelon of Hawaiian society lived.  You can wander through the ruins of an ancient village and see demonstrations of Hawaiian cultural practices (crafts, fishing, weaving, etc.).

And of course, the setting is spectacular.  Today Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau is a place of refuge for green sea turtles who come to lounge on the warm sound.

Following the coastal trail to the south end of the park, you have the option of hiking to Hookena Beach Park.  The surf provides for great boogie boarding and if you have your mask and snorkel, you will be rewarded.  The round trip hike takes just under three hours.

Just north of Place of Refuge is a popular snorkeling spot, known as Two Step for a place where steps in the lava form and easy entry.  If you swim out a little way, someone has left a welcoming message, “Aloha,” on the sea floor.  Note that there is no swimming or snorkeling allowed in the park itself.

irene.'s photo of Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge. Photo by irene.

Captain Cook

If you proceed farther north, near where highway 160 meets with Napo’opo’o Road, you will see a white obelisk protruding from the edge the bay, marking the place where the great explorer, James Cook died.  As imperialist white guys go, Cook was one of the better ones, recognized for his efforts to treat both his crew and the peoples they encountered with care and justice.  Indeed, when he “discovered” Hawaii in 1778, first contact went well.  Both island nations, monarchies, sea-faring powers and highly stratified societies, Britain and Hawaii had a lot in common.  The Hawaii State flag still carries the Union Jack.  However, Kealakekua became a place of refuge for Cook as well- his final refuge. On a return trip in 1779, he was killed by Hawaiians over a misunderstanding regarding use of a rowboat.  One of history’s great ironies.

The area around the monument has fabulous snorkeling with clear waters and a beautiful wall of coral.  However, you have to earn the right to see it as the only access is by boat or by hiking (4 mile round trip with 1,300 foot elevation change). Kealakekua Bay, Two-Step and Hookena are all good place to see dolphins.

Upsilon Andromedae's photo of the Captain Cook monument.

Monument to Captain Cook at Kealakua Bay. Photo by Upsilon Andromedae.

See the Painted Church

On your way back up to the highway, stop in at the Painted Church, conveniently located on Painted Church Road.  St. Benedict’s Catholic Church dates back to the 1800’s.  Around 1900, Father John Velge began covering all the interior surfaces with frescos.  The themes are typically religious, but the palms on the ceiling give it a definite Hawaiian flair.

Coconut wireless' photo of the Painted Church.

A polynesian view of the heavens? Photo by coconut wireless.


The big thing here is, of course, the biggest the thing on earth, the Pacific Ocean.  But along with the dramatic seascapes, Newport has some special attractions that make it the perfect destination on the Oregon coast.

Oregon Coast Aquarium and Hatfield Marine Science Center

The magnificent Oregon Coast Aquarium, located on the south side of the bay, is an absolute delight.  Everyone is here – giant octopus, playful puffins, otters, sharks, you name it. I could spend hours watching the seals and puffins frolic about.  But for me, the real rock stars of the place are the giant jellyfish – glowing, graceful, mesmerizing.

Beautiful jellyfish at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by pfly.

A stop at to the nearby Hatfield Marine Science Center will compliment your visit to the aquarium.  Operated by Oregon State University, the Science Center also features live marine animals, as well as exhibits on marine research.

You’ll need lunch so pop over to the Rogue Brewery for a bite to eat and brew to quench your thirst.  If you like hops, I recommend Brutal Bitter IPA.

Historic Bay Front

Newport’s Bay Front offers a delightful stroll, savory restaurants and quaint shops.  But this is also a working town and I like to watch the fishing boats coming and going (yes, you can charter a fishing trip), and to check out the action on the docks of the canneries.  More often than not, this is a good place to see some lazy seals who have come in to take advantage of the cannery’s left overs.

Seals enjoying the harbor. Photo by Mighty Free.

Sylvia Beach Hotel

Perched on a bluff above Nye Beach, the Sylvia Beach Hotel makes is a cozy spot for a weekend getaway.  This is not your typical hotel.  As the name suggests, this is a place for people who love to read.  There’s no wi-fi, television or phones, but there are dozens of printed volumes just waiting to be perused as you nestle in on a stormy night.

