By Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador

 

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Douro 

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Sao Pedro do Corval

Portugal is the little things. It is whistling ceramic roosters hand-made in a studio in Sao Pedro do Corval. Portugal is stomping grapes in an ancient lagares in a family-owned vineyard in the Douro Valley. It is walking miles over dusty dirt tracks between 2,000-year-old olive trees, while a towering castle stands sentinel on a nearby hillside. Portugal is grassroots agriculture and temples of skulls and bones, ancient monolithic sites and world-class cuisine, textiles and pottery and long walks over cobbled streets. Portugal is all these little things and more, little things you can only experience when you slow down and fully immerse yourself in the mystery, majesty and allure of the Iberian Peninsula. Recently I traveled to Portugal with Country Walkers, the global leader in small-group guided walking adventures, for an expedition from historic Porto to modern Lisbon, with stops to experience the pastoral bliss of the Douro Valley, the rugged hillscapes and castles of the Alentejo, and countless local wonders in between.

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Quinta Nova 

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Quinta Nova 

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Quinta Nova 

I knew that my Country Walkers expedition was going to be a different sort of travel experience from the moment our party stepped foot in the Douro. A UNESCO World Heritage darling, the Douro Valley region has become a tourism darling in recent years, and it’s easy to see why – from our elevated position high above the river, the Douro is a postcard-perfect vision of Old World Europe. We spent our first day walking among a verdant carpet of old wine vines, and stopped to visit an olive oil mill, and, of course, a family-run winery with a history that stretches back centuries (all the way to Britain). Too many trips are focused on checklists, when they should be focused on experiences. Country Walkers doesn’t want their guests to “see this, this, and this,” and is instead focused on “experiencing this, fully, and completely.” Our group dinners at Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo epitomized this ethos – our candlelight dinners were characterized by Chef Jose Pinto’s unique take on traditional fare, and included extended wine tastings, wonderful conversation, and concertina music.

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Herdade do Freixo

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Mosteiro do Crato

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Evora 

I knew that we would spend considerable time walking through vineyards and olive orchards, but I didn’t expect to wander through one of the world’s only skeleton temples, which we experienced at the Igreja do Sao Francisco, a 12th century Gothic wonder in the heart of bustling Evora.  I knew we would visit castles and ancient kingdoms, but I didn’t know that I’d stand in the center of a bullring in the castle of Reguengos de Monsaraz. I knew there would be wineries and Port and table wine, but I didn’t expect to learn so much about agriculture and eco-farming at the Herdade do Freixo do Meio, a sprawling agricultural co-op known for producing artisanal meats and vegetables. I knew there would be charming boutique hotels, but I didn’t know I’d spend my mornings in beautiful gardens and atmospheric crypts of converted monasteries, like the Pousada Mosteiro do Crato, for centuries known as the Flor de Rosa Monastery. And I knew to expect cultural marvels and historical allure, but I had no idea that we would flit between rock giants at the Cromlech of the Almedres archaeological site, where 5th century (BC) monoliths still call out to the stars.

POR - Capela dos Ossos

Capela dos Ossos

POR - Cromeleque dos Almendres

Cromeleque dos Almendres

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Cromeleque dos Almendres

Portugal is all the things I love about Europe – the pace, the grace, the idyllic countryside and the atmospheric medieval cities – and a thousand surprises I could have never anticipated. Country Walkers gave me an opportunity to go beyond guide books and become fully immersed in local culture, lore, and legends. I can’t think of any other way to experience Portugal.

 

Interested in learning more about Flash’s journey? Check out Country Walkers’ Portugal: Porto to Lisbon.

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 Colu Henry, AFAR Ambassador

When you tell people you’re going to Greenland, the reactions are impressive.  There’s a lot of wide-eyed nodding and inquisitiveness. In the weeks leading up to my trip, no one I encountered had actually ever been there before. I don’t think many people know that it’s just a quick two-hour flight from Reykjavík, but once the word is out, I have a feeling that will change quickly.

