Discover the World’s Most Romantic Destinations

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

It’s February, and so of course our thoughts are on Valentine’s Day. Beyond the more commercial aspects of chocolates and roses, the day is a reminder to spend time with the people you love. And, what better place is there to do that than in one of the most romantic destinations in the world?

Venice (credit: Avanti Destinations)

Venice, Italy (credit: Avanti Destinations)

As the presidents of our tour operator members are seasoned travelers – and romantics at heart – we tapped a few of them to ask for their advice on the most romantic destinations across the globe. So, in their words, here are a few places you’ll definitely want to keep in your back pocket for when you’re planning your next romantic getaway…

Dan Austin, President, Austin Adventures: “After 30-plus years of traveling the planet with my lovely wife Carol, it is impossible to call just one destination “the most romantic.” To me it usually comes down to two things…one, the company you keep (got that covered), and two, the accommodations and how they enhance the destination.  We have had some amazing adventures complemented by some incredible accommodations. A few of our favorites include a beach side cabana on a private island off the coast of Belize, a Casita in the Sacred Valley of Peru (on the way to Machu Picchu), a riverside cabin in Montana and frankly too many others to list.  Perhaps my absolute favorite was a small, first-class river boat in the Peruvian Amazon, waking each day to a beautiful sunrise and settling in with a good glass of wine on deck for a different sunset every night. Pretty hard to not find that (or any of these) romantic!”

Harry Dalgaard, Founder and President, Avanti Destinations: “There are so many possibilities for romantic travel, each as different as the two people who share the experience. You have the classic romantic travel experiences: a gondola ride in Venice, a stroll along the Seine in Paris, snuggling up by a cozy fire in a chalet after a day of skiing in the Alps, learning to tango in Buenos Aires, or staying in a thatched-roof cottage by a beach somewhere in the tropics. Today, many couples – young and old – who book with Avanti’s travel agent partners are looking for a romantic experience that is more unusual, adventurous, exotic:  hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, whitewater rafting or ziplining in Costa Rica, exploring the ruins at Angkor Wat, being mesmerized by the amazing landscape of Guilin in China. One thing is certain: FIT is the only truly romantic way to travel.  It has to be just the two of you.”

Jack E. Richards, President and CEO, Pleasant Holidays: “My entire career has been spent in the travel industry and during that tenure my bride of 35 years and I have been fortunate to travel the world together. We’ve enjoyed alpine ski vacations in snowy chalets; dined on beaches at sunset in Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean; and celebrated our most-recent wedding anniversary on a river cruise in France. But for the ultimate romance vacation experience, there’s nothing that can match an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora. This tiny heart-shaped island in French Polynesia is tropical, it’s tranquil, and its beauty is beyond description. It’s simply romantic perfection.”

Jerre Fuqua, CTC, President, TRAVCOA and YMT Vacations: “Travel allows us to connect not only with our new surroundings…the tribesmen of Papua New Guinea, the beautiful landscape of Patagonia, the elephant families in South Africa…but also with our loved ones accompanying us on our global exploration. Travcoa has been fortunate enough to arrange some amazing experiences of celebration including a private cruise on the Grand Canal of Malta with a scuba diver surprising a couple with a bottle of champagne as the sun begins to kiss the ocean; a re-commitment ceremony from a Quechuan Shaman at Machu Picchu in Peru; and a romantic evening dinner on the plains of the Serengeti showcasing just how many stars there are in the universe. Of course, one cannot ignore the beauty and exclusivity of the many romantic islands around the world like Necker Island in the Caribbean or North Island in the Seychelles, both of which we can arrange with personalized and unique experiences.”

Paris, France (credit: Avanti Destinations)

Paris, France (credit: Avanti Destinations)

As for me… when I think about the quintessential romantic destination, my mind always lands on Paris. Coined the “City of Love” for valid reasons, it is simply the most beautiful city to experience on foot.  There is a picturesque scene around every corner…from quaint cafes to linger over coffee or a glass of wine, to stunning architecture, both ancient and modern, broad boulevards and majestic public parks for strolling, and of course, the emblematic Eiffel Tower.  Paris will always hold a special place in my heart.

Understanding State Department Travel Alerts and Warnings

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

Safety has always been the top priority for USTOA members so we’re particularly sensitive to State Department travel alerts and warnings, which can cause more confusion and uncertainty among travelers than guidance. We’re constantly monitoring these alerts and found Everett Potter’s overview of what they mean in USA Today this week particularly helpful and informative, so wanted to share it with both travelers and our travel agent partners as a resource:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/advice/2016/01/18/state-department-travel-alert-warning/78637736/

In addition to monitoring State Department travel alerts and warnings, our members are uniquely positioned to monitor situations around the world. With eyes and ears on the ground in destinations, our tour operator members have access to real-time information that allows them to act in the best interest of both guests and employees.

We are hopeful that the U.S. traveler continues to be resilient and keeps exploring new cultures…it’s the best antidote to the misunderstanding that plagues world events today.

A Look Ahead: USTOA Tour Operator Members are Confident about 2016

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

Happy New Year! And welcome to 2016… it’s going to be a great year to travel the world.

