Tag Archives: Destination

Brook and family in Southeast Asia.

Private Guides: The Essential Ingredient That Can Make or Break a Trip

There are a lot of people who play a role in making a WOW trip exceptional, but it’s the private local guides who are the linchpin. These on-the-ground fixers bring to life the words on the pages of your itinerary; pivot when weather, crowds, or unexpected events require a change of plans; and open a window to the local culture of the place you’re visiting. (No, I’m not talking about the tour guides you see holding flags and wielding microphones to keep a large group of travelers in line with their scripted dialogue!)

People who think that experienced travelers don’t need a local guide are doing themselves a disservice:  It’s only from guides that I’ve learned about a million things in my travels—from the right way to drink mate in Chile to wedding customs in Egypt to reading fortune sticks in Laos (that’s my Laotian private guide, above, showing me around the temple at Vat Phou). My favorite moments with a guide usually happen in the interstitials—say, a conversation about family dynamics or pop culture that transpires while driving between sights or over a meal.

It’s not by chance that the local trip-planning experts on Wendy’s WOW List work with the best guides in the business; each expert has spent considerable time testing—and continually training—local guides in their destination. When they match you to the right guide based on your interest in Portuguese wine or your kid’s fascination with Greek mythology, the result can be magical. But don’t take my word for it: Check out the reviews below from your fellow travelers about their favorite private guides.

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Ireland: “When we parted company, I felt that we were saying goodbye to a brother. Brendan is smart, gracious, well-prepared, discreet, funny, full of stories…”

Travelers Sheila Morse and husband Dick Smith at Killarney National Park's Torc Waterfall, Ireland.

Sheila Morse and husband Dick Smith at Killarney National Park’s Torc Waterfall.

“My initial approach was to downplay the importance of nice hotels, as we intended to spend so little time in our rooms. Thank goodness Jonathan convinced us otherwise. Each of the three hotels reserved for us were not just great places to sleep. The ambiance, breakfasts, locations, special welcomes in each room, staff—all were superb and much appreciated after a full day of exploring and learning.

  • Windows in our room in the Great Southern Killarney hotel opened onto an inner garden. We thoroughly enjoyed an Irish whisky tasting one evening after dinner.
  • Mount Juliet near Kilkenny was beautiful! Our ‘windows’ were doors opening into beautiful green spaces. It was lovely to have a delicious cake and local honey waiting for us in the room!
  • The Dylan Hotel in Dublin was extraordinary! Again, superb breakfasts and drinks on the house one evening. It was within walking distance of every place we wanted to see.

We had naively thought that it was possible to drive far greater distances than the itinerary we finally settled on. Again, Jonathan’s gentle guidance proved wise. We traveled from Shannon to Killarney and ventured out from there for three days, then to Kilkenny for two days, and on to Dublin for three. That, in fact, was a lot to take in.

Weather was the only thing that didn’t synch up with all these extraordinary arrangements. We experienced rainy, cold, blustery winds, and moments of sunshine. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves! (See wet slickers and cold noses in the photo!)

Brendan Glynn was our driver/guide for all but Dublin. He met us at Shannon and spent five full days with us. When we parted company, I felt that we were saying goodbye to a brother. Brendan is smart, gracious, well-prepared, discreet, funny, full of stories, and has a vast store of knowledge about everything we were seeing. He’s a fabulous driver. He provided valuable and entirely reliable recommendations throughout our stay. I lost my debit card and could not make satisfactory arrangements to get cash. Brendan allowed me to transfer funds from my bank to his and, in full faith that the transfer would be executed satisfactorily, advanced me Euros.

Brendan took us to Dingle Crystal, a small, seemingly out-of-the-way artisan craft shop where we saw some of the most beautiful crystal designs we’ve ever seen. Despite the fact that this place seems to be on at least a few tour guides’ itineraries, we were made to feel uniquely welcome by Sean Daly, the owner, and his sons. We spent time in the glass cutting room, getting a glimpse of how they ply their craft, and my husband purchased two beautiful whisky-tasting glasses.

During our time in Kilkenny, Brendan was able to arrange with the owner of Jerpoint Park to open up weeks in advance of her scheduled opening date. Maeve gave us a private, guided tour of the Lost Town of Newtown Jerpoint, a 12th-century settlement that she and her husband found was on land they bought to farm and which they excavated and reclaimed, inch by inch. We learned so much about the time, the confluence of events and landscape, and the special import of that particular location. This particular visit was a high point of our eight days in Ireland!

The drives and views were incredible, all day every day!” —Sheila Morse

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

START A TRIP TO IRELAND

Morocco: “With Jamal and Majid at our sides, it felt like we were traveling with friends we had known for a lifetime…”

Travelers Craig and Stephanie Smith with their driver and guide having dinner on the rooftop terrace of Essaouira's Salut Maroc, Morocco.

Craig and Stephanie Smith on the rooftop terrace of Essaouira’s Salut Maroc with private guide Jamal and driver Majid.

“We just returned from an amazing two weeks in Morocco. We told Radia that what was most important to us was to have a stellar guide. We also told her that we have a strong interest in music and would like to incorporate learning about Gnawa music in some way. And we told her that our hotel preference was to stay in riads instead of international chain hotels.

From the moment we were met at the Casablanca airport by our private guide Jamal and private driver Majid, we knew that we were in for an incredible trip. They were both so hospitable!  Jamal was incredibly knowledgeable about the culture and history of his country. He was very attentive to all of our needs, and he made us laugh a lot. He made sure that we saw everything on the itinerary and then some.

Majid drove us many miles in a huge loop, from Casablanca to Volubilis, to Fes, to Ifrane, to Merzouga, to Todra Valley, to Dades Gorge, to Skoura, to Marrakech, to Imlil, to Essaouira, and back to Marrakech. We always felt very safe with him behind the wheel, and he had a great sense of humor.

We stayed in beautiful riads with a very personal touch and enjoyed all kinds of delicious food. In addition to seeing many historic sites (mosques, synagogues, palaces, medinas, souks, tanneries), we also had adventures. We went for a camel ride and rode ATVs in the desert. We went for a hot-air balloon ride outside of Marrakech. We went for a hike in the High Atlas Mountains from Imlil to Armed. One of our favorite activities was the sunset motorcycle sidecar tour of Marrakech, suggested by Radia. We felt like we were in a movie, riding through the Palmerie and the medina in comfortable, roomy, sidecars. A definite must-do!

Another highlight was an impromptu visit to the Todra Valley for lunch at Jamal’s family’s home. We were so honored and humbled to be invited into their home for lively conversation and a delicious lunch. And, to satisfy our musical interest, Radia organized a thoroughly enjoyable private Gnawa music workshop with master musician Najib Soudani in Essaouira.

With Jamal and Majid at our sides, it felt like we were traveling with friends we had known for a lifetime. The itinerary was wonderful, but they made the trip into an experience that we will cherish forever.” —Stephanie and Craig Smith

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

START A TRIP TO MOROCCO

Provence: “Our guide in Provence was a gem—my whole family loved him and both his hilarious stories and historic insights…”

Virginia Socolof

Virginia Socolof overlooking the French village of Gordes with three generations of women in her family.

“I recently returned from a FABULOUS trip to France with my mother, sister, and 17-year-old daughter. This was a real bucket list item for my mother—she is 80 and wanted to see both Monet’s gardens at Giverny and Provence. Philip and his team planned and executed a wonderful itinerary that perfectly satisfied my mother’s wishes.  From the moment we landed in Paris until the day we flew out of Marseille, the drivers, excursions, and hotels exceeded our expectations.

On the day we were going to Giverny ,our van had a flat tire in the middle of the countryside, and within 30 minutes my family was in an Uber called by our heroic guide Paul, headed to Giverny with our tickets and lunch reservation in hand. Paul had the tire repaired and met us after lunch for the rest of our trip to Auvers sur Oise, but we didn’t miss a thing. Giverny was the most eagerly anticipated moment of the trip for my mother, and what could have been a disappointing travel disaster is now one of our funniest trip memories, involving aggressive strawberry buyers and a tiny blue car.

Cedric, our guide in Provence, was a gem—my whole family loved him and both his hilarious stories and historic insights. The Hotel du Pigeonnet in Aix was so very lovely, and Philip’s team also provided us with some wonderful restaurant recommendations and reservations. I began the planning process for this trip with concerns about how we could manage an experience that would make all of us happy and be comfortable enough for my mother, but Philip and his team pulled it off.” —Virginia Socolof

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

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Romania: “With the help of our guide and driver, we were able to locate both the home of my grandparents and that of my grandfather’s sister!”

The main street in Viscri, Transylvania.

The quiet main street in Viscri, Transylvania. Photo: Tim Baker

“After years of genealogical research, my siblings and I planned a trip to those areas where our parental grandparents had roots. With Raluca’s expertise, an itinerary was developed that touched the many towns and villages where our grandparents and great-grandparents were born, lived, worked, and died.

Our first stop in Romania was Arad, and with the help of our guide and driver, we were able to locate both the home of my grandparents and that of my grandfather’s sister! Then a fabulous experience occurred. We went to the cemetery to look for my grandfather’s sister’s grave. Our guide, Andrei, was able to talk to the recordkeepers, and they identified the exact location of her grave! It was overgrown, and there was no marker, but it was the right place. Our family of four (all living siblings) brought flowers and candles. (Andrei educated us on the Romanian custom to bring candles and he took us to the marketplace to buy beautiful flowers.) It was a very moving experience for all of us. We had the site cleaned up, removing the overgrown weeds on top covering it. We knew that my grandfather’s sister died alone, her life forever altered by the arrival of communism.

A word about Andrei, our guide. He was wonderful. He laughed over the fact that two of the villages we were visiting, to his knowledge, neither tourists nor locals exactly visited them. ‘No one ever wants to come to these areas. You are the first!’ Andrei meant that comment as a joke, but the reality is that it was true. As a side note, Andrei had a wonderful sense of humor and not only were we learning as we traveled, but he also constantly made us laugh. This made our long vehicle rides traveling from site to site go amazingly fast. We traveled from one end of southern Romania to the other!

Our next incredible experience was in Petrosani and, specifically, Petrila. We had a 1930s picture of my grandfather and my father at a coal mine and wanted to replicate that picture. Alas, the now defunct coal mine was locked, and we could not access the site. There was, however, one man there, and Andrei went to see if we could gain access. While this individual did not have the authority to do so, there was to be a meeting of volunteers with a guest speaker, and if we wanted to wait, we might gain access. Sure enough, men started gathering there, and the head of this group and the guest speaker eventually arrived. They were astounded we had that picture and, of course, allowed us to take pictures there. We were then invited to visit the small museum in what was previously an office building, and the guest speaker insisted on giving us a personal tour. Amazing!

My great grandfather worked for the railroads so, again, Andrei was diligent in taking us to all the sites where my great grandfather had worked and most likely lived. My grandfather was born in one of those buildings!

With the visits to our ancestral sites finished, we then toured many beautiful parts of Transylvania, enjoying great food, amazing castles, and the charming towns of Sibiu, Viscri, and then Brasov on our way to Bucharest. Our long-awaited trip could not have been better.” —Victoria W. Jones

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

START A TRIP TO ROMANIA

Machu Picchu: “His English was impeccable, and his extensive network of contacts made it seem like he knew EVERYONE in Peru…”

Machu Picchu on a cloudy day with mountains in the background.

The right guide means no waiting in lines at Machu Picchu. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

“We just returned from a fabulous 10-day trip to Peru. Allie helped us find probably the best guide in all of Peru! Our guide, Nick, met us in Cusco and was with our group of four the entire trip. His English was impeccable, and his extensive network of contacts made it seem like he knew EVERYONE in Peru, which became a running joke. However, it became central to the success and ease of our trip, as he networked us to the front of lines for access to everything (including the line for buses up and back from Machu Picchu). To Allie’s credit, she had just returned from a trip to Peru a month before we left, had Nick as a tour guide, and personally selected him to be the guide for our trip, for which we cannot thank her enough!” —Julie Olson

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

START A TRIP TO PERU

Germany: “You couldn’t have a more caring or kinder person than Uli…”

Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria in a clear sky day.

Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, Germany. Photo: Shutterstock

“We just returned home from a 16-day trip to Germany. The country is scenically gorgeous, the food is outstanding, as are the wines and beers, but the very best part of Germany are its people. The German people are polite, welcoming, and very helpful. They take pride in what they do, and in their country. It is sparkling clean and safe at all hours of the day and night. My husband and I saw so many young people out late at night having a wonderful time. Overall, it’s a country that has not forgotten its past, good and bad, and looks forward to the future with acceptance and love.

Our driver and guide, Ulrich, was absolutely amazing: an excellent driver, compassionate human being and a gentle giant of a man. I really messed up and left part of my CPAP equipment in the hotel we had last stayed at and did not realize it until I unpacked at the next destination, after we all had said good night to each other. When Uli found out, he drove back to the hotel while we were enjoying a leisurely dinner to retrieve it for me. A 4-hour back-and-forth drive after a day of touring and guiding us, just to make sure I had what I needed. You couldn’t have a more caring or kinder person than Uli.

