Quebec City

(recently published in the Boston Globe)

QUEBEC CITY — The champagne flutes filled with glowing liquid were everywhere. It looked as if hundreds of revelers were walking the streets of Old Quebec sipping nuclear-tainted, multi-colored unicorn tears.

Naturally I wanted in on the action.

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It wasn’t, as I first suspected, a nuclear unicorn tears tasting night, but an annual outing called Nuit des Galleries (Night of the Galleries). The multitudes were tippling in the streets and browsing art in nearly 40 galleries. Those galleries were also serving wine in LED champagne flutes, hence the glow.

What I picked up quickly during the Night of the Galleries — and the rest of my stay here — is that Quebec City is a delicious ecosystem of old and new. Inside the walls of Old Quebec, some of the European-influenced architecture dates back 400 years. These old streets have a decidedly French accent. You almost expect to see Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” swinging a basket and trilling along with the sparrows along the sidewalk.

The rest of Canada may be celebrating its 150th birthday this year, but Quebec has the rest of the country beat. It was founded in 1608.

Outside the walls of Old Quebec were less polished neighborhoods, some still dusting themselves off after decades of decay. They’re now filling with interesting restaurants and a few boutiques. That’s code for gentrification and hipsters. These are the neighborhoods where you’ll find the highest per capita number of man buns and tattoos in Quebec City.

Groups drink from illuminated wine glasses during the Night of the Galleries on Sept. 16 in Quebec City. More than 35 art galleries participated in the event. Attendees could hop from gallery to gallery and fill their wine glasses along the way.

Christopher Muther for the Boston Globe

Groups drink from illuminated wine glasses during the Night of the Galleries on Sept. 16 in Quebec City. More than 35 art galleries participated in the event. Attendees could hop from gallery to gallery and fill their wine glasses along the way.

The cruise ship passengers, adorned in unironic fanny packs and sensible walking shoes, filled Old Quebec by the thousands but didn’t seem to travel past Old Quebec and into man bun country. It’s a shame because I spent many afternoons both inside and outside the old walls, which where built to protect French settlers from the English.

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I’d head outside Old Quebec, and after a brisk 20 minute walk I’d be in areas such as the Saint-Roch District and Saint-Jean, which are filled with secondhand stores, boutiques, cafes, and chic bistronomy eateries that spill over onto the sidewalks.

I could tell I had found an authentically cool Quebec lunch experience one afternoon at Le Cercle on Saint-Joseph Street. because the menu was French-only and written on a small chalk board. I went back to Le Cercle that night to listen to DJs and sip a Le Letha (vodka, thyme pepper syrup, and sparkling cider).

Before I continue with tales of where to go and what to do, I have a confession to make. This was my first trip to Quebec City. I’ve traveled to Montreal so many times that I didn’t see the need to go any further north. In Quebec City, they speak French and eat poutine just like in Montreal. It was a petite Montreal, no?

“No,” I was told by an artist named Mike Gagnon, who I met at Night of the Galleries. I wasn’t fully convinced he was an authority on the subject because he told me he had consumed seven glasses of those omnipresent glowing unicorn tears that everyone else called wine. “Quebec City is more pure. You don’t hear as much English here as you do in Montreal. I think we’ve maintained our heritage.”

I later posed the question to Dagmar Lombard, general manager of the hotel Auberge Saint-Antoine. She confirmed that Quebec City is far different from the province’s largest city. The pace is slower, Quebec City is far more compact, and for years there has been a fierce rivalry between the two cities. Some attribute the rivalry to the days when Quebec City had its own professional hockey team. The whole thing reminded me of a New York-Boston rivalry, but in French and with better croissants.

One of the first things I did to acclimate myself shortly after arrival was hop on the Quebec City-Lévis Ferry at sunset. This is the best way to view Cap-Diamant, the iconic Château Frontenac, and Dufferin Terrace. It’s also under $10. Château Frontenac, which is featured on about 90 pecent of Quebec City postcards, may look like a 17th century French palace looming over the center of Old Quebec, but it’s a grand hotel (still in operation) built in 1893.

For first-timers, such as myself, there were a few essentials that needed to be checked off the list. Start with Palace Royale and Petite Champlian in Old Quebec. Here you’ll find Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, the oldest stone church in North America. Not far away is the Museum of Civilization.

When you’ve finished in this area, which is called Lower Town (Basse-Ville), take the funicular to the aptly named Upper Town (Haute-Ville). If you’re feeling athletic, you can skip the funicular and climb the Breakneck Stairs, a painfully accurate name for the mega-steep staircase. The higher you walk in Upper Town, the better the views. The Citadelle de Quebec is one of your best vantage points.

You can duck down streets lined with 19th century granite homes. The window boxes are so bursting with color that you’ll think that geraniums are weeds in this city. They’re everywhere.

Because it was my first visit, allow me to speak in generalities and stereotypes for a moment. Old Quebec is one of the most European cities in North America. It’s far more French than Montreal in architecture and language. The culinary scene hasn’t caught up to Montreal, but there are can’t-miss meals at the farm-to-table Légende par la Tanière, the beer-loving La Korrigane, and the casually gourmet L’affaire est Ketchup. Don’t let the fact that obnoxious travel bro Anthony Bourdain featured L’affaire est Ketchup on his show keep you from trying it.

 

Calgary, Canada

When booking a getaway north of the border, Calgary may not be the first place that springs to mind. Though it may not be as well-known of a travel destination as a Toronto or Montreal, make no mistake: Calgary is a place to be.

Alberta’s largest city, located in the eastern foothills of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, where the Bow and Elbow Rivers meet is an active and growing metropolis, home to 1.2 million people. Every year, millions of tourists flock to see its gorgeous scenery, unique attractions, and rich culture. Its mix of natural, outdoor experiences and modern, urban culture make it an exciting vacation spot for any traveler.

