By Rhiannon TaylorAFAR Ambassador 

 

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If you’ve been following along, I’ve just started on my tour of Myanmar with Abercrombie & Kent. Sanda, our guide, is the heartbeat of our trip. Effortlessly accommodating our dietary requirements and comfort, engaging us with her incredible knowledge of Myanmar, it’s sights and it’s history.

Picking up where I left off, our group has just hopped on board Sanctuary Ananda to cruise up the Irrawaddy River.

 

Day Four, Five and Six:

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Cruising along the river is very peaceful. Our rooms are generous in size and come with balconies to relax on during the afternoons. The food is excellent with the chef offering both Burmese and Western options and even offers cooking demonstrations. There’s a full day cruising and you can spend it on the top deck in the plunge pool, sunbaking, in the library or in the spa.

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At night, the boat comes in to port and we visit the U-Bein Bridge – said to be the oldest and longest wooden bridge in the world. We all take a boat ride around the bridge at sunset, which is quite spectacular and Sanda surprises us with Champagne.

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On our last morning we disembark and head in to Mandalay, visiting a gold workshop, where men beat gold by hand in to gold leaf. This gold is then sold to the temples and pagodas for decoration and restoration of the Buddha.

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Another highlight in Mandalay is a visit to the Kuthadow Pagoda, otherwise known as the Worlds Biggest Book. Comprised of over 700 marble slabs of Buddhist teachings, they are housed inside white temples and it’s one of Myanmar’s most beautiful sites.

 

Day Seven and Eight:

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Our group makes its way to Inle Lake, a 44 square mile freshwater lake in the Shan State. Over 70,000 people live on the lake boarders, in villages comprising of stilted houses. It’s a unique way of life, with boat as the only means of transportation.

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We stayed at the Aureum Palace, which is a stunning resort made up of overwater villas that have views to the other side of lake. It serves as a great base for day trips to nearby villages where we witness the local thriving businesses of fishing, cigar making and the rare art of lotus weaving. Lotus fabric is used by high end designers such a Lora Piano and is a painstakingly slow process of hand rolling fibre out of the lotus flower stalk. The result is a beautiful, linen-like fabric that keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

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Last day:

Flying out from Inle Lake, we come back to Yangon and enjoy our final evening with a walk around. It is the most sacred of Pagoda’s in Myanmar for the Buddhist people and it is one of the largest, gilded in gold and sitting over 99 metres tall. Sanda surprises us again, this time with reserving 1000 candles around the base of the Pagoda for us to light. It’s an incredibly spiritual time and quite magical to see our candles flickering once they are all lit. It signifies the end of our journey and our tight-knit group is sad to see it end.

On the final morning we say our goodbyes. Sanda has gone above and beyond to ensure we have had an immersive experience in Myanmar, whilst also catering to our comfort. I wouldn’t have explored the country any other way.

 

Interested in learning more about Rhiannon’s journey?  Read more about it on AFAR.com, the USTOA blog,  and check out Abercrombie & Kent’s Myanmar and The Irrawaddy

Australian photographer Rhiannon has a curated aesthetic for capturing design, food, and lifestyle. Her work has taken her around the world, with assignments in Sri Lanka, the U.S., New Zealand, and South America. Her popular blog, dedicated to experiential luxury resorts and lodges, is regularly updated with Rhiannon’s point of view on fascinating destinations.


By Rhiannon TaylorAFAR Ambassador 

 

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Myanmar (Burma) is a destination that has often been forgotten to the rest of the world. It’s slowly been putting itself on the map for travelers who want to get off-grid and is one of the few countries left that offer truly authentic and mostly tourist-free experience.

Not to be ventured in to lightly, it is a country that requires expert local knowledge and planning. Forget public transport, or asking a local for directions; Myanmar is a country that doesn’t see a lot of tourism and the best way to visit is by booking with a tour company that has complete understanding and connections with the local people.

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I chose Abercrombie & Kent’s “Myanmar and The Irrawaddy” tour for my visit as it encompassed a mix of luxury accommodation, a river cruise, local experiences and sightseeing.  This ten day itinerary started in Yangon, with an Abercrombie & Kent representative meeting me at the airport arrivals gate and whisking me to the comforts of the Sule Shangri-La Hotel to rest before meeting my group and commencing my tour the following day.

Our journey together went a little like this.

 

Day One:

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Following breakfast in the Sule Shangri-La’s Horizon Club (an exclusive area for premium rooms), our group meets for the first time and we are introduced to Sanda, who is one of Myanmar’s most sought after guides. Born and raised in Yangon, she obtained a bachelor degree in Chemistry before following her passion in to the travel industry. She instantly makes our small group of five feel like family and soon we were on our way to the Reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, a 213-foot-long statue with an expressive enamel face and huge feet.

Lunch is at a local restaurant where we are treated to a traditional tea-house menu, consisting of deep fried snacks, roti and curry. Here we discover that Burmese food is much more subtle in flavor than its neighbor Thailand.

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In the afternoon we meet with a local astrologer who delves into the future decisions in our lives. Astrology plays an important part of life to the Burmese and influences their decisions on all day to day matters such as marriage, religion, prayer and even diet.

As the sun goes down, our group makes its way to Le Planteur; one of Myanmar’s finest restaurants serving up Indochine-style cuisine, overlooking the water. It’s a magical evening and sets the tone for the trip.

 

Day Two and Three:

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A short flight and we’re in Bagan, a city with over 2000 Buddhist Pagodas and Temples. Buddhism is a way of life for the Burmese and Bagan is an incredibly spiritual city.

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Here, our group visits a small village and we are able to interact with the local people. It’s our first time being able to converse with the people of Myanmar (through our guide Sanda), and they’re friendly and welcoming to our curiosity.

We checked-in to the Aureum Palace Resort, a five star luxury hotel that boasts an infinity pool overlooking a vista of pagodas. It’s the only hotel in the temple region and is simply stunning.

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Weather permitting, guests are can take a hot air balloon ride over Bagan. Unfortunately during my trip we didn’t get the right wind to permit a ride so we visited the viewing tower at our hotel at sunset. It’s a spectacular view, over a seemingly endless landscape of pagodas.

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Another highlight of this region is a visit to a lacquer workshop (the same one Barack Obaa visited on his trip to Myanmar), which makes by hand everything from teacups to chests of drawers and is a great place to stock up on unique souvenirs.

On the last evening we board Sanctuary Ananda, a small luxury boat, which takes us on to the next part of our journey: The Irrawaddy River.

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Check back soon for the second part of this blog post on my Abercrombie & Kent tour in Myanmar.

 

Interested in learning more about Rhiannon’s journey?  Read more about it on AFAR.com and check out Abercrombie & Kent’s Myanmar and The Irrawaddy

Australian photographer Rhiannon has a curated aesthetic for capturing design, food, and lifestyle. Her work has taken her around the world, with assignments in Sri Lanka, the U.S., New Zealand, and South America. Her popular blog, dedicated to experiential luxury resorts and lodges, is regularly updated with Rhiannon’s point of view on fascinating destinations.


By Tanveer Badal, AFAR Ambassador 

 

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One of my favorite things to do when traveling to a new destination is to take a morning walk. My first-day plan is almost always the same: arrive, unpack, have a nice dinner, and go to bed early. Then, I’ll get up as the sun rises and start walking, without a specific agenda or address. I usually save the museums and palaces for later in the day. In the morning, everything is fresh and clean, the temperature is ideal, and it’s a good way to see local people go about their day. Plus, the light is beautiful.

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My favorite place to go in the morning is the market—whether it’s a vegetable market, flower market or in the case of Essaouira, Morocco, the vibrant fish market on the port. Luckily, Alexander+Roberts had arranged for a walking tour of the city, so I was able to gain insights into what I was seeing and experiencing in addition to taking photographs.

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The first thing you notice about Essaouira are the seagulls. They’re everywhere. “Seagull Airport,’” said my guide from Alexander+Roberts, Mr. Hicham, pointing to a small island across the port where thousands of gulls were roosting. The port was packed and the fishermen were so busy that they barely noticed our group snapping shots of their every move. Our group hopped over muddy puddles on the street, made way for large trucks to get through and covered our noses when the smell was fish was overwhelming. But we were in good spirits and didn’t mind going a little out of the comfort zone for the payoff of an amazing local experience.

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Our visit coincided with the peak of sardine season. We saw dozens, maybe even hundreds, of small blue boats pulling in their catches and getting packed into trucks to be shipped to other parts of the country and abroad. The sardines are used for soups, stews or just grilled with salt. There were also eels, shrimp, crab, lobster, and dozens of types of fish. A row of blue painted food stalls at the entrance of the market displays the full selection and from there, you can handpick the seafood you want to eat and it’ll be cooked to your choice. I had seafood at each meal of my time in Essaouira, and didn’t mind it a bit. We had fish kebabs on skewers during our last meal at Il Mare, overlooking the Essaouira port we had just walked through. A bunch of us agreed it was perhaps the best meal of the trip so far, topped off with an unexpected and delightful chocolate cake.

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I decided to come back to the port one more time, to capture it in the warm, late afternoon light. I watched a boat pull-in carrying some really big fish. It took several people to just load it from the boat to the small tuk-tuk-like vehicles with a truck bed in the back. Upon closer look, I realized they were carrying sharks. This time there were no tourists around, so the locals quickly recognized me snapping shots at the scene. I caught someone saying in Arabic that I was a “professional,” and the crowd parted so I could get a better view. Some of the young men even smiled for photos. It was a strange feeling because here was a thing these fishermen did every day, catch big fish like sharks from the sea and transport them in the bed of a truck, like it was no big deal at all. They did this in order to make a living, while I was the passing tourist taking photos. This is one of the reasons I love Morocco. You can visit the treasures in palaces and go shopping in the touristy souks — and you should — yet there’s still plenty of everyday life and culture to be experienced in other areas as well.

 

Interested in learning more about Tanveer’s journey?  Read more about it on AFAR.com the USTOA blog and check out Alexander+Roberts’ Morocco…From Sea to Sahara

Tanveer is a travel, hotel, and lifestyle photographer who has explored more than 50 countries. Some trips have led him to photograph luxury hotels on the Amalfi Coast or the Riviera Maya, while others have taken him on long treks in the Bhutanese Himalayas or in search of lemurs in Madagascar. His wife, Kelly, a travel writer, often joins him on these adventures.


By AFAR Ambassador Tanveer Badal 

 

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This October, I had a chance to travel to Morocco with luxury tour operators Alexander+Roberts as an ambassador of AFAR magazine. This was my second visit to a country I’d already fallen in love with during a trip in 2014. One of the reasons I was particularly excited to return was to get a chance to further explore the ancient labyrinth of the Fez medina, the oldest walled-in part of Fez, Morocco that was built somewhere between 789 and 808 AD as the capital of the Idrisid dynasty. The last time I was here, I spent a week getting lost in the medina—sometimes deliberately, sometimes not—but I felt I’d only scratched the surface of the 9000+ alleyways, narrow streets, and lanes. As a traveler, I don’t know if it’s ever possible to really get to know the medina, but I had to come back and explore. The walled city is a UNESCO site and is considered the world’s largest car-free urban area. If you’ve ever walked the lively yet ancient streets of Varanasi, India or Venice, Italy, the Fez medina is a similar experience.

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As a photographer, entering the medina is love at first sight. There’s just so much action happening all at once. I pushed my back against the wall to let a donkey carrying hundreds of gallons of water bottles pass me with inches to spare; peeked into an open door to watch sparks fly from a blacksmith’s workshop; took in the aroma of lamb and prunes cooking in a tagine pot right there on the street. There’s no point in trying to remember the twist and turns you take as you walk the streets; you can get confused in minutes. The best thing to do is to hire a local guide to lead you through the maze. (After all, I wanted to get blissfully lost, but still have a way to get back easily).

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Alexander+Roberts had arranged for a local guide to show me locations that went beyond the guide books. My guide, Mohammed, is one of these residents of the Fez medina. He seemed to know everyone we passed. He took me away from the crowded souks filled with tourists and plastic souvenirs to a much quieter part of the medina. At one point, as I was composing a photograph in a teeny alleyway barely large enough for a single person to walk through, I heard the scraping of several sets of sandals against the cobblestone. Suddenly a handful of children wearing hijab and colorful backpacks walked through my shot, smiling and giggling. After passing me, they looked back and waved to see if I would take their photo.

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Unlike the more popular and heavily touristed medina of Marrakesh, I’ve found the Fez medina to be more residential, a place where everyday life happens right in front of you. Since the residents live in such closer quarters, you can literally peek through the doorways and get a glimpse into their life — women cooking, men getting haircuts, children kicking around a soccer ball. In fact, more than 150,000 people choose to live here. One of the reasons I love exploring the medina is that it’s as far away from my everyday life in Los Angeles that I can imagine. And yet, everything just feels totally natural.

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Mohammed took me to Quranic madrasas (Islamic schools), pointed out the remains of an ancient arch, and the view of a mosque slicing through a tiny crack between alleyways. “Everyone in Fez knows Mohammed. If you’re missing your wallet, in five minutes, Mohammed will have your wallet back,” another guide from Alexander+Roberts, who had connected me to Mohammed, told me.

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After my photo walk with Mohammed, we shook hands and said our goodbyes. “Next time you’re in Fez, you ask for Abdullah,” he said. “Who’s Abdullah?” I asked. “Me!” he said. “I thought your name was Mohammed?” I asked, confused. “Oh no, that’s just easier for tourists.” I shook hands with Mohammed and promised that we’d meet again, “Inshallah!”

Interested in learning more about Tanveer’s journey?  Read more about it on AFAR.com and check out Alexander+Roberts’ Morocco…From Sea to Sahara

Tanveer is a travel, hotel, and lifestyle photographer who has explored more than 50 countries. Some trips have led him to photograph luxury hotels on the Amalfi Coast or the Riviera Maya, while others have taken him on long treks in the Bhutanese Himalayas or in search of lemurs in Madagascar. His wife, Kelly, a travel writer, often joins him on these adventures.


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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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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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.

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Capela dos Ossos

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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?  Read more about it on AFAR.com the USTOA blog and 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!

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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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.