Tag Archives: adventure

a rafting tour boat on the Petrohue River of Chile with snowcapped mountains in background

Sporty Adventures: WOW Trip Reviews

More and more travelers are discovering the joy of experiencing a new place from the seat of a bicycle (or e-bike), the single-track of a hiking trail, or atop a horse, camel, or ATV. Count on our Trusted Travel Experts to add anything from some gentle countryside ambles to an adrenaline-stoking zip line into your next trip. Here’s what it means to get a WOW trip.


Switzerland: skiing, via ferrata in a gorge…

Traveler Wendy Mueller and son Evan riding the gondola with the Matterhorn in the background on the Swiss Side of Zermatt, Switzerland.

Wendy Mueller and son Evan riding the gondola on the Swiss side of Zermatt, with the Matterhorn in the background.

“I took my son (age 19) to Zermatt for a ski trip the first week of March. I wanted a special mom-and-son trip. I reached out to WendyPerrin.com for a referral to help and was connected with Nina and Simon. They took my wishes and planned an EPIC trip for me. The accommodations were amazing, the ski guide was so good I booked him an additional day, and they added to the itinerary a gorge trip and a special nighttime fondue and another evening tapas tour.

What made it more spectacular were the guides hired. We are very accomplished skiers in the U.S., living in Colorado and Tahoe. We knew Zermatt was a little more complicated of a mountain, with the lifts and the Swiss and Italian sides. They recommended a ski guide, and we are so very happy they did! Made the skiing more efficient and fun! One of the more memorable moments was a walk down into town from the evening fondue, and as we passed through one of the small hamlets, a small white one-room church—like the kind in old western towns—was lit, and our guide noticed my interest so he went over to see if it was open. It was and I was able to make a small donation in the box and light a candle and have a prayer of gratitude. I will remember this forever.

I rarely use travel services, as I do travel a lot and am comfortable booking on my own. However I wanted to have a bonding experience with my son and be stress-free. I feel more connected to my son, as we did activities together without worry. I would definitely recommend Nina and Simon when you want to be taken care of and have special moments. The guides were in direct contact with them, and it appeared to me the relationships are deep and very positive. We were the beneficiaries of those relationships for truly one-of-a-kind experiences.” —Wendy Mueller

Read more reviews of Switzerland trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Norway: dogsledding, ice fishing, snowmobiling…

Traveler Jim Braun running his team of dogs in Alta, Norway.

Jim Braun running his team of dogs in Alta, Norway. Photo: Traveler Kathye Faries

“Seeing the Aurora Borealis has been on my bucket list for ages and it was time to make it happen! With Wendy’s help we were connected with Torunn, who planned a terrific 10-day adventure for us in northern Norway in February, 2024. I worked with Karin Andresen on many of the details and Karin did a wonderful job too. My focus was seeing the lights (we saw them twice, yippee!), but the entire trip turned out to be way better than we expected due to the fun activities Torunn and Karin planned for us.

We started in Alta, well north of the Arctic Circle, and stayed at a great property outside of the town in a beautiful setting on the banks of a frozen river. We went snowshoeing (easier than I thought it would be) and ice fishing with Kelle of Glod Explorer, and his husky Bruno. Jim caught an Arctic Char so our lunch was as fresh is it could get! Sitting in a lavvu, around a fire, sipping hot chocolate and eating fresh-caught fish was a real treat. We also took a snowmobile ride at night at Bjornfjeld Mountain Lodge. We were cozy in a beautiful mountaintop glass igloo, cooked our dinner over a fire and looked for the lights. On our last day in Alta we spent several hours dog sledding in the beautiful Finnmark forest and on frozen lakes, which was one of the highlights of the trip. Our guide, Hannah, ran the Iditarod two years ago and was so expert on the trails. We loved our day with her and her dog teams.

While en route to our next destination (we saw moose, reindeer and foxes along the way), we had lunch with Johan, a Sami elder, in the village of Maze. His family has raised and herded reindeer for generations and his sons are poised to take care of the business someday. We learned so much from him about his profession, about the Sami, and got to meet some of his reindeer. Fascinating.

In Karasjok we stayed at one of the most unique, exceptional small properties we’ve ever seen. Every cabin and all of the furniture in each of the 7 cabins has been built by hand from natural materials. This place is a hidden gem, set in the forest and truly magical. On property were 45 Alaskan Huskies who were very friendly and loved “cuddles” from everyone. One of our days was spent with Magrit, a Sami woman who has spent her entire life raising and herding reindeer. We went with her by snowmobile, up high in the mountains, to see and feed some of her family’s herd. We spent time in the forest around a warm fire and she shared stories with us about her life. On our last day there, I went dog sledding with the Alaskan Huskies—it was an exciting ride where the dogs broke a new trail in deep, newly fallen snow on the frozen lake. It was a wonderful experience I will never forget.

The last few days of the trip were spent in Oslo where our expert guide took us to the Nobel Peace Prize Museum (very, very moving), and the National Museum (which houses Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”). We saw several contemporary buildings—the Library and the Opera House—watched some young men run from the sauna and jump into the 32-degree water of the harbor (yikes!); and toured the Vigeland Sculpture Park.

The Aurora was as wondrous as I expected and we were so lucky to see it. Northern Norway is a beautiful part of the world with clean water, clean air, warm and friendly people and so accessible to the outdoors. When we asked local guides (who grew up in Alta and Karasjok) if they ever wanted to move away, their answer was NO!!!! We could understand why.

The trip was so smooth due to Torunn and Karin’s expertise. Prior to and during the trip we made a few itinerary adjustments and all went perfectly. All of the guides and ground transportation services were there when and where they were supposed to be, and the outfitters and lodging choices were a great fit for us. We are so glad we saw the lights but we are also so appreciative of the adventures we experienced on this wonderful, enchanting trip.” —Kathye Faries

Read more reviews of Norway trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Peru: hiking, whitewater rafting, piranha fishing, jungle canopy walks…

The view of the Sacred Valley in Peru.

The Sacred Valley in Peru. Photo: Shutterstock

“My granddaughter and I just returned from our latest adventure, this time in Peru. This was our third New Year’s adventure organized by Allie, our other two experiences being the Galapagos Islands and Santiago/Easter Island, Chile. This trip’s primary objective was the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. We had a great 11 days.

Our base in the Sacred Valley was the Sol y Luna Hotel. Could not have asked for better accommodations. We visited many Inca sites. We also had a day of whitewater rafting. The Urubamba market is open twice a week, so we took the opportunity to shop with the locals. Being the new year, the flowers were aplenty, yellow, a color of note to the Peruvians at New Year. The highlight of the trip was Machu Picchu citadel. Pictures do not do it justice. The vastness of the site in the clouds and the river far below. It was beautiful!

On New Year’s Eve we had good intentions on staying up to ring in the new year, but Allie had other plans, gratefully and thankfully. The next morning we returned very early to the citadel. Allie was able to obtain tickets for Huayna Picchu. Tickets are in a limited number. We were very fortunate, as many people are disappointed when they find out tickets are not available. Allie had procured ours well in advance. My granddaughter climbed Huayna Picchu, also known as ‘the stairs of death,’ an experience she will never forget.

We returned to Cusco for a day, then it was off to the Amazon. Our flight was followed by a 45-minute powered canoe ride to the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica, an eco lodge and our home for the next three days. We had a riverside cabana on the Madre del Dias River. In the mornings, we could hear howler monkeys and other unknown critters. It was the rainy season, so we had rain and thunderstorms daily. The weather did not hamper our activities, actually the weather was part of the experience. Although we had a twilight boat excursion and jungle canopy walks, our highlight was fishing on Lake Valencia. We went piranha fishing, followed by a shore lunch.

Unfortunately, our time had run out, we had to get back to the States. I said earlier that this was our third New Year’s adventure organized by Allie, which was my favorite. All were unique, different experiences and introduced us to some great people.” —Jim Stock

Read more reviews of Peru trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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New Zealand: kayaking, hiking, off-roading…

Traveler kayaking on the Ahuriri River, new Zealand.

Kayaking on the Ahuriri River.

“Our 21-year-old son was studying in Australia. He was going to wrap up his trip in New Zealand. The idea came to us to make it a family holiday and meet him over there. The stars aligned and all schedules allowed it to happen. First off, Jean-Michel responded to our email inquiry immediately, and we were chatting with him 10 minutes later. We tossed ideas around and he assured us we could cover a lot of ground in the 8 days we had.

We saw a lot of the South Island by helicopter, we hiked, we kayaked, went to a mountaintop whisky bar and hot tub, went off-roading, drank lots of wonderful NZ wine and cheese. Our accommodations were fantastic. We have traveled the world, and Jean-Michel and his team are probably the best trip planners we have used to date.” —Susan and Blake Hancock

Read more reviews of New Zealand trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Oman and Jordan: biking, dune bashing, via ferrata…

Our travelers, Amy Evers and her husband atop a rock arch in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

Amy Evers and her husband atop a rock arch in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

“Our trip to Oman and Jordan October 14th- Nov. 1st, 2023, was extraordinary! Even with the slight unease regarding the war, while in Oman and Jordan, all was well and safe. There did seem to be some extra military presence in Amman but that didn’t interfere with our trip. We are very happy we did not cancel!

Out trip planner, Daniel, did a wonderful job talking through everything with us ahead of time. He was honest about his thoughts about things that are worth it and that aren’t. Some of the highlights of our trip were:

Oman: Eating and drinking dates and Omani coffee with locals, dinner with a local family in Muscat, learning about the culture, talking with a local at the Grand Mosque to learn more about Islam, swimming and exploring Wadi Shaab and Wadi Bani Khalid, dune bashing in Wahiba Sands, the via ferrata course in Jebel Akhdar, biking down the mountains in Jabel Shams, the random barber shop experience for my husband to get his beard trimmed (hilarious and wonderful cultural experience), and the balcony hike in Jebel Shams.

Jordan: Petra during the day/night and the back door hike in, SCUBA diving the wreck in the Red Sea (not organized by Dan), ‘soft’ canyoning in Wadi Al Mujib, floating in the Dead Sea (so unique and funny!), and discussions about current issues with our guide.

I feel very lucky to have experienced this trip, especially in today’s political climate. It is always good to learn more, have more awareness and to become better global citizens. Thank you!” —Amy Evers

Read more reviews of Oman and Jordan trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Southern Africa: fishing on Lake Kariba, hiking Namibia’s sand dunes…

Travelers swimming in the Devil's Pool at the top of Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe

Karen Lindfors and Patrick Moore brave the Devil’s Pool at the top of Victoria Falls.

“We had a marvelous, perfectly planned trip to Zimbabwe and Namibia in September. Katie on Cherri’s team designed an itinerary that was varied and had an optimal blend of animal safaris, cultural content, adventure activities and jaw-dropping landscapes. We began our trip with one day in Johannesburg, which we spent in Soweto with a fascinating photojournalist who seemed to know everyone in Kliptown. Following our tour he sent us all of the photos he took during our day with him. Unfortunately, we were there on a day when the Apartheid Museum was closed so we weren’t able to visit.

From Johannesburg we flew to Zimbabwe and stayed at three different safari camps. The first was on the Zambezi River, the highlight of which was a canoe trip on the river amongst the hippos and crocodiles. Our second stop was the stunning Bumi Hills Hotel on the shores of Lake Kariba. There we enjoyed traveling to a local village and visiting an African Bush Camp Foundation school. Other highlights were fishing on the lake, where we caught about 50 bream in a couple of short hours, and a wonderful sunset cruise.

Our third camp in Hwange National Park was in the classic African savannah. 50,000 elephants live there and we marveled at their fascinating behavior at the camp and park-maintained watering holes. We saw many lions up close and even a leopard on multiple occasions. Our sundowners (those gin and tonics were something else we loved) were generally in open areas where we could see herds of animals traversing to the watering holes for their own evening drinks. It was nature on full display.

After our three safari camps we spent a night in Victoria Falls and, at Katie’s suggestion, braved a heart-pounding swim in the Devil’s Pool at the top of Victoria Falls. After a helicopter ride over the Falls, it was on to Namibia and its stunning Sand Sea. The desert was mesmerizing and a photographer’s dream. We drove through the dunes, hiked on them and even took a balloon ride over the desert landscape. Throughout the trip we had fabulous guides who shared so much knowledge with us, both regarding the natural world and all of its creatures, and also their personal stories as well as the history and politics of their nations. The camps were lovely with such hospitable staff members who truly made us feel like welcomed friends. For the first time ever on the last day of a trip, my husband said he wished he could stay longer!” —Karen Lindfors

Read more reviews of Southern Africa trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Switzerland: hiking in the Alps, kayaking…

Wengen village with the Swiss Alps in the background.

Wengen village with the Swiss Alps in the background. Photo: Shutterstock

“We just returned from two magnificent weeks in Switzerland, all planned by Ana on Nina’s team. Switzerland is more beautiful than we even imagined. The amazing itinerary that Ana planned allowed us to do and see so much….and yet we felt relaxed and had time to enjoy everything. Our main goal was to hike in the Alps, but we also wanted to experience the cities, towns and beauty of Switzerland.

We went to Zurich, Zermatt, Kandersteg, Interlaken, Wengen/Lauterbrunnen Valley, Bern and Lucerne. Ana arranged all our wonderful drivers, tour guides and special tours. We covered so much ground and had so many incredible experiences like kayaking on Lake Brienz, a tour of a cheese dairy farm, learning about watch making and a delicious chocolate tasting!

We hiked a total of 8 days of our 14 days, and each hike was better than the next. Hiking in the Alps is truly incredible. Ana even provided hiking trail suggestions for each day. Even though our main goal for the trip was to hike the Alps, we experienced so much more of Switzerland. We are forever grateful.” —Susan and Josh Wieder

Read more reviews of Switzerland trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Costa Rica: surfing, rafting, rappelling down waterfalls…

Rio Celeste Waterfall photographed in Costa Rica

Rio Celeste Waterfall, Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock

“My family of five spent 10 days in Costa Rica at the end of August 2023. Our trip was planned by Irene (and her team) who lives locally in the region. Our trip was an amazing, wonderful family event that we’ll remember for a lifetime. Our family includes three teenage children, so we were looking for adventure. Irene delivered.

We spent 5 days in La Fortuna, residing at the Nayara Tented Camp, in a family tent that easily accommodated the five of us comfortably (no bed sharing for the kids!). The hotel was absolutely magical, and we want to go back. We did a chocolate workshop at Two Little Monkeys, which was a highlight for us, and well worth the drive out of town. Irene organized our excursions to the Hanging Bridges, the zip lines that rip down a mountain, and a canyoning tour that had us rappelling down waterfalls. All were amazing, with the rappelling being the family’s collective favorite. We also had a dedicated driver and larger van that accompanied us for our entire chapter in Arenal (hola Jonathan!), which we highly recommend.

We hopped a short flight and spent the last 5 days in the Manuel Antonio region. The hotel, Arenas del Mar, had a fantastic beach and wonderful restaurant. The wildlife was very active, including the white-faced monkeys that were a permanent fixture on the hotel grounds. For adventure, we got to paddle class III and IV rapids and we had a epic day surfing.

We will partner with Wendy Perrin/Irene Edwards for any future trip to Costa Rica (we will be back). And given the strength of our experience with our Costa Rica adventure, we will certainly turn to Wendy Perrin to help us explore other parts of the world.” —Jason Grapski

Read more reviews of Costa Rica trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Iceland: exploring an ice cave, kayaking a glacial lagoon…

Foggy day on an ice cave tour in Iceland

Barbara Fierman, her husband, and their grandsons geared up to explore an ice cave.

“The timing, both time of year and number of days, was perfect for a trip with our two 14-year-old grandsons. We knew that the boys would love adventure and Chris provided ample opportunity for that. We explored caves, a geyser, and many waterfalls, hiked in national parks and in an ice cave, and kayaked at sunset through a glacial lagoon.

Most visitors to Iceland have opportunities to soak in thermal baths, such as the famous Blue Lagoon. But I doubt if many get to hike to a heated river, where the guide blocks the water flow, thereby creating a pool for private soaking, and cooks your meal over the heated rocks. Chris provided top-notch guides and special, unusual experiences.” —Barbara Fierman

Read more reviews of Iceland trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Peru: hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Wiñaywayna ruins along Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

It is magical to approach the ruins of Machu Picchu on foot via the Inca Trail. Photo: Southwind Adventures

“My wife, kids (10 and 12 years old) and I had a fantastic trip to Peru, hiking four days on the Inca Trail, visiting Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Cusco and Paracas. Wendy put us in touch with Tom, who created a great itinerary, got us lined up with superb guides, and made it so that all went seamlessly.

We were blown away by all that we learned about and saw of the Inca civilization. Their growth and all they accomplished in only a hundred years still has me dumbfounded. Visiting the Sacred Valley, which is in the Cusco region, was a great way to start. The Inca architecture, engineering, farming, food storage, religion, social systems, political systems, communication systems, and on and on…. Every bit of it was jaw-dropping and fascinating.

But for me, what heightened the impact was four days hiking and camping on the Inca Trail. Akin to taking a Nile cruise to see sights that would otherwise be inaccessible, hiking from the sacred valley to Machu Picchu gave us the chance to see not just individual, hard-to-access sites, but even better, to see the connections between them all and get a sense of how the Incas knit it all together—areas with different climates, environments, agriculture, foods, etc. Walking the centuries-old trail and encountering still-standing aqueducts, temples, waystations, and granaries along the way had a profound impact that I do not think would have hit us had we only hopped from site to site by train or car.