USTOA conducts an annual travel trend and forecast survey of the association’s active tour operator members, monitoring business trends, top travel destinations, and more. The most recent results were revealed at the Annual Conference & Marketplace held December 3-5 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago in Chicago, IL.

The punch line for 2016? Our members affirm a positive outlook for the year.

Headline news: member operators are confident about business in 2016

Overall, the tour operator members of USTOA are showing strong growth for this year, with more than a third (39%) attributing growth to an improved economy and higher consumer confidence… a positive sign for the travel industry as a whole.

Nine in 10 tour operator members anticipate a growth in sales in 2016 with more than half of members (57%) “optimistic” and forecasting a “boom year” with growth anywhere from seven to 10% or higher.

In 2015, three quarters of members responding to the survey reported an increase in sales over 2014, forty percent of which cited an increase of 10% or higher. More than two thirds (70%) of members also saw an increase in passengers in 2015; 60% saw numbers grow between four and nine percent, while 36% of indicated growth of 10% or higher.

Destination forecast: where are travelers going?

Kelley Ferro in Cuba, the top “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Brandon Widener)

Kelley Ferro in Cuba, the top “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Brandon Widener)

When asked which “emerging” destinations will gain popularity in 2016, members (not surprisingly) cited Cuba. About thirty four percent of USTOA members currently offer programs to Cuba, and of that number, more than half plan to increase offerings within the next few years. Cuba was followed by Myanmar, Iceland, Colombia, and Ethiopia and Japan (tied for fifth).

Colombia was named the fourth “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Justin Weiler)

Colombia was named the fourth “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Justin Weiler)

Italy, for the fourth consecutive year in a row, topped the list as most popular international destination for travelers in 2016, followed by the United Kingdom; China, France and South Africa (tied for third); Peru and India.  On the home front, USTOA members forecast New York and California (tied for first), Arizona and Hawaii (tied for second), Nevada, Florida and Washington DC (tied for fourth) and Alaska as the most popular U.S. destinations for clients in 2016.

Participating tour operator members also named art and culture, honeymoon and romance, and family as the most popular travel categories for passengers.

Who’s traveling?

When asked who’s traveling, members responded that a little more than half (55%) of their customer base are baby boomers at 51 years of age and older. The next largest age group was 35 to 50 years old, representing about a quarter (23%) of customers. Roughly half (53%) of members saw a growth in the number of solo passengers in 2015.

Potential threats: what could hinder US traveler confidence in 2016?

While USTOA members view 2016 with optimism, they cited terrorism as the biggest threat to US traveler confidence in 2016. The second potential threat named was global financial instability, followed by political instability.

Of note, the survey was completed prior to the tragic events in Paris, yet there is little surprise that it jumped to the top of list given world events. Aware that the impact of such horrific events can be global in scope, our members are hopeful that the U.S. traveler continues to be resilient and keep exploring new cultures…it’s the best antidote to the misunderstanding that plagues world events today.

Based on the results, all roads lead to more travel. So, what are you waiting for? Visit our Travel Together page with videos and information on thirteen different destinations, including Cuba, for more inspiration. And visit our Dream Vacation Itinerary Finder – with those destinations and more – and discover the trip of a lifetime.

Discover China

The ancient treasures and modern wonders of China span 5,000 years of culture and history. Join Kelley Ferro, travel expert and video journalist, as she journey’s through Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing with USTOA tour operator member Wendy Wu Tours.

Catch a Glimpse of Ancient China

As one of the oldest ancient civilizations, China boasts a rich and long-established history and culture. Wendy Wu Tours gives Kelley Ferro a glimpse into the ancient culture of China from a visit to the Forbidden City and Shanghai Old Town, to an one-on-one lesson with a Tai Chi master.

Explore Modern Day China

China is a mix of old world tradition and new world sophistication. While traveling with Wendy Wu Tours, video journalist Kelley Ferro got an insider look at modern day China from meeting locals to exploring up-and-coming neighborhoods featuring hip cafes and bars.

Bucket List China

With sought-after experiences like climbing the Great Wall and walking amongst the Terracotta Warriors, China is a destination that appears on many traveler’s bucket lists. With the help of Wendy Wu Tours, video journalist Kelley Ferro gained unparalleled access to these legendary sights.

Experience China’s Vibrant Food Scene

From dumpling making lessons to exploring exotic street foods, Wendy Wu Tours itineraries provide travelers insider access to China’s vibrant food scene. Join travel expert Kelley Ferro as she eats her way through Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing.

Traveling Through Old China a New Way

By Sherry Ott, AFAR Ambassador

The older generation square dancing outside the Xi’an Old Wall

The older generation square dancing outside the Xi’an Old Wall

The single burnt out speaker crackles and pops as a high-pitched voice fills the thick night air in Xi’an. Mandarin sung is just as confusing as listening to it spoken, and now it’s blaring out of a single speaker that should have been retired about 15 years ago. However, it’s appropriate that a group of retirees are lined up in front of the old speaker square dancing on the new side of the city. At the same time, on the other side of Xian’s 40 foot high city wall in the old part of the city is another group of people lined up doing movements in unison. This group doesn’t have music and the average age is probably 23 years old. They follow the lead of a trainer as he shouts out stretching instructions as they prepare for a group run. I’m amused by this young and old culture in such proximity and it seems to be an ongoing theme I run into all over China.