Rooms are decorated in a style reminiscent of specific authors; Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Amy Tan, Dr. Seuss, JK Rowling.  I was sorry to learn that they discontinued the Edgar Allan Poe room, but I guess not that many people wanted to sleep with a stuffed raven staring at them from the bedpost.  This is friendly place, and I’ve been allowed to look at unoccupied rooms even when I wasn’t staying at the hotel.

Newport Seafood and Wine Festival

During the last full weekend of February (February 21 -24th for 2013), Newport hosts its annual Seafood and Wine Festival.  Wines from throughout the Pacific Northwest are served and local chef’s show what they can do with fresh seafood.  Artists showcase sculpture, pottery, photography and jewelry.

You must be 21 years old to attend and have valid ID.  Parking costs $5, but there are also free shuttles from downtown and major hotels –  a good idea since you’ll be enjoying wine.

60+ wineries and an array of tasty cuisine… Photo by OCVA.

Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area

Just north of town, the Yaquina Head juts out into the Pacific. It really is an outstanding natural area.  Tours are available of the lighthouse, there is an informative interpretive center, and of course, a spectacular view.  However, the reason to come here is the tide pools.  Wear sturdy shoes, as the beach is rocky, and time your visit for low tide.  Starfish, hermit crabs, anemones… a huge variety of marine life awaits your discovery.

My hostel was only a couple of blocks from the bus station, but I had already fallen in love with the town of Valladolid by the time I got there.  (Doubly remarkable if you consider the neighborhoods most bus stations are in.) The streets were colorful and tranquil.  An atmosphere of friendliness filled the air.

Downtown Valladolid

Meandering along, I came to the town square.  In any Mexican town you’ll find a zócalo- a town square with trees and benches, and a fountain or bandstand in the center.  Valladolid was no exception, except that  the statue in the middle of the fountain surprised me.  Statues tend to be of some political figure- Miguel Hidalgo or Benito Juarez, or some such man.  This statue wasn’t of a man at all.  It was of a woman.  She was dressed exactly like the local Mayan women who sat on the benches in the square, and she held a humble water jug.  How endearing to see the nobleness of women doing daily tasks celebrated!

Fountain in Valladolid. Admittedly, they could have painted her skin a little darker, but isn’t it great to see local life celebrated? Photo by ann-dabney.

Downtown Valladolid also has its own cenote.  A cenote is a limestone sinkhole, filled with cool fresh water – as in, the perfect place for hot, sweaty travelers to cool off.  Cenote Zací is conveniently located in a park in the center of town.

Time to cool off…Cenote Samulá. Photo by Frank Kovalchek.


I wondered down the street towards the Templo de San Bernadino, but got distracted by the chocolate museum.  Yes, there’s a chocolate museum.  (See why I like this town!)  Now we all know that the ancient Maya created a brilliant civilization, what with their sophisticated calendar, complex writing system and coming up with the concept of zero.  But to my mind, nothing speaks so highly of the culture as their reverence for cocao.  The Mayans had a goddess of chocolate.  They sometimes used cocao beans as currency.  How ingenious is that! Not only does it solve one of life’s major dilemmas- money or chocolate, but it also meant that money literally grew on trees.  The museum illustrates the complex process involved in making raw cocao into chocolate (very similar to the process for making coffee beans into coffee) and, of course, ends with tasting and a chance to buy samples.


The museum of San Roque, located in the center of town, displays items from daily Mayan life, as well as historical information on the 1847 War of the Castes.  This was a bazaar episode in which, in an effort to win independence from authorities in Mexico City, the European rulers of Yucatan decided it would be helpful to arm their slaves.  Predictably, the enslaved Mayan population turned the weapons against their overlords.

In a subtle way, the Maya here are still fighting.  The day before coming to Valladolid, I had toured the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah, outside of the city of Mérida.  It was a long, hot day in the sun and I dozed off for a few minutes during the ride back to town.  When I woke, all the other passengers were asleep and the driver/guide seemed to be blinking a lot.  I decided it behooved me to make conversation, so I told the driver how nice it was that there were no vendors at the ruins we had just visited, and how I remembered there being many vendors at Chichén Itzá.

It turned out that until 2010 Chichén Itzá was privately owned, first by the American, Edward Thompson, who shuttled some of the artifacts off to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, and later by the wealthy Barbachano family.  Somewhere a long the line, the local Mayan population decided that they have as much right as anyone to be profiting from the site. Fair point, I suppose.  So, they began swarming in, without permits, to sell their wares.  It remains a sticky issue.