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From my first glance out the plane window, I fell hard. The icy waters were turquoise and surrounded by ruddy land and patches of snow. It was a glorious site to behold. Upon landing we were shuttled to the port and then taken by zodiac to Lindblad ExpeditionsNational Geographic Explorer, which we would inhabit for the next four days. The ship is a converted ferry and holds only 148 passengers. (Side note, it also offers a 24-hour Open Bridge policy, which was an incredible post-dinner activity). I immediately knew as I stepped up into the bottom of the ship that I was in for more of an adventure than a leisurely boat trip.

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I was more than happy to learn, unlike other ships, the National Geographic Explorer is staffed with an incredible team of naturalists, undersea specialists, geologists and photographers that teach you about the Arctic – and in this case Greenland specifically.

Russ Evans, the ship’s expedition leader, kept us informed and educated about where we were and where we were going. One night, he even woke us up at 1:00 am because he caught a glimpse of the northern lights. We all showed up on deck in pajamas, no questions asked. Alas, no lights, but what a dedicated group of voyagers we were nonetheless!

HomesinSisimiut

BoatsinSisimiut

Each place in Greenland we visited was distinctly its own and equally as gorgeous. From the bright houses in the small harbor town of Sisimiut to the awe inspiring icebergs in Iluslissat, where we boated out into the frigid waters, each place we saw took my breath away and left me bewildered and more curious about our precious earth.

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We also had the gift of having Aleqa Hammond, the former Prime Minster of Greenland, on our trip. Hearing her talk about the history and culture of Greenland’s people was educational and inspiring. With only 65,000 people inhabiting the island, Greenlandic people still hunt for most of their food, which includes seals, whales, polar bears, and of course fish. No land hunting on motorized vehicles is allowed, which I found not only ethical, but incredibly impressive. She also spoke passionately, but optimistically about global warming and how the country is working to learn how to adapt and problem solve what lies ahead.

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If you had asked me before I left if I’d walk away from this trip yearning for Artic hikes, undersea diving recaps and talks from naturalist, I would have politely dismissed you. I’m ever so happy to be proven wrong.  Greenland, really hope to see you soon.

 

Interested in learning more about Colu’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com the USTOA blog and check out Lindblad Expeditions’ Hot Springs and Icebergs: Iceland to West Greenland tour. 

Colu is a food and lifestyle expert, native New Yorker, and avid home cook. Most recently, she worked as Director of Special Projects at Bon Appetit. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Refinery29, Cherry Bombe, and Wine Enthusiast. Her cookbook Back Pocket Pasta will be released by Clarkson Pottering in February 2017.


 

By Colu Henry, AFAR Ambassador

 

Raudholar Rocks

I had always yearned to visit Iceland and finally this summer I was able to make the trip. I longed for lava fields and moon-like landscapes and the trip didn’t disappoint. We landed in Reykjavík, the countries capital and largest city, and upon arrival Lindblad Expeditions, whom I was traveling with, whisked us off to a small restaurant situated by the sea to start the day.

Cod

The flight to Iceland from New York is a hop, skip, and a jump (or a mere 5 hours), so quick enough to return frequently, but not quite long enough to get a good night’s sleep. Luckily, our first, well-planned stop was to visit the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon was formed in 1976 during an operation at a nearby geothermal plant. It’s said that people began to bathe in the water and apply the mud to their skin and noticed huge improvements to skin disease such as psoriasis. It’s now considered one of the 25 Wonders of the World. I get why.

Blue Lagoon

We soaked in the thermal baths and enjoyed their restorative, warm waters and it nearly kicked my jet-lagged. I highly recommend this plan of action for anyone taking an overnight flight to Iceland; it works. In general, I’m a firm believer that wherever you travel, if you keep your sleeping schedule to rise and set with the sun where you are, by the next day you’ll be nearly back to normal.

With the tour’s generous allotted time to explore, true to my word, and a lover of straying off path, I connected with my friend Margret Eir –  who happens to be famous Icelandic pop star – to take me around town that night. I love exploring new cities on foot; it gives you a real understanding of how a place is laid out and a chance to meet the locals, so we did just that. Margret and I wandered downtown, where immediately I was captivated by the city’s warm people and charming shops. She also took me to her partner JJ’s barber shop, named Common Joes, which in addition to cutting hair, also acts as a visually impressive storefront where he beautifully restores antique furniture and electronics to make them compatible for present day.