We had an arrangement for us to visit Neuschwanstein Castle before it opened to the public. This involved pushing me in a wheelchair up a 20-degree incline of about 1,000 feet. Uli never complained or seemed to resent aiding me throughout the trip. Mr. Wonderful for sure!” —Lya Eisenberg

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

START A TRIP TO GERMANY

Newfoundland: “We expected a city tour, but Mike gave us much more than that…”

Gros Morne Western Brook Pond fjord, Newfoundland

Western Brook Pond, a fjord in Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park. Photo: Maxxim Vacations

Jill connected us with two local guides who were amazing. We learned so much from them. The first experience was with Mike Edmunds the day after we landed in St John’s. We expected a city tour, but Mike gave us much more than that: an introduction to the culture, the economy, and the ‘language’ of Newfoundland. This single experience set the context for our entire trip.

In Port Rexton a few days later, we had breakfast with Paul Dean, a geologist and former director of the Johnson Geo Center, followed by a guided hike of the Skerwink Trail. Imagine what an experience this was! Paul knows the geology—and the local plants, etc.—of Newfoundland and Labrador first-hand, and was extremely generous in sharing his knowledge with us.

There was so much to see and explore, our three weeks didn’t provide enough time. There are many small, local attractions that address the history, culture, and geology of the specific area that you are visiting.” Don and Marie Osdale

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

START A TRIP TO ATLANTIC CANADA

Vietnam & Cambodia: “Our guides were fine with things changing on the fly, which is crucial when traveling with small children…”

The clear, blue water of Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam.

Cat Ba Island in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Shutterstock

“We just returned from a 16-day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia planned by Ethan and Sandy. My husband and I traveled with our two kids (aged almost 5, and 7.5) and we all had a blast.

Our guides were so dedicated to ensuring we had the best trip possible. They were super flexible and were fine with things changing on the fly, which is crucial when traveling with small children. They also knew all the tricks—in Siem Reap, for example, our guide Dey knew that there were monkeys near one of the temples that liked eating lotus plants, so he stopped at a stand selling lotus plants and got some so the boys could feed the monkeys, which they loved. The two-night cruise through Lan Ha Bay was great (thanks to Ethan for leveraging his connections to get the boat to flex on age requirements for my youngest).

And, while not a highlight, our guide in Hanoi, Mike, was truly wonderful about taking me to the doctor when I woke up on our first day in Vietnam and discovered I had pink eye. The way Ethan and Sandy do their trips, with complete flexibility toward your schedule, is something that I didn’t fully appreciate until I was actually on the trip. Being able to change your plans in-the-moment is so wonderful—and knowing we have a driver and guide for whatever we decide to do was key. We had a few times where the kids (or adults) were exhausted and just wanted to swim or relax—so we pivoted and moved things around, making a lunch a dinner or moving touring to a different day, and it was just so wonderful to have the flexibility and not feel like we had to do something then because it was scheduled and paid for. It truly made it so that every day of our vacation was OUR vacation, and we appreciated that.” —Kim Segal

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

START A TRIP TO SOUTHEAST ASIA

Belize & Guatemala: “We had a phenomenal guide with Brainerd—very knowledgeable, warm, and just a lot of fun…”

empty white sand beach with a few green trees and light turquoise water in Belize

The right local guide knows which of Belize’s beaches you can have to yourself. Photo: Shutterstock

“We had a wonderful trip to Belize and Guatemala planned for us by Patricia. Over the years, we’ve learned that a guide can make or break a trip. We had a phenomenal guide with Brainerd—very knowledgeable, warm, and just a lot of fun. He took loads of photos of us with my phone and his own. He later sent me the ones he took, which I very much appreciated because I make a photo book of all our trips.

We stayed first at the Lodge at Chaa Creek, a 400-acre eco-resort. Lots to do there: visit the butterfly farm, the natural history exhibit, the organic farm; canoe; hike; birdwatch; or sit with a delicious drink and admire the beautiful grounds. We used Chaa Creek as a base from which to explore the Maya ceremonial centers at nearby Xunantunich and Tikal in Guatemala.

The Naia Resort, right on the beach near Placencia, was lovely. We were very happy with our little bungalow, which was about 30 feet from the water. While we were there, Patricia arranged for us to spend time with a group of six Maya sisters who taught us how to cook on an open hearth, weave baskets, and extract the juice from sugar cane. It was fun! We really enjoyed our trip and met people who go to Belize year after year. We can understand why.” —Catherine Mathis

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

START A TRIP TO BELIZE OR GUATEMALA

Egypt: “She naturally struck the right balance between providing us enough information/details and also being helpful with avoiding crowds…”

pyramids in egypt

The Pyramids of Giza. Photo: Jim Berkeley/Destinations & Adventures

My husband and I had such a fabulous time in Egypt, thanks to Jim’s and Arlene’s hard work and guidance. We chose Egypt as a milestone birthday trip for my husband, and the whole trip was truly special. On our first day in Cairo, we saw the Sphinx, Pyramids at Giza, Saqqara, and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Eman was our Egyptologist in Cairo, and she was simply wonderful. She naturally struck the right balance between providing us enough information/details and also being helpful with avoiding crowds and finding photo opportunities. Plus, she was just pleasant to be around—it felt like touring Cairo with a family friend. Our first day was so spectacular that I was a little worried no other days would live up to Day 1 (I was wrong).

I loved our two nights in Aswan and REALLY loved the Old Cataract Hotel. For our WOW Moment, we had a sunset dinner on the Nile on a yacht. Abu Simbel completely blew me away. The dahabiya was a great experience. The crew and all other passengers sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to my husband, and it was a lovely celebration. By the time we got to Luxor, I was worried I might be a little underwhelmed by remaining temples and tombs—that was the furthest from the truth. Queen Nefertari’s Tomb was just incredible—my favorite of all the tombs and temples we visited in the Luxor area. I just wish we’d had one more night at the Winter Palace.” —Maeghan Whitehead

Read more reviews of Egypt trips. Learn how to get your own WOW Moment. Then use our trip questionnaire (reached via the black button below) to start a WOW trip.

START A TRIP TO EGYPT

Sicily: “Without the guide’s encouragement, I might not have climbed to the top of the cathedral and taken the outside walkway along the roof…”

The view of Sicily's western coastline and Monte Cofano seen from Erice.

Sicily’s western coastline and Monte Cofano, as seen from Erice. Photo: Traveler Nancy Footer

“I took the advice found in many reviews by previous clients and gave Marcello and Matteo free rein to design the itinerary, and I am so glad I did. I spent my first day in Palermo—such a bustling and exquisite city—seeing all the key historic sites, the waterfront, and the Capo Mercato with Giorgio, a thoroughly charming and expert guide. The following day I ventured out of Palermo with a driver and fantastic guide to visit Monreale Cathedral, a World Heritage Site and truly one of the most spectacular cathedrals I have ever visited. The guide made the visit so memorable: Her knowledge of history, architecture and design was magnificent, and I really appreciated the chance to linger while other visitors were clearly being hustled in and out. Without the guide’s encouragement, I might not have climbed to the top of the cathedral and taken the outside walkway along the roof—the views were beautiful and more than worth the climb.

We traveled next into the hills near Camporeale for a private tour, lunch and tasting at Porta del Vento winery. Marco, the owner, was a generous and engaging host, and I appreciated learning about his wines and his journey to becoming a vintner. It was a treat to see the harvest, learn about the winemaking process and then taste his award-winning wines.

And then, when I thought the day couldn’t get any better, I was surprised with a WOW Moment—a private dinner at the home of chef Gabriella Garajo. The meal was remarkable—contemporary versions of Sicilian classics made with local ingredients served at Gabriella’s dining table set with her family china and silver. It was a perfect finish to a most memorable day.

I spent the remainder of my week in Trapani, a gorgeous seaside city in western Sicily. From my base in Trapani, I spent several hours touring the archeological park at Segesta, including the temple and theater. Valentina, my guide, was so knowledgeable and personable—she really made the history and importance of the site come alive. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Erice—on everyone’s must-see list in western Sicily, as it is situated 2,000 feet above Trapani with panoramic views in all directions. The cathedral, many churches, and castle are not to be missed. Marcello and Matteo arranged a tasting at Maria Grammatico’s famous pastry shop—a dream come true for this lover of sweets! My guide and I spent the remainder of the afternoon touring Trapani, even encountering a wedding at the cathedral.” —Nancy Footer

Read more reviews of Sicily trips. Learn how to get your own WOW Moment. Then use our trip questionnaire (reached via the black button below) to start a WOW trip.

START A TRIP TO SICILY

Istanbul: “Cenk is a phenomenal guide. He is charming, knowledgeable, fun and warm…”

rainbow umbrellas hover over a street of shops and restaurants in Istanbul turkey

A colorful street scene in Istanbul. Photo: Tim Baker

“The plan was to spend three days in Istanbul following a Ponant cruise in Greece. Midway through the cruise, the anti-Israel and antisemitism demonstrations in Europe caused us to reach out to Karen over our concerns for safety in Istanbul. She outlined what was happening in Turkey and emphasized that we would be okay and that it was business as usual.

Our three days were memorable. Cenk is a phenomenal guide. He is charming, knowledgeable, fun and warm. We enjoyed learning about Turkish history and were surprised at how little we knew. The tourist sites were crowded, but we were able to get in and out without waiting. The shops in the Grand Bazaar were fabulous, and our cooking class was fun and yummy—one of the best organized cooking classes we have taken.” —Debbie Littman

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

START A TRIP TO TURKEY

East Africa: “He was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the animals and their habitats…”

Dan Friedman

A great guide will spot leopards even when they’re lazing up in the trees. Photo: Traveler Dan Friedman

Dan arranged the trip of a lifetime for me, my wife, and our son and daughter-in-law. It was a private safari in Tanzania and then a few days in Rwanda and Nairobi. Every detail was taken care of—basically all we had to do was show up….

Dan selected great guides for our trip. In Tanzania our guide, Vienney, was with us the entire nine days we were there. He was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the animals and their habits. With his deep knowledge, he was able to predict where we were most likely to see the rare cats—cheetahs and leopards—and we saw them all. Often we were the only safari vehicle at the site. While in the Serengeti we witnessed the Great Migration, where thousands of wildebeest and zebras head east to areas with more water—an amazing sight.

From the Serengeti we flew to Rwanda, where Dan had arranged treks to see the mountain gorillas. The treks are arduous, but very worthwhile. It’s an effort, but once you encounter a gorilla family, the experience will amaze you. Their behavior is so much more human-like than I imagined. This is a breathtaking experience that you will never forget.” —Dan Friedman

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

START AN AFRICAN SAFARI

 

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Andrea's daughter on her private wakeboarding session on Lake Como.

Beat the Summer Heat in Europe with a Cool Trip Itinerary

Extreme heat is forecast for Europe again this summer.  Mediterranean Europe suffered a record-breaking heat wave last summer, and in some spots, high humidity or wildfires made it worse. Fortunately, the itineraries designed for our travelers by WOW List experts deliver relief. (Example: The private wakeboarding session on Lake Como pictured above.)  These trip reviews from last summer provide great ideas for beating the heat, including:

  • Get out of the cities and onto (or into) the water. If there’s no sea or lake nearby, think higher elevations in the countryside.
  • Consider water-based transport between the locations on your itinerary. Take shaded, breezy boats, from ferries to private water taxis.
  • Include excursions on the water, from sailboat tours to river rafting.
  • Limit outdoor activities to the morning and evening.  Spend the hottest part of the day (the afternoons) in air-conditioned or underground places. Think modern indoor museums, gelato-making classes, tastings in wine cellars, crypts and catacombs.
  • Pick waterfront accommodations and rooms with breezy balconies. In inland cities, think hotels with rooftop pools.
  • Choose northern Europe over southern (as we’ve been advising since January). The Matterhorn, fjords, waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks hit the spot right about now.

Keep cool out there!

START A WEATHER-PROOFED TRIP

Northern Italy: “A rooftop pool to beat the heat!”

Andrea's family enjoying the view of Florence from the rooftop pool.

Teens cooling off and enjoying the view of Florence from the Grand Hotel Minerva’s rooftop pool. Photo: Traveler Andrea Phillips

“My family of four, with two teen girls, had a wonderful and action-packed trip to Italy covering Umbria, Tuscany, Florence, Bologna, Lake Como and Milan, planned with Maria. We stayed at hotels that were the perfect fit (like the one in Florence that had a rooftop pool to beat the heat!), had the best rooms and locations and such personal service, all due to Maria’s connections. Italy was busy with travelers while we were there, but I can honestly say that it did not affect our plans at all, as Maria had it coordinated and timed out so perfectly.

This trip was also to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and Maria had suggested two stops along the way that were very special. Wow, were they ever! Borgo Santo Pietro, a working farm and wellness resort in west Tuscany, and Grand Hotel Tremezzo, near Bellagio in Lake Como. Both resorts resembled something out of a dream. Beautiful landscapes, amazing service, delicious food, gorgeous rooms, and so many amenities. At Borgo Santo Pietro, you had the feeling of being in a fairy garden wherever you went, and around every corner, there was something new to discover.

Andrea Phillips

Traveler Andrea Phillips and family enjoying a summer evening in Tuscany during their WOW trip.

