By John Newton, AFAR Ambassador

 

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Travelers with Quark Expeditions photographing belugas in Cunningham Inlet on Somerset Island

Every year, thousands of travelers head to Africa in the hope of seeing the famous “Big Five” animals—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo—during a stay at one of the continent’s safari camps. Far fewer, only a couple of hundred each summer, travel to Somerset Island, with the goal of spotting the wildlife there. Few places in the world are more remote than Somerset Island, located in Canada’s newest province, Nunavut, carved out from the Northwest Territories in 1999. When I was offered the opportunity to travel there and stay at the Artic Watch Wilderness Lodge on a trip with Quark Expeditions, I knew it was one I couldn’t pass up.

My last trip to the far north of Canada was in 2016, to northern Manitoba, and while I was there I picked up a copy of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in the flora, fauna, and people who live at the edge of the world. Ever since finishing it, I was determined to see the Arctic—and with Lopez’s appreciation for how even the most apparently desolate landscapes are teeming with life, if you learn how to look with a different perspective. Now I would have a chance to travel 500 miles beyond the Arctic Circle, far past the end of the tree line and where the midnight sun doesn’t set from the end of May until the middle of August.

Coming up with a Big Five for Somerset Island is a challenge—there are only three animals that are truly big: beluga whales, polar bears, and musk oxen. My safari check list would be rounded out by some smaller species too: arctic foxes, hares, and lemmings.

My journey to the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge required a stop in Yellowknife, where I saw the animals of the Arctic in taxidermy states at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. The following day, our group of 23 travelers flew just over three hours north of Yellowknife, to a landing strip on uninhabited though immense (it measures some 9,500 square miles) Somerset Island.

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Our Arctic safari camp consisted of two rows of guest tents, a main tent where we gathered each morning and evening, and another tent for dining. Every morning we chose from different expeditions, and my focus was on the wildlife. On the first day, I headed out with a group of ten to Polar Bear Point, where our guides were able to spot a tiny white dot on the horizon—a polar bear. Despite the name of the point, it’s not teeming with polar bears. We got within 100 meters or so of the young male polar bear thanks to a quick lesson from our Quebecois guide on how to keep low and approach it as a compact group. Once the bear heard us, he stood up on two legs, sniffed in our direction, rolled on his back, and then wandered away. One down.

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Muskoxen on Somerset Island

If Polar Bear Point is an obvious place to look for polar bears, then Muskox Ridge seems like a logical place to search for muskoxen, one of the iconic animals of the Arctic. Though the beasts are skittish, our group that day was led by Tessum Weber, the son of Richard Weber and Josée Auclair, the owners of the lodge. Having spent his childhood summers on Somerset Island, he brings decades of experience to the challenge of approaching muskoxen, and we got close enough to see one stand up on a small hill, in a Lion King like moment, before it continued on its way.

The belugas were both the easiest animals to spot and the most impressive. Each year some 2,000 gather in Cunningham Inlet once the ice breaks. On our third day at the camp, the sun was shining and temperatures in the low 60s, and the belugas seemed to be enjoying the pleasant weather as much as we were. Hundreds of white dots filled much of Cunningham Inlet, and whether sitting on the shore hearing their chirps or kayaking alongside, the sight was breathtaking.

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Even when they centuries old, arctic willows grow low to the ground.

While much of my focus was on the animals of the island, the flora is fascinating as well. Exploring Somerset Island was like walking through the early chapters of my botany textbook. It is a landscape of mosses and lichens, the most primitive plants, while other species reflect unique adaptations to the Arctic conditions. Arctic willows that were a hundred years old were still only an inch tall, with no need to grow above other plants competing for sunlight.

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Back on my pursuit of the animals on my Arctic checklist, Tessum also took us to two fox dens, where young pups were playing. With the foxes we had to maintain a significant distance and could only watch them through binoculars—a reminder that not every moment needs to be recorded on Instagram. On my last full day on the island, a hare hopped up just a few meters from me before darting off up a hillside. All that remained was the elusive lemming, and despite the guides looking in every lemming hole, I had to leave without seeing one. My exploration of the Arctic isn’t over yet.

 

Interested in learning more about John’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com, the USTOA blog, check out Quark Expeditions Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge 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. In addition to his trip to Nunavut, his 2018 travel plans include Austria, El Salvador, Guanajuato in Mexico, Hungary, Vancouver, and Vietnam.

 


By John Newton, AFAR Ambassador

 

Churchill, Manitoba

In March 2016 I traveled to the north of Canada—Manitoba, and specifically the town of Churchill, on the edges of Hudson Bay. The trip was centered around a dinner at a fort once used by the Hudson Bay Company where the meal would, according to the plan, conclude with the luminous display of the northern lights.

Celestial phenomena don’t follow schedules set by human, and that night the famous lights did not dance across the skies. Still, Manitoba—like the meal itself—was dazzling in other ways. Having seen where the tree line ends and experienced the vast and open spaces of northern Canada and staring across frozen Hudson Bay, I wanted to see more. So when I was offered the opportunity to join Quark Expeditions on a trip to the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge on Somerset Island in Nunavut, I jumped at it. If Churchill felt like the end of the world, I wanted to see what sat some 1,000 miles to the north, beyond the Arctic Circle.

Even just reaching the start of the trip required three flights: From New York to Calgary to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. I had a day to explore Yellowknife, dining on pan-fried trout for lunch at Bullocks’ Bistro and visiting the excellent (and free) Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. That night our group from Quark gathered at our hotel to be fitted out with muck boots and parkas, and then the following morning we departed on the final leg of our journey aboard an ATR, bound for Somerset Island.

Our goal was the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, perhaps more accurately a camp as all the accommodations are in tents, run by Richard Weber, who has made several trips to the North Pole; his wife, Josée Auclair, a fellow polar explorer, and their two sons.

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The enormous island is roughly the size of Vermont, yet it is uninhabited except for the employees and guests of the lodge which operates only in the summer. One plane arrives each week, bringing in a new group of travelers with Quark (ours included 23 people), and then picking up the previous group and returning them to Yellowknife. The flight also carries in all of the camp’s supplies, while flying out its trash.

Simply getting to the lodge from the gravel landing strip was an adventure. We rafted across a small stream and then walked with the camp’s polar bear guard dog, Fury, leading the way. The guest rooms are two rows of tents, heated and with electricity, on a bluff overlooking Cunningham Inlet. Tents where meals are served and another that is sort of a great hall— complete with couches and blankets, board games, and books on Arctic history—round out the camp.

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We didn’t spend much time there, however, at least during the day. At 8 a.m. we would assemble as several of the camp’s guides presented several activities—hiking, kayaking, ATV trips. After breakfast, we’d depart on our excursions. (An aside about the breakfast, and all the meals: I would have been content, and was expecting, freeze-dried eggs and when I bit into the melon they served at breakfast, I expected a hearty, and disappointing, crunch. Instead it was perfectly ripe, while lunches included thermoses of homemade soup, freshly baked rolls, and artisanal dried meats. Every dietary requirement was accommodated. You may be on the edge of the world, but you aren’t roughing it at Arctic Watch).

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I mostly wanted to see the landscape and know what the world looked like at 74° North, some 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The list of things I wanted to see or experience at the lodge was relatively short: the midnight sun, belugas, polar bears, and musk oxen. If I was able to spot an arctic hare or fox, I’d consider those bonuses.

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The midnight sun was, of course, the easiest to check off the list. While I was at the camp in mid-July, the sun came closest to the horizon at 1:16 a.m. but still remained significantly above the sea. Eye masks were provided in each tent, though after a day hiking and a satisfying dinner, I never found it hard to sleep even with the sun shining.

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The belugas were also relatively easy to spot. The ice had begun to break up on the Cunningham Inlet, where some 2,000 or so beluga gather each summer, drawn to the relatively warm waters where the Cunningham River meets the sea. Sitting on the shoreline and hearing their chirps and kayaking among them were experiences that justified the journey alone.

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Getting close to polar bears and musk oxen was more challenging then I understood before the trip, but on the first day our guide taught us how to crouch and move as a compact group towards a polar bear, approaching it from upwind. We were within 100 meters before he stood, took a look at us, rolled on his back like a dog looking for a belly rub, and then wandered off. The musk oxen were more skittish, but an ATV expedition on another day brought us within a few hundred meters of these majestic Arctic animals with their dreadlock-like coats.

On our final day, while I was waiting for the rest of our group before heading out on a kayak trip, a hare suddenly appeared out of nowhere, roughly five meters away. We exchanged looks, before one of the camp’s dog spotted him as well and they both bolted off (the hare won this race). It felt like a fitting conclusion—I’d seen more than I had hoped for and could begin the journey home.

 

Interested in learning more about John’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com, and check out Quark Expeditions Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge 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. In addition to his trip to Nunavut, his 2018 travel plans include Austria, El Salvador, Guanajuato in Mexico, Hungary, Vancouver, and Vietnam.

 


By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

 

As our neighbors to the north celebrate their nation’s sesquicentennial anniversary, there’s no better way to join the festivities than a trip to see Canada’s inspiring landscapes, vibrant cities, native cultures and much more. To honor this historic milestone, the members of USTOA are offering new Canadian itineraries and special savings throughout 2017.

From a thrilling Ice Explorer ride on the 1,000-foot-deep Columbia Icefield to whale watching in New Brunswick, below are a sample of itineraries from USTOA tour operator members in celebration of Canada’s anniversary. Find your dream vacation now.

Go Ahead honors Canada’s 150th anniversary with $250 off any Go Ahead tour through Canada departing in 2017 with promo code CA2017. From a journey on the Rocky Mountaineer railway to exploring the natural wonders of Canada’s epic national parks, Go Ahead Canadian itineraries give clients the chance to choose the best Canadian trip for them. Available from February, 1-March 31, this offer cannot be combined with other offers or group discounts. www.goaheadtours.com

Travelers looking for Canadian adventure can find it on Tauck’s Bugaboos Adventure Featuring Heli-Exploring. Invented in the Canadian Rockies by Arthur Tauck Jr., Heli-Exploring brings guests by helicopter to Bugaboo Lodge, high in the Purcell Mountains in British Columbia to participate in daily helicopter-assisted hiking excursions. Passengers also will discover the town of Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta. Departures are available in July and August 2017 from $5,990 per person based on double occupancy plus airfare. www.tauck.com

Canada's 150th - Tauck

Guests on Travcoa’s Uncharted Canada itinerary can celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary by private air discovering eight Canadian cities across four provinces. Travelers help create their ideal trip with flexible daily options like the search for artic wildlife in Churchill, Manitoba, horseback riding or a thrilling river-rafting adventure in Lake Louise, Alberta, and a journey up the Orford River in British Columbia lead by a First Nations guide. This luxurious 15-day trip is available August 11-25, 2017 from $59,950 per person based on double occupancy. www.tcsworldtravel.com

smarTours’ 11-day Canadian Rockies & Badlands itinerary visits some of Canada’s famed natural wonders including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Canadian Badlands, and Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta. Travelers will celebrate the adventurous side of Canada with a journey aboard the snow coach to explore the Columbia Icefields also in Banff. This Canadian journey begins at $2,399 per person and is available May-September 2017. www.smartours.com

Guests journey 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Quark Expeditions’ Artic Watch Wilderness Lodge expedition. Book before April 30, 2017 and receive a savings of $1,000 on eight-day trips, and $1,500 on 10-day trips for departures from June 2018 to September 2018. With 24 hours of daylight, travelers have abundant time to spot artic wildlife like musk ox, polar bears and beluga whales. Available from June 30, 2017 to August 3, 2018. www.quarkexpeditions.com

Canada's 150th - Quark Expeditions

Adventures by Disney invites active travelers to uncover adventure during its Montana and Alberta, Canada itinerary. This seven-day trip includes canoeing at Moraine Lake, biking along the Bow River, Banff Gondola visit and a Glacier Skywalk excursion. Departures dates from June 26 to August 9, 2017 start at $4,509 for adults and $4,289 for children. www.AdventuresbyDisney.com

Canada's 150th - Adventures by Disney

Discover the Canadian Rockies during Insight Luxury Gold Vacations’ Majesty of the Rockies with Alaskan Cruise. Travelers have a choice of 14 or 21 days of relaxation along Western Canada and Alaska, by road, rail and sea. Guests will cruise through glacial waters and embark on one of the world’s most romantic train journeys on the Rocky Mountaineer. Prices from $4,875 per person, and is available in May 2017 and September 2017. www.luxurygoldvacations.com

In honor of Canada’s milestone, Country Walkers has launched a new guided walking experience, New Brunswick: Bay of Fundy & Campobello Island. Travelers participate in a private whale watch, explore the summer home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and enjoy a walking route beside the village of St. Martins determined by the tides. This new itinerary is available in June, July and September 2017 from $3,298 per person. www.countrywalkers.com

Pleasant Holidays is celebrating with savings on stays at The Westin Bayshore in Vancouver. Guests can visit this diverse metropolis and save up to $100 off a five-night stay, up to $75 off a four-night stay, and up to $50 off a two to three-night stay. To save, travelers can book by March 26, 2017 for travel through July 31, 2017. www.pleasantholidays.com

Travelers can hike, bike, paddle and dine their way through Whistler, British Columbia on Austin Adventures’ six-day British Columbia-Whistler itinerary. Throughout this active trip, guests can participate in their own Biathlon at the site of the 2010 Olympic Games, shooting at Olympic targets, swim at the base of Matier Glacier and more. This western Canadian adventure is available June and September 2017 starting at $2,898 per person. www.austinadventures.com

Guests on Alexander + Roberts’ Canada by Land, Water + Rail: The Pacific to the Rockies itinerary begin their journey in the Pacific port of Prince Rupert before boarding the VIA Rail Canada for a two-day all daylight trip into the Canadian Rockies. Travelers then uncover the wildlife of Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Parks. This nine-day trip is available in July and August 2017 from $4,799 per person. www.alexanderroberts.com

Canada's - Alexander+Roberts

Travelers can discover the natural and historic wonders of Quebec on Collette’s Charming French Canada itinerary. Guests will stay at the luxurious European style hotels Fairmont Chateau Frontenac and Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in the Charlevoix region and tour Montreal by coach. Also included in this French-Canadian adventure is a trip to a local sugar shack to see how maple syrup is made and a ferry ride to a 19th century mill on an island in the St. Lawrence River. Available June-August 2017 from $2,499 per person. www.gocollette.com

Cosmos invites travelers to sit back and enjoy the view on its nine-day Via Rail and the Canadian Rockies trip. Highlights from this scenic itinerary include stops at Lake Louise, the Columbia Icefield, and the Butchart Gardens, which features 55 acres of floral displays. This western Canada tour is available on various dates May-September 2017 starting at $1,986 per person. www.Cosmos.com

Globus is offering travelers a 5% savings on all Canada Vacations until April 25th, 2017* including the 13-day Great Canadian Rail Journey from Toronto to Vancouver. Guests will travel across Canada on the historic railroad stopping to enjoy excursions to Niagara Falls, Maligne Lake, a cruise to Spirit Island and more. This expansive journey through Canada starts at $4,051 per person (land only) and is available various dates in June, July, August and September. *Some restrictions apply, see website for more details. http://www.globusjourneys.com

Canada 150 - Globus

ACIS America together with Visit Canada have created a new line of educational travel options in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary including three- and four-day trips to Toronto and Niagara Falls, Quebec City and Montreal. ACIS America is also offering a free trip for two teachers when a minimum of 20 students sign up, and for every additional ten students, one teacher will receive a free trip. www.acis.com/america

What are you waiting for? Click here and plan your dream vacation now!

 

Editor’s Note: Information was correct at time of writing. All tours/packages subject to availability. Prices may vary from time of writing, based on currency fluctuations.


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.