When to Go

Deciding when to book your stay depends largely on what you would like to do. Despite the snow and the low temperatures during the winter months, Calgary is a beautiful and exciting destination this time of year.

Given its proximity to the Rocky Mountains, Calgary has always been a popular spot for winter sporting events and activities, including skiing, ice skating, tobogganing, sledding, ice fishing, snowshoeing and hiking. In fact, in 1988, Calgary held the first-ever Winter Olympic Games in Canada.

Plus, there are plenty of indoor museums, zoos, tours and venues for guests that want to step out of the cold for a little while and enjoy Calgary at a different pace.

If cold weather is not ideal, there are a host of activities waiting for tourists in the summer. With mild average temperatures in the low 60s, exploring the city can be done comfortably, spared from the sometimes oppressive heat and humidity of a warmer area. In the summer the city offers attractions like outdoor festivals, concerts, sporting events, national parks, and more. In Calgary, there is an exciting vacation no matter the time of year.

Where to Stay

Peace Bridge // Photo by jewhyte/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Kensington Riverside Inn

The boutique Kensington Riverside Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property, is located alongside the Bow River and just a short walk from the iconic pedestrian Peace Bridge. The top accommodations are the three Riverside Suites, totaling 566 square feet. They each include a fireplace, balcony, two-person deep soaking tub, and Chef’s Table in-room dining, plus more. Chef de Cuisine Sean Cutler runs the Oxbow restaurant, where he takes an artful approach to comfort food.

If you’re looking to get out of the city, the hotel can help you arrange horseback riding, fishing, biking/mountain biking, canoeing, skiing/cross-country skiing, hunting, golfing and more. Want to try your luck in the Olympic Oval speed skating? Kensington Riverside Inn can make it happen.

The Fairmont Palliser Hotel

Planted right in the heart of downtown Calgary, the Fairmont Palliser Hotel offers luxury service and amenities within walking distance of the city’s busiest and most attraction-packed area. The 407-room hotel recently renovated its guestrooms and suites with all of the modern comforts. At the hotel, guests will find both spa and fitness facilities, as well as elegant dining coordinated by executive chef Eraj Jayawickreme.

Not to mention you’ll be right near shops, entertainment venues, and popular landmarks. It’s even an historical landmark itself, as it has been in service for over 100 years.

Sheraton Suites Calgary Eau Claire

Located just a minute away from Prince’s Island Park and walking trails, the Sheraton Suites Calgary Eau Claire puts guests in a more scenic and natural part of the downtown area. Right next to the hotel is the famous Eau Claire Market, home to numerous one-of-a-kind dining, fashion, leisure, business and sporting experiences.

The Sheraton has over 300 rooms, luxury suites, two restaurants, a salon, in-room spa amenities, and other personalized services.

Attractions

Calgary Stampede // Photo by thefurnaceroom/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Calgary is full of year-round sights and attractions, but there are a few things that just need to be experienced before departing.

The Calgary Stampede

Perhaps the area’s most unique attraction, the Calgary Stampede is a truly unforgettable experience that explains exactly why the city is so affectionately nicknamed “Cowtown.”

Held every year in July, the Stampede is a 10-day extravaganza of rodeos, exhibitions and festivals. Nine rodeo events, including barrel rolling and bull riding, are the main attractions each day followed by the two evening shows: the GMC Rangeland Derby, and the Transalta Grandstand Show with musical performances, stunts, and pyrotechnics.

Every year, the city embraces the Western theme and takes on a party atmosphere; dressing buildings up in Wild West décor. In many ways, it has become part of Calgary’s identity.

Canada Olympic Park

Previously home to the 1988 Olympic Games, the park is now a thrill-seeker’s dream. Operated by WinSport Canada, the park offers many summer and winter sporting activities such as skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, zip lining, bobsledding, mini golf and a tube park.

Sports fans can make a stop at Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, a fun and educational record of Canadian sports history that’s right on the grounds of the park.

The Calgary Zoo

Founded in 1917 and located in the neighborhood of Bridgeland-Riverside, the Calgary Zoo is the most visited zoo in Canada and is home to over 700 animals representing 130 species.

Its themed attractions include: Destination Africa,  which contains a 90,000-gallon warm-water hippo pool, as well as gorillas, lions, giraffes, and zebras; Penguin Plunge, the newest exhibit at the zoo, home to four species of penguins; and The Canadian Wilds, a 20-acre area of the zoo dedicated to showcasing Canadian wildlife.

The Glenbow Museum

Established in 1966, this art and history museum has been an important hub of Calgary culture for the past 50 years. Since its inception, the museum has developed an impressive collection of documents, photographs, and artworks, a collection that now contains over a million items.

The Glenbow holds a full calendar of art exhibitions, tours, and talks, making it not only a historical archive of Canada, but also showcase for contemporary culture. Last year, over 125,000 visitors came through the museum, including 65,000 students as part of Glenbow’s school programs that encourage creativity, critical thinking, and social engagement in their children.

Where to Eat

View from atop the Calgary Tower // Photo by stephenmeese/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Sky 360

When a restaurant has an unforgettable glimpse of the city, an award winning wine list, and is within a popular landmark, it’s hard to pass up.

Perched atop the Calgary Tower, Sky 360 offers that and more. With a bird’s eye view of Calgary and observation deck access, guests can marvel at the beauty of the city as they dine on modern Canadian cuisine prepared through contemporary French techniques.

