LandLopers Thu, 26 Nov 2015 11:39:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Flights To London: Which Is Better – British Airways or Virgin Atlantic? Thu, 26 Nov 2015 04:55:13 +0000 Over the last few months I’ve found myself traveling to London a few times, either as my final destination or en route to another country in Europe. On these trips … Read More

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Westminster London UK

Over the last few months I’ve found myself traveling to London a few times, either as my final destination or en route to another country in Europe. On these trips I purposefully selected different airlines and classes of service to see the differences between the airlines and to determine which I think is the best one for traveling to, from or through Great Britain. I expected some differences between British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, but what I never expected to find was the stark divide between the two when it came time to appraise and evaluate the flights to London.

Let’s set the stage

I’m a luxury traveler and as such find myself upgrading whenever I can. That doesn’t always happen though, which is why I routinely find myself flying in a variety of different classes wherever I go. Also, for the purposes of this post you should know that I flew between Washington Dulles International Airport to London Heathrow. For one trip I was booked on Virgin Atlantic and the other trip on British Airways. I had flown Virgin several times in the past, but this was the first time with BA in probably a decade or more. That all being said, these were my observations.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Airline Plane

Business Class

Virgin Atlantic – Virgin whimsically calls their Business class section Upper Class, and the experience starts well before you ever reach your seat. Their lounges are famous for their design, made to order food and fun touches like pool tables and even Jacuzzis. But of course the onboard experience is what we’re all after, and from my experience it’s one of the best out there. Set up in a herringbone pattern, the lay-flat beds and seating areas may be compact, but retain a high level of privacy and comfort. From the service to the food and ultimately the ability to relax, I couldn’t find anything wrong with my flying experience in Upper Class. For overnight flights they also offer sleep suits, an amenity usually only reserved for top-tier First Class products. Upon arrival into London Heathrow, passengers are given fast track through immigration and there’s even an arrivals lounge where you can get a quick shower and a bite to eat before heading out.

British Airways – Flying in the BA Business Class section on a massive A380, maybe my expectations were too high. Because it was a newer plane, I thought that the products onboard would be state of the art, but what I found was seriously lacking. The first thing I noticed was how the Business Class section itself is set up, with seating areas arranged so that you’re facing the passenger next to you. Yes, there are privacy screens but the set up is still awkward and makes it impossible to have it feel like a luxurious experience. I also felt like a number and not a valued guest, BA exhibiting the sad character trait of taking premium passengers for granted rather than offering amazing service. Dinner was ok, but not great and rather than asking, the flight attendant assumed I’d just want an express meal given the late hour of the flight, which was in fact not what I wanted and led to an awkward and annoying meal service. They also forgot to wake me for breakfast, so I didn’t have time to eat before landing. Add to that the fact that two very young children were in the Business Class seats near mine, and the trip was one of the worst Trans-Atlantic Business Class flights I’ve ever experienced.

Economy Class

Virgin Atlantic – It’s tough to compare and contrast Economy Class sections on any airline because so many are so very similar. Cramped seats and bad food are cramped seats and bad food on every airline. But, there were enough differences between VA and BA to warrant at least a little analysis. The one thing I noticed on all of my Virgin Atlantic flights was the attitude of the flight crew themselves. There were happy, pleasant and nice to the passengers, a sad rarity nowadays. It must be thanks to the corporate culture, which speaks volumes and means that the end line passengers receive an experience found on few other airlines. The meals were fine, snacks adequate and whimsical and the small amenity kits a nice surprise in a world where Economy passengers are used to getting little or nothing except a chair to sit on. I also particularly like the Virgin Atlantic entertainment system. It has a large selection and enabled me to avoid doing work for a solid eight hours.