In the Neighborhood

Valladolid makes an excellent base for visiting Cenote Dzitnup and Cenote Samulá, as well as the nearby Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá and Ek´Balam.   Visiting the ruins while staying in Valladolid gives one a chance to notice how similar the local people look to the faces in the thousand-year-old carvings.  The Maya live on.

I felt a twinge of longing and excitement when I saw the advertisement reading, “Holidays to Turkey.”  Turkey is part of the three-way tie at the top of my travel wish list.  It is also, the number one place that I’ve been too, but would like to go back.

What makes Turkey a great travel destination?

A lot of must-see places.

The add for Bodrum caught my eye because the Aegean Coast, with its spectacular ruins, underwater archeology and beautiful vistas is one of the parts I missed on my trip 20 years ago and one of the reasons I need to go back.

The other is the Pamukkale where calcium oxide-rich waters flow down a mountainside in pristine white pools.  Next time…

But I would not give up any of the things I did see.


I recently saw a character in a film proclaim Istanbul to be the most fascinating city in the world.  I don’t know what city merits this title, but based on my experience, Istanbul would certainly be in the running.  The sights are remarkable- the myriad of colors, sounds and smells in the Grand Bazaar; the beauty of the Blue Mosque and the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia.  Even the bus station, more like a giant field filled with coaches (how did I find my way to the right bus?), left an impression.

By far, my favorite sight in Istanbul was the Basilica Cistern.  Above, a bustling city with traffic, noise, commerce, hurry. But below, a warm soft darkness, classical music accompanied by the sound of occasional drops of water as condensation dripped from the Byzantine columns into the pool below.  If only every city had such a marvelous place to escape to.

Basilica Cistern. Photo by Jerzy Kociatkiewicz.


Few places you will see are as memorable as town of Göreme in Cappadocia.  It’s one of those places that makes you wonder if you’ve left earth and are traveling in a sci-fi novel.  Cone shaped rock formations, converted into houses, churches and monasteries – some dating back to the Roman period, are scattered over the landscape.  There is an “open air museum” and it is now popular to take hot air balloon rides over the valley. I would definitely repeat my visit.

Cappadocia. Photo by Daniel García Peris.

 Black Sea Coast

In my limited time, I forsake the Aegean in order to travel the Black Sea coast.  Being in the Middle East had made me long for the lush plant life I was used to and the green forests suited me.  I visited the famous monastery at Trabzon, and tagged along with some other travelers to the hiking village of Ayder.

The coastline was dramatic and sometimes scary.  The curvy road hugged the cliff-side and the insane bus driver decided he needed to pass the vehicle in front of us.  My companions and I reacted with varying degrees of horror.  I was fatalistic, thinking, “This is it. We’re all going to die.” The Ausie in our group cussed out the bus driver and the other Yankee hid his head saying, “I can’t watch this.”  I mistakenly believed the fourth member of our party to be asleep, but he suddenly looked up and with fabulous British understatement said, “That strikes me as dangerous.”

Lake Van

Perhaps the greater danger was at our next stop – Lake Van, in the eastern extreme of the country, not far from the border with Iran. Historic Armenian churches dot the edges of the lake.  Highly alkaline and salt-rich, the water is a natural detergent.  Like good travelers we swished our clothes around and considered ourselves to have done laundry.

The balcony of a restaurant overlooking the lake served as our campground.  The owners were very friendly and let us lock our gear up in their office while we went down to the water. Our packs were not the only things locked in that room, there appeared to be a good stash of arms as well.  We were in Kurdish territory and had heard rumors about “ethnic cleansing”.  I have no idea if it was really happening. The next day when we were trying to get a lift, my friend realized he had lost his passport.  The restaurant owner drove him to town to make a police report and that evening the police came out to our peaceful spot on the lake.

We had unwittingly provided the government authorities a reason to make their presence felt among our Kurdish hosts. Tension was thick.  Everyone sat around a table drinking, pretending there was no problem.  A couple of travelers had guitars and we say songs- Dock of the Bay and The Boxer – trying to keep everyone happy or at least distracted, but also planning our escape should things get dicey.  In the end, the night passed without incident, but we felt bad about putting our hosts, who had been very good to us, in a difficult position.

One traveler’s memoir I read said that the hills of the disputed area are filled with gold.  When I asked why not let the Kurds have their own country, the Turkish man I was talking to spoke of a much more precious resource – fresh water.  Things are not simple.

