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Alaska – Exploring the Last Frontier

One of the benefits of being a travel professional is that you can build a never-ending list of travel destinations. As clients request information for locales and adventures around the world, we learn more and more about these amazing places. The challenge then becomes how do we choose from this ever-expanding bucket list!?! One of the destinations that has always captured our imaginations is the 49th state, Alaska. We’ve had so many friends, family, and clients extolling the virtues of this northern gem, that when the chance arrived to visit, we jumped on it! We elected to travel with Princess Cruise Line, the pioneer of Alaska cruises, for this adventure. In order to see both land and sea, we chose a 12-day Denali Explorer CruiseTour, which included five days exploring the vastness of the interior, including Denali National Park, followed by a 7-day southbound cruise through the Inside Passage, including Glacier Bay National Park.

The Interior – Denali

The highlight of the interior portion of our trip was Denali National Park. Princess included a Natural History Tour into the park. One thing we quickly learned is that things in Alaska are BIG! The running joke from all the Alaska natives throughout our trip was how “cute Texas is”, because, no joke, everything you encounter in Alaska is supersized. Nowhere is this on display more than in Denali. From big mountains to big views to big wildlife, this was jaw-dropping Alaska at its biggest!

To protect the unspoiled riches of the park, private vehicles are only permitted a few miles into the park. After that, park-operated buses are the name of the game. Our tour would take us a mere 30 miles into the park. Other longer options are available, but this one fit us just right. One of the first things our driver/guide asked us was for a show of hands of who wanted to see what. Moose? Sure! Caribou? Why not! Dall Sheep? Cool! Grizzly Bear? You betcha! Well, she explained, the great thing about a natural tour in a place like this is that you never know what you’re going to get. So, fingers crossed, off we went!

We were visiting at the very beginning of the Alaskan autumn, which lasts only a few weeks. The tundra was just beginning to show its autumn yellows, oranges, and reds as it prepared for the cold winter. I could hear the voice of Ned Stark, of Game of Thrones fame, “Winter is coming…!” It was a gloriously crisp clear day and dominating the horizon (still over 90 miles away) was Mount Denali itself, all 20,320 feet of it on display! We were told how lucky we were, that only 30% of visitors get to see a glimpse of the tallest mountain in North America, and here it was in all its glory! This was merely the opening salvo in what was to be an epic day!

Not long along the road, our keen-eyed guide pulled over to inspect some distant movement on the hillside, and low and behold, our first target! Three bull moose were gorging on the willows in preparation for the winter! The next encounter didn’t take a keen eye, however. Our bus came to a quick stop and the driver called for all quiet. We watched in awe as a caribou came jogging toward us on the road as though late for a party! It passed us with complete indifference as we watched slack-jawed as this magnificent creature trotted on by! Our next planned stop was an overlook where we were introduced to a native Alaskan who described how her tribe’s way of life is interwoven with the majestic land we were visiting. As we were getting ready to board the bus, I spotted a few Dall Sheep peacefully grazing on the high mountain passes above us. These nimble sheep have the spiraled horns of Bighorn Sheep, but boast a gleaming white coat. And wouldn’t you know it, as we were getting on board, someone spotted something big meandering along an adjacent hillside. You guessed it, Grizzly Bear! We had hit the grand slam of big game in only a few hours! The bus ride back to our lodge was buzzing with excitement on our good fortune. It almost felt like Alaska was showing off!

The Princess Experience

As I mentioned earlier, we decided on Princess for our inaugural visit to Alaska. They have been providing Alaskan adventures the longest, so we wanted to see what they were all about. I can summarize the benefits in three ways:

1. Lodges – Princess has a number of exclusive lodges in the interior. They provide steppingstones along the way, offering excursions from each and they are all beautiful. They each offer diverse dining options based on preference and price. 

2. On-Board Programs – To help improve the Alaska experience, Princess provides on-board naturalists, enrichment programs, and while in Glacier Bay, bring National Park rangers on-board to provide a floating visitor’s center. 3. Organization – With their experience in Alaska, Princess has got the logistics wired. From coaches to trains to their ships, they know how to handle the little things. One of my favorites is the “Meet Me Onboard” program. We simply packed a bag of things we wanted on the ship, but didn’t need for the land portion (such as formal wear), and it was whisked away and was waiting for us in our stateroom! No muss, no fuss!