British Airways – I hate to keep picking on them, but their Economy Class experience was amongst the worst I’ve experienced in a very long time. Even though I flew on a 777, my favorite aircraft, the seats weren’t just narrow, they were hard and uncomfortable. I’m used to that though, that’s not uncommon, but once again I was presented with in-flight service that was well below my even modest expectations. Meal service was slow, staggered and confused. The crew ran out of meals, went back to the galley to get more but when they returned they forgot my row. Getting them to come back and actually serve me dinner took far too much effort than it should have. Nothing clicked and for the first time in a long time I wondered whether or not it was the flight attendant’s first day on the job. The entertainment system was pathetically bad with international titles I had never heard of much less had interest in watching. The flight experience was not a positive one, and rather than point to something like a chair or the poor quality of the food, I have to place a lot of blame on the crew. The bad food and lousy chairs would have been forgotten had I received better service. I did not, and that had the effect of greatly accentuating all of the other negative aspects of the flight.

Overall experiences

By now you can probably guess that I much prefer Virgin Atlantic for traveling from the US to or through the UK in any class of service. From the back of the plane to the front, they maintain a level of service and quality that’s frankly hard to find in modern aviation. Plus it was just fun to be onboard, to joke with the flight crew, enjoy a surprise popsicle midflight and catch a quick nap en route to my destination. British Airways is an institution, however, their age, name and size guarantees that more people will fly with them than Virgin. But, if given the choice, I think when booking flights to London you should eschew modern convention, avoid the legacy airline in this instance and instead go for the upstart, for the airline who dares to have a personality and to be different. It’s not often we can enjoy our flying experiences from start to finish, so when given that chance why not take it?

What do you think? What are your experiences with these airlines?

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Grand Canal in Venice, Italy Thu, 26 Nov 2015 04:50:51 +0000 The post Grand Canal in Venice, Italy appeared first on LandLopers.

Venice Italy

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6 Ways To Make Your Next International Trip Better Wed, 25 Nov 2015 04:55:28 +0000 Set yourself up for success By nature I am mildly OCD and a planner at heart. There are actually few things I enjoy doing more than planning a trip, but … Read More

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Cairns Hot Air Balloon Queensland Australia

Set yourself up for success

By nature I am mildly OCD and a planner at heart. There are actually few things I enjoy doing more than planning a trip, but over the years this has gotten out of hand. At one point I was a horrible overplanner, taking away all the spontaneity and fun from my trips. Thankfully, I’ve improved but that doesn’t mean some planning isn’t important. Showing up and winging it may be a romantic notion, but you’ll get so much more out of the travel experience with just a little planning.

The best travel writers out there will tell you that adequate research is crucial to making the most out of any trip, and the same goes for the average traveler as well. It’s a fine line, granted, between research and overplanning but take some time to learn about where you’re going and to uncover a few distinctive experiences you’d like to enjoy. Rather than try to suss out something unusual or quirky, do some online research beforehand to see what you can find. If restaurants are important to you, then try to find a few that you’d love to try out. Don’t come up with experiences for every day of the trip, but at least do some basic research on the place you’re visiting to make the trip you’ve invested so much in that much more enjoyable.

Morning Market in Luang Prabang, Laos

Don’t be obvious

I remember once I was on the metro going home when a family of tourists jumped on board. How did I know they were tourists you ask? They had matching t-shirts. And they literally jumped on board the train instead of walking like normal humans, as if it was a magical carpet ready to miraculously transport them to their next destination. Two stops later the Dad whistled, WHISTLED, and yelled, “Next stop!” They dutifully left to go on their next well-planned experience. What’s wrong with this? Well other than the frightening lack of style, they were walking billboards saying “Please rob me! I’m not local and no doubt I am easy to fool.” They were incredibly obvious and that is what you want to avoid when you travel.

Being an obvious tourist is bad from a safety point of view and in some parts of the world you really need to be careful about that. I also think that it mentally sets you apart, limiting some of the special local experiences you might be able to enjoy. In many parts of the world of course it’s impossible to hide the fact you’re not local, but your demeanor and how you carry yourself is everything. While in Cambodia I sat at a café and watched people walk by. The local touts harassed most people, until a longtime Western resident went by. They recognized her of course and didn’t bother her, but she also carried herself differently. She walked with purpose and even if she didn’t know where she was going, exuded confidence. That’s important when you travel and a smart practice to stay safe.

Figlmüller Wiener Schnitzel Vienna Austria

Where and what to eat

For many of us, food is an integral part of the travel experience and even motivates many to leave home in the first place. There’s nothing better than warm chocolate croissants in Paris, homemade pasta in Italy or even a schnitzel in Austria. These are important parts of the travel experience and shouldn’t be skipped. But they can also be expensive, and the daily food costs for three meals a day plus snacks can be considerable, so it’s important to plan. Breakfast is commonly included with hotel room rates around the world, so make sure that’s the case for your visit. This is the best way to get a ‘free’ breakfast and eat enough to either have a light lunch or skip it altogether. Second, do not eat within 3 blocks of a major tourist attraction. I know those crepes next to the Eiffel Tower look amazing, but you’ll pay half as much for one a few blocks away. The same holds true for restaurants. The food near tourist sites is usually sub-par and overpriced, so skip it unless getting The View is important to you, but even then do it sparingly. Finally, always find the closest supermarket to your hotel. All urban centers have them and they can look unassuming, so ask the front desk staff for directions. Not only is walking through a foreign grocery store a fascinating cultural experience, you can pick up snacks and drinks at a fraction of the cost anywhere else.

French market

Be smart with your money

If you exchange money before leaving home the rates are awful, there’s no arguing with that and there’s no need for it. If you want money in your pockets when you arrive, just go to the ATM at the airport. I have never been to an international airport anywhere in the world where they didn’t have plenty of ATMs. An ATM should always be your first choice for local currency; they provide the best rates possible. The same advice goes for traveler’s checks. You have to pay to get them and to use them, a senseless waste of money. Once again, ATMs are your best friend.

For safety though be sure to use ATMs associated with a bank, rather than a random one with no affiliation.

More than just how you access your money, what you do with it is important as well. Food is the one time when we as tourists tend to overspend. A few easy tips to avoid this include:

  • Never eat at or near tourist sites
  • Ask shop owners or waiters for their favorite places to eat. They’ll always want affordable quality.
  • Pick up snacks and drinks at grocery stores.
  • Book a hotel that includes breakfast.
  • If you rented an apartment or house, plan on cooking at least a few meals at your rental.

Tower of London, UK

Don’t be afraid

The world is dangerous – this is a misconception expressed especially by my fellow countrymen and is oh so wrong. I think some folks have a natural inclination to distrust anything foreign, and every news story about any issue, no matter how trivial, only feeds into that false mythology. With some notable exceptions – war torn areas, North Korea, Baltimore – the world is on the whole a fairly safe place. Does that mean you should travel carefree? No, you always need to take precautions to both protect your money and things, as well as yourself. Basic common sense should help though, and as long as you aren’t overly foolish you should be fine. Regardless, you should never let a false threat (real ones are ok) of danger to stop you from traveling. The fact is that in many cases where we live is more dangerous than the places we want to visit. I’ve traveled all around the world many times but the only time I’ve been pickpocketed was right here in the U.S. So no, the world on the whole is NOT a dangerous place and you should start seeing it as soon as possible.

Glasgow Scotland 2

Talk to everyone

I’m a people watcher. I could sit in the airport for hours just watching folks walk by and be perfectly happy. In watching people, including my fellow tourists, so carefully when I travel I have noticed one thing; very few of them actually talk to anyone else. Whether it’s a family or a couple traveling around, we all tend to stay fixated on our own packs, rarely engaging other travelers or locals. For me, travel is about personal enrichment and growth and to do that I need to talk to people. I’m highly extroverted, so it may be easier for me but even if you’re not, find ways to learn about the people you’re visiting. One of the best ways to do this is to join a tour, either a private one or a free public walk. I nearly always walk alongside the guide, peppering them with questions along the way. “What do you love about your city? Where are your favorite restaurants? Where are you from? What’s your background?” and so on. It’s a friendly interrogation, but a good way to understand how places tick. It’s not just locals I question though, I love chatting with fellow tourists as well. Once on an afternoon boat cruise in Queensland, I was joined by a group of 3 couples, all traveling around Australia. They had all recently retired and were kicking things off with a dream trip around the country. After a few minutes of chatting a gentleman told me that he had watched the movie “The Bucket List” and he said that it changed him. After watching that he decided to go ahead and retire and do the things he really wanted to do while he was still able. It was a wonderful conversation and really drove home the importance of travel in people’s lives and made a significant impression on me. It was a brief, simple moment but one that I know I’ll remember for a very long time.