The River Cafe

Right in Prince’s Island Park along the Bow River, the River Café offers patrons a chance to connect with Calgary’s natural beauty as they enjoy fresh meat and seafood entrées served up by the award-winning restaurant. The café serves locally sourced, seasonal Canadian cuisine with an emphasis on respect and care for its ingredients. Its award-winning food and drink are topped off by artisan pastries and desserts produced in-house.

The River café is an environmentally conscious establishment that focuses on sustainability through the reduction of waste, the use of green energy, and sourcing from dozens of urban farmers in the area.

The Restaurant at Lougheed House

Have an elegant lunch—or brunch—at the historic mansion in downtown Calgary, a place that has attracted royal figures since its opening in 1891. The cozy and historic Restaurant at Lougheed House has a modest menu of familiar-yet-refined midday food options that anyone can enjoy

When guests are done eating, they can take an hour-long house tour to learn about its rich history or just explore the three-acre site themselves and take in the beautifully maintained flower and vegetable gardens on the property

 

Delta Airlines to Allow Free Texting

 

The latest free perk on U.S. airlines: Mobile messaging.

Delta Air Lines announced Wednesday morning that customers on its Wi-Fi enabled planes will be able to communicate via iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger at no charge. Delta’s free messaging begins Sunday (Oct. 1) and will be available to customers whether or not they’ve paid for in-flight Wi-Fi access.

Delta says its move makes it the first of the USA’s three big global carriers (American and United are the others) to offer the perk. But it’s not the first overall. Customers on JetBlue, for example, already had access to free in-flight Wi-Fi, which would allow many of the same capabilities — plus streaming and web-surfing.

And even without the same free in-flight Wi-Fi caveat, another big U.S. carrier — an arch-rival of Delta — already offered free mobile messaging. Alaska Airlines customers have had access to free in-flight messaging on its Wi-Fi enabled aircraft since January

We know that staying in touch while on the go is essential to our guests, many of whom don’t need full Internet access,” Andrew Harrison, Alaska Airlines’ chief commercial officer, said when announcing the chat option then. “Free Chat is a great way to keep that connection alive without breaking the bank.”

Alaska Air has since rolled out the complimentary messaging option to all flights on merger partner Virgin America, as well.

As for the effort announced by Delta announced on Wednesday, the company says it’s “part of (a) multi-billion dollar investment in the customer experience.” The move makes Delta the biggest U.S. airline to offer the option at no charge.

“We know many of Delta’s customers want or need to stay connected in the air and on the ground, which is why we’re investing in an easy, free way to send and receive messages inflight through some of the most popular global platforms,” Tim Mapes, Delta’s Chief Marketing Officer, says in a statement. “Coupled with our investments in seat-back screens, free entertainment and High-Speed Wi-Fi, free messaging is one more way customers can choose how to make the most of their time on Delta flights.”

TODAY IN THE SKYStudy: Airlines could generate $30B from broadband for work, shopping, entertainment by 2035

Delta says passengers will have the free messaging option on all of its Wi-Fi-enabled flights, a count that includes “all aircraft with two or more cabins.”

To access the option, fliers on Delta can unlock the option via the carrier’s Wi-Fi portal page. The option will allow text use only and will not support the transfer of photo or video files, according to the airline.

Delta also took the opportunity to tout its options for the more traditional seatback in-flight entertainment offerings. The company said it “offers customers more aircraft with seatback entertainment than any airline in the world, installing its 500th aircraft with seat-back entertainment in July.”

“In addition to investing in seat-back entertainment, customers can also choose to stream Delta Studio to their personal devices on the airline’s entire mainline fleet as well as all two-class regional aircraft,” Delta adds.

Visiting Tibet

For as far as the eye could see, thousands of white tents the size of Winnebagos covered a grassland valley, surrounding a tent as large as a football field. Inside, monks had been chanting along with the lectures of high Tibetan lamas for hours. Outside, some 300,000 Tibetan pilgrims – many of them nomads – followed the prayers via stadium-size jumbotrons broadcasting the action inside.
On my first afternoon in the valley, just outside Labrang Monastery, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, I wandered through the sea of tents for an hour or so before pitching my own, which was designed for backpacking. My neighbours laughed at its size, then at me and invited me to dinner.
I’d just finished my first year teaching Chinese history in Beijing, at an exchange program for American high school students, and I was happy to be on my own for the summer. A decade earlier, in 2006, I’d been a student at the very same program, and we’d visited the area in the last weeks of school. At the time, I remembered the Tibetan plateau feeling different from the eastern cities of China, and not just because the air was cleaner. After living in Beijing for nine months, I couldn’t believe how much open space there was, and how slow the pace felt. During the trip, I’d also run across a backpacker travelling alone, who I envisioned wandering enchanted Buddhist grasslands without a care in the world. For a 17-year-old, it was hard to imagine more freedom.
Ten years later, my reasons for visiting had changed somewhat. In the years I’d been away, ethnic riots had broken out in Lhasa in 2008, and a wave of self-immolations had begun in protest of Chinese rule. The Chinese government had responded by pouring money into the region in an attempt to buy back Tibetan loyalty, and the plateau was changing fast. But that also meant the area was becoming more accessible, and more tourists were visiting beyond intrepid backpackers. Over the past three years, I’ve returned multiple times to track the changes, but I never stop taking in the scenery.