Old/New, Ancient/Modern whatever you call it, opposites attract. China, maybe more than any other country, lives in this world of opposites. With a culture that dates back 4,000 years, China is considered one of the ancient civilizations along with Egypt, Babylon, and India. Today, however, its years of traditions are clashing up against the modern world and an economy growing at a rapid rate.   It’s a petri dish of old and new intermixing, elders and hipsters co-mingling, braided together in a complex waltzing partnership; one in which you never quite know who is going to take the lead.

Many things and world famous sites stand out when you visit China; the Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wall, the architecture of Shanghai, and the billions of people. However, what I was fixated on was the relation between old culture and new. And I found it was this relation between ancient and modern that was the lens through which I viewed the famous sites of China during my tour with Wendy Wu Tours.

Shanghai Markets

Shanghai new architecture, and an old barge, viewed from the Bund

Shanghai new architecture, and an old barge, viewed from the Bund

I was expecting Shanghai to be completely modern and architecturally stunning, but when I walked to the Bund district to view the sleek skyline from the river, the first thing I saw was an old barge chugging down the river in front of skyscrapers.

In addition to the busy pedestrian shopping street with familiar brands like Apple, TopShop, H&M and Starbucks, our local guide, Ling, took us to a street in Nanshi Old Town surrounded by old buildings painted in red with traditional Chinese rooflines. Don’t let the term ‘old town’ fool you though, its façade is old, but its goods are new. Bins of selfie sticks and the latest craze of plastic flower sprouts that people wear in their hair were found at every shop and vendor. Nestled among the latest fads though were a few old items; I was entranced by the old Chinese comic books.  And by old I mean 1980’s old.

China’s latest craze sold on the streets of the Old Town – flower sprouts

China’s latest craze sold on the streets of the Old Town – flower sprouts

But it was also here in Nanshi where we found the Yu Gardens, an oasis of calm and feng shui among the chaotic shopping streets. We walked around the beautifully manicured gardens and Ling told me about the 4 pillars that are required of any Chinese Garden; rocks, water, pavilion, and plants. As I walked through the gardens I forgot that outside of the walls was a chaotic crowded new square with dumpling vendors and people with selfie sticks.

And of course don’t forget the 5th pillar of a Chinese Garden…the garden cat

And of course don’t forget the 5th pillar of a Chinese Garden…the garden cat

Xi’an Old City Wall

The city of Xi’an oozes ancient tradition; it’s one of the most important cities in Chinese history. It’s been the capital of 13 great dynasties and was the starting point to the Silk Road. Today it holds one of the most famous archeological finds in the world, the Terracotta Warriors; an army of 8,000 soldiers that were created and buried to protect Emperor Qin in the afterlife. As I pushed my way through what felt like an army of people to see the warriors, I was getting a feel for what modern day China is really like; bursting with people.

A crowd gathers around a warrior

A crowd gathers around a warrior

However, what captured my attention in Xi’an was the Old City Wall standing 40 feet tall and 40 feet wide; a giant square cube running 8.5 miles around the old city. It was originally built to protect the city and Dynasty from invasion; however, it was never actually attacked. I guess the look of it was protection enough. Today the wall is this division of old and new.  Inside sits the old city and Muslim quarter, bell towers, and parks. It’s quiet inside of the walls as only electric motorbikes are allowed, while outside the walls is a bustling metropolis of new buildings, high-rises, and traffic! Going up on the wall and walking or biking is a great way to place yourself between the old and new China.

The City Wall in Xi’an

The City Wall in Xi’an

Beijing Hutongs

Beijing’s culture was built in the hutongs, old courtyards forming tightknit neighborhoods where you find day-to-day life. Not many hutongs remain these days as most have been leveled to make room for the new China, but ironically, many tourists prefer to visit the few remaining hutongs rather than the city’s new modern buildings. It was my walk through the South Gong and Drum Lane hutong that made me love Beijing. I meandered through the narrow streets and alleys and got a feel for the old life of Beijing. I was even able to enter one of the homes and eat lunch with a local family.

china (4)

I easily became distracted looking down every little lane, finding old men playing Mahjong. But the part I loved the most is that nestled among the connected homes, public restrooms, and men playing Mahjong, were young men and women with tattoos and piercings sipping coffee in small, hip coffee shops. This was the ultimate mix of old and new in Beijing. We stopped in at Si…if Bar on North Luogu Alley Dongcheng District, which labeled itself the ‘first bar in the hutong’.  It was an oasis of calm during the day with its clever wood design, bar dog that would lay by your feet, and self-proclaimed “F!*cking Good Coffee”.

There was also a mixture of old and new at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, an hour outside Beijing. You can take a gondola up to the wall and walk on the ancient steps where warriors once protected China from Mongol invasion and then opt to take a more modern route down the wall – a toboggan slide that wound like a snake down the steep hill.

The Great Wall represents a very old time in Chinese history

The Great Wall represents a very old time in Chinese history

Getting Off the Beaten Path

While many travelers tend to focus on the older, ancient sites of China, local guides will take you off the typical tourist trail and introduce you to today’s ‘new’ China.

Sherry Ott is a long term traveler, blogger and photographer without a home. She spent a year living in Vietnam, hiked the Annapurna Circuit, did cultural exchange programs in the Middle East, drove 10,000 miles from London to Mongolia, and walked across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. She seeks out adventurous opportunities to inspire people to overcome their fears and reap the benefits of travel. Hear more about her journey to China with Wendy Wu Tours at AFAR.com.

Beijing Behind Closed Doors: A Peek into the Hutong Neighborhoods

By Kelley Ferro

I craned my neck to look into each doorway that we passed. We were moving along at good clip on a bike taxi, or “bike rickshaw,” through the narrow streets of a Beijing neighborhood. The streets were lined with high walls and intimidating doorways. These imposing facades gave very little insight into what lay behind…but I knew. They were hiding courtyards with bird cages, children playing, cats basking in the sun, old ladies hanging laundry. I was welcomed into one of these homes just moments before, to have lunch with the Fan family. This family welcomes travelers, entertains them with music and allows them to peek into this otherwise hidden daily life. I only had a taste of what was on the inside and I wanted to see more, so desperately I tried to catch glimpses through open doorways as we bounced by.

Bike rickshaws are a great speed for seeing a lot in a short amount of time

Bike rickshaws are a great speed for seeing a lot in a short amount of time

This neighborhood of Beijing is known as the “hutongs,” or what the locals refer to as “slums.” That word is a bit abrasive and I had a very different idea in my head of what we were going to find before we came here. As we bounced down the cobbled streets, vines crawling up impressive walls, old men playing mahjong on plastic tables down side streets, this didn’t feel at all like a slum. Sure, it was a little worse for wear in some areas, but these one story buildings were over a century old. It felt like one of the first times that I actually got a real insight into China’s culture.

They seemed to be having the best time

They seemed to be having the best time

Thus far I had been exposed to the clean, precise streets of orderly Shanghai, the modernized historical city of Xi’an, with its manicured parks, and the hyper modern downtown area of Beijing which could have been New York City or Paris if you looked quickly. Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Burberry and Apple lined the streets and the busy crosswalks were filled with well-heeled Chinese carrying smartphones. Here in the sleepy, tree-lined hutongs, there were more birds chirping than car horns. Life was slower and moving at the same pace of the Chinese ancestors that lived here generations before. China’s door to personal life was left ajar.

Stunning doorways in the hutongs

Stunning doorways in the hutongs

Hutongs used to dominate Beijing but they’ve now been bulldozed to give way for the city’s rapid development. However, there are still several century old hutongs that have been preserved and exploring these will take you back in time. We went to the Nanluoguxiang hutong, one of the more popular in the area near the Forbidden City. Though it isn’t as wealthy or modern as other areas, there was energy there. A resurgence of youth had come back to these hutongs, choosing to appreciate the past instead of plow forward to the newer, faster, the shinier. On one block, old men were playing mahjong outside but on the other, a young couple shared headphones as they poured over their laptop, drinking chai lattes at a laid-back cafe. We hopped off the rickshaw to browse the kitschy shops selling minimalist homewares, succulents and vintage handbags. A number of restaurants and cafes caught my eye, and I typed their names on my iPhone, hoping for the chance to try them out on a return trip.

Chill cafes in the Nanluoguxiang hutong

Chill cafes in the Nanluoguxiang hutong

But Bar Si…if grabbed our attention immediately. Two millennial men sat on wooden benches in front, wearing black t-shirts, eyeliner and smoking cigarettes. The unusual name is open-ended, giving the sense of “what if” or endless possibilities. It seemed appropriate for a hipster coffeehouse meets clubby bar located on a centuries old street. It also was decidedly quiet on this Friday afternoon. Understandably so, as it was crowded until early morning and is one of the nightlife destinations on this trip. Many of these sleepy cafes and bars morph into the city’s new in-the-know going out spot. After dusk, music flows from the open windows until daybreak. We grabbed a delicious coffee, ordered via a tablet menu, and we considered grabbing a cold beer from their impressive list (Brooklyn beer in Beijing, what!). But we had at least nine more hours of shooting, so we forged on!

Sherry Ott, equally impressed by Bar Si...if and its second level

Sherry Ott, equally impressed by Bar Si…if and its second level

Each coffee shop had personality

Each coffee shop had personality

Hutongs were originally created by the Mongol Empire, the word meaning “water well.” They were designed to center around water and now that sense of community continues. The bathrooms of the hutongs are communal, with one shared single sex bathroom every few blocks. This feature was something I had never seen before and to be honest, was a bit hesitant about trying. But nature called and to my thankful surprise, they were very clean!

A glimpse down the narrow alley separating the courtyard houses

A glimpse down the narrow alley separating the courtyard houses

We continued to meander through the alleys around the districts notable Drum Tower. These maze like streets continued to baffle me with one seeming like a replica of Abbot-Kinney, another like it was 1915. It pains me that one of the most historical parts of the city has been diminishing. Back in 1990, 600 hutongs were destroyed each year. However, there’s been an effort to preserve more and more of these culturally significant, personal homes. The gentrification by the shops, cafes and bars like Si…if, may serve to help this preservation by bringing in more awareness from the local and tourist population as well. The authentic local life is what many of today’s travelers are looking for and for the sake of the remaining residents; I can only hope that they continue to flourish. My best tip is to go spend a day there, chat up the locals and enjoy this living history. And I’d suggest, don’t wait too long.

Mrs. Fan, performing a hauntingly beautiful song for us after lunch

Mrs. Fan, performing a hauntingly beautiful song for us after lunch

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in California. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month. She is also a contributor to Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s  FacebookTwitter and Instagram pages.

Exploring China’s Food Scene

By Sherry Ott, AFAR Ambassador

Dumplings you eat with a straw!

Dumplings you eat with a straw!

My first memory of international cuisine was when I was 12 years old.  I’ll never forget going to a Chinese restaurant in Peoria, Illinois for the first time. It was darkly lit, with big round tables and little cups for tea. I was fascinated with these cups because they didn’t have handles – unconventional for my Midwest life.  My dad ordered some dishes for our table; sweet and sour pork, wontons, egg foo young, and pork chow mien. I remember being that awkward age that hated eating anything that I didn’t know, but wanting to try new things. I had no idea how to use the chopsticks in front of me – they seemed as confusing and impossible as solving my Rubik’s Cube – but that was the first of many Chinese dinners I had in my hometown of Peoria. Chinese food reminds me of my childhood and exploration of new things, so when I landed in China for my 8 day trip with Wendy Wu Tours, I was excited for one thing – I wanted to eat!

Eating in China

Though China may seem daunting due to the language barriers, your local guide can lead you through all the tough decisions – like what to eat! They can help you order and work your way through the maze of menus. Most of the restaurants that we went into were gigantic, with big round tables and a lazy Susan in the middle for easy sharing. The menus tended to be the size of an old Sears Catalog and include pictures and English, which made things a little easier. These are great places to eat but it you want to throw caution to the wind and find some restaurants that are smaller and don’t have pictures or English menus, then just ask your guide and they’ll lead you deep into the alleys of China to eat. After all, travel is about going local and exploration of new things!

A super thick menu with pictures

A super thick menu with pictures

Dumplings

I quickly learned that dumplings are a staple in Shanghai, little bites of flavorful goodness; but in Shanghai you get something extra in your dumpling – soup.  I had my first soup dumpling at breakfast (yes, dumplings for breakfast). I was startled when I bit into what I thought was a normal dumpling and soup came out and subsequently went all over me! I pretty quickly learned that Shanghai dumplings need to be eaten with care. Shanghai is known for 2 main kinds of dumplings: Xiao Long Bao, a dumpling made of wheat dough that is steamed, and Sheng Jian Bao, made of a thicker dough first fried in a cast iron skillet and then steamed. Both are typically made of pork and have a gelatin soup inside that gets heated and liquefied when steamed. Dip them in a vinegar soy mixture and try to poke a hole in it first so that you can ‘drink’ out the soup or at least let it cool before you bite into it!  My favorite way to eat them was with a straw.

Xiao Long Bao – or XLB as the cool kids refer to them!

Xiao Long Bao – or XLB as the cool kids refer to them!

Sheng Jian Bao – or SJB

Sheng Jian Bao – or SJB

In Xi’an we not only ate dumplings (jiaozi), we learned how to make them.  Our teacher, Chef Jin, makes about 3,500 dumplings a night, which explains why her super power is to make dumplings lightning fast. Seriously, if you blink you’ll miss it and will all of a sudden have a butterfly shaped dumpling in front of you. Chef Jin works at the Shaanxi Sunshine Lido Grand Theatre (and in the time it took you to read that title, she made 4 dumplings). She makes dumplings every night for customers who come to the cultural theater show. Her dumplings are in the shape of butterflies, roses, swans, cabbages, and ducks.  However, for teaching purposes she kept the shapes simple and slowed down long enough to show us how to roll out the dough, spread in the filling, and then form them into shapes.  Mine didn’t turn out too shapely, which made me conclude that I’d rather eat them than make them.

Rolling out dumpling dough in Xi’an

Rolling out dumpling dough in Xi’an

Milk

In our quest for local food, our Shanghai guide took us for a traditional breakfast enjoyed by the fast paced business workers in Shanghai – warm, sweet soymilk and a fried breadstick. Yon Ho is a fast food chain that started as a street stall in Taiwan and now sells their soybean milk all over China. The drink sort of tastes like what’s left in the bottom of a cereal bowl once all the cereal is gone and immediately won me over! It was fun to be the only foreigners in the restaurant and watch a steady stream of young business professionals come in and eat before work. Sort of like the Chinese Starbucks – a cool (and tasty) view of daily life in Shanghai!

Warm soy milk and fried bread

Warm soy milk and fried bread

Noodles

Have you ever heard a noodle? In Xi’an if you listen carefully you’ll hear why the Biangbiang noodle got its name. It is named after the sound of dough being thwacked on the chopping board so it can be stretched into one very long belt-like lasagna noodle. We stopped at a local food court inside the old city in Xi’an and saw the noodles being made and then slurped them down in a delicious broth mixture with soy, peppers, and scallions. And if you are wondering, in China it’s perfectly acceptable to slurp your noodles!

Biangbiang noodles in a soupy broth

Biangbiang noodles in a soupy broth

My other favorite noodle was the Peking noodle dish found in Beijing.  The noodles are long, cylinder shaped, and delicious. My favorite part was that the noodles, vegetables, and sauce were brought out in separate bowls and it was up to us to mix the three items together at the table…with chopsticks.  Good luck…the taste is worth it!

Peking Noodles is a dish you need to put together yourself!

Peking Noodles is a dish you need to put together yourself!

Peking Duck

It might look slightly unappetizing to have a whole duck brought out to your table, but trust me on this and say ‘yes’ to Peking Duck when in Beijing! The duck is best known for its breeding and roasting process; plus it was once the food of Emperors.

We went to Da Wan Ju, a small, local restaurant near the Wangfujing night market. Once the duck is carved by your table, you eat it in a pancake with scallions, cucumber and sweet bean sauce all rolled up like a taco. However, I’m not sure what I liked the most – the duck breast ‘taco’ or the crispy skin! For pure decadence, try dipping the crispy skin in sugar – the ultimate treat!

Carving Peking Duck at our table

Carving Peking Duck at our table

Street Food

If you want to get a little bolder, then try the street food in China!  Don’t get scared away by Beijing’s Wangfujing night market, which tends to cater to tourists more than locals. It’s a market with split personalities – it has a bunch of great traditional street food such as noodles, dumplings, and soups mixed with creepy crawlies on a stick. It’s definitely worth a visit to see how daring you are!  I decided to try dessert there after our Peking Duck dinner, sweet sticky rice ‘pops’ on a stick were the perfect ending!

Luckily I was already full when we came across these delicacies!

Luckily I was already full when we came across these delicacies!

Sticky rice pops – more my speed!

Sticky rice pops – more my speed!

There are plenty of other street markets selling food all over China’s cities that are geared to locals and your guide can help you find. Our guide led us to the Chang li neighborhood in Shanghai to try some local street food.  Nestled among retail stores, the market smelled of durian and was filled with businessmen and women stopping to get dinner on their way home from work. The food is cooked right in front of you and I suggest you just pick the stand with the biggest line! The other great thing about local street food is it’s cheap; I had a giant noodle and veggie dish for only $1.20 USD.

What About the Fortune Cookies?

If you are looking for those crispy sweet fortune cookies at the end of you meal in China, you’ll be waiting forever. In fact 90% of Chinese people don’t even know what they are.  One of my biggest surprises was learning that fortune cookies aren’t really from China at all; they are from the United States, created in San Francisco.

The food in China was nothing like what I grew up eating at my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant in Peoria; instead it was infinitely better. And like most things in the world of travel, it’s even better when you can get out and explore the local scene, because it’s all about the journey.

Sherry Ott is a long term traveler, blogger and photographer without a home. She spent a year living in Vietnam, hiked the Annapurna Circuit, did cultural exchange programs in the Middle East, drove 10,000 miles from London to Mongolia, and walked across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. She seeks out adventurous opportunities to inspire people to overcome their fears and reap the benefits of travel. Hear more about her journey to China with Wendy Wu Tours at AFAR.com.

Discover Brazil

The world’s fifth largest country in both size and population, Brazil has much to offer, from beaches and mountains, to cities and nature.  Join Kelley Ferro as she journeys through Brazil giving viewers a taste of the all diverse experiences encountered while on tour with a member of the United States Tour Operators Association.  Videos in partnership with EMBRATUR and Adventure.com.

Let Your Adventurous Spirit Run Wild in Brazil

Brazil is a country filled with adventure and active pursuits. With the help of USTOA, EMBRATUR and Adventure.com, Kelley Ferro spends three days ziplining, grotto swimming, cave snorkeling, mountain hiking and photographing waterfalls in Chapada Diamantina National Park located in the Northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia.

Taste the Food Culture of Brazil

 A melting pot of ethnicities, accents, and cultures, the food of Brazil is truly unique, offering a variety of dishes.  Join Kelley Ferro as she explores all the local flavors of Brazil while on tour with a member of the United States Tour Operators Association.  Videos in partnership with EMBRATUR and Adventure.com.

Capture the Beat of Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is a large seaside city in Brazil, famed for its energy, beaches and Christ the Redeemer statue. With so much to see and do, members of the United States Tour Operators Association provide travelers with local guides to ensure guests don’t miss a beat of this lively city.  Tripfilms.com contributor Kelley Ferro gives an insider look at the nightlife, neighborhoods, shopping, locals and more in Rio. Videos in partnership with EMBRATUR and Adventure.com.

Experience the Brazilian State of Bahia

Video journalist Kelley Ferro starts her Brazil tour in Salvador, the capital of the Northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. With the help of USTOA, EMBRATUR and Adventure.com, Kelley is immersed in the local Bahia culture from participating in the Brazilian tradition of the “Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia” wish bracelets to learning how to make Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha.

A Day in Rio de Janeiro

By Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

The mention of Rio conjures up images and emotions for everyone. A funky, hip, fun city, it is a mix of Mother Nature’s paradise and man-made amenities. It’s a place where coastal roads hug the huge craggy mountain faces that jut up towards the sky, and a place that throws one of the biggest parties on earth! I had the pleasure of visiting Rio de Janeiro with EMBRATUR, Adventure.com and LATAM as a part of AFAR’s partnership with USTOA, and although we only had about a day to zip around the city, our itinerary took us to some of Rio’s timeless attractions along with a few that fly under most travelers’ radars.

Our group woke early and took a bus up a winding, densely forested road to Corcovado Mountain, home of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. It was early enough that we beat the crowds, but unfortunately on this morning, we also beat the sunshine. Clouds, rain and haze surrounded the platform in front of Christ the Redeemer barraging the statue in a cloak of grey. After roughly 10 minutes, the cloud hovering overhead passed and revealed the statue in its full grandeur. Those that were present on the platform below began frantically taking pictures and selfies before another ominous cloud slowly rolled in, replacing the previous. As nice as it was to see the statue in front of a blue-sky backdrop, the quickly moving storm clouds made the statue even more impressive – all 98 feet of Christ’s form seemingly floating through a mass of haze.

From Corcovado, our local guide, Rodrigo, and I split from the rest of the group and headed to one of Rio’s better known areas, the Lapa neighborhood – the yin to Copacabana and Ipanema’s beach-scene yang. Lapa is a playground of motion and we quickly got caught up in the morning commuters buzzing about the streets, briefcases and aromatic coffee in tow. What I loved about Lapa was the eclectic mix of artistic influences from graffiti and murals to colonial architecture and oddly futuristic buildings – the embodiment of Rio, albeit on a smaller scale.

Undoubtedly, and for good reason, the coolest thing in Lapa is the Escadaria Selarón, a colorful, mosaicked set of steps embellished with bits of tile, ceramics and mirrors created by artist and former local Jorge Selarón. The Chilean-born Selarón began his beautification of the steps as a dedication to the Brazilian people, but what started as a small scale mosaic blew-up in scale and popularity through the years becoming an obsession for Selarón. In the later years of the project, visitors from all around the world donated tile to Selarón’s art piece. Walking up the steps, I found spotting the various cultural references fascinating as they really show how many people Selarón inspired with his art.

Later that afternoon, the same clouds that earlier graced the hem of Christ’s garment had relocated to Copacabana Beach. Fortunately, after a while the rain stopped and pedestrians started to emerge, repopulating the cycling lanes and walkways lining the beach. The little cafés brushed water off of their chairs and readied their bar stations, and even though the weather wasn’t ideal, it was easy to see why these beaches are so appealing. I sat down with a coffee and watched groups of men juggle a soccer ball while others competitively pummeled a volleyball back and forth. I didn’t get the picturesque beach-scene sunset that is often depicted in travel shows and movies but just being present and enjoying the distinctive vibe was rewarding enough.

Later that evening our group headed back to Lapa to get a taste of the night life. As I suspected, the night crowd around Lapa was as energetic as the commuters I had encountered that morning. You could tell Rio de Janeiro is a city where citizens work and play equally as hard. As we walked toward a boulevard full of cafes and restaurants, we were sidetracked by a rhythmic raucous coming from inside a dimly-lit warehouse. We peaked inside and were greeted by the sound of drums thumping heavily while a circle of musicians swayed along to the beat. We watched for a while then headed back outside where tables and chairs began filling the sidewalks, making it tough to discern where one restaurant ended and another began. The whole area was filled with a cheery air, such as that of a family function. It was the perfect way to cap off a day in Rio de Janeiro, and surprisingly, I didn’t regret that I had only been able to explore for one day. It is such a charming city that it made a very vivid and lasting impression, one that will stick with me until my next visit!

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California. Hear more about his journey to Brazil at AFAR.com.

A Wish From Brazil

by Kelley Ferro

“Okay, now make a wish,” said Deniza, a Bahian beauty and a press officer from Embratur (Brazilian Tourism Institute), as she tied one of three knots of a Bahia wish bracelet around my wrist. I had been familiar with a colorful Brazilian tradition of the “Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia” bracelets on my first visit to Rio de Janeiro, but it wasn’t till I was standing back in Brazil that I realized that these wishes do come true.

Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia bracelets outside the patron saint’s church in Salvador: translated it roughly means In Remembrance of the Savior of Bahia or Souvenir from the God of Bahia

Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia bracelets outside the patron saint’s church in Salvador: translated it roughly means In Remembrance of the Savior of Bahia or Souvenir from the God of Bahia

Brazil is one of those special places that after you go once; you’ll want to go back again and again.  My wishes were granted sooner than I expected when USTOA said they were sending me back to shoot our Live Like a Local series this past August. Back in 2013, I had spent a one week vacation fully immersing myself into the lifestyle of Rio de Janeiro. My days consisted of late breakfasts, runs along Ipanema Beach, boutique shopping in Leblon, slurping cool Acai in the afternoons and admiring the talented Brazilians play soccer during my tanning sessions on the beach. In my mind, Rio was as close to paradise as I could imagine.

With the help of USTOA, Embratur, Adventure.com and our talented guides and ambassadors, my return trip to Brazil was equally as magical, and way more jam-packed with adventure. In just six days, we covered three cities, met a slew of locals and filmed our way through some of the country’s most epic sites.

The traditional dress of a Bahia woman in Salvador’s Pelourinho

We started out in Bahia, a Brazilian state in the Northeast which has a distinct Caribbean flavor. Historically, the capital city of Salvador was the epicenter of the slave trade and it was the first stop on our itinerary. Approximately two million slaves helped grow Bahia’s booming sugar industry at that time. Thankfully, slavery was abolished there in the late 1800s, but the African influence still remains infused in the region’s personality. I saw it in the capoeira lesson that I took, a Brazilian martial art that was created and secretly practiced by the slaves of that time. I saw it in the food, like Brazil’s national dish feijoada which developed when slaves added leftover scraps of meat to their usual meal of rice and beans. I even saw it in the art such as paintings of the Afro-Brazilian religious deities that are as prominent as their Catholic counterparts.

The traditional dress of a Bahia woman in Salvador’s Pelourinho

The traditional dress of a Bahia woman in Salvador’s Pelourinho

We continued our Bahia exploration with a stay in Lençóis, the jumping off point for a slew of natural wonders and outdoor adventures. This sleepy backpacker village was our laidback home, perfect for relaxing evenings. And we needed them, after spending our days spelunking, ziplining, grotto swimming, cave snorkeling, mountain hiking and photographing waterfalls.

Swimming in the Poço Azul

Swimming in the Poço Azul

To conclude our Brazil adventure, we spent our last day in Rio. Arriving late in the evening and with an impending flight out at 5:00am the following day, my Rio de Janeiro repeat trip was condensed into 24 hours. And I made sure to make the most of each hour.

Up well before dawn, I prepped for our last and only day in one of my favorite cities.  Hair done and good walking shoes on, it was “go time” at 6:00am and off we went to beat the crowds at the top of Corcovado. If I can give one tip to any first time visitors, go to see Christ the Redeemer AS SOON AS the doors open (8:00am) Besides a few other valiant travelers, we were the only people at the top of this world famous site.  I felt like I spent a lot of time with Jesucristo, dividing my gaze between the majestic statue and the equally majestic view of this coastal city.

Christ the Redeemer, on top of Rio

Christ the Redeemer, on top of Rio

But time was ticking and down we went to check out the Santa Teresa neighborhood, and area springing up with new cafes, art galleries and outdoor bars along the cobbled streets. Our local guide told us the backstory of this previously Portuguese aristocrat area as we poked our head in the shops.  A quick pick me up of Brazil’s signature caffeinated beverage, and we were off to see the Selaron Steps, an explosion of colorful tiles from hundreds of cities and countries around the world.

Coffee in Santa Teresa

Coffee in Santa Teresa

Rio’s enviable sunshine decided to take a pausa, so we did too for a refueling session at a Brazilian buffet while the rain cooled down the city. Lucky for me, the restaurant was next to a Havaianas store and Deniza, press officer from Embratur (Brazilian Tourism Institute) and local Bahian beauty, gave me a rundown of the best flip flop styles that weren’t found in the USA. I now have enough flip flops for the rest of my life.

Havaianas Shopping!

Havaianas Shopping!

Without skipping a beat, it was time to explore a favela, something I hadn’t done in the past. Our local guide brought us to the Santa Marta favela, a relatively small hilltop “slum” that has had one of the biggest positive transformations. We met Veronika, a local resident who guides visitors through her home community. Through a translator was needed, Veronika and I chatted about life here, her kids, Michael Jackson and about her thoughts for the future of her community. I could have spent all day here but it was on to the next part of the day, Rio’s famous beaches.

Veronika, our local guide in the Santa Marta Favela

Veronika, our local guide in the Santa Marta Favela

The rain had passed but the clouds continued to hang out over Rio. Either way, Copacabana Beach still looked lovely and there we filmed some of the city’s favorite drinks, coconuts and caipirinhas. After my first bite of a dulce de leche churro (WOW!), we transferred to the city center by subway. Traffic is brutal so the surprisingly clean and efficient underground metro was the fastest route. We arrived at an outdoor square where Monday night samba dancing takes place, to the tune of a live band. We weren’t the only ones camping out for this free show. However, the band canceled and so the dancing was postponed.

Groupie hot, waiting for Samba Dancing

Groupie hot, waiting for Samba Dancing

Undeterred, we headed to Lapa to tour some of the bars of this neighborhood popular for nightlife. Rodrigo, our Brazilian guide, introduced us to a special aged cachaça and after a few rounds and many “saúdes” later, we were starving. Where to eat in Rio when you only have one night? A churrascaria of course. This carnivorous restaurant was jam-packed even at 10:00pm. The churrascaria tradition is like a meat buffet that comes to you. Since I’m not a big meat eater, I enjoyed their insanely huge salad bar as our group tucked into to almost every type of meat that came out.

Men eating meat at the churrascaria

Men eating meat at the churrascaria

As our manic day came to end right before my 2:00am transfer to the airport, I felt like we had really sucked the juice out of Rio. This city is non-stop and we did our best to keep up, from dawn… till dawn again.

This trip was entirely different than my first leisurely week in Brazil. However, my love for the country has only grown. We did more in one day in Rio than many people do in a week, and I can say the same is true for each day on the rest of the trip. My knowledge of Brazil’s culture, hotspots and people has improved dramatically and from that, I only have a longer list of where I want to go when I return again.

On that first wish bracelet back in 2013, I had wished to return to Brazil. Now, as I write this I am wearing my latest bracelet, given to me from Deniza. It’s my daily reminder that wishes come true and that I’ll be going back to Brazil on another adventure before long.

To see a video behind the scenes of my wild 24 hours in Rio, click this link→ Rio in 24 hours

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.