But such adventures make for good stories later.  The main problem I have with travel is that I both want to go to places I’ve never been and I want to go back to places that I have.  Turkey is a prime example of both.

A visit to Orlando would be incomplete without a visit to its world-class theme parks. Orlando’s adventure parks are consistently ranked as the best in the world. With over 51million visitors per year, the parks act as a magnet for families looking for fun-filled vacations. The huge theme parks offer exhilarating rides, unforgettable experiences, and memorable dining.

But there are a few classic traps that visitors can fall into that can be very easily avoided. Follow these five simple steps and you will have the time of your life!

Plan your trip

Being spontaneous is sometimes the most fun you can have, but planning ahead means that you can manage expectations (especially with small children), book anything that’s really popular, and also avoid missing something  amazing. For example, some of the bigger ‘kids’ don’t know that Disney has its own speedway that offers visitors the chance to race a NASCAR.

Knowing what’s available and where everything is will help you build a rough itinerary for your stay, avoid wandering around looking for particular things and give you a much greater experience of Orlando’s Theme Parks.

Plan ahead! The Walt Disney World Speedway. Photo by Curtis Palmer.

Watch what you eat!

Given the size of DisneyWorld, even if you’re making full use of the transportation system it’s possible to walk over 10 miles during the course of an average day. But how many people do you know who return from Florida looking slimmer? Eating fast food, chocolate Mickey bars, and drinking huge soft drinks might be fun, but why counteract the effects of all that walking?

Pack your own water and carry snacks for those hunger pangs during the day. Dried fruit, oats, and water in place of hamburgers, hot dogs, and soft drinks might mean that you can enjoy that post-dinner dessert without any guilt.

Pack for comfort

For both children and adults, comfortable shoes are a must. You’re going to be excitedly whizzing around the theme parks, and you’ll want to see everything. Definitely dress for comfort, and remember that while the Sunshine State does its best to please guests, packing for the eventuality of bad weather is always wise, too, so having a few thin layers will ensure you are comfortable throughout the day and evening. Packing for bad weather is a must for all cruise and stay holidays anyway!

Buy a Disney PhotoPass

Disney’s PhotoPass service is available at all of the main attractions within the theme park, and is the finishing touch to complete your Disney Florida holidays. Forget about trying to find someone to take a picture of you and leave it to the professionals to take your pictures with all of your favourite childhood characters, have it all collated centrally online, and then have the option to print all manner of merchandise afterwards, from fridge magnets to water bottles.

Have professionally taken photos of all the special moments with PhotoPass at Disney. (Erik Hersman.)

Have a meet-up point

This one really goes for any travel that you do, but especially so in theme parks where there are thousands of places to lose people. Be sure to pick somewhere unique that everyone can find, and consider setting boundaries as well.

And finally…

Most theme parks offer the option to check a bag in to avoid you having to carry it around all day. Remember to take regular breaks, and to drink a lot of water to keep you hydrated during the day.

If you follow these basic guidelines you’ll be safe and ready for perfect holidays in Orlando in 2013.

Author Bio
Charlotte actively blogs about Travel, Beauty, Food & Drink covering everything from the latest fashion trends to tasty food. On her spare time she loves shopping, discovering new products & enjoys getting lost in new places as she writes away.

Tuktuk Ride

First tuktuk ride

It seemed easy enough getting out and about in Bangkok to visit the temples. Armed with a map and a lot of enthusiasm I decided to do the Bangkok Temple Run on my own and not rely on a planned tour: after all, I am an adventure (read stubborn) traveler and I live for the excitement of the unknown (read stingy and cannot afford a packaged tour!).

Honestly, it’s not that difficult to get around Bangkok. They have one of the best transportation systems in Asia.  The MTR, BTS Skytrain and the ferries are comfortable, reliable and safe. The cabs and tuktuks (local three-wheeled public utility vehicle) are a bit more challenging as they sometimes negotiate a rate that is higher than what you would normally pay…but then again it is a developing country, making it somewhat forgivable. But one thing is for sure, it is a safe place for tourists and I never felt threatened at all.

While getting around is very easy, language is still a barrier. There are signs in English but communicating with the locals, even just to order food, is at times frustrating and you can see how frustrated they get as well, knowing that you do not understand them perfectly.

