Travel Deals – Croatia & Eastern Europe

I need to travel. I would rather sacrifice in other areas so that I can travel. I am constantly looking for somewhere or someway that I can travel, that doesn’t require me getting a third credit card. If I hear of someone who just went on a great vacation, I pick their brain and then research the area, the beaches, whatever I can find. If there is a shred of doubt in my mind weather or not I can afford the trip, I usually start researching flights immediately. I have friends who just got back from their honeymoon in Croatia, so of course I researched Europe and now I want to go!

Republic of Croatia

Croatia’s peak season starts in May and goes through September. Try planning your vacation for October – weather is cooling off slightly, but most beaches will still be warm enough to swim at.  Prices will be lower in the off season and there are fewer other travelers to contend with. 

Kristin (the new bride!) also recommended that travelers rent a beach house rather than paying premium prices for hotel accommodations.  You may have to pick up after yourself and do your own laundry, but you will save money in the long run, plus you have the privacy of your own home, access to a kitchen and often your own pool!

Generally, Eastern Europe is much cheaper to travel to and around than its counterpart to the West. If beach destinations like Croatia, or the popular (and pricier) cities of Paris, Rome or Barcelona aren’t your thing, travelers can still see the old world charm found in Western Europe, for less of their cash. Places like, Sofia and Budapest, Bruges, and Tallinn make for unique and exciting vacations. karen-and-mom

Tallinn, Estonia is safe, on the cheaper side, and offers more charm and beauty than its other former Soviet neighbors with a contrast of cobblestone streets winding past 13th Century churches and nightclubs such as Club Bonbon and Privé entertain revelers until 5 a.m.  The best way to see the town is by foot (look into walking tours) and be sure to visit Viru Street for excellent shopping!

Sofia, Bulgaria is a walking town surrounded by things to see. Take a day trip to the Vitosha Mountain or stay locally and join in on the leisurly meals served at one of many cafe-style restaurants.

Travel America – Michigan City, Indiana

Ever have that itch to get away?  Sometimes I just need a vacation – but then reality sets in…I can’t take any more time off of work.  Who would watch the dogs?  Can I even afford an overseas flight?

Lucky for me – and now those of you reading this - my job has allowed me to discover offbeat destinations right here within this glorious country of ours!  I say “offbeat” because haven’t we all either been a college student on spring break in Daytona, participated in the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, or, at the very least, seen the Baywatch crew run in slow-motion on the beaches of Los Angeles?  If you’ve been there, done that, and are looking for some variety, our “Travel America” articles will explore the hidden gems across the United States – cities and towns waiting for you to arrive…

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana

I’ve never been to the Great Lakes, but ever since that 2003 surfing film depicted guys riding the waves off of Minnesota, I’ve wanted to visit.  There are many small towns dotting the lake’s coastlines, but one town in particular, Michigan City, Indiana, piqued my interest.

Michigan City has long been a vacation destination for the residents of Chicago (it’s only about 50 miles east of the windy city – on a clear day you can even see the Chicago skyline!) and for residents of nearby areas of Indiana, but it is gradually becoming better known by the rest of the US.

Plan your trip to Michigan City for one of the summer months if you plan to hit up the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore – nearly 25 miles of beaches, sand dunes, marshes and woodland forests along the southern shore of Lake Michigan.  The Lakeshore is home to over 35o species of birds and has one of the most diverse plant communities of any National Park in the US.

Visit the Lighthouse Place Outlet Mall for Michigan City’ s best shopping and some great dining options.  The outlet was named after the Old Michigan City Lighthouse – one of the state’s few lighthouses.

And if birds and lighthouses aren’t quite your thing, pony up at The Blue Chip Casino!  The largest riverboat in Indiana, The Blue Chip Casino, offers 24/7 boarding and a 65,000 square foot gaming floor.  Casino’s are fun and all, but I am on a budget here.  I think I’ll check into the casino’s entertainment scene, which attracts National acts to the 15,000 square foot Stardust Event Center.

While Michigan City has a variety of accommodations, ranging from camping to hotels, my friends and I would rather rent a house or apartment. And I confess,  because I rarely travel the US without my fur-babies, it can be hard to find a short term rental that allows my dogs to stay with me.  I am booking my stay at the “Miami” – a lakefront home I found that has panoramic views of the dunes, beach, and Michigan City’s famous lighthouse. There is not going to be anything between me and the fine sandy beach but a foot path through the sand dunes to the lake!

See every beach in the world – in one day!

You’ve backpacked through Asia, hiked the America’s, hopped the Eurorail across Europe, safaried in Africa and dog sledded your way throughout Antarctica…and you have a foggy recollection of spending some time in Australia, although you can’t be 100% sure – there may have been a lot of lager involved…

If you’re feeling a case of the been-there-done-that’s, you only have to wait a few more years – which is probably the amount of time it will take you to pawn off all of your possessions,  shake down your family and closest friends, and climb the ranks in your local mafia so that you can amass enough money to afford a trip to the final frontier… space.