Aside from the Inca ruins we saw along the way, the natural beauty was almost overwhelming. Every step through the Andes was breathtaking. Any vantage point on the trail ,whether verdant or dry, could almost move you to tears, it was so gorgeous.

When we got to Machu Picchu late the fourth day… what a reward. Everyone has seen pictures, but to pass through the Gateway of the Sun and see the complex surrounded, even dwarfed, by the dramatic topography around it, well, it leaves me without words just thinking about it.

During the whole trip, the staff was 100% there to help and make sure all went well. For example, I would have expected the drivers to simply do their job and drive, but they went the extra step. They knew all the roads and shortcuts, but also made sure we were comfortable, well fed, and had snacks and water. Whenever we stopped and got out, each of our drivers kept an eye on the kids to make sure they didn’t head in the wrong direction or get swarmed by street vendors. If one of the kids got bored or tired, they were there to take the child back to the bus to rest. And all of it with kindness.

Big thanks to Wendy and team, our TTE Tom, our guide Ronny, and all the on-the-ground staff who blew our minds.” —John Strachan

Read more reviews of Peru trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Switzerland: hiking, rafting, mountain biking…

Laura Roberts

The Roberts family hiking in Wengen during their WOW Trip to Switzerland. Photo: Traveler Laura Roberts

“We traveled to Switzerland for 16 days with the help of Ana in Nina’s office. I asked a lot of her because we were traveling with our four grown children, our daughter-in-law, and our 10-month-old granddaughter. She did a great job of finding interesting activities that all eight of us could enjoy! We hiked, had a raclette lunch in a candlelight cave, rafted, mountain biked, wine tasted, and much more! We had three major destinations: Zurich, Wengen and Ascona. Wengen was our favorite—beautiful views of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, accessible only by train and no cars in town.

However, the true highlight was in the mountain near Ascona. There was a local alpine festival for the opening of a cattle-grazing area high in the mountains. Ana arranged for us to go by helicopter and see the local traditions—cheese making, eating polenta and alpine horns. We were the only foreigners there, and the people were very welcoming! We loved this trip!!” —Laura Roberts

Read more reviews of Switzerland trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Italy: hiking, fly fishing, test-driving Ferraris…

Panorama of Roman Forum (Foro Romano) in the Morning, Rome, Italy

The Forum, Rome, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“After an initial discussion of objectives, Maria did an excellent job of planning a balanced trip of cultural sightseeing and fun activities inside, outside and on the water. Execution was flawless, and it was huge value having a digital personal itinerary (w/ contacts and maps) and Cristina, our local operations manager, a text away for any last-minute needed changes.

After the overnight flight to Milan, we literally hit the ground hiking from Santa Margherita Ligure to Portofino, keeping our active boys moving while acclimating to the new time zone. Although a little risky with potential jet lag, this was a highlight hiking through the high serene hills for a couple of hours, with only the sounds of birds and a young wild boar and descending upon Portofino on foot. Portofino was a treat and the next full day at sea on a captained 40-foot boat to swim and visit the coastline at our leisure was awesome! Having lunch and snorkeling at San Fruttuoso was fantastic.

Additional memorable experiences included:

  • Visiting the Ferrari museum and test driving Ferraris on the streets of Maranello
  • Touring the Accademia sculptures, the Uffizi and cruising the Arno with a renaioli and our private guide Elvira
  • Leisurely driving through Tuscany with our lively driver Francesco, stopping for a wonderful private tour and lunch at a vineyard with its owner Diana
  • Staying at a palazzo in Montefalco: Maria was right—this is the balcony of Umbria, and the views are unforgettable!
  • Fly fishing (and catching/releasing brown trout!) in tranquil Borgo Cerreto with a very fun guide named Luca
  • Sightseeing through ancient Rome—including the Forum, Colosseum and Vatican museums—with very knowledgeable private guides (Valerie) and no lines!
  • Riding on the back of Vespas, seeing unique neighborhoods and parks in Roma
  • Learning to row a Batela in Venice w/ our own rowing instructor and having cicchetti (appetizers) and wine
  • Touring and climbing to the top of the Clock Tower in Piazza San Marco

Maria chose excellent hotels for our stays, and the rooftop bar lounge and pool in Florence was a great way to end every fun day. We thought having private guides and transportation (car and water) made the trip much more memorable, as we received personal attention/treatment and allowed for personal interaction with locals to better understand the culture and way of life.

South of Rome, Sicily and the Lake region are next!” —Mark Mazzatta

Read more reviews of Italy trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Spain: skateboarding through Barcelona

Sunny day in Barcelona with a view from Park Guell.

View of sunny Barcelona from Park Guell. Photo: Shutterstock

“I recently took my grandson to Barcelona to celebrate his 13th birthday. It was a ton of fun. Pablo and Patricia were so helpful in the planning process. His recommendation for our hotel was great—we had an apartment at the Neri. The street art walk was a highlight. We took a day trip to San Sebastian to explore the Basque country a bit. Gorgeous! My grandson is an avid skateboarder, so he chose Barcelona because it is one of the most skate-friendly cities in the world. He skated all over! A most memorable 10 days!” —Anne Collins

Read more reviews of Spain trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Switzerland: hiking, kayaking, paragliding…

Andy Shafran

Andy Shafran and family spelling OHIO during private kayak trip on Lake Brienz.

“Switzerland was a beautiful country and our active hiking, kayaking, paragliding trip was exactly what we were looking for. We booked a trip with our 18- and 21-year-old children to celebrate graduation and be outdoors as much as possible. Nina and her staff helped us build an itinerary that maximized the experiences and minimized the hassle and travel time. We spent two days in Zurich/Rhine Falls, three days in Grindelwald, and three days in Lucerne. There is so much to do that we felt we could have stayed an extra week just in these three locations.

Our major interest was hiking, and we had a guided tour up Mt. Grindelwald first, which included a gondola ride up and a Trottibike ride down (highly, highly recommended). Then we took the train to the Jungfrau and even though it was pricey for that part of the trip, well worth it for the views and incredible Alpine experience. Thumbs up: Rhine Falls, Trümmelbach Falls, Aare Gorge hike, Lake Brienz kayak trip, and our full-day peak-to-peak hike on Mt. Rigi where we ate lunch at Berghaus Unterstetten on the side of the mountain with incredible views and good food.

All three hotels we stayed in were unique, terrific locations, and have fun quirks, such as the private funicular car that takes you up from Lake Lucerne to the Art Deco Hotel Montana….” —Andy Shafran

Read more reviews of Switzerland trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Morocco: hiking among Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains

Wengen village with the Swiss Alps in the background.

Dades Gorge in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Photo: Shutterstock

“I just came back from 10 days in Morocco. Radia did an excellent job at finding exquisite hotels and providing super guides. Our focus was on hiking in the Middle and High Atlas Mountains. The hiking specialists led us on terrific hikes. In the High Atlas Mountains we hiked from guest house to guest house, through ancient Berber villages and mountain passes. The trip was fascinating, challenging and exhilarating. We also found time to wander the medinas of Fes and Marrakech with local guides. Morocco is an other-worldly experience. I highly recommend a visit here for those curious about non-Western cities or hiking. The people were very kind and welcoming (eg, when hiking through Berber villages we were invited in for dinners and tea by a few local residents). Ten days was not enough to cover all that Morocco offered.”—Robert Berman

Read more reviews of Morocco trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Newfoundland, Canada: hiking, fishing…

Newfoundland scenery

Newfoundland scenery. Photo: Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

Jill organized an eight-day trip for four couples, best friends for the last 30 years. It was a trip full of great adventure, hiking, fishing, good food, and fantastic people. In Cape Breton our local guide caught our vibe from the minute she met us and took us to her own town’s annual fair. She introduced us to some of the families there, and we instantly felt the warmth and kindness—we didn’t want to leave!

In Newfoundland, we stayed in Woody Point in Gros Morne National Park. The townspeople were, again, warm and welcoming (a common characteristic in this part of Canada). The local pub, The Merchant Warehouse, had great food, and the owner’s daughter plays her guitar and sings up a storm (don’t miss it). We had our screech-in there as well with the incomparable Aunt Sophie!!! The hikes were unrivalled; accurately marked and well-kept, the unique landscapes and terrain were breathtaking. We will be back to conquer Gros Morne itself!

Finally, we ended our vacation in Corner Brook at the beautiful Hew & Draw Hotel. The highlight here was our time with Darren, who took us out in his dory to his cabin on the water for a dinner of mussels and cod, with an evening tour of the surrounding region by boat. His mom had even baked us an apple pie! The stories he told us of his family and the region were again just part of the local hospitality. We have traveled to many places in the world, and the Canadian Maritimes is indeed a treasure.” —Barbara Palter

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Baja, Mexico: scuba, surfing, horseback riding, zip lines…

Sea lions swimming and playing, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Sea lions swimming in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Photo: Shutterstock

“Baja CA is such an easy destination to get to from Southern CA, so when Zach and his team suggested a Thanksgiving trip for my family of 4, including 2 teen daughters, we jumped on it as we have not explored the other parts of Baja beyond Los Cabos. As up-and-coming areas, we saw the charm of Todos Santos town, hiked along the hills above the ocean and had surf lessons at Los Cerritos.

Next up was La Paz, which has potential to become a wonderful destination, as there are plenty of adventure activities to choose from. We had a few travel hiccups the first few days in Todos Santos and La Paz, but Zach’s travel team of Jose & Amalia worked to make it the best they possibly could. One of our main goals for this trip was to swim with the whale sharks in La Paz, which normally have a very dependable arrival in early November. However they decided not to show up in their regular numbers, so no one could get permits to swim with them in La Paz bay. This was a major disappointment but we had back-up activities planned and ideas ready, which is a useful travel tip for those “planning” on unpredictable animal life interactions. You just never know what will happen, so have something else in mind that will satisfy your travel wishes. We instead went on a sunset sandboarding excursion on the oceanfront dunes one late afternoon, and it was beautiful and remote. We also took a full-day boat trip to scuba dive with friendly, juvenile sea lions, took another dive through a shipwreck and then anchored at a remote beach for a wonderful lunch. These were both exciting excursions that filled the void of the whale sharks’ absence, and having Zach’s connections made it all that much easier.

Our last stop was Grand Velas on the Los Cabos corridor. What a property! The rooms, the views, the service, the spa, the food…it was all amazing!  We left the property for a few activities: horseback riding on the beach and in the hills, and a jam-packed adventure up in the mountains with zip lines, rappelling, free-fall jumps, climbing, & polaris vehicle driving; all seamlessly organized by Zach’s team.” —Andrea Phillips

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Belize: hiking, snorkeling, river tubing…

Tiger Fern waterfall in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize.

Tiger Fern waterfall, Belize. Photo: Shutterstock

“We recently returned from an eight-day trip to Belize planned by Patricia and Julianie. We are a family of four with 17 and 21 year olds. We wanted a mix of activities and relaxation.  We wanted to explore Belize but also stay in only one hotel. Snorkeling was our first priority and because we had recently been to Guatemala, seeing Mayan ruins and coffee and chocolate plantations were not important because we did those in Guatemala.

Patricia recommended we stay in the Placencia region at Naia Resort and Spa. It was the perfect location. The rooms are beautiful and well appointed, the staff is very attentive, the beach is very large and the food outstanding. We were able to do both land and water excursions with nothing being more than 45 minutes from Naia. Patricia and Julianie were in constant contact with us during our stay including making some last minute changes to our itinerary due to unexpected rain.  In addition to a private, full day snorkeling excursion, we did a tour of the Monkey River, a hike and river tubing in the Jaguar Preserve, and spent a day with a local Garifuna family. We loved every excursion and only wish we could have stayed a few days longer.” —Randi Maidman

Read more reviews of Belize trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Chile: heli-hiking, whitewater rafting…

Traveler Jeannie hiking in Chile.

Traveler Jeannie hiking in Chile. Photo: Jeannie Mullen

Tom planned a fantastic two-week holiday hiking trip to a part of Chile that I had never been to, the Lake District south of Santiago—an outdoor enthusiast’s playground. Of the many activities offered —hiking, floating, whitewater rafting, cultural visits, among others—I would say that the heli-hiking in Pucon with my guide, Patricio Garrido, who is also a professional photographer, was a standout.

Our pilot, Benjamin, was great fun and anxious to show us private spots, tucked away in the mountains, that had phenomenal views and absolutely no other foot traffic. What a phenomenal experience. It’s like we had the world to ourselves for the day. This was the third time that I have used Tom for trip planning in South America. He chose terrific properties that offered impeccable service and every possible amenity. Vira Vira, an AndBeyond property, was exquisite.” —Jeannie Mullen

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Bali: white-water rafting, hiking…

ubud bali

Ubud, Bali. Photo: Yoan Carle/Flickr

“Having never been to Indonesia before, we told Diane the types of activities we enjoyed and she devised a custom itinerary that suited us perfectly. We spent an exciting day rafting down the Ayung river in Ubud and enjoyed a scenic guided hike to two beautiful waterfalls in the northern part of the island. We also enjoyed a visit to a Balinese farming village where we got to sample Balinese cuisine and meet the lovely Balinese people who call this area their home. A highlight we’ll always remember is the live Balinese music and dancing which were performed for our enjoyment. We were shy, to be honest, at first. But by the end of the performance we actually got up there and played the drums and cymbals! These are the types of experiences that make travel so worthwhile. We’ll never forget it—and we have Diane to thank for that!” —Joe McBrine

Read more reviews of Bali trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Australia: 5K and 10K city runs, snorkeling, spearfishing…

boat sailing in water on Sydney Harbour Australia with famous bridge in background

Sailing on Sydney Harbour. Photo: Tourism Australia

‘Wow’ is not a strong enough word to describe the incredible 19-day journey in Australia we enjoyed, thanks to the wonderful work of Stuart and Jacki. Our primary motivation was to participate in the 10K Sydney Harbour Bridge Run. So our trip started in Sydney at the Pier House, which is just below the south side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which turned out to be a perfect location, near the tourist sites but not in their midst. We then flew to Ayers Rock/Uluru and enjoyed dinner under the stars and the Field of Light show in the desert. Next came Brisbane, Cairns, and the Daintree Rainforest, where we went spearfishing and scalloping on the tidal flats with Brent Walker, a local aborigine, who then took us to his house and cooked the crab he and Susan had speared, as well as the unique flat scallops we had gathered.

The next day we went snorkeling at three sites on the marvelous Great Barrier Reef, which was alive with bright coral and many, many colorful fish. Thoroughly enjoyed the charming crew of the Calypso Blue. We then flew via private four-seater aircraft into the Arnhem Land outback, where we stayed with Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris in quaint cabins and enjoyed seeing aboriginal rock art in its natural state, unmarred by thousands of tourists. What a treat! We also saw an emu with its three babies, wallabies, dingos, and multiple species of exotic birds. We shared tasty meals with other guests, one of whom asked us how we Americans had learned about Davidson’s because few Australians know about it. (We credited Stuart and Jacki.) We finished our trip in Melbourne, where we ran in a 5K race that was part of the Melbourne Marathon Festival. Wendy, Jacki and Stuart, thank you all for our trip of a lifetime!” —John and Susan Mueller

Read more reviews of Australia trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Costa Rica: rappelling, zip lining, boating…

Kayaking in Tortuguero National Park.

Kayaking in Tortuguero National Park. Photo by Sergio Pucci/Courtesy Costa Rica Expeditions.

“We recently returned (July 2022) from an amazing vacation in Costa Rica, which was planned by Priscilla. I traveled with my three adult children (17,19 and 23) and we were looking forward to an out-of-country excursion after staying in the States for an extended period due to Covid.

In my initial phone calls with Priscilla I had mentioned that we wanted to maximize our time in the country (12 days) and visit several different locations. We also love to be active. It was planned to perfection. My only request was to stay at Nayara Tented Camp. Priscilla went out of her way to coordinate the trip around my request. The Tented Camp was wonderful beyond words, it was a nice break of sorts from our busy days and we all loved it, especially the private plunge pool.

We started in Tortuguero, which is a gem on the Caribbean side of the country. We stayed at a river lodge, right in the middle of the rainforest. It was extremely lush and with lots of wildlife sightings. From there we went to Arenal, where we did waterfall rappelling and zip lining. Our rafting was cancelled due to an impending storm. We also did an evening frog tour, which I would highly recommend. Our last stop was the amazingly biodiverse Osa Peninsula, on the Pacific side. We were in awe of all of the wildlife sightings. The mangrove tour was one of the highlights of our trip. We were in the boat for about 4 hours, with constant wildlife sightings. One night we did an evening bug tour, with loads of different bug sightings, another must if you are in the Osa Peninsula. The tours, resorts and activities were planned by Priscilla perfectly.