The other amazing stop was the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, which is a standout feature on any Lake Como ferry ride, with its striking architecture, gardens and in-lake floating pool in front, so actually staying there was quite a treat! We enjoyed the spa, the many pools and casual restaurants, and even had a private wakeboarding session one morning on the Lake! That is a memory that will never be forgotten and made this stop my girls’ favorite! Maria also arranged a great private boat tour to visit Bellagio and the famous villas of the lake with a lovely private guide, who had access to go inside the villas and educate us on all of the historic collections and stories. It was fascinating!

We had many other activities that were also highlights. In Umbria, we went canyoning through a roaring mountain river, had an in-depth local cooking class, a gelato-making class, and went truffle hunting with the cutest, yet very talented dogs. In Siena, we had lunch on the exact alleyway where the Mille Miglia Race of Classic Cars were driving through to enter Il Campo (definitely because of Maria’s connections in Italy!). In Lucca, we rode bikes around the medieval walls where we crossed paths with a special parade of classic Fiat 500s. In Bologna, we visited one of the world’s oldest universities, and in nearby Maranello, drove Ferraris through the streets of the town where they are made!” —Andrea Phillips

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

START A TRIP TO ITALY

Turkey’s Aegean Coast: “A 6-day cruise on a gulet along the Turkish coast…”

Vanessa Hulme

Travelers Vanessa and Colin Hulme aboard their private yacht on Turkey’s Aegean coast.

Karen and her team planned an absolutely flawless vacation for my husband and me for 3 days in Istanbul and a 6-day cruise on a gulet along the Turkish coast. Our incredible guide in Istanbul, Sinan, not only showed us the tourist highlights, but out-of-the ordinary places we would never have found on our own. He also introduced us to real Turkish food, even going so far as booking a dinner reservation and pre-ordering a menu that suited us perfectly.

From Istanbul, we flew to Bodrum, and boarded our private gulet. We had never toured via a gulet, but it certainly exceeded our expectations. The crew was professional, accommodating, and went out of their way to make the trip special. The stops were beautiful and the food amazing.

We also had the pleasure of our most memorable WOW Moment in Datca, being the first and only guests at a hotel just prior to the opening! We had the facility to ourselves, were served a gourmet dinner that was overseen by the General Manager and Food Service Manager, and were offered a gorgeous suite for an overnight stay; to say this was very, very special is an understatement. (Thank you, Wendy, Karen and Mustafa.). Karen and those that work with her obviously have an in-depth knowledge of Turkey. This certainly made our trip both exciting and relaxing, both of which we requested.” —Vanessa Hulme

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

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Greece: “Our most favorite day of the trip was on a speed boat, where we traveled to the Blue Lagoon…”

Blue Lagoon in Tigani islet between Paros and Antiparos islands, Cyclades, Greece, with clear transparent turquoise waters.

Blue Lagoon in Tigani islet between Paros and Antiparos islands, Cyclades, Greece. Photo: Shutterstock

“We had one of our best family trips in years, thanks to Irene. We started in Athens, where Irene booked us in a spacious, modern ‘apartment’ at The Dolli, which had excellent service and food. The rooftop pool overlooking the Acropolis was a huge plus given the heat, and the day trip to the ruins at Delphi was a family favorite.

Then it was on to Paros, where we enjoyed the beautiful accommodations and staff attention at the Minois Hotel. Our teens loved the amazing outdoor space with our own small pool, as well as the resident cats. Our most favorite day of the trip was on a speed boat, where we traveled to the Blue Lagoon, went cliff jumping, and visited remote beaches in Antiparos and Despatiko. Nikos, our driver/guide, was fabulous, and we had a delicious lunch on board.

We then ferried to Santorini, where we stayed in the breathtaking Grace Hotel. The geology, ruins, and small towns in Santorini didn’t disappoint, and we enjoyed special attention at dinners that Irene arranged and various recommended restaurants, some ‘off the beaten path.’ We also loved our fascinating guided tour to Akrotiri, a town even older than Pompeii that was also destroyed—and then preserved—due to a massive volcanic explosion.

Our meals, guides, and hotels were all impeccable, and even with the heat and crowds, we always felt supported and well taken care of. We would highly recommend Irene to anyone planning a trip to Greece.” —Amanda Mandel

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Tuscany: “Cool breezes throughout the day and evening—a welcome relief from the heat in Europe this summer…”

Scenic overlook of the Tyrrhenian Sea along the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

Scenic overlook of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“Normally we would not travel to Italy in July…too hot and too crowded. However, our goal was to see Andrea Bocelli perform at the amphitheater he built in Tuscany called Teatro del Silenzio in Lajatico, his hometown. The theater is ‘silent’ except for the one concert he performs there each year in July, and we felt it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The concert was taking place during the middle of our time in Italy, so we needed an agenda before and after.

Jennifer suggested we start our trip on the Tuscan coast, staying four nights at the Hotel Il Pellicano. This gorgeous, iconic property overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea, providing cool breezes throughout the day and evening—a welcome relief from the heat in Europe this summer. Heaven in July! We then traveled inland to the countryside of Tuscany for the next four nights, where we would be closer to the Bocelli concert. Borgo Pignano is an elegant country estate close to the hill towns of Volterra and San Gimignano. A perfect location that we would never have found on our own. Again, the temperature dropped in the mornings and evenings, making it very pleasant for al fresco dining and touring.

While at these locations, Jennifer arranged for driver/guides to transport us to several wineries. A standout was Ornellaia. Not an easy tour to arrange, and Jennifer managed it!

The Bocelli concert was beyond our expectations. The tickets that Jennifer and her team secured were front and center, five rows back from the stage. We will never forget it. It was more than a concert, it was a masterful production with a full orchestra, ballet company, chorus and guest artists, from opera to pop. Magical.

Jennifer’s advice is invaluable to us, and we consider her a friend. We have used other WOW List advisors with the same excellent results and will continue to use Wendy Perrin’s great resources when we travel.” —Susan Ketchum

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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Copenhagen and the Danish seaside: “Not too hot… reasonable crowds, not too expensive, and very enjoyable…”

Lynn Herrick

Rainbow over Copenhagen. Photo: Traveler Lynn Herrick

“We rarely travel to Europe in the summer because of the heat and crowds, but we needed to be in Berlin in mid-July this year and wanted to add a week in another destination prior to reaching Berlin. Denmark was the PERFECT choice. Not too hot (even chilly some days!), reasonable crowds, not too expensive, and very enjoyable. Mads arranged our trip for us and he made it very easy. We did not mind driving in Denmark, so he arranged for a private car and put together an itinerary that gave us a flavor of the country. Our college-age kids traveled with us and there was enough to keep everyone engaged.

We loved, loved, loved Copenhagen. Our hotel was in the middle of all the action, and the city is extremely walkable and public transportation easy to navigate. Our first morning in town was our WOW Moment and it was perfect. We sailed (electric boat) around the city with a private tour guide and lots of fun snacks. It was a great introduction to the city, and the guide gave us lots of ideas for the rest of our trip.

We traveled to several cities after Copenhagen, visited castles, stayed at an inn that has been hosting guests since 1744, learned all about Hans Christian Andersen, visited museums, enjoyed a ferry ride, and stayed in a charming Danish seaside town with a great spa. We finished the trip with one more fun night in Copenhagen and stayed up late, as the sun seems to last forever…. Highly recommend Mads and Denmark for a special summer trip.” —Lynn Herrick

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

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Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast: “We did three boat trips (one sailboat and two motor boats), two cooking classes…”

Panoramic view of Fortresses Lovrijenac and old town of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Fortress Lovrijenac outside Dubrovnik’s old town, Croatia. Photo: Shutterstock

“My wife and I worked with Ala. We stayed in Dubrovnik (Hotel Excelsior) for three nights, Hvar (Maslina Resort in Stari Grad) for four nights, and Split (Santa Lucia Heritage Hotel) for two nights. All three hotels were excellent, and the Excelsior and Maslina Resort were both on the water. The Santa Lucia Hotel was in the main square about three blocks from the water.

We wanted to relax, so we did minimal sightseeing. Instead we did three boat trips (one sailboat and two motor boats), two cooking classes, and several wine tastings, which we enjoyed very much. The people of Croatia are very warm and genuine people, and we loved the country. The drivers and tour guides selected by Ala were on time, very knowledgeable, and very nice.

The whole trip was a highlight, but I would say the top two were an eight-hour sailboat, where we then stopped for lunch on a small island, and the cooking class in Split. The food was excellent throughout. I would highly recommend Croatia, and specifically Ala and her team, to anyone who is considering their next vacation.” —Jeffrey Cohen

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

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Italy: “Lunch and snorkeling…Cruising the Arno river with a renaioli….Learning to row a Batela in Venice…”

empty boat on charming canal in Venice italy with cute villas on either side and no one around

Venice, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Maria did an excellent job of planning a balanced trip of cultural sightseeing and fun activities inside, outside, and on the water. 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 river with a renaioli and our private guide Elvira
    • Staying at a palazzo in Montefalco: Maria was right—this is the balcony of Umbria, and the views are unforgettable!
    • 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

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.” —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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Norway: “The most unique and beautiful experience of the trip was a full day with Sverre and his dog Rondor on an antique rowboat…”

Beautiful Nature Norway natural landscape aerial photography. lovatnet lake.

Lovatnet Lake, Norway. Photo: Shutterstock

“What a fantastic trip! Jan did an excellent job planning an amazing self-drive itinerary in Norway. Norway is breathtakingly and relentlessly beautiful. Driving above, around, and on (via car ferry) the fjords is the perfect way to see it. One stunning sight after another comes into view. Waterfalls are everywhere, mountain views, glaciers, fjords, fields in the mountains all overwhelmed with us their beauty. We had so many unique and incredible experiences on this trip but will list only a few:

RIB boat adventure: This three-hour private RIB boat trip from Gudvangen on the Nærøyfjord, Aurlandsfjord, and the Sognefjord eventually docked in Solvorn at the Hotel Walaker, our home for the next two nights. Along this exhilarating fast boat ride we saw stunning beauty, cascading waterfalls and other sights that are too beautiful to adequately describe in words. You might ask what happened to our car while we were zipping along the fjords? No problem—Jan arranged for someone to drive our car the two-and-a-half hours to the hotel for us while we had all the fun!

A day on the fjord: Perhaps the most unique and beautiful experience of the trip was a full day with Sverre and his dog Rondor on an antique rowboat on the fjord just outside the Hotel Union Øye where we stayed. We essentially had this fjord to ourselves while we rowed and fished. We caught two small haddock and Sverre rowed us to shore where he cleaned, deboned and cooked the fish over a fire he built in minutes. His love of nature and his ability to share the beauty of Norway with us was truly special.” —Jonathan and Suzanne Scharfstein

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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Istanbul: “Seeing Istanbul from the Bosphorus was truly special…”

view of Bosphorus in Istanbul Turkey from deck of boat

View of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Photo: Tim Baker

“We were dealing with certain health issues, and Karen and her team were able to take that into account when determining the best locations in our daily itinerary. Our week in Istanbul was wonderful. One of the highlights was our Bosphorus Strait cruise. We had a large yacht that allowed family and friends to join us on the cruise. Seeing Istanbul from the Bosphorus was truly special.

Another highlight was the Turkish Bath. Getting scrubbed and soaked in a hammam built in the 1500s was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The hotels were excellent too, and all meals perfect. It was a wonderful time.” —Shawn Rosenzweig and Beverly Schachter

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

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Brook in Machu Picchu, Peru with not a lot of people around.

We’re Just Back: Brook’s Tips for Peru, including Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lima

The goal:
My main goal was to get the best experience of Machu Picchu. It’s a mythic site in most travelers’ imaginations, built centuries ago by exacting craftsmen in the unlikeliest of locations: set high atop a peak in the cloud forest, as the Andes descend toward the Amazon. I had visited 15 years earlier—and that experience surpassed even my exalted expectations of the legendary Incan redoubt—but this time I wanted to see how a new entry system, with prescribed paths through the ruins, affects travelers’ experience of this magical place.

The challenge:
Most of all, I wanted to avoid potential crowds. In the peak months of May, June, and July, up to 5,600 people can enter Machu Picchu per day. So I went in low season, when no more than 4,200 people can visit (and often far fewer do). There are now signposts and ropes that guide you along one of four routes based on your entry ticket; route #1 provides the longest and most complete experience of the site. The good news is that—in low season at least—I was able to walk freely along my route, stopping whenever I wanted to take photos or ask my local guide a question.

Low-profile ropes and signage guide visitors around the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Low-profile ropes and signage guide visitors around the ruins.

The highlight:
It’s awe-inspiring to wander through the ruins and imagine how the Incas managed to quarry, shape, and stack so much rock to build a city in such a vertiginous spot; their exquisite craftsmanship is evident in the carefully aligned stones, each laid on top of the others with no mortar.

Machu Picchu on a cloudy day with mountains in the background.

A quiet January day at Machu Picchu.

Smartest route:
There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu: on foot via the Inca Trail, or by train. (Technically, the train takes you to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the mountain on which the ancient citadel sits, and from there you take a bus up a switch-backing road that dead-ends just outside the ruins.) My favorite approach to Machu Picchu captures the best of both worlds: Start on the train—with a seat on the left side, which gives you a view of the Urubamba River—then get off a few miles short of Aguas Calientes and hike the last portion of the Inca Trail. That way you arrive on foot via the Sun Gate, as the Incas once did, with the ruins spread out before you.