What are some of your favorite tips for international travel?

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Old Town of Kotor, Montenegro Wed, 25 Nov 2015 04:50:28 +0000 The post Old Town of Kotor, Montenegro appeared first on LandLopers.

Kotor Montenegro

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Game Changer: My Experience With Viking Ocean Cruises Tue, 24 Nov 2015 04:55:27 +0000 I’ve always like cruising. One of the first trips I went on as a young adult was a cruise and since then I’ve been on many, from those 4,000-person mega-ships … Read More

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I’ve always like cruising. One of the first trips I went on as a young adult was a cruise and since then I’ve been on many, from those 4,000-person mega-ships down to small expedition style vessels that shuttled me safely around Antarctica. Since that first trip I’ve experimented with a variety of cruise niches and, overtime, I’ve narrowed in on the types of cruises that I truly enjoy. As I wrote last week, a disastrous experience with Princess Cruises in 2014 was the final straw for those mega-ships, a style I had never particularly liked, and I thought that my days of cruising onboard larger vessels was gone. And they are. But that’s why I was so eager to try out the newest player in the ocean cruise market – Viking Ocean Cruises. We all know Viking from their commercials touting some of the best river cruise experiences in Europe and around the world. And having sailed them, I’d agree with that. But it’s because I had sailed with Viking that I really wanted to try out their ocean ships, to see if the promises held true. Lauding smaller ships (around 900 passengers) without those annoying features like casinos and endless stores along with a design aesthetic that can only be called modern Scandinavian – these were the promises that had me so intrigued. I thought that if they were able to execute everything as well as in those sketches I saw a couple of years ago, then not only would this potentially be the ocean cruise line for me, but I also knew that it would forever change how many of us perceive cruising moving forward.

Viking Ocean cruise ship viking Star

What Makes Viking Ocean Cruises Different

People who have never cruised before tend to have what I think is an unfair perception of what the experience is really like. They see them as floating cities not interested in the travel experience per se and more interested in partying and eating. And you know what, for many cruise lines that isn’t totally inaccurate. Ultimately any cruise is what you make it, but it’s easier to do that on some ships than others. These reasons are ultimately why I decided that the large, 4,000 passenger ships are no longer my thing. I hated being treated like a number, like a walking ATM. I enjoy travel experiences that make me feel special, as if the staff actually cares that I’m onboard and where the destination is the focus. You find this on the very small ships and I shouldn’t have been surprised when I also found this onboard the Viking Star.

The Star is the first of several ocean liners that Viking is building and onboard you won’t find the mainstays of other ocean going vessels. There is no casino, no endless array of ways to spend your money, no gold by the inch, no theme parks whose sole purpose is to separate you from as much as your hard earned money as possible. No, on the Viking Star the experience is one of premium hospitality and respect. Respect that you’re on vacation, that you have selected to sail Viking for the destinations but as well as their service and even better, Viking has no interest in nickel and diming anyone. There are a few ways to spend money onboard, but not many and they aren’t constantly being sold as on so many other cruise lines. No, instead the attitude onboard was as relaxed as I’ve ever experienced, the passengers as happy a group as I’ve found on the high seas and the entire experience fills a void that many of us didn’t even realize was there. Called inclusive pricing by the company, it means that many of the things we have to pay extra for on other cruise lines are included in the base fare like: every stateroom has a balcony, there is an included excursion in every port, all onboard meals (even premium), beer and wine served with meals, Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, access to the full Nordic-themed spa facility, 24-hour room service and so on. That’s a tremendous value and does a lot in creating a more relaxed and hospitable atmosphere. If passengers aren’t constantly being asked to sign for a variety of charges they’re happier, more relaxed and as I said before, they feel more respected as guests onboard the ship.

VIking Ocean Cruises Viking Star Ship

The Ship and Onboard Experiences

Spending more than a week onboard the ship I had the opportunity to chat with many of my fellow passengers, to get their thoughts and opinions on this new ship. Their thoughts were interesting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that for about half of everyone I polled, it was their first ocean cruise. So why were they there? Why would they choose an upper premium cruise line like Viking as their first foray into the world of cruising? The reason was simple; they had sailed on several Viking River Cruises and so enjoyed the experiences they knew that would translate into the new ocean series. And from my own experience, I have to say that they were absolutely right in that expectation.

Décor and ambience shouldn’t mean as much to me as a traveler as it does, but it does help create the mood for any trip. Whether it’s in a hotel lobby or on a cruise ship, the look and feel is important and that’s an area where Viking and I mesh on every level. Last year I sailed on a Christmas sailing along the Danube, and I loved exploring the ship, discovering the quiet alcoves and even the large public areas that were elegant, refined and not ostentatious. Clean lines, muted colors and understated elegance define the Viking River ships and I was thrilled to find that carried over to the Viking Star as well.

Viking Star Cruise Ship

Viking Star Cruise decor

Technically called a “small ship” ocean liner, the Star didn’t feel too small at all; in fact it is a very manageable size and getting around it was easy and made sense. Like their river cousins, the ocean ships have that same level of refined elegance, without ever wasting space. Everything makes sense, from the artwork to the lounge areas. You’ll never see a tassel on these ships, but what you will find are public areas where you actually want to be. While it’s not as big as those massive mega-ships, not once did I feel as if space was at a premium, far from it, in fact there are so many options for guests that it guarantees no one will ever feel that way. From the Explorer’s Lounge at the front of the ship with its library and telescope, to the Wintergarden next to the outdoor area, the ship was designed to facilitate any sort of relaxation guests might want to try.

There is so much to say about the ship itself I think I may have to devote an entire post to it, but one area I want to highlight was my favorite spot onboard the Viking Star – the spa and fitness area. Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first; the fitness area is a great size and has all of the equipment you’d need to stay healthy while sailing. It was also heavily used, which was great for me to see. The modern traveler, no matter age or background, wants to be a healthier traveler and that was proven to me by the near-constant popularity of the fitness area. Walking from the center though into the locker rooms is where the true magic of this section comes to life. The locker room isn’t your standard space and in fact rivals the best spas I’ve been to around the world. Lockers, sauna, plunge pool and a relaxation area make it the perfect spot to decompress and freshen up after a workout or spa experience. It’s that spa experience though that stole the show for me.

Drawing upon Scandinavian traditions and preferences, the spa includes a sauna, steam room, therapeutic pool (imagine a giant Jacuzzi) and even a snow room (with actual snow) where you can recover from the hot steam or sauna experiences. The spa area is relaxing and includes every amenity you could imagine. What’s even better about it is that it’s complimentary for all guests to enjoy. When I sailed the Celebrity Solstice a few years ago, they had something similar but it came at an extra cost. But you don’t find that on Viking, instead you find areas like the spa that add so much value to the trip and which are just included in the overall cost of the cruise.

Ephesus Turkey

Destinations and Excursions

The ship was great, but just as with their river cruises the Viking Ocean Cruises are intensely focused on their itineraries. Ultimately, that’s why we all travel and that’s at the heart of Viking, to experience the world in comfort and ease. That’s especially true with Viking’s passengers. I noticed this last year on the river cruises as well, but most of the passengers I met on the Viking Star were extremely well traveled and had a fierce intellectual curiosity. Not unlike me, most of them have a tremendous wanderlust and have spent their lives feeding it whenever they can. Any of them could have booked a cruise to nowhere if they just wanted some fun in the sun, but that wasn’t the main goal for any of them. No, like me they wanted to see new sights and visits areas of the world foreign to them, and that was wonderful to see.

Most of the Viking ocean itineraries aren’t like anything else available. They feature ports that most cruise lines don’t or can’t offer, due to size of ship more than anything else, as well as experiences in those ports that are more immersive than anything else offered in the industry. Keeping to their philosophy onboard the river cruises, each port includes a complimentary tour for guests who want to take advantage of it. That’s huge; no one else does that and it is a tremendous value add for all passengers. The complimentary excursions aren’t watered down versions either; they’re robust and engaging tours that offer a fantastic introduction to the various ports. There are also excursions that have extra fees, but those fees weren’t excessive and they were interesting enough day trips that I availed myself of many. Viking prides itself on keeping the destination front of mind, and so many of those excursions are immersive opportunities to learn more about the destinations, from private experiences to meeting and sharing with local residents. You don’t find that on any other ocean cruise lines and it makes the overall travel experience so much more robust and interesting than it would be otherwise.

I sailed on their Empires of the Mediterranean itinerary which included stops in: Venice, Pula Croatia, Dubrovnik Croatia, Kotor Montenegro, Santorini Greece, Athens, Kusadasi Turkey and Istanbul. Some of these ports you’ll definitely find on other cruise line sailings, but not all and given the fact that Viking sails the Mediterranean later than anyone else, our ship was the only one in port at each of these stops. Not only that, but the excursions truly were extraordinary. From visiting Bosnia to trekking through the mountains of Montenegro, the excursions I selected, both included and paid, came together to transform the travel experience from something nice to something extraordinary. I travel to experience the world and learn, both of which were greatly enhanced by my Viking experience.

Cabins and Food

At the end of the day though, where we sleep, relax and eat are important aspects of any cruise, and Viking kept that in mind when designing these new ships. The room sizes of course range depending on category, but even at the tier I was booked on I was shocked by the size of the stateroom. It was extremely generous and made relaxing there something that was actually enjoyable. This may sound trivial, but the bathrooms are also large and the base shower has to be the largest standard shower at sea. I’m tall, and being able to get around the cabin, including the bathroom, was a luxury unto itself. As I mentioned before, every stateroom also has a verandah so that you can enjoy a morning coffee outside in privacy, or watch the sunset with your loved one over a glass of sparkling wine. Some category types also include complimentary sodas and snacks or alcoholic beverages in the minibar and are replenished daily as an extra benefit. It may seem like a small thing, but being able to grab a Diet Coke every morning from the privacy of my room was a great luxury to enjoy.

Viking Star Cruise Tea

The food experience is not dissimilar from other cruise ships in that there is a variety of light dining options for all meals, as well as a main restaurant for dinner. There are also two premium restaurants available for dinner bookings and a generous tea service offered every afternoon with sandwiches and desserts. But what is different is that every food experience, from a special dinner at the Italian restaurant, to grabbing a snack or even the delicious tea sandwiches are all included. There are no extra fees for any restaurant or anything you’ll eat onboard. Cafes, special stations – it’s all included and that is where Viking sets itself apart. Of course it helps if the food is actually good, and it is. I’m a picky eater and found great options throughout the day from the room service breakfast, to that fantastic Italian restaurant I mentioned. One area where frequent cruisers will note a big different is what Viking calls the World Café. On a conventional cruise ship, I’d probably call this a buffet, which it sort of is but not really. In a first at sea, almost everything on this “buffet” is made fresh and the entrées are almost entirely made to order à la minute. All that means is that they have several entrée options that instead of being prepared in giant vats and left to dry out under a heat lamp, are made as the guests request them, with a wait usually under a minute. No one else does this, and the ability to have a quick but delicious meal onboard a cruise ship is a luxury unto itself.

Viking Star Cruise

How It All Comes Together

Visiting fun destinations, meeting interesting people with similar interests, not experiencing one line for anything ever, eating delicious food and enjoying the ability to relax without stress – these are some of the reasons why I think Viking Ocean Cruises are unlike anything else on the market. The company doesn’t like to use the word luxury, but this is a luxury travel experience. All of these minute details come together and coalesce into a travel experience that is unexpected and leaves you craving more. From the many dozens of people I spoke with onboard, everyone was thrilled with the cruise. That never happens. It’s impossible to please everyone, and yet that’s exactly what I found. In fact many of the couples I got to know well over that week booked their next Viking cruise while still onboard the Star. Leaving nice comments is one thing, but the true validation that a travel company is doing something right comes down to dollars and cents, and those passengers proved that they agreed with me in thinking that Viking is now the best ocean cruise line in the world. Are there options out there that are higher end? Of course, several in fact. But they don’t combine the resources that a ship carrying 1,000 people can offer with the degree of attention to detail found on Viking. The Viking Star provides the best of the luxury cruising experience at a price point that is attainable with results that are extraordinary.

Viking changed the world of river cruising when they first started sailing through Europe. They turned a down and out industry into one of the hottest new travel trends and now they will do the same for ocean cruising. Before Viking Ocean Cruises you had two options – go on a mega-ship at a reasonable cost and deal with the annoyances or pay an extreme premium for an over-the-top luxury cruise experience. There was no middle ground and now there is. I honestly and truly believe that Viking has created the cruise line for people who hate cruises, or at least who think they do. They have removed everything that is annoying about cruising and instead accentuated all of the many wonderful positives of the experience. They have once again filled a gap and will once again transform an industry in the process. Many will seek to replicate this success, but just as in river cruising, there will ever only be one original innovator.

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Along The Riverbanks of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina Tue, 24 Nov 2015 04:50:16 +0000 The post Along The Riverbanks of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina appeared first on LandLopers.

Mostar Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Istanbul Food Tour – Eating With Walks of Turkey Mon, 23 Nov 2015 04:55:57 +0000 The post Istanbul Food Tour – Eating With Walks of Turkey appeared first on LandLopers.

Istanbul Turkey

I’m a big proponent of a well done walking tour. They usually only last a few hours and if you choose the right one, what you take away from the experience can transform your impression of an entire city. Lately I’ve particularly enjoyed taking food tours, learning about new cultures and their traditions in the best way possible – through what they eat. Food tells us more about new destinations than anything else and not only are these walks informative, they’re a lot of fun too. I had a lot of options when I visited Istanbul on my Viking Ocean cruise, but when I learned that one of my favorite walking tour companies had recently opened an office in Turkey, I knew I had to give them a try. That’s how I found myself joining a Walks of Turkey Istanbul Food Tour.

Istanbul is one of the most intriguing and dynamic cities in the world. Straddling two continents and enjoying a long tradition of welcoming merchants from around the world, the result is a culture that is varied and composed of elements that might surprise you. This is naturally best seen through its food culture, something I knew very little about before meeting my guide on the European side of the city to take a short and scenic ferry ride over to the neighborhood of Kadıköy on the Asian side of the Bosporus.

It was my first time visiting that side of the city, even though it was my second visit to this, the largest city in Europe. Since most of the top tourist sites are across the river, the same holds true for most visitors to the city, a fact that made me even more excited to visit Kadıköy. What I found was a bustling neighborhood completely unlike what I had imagined it to be. Along the waterfront were a few Western staples, like Cold Stone Creamery, but once we walked past those shops and into the market stalls of the neighborhood itself, everything changed.

One reason why I enjoy premium guided tour companies like Walks of Turkey so much is that they do more than just regurgitate boring facts. No, instead they try to bring participants into the local community, which is why my tour started in the same way as it does for many people in the city, with a cup of tea and a freshly made simit. Turkey may be best known for its thick coffee, but on a daily basis Turks drink much more tea than anything else. Everywhere I went I found people either buying or selling these small glasses of black tea, it’s so common an aspect of daily life that I think people must lose track of how much they consume every day. Simit is a great go-to snack or breakfast item, simply a sesame-encrusted ring of dough, you can enjoy it plain or with some cheese or butter for a little more flavor. For me, this classic Ottoman combo was the best way to start my foray into Turkish cuisine.

My guide said that many people in Istanbul feel stressed out throughout the day, thanks to work or family or both. Meal times are their opportunities to slow down, relax, laugh and of course enjoy a lot of great food. Maybe that’s why mezze is so popular; these small plates allow folks the chance to try many different things and to engage more with everyone around them. Walking around the market I tried several of these small plates, as well as other snacks like freshly made yogurt with honey, a sweet pastry roll made with sesame paste instead of cinnamon, and any number of other delicious items. I also discovered a lot of things that surprised me. I learned that Turks are a lot like me in their love of breads, pastries and sweets. Drawing upon their global roots, I was surprised to find as many sweet options as I did that day, especially the somewhat strange tendency to candy anything they can. I’m used to some of these preserved and sweetened fruits, like apricots and figs, but in Istanbul you can find anything candied, including olives and even pumpkins.

Sitting in cafes with my guide, watching people walk by and enjoying the same snacks as everyone else, that was probably the greatest aspect of the tour. I felt like I was a part of the neighborhood, if only for a couple of hours, noshing on the same locally produced delicacies as everyone else around me. Throughout the tour my guide shared with me the history of the city and the reasons why the foods we enjoyed that day were so important in the everyday life of the city. I’m not going to share everything here or even tell you all that we ate, I don’t want to ruin the tour for everyone, but within just a few hours I learned more about Istanbul than I ever could have through a more traditional tour of the city’s famous sites.

Did I enjoy everything I tried? No, not even close – I’m looking at you pickled lettuce juice – but I enjoyed nearly everything and even more importantly, I was surprised by many of the dishes I ate. I consider myself to be somewhat worldly, but most of the foods I was introduced to not only had I never eaten before, I’d never even heard of them. Through the course of this culinary education of course I learned about the country, its traditions, history and everyday life; all of which are worth more to me than even the very best kofte offered in that market.

The sun was beginning to set as our tour ended over a cup of thick and traditionally prepared Turkish coffee at one of the many cafes found around the Kadıköy neighborhood. On the ferry ride back to the European side I had time to reflect on my decision to spend my day not touring a mosque or the city’s famous underground areas. My time in town was very limited, but I went on that Walks of Turkey Istanbul Food Tour for one reason – to learn as much about the heart and soul of the city as I could and I succeeded. Food memories are what we remember most from any travel experience. Taste and smell can bring back memories faster than a word or photo ever will. That’s why I think food tours aren’t just nice, but they’re actually important to do. It’s important to form these permanent memories of a new destination and in the process not just walk away with a full tummy, but with a much deeper and personal understanding of the city than we would get through any other experience.

Where was your favorite food tour?

Visit the Walks of Turkey site to learn more about the Istanbul Food Tour.

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Massive Roman Amphitheater in Pula, Croatia Mon, 23 Nov 2015 04:50:20 +0000 The post Massive Roman Amphitheater in Pula, Croatia appeared first on LandLopers.

Pula Croatia

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My Viking Mediterranean Cruise Experience Through Instagram Fri, 20 Nov 2015 04:55:29 +0000 A look at my Viking Star ocean cruise experience as told through Instagram.

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I like Instagram, a lot. I didn’t always feel that way, but last year I had a social media epiphany and ever since then I’ve been somewhat (very) addicted to this fun and engaging way to not just share photos, but to see the beautiful destinations thousands of others choose to share as well. For me, selecting which photos to share on Instagram has become an important part of my travel experience and I honestly find that when viewed as a group, they do a great job at portraying the real essence of a trip. I just got back from a wonderful Mediterranean cruise with the premium Viking Ocean Cruises, which instantly became a new favorite cruise line. