By Max Aly, Director of Group Operations, SITA World Tours

 

Behind every great tour experience is a phenomenal product manager – these “Modern Day Explorers” scout undiscovered experiences in new, emerging destinations, rediscover what’s new in beloved places, and get to know the community with the single goal to design enriching itineraries for you to book.

How do these explorers find the most memorable, culturally rich experiences you ask? Well, USTOA is taking you behind-the-scenes with a handful of these Modern Day Explorers to find out. Today Max Aly of SITA World Tours reveals his experience in Abu Dhabi. So, in his words… 

Modern Day Explorer Max Aly of SITA World Tours

Modern Day Explorer Max Aly of SITA World Tours

Though I had often connected through the Abu Dhabi airport and enjoyed a bird’s eye view of this desert Emirate while landing and taking off, I had never actually set foot outside of the airport. I was therefore intrigued and excited when USTOA, on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, approached SITA World Tours with the opportunity of exploring this fascinating destination. From the moment I landed until I left five days later, the experience left me wondering why I had waited this long to grasp what turned out to be an incredible desert adventure.

Abu Dhabi is absolutely captivating. With its fabulous architecture, luxurious accommodations, fine dining and myriad attractions wrapped in warm Arab hospitality, it defines the very nature of tourism at its best. Abu Dhabi is not only the political, but also the cultural capital of the United Arab Emirates and host to the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, World Cup Sailing and other leading international events relating to art, music and sports. Very soon it will be home to the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums, as well – they are expected to open later this year.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

I am at a loss to describe my feelings upon beholding the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. To say I was overawed would be an understatement. It is a poem in white marble with delicately inlaid floral patterns created from multicolored semi-precious stones. The interior of the mosque is equal to the exterior. The sheer size is overwhelming and all of the superlatives applied to describe this magnificent edifice are completely justified. It must be seen to be believed.

I was afforded a personal tour of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital by the incredibly charming and accomplished Dr. Margit Muller, director of the facility. To most citizens of the Arabian Desert, the falcon is like family and an integral part of their cultural heritage. This is exemplified by the care and attention that is lavished on these birds here at the most advanced and sophisticated falcon care institution in the world. Falconry and falcons are held in such high esteem in the Arab world that each individual bird merits his or her own passport to facilitate travel.

Ferrari World

Ferrari World

Abu Dhabi is truly a family friendly destination. There are countless activities for children… as well as the inner child in most adults. For example, the Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World, leaves one breathless with excitement. For those wishing to dispense less adrenaline, there are more sedate activities to be pursued as well. The Abu Dhabi Pearl journey, where you can pull out your own pearl from a freshly harvested oyster, a visit to the Emirates Zoo, the Heritage Village, Yas Waterworld and an umpteen number of beautiful beaches and marinas to relax and soak in the ever shining sun. The beautiful Abu Dhabi Corniche is a promenade, a place to see and be seen.

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara

Leaving the gleaming metropolis behind me, I headed out into the vast desert with my guide Amaan. The Rub Al Khali, which literally translates to ‘The Empty Quarter,’ certainly lives up to its name. The silence is deafening and the tall sand dunes, stunning. We drove for miles and miles until we reached the resort oasis of Qasr Al Sarab, an amazing property located in the very heart of the desert wilderness. Managed by the Anantara group, this hotel captures the desert romance and tastefully blends it with all the modern luxury a discerning traveler appreciates. Desert adventures awaited me at the Qasr Al Sarab. We went dune bashing in specially equipped 4WD vehicles, ascending steep dunes and descending gut-wrenching drops. The camel ride that followed calmed me down after this exhilarating adventure. The camel, also known as the Ship of the Desert, serves the desert dwellers in multiple ways and is among their most precious possessions. Later in the evening a banquet under the desert sky left me with the surreal feeling of living the Arabian Nights. The sky was a riot of stars and constellations. Having witnessed a fast fading sunset, I rose before the sun in order to witness a glowing desert sunrise from atop a dune, enveloped in peace and tranquility.

The Emirates Palace

The Emirates Palace

Abu Dhabi redefines luxury! In order to soak in as many experiences as possible in the short span of time, I stayed at a different hotel each night. The Emirates Palace qualifies as a tourist attraction in its own right. The central cupola of the hotel is as high as St. Peter’s basilica and was decorated using 39 tons of gold. A gold cappuccino is served in a cafe close by. The Bab Al Qasr, the Rosewood, the Dusit Thani and the Crowne Plaza on Yas Island are among the many luxury hotels that are recommended in Abu Dhabi. The city also abounds in Michelin starred restaurants featuring every conceivable cuisine. The Sunday brunch at the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers is to die for. The street food is equally delicious and there is something tasty to match every purse. For the shopaholic, Abu Dhabi is a veritable paradise. Apart from the trend setting malls and the bazaars, exceptional bargains are to be found regardless of what one seeks to buy or browse.

As a Modern Day Explorer I am completely sold on Abu Dhabi – a modern metropolis with a desert flavor – and welcome all travelers to call SITA World Tours so we can make your experience equally rewarding!

Interested in learning more about Max’s journey to Abu Dhabi? Go behind-the-scenes with him in our video series, A Modern Day Explorer’s Quest to Abu Dhabi, launching later this month here.

Ready to visit? Visit here for details on traveling to Abu Dhabi with SITA World Tours.

Max joined SITA in 1993 & has worked in various capacities from sales to operations to product development. Possessing a vast range of experience in the field of tourism, he is ideally suited to serve as SITA’s ambassador in the Modern Day Explorer role. Max started his career in tourism in India as a tour guide and has since traveled widely throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, North & South America and the South Pacific. His destination knowledge is of immense value not only to the organization but also to many of the clients whom he comes in contact with.

Discover more destinations with our team of Modern Day Explorers here.


By Megan Murphy, AFAR Ambassador

Photo by Megan Murphy

This October, Contiki set off on a high-energy Western Highlights tour through Southern California, Arizona, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas. Our crew of 55 young adventurers flew in from all over the world—Australia, New Zealand, England, Germany, Japan, and a couple from the Eastern United States—to experience the best of the nation’s west coast. Some traveled with groups or as couples, but the majority arrived solo, eager to make new friends and embark on the adventure of a lifetime with #NoRegrets. If non-stop action and excitement is what you crave, this tour delivers.

One of the greatest draws of Contiki? The optional excursions offered at each destination along the way, allowing you to tailor the trip based on your individual interests. Though plenty of fun-filled memories were made during our 8 days together, here are my top picks from our epic expedition.

Speed Boating in San Diego

After kicking off in Los Angeles (hitting silver screen sights and landmarks along the way), and soaking up the sun at Cali’s beautiful beaches, the stunning city of San Diego was on the agenda. Here, we got to play captain by driving our very own boats with Speed Boat Adventures, zipping around the harbor at high speeds while taking in sights of the downtown skyline, historic maritime ships, over-the-top yachts, and even sea lions.

Speed boating, Photo by Megan Murphy

Up in the Arizona Air

If you’ve never been in a hot air balloon before, I’d highly recommend it. An early morning ride with Hot Air Expeditions in Phoenix delivered the rush of soaring at heights of up to 5,000 feet over the expansive Sonoran Desert. After floating through the dry desert air (at multiple speeds based on wind patterns) for an hour, our flight concluded with a Champagne breakfast upon landing. Cheers to that!

Hot Air Ballooning by Megan Murphy

Hot Air Balloon by Megan Murphy

Rocky (Off) Road-ing

In Sedona, an artsy mountain town with incredible views of the massive, brightly-hued red rocks, we saddled up in open-air 4×4 Jeeps for a “Canyons & Cowboys” off-road adventure with Red Rock Jeep Tours. Our spirited guide, Wendy, greeted us with a full cowgirl getup (complete with spurs!) and a huge smile as she grabbed the wheel and navigated through the rough, rugged and rocky terrain; at times I was certain the Jeep would topple over. I was wrong.

We trekked along through the heart of historic Dry Creek Basin and the seven surrounding canyons, as Wendy enthusiastically told us tales of murder and moonshine and the early cowboy days at the old Van Derin cabin, where we stopped to snap a group pic and enjoy exceptional views.

Jeep tour, photo by Megan Murphy

Jeep Tours by Megan Murphy

Hikes & Helicopters in the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is like no other place the the world; a natural wonder that every American should try to see in their life. In my experience, nothing has compared to the body-encompassing feeling that takes over you when peering out into the vast desert below: the gigantic peaks and deep valleys, the spectrum of rich colors, the layers of igneous rock formations.

After stocking up on the necessities—sunblock, snacks and lots of water—we spent an afternoon hiking the canyon’s south rim down a steep, winding and quite narrow-at-times trail that provided endless photo ops. Others in our group saw breathtaking panoramic views from above, with a heart-pounding helicopter ride over the Kaibab National Forest and into the deepest and widest part of the canyon. Experience of a lifetime.

Grand Canyon by Megan Murphy

Grand Canyon View by Megan Murphy

Grand Canyon with Megan Murphy

Our journey ended with a bang: two outrageous days in Vegas—complete with a glitzy nighttime tour of bustling Fremont Street, Cirque Du Soleil show, music- and Champagne-filled limo rides around the Strip, VIP nightclub entry, dancing ’til dawn and all the debauchery you can get into in Sin City. Need I say more? Viva Las Vegas, baby!

Overall, I was impressed with the amount of opportunities for adventure on Western Highlights. Our rockstar guide, Christy, was knowledgable, friendly and fun—and always provided nightlife options for anyone looking to party. Trust me, there was no shortage of a good time on this tour. Even the road trips between destinations were amusing thanks to our lively coach driver/deejay, HB, who blasted upbeat tunes while cruisin’.

There was plenty of downtime and opportunities to relax during our journey, as well. But of the many memories made during the trip, it’s the once-in-a-lifetime thrills and the people I “got loose with” (as the Aussies say) that I’ll remember forever.

 

Interested in learning more about Megans journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com, the USTOA blog and check out Contiki’s Western Highlights tour.

An adventure lover at heart, Megan is a food, travel and lifestyle writer based in NYC. She has contributed to AFAR, Bon Appétit, Clean Plates, Eater, Food & Wine, The Daily Meal, Thrillist and Travel + Leisure, and runs her own website. Megan is happiest when embarking on new travel and dining experiences with her beloved family and friends, and her adorable dog, Cooper.


From the Atacama Desert to Patagonia and the Antarctic territory, plus the imposing landscapes of the Andes Mountain Range and coastal areas along the Pacific Ocean, few countries offer as much diversity as Chile. Join Modern Day Explorer Rebecca Rhyan as she scouts local activities and inclusions for itineraries from Cox & Kings, The Americas to Chile.

 

USTOA Modern Day Explorers: Adventures in Chile 

From the northern border to the very southern tip of the continent, Chile offers a huge variety of landscapes and natural wonders for outdoor adventure. From kayaking and boating to horseback riding and hiking, USTOA tour operator member Cox & Kings, The Americas takes the hassle out of travel by pairing guests with the best local guides. Discover more with Modern Day Explorer Rebecca Rhyan.

 

USTOA Modern Day Explorers: Cuisine in Chile 

The ingredients, quality and passion that go into the food in Chile is remarkable. Eat your way through this amazing destination with Modern Day Explorer Rebecca Rhyan of Cox & Kings, The Americas and discover how USTOA tour operator members provide guests with unparalleled insider access. From small organic farms to the owner’s private quarters at exclusive wineries, Cox & Kings, The Americas helps bring guests closer to the special culinary experiences they crave.

 

USTOA Modern Day Explorers: Culture in Chile 

Curious how tour operators find the most memorable, locally immersive experiences for guests to book? Follow USTOA’s Modern Day Explorer Rebecca Rhyan of Cox & Kings, The Americas as she discovers hidden cultural gems in every corner of Chile.

 

Interested in learning more about Rebecca’s journey to Chile? Go behind-the-scenes with Rebecca as she gets off the beaten path in Chile.

Ready to visit? Click here for details on traveling to Chile with Cox & Kings, The Americas and here for more information on the destination.

Rebecca loves to explore Latin America, searching for authentic experiences to include in every custom itinerary she creates. Her extensive travels throughout the region have given her the opportunities to craft the perfect journey for each client’s interests and tastes — she particularly enjoys building multigenerational journeys for families to explore and learn together through cultural interactions. Among Rebecca’s recent favorite destinations in Latin America: Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.


By Megan Murphy, AFAR Ambassador

 

The Grand Canyon by Megan Murphy with Contiki

The Grand Canyon

One of the most magnificent and diverse places on Earth, the United States is home to some of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to have experienced several of these spectacles on my first-ever Contiki tour.

The Western Highlights expedition ventured across Southern California and Arizona, ending in Las Vegas. There was plenty of action and excitement every step of the way, and an abundance of nature’s finest sights on display—from beautiful beaches and rocky deserts to exotic animals and the majestic Grand Canyon. Here are a few highlights from the trip that any nature lover would appreciate.

Beach Bound

There’s a reason why California is known for its beaches: they are some of the finest in America, if not the world. Our tour group soaked up some rays and Cali-beach vibes at Santa Monica State Beach and its iconic pier, and also explored Venice Beach’s lively boardwalk scene. More beach time beckoned the following day, as we cruised down the Pacific Coast Highway to stunning Mission Beach for sun, sand and surfing until the sun went down. There’s nothing like a mesmerizing California sunset to cap off your day.

Venice Beach with Contiki by Megan Murphy

Venice Beach

Mission Beach sunset with Contiki by Megan Murphy

Mission Beach sunset

All About Animals

We got in touch with our wild side at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. This sprawling wildlife sanctuary—which sits on 100 acres within Balboa Park—houses more than 3,500 rare and endangered animals in exhibits designed to replicate the animals’ natural habitats, and is especially beloved for their giant pandas. As an avid animal enthusiast, this was one of the destinations I was most excited for. Child-like giddiness came over me as I got up close and personal with all my favorites including gorillas, elephants, pandas, penguins, koalas, monkeys and flamingos.

Mama gorilla with her baby

Mama gorilla with her baby at the San Diego Zoo

Giant panda at the San Diego Zoo by Megan Murphy with Contiki

Giant panda at the San Diego Zoo

Flamingos by Megan Murphy with Contiki

Flamingos at the San Diego Zoo

Desert Destinations

After arriving in Arizona, an early morning hot air balloon ride in Phoenix was on the agenda. While peacefully floating in the air, we soaked up 360-degree scenic views of the rugged Sonoran Desert terrain and distant mountain peaks. Indigenous animals, including jackrabbits, deer and coyotes, and a variety of cacti species were spotted below as we peered down from our ballooned baskets.

Our next stop was in Sedona, a serene town with phenomenal views of the towering, vividly-colored Red Rock Mountains. After grabbing lunch on bustling Main Street, our group trekked through rocky terrain in off-road Jeep tours through seven magnificent canyons and historic Dry Creek Basin.

Ballooning over Phoenix with Contiki by Megan Murphy

Ballooning over Phoenix

Red Rocks

Red Rocks

The Grand Finale

How can I possibly describe the feeling of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time?

Mother Nature has a way of grabbing you by the heartstrings and never leaving you quite the same again. This was one of those times. I was whole-heartedly moved by this larger-than-life sight—captivated by the radiant color combinations, endless erosional forms and ever-changing ridges of light that deviated with the sunshine and movement of clouds, non-stop from morning to night. The sheer magnitude of the canyon can never be accurately depicted in pictures or by words. It has to be seen with your own eyes, and felt with your own soul. Absolutely incredible.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon

I heart the Grand Canyon

I heart the Grand Canyon

Discovering nature with Contiki was a life-changing experience that gave me, and my fellow travelers from all over the world, a new appreciation for why our great nation truly is America the beautiful.

 

Interested in learning more about Megans journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com and check out Contiki’s Western Highlights tour.

An adventure lover at heart, Megan is a food, travel and lifestyle writer based in NYC. She has contributed to AFAR, Bon Appétit, Clean Plates, Eater, Food & Wine, The Daily Meal, Thrillist and Travel + Leisure, and runs her own website. Megan is happiest when embarking on new travel and dining experiences with her beloved family and friends, and her adorable dog, Cooper.

 

 


By Rebecca Rhyan, Senior Destination Specialist for Latin America & Antarctica, Cox & Kings, The Americas

 

Behind every great tour experience is a phenomenal product manager – these “Modern Day Explorers” scout undiscovered experiences in new, emerging destinations, rediscover what’s new in beloved places, and get to know the community with the single goal to design enriching itineraries for you to book.

How do these explorers find the most memorable, culturally rich experiences you ask? Well, in 2016, USTOA is taking you behind-the-scenes with a handful of these Modern Day Explorers to find out. Today Rebecca Rhyan of Cox & Kings, The Americas reveals her experience in Chile. So, in her words… 

Modern Day Explorer Rebecca Rhyan of Cox & Kings, The Americas at  Lapostolle Residence in the wine regions surrounding Santiago

Modern Day Explorer Rebecca Rhyan of Cox & Kings, The Americas at
Lapostolle Residence in the wine regions surrounding Santiago

I fell in love with the history and culture of Chile when I was in college, long before I had the chance to visit.  One Chilean Spanish professor brought the country to life for me, and encouraged me to read the famous works of Pablo Neruda and Isabel Allende.  The dream of visiting this narrow country in South America finally came true, and I keep going back.  Every journey that I have taken to Chile with Cox & Kings has been filled with adventure in striking natural landscapes, cultural discoveries, and outstanding food and wine.

Wine tasting at Neyen Winery

Wine tasting at Neyen Winery

Late this September I landed in Santiago and headed straight for the Lastarria neighborhood to check into my hotel.   The Singular Santiago opened recently and I was excited to see this new staple of luxury perfectly located in one of Santiago’s trendiest neighborhoods.   Santiago’s easy going urban vibe is the perfect place to begin or end an adventure in Chile. My guide led me off the beaten path to the Brazil and Yungay neighborhoods to admire the 1940’s mansions and stop at La Peluquería Francesa, a barbershop established in 1925 that still offers men an old fashioned shave with a hot towel.  We then grabbed a coffee in the restaurant next door, which serves double duty as an eclectic antique shop.

Old Vines at Neyen Winery

Old Vines at Neyen Winery

The Wine Regions surrounding Santiago are an idyllic next stop, and the next day I went straight to the Colchagua Valley.  I arrived at Neyen Winery for a tour and tasting, and to see the old vines that, planted in 1889, are rooted so deeply they do not need to be watered.  That evening I had the fantastic good fortune of staying at Lapostolle Residence with just four luxury casitas overlooking the valley and a breathtaking view of the Andes Mountains.

Gorgeous Views at Lapostolle Residence

Gorgeous Views at Lapostolle Residence

I could not stay for long, however, and the next day I was off to the old port city of Valparaiso.  Wandering through the colorful streets of this unusual city I was impressed with the intricate murals and stylistic graffiti at almost every turn.  My guide introduced me to some of the friendly local artists of the neighborhood who were happy to share their craft and talk about this romantic city, beloved as well by the Noble Prize Winning poet Pablo Neruda himself.  Casa Higueras, a beautiful boutique hotel in a historic mansion overlooking the harbor was my comfortable home for the evening and I enjoyed a cup of tea up on the rooftop.

Charter Flight to Castro on Chiloe Island

Charter Flight to Castro on Chiloe Island

My next destination was the archipelago of Chiloe, and as I boarded the plane I was not sure what to expect.  Landing in Puerto Montt, I had a short charter flight to the town of Castro on Chiloe Island.  The pilot asked if we would like to fly low for views of the water and small habited islands along the way.  Of course we did!  From above I realized how enormous the archipelago is, although it seems so small on the map.  Landing in Chiloe I was immediately charmed.  The landscape is stunning, green with rolling hills and grazing sheep and the calm ocean. I met my guide, Cyril, a warm and friendly man who I soon learned is as knowledgeable as he is passionate about the island.

The view from Hotel Centro de Ocio

The view from Hotel Centro de Ocio

I never wanted to leave Hotel Centro de Ocio, one of the coziest properties I have ever visited with gorgeous views over the bay. This was my home base as Cyril and I explored the island together visiting local organic farmers, hiking in exotic rainforests, sea kayaking in the bay and horseback riding with an authentic gaucho. There are 16 UNESCO churches on the island, built without metal hardware by the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries.   I tasted homemade apple cider on a local farm and steamy empanadas from a local roadside stand.  The ultimate delight was the local “Curanto” a traditional local barbeque with lamb, chicken, seafood and vegetables prepared in a fire in a pit oven, in the center of the floor of the family dining room of the original homestead that is now managed and preserved by Centro de Ocio.

Stunning Views in Chiloe Island

Stunning Views in Chiloe Island

After every journey to Chile I return with new experiences and ready to help our clients plan a customized journey, whether they are looking to visit the iconic sites like the Atacama Desert and Patagonia or to veer off the beaten path and discover a place like Chiloe.

Interested in learning more about Rebecca’s journey to Chile? Go behind-the-scenes with Rebecca with our video series, A Modern Day Explorer’s Quest to Chile, launching later this month here.

Ready to visit? Click here for details on traveling to Chile with Cox & Kings, The Americas and here for more information on the destination.

Rebecca loves to explore Latin America, searching for authentic experiences to include in every custom itinerary she creates. Her extensive travels throughout the region have given her the opportunities to craft the perfect journey for each client’s interests and tastes — she particularly enjoys building multigenerational journeys for families to explore and learn together through cultural interactions. Among Rebecca’s recent favorite destinations in Latin America: Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.


By Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

As the one Wyoming resident on my recent Go Ahead National Parks tour, I had a grand old time talking local lifestyle with my new touring friends while visiting Jackson, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park. It’s not every day that I get sent out on assignment in my own backyard, and the opportunity to explore the great wild Wyo with a group of unfamiliar faces was part of the reason I accepted this assignment in the first place; the Cowboy State is one of the country’s most spellbinding destinations, and it’s always thrilling for me to be with people experiencing its wonders for the first time.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

As our bus motored through Grand Teton NP, our tour director, Adrian, tossed me the microphone, and I proceeded to rattle off a few facts about the local atmosphere.

Bison are less friendly than elk, moose are less friendly than bison, and bears are least friendly of all. Except for badgers. And wolverines. They’re worse than bears. Cows are cool, but bulls are mostly ornery. More on bulls later.

Mountains are for climbing, woods are for hiking, and rivers are for traversing. And yes, Surf Wyoming is a real thing.

Geyser gazing is a great pastime, rodeo is a real sport, Rocky Mountain oysters (those poor ballless bulls) are not at all what they sound like, and you should wear your best boots and spurs when you visit the Million Dollar Cowboy.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

As I wrapped our Wyoming Q&A, we arrived at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, and thrust ourselves into the throngs of onlookers eagerly awaiting the great geyser’s eruption. Adrian’s clever anecdotes and inside knowledge of both Grand Teton and Yellowstone lent the parks a feeling of familiarity and deepened the sense of spectacle, and left each of us charged to explore on our own. Many of us used our time to wander the boardwalk and gaze into bubbling mud pits, fumaroles and geysers, and a few were lucky to spot bison and coyotes playing in the muck.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

We rolled on, deeper into the park, taking in the spellbinding views and ancient majesty at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where silence fell upon our party like a blanket. We hiked String Lake together, marveling at the towering Tetons, so close we could reach out and touch them, and floated down the serpentine Snake River with the good folks from Solitude Float Trips, who graciously shared the water with us (and a few of woodland creatures for good measure). In the evening we wandered the streets of picturesque Jackson, huddled under the elk antler arches in the town square, feasted on rustic pub grub at The Local, sampled quintessential craft beers at the iconic Snake River Brewing Co., and went all the way nouveau-Wyo at Thai Me Up and Melvin Brewing. Jackson’s sensational food scene is certainly its robust food scene.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

The Wyoming segment of our Go Ahead tour was a remarkable three day stretch that blended into one epic experience. I live and play in Wyoming, and I know this part of the state well – and I know that Go Ahead delivered an immersive, experiential adventure, with plenty of time for solo exploration. As far as glimpses at the Wyoming way of life go, this was a great one.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Interested in learning more about Shawn’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com and check out Go Ahead’s U.S. National Parks tour.

Flash is a journalist, photographer, and author based in Wyoming. His work has been published by AFAR, GQ Magazine, USA Today, Voyeur Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Get Lost Magazine, Celebrated Living, Asian Geographic, Food and Travel, American Cowboy, and more. Flash is the reigning 2016 SATW Bill Muster Photographer of the Year.


By Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador

The Grand Canyon with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

How can I accurately describe in words an adventure that takes me through five states, six national parks and a legendary Navajo tribal park, up and over desert mesas, deep into bottomless canyons, out into the rugged backcountry of the Mountain West, and through the very heart of the American Road Trip Experience? A lofty goal, to scribble prose about such an experience – an experience so grand that even photographs fail to capture its essential essence.

That said, it sure is fun to try.

Go Ahead U.S. National Parks Tour (credit: Flash Parker)

This was my first time on the road with Go Ahead tours, but it was obvious from day one that I was late to the party – it seemed as if more than half of or touring party had been on two, three, ten, twelve tours in the past, and while we exchanged pleasantries during our introduction dinner in Santa Fe, they raved about the good times ahead for us all (spoiler alert: the trip was every bit as remarkable as advertised). Yet instead of a lengthy debrief – a thinly-disguised effort to guard against a diary-style diatribe, if I’m being honest with you – I thought I’d write about a few of the experiences that truly touched me during this adventure.

The Grand Canyon, Go Ahead U.S. National Parks tour (credit: Flash Parker)

I’ve been a journalist for more than 10 years now, and I’ve been fortunate to have been sent out on assignment to some of the most remarkable places in the world, to do some of the wildest and strangest things imaginable. Sure, a few of those places are probably best characterized as terrifying, and a few of the situations I’ve put myself in have made for less than ideal travel memories, but I hope, I believe, that each new experience helps me appreciate the next deeper, and allows me to live in the moment each time I set out to do my job.

Wildlife on Go Ahead's U.S. National Parks Tour (credit: Flash Parker)

Enter the tour company Go Ahead and their National Parks tour. Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, peering out over an endless expanse of ochre and rust and cinnamon, condors diving to un-seeable depths, and clouds retreating toward a shimmering horizon, I quietly reflected on my entire career, and was charged with the realization that this moment ranked among the most moving.

Grand Canyon Views with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

Adrian, our energetic and informative Go Ahead guide, had slyly enriched our experience prior to our arrival by telling us stories about the architect Mary Colter and her efforts to design and build the Desert View Watchtower (as well as the Lookout Studio and the Hermit’s Rest). By the time we climbed the steps of the 70-foot stone monolith ourselves, it felt like we somehow deeply connected to the place, and that we knew a little something of the secret history of the Grand Canyon itself. Adrian’s thoughtful commentary – whether flecking conversations with anecdotes about mule trips into the Grand Canyon, or bear safety in Yellowstone – helped transform a sightseeing tour and into experiential travel expedition, and for his knowledge on geography, wildlife and history, I know I’ll be forever grateful.

