Travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com, Kelley Ferro picked Taiwan for her first trip to Asia. The island nation has so much to offer; from the energy of the big city to the serenity of postcard-worthy beaches. Explore Taiwan alongside Ferro as she tours its vibrant landscape, culture, history and food with USTOA member Ritz Tours.

Ready to explore more? Watch the videos below to experience the incredible culture, landscape and food of Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Culture

Tropical Countryside

Taiwan’s Cultural Food

Ritual Ceremony

Taiwan’s Street Markets


by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

VBT guides are always willing to dish out a little encouragement

VBT guides are always willing to dish out a little encouragement

As I slowly crawl up another incline on my bicycle I check my mirror to see a pack of septuagenarians inching closer and closer. In an instant, the ringing of passing bells mutes the sound of my bike chain. One-by-one the group passes me, most of whom have roughly 40 years on me, and I’m the one out of breath! I could justify my sluggish performance on my recent spike in olive oil and truffle consumption on a recent tour of Istria and Split, but no one likes excuses. Inspired by the cycling of others in my group, I take a deep breath, gear-up and spin my legs a little faster. Not long after, I reach the peak feeling satisfied by the sweeping views of the Adriatic Sea and by my ability to keep on pushing. I’m in Croatia, on the island of Brac, on a cycling tour with USTOA tour operator and member, VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations which will take me through the islands of Brac and Hvar in the Croatian region of Dalmatia.

Our cycling group walking into Postira.

Our cycling group walking into Postira.

The tour started in the town of Split, where I was to meet up with the rest of the tour group before we all ferried to the island of Brac. Upon meeting the group and guides I was growing increasingly more excited. I had never been on an “active” tour before, so meeting everyone and hearing their enthusiasm for cycling, and other cycling trips they had taken in the past was very motivational. With all the continued introductions and chatter the ferry trip went by rather quickly and soon we were at our first destination on Brac, the village of Postira. Postira is a quiet village meant for R&R, and the only thing more eye-catching than the boat filled harbor was the dramatic mountain filled landscapes. One of our guides, Lada, walked us into the village and familiarized us with some of the necessary landmarks before leading us to our hotel.

Our guide Lada orienting the group within Postira.

Our guide Lada orienting the group within Postira.

After checking in, the group met for a safety and bike fitting session before a short warm-ride to give us a taste of the island. I’m very glad that there aren’t many cars driving on the island of Brac because the sight of farmers harvesting their wine grapes made focusing on the road extremely difficult. Everyone returned from the warm-up ride, and while the group readied themselves for the welcoming dinner that evening, our two guides worked out any kinks people had with their bicycle configurations. Later, the group strolled along the harbor as the sun light waned in the distance. We were led to a family-run restaurant, with smells of garlic and savory spices wafting out, and were greeted with chilled shots of small-batch brandies. Inside we sat down by candle light, the dining hall buzzed with sounds of laughter and conversation. That was until the hostess brought out the main courses, three types of peka cooked proteins. Peka is a method of cooking popular in Dalmatia in which a protein is stewed in a vessel similar to a Dutch oven (just shallower) with sauce, various spices and vegetables. The dish is covered with a metal lid and then fire embers are placed on top. I selected the octopus peka and when I took my first bite I was amazed by the texture as it was akin to the texture of chicken.

Beef, fish and octopus being prepared peka style.

Beef, fish and octopus being prepared peka style.

I woke up the next morning ready for a day full of cycling. We began at a slow pace through winding pastoral roads that led us by fields of fig and olive trees. We were headed to the town of Pucisca with an arduous climb in our way. Just as I thought about motioning for the VBT van to give me a lift, I caught a glimpse of the patchwork white and terracotta buildings of Pucisca. Suddenly, the lactic acid burn in my muscles was an afterthought. Pucisca is a gorgeous seaside village that wraps around the teal Adriatic Sea. Pucisca’s most unique attraction is its stonecutter’s school, where the main material worked on is limestone which the island is famous for. The quality of limestone from Brac Island is actually so good that it was exported to the United States to be used in parts of the White House in Washington, D.C. The stonecutting school looked exactly like the images I had conjured up in my head: huge chunks of stone everywhere, piles of rock shavings and T-squares. What was most impressive to me is that the students use all manually powered tools like they would have centuries ago.

Touring the stonecutter’s school in Pucisca.

Touring the stonecutter’s school in Pucisca.

On our last day on Brac, the group’s hard work was rewarded with a trip to the famous Zlatni Rat, or Golden Horn beach in Bol, on the southern coast of Brac. The weather was perfect, as it was sunny but not hot, and despite the water being a little chilly it seemed to remedy everyone’s cycling aches and pains. What makes the beaches on this island unique is that instead of sand, the beach is a mixture of varying sizes of pebbles. I found the best way to enjoy them was to lay down on the smaller ones near the water’s edge and the rocks provided an acupressure release of sorts. This, in combination with the lapping waves, almost lulled me asleep until I heard someone murmur the magic word…cappuccino. After a relaxing light lunch in Bol we all boarded a small chartered ferry for our second stop of the biking tour, the island of Hvar.

The VBT group ferrying from Brac to Hvar.

The VBT group ferrying from Brac to Hvar.

We arrived in Hvar Town (the island’s capital), where our hotel was located, in late afternoon. The cafes lining the harbor were starting to fill up with patrons and the smells of coffee brewing and wine aerating began to fill the air. At sunset everyone met in our hotel’s courtyard so that we could all walk together to an intimate cooking lesson at a nearby chef’s home. Chef Ante Vucetic, our host, was incredible. When we arrived, he invited us into his garden for a small tour—tasting this plant and smelling that fruit along the way. We passed several jars of small-batch, flavored brandy on our way back to the dining area where there were some of those brandies chilled and waiting for us. Our dining table was in view of Ante’s outdoor kitchen and as he explained his cooking philosophy he also explained what he would be preparing for us: a starter of a tomato based stew-like dish called salsa (pronounced shalsha), and a delicious grilled tuna steak rubbed with olive and spices accompanied by some lightly mashed potatoes and buttered green peas. The flavors were nice and simple, but the quality of the ingredients really made these dishes shine. On top of these dishes I use a liberal amount of some of the best salt I have ever had, which Ante had gathered from rocks lining the sea…impeccable flavor. The meal was one of my most memorable highlights and Ante made our evening incredibly special.

The tour of Croatia was coming to an end, but I still had one more day of cycling ahead of me. The main destination for the day was the Stari Grad, a quiet village on the northern side of Hvar. But before that, the planned route would have the group cycling around the town of Brusje. Despite the intense sun, the sea breeze traveling over the island kept everyone cool. The terrain looked a little different on this part of the island, as it resembled arid desert and was less wooded— apparently perfect for growing lavender. As I made my way up the last portion of the hill I spotted the rest of the group on the side of the road interacting with a woman selling lavender products. Some were buying cycling jerseys decorated with lavender and some smelled the different essential oils on display. The group pressed on toward Stari Grad, a tranquil destination that is very small and easy to navigate on foot. I spent my time wandering the cobblestone back alleys and peaking my head into boutiques and artisan shops. I stopped at one of the many small bakeries and had a lunch which consisted of a jam filled pastry and milk, and if I wouldn’t have had to bike back home I can assure you I would have had another round.

VBT members taking in another beautiful view.

VBT members taking in another beautiful view.

That evening everyone met near the Hvar Town harbor for a farewell dinner and as we sat dining on fresh seafood and delicious Croatian wine we listened to the sounds of the peaceful Adriatic. I had been biking for roughly a week straight but I didn’t feel sore at all, I was actually thinking about how I would miss my bicycle, and the daily route reviews with our guides. Being with a group of people all driven to complete a physical challenge was something I missed. The comradery I felt on this trip was incredible and it will be a feeling that I carry with me for some time to come.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.


by Kelley Ferro

I consider myself an “active” person so when I joined up with VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations “active” bike tour in the Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands, I thought it’d be no sweat. But to my surprise, there was a bit of sweat…in the best way possible. We grinded our gears up steady inclines and we flew down cliffs, but all the while, we were gliding by lavender scented hills and the glittering Adriatic. Uphill or downhill, what remained constant was the feeling of being so alive and present each moment in this country.

The View from the top of the hill in Brac!

The View from the top of the hill in Brac!

I have to admit, when I travel, it’s usually go-go-go the entire time. I don’t have a lot of time to actually breathe in and be completely present in the moment as I always have to think about the next stop, shoot, line etc. However, on this particular trip, I traded a car for a bike, and my mind was forced to focus only on the immediate. Pushing those pedals and cresting that hill (or if you are like me, trying to take a photo and bike at the same time) took up pretty much all of my brainpower and in doing so, allowed me to immerse in Croatia in a new day.

The rolling, drop-dead gorgeous rolling hills of Istria provided the perfect terrain for a warm-up ride.  Our energetic guide Marco, led us on natural mountain trails, with a backdrop so stunning, we all had to make frequent stops for photo opportunities. The Istrian topography was ideally suited for the pace of bike travel: gently sloping green hills with bike paths between villages evenly spaced so you can have breakfast in one and lunch in the other. And believe me, you will want to too, as these Istrian villages off world-class food– fragrant truffles, wild meats, the sweetest honeys, rich olive oil and local Istrian wines.

Pre- Truffle Hunting Breakfast at Karlic Truffle

Pre- Truffle Hunting Breakfast at Karlic Truffle

But this sweet first day of biking and eating in Istria, was just the introduction of active adventure. Before we knew it we were onto the next stop and we had touched down in Split: Croatia’s vivacious and historic portside town. From a bustling waterside promenade and well preserved castle, to twisting streets full of busy cafes, restaurants & shops, Split had energy and a dose of sophistication bursting from its historic buildings.

Riva: Split’s bustling waterfront promenade

Riva: Split’s bustling waterfront promenade

Naturally, we were on the search for the best ways to film the city so up we went. Marjan Hill is a park popular for running, concerts, weddings and of course, sweeping views of Split, where the mountains meet the sea. The steps up continued and I found myself wishing I were on a bike to get up to the top faster. But on we charged and we were rewarded with hitting the peak at magic hour, when Split was bathed in rosy, dewy light of the setting sun.

Sunset in Split

Sunset in Split

But there were more mountains to climb, and the island of Brač beckoned. We met our fellow bikers, the rest of the intrepid crew that signed up for our VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations tour, and we set sail via ferry for the first island.

This vividly green island seemed to be built for biking–wide shoulders hugging mountain roads, idyllic small towns and roadside beaches so beautiful I frequently had to screech to a halt. With the charming seaside town of Postira as our biking off point, we crisscrossed Brač, taking in mountain top vistas, and cobbled town streets and just the raw, glorious countryside.

Pučišća from the top

Pučišća from the top

Biking everywhere was exactly what made this trip so special. Each experience was that much more enhanced because our blood was pumping and we were physically working to get ourselves there. It’s true that the harder the climb, the sweeter the view.

For me, no moment epitomized that feeling more than my bike ride up to Škrip, a small, mountain top town on Brač.

Stunning Pučišća

Stunning Pučišća

Škrip was the bonus part of the first day’s ride. We biked a steep but jaw-droppingly picturesque route to and from the charming seaside town of Pučišća. The best part was getting to see Pučišća from above as you rode in — it is stunning from all vantage points. Upon our return, after a wholesome lunch and a very interesting tour of a marble carving school, we had the choice to bike an extra leg, the most challenging part we’d ever encounter on the trip.  The leaders of our group were fit and experienced, and they told us in no uncertain terms that this was going to be tough, but it was completely optional. I chose to bike it.

Lunch & Marble Carving School Tour in Pučišća

Lunch & Marble Carving School Tour in Pučišća

Lunch & Marble Carving School Tour in Pučišća

Something about the fresh air, the Mediterranean sun and the free feeling of focusing solely on pedaling, inspired me to tackle that last leg. It was hot, the air was dry but I was loving the burn as I pushed the road bike up the hill to Škrip. Though I did wonder if this hill would ever end; the farms, the waving locals and the views of distant islands gave me all the energy I needed to continue up. I saw the roadside sign for Škrip and the road magically leveled out. I had made it! With a euphoric feeling of victory, I sped along the ‘piece of cake’ road through a town of no more than three small buildings, ending in a church square with dappled with trees. I parked my bike, knowing the rest of the group would be there shortly and began to explore around as I regained my breath.

Luta waiting for us in Škrip

Luta waiting for us in Škrip

A little, elderly lady jumped up and hobbled towards me. She and I had a few moments of hand-motions and a muddled mix of Croatia, English words, we finally settled on basic Italian were able to communicate. Her name was Luta, and she was waiting here to show the VBT group the homemade wine and olive oil that she produces at her home. I translated her story to the group–she & generations before her have been making wine and olive oil in Škrip for the past 100 years. She nodded, pushing small plastic cups of wine and olive oil into our hands to taste. She made it all by hand with little frills or help, and her face lit up as we told her how delicious they were.

Selfie with Luta

Selfie with Luta

The handful of our group that had decided to push on and crest the hill to Škrip got the chance to meet the wonderful Luta and spend time in her home. Not only was this the best surprise at the end of a hill, but knowing that we had gone the extra mile on bike made this experience even more blissful. Being completely present made me love those few uphill rides the most because nothing beats the feeling of reaching the top.

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

 


by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

Afternoon light in the Istrian countryside

Afternoon light in the Istrian countryside

As I sat inspecting my mosquito bites and mud-soiled shoes near the trailhead, I heard pandemonium from deep inside the dense Croatian forest: a mixture of laughter, amazement, and dog yelps. I knew right then exactly what was going on – a truffle had been found, and by the sound of it, it was a big one. My colleagues and I are in the Croatian region of Istria scavenging for truffles with our guide from the Karlic Estate, and despite the rising welts on my forearms and neck I am close to euphoric. I could equate it to the truffle extravaganza I had at breakfast that morning, but the far more likely reason is my trip in Croatia up to this moment has been full of culinary delights and incredible scenery.

Istria is a place of understated beauty: rolling hills broken up by patches of olive groves and vineyards, peak after peak of picturesque villages, and the occasional glimpse of the sea. My Istrian journey began in one of these villages, Motovun. This medieval village’s history precedes the 1st century with ties to ancient Roman inhabitants. However, in the 14th century Motovun was governed by Venetians who fortified the city with huge stone walls, which are still intact today.  But, as gorgeous as the architecture is, the true highlight for me in Motovun was a private performance of the town’s klapa group. Klapa is a traditional a cappella singing style practiced throughout the Dalmatia region of Croatia, in which songs typically express themes of love, wine, the land, or the sea. The klapa performance I attended took place in Motovun’s Church of St. Stephen where the all-male singing group’s perfectly pitched voices bounced beautifully off of the painted frescoes on the cathedral ceiling.

Klapa Motovun performing in Motovun’s Parish Church of St. Stephen

Klapa Motovun performing in Motovun’s Parish Church of St. Stephen

Klapa Motovun performing in Motovun’s Parish Church of St. Stephen

Klapa Motovun performing in Motovun’s Parish Church of St. Stephen

The following day my colleagues and I set off with our guide from Istria Tourism, Marko. The plan was to arrive at the Karlic Estate to sample some fine truffles and learn a bit about the truffle industry. After absorbing a few facts concerning both white and black truffles our host, Radmilla Karlic, whipped up some delicious recipes that she thought showcased truffles best. The first dish consisted of slices of baguette and a cream cheese-like spread, topped with a slice of gorgeous black truffle. Our second dish was one that Radmilla particularly recommended as she noted how well the flavor of the truffles would be pronounced: scrambled eggs with mild parmesan cheese, and of course, a generous amount of shaved truffles on top. The meal was incredible, and afterward, we were served some strong Turkish coffee while we perused the Karlic gift shop where the mouthwatering products ranged from truffle flavored butter to freshly made pork sausages laced with truffles. Had I known that leaving the shop and going into the woods to hunt for truffles would have led to the aforementioned mosquito fiasco I probably would have stayed put, opting for rounds of crisp white wine and truffle laden snacks!

Sampling brandies at the Karlic Estate

Sampling brandies at the Karlic Estate

Several hundred dollars’ worth of fungus

Several hundred dollars’ worth of fungus

A beautiful cross-section of a black truffle

A beautiful cross-section of a black truffle

The tour of Istria then led west to the seaside town of Novigrad, a small village that appeared to have more fishing nets than people. Arrangements were made for us to join local chef, Marina Gasi, in her restaurant Konoba Marina for a light lunch. Chef Gasi’s restaurant is unique in that she doesn’t have a menu, instead she prefers to cook dishes which inspire her day-to-day. Her inspiration usually hits her while walking through the Novigrad fish market, and what caught her eye on the day of our visit was sole. Chef Gasi prepared the sole sashimi style, laying the cuts atop a bed of purple grained rice that was then lightly seasoned with a very light citrus dressing. She stated that this type of dish is indicative of her cooking style as it really emphasis the freshness of the seafood.

We had all over-indulged, so our guide thought it would be a good idea to do a little mountain biking through the countryside around the village of Groznjan. We readied the bicycles and equipment then began our descent. A tunnel here, an olive grove there—there was so much beauty our guide had trouble keeping track of us as there were so many scenic bluffs from which to photograph. This ride was a good warm up for my legs considering I would be doing much more in the next few days throughout the Dalmatian Islands with VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations. After our ride, Marko thought it would be a good idea to head to nearby Benvenuti Vineyards for a tour and some refreshments. We were greeted by Livio Benvenuti and his son Nikola who were very pleased to have us. We toured the vineyards, the storage cellars, and the tasting room. For me, watching the sun go down out in the Istrian countryside with a chilled Benvenuti white wine was the perfect way to say good bye to this agriculturally rich land.

The following morning we were up early for a short flight and drive that led to the charming coastal city of Split, a city with a healthy symbiosis of tradition and modernism. The main attraction of this city is undoubtedly Diocletian’s Palace built around 300 A.D. Now, when I say palace most will conjure up visions of UNESCO-run tourist sights which are roped off in certain areas and completely void of life once closing time hits, not Diocletian’s Palace. Here the tight labyrinth of stone alleys is crammed with cafes, restaurants, and bars all buzzing well into the early morning. In addition commercial buildings, the palace also contains apartments within its walls and in these 220 buildings there roughly 3,000 residents.

We met with our guide for the day, Dino, who gave us a tour of the palace grounds— something I highly recommend, as there were many aspects of the palace I would have overlooked had Dino not been able to provide the history. The whole palace is truly remarkable but my favorite area had to be the Basement Halls. There are vendors selling goods, and the cavernous basement is unreal. It is a little amazing to think of all the chaos ensuing over your head on those bustling lanes within the palace. After leaving the palace walls we walked down the Riva, a promenade lining part of the Split Harbor where everyone from fisherman in overalls to 20-somethings in stilettos has a few minutes on the catwalk. While an audience of cappuccino sipping café patrons take notes on the latest fashion dos’ and don’ts. We continued walking west past the Riva’s end towards Marjan, a hilly nature reserve with trails, scenic lookouts, and a historic chapel. Seeing Split from a bird’s eye view gave me a better idea of how busy the harbor and smaller surrounding islands were as boats of all sizes seemed to be in a constant ebb and flow between them.

That evening in my hotel room, within the palace walls, I sat listening to the noise below. I heard a handful of languages, a whole lot of laughter, and the occasional clinking of glasses. For me, these sounds are representative of my time spent in Croatia: a country whose identity has been molded by various cultures throughout history. Regardless of where you are in the country, the locals are inviting and eager to show you Croatia through their eyes.

For highlights of Colin Roohan’s tour through Croatia, click here.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.


Watch as travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com, Kelley Ferro explores Australia’s Northern Territory. Touring with USTOA Member Goway Travel gave Kelley access to local guides, unique wildlife and once in a lifetime experiences that make this region one of the most culturally rich in the world. Highlights of the trip include hiking through the vast Kings Canyon, visiting Uluru -Kata Tjuta National Park and sampling the local cuisine throughout.

More on how to tour Australia’s Northern Territory:

Northern Territory: On The Big Sky Life

by Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador 

I told Goway Travel and the Tourism Northern Territory crew that I am as brave as they come; I’m willing to stare two-pronged danger in the face, go toe-to-toe with crocodilian terrors, and dance with thorny mayhem – so long as it’s behind three inches of safety glass. That’s how I ended up at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, shoulder to shoulder with owner Rex Neindorf’s fantastic collection of slithering, slinking Outback wonders. Read the full post here.

Northern Territory: The Nature of Expectation

by Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador 

Expectation has a way of bringing travel into perspective. But when expectation is paired with long-distance travel – in the case of my trip to Australia’s Northern Territory, a 14-hour jaunt book-ended by a pair of 4-hour flights – expectation also can shape the way you think about place and space. Read the full post here.

Northern Territory: A Land Before Time

by Kelley Ferro

Never have I been anywhere that has more “sky.” I know what you are going to say— “every place has the same amount of sky” but trust me, when you are standing in the desert of the Northern Territory, you might rethink that statement. Read the full post here.


by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

It was the morning of my fifth day of an eight-day tour for USTOA tour operator member Ritz Tours and the tour was set to leave Kaohsiung in southeastern Taiwan. I remember getting on the bus with mixed expectations: I was extremely satisfied with what I had seen of the coast line from Taipei to Kaohsiung, but the cynic in me didn’t expect to see much variety in the sights scheduled for Taiwan’s southern and eastern coasts. However, not too far into our drive that day, these notions were squashed with our arrival at the Kenting National Park.

There was a change in both the climate and the topography of the land outside. The highway we were on crept closer to the ocean, and we got our first glimpse of the picture-perfect turquoise waters of southern Taiwan. The dense forested mountains outside the bus transformed into porous, jagged rock leftover from volcanoes long ago. We were now in the tropical region of Taiwan, and the evidence was all around: the swaying palms, the whitewash of the beach, and the horizon melting under the sun in the distance.

Kenting National Forest Recreation Area

Kenting National Park is gorgeous and has a very diverse ecology. Two of the areas I thoroughly enjoyed within the park were the Eluanbi Lighthouse and the Kenting National Forest Recreational Area. The lighthouse was beautiful, but what I really enjoyed were the elevated walking trails which ran alongside the rocky shore. The Forest Recreational Area is a sanctuary for multiple species of birds and butterflies, and the biodiversity of plant life attracts millions. One big contributor to the park’s popularity in recent years is Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s choice to use some of the park’s scenery for a couple scenes in the hit film The Life of Pi.

 

We left Kenting National Park and went north via Highway 11, the splendid stretch of highway which runs along the unspoiled coasts of eastern Taiwan. It’s sparsely populated out east and the abundant beauty really made me feel nostalgic for road trips, camping, or surfing trips on the USA’s west coast. Those interested in geology, or nature in general, will want to stop at Hsiao Yeliu, a coastal park with very unique and mysterious rock formations. Here, thousands of years of wind and salt water have created the earth’s breaching crust to smooth and contort in very odd ways. Walking out on the rocks is encouraged, and doing so will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a Salvador Dali landscape.
The bridge to Sansiantai

Another memorable stop we made not far from Hsiao Yeliu was the Platform of the Three Mortals (Sansiantai), where an arched bridge stretches out onto a small coral island. The three hulking rock masses on the island have links to Chinese mythology, but what I found more enjoyable was the unique bridge and a nearby beach comprised of varying size of round stones. One of the last scheduled stops on our west coast itinerary had to be altered due to typhoon flooding, and unfortunately our options at the famous Taroko Gorge were limited. Nevertheless, we made the most of the opportunity to take a small hike over a suspension bridge and up through a tunnel to visit the Eternal Spring Shine, which was built in dedication to 450 workers who lost their lives creating road tunnels through the mountainous park.

A suspension bridge near the Eternal Spring Shrine

On my last day in Taiwan I got the pleasure of visiting the former gold mining town of Jiufen, located in the extreme northeast. Jiufen Old Street is one of the main attractions, and is one raucous bazaar of a street. On both sides of the narrow lane there are cooks and salesman touting the nourishing properties of their vegetable dumplings or the potency of their green tea. After exiting the mayhem, my group rehabilitated at one of the local teahouses. We were served a light lunch which was followed by a tea ceremony, a tranquil end to my incredible journey.

Sampling green tea in Jiufen

As I was at the airport getting ready to leave I wondered why it had taken me so long to visit Taiwan. I came to the conclusion that it just kept getting pushed back on the list behind other destinations. To be honest though, it’s simply because I didn’t know enough about the island, ignorant to the diversity of attractions and activities. Of course now my opinion has changed drastically. I already want to go back and take part in some secluded hiking, or stay in some of the quaint surfer townships that scream relaxation. I want to dine on stinky tofu and freshly grilled octopus. It may be a small island, but it is a beautiful one that shouldn’t be overlooked.

For highlights of Colin Roohan’s tour through Taiwan, click here.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.


by Kelley Ferro

When thinking of a story to share about my experience with USTOA in Taiwan, my first trip ever to Asia, there’s so much I could say. I could tell you about the overwhelming smell of stinky tofu, (which I did try, on camera…), the flashing lights, sounds and energy of the Shilin Night Markets–my favorite spot in Taipei. Or I could tell you about the first time I bit into a dumpling meticulously crafted by the world renowned Din Tai Fung at Taipei 101. Or maybe I could talk about joining in the groups of men and women practicing Tai Chi at 5am in the grounds of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. There are so many stories to tell because the real, the in-your-face Taiwanese culture bombarded my senses in all the best ways. But the story I that I’m going to tell you is a very simple one. I’m going to tell you about eating lunch with Taiwanese family in the countryside.

Our last day of our Ritz Tours excursion throughout Taiwan was a Sunday. Hours before our flights back home, we were invited to have lunch with nationally known calligrapher and his family at his home about 30 minutes outside of Taipei. We cruised along the highways of the pristine capital city, which I had felt comfortable in since it was so reminiscent of New York City, onto smaller roads through smaller villages and finally bumping onto ruddy, dirt roads twisting and turning around farms and creeks. Our car came to a halt in front of large, angular white house next to a sprawling lotus pond.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

We were here. I had no idea where here was but I didn’t have much time to think before I was being bowed too and welcomed in broken English by our host, San. A stocky man, we followed him into the front room of his house with a low round table and about eight place settings. We were a group of four: my cameraman Justin, our driver, and our guide, Lily. Who else was coming to lunch?

As it turned out, San invited a crowd of family and friends to join us in what was going to be one of the most memorable meals of my life. One by one, we met San’s family: his younger son who spoke English well, his older son who worked at Eva Airlines, his uncle who didn’t say a word, his wife who had been cooking this feast for two days, and his best friend who lived down the street. Smiling and nodding, his wife excitedly told us in Mandarin to sit down and start eating. San raised his glass and welcomed us, and we all toasted with a resounding hymn of “Gan bey,” which I later learned meant bottoms up. And the multi-course, multi-hour meal had begun.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

I can’t even tell you what was in the feast spread before us, but I dove into plate after plate of meats, chicken, seafood rolls, whole fish, and lots of rice, chopsticks first. San told me that his wife was cooking in a traditional style of her ancestors in China–the flavors and spices were very traditional. I don’t think I could ever recreate any of it but, wow, was it delicious.  After, several toasts later, and a lotus pod dessert, San decided that he needed to up the entertainment.

image3b Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

Without saying a word, he walked over to his keyboard and started singing a Taiwanese song–which his friend eagerly joined in. Being serenaded at luncheon feast in the middle of Taiwan’s countryside–I don’t think it could get any more local.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

The long lunch continued with more songs, more toasts and more chatter. As we all grew more comfortable with each other, I was able to communicate with his wife in spite of our limited mutual language. She eagerly showed me photos her daughter, which I deciphered studied fashion in Japan. We walked out and took a tour of their garden and admired their massive floating lotus pond–unlike anything I had ever seen. 

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San said that beer made him an even better calligrapher and he proved it by giving us a tutorial in calligraphy. I got a one-on-one lesson, which I was told was very rare. With just black ink on the tip of a long haired brush, San flicked his wrist effortlessly to create beautiful swoops and slashes of the characters. He was a poet, and he made up several poems on the spot. Calligraphy is part art, part storytelling and watching him create these fans and scrolls was captivating. He had an impressive background–he had studied calligraphy all his life and now had become one of the most preeminent calligraphers in Taiwan. He told his it takes at least 50 years to really hone the craft–I can believe it as my attempts looked like child’s handwriting next to his beautiful characters. He even showed us his pottery studio in garage, where he molded, carved and fired beautiful, and expensive, vases.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

Not only did San and his family open up their home to us, he opened up his life and shared his life story. Being able to be in his home and experience his family dynamic, hear their stories and be part of their Sunday taught me more about Taiwan and it’s people than any pretty view or impressive site ever could. These are the types of moments that really affect your perspective and this unbridled generosity was so humbling. They lined up as we left and waved us off, as we bumped down the road away from them. For a moment in time, we were a part of their family and I’ll carry a little bit of that experience with me forever. Hospitality needs no language.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in TaiwanKelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer forTripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

 

 


by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

Prior to heading to Taiwan I asked several friends of mine, most of which are well-traveled, what they thought of their time spent on this beautiful island and in most cases they all replied with the same thing: they wished they had seen more than just Taipei and its surrounding areas. They marveled at the Taipei 101 building, sampled some world famous dumplings from Din Tai Fung, and soaked up the history on display at Taipei’s finest museums…but that was all. They talked of how they could see the gorgeous coast and the mountainous terrain while flying in, but regretted not getting to see it up close. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do love a good dumpling, but when I got my tour itinerary from USTOA tour operator member Ritz Tours that included phrases like “pristine lakes”, “secluded temples” and “misty mountains”, I was thrilled.

The west coast of Taiwan is scenic and full of lush, green mountains occasionally decorated with reflective rice fields or orchards bearing fruit. We made stops at several impressive religious sights: The Wenwu Temple – filled with devotees lighting incense and worshippers throwing buei (moon blocks) in order to ascertain the gods’ advice, Xuanzang Temple – which houses the remains of the famous Chinese Buddhist monk who’s journeys inspired the novel Journey To The West, and the massive Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery – which serves as the headquarters for the Fo Guang Shan, an international Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monastic order with architecture that is a little extravagant but so beautiful you’ll be in awe for hours.

In stark contrast to the peace and serenity of the temples, the city of Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s second largest) was a bustling hub of activity. We entered the city close to dusk, and after stops at the lovely Lotus Pond, which was surrounded by temples and pagodas, we followed the pulsating path of neon directly to the famous Liuhe Night Market.  Over 100 different food vendors at the Liuhe Night Market make it a great place to try one of Taiwan’s well-known street-eats like the famous (or infamous depending on the diner) stinky tofu that has an aroma sure to stop you midstride. On the less pungent end of the culinary spectrum you can find a plethora of fried meats or vegetables, as well as the ubiquitous pork-belly bao bun and if you’re looking for something sweet the mango-ice dessert is a must.

Touring Taiwan's West Coast

 

As stimulating and exciting as the big, bright cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung are, the true highlight of the first leg of my Taiwanese tour was the tranquil Sun Moon Lake, located southeast of Taichung. As our bus headed deeper and deeper into the forest the temperature dropped, and soon the bus surrounded by a stagnant fog. The driver slowly crept around one final curve of the road and we saw our first glimpse of the lake. It was such a striking scene it prompted several tour members (myself included) to grab their cameras.

Sun Moon Lake Pagoda

We made several stops around the Sun Moon Lake area. The most overwhelming was the towering Tsen Pagoda. We reached the pagoda as a light drizzle started to come down; I entered the base of the pagoda and looked up through the hollow cavity and was mesmerized by two Escher –esque corkscrew staircases which led to the top. To make things even more surreal there was a huge bell that was occasionally struck, causing an echo throughout the entire structure. I made my way toward the top and popped my head out of a window to catch a fleeting glimpse of the mist lifting off of the lake. It was a beautiful sight that will leave an impression on my mind for a long time.

Touring Taiwan's West Coast

When we boarded the bus again, our guide, Lenny, told us about our hotel, the award winning, Fleur de Chine Hotel. Lenny informed us of the natural hot springs, which you could enjoy in the hotel’s spa. Or, if you wanted a little more privacy Lenny told us that the hotel also gives guests the option to fill a smaller tub in their own room with the natural hot spring water. I opted to try both and even though the larger public spa was nice, my tub (which was surrounded by a wall of glass) combined with several cups of locally grown Oolong tea was enough enticement to make me want to lock myself in my room for a week straight. Nonetheless, everyone on the bus looked a little rejuvenated that next morning.

Touring Taiwan's West Coast

I thoroughly enjoyed the start of my tour of Taiwan. Ritz Tours did an incredible job scheduling an itinerary that showed me some of the most intriguing aspects of travel in Taiwan. This was only the west coast portion of the tour and it was off to an incredible start. I had been able to explore both cities and countryside alike, talk with locals to better understand Taiwan’s culture, and eaten my weight in pork belly bao buns…life was good.

For highlights of Colin Roohan’s tour through Taiwan, click here.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.


by Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador 

I told Goway Travel and the Tourism Northern Territory crew that I am as brave as they come; I’m willing to stare two-pronged danger in the face, go toe-to-toe with crocodilian terrors, and dance with thorny mayhem – so long as it’s behind three inches of safety glass. That’s how I ended up at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, shoulder to shoulder with owner Rex Neindorf’s fantastic collection of slithering, slinking Outback wonders. Less a zoo and more an educational outpost, the Reptile Centre is an excellent introduction to the fauna of the Northern Territory, and an opportunity to debunk some of the myths surrounding Australia’s misunderstood animals – though I never did get comfortable enough to give Terry the saltwater crocodile a kiss on the lips. Rex, who has been performing reptile shows in Alice Springs since 1997, even allowed me to tag along on a reptile call-out, where he rescued a western brown snake from a local lady’s living room, and spared here toes a bite from one of the country’s most venomous snakes.

Alice Springs Reptile Centre

Alice Springs Reptile Centre

With the Reptile Centre serving as the perfect primer, we set off into the Outback, the landscape cast in muted tones due to an uncharacteristic rain that lent the scene an air of mystery. We ripped along the Stuart Highway for a few hundred kilometers – if there is a longer, straighter road anyplace on this earth, I have never seen it – glimpsing kangaroos and camels through the rain streaked glass. We arrived at the Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge at Kings Creek Station for a posh Outback dinner capped by Port and marshmallows around the fire, and weighed the pros and cons of staying up all night telling stories by the fire against retiring to our glamping digs in order to get an early start at Watarrka National Park. The compromise included drinking wine by the fire until after midnight, then rising to shine just a little after 5am – a win-win situation all the way around.

Dinner at Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge

Dinner at Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge

The sun decided to join us shortly after 7am the next morning, when we were standing on the rim of the massive Kings Canyon, at the heart of the national park. It’s easy to feel small in a place this big; the canyon walls tower more than 100 meters above the valley floor, concealing a lush forest that’s home to more than 600 species of plants and animals. Our outstanding guide added plenty of color to the experience by regaling us with Outback lore, tales of the local Luritja people, and true-ish stories of the drop bears that may or may not haunt the valley. I didn’t personally come across a drop bear, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real.

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

I did come across a bit of bonafide Outback adventure on a quad bike at Kings Creek Station, setting a new personal speed record while zipping over dusty dunes of falu red. I won’t tell you how fast I went – trust me, it was super fast – but I will tell you that I tore into our Outback campfire cookout with reckless abandon; a lamb shank never has tasted so good. Camp was made in the crook of a giant rock – complete with cave, rife for exploring – and was hosted by a pair of cattlemen from the Station, whom captured our attention with tales of life lived in the wild. I dare anyone to visit this place for more than a few hours and not consider breaking free of the husk of the everyday to live free under the big skies of the Northern Territory.

Northern Territory

Under the big skies of the Northern Territory

For highlights of Flash Parker’s tour through Australia’s Northern Territory, click here.

Flash Parker is an AFAR Ambassador, photographer, travel writer and author from Toronto, Canada. His work has been published by Lonely Planet, Conde Nast, Canadian Living, USA Today, Get Lost Magazine, GQ Magazine, Asian Geographic, Escape Magazine and more. Follow Flash Parker on TwitterFacebookInstagram or on his website.

 


Travel Together Now Header

On September 1, 2014, the United States Tour Operators Association kicks off its first-ever, month long promotion that brings together on one website deep travel deals from the country’s leading providers of independent and escorted group travel. Delivering a versatile, one stop shop for consumers, Travel Together Now! Month showcases special pricing, premium offers, and value-added incentives on peak and off-peak travel itineraries spanning all seven continents.

“Our members’ business patterns tell us that September is when travelers like to book their bucket-list journeys, so we brought all the deals together in September to give them easy access,” said USTOA President and CEO Terry Dale. “It’s the first time USTOA has ever orchestrated such an extensive promotion, and we’re certain travelers will find their perfect trip among the array of offers.”

Throughout the month of September, consumers can visit www.ustoa.com/traveltogether to find more than 50 different travel offers to a myriad of destinations including some of the most sought-after locales in the world.  From complimentary upgrades and bonus air credits, to savings of up to $2,000 per couple, Travel Together Now! offer highlights include:

NOTE: deals can be booked between September 1-30, 2014. All travel details restrictions, and booking instructions can be found at www.ustoa.com/traveltogether

  • Africa: Save $1,000 per couple ($500 for solo travelers) on seven Alexander+Roberts small group safaris to East and Southern Africa including Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe when you pay-in-full at time of booking. Available on scheduled departures through April 2016.
  • Antarctica: Quark Expeditions is offering up to 25% savings on a cabin plus an $800 air credit on holiday voyages including the “Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent” December 5 – December 16, 2014 or December 20 – December 30, 2014, and “Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica: Explorers & Kings” November 14 – December 3, 2014.
  • Asia:  Save $500 per person on International Expeditions’ 16-day Myanmar tour departing October 29 or December 3, 2014.
  • Australia/South Pacific: Receive up to $1000 per couple vacation credit on select 2015 air-inclusive South Pacific vacations with Monograms, a Globus family of brands.
  • Europe: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is offering up to $2,000 per couple saving on 2015 European, all-inclusive luxury boutique river cruises when paid-in-full at time of booking.
  • North America/Caribbean: Free roundtrip air to Cuba on select 2014 and 2015 departure dates on Latour’s (an ISRAMWORLD Company) 9-day “Hello Cuba,” “Shalom Cuba,” and “LGBT Cuba” People to People Exchange programs.
  • South America: Receive free roundtrip air to the Galapagos from NYC or Miami with the booking of Lindblad Expeditions’ 10-day “Galápagos aboard National Geographic Endeavour” and the 16-day “Galápagos aboard National Geographic Endeavour + Peru’s Land of the Inca.” Available for travel through December 31, 2014.

Travel Together Now! Month is a paramount piece of the association’s recently launched campaign, Travel Together introducing a thoughtfully curated collection of experiential videos and blog posts exposing travelers to “live like a local” moments that delve deeply into immersive cultural experiences in featured destinations across the globe.

Travel Together is all about sharing experiences – whether it’s with a travel companion or making a connection with the native people of the location visited,” added Dale. “Our mission is to share with all travelers the rich experiences, local expertise, and insider access that our tour operator members deliver to more than 6.5 million travelers each year.”

Travel Together videos can be found at www.youtube.com/user/ustoanyc, as well as www.ustoa.com/traveltogether. Consumers can follow the adventures on Twitter by using #traveltogether.