Dinner at Messin

Reykjavík’s restaurant scene is also having a moment and Margret took me to a new, very cool and charming restaurant called Messin. The menu, like most places in Iceland (no complaints here), is very fish-driven. Everything is served in copper pots, family-style upon the table. We feasted on shrimp, gravlax and curried cod and sipped on white wine; it was delicious and exactly what I needed. After a few stops at some local bars (a favorite activity on any trip), I was almost on Icelandic time, and finally ready for bed.

Icelandic Horses

The next venture on my journey was the gift of being able to ride Icelandic horses through a lava field. The farm is situated right outside of town. These gentle beings are smaller than regular horses and the loveliest of creatures. After our ride, we headed in town for a beautiful lunch and were then treated to a nature walk just a short drive from town. Our guide brought us up to speed on the incredible eco-system of the country. Did you know that they have no mosquitoes, snakes or really other prey in Iceland?

VioeyIsland

That evening, after a ferry ride to Viðey Island for dinner with a beautiful music performance by locals, I slept soundly and woke ready for the next piece of our adventure to begin. We were Greenland bound.

Interested in learning more about Colu’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com and check out check out Lindblad Expeditions’ Hot Springs and Icebergs: Iceland to West Greenland tour. 

Colu is a food and lifestyle expert, native New Yorker, and avid home cook. Most recently, she worked as Director of Special Projects at Bon Appetit. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Refinery29, Cherry Bombe, and Wine Enthusiast. Her cookbook Back Pocket Pasta will be released by Clarkson Pottering in February 2017.


By Ben Schuyler, AFAR Ambassador

I’ve often found that when you mention visiting Cuba to someone, it’s undoubtedly the case that you will be asked about a combination of the following things – communism, cigars, rum, music, and classic cars.  It’s not without good reason that these are common topics, but the diversity of this unique Caribbean island avails so much for adventurous souls looking for new paths to explore.

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My time traveling to Cuba with smarTours began at the heart of the country’s biggest city – Havana. Greeted by a local guide and expert on the history of the surrounding architecture in Old Havana, we walked cobblestone streets and learned about the Spanish influence on the colonial-era buildings. I was fascinated by the information being shared, yet I couldn’t help but be distracted as I watched locals navigating their morning. A young couple walked by drinking café cubanos, carrying a newspaper and briefcase. A group of construction workers hauled materials in a wheelbarrow for a restoration project. An old man swept in the park. Each little vignette revealed a more intimate reflection about what daily life as a Cuban could look like. Capturing these moments in my photographs became a theme of how I enjoyed my travel experience.

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The next step in the journey with my travel companions brought us from Havana to the city of Sancti Spíritus, one of the oldest settlements in Cuba and the capitol of the Sancti Spíritus province. We arrived at our hotel to find it perfectly positioned on the edge of Parque Serafín Sánchez, the central park of the city and a meeting place for visitors and locals alike. Late into the evening children gleefully chased one another around a fountain positioned in the middle of the park. Nearby speakers pulsed familiar songs as karaoke patrons did their best to sing along and entertain the on looking crowd. The recent addition of Wi-Fi to the location has made it a popular spot for people to connect for a moment to search the Internet or communicate with loved ones. The pleasant warm breeze paired with a delicious Cuba Libre made for a relaxing time of reflection and people watching.

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Rich in cultural history, Cuba is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Of those, we had the pleasure of visiting Old Havana, Cienfuegos, Camaguëy, and Trinidad. A town that thrived in the boom of the sugar cane industry, Trinidad sits adjacent to the Valley de los Ingenios and is now known for producing tobacco. Breathtakingly preserved, I found myself transcendently returning to a time when the sugar trade drove life in the colonial town. The Afro-Cuban influence can be felt and experienced through art, music, and dance in Trinidad at Palenque de los Congos Reales. The performance center exhibits centuries old traditional folklore performed to the steady beat of conga drums. Volunteers keep these stories alive while working other jobs in different fields.

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It’s without question that one of my favorite moments during my time in Cuba was visiting the home and studio of Bernardo Valeriano Casanova Fuentes – ceramic artist based in Camagüey. He spoke only a few words, instead allowing his son to share his story, as he attentively formed piece after piece at his workbench and potter’s wheel. In a matter of ten minutes, Bernardo produced a diverse collection of artifacts from single slab of clay. His property was modest, well lived in, and beautiful. It wasn’t flashy or showy, but encapsulated the sustainable life he has found doing what his loves everyday.

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Cuba has something to offer to all kinds of visitors – classic car enthusiasts, cigar aficionados, history buffs. More than anything, I found for myself that the daily life of the Cuban people was the most intriguing and beautiful facet to my visit.

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Interested in learning more about Ben’s journey?  Read more about it on AFAR.com, the USTOA blog and check out check out smarTour’s The Best of Cuba tour.

A Pacific Northwest native, Ben has spent his life drinking coffee, hiking the Cascade Mountains, and breathing the salty air of the Puget Sound. Ben’s inspiration includes dirt roads, flora, and fauna, and his photographs capture a sense of adventure in warm colors that produce an ambient nostalgia. He recently traveled America to document mobile living: When the Road Is Home.


By Ben Schuyler, AFAR Ambassador

I was eighteen when I began working at a locally owned café in the suburbs of Seattle. The modest eatery was the byproduct of two passionate foodies – Angela and Miriam. The latter, a Cuban immigrant, ran the day-to-day operations of the shop. Memories of my midday shifts are peppered with “Cuban” sandwiches and masterfully crafted cortaditos, pre-sweetened espresso shots topped with a small pour of steamed milk. I vividly recall listening to Buena Vista Social Club on repeat and asking Miriam what the musicians were singing about. Her reply – “Home.”

AFAR - Cuba/ Ben Schuyler

It was moments like these that gave rise to my fascination with Cuban culture. (And, the reason I said “yes” to the invitation to visit Cuba with smarTours).

When arriving in Havana, it is immediately apparent that you are in one of the most unique places in all of Latin America. Pristinely kept vintage automobiles navigate the streets, often taxiing visitors and locals alike from destination to destination. Brilliantly colored colonial buildings line the city plazas, seemingly untouched from their construction. Large billboards proclaiming “Viva la Revolución!” are painted with portraits of revolutionary Che Guevera and other political imagery and can be seen driving on the highway.

AFAR - Cuba/ Ben Schuyler

There are few places or things, if any, which feel “modern” in the entire country. It’s this resourcefulness that has come to characterize so much of the world’s perspective of what Cuba is like.

Visiting Cuba in the off-season (summer) made for an especially pleasant trip to someone who likes to avoid crowds at all costs while traveling. Instead of having to maneuver through throngs of tourists at Almacenes de San José, the famous open-air craft market at the port of Havana, it’s the vendors selling their goods that will enliven your shopping experience. Here you can find every kind of leather good, carved wooden cigar holder, or piece of art you could desire. A portrait of American author Ernest Hemingway stamped on handmade paper caught my attention and was mine for the price of 3 CUCS, the Cuban convertible peso.

AFAR - Cuba/ Ben Schuyler

Hemingway’s stories served as additional inspiration for me to visit the largest island in the Caribbean. A man smitten by the sea, Cuba’s unspoiled waters housed game fish that would become the key character in his most famous novella – The Old Man and the Sea. Finca Vigiía – Ernest Hemingway’s home in the San Francisco de Paula ward of Havana – can be visited on nice days when the humidity doesn’t force the meticulously maintained home to be closed. The Finca is a snapshot into the author’s life. Original furniture and books remain largely unmoved; busts of animals from Hemingway’s expeditions adorn the naturally lit dining room. A nearby unnamed bar serves the most delicious cocktail in country: Coctel Vigía – a perfect blend of freshly pressed Guarapo (sugar cane, pineapple, and lemon juice) and Havana Club 7 Anos Rum garnished with sliced lime and a pineapple wedge.

AFAR - Cuba/ Ben Schuyler

AFAR - Cuba/ Ben Schuyler

Life came full circle when I had the pleasure of seeing members of the Buena Vista Social Club perform at Sociedad Cultural Rosalia de Castro. For nearly two hours, a whole cast of performers sang songs about romance, working the sugar cane fields, and the many towns and villages across Cuba. With a cortadito in hand, I finally began to understand why “home” was so special.

AFAR - Cuba/ Ben Schuyler

Interested in learning more about Ben’s journey?  Read more about it on AFAR.com and check out smarTour’s The Best of Cuba tour.

A Pacific Northwest native, Ben has spent his life drinking coffee, hiking the Cascade Mountains, and breathing the salty air of the Puget Sound. Ben’s inspiration includes dirt roads, flora, and fauna, and his photographs capture a sense of adventure in warm colors that produce an ambient nostalgia. He recently traveled America to document mobile living: When the Road Is Home.


By John Newton, AFAR Ambassador

I want to come clean about something, even at the risk of making USTOA somewhat uncomfortable. When AFAR first contacted me to find out if I would be interested in traveling to the Canadian Rockies on a tour with Collette, part of me was enthusiastic. I’d have the chance to see a province I’d never visited, Alberta, and its world-famous and UNESCO-recognized parks: Jasper and Banff. Another part of me thought, “huh, a tour?” I had images of being shepherded around with a group of camera-toting tourists and seeing the grandeur of the Rockies only from behind the windows of a bus. My experience traveling with tours has been limited to occasional day trips or walking tours except for one trip to Morocco almost two decades ago. Until this winter, and my Collette trip, I thought of tours as being only for people incapable of deciphering bus schedules and finding the best local restaurants on their own. A tour was, I dismissively believed, not for “real” travelers.

Collette's Canada Winter Wonderland

The Collette Winter Wonderland trip began to shake my preconceptions on the first morning. Our exploration of Edmonton, Alberta’s capital, began with a visit to the provincial legislature. It wasn’t open to visitors that morning, but Daniel, our guide, was able to use his connections to get us in for a private tour. The exclusive access was an obvious perk of traveling with Collette, but the tour itself was a surprise. On my own, I would have admired the chandeliers and regimental flags in the grandiose early 20th-century building, but with Collette, I found that my fellow travelers were seriously interested in discussing the history of the Alberta Social Credit Party (look it up on Wikipedia) and why most U.S. states have bicameral legislatures while most Canadian provinces have unicameral ones. If I needed more evidence that I was traveling with a bunch of fellow nerds, I also met Charlotte that morning. This German-born professor of nuclear physics from the University of Ohio would later that day be able to explain the uncertainty principle to me in a way that I finally understood it and its significance—a bonus of this trip that was not mentioned in any of the Collette descriptions of the itinerary.

Provincial Legislature Collette's Canada's Winter Wonderland

The provincial legislature was only the first of a number of activities on the Collette trip that I would not have experienced had I been traveling solo. Yes, theoretically individual travelers can sign up to go snow-shoeing and dog-sledding, locating outfitters and making arrangements, but I know that if I had been traveling on my own, I’d first have to figure out how to get from Edmonton to Jasper and then on to Lake Louise, Banff, and finally Calgary. Before searching out activities and sights, I’d need to plan where to sleep each night and eat each meal. And there were cultural highlights I would never have even known to ask about, like a talk by a jeweler about ammolite, a gemstone unique to the Canadian Rockies that I had never heard of before this trip.

Ammolite Collette's Canada Winter Wonderland

Charlotte was not the only person in our group who made this trip surprisingly rewarding for me. Without getting into my politics, Barbara, a Methodist minister also from Ohio, and I bonded over our similar views while snow-shoeing, while Ben, a farmer from southern Georgia, and I got into a sometimes heated but always friendly discussion, while savoring Alberta bison at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. (This trip fell over the week that included the inauguration and march on Washington, so politics were hard to avoid.) It’s frequent these days to bemoan how isolated many of us are in our bubbles, and Collette drew me out of mine for a week. I knew that I would come back having seen a part of the world, Alberta, that I had never been to before. I didn’t realize I would also become friends with other Americans from places in the country far from my home in Brooklyn. Now not only are other guided tours on my must-do list, but places from Sandusky, Ohio to Hiram, Georgia and new friends in those places are on my must-visit list too.

John Newton and friends on Ammolite Collette's Canada Winter Wonderland

Interested in learning more about John’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com, the USTOA blog and check out Collette’s Canada’s Winter Wonderland itinerary.

John has almost 20 years’ experience in travel, both on staff at Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure and writing for other magazines, newspapers, and websites. He is AFAR’s Branded Content Advisor and the founder of Signal Custom Content, a travel branded content consulting company. His 2016 plans include Ireland, Manitoba, Japan, Netherlands, and California.


By John Newton, AFAR Ambassador

Collette's Canada Winter Wonderland

In almost 20 years of working as a travel writer and editor, I’ve often been reminded that a good strategy for experiencing any destination like a local is to visit in the off-season. Paris in July is wonderful, no doubt, but there’s also something appealing about it in November, when the museums and restaurants are less crowded; waiters and shopkeepers are less harried and have more time to stop and chat. It is part of why I jumped at the chance to join the Collette Winter Wonderland trip to the Canadian Rockies in January. While I know that Banff and Jasper Park in the summer must be unbelievably stunning (they are in the winter too), I’ve also heard that along with long summer days come long queues of buses and tourists outnumbering the bears. Here are six lessons in traveling like a local from this trip which I intend to practice on my next one too.

1)     Let a Local Be Your Guide. While the guide on this Collette trip, Daniel Boghen, is Canadian he isn’t from Alberta itself (he’s from Montreal). But having repeatedly led trips in the Canadian Rockies, he knows all the right people. He was able to arrange experiences that aren’t available to most travelers, like an off-hours visit to the Alberta provincial legislature, and knew the best places to stop for postcard perfect shots along the Icefields Parkway.

2)     Opt for Local Transportation. Traveling by train or bus is often a better way to experience a destination the way residents do than exploring in your own rental car. In Alberta in the winter, traveling like a local means putting on a pair of snowshoes or hopping in a dog sled. A snowshoe walk through the woods on this Collette trip was a chance to experience Jasper National Park in all its majesty without any crowds.

Dog Sledding on Collette's Canada's Winter Wonderland

3)     Do Your Homework. Having some context for the sights you see makes every trip richer, and I try to make time to read a history of any country I’m visiting, as well as fiction by one of its leading writers. Daniel made the homework part of traveling easier, providing us with printouts on the geology of the Rockies and explaining, in his lively way, aspects of Canada’s culture and history.

4)     Try Local Foods. From Nanaimo bars (a custard bar with a chocolate base) at the Bear’s Paw Bakery in Jasper to Alberta bison at the elegant Fairview at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, the trip offered a number of opportunities to try local specialties. Sample them, though you may want to beware of eating too many maple candies and desserts unless you follow them with some cross-country skiing or a glacier hike.

5)     Join the Party. Alberta’s winter calendar is crowded with events to help residents get through the cold days till spring returns. Visitors are definitely welcome and our trip coincided with Banff’s SnowDays, complete with illuminated ice sculptures including a castle that served as the entrance to an ice-skating rink on frozen Lake Louise.

Ice Sculpture Collette's Canada's Winter Wonderland

6)     Get Up Close with the Locals. In winter, you won’t be able to see one of the Rockies’ most famous residents, its bears (as they are hibernating), but it becomes easier to spot many other animals—elk, foxes, wolves, mountain sheep, and mountain goats among them—thanks to the white backdrop of snow. Just remember to keep a respectful distance.

Elk Collette's Canada's Winter Wonderland

Interested in learning more about John’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com, the USTOA blog and check out Collette’s Canada’s Winter Wonderland itinerary.

John has almost 20 years’ experience in travel, both on staff at Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure and writing for other magazines, newspapers, and websites. He is AFAR’s Branded Content Advisor and the founder of Signal Custom Content, a travel branded content consulting company. His 2016 plans include Ireland, Manitoba, Japan, Netherlands, and California.


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.


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 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.