There are traps though and being tourists means that we are easy prey, at times. But this shouldn’t discourage anyone from doing his or her own temple run. Here are 5 tips that could help one plan a do-it-yourself Bangkok Temple Run…I learned this the hard way!

Wat Arun in the background

1. Plan your temple trip at least one day before. While popular temples like Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of Emerald Buddha), Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), and Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha) are situated quite close to each other, it takes almost the whole day just to appreciate one.

We only managed to see Wat Pho, although we planned to see the Wat Phra Kaew inside the Grand Palace as well. We were diverted for reasons explained in tip #3.

Stylized Wat Pho grounds

2. Ask the receptionists from your hotel for the best route to take to get to the temples. They are usually very helpful and speak good English. Some hotels even have a tours desk and are more than happy to help, even if you decide not to get their tour packages. Word of warning though, Thai people are very persuasive and they do it in a very calm and sweet way…not that it’s a bad thing, but if you are looking for a DIY tour then this will defeat the purpose!

Map to Grand Palace

The receptionists at the hotel we stayed in, Imm Fusion in Sukhumvit, were very helpful. We told them which temples we were visiting and they carefully gave us directions using the city map as a guide. Their directions were complete with options of taking the Skytrain, MTR and the ferry, which stations to change trains at, and the costs of the fares.

3. No matter what the locals tell you, the temples are always open during their published opening hours! Believe me someone will tell you that the temples are closed and I was, embarrassingly, a victim.

We were on our way to the Grand Palace to see Wat Phra Kaew when we encountered a tourist police. No, I was innocent (this time I was…yeah right). We just got off from the ferry and were walking towards the direction of the palace; decided to light a cigarette (yeah nasty habit); the tourist police saw us and motioned us towards the designated smoking area; and he started talking to us. He asked us where we were headed and  we told him. He was very calm and told us that the temple was closed that day because of some Buddhist celebration that the monks were preparing for. He said that only one chamber was open and they were still charging the full fee.

He suggested a different temple to visit; supposedly a very ancient one and another place where we could buy cheap items that even designer stores go to buy their stock. He was very assuring and even hailed us a couple of tuktuks, bargained with them on the price of the ride (50 baht for both), and told them where to take us. We got hooked!

The temple we saw was small but still interesting. It had various figures of Buddha and still being used by monks to hold their daily routine…but it still wasn’t Wat Phra Kaew!

We lit incense and said our prayers then off we went to our next destination, excited that we were going to get bargain items…leading me to tip #4.

Buddha meets Buddhing!

4. Negotiate calmly and with a smile. The locals are making a living and they do not mean to rip you off, most of the time!

The tuktuk  drivers took us to our next destination, which was a jewelry store, and this is when it dawned on us that we were trapped in the temple run! I had read so much about this but my realization came late.

The jewelry, however, was authentic and beautiful with lots of interesting designs, and quite cheap. However, we were not prepared to buy anything and the feeling of being duped made us hang on even more tightly to our cash.

Temple Run

After going through the store our drivers told us that they are taking us to another store. We refused and asked them to just drop us off the nearest Skytrain station. They explained, with much difficulty, that they get paid petrol money for every guest they take to these stores, even if the guests do not buy anything. Were we being duped again? Perhaps, but it seemed plausible, so we said yes.

It was a worthwhile trip though. This other store had more stock and even a souvenir shop where we bought some Thai silk scarves. The saleslady was very charismatic and helped us get discounts for our purchases…even told us her life story in 45 minutes.

Once again, our drivers told us that there is another store where we could get nice suits. This time we really put our foot down and declined the offer, very politely. They did not argue anymore, smiled and took us to the nearest Skytrain station. We paid our fare as negotiated and off we went.

5. Be flexible with your plans. There will always be something that will challenge your plans and once it goes off track just ride the wave…traveling is an experience not a destination.

Yes, it’s a good idea to plan your trip itinerary but do not stress yourself out if it doesn’t go as planned. You are on vacation and supposed to be de-stressing not distressing!

We got to visit Wat Pho the following day, saw the huge Reclining Buddha and got to explore the temple grounds. It is amazing how these structures were built at a time when technology was not as advanced. So much hard work was put into its conceptualization and construction that I often wonder, what were they thinking? But the end product is marvelous and I am still in awe every time I see the photos I took.

Reclining Buddha