Virgin Galactic (see what they did there?  Galactic sounds kinda like Atlantic?  clever.) has announced that, estimated to begin in the year 2012, you will have the opportunity to travel into outer space – an opportunity that, so far, only professional astronauts have had.  Their Website can’t stress “safety” enough – new technology and a 3-day pre-flight training seminar will supposedly leave you ready to board one of their state-of-the-art spaceships (complete with comfort-first seats and amenities and panoramic windows) and venture out into the wild black and blue yonder.

Virgin Galactic’s affordable pricetag:  $200,000 – with plans to reduce the cost as much as possible as quickly as possible in order to maximize the number of people who will be able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Another company, Galactic Suite Limited, is also set to voyage into outer space, although both Galactic Suite Limited and Virgin Galactic are adamant that there is no race – both companies are independently financed and will start their engines only once exhaustive test flights and trial runs have been successfully completed.

While Virgin’s trip is a there-and-back, relatively quick journey, Galactic Suite Limited’s experience will allow amateur astronauts an extended stay in orbit aboard The Galactic Suite Space Resort.

The experience will begin on a private tropical island where your “challenging and exhilarating” briefed astronaut space training program will take place.  After that, it’s go time and you will be launched into space on their SpaceShip, on track to join up with their SpaceResort.  Once there, you will spend 3 nights in a private lux pod room – all for the low, low price of $4,000,000!

…imagine…going from 0 km/hr to 28,000 km/hr in 10 minutes…traveling around the world in 90 minutes…watching 15 sunsets in one day…experiencing total weightlessness…

Offbeat Vacation Spot: Huacachina, Peru

Huacachina is a small village located in the Ica Region, in southwestern Peru with a population of only 115.  It’s built around a small isolated lake in the desert called the “Oasis of America,” and has long served as a resort for local families from the nearby city of Ica and a stomping-ground for Peruvian elite.  Those familiar with Peru’s currency may recocnize Huacachina fromt he back of the S/50 note.

Increasingly though, Huacachina has become a popular destination for offbeat thrill-seekers and backpackers who come to shread the hundred foot+ sand dunes that surround the oasis villiage.  These sandboarding tourists have somewhat come to run the show.  What was once towering palm trees, lush foliage and buildings from days gone by has been virtually transformed as a majority of the hotels, restaurants and businesses are now catering to these new tourists that are known for their all night parties.


Not that the Peruvians are unacustomed to some wild nights.  Back when the Spanish ruled Peru and grew tired of waiting for their beloved wine to be shipped to them every 6 months, they planted their own grapevines and began making, what turned out to be, quite the tasty vino.  The Peruvians, however liked their spirits a little stronger, which resulted in some of the wines being distilled and turned into waht is now their national drink of choice – pisco (named after the important nearby port of the same name).  The pisco sour, a delicious drink made from pisco, whisked egg white, lemon juice, syrup or sugar, crushed ice and a little bitters, is delicious and refreshing.

If you’re interested in visiting Huacachina, there are a grip of hostels and inexpensive accomodations to be discovered (try El Huacachinero) that make Huacachina a perfect stop for those traveling throughout Peru, perhaps on their way to Cusco and the Incan Trail.

Guest Blog – Stacy & Jeff do SE Asia (32 of 40)

impossibles afternoon swell

impossibles afternoon swell

surfs up ballin
“after a few more days of small waves in bingin’ we headed north up to cangoo (changoo) where franny and alana live.  many beach breaks up and down the coast, small but fun, and not too many guys. there’s three rivers up and down the beach, so makes for a good break.

we grouped up with fernando & alana (peruvian and aussie), their friends: jose & marilou (both peruvian, importing from here), and jasmine & jason (surfin buds from australia), and headed up to balian for the weekend.  girls in one car, boys in another, and an hour and a half later we were in the quaint little beach of balian. another rivermouth, some nice fun waves.  an interesting group of expats residing up there, definitely a great place to chill at.

impossibles sunset

impossibles sunset

saturday the gals indulged and lounged all day long, stuffing their faces and tanning.  while the boys, we did what we do best, surf, eat, surf, drink, surf and so on. there was supposed to be a full moon mask party rager, but didn’t really seem to happen.  we went out the night before with franny and alana, so we were good to chill.

after a good small clean surf in the morning sunday, we headed back to franny’s place in cangoo.  now we sit and decide where to surf next! such a rough life… we see desert point in the near future and probably sumbawa from there.

here’s a few good pics for the start of the season…

peace and love”

bingin tube

bingin tube

small bingin

small bingin

stacy floatin - view from room

stacy floatin - view from room

stacy bobbing

stacy bobbing

bingin coastline

bingin coastline

our room - top left corner

our room - top left corner

wyan and jeff

wyan and jeff

girl laughing

girl laughing

balian coast - black sand

balian coast - black sand

surfs up

surfs up

Guest Blog – Stacy & Jeff do SE Asia (28 of 40)

thai crew team

thai crew team

traveling om
“after we reached our “om” in cambodia with ancient towers and local laughs, we ventured on back into thailand.  our second time entering thailand, and this time like the first, the country seems to be at unrest.  from our taxi ride over the border and into bangkok, much more was visible this time around. swat teams on every corner with the plastic shields and army officers manning their perches, all with rifles.  still, in our little touristy neighborhood of koh san road, life goes on as normal.  little did we know, the morning we arrived one of the main current party leaders (a yellow shirt) was attempted assignation on (by red shirts) in his motor parade by assult rifles.  scary stuff, but lucky for us, the swat and army teams on corners was the only witness we had.  but, i’m guessing it’s gonna take some major time and consideration before thailand is at peace with itself.

approaching raley

approaching raley

after our short stay in the city, we flew south to krabi, land of emerald seas and rock climbers dream limestone cliffs.  first night was spent in krabi town (the province is also named krabi) which is nothing more than a boat launch to the islands around.  but we did catch a great weekend market including karaoke, marching band, and delicous food carts. from krabi we headed out to the penninsula of raley.  this is the paradise at krabi. split into east and west sides surrounded by towering limestone painted with rockclimbers everywhere.  mom and cindy stayed on the fancy west beach while jeff and i bargined for a great bungalow in the center in a breezy grassy valley in the midst of limestones, only 5 minute walk to west or east beach. there’s no cars, only boats, monkeys, birds, great beaches.

raley cove

raley cove

on arrival we realized we were just in time for the ‘awards ceremony’ for the annual rock climbing cup and fire dancing contest. so by night the west beach turned into a stage and fire show with live music.  after some impressive fire dancing, jazz and then calypso music, we were suprised to see our token thai reggae band, job 2 do, headline the show.  jeff and i first heard of them in phuket and then spotted them throughout thailand but we were always a day or 2 behind their shows. so it was fate we’d see them eventually. it was a great show.  dancing, drinks, and we got it all recorded…jah rastafari.

bungalow

bungalow

after exploring more hidden beaches for a day (by the way, the water temp, way too hot, by far the warmest water any of us have ever swam in), we left onward on a speed boat tour of surrounding islands: hong island, paradise, and two others whose names escape me.  we loaded on our speedboat with 16 others and were on our way. cindy, mom and i sat in the front of the boat while jeff got left in the back.  the driver said it may be a bit bumpy so beware. man oh man were we in for a ride.  there were four others up there with us and we went flying in the air, thank god for the railings we were able to grab ahold of. 20 minutes later we arrived at hong island.

gang on the beach

gang on the beach

here, we kayaked around the island into a beautiful lagoon, emerald with white sands.  once we reached the lagoon, already tired from our paddeling, we decide to go for a swim. jeff asks the guide if there’s a certian area, and he points to the sandy part.  unfortunately, mama wasn’t near us to hear these directions, so she leaped off her kayak onto a blanket of coral – sharp glass-like coral.  too quickly, her toes and feet got sliced (as seen in the graphic picture). luckily she didn’t loose any limbs, but she sliced her big toe and middle toe pretty bad, as well as the bottom of the other foot.  strong as she is, we continued our kayak trip and then back at the beach had the ‘life guard’ do a quick tape job that lasted a short two minutes. we pressed on. we snorkled until it was time to go onto the next island for lunch and more snorkling.  by the end of the day, we’d snorkled, swam, sighted a giant monitor lizard which roam these islands, lunched, and bumped our way back to mainland.  next day on to phi phi don…

xoxo”

happy couple

happy couple

fire show

fire show

fire dancin

fire dancin

jah

jah

job 2 do concert

job 2 do concert

paradise beach, raley

paradise beach, raley

beach view

beach view

beach panorama

beach panorama

beach shells and crab holes

beach shells and crab holes

fertility cave

fertility cave

cave close up

cave close up

caterpillar

caterpillar

beach sign

beach sign

raley west sunset

raley west sunset

jeff bravin the seas

jeff bravin the seas

hong lagoon

hong lagoon

Top 5 Most Romantic Beaches in the World

It’s hard to say what, exactly, makes a vacation HOT.  It’s more than the just weather, as Heidi Klum and hubby Seal could tell you – he infamously popped the question in a snow cave atop a glacier – but you can bet their engagement night was anything but frosty.  And while canopy beds, private hot tubs and candles can’t hurt, they can’t do all the work either.

We’ve gathered the top 5 most romantic beach destinations in the world as a starting point for your next X-rated escape.  There’s everything from a private island to a sizzling Latin locale – so pack your suit and anything else you may need…that is, if you even plan on emerging from your hotel room – yeah, we know your type…

Hayman Island, Australia – There must be a heap of  too-hot-for-TV Gilligan’s Island clips on someone’s cutting room floor.  I mean, after being stranded on that island for so long, wouldn’t the Professor ever get the urge to play doctor with Mary Ann?  Surely Ginger got into character and role played with Gilligan at least once?  If you’ve ever had the urge to reenact your very own “stranded on a deserted island” fantasy, look no further than Hayman Island (and not to worry – even though it’s far less populated than most places, it still isn’t completely deserted). Part of the world wonder that is Aussie’s Great Barrier Reef, Hayman Island is paradise found – an Eden that unabashedly flaunts its beauty that will have you asking your Lovey, “Who’s your Skipper?”  This sultry tropical setting has sprawling pure silica-white-crystal beaches and is where wildlife flourishes – it’s common to see everything from cockatoos and swans to bats and butterflies. At night, the stars seem to light the ink-black sky like perpetually frozen fireworks, so go ahead…get your Gilligan on.  Where to stay? Hayman Island Resort

Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica – Do you like your romance on the wild side?  Go au-natural at this raw eco-tourism haven…it’s hot and sticky most of the year, and Corcovado has a masterful balance of dense rain forests that open up onto stunningly beautiful beaches.  You and your sweetheart can experience the park’s virgin beauty with its green-sand beaches, wild mix of animals, and lantern-lit tent camps – the perfect location for you to reenact that unadulterated “In the jungle…” moment a la Ace Ventura…except at Corcovado there’s not a noisy headboard to give you away!  Afterward, you’ll want to cool down with some tropical cocktails, frolic in the warm surf, or strip down and rinse off in a fresh-water stream as it spills out from the jungle.  It may be taxing to get there, but just think of it as foreplay.  A-weema-weh A-weema-weh A-weema-weh… Where to stay? Corcovado Tent Camp

Shell Beach, California – Why should places like Paris, Ipanema and Santorini have all the fun?  You don’t have to travel out of the country to fall in love again – rekindle the passion amidst a wine-soaked love-fest on California’s picturesque Central Coast.  Shell Beach (and its neighbor Silver Shoals) feature the region’s famous dramatic rocky coastline.  If you can take your eyes off each other, enjoy panoramic views of the Pacific, Point Conception and Avila Bay from the bluffs or walk down the cliff trail to access the secluded beach, where you can swim, surf, or sunbathe.  Afterwards, take your sun-kissed bods to one of  the areas infamous vineyards.  There are plenty of romantic tasting rooms scattered throughout the rolling hills of San Luis Obispo county, so pick up a bottle of wine and perhaps some edible chocolate body paint and head back to your hotel to see where the night takes you!  Where to stay? Dolphin Bay Resort

Flamenco Beach, Puerto Rico – Just like Dancing with the Stars’ Gilles Marini could make your heart skip a beat without missing a beat, this steamy setting will leave you and your partner feeling hot and bothered.  You two are sure to feel the energy of the Latin culture at this secluded sandy beach that was named after the hot and sensual dance.  Framed by lush, green hills, the 1.5 mile wide horse-shoe shaped bay offers a wide, pink-tinted sandy beach and aqua blue, translucent and calm waters that almost resembles a swimming pool – perfect for snorkeling.  As daylight fades and temperatures cools a bit, the regions magical ocean bioluminescence are revealed.  This natural wonder, paired with the brightness of the starry night sky make Flamenco Beach about as romantic as you can get and will have you feeling HOT HOT HOT!  Where to stay? Bahia Marina Condo Hotel

Happy Bay, St. Martin – Two words – clothing optional.  After passing the last bar at Friar’s Bay, a short walk down a dirt path leads you to the sweeping views of Happy Bay beach. Fairly undiscovered, there isn’t much at this beach to interrupt your afternoon or to distract you from each other – no crowds, noisy restaurants, or traffic sounds. Don’t forget to pack your suntan oil – exchange sensual massages and you and your love can melt away on Happy Bay’s powdery white beach.  And if things get too steamy, there are plenty of palm trees lining the beach for shade or, uh-hem, added privacy.  Afterwards, stroll the wide beach and take in the vibrant, breathtaking vista.  If you’re up for more exercise, dip into the calm waters to enjoy some of the best snorkeling St. Martin has to offer.  Go ahead – leave your inhibitions and your tan lines behind.  Where to stay? Happy Bay Villa

Guest Blog – North Captiva Island


Mangoes ready for the takingby Sarah Rapp
Resident, North Captiva Island

Did you know that besides Florida, no other states report the production of mangoes? Consequently, Florida is the main United States producer of this fruit. Mango Mania is a festival held at the German American Social Club (2101 S.W. Pine Island Road, Cape Coral during the month of July).

Festival-goers can taste and buy their fill of just-picked mangoes of assorted varieties, many of which are not available in supermarkets. Additionally, they can learn how to grow their own and buy a tree. There’s music, dancing and even some non-mango comestibles for anyone who simply can’t live on mangoes alone.

If you don’t have time to go to the festival, order mangoes from the market, or stop at one of the local fruit stands on the way to the marina. The fruits vary in shape (kidney, round, oblong, oval) and weight ranges from a few ounces to five pounds.  Although the fruit will ripen on the tree, it is usually picked green and will ripen quickly. The fruit is just delicious…so why not celebrate your own mango mania while visiting North Captiva!

 

Mango Salsa
Fresh mango salsa is easy to make and perfect with halibut or salmon or as the salsa in fish tacos.
Ingredients:
1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and diced (about 1 1/2 cup)
1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 Jalapeño chile, minced (include ribs and seeds for a hotter taste if desired)
1 small cucumber, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)
3 Tbsp fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
3 Tbsp fresh lime juice
Salt and pepper to taste. Also good with diced red bell pepper
Directions:
Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the salsa ends up being a little too hot or acidic for your taste, you can temper it by adding some diced avocado.

Mango Salsa

Fresh mango salsa is easy to make and perfect with halibut or salmon or as the salsa in fish tacos.

Ingredients:

  • 1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and diced (about 1 1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 Jalapeño chile, minced (include ribs and seeds for a hotter taste if desired)
  • 1 small cucumber, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)
  • 3 Tbsp fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 3 Tbsp fresh lime juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste. Also good with diced red bell pepper

Directions:

Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the salsa ends up being a little too hot or acidic for your taste, you can temper it by adding some diced avocado.

Guest Blog – Stacy & Jeff do SE Asia (14 of 40)

crossing the river in protest of the toll bridge

crossing the river in protest of the toll bridge

party on the river…
“blazing through the towering limestone mountains of laos to the river town of vang vieng we arrive in our mini bus.

so we’ve been taking lots of minibuses and each time you think your going to be riding in the brand new one sitting at the bus station, but when the time comes they always bring the old van around from the back. well, our luck has changed and we finally had the pleasure our of riding in a new minivan with a great ac and plenty of power.  since the car was so new our driver was a litttle timid and liked to brake when diving up hill.  oh well, the ac worked great.

our bungalows, jeff and his beer

our bungalows, jeff and his beer

the landscape is beautiful here in laos.  we loved thailand but here it’s all blue skies and greenery with the classic limestone giants towering in the air.

we found a nice bungalow across the river down towards the end of town.  when we arrived at the bridge to cross, they wanted 4000kp to cross, so we decided just to walk across the water instead.  having to wade across the river each time you want to go home makes for a great adventure – plus you can go for a swim and cool off!

our first night we joined our travel friends for a great meal on the streets.  we tried the fried morning glory and fired noodles with chicken and chased it down with a large beer lao. then we went to the bucket bar for a bucket of wiskey.  in asia it seems to be your best value but the hangover is very bad.  even worse was the dj who was playing at the club.  so we sat and watch 3 boys that look like girls dance and grind on the pole – not a pretty sight.  it seemd to work because every 10 minutes or so you would see a guy walk up and go for a hug, then jump back 5 feet and run away while his buddies would laugh.

more about our mountain bike excursion next time…”

sunrise

sunrise

Galapagos Islands – Spotlight Santa Cruz

The second largest island in the Galapagos archipelago is the island of Santa Cruz, which might be called the focal point of Galapagos’ Tourism. 

Santa Cruz’s popularity among tourists may have to do with the fact that it is very close in proximity to one of the only two airports in the Galapagos or that it is one of only four islands that accommodate overnight guests.

The island of Santa Cruz is also where you can find the famous Charles Darwin Research Station.  Virtually all tours of the area will offer a visit to this branch of the non-profit Charles Darwin foundation where research and scientific investigation is conducted to further preservation efforts on the island.  Visitors can also check out the tortoise breeding and rearing that takes place right in the facility, along with the most famous inhabitant of the islands, Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island tortoises.

Lonesome George

Lonesome George

Santa Cruz is probably the most tourist friendly of all the islands, and is where you can find the port city of Puerto Ayora (named for the former Ecuadorian President).  Puerto Ayora is a vivacious sea-side town where vistors will discover many hotels, restaraunts, bars, and shops.  It is the most populated town in the all of the Galapagos with a staggering population of just over 10,000 inhabitants!

Nevertheless, Puerto Ayora’s spirited environment and assortment of activities and entertainment makes the town deserving of at least a two-night stay.

Like most of the Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz is also home to a wide array of animal life, including a large tortoise population nearby at Black Turtle Cove.  Pelicans, land iguanas, Darwin’s finches, wild tortoises, and other creatures roam free in the area and virtually every bird native to the Galapagos has been seen at one time or another on the island of Santa Cruz. 

Sharks, rays, sea lions and sea turtles are just a few of the aquatic inhabitants visitors will come across during their stay.  You will likely also catch a glimpse of the marine iguanas which swim and slither through the sea – an amazing sight that you may have previously seen in movies like Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander.

There is no shortage of entertainment in Santa Cruz – visitors can go mountain biking, kayaking, scuba diving, horseback riding, surfing, or take a jeep tour on land or a glass bottom boat tour on the ocean.  If you need a break, have a drink at an outdoor bar in Puerto Ayora.

In any event you will never find yourself bored on the dynamic and always active island of Santa Cruz!

Guest Blog – Stacy & Jeff do SE Asia (12 of 40)

view from burning bus on the wayt to mae salong

view from burning bus on the wayt to mae salong

fire!
“we left pai yesterday on the local bus and headed towards our first stop mae ma lai… we tossed our bags under the bus, along with two other travelers bags, and we’re on our way with the locals.  the bus was big and long and we were at the very back (not a good combo on a winding road at all), but all the doors and windows were open so we were set…

about 30 minutes into the trip one of the bus attendants hanging out the door hollers to pull over.  being right at the door, we hop out first once the bus is stopped.  we see the attendant opening one of the luggage compartments underneath and flames rising out of it (fire under the bus, run!) almost… he pulled out a backpack and sleeping mat that belonged to the other travelers as well as an extra air filter that were all in flames.  the attendant threw them on the side of the road, which was piled up with dead leaves, which in turn caught on fire

controled burns by mae salong

controled burns by mae salong

so, for maybe 2 minutes it’s panic – everyone’s giving what water they have and the attendant and driver are trying to put out the fires.  by now other buses have pulled over now to see the commotion

after 10 minutes it was all okay – turns out the pack was placed on top the battery and heated up too much, hence fire.  luckily, jeff and my packs were on the rear side in their own compartment (we had placed them at that exact spot over the battery and changed our mind at the last minute, moving them to the back…. crazy!)

from that bus, we made our way to the town of interchange and hopped on another bus, arriving at the last stop around 7pm.  mae salong (where we needed to get to) was supposedly 1.5 hours more…so we looked for a bus but couldn’t see any.  we ended up with a german couple that had the same idea, and followed their lead in hitchhiking

within seconds we were in the back of a truck, packs and all.  by this point it was completely dark out and we started our ride up and into the mountains… it was beautiful!!! driving in pitch black, looking up at the thousands of stars and then on either side of us were mountains in lines of flames (controlled burns, not our bus fire)…. quite magical. 

mae salong hills

mae salong hills

since we went by truck, within 45 minutes we were at mae salong and dropped off at our guest house.

mae salong, a village created by chinese soldiers fleeing their country in the 1940′s, is now the tea capitol of northern thailand.  its a village of a town, scattered on tops and bottoms of mountains.  the houses were all very small, all tea houses, with only 4 guesthouses and maybe 3 restaurants in the whole town.  no bars and very limited foreigners…quite nice. 

we rented a motorbike and explored on the back roads and in between, going though tons of tea terraces/farms, lahu, akha, and chinese villages, and then through the tea houses where everyone wants them to try their tea: oolong, green, jasmine, ginseng….quite delicious. jeff was stoked to feel that ‘tea high’ again. 

cruising on our motorbike we felt, and looked, just like dumb and dumber – cruising at a speed of 5mph straight up a hill. a few times i had to hop off the back and walk… guess that was due to all the damn good coconut curries and chang i’ve been eating…..

we’re both just stoked to find a chill place with not to many other tourists.  we loved pai of course, but now we’re really off the ‘beaten path’ per se… but tomorrow we rejoin it and head further into the golden triangle…..”

Guest Blog – Stacy & Jeff do Southeast Asia (8 of 40)

lahu men

lahu men

the trek
“on our 3rd day here in pai we ventured out on a trek.  after seeing all the places in chiang mai we were getting kinda picky.  we didn’t want to just take a truck and get dropped off at the village and then turn around and get back on the truck.  thats’ what most of tours looked like.  we found a local guide named toil that seemed pretty cool – he caught our attention right away.

so we signed up for a 3 day 2 night trek, 1 night in a karen village the other camping in the jungle.  we lucked out with just 1 other couple with us, vs the other treks who would go with around 15 people.

so we hopped in the back of toils truck and ventured off.  our first stop, the tourist police.  toil gave them photo copies of our passports and informed them where we were off to.  then the head police guy comes out to us in the truck and gives us almost a farewell speech, it was crazy.  he pretty much said be safe its dangerous out there, our lives are in toils hands so respect him, and then finished it off with saying he hopes we return.

our guide

our guide

wow, you should have seen all of our faces.  what had we gotten ourselves into ?!?!  (later, at the end of course, toil tells us he’s never had the guy say that before and it even gave him the shivers! but here we are, safe and sound… )

so, we drove 45 minutes northwest and then off the main road up a fairly bumpy dirt road – pretty much reminded me of the indiana jones ride at disneyland…grasping on the handlebars as ventured up.  we arrived at a lahu village.

all these ‘hill tribe’ villages are migrants from burma and china from hundreds of years past.  each has their own language dialect and culture.  we were greeted by two guys, as well as puppies, pigs, cows, and chickens, all roaming around.  we were also greeted by a local guy, named mong, who was to serve as our guide.

stay tuned and we’ll tell you all about the trek….”

Isla de Roatan, Honduras – A Divers Dream

Roatan is a scuba diviers paradise.  Located off of the North Coast of Honduras, Roatan is one of the three Bay Islands and is quickly becoming a premier scuba diving destination.  Often called the Caribbean’s best-kept secret, the island boasts diverse and unique reef systems, friendly people, and is a unique culture full of authentic Caribbean charm…after all, it was once inhabited by pirates!

The three Islas de la Bahia – Roatan, Utila and Guanaja – lie along the southern end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-longest coral reef in the world.  Beneath the clear turquoise waters is a trove of unbelievable riches: vibrant coral formations, enormous sponges, a wide variety of colorful fish as well as manta rays, sea turtles and whale sharks.  Yet prices remain remarkably low, (the Bay Islands are said to be the cheapest place in the world to get your PADI dive certificate!) making the Bay Islands a great place to learn scuba diving – and if you learn here, chances are, you’ll be hooked for life!  And don’t worry – if you’re like myself, who gets claustrophobic at the thought of being at the bottom of the ocean with only an air tank to keep you alive, the snorkeling in Roatan is pretty amazing too!

If you’ve never been to Roatan, you can plan on using your US dollars rather than the local lempiras as US currency is accapted, even welcomed, nearly everywhere.  Do keep an eye out for favorable conversion rates and cash in if and when it makes sense.  Also, expect to see a heavy military presence.  There is almost guaranteed to be an AK-47 wielding guard at the enterence to most establsihments – they keep a low profile and it is the general consensus that Honduras is safer for locals and tourists alike since the new government has implemented this military presence.

Regardless of your skill – or lack of – Roatan has everything for your diving vacation:  wreck diving, wall diving, scuba lessons, certification courses, and fun day or night dives.  The island has a wide variety of diving resorts, in addition to small hotels and independent diving operators offering outstanding diving opportunities at varying and competitive prices.

“Mary’s Place” is perhaps one of the most popular dive sites off of Roatan – the dive starts at a permanent mooring buoy on the reef shelf, along a vertical crevice that drops from 40′, with a huge section of the wall broken away from the main section to form a wide slit.  Smaller crevices invite exploration among bouquets of Rope and Tube Sponges, deepwater seafans and Black Coral.  A sand shelf drops from 140′ to 200′, offering a magnificent underwater view.

If you’ve never been wreck diving, “El Aguila” is an amazing sight – a 210′ cargo boat perfectly sunk in 100 feet of water on a sandy bottom full of Deep Garden Eels.  Divers can descend onto open large compartments where you can surprise a number of fish in their homes!  The wreck runs alongside a wall where many choose to finish off their dive among the shallow water tropical fish.

If you’re not into diving, Roatan is big enough to keep you busy, with botanical gardens, butterfly and iguana farms, canopy tours, and winding dirt roads leading to small villages and isolated bays.  And if you just want to relax, head to Roatan’s West End and West Bay,- the beaches there look like they could be right off of a brochure.  Picture clear turquoise water, powdery white sand and coconut palms.

Travel Deals – Thailand Etiquitte

Your experience traveling through Thailand depends greatly on the amount of research you do before you venture overseas.  It is a very nuanced country whose culture is full of etiquette do’s and dont’s and tricks of the trade as far as avoiding getting caught up in local tourist traps and scams (both of these I’ll talk about in this entry).  There are also definite places to see vs. places to skip, but I’ll save that topic for a different day’s work.  Once you understand the basics, Thailand is a beautiful and picturesque backdrop to, quite possibly, the best vacation of your life!

Perhaps the easiest and most fundamental key to traveling in Thailand is to avoid being around, possessing, talking about, asking about, or even alluding to anything drug-related.  While this rule may be a good one to abide by in any foreign land, it rings especially true in Thailand.  Over the years, the country has been getting increasingly overzealous in its anti-drug campaign – and because much of Thailand’s borders are burdened with drug smuggling this issue is exasperated.  Even though Thailand is generally a laid back place, the local police have begun to randomly drug test travelers in bars and arrest travelers for possession or positive tests.  This tid-bit of information is not meant to scare anyone away, nor should it be reason to avoid Thailand.  Just be smart…and maybe watch Brokedown Palace.

The people of Thailand are some of the friendliest people you will encounter on your travels, which I guess is why the country is sometimes referred to as, “the land of smiles.”  Nevertheless, here are some social norms that, if followed, should keep em smiling:  keep the PDA’s to a minimum – you may see Westernized Thai teens holding hands, but generally, that is the extent; keep your shirt on – no topless sunbathing ladies;  Thailand is a deeply religious culture, so respect it – while it is OK to wear shoes around the grounds of Buddhist temples, once you enter a building men and women should remove their shoes and make sure their legs and shoulders are covered – also, don’t go strutting around sans shirt in the town’s streets, bars or restaurants; keeping with religious values, Thai’s consider the head as the highest part of the body, literally and figuratively and they don’t approve of touching anyone on the head, even as a friendly gesture; along the same line of thought, Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch (or be touched) by a woman, or to accept anything from the hand of one; don’t point the sole of your foot at anyone – it’s considered rude – so try to avoid doing this when sitting opposite someone and don’t use your foot to point at things.  Lastly, the Thailand culture has no tolerance for confrontation…if any misunderstanding does arrise, demur and settle it with a smile.

In the Thai culture, they don’t shake hands, instead using the traditional greeting, the “Wai,” which is used instead of a handshake, but also as a means of saying sorry, thank you, or to pay respect.  A Thai person will often Wai as he approaches a temple, Buddha image, or other item of religious significance.  When you are introduced to someone who Wais you, it is polite to return the Wai.  As you are walking through towns and villiages, small children will often Wai as you pass by – they love it if you return the gesture with a big smile. (Note:  If you receive a “thank you” Wai from a hotel employee or after tipping a waitress it is inappropriate to return the Wai, but a smile is always welcome!)

Most of Thailand is gracious and welcoming, but, as in any culture, there are some people out to make a buck any way that they can.  Taking a few precautions will save you money in the long fun.  If you get into a taxi and the driver refuses to turn on the meter, even if they use the language barrier as an excuse, simply thank them with a smile and get out to find another one.

Local Thais, mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings, will offer to act as your local guide to show you the “local” sights that many tourists miss out on.  While many of these offers are genuine and allow you to see a side of Thailand that would otherwise be skipped over, some want to make off with your money and leave you high and dry.  Often times, the legitimate ones will photocopy your passport and leave it with someone.  It’s best to listen to your gut instinct or visit travel forums to get specific names of guides – although locating them once in Thailand can be tricky.

Overall, Thailand has much to do, is accommodating to travelers, and is full of cultural, religious, and artistic sights.  Be prepared for hot and humid weather and venture out to see what Thailand has to offer you!

Where in the world is North Captiva Island?

Florida’s North Captiva Island, located in the Gulf of Mexico, is about as far away from the chaos of everyday life as you can get, while still staying within the United States.  I had heard it’s almost similar to Thailand or Indonesia in its exoticism, with the heat and humidity…and bugs.  But I went into my research with an open mind and now I’m trying to convince any of my friends and family to take a trip to explore the island with me.

North Captiva IslandAs you may expect, being as remote and as small as it is - 4 miles long and 1/2 mile wide at its widest point! - getting to North Captiva Island takes some planning as it is only accessible by water taxi or private charter boat.  The Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, Florida is the closest airport to North Captiva Island and most major airlines service this airport.  From there, take the Pine Island Taxi to Pineland Marina and board the Island Girl – the only scheduled ferry to North Captiva Island.

Sidebar:  Because the island is sosecluded, you have to either bring what you will need for your trip with you, plan ahead to make sure it will be there for you, or a combination of the two.  This applies to groceries, bottled water, basic first aid supplies (aspirin, bandaids, etc), bug repellent, and especially produce – be sure to check with your airlines and local customs on rules regarding bringing produce onto the island.  Most travelers opt to fax their order – at least 48 hours before you will arrive on the island – to Publix Santa Barbara grocery store, on the mainland (Pine Island Taxi will stop at Publix on the way to the marina).  They will take your grocery order and pack your items for easy transport.  There is a small grocery on the island, but it stocks mostly convenience items is ridiculously expensive.

Once on the island, be prepared to sloooooow down and take in the natural beauty that surrounds you.  There are no cars and no paved roads on North Captiva.  Bicycles and electric golf carts (a private golf cart and/or bicycles are included in most vacation rental, so be sure to inquire about this at the time of booking) are used to explore our sandy paths.

There are over 5 miles of beaches to explore.  Visitors report strolling for hours without seeing anyone else – you will, however, run into some local wildlife.  Two-thirds of the island’s 700 acres are a protected State of Florida wilderness park and wildlife sanctuary for manatees, loggerhead turtles and over one hundred species of migratory birds.

If your idea of a vacation is body shots and disco music, Captiva is notfor you.  The 50 or so year-round residents operate on “island time” and there are very few established businesses.  Island activities include shelling, snorkeling, charter sport-fishing, swimming, kayaking, boating, stargazing, bird watching, dining at one of the 2 restaurants and island hopping…Sanibel, Pine Island, Cayo Costa, and Useppa are all within minutes by boat.

So, despite that fact that every article and travel forum I read about North Captiva stressed the need for Deet-strength bug repellant, I’m not scared.  I’m harnessing my inner Robinson Crusoe, packing my spray (and maybe a mosquito net) and going to check out this beautiful and remote island for myself!  North Captiva Island is one of the few places left that has mastered the delicate balance between man and nature.  This unique island paradise is not for everybody – but as the locals will say, it was never intended to be!