Smartest timing:
Afternoons are usually the quietest time of day to visit Machu Picchu, since day-trippers need to leave by early afternoon to catch their train back to Cusco or the Sacred Valley. The busiest hours are from 10am to 1pm. Permits to hike Huayna Picchu—the iconic peak in the background of every Machu Picchu photo you’ve ever seen, which makes for an exhilarating climb—are only available between 7am and 11am.

Machu Picchu on a cloudy day with mountains in the background.

The vertiginous Huayna Picchu towers over the ruins.

Best surprise:
The splendid weather I experienced even in January’s “rainy season.” During my eight days in Peru, it rained overnight several times, but on only three occasions were there showers during the day—and each time those were brief. The nighttime precipitation, along with the buildup of clouds during the day, made for spectacular vistas in my photos, and the farmers’ fields were a striking patchwork of purple, yellow, and white flowers. January is also a beautiful time to be in Lima: Instead of the fog that the city is infamous for, think summertime warmth with an Atlantic breeze to cut the humidity.

Brook biking along a seaside path in Lima, Peru.

Brook spent a sunny afternoon in Lima biking along a seaside path.

Worst surprise:
The Sacred Valley is far more built-up than on my last visit; land that was once most valuable when cultivated is now covered by suburban sprawl. A new international airport is under construction in Chinchero, above the valley. Based on what I saw of the progress so far (a graded dirt rectangle) I don’t expect the airport to open in 2025 as publicized—but when it finally does, I do expect this beautiful corner of the world to get even busier. Get there soon if you can.

Peru's Sacred Valley surrounded by mountains.

Parts of the Sacred Valley are already even more built up than this.

Coolest example of living history:
I spent an afternoon exploring Cusco’s historic center with Teo Allain Chambi, whose grandfather Martín Chambi was a renowned indigenous photographer of the early 20th century. Charmingly modest and yet so proud of his grandfather’s legacy, Teo carried with him a scrapbook of Martín’s street-scene photographs from the 1920s, guiding us to the same spots where his grandfather had composed those shots a century ago. What was most impressive was how little had changed: The buildings have been carefully preserved, many streets are still rough cobblestone, and graceful wooden balconies overlook flower-strewn plazas to this day.

Teo Allain Chambi at Plaza de Armas in Cusco showing photos of from the Plaza.
Teo Allain Chambi in Cusco's Plaza de Armas.
The Coricancha temple in Cusco from the outside on a cloudy day.
Spanish conquistadors made a habit of usurping sacred Incan sites; here, the Convent of Santo Domingo sits atop a wall of the Incas' Coricancha temple in Cusco.
Brook with raised hands in front of the Inca wall.
Brook offers a bit of scale beside the enormous stones in an Inca wall in Cusco.

 

Best hidden hiking trail:
On my last day in Peru, I wanted to stretch my legs before my overnight flight home. So I met up with a private guide who showed me a seldom-used hiking trail outside Cusco that took us past potato and fava-bean fields, through stands of hardy polylepis trees that somehow thrive as high as 16,000 feet above sea level, to the archaeological site of Inkilltambo. Here were sturdy terraces built many centuries ago, and a shrine carved out of rock and reserved for Inca elites. Apart from a nearby farmer working his crops with hand tools, we had the place to ourselves. It was a Sunday, and on the shorter, gentler path we took home, we greeted several cusqueño families heading out for a picnic.

A field full of pink potato flowers.
A field of blooming potato plants near Cusco.
Inkilltambo inn Cusco in the mountains of Peru.
The archaeological site of Inkilltambo, near Cusco.
Inkilltambo inn Cusco in the mountains of Peru.
Incan walls were built around natural limestone outcroppings at Inkilltambo.

 

Best museum you’ve never heard of:
There’s much more to Peru’s rich history than the Incas, and the Larco Museum in Lima is a worthy spot for delving deeper into the country’s past. Spend an afternoon admiring vessels, jewelry, and textiles from the Moche, Nazca, Wari, and other pre-Columbian societies, then segue to the bougainvillea-draped patio for dinner at the museum’s excellent restaurant.

People dininng at the Larco museum restaurant in Peru

Dine under a canopy of greenery and stars at the Larco Museum in Lima.

Local flavors to try:
Peru has earned enormous respect lately for its cuisine, but you don’t have to wait months for a reservation at Lima’s Central (considered by some to be the world’s best restaurant) to appreciate the country’s flavors. I tried delicious fruits like aguaymanto, cherimoya, and lucuma at a market, watched chefs bury potatoes and fava beans and ears of corn and guinea pigs for a traditional pachamanca lunch, and tasted local dishes like causa, ceviche, and tamales at Cumpa, a “creole tavern” with a hipster vibe in Lima that is only open for lunch, and where office workers and laborers in t-shirts compete for table space.

A variety of fruits at the Surquillo Market in Lima, Peru.
Did you know that the cacao fruit—the starting point for chocolate—looks like this?
A vendor dressing in colorful clothes at the Lima market in Peru selling variety of vegetables.
A vendor sells packets of vegetables for soup at a local market in Lima.
A woman shopping at the Surquillo market, in Lima.
Shopping at the Surquillo market in Lima.
The ingredients spread out on mats before they're placed underground for the cooking process.
Burying food between hot stones for a pachamanca lunch.
The start of the cooking process with all the food below the stalks.
The chef blesses our pachamanca lunch.
Brook’s lunch in Peru with a buffet full of dishes cooked underground.
The resulting, delicious buffet.
Over the top image of Tamale Cumpa on a black plate.
A tamale at Cumpa in Lima.
Over the top image of cauza cumpa on a blue plate.
Cauza at Cumpa in Lima.
Preparing pisco sours behind the bar at Lima's Miraflores Park hotel in Peru.
Pisco sours are practically the national drink of Peru. Here's Brook learning how to make one from the bartender at Lima's Miraflores Park hotel.

 

What to look for after dark:
I was fascinated to learn that the Incas saw images in the negative space of the night sky. Yes, they connected the dots between stars to draw constellations—but they also found creatures (a snake, a llama) hidden in the dark spots of the Milky Way. It’s a reminder of how we are all so similar, yet at the same time can see things so differently.

Language lesson:
Quechua, the language shared by many of Peru’s indigenous groups and still spoken by some today, has no word for “friend.” Instead, one of my private guides explained, Quechuans simply address each other as brother or sister—everyone is considered family. This small detail went a long way toward explaining the warm welcome that I felt throughout my time in Peru.

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Transparency disclosure: Some experiences described here were provided to Brook for free, or at reduced rates, by local hotels and suppliers. In keeping with our standard practice, there was no promise of editorial coverage in exchange: Complimentary or discounted travel never influences our reportage. All of these experiences are accessible to every traveler who uses Wendy’s WOW questionnaire. Thanks to Wendy’s WOW system, you’ll get marked as a VIP traveler.

 

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Brook Wilkinson and her family enjoying hot springs with beautiful mountains in the background.

Traveling with Grandkids: Tips for a Successful Three-Generation Trip

A friend of mine took each of her grandchildren on a trip of their choice when they turned 13. One kid opted for an African safari; another wanted a posh spa week in Hawaii. While I love to travel with my grandson, Zeke, I have no desire to whisk him away, leaving his parents at home. For me, there is no better time to be had than exploring a wonderful new place with all three generations on hand. Seeing my daughter, Brook (WendyPerrin.com’s Executive Editor), and her husband, Ryan, parent Zeke is a privilege (not so fun, I suppose, if you aren’t in tune with your child’s parenting style).

The key to a great family trip is finding the sweet spot where everybody’s aspirations overlap. For us that means physical activity, glorious scenery and geology, and coming away with a new understanding of a foreign place.

And so on our latest trip together, we chose Iceland. All four of us crave outdoor experiences, which were on offer in abundance. We soaked in hot springs, summited a volcano, transited a glacier cave, and even eyeballed one of the youngest islands on Earth, born in a fiery eruption just 60 years ago. I am older than that island.

Susan and her family inside an ice cave in the Myrdalsjökull glacier, Iceland.
Zeke crosses a bridge inside an ice cave in the Myrdalsjökull glacier, Iceland.
Zeke crosses a bridge inside the cave. Photo: Ryan Damm
A little teamwork gets Brook across a stream near Hverager∂i, Iceland. Photo: Ryan Damm
Susan and Brook hike the path from Hellnar to Arnarstapi on the Snæfellsness Peninsula. Photo: Ryan Damm
Three generations hiking near Budir, on Iceland’s Snæfellsness Peninsula. Photo: Ryan Damm
To go off-road in Iceland, you need a specialized “super-jeep,” like this. Photo: Ryan Damm

 

On any trip, each family member must find their role. In Iceland, Brook, our resident travel expert, was our driver and trip leader. Ryan and Zeke roamed beaches, mountains and glaciers with cameras slung around their necks, trading lenses and composition tips; call them our staff photographers. Me, I pay the bills.

Zeke lines up a shot from atop the Eldfell volcano on Heimaey island, Iceland. Photo: Ryan Damm
Zeke photographing Kirkjufell, on the Snæfellsness Peninsula. Photo: Ryan Damm

 

Grandchildren are a joy to watch as their personalities and capabilities grow. Nowhere is this more evident than on a trip. Travel provides a backdrop that makes us ponder, even reconsider, our own customs and behavior. There is nothing more thrilling than seeing a grandchild connect with a new place, delving into life there and asking smart questions. (On a zodiac ride through a lagoon full of icebergs that had just calved off a glacier, it was Zeke who picked up on the particularly glassy sheen of some bits; those spots, our private guide explained, had recently been underwater and surfaced when the chunk’s center of gravity shifted.)

Susan and her family on a private zodiac in the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, Iceland.

We spent 10 days in Iceland. We like to travel independently, so a self-drive trip was right up our alley. Perhaps our family is a little too type-A. In the early days of the trip, we were putting in 12-hour days, often hiking more than six miles. There was so much to see, and we are a no-stone-unturned group. I have to say, nobody complained. We made a return trip to the magnificent Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui waterfalls first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds that had thronged these cataracts in late afternoon the previous day. On the island of Heimaey, we weren’t satisfied with just viewing the world’s largest colony of puffins at the recommended hour of six a.m. when the birds take flight to spend the day fishing. That afternoon, we took a RIB boat around the Westman Islands to watch the plucky little birds dive for their lunch, then capped our puffin experience with a visit to the Beluga Whale Sanctuary, which provides a haven where injured puffins can live out their lives. I would love to revisit Heimaey in August, when the baby puffins, called pufflets, fledge. Thousands each year, diverted by artificial lighting, end up in town rather than at sea. The residents, and any tourists lucky enough to visit Heimaey at that time, race around with boxes, scooping up lost pufflets and releasing them at the ocean’s edge.

A path takes you behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall on Iceland's southern coast. Photo: Ryan Damm
A puffin on Heimaey island, Iceland. Photo: Zeke Damm

 

A good three-generation trip involves compromise too. A horse lover from childhood, I couldn’t wait to ride an Icelandic horse, a breed so protected that no one is allowed to bring any horse in (or even return a horse that had previously left the country). Not everyone in our party shared my enthusiasm, but we all signed up for a trail ride at the Skálakot Manor Hotel (our favorite lodging of the entire trip). The Icelandic breed is compact and muscular, and five-gaited rather than the typical three. Farrah Fawcett would envy their flowing mane and tail. I was in heaven trying one of the extra gaits, a fast-walk/slow-trot called tolt.

Susan and family ride Icelandic horses through purple lupin. Photo: Ryan Damm
Skálakot Manor Hotel, a friendly farmhouse-turned-hotel in Iceland. Photo: Ryan Damm

 

In return, I agreed to an ear-splitting, bone-crunching ATV ride to a black-sand beach where we viewed the wreckage of a DC-3 that crash-landed in 1973. An ATV will never be my ride of choice, but the beach scene and the remote river gorge we traveled to afterward was worth every bump.

Some of Iceland’s most beautiful spots are best accessed via ATV. Photo: Ryan Damm

Any trip, however many generations you have on board, needs a good laugh. Another Icelandic black beach delivered. The Djúpalónssandur Beach of shiny ebony pebbles lies on an outcropping of land we referred to as the Snuffleupagus Peninsula (Icelandic is beautiful to listen to but impossible to pronounce; can you say Snæfellsness?). I don’t know whose idea it was to bury Brook in pebbles, but once that had been accomplished and photographed, of course Zeke had to be buried too.

Brook got buried in black pebbles on Djúpalónssandur Beach. Photo: Ryan Damm
Zeke got buried next. Photo: Ryan Damm

 

Witnessing a grandkid’s first is always worth the price of admission; sharing that first with your grandchild’s parents multiplies the thrill. Iceland’s classic tourist route, The Golden Circle, served up a tall one for Zeke. Generally, the sights were paler imitations of the mountains, canyons, and waterfalls we had seen on our far-flung driving itinerary. But this day became remarkable when Zeke spotted his first geyser. (Iceland is a country of hot springs, with enough geothermal energy to power the entire island with kilowatts to spare; the very word geyser is derived from Icelandic.) Luckily our geyser was a busy one, spouting every few minutes, because Zeke wasn’t satisfied that he’d gotten the right shot until it had erupted more than half a dozen times. Watching him check a photo, then reposition himself for the next one, was more memorable to me than the steamy water spurting into the air.

Zeke lines up his fourth shot of the Strokkur geyser in Iceland. Photo: Ryan Damm

Iceland was such a success that another cluster of volcanic islands is our number-one candidate for next year’s three-generation trip. The Azores seem on the brink of popularity, which fits our family motto: “Get there before the crowds.” That’s an important factor in our formula for success. For another family, exploring a vibrant city or seeing the artifacts of an ancient civilization might be the best choice. Here, as in all other family matters, communication is key—making sure everybody is enthusiastic before you book the trip.

Find more ideas and advice for multi-generational trips here. Want to make lifelong memories with your family in Iceland or elsewhere? Click the black button below to get our advice.

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Susan Crandell is a former Executive Editor of Travel + Leisure magazine. These days, when she’s not traveling with her grandson, you can usually find her building houses with her local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

 

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Hangzhou west lake with Banyan tree and boat

What Travel in China is Like Right Now

Until the end of China’s zero-Covid policy last spring, it was difficult for travelers to enter the country. As soon as China opened back up, Trusted Travel Expert Mei Zhang booked flights to spend six weeks there, visiting her staff, family, and friends. We called Mei, now back home in California, to hear how her summer trip went. Here’s what travelers should know about China right now:

Prices are lower than you’d expect. Rates at luxury-brand hotels in China have long been cheaper than comparable properties elsewhere. Add to that the strong dollar and the absence of inflation in China, and the result is far less sticker shock than travelers are finding these days in Europe. For instance, rooms at the Mandarin Oriental Beijing are going for about $600 this fall, while rates at the brand’s sister hotel in Paris are usually more than $2,000 during the same period.

More flights are coming. Nonstops between the U.S. and China have been slow to resume, which has significantly increased fares. More flights are coming this fall, which will lower prices. We’ll update this article as airlines announce new routes.

The country’s high-speed train network is vast. With so many cities now connected by high-speed rail, travelers seldom have to endure domestic flights or long drives. Mei reports that the new trains are clean, spacious, and keep to the schedule; you can even order take-out food from a restaurant near the next station and it will be delivered right to your seat.

Dragonback Rice Terraces, Guangxi, China

Li-An Lodge sits atop the “Dragon’s Backbone” rice terraces in Guangxi Province, China. Photo: Li-An Lodge.

Many UNESCO World Heritage sites are becoming more accessible. Four new spots in China have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in the last five years, bringing the country’s total to 56. A lot of these natural and cultural wonders are in remote locations, but an increasing number are accessible from the 4-star hotels that are expanding deeper into China’s countryside.

The Great Wall of China.

A savvy trip planner will send you to a quieter section of the Great Wall than the spots that most tourists visit. Photo: Shutterstock

Covid is an afterthought for most locals. Mei was surprised to find that masking was less prevalent in China than it was at home. Also gone are the widespread quarantines that made news when China was enforcing its zero-Covid policy. (These days, China and most other countries do not have specific isolation requirements for travelers with Covid.)

Most financial transactions now happen digitally. It’s hard to pay for anything in China these days with cash or even a credit card. Travelers must be comfortable adding their credit-card information to a mobile-payment app like WeChat or AliPay.

U.S. travelers are warmly welcomed by locals. Relations at the top levels of government may be frosty, but the geopolitical tension isn’t reflected in person-to-person interactions. Indeed, Mei believes travel is the best way to bridge the divide between the two countries. Her English-speaking guides—who have waited for more than three years now in hopes that travel would pick back up—are quick to go above and beyond for the first wave of travelers who are eager to visit China.

Trusted Travel Expert Mei Zhang in China's Yunnan Province in summer 2023.

Trusted Travel Expert Mei Zhang sussing out the situation in China’s Yunnan Province this summer. Photo: Marina Zhang

Mei will be back in China next spring, doing field-study work for the PhD she’s pursuing through Berkeley. She will be inviting a small group of travelers to meet her for three days of hiking in Yunnan Province (where Mei grew up), to hear how development in the region has affected the culture and environment. If you’re curious to see China right now with your own eyes—or even join Mei there next year—click on the button below.

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Northern Lights, Norway

Where to See the Northern Lights and When

To witness the northern lights—also known as the aurora borealis—you need to be pretty strategic about everything from timing and weather to geography and seasons. That’s because you need to achieve “the big three”:  First, a location under the auroral oval, a band that typically crosses through Alaska, northern Canada, southern Greenland, Iceland, and northern Norway. Second, you need dark nights. And third, clear skies.

We turned to WOW Listers for these places—Jan Sortland (Norway and Iceland), Torunn Tronsvang (Norway), Marc Telio (Canada), and Chris Gordon (Iceland)—to learn the best times and places to see the lights and for insider tips on fun ways to pass the days between your nighttime viewing opportunities. Before we dive into their favorite places to experience the northern lights, some overall tips:

Understand the auroral oval. The northern lights appear when the earth’s magnetic field attracts charged particles thrown off by the sun, the result of solar storms. The particles form a halo around the magnetic pole; this is the so-called auroral oval.

Plan a longer trip. Build in extra time in case of stormy weather. “I target trips of 10 days or more,” says Iceland specialist Gordon, “starting mid-September, because we finally have normal nightfall after a summer of midnight sun, and cloudy winter skies probably haven’t yet set in. And I discourage long weekends with northern lights as the primary travel goal. It takes priority and commitment to plan travel around them.”

Don’t assume you’re guaranteed a light show in Sweden, Finland, or Greenland. Sweden’s too far south (most of Finland is, too), and Greenland’s weather can be stormy in winter, resulting in skies that obscure the lights. So those countries tend to be more unpredictable for northern-lights viewing than Norway, Iceland, and Canada.

Consider your comfort in the winter months. “You need cozy lodging to balance cold nighttime searching,” says Gordon. “My favorite idea is a suite with a private outdoor terrace and hot pool. Maybe with a hot toddy in hand!”  Bring lots of layers too, so you stay warm in what are often harsh and inhospitable conditions.

Did you know you can see the northern lights in summertime?  They occur year-round; the only reason they’re perceived as a winter phenomenon is that you need a dark sky to actually see them, and in very northerly parts of the world, there’s very little darkness in summer. But, in certain spots, you can sometimes see the northern lights as early as late August.

Here are our experts’ top places to witness the northern lights:

Alta, Norway

View of the Northern Lights in Alta, Norway.

Northern Lights in Alta, Norway. Photo: Shutterstock

This town is ideally located right under the auroral oval and at the meeting point of three different microclimate zones; this betters your odds of seeing the aurora borealis, since it’s unusual to have overcast skies in all three zones at the same time. Alta is also warmed by the gulf stream, so daytime temperatures are warmer there even than in spots farther south. In the past 20 years, every traveler whom Sortland has sent to Alta for at least three nights has seen the northern lights. “Venturing up to the top of Bjørnfjell Mountain to watch the northern lights around a bonfire is magical,” says Tronsvang. She adds that another benefit of Alta is that you don’t have to drive around to see the lights: “You can see them from your accommodations, such as the the Isbreen domes outside of Alta in Jokelfjord.”

When to Go

“The best time of year is March,” says Sortland, “but you can see the northern lights there from the end of August until the end of March.”

While You’re There, Don’t Miss….

Ice fishing and dog sledding. “Spend a day in the wilderness as a musher, followed with a 12-course organic dinner prepared by Sami chef Johnny Trasti at Trasti & Trine,” Tronsvang tells us. “The feeling of mastering the dogs and having to work hard outside in a stunning winter landscape, followed by culture told through local ingredients prepared like simple art, is amazing!” Jan can also arrange for you to go reindeer herding with the Sami.

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Iceland

northern lights over snowy flat plateau and lake in iceland

A dark-sky light show in Iceland. Photo: kamilgrygo/Pixabay

Iceland’s south coast, including the Vik area, and Jökulsárlón—the country’s best-known glacier lagoon—are prime destinations for northern lights. Because Iceland is an island and subject to offshore fronts, the weather can be unpredictable, and it’s common for clouds to block the light show.

When to Go

October to March.

While You’re There, Don’t Miss…

Gordon works with a local expert guide who takes his travelers up into unexplored, seismically active mountain ranges (in a specially modified jeep) via gravel riverbeds to reach raging hot rivers with high-elevation vistas. “Soaking in a clean, naturally hot river truly relaxes mind and body and inspires visions of an ideal way of living. While you’re soaking, your guide can cook wild-caught salmon in an adjacent hot spring or fumarole [natural steam vent].  They can even bake traditional Icelandic rhubarb cake!” he says.

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Northern Canada

Dog sledding in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada.

Dog sledding in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada is an authentic adventure during daylight hours Photo: Shutterstock

Northern lights displays are likeliest in the northern third of Canada: The Northwest Territory often sits directly under the auroral oval, as does part of the Yukon Territory.

When to Go

The absolute best time of year for the clearest and darkest skies is from the third week of January to the end of March. November and December also have the dark skies, but they produce more precipitation, so skies may have more cloud cover. Peak-season dates book up early, so plan well in advance. (A typical stay in the region is four nights.)

While You’re There, Don’t Miss…

To occupy yourself in the daytime, go snowmobiling, snowshoeing, dogsledding and ice fishing.  Also, says Telio, “there are some profoundly beautiful Indigenous storytelling and cultural experiences, including one where guests have the opportunity to eat Muktuk [whale] and meet with elders in a community.”

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Read These Northern Lights Trip Reviews For More Intel and Cool Trip Ideas

Norway in September
“We stayed in a Rorbu in Reine and stepped outside to a show of the Northern Lights—right there on our own porch!!”

Reine, Lofoten, Norway. The village of Reine under a sunny, blue sky, with the typical rorbu houses. View from the top

The village of Reine in Lofoten, Norway. Photo: Shutterstock

“We started in Bergen, driving north through the fjords, and had constant awe-inspiring scenery. Jan arranged two different times we would be on the water in a fjord. We spent half a day on a RIB boat—just the two of us and the captain—gliding along the fjord waters.

Then we flew to the Lofoten Islands, where we stayed in a Rorbu in Reine. We had a fun WOW Moment when an excellent halibut dinner was prepared for us in our own room and we were able to enjoy this private time together watching the harbor with a great meal! Thank you for arranging this!! A couple of hours later, we stepped outside to a show of the Northern Lights—right there on our own porch!!

Finally, we flew up to Alta, above the Arctic Circle. The Sorrisniva Arctic Wilderness Lodge was absolutely incredible. Our room, with floor-to-ceiling windows, looked out over the Alta River, and you really felt a million miles from everything. We would have been content to stay there and never leave the grounds—but there was much to see and do! We took a boat ride on the Alta River, with a BBQ lunch of salmon along the way. Very memorable. The visit to the Sami was so interesting—we were so glad to learn about this culture. And each night, we had our Chasing the Northern Lights Safari.” —Sally Boland

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Iceland in September
“Sometimes I felt like I was on the moon. Other times I felt like I was in the middle of a volcano…”

Auroras over Eillidavatn close to Reykjavik in Iceland. calm water reflecting the northern lights blazing in the sky.

Northern Lights, Iceland. Photo: Shutterstock

Chris provided experiences for us that were truly unique. My favorite was when we got into a jeep, travelled a few miles inland and then began a hike. After a short while our guide dammed the hot spring and made a private hot tub for us in the middle of the wilderness. While we soaked, he cooked a salmon lunch for us over a fumarole. Spectacular!

We circumnavigated Iceland and felt we did not miss a thing. Chris steered us to the best restaurants, best sites and best lodging. We even saw the northern lights on our last night there. Talk about timing!

We went at the beginning of September, and the timing was perfect. We did not experience the summer crowds. The weather was cold but bearable. We had 12 hours of light each day. Everything was open for business.

I would recommend Iceland to anyone who is looking for a trip with adventure and outdoor activities. The landscape is spectacular, encompassing both thermal and ice. Sometimes I felt like I was on the moon. Other times I felt like I was in the middle of a volcano. Imagine hiking in an ice cave too! I have travelled many places but Iceland is certainly unique.” —Ron Klausner

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Canada in October
“We viewed polar bears continuously for four days…”

Polar Bear walking on snow with northern lights in the background

Polar Bear, North Canada. Photo: Shutterstock

“My husband and I traveled with another couple to Seal River Heritage Lodge, a short plane ride north of Churchill, Manitoba, from October 21-27. Marc was wonderful in helping us plan the trip. It was a trip of a lifetime! Everything went perfectly. Our two biggest wishes were to see polar bears and the northern lights. We were not disappointed. We had seen the trips that involve the elevated buses and knew we didn’t want that experience.

What Marc provided was so much more. We viewed polar bears continuously for four days. The photos we took were incredible. We weren’t promised anything, but what we received was so much more than what we expected. Thank you for an amazing experience!” —Mike and Sue Mrdjenovich

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Norway in January
“We went dogsledding, snowmobiling, and saw the northern lights…”

A team of husky sled dogs running on a snowy road

Husky sled dogs running in Norway. Photo: visitnorway.com

“Truly a trip of a lifetime. My family of 4 (me, my husband and two adult boys) went to Alta where we went dogsledding, snowmobiling, and saw the northern lights. In Oslo we went on a very interesting architecture tour. The highlight was relaxing in the lodge sauna after a day spent snowmobiling and getting called by the lodge staff to come outside to watch the northern lights!

The staff at all of the places Torunn and Mari sent us to were exceptional and would go out of their way to provide assistance. We can’t wait to go back sometime in the summer now and see the same location again.” —Neha Vyas

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Norway in February
“A Sami elder met us and drove us over 30 miles on snowmobiles to watch the Sami move a herd of 2,500+ reindeer to higher terrain…”

Reindeer herding with a traditional dressed Sami woman in Norway.

Reindeer herding with the Sami, Norway. Photo: Shutterstock

“Seeing the Northern Lights was on my bucket list, and Jan helped me plan every detail of the trip. The hotels were excellent, and we received many upgrades. Our hotel in Alta was particularly lovely, and our dinners there were incredible. Knowing how much we wanted to see the Lights, and being disappointed twice before in Iceland, Jan steered us to Alta, in the northernmost part of Norway. He said it would give us the best shot. How right he was! We saw them three out of three nights!

Much of this is due to the incredible guides Jan arranged. Despite the fact that it was cloudy and snowing the first two nights, our guides looked at all the weather maps and found the area that had the most potential to clear up. It was a real drive, but the clouds disappeared and the Lights danced.

Jan also suggested a visit to the area where the Sami live and herd reindeer. It was the best advice! These indigenous people live the same way their ancestors did, and it was a privilege to spend the day with them. Mathis, a Sami elder, met us and drove us over 30 miles on snowmobiles to watch the Sami move a herd of 2,500+ reindeer to higher terrain. After that, we snowmobiled back to his home, where he had prepared a delicious lunch of salmon and Arctic char. He generously and patiently answered all our questions and made us feel like welcomed guests. Our day with this incredible gentleman was truly the highlight of our trip, and it is an experience that will not be forgotten.” —Judy Wimpfheimer

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Wendy aboard a "hotel barge" on the Canal de Bourgogne in Burgundy, France

How to Know if a Barge Cruise in France Is Right for You

I’m just back from one of my favorite trips ever: a six-night, eight-passenger barge cruise on the Canal de Bourgogne. Too many people think a river cruise on a 160-passenger ship is their only option for traveling by inland waterway in Europe.  They are missing out.  France in particular has a big network of picture-postcard canals where intimate boats (4 to 12 passengers) glide from village to village, past medieval castles and old-world farms, with no cars in sight for long stretches. It’s like floating through a bygone era. The pace is so languid that you can actually walk faster than the barge goes. I enjoyed hopping off to walk or bike along the towpath, then hopping back on.

The biggest surprise for me was how the escargot’s pace of the barge forced me to relax more than I’ve been able to in years. We could have done the same sightseeing by car, sleeping in hotels—in fact, we could have driven from the village where we started (Vandenesse-en-Auxois) to the village where we ended (Plombières-lès-Dijon) in only 27 minutes!—but that would not have unwound us into the same state of deep relaxation.

A beautiful landscape of Vandenesse en Auxois Burgundy Canal barge.

We started our barge cruise in the village of Vandenesse-en-Auxois, France.  Photo: Timothy Baker

Despite the slow pace, we actually covered a lot of territory, thanks to excursions by van each afternoon to historic sights, wineries, châteaux, and villages where we ended up visiting artisan studios, farmers’ markets, antique shops, cheesemakers…. One of my favorite excursions was to the Chateau de Commarin, where the same noble family that has owned it for 26 generations still lives today; below you can see the Count’s dog greeting me.

Most people would be surprised by the level of luxury, the modern creature comforts, and the exquisite cuisine on our barge. A private barge charter really is like having your own staffed vacation home, only with ever-changing views. And, because you wake up in a different village each day, there’s always someplace new to explore outside your door, yet there are no logistics to deal with.

Tim and I can’t wait to barge again:  Next on our list is the Canal du Midi.  Still, barging is not for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend it to families with toddlers or teens (who could get bored on the barge or need more exercise than just walking and biking), nor to anyone who requires a hotel gym. Nor would I recommend it to people who don’t like wine or cheese, given how much of it is served every day. (We tasted at least 40 wines and 40 cheeses during our six days.)

Wendy biking near a barge in the Burgundy canal in France.

Biking on the Canal de Bourgogne was easy and safe.  Photo: Timothy Baker

There are three groups of travelers who I think could really benefit from barging:

  • A group of couples who get together each year and are looking for something different and fabulous.
  • A family group without kids that is looking for an especially scenic and logistically easy villa-style vacation.
  • Busy execs who must work on vacation. That’s because a barge lets you sightsee from your desk. I was able to sit on deck all morning, answering email on my laptop while bucolic scenery and history glided by, then take a break each afternoon for an excursion and gourmet pursuits.

If you’re an individual couple without a group, there are certain weeks of the year when barges will have availability for you, but most barge cruises are private charters (typically for a group of four, eight, or twelve). Barges are pretty much sold out for 2023, but there is still a lot of availability for 2024.  If you’ve got questions about whether a barge trip is right for you, or if you could use a recommendation of the right boat, region, or itinerary for your needs, I’m happy to help via the Ask Wendy questionnaire.

Wendy at Chateau de Commarin in Burgundy, with a dog approaching her.

One of my favorite excursions was to the Château de Commarin, where the same noble family that has owned it for 26 generations still lives today (that’s the Count’s dog you see greeting me).  Photo: Timothy Baker

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. 

Wendy-Perrin on Champ de Mars with the Eiffel Tower in the back.

Paris Is Crowded: These Tips Will Save You Lines and Headaches

I just spent the last ten days of April in France, including four days in Paris, and there are a few things that travelers should know. First, at no time did we see, nor were our plans affected by, the fiery protests or strikes you see in the news. Second, what we did see was a gazillion people in Paris. They were enjoying themselves immensely, but Paris was more crowded than I have ever seen before. Here’s what the banks of the Seine looked like last Saturday afternoon:

The crowds at Seine river bank in Paris, France.

The right bank of the Seine on Saturday, April 29, 2023.  Photo: Timothy Baker

If you’re headed to France this spring, summer, or early fall, hopefully you took the advice we’ve been giving since January and you’re making reservations well in advance or, better yet, using a France expert with local clout who can spare you time-consuming logistics and get you past the lines and crowds. (You’ll find my France picks on The WOW List.) If you are going it on your own—as I did because those France experts are so busy helping you that I did not want to take up their time!—here are my tips.

A long line of people in Champ de Mars waiting in front of the public toilets.

I counted 21 people in line to use the toilets on the Champ de Mars on April 30, 2023. Photo: Wendy Perrin

Plan for things taking longer than usual.

Because of lines, security precautions, and masses of people in popular places, things take longer than they used to. So, if you’re taking the kids this summer, don’t think you’ll be able to do three major sights per day; you’ll be lucky to do two. The line for the public toilets in the Champ de Mars last Sunday (above) says it all.

Guard against pickpockets.

Where there are crowds, there are pickpockets. Within an hour of our landing at Charles de Gaulle, my husband Tim’s iPhone was stolen (somewhere between Terminal 1 and the RER train platform at Terminal 3). The airport police, the guy at the Apple Store on the Champs-Élysées, and signs all over the Metro conveyed that there is a lot of pickpocketing in Paris now. Our hotel concierge said it’s especially bad at the Paris Flea Market, where Tim and I also went. For the rest of our time in Paris, I kept my iPhone zipped into an interior pocket in my jacket.

A photo of the Rodin Museum with the Sculpture Garden in Paris.

The Sculpture Garden of the Rodin Museum was a peaceful spot in Paris on Sunday, April 30, 2023. Photo: Timothy Baker

Seek out quieter spots.

There are so many lesser-known, charming parks and museums in Paris!  At the same time that the Champ de Mars was so busy, the Square d’Ajaccio, a serene and flowery little park with an Eiffel Tower view next to the Hôtel des Invalides (a 15-minute walk away), was empty. I know this because I stopped there en route to the Rodin Museum’s leafy Sculpture Garden on Sunday afternoon (above), which had no wait to buy tickets and had plenty of peaceful corners and unoccupied benches.

Book timed entry tickets.

They’re needed at the most popular museums. As for the Eiffel Tower, even if you buy timed tickets, you’ll still have lines and waits.

The Eiffel Tower comes with its own unique quandaries. Buying advance tickets means taking the risk that your time slot could coincide with rain or foggy weather that ruins your views. That’s why my advice for years has been to wait for a clear day with great visibility, then arrive before opening time and buy tickets to take the stairs to the 2nd floor (the 674-step walk yields fascinating views and perspectives on the city, and you can take it slowly), then ride the elevator from the 2nd floor to the top. In the past, I’ve never seen any line for buying stairs tickets. But now, based on the length of the stairs-tickets line last Sunday afternoon (below), my strategy may no longer work.

A line of people waiting to buy stairs tickers for the Eiffel Tower

The stairs-tickets line at the Eiffel Tower on Sunday afternoon, April 30, 2023.  Photo: Wendy Perrin

Signs said that that line was an hour long. More signs, at more ticket-buying lines, warned: “The top floor may be closed to visitors during busy times to limits on capacity. Delay more than 45 minutes on the second floor.”

Personally, the next time I go to the Eiffel Tower without help from a WOW List France specialist, I’ll book a table at the (Michelin-starred) Jules Verne restaurant on the 2nd floor. It’s got its own elevator with no line.

Or consider ascending the Tower at night. Visitors are currently being admitted until 11:45 pm, so you could see the City of Light illuminated.

Just across the Seine, the Trocadéro—with its famous Eiffel Tower views—was terribly crowded too but as good a people-watching spot as ever. We saw a just-married couple in traditional Korean wedding costume posing for photos, watched a man get down on one knee and propose to his stunned girlfriend, and saw dances performed by a group of girls from Germany.

German dancers on Trocadero in front of the Eiffel Tower.

A group of dancers from Berlin performed at the Trocadéro near the Eiffel Tower on April 30, 2023.  Photo: Wendy Perrin

In stark contrast to Paris, the idyllic villages of Burgundy where I spent my other six days in France, floating through the countryside on a barge, were blissfully empty!  Here’s what the barge cruise was like.

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.

Checking out icebergs in Antarctica with expedition cruise ship specialists via inflatable Zodiacs.

We’re Just Back: Carolyn’s Cruise in Antarctica

When you use our Trip Questionnaire to get a WOW trip, you start by articulating your trip goals and challenges. You can find the right Trip Questionnaire for you via The WOW List’s CONTACT buttons.


 

My trip request:
Antarctica had long been on my travel wish list. I wanted to go somewhere remote that is all about nature and rugged adventures. But I wanted to minimize the chances that I would get seasick or be too cold.

Biggest trip goal:
To leave my comfort zone, visiting a land almost entirely snow, ice, mountains, rocks, and to see penguins.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, on her first trip to Antarctica. Photo by Teijo Niemela

Biggest trip challenge:
I’m sensitive to motion sickness, and most Antarctica voyages require an often rough two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, the body of water that lies between South America and the Antarctic. I wanted to avoid those two days of rough seas on each end of the cruise.

Getting there:
We were starting from Maryland, so the travel time to Antarctica was approximately 19 hours over three days. We flew from Philadelphia to Miami, took a red-eye from Miami to Santiago, Chile, and overnighted in Santiago. Then we flew via Latam charter to Punta Arenas, near Chile’s southern tip (where the flights originate to Antarctica), and then on Antarctic Airways to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. There we boarded a minibus to the Zodiac “landing” (there are no cruise-ship docks in Antarctica), climbed into a Zodiac and sailed across Admiralty Bay, and boarded the ship from the inflatable boat. Luggage followed.

The itinerary:
One week in the Antarctic Peninsula. This surprised me: Aside from knowing where we would fly from (Punta Arenas) and to (King George Island), our 7-night itinerary from Silversea Cruises labeled each day, simply, “Antarctica Peninsula.” That’s because every day, and often several times in a day, weather (and winds) would be extremely variable and changed quickly, so the captain and the expedition leader decided each night (and sometimes the day of) where we would go next. It was a powerful reminder that nature was in charge, not humans, and that felt sort of relieving (especially because we knew we had experienced pros making decisions for us).

The expedition team aimed to offer two landings each day (again, highly weather-dependent). We ended up stopping at Danco Island, Cuverville Island, Orne Harbour, Petermann Island, and Port Charcot/Pleneau Bay. And then it got really exciting: Because weather conditions in the Shetlands were worse than expected and, unusually, better than anticipated inside the Antarctic Circle, our captain headed south, where we landed at Detaille Island, Porquis Pas Island, and Jenny Island before heading back up north. As the trip was about to wind up, we transited the Lemaire Channel, Neko Harbour, Wilhelmina Bay and Deception Island before returning to King George Island.

View from the inflatable Zodiac of the icebergs.

One of my favorite ways to spend a few hours in Antarctica was riding a Zodiac right up close to icebergs. No two look alike. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

Antarctica itinerary options vary. For 7- to 13-night voyages, you’ll spend more time in the South Shetland Islands because they’re close to the Drake Passage. (Landings there are often combined with landings on—or on islands just off—the Antarctic Peninsula.)  Longer voyages, typically from 13 nights to three weeks, will also include the South Georgia Islands and the Falkland Islands.

Cruises primarily depart from either Argentina’s Ushuaia (with an overnight in Buenos Aires) or Punta Arenas (with an overnight in Chile’s southernmost city). Another option for setting off across the Drake is Chile’s Puerto Williams.

Challenges solved:

Boarding our non-stop flight from Chile’s Punta Arenas to Antarctica’s King George Island. Flight time to the most remote place on earth? Just 2 hours. Photo: Teijo M. Niemela

Instead of two rough days crossing the Drake Passage, we flew across. The flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island was only a two-hour, and very smooth, flight. So, motion sickness averted. As for the cold, I needn’t have worried so much! Even in November (which is early in the Antarctic’s Austral spring and summer season), temperatures hovered at the 32-degree mark, though the wind could be chilling. Most cruise lines provide guests with complementary parkas (ours were thick, with a removable liner in case you got warm) and waterproof pants. You can rent boots (which means you don’t need to pack them) and they are delivered onboard.

The biggest thrills:
The otherworldly landscapes. I loved riding in Zodiacs right up to icebergs, and around bays where you had to crane your neck to see the tops of mountains, and the feeling of the freshest of sea breezes (you couldn’t really smell anything—too cold for that). I loved the islands, some flat, some quite hilly, all covered in snow or rock, where you could hike around to see penguins living their lives, sea lions resting from their great journeys to the ice, and the remnants of whaling stations (the only physical structures we saw beyond King George Island).

Penguins in Antarctica.

Penguins are quirky and full of personality as they conduct their lives in front of us.

Our airplane landing on King George Island. The specially outfitted BAe 146 of Antarctica Airways, a plane designed for short runway landings and takeoffs, flew into an airport with no terminal and just a gravel runway that pilots, well trained, had to eyeball. The flight was smooth and the catering was delicious (a full meal, reflecting southern Chile’s traditional meats, cheeses and pastries, was served). There wasn’t much of a view (it was all sea) until you came right into King George Island, and then…wow, the ice, the snow, the craggy peaks that you’d read about but hadn’t seen…. It was a dramatic beginning to our explorations there.

View of Antarctica's landscape from our cruise ship.
Antarctica's landscape. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
Expedition cruise in Antarctica.
Expedition cruise in Antarctica. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
Dinner at Silver Endeavour's La Dame being served.
Dinner at Silver Endeavour's La Dame restaurant. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
Our guides in Antarctica's land preparing us for what to see.
On our expedition cruise to Antarctica, we made for land at several different places every day. Our guides prepared us for what to see. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
Wine hour in the Observation Lounge.
Wine hour in the Observation Lounge. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
The hauntingly beautiful Lemaire Channel, where a narrow passage runs between two mountain ranges.
The hauntingly beautiful Lemaire Channel, where a narrow passage runs between two mountain ranges. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.

The creature comforts:
Silversea Cruises’ Silver Endeavour, a brand new ship, was billed as ultra-luxury; every cabin is a suite, and every suite has a balcony. Would the luxuriousness of the vessel overwhelm the destination? It did not. It was a great place to rest up between landings. We loved that in our rare downtime, we could curl up in the sprawling library with its cozy nooks. Our bed was firm and comfortable, and our balcony was terrific when something fascinating slid by and we wanted to grab a photo. It was nice while on land to feel like you were roughing it, and then to come back to a ship where the crew couldn’t do enough for you.

View of Antarctica through the glassed-in walls inside the cafe/swimming pool while dining.

What a view! In the casual cafe/swimming pool, the glassed-in walls and roof keep you snug while you dine (or swim). Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

Best surprise:
The views from the hot tub. We immersed ourselves up to our necks in the outdoor whirlpool tub on deck six, with ice floes and towering mountains all around us. After 300 cruises, I can say that these were the best views from a cruise-ship hot tub ever!

View of Antarctica landscape from the cruise ship hot tub.

It’s bliss to sit in this hot-water whirlpool with its ever-changing views (but it’s not so much fun getting out!). Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

Worst surprise:
Getting home one day late. Antarctica weather can disrupt arrival or departure. On our last day of the 7-night cruise, a storm front had moved into King George Island, and we could not fly home as scheduled. The good news: We got an extra day of exploring on land and luxuriating in the hot tub.

Most underrated:
The daily briefings by the expedition team. At 6 p.m. in the Expedition Lounge, where bar crew served espresso martinis and hot hors d’oeuvres, the team would recap the day’s highlights via video and photographs. Then they’d give us a preview of the next day’s plans (always subject to change, and they often did), followed by mini-enrichment lectures (10 minutes apiece) by staff on their specialities, such as maritime history, marine mammals, ornithology, etc. Prior to the trip, I thought this might be rather dry, but after multiple landings where you’d cruise on Zodiacs with the expedition team or chat with them on land, you got to know them a little bit as people, and that infused so much more enthusiasm than expected.

Our expedition leader’s pre-dinner lectures were surprisingly fascinating as she shared memories of today — and insights on tomorrow. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

Thank God I packed:
Medicated lip balm (our expedition guides suggested Burt’s Bees or Carmex, which have a 15 SPF rating). Sunglasses and sunblock (45 SPF was recommended). Wool touch-screen gloves that allow you to take pictures with your phone’s camera. A woolen neck warmer from Patagonia. Moisture wicking tee-shirts. Leggings that you layer under the waterproof pants and parka.

What I didn’t need to pack:
A portable modem. I was totally surprised to find that the Wi-Fi onboard Silver Endeavor worked very well for checking emails and even rebooking my return flight when our departure was delayed. My portable modem didn’t work in Antarctica anyway because there is really no civilization.

Most bizarre tradition:
The Polar Plunge (which is also popular on Arctic cruises) is, for many, a frosty challenge. On our cruise, literally half the passengers onboard (and some staff and crew) donned bathing suits, hopped into a Zodiac, climbed up on its padded side, and dove, jumped, cannonballed or slid into the frigid sea. I wish I could say that I tried it.  I didn’t, but it was fun to watch everyone’s reactions, from an outdoor deck just above. No regrets on this end.

Lessons learned:
Pace yourself. Sometimes we just needed to relax in the hot tub, walk laps around deck 10, have a massage at the spa, or simply sip tea and read a book in the library.

Build in time before and after Antarctica. Even if you try to pace yourself, this is a busy trip, and the travel to and from Antarctica is tiring. Next time, I’ll build in more days before and after the Antarctica portion.  Our limited time in Santiago made me want to explore further, and Punta Arenas is a gateway to the thrills of Patagonia.

Best trip memory:

Crushing the ice in Antarctica. Photo: Teijo Niemela.

One day, toward the end of the trip, our Captain found an ice field and maneuvered the ship into it. That was the most remote, desolate, wild place—where the ship’s hull was able to glide through the ice that surrounded us. The views around us, craggy mountains, and utter silence made this the magic moment. This was the peace I had been searching for when I first considered a cruise to Antarctica.

START YOUR TRIP TO ANTARCTICA

Transparency disclosure:  Silversea Cruises provided Carolyn with a complimentary trip, and she does paid consulting work for Silversea.  She is also a longtime travel journalist who has taken 300 cruises.  Everything Carolyn did on the trip is accessible to every traveler who requests an Antarctica cruise via Wendy’s trip questionnaire. Thanks to Wendy’s WOW system, you’ll be recognized as a VIP traveler.

 

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.

Brook and her family at the Sphinx statue with no other people around.

We’re Just Back: Brook’s Family Trip to Egypt

When you use our Trip Questionnaire to get a WOW trip, you start by articulating your trip goals and challenges. That’s what Brook did when planning her kid-friendly adventure in Egypt. You can find the right Trip Questionnaire for you via The WOW List’s CONTACT buttons.


 

My trip request:
Seeing the Pyramids had long been my son Zeke’s dream. Egypt has been marked with a special pushpin on the world map in his bedroom since he was seven. When Zeke turned 11, we decided it was time to make his dream come true. We needed a kid-friendly itinerary for Egypt that hit all the highlights while avoiding the post-pandemic tourist crowds that afflict those iconic spots.

Biggest trip goals:
I had two goals: to make three-dimensional the ancient history Zeke had been learning about from textbooks, and to show him a slice of the country’s contemporary life.

Biggest trip challenges:
People from all corners of the globe want to see the last remaining wonder of the ancient world, so Egypt’s sights are notoriously crowded. I needed an itinerary that would allow us to avoid the lines, crowds, and tour-bus gridlock, fill our days with enough physical activity to burn kid energy, and keep Zeke from missing too much school.

Getting there:
We were starting in San Francisco. We thought about connecting in New York (JFK) to the EgyptAir nonstop to Cairo, but decided against it because we were nervous about domestic flight delays possibly interfering with our connection to an international flight. Instead, we flew nonstop from San Francisco to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, spent a restful six hours at the YOTEL hotel on the airside of the airport (no need to pass through security), then connected for a short flight to Cairo.

The basic itinerary:
We contacted Egypt specialist Jim Berkeley via The WOW List. He timed our trip for Thanksgiving week, so that Zeke would miss only four days of school. Jim designed our 10-day itinerary thus: two nights in Cairo, one night in Luxor, a four-night Nile cruise on a small dahabiya, two nights in Aswan, and two nights in Giza.

Challenges solved:
Jim handpicked private, English-speaking, special-access guides for us who knew how to get around many of the crowds. At Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, for instance, our guide got us there as soon as the doors opened and made a beeline for the second-floor galleries containing King Tut’s treasures, while most other visitors started on the first floor. At the Pyramids, she took the opposite route that most tours take—letting us have the Sphinx completely to ourselves. To me, the best local guides are people I could imagine striking up a friendship with if we lived in the same town. I never found the boundaries of our guide Reham’s historical knowledge—indeed, she was studying for a master’s degree between our forays around Cairo—but even more memorable than her book learning were our shared commiserations over raising pre-teens while juggling careers in travel, and the apparently worldwide phenomenon of helicopter parents trying to solve their kids’ social quandaries.

Strolling El Moez Street in Old Cairo along locals and other visitors.

Brook and local guide Reham strolling El Moez Street in Old Cairo. Photo. Ryan Damm.

Jim also found ways to add physical activity that would be fun for the whole family: We sandboarded down dunes in Aswan one day. We rode bikes early one morning from Luxor to the Valley of the Kings. (For safety, we were led by a motorbike and followed by our van, with a spontaneous police escort waving us through one intersection—but next time I’ll remember to insist on helmets when planning to rent bikes abroad.)

Brook and her son biking on an empty road to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.

Biking to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. Photo: Ryan Damm.

Brook sandboarding new Aswan.

Sandboarding near Aswan. Photo: Ryan Damm.

Our food tour of Cairo involved not just eating, but also walking a few miles on bustling city streets to visit ten different stops, from a juice bar to a falafel stand to a homestyle joint where all the signage was in Arabic.

Different fruit nets on a food market in Cairo.

A stop on Brook’s food tour of Cairo. Photo: Ryan Damm.

The highlight:
Our 4-night Nile cruise on a dahabiya. A dahabiya is a crewed sailing vessel that had won over even my boat-averse colleague Billie last year. Unlike the larger, Western-style cruise ships on the Nile, our 12-passenger dahabiya was able to stop at smaller sites the larger ships couldn’t navigate. For instance, we pulled up beside an ancient sandstone quarry; it was fascinating to walk amongst the cliffs from which stones had been cut and then rafted downriver to build the very temples we’d visited earlier in the trip. We strolled around a village where Zeke shared photos and Frisbee throws with local kids. We even stopped at a sandy shoreline where we could swim in the Nile (our captain chose a spot where the water was moving briskly enough to keep it clean, and crocodiles are rare north of the High Dam in Aswan). As the only kid on board, Zeke was occasionally restless, and the cabins were a tad shabby—but the deeper experience of life on the river made it well worth it.

Dahabiya Zekrayaat. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Just another shoreline view from the dahabiya. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Making friends in a Nubian village. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Playing frisbee with local kids. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Swimming in the Nile. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Exploring a sandstone quarry. Photo: Ryan Damm.
A larger cruise ship passes Brook's dahabiya. Photo: Ryan Damm.

A dahabiya is by nature a communal experience (the cabins are small, so we spent most of our free time on the sun deck, and all meals are shared), and we were fortunate to join a fabulously interesting group of fellow travelers. The Thanksgiving-night talent show with the other passengers was a blast. Zeke told two jokes, and we watched new friends sing and dance; all I had to contribute was a handstand. Everyone’s willingness to let their guard down among people they’d met just three days earlier bespoke the camaraderie and intimacy of our short time together.

Best surprise:

Brook looking at the mural painting inside Nefertari's Tomb.

Inside Nefertari’s Tomb. Photo: Ryan Damm.

Queen Nefertari’s Tomb. Jim made sure we didn’t miss this gem. The millennia-old tombs in the Valley of the Kings—and even more so, in the less crowded Valley of the Queens—are exquisitely well preserved, with vibrant colors, visible brushstrokes, and everyday scenes that suggest they could have been painted just last week. But Queen Nefertari’s tomb takes the cake, with multiple chambers and intricate carvings done in sophisticated high relief.

Worst surprise:
Losing Zeke for five terrifying minutes among the throngs at Luxor Temple after sunset. Already disappointed by the crowds that made the temple’s innermost sanctuary feel more like Grand Central Station—it proved to be my least favorite site of the trip—we decided to cut our visit short and lost track of each other on the way out. Our guide kept his cool and found Zeke by the entrance; I greeted them both with teary hugs.

Most underrated:

Looking at the ceiling of the Temple of Khnum in Esna.

The Temple of Khnum, in Esna, Egypt. Photo: Ryan Damm.

The Temple of Khnum. Just before boarding our dahabiya in Esna, we visited the local temple. The ruins are below ground level but have been fully excavated; you take a tuk-tuk through the streets of this unassuming town 35 miles south of Luxor, walk down a flight of stairs, and enter one of the most impressive sites in all of Egypt—at least to my eyes. Restoration work is ongoing, and centuries of soot, grime, and bird droppings still obscure the stone in one half of the temple; in the other half, rows of columns with capitals ornately carved into flowers and palm fronds, and pastel-toned vulture-winged goddesses painted on ceiling frescos, leave you tempted to simply lie down on the gravel floor to take it all in.

Most overrated:
King Tut’s tomb. It’s modest by comparison to other tombs in the Valley of the Kings; at least the mummy still lies in state. Enter for the nostalgic connection to your childhood fascination with Egypt—not for the elaborate carvings you’ll find guiding other pharaohs’ paths to the afterlife, but not Tut’s.

Best places we stayed:

View of pyramids from the balcony at the Marriott Mena House.

View from a room at the Marriott Mena House.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the view from our room at the Marriott Mena House in Giza: There was the Great Pyramid, framed between palm trees by day, and lit up in colorful lights at night. The hotel’s prodigious buffets at breakfast and dinner ensured that everyone in our family could find something they were excited to eat.

 

View of Palace Cataract Suite at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan.

Palace Cataract Suite at the Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan.

The bar at the Old Cataract Hotel in Egypt.

The bar at the Old Cataract Hotel. Photo: Ryan Damm.

You need not be an Agatha Christie fan to be charmed by the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract in Aswan. Most rooms in both the original and newer wings have broad Nile views that take in the weathered curves of granite on Elephantine Island, the graceful lines of the feluccas sailing around it, and the hotel’s own highly manicured grounds. In our suite, the ornate chandeliers and richly toned wood cabinetry with mother-of-pearl inlays felt fit for royalty.

Worst place we stayed:
In Luxor, the Sofitel Winter Palace oozes history in ways both good and bad: You can imagine Howard Carter grandly announcing his discovery of King Tut’s tomb from the hotel in 1922, but you also wonder if the furnishings haven’t been reupholstered since then. The main restaurant is adults-only (not to mention jacket-required), and we found the alternative buffet to be overcooked and overpriced. Jim thinks the Winter Palace will get a much-needed refurbishment in the next year or two; until then, he tells me, the other options in town have their own idiosyncrasies.

Traveler beware:
In four decades of traveling, I’ve never been to a place as dominated by group tourism as Egypt is. A smart local fixer employs strategies to avoid the busiest times at the iconic spots—and turns your gaze to smaller, out-of-the-way details, like the careful carving of the toenails on a statue of Ramesses II—but you can’t escape the crowds entirely. A single group of 25 travelers all following the same flag-toting, mic’d-up guide is more difficult to navigate around than a dozen independent couples or families. That shouldn’t stop you from going to Egypt. Just be sure to book your trip through an Egypt specialist like Jim who has the proven ability to outsmart and outrun the big groups when possible.

Brook with her son exploring the Karnak Temple with their guide.

On a busy day at Karnak Temple, Brook’s guide still finds a quiet corner to explore. Photo: Ryan Damm.

Thank goodness I packed:
$100 in one-dollar bills. Thanks to Jim’s pre-trip intel, I had plenty of cash for baksheesh, which I most often handed out unsolicited. In the tombs at Luxor, though, the security guards were persistent in their offers to take your photo or let you behind the ropes—and then equally persistent in seeking out the tip they expected in return.

I’m glad I didn’t pack:
Binoculars. While our early-morning boat ride to the sandboarding spot outside Aswan was a birdwatcher’s dream, and we could have seen more than the most obvious herons, egrets, and kingfishers with a bit of magnification, Jim warned me that customs officials often take binoculars away from travelers upon their arrival, deeming them a security threat to the country’s military installations.

Lesson learned:
A few days before the trip, Jim rejiggered our plans in Cairo, which meant we wouldn’t see the pyramids until the end of our trip—and boy, am I happy he did. This was the highlight of the trip for Zeke, and it allowed us to end on a high note in a way that city sightseeing (while plenty of fun early in the trip) would not have matched. I knew it was a risk to save the most anticipated site for last, but we had to fly through Cairo to get home anyway, and we vowed to extend the trip to see the Pyramids if a Covid quarantine or some other malady forced us to change up our itinerary. (Luckily, all went according to plan.) From now on, I’ll always make sure there’s an extra-special finale at the end of every trip.

Best trip memory:
Zeke still can’t stop talking about our exploits inside the cramped passageways of the Great Pyramid! Built long before the more elaborate tombs constructed during the dynasties of Egypt’s New Kingdom, most of the walls inside the pyramid are smooth but largely unadorned, and the King’s Chamber is a humble precursor of later pharaonic resting places. But nothing makes you feel more like Indiana Jones than clambering up the narrow wooden ramps that lead to that chamber, ever mindful of the tonnage of stone that has held fast above your head for 4,500 years…and counting?

Navigating the passageways inside the Great Pyramid.

Navigating the passageways inside the Great Pyramid.

START YOUR TRIP TO EGYPT

Transparency disclosure: So that I could experience Egypt, WOW Lister Jim Berkeley arranged reduced rates for my family’s trip. Everything I did on my trip is accessible to every traveler who contacts Jim via Wendy’s WOW questionnaire. Thanks to Wendy’s WOW system, you’ll get marked as a VIP traveler.

 

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.

Rovinj Croatia. Sunrise sky above vintage town at Istria peninsula in Adriatic Sea. View from water at old Mediterranean architecture buildings. Coastline and tower of Church of Saint Euphemia.

Croatia Becomes Part of Europe’s Schengen Area. What Does That Mean for You?

On January 1, Croatia celebrated two major milestones that will only enhance its already beguiling appeal for travelers. First, the country has become part of the European Union’s Schengen Zone, which means that travelers won’t need to go through passport control when traveling between Croatia and any of 26 other E.U. countries. Second, Croatia adopted the Euro, which means you won’t need to exchange currency when crossing those borders either.

The new ease of travel between Croatia and many other European countries will affect anyone who dreams of a trip combining Croatia’s ancient harbors and charming villages with a few days in neighboring Slovenia, Hungary, or beyond. In all, a total of 27 European countries are part of the Schengen Zone. It’s interesting to note that of the three countries that applied to be added to the zone in 2023, only Croatia was approved; Romania and Bulgaria were denied.

The entry into the Euro Zone also means the removal of land and sea border checks with some of Croatia’s European neighbors. Americans who fly directly to Europe will still need to show their passport at the first Schengen Zone country they enter, of course, but they won’t need to go through border control after that. Check here for a list of all 27 countries that are members of the Euro Zone. At this point, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom (which is no longer part of the EU as a result of Brexit) are not included in the Schengen area and still require travelers to show passports at border control.

Croatia is the 20th European country to adopt the Euro, officially replacing its currency, the Kuna. For Croatia itself, the big benefit of this change is a greater sense of monetary stability. For travelers who will no longer need to exchange currency when they arrive in Croatia, it’s a convenience, particularly for those of us who used to struggle with the mathematical conversions we needed to make whenever we made a purchase in Croatia.

At this point in early 2023, only seven EU countries still use their own currencies: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Sweden.

 

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.

Fregate Island, Seychelles

A Trip to The Seychelles and the Indian Ocean:
Start with our Questionnaire

This pandemic has unleashed unprecedented travel hurdles, as well as opportunities, and we’re monitoring them all. Are you seeking a private, easy, custom-tailored, top-quality trip that minimizes the risk to you and others?  We’ll recommend your smartest options and the best trip-planning fixer for your specific situation, and we’ll ensure you get VIP service.  Here’s how it works:

1. Answer the questions below. Your information is kept private.
2. Press Submit.
3. Expect a reply within 24 hours (or 48 hours on weekends).

 


View from Monte Generoso Ticino Switzerland

A Trip to Switzerland:
Start with our Questionnaire

This pandemic has unleashed unprecedented travel hurdles, as well as opportunities, and we’re monitoring them all. Are you seeking a private, easy, custom-tailored, top-quality trip that minimizes the risk to you and others? We’ll recommend your smartest options and the best trip-planning fixer for your specific situation, and we’ll ensure you get VIP service. Here’s how it works:

1. Answer the questions below. Your information is kept private.
2. Press Submit.
3. Expect a reply within 24 hours (or 48 hours on weekends).

 


aerial shot of Belize ocean with sailboat

Belize: Plan Your Trip!

Your Belize Trip Begins Here

Belize may be small in size (just a tad larger than New Jersey), but it possesses a mighty wide range of enviable attributes: the second-longest barrier reef in the world, dozens of significant Mayan ruins, an extensive cave network available for exploration, thousands of acres of pristine rainforest, and a surprisingly wide array of luxury resorts (several owned by Francis Ford Coppola). Belize is serious about preservation, too: Fully one quarter of the country is designated as a marine or nature reserve. Part of the British Commonwealth, Belize’s official language is English, so communication is simple. But getting around on your own is not: Many of the roads are unpaved, and signage is seriously lacking. It takes a savvy local expert to weave the right mix of scheduled and charter puddle-jumper flights, private drivers, and water taxis or private catamarans to make the most of your time, and to suss out which lodges and resorts will be right for you (even some high-end properties lack in-room Wi-Fi or air conditioning).

We can point you to a Belize specialist who delivers private, custom, WOW trips that keep you away from the tourist crowds and take you to the most thrilling places you could never find or access on your own. But be prepared to spend a minimum of $700 per day for two travelers. If that’s doable, click below and complete the questionnaire. Your information is kept private.

Pricing tip: For a WOW Belize trip, expect to spend at least $700 per day for two travelers, which includes accommodations, private transportation, and some meals and activities.

 

Start your Belize trip here

Ethiopia: Plan Your Trip!

Ethiopia. Photo: Will Jones
Photo: Paul Callcutt
Photo: Graeme Lemon
Photo: Scot Sellers
Photo: Scot Sellers
Photo: Will Jones
Photo: Paul Callcutt

Your Trip to Ethiopia Begins Here

The birthplace of humankind. A frontier wilderness on the edge of a continent that is still fairly wild, but growing less so by the day. Ethiopia is not for the first-timer to Africa—there are few of the magnificent beasts here that are the typical safari prompt. But what you do find in Ethiopia will engage an intrepid explorer: the continent’s highest concentration of highlands, which create a landscape like no other; huge populations of unusual mammal and bird species, such as the bleeding-heart baboon and the white-tailed swallow; and the medieval Christian rock churches that are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The country is new to tourism, particularly of the high-end variety; if you’re not careful, you’ll have a better chance of finding bedbugs than a well-cooked meal. Few travel planners know Ethiopia in depth, but those who do understand where the pockets of excellence exist, how to get around most efficiently despite the poor roads, and how to interact with the local people respectfully—not as a kind of human zoo.

Up for adventure? We can point you to an Ethiopia specialist who delivers private, custom, WOW trips that open your eyes to a different side of Africa, taking you to the most thrilling places and connecting you to insider experiences you could never find or access on your own. But be prepared to spend a minimum of $1,200 per day for two travelers in low season and $1,600 in high season. If that’s doable, click below and complete the questionnaire. Your information is kept private.

Pricing tip: Trips start at $1,200 per day for two travelers in low season and $1,600 per day for two travelers in high season.

Start your Ethiopia trip here

white buildings of oia santorini overlooking the ocean greece

A Trip to Greece:
Start with our Questionnaire

As far as culture goes, few destinations can top Greece. It’s the birthplace of western civilization and home to the Acropolis and many other iconic archaeological sites. Its natural landscapes aren’t too shabby either, with both olive groves and ski slopes packed into a country the size of Alabama, and the vividly blue sea never more than a few hours’ drive away. But that compact size belies the hours—days, even—one can waste trying to get from place to place. With more than 2,000 islands to choose from, each with its own unique character, it can be impossible to figure out which particular pieces will create the perfect trip for you. That’s where the right travel planner comes in, steering you to the most reliable ferry operators, chartering helicopters or boats when public transportation won’t suffice, and building just the right mix of sleepy villages, pulsing nightlife, near-empty beaches, and millennia-old culture. Reach out to Wendy to find your perfect match.

Fill out our Greece travel questionnaire: