2014 in Travel

Two-thousand fourteen was not my most travely year, but it was a good one. I kicked off 2014 in Panama, having just celebrated NYE with a transit through the Panama Canal and a cruise ship celebration. Winter and spring saw me toiling through my teaching credential classes at Stanford and student teaching. Summer featured two separate US/Canada cruises on separate coasts, both planned almost on a whim (at least for me), separated by a trip to Boston for reading workshop training. In the fall I began teaching full time (with the one travel highlight of chaperoning a trip to Yosemite). I spent winter break relaxing, with a New Year’s trip to Death Valley that featured all of us in bed by 10.

Bar Harbor, ME, July '14

Bar Harbor, ME, July ’14

So, for 2014…

  • New countries: 2 (Panama, Colombia, on Jan 1 and 2)
  • New Canadian provinces: 2 (Quebec, Prince Edward Island)
  • Places revisited: Las Vegas; Alaska; Victoria, BC; Boston; Bar Harbor, ME; Nova Scotia; Yosemite; Death Valley

Upcoming travel in 2015…

  • Iceland with the fam during Presidents’ Week (is that how you punctuate that?). Northern Lights will be sought and jackets will be worn.
  • Sweden in July with Claire. A trip we’ve been talking about since 2008 is finally happening. Much ABBA and lingonberries planned.
  • Balkan trip with the fam in July, featuring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia.
  • Somewhere in Central Europe TBD for a few extra days.
  • Hopefully NY in Aug for a professional development course.
  • Whatever else comes my way!

Small Group Travel

I recently returned from a 19-day trip to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia with my family. Seem like an ambitious itinerary for such a brief period? It is, and it’s something that would be very difficult, and probably logistically and financially unfeasible, without some overseeing tour operator.

On this trip, we traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), a company that orchestrates small-group tours (no more than perhaps 16 people) on dozens of itineraries around the world. It’s more reasonably priced than some other such tour providers, and although it caters to a 55+ audience, tours are quite active.

As a family, we’ve done group overland tours before–student EF trips when I was middle-school aged, and one trip with Trafalgar. Those tours all featured larger groups–maybe 40 people, plus or minus–and in the case of EF at least, was much lower budget (with meals and hotels most especially reflecting that). As a family in the last few years, most of our travels have been cruises, to both conventional and more exotic destinations. And of course, with friends and with family I’ve also traveled plenty on my own–the most ambitious such trip being the 10 days I planned navigating Turkey with friends.

So, is a pros and cons list in order? I think it might be, as applies to my personal experiences.

Continue reading

Scenery in Madeira

Part 6 in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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Of course I had heard of the fortified wine that Madeira is known for, but that was about the limit before I visited the island as the penultimate stop on my recent Mediterranean cruise.

An autonomous part of Portugal, Madeira is actually an archipelago lying fairly remotely in the Atlantic, closer to Africa than it is to Europe, the continent to which it culturally belongs. Today, Madeira’s principal island, lying atop a massive volcano, is a haven for primarily European vacationers and, of course, cruisers.

Our ship docked in Funchal, the island’s major port city and soon set off on a private tour with a few other shipmates. Although it is an island resort, it is the mountain scenery, rocky coastlines and rich vegetation that Madeira travelers love best, perhaps more so than the beaches. So gorgeous sights were the order of the day—our guide had lived on the islands for decades and expertly plied the winding roads to show us the best of the island’s west side. Continue reading

Gran Canaria Sights

Part 5 in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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There’s no consensus on why the Canary Islands are so called: perhaps it’s because of the dogs that roamed the island (Latin canus), the name could have derived from a Berber tribe with a similar name who settled there, or perhaps the island took its name from the eponymous birds—though more likely the relationship developed the other way around.

For its part, Las Islas Canarias have embraced the canine explanation most enthusiastically, and on our visit to Gran Canaria, one of the biggest of the province of Spanish islands, we couldn’t go far before encountering yet another of the dog statues that litter the town.

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the island’s capital, a fair-sized city of several hundred thousand people that feels more like any other city in Spain than a resort town. Continue reading

Goats and Donkeys in Taroudant, Morocco

Part 4 in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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Our cruise ship’s second port in Morocco was in seaside resort town Agadir—one of the country’s newest and poshest spots. We saw just a little of the town before driving off on another private van tour, this time to old Taroudant, commonly dubbed the “grandmother of Marrakesh.”

Taroudant is known for it’s stately mud walls, which appear more red, gold or brown depending on the light. The ramparts were built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for defense, but today do more to draw tourists in than keep invaders out. As our guide wound us through stalls selling brightly colored produce and spices past men and women wearing traditional robs, it felt like we had stepped into a different time—except for the occasional car or motorcycle.

We stopped by a women’s co-operative selling house-made creams, oils and cosmetic products. Argan oil is the local specialty—used for everything from cooking to moisturizing—and is traditionally produced by rural Berber women or in co-ops. Only in the last couple of years has argan oil gone from being a local secret to a major export, touted as a miracle beauty cure-all.

Other highlights of the day included a wacky donkey ride full of questions into my marital status, a delicious lunch of couscous and almost missing the boat’s departure time.

But perhaps the best part of the day was the tree-climbing goats, a local bizarrity. Yes, the goats have become primarily a tourist attraction, as buses will stop beside the road so travelers can take pictures of the climbing goats—and give a tip to the goat herders of course—but it was still a fun stop. Baby goats were also foisted on us to hold for photo ops—an honor which my mother, at least, felt compelled to accept.

Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca

Part 3 in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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Confession: I had never seen that venerable classic “Casablanca” until the week before I departed for the trip that included a visit there. Today, Casablanca is Morocco’s commercial hub, and with few tourist sites it courts business more than travelers.

In fact, tourism is focused mainly on one spot: the massive, recently-built Hassan II Mosque. We visited Casablanca via a private van tour, booked with six other passengers whom we “met” on the cruising resource CruiseCritic.com, and it was only fitting that our first stop was to the Mosque.

Hassan II Mosque

Hassan II Mosque

Although every bit of guide information I had seen referenced the Mosque as enormous, imposing, colossal or the like, I truly was not expecting the mosque to be quite as large as it indeed was. Begun in the 1980s, explicitly to provide Casablanca with a grand, worthy monument. The mosque lies just beside the sea, and is the world’s third largest—accommodating tens of thousands of worshippers at a time. The only way to see the mosque is through a great guided tour, which takes visitors through all the mosque’s public spaces. Although the mosque was certainly impressive to see, and the highlight of the day, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something missing in knowing that the mosque was built thanks to modern machinery and technology within just my lifetime.

Next we were on to Place Mohammed V, with its classic art deco architecture, featuring large public buildings set around an open square, with wide boulevards shooting off in all directions. A pro-Palestinian demonstration was underway a couple blocks from the square, which made a few members of our group antsy, but we simply avoided it and had no problems. Another tour bus from our ship was less lucky, we later heard: a driver took a wrong turn into the blocked-off street, and the bus full of American cruise passengers was set upon by tomato-throwing protesters. Continue reading