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.

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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.


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 Ann Shields, AFAR Ambassador

 

Every guidebook description of Skagway, Alaska—no matter how brief—mentions its Fourth of July celebration. Every single one. How can one day be that print-worthy? Well, I’m here to count the ways:

  • Skagway’s Fourth of July celebration starts on the Third of July. It’s that good. The campgrounds and RV parks are filling up with attendees and parade participants have arrived and are milling around town, looking for action. A bagpipe band (Ensemble? Corps?) holds a practice session at the intersection of Broadway and 2nd Street. They’re casual, wearing sweatshirts and jeans, but the pipes sound strong and echo off the mountains that hug the town. Dogs and toddlers run around, confused and excited by the noise and people.
  • Because of the long hours of summer sunlight up here, the fireworks don’t start up until almost midnight. Shot off from a boat, they scream into the sky between the walls of the fjord, spectacular, reflected in the water. Again, the booming bounces between the rock faces of this box canyon, making it echo as long as the colored light falls from the sky. It goes on for a ridiculously long half-hour, relentless, no Grucci Brothers orchestration of highs and lows, just fun, over-the-top, pretty explosions. Afterwards, everyone wanders back into town from the water’s edge, pulling sleepy kids in wagons.
  • When morning comes, the bagpipes have begun warming up and people drift outside. The cross streets are blocked off. Three cruise ships arrived early and the brilliant white Holland America Line ship seem to be watching over the proceedings from its dock at the end of Broadway, massive and jarringly modern in this townscape of historic buildings.
  • The parade starts with floats from local businesses—decorated work trucks and tractors piled with employees and their families throwing candy to the spectators. Sled dogs, harnessed to a crepe-paper-festooned ATV, yap and strain and pull it up the street, clearly bummed out when they have to slow down for the stupid slow float ahead of them. A couple, dressed in vintage wedding finery, ride a three-wheeled bike back and forth along the street with a Just Married sign on the back.
  • A regiment of Mounties, in full Dudley Do-Right red woolen jackets and black jodhpurs, have come across the pass from Canada to march on our holiday, our smiling neighbors.

 

A regiment of Mounties in Skagway

 

  • A huge papier-mâché head of Teddy Roosevelt looms down the street, leading several National Parks Service floats, homemade extravaganzas honoring the 100th anniversary of the national parks. Behind Teddy, female park rangers, each costumed and wearing beauty-pageant sashes bearing the names of national park, laugh and throw candy and wave. Ms. Statue of Liberty tries to read aloud the act of Congress that created the parks but she can’t stop laughing.

 

National Park Rangers in Skagway

 

  • The parade goes around twice.
  • A post-parade schedule is circulated. It includes band performances, foot races, tug-of-wars (tugs of war?), arm-wrestling, eating contests, more. A basketball hoop is set up on Broadway and one-on-one contests and free throw competitions go on the rest of the day.
  • An epic egg toss begins: Close to a hundred participants line up across Broadway from their partners, the parallel lines of players extend seven blocks. The eggs are lobbed across the street and caught, or not. The losers step back, some with actual egg on their face; more and more missiles are thrown and the winners continue to close up positions until their ranks only span one block. The crowd is noisy, taunting, cheering, laughing. The length of Broadway is splattered with broken eggs. Finally a young couple, with impressive lobs and heroic lunging catches, win.

 

Epic Egg Toss in Skagway

 

  • Up on the commentator’s platform, arm-wrestling begins. The kids’ divisions go first with contestants standing on folding chairs to reach the high table. The two final young competitors in the Girls Under-12 division are so well matched that their grimaces and moans continue for long minutes, a standoff.  The commentator laughs, then cheers, then is at a loss for words. The girls strain on. No one in the rapt crowd is thinking about the strong men who’ll compete next because these two girls are determined and impressive superheroes.
  • In the foot races, the boys and girls run with a grace and lightness, even when they’re trying their hardest, that makes even the fastest adult look thick and plodding.  Poor adults.
  • Cheating is apparently condoned in Skagway tug-of-war. Grown-ups and teenagers regularly step in to pull and even up the teams during the little kids’ contests.  It is noisy and fun and good-natured and inclusive.

 

Tug-of-war in Skagway

 

In addition to organized events, there are:

  • Dogs in tiny red, white and blue top hats.
  • Toddlers twirling and dancing to the drums and bagpipes.
  • Old people who set up their own chairs along the parade route holding court for the rest of the day.
  • The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, still in their magnificent uniforms, holding hands with their own kids and laughing.
  • Off-duty pipers in kilts, drinking beer at the bar of the Red Onion Saloon.

Broadway is crowded well into the evening, when the cruise passengers wander back to their ships, sidestepping broken eggshells. Everyone, townspeople and visitors, seems tired and really, really happy.

In summary, the guidebooks are right. If you can make it up to this tiny port town at the top of Alaska’s Inside Passage for the Fourth of July, you should definitely come to Skagway. I kind of cheated: My trip was part of a sponsored exploration of the Yukon-Alaska land programs offered by the Holland America Line, but I’d do it again on my own dime.  This day is the feel-good stuff of small-town mythology.

 

Interested in learning more about Ann’s journey with Holland America Line? Visit http://www.afar.com/travelers/ann-shields/wanderlists/alaska-and-yukon-territory-highlights.

In these quiet days leading up to her Powerball win, Ann Shields works as a freelance travel editor and writer. A fan of literature, museums, history, high-minded cinema, and bad television, Ann lives in New York with her husband and two teenaged children. She likes road trips, local bars, getting lost, and laughing, so Ireland ranks high on her list of favorite places.


By Ann Shields, AFAR Ambassador

 

At the risk of sounding like a flake, it seemed that as I approached Denali, I could feel its power grow.

Denali Roadway

I first noticed things were changing when we crossed a clear geographic divide between where we had been and where we were headed. Specifically, past the summit of Broad Pass on the journey between Anchorage and Denali, rivers begin to flow north, not to the Pacific, but to the Bering Sea, the Arctic Sea. (The Arctic! In my mind, my New York apartment swept exponentially further away.) During the last Ice Age, the region around this pass was buried under three miles of ice. The single thing tall enough to be seen above the thick rigid blanket was Denali. We can’t see Denali from here, but now we know it’s there.

The observatory train I was riding the McKinley Explorer, picks up the course of the Nenana River at the base of Panorama Mountain. The schist monolith looms tall above the rest of the incredibly high mountains and the train tracks pass by too closely to see it by itself, to truly measure its height or to photograph it to prove to others how tall it truly is. This mountain, unlike it green-mantled neighbors, rises in shades of grey, like a graphite-pencil drawing of a mountain against a backdrop of lively green, like the deepest chord on a pipe organ made manifest. Even its flanks are divided by alluvial piles of grey avalanched rock—the other mountains have waving ferns and buoyant moss and high grass tucked in their pleated skirts. The young train guide says: This mountain is tall, yes? We all nod, eyes on its immensity looming above the windowed dome of the train. He says: If you stack three of this mountain, one on top the other, that’s how tall Denali is.

In the dinner-theater production at the McKinley Chalet Resort, the lovely Holland America Line property directly across the Nenana River from the national park, the actors perform the story of the first ascent of Denali by two local characters. The backdrop hung behind the delightful cornball antics of the performers is painted with a deliberately amateurish abstraction of the mountain, a strangely mesmerizing canvas of ice blue, shimmery white, angles and ridges with orange-pink sunset tones.  The cast members ham it up and laugh, sing and tell jokes, cajole and engage the audience, but that unblinking backdrop tells the story that they can’t. Outside those faux-rustic walls, there is a mountain.

Only 30% of visitors to the park actually get to see Denali—the mountain is more often than not obscured by the clouds that snag on its peaks and gather around it. Rain was forecast for my first day in the park so I brace myself for the possibility of not seeing the mountain.

Denali Bus

The admirably democratic tradition of the National Park Service invites everyone to enjoy Denali National Park and Preserve but here everyone is limited to just one way in: the Park Road, a 92-mile-long road that runs west from the entrance on the east side of the park, roughly paralleling the Alaska Range. At the park gate, visitors on my tour, the Tundra Wilderness Tour, rich and poor, old and young climb onto tan-colored converted school buses to be driven as far as Mile 62, the Stony Hill Overlook. The narrow corridor of the vast six-million-acre park visible from the road is thrilling, glorious, and diverse, but the thought of all those many mountainsides and valleys and glaciers and wild animals beyond its reach is distracting. During the course of a seven-hour round-trip, my busload encountered antelope, Arctic ground squirrels, moose, Dall sheep, and the big-ticket item: a blond grizzly bear asleep on a hillside who woke, walked a bit and then stretched out to sleep some more.

Denali Antlers

Along the way we also saw braided rivers, glacial valleys, several mountain ranges, and the geologic big-ticket item, Denali. Just nine miles into the park, the bus climbed a rise and the driver said: There it is. Unlike the purple and green mountains around it, Denali is snow white. Its implausible white expanse is easy to mistake for a bunch of cumulous clouds clustered above the smaller mountains, until your eye notices the sharp lines and angles in that white mass, angles that make it unlike any cloud you’ve ever seen. Then you realize that those many clouds are in fact just one 20,000-foot mountain, so much taller and more magnificent than expected and you catch your breath. Or I did, anyway.  And maybe you weep a little. And proceed to take pictures and stare intently at the mountain, to capture its greatness and to remember the thrill of standing before it. And to feel grateful to be among the 30% of visitors who get to see it.

Denali Mountain

When the bus proceeded down the road, the mountain was obscured again by closer hills and by roadside spruce forests. At the next rise where we could possibly see it again, its peaks had been swathed by lavender-grey. The clouds remained for the rest of the day, but edge of the north peak, a classic pyramid-shaped mountaintop, would occasionally cut through the cloud to assert its presence. I found myself distracted by those clouds, watching and waiting for the knife-edge of the peak to appear.  And when, at the end of the day, the bus passed beyond any possible sightline of Denali, around the far side of the mountains that border the park, I was sad. I do believe I was leaving a sacred place.

When people talk about having some primal response or epiphany by visiting Bali or Rome or a safari camp, I listen and nod and wonder if maybe they’re still a bit giddy from jet lag.  More than a week has passed since I returned to the city (my trip had been a sponsored exploration of the Alaska-Yukon land programs offered by the Holland America Line, so I had a lot of experiences to process). It’s been nearly two weeks since I was near Denali, but I do still feel altered, like I came near a great force, a powerful presence.  I’ll admit it would sound flakey to the pre-Alaska me. But now I’m a different me. I’m already plotting my return to the mountain.

 

Interested in learning more about Ann’s journey with Holland America Line? Visit http://www.afar.com/travelers/ann-shields/wanderlists/alaska-and-yukon-territory-highlights.

In these quiet days leading up to her Powerball win, Ann Shields works as a freelance travel editor and writer. A fan of literature, museums, history, high-minded cinema, and bad television, Ann lives in New York with her husband and two teenaged children. She likes road trips, local bars, getting lost, and laughing, so Ireland ranks high on her list of favorite places.