At elevations above 10,000 feet, Amdo’s winds and piercing sky can feel far removed from the smog of major Chinese cities, but its eastern edge lies only a few hours by plane from Beijing. To get there, most visitors fly into Lanzhou, the sprawling capital of Gansu Province, and then arrange a car or take a bus to Labrang Monastery, in Xiahe County, about three hours from the capital. Over the span of a 4,000-foot elevation gain from Lanzhou, the highway to Labrang provides a slide show of rapid cultural transition: urban sprawl gives way to the spires of Hui Muslim mosques in Linxia, and then, as the dry, cracked soil of the Loess plateau transforms into a canvas of open grassland, Buddhist monasteries begin to emerge, marking the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

The plateau offers two main activities for travellers: exploring the many monasteries scattered over the plains and trekking. Xiahe, Langmusi and Zhagana – a small city, a town, and mountain village respectively, all within a few hours’ drive of one another – offer both in spades to first-timers, though at different scales. Labrang Monastery, in Xiahe, remains one of the largest Buddhist institutions on the Plateau, with some 4,000 monks. Langmusi, a high-elevation town that splits the Gansu and Sichuan border, draws smaller crowds of backpackers in the summer for grassland treks and glimpses of its two smaller monasteries. And only a two-hour drive from Langmusi lies Zhagana, a narrow valley of dramatic mountain villages ideal for high-alpine hiking.

A road winds through Zhagana
A road winds through Zhagana, a village clinging to the mountainside in Amdo. The stunning valley has only recently become known among tourists, and guesthouses are popping up. Will Ford / The Washington Post

In the summers, I usually make my way between the towns by bus, and occasionally hitchhike, but travellers who don’t speak Chinese or Tibetan can find transportation just as easily with the guidance of a wide range of tourist agencies and guesthouses that cater to foreigners. Asking whether the operation is Chinese-run or Tibetan-run is often a good idea; the region has had a troubled history with the Chinese government since Mao Zedong adopted of the language of Marxist liberation in the 1950s to justify the Chinese army’s occupation of Tibet. The Tibetan historical narrative, to put it mildly, is more frank.

Labrang Monastery, which was rebuilt after most of it was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, marks the first logical stop from Lanzhou, and most of it can be seen in a day. In the morning, it’s worth waking up early to walk around the monastery with the pilgrims, some of whom travel great distances to Labrang while others stop there as part of their commute, prostrating themselves in a circumambulation of the complex. The beginning of late-morning prayers, marked by Tibetan horns and streams of monks hurrying to the central prayer hall, are sometimes open to the public. Afterward, a stroll down the town’s main street offers a view of long sets of souvenir shops, especially those that sell Tibetan textiles, as well as the sprawl of the city.

Amdo’s commercialization on the walk is tangible as well, offering a reminder of how fast things are now changing. When I visit, I sometimes stay with a former farmer who, after opening his guesthouse a few years ago, now earns more than 1 million renminbi – about $145,000 – during the tourist season in the summer.

The next stop, to Langmusi, is further removed from such aggressive commercialization, though the town is expanding as well. From Labrang, the drive takes about four-to-five hours, but the grassland scenery is spectacular, and there’s an opportunity to break up the drive by stopping in Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. There, a nine-story temple – a rarity in Tibetan architecture – called Milarepa Lhakhang offers a great view. A climb up to the top through creaky floors passes through rooms filled with Tanka paintings of Buddhas and Arhats. The smell of yak-butter offerings near the shrines previews the many monasteries to come. The view from the top floor frames a typical expanse in modern Tibetan cities: an old monastery complex, then Chinese apartment sprawl and finally grasslands in the distance that extend into oblivion.

Sertri Monaster
A monk pauses to look at a taxi arriving for pickup at Sertri Monastery, one of two in Langmusi, a small town that straddles China’s Sichuan and Gansu provinces. Will Ford / The Washington Post

Another two hours of driving and you’ll arrive in Langmusi, a small town representative of many in Amdo – construction of a new commercial strip, financed by the Chinese government, has recently doubled its length, which is only about a half-mile long. The town’s appeal lies in the two monasteries and the surrounding mountains, which make the place an offbeat haven for backpackers. Occasionally, a nomad will even shepherd herds through the middle of town. Dramatic cliffs rise up above one side of town into a cluster of jagged rock, and hillsides of fir trees tuck themselves into the gorges.

Langmusi’s older monastery, Kirti, sits just below these mountains at the mouth of a gorge. About 300 feet up the ravine, groundwater trickles out of a rock bed and into a stream powering Tibetan prayer mills. A short hike above the gorge leads to tangle of prayer flags and a good spot to watch upland buzzards circling on thermals, searching for rodents. From the peak, Langmusi’s other monastery, Sertri, is easily visible, perched atop a hill on the other side of town, its golden roofs shimmering in the sunlight. Local divides in politics are visible as well; over the past few decades, Sertri, whose temples are in better shape, has done more business with the Chinese government, while more conservative Kirti has largely maintained its distance

In town – a bustling street of souvenir shops, guesthouses, and restaurants – both monasteries allow tourists to walk their grounds with an entrance ticket, and, for lunch, you can sample a yak burger at Leisha’s Restaurant. Walk up and down the main street and you’ll also see many advertisements for trekking – by foot or on horseback – across the grasslands surrounding Langmusi, often with the option to stay the night with nomads.
The treks are well worth the time, especially ones that visit nearby Gahai Lake, a high grassland lake surrounded by distant mountains and home to many highland bird species. I first visited the lake after meeting, in a noodle joint, a few monks from Sertri who invited me to picnic by the lake. It was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever had with lunch and also a reminder that, in small towns like Langmusi, it’s never a bad idea to strike up a conversation.
But by far the greatest base for trekking in Gannan is the tiny mountain village of Zhagana, two hours’ drive from Langmusi across a winding valley. Cliffs, high peaks, streams, fir trees and terraced fields dominate the landscape – bringing to mind a kind of Tibetan Rivendell. In the 1930s, Mao’s Red Army used the landscape as cover, rampaging through the village on the Long March while fleeing Chang Kai-shek’s nationalists. A number of local guesthouses run treks up over high mountain passes and into grasslands hidden behind Zhagana’s imposing peaks, at over 12,000 feet, and some hikers trek up the very ravine Mao’s army descended during the Long March.
The first time I visited, I arrived hoping to hike to nomad camps, but the weather took a turn for the worse. Still, my days in the mountain village were well spent: As I waited for the weather to turn, I read on a guesthouse porch, overlooking the rows of houses that clung to the mountainside, and hiked to the monastery in the afternoons. Then I went back to the porch and read some more, gazing over the mountains and sipping yak-butter tea. At times, construction rang out over the valley, reminding me of how fast Amdo was changing. But the view, at least, wasn’t going away anytime soon.

How to Pay Overseas

(Recently published on Wendy Perrin’s blog)

 

Keeping track of currency exchange rates is a necessity when traveling. Thankfully, there are many apps for that task, so we don’t have to spend too much of our time doing the research (I like Easy Currency Converter; leave your favorite in the comments below). But while it’s helpful to know the rough exchange for your home currency, the actual conversion rate varies from bank to bank, credit card to credit card, and even local merchant to local merchant.

As a result, when you’re overseas and you use a credit card, you’ll often see that the payment machine asks whether you want to pay with U.S. dollars or the local currency. Which one should you choose, and why?

credit card payment machine screen

Overseas credit card machines offer currency options. Which should you choose? Photo: Lindsay Lambert Day

First: Use the right credit card.

Having a credit card that’s ideal for travelers is your first line of defense against currency pitfalls: The good ones waive all foreign-purchase fees. “When you make purchases abroad, you should be using a card that doesn’t add foreign transaction fees to your bill (which can be as much as 3%),” says credit card expert Gary Leff, of View From the Wing. “All cards are going to convert foreign currency to your home currency, and you’ll get the prevailing rate. Some cards, though, will charge you a fee on top of the conversion rate to do it.”

Second: Pay in local currency.

“When a merchant outside the U.S. asks whether you want to be charged in U.S. dollars or your local currency, always say local currency,” advises Gary. “That’s because [the merchant is] going to hit you with their own conversion rate (likely unfavorable, but certainly not as good as the one you will get from your card company). And then, if your credit card hits you with foreign transaction fees, they’re going to charge those fees anyway, even if you paid in U.S. dollars, because it’s a foreign-made transaction.”

The final word:

“There is almost never any benefit to being charged by a merchant in your home currency,” Gary says. “You are best off having your credit-card-issuing bank do it at their rate. And you want to make sure you’re paying with a card that doesn’t charge you for the privilege of making purchases abroad.”

Azamara Adds Third Ship

“We are pleased to expand our portfolio by 50 percent, allowing us to visit even more regions of the world through the acquisition of this sister ship,” President and CEO Larry Pimentel said in a press release. “Our loyal guests and travel partners have asked for this expansion for a long time; we are very pleased to deliver this to them.”

Just like Azamara’s two existing ships, this one was originally built for the now defunct Renaissance Cruises. The last of eight “R” ships for the line, the 30,277-gross-ton, 592-foot ship debuted in 2001 and has bumped around cruise lines including sailing as Princess Cruises Royal Princess from 2007-2011. The ship then moved over to Carnival Corp.’s P&O Cruises, which serves mostly British cruisers.

In 2016, it made the remarkable switch to the Fathom brand, becoming the first U.S.-based cruise ship to visit Cuba in years, before returning to P&O this year.

When it changes over to become Azamara Pursuit, the ship will have its decor refit to match its new sister ships, and the line will roll out itinerary details in October.

Azamara has tried to set itself apart from competing luxury brands like Seabourn and Crystal by focusing on its destinations, especially offering more time in port including overnight stays on most of its itineraries. It also gave both of its existing ships makeovers in the last two years.

“Azamara needed to take our onboard product to the next level,” Pimentel said in 2016. “Cruise ships are like fine hotels, after wear and tear, upgrades need to be made.”

For more on the new ship, go to www.azamara.com/pursuit.

The Future of Air Travel

Perhaps you’ve bumped into Mildred, Carla or Oscar on your recent travels. They’re not real people but avatars of chatbots – concocted by Lufthansa, Avianca and Air New Zealand respectively – or artificial intelligence (AI) powered computer programs accessed on your smartphone that enable you to have a simulated conversation of sorts. Now airports are getting in on the act, and it’s all part of a paradigm shift towards self-service and interactions with technologies that offer “personal” information to help us on our way through the terminal

It’s a shift confirmed in the findings of the Passenger IT Trends Survey released by Sita, the provider of much of the digital infrastructure that underpins airport and airline communications and operations worldwide. The survey found that face-to-face check-in is now down to 46 per cent of passengers, and since last year’s survey, self-service bag-tagging has risen from 31 per cent to 47 per cent. Almost a fifth of passengers now use self-service bag drop, and when it comes to ID control, 57 per cent of passengers would definitely use biometrics instead of a passport or boarding pass across the journey. Biometrics is just one of a handful of newish technologies that have matured to the point that they’re ripe for deployment, signifying a new era in airport experience.

AI, chatbots and messenger bots

With 98 per cent of passengers now flying with digital mobile devices, there’s never been a better time for airports to “get personal”. The uptake of Messenger, Facebook’s instant messaging app, has been so dramatic – Facebook announced in April that it has 1.2 billion users – that airlines and now airports want to reach their customers using this platform. Athens International Airport claimed, last September, to be the first airport in the world to implement a bot app through Facebook Messenger.