Priscilla listened to my requests and worked closely with me to coordinate all activities that were suited to our interests. We accomplished our goal of seeing different areas of the country, and getting an amazing introduction to the unbelievable biodiversity of this country. She was a pleasure to work with, extremely responsive, and I would highly recommend her for anyone that is considering a trip to Costa Rica.” —Meg Castineiras

Read more reviews of Costa Rica trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Costa Rica: hiking, canyoning, ATV tour…

Amazing panoramic view of beautiful nature of Costa Rica with smoking volcano Arenal background. Panorama of volcano Arenal reflected on wonderful picturesque lake, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Arenal volcano, Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock

“Our family (husband, wife, and two college-aged daughters) used Priscilla to plan a trip to Costa Rica. We had a balance between fun activities and down time at the beach, which meant that we stayed in two different places. Our first base was the Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa, which boasted large, comfortable rooms with stunning views of the Arenal volcano. From this location, we were able to go canyoning and have several nature hikes with our naturalist, Gustavo. At first I thought that it might be too much of a splurge for us to be accompanied all the time by our own naturalist, but honestly, it was so worth it! He was able to spot sloths (which, obviously, aren’t active enough for us to spot) and so many birds, exotic toucans, even an arboreal snake that we would have simply passed right by without noticing. We thoroughly enjoyed the time we had with him. Our second base was the W Resort at the beach, in first-class accommodations with howler monkeys in the surrounding forest. Every tour arranged by Priscilla was outstanding, from the canyoning to the ATV tour. Gustavo even arranged for us to have a private ATV tour because he saw that the afternoon forecast was looking pretty rainy.” —Claire Leuenberger

Read more reviews of Costa Rica trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Argentina & Chile: hiking in Patagonia

Hiking in Torres del Paine, Patagonia.

Hiking in Torres del Paine, Patagonia. Photo: Explora

“Our trip to Patagonia was incredible. A couple of days in Buenos Aires was a great way to break up the long travel and a treat to explore an interesting, colorful city with our guide, Claudio. Tom’s suggestion to spend four nights on a small ship exploring the glaciers of the Beagle and Drake channel was spot on. We loved adventures in the zodiacs every day, as well as amazing guides and very good food. The highlight of the trip was Torres del Paine. The most beautiful place we’ve ever seen. So glad we stayed at Explora, with the best view in the entire park, fabulous guides to take you hiking, and great food and service!” —Carrie Lazarus

Read more reviews of Argentina and Chile trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Canada: Heli-skiing

Alpine homes at the foot of Whistler Mountain, British Columbia, Canada

Whistler Mountain, British Columbia. Photo: Shutterstock

“This was the most fun vacation we’ve ever had!  We started with a phone conversation with Marc to explain our interest in helicopter skiing, combined with fine dining and luxury accommodations. Our biggest concern was that most heli-ski trips appear to involve staying in remote accommodations for a week with a small group of strangers and a common dining room, but no restaurants or other activities on-property for the bad-weather days. Instead, Marc suggested we stay at Whistler-Blackcomb Village in Canada and utilize the Whistler Heli-Skiing company that leaves daily directly from the Village. The best decision we made was to go with his recommendation.

Marc’s staff arranged private transportation to take us from the airport to Whistler and back, and confirmed (and reconfirmed) dinner reservations every night of our trip at the best restaurants. When one of our scheduled heli-ski days got cancelled due to weather, Marc’s staff immediately rescheduled our day to include spa reservations, to ensure we didn’t miss a beat. It was so nice knowing our trip planner was following up all the way through our trip. There was even a surprise cheese board that arrived in our hotel room shortly after arrival with a special note from our trip planners.” —Rachel Bunton

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Ecuador: Hiking & horseback riding

Horseback riding at Hacienda Cusin, Ecuador

Horseback riding at Hacienda Cusin, Ecuador. Photo: Myths and Mountains

Allie did a great job customizing our Ecuador trip to fit our interests and goals. We started the trip off the beaten path at the Hacienda Zuleta, which was simply fabulous. I love historical inns and, at 400 years old, it hit the mark for me. The hiking and horseback riding were superb, and the staff was incredibly friendly and tried to make everything perfect for the guests. One of my daughters is a skilled rider, and she and her horse guide went out galloping through fields, mountain trails and back roads each day for hours.

The next stop was the Galapagos Islands, which we did via a land-based tour. Again the hotels were unique and charming, with first-rate staff. The wildlife was spectacular, abundant and ruling the land and sea. All of our tours were either private or small-group tours (two families), so we felt our experiences were unique and we were not on a conveyor belt. Everyone we connected with in Ecuador was friendly, interesting and happy to share their paradise with us.” —Stephanie Danforth

Read more reviews of Ecuador trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Hawaii: surfing, paddleboarding, biking…

Four Seasons Maui balcony

Four Seasons Maui. Photo: Four Seasons

“We were unsure which Hawaiian islands we wanted to visit, but Dani asked our family (four adults) so many questions about what we expected and how we wanted to spend our time, and was so well-informed, that we ended up with a fantastic vacation. We decided on the Four Seasons resorts on the islands of Maui and Lanai, which turned out to be perfect choices. Dani arranged all of our activities: surf lessons, paddleboard lessons, skeet shooting, archery. We had dinner reservations ready and were able to just enjoy our days. A highlight was our WOW Moment, biking down Haleakala through sun and clouds. Just a pleasure! Dani also maximized our time by advising us to take the ferry to Lanai, but to fly from Lanai to Maui instead of using the ferry again. Great advice!” —Nancy Stone

Read more reviews of Hawaii trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Switzerland: paragliding, glacier trekking, Via Ferrata…

Start of paraglider at Mannlichen top point above Grindelwald, Switzerland. - Image

Paragliding above Grindelwald, Switzerland. Photo: Shutterstock

Nina created an itinerary that included many excellent suggestions that we were not aware of, even though I had done a fair amount of research on my own to know what Switzerland had to offer. Paragliding in Grindelwald, a Canyon Swing, a Jet Boat in Interlaken, a private cave tour, glacier trekking, a helicopter transfer from Jungfraujoch to Gstaad, the Via Ferrata in Mürren-Gimmelwald, the Gorner Gorge adventure in Zermatt….AWESOME! The execution of the trip was flawless: When the helicopter landed in Gstaad in a grassy field, the driver was right there waiting for us. There would have been no way to plan this trip on our own and have everything run as smoothly as it did.” —Travis Schmitt

Read more reviews of Switzerland trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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California: kayaking, paragliding, e-biking…

Kayaking in Southern California.

Kayaking in Southern California. Photo: Janette Gill

Our teenagers are still talking about our Southern California paragliding adventure over the beaches and golf course at Torrey Pines and our beach barbeque at Crystal Cove State Park while watching the sunset with our toes in the sand. Sheri was very helpful in recommending and organizing hotel stays at both the hipster Pendry Hotel in San Diego and the luxurious Pelican Hill Resort outside of Newport Beach. We initially had a little misunderstanding with the resort regarding our room location, but after a short conversation with Sheri, we were quickly upgraded to a room with a much better view (thanks, Sheri). This type of personalized service is the reason we plan most of our trips using Wendy Perrin’s trusted travel experts. Since this was our third qualifying trip, Wendy surprised us with a WOW Moment—a day of adventure on charming Coronado Island. Our guide for the day picked us up at our hotel for a short ferry ride over to the historic island, where we spent the day riding electric bikes around the quaint residential areas, and then we kayaked out into the Bay. Thanks, Wendy and Sheri, for a very memorable day for all of us!”—Janette Gill

Read more reviews of California trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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aerial view of Masada Israel

What the Right Local Fixer Can Do For You in Israel (or Anywhere)

It had been 20 years since my last trip to Israel, and all I remembered were overcrowded sights and frustrating logistics: wall-to-wall tour groups on the Via Dolorosa, endless lines snaking through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, hours of rigmarole just trying to rent a car with collision-damage coverage for the areas we wanted to drive in ….

This time my experience of Israel was the polar opposite. That’s because, this time, I had the right local fixer.  As you know, I created my WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts specifically to point you to such fixers in locations worldwide.  And so, for my family trip to Israel, I turned to Joe Yudin, the Israel specialist on my WOW List.   As you read below about how Joe saved us from lines and tourist traps, and opened doors that are normally closed to the public, please keep in mind two important things:  First, I wasn’t getting special treatment.  He’s done the same thing for many travelers, as you’ll see by reading Joe’s reviews.  Second, the other destination specialists on The WOW List do the same thing in their different destinations.  Wherever in the world you’re headed, here are eight ways a WOW Lister can make the magic happen:

They are your insurance against bad weather.

Tel Maresha archaeological dig

On a rainy day you can dig up ancient artifacts underground at Tel Maresha. At left, in gray, is archaeologist Asaf Stern of Archaeological Seminars Institute. At right, in red, is Joe Yudin of Touring Israel. Photo: Timothy Baker

I chose to take my family to Israel during the kids’ February school break because February is Israel’s low season. That means fewer crowds and lower prices, but it can also mean the possibility of torrential rains. Although it did rain in Israel while we were there, we never saw one drop, and that’s because Joe has the flexibility and connections to nimbly alter itineraries based on the weather or other surprises. When it was raining in the north, we headed south for sandboarding in the Negev Desert and scuba diving with dolphins in the Red Sea. When the rain was over, we headed north to the green vineyards of the Golan Heights.  Joe can also move things around so that, if it does start to rain where you are, you can either hit the indoor must-sees (say, view the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israel Museum, or go to the Ayalon Institute—a secret 1940s ammunition factory, built beneath a kibbutz to fool the authorities at the adjacent British army base, that was pivotal to winning the Independence War in 1948) or you can do below-ground activities (say, explore Hezekiah’s Tunnel beneath the City of David, or dig for artifacts from the Hellenistic period at the archaeological excavation at Tel Maresha, pictured above).

 

Caesarea sunset israel

When the weather cleared, we hit the ancient Roman port of Caesarea. Photo: Timothy Baker

They put you in the right place on the right day.

Makhtesh Ramon Israel

When we landed in Israel on a Saturday, we headed to Makhtesh Ramon in the Negev Desert.. Adam Sela (on the ground) is a desert expert who led our jeep adventure into the makhtesh.  Here, he photographs my 14-year-old who is finding new ways to combat jet lag. Photo: Timothy Baker

Every country has its holidays when things are closed, as well as its best days for hitting the weekly markets and other events. In Israel it’s important to plan around Shabbat (the Sabbath), from sundown on Friday through sundown on Saturday, since that’s when most places are closed or, even if the doors aren’t physically shut, normal operations take a break. If you arrive in Israel on a Saturday, for instance, you might have trouble checking into your hotel room before dark, especially if your hotel is in Jerusalem. Some travelers arriving on a Saturday opt to hit the beach in Tel Aviv and power through their jet lag with fresh air and a swim. We arrived on a Saturday and headed south to the Negev Desert, combating jet lag with sandboarding and a jeep tour of Makhtesh Ramon. (A makhtesh is a crater-like geological landform that is unique to Israel’s Negev Desert and Egypt’s Sinai Desert.)  On our second Saturday in Israel, we went to Masada (since it’s open on Saturdays) and the Dead Sea. Things get more complicated—in terms of where you should be when—during Easter, Passover, Christmas week, and the many other religious and national holidays in Israel. (When planning your itinerary, remember that Sunday is the start of Israel’s work week.)

Makhtesh Ramon Negev Desert israel

When it was raining elsewhere, we went to Makhtesh Ramon. Photo: Timothy Baker

They get you past the crowds and lines.

crowd at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem Israel

This is what the tour-group crush in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity looks like—in low season!  Photo: Timothy Baker

Israel is jam-packed with tour groups from all over the world making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Even low season (January/February) is high season for low-budget group tours. When we arrived at Masada early on a February morning, as one example, there were 50 tour buses in the parking lot and at least 300 people in line for the cable car. (Naturally, Joe took us through a different entrance and to the front of the line.)

One of the most crowded sites in the world is the spot that is recognized as the manger where Jesus was born, deep inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.  Just one of the factors that make a visit tricky is that Bethlehem is in an exclusively Palestinian-controlled part of the West Bank where Israelis can’t go, which means you need a Palestinian guide—but one who can make the traffic and bureaucracy at the border checkpoints disappear.  Most travelers get handed from an Israeli guide on one side of the border to a Palestinian guide on the other, but Joe skips all that by using an Arab Christian guide, Daniel Sahwani, who met us on the Israel side, drove us (in a gleaming new white Mercedes van) into the West Bank, showed us everything we wanted to see in and around Bethlehem, then dropped us off back in Jerusalem’s Old City, all in record time.

You also want a guide with the right connections both outside and inside the Church of the Nativity.  When we got to Bethlehem, Daniel artfully managed to park the van in a small V.I.P. lot right at the front door of the Church. He shepherded us past a very long line comprised of umpteen tour groups (according to Daniel, the line was four hours long and, in high season, it can take all day) to the door and staircase that lead to the underground Grotto that is recognized as Jesus’s birthplace. In the photo above, you can see the mad crush at the door to the Grotto.  You can also see Daniel ahead of me (well, the side of his face), near the door, leading my 14-year-old (light brown hair, olive shirt), to his right, through the mob. Down in the Grotto, Daniel made sure we had enough time to photograph the manger. (You’re officially allowed only about two seconds.) Then he led us into the adjacent Church of St. Catherine, the Catholic chapel where Christmas Eve mass is broadcast to television audiences around the world, and showed us other sights in Bethlehem, including edgy Palestinian street art, before zipping us out of the West Bank and back to Jerusalem, all in just a couple of hours. It was like watching a magic act.

Entering West Bank Area A from Israel

This is the border checkpoint you pass through as you drive into the West Bank’s Area A, where Bethlehem is located. Photo: Timothy Baker

They get you to each sight at the best moment.

Western Wall at night Jerusalem Israel

The Western Wall is best experienced on a Friday at sundown. We shot this later, as we were leaving after dark. Photo: Timothy Baker

The Western Wall is at its most interesting on Fridays at sundown, the start of the Sabbath. You’ll see young men in dashing suits and Lubavitcher fedoras, old men in long black robes and Lithuanian fur hats, and all manner of other traditional garb and headgear worn by worshippers’ Eastern European ancestors. You’ll see female soldiers joyously singing and dancing in groups, with machine guns strapped around their bodies. You’ll see and hear multifarious small collections of worshippers holding their own services, singing their own songs and dancing in their own circles. Joe made sure we arrived shortly before sundown (which, depending on the time of year, could be any time between 5:00 pm and 8:15 pm).  Using cameras (or any other electronic devices) during the Sabbath is not smiled upon, so Joe also made sure we got to the Western Wall on another day when we could take photos of our kids doing as the locals do—writing their prayers on small slips of paper, wadding up the paper, and cramming it into a crack in the Wall.

 

Men praying at the Western Wall Jerusalem Israel

Taking photos at the Western Wall during the Sabbath is frowned upon, so go twice: once to see the scene on Friday at sundown, and another time to take photos like this. Photo: Timothy Baker

They know cool new ways to see old places.

Powered paragliding over Masada Israel

We soared over Masada and the Judean Desert in this powered paraglider. Photo: Timothy Baker

Whether you’re hiking up to Masada—the 2,000-year-old fortress-palace built by King Herod atop a rock plateau in the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea—or ascending by cable car, you can’t see any of the ancient city till you’re on the mountaintop. Most people explore the fortress only at eye level. But, thanks to Joe’s friend Segev Baram, a flight instructor with a powered paraglider, we got to enjoy aerial views too. We each took a turn soaring over Masada and the sites of ancient Roman camps in the desert, and then over to the Dead Sea Canal, dipping downward until we almost skimmed the surface of the waterway. My 14-year-old says it’s the coolest thing he’s ever done.

Segev turns out to be a cinematographer too. Somehow he managed to pilot the machine, working the controls like a marionette, while simultaneously filming our entire ride.  To fly over Masada vicariously with us, check out this three-minute video Segev made and sent to my family.  It’s sababa!  (That means awesome.)

 

They ensure you taste the best local flavors.

Mahane Yehuda Market dried fruit tea vendor

Our tasting tour of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market included this stall that sells “dried fruit tea.” There’s no tea in it. It’s just diced, sweet, intensely aromatic dried fruit that you mix with hot water. Photo: Timothy Baker

I can meander through foreign food markets all day long, losing myself in the scents and colors. But when time is short and markets huge and labyrinthine, a guide who knows everybody in the market—who knows whose Medjool dates are the plumpest and whose tahini is ground the centuries-old way and where to taste which award-winning cheese—can really enhance your experience. And that’s especially true if you’re in one of those markets on a Thursday or Friday during the pre-Shabbat scramble.  That’s why everybody in my family agrees that two of our trip highlights were our private tasting tours of two of the biggest markets: the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv and Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. At Mahane Yehuda, when we couldn’t resist buying edible souvenirs to take home, our guide arranged for our purchases to be delivered to us later, so we wouldn’t have to lug our haul from stall to stall.

Carmel Market etrog medicine man shop Israel

Medicinal fruit juices— including those made from the etrog (that bumpy greenish-yellow fruit she’s holding)—are served at the Etrog Medicine Man shop in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. Photo: Timothy Baker

They reduce airport waits and hassles.

Joe’s travelers get airport VIP service, and here’s what that means:  When we landed at Ben-Gurion on a Saturday morning, we were met at the end of the jetway and led on an alternate path to the immigration area.  We were led to a separate VIP desk, to the side of the immigration lines, where we were handed our stamped cards to get into the country.  We exited the immigration area for the luggage carousel at the same moment that the first people off our flight were arriving to queue up at the end of the already long lines.  Back at the airport on Sunday morning eight days later for our flight home, we were met curbside by another VIP agent who enabled us to bypass the standard check-in lanes and escorted us through security to our gate.  We zipped through without a hiccup.  I estimate that this airport VIP service spared us at least an hour each way standing in lines.

Your passport no longer gets stamped when you enter Israel, by the way. At Immigration you are given a small laminated card with your principle details and a stamp on it.  Don’t lose it, since this card gets you the V.A.T. discount when you check into hotels.

They introduce you to interesting people you’d otherwise never meet.

Here I’m with Sarit Zehavi, a security expert and lieutenant colonel in the reserves of the Israeli Defense Forces, at Israel’s northern border in the Golan Heights. You’re looking at Syria (beyond that light-colored road). Photo: Joe Yudin

What’s a trip to Israel without hearing varied local perspectives on the geopolitics of the Middle East, the war against terrorism, and other important topics of the day?  So Joe arranged a few of the meetings that he has arranged for so many WOW List travelers, as you can read in their reviews of Joe’s trips.  I’ll give you just a few examples:

Joe told me that if I wanted to understand Israel’s outlook on the Middle East, I needed to go to the Golan Heights, an area of rolling vineyards and army bases on the border with Syria. There we met Sarit Zehavi, an expert on Israel’s security challenges at the northern borders. Zehavi is a 15-year military intelligence officer and lieutenant colonel in the reserves of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and is also the founder of ALMA, a research and education center focused on the border conflict. She is actually of Syrian heritage (her father grew up in Damascus). She is also a mom whose house sits six miles from the Lebanese border, so she lives with a visceral sense of danger, day in and day out.  Pointing to the Syrian border (see the photo above), she showed us exactly where and how the situation has been changing along it.  A week after we met, Zehavi was headed to Washington, D.C., to address members of Congress and other U.S. leaders at AIPAC. Here’s what she told them.

Eitan Cohen, a counter-terrorism and security expert

Eitan Cohen, a counter-terrorism and security expert, with my son Doug at Caliber 3. Photo: Timothy Baker

Joe also arranged for us to meet with Eitan Cohen at Caliber 3, a counterterrorism training academy that offers security solutions and intelligence operations to clients around the globe. Cohen is a charismatic and inspiring colonel in the IDF and a security expert who works in elite undercover units. The kids got hands-on training in self-defense strategies, as well as an unforgettable lesson in patriotism and how profound love of country—like Cohen’s for Israel—is what inspires soldiers around the world.

journalist and author Matti Friedman

We met journalist and author Matti Friedman for breakfast at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Photo: Timothy Baker

Of the local journalists Joe offered to connect me with, I chose Matti Friedman, a former Associated Press correspondent who also served in the Israeli army.  Friedman is the author of two award-winning books, The Aleppo Codex and PumpkinFlowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War, and his third book, Spies of No Country—the story of Israel’s first spies in 1948—is coming out in November.  Friedman believes that, because of the way news about the Middle East is framed by Western news media, many travelers are left with a lot of misconceptions about Israel and the situation in the Middle East.  As just one example, people think Jerusalem is dangerous, but last year there were only 27 deaths in Jerusalem caused by acts of violence, compared with 133 in Jacksonville, Florida, and 175 in Indianapolis (cities similar in size to Jerusalem).  Social problems that Americans take for granted—health care, homelessness, gun control—hardly exist in the same way in Israel. For instance, Friedman has four kids and pays only $56 per month for health care for his whole family.  As for his perspective on conflict in the Middle East, the main takeaway was:  Don’t come to Israel with a lot of preconceptions. Or, if you do, meet with Friedman.  2023 UPDATE: Matti Friedman has little availability nowadays. Instead, you can meet with journalists such as Gil Hoffman and Khaled Abu Toameh

 

cooking class in Jersualem Israel

Chef Tali Friedman taught the boys how to cook an Israeli feast, including apple-filled phyllo pastries, in her kitchen. Photo: Timothy Baker

I went to Israel thinking most of my time would be spent on sites of historical, cultural, and religious significance.  As it turned out, most of my time was spent eating.  Israel’s culinary scene has been exploding, and one of the reasons why is Chef Tali Friedman. She gave us a cooking lesson in The Jerusalem Atelier, her kitchen workshop inside the historic Mahane Yehuda Market, and then we got to eat the feast we had cooked. I’m still dreaming of the best eggplant dish I’ve ever tasted: roasted Baladi eggplant, grilled over an open flame until scorched and smoky, with tahini and balsamic vinegar drizzled on top. So simple, yet so flavorful.  We took the recipes home with us, but I’m not so sure I can replicate them without easy access to the superb produce and ingredients in the Market.

Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market Israel

Inbal Baum introduced us to her favorite finds in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. Photo: Timothy Baker

We also had a blast with Inbal Baum, founder of Delicious Israel, who steered us to her favorite stalls and shops in the Carmel Market, Tel Aviv’s largest outdoor food extravaganza. This eliminated haphazard guessing as to the best foods to sample—which in turn eliminated thousands of unnecessary calories—and it also meant no standing in lines:  In each spot, seats and tables magically appeared for us, and then dishes suddenly appeared on them. Come hungry!

Chef Tal Zohar and his mobile kitchen in the Golan Heights. Photo: Timothy Baker

When we went to the Golan Heights, we weren’t expecting gourmet dining al fresco, but that’s the surprise that awaited us in the middle of nowhere, thanks to Chef Tal Zohar and his mobile kitchen.  A friend of Joe’s with grandparents from Turkey on one side and Germany on the other, Chef Tal went to culinary school in New York City, and now he zips all over Israel creating gourmet “picnics” in spectacular locations.  You can see photos of what we ate here.

Joe Yudin, the Israel travel specialist on my WOW List

Joe Yudin of Touring Israel at Tel Maresha. Photo: Timothy Baker

And here’s who made it all happen:  Joe Yudin, the Trusted Travel Expert for Israel on my WOW List.  Contact Joe using my questionnaire so he knows Wendy sent you and you get the same caliber of trip that I, and all these other travelers, received.

START YOUR OWN TRIP TO ISRAEL

UPDATE:  This article was written in 2018, based on a trip to Israel in that year, but all of these experiences are still available today in 2023. 

Transparency disclosure: Thanks to a stipend that Joe Yudin received from Israel’s Ministry of Tourism for press, most elements of this trip were complimentary.  In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, no strings were attached:  There was no request for coverage, nor was any promised.

Be a smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. Read real travelers’ reviews, then use the black CONTACT buttons on Wendy’s WOW List to reach out to the right local fixer for your trip.

hiking in peru

Hiking and Walking Trips: Should You Go Private or With a Group?

If I had to choose just one way to see the world, it’d be from a hiking trail. But I’m no hearty Appalachian Trail thru-hiker—in fact, I’ve never carried more than a day’s worth of gear on my back, and I haven’t the faintest idea how to splint a broken ankle. And yet, I’ve seen some of the world’s most stunning wilderness areas on foot, from New Zealand’s Milford Track to Europe’s Tour du Mont Blanc, and from Peru’s Sacred Valley to Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. The one thing these trips all had in common? A great guide. Sometimes I’ve joined a group, other times I’ve hired a private guide to take me where I wanted to go. Here’s my advice (based on hundreds of miles’ worth of trail data) on the pros and cons of each:

hiking in Argentine Patagonia

Many of Patagonia’s upscale hotels are all-inclusive, which means you have to hike on their activity schedule as part of a small group—that is, unless you bring your own private guide. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

You should hire a private guide if:

  • You prize ultimate flexibility in each day’s plan. When I traveled in Patagonia with a private guide earlier this year (see Is Patagonia Right for You?), I opted to hike the very same route two days in a row. Why? Because on the first day a trail closure just short of the summit had prevented us from reaching the climax. No group hiking trip would have made that decision, but it was exactly how I wanted to spend my time.
  • You want to set your own pace. If you deviate far from the typical hiking speed in either direction, you’ll appreciate the ability to walk as slowly or as fast as you desire. It’s the smart choice too: Forcing yourself to slow down can be almost as tiring as hiking beyond your means, since it doesn’t allow your body to drop into its normal rhythm. This is also an important factor to consider if you want to stop frequently to take photos, or to search for wildlife.
  • You want to choose exactly which hikes you do. Group trips follow a predetermined route (sometimes with last-minute adjustments, of course, due to weather or other factors). If you book a private guide, you can work with him or her to select the trails that most precisely line up with your ability level and interests.
  • You care a great deal about your accommodations and where you eat. Group hiking trips frequent neither the smallest, most atmospheric hotels, nor the most luxurious, five-star properties. If you want to have control over where you sleep, book a private trip. Similarly, meals on group trips are typically taken together at restaurants predetermined by the guide or tour operator; if you want to eat alone and choose where you dine, you’re also better off going private.
Crossing a stream on the Tour de Mont Blanc hiking trail

A guide carried a blistered hiker piggyback over a stream crossing on our group trip along the Tour de Mont Blanc trail. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

You should join a group hiking trip if:

  • You’re working within a constrained budget. Simply put, private guides are expensive. Amortize that guide’s cost over half a dozen travelers, and the same trip becomes a lot more affordable.
  • You enjoy meeting other travelers. Hiking trips tend to attract groups of friendly people who share a love for the outdoors but arrive there via a variety of backgrounds. I’ve met some fascinating characters on the trail, from the Chinese immigrant who now owns a successful teashop in Washington, D.C., to the Vietnam vet on his first trip to Europe.
  • You need a little motivation. The camaraderie of a band of strangers chugging up a mountain can also help you tackle a challenging hike; if you thrive in the setting of a group exercise class, you’ll also probably perform better on the trail when there are others encouraging you along.
  • You need to please a variety of ability levels. If you hire one private guide, it forces your companions to hike together. Say you’re bringing along your marathoner sister and your slightly-out-of-shape dad: a group trip that operates with two guides, who can spread out along the trail and keep everyone headed in the right direction, is more likely to leave everybody satisfied.

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Sandy Bay, St. Helena island

One of the World’s Most Remote Islands Is About to Get a Lot Closer

One of the last places on earth that you couldn’t get to is about to become a place that a lot of people can get to. That means it’s your last chance to be a true pioneer (“I went when you could only get there by mailboat!”). It’s also your chance to see a little-known land before it changes forever (“I was on one of the first flights in!”) That’s what’s happening with the remote island of St. Helena right now.

St. Helena, a 47-square mile island with a population of 4,600 in the middle of the South Atlantic, is best known for being the place that Napoleon was exiled to. Until next month, the only way to reach it has been by mailboat from Cape Town—a journey that requires spending five or six days at sea each way. But starting in mid-October 2017, SA Airlink will begin weekly five-hour flights on a 76-seat Embraer from Johannesburg, South Africa. They fly on Saturdays and start at £804 for a round-trip ticket.

One of the world’s most isolated settled islands—1,200 miles west of the African coast and 1,800 miles east of Brazil—St. Helena may be most famous for its Napoleonic artifacts, but there’s a lot more to do than just visit the house where the French emperor lived and died. You can dive to shipwrecks, swim with whale sharks, go on picturesque hikes to see some of the 500 endemic species of flora and fauna, and meet the local people—called “Saints”—who are known for their hospitality. The island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 but colonized by the Brits—so, if you rent a car, you’ll need to drive on the left. You might actually feel like you’re in a tiny tropical England: The Saints speak British English, and you’ll spot red post boxes and English-style Bobbies as you tool around Jamestown.

As you’d expect, the introduction of the new flight will change the experience of the island, and it’s already preparing for an end to its isolation: A 30-room luxury hotel called the Mantis St. Helena has opened in three restored Georgian buildings, where visitors can relax after a round of 18 holes at the world’s most remote golf course, drinks at the world’s most remote distillery, a visit to the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere, a hike to a heart-shaped waterfall, or a climb up Diana Peaks National Park where they can get a view of just how remote they are.

If you prefer the old-fashioned way of getting to St. Helena—via one of the world’s last mailboats, the RMS St. Helena—you have until February 2018. The arrival of a modern airport means the Royal Mail Ship is being decommissioned.

Read more about St. Helena here, and let us know if you decide to go!

St Helena island view
St. Helena, a 47-square mile island with a population of 4,600 in the middle of the South Atlantic, is one of the world's most remote islands. Photo: David Pryce
Fishing boat in Jamesbay St. Helena
Fishing boat in Jamesbay. Photo: Ed Thorpe
Old Woman's Valley, St. Helena island
Old Woman's Valley, St. Helena. Photo: Ed Thorpe
underwater view of fish off St. Helena island
Wrecks around St. Helena's coast provide great diving sites. Photo: Sandy Bay, St. Helena
aerial view of Jamestown, St. Helena
Jamestown, St. Helena. Photo: David Pryce
St. Helena island's heart-shaped waterfall
Hike to the heart-shaped waterfall. Photo: Ed Thorpe
Napoleon statue on St. Helena island
Napoleon was exiled on St. Helena island from 1815 until he died in 1821. Photo: Ed Thorpe
Longwood House is one of three buildings where Napoleon stayed in exile on St. Helena
Longwood House is one of the sites associated with Napoleon during his time here. Photo: St. Helena Tourism
Lot's Wife Beach St. Helena
Lot's Wife Beach. Photo: Ed Thorpe
jonathan the giant tortoise at plantation house on St. Helena
Jonathan the tortoise is 180 years old and lives at Plantation House on St. Helena. Photo: Jon Tonks
aerial view of St. Helena High Knoll fort
High Knoll Fort dates from 1874. Photo: Merrill Joshua
Napoleon's Tomb on St. Helena island
Napoleon's Tomb on St. Helena. Photo: Jon Tonks
The RMS mail ship approaching St Helena island
The RMS mail ship approaching St Helena

 

 

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’s reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Gros Morne Western Brook Pond fjord, Newfoundland

8 Gorgeous Canadian National Parks For Your To Do List

Canada is one of the smartest summer vacation ideas for U.S. travelers. It’s close, it’s affordable, it’s not too hot, it’s blissfully uncrowded … and it’s got more than 40 beautiful national parks and reserves. Which are the best ones to focus a trip on?  We asked that very question of our Trusted Travel Experts for Canada. Here are eight parks for your To Do list.

By Land and Sea: Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve british columbia

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, British Columbia. Photo courtesy Destination BC.

Encompassing forest, beach, ocean, and more than 100 islets along British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, it’s the miles-long stretches of sand and the numerous hikes through the lush rainforest that make Pacific Rim a favorite of Trusted Travel Expert Sheri Doyle. You can get a taste of both environments on short loop hikes from the main parking lot; Sheri also recommends the Nuu-chah-nulth Trail from the Visitors’ Center to Florencia Beach, which gives you some insight into local history as well.

Peaks Aplenty: Jasper National Park

Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies

Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies. Photo: Travel Alberta

Snuggled in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper isn’t undiscovered, but to Sheri it always feels far less busy than the adjacent—and more widely known—Banff National Park. Hiking and wildlife are the draws here; Sheri’s favorite short jaunt is the Path of the Glacier trail to a gorgeous glacial lake in the Mount Edith Cavell area of Jasper.

The Hidden Gem: Kootenay National Park

Kootenay National Park, Canada. Photo: Parks Canada/C. Siddal

Kootenay National Park, British Columbia. Photo: Parks Canada/C. Siddal

Even less crowded than Jasper, but with mountains no less majestic, is nearby Kootenay. The park’s Radium Hot Springs provide a secondary attraction, and the same-named town, just outside Kootenay’s border, has more affordable hotels than you’ll find in Banff.

The Big Kahuna: Banff National Park

sunshine mountain lake banff national park alberta canada

Hiking on Sunshine Mountain in Banff National Park, Alberta. Photo: Billie Cohen

This is the country’s original national park, set in the dazzlingly picturesque Rocky Mountains. Sure, it can be busy—but Trusted Travel Expert Marc Telio recommends veering off the beaten path and taking the gondola up Sunshine Mountain for a hike far from the crowds. For Mount Norquay’s via ferrata—a series of cables, ladders, and suspension bridges bolted into the side of the mountain—you don’t need any technical know-how, but you will need a healthy dose of confidence.

Picture-Postcard Vistas: Yoho National Park

Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park.

Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park. British Columbia. Photo: Parks Canada/Karin Smith

This British Columbia park’s name comes from the Cree word for awe and wonder. The impression it leaves on contemporary visitors is no less impressive, particularly in late spring at Takakkaw Falls, ones of Canada’s highest and most dramatic waterfalls. Here, Marc loves going for a peaceful paddle on startlingly crystal-clear Emerald Lake.

The World’s Highest Tide: Fundy National Park

beach at low tide in Fundy National Park Canada

Fundy National Park, New Brunswick. Photo: Parks Canada/Dale Wilson

When the tide goes out in New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park, it does so decisively: The difference between high and low tide can be as much as 50 feet—the height of a four-story building. Time it right, and you’ll literally be walking on the ocean floor, among crabs, sea snails, and other crustaceans (plus the shorebirds that stop by for a quick bite to eat).

A River Runs Through It: Nahanni National Park Reserve

Virginia Falls, Nahanni National Park, Canada

Virginia Falls, Nahanni National Park, Northern Territories. Parks Canada/Charles Blyth

Little known to the general populace, this vast and remote reserve in the Northern Territories is world-famous among whitewater rafters and kayakers, who come to paddle the Naha Dehé (the South Nahanni River). It was named among the first class of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Nahanni called “one of the most spectacular wild rivers in North America.” Rapids aren’t the only water feature here: Virginia Falls is almost twice the height of Niagara, and Nahanni’s hot springs provide a natural antidote to the sore muscles you’re sure to acquire while hiking and paddling.

The Geological Wonder: Gros Morne National Park

Fjord Boat Tour on Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne National Park Western, Canada. Photo: Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

Fjord boat tour on Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland. Photo: Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

It’s taken Mother Nature millions of years to create the mountains and fjords that have earned Newfoundland’s Gros Morne its UNESCO World Heritage stripes; what you see on the surface today is actually deep ocean crust and the earth’s mantle, pushed up by the geologic process of continental drift. Western Brook Pond was clearly named with characteristic Canadian understatement: This “pond” is actually a spectacular, glacier-carved fjord that occupies an area of nearly nine square miles, with waterfalls cascading 2,000 feet down its cliffs. If you go to Gros Morne, Trusted Travel Expert Jill Curran recommends getting a taste of Newfoundland humor at Anchors Aweigh, a music-and-comedy show in the town of Rocky Harbour.

bear in Banff national park canada

Bear spottings are not uncommon in parts of Banff National Park. Photo: Travel Alberta

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three sisters formation Goblin Valley State Park Utah

The American West You Don’t Know About, But Should

Year after year, families flock to the American West to show their kids the region’s knockout scenery and rugged-cowboy lifestyle. And so every summer, the Grand Canyon’s viewpoints are choked with visitors, Yellowstone’s roads are jammed by wildlife-induced rubbernecking, and the guest ranches are sold out months in advance.

We’re here with a solution: Six key strategies that will help you avoid the crowds out west. I recently employed these tactics on a 900-mile drive around Utah, discovering breathtaking parts of the state that I hadn’t seen on numerous past trips through it, and having them largely to myself.

Wake up early.

Morning in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Morning in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

The general wisdom is that the national parks are least crowded at sunrise and sunset. But when I stopped at Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon National Park at 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday in September, there were hundreds of people swarming the overlooks. By comparison, at 8:30 the following morning I had Inspiration Point almost to myself. The earlier you get up and out the door, the fewer people you’ll see on the roads and the trails. If you follow the typical flow of traffic in a park (most people drive through Bryce from north to south, for example) but start earlier, you’ll stay ahead of the crowds the entire day.

Sunset in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Sunset in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

Seek out state parks.

Goblin Valley State Park Utah

Goblin Valley State Park, Utah. Photo: Brook WIlkinson

I uncovered plenty of spots that would easily earn national park status for their natural beauty—if only they didn’t face such stiff competition (Utah already has five national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands). Goblin Valley State Park is just such a spot: It has a landscape like nowhere else on earth, with spooky hoodoos shaped like toadstools and witches and alien invaders. These hoodoos (thin spires of rock with curvaceous profiles) are quite different from the ones that have made Bryce Canyon famous: The former have rounded edges, as if they’ve melted into shape, while the latter are more rigidly striated. But even my well-traveled, adventurous Utahn relatives have never been to Goblin Valley. When I visited a few weeks ago to go canyoneering, I ran into fewer than a dozen other people in the park. This part of southern Utah is so remote that the Henry Mountains I could see in the distance were the last mountain range to be mapped in the lower 48 states, back in 1872.

Take the road less traveled.

The Castle, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. Photo: National Park Service

The Castle, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. Photo: NPS Photo

Google Maps will tell you that the fastest route from Arches National Park to Bryce Canyon or Zion is via I-70 and Highway 89. What it won’t tell you is that an alternate route, Scenic Byway 12, is one of just 31 designated “All-American Roads” in the United States. The detour adds less than an hour to your route—though we’d campaign for spending a lot more time enjoying the sights along the way. The most spectacular section runs from Tropic to Torrey, with several miles of pavement that cling to the knife-edge of a mountain ridge with gorgeous canyons spilling down on either side dotted with scrubby pines, earning it the moniker “the Hogsback.”

This route will also take you through Capitol Reef National Park (one of the country’s few national parks that you can visit for free, since the highway runs right through it).  There are a number of hikes you can do inside the park, and orchards of peach, apple, cherry, and apricot trees where you can eat your fill for free (or take a to-go bag for a nominal fee left in an honor box). Capitol Reef has a bit more foliage than other parts of this dry desert, and I found the contrast of deep green growth and rose-colored rock to be particularly striking.

Stay a while in smaller towns.

Burr Trail Outpost Boulder Utah

Burr Trail Outpost, Boulder, Utah. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

It’s tempting to make a trip out west all about the driving—the distances are vast, the small towns dotted between the geologic wonders seemingly unremarkable. At least, that’s what you’ll think if you arrive in the evening, check into a motel for a night’s sleep, and hit the road again the next morning. But if you make these communities a destination in their own right, spending enough time to scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find they’re as rich in character as the parks are in natural beauty.

Take the tiny town of Boulder, Utah, for example. Blink and you’ll miss it—literally—with just a smattering of commerce along Highway 12 indicating that you’ve reached, and then quickly passed, Boulder. The local population is so small that the elementary school has an enrollment of seven kids (and four teachers, making this parent of a kindergartener envious of all that undivided attention). But if you stop in to the Burr Trail Outpost, you’ll start to understand what makes this town tick: The work of dozens of local artists—pottery, textiles, metalwork, photography, and much more—fills the shelves, indicating the many creative types who have found the area’s beauty a reliable muse, and who now live side-by-side with the Mormon ranchers who settled Boulder. (As for that drip coffee and stale muffin you were expecting out here in nowheresville? Try a butternut squash mango smoothie, a fresh cinnamon roll, or a macchiato instead.) A few doors down is Hell’s Backbone Grill, a nationally acclaimed restaurant run by two female chefs and based on Buddhist values. Most importantly, the food is fresh (from the restaurant’s own farm a few miles away) and darn good, and that is a rarity in these parts. Also in Boulder is the Anasazi State Park Museum, on the grounds of an 11th-century Ancestral Puebloan village, reminding visitors that human history is as vital a marker on the surroundings as the effects of wind and water are on the landscape.

Create your own ranch experience.

Cougar Ridge Lodge, Utah

Cougar Ridge Lodge, Utah. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

If you’re yearning to get your kids comfortable in a saddle but the guest ranches are booked solid during school vacations—or you want a bit more privacy than the typical guest ranches offer, with their group activities and meals—consider the Cougar Ridge Lodge. Though it’s more cowboy estate than working ranch, the property has horse stables and a riding arena for lessons, and the owner can arrange guided horseback trips through the red rock country, as well as ATV tours, winemaking lessons, photography classes, and boating on Lake Powell. Rather than conforming to a dude ranch’s timetable, here the schedule is all your own. Cougar Ridge is enough of a secret that if you book one of the lodge’s four master suites, you’re likely to have the accompanying kitchen, great room, exercise area, and spa area all to yourself; it’s both grand and homey, as if a wealthy aunt who fancied herself a cowgirl had thrown you the keys to her country spread.

Go in fall or spring.

Chances are that you’ll want to hit a few of the west’s iconic spots as well, so we recommend traveling during the shoulder seasons to avoid the height-of-summer masses of tourists. In Utah, that’s October, November, February, and March, when temperatures are mild enough that you can spend the whole day outside (though nights are quite chilly in the high desert, so bring layers), but the crowds have thinned to a trickle in those most famous of places. In places farther north, the season starts later and ends earlier.

Ready to make your way out west? Ask Wendy who the right travel specialist is to plan your trip.

Goblin Valley State Park Utah

Goblin Valley State Park, Utah. Photo: Brook WIlkinson

*Disclosure: Utah’s Department of Tourism provided me with a five-day trip through Utah, free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, coverage was not guaranteed and remains at our editorial discretion. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and the Department of Tourism here.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Musicians in Mongolia. Photo: J. Doyle

Why Is Everyone Talking About Mongolia and What Do You Do There?

One of the most sparsely populated countries in Asia, Mongolia has an exotic, wild mystery to it. There are more horses than people, wide-open landscapes, desert, mountains, crystal clear skies, nomadic tribes, and even a modern sprawling city.

In the few short years since it was named the fastest growing economy in the world in 2013, Mongolia has attracted more and more attention, popping up on travel websites and blogs with stunning photos of reindeer, colorfully garbed tribesmen, and rustic yurts. In 2016, the National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year won that prestigious contest with an image of one of Mongolia’s horsemen galloping through the snow.

It’s a country of dichotomies, says Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Mongolia, Jalsa Urubshurow, a Mongolian-American who was among the first to offer highly customized trips there and who also created one of the country’s original guide-training programs. “There’s a modern city, and then an hour outside of the capital, you see the nomadic lifestyle, where people are still living this pastoral existence,” he says.

As the country is attracting more and more sophisticated travelers—and the infrastructure to cater to them, with Shangri-La recently opening Ulaanbaatar’s first five-star luxury hotel—we asked Jalsa to explain what travelers can expect from a well-planned trip.

Discover one of the world’s oldest cultures.

Mongolia nomads. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Mongolia nomads. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

“Mongolia is home to the last horse-based nomadic culture—30 percent of the population. It’s a trip back in time,” Jalsa says. By visiting them in their gers (traditional yurts or tents), you can immerse yourself in the culture of one of history’s largest empires. “People are still living and utilizing the same tools they did during Genghis Khan’s time.”

Dig up paleontological treasures.

Travelers can go back even farther in time on a paleontology dig. Mongolia has seen some of the most famous dinosaur fossil finds. In the late 1970s, the “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil was discovered in Tugrugiin Shiree, and the first dinosaur eggs were unearthed at the Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert.

See unspoiled nature.

Mongolia's landscape with a rainbow. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Mongolia’s landscape with a rainbow. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

At about 1,500 miles long (half the length of the U.S.), with only 3 million people, Mongolia is largely untouched. “I think Mongolia offers what people are seeking today: a true chance to get away from things and unplug,” says Jalsa. “It’s a place that inspires unavoidable reflection and a meditative, transformative experience for people.”

To facilitate that inspiration, Jalsa works with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund to create unique experiences that enable visitors to see Mongolia’s natural beauty at its best. For instance, the second-largest concentration of rare snow leopards in the world lives in the Gobi Desert (about 26 to 32 adults), and on Jalsa’s Snow Leopard Quest tour, travelers get to trek with WWF biologists to set up cameras and help conduct other research in the Altai Mountains. Even cooler: Jalsa’s company donates 100 percent of the proceeds from the trip back into snow leopard research.

He also has an astrophysicist on staff at his remote luxury inn, the Three Camel Lodge, to lead a 3-D presentation on the creation of the solar system. “Then you go outside with her and her telescope,” he says. “I call it our five-billion-star hotel.”

 

Bactrian camels in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Bactrian camels in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Explore a new city balancing ancient culture with modern growth.

“When Mongolia became a democracy in 1990,” Jalsa explains, “Ulaanbaatar went from 600,000 to 1.5 million with no urban planning.” So when you visit, you’ll see the old and the new juxtaposed: an ancient Buddhist monastery from the 1700s next to a modern 26-story skyscraper, gers all around, lots of cars, and now the city’s first five-star hotel, the Shangri-La.

Ulaanbaatar is also vibrant with culture that draws from new and old: There are museums showcasing ancient tribal costumes, next to galleries featuring young Mongolian artists; you can see modern performing arts, or attend morning services with monks at the oldest monastery in the country. (One of Jalsa’s special experiences is to arrange a private dinner and performance in the Fine Arts G. Zanabazar Museum, amid the institution’s beautiful Buddhist sculptures.)

All that and stellar shopping too: Ulaanbaatar is known for its exceptional cashmere, along with traditional felt slippers and fur hats.

Participate in unique traditions.

Horse riders in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Horse riders in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Jalsa’s travelers get to experience some of Mongolia’s most fascinating traditions and events. One of them is a festival Jalsa created himself, October’s Golden Eagle Festival, which his guests can attend. “In 1998 I rode with the golden eagle riders,” he says of the Kazakhs, Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority, who live along the western border and practice a centuries-old tradition of hunting with trained birds. “There were only 40 of them left in the world.” Jalsa explains that the riders’ activities were suppressed by Stalin during the country’s time as a Soviet satellite, but after the launch of the festival in 1999, there are now 400 families that have eagles. The festival celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2019.

Sleep under the stars without giving up creature comforts.

The inside of a luxury ger, Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

The inside of a luxury ger, Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Mongolia’s remote nature and rugged landscapes don’t mean that travelers have to rough it to get the most out of the experience. Jalsa’s team has you covered. In an effort to introduce visitors to the beauty of the Gobi Desert and its nomadic culture, he opened the luxurious Three Camel Lodge in 2002. Since then, the solar-powered eco-lodge has won various awards. While staying there, you can explore the desert, watch the stars with an astronomer (Jalsa once counted 43 shooting stars in one night), meet nomadic families and local herders who share the property’s wells, enjoy a performance by local school kids, or head to the Flaming Cliffs for a sunset dinner.

Even if you’re not staying at the lodge, Jalsa’s team can set up mobile accommodations all over the country, and get you to them by small aircraft or helicopter. “From the high Altai Mountains to the Mongolia tiga, we can set up in the most remote places a sumptuous experience—with luxury gers, portable toilets and showers, field chefs and kitchens, and even a butler if you need it.”

For more on Jalsa and his unique approach to Mongolian travel, check out his Insider’s Guide to Mongolia or contact him through our site to be marked as a WendyPerrin.com VIP.

 

 

Children in Mongolia. Photo: M. Dunlap

Children in Mongolia. Photo: M. Dunlap

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

We Had the Best Family Trip in Whistler and We Never Put on Skis

Even in summertime, there is still snow at the highest elevations. Photo: Tim Baker.
The Inukshuk rock statue on Whistler Mountain was created for the 2010 Winter Olympics. An inukshuk is a collection of rocks that may have been used as a navigation reference point for the Inuit. Photo: Tim Baker.
The family takes the podium outside the Roundhouse Lodge atop Whistler Mountain. This is as close as we’ll ever come to winning an Olympic medal. Photo: Tim Baker.
Mountain bikers from around the world cruise down the mountains. Photo: Tim Baker.
Bikes and bikers fill a gondola up the mountain. Bikers and hikers usually ride up in separate gondolas. Photo: Tim Baker.
Bikers and hikers are kept separate on the mountain too. Photo: Tim Baker.
Doug tries his balance on a teeter-totter in Whistler’s bike-skills park. Photo: Tim Baker.
Doug powers over the bumps at a park along the Fitzsimmons Creek in Whistler. Photo: Tim Baker.
A lull in the action on our Green River rafting trip. Photo: Tim Baker
The view from the summit of our RZR adventure. Photo: Tim Baker.
Blink and you can miss the bobsleigh. If you plan to shoot photos of family and friends riding it, practice on preceding runs. Photo: Tim Baker.
Connecting Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, the Peak 2 Peak gondola set multiple construction records. Photo: Tim Baker
The 20-minute ride travels up to 1,427 feet above the ground. Photo: Tim Baker.
Two of the gondolas have glass-bottom floors. Photo: Tim Baker.
We saw many signs warning about bears, but the only wildlife we saw was this hoary marmot posing for photos at Blackcomb. Photo: Tim Baker.
Charlie speeds through the last corner of the Westcoaster Slide in the Blackcomb Adventure Zone. Photo: Tim Baker.
The boys battle each other in floating circular rafts in the Blackcomb Adventure Zone. Photo: Tim Baker.
Whistler Village has plenty to offer families in summer. Photo: Tim Baker.
Kids at play in Whistler’s Olympic Plaza. Photo: Tim Baker.
The boys are attracted by a hand-operated water pump and race leaves down the sluice. Photo: Tim Baker.
The Whistler farmers’ market takes place Sundays from June through October and on Wednesdays in July and August. There’s plenty of fresh local produce and homemade snacks to fill up on. Photo: Tim Baker.
The mini golf course in front of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, our home base for our trip. Photo: Tim Baker.
From the gondola, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Photo: Tim Baker.
At our table in The Grill Room at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, Charlie picks the size of his cut of Dry Aged Prime Canadian Rib Eye. Photo: Tim Baker.
Tomato Gin Soup being prepared at our table. The soup was as great as the presentation. Photo: Tim Baker.
Chocolate fondue with fruit and cake for dessert in The Grill Room at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Photo: Tim Baker.
One of our many “designer” hot chocolates in the Gold Lounge of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Photo: Tim Baker.
The Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club is nestled into the mountains. Photo: Tim Baker
Even if you are not a golfer, the clubhouse at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler’s golf course is a nice place to enjoy a sunset cocktail or meal. Photo: Tim Baker.
At the Britannia Beach Mining Company, a mining drill is demonstrated inside a tunnel. Photo: Tim Baker.
Inside the ore-processing building of the Britannia Beach Mining Company. Photo: Tim Baker.
Shannon Falls Provincial Park is a perfect place to stop and stretch along the Sea-to-Sky Highway. Photo: Tim Baker.
Tourists have been visiting the 450-foot Capilano Suspension Bridge near Vancouver since 1889. Photo: Tim Baker.
Besides the Bridge, Capilano has many more suspension bridges and displays that explain the flora, fauna, and history of the area. Photo: Tim Baker.

 

Note from Wendy: If you need a vacation spot that’s gorgeous, uncrowded, not too hot, and not too far, Canada is a destination you should be seriously considering for this summer. Last summer, my family went to Whistler, and here’s what my husband, Tim wants other families to know about it.

Everyone knows Whistler’s reputation as a winter sports mecca. It hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics—and so far this season has had more than 32 feet of snow, with all 200 trails open. But did you know Whistler is an adventure-packed summer destination too? Wendy and the boys and I had a blast there last summer, and we strongly recommend it to other families. Here are ten reasons why:

1. The Peak 2 Peak Gondola

It’s not a thrill ride per se, but the Peak 2 Peak Gondola is a thrilling ride, to be sure—especially when there’s a light breeze. This gondola connects Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and holds world records for the longest (2.7 miles) and highest (1,427 feet) gondola, with the world’s longest unsupported span: 1.88 miles. The ride takes about 20 minutes. Two of the gondolas—the silver ones—have glass-bottomed floors; while that’s kind of cool, the view down wasn’t much better than the view out of the almost-all-glass gondolas. Be sure to watch the short video in the lodge atop Whistler Mountain on how the lift was constructed and its safety systems. You’ll want to ride this more than once to fully appreciate the engineering.

2. The Olympic Bobsled

The Olympic Bobsleigh at Whistler Sliding Centre has been adapted for summer use: Rubber tires have replaced the bobsled’s rails. You buckle your helmet and strap into the sled for a run that takes less than a minute. It’s sensory overload: You hold on tightly, blink, and it’s already over. One run is not enough. If you do a second run, you might have time to actually look out and enjoy it.

3. The Via Ferrata

We climbed to the top of Whistler Mountain, aided by steel rebar rungs drilled and epoxied into the mountain face. See I Can’t Believe We Did This: Mountain Climbing in Whistler. It was one of the most rewarding adventures we’ve ever had as a family. While often we’re just passengers in our adventures, this climb totally depended on you! We had a great feeling of accomplishment upon reaching the summit. Surprisingly, this 3- to 4-hour Via Ferrata climb is still under the radar. Even locals don’t know about it. You’ll work up an appetite, so I suggest the all-you-can-eat barbeque at the Roundhouse Lodge afterward as a tasty reward for your efforts.

4. The Sasquatch zip-line

If you need to add North America’s longest zip-line (1.6 miles) to your zip-line collection, the Sasquatch is for you. The first step is a true leap of faith, as you’ll be traveling about 60 miles per hour at up to 700 feet above the valley floor. It’s an adrenaline rush, but it’s not our family’s favorite. (This one’s our family’s favorite.) Next time, we’d like to try some of the other ziplines in and around Whistler. Here’s a video of the boys riding the Sasquatch.

Sasquatch from Timothy Baker on Vimeo.

5. RZR driving

Of all our activities, Dads, this one is for you! You race off-road up and down fire breaks on a nearby mountain in a four-seat, four-wheel-drive dirt buggy. Maybe I liked this RZR adventure so much because whenever I drive the kids on roads of similar condition to our favorite hidden lake in California, I’m always pulling a fishing boat, trying to avoid the potholes, ruts, and washboards. In these speedy little RZR buggies, though, you just power over them! Just hit the gas and hold on for dear life. Then back way off the gas because you’ve scared yourself to death. This was freedom and fun! Granted, I had the steering wheel and the kids just sat there holding on to the grab bars, but they loved it too. Full props to our guide, who saw us languishing behind a much slower tandem ahead of us and called base for a new guide just for us. I had a hard time keeping up with the new guide, but it sure was fun trying. Check out this video of our ride:

Wendy RZR from Timothy Baker on Vimeo.

6. Mountain biking

In summertime, instead of brightly outfitted skiers and boarders bombing down Whistler Mountain, you see brightly outfitted mountain bikers. Only trail dust subdues their colorful outfits and skid protectors. Speed is a must; control seems to be optional. We saw wipeouts but, fortunately, we viewed from a safe distance as we rode up and down the mountain on the chairlift. Lifts are designed to carry bikes up the mountain, and shops in town that sell and rent skis in winter cater to all sizes, abilities, and pocketbooks of mountain bikers. We saw groups of bikers from around the world posing for photos with their national flags.

Our resident biker, Doug (who was 11 at the time), wasn’t quite ready for the mountain, but Whistler Village has a free public bike-skills park that is perfect for beginners. We rented a mountain bike from one of the many shops (about $20 for a couple of hours) and rode over. Doug loved it and built up course confidence by handling all the obstacles (the teeter totter, the whoop-dee-doos) at his own speed. When we visit again, he’ll take advantage of one of the many classes available on the mountain.

7. Whitewater rafting

The Whistler area has a variety of whitewater rafting runs, ranging from beginner to advanced. We chose an easy one and had a few thrills and spills. Here’s a little sample:

Whistler Raft from Timothy Baker on Vimeo.

8. Golf

The boys and I played a few holes at the scenic Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club. Designed by Robert Trent Jones II and nestled into the slopes of Blackcomb Mountain, the 6,635-yard course is Audubon Certified. That means that the operators appreciate their stewardship of the land. They’ve reduced water and chemical usage and are managing habitat for the wildlife living on or near the course, including a “hotel” (wooden nest) for bats. You can drink water from the glacier-fed Blackcomb Creek that flows through the course. Even if you don’t play golf, you can enjoy the scenery by having a drink or meal at The Clubhouse. We ate there at sunset.

9. Blackcomb Adventure Zone

Our boys are getting older (they’re now 12 and 13) and now require a little more adrenaline than what was on offer at the family adventure zone in our hotel’s backyard. The pint-sized race cars, Westcoaster Luge, and Kiss The Sky Bungy Trampoline are perfect for the younger set. The Mario & Friends Mini Golf was challenging enough to be enjoyed by all ages. We played several times, early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds.

10. Our home away from home: The Fairmont Chateau Whistler

This is the grand dame of Whistler, and we loved it. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler rises from the valley the way Cinderella’s Castle rises from Disneyland. You can see it from many spots on the mountain, and it looks every bit the place you want to call your home. The staff was friendly and efficient, from the valet who opened our car door when we first arrived to the guy who brought umbrella drinks to us in the hot tub at 10:30 pm.

Our room was mountain-themed without being too heavy-handed or theme-parky.

The highlight of the hotel for the kids was breakfast in the Gold Lounge each morning, thanks to the amazing, artistic hot chocolates with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Each morning the boys’ hot chocolate was decorated differently, as if the staff was having a competition to decorate each mug better than the last. Dinner in The Grill Room was another highlight for the boys. I devoured the dry aged prime Canadian rib eye, carved to order at our table. If there is a must-have, we all loved the Tomato Gin Soup, flambéed tableside. Be ready with your camera.

If there was one time I wished we were there in winter, it was when we were soaking in the giant Jacuzzis on the pool deck looking onto Blackcomb Mountain. I could imagine myself there after a day of skiing, just soaking for hours under the stars. But it was a wonderful summertime antidote for our adventure-weary bones too—an antidote made even sweeter by the late-night cocktail service.

Getting there from Vancouver

We drove the 70 miles from Vancouver on the Sea-to-Sky Highway at a leisurely pace. If I had any regret about the trip, it’s that the drive was too short and I just wanted to keep driving. The roads are easy and the scenery spectacular. We enjoyed trying to pronounce the Indian names for the towns and areas we passed, and we were always intrigued to find out what was around the next mountain.

En route to Whistler we stopped at Shannon Falls Provincial Park, right off the Highway, and the boys had a great time scrambling over rocks around the falls. On the way back we stopped at the Britannia Mine Museum; with a bright yellow 235-ton mine truck in front, it’s pretty hard to miss. The highlight for the kids was riding the train into the mine and seeing (and hearing) the drills and mucking machine being demonstrated. I was awed by the size, scale, and heavy-duty engineering of Mill 3. The fact that we learned so much about mining seemed almost incidental to the visit.

For the grand finale, as we neared Vancouver, we made one last stop at the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which has been a tourist stop since 1889. The 450-foot-long bridge itself is way cool, but the rest of the park was a perfect place to let the kids loose again before heading back to the city.

Planning the Ultimate Itinerary

We got indispensable itinerary help from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Western Canada, Marc Telio. If you’re looking for a British Columbia specialist to design a custom-tailored once-in-a-lifetime adventure for you, read Marc’s Insider’s Guide to British Columbia, and reach out to him via this trip request form so you’re marked as a WendyPerrin.com VIP traveler.

Disclosure: Tourism Whistler invited our family to Whistler and arranged for a complimentary stay at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, as well as a rental car. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Tourism Whistler’s part, nor was anything promised on ours. You can read the signed agreement between Wendy and Tourism Whistler here.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Uma Thurman on the cover of Town&Country, October 2015

You Too Can Save Africa’s Wildlife From Extinction

The best safaris are about a lot more than picturesque tented camps and iconic wildlife; they have a conservation-minded sense of purpose. I’ve been doing a lot of research on safaris and Africa’s endangered wildlife lately—you would be too if you were interviewing Geoffrey Kent, founder of Abercrombie & Kent, onstage at the Skift Global Forum next month—and I just want to share a riveting update when it comes to safaris with a mission: Uma Thurman’s Journey to Protect Africa’s Wildlife from Vicious Poachers, in the October 2015 issue of Town&Country.

“Rhinos have lived on this earth for millions of years, but wildlife experts estimate they may be gone in just 10—poached to extinction,” reports Town&Country executive travel editor Klara Glowczewska, who traveled in Africa with Thurman to cover the story. Approximately 4.5 rhinos are slaughtered every day, killed for their horn, which sells for as much as $35,000 a pound, making it more valuable than gold. Rhino horn is coveted by the newly rich in Vietnam, where it is viewed as medicinal and an aphrodisiac, and where it is ground into powder and used as a cocaine-like party drug.

Last year South Africa’s Kruger National Park lost 10% of its rhinos to poachers.  In Botswana rhinos are better protected. So the government of Botswana and the safari operator Wilderness Safaris, both role models for sustainable tourism in Africa, are working together to employ a revolutionary solution: They are translocating rhinos from South Africa to Botswana. It’s no easy task, considering that your typical 4,000-pound rhino doesn’t understand why it needs to move to Botswana. So Thurman and Glowczewska went on an eight-day South Africa-Botswana mission to rescue rhinos—and their story makes for a must-read adventure.

Darting rhinos in South Africa

Veterinarians dart rhinos from a helicopter during capture. Photo courtesy Explore, Inc.

Not only can you read about the trip, you can actually take it. Cherri Briggs of Explore Inc., one of my Trusted Travel Experts for African safaris, orchestrated Thurman’s trip and has created a similar adrenaline-fueled eight-day itinerary so that those of you with a deep interest in wildlife protection can become part of the most dramatic conservation story of the 21st century.

Capturing rhinos for translocation

Getting a rhino up and walking after sedation is a team effort. Photo courtesy Explore, Inc.

Briggs has arranged conservation-minded, even life-changing, safaris for the past 20 years. As for Wilderness Safaris, check out its integrated annual reports to see how they measure and report on the 4 Cs (commerce, conservation, community, and culture) that are embedded in their business model. A lot of travel companies talk a good game about sustainability; few volunteer to share publicly an annual report that details their sustainability goals and measures their progress toward achieving them.

So you’re in the best of hands with this safari of a lifetime. The price tag is monumental but designed to raise funds for the cause: $18,655 per person, plus a tax-deductible donation requirement of $25,000 that goes to Rhino Conservation Botswana.  Participants will help save critically endangered wildlife, have a purposeful and meaningful vacation (the best kind), and return home knowing they’ve made a difference. To book the trip, reach out to Cherri Briggs.

Rhinos in the wild

Relaxed white rhinos after release in Botswana. Photo courtesy Explore, Inc.

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

I Can’t Believe We Did This: Mountain Climbing in Whistler

“In Whistler we’re doing the Via Ferrata,” Wendy announced proudly. Sounds good, I thought. Must be like “doing” Las Ramblas in Barcelona. But with an Italian twist. Never having been to Whistler, I pictured some street lined with cappuccino and gelato shops and small tables for people-watching. “Not exactly,” she said. “Via Ferrata means ‘iron way’ in Italian. You use iron rungs drilled into the rock face to climb a mountain. We’ll be climbing Whistler Mountain.”

Wait. What? Wendy had signed the family up to climb a rock face? The boys would love it, of course—they’d bungee jump from a moving space shuttle if they could. But I had just had total knee replacement surgery six months earlier. And, while I love Wendy, her rock-climbing abilities are minimal. Did we really need to climb Whistler Mountain? A chairlift goes right to the summit. Whose idea was this anyway? “Steve Ogden from Tourism Whistler.”

Please note that if I, and not Steve, had suggested Wendy climb a mountain, my compos mentis would have been called into question and proceedings to institutionalize me started. But Steve from Tourism Whistler had suggested it. And the Via Ferrata is one of the mountain’s best-kept secrets; very few locals have heard of it. So, of course, Wendy was willing to try it. Anything for a story.

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

The group ahead of us (at lower left) is dwarfed by the mountain. Photo: Timothy Baker

And so, on a perfect mountain afternoon, we met our guide, Josh Majorossy, at the Whistler Alpine Guides headquarters a little above Whistler Mountain’s Roundhouse Lodge complex (elevation 6,069 feet). I saw a group returning from the morning climb and, trying to glean a little intel, asked how it was. “Brilliant,” they delivered in a British accent. Okay. But is there anything I should know about it? “It was just brilliant.” Thanks.

Josh was an extremely patient and laid-back fellow—a professional mountain guide who does the climb twice a day and has led hundreds of groups. He assured me that my knee would be fine. He assured Wendy that mountain-climbing novices of only average fitness can do this. “If you can climb a ladder, you can climb the mountain.”

After waiver signing (a popular Whistler tourist activity), we each got kitted up with a hard hat and a harness with two lanyards and carabiners, and we had a brief safety chat. Safety rule #1: One of your lanyards and carabiners must be attached to the safety cable at all times. Rule #2: Yell “Rocks!” if any are dislodged. Rule #3: When someone above you yells “Rocks!,” don’t look up. Rule #4: Only one person at a time can be attached to a segment of safety cable; that way, if you stumble and fall, you won’t take out the people below you.

Earlier in the season, when snow is present, you traverse the snow to the spot where the rungs start. In early August, though—when we did it—you hike down and back up again to the trail. The hike down was a simple walk, but the hike up was actually what mountain climbers call “scrambling.”

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

Carrying a broken ski pole he found, Doug scrambles through a crack in the rock. Photo: Timothy Baker

Scrambling is climbing and clambering over rocks freestyle, with no set trail. The boys were in boy heaven. I was worried because we weren’t to the beginning of the safety cable just yet. If they fell, other rocks would break their fall.

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

Wendy is more at home in the canyons of Manhattan than scrambling up a mountain peak. Photo: Timothy Baker

In the distance, we could see the group ahead of us. So we could see where we were expected to go. Up there? Really?

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

Charlie stops for a little natural refreshment. Photo: Timothy Baker

At the starting point of the climb came our first gut check. There were several aluminum ladders attached via cables to the mountain and going almost straight up.

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

Our first gut check. Josh leads the way up the ladder to the start of the trail. Photo: Timothy Baker

Each of us clipped both our lanyards to the first safety cable. We started the climb, leap-frogging one set of lanyards and carabiners over the other every six feet or so past where the cable was anchored.

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

Doug climbs the first series of rungs. Photo: Timothy Baker

As Dad, I was constantly watching everyone’s lanyards to make sure that the carabiners had properly attached and closed. If one of us were to stumble and fall, we would fall only as far as the next safety-cable anchor.

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

A natural ledge makes a perfect place for Charlie to use panorama mode. Photo: Timothy Baker

On several occasions we witnessed natural rock slides: Steamer-trunk-sized boulders, probably loosened by the weight and thawing of the snow and ice, broke off the mountain peak and slid down the snow chute well away from our vertical trail.

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

Back on the climb. Photo: Timothy Baker

The rungs themselves are not actually iron. They’re steel rebar inserted into holes drilled into the rock and epoxied in place. (“Via Rebar” just doesn’t sound exotic enough for marketing.) The experience is sometimes like climbing a ladder, but sometimes the rungs are at uneven intervals, or are offset, or both. In several spots there were no rungs at all, as there were natural handgrips and footholds in the rock. Josh challenged us to try not to use the rungs if we could use the natural rock (while still attached to the safety line, of course). The boys took the challenge whenever they could. Wendy did not.

There were a couple of tricky sections (called “technical” by real mountain climbers) where a bit of reach was needed to grab the rungs. On the toughest section, it was a little like a game of Twister. (Left foot blue. Right hand blue.) In that section Wendy needed encouragement from Josh (and his climbing rope).

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

Mountain guide Josh gives Wendy a little physical encouragement. Photo: Timothy Baker

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

If the toes of Doug’s shoes give out, I’m wearing him. Photo: Timothy Baker

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

From below, we could see the early group on the last section of the climb. Photo: Timothy Baker

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

Wendy uses a natural foothold where there weren’t any rungs. Photo: Timothy Baker

We probably took a little more time than most groups because I didn’t want to unnecessarily stress my knee or my wife. The final “push” to the top of the trail—at 7,160 feet—was straight up. As we cleared the top of the trail, it was a little weird to see all the people who had ridden the chairlift up.

Via Ferrata whistler mountain

The summit. The views were our reward. Photo: Timothy Baker

Typically we are them: mere passengers in our adventure travels. This time, though, we had gotten up there the hard way—and it gave us a sense of accomplishment that is rare. We also felt relief that (1) we were coming back with the same number of (un-mangled) kids we’d started with. (2) I didn’t need to be winched off the mountain because of my knee. (3) None of my cameras had smashed into the rocks. This was Alpine Climbing 101 and a great introduction to a sport I will never take up.

In the end, the Via Ferrata turned out to be a wonderful family experience—and probably yielded our 2015 Christmas card photo. Yes, we had sore muscles, but we were able to soothe them that night with umbrella drinks in the Fairmont Chateau Whistler’s hot tubs.

From now on, when we hear of a ski or mountain-bike competition at Whistler, we’ll smile to ourselves and think: We conquered that mountain!

Need to know:

Via Ferrata can be found all over the world.

Bring a wide-angle lens and wear your camera strap so that the camera won’t smash against the rocks.

Bring a light jacket or windbreaker. The weather can get a little chilly at the summit, even when it’s warm down in the valley.

Hiking boots are very useful, but 11-year-old Doug had no problems with a harder soled sport shoe.

Long pants are a good idea. They can handle scrapes better than your skin.

Go at your own pace. Take the afternoon trip so you are not worried about holding up another group. You may want to hire a guide for a private tour.

Bring a bottle of water. If the streams are running, empty out the bottle and refill with that delicious water.

We left our sandals and comfortable shoes at the Alpine Guides hut. Nice to get off our boots and put those on after the climb.

Light gloves are suggested. The safety cable can have a few burrs in it, and you may find yourself grabbing it.

Use the bathroom before you start.

Don’t forget to enjoy the magnificent panoramas.

iceland volcano tour

Would You Take the Plunge Into an Icelandic Volcano?

Note from Wendy: During our Iceland adventure last month, while I made a day trip to Greenland, Tim and the kids ventured deep down inside a volcano. Here, Tim describes the experience—and his advice for anyone thinking of trying it.

Like adventure? How about being lowered the equivalent of 40 floors—in a window washer’s scaffold—into a volcano in Iceland? Never mind that its last eruption was 4,000 years ago and some scientists say there is no such thing as an extinct volcano. Or that Iceland is one of the most active volcano and earthquake zones in the world, and earthquakes could dislodge rocks onto the visitors below. Or that, if the power goes out or there is a malfunction with the scaffold, you’ll be stuck down there in the dark. Still interested? For this five-hour experience, they charge more than $300 per person.

If those facts haven’t deterred you—as they didn’t deter us—then maybe a trip Inside the Volcano is an adventure for you. Located a short drive from downtown Reykjavik, and across from the town’s closest ski resort, is the Thrihnukagigur volcano and the Inside The Volcano experience.

After a bus ride from our Reykjavik hotel, we took a 40-minute hike through lava fields to the basecamp. The path is rocky, and we needed to watch each step, but it’s a reasonably flat trek to the basecamp.

We hiked along this gravel trail to the volcano.

We hiked along this gravel trail to the volcano. Photo: Timothy Baker

Arriving at the basecamp, Doug tries to take a photo of a young Arctic fox as the fox plays with his camera strap.

Arriving at the basecamp, Doug tries to take a photo of a young Arctic fox as the fox plays with his camera strap. Photo: Timothy Baker

At the basecamp, we were outfitted with a hard hat; a harness, carabiners, and a lanyard to keep us from falling out of the elevator system; and a safety briefing (that assumed everything would be fine). Our favorite part of the safety briefing was learning to avoid the “iPhone Drop Zone”—meaning, the area directly under the scaffolding. It seems people using their iPhones as cameras tend to lose their grip on the device and…oops!

Charlie gets geared up at basecamp.

Charlie gets geared up at basecamp. Photo: Timothy Baker

Properly geared and trained (?), we walked the final push up the hill to the top of the volcano. A steel structure spans the 20-foot mouth of the volcano, and the scaffolding and loading ramp hang beneath it.

The final climb from basecamp to the entrance to the volcano is a little steep.

The final climb from basecamp to the entrance to the volcano is a little steep. Photo: Timothy Baker

Even in the middle of July, there was still some snow on the ground.

Even in the middle of July, there was still some snow on the ground. Photo: Timothy Baker

We strapped onto a safety line to walk the plank to the scaffold, then re-clipped the line to the scaffold itself. Along with a lift operator and five guests, we took deep breaths and secretly prayed that now was not the time for one of those frequent Icelandic earthquakes!

Doug is the first of our group to walk the plank to the window washer’s scaffold.

Doug is the first of our group to walk the plank to the window washer’s scaffold. Photo: Timothy Baker

The scaffold can hold six to seven people.

The scaffold can hold six to seven people. Photo: Timothy Baker

The ride down is a slow and steady seven-minute crawl. Wheels on the scaffold that would ordinarily be pressed against the side of a building are needed only for the first couple of meters of rock before you are dangling free of the walls. Nerves can be frayed here (especially after a small unexpected jolt on the scaffold), but already the lights on the scaffold are illuminating the extremely colorful rock walls and a blackened lava tube inside the volcano.

The feeling of being lowered on a window washer’s scaffold into a dark hole is a cross between sheer terror and exhilaration.

The feeling of being lowered on a window washer’s scaffold into a dark hole is a cross between sheer terror and exhilaration. Photo: Timothy Baker

The wheels of the window washer’s scaffold that would normally rest against a building rest against rock on the narrowest part of the trip.

The wheels of the window washer’s scaffold that would normally rest against a building rest against rock on the narrowest part of the trip. Photo: Timothy Baker

From the outside, the volcano looks more like a mound than a classic volcano. But on the inside, it is shaped more like a giant jug. You enter through a small neck at the top of the jug and pass through several meters of the narrow neck before opening into the massive magma chamber. We felt the air cool. Inside, the temperature is always in the low 40s Fahrenheit.

The main cavern comes into view.

The main cavern comes into view. Photo: Timothy Baker

Doug checks out the view straight up. A rounded Plexiglas roof keeps rain and small rocks from dropping onto you from the surface.

Doug checks out the view straight up. A rounded Plexiglas roof keeps rain and small rocks from dropping onto you from the surface. Photo: Timothy Baker

Thrihnukagigur is an exceptional volcano. Most volcanoes fill up with their own lava and harden. But Thrihnukagigur either emptied its lava or the lava sunk back into the earth and left the chamber exposed.

About 400 feet from the top, the scaffolding stops. We were struck by the sheer size and beauty of the place. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen—and, when I travel, I’m always on the lookout for things I’ve never seen. The Statue of Liberty could easily fit inside this volcano. Another way to appreciate the scale of the chamber is to watch the lift system return for the next batch of visitors as a gauge to the size of the chamber.

We start our exploration at the bottom of the main chamber as the lift goes back for more people.

We start our exploration at the bottom of the main chamber as the lift goes back for more people. Photo: Timothy Baker

The lift enters the neck of the volcano.

The lift enters the neck of the volcano. Photo: Timothy Baker

Floodlights illuminate the rock walls without overpowering the entire scene. This is a cathedral of geology. The rock walls are like giant fractals, with vivid patches of greens, blues, yellows, reds, oranges and golds. And every shade of black. It’s like looking at minerals through a powerful microscope, except that these minerals are the size of cars. Our guide told us the colors were caused by the extreme heat of the eruption superheating the naturally occurring minerals.

The scale and colors of the main chamber are breathtaking.

The scale and colors of the main chamber are breathtaking. Photo: Timothy Baker

Scorched walls of the chamber indicate extreme temperatures that were there thousands of years ago.

Scorched walls of the chamber indicate extreme temperatures that were there thousands of years ago. Photo: Timothy Baker

The next batch of visitors arrive at the bottom.

The next batch of visitors arrive at the bottom. Photo: Timothy Baker

The footing is a little treacherous, so we didn’t stray too far. We couldn’t just wander about without watching our every step because of loose rocks (probably rocks that fell to the bottom during the last earthquake). Ropes mark some of the trails and the no-go “iPhone Drop Zone”. With the floodlights directed to the walls and the small light on our helmets, we could see the floor. But only dimly.

Our time at the bottom was only about 30 minutes and went by in flash. We all wished we could have spent much longer. We re-boarded the scaffolding for the ascent and were soon back on terra firma. Well, as firma as Iceland gets!

Charlie checks out our ascent. Its 400 feet straight up to daylight.

Charlie checks out our ascent. Its 400 feet straight up to daylight. Photo: Timothy Baker

Charlie unclips from the safety line on the plank.

Charlie unclips from the safety line on the plank. Photo: Timothy Baker

While we were down inside the volcano, two helicopters bringing more travelers had parked near the basecamp. The helicopter ride, while much more expensive, is a great time saver for those on a short airport layover and is also an option for those who can’t do the 6km hike to the basecamp and back.

At the basecamp we were given traditional hot Icelandic meat (sheep) soup to help take the chill off the low-40s temps inside the volcano and the coolness of a cloudy Icelandic summer day.

Also at the basecamp, we got a chance to get close to and even hold a young Arctic fox that had adopted the base as its home. I don’t know how much longer it will be before its teeth and claws grow to a point where you won’t want to hold it and it doesn’t want to be held.

The highlight of the experience for the boys was holding the young Arctic fox. Geez, I hope they remember something when they study volcanoes in science class.

The highlight of the experience for the boys was holding the young Arctic fox. Geez, I hope they remember something when they study volcanoes in science class. Photo: Timothy Baker

Doug found a stick for the fox to gnaw on.

Doug found a stick for the fox to gnaw on. Photo: Timothy Baker

Doug explores a collapsed lava tube on the walk back.

Doug explores a collapsed lava tube on the walk back. Photo: Timothy Baker

After turning in our gear, spending time with the fox, and warming up with the soup, we started our 40-minute walk back to the main road for the ride home, stopping to learn more about the lava field and to explore several lava tubes.

Besides being able to say we were lowered into a volcano in Iceland, it was a truly unique experience and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, manmade or natural. It was well worth the angst and cost.

Tips:

* You do need to be in reasonable shape to attempt walking round-trip to and from the basecamp. The climb from the basecamp to the volcano is somewhat steep. But just take your time.

* Hiking boots were handy but any harder-soled shoe will work. Doug was fine in his cross-training shoes.

* It is chilly and you may want a fleece. Even in the summer.

* A small flashlight can be handy, especially for adjusting your camera.

* If you have a wide-angle lens, this is a great time to use it.

* If you can set your camera to different scenes, use the night-scene-plus-flash setting.

* You can buy t-shirts and other apparel at the basecamp.

Namibia's desert-adapted lions Photo by Susan Portnoy

5 Ways Namibia’s Desert-Adapted Lions Will Awe You

One of many reasons to visit Namibia is its otherworldly Skeleton Coast, where, if you’re lucky, you’ll see the elusive desert-adapted lions that are unique to this part of the world. I knew little about the cats when I arrived at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp on a recent safari, but I left fascinated by their story. Here are five reasons why these unusual lions should be on everyone’s must-see list.

Desert adaptation is the key to their survival
It’s hard to imagine anything surviving on the Skeleton Coast, the world’s oldest desert, spanning thousands of miles along the western border of Namibia. Between the lack of food and water, sand storms, blinding fog, and drastic changes in temperature from bitter cold to blazing hot, often within the same day, it’s one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet—and the last place I expected to see a pride of lions.

Indigenous to the region, desert-adapted lions are the same species as their counterparts elsewhere in Africa, but over countless generations have evolved to endure what the others cannot. To withstand the arid wasteland, the lions can go without water, deriving what they need from the blood of their prey. Their coats are slightly heavier to protect them from the cold, and they can travel long-distances in search of food.

Namibia's desert-adapted lions Photo by Susan Portnoy

Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

They were thought to be extinct
The number-one threat to the survival of desert lions is human-lion conflict—namely, villagers who shoot or kill the big cats to protect their livestock. In the early ‘80s, multiple adult lions were shot, and for some time they were thought to be extinct. But the lions prevailed and were later discovered in the mountains to the east. Over the years the population grew, and today there are approximately 150 lions in the region. With such a small number, however, the gene pool can be easily compromised. The loss of only a few breeding adults could potentially tip the scales toward disaster.

nambia desert lions Flip Stander Photo by Susan Portnoy

Dr. Philip “Flip” Stander spends four months at a time alone in the desert in his research vehicle, studying Namibia’s desert lions. Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

They have a champion
Spending up to four months at a time alone in the desert in his research vehicle slash home-away-from-home, Dr. Philip “Flip” Stander is the foremost expert on desert-adapted lions and, for 18 years, their proverbal knight in shining armor. The epitome of the stereotypical misanthropic field researcher, Stander sports a rugged beard, deeply tanned skin, and writes his notes on his arms with a Sharpie. He’s devoted his life to studying the cats and to developing tactics that will help the lions and villagers to co-exist. In 1998, he founded Desert Lion Conservation Project, to “collect sound ecological data, address human-lion conflicts, and to develop a conservation strategy.”

Stander believes tourism plays a crucial role in the lions’ future. The cats are a big draw for Namibia and, the more dollars associated with them, the more reason everyone has to keep them alive. The problem is that many of the people in the villages who are forced to live with the lions aren’t seeing the benefits of bearing the burden. Stander hopes that by educating travelers and working with the government and villagers on the ground, he can help bridge the gap.

Five cubs hold the key to the future
Two years ago tragedy struck: One of the few remaining adult male lions was shot. The fate of the population, once again, seemed doomed. But Mother Nature stepped in. At about the same time, three females from the Floodplain pride—a mother and her two daughters—gave birth to five male cubs, an almost unheard-of scenario in the wild. In one fell swoop, a brighter future seemed possible, as long as the lions could stay alive and breed.

Coined the Five Musketeers, they’re a lucky bunch. In the wild, 80% of cubs die before the age of two, and yet all of them have successfully reached that milestone. Soon they will permanently separate from their mothers in search of females with whom they can mate.

The Musketeers are collared and monitored very closely by Stander. The information he receives via satellite helps him to track their movements and study their behaviors. He also uses the collars to provide Hoanib with their location so that guests can see them if they’re in range. In return, the camp’s parent company, Wilderness Safaris, helps Stander with funding and logistics. Without Standers’ intel, the lions’ territory is so vast and the terrain so difficult, they would be almost impossible to find.

Namibia's desert-adapted lions Photo by Susan Portnoy

Namibia’s desert-adapted lions; the young ones are collared and monitored by the Desert Lion Conservation Project. Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

Lions don’t like stand-up comedy
When trying to navigate the delicate balance between humans and lions, it pays to be creative. Take a recent incident where the big cats were detected in the vicinity of a large herd of cattle along the Hoanib Riverbed. Stander knew that tempers would flare and lions could be killed if he didn’t do something to intervene. Physically moving the cats is a last resort, so he used his vehicle’s sound system to broadcast loud music and human voices in hopes of driving the lions out. According to Stander, he blasted, “stand-up comedy shows with female or high-pitched male voices. The latter proved to be particularly annoying to the lions and they moved away from the danger area. (Thanks goes to Bill Connolly & Ben Elton).”

The Five Musketeers will air on the small screen
The Five Musketeers are stars in Namibia; soon they will be celebs around the world. Will and Leanne Steenkamp of Into Nature Productions spent two years battling the desert and working with Stander to film the lions from young cubs to current day. The film, called The Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib, looks at their herculean efforts to survive the Skeleton Coast and the lives of their matriarch (of sorts), the majestic Queen. The documentary will air on the Smithsonian channel later this summer.

Disclosure: Susan was a guest of Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp during her visit. While discussion of her journey was expected on her own blog, The Insatiable Traveler, how and what she chose to write was completely at her discretion.

 

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.


 

Read more about Susan Portnoy’s trip to Namibia at her own site, The Insatiable Traveler, and follow her at facebook.com/Insatiabletraveler and @susanportnoy.

Mombacho Volcano and Lake Nicaragua

Seven Spectacular Places to Celebrate Earth Day

It’s Earth Day, a day to celebrate the natural world and its beauty. And while the whole world is a worthwhile playground for those with the travel bug, these particular destinations will satisfy the desire to get back to nature—on Earth Day or any day.

Costa Rica

Kayaking in Tortuguero National Park

Kayaking in Tortuguero National Park. Photo by Sergio Pucci/Courtesy Costa Rica Expeditions.

Thrill seekers can have their pick of whitewater rafting, zip-lining and surfing experiences, but Priscilla Jimenez, one of our Costa Rica Trusted Travel Experts likes to highlight the often overlooked San Vito de Java region, in the southwest corner of Costa Rica, which is home to three of the country’s highlights: La Amistad International Park, one of the country’s prime hiking and birding destinations (start your hike at either the Pittier or Alta Mira ranger station); the Wilson Botanical Gardens, with its thousand-plus plant species, part of the Talamanca-Amistad Biosphere Reserve (join a guided walk or use one of the self-guided trail booklets); and finally, Golfo Dulce, a superb place for ocean kayaking, fishing, and spotting dolphins and humpback whales.

Find out more in Priscilla’s Insider’s Guide to Costa Rica’s natural wonders.

Nicaragua

Mombacho and Lake Nicaragua

Mombacho and Lake Nicaragua. Courtesy Nica Adventures

Pierre Gédéon, our Trusted Travel Expert for Nicaragua, says the place to experience untouched nature at its best is the Rio Indio Lodge, close to Rio Maíz National Park and the Costa Rican border—at the spot where the San Juan River spills into the Caribbean. Amid your fishing, birding, and hiking, make time for a visit to sleepy San Juan de Nicaragua, founded by the Spanish in 1539. For more of an adrenaline rush, sandboard down the still-active Cerro Negro Volcano or kayak through the islands formed by an ancient eruption of the Mombacho volcano.

Find out more in Pierre’s Insider’s Guide to Nicaragua

The Arctic

Polar bear, Svalbard, Arctic

Polar bear, Sea Ice Svalbard, Arctic. Photo by Shelley Fry.

Our Trusted Travel Expert for small-ship expedition cruises, Ashton Palmer, spent nearly a decade as an expedition leader, guide, naturalist, conservationist, Zodiac driver, bird-watcher, and photographer in the last great wild places: the Arctic, Antarctica, the Amazon, and the South Pacific. The prime time and spot to see polar bears, he says, is mid- to late June on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, home to about 3,000 of them in the wild.

Find out more in Ashton’s Insider’s Guide to the Arctic by Land and Sea

Patagonia

Estancia Nibepo Aike, Los Glacieras National Park. Photo courtesy Southwind Adventures.

Estancia Nibepo Aike, Los Glacieras National Park. Photo courtesy Southwind Adventures.

It’s just about winter in Patagonia now, but come October, it’ll be the ideal shoulder season, with fewer tourists and more opportunity to spot elusive wildlife. Tom Damon, our Trusted Travel Expert for Patagonia, says the country is a hiker’s dream, in part because of the low elevations compared to the Andes farther north in Peru. If you only have time for one hike in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, don’t miss the flower-filled route following the Electrico River to its junction with the Blanco. After a gradual uphill hike, have lunch close to where climbers stage their big wall climbs up Fitz Roy. The gem of this day is not descending to town as others do but, rather, venturing up a zigzag trail (1,300 feet higher in elevation) to top out at Laguna de los Tres. It’s a completely still lake that reflects the light and vertical rock of Fitz Roy’s east face, the spire of Poincenot Needle, and the unusually blue Piedras Blancas Glacier.

Read more of Tom’s Insider’s Guide to Patagonia

Africa

Elephants in the Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Photo courtesy Linda Friedman.

Elephants in the Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Photo courtesy Linda Friedman.

A safari reminds us of the world we need to be protecting—and the animals we share it with. On this sprawling continent, you have many options for a memorable safari: elephants in Zambia, gorillas in Uganda, the great wildebeest and zebra migration in Kenya and Tanzania, lions in South Africa, big cats in Botswana, even an Africa cruise to many of these locations. The options are unlimited. Find the right one for you by exploring our Insider’s Guides to a range of African destinations.

Read more of our Insider’s Guides to Africa

New Zealand

Fiordland Lake, helicopter

Fiordland Lake by helicopter. Photograph courtesy of Jean-Michel Jefferson

New Zealand is a year-round adventure mecca, but each season has its advantages. Jean-Michel Jefferson, our Trusted Travel Expert for New Zealand, picks February as the best summer month, with the most reliable dry and warm weather. Temperatures begin dropping slightly in March, which is nice for hikers and cyclists. April and May bring beautiful autumn colors and cooler weather. August is the top month for skiing: New Zealand has some of the finest heli-skiing in the world, and combining this with a tropical island can be fun. To get off the beaten path, don’t miss the South Island’s east coast which has long been overlooked in favor of the enormously popular west coast (which is also beautiful; see Fiordland, pictured). But now the east coast is on the map, led by places like the lovely historic coastal town of Oamaru. Want to see some real New Zealand? This is it. From Oamaru, a drive through the wide-open landscapes of Central Otago is inspiring and well off the normal tourist tracks, and both areas now also have excellent places to stay.

Read more of Jean-Michel’s Insider’s Guide to Active New Zealand

British Columbia, Canada

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve british columbia

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Photo courtesy Destination BC.

Summer is prime time in British Columbia for kayaking, hiking, fishing, and river rafting, not to mention bear- and whale-watching. Marc Telio, our Trusted Travel Expert for the region, recommends exploring the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which comprises three southern sections of Vancouver Island’s coastline. This area is wild and dramatic, backed by the Vancouver Island Ranges and facing the Pacific Ocean. It has everything from lush rainforest to pristine beaches, with endless hiking trails and excursions for whale watching, bear watching, bird watching, and kayaking. You can also learn about the culture of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, who have occupied this area for centuries. The park is a lovely full-day drive from Vancouver, a half-day trip from Victoria, or a brief flight from either.

Read Marc’s Insider’s Guide to British Columbia

What are your favorite destinations for experiencing nature?

elephants locking trunks safari Photo by Susan Portnoy

Safari Packing List: Don’t Leave Home Without These Essentials

If you’re looking for a thrilling adventure, an African safari is a no-brainer. But wide-ranging temperatures and internal flights with stringent luggage restrictions can make safari packing a real challenge.

Basic requirements include sunscreen, a camera, a good hat, and sporty shoes, of course, but when space and weight are at a premium, what else do you choose and what can you lose? We interviewed our Trusted Travel Experts for Africa to glean the secrets to packing smart for a safari.

lion yawning safari Photo by Susan Portnoy

Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

For every safari:

Use a soft, malleable bag with no wheels.
To maximize your options, your best bet is a soft bag that’s flexible enough to squeeze into a tiny storage compartment (wheels are a no-no).
Linda Friedman of Custom Safaris
likes The North Face medium-sized Base Camp Duffel. The Base Camp has internal pockets and can be carried traditionally or as a backpack. Nina Wennersten of Hippo Creek Safaris recommends the L.L. Bean medium-sized Adventure Duffel, what with its super-lightweight fabric weighing a mere 14 ounces.

Count on free laundry.
Flying into the bush means you’ll be on small planes with very little cargo space. Assume you’ll have a limit of 15kg/33lbs per person—camera equipment and carry-on included. The good news: Camps provide free laundry service (though not all of them will launder your undies) so think about packing for a long, adventure weekend—not the full length of your trip—knowing you’ll be able to enjoy clean clothes as needed.

Cheetah in Kenya Photo by Susan Portnoy

Cheetah in Kenya. Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

Stick to neutral tones.
Avoid bright colors that scream “I’m here!” to the animals, and avoid wearing black or dark blue while on game drives, as annoying bugs may think you’re a skinny buffalo.

Think layers
African weather is variable: Evenings and early morning are chilly, but it’s toasty by midday, if not sooner. Layers will keep you prepared for anything. Pants, a T-shirt, a fleece and a light jacket usually suffice outside of the winter months and enable you to peel down as the sun kicks in. Lightweight cargo pants that unzip into shorts are a great way to get two pieces for the price of one. For women, Cherri Briggs of Explore recommends adding a cashmere shawl. It’ll keep you warm when needed, dress up an outfit at dinner, or double as a cover-up at the pool.

Save space for a power strip and other non-clothing essentials.
Even the most luxurious camps have a limited number of outlets in each guest tent, so our experts suggest adding a travel power strip to your packing list so that you can charge everything you need each night. And don’t forget a universal adapter. It will come in handy no matter where you travel. Bring an ultra-light day pack that you can take with you on game drives to carry an extra camera battery, an extra memory card, a pocket journal, your sunglasses, sunscreen, and the like.

For photography enthusiasts who plan on taking a boatload of photos, a small portable hard drive, like Silicon Power’s Rugged Armor 1TB external drive, is highly recommended.

A herd of hippos in Botswana Photo by Susan Portnoy

A herd of hippos in Botswana. Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

For specific locations:

Botswana
During the rainy season (November–February) “a lightweight rain poncho may come in handy,” says Julian Harrison of Premier Tours. If you’re planning on riding in a mokoro, he also recommends including a waterproof bag to store your electronics. In the Okavango Delta, because travel between camps consists of short, small plane rides, you may wish to include Dramamine if you’re prone to motion sickness.

Read Julian’s Insider’s Guide to Botswana.

The Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda
Julian recommends bringing silica gel dry packs to put in your camera bags; they will protect your electronic devices from the high humidity. Quick-dry shirts and pants will protect you against the humidity, and a pair of gardening gloves will shield your hands from stinging nettles if you’re trekking gorilla or chimpanzee.

Since plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda to help the country cut down on litter and will be confiscated on arrival, Linda suggests reusable pouches for all the odd and ends you would normally toss into zip-top bags.

Read Linda’s Insider’s Guide to Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda and Uganda.

Photographing Lions in Botswana Photo by Susan Portnoy

Photographing lions in Botswana. Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania
Some of the best game viewing is during Africa’s winter months (May–August), but the weather can be very cold at night and in the early morning. Nina packs a warm hat, gloves, and a Uniqlo Ultra Light down jacket. She says, “It’s virtually weightless, takes up little room in a suitcase,” and works great on its own or as another layer for when it’s really chilly.

Read Linda’s Insider’s Guide to Kenya’s Great Migration; and Nina’s Insider’s Guides to South Africa and Kenya and Tanzania.

Namibia and Zambia
If you’re visiting during the hot season (October–February), Cherri warns, “Be prepared for serious heat!” She suggests travelers bring plenty of Rehydrate, an electrolyte replacement drink mix, to keep you happy and healthy while out and about. She also recommends putting Listerine in a spray bottle to repel tsetse flies. If you’re going on a walking safari in South Luangwa, Zambia, Julian suggests adding a pair of gaiters to your packing list to keep ticks from attaching to your socks.

Read Cherri’s Insider’s Guide to Namibia and her Insider’s Guide to Zambia.

 

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.


 

Read more from Susan Portnoy at her own site, The Insatiable Traveler, and follow her at facebook.com/Insatiabletraveler and @susanportnoy.

Sahara Morocco Helicopter Landing

Video: My Stunning Helicopter Ride Over the Sahara

Luxury travel used to mean staying in opulent places. Today it means something different entirely. I’m just back from the greatest luxury of all: Space, silence, and solitude in a place of extreme natural beauty. In a world filled with tourist destinations spoiled by crowds and overbuilding, it seems like the ultimate luxury to have sunrise, sunset, and unobstructed panoramic views all to yourself.

That’s what I had. In the Sahara Desert. I hopped a helicopter from Marrakech to what is probably the most remote part of Morocco. There was nothing but empty sand dunes for as far as the eye could see…and for many miles beyond that. Three friends and I were the only people to land in the desert encampment there and live out our Lawrence of Arabia fantasies for a night. (That’s besides the staff who set up our tents, prepared our meals, and carried our bags but otherwise remained out of sight behind a dune.)

The best way to hire a chopper to land you in a remote part of the Sahara changes from year to year, and some desert camps are a lot more luxurious and atmospheric than others. For up-to-date advice, write to Ask Wendy.

Triple Creek Ranch in winter

5 Surprising Reasons to Visit a Guest Ranch in Winter (Instead of Summer)

You might think, “Who on earth would want to go to a ranch in winter? You can’t horseback ride, you can’t fly fish, you can’t hike…” But, actually, guest ranches offer a surprising range of fun activities during the winter, as well as an unexpectedly snug atmosphere—what’s more, there are even a few ways to save some money.

I happen to be at Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana right now, an adults-only resort voted the No. 1 hotel in the world by Travel and Leisure readers this year (and No. 5 by Condé Nast Traveler readers), and thanks to a subzero cold snap, I’m seeing first-hand how fun a winter ranch vacation can be.

1. Winter sports are breathtaking.

Even bundled up in a hat, chaps, and a duster coat, I had a blast horseback riding through the snow.

Even bundled up in a hat, chaps, and a duster coat, I had a blast horseback riding through the snow.

You don’t have to be an extreme skier to get an adrenaline rush from snow sports. Sure, horseback riding is fun during the summer, but sprinkle a few inches of snow over the fields and pine trees of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, where Triple Creek Ranch is located, and it becomes downright magical. The same goes for other activities you might normally associate with warm weather: archery, fishing, trap shooting, wildlife spotting. At TCR, all of these are doable—and definitely worth doing—even in the cold, and they usually come with the added benefit of a thermos of homemade hot chocolate, a personal bonfire where possible (like at the archery range), and a chauffeur to take you back and forth.

Then there are all the pulse-raising sports you can only do in winter: downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, and skijoring (a Norwegian sport that’s basically like water skiing but instead of water, you ski on snow, and instead of being pulled by a boat you’re pulled by a horse).

And don’t worry if you didn’t pack enough warm clothes, TCR has a trove of parkas, gloves, earmuffs, boots, hats, and other gear available for anyone to use. I’ve been hoarding hand warmers myself.

2. The indoors can be as much fun as the outdoors.

In the dead of winter, when nothing sounds better than hunkering down with a hearty meal and a bottle of wine, Triple Creek hosts special event weekends for foodies and oenophiles. And the best part? They’re available to all guests at no extra charge.

A cooking class with executive chef Jacob Leatherman, Triple Creek Ranch

A cooking class with executive chef Jacob Leatherman. Photo courtesy Triple Creek Ranch.

For instance, the ranch hosts Cooking School weekends, when executive chef Jacob Leatherman and his sous chef, pastry chef, and sommelier offer daily, hands-on classes. In the past, cooking weekends have included visits from vintners, tastings, and wine-pairing lessons. This is no amateur-hour wine program either: Every year for the past ten, Triple Creek has won Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for its cellar of more than 500 bottles. So even if you miss the vintner weekends, you can sample plenty of impressive bottles throughout your stay—all house wines, spirits and beers are free while you’re here, whether you choose to sip them with your meals (also included) or in front of the fireplace in your cabin, where your wet bar is complimentary too.

And of course, the holidays are their own special events. In addition to festive meals and parties over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, at Triple Creek, you can have your own Christmas tree (real or fake) set up in your cabin. Bring your own ornaments or decorate with the ranch’s stash once you get here.

3. Special stuff is free in the winter.

Most guest ranches offer some type of all-inclusive pricing plan, and (as at Triple Creek) many of your activities will be included in the cost of your stay—but not all. Nevertheless, thanks to seasonal circumstances or special relationships, sometimes activities that would normally cost extra are given away for free. For example, every year during January, guests each get one complimentary dog-sled ride, because the dogs are already in residence training for their races.

Dog sledding at Triple Creek Ranch

Every guest gets a free dog-sledding session during the first few weeks of January. Photo courtesy Triple Creek Ranch.

Off-ranch horse rides are complimentary here in the winter (usually $150 per person), and so are downhill skiing, and guided snowshoeing, fat tire biking and cross-country skiing
excursions. Triple Creek is about a half hour from a hidden ski gem, Lost Trail Powder Mountain, which remains little-known outside of Montana even though it boasts an average of 300 inches of snow per year on its 1,800 acres and 50 runs. TCR guests are entitled to as many complimentary lift tickets as they can handle during their stay, plus equipment and transportation to and from the mountain. Better yet, the staff will bring along hot drinks when they pick you up, and then drop you off at the private hot tub back at your cabin, for your own personal après-ski session.

4. Winter travel can mean seasonal deals.

Be sure to ask about special winter deals wherever you’re booking your guest-ranch vacation: The low season after the holidays can translate to savings, and add-on experiences sometimes bundle activities together at a lower price point. For example, the “Experience Winter” add-on tops off the ranch’s all-inclusive activities with a private guided snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or fat-tire biking tour for two, plus an in-cabin couple’s massage, and hot chocolate and s’mores when you arrive. And as with all stays here, the price includes all meals, all house wines and spirits, many activities and equipment, and (my favorite) chocolate-chip cookies and granola dropped off in your cabin every day.

Pintler cabin (where I'm staying). Photo by Walter Hodges/Courtesy Triple Creek Ranch.

Pintler cabin (where I’m staying). Photo by Walter Hodges/Courtesy Triple Creek Ranch.

5. There might not be anything cozier than a mountain ranch in the snow.

Which brings us to the fireplaces: Fireplaces in your cabin. Fireplaces in the lodge. Fireplaces in the cocktail lounge. Fireplaces everywhere—there’s even a nightly bonfire outside the main lodge, with s’mores.

Don’t feel like sharing? No problem. Every cabin has at least one fireplace (prepped by housekeeping every day), and most cabins also have their own outdoor hot tub on a private deck (a few of the lower-priced cabins share a communal hot tub in a wooded nook, and two ‘honeymoon’ cabins have indoor whirlpools instead). You can even order in a massage—to be enjoyed in front of the fireplace, of course—and all your meals. Seriously, if you were so inclined, you could never step foot outside your winter ranch hideaway, and you’d still have a great vacation.

View from a hot tub at Triple Creek Ranch

View from a hot tub at Triple Creek Ranch

Contact Wendy to find the right Trusted Travel Expert to plan your trip out west.

*Disclosure: Triple Creek Ranch provided me with a three-night stay free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Triple Creek Ranch’s part, nor was anything promised on ours. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and Triple Creek Ranch here.