A Problem of Scale

A state as large and spectacular as Alaska is hard to put it into perspective. One of the stories we heard that sticks in my mind is that of Ansel Adams, who came to photograph the crown jewel of the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay National Park. Arguably the greatest photographer in American history, whose photos of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains have captured our imaginations for decades, Adams came to this area on several occasions, looking to capture the essence of it on film. And yet, you won’t find a single photograph of Glacier Bay taken by him! In the end, he left disappointed that he could not capture this magnificent location in an appropriately meaningful way. If Ansel Adams couldn’t do it, I felt a little silly trying to grab a few selfies and landscape shots with my phone!

The message of this meandering is this: GO! Go experience Alaska for yourself! Feel the cold air whipping through the tree-lined narrow fjords, hear the resonant groaning and crackling of the cobalt-blue glaciers as they continue their endless march to the sea, see the soaring white mountains encased in clouds and the comically-colored puffins dotting the black cliff-sides! One tradition we have upon returning from a new adventure or port of call, is to discuss whether a return trip is warranted, a return for favorite experiences or opportunities yet to be had. In this case, our answer was a resounding yes! There is so much of The Last Frontier still to be explored and experienced! We will return!

Costa Rica Outdoor Adventure

One of my top ten trips of all time is an adventure-filled, cross-country trek through nature in Costa Rica. For 12 days my best friend Mary and I drove through two-thirds of the country, alone in a jeep – even though people warned us not to do it alone.

Cross-Country Jeep Trekking

Don’t let others’ doubts stop you from having an amazing trip!

We met a few people at the airport when we landed, four men, who thought we were crazy to rent a jeep and drive the country alone. They asked us, “What will you do if the Jeep breaks down?”

We didn’t have a good answer and said, “We’ll figure it out if that happens!”

In a great bit of irony, our jeep held out through the entire cross-country journey and we saw those same men on the side of the road 2 days later – when their jeep broke down!

Unplanned Memories

Our first vista point is one to be remembered, but not necessarily for the vast and beautiful view.

We pulled off the road to look at the view. As we returned to the car, Mary realized she had been standing in a red ant farm and her legs were covered with ants! Be aware of your surroundings when you travel in nature.

She spent the next 10 minutes screaming as I wiped the ants off of her. We spent the next hour laughing about it.

Earth-Shaking Eruptions

A highlight of the trip was staying at the base of Arenal, in the Arenal Observatory Lodge. You might just witness your first erupting volcano!

As we tried to sleep on our simple bunks in a cabin, unused to “roughing it,” we heard what sounded like a loud clap of thunder in the distance. Our curiosity peaked; we headed out into the early morning dark and saw thin streams of lava and what appeared to be steam coming out of the top of Arenal.

The volcano erupting is a very cool, exciting and a bit scary event to witness, especially as we seemed so close to it. Many of our fellow guests at the lodge stuck around in the pre-dawn chill to watch this natural masterpiece and show.

If you want the best view and chance of seeing Arenal erupt, I highly recommend the Arenal Observatory Lodge.

Monkeys, Sloths and Birds

Costa Rica is filled with opportunities to see local wildlife, especially if you use a local guide. At the lodge, there were several opportunities for hiking to hot springs and beautiful gushing waterfalls. It’s a great place for birding, but unfortunately I took the trip before I became a birder!

During a hike on Manuel Antonio, you might see monkeys and sloths for the first time! With sloths, they move very slowly, so you have to watch very closely to see any movement. The monkeys are incredibly entertaining creatures to watch as they eat bananas from a tree on the side of the road instead of in a zoo, too.

During the day we hiked to the hot springs and beautiful waterfalls. This would have been a great spot for birding and I can’t wait to return someday.

Rafting Fun

The real reason we chose Costa Rica is we wanted to go river rafting on the Pacuare River, because there were rumors to dam it soon. It’s known as one of the most beautiful river rafting locations in Costa Rica.

With 3.5 or 4 ranked rapids in places, it was exciting and challenging (and quite a workout) to make it through the river. There are parts where you can relax and enjoy the very lush green and beautiful landscape surrounding you. Of course, they never did dam the river and you can still enjoy the rapids!

The Fun of Getting Lost

The trip wasn’t all nature and wildlife though. A good portion of our time was spent trying to figure out where to go – which was an adventure in and of itself. With unclear roads signs, limited GPS signals, and locals that didn’t speak English, it was fortunate Mary spoke Spanish, or we would have gotten even more lost.

On more than one occasion we’d find ourselves off-course and the locals giving directions of, “Turn left at the big rock and right at the small tree,” which had us in constant fits of laughter. We were even pulled over by Federales once (at which point neither of us knew any Spanish!).

Apparently, he was telling us to drive to a bank and pay a fine. When we continued to demonstrate that we didn’t understand what he was saying for about 15 minutes, we were let go to continue our drive across the country!

Costa Rica provided a great adventure and lifetime memories over those 12 days. I look forward to returning to Costa Rica again someday to make new memories with my husband – who’s been there more than a dozen times himself. Maybe I should ask him to write a blog post on his experience!

Interested in your own Costa Rican outdoor adventure? Get in touch to start planning today.

The Smaller Travel Experience: Sailboat Charter through the Caribbean

I believe everything happens for a reason. After talking for more than 10 years about doing a sailboat charter in the Caribbean or British Virgin Islands “someday,” all of our friends finally got our schedules lined up and made the trip.

Instead of taking the many great options for a large cruise ship, we opted for a more intimate experience. There were six of us, three couples, on a private sailboat charter through the Caribbean with 4 cabins and 4 bathrooms.

Luxury Sailing through the Caribbean

Cruising the British Virgin Islands (BVI) for 7 days when it’s just you, your friends, a captain and a cook on a 48’ catamaran sailboat is life-changing. At times, you feel like there’s nothing else in the world but the people on the boat and the ocean breeze.

We’re lucky and grateful to have done this in April before hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the BVI and the Caribbean, just months after our trip.

Our little adventure started with a week on St Thomas (which I’ll save for another blog post), and then our sailboat charter began. Our first stop was Tortola, the largest island in the BVI and full of mountains. It’s also where you clear customs and immigration (don’t forget your passport!)

Local Attractions on a Charter

A sailboat charter gives you an authentic Caribbean experience and our first stop didn’t disappoint. The Indians is a popular local spot for snorkeling and scuba diving.

You can watch light orange file fish swim by and the interesting way they hover in the water or catch sight of a few squid or a barracuda showing off his teeth. For a break in the endless ocean, explore the underwater arch you can dive down and swim through.

As avid divers, our friends Mary and Joel really enjoyed this spot and it was our top snorkeling spot for the trip.

Next was a quick sail over to Norman Island for more snorkeling in the caves. Also known as Treasure Island, the location is full of unique cave structures you can swim all the way in. We skipped a stop at Willy T – a well-known floating bar off Norman Island – but caught a couple glances at full schools of sweeper fish with their semi-transparent bodies and bright-colored heads.

The snorkeling adventure continued with a stop at Peter Island. We saw more than fish as our waitress caught a scorpion, while we enjoyed a refreshing Pain Killer, the local island concoction.

A Salty Hike in the British Virgin Islands

We took a break from the ocean with a trip onto Salt Island, an island used for salt harvesting. Our hike around a lake filled and crusted with salt ended on a lovely hill overlooking the entire island. Fun fact: the salt can be harvested to use in dialysis machines, and on our trip we met someone stocking up for a local hospital!

We spent our first night in the Caribbean island chain at Virgin Gorda. The island has many activities for the adventure traveler. You can hike The Baths, like Bob and I did with our friends Barbara and Pat. Make your way through, around, up and down some massive boulders on the sand on this hike. Arrive early to beat the crowds at this popular tourist attraction.

If you prefer the water, go for a snorkel or take advantage of the excellent diving like Mary and Joel, also through pretty spectacular underwater boulders!

Hidden Gem in the Caribbean

An advantage of a sailboat charter is choosing where you go. If you’re not sure, ask your captain!

Many people told us not to sail to Anagada, but as avid birders, Bob and I wanted to see the Flamingos we’d heard about. And oh boy, were they there! We probably saw over 200 of these gorgeous pink birds. .

After a fun day driving around the entire Caribbean island, we enjoyed a lobster lunch, a tour of the yurts, and a new twist on one of our favorite local drinks – Bushwhacker on the rocks! This island was worth the sail (and the only time we really saw our captain work the winds).

After Anagada we ended our day at Yost Van Dyke to moor the boat and spend the night. The next morning we waded our way to land to have a few drinks at the famous Soggy Dollar Bar.

There’s no dock at this unique party island so everyone pays for their drinks with Soggy Dollars. This fun, touristy bar was one of the highlights of our sailboat charter in the Caribbean and we’re happy to know that it has recovered from the hurricanes.

We love the BVI and would highly recommend a cruise or land trip to these islands. They have beautiful blue water, amazing snorkeling, and fun adventures waiting for you! Get in touch to explore your sailing and land adventure in the Caribbean. Give us a call at 562-433-3841 We will be back!

5 Questions to Ask When You Choose a Cruise Line

Considering a cruise for your next travel adventure? There are so many great options to choose from it can get a bit overwhelming. You don’t want to set out for an adventure of a lifetime only to be disappointed. Don’t choose the wrong cruise line for the vacation you want. Ask yourself “Is this cruise for me?” with these 5 questions when choosing a cruise line.

What size cruise ship do I want?

How many people do you want on your next vacation? The bigger the ship, the more opportunities there are for you to meet interesting people to share your experience. If you prefer a smaller gathering, choose a cruise line with smaller ships. These carry less amenities, but are easier to get around and you enjoy a more intimate experience with the people on your trip. Small ships also mean the chance to go where the big ships can’t, simply due to their size. Explore the hidden areas in your ports of call with fewer tourists on a small ship while getting the advantages of traveling by cruise ship.

What activities are available with the cruise?

There’s so much to do on a cruise ship. When you choose a cruise line, consider what’s important to you. For some, it’s the 4-star chef prepared meals. High-end options like herb-crusted chicken breasts served with Provençal tomatoes topped with lemon essence appeals to foodies. Others prefer 24-hour dining options, where you can eat when you want and dine with a view of the ocean. Do you want to spend most of your time on-deck, sunbathing from a variety of locations with servers replenishing your drink without you noticing?

You might be interested in guaranteed access to outstanding nightlife, smooth music, an entertaining show or the chance to try your luck at a casino. That’s only the options on the ship! Consider your choices on land when you choose a cruise line, like hiking the majestic mountains or biking off-the-beaten path trails. Or maybe you’re in it for the ocean activities like snorkeling, swimming with dolphins or parasailing. Did you choose a cruise for the quick access to different cultures and landmarks? View the list of shore excursions and check for proximity to cultural treasures and options for exploring museums, castles, or ruins. What makes up your wish list for activities on a vacation?

Do I want an ocean cruise or a river cruise?

There are more differences than salt or fresh water drifting under you at night. If you want more time in port, consider a river cruise as they tend to spend more time in a single location or port of call. Many ocean cruises are spending much more time in port as well, depending on the destination. This has changed over the years, based on consumer demand. Get the chance to explore the ports in-depth when you stay overnight for more time to explore a single town, and have the chance to live it up with great dining and entertainment at night on the ship.

Want more time to relax?

Choose an ocean cruise with a day or two at sea. Take full advantage of the time onboard to relax, bask in the ocean breeze or sit-down at an elaborate meal. 

What’s the atmosphere on-board the cruise?

For some, the boat is simply the method to take you from one port to another – without having to unpack at each new destination. For others, the experience on the cruise ship is the most important part of the trip.

Many cruise ships have similar amenities on-board, such as excellent and unique cuisine and duty-free shopping. The details come for other things. Do you want a themed adventure that not only takes you to faraway lands but also lets you dine with Mickey Mouse or eat like a Viking? Do you prefer to not think about money once you start your trip? Some cruise lines offer all-inclusive experiences, so everything from your shore excursions to the alcohol is included. You can even have your own butler. Others offer budget-friendly options so you only need to pay for the extras you want. Is the whole family joining you or are you looking for a romantic getaway? Certain cruise lines target and excel at family adventures, while others focus on providing intimate and memorable experiences for couples. Are you looking to get married on the ship or in port? Cruise ships are a great way to combine your wedding and honeymoon in one trip.

Do you want a few extra days to explore before or after the cruise? When the boat leaves from a different city than it arrives, it seems a bit odd not to explore. Do you want the opportunity to explore the arrival or departure port on your own and have the cruise line take care of the hotel booking and transfers? Some travelers prefer a completely booked and planned vacation, from the moment they arrive to the tour of the city to the cruise itself. Explore the cruise tour offerings to see which is best for your wants, needs, and budget best. What kind of cruise will become your dream vacation? Call us at 562-433-3841 or schedule an appointment [LINK to scheduler] and we’ll help you choose the best cruise option for your next
adventure travel trip.