Augmented Reality

AR – the technology where you look at the real world through your smartphone or special glasses, and data, such as wayfinding information, is superimposed onto what you can see – has been around in the airport space since 2011. Copenhagen Airport launched the first airport app to use AR to enable passengers to find their way around the terminal and obtain information on restaurants and other facilities. But perhaps in 2011 walking around with a phone at the end of your outstretched arm wasn’t the norm and few other airports followed suit. A lack of consistent GSM or wifi signals might also explain why AR has been slow to catch on. But no such barriers seem to exist today: Gatwick Airport has installed 2,000 battery-powered beacons across the airport’s two terminals enabling AI-powered indoor navigation, integrated with Gatwick’s smartphone apps.

“We’re opening the door for a wide range of tech savvy airport providers, including our airlines and retailers, to launch new real-time services that can help passengers find their way around the airport, avoid missing flights or receive timely offers that might save them money,” said Abhi Chacko, Gatwick Airport’s head of IT, commercial and innovation.

 

The robots are coming
Conversing with robots, as we’ll increasingly do with airport chatbots, is not the only interaction we’ll see at terminals; robots of the more physical variety have been undergoing early stage trials in this space too. Meet Kate (yes, another personable avatar). The invention of Sita Labs, Kate is an intelligent check-in robotic kiosk that autonomously moves to busy or congested areas of the terminal as needed. It uses data related to passenger flow at the airport to reposition itself, thereby reducing passenger wait times.

 

Viking Sea Adds Fourth Ship

A ceremony was held at Fincantieri’s shipyard in Italy as Viking Ocean Cruises took delivery of their fourth cruise ship, Viking Sun.

Viking Sun’s maiden voyage will set sail from Venice, Italy on October 4, making her way through the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. In early November, Viking Sun will cross the Atlantic to sail fall itineraries.

On December 15, the ship will embark on Viking’s first-ever World Cruise. Over the course of 141 days, Viking Sun will journey around the world, visiting 35 countries and 66 ports, before the itinerary ends in London on May 5, 2018.  In 2019, Viking Sun will continue to sail the globe on the recently-announced second World Cruise, which spans 128-days, five continents, 21 countries and 44 ports with 10 port overnights.

Torstein Hagen, Chairman of Viking, gave the following statement about the newest addition to Viking’s fleet: “As we celebrate two decades of helping guests travel the world in comfort, this year also marks one of significant growth. We are pleased that with the delivery of Viking Sun we now have four small ships, each carrying only 930 guests.

Features Found on Viking Sun

All Veranda Staterooms: Guests can choose from five stateroom categories, starting from 270 sq. ft. Veranda Staterooms, all with private verandas, sweeping views of the destination and premium amenities that include king-size beds with luxury linens, generously proportioned closets, large interactive flat-screen LCD TVs with movies-on-demand, unlimited complimentary Wi-Fi and award-winning bathrooms with large showers, premium Freyja® bath products developed exclusively for Viking and heated floors.

Explorer Suites: The ships feature 14 Explorer Suites, which are two-room suites ranging from 757 to 1,163 sq. ft. that offer expansive views from wraparound private verandas as well as the most amenities and privileges of any category on board.

Two Pool Choices: In addition to the Main Pool with a retractable roof permitting any-season swimming, the ships feature a first-of-its-kind glass-backed Infinity Pool cantilevered off the stern, allowing guests to swim surrounded by their destination.

LivNordic Spa: In keeping with Viking’s Nordic heritage, The Spa on board is designed with the holistic wellness philosophy of Scandinavia in mind—from the centuries-old tradition of the sauna to a Snow Grotto where snowflakes gently descend from the ceiling through chilled air. Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 named it one of the “5 best cruise ship spas.”

Explorers’ Lounge and Mamsen’s: Share a cocktail with friends. Linger over a Norwegian breakfast and a nautical history book. The Explorers’ Lounge and Mamsen’s gourmet deli are thoughtful spaces located at the bow of the ship and designed to represent the Scandinavian spirit for complete relaxation and for marveling at sweeping views through double-height windows.

The Wintergarden: Guests looking for serenity will find it in the Wintergarden. In this elegant space under a canopy of Scandinavian trellised wood, guests can indulge in afternoon tea service.

Dining Choices: Viking’s ships offer eight dining options, all with no additional charge or fee—from fine dining in The Restaurant, which serves three full meals and a variety  of culinary options, and the World Café, which features  international fare and regional specialties including a sushi and seafood cold bar—to intimate alternative dining experiences at The Chef’s Table, which offers  a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings, and Manfredi’s, which features freshly prepared pastas and Italian favorites. The Pool Grill specializes in gourmet burgers, while afternoon tea and scones are available in the Wintergarden. Mamsen’s serves Norwegian deli-style fare, and complimentary 24-hour room service allows all guests to enjoy many signature dishes in the comfort of their stateroom. Furthermore, with multiple choices for outdoor seating during meals, Viking’s ocean ships offer the most al fresco dining at sea. Additionally, The Kitchen Table specializes in regional dishes from market to table.

Cultural Enrichment: Viking experiences from ship to shore are designed for unparalleled access and cultural enrichment. Viking Resident Historians deliver high-level historical and cultural education specific to the journey, offering invaluable insight in to the rich history of the destination. Guest Lecturers who are experts in their fields shed light on the destination’s art, architecture, music, geopolitics, natural world and more. Destination Performances represent the most iconic cultural performing arts of the region—whether it be Italian opera or Portuguese fado. Resident Classical Musicians—pianists, guitarists, violinists and flautists—perform classical compositions throughout the ships. And Culinary Classes in The Kitchen Table, Viking’s onboard cooking school, focus on regional cuisine.

Nordic Inspiration: Even the smallest details take their inspiration from the exploratory spirit of the original Vikings, reflecting deeply held Nordic traditions. Light wood grains, touches of slate and teak, Swedish limestone and fragrant juniper appear throughout the public spaces and Spa. The Clinker-built design of the Viking Bar mirrors the construction style of the original Viking Longships. A Viking Heritage Center provides history and context from the Viking Age. And characters from Norse Mythology are subtly incorporated into the design, providing curious guests with inspiration to further explore Viking’s Nordic heritage.

Sustainable Features: Designed to be environmentally friendly, Viking’s ships feature energy-efficient hybrid engines, hydro-dynamically optimized streamlined hull and bow for maximum fuel efficiency and equipment that reduces exhaust pollution and meets the strictest worldwide environmental regulations

Domestic Travel

(Recently published in Travel Agent Blog)

 

According to MMGY Globals 2017 Portrait of American Travelers, domestic vacations now make up 85 percent of total American vacations; and during the past 12 months, 13.9 million more vacations were taken within the U.S. compared to internationally. The rising preference for domestic destinations has also resulted in the increasing popularity of road trips.

Accounting for 46 percent of American travelers, roadtrippers – defined in this study as American travelers with annual household incomes of at least $50,000 who took at least one road trip during the past 12 months – are now a large segment of the American traveler market. These estimated 27.8 million traveling households went on a combined 99.7 million vacations and spent $215.1 billion on leisure travel during the past 12 months. Significantly, 55.6 million of the 99.7 million combined vacations taken by this segment were road trips (56 percent).

From 2016 to 2017, road trip vacations taken by Americans rose from 22 percent to an impressive 39 percent. In terms of economic impact, consumer expenditures on road trip travel increased from $66.6 billion in 2015 to $113.7 billion in 2016. Boomers are leading the growth of road trips with 42 percent of vacations taken as road trips compared to Millennial road trip vacations, which only constitute 36 percent.

The primary motivations are mostly convenience and flexibility rather than lower overall vacation costs, and excitement and surprise play a big role in selecting a road trip over other vacation types. The growth of road trips goes well beyond an attachment to the past with only 18 percent of road trippers citing nostalgia as a reason travelers choose this vacation style.

Vacations focused on a single destination or activity arent as appealing to roadtrippers, said Steve Cohen, vice president of insights at MMGY Global. One of the reasons road trips are so appealing to these travelers is their ability to make multiple stops to experience a wider variety of vacation activities and attractions, especially ones that are uniquely local. Destinations that effectively communicate their authentic, unique offerings will go a long way toward attracting more roadtrippers.

With almost half of American vacationers as roadtrippers, the study also recognizes that it is too difficult and expensive to market to these travelers as one large monolithic group. Microsegmentation is essential for any travel marketer to attract the most relevant and profitable slice of this market for their businesses. MMGY Global analyzed roadtrippers and developed the following roadtripper microsegments:

  • The Griswolds – Distinctive, younger, and less affluent microsegment of travelers. With an average age of 37, they are the second youngest among the road tripper microsegments – 57 percent are Millennials and 43 percent are Xers. The have discretionary income and want to invest it in life experiences rather than belongings.
  • Well-to-Gos – With an average age of 42 and average annual household income of $217,000, Well-to-Gos are the highest earning group among the road tripper microsegments.
  • Retired-on-Tires – Made up of Boomer or Mature road trippers who are married or living together, retired, and dont have children 17 or under living at home.
  • Freewheelers – The youngest of the road tripper microsegments with an average age of 36, these are  Millennials and Xers without children that find hiking, biking, and other outdoor adventures desirable on vacation.

Tour of Northern Canada

Canada is a place of poutine and hockey, maple syrup and epic ski runs, and in recent years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There’s the foodie haven of Montreal, which brought us Cirque du Soleil and Celine Dion, and the cosmopolitan and culturally diverse city of Toronto, which consistently lands itself a spot on annual where-to-go-now lists. Canada has the Calgary Stampede, the otherworldly natural beauty of Banff National Park and Alberta’s quiet and pristine countryside, Whistler’s winter wonderland, and Vancouver, where it’s entirely possible to try a new local beer and/or a plate of just-as-authentic-as-the-real-thing Asian cuisine every day of the year. In short, from east to west, Canada has it all.

But little is known of its northern reaches. What lies above or beyond the invisible line that divides “accessible” Canada from the provinces that account for nearly half of the country’s total land mass? It’s a rarely explored place, much of which resides beyond the 60th parallel and thus inside the Arctic Circle, and it is home to the Inuit people, the first inhabitants to settle Arctic Canada. And in places, it’s also incredibly progressive despite its remoteness. There’s a movement of local chefs who are forgoing lucrative opportunities in larger cities and returning to their hometowns to pay homage to the land that raised them. There’s a burgeoning culinary scene with chefs who are redefining the notion of farm to table, or in some cases, sea to plate, and there’s a bounty of new craft breweries and distilleries that could rival its more southerly neighbors.

There are ways to get there on your own, but small airports with shortened landing strips and an inaccessibility to good WiFi make the trip difficult. Luckily, Edible Canada, a Vancouver-based company that, among other things, curate’s food-focused trips with a mission to shine a spotlight on Canadian cuisine, recently launched a truly once-in-a-lifetime trip that no one else is doing. They’re taking guests across the top of Canada in a private 737 with some of the country’s most decorated chefs on board. On land, the chefs pair with members of the community, fishing, foraging, and hunting to highlight the bounty of the local land in unforgettable dinners along the way.

Here, a virtual tour across the towns that define Arctic Canada, from polar bears and gold rushes to foraging and five-star restaurants—a glimpse into the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Whitehorse
This rough ’n’ tumble city with a population hovering somewhere around 30,000 is the capital city (and, well, the only city) of the Yukon Territories. It’s your first stop out of Vancouver, and at this point you’re already far enough north that you’d need to head due west if you wanted to drive to Alaska. Its central location at the crossroads of two of the Yukon’s major roads, the Alaska and the Klondike, makes it the perfect jumping off point to explore the area’s natural bounty.

The town’s history starts where a lot of towns in this area start: gold. In the late 1800s, thousands of prospectors packed their supplies and headed north on what was to become known as the Klondike Gold Rush, searching for a better life by way of little yellow nuggets in and around the Klondike River. Nowadays, it’s not the prospect of gold that brings people to the Yukon, but rather the memory of it. Tourism is one of the city’s largest industries, and what once served as the source of fortune, the mineral-rich land, is now the source of some of the freshest ingredients in the world—arctic char, a staple you’ll hear a lot about in these parts, as well as wild boar, elk, and whitefish, and from the Boreal Forest, wild berries, morels, and birch syrup.

Yellowknife
Untamed and raw, if the frontier spirit is still alive, you can feel it in Yellowknife. The city, tiny compared to others but large—as in 50 percent of the Northwest Territories’ population lives here—by Arctic Canada standards, is just a blip, a tiny speck among acres and acres of pristine wilderness and water. Yellowknife sits on the banks of Great Slave Lake, an incomprehensibly large mass of water that measures as the 10th largest lake in the world—the world, a big category.

This town once full of eager trappers and traders, miners, and fishermen still retains an entrepreneurial, live-off-the-land spirit. You can see it in Old Town, a section of Yellowknife where tax-free houseboats meet up with an eclectic tangle of wooden shacks and log cabins. In them, a handful of creatives have chosen to practice their craft in this sub-arctic capital city—like Down to Earth Gallery, an artist-run shop that hawks only Northwest Territories art—and chefs are changing Yellowknife’s culinary landscape for the better—like Chef Robin Wasicuna of Twin Pine Diner fame, whose list of accomplishments include feeding now–Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and enjoying a run on Chopped Canada.

And you can see it in the nightlife, a surprisingly diverse and active crowd for its northern locale and population of roughly 20,000, depending on the time of year. The reason is that many young professionals are drawn to the area, seeking out big seasonal money in the public-sector industry, gigs with wilderness outfitters, or just the thrill of living in the Arctic. It’s a city for 20- and 30-somethings who come seeking adventure, just like during the Gold Rush.

Churchill
Churchill is a quiet little town on the southwest shores of Hudson Bay in Canada’s Manitoba province. In fact there are no roads that lead in and out, meaning the only way to get here is via plane, train, or snowmobile. Upon arrival, every brochure and signage reads, “The Polar Bear Capital of the World.” And it is. You can see them here come October and November—it’s widely claimed that during peak season there are more polar bears in and around Churchill than there are residents—cruising the frozen tundra and starting their hunt on the icy sheets of Hudson Bay. But what you shouldn’t overlook is the scores of other things you can do here during various parts of the year.

In the summer months of July and August, the world’s largest population of beluga whales descend on the estuaries of Churchill River eager for warmer waters, with their young gray calves in tow. These magnificent creatures outnumber the local population by nearly three times, marking the second time annually when humans become the minority in these parts. And during the off-season, January to March, clear nights bring a magnificent dance of the Aurora Borealis.

Iqaluit
So you’ve never heard of Nunavut? Or Iqaluit? You have company, and there’s good reason. It might as well be a different country up there. Iqaluit is the capital of Nunavut, the largest Canadian province—by large, I mean that it’s massive, with nearly 800,000 square miles of land, which is 200,000 more than Quebec, the second largest, and around 100,000 more than the entire country of Mexico—and it accounts for the vast majority of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. And it’s remote. Only 35,000 people call this entire province home. If you were to draw a line due west from Iqaluit until you reached the Northwest Territories, you’d cross more than 1,000 miles of land and water, and not a single road. In short, it’s vast and remote.

Further hammering home the different country vibe is the fact that most signs are written in Inuktitut, the language of the local Inuit people, and you’ll hear it used in town. Traditionally, Iqaluit was a fishing village, settled by the Inuit for thousands of years now. The name means “place of many fish” in Inuktitut. The landscape is dusty and desolate tundra, a terrain so stark and unsettling in its beauty. It’s a landscape that many are drawn to; in fact, Iqaluit is growing. Nowadays it’s a delightful mix of Inuits whose ancestors have lived here for generations, of expats drawn to the high-paying and adventuresome work, and artists, writers, and makers who come to take part in the city’s thriving arts community. To eat local, you must revisit the land. The traditional Inuit cuisine is made up of a mix of marine mammals, like seal and whale, and land-based animals, like caribou, muskox, and birds, as well as elements foraged from the land during the summer months of thaw.

St. John’s
Ahh, Newfoundland and Labrador—this place steals hearts. The province’s capital and North America’s oldest city, St. John’s sits curtained by the steep slopes of St. John’s Harbor. The hillside streets are a virtual candy shop, lined with houses in all the colors of a Skittles bag. There are two theories as to why this is. First, that sailors coming in off a long haul on the water needed help finding their front doors through the fog and the haze of one too many cocktails. Secondly, that boat paint was cheaper and more durable than house paint, and boat paint comes in more vibrant colors. Either way, the distinctive vibrancy of the city lends a character all its own.

The seafaring town’s history lies in salt cod, but recent years have brought the excitement onshore. Nowadays it’s quite the cosmopolitan city with world-class restaurants, a burgeoning craft brewery scene, and an eager community of artists and musicians. But even then, it’s a relaxed pace in these parts. Fisherman dock up in the afternoon bringing in the day’s haul, locals gather for a pint at pubs along Water Street, and young chefs are returning to their hometown, shopping from the land around them and bringing culinary fame to the ingredients they first got to know as children.