Tag Archives: travel learning

Omaha Beach Normandy France

The Best Way to Tour Europe’s World War II Sites


Hi Wendy,

My husband and I are seasoned travelers and would like to take a trip to see some of Europe’s important World War II sights, including Normandy, the Ardennes, Amsterdam, Munich, and Nuremberg—and we’re open to other suggestions. We want very knowledgable guides in each place and want to stay in the nicest accommodations.  Who should we contact to help us plan such a trip?


—Randy B.


With the 70th Anniversary of D-Day coming up this Friday, there’s a lot of interest right now in European itineraries that encompass the Normandy landing beaches and other WWII sites. Randy, this means you need a Western Europe travel specialist with knowledge of, and access to, the best guides for these sites.

My suggestion is that you reach out to Rudi Steele of Rudi Steele Travel. He’s a particularly well-connected travel agent who was born in Germany (where his older brothers were actually drafted into the Hitler Youth) and raised in Switzerland. World War II is a passion for him. Over the years, he has made private guided WWII itineraries a subspecialty, and he also has close relationships with the general managers of Europe’s finest hotels, and that translates into preferred treatment and extra benefits for you.

Rudi is imaginative with itineraries, so fasten your seatbelt. He may suggest that you start off in London at the Imperial War Museum. It’s currently closed for renovation, but just last week he got some travelers inside it privately with a historian. Rudi can even fly you by helicopter from London to one of the Landing Beaches in Normandy!  As you move through France toward Germany, he might recommend you make time for some of the underground fortresses along the Maginot Line.  As for Germany, the court room in Nuremberg is a must, of course, but Rudi says a highlight for World War II buffs is a visit to Colditz Castle, near Leipzig. The Germans used the Castle as a high-security prison for Allied officers who were considered particularly dangerous and had escaped from other prisoner-of-war camps; many managed to break out of the Castle anyway, and you can tour the escape tunnels.

Randy, over the next few days the beaches of Normandy (like the one pictured above) will be bustling with 70th anniversary activity. By the time of your trip, though, all should be back to normal and peaceful. Have a great trip!

Iran Bagh e Tarikhi Gardens Kerman

Just Back from Iran: The 10 Biggest Surprises

My friends Mary Munn Laronge and Josh Laronge just got back from a World Affairs Council trip to Iran. Mary and Josh are no strangers to the exotic and forbidden: They’ve been to Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Cuba, even North Korea.  In fact, they’ve slept on all seven continents. So of course I wanted to hear what, from their perspective, were the most surprising things about Iran. Here are the ten Mary singled out, in her words, with photos by Josh to illustrate.

Iran Kerman schoolgirls

1.     How friendly the people are. “When they spot a foreigner, they approach you and ask where you’re from. When you answer “The United States,” their faces light up like you’re a long lost relative. “Welcome to my country!” they exclaim. “We love the U.S.!  Thank you for visiting my country. Do enjoy your trip.” They are smiley and giggly too—and eager to have their photos taken. The only people who were sometimes camera-shy were older women dressed in chador.”

Persepolis, Iran

2.     Empty UNESCO World Heritage sites. “On a sunny Saturday in May, there were only two tour buses at Persepolis. That’s unheard of for a UNESCO site in peak tourist season. Compare that with the Palace of Knossos in Crete, or the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, where dozens of international tour buses jam the parking lots.”

3.     The English signage everywhere. “There’s English signage even in the rural areas and in every museum, no matter how small.”

4.     The sheer volume of the crown jewels. “Housed in the underground Bank Melli Iran vault, the jewels can be viewed only by advance appointment and on certain days. They’re more plentiful and impressive than the crown jewels in the Tower of London or in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. They include salad-bowl-sized containers overflowing with uncut emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, as well as pieces designed by Western jewelers—think Van Cleef & Arpels—that were acquired by the Shah.”

5.     The availability of American consumer products. “Not only are Coca-Cola drinks everywhere, but the country has 100 or so ‘Apple Stores.’ They’re not official Apple stores, but they sell iPhones, iPads, and iPods for little more than you’d pay in the U.S.”

Iran Shiraz picnic

6.  Picnics—everywhere and anywhere—at all hours of the day or night. “Picnicking is the country’s #1 recreational activity. If there’s a patch of green on the side of the highway, as many families as can possibly fit will be picnicking on it.”

Iran white rose

7.     The powerful scent of the roses in Persian gardens. “When approaching a garden, you smell it before you see it. Iran is a desert country, so you wouldn’t imagine such a variety and diversity of gardens, but the Persians are masters at capturing and diverting water coming off the snow-capped mountains. The result is that Persian gardens are exceptional and sweet-smelling. And, because it’s breezy in Iran, the scent of the roses carries far.”

8.     The number of flavors of non-alcoholic beer.“ Alcohol is forbidden in Iran, of course, so there’s non-alcoholic beer everywhere. Fruit flavors—strawberry, lemon, lime, cherry, pineapple—are particularly popular.”

Iran Isfahan colored chicks

9.     The technicolor chicks on sale in bazaars. “They look like Peeps—except that these actually do peep. They’re given to children as gifts in springtime.  (The dye comes off the chicks as their feathers start to grow.)”

10.    How far the U.S. dollar stretches. Price of an ice cream on the street: 15 cents.Price of a Coke on the street: 30 cents.Price to get a shirt laundered and ironed at the hotel: $1Price of a one-way flight within Iran: $30


If you’re curious to see more photos, Josh will be publishing a book called Faces of Friendship: Iran, a collection of portraits of the wonderful people he met there. When the book comes out, I’ll let you know.

Friday mosque of Isfahan

Friday mosque of Isfahan

Royal Square, Isfahan, Iran

Royal Square, Isfahan

Azadi Tower, Teheran, Iran

Josh and Mary at Azadi Tower, Teheran

St. Catherine's Monastery Mount Sinai

My Best Travel Mistake: Climbing Mount Sinai for the Sunset

We’ve all been through travel nightmares that over time have turned into fond memories. Maybe you were lost for hours in a maze of back alleys in some gritty Beijing hutong where nobody spoke English but you eventually found your way back to your hotel. Maybe a flight cancellation stranded you on a remote Pacific island for three days but you ended up making great friends and learning how to boil kava.


My biggest travel mistake happened in Egypt. Tim and I had driven across the Sinai Desert to see St. Catherine’s Monastery—the sixth century cloister at the foot of Mount Sinai—and had decided to climb to the top of the mountain for the sunset. The path was rocky and precarious, but after about two and a half hours we had made it up the 7,500 feet. We were virtually the only people at the summit at sunset. It was one of those perfect travel moments.

Until the sun disappeared behind the mountain and we realized there was no light anywhere in the desert. We somehow had to get all the way back down that mountain in the pitch dark. The descent was treacherous, and the only reason I’m alive today to tell the tale is that I was wearing sturdy shoes and Tim happened to have a Mini Maglite flashlight in his pocket.


A friendly Bedouin

A friendly Bedouin

What turned this ordeal into a cherished memory was what greeted us when we finally reached the bottom. It was like we had landed in Lawrence of Arabia. A blanket of stars had come out, and beside the ancient cloister, crouched around a flickering campfire, was a group of friendly Bedouin and their camels, making dinner and telling stories in an incomprehensible but mesmerizing tongue. We were, again, the only travelers around. That movie-set finish to our day is seared in my memory, and somehow over time that harrowing Mount Sinai descent has turned into one of the highlights of my travel history.

Mount Sinai after sunsert

Mount Sinai after sunsert

Three lessons learned:

1. The next time I climb to the top of a mountain, it will be for the sunrise.

2. No matter what time of day, I’ll be carrying a Mini Maglite.

3. Don’t let State Department travel alerts cause you to misperceive the real risks. As is often the case, the risk of death by violent human attack or explosive device is far less than the risk of death from simply wearing the wrong shoes.

St. Catherine's Monastery

St. Catherine’s Monastery

The Sinai Desert

The Sinai Desert

What was your worst travel mistake that turned into an amazing memory? I just might collect the best stories and share them with everyone.