Finland’s Newest Park


(Recent article by the BBC)

The first thing that struck me about Hossa was the pure, unadulterated silence. It’s almost as if time stands still here, with nothing so much as a breeze disturbing the pristine, mirror-like lakes and pine-wooded eskers that extend as far as the eye can see.

Even by Finnish standards, Hossa is remote

This is undoubtedly the reward for those who drive into this wilderness off the main E63 highway 750km northeast of Helsinki. Even by Finnish standards, Hossa, situated close to the Russian border in the Kainuu region, is remote. You’re more likely to come across a reindeer than a fellow hiker along most of the 90km of marked trails through pine forest that make up one of the oldest hiking areas in Finland.

It’s this sense of escapism that will no doubt attract far more visitors to Hossa now that it has just been designated the country’s 40th national park to celebrate Finland’s centennial of independence.

You’re more likely to come across a reindeer than a fellow hiker on Hossa’s hiking trails (Credit: Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

You’re more likely to come across a reindeer than a fellow hiker on Hossa’s hiking trails (Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

The long-standing relationship between man and nature in Hossa stretches back thousands of years. The first settlers arrived after the last ice age, following the wild reindeer that populated the north of Finland as the climate warmed. The Värikallio rock wall, which rises more than 10m perpendicular from Lake Somerjärvi, reveals evidence of early life here: Stone Age paintings on the rock’s face are estimated to be up to 4,500 years old, though they weren’t discovered until 1977 when skiers Leena Mäkelä and Juha Rossi noticed curious red ochre markings on the rock.

The long-standing relationship between man and nature in Hossa stretches back thousands of years

It’s not surprising that the Värikallio paintings remained hidden for so long given that they can only be reached by boat or on foot (or ski) when the lake froze over in each winter. Today, the rock wall and its new viewing platform are accessible by kayak or a picturesque 4.5km footpath from the Lihapyörre parking area, a short drive from the Hossa Visitor Centre.

There’s still an air of mystery surrounding the exact age and meaning of the 60 painted figures on the rock’s face. The most conspicuous are four human shapes with triangular heads, a horned figure thought to depict a dancing shaman and approximately 30 detailed elk drawings.

No-one knows the meaning of the mysterious Värikallio rock paintings (Credit: Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

No-one knows the meaning of the mysterious Värikallio rock paintings (Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

“There are three main theories to what they mean,” Saija Taivalmäki, who runs local wellbeing business JoogaTaival, told me. “The first is that they were painted ceremonially to ensure a successful hunting trip. Secondly, they have been viewed as an indication of spirit animals and totemism, the belief that humans have a mystical kinship with a spirit.”

Finally, “Some see it as revealing their worldview at the time: the place where the different worlds of universe ‒ land inhabited by human beings and underworld ‒ unite,” Taivalmäki explained.

Thousands of years later, locals still maintain a strong relationship to the land, hunting, fishing and foraging like their predecessors. Others feel a more spiritual connection to Hossa’s wilderness, like Taivalmäki, whose mother was from here, and who returned after 11 years in Helsinki. Now she wants to help others find harmony with mind, body and nature with forest yoga and environmental education.

Hossa locals maintain a strong relationship to the land (Credit: Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

Hossa locals maintain a strong relationship to the land (Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

Walking back along the trail from the Värikallio rock wall to the Lihapyörre parking area, Taivalmäki stopped to show me the beard moss that hangs from the pine branches. “This is a sign of the pure air here,” she explained, noting that a stroll through the forest is effective for stress relief thanks to the health benefits of breathing in the pine aromas.

It’s not just the forest hiking trails that draw people to Hossa – the clear lakes are a kayaker’s dream, and nowhere more than Julma-Ölkky, Finland’s largest canyon lake. Unfortunately, as the water was still covered by a patchy lacework of ice during my visit in early June, I took the 10km Ölökyn ähkäsy trail that loops around the lake.

Winding through wild meadows and dense pine forest that clung to the steep inclines of the canyon, the last patches of snow still gleaming in the sun, I embraced the solitude. At times the silence was deafening and my mind wandered. I began wondering what I would do if I happened across a bear – there’s a thriving population in this part of Finland.

By the end of my week-long visit, most of the ice on the region’s lakes had melted and I could properly explore the waters at twilight when they glowed a golden orange thanks to the midnight sun keeping the skies bright all night long.

Ice lingers on Hossa’s lakes until the early summer months (Credit: Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

Ice lingers on Hossa’s lakes until the early summer months (Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

I headed to the lakeside camping site of Hossan Lumo and met the owners: Irishman Lenny Daly and his Finnish wife Maija Daly. They bought the campsite on the shores of Lake Hossa in 2015 and plan to transform it into a central hub of the Hossa community with more lakeside cottages, kayaking, a revamped sauna and bar (with Guinness on tap, of course). The couple are already well known in the area: Maija is the chairperson of the local entrepreneur society, and they make up half of Hossa’s four permanent residents under the age of 50 – though there are only 40 residents in total, Lenny told me.

It’s the hidden gem of Finland

I was curious to know what brought them here after years of travelling in Australia and New Zealand and working as boat crew in the baking heat of Miami, Florida. “It’s the hidden gem of Finland,” Lenny explained. Maija agreed, gazing out across the now-glowing lake. “A summer’s day in the wilderness is my favourite part of being here. I love the forest, the nature… I can’t stop smiling.”

Living here is not without its difficulties, though, especially in the depths of winter. “It’s survival,” Lenny laughed. That’s no exaggeration, with the nearest town of Kuusamo an hour’s drive away. It’s clear that you need to know what to do when things go wrong.

Lenny Daly: “A summer’s day in the wilderness is my favourite part of being here” (Credit: Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

Lenny Daly: “A summer’s day in the wilderness is my favourite part of being here” (Credit: Sarah Gibbons)

“And cook for yourself when you feel like a curry,” Maija added, noting the lack of restaurants; something she clearly misses.

My trip ends in the most magic way possible: Teija Mäkinen, who runs paddle boarding business Lazy Dog SUP, took Lenny, Maija and I out on Lake Hossa – as smooth and dark as tempered chocolate – to enjoy the endless sun, now casting a perfect reflection of silhouetted trees on the water. A cuckoo’s call echoed across the surrounding pine forest, and then all was still again.

President’s Policy Still Allows Americans to Visit Cuba

While U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s new direction on Cuba will cause some changes to certain types of travel to that Caribbean island nation, the assessment of many major cruise companies is that its impact on cruise operations – both for lines sailing from U.S. or foreign ports – should be negligible.

Or, at least that’s the view in the initial stages of the new policy. Final regulations are yet to come. For more detail, see Travel Agent’s story of last Friday with a Q&A about the U.S. Department of the Treasury process for final regulations. 

People-to-People Travel

From one travel sales group’s perspective, “Cuba has proven to be a popular destination among our customers so we are pleased to learn that Americans will continue to be able to experience Cuba by cruise ship and through authorized people-to-people group travel,” said Brad Tolkin, co-chairman/CEO, World Travel Holdings.

The gist of the new rules is that any American traveling to Cuba must meet one of 12 forms of approved travel, as outlined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations.

Typically, cruise voyages and shore excursions already meet those requirements, with shore-side activities falling under the so-called “people to people” travel category.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL), parent of Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, said: “Royal Caribbean is pleased there is no impact to any of our cruises to Cuba as announced in the new U.S. policy toward Cuba today. Our guests are already enjoying curated people-to-people experiences under the approved categories of travel.”

In addition, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said it “hopes that restricting travel anywhere is unnecessary, but we are happy that the industry can continue to sail from the U.S. to Cuba under basically the same criteria that cruise lines have been required to follow.”

Tolkin, whose company represents the CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc. brands, said
“the cruise industry is well positioned for this change in policy and we are confident that our customers will continue to find value in their cultural experiences and social interactions with the Cuban people.”

Cruise lines – big and small – that currently sail or will sail to Cuba this year have invested millions in marketing, promotion, infrastructure and other start-up costs for Cuba cruises.

Cuban Cruising

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, said 70,000 Americans are booked on its future Cuba cruises.

NCLH acknowledged that just a short time ago – prior to Friday’s Trump Administration announcement — it had been “very concerned about any potential changes, given how popular Cuba itineraries have proven to be with our guests.”

Now, in contrast: NCLH said: “We view this as a win for the cruise industry, our valued guests and travel partners.”

Last year, Carnival Corporation, parent of Carnival Cruise Line, Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and other brands, was the first major U.S. cruise company in the 21st century to sail into Havana harbor with its Fathom brand.

While that brand ceased to operate as a stand-alone cruise product a few weeks ago and has returned its one ship, Adonia, to P&O, the Fathom voluntourism concept continues with the activities of Carnival Corp.’s other brands.

Carnival Corp.’s Cuba experience thus far, though, has been very positive, the company said in its Cuba policy change statement, adding that it “looks forward to new cruises being planned for Cuba with Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America Line.” It’s also requested approval for other brands. Holland America will begin sailing to the island in December.

“We will review the extent of the tightening of the travel rules, but our guests have already been traveling under the 12 approved forms of travel to Cuba since we undertook our historic first cruise to Cuba more than a year ago,” the statement said.

Reviewing the Specifics 

Carnival Corp., RCCL and NCLH will all continue to review the full and exact scope of the policy changes and any updated regulations during the implementation period which may take several months.

But, at least given what’s known now, the cruise lines are confident the new rules won’t interfere with Americans’ ability to board a ship in Miami, Tampa, Montego Bay, Jamaica, or another port, and sail to Cuba. They also believe their guests will be able to get off for a shore trip in Cuba as long as they participate in activities that fall in the people-to-people category.

That said, cruisers likely won’t be able to wander off to make purchases at any Cuban government-run spots such as restaurants, hotels or bars, or to take off for the day independently and do anything they want – such as going to a beach or spending a day poolside, particularly if the hotel is owned by a Cuban government entity or receives funding from the Cuban military.

Havana street scene // Photo courtesy of Celestyal Cruises

Personally in favor of opening up destinations across the globe, including Cuba, is Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network. Initially, at least, he’s disappointed in the announcement, which he believes does dampen Americans’ abilities to travel freely.

“It definitely will limit the flow of U.S. travelers to Cuba, if the only option is a structured, approved, people-to-people group tour,” he believes. But he acknowledges that “until there is an actual government policy in place, and the Cuban government reacts, it’s hard to say how this will fully impact travel to Cuba.”

OFAC issued this statement: “Following the issuance of OFAC’s regulatory changes, travel-related transactions with prohibited entities identified by the State Department generally will not be permitted. Guidance will accompany the issuance of the new regulations.”

That said, OFAC also said: “The forthcoming regulations will be prospective and thus will not affect existing
contracts and licenses.”

The Big Three

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been very vocal in opposition to the Obama Administration’s Cuba policies and is highly supportive of President Trump’s new position on Cuba. Sen. Rubio said the previous policies supported the Castro regime, and not the Cuban people.

However, Sen. Rubio also represents a state that’s home to the “Big Three” U.S.-based cruise companies — Carnival Corp, RCCL and NCLH, which have a lot of economic muscle.

Collectively, they employ tens of thousands and all have their corporate headquarters in Miami-Dade County, FL. They also operate from PortMiami, Port Everglades, Port Canaveral, JAXPort and the Port of Tampa, with statewide economic impact.

One high-level executive source within one of the three big cruise companies told us, “yes,” his company had lobbied the Trump Administration about the importance of keeping cruise travel to Cuba flowing, given the economic benefits and jobs involved within the U.S. But he wished to remain anonymous.

He did say there were both individual discussions between his company and the administration, plus the collective industry efforts of CLIA, which noted in its statement that “travel enhances the lives of all people.”

From the cruise industry perspective, though, there’s clearly a big sigh of relief that cruise travel is still permitted, even if time ashore becomes more structured for guests. “CLIA Cruise Line Members are pleased for the opportunity to facilitate travel to Cuba that promotes important educational, social and cultural exchanges,” said CLIA’s statement.

“We will work with the Administration to comply with any changes to those and any other regulations that will result from its decision,” said the NCLH statement. “We are also pleased that education travel and travel that supports the Cuban people will continue.”

“We are delighted our guests will continue to have the opportunity to experience the wonderful culture and incredible history of Cuba along with the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people through OFAC-compliant shore excursions that support private businesses and the Cuban people, an opportunity that was restricted for over 50 years,” the NCLH statement also said.

The opening up of Cuba is far more than just business for Frank Del Rio, NCLH president and CEO. He arrived from Cuba with his family as a child, and, unlike Sen. Rubio, Del Rio has been a vocal proponent of cruising and travel as a way to create economic development and make life better for the people of the island.

Del Rio still has relatives in Havana and spoke about his views on Cuba cruising during the annual Cruise360 conference at Port Everglades in April.

Small Ship Lines Speak Out 

It’s not only big lines, though, who’ve hoped for the outcome announced Friday. Now in its fourth year of Cuban cruise operations and with a robust cruise itinerary that circumnavigates Cuba, Celestyal Cruises told Travel Agent it’s already in compliance with the Trump administration changes regarding travel to the island.

In a statement, Nicholas Filippidis, Celestyal’s director of business development in North America, said: “For U.S. travelers, a comprehensive people-to-people itinerary is offered by Celestyal Cruises that meets U.S. legal requirements for a full-time program of educational and cultural exchange activities.

“Special shore excursions have been designed to comply with OFAC regulations while providing opportunities for personal discovery and enrichment traveling as part of the people-to-people group on each sailing…Celestyal Cruises provides certification attesting to the participation of American citizens in the approved People-to-People group program.”

He said that American passengers can simply book their cruise, either with a travel agent or on the line’s website, and register for the People-to-People group  program with details at this link.

Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic said it’s reviewed the new U.S. policy changes toward Cuba announced by the Trump administration, and “indications are that our Cuba program can go forward unchanged. Our program is — and has always been — in compliance with the educational travel requirement.”

The line said all arrangements have already been confirmed for our second season in Cuba, which begins December 6, 2017 and continues through March 2018 aboard the 46-guest Harmony V.

“We look forward to introducing our guests to Cuba’s cultural heritage and natural wonders on our People-to-People land and sea program,” the line said.

A Waiting Game

So now it’s a waiting game for those final government regulations related to the new policy. It likely won’t happen overnight, experts say.

Block said that “while Americans [including cruisers] can continue to legally visit Cuba – with some restrictions –  we’ll work with our clients so they know that Friday’s announced policy changes will not go into effect tomorrow, next week or even next month.”

But his advice is that “for American travelers seeking a slightly less-structured visit to Cuba, they shouldn’t delay. Now is the time to go.”

Cruise line insiders, though, say it could have been far worse. For now, the cruise industry is just happy Cuba is still on the map for Caribbean cruise itineraries.

Viking Adds The Sky To Its Fleet


(article was recently published in USA Today)

TROMSO, Norway — River cruise giant Viking’s move into ocean cruising hit another milestone on Thursday as the company christened its third ocean ship, Viking Sky, along the waterfront of Tromso, Norway.

Marit Barstad, the sister of Viking chairman and founder Torstein Hagen, served as godmother for the 930-passenger vessel during an hour-long christening event that included performances by Norwegian musicians Lisa Stokke, Violet Road, Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska and Jørn Hoel. They were accompanied by Norway’s Arctic Philharmonic orchestra.

Located above the Arctic Circle on Norway’s northwest coast, Tromso is one of the key ports of call on Viking’s Norway-focused Into the Midnight Sun sailings, which take place in the summer when the sun in northern Norway stays up around-the-clock. Norway-born Hagen has made the route and others around Scandinavia and the Baltic region a cornerstone of the company’s schedule.

Speaking at the event in Norwegian, Hagen spoke about how pleased he was to be having the christening in Tromso.

“This is a special time of year in Norway – these are the days of the midnight sun and the perfect backdrop for a celebration,” Hagen was quoted as saying in an English-language statement released later. “All of our ships proudly carry the Norwegian flag, and it is an especially proud day to officially welcome our new ship in Tromsø, the Arctic capital of the world.”

Several elements of the christening ceremony paid homage to the Norwegian heritage of both the company and godmother. Instead of champagne for the traditional bottle-breaking, Barstad christened Sky with a bottle of Gammel Opland aquavit, which hails from the same county in Norway where Hagen and Hagen’s mother, Ragnhild, were born. In honor of the original Viking explorers, Barstad used a gilded Viking axe to cut the cord for the aquavit christening. The axe was a replica of an artifact discovered near Tromso. The chopping block used for the ceremony was brought from the Rotnes Farm in Nittedal, where Barstad grew up.

Sky is a sister to fast-growing Viking’s first two ships, Viking Star and Viking Sea, which debuted in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Like Star and Sea, Sky is relatively small at 47,800 tons. That’s less than a third the size of the latest megaships from the likes of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line.

Like the earlier vessels, Sky boasts a modern, Scandinavian-influenced design, and its cabins are large by cruise ship standards. Even the smallest rooms offer 270 square feet of space. In addition, every cabin comes with a balcony.

Since debuting in 2015, Viking has made a mark in the cruise industry by focusing on itineraries that feature more time in ports than is common at many ocean lines. The company also is setting itself apart from many cruise operators with a “no nickel-and-diming” philosophy. In a relatively rare twist, Viking offers a shore excursion in every port that is included in the fare. Also included in the fare is beer and wine with lunch and dinner and unlimited WiFi access — something that can cost up to 75 cents a minute at other lines.

Sky will remain in Europe until the end of summer, when it will cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

Sky is just one of two ships that Viking is adding in 2017 as it continues a rapid expansion. Another sister ship, Viking Sun, arrives in the fall. Four more vessels in the same series are on order for delivery in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022, and the line also has an option for yet two more.

Viking Expands its Culinary Choices

Enjoy wines, cheeses, and other European cuisines while cruising
As river cruising grows and grows in popularity, Viking River Cruises, the giant of the industry and its most award-winning cruise line, has added something new. Its world-wide itineraries now feature culinary tours, wine tastings, and multiple opportunities to sample local cuisine on board and ashore, at virtually every port. We went along for the ride on Viking’s Rhine River Getaway to sample what was on offer. Miraculously, we didn’t gain an ounce, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on Viking’s part. Fortunately, there’s a lot of activity along with a lot of delicious food.

We joined Viking Hlin, one of Viking’s fleet of 60 river ships, in Basel, Switzerland. This itinerary can be taken in either direction from Amsterdam to Basel or vice-versa. While Viking includes a complimentary guided tour at every stop, many of its culinary offerings require an extra fee, ranging from $49 to $199 for a day-long culinary adventure. We’d barely had time to unpack before the first (complimentary) wine and cheese tasting took place in the ship’s airy lounge. Here we sampled the wines we were to drink as our longship traveled through one of the world’s great wine-growing regions. Included in our fare, these were the wines selected to be served at lunch and dinner. Rieslings predominated, given that they account for 80 percent of the grapes grown on the banks of the Rhine. Also on the list were several Rheingau reds. Lighter than their Spanish or French counterparts, these German wines were wonderful complements to lighter items on the chef’s menus. As to the cheeses, every country we passed through was represented, from Swiss comté to German muenster to France’s tomme d’Alsace and tomme de Savoie.

Monte Mathews

Our next culinary treat was presented the next day in Germany’s Black Forest. There, most appropriately, a Black Forest cake was put together before our eyes. Layers of chocolate sponge cake were covered in mounds of whipped cream, while sour cherries occupied a single layer and local Kirschwasser (cherry brandy) moistened the surprisingly light and not-too-sweet cake. The cake, however, was no match for the contemporary version created by the Hlin’s on-board pastry chef and served that night.

Monte Mathews

For a passionate foodie, the next day’s all-day excursion, “Taste the Best of Alsace” was sheer nirvana. The glorious city of Strasbourg was the setting for this remarkable experience. Viking prides itself on the quality of its guides, and here in Strasbourg, ours was a fount of information. The city has a somewhat tortured history. Strasbourg alternated between being part of France and part of Germany, often within the same war, as was the case in World War II. You can see these influences in the city’s culinary heritage. The hearty breads of Germany live side by side the delicacy of French pastries. Blending both food and history in one monumental walk, we took in bakeries and cheese shops, a wine-tasting with cheese pairings, a shop that made nothing but gingerbread, and even a hands-on cooking class. There we made tartes flambées(or Flammekueche in German), a sweet or savory Alsatian version of pizza that gives the real deal a run for its money.

Monte Mathews
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How to Plan For An Emgerency


(This was recently on Wendy Perrin’s web blog)

When you prepare for a trip, it’s smart to prepare for an emergency too. The threats of political unrest, natural disasters (like this year’s slew of earthquakes and hurricanes), and terrorist attacks—both at home and abroad—are not going away any time soon. But by all means don’t focus so much on highly unlikely, spectacular risks that you ignore the common risks that are far more likely to do you harm. For example, I traveled to London recently, and I optimized my family’s safety not by doing anything so extreme as avoiding the Tube (a target of past terrorist attacks) or abstaining from a cricket match at The Oval (another potential target, what with 24,000 spectators in a stadium), but by making sure we looked both ways when crossing the street, used a bathmat so we would not slip and fall in the shower, and played Pokémon Go only in traffic-free parks and squares.

In addition to keeping risks in perspective, here’s what I do to be prepared for emergencies when I travel:

Before Your Trip

1. Enroll in STEP.
Signing up for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program makes it easier for the U.S. embassy to send you important information about safety conditions, contact you in an emergency, and help family and friends get in touch with you. Enrolling is easy and quick.

2. Activate your phone for overseas use so that, at a minimum, you can send and receive text messages.
That way you can communicate with others in your traveling party via text message, receive STEP security updates and Twitter Alerts (see #14) via text message, etc.

3. Depending on how remote or risky your destination is, consider carrying a satellite phone or satellite text-messaging device.
In an emergency, you could lose your ability to communicate by cell phone. Internet access could be unavailable as well. Satellite devices do not depend on cell-phone or Internet technology and are much less expensive to rent than they used to be. In countries where satellite phones are illegal—India and China, for instance—you can rent a local mobile phone.

4. Whatever your communication device is, carry extra battery power for it.
If you’re using a smartphone, attach a Mophie or carry a charging block; if you’re using a satellite phone, have an additional battery.

5. Choose a hotel in the right neighborhood, with the right TV news channels and high-speed Internet access.
If you’ve got CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, and fast Wi-Fi, you can easily monitor the news and check local English-language websites for news and help. Pick a hotel that is not located close to a symbolic plaza where protests and traffic jams occur (e.g., Taksim Square in Istanbul, or Tahrir Square in Cairo).

6. Book your trip through the right destination specialist.
This gives you a local fixer, advocate, problem solver. The travel specialists on my WOW List know which areas of their destination are safe and which aren’t, and arrange trips based on the latest on-the-ground intel. They connect you with the savviest drivers and “guides” — more expediters and strategists than traditional tour guides — who have the background and credentials to keep you safe and have access to key people in the country who will take care of you. I know this based not only on personal experience, having traveled under their vigilance, but also based on years of feedback from travelers. For example, when Nepal specialist Antonia (Toni) Neubauer had travelers in Nepal during the 2015 quake, she quickly got them on a flight out of the country. (Read the review of Toni that the travelers, Joe and Rowena Burke, posted on Toni’s reviews page.) At dicey moments, Israel specialist Joe Yudin has kept travelers safe (read Nadika Wignarajan’s review here), Turkey specialist Earl Starkey has as well (read reports from his travelers here), and so has Greece specialist Christos Stergiou (read Jeff Goble’s review here). WOW Listers also provide you with the physical tools to stay safe: India specialist Sanjay Saxena, for instance, gives you an in-country mobile phone pre-programmed with numbers for local staff, hotels, emergency services, etc. Of course, his in-country and U.S. staff are available 24/7 as well.

7. Pack certain medicines.
Bring a prescription antibiotic and prescription pain reliever that you know work for you, in case you end up needing to be your own doctor. Bring iodine tablets (or one of the newer technologies) to purify dirty water too, since, in an emergency, bottled water supplies quickly run out.

8. Plot on a paper map where the local embassy, consulate, and best hospitals are.
In an emergency you won’t want to rely on your smartphone or Google Maps app to get you there; you’ll want to save your battery for calls to loved ones, doctors, etc. Know where the best hospitals are—not just for the capital city, which could be hours away from where you are when a crisis strikes, but for other cities too.

9. Purchase an emergency assistance plan.
A MedjetHorizon membership can get you safely out of a crisis situation 24/7 and can also get you out of a foreign hospital and back home to a hospital you know and trust. They can come to the rescue in the event of a terrorist or political threat, violent crime, or if you need a ground ambulance, specialty hospital transfer, or cash advance.

During Your Trip

10. Program your cell phone with emergency numbers.
Remember that 911 does not work for countries outside the USA and Canada. Here’s one list of local emergency numbers, but also ask your hotel concierge for the best numbers for the police, medical emergencies, and someone at your hotel who can help.

11. Carry a mini-flashlight.
You don’t want to get caught in the dark.

12. Carry your hotel’s business card, in the local language.
You can show it to police or taxi drivers to get back to safety quickly.

13. Carry a photocopy of your passport photo page and any visas.

Keep it on your person during the trip, in case the original is back at your hotel (usually the smartest place to keep it) or gets lost in the emergency.

14. Follow relevant Twitter feeds that can provide reliable, accurate updates and potentially life-saving alerts.
Such Twitter feeds will vary by destination and type of emergency. Usually, though, you’ll want to follow the U.S. embassy feed in the country you’re visiting, as well as the U.S. State Department’s feed, @travelgov. The @RedCross and Google’s Crisis Response Team, @GoogleCR, are also worth following, as are the local airport’s feed, which may post updates about airport delays and shutdowns, and the feeds of local hotels, which usually have an emergency action plan and may be offering help or a landline. You can also turn on Twitter Alerts for the feeds relevant to the destination you’re headed to.

15. Know that Google has a person finder and Facebook has a Safety Check feature.
In natural and humanitarian disasters, Google helps track missing persons. When a crisis occurs, Facebook activates its Safety Check feature: If you’re in an affected area, use it to alert friends and family that you’re okay; if you’re at home, you can use it to search for travelers and confirm their status.

If You Have a Trip Booked to an Area Perceived as Risky

* Don’t overreact: Realize that the geographic area affected is limited.

So often, when a crisis strikes a country, U.S. travelers unnecessarily cancel trips to a huge swath of the world surrounding that country. They avoid regions that have not been affected in the least—which would be like Europeans deciding against a trip to New York because there was an earthquake in San Francisco or a terror attack in Orlando. The Italy earthquake is no reason to cancel a trip to Tuscany, the same way the Nice attack was no reason to cancel a trip to the Dordogne.

* Don’t confuse the probability of an incident with the probability of becoming the victim of that incident.
Is it virtually certain that there will be another terrorist attack in Europe in 2016?  Yes.  Does that translate into a high degree of risk for the individual traveler to Europe?  No.

* Understand the psychological reasons why your fear of a terrorist attack is out of proportion to the risk—and why you fear a terrorist attack more than an earthquake.
I explain it in my article 7 Keys to Traveling Without Fear Despite Terrorist Attacks.

* Know where the real dangers lie.
Remember that the single biggest cause of death for Americans traveling overseas is motor vehicle accidents.

Princess Cruise Line Sails From Los Angeles to Asia


(This article was recently in USA Today)

Princess Cruises has announced plans for an epic voyage from Los Angeles to Asia and back that includes stops in half a dozen countries.

The 60-day “Circle North Pacific” sailing on the Coral Princess kicks off Sept. 19, 2018 with a trip north to Alaska, where calls will include Ketchikan, Juneau and Kodiak. From there, the 1,970-passenger vessel will head westward to Japan, stopping in Kushiro, Yokohama (near Tokyo), Osaka and Hiroshima.

Continuing westward, Coral Princess will visit Incheon (near Seoul) in South Korea and then Beijing and Shanghai in China before heading south to the Japanese island of Okinawa. Additional stops in Asia will include Hong Kong; Halong Bay, Chan May and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and Manila in The Philippines.

Returning eastward across the Pacific, the ship will make a two-day stop in Hawaii on its way back to Los Angeles. It arrives in Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2018.

Fares for the voyage start at $8,399 per person, based on double occupancy. Princess also is selling two shorter segments of the voyage as standalone cruises. The first 28 days of the trip, from Los Angeles to Shanghai, can be booked as a standalone voyage starting at $4,039 per person. The remaining 32 days of the trip, from Shanghai to Los Angeles, can be booked as a standalone voyage starting at $4,649 per person.

The lengthy Asia sailing is part of Princess’ newly announced lineup of Exotics departures for the 2018-19 season. The lineup also includes the first sailing around South America by one of Princess’ large Royal Class vessels.

Luxury Train Trips

by The Telegraph, June 5, 2017

Twilight Express Mizukaze, Japan  

1) Japans’s newest luxury sleeper train, Twilight Express Mizukaze, is expected to turn heads when it begins its tours of western Japan later this month. The dining car will feature menus by Japan’s leading Michelin-starred chef and the design will draw heavily on Art Deco. But such is the demand for such luxury train journeys in Japan that, as with new Train Suite Shiki-Shima, tickets are unlikely to be available to international travellers for some time. A better bet might be the Kyushu Seven Stars, the first of the new generation of luxury Japanese trains, which launched in 2013.

● For information regarding availability on all three trains, see

● View our selection of escorted railway tours

Eastern & Oriental Express, Thailand/Singapore

2) With its deep green, cream-coloured exteriors and sumptuous wood-panelled interiors – mirroring those featured in the Marlene Dietrich film Shanghai Express – this is a train to set pulses racing, particularly if you have a love of the exotic and the tropical, best savoured, champagne glass in hand, from the splendid vantage point of the open-air observation car.

● The signature 2/3-day journey is between Bangkok and Singapore. A newer variation is the more exclusive six-day Fables of the Peninsula tour, limited to 60 passengers in State and Presidential cabins, with visits to the Cameroon Highlands and the beaches of Huay Yang. From £2,075 and £5,509 respectively:

Belmond Andean Explorer, Peru

3) You are likely to savour your journey on the Belmond Andean Explorer, South America’s “first luxury sleeper train”, which since its launch in May has scaled new heights in the world of luxury train travel on its journeys to Lake Titicaca. The largest of the cabins offer double beds and leather armchairs in which to relax; should you wish to venture from there, dishes served in the dining carriage are from a menu inspired by the celebrated Lima chef Diego Muñoz and the drink of choice in the lounge bar is the Pisco sour.

● The two-night journey Andean Highlands & Islands of Discovery travelling from Arequipa to Cusco costs from £1,090:

Venice Simplon-Orient Express, Grand Ball Venice   

4) With its exquisitely fashioned Art Deco interiors and a name that evokes all that is glamorous about travel by train, the Venice Simplon-Orient Express needs no introduction. Long a favourite with couples celebrating special anniversaries, honeymooners and once-in-a-lifetime adventurers, the train is the very stuff of legend. A new departure this year is the early November trip combined with a night at the Venice Grand Ball.

● In addition to London and Venice, destinations served include Verona, Berlin and, once a year, Istanbul. Tickets for the Grand Ball journey, including a stay at the Belmond Cipriani, cost from about £5,000: ;

Trans-Siberian, Russia 

5) For train lovers the world over this is the ultimate big one – the journey between Moscow and Vladivostok that extends for 6,152 miles and crosses eight time zones. While the regular train takes seven days, the super-luxurious Golden Eagle version of the experience stretches over more than two weeks with stops to explore at Yekaterinburg, Lake Baikal and Irkutsk (the “Paris of Siberia”). There is a particular poignancy to the trip this year: the Golden Eagle is celebrating its 10th year in operation – and it is 100 years since the Bolshevik revolution.

● In July Golden Eagle’s founder Tim Littler will be on board for the President’s Tour on the Moscow to Vladivostok route, during which there will be a gala caviar dinner. From £11,695:

Maharajas’ Express, India

6) “Step aboard the Maharajas’ Express and you’ll be transported into a world of red carpets, high teas with maharajas and elephant polo,” wrote Telegraph Travel’s Michael Kerr when he sampled the train considered by many to be India’s most luxurious. In addition to its tours of the country’s “Golden Triangle”, the train this year ventures south with trips through the luscious landscapes of Goa and Kerala.

● The new Southern Sojourn and Southern Jewels tours cost from £6,000:

Persia with Portillo, Iran  

7) As though travelling through Iran by luxury train were not reward enough, this tour involves a star appearance by Michael Portillo. The politician-turned-TV-presenter comes on board to lend his perspective as the train travels through a country of dramatic desert landscapes and cultural powerhouses such as Tehran, Isfahan and Persepolis.

● The 14-day Telegraph Tour on the Golden Eagle train (see Trans-Siberian) is run by Steppes Travel and departs in April 2018. From £10,999, not including flights:

Indian Pacific, Australia   

8) The Indian Pacific is, at 2,705 miles, the longest of Australia’s two epic train journeys, beginning in Sydney and ending three days later in Perth (or vice versa), along the way passing through the Blue Mountains and the great Nullarbor Plain.

This year it will be 100 years since the rail link crossing Australia was established and to facilitate the celebration, Great Southern Rail, the operators of the train, has introduced the Chairmans Carriage, a large private space containing three double and one twin-bedded Platinum Class cabins as well as a private lounge and bar area.

Sounds like a good idea for a party – and a glass or two of those excellent Australian wines while recollecting experiences along the way that include for the first time this year in Kalgoorlie a theatre production of “Paddy Hannan’s Ounce of Luck”, the story of boom and bust in this mining town.

● The Chairmans Carriage on the Indian Pacific can be hired for exclusive use on the Sydney-Perth routing from AUD$25,000 (£15,600). The train will also be deployed for journeys to some of the cities hosting matches in the forthcoming winter Ashes cricket series. See

Rocky Mountaineer, Canada

9) The dome cars of the enticingly entitled Rocky Mountaineer offer panoramic views of some of the most spectacular scenery in the world on journeys with evocative names such as Journey through the Clouds, Rainforest to Goldrush and the flagship First Passage to the West. As Canada marks 150 years of coming into being, this is the perfect time to step on board.

You may even see a bear along the way too.

● The Rocky Mountaineer operates five rail routes, taking in Vancouver, Banff and Lake Louise, Calgary, Jasper and Whistler. From £950:

Belmond Northern Belle, Chester and Lake District

10) The Belmond Northern Belle, another beautiful evocation of the best of 1930s-era rail travel, is perhaps best known for its fine dining trips involving journeys into the British countryside afording time for leisurely lunches and traditional afternoon teas. This year, in a new departure, the train journeys from London to Chester and on to the Lake District in a four-day trip that will combine time on the train with a stay at the Chester Grosvenor and a day trip to the lakes, with a cruise on Lake Windermere.

● The Chester and Lake District short break costs from £1,495.




Yosemite National Park


(This article was recently in USA Today)

Yosemite National Park wasn’t the first national park, but the idea of the national park was born there.

A law signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 ceded the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to California for use as a state park — the first time the federal government had designated land for preservation in such a manner. Eight years later, Yellowstone became America’s — and the world’s — first national park.

More than 150 years later, millions come to marvel at the wonders of Yosemite.

And what wonders they are: towering sequoias and deep valleys; meadows of flowers and mountains of granite; glaciers, wildlife and waterfalls.

Tourists have been making pilgrimages to Yosemite for generations. If you’re planning a trip this year, or any year, here’s what you should know.

Consider the season

Summer. From June through September, all areas of the park are usually accessible by car, although park officials say services along Tioga Road often open a bit later in June.

Summer visitors will enjoy the sight and sounds of water flowing. The water comes from snowmelt in the high country, so runoff decreases as the summer progresses.

Peak runoff typically occurs in May or June. Some waterfalls (including Yosemite Falls) will get only a trickle or be completely dry by August.

Fall. As the summer crush dwindles, you can have a closer encounter with Yosemite.

Yosemite isn’t known for spectacular fall colors because most of the trees are evergreen, park officials say. Still, big-leaf maples, black oaks, Pacific dogwoods and some other trees tend to be showy around October.

Most areas of the park are open through October and sometimes November. Short-term closures may occur, however, due to snow.

Winter. December through March is the season of snow and solitude.

Winter in Yosemite is snowy and cold, although sunny (but still chilly) days occur, too. Tire chains are often required on park roads, and park officials ask that winter visitors know how to use them.

Most of the park is covered in snow during winter, but some trails in Yosemite Valley are accessible, and backpacking options are limited.

Spring. April and May are best for waterfall viewing.

With warmer weather melting the snow, even small creeks are engorged. Small, unnamed waterfalls and cascades break out along the Valley’s rim. Larger creeks and rivers and the better-known waterfalls tend to reach peak runoff in May or June.

It’s too early to see wildflowers in the park, but California poppies and other species at lower elevations can be seen. Redbud and dogwood trees bloom in May.

Sights and sounds

The Yosemite Conservancy provides grants to help preserve and protect the park and enhance the experience. Here are a few conservancy-aided options:

Glacier Point overlook affords breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley, the Half Dome rock formation, Yosemite Falls and Yosemite’s high country. It’s accessible by car from late May through October or November.

“It’s a wonderful view point where you can look at a different angle of Half Dome and then looking down into Yosemite Valley,” says Jennifer Miller, a conservancy spokeswoman. “It’s just a really stunning view to see all of the peaks of the surrounding Sierra Nevada.”

Spectacular views of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls are attainable with just a short walk. The restored trail makes the trek a little easier.

“There are seating areas along the way for you to stop and pause,” Miller says. “It feels very natural as you’re walking along the path.”

The conservancy’s art program allows visitors to experience Yosemite in whole new way, Miller says. Workshops are offered from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday throughout the summer.

“Often, when people are visiting Yosemite for a day, they gravitate toward the Valley,” she says. “But if they are sticking around or want to learn how to paint or draw and create their own wonderful memento, the art workshops offer that.”

Hikes scheduled by the conservancy accommodate different fitness levels and focus on each visitor’s interests. The outings range from multiday backpacking adventures to day hikes or walks.

“They’re not only helping you through the hike, but you’re hearing about your surroundings and learning about the park,” she says.

About the park

Size: 748,036 acres.

Visitors: 5,028,868 in 2016.

Established: 1890.

History: The Ahwahneechee tribe lived in and around Yosemite for generations. White travelers arrived in the 1800s, but the rugged terrain kept many out. From the mid-1850s to the mid-1860s, only about 650 visitors made the journey to Yosemite Valley by horseback or stage. By 1907, construction of the Yosemite Valley Railroad from Merced to El Portal eased the journey and increased the number of park visitors.

When visiting: Yosemite is open all year, although some areas of the park are inaccessible by car from November through May due to snow. Visitors can drive their car into and around Yosemite, or use free shuttles or fee-based tours to get around to popular areas. For information: 209-372-0200 or


Before Your Trip

MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Summer travel season is here!

Some aviation experts are predicting a record 234.1 million passengers will travel the world on United States-based airlines between June 1 and August 31.

We put so much thought into booking flights and hotels and packing our bags, that we sometimes overlook important things at home before we hit the road.

Today’s “Lauren’s List” has some helpful hints of what you should be doing any time you leave town for a few days or more.

1. Give Your Bank Notice- No one wants to hear those dreadful words, “I’m sorry. Your card was denied.” Especially not while on vacation. If you planned ahead, you should have plenty of cash, but you can avoid that headache all together if you just call your bank ahead of time to let them know you will have some unusual activity from a specific location that isn’t your hometown. This is especially important when traveling abroad, but even just across state lines. My card was waived for fraud once because of a $10 bagel and coffee in New York City!

2. Unplug- We usually try to unplug while on vacation by stepping away from our smartphones and tablets. But in this case, I mean you should literally unplug those appliances and electronics that could be sucking up power while you’re out of town. Kitchen gadgets, TVs and DVD players don’t need to be plugged in when they’re not in use.

3. Keep Up Appearances- Make sure to put your mail on hold or have someone set to pick it up. If your grass is due to be cut, make sure the lawn service still shows up as planned. Also, rather than just leaving your porch light on at all hours, set a timer so it goes on and off at the usual times. Another interesting tip, security experts actually suggest leaving some blinds partially open. If all the blinds are closed, it looks like no one is home. Just make sure you can’t see any expensive electronics through the blinds you do leave open.

4. Prep Food For Homecoming: This may seem counter-intuitive, but now that I’ve read up on it, I’m definitely doing this for my next trip. Definitely get rid of anything that will expire while you’re gone, but it stinks to get home to an empty fridge after a long travel day. You probably don’t want to cook, or spend even more money on take out, but if you have a meal prepped, frozen and ready to just throw in the oven, it will definitely make for a nice homecoming. Even better, have some frozen breakfast ready for the next day too, so you don’t have to wake up extra early just to go to the store.

What’s on your list of things to do before going on vacation?

Tell me on Facebook or Twitter.



(This article was recently published in Travel Agent Central)

Every year it seems that Italy is among the top three destinations that people want to visit. Enjoy a sunset over the Umbrian hills from your private balcony; feel white sand between your toes on a beach in Sicily; hear the echo of an aria making its way down a Venetian canal; taste your way through Tuscany; the possibilities go on.

You can save as much as 40 percent by taking a packaged escorted tour. With the tours, you receive excellent hotels, most meals, and sightseeing; options include five-, six-, eight-, and 10-day tours. A very popular way to see the country is to combine any three- or four-day itinerary with one customized tour that fits all of your needs. If you are interested in art and history, consider Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. For a food and wine itinerary, take the “Rome,” “Florence and Tuscany,” “Bologna and Parma,” “Apulia,” “Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast,” or even the “Taormina” tour. Yes, you can do all the sightseeing on your own but I think it is time-consuming, tiring, expensive, and it is far easier to have someone take you from place to place and you get all the culture and history in one go. When the group passes the mobs of people standing in line at each attraction, you will appreciate that you joined a tour.

A big advantage to taking a packaged tour is that the tours get private admission times to most of the key sights whereas if you go alone, you could stay in line for hours to get into places such as the Vatican. It is also possible to go sightseeing with a private driver and guide, and, of course, you have early admission to the various sights without any delay. There were only four of us in the Sistine Chapel when we were there last year and I noted the thousands in line outside when we left even though it was early in the morning. If you book with someone like Insight, or Trafalgar, which are two good companies, you will only get English-speaking guides and drivers. It is horrible to be on a tour which explains everything in five different languages: you end up not listening to anything they have to say.

I grew up going to the Italian Lakes every summer for four weeks with my parents, who loved Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. They rented the same villa for about 20 years, which came with servants, and even a tennis court and ball boys. Two other places they were fond of were Cinque Terre and Sardinia, if you want to experience a different region.

The train service within Italy is excellent. For example, if you have Rome as your base, then it’s easy to take the train to Venice – three hours and 40 minutes – for a day trip; or Rome to Florence – just ninety minutes. Many people stay in one town and take day trips out.

I have recommended to many clients that a wonderful way to experience Italy is to take a cruise for a week on the Mediterranean, and then do a week on land in Italy. It is possible to visit 21 different countries on three continents while on a cruise. We have seen free airfares with some cruises, and even two-for-one cabins, so it makes for a great cost-savings trip. You have ship options ranging from 500 to 5,000 passengers depending on which line you choose. If this is your first time to Italy, a cruise or a motor coach tour are good investments.

I would avoid going in August if you have a choice. It is extremely hot and humid and many of the Italian shop keepers close up for the month; they, too, take a holiday to get out of the heat.

Shopping in Italy is a delight. I always buy shoes and handbags. The silk and wool items are fantastic, and I usually do all my Christmas shopping when I am there. The street markets are so much fun to wander around, with quality items at a good price.

Many people ask me to arrange for a cooking lesson. If you have children in the group, it is fun to see them learn how to make pizza from a pro.

You can rent a villa if you want a base for your family, or just yourself for privacy. It is a wonderful honeymoon destination. There are many great opportunities if you consult with an Italian expert.