Desert View Watchtower with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

I’ll remain grateful also for Adrian’s brilliant on-site recommendations. I knew I wanted to set off on my own for a more rigorous hike. I peppered him with constant questions about rim walks and hikes to great viewpoints; art galleries and artists in residence; and the best gift shops through which to procure walking stick medallions (in case you’re into that sort of thing…), and each time he responded with thoughtful commentary and useful references. And when he suggested that we embark upon a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon on our free day, I thought he was a certifiable genius.

Artist at Work in the Grand Canyon (credit: Flash Parker)

What could I possibly say about a helicopter ride of the Grand Canyon that I couldn’t convey in photographs? Here’s a quick glimpse at this once-in-a-lifetime experience, courtesy of the folks at #FlyTheCanyon.

Grand Canyon Bird's Eye View with #FlyTheCanyon and Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

By the time my feet were back on solid ground, I was so energized that I truly believed I could conquer the canyon – so I gave it my best shot by racing down the legendary Bright Angel Trail. Notorious for its unforgiving incline (10% for much of the trail) and extreme weather variations – it can be a cool 60F on the canyon rim and a blazing 105F on the floor – the Bright Angel is best tackled over two days. Since I was working with a little less than half a day, I decided to tackle the 12-mile round-trip journey to Plateau Point, rather than the 20-mile march to Phantom Ranch.

Hiking in the Grand Canyon with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

At times my odyssey was grueling, but it was rewarding throughout – views from deep in the canyon itself are unparalleled, and there’s nothing like the sensation of trekking along until the hustle and bustle of the South Rim is muted, and all that remains is ancient rock and raging Colorado River. When I arrived at Plateau Point, I thought of my new Go Ahead friends, and how the trip had been designed with something for everyone in mind – my free time allowed me to get out into the wild and challenge myself, create a story to call my own, and a few memories to share when I returned to civilization. Go Ahead had delivered on their promise to immerse me in the National Parks experience fully and completely.

Go Ahead U.S. National Parks Tour (credit: Flash Parker)

Go Ahead U.S. National Park Tour with Flash Parker

Interested in learning more about Flash’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com and check out Go Ahead’s U.S. National Parks tour.  

Flash is a journalist, photographer, and author based in Wyoming. His work has been published by AFAR, GQ Magazine, USA Today, Voyeur Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Get Lost Magazine, Celebrated Living, Asian Geographic, Food and Travel, American Cowboy, and more. Flash is the reigning 2016 SATW Bill Muster Photographer of the Year.


By travel writer Lisa TE Sonne

Austin Adventures’ weeklong guide training is held in Billings, MT each spring for both returning and new guides alike. The training involves classroom and field trip time in which the guides learn skills as varied as creating a beautiful picnic lunch spread, knowing what a guide should carry in her backpack, and specifics like the Austin Adventures signature “WOW Factor”. This year, the group toured Yellowstone National Park to put their skills and training to the test, and invited travel writer Lisa TE Sonne.

The Austin Guides - veterans and trainees - celebrate a good training week! (Photo by Andy Austin)

The Austin Guides – veterans and trainees – celebrate a good training week! (Photo by Andy Austin)

While I am feeling carefree, gleefully riding a bike hands-free through a forest, there is a guide up ahead checking the route and ready to answer questions. Another guide (we are blissfully unaware of) is making sure our next activity is set up, the dinner location is prepared for any special diets in our group, and the hotel rooms and keys are all set for our arrival.

Gratitude and kudos to great guides!  They can take us to places that aren’t in the guidebook, help us tour the most tourist-popular parks, cities and iconic sites in novel ways, and share memorable non-touristy waterfalls and watering holes.

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Hikers round the bend and the advance guide has set up a delicious “Wow” moment and a chance for all to catch their breath and take photos.

As a travel writer, I’ve thanked guides on every continent for sharing their expertise and tips. A tour operator can plan fantastic-sounding itineraries and secure well-vetted accommodations, but it is often the on-the-ground/horse/kayak guides that make or break the experience-memories of guests.

Sonne wouldn't have been able to cover ash-boarding down a volcano in Nicaragua without the help of a good guide.

Sonne wouldn’t have been able to cover ash-boarding down a volcano in Nicaragua without the help of a good guide.

That photograph of the Amazon anteater in a tree with his long tongue sticking out? That was thanks to a naturalist guide who asked the boat driver to kill the engine and let us float.   My getting to “ash board” down a volcano in Nicaragua and write about it for American Way, the inflight magazine?  Wouldn’t have happened if a guide hadn’t carried the heavy board up the steep slope so I could take pictures of the steam rising up through vents in other-worldly looking terrain.  And I salivate thinking of all the goodies I have tasted because a guide arranged for a local specialty.

I appreciate good guides even more after spending several days last June with a dynamic group of 27 handpicked guides as they went through “Guide Training” in Montana and Wyoming for Austin Adventures, an award-winning member of USTOA.

Austin Guides make guests feel even more at home "where the buffalo roam" as the song goes and let visitors know that technically there are no buffalos in the United States - they are bison.

Austin Guides make guests feel even more at home “where the buffalo roam” as the song goes and let visitors know that technically there are no buffalo in the United States – they are bison.

Half the guides were Austin veterans with 1 to 20 seasons, quite familiar with both the guiding basics and the signature Austin touches, like a red carpet from the van.  The newbies ranged from guides who had been experts with other companies to people with diverse, relevant experience that wanted a career change – including ski instructors, river-raft captains, a medic during the war in Iraq, and people who ran outdoor programs for the handicapped and inner-city youth.

Being good with people and loving the outdoors are obvious qualities needed. But after spending several days with these chosen guides, it became clear that good guides also have to be logistics and time-management experts, good drivers, cooks, accountants, psychologists, cheerleaders, teachers, fixers and finders… as well as naturalists and fun-loving fitness-folk.

VP of Operations Kasey Austin Morrissey teaches the guides in situ as well as interviews all the candidates and makes selections. She was distinguished as the world's best family guide in 2014 by OUTSIDE Magazine.

VP of Operations Kasey Austin Morrissey teaches the guides in situ as well as interviews all the candidates and makes selections. She was distinguished as the world’s best family guide in 2014 by OUTSIDE Magazine.

Indoor sessions were held ranging from how to speak well and learn everyone’s names and interests, to good accounting and paperwork practices. Outdoor sessions in gorgeous settings included bicycle repair, how to pace a hike for multiple generations, practice creating the Austin “Wow” moments, and how to build “WAM” into the day – Water Appreciation Moments – so no one gets dehydrated.

Part of this phase of Austin Adventures’ guide-training was to let the new guides work with their partner for the upcoming season. This relationship is one of the deepest pairings they will have in their lives – more intense than marriage for some – because they need to keep each other going 24/7 and decide who does what behind the scenes so that guests can have a seamless, pampered vacation.

Working with your partner guide can be a complex dance of well planned choreography and some cool spontaneity (aka prepared plan B,C, D) to make sure the guests only have pleasure, not problems.

Working with your partner guide can be a complex dance of well planned choreography and some cool spontaneity (aka prepared plan B,C, D) to make sure the guests only have pleasure, not problems.

Throughout each trip, the Austin guides tag-team — one leads an activity while the other secures advance logistics/supplies, and then returns the multi-functioning van to the end of the trail site so when guests finish their walking, canoeing or horseback riding, they are met with fresh drinks, towelettes, cut-up fresh fruits, and other snacks.

Guides don't just drive the van. During training, guides learn how to organize, clean, load up and hitch trailers to the multi-functioning van as well as make sure the inside has guidebooks, drinks and fresh flowers.

Guides don’t just drive the van. During training, guides learn how to organize, clean, load up and hitch trailers to the multi-functioning van as well as make sure the inside has guidebooks, drinks and fresh flowers.

These days, some people are tempted to organize and guide their own trip via internet clicks, but then you are often looking at a screen instead of savoring the setting and must always be in “responsibility mode” instead of just being able to respond to the beauty and pleasures around you. With a tour operator who has great guides, you can hand off any headaches to someone who specializes in good planning and flexible spontaneity.  After my guide training days, two advantages in particular stood out:

*Accommodations:   I don’t have to have reservations about reservations.  Someone else booked my room with my requests.  A guide hands me my key. My luggage is already in the room. And on an Austin Adventures trip, the room may even have a personal note or gift waiting for me. In the case of the National Parks, Austin Adventures connection with Xanterra means they could have blocks of rooms even when the web shows everything is booked.

Usually parents are expected to have all the answer. A good guide can ask and answer questions: Do you know what animal rubbed up against this tree and left it's fur? (Answer: some people would call it a buffalo, but you know it's a bison!)

Usually parents are expected to have all the answers. A good guide can ask and answer questions: Do you know what animal rubbed up against this tree and left it’s fur? (Answer: some people would call it a buffalo, but you know it’s a bison!)

*Questions:  Questions are part of all good travel, but it can be more fun to ask and learn than always be expected to have the answers. A good guide’s knowledge ranges from the names of plants and the years and yarns of battles to where the nearest bathroom is (or where the nearest answer is). You don’t have to bury your nose in a book or screen and miss the chick hatching under the penguin. You can listen to the guide tell you why the whales are jumping straight up out of the water… while they are surging up. And instead of being annoyed when you hear, “Are we there yet?” you might be entertained. The clever guide might pipe in “Not yet. It will be about half an hour, but see that tall mountain over there? Have you heard the legend about it?”

Yes, kudos and gratitude to great guides who help us make our own legendary memories.

 

Lisa TE Sonne is a travel hyphenate (author- writer- photographer- videographer- possibilitator) who has written for an Academy Award-winning documentary and Emmy-winning PBS series. She loves adventure and cultural travels and has enjoyed guided activities on all 7 continents and from many great ocean, river, canal and sea cruises. She received a Gold for “Best Destination” writing from NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association). Her current books include THE HAPPINESS HANDBOOK: Simple Ways to Change your Life for the Better, GREAT OUTDOORS: A Nature Bucket List, and MY ADVENTURES: A Traveler’s Journal.  She and her husband run a nonprofit that offers Giving Certificates that can help any charity (and make great gifts for travel lovers). For more information, visit www.LisaSonne.com and www.CharityChecks.us


Located only eight hours from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui, The Islands of Tahiti are pure paradise in the heart of the South Pacific. In addition to natural beauty and tranquility, the islands offer diverse outdoor experiences and rich Tahitian culture. Join Modern Day Explorer Bronwyn Hodge as she scouts local activities and inclusions for itineraries from Goway Travel to The Islands of Tahiti.

 

Modern Day Explorers: Luxury in The Islands of Tahiti

Only eight hours from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui, the Islands of Tahiti are a secluded, yet surprisingly accessible, paradise. Get an insider look at how luxurious accommodations and experiences are arranged for Goway Travel guests as USTOA Modern Day Explorer Bronwyn Hodge discovers the best of the Islands of Tahiti.

 

Modern Day Explorers: Culture in The Islands of Tahiti

Known for its idyllic blue water and French Polynesian culture, The Islands of Tahiti offer a tranquil and enriching island escape. Modern Day Explorer Brownyn Hodge of Goway Travel takes you behind the scenes in Huahine, Tikehau and Rangiroa to showcase the insider access provided by USTOA tour operator members.

 

Modern Day Explorers: Cuisine in The Islands of Tahiti

Curious how tour operators find the most memorable, enriching experiences for travelers to book? Follow USTOA’s Modern Day Explorer Bronwyn Hodge of Goway Travel as she eats her way through the Islands of Tahiti, visiting a vanilla bean plantation, fishing, tasting spirits at a local distillery and enjoying a private Motu picnic.

 

Discover even more at http://ustoa.com/blog/finding-paradise-lesser-known-islands-tahiti/ and www.ustoa.com/modern-day-explorers.

Ready to visit? Visit https://www.goway.com/trips/dest/australia-and-south-pacific/cntry/tahiti/ for details on traveling to The Islands of Tahiti with Goway Travel.

Growing up in a family travel business, Bronwyn has been traveling from a very young age. Her favorite experience was three months spent backpacking through India and Southeast Asia. She counts many countries among her ‘favorites,’ but is especially fond of Australia for its lifestyle, Cambodia for its culture and resilience, and Japan for its contrasts. She holds the proud distinction of being Goway’s only former Bollywood star – having once starred in a Coke commercial in Mumbai.


By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

September is Travel Together Month (Credit: Celtic Tours)

This September, USTOA kicks off its celebration of world travel during the third annual Travel Together Month. Throughout the month travelers and travel agents will find more than 100 special offers and exclusive savings to explore the globe.

Travel Together Month showcases a curated selection of offers from the country’s leading providers of independent and escorted group travel with travel dates available through 2018. Offers can be found through September 30, 2016, at www.ustoa.com/travel-together-month, featuring travel to all seven continents and countless “live like a local” opportunities. Travel agents will also find exclusive incentives, free trips and bonus commissions.

Cuba (Credit: International Expeditions)

Cuba (Credit: International Expeditions)

Highlights include the following:

For consumers:

  • Alexander+Roberts: Couples can save as much as $1,000 ($500 solo) on all Small Group Journeys and Private Tours for the traveling party – including Japan, China, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, and all across Southeast Asia. Available through April 2018.
  • Australian Pacific Touring: Travelers save $2,000 per couple on select worldwide Small Ship Cruising itineraries. Valid on select itineraries; departure dates through 2017.
  • Globus: Guests on the 11-day “Best of Italy” itinerary visiting Rome, Tuscany, Florence, Venice, Naples and Capri save up to $646 per couple. Available on select 2017 departures.
  • Goway Travel: Savings of up to $12,000 per couple on select Antarctica sailings featuring destinations such as the Drake Passage and the Arctic Peninsula. Travel available during the 2016-2017 season.
  • Gate 1 Travel: Receive savings of $200 per person on the 12-day Classic South Africa trip, including, Cape Town, Hluhluwe, Swaziland, Hazyview and Johannesburg. Travel available through 2017.
  • Insider Journeys: Savings of $713-$1,547 per person on their choice of 17 departure dates between 9/1/16 and 12/31/16 for the Indochina Explorer 19-day trip in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
Vietnam (Credit: Insider Journeys)

Vietnam (Credit: Insider Journeys)

 For travel agents:

  • Lindblad Expeditions: Travel agents receive a complimentary double cabin aboard the National Geographic Endeavour or National Geographic Endeavour II to Galápagos when six full-paying guests are booked aboard the same departure. Offer valid on a September 2016 – April 2017 departure.
  • Alexander+Roberts: Travel agents earn a $50 per person booking bonuses every time clients pay-in-full, and save $1,000 per couple ($500 solo), on three new Small Group Journeys, with never more than 16 guests, including the following trips: Our Pacific Northwest; Canada by Land, Water + Rail; and Stories of the Old South. Travel through April 2018.
  • Celtic Tours World Vacations: Receive a 16% commission plus $50 per person discount on all European self-drive tours, with a minimum of six-nights. Departures between September 1 – November 30, 2016.
  • African Travel, Inc.: Travel agents earn 15% commission for each Scenic Cape Town & Kruger Safari Vacation package booked. Clients will explore Cape Town, experience a Big Five safari near Kruger, and receive international and internal air. For travel January 1, 2017 – December 1, 2017.
  • Austin Adventures: Receive 12% commission plus an additional $100 per person booking bonus; applicable on all itineraries and destinations for departures within 2016.
  • Cox & Kings, The Americas: Travel professionals receive a $150 bonus commission when booking guests during the early booking incentive—save $500 per couple when travelers book any Custom Private Journey in the 2017/2018 brochures or on the website.
  • Collette: Travel agents can earn more with “Book Your Own Bonus”—agents qualify for the program with their first booking, can earn $50 for the second booking, and $100 for the third. Any additional bookings earn $100 per booking with no limit. Valid on new retail bookings made between September 1, 2016 – March 31, 2017 for departures in 2017.
Antarctica (Credit: Goway Travel)

Antarctica (Credit: Goway Travel)

Note: offers can be booked September 1-30, 2016. All travel deals, restrictions and booking instructions can be found at www.ustoa.com/travel-together-month.

For further inspirations or to search for dream travel itineraries and destinations, visit www.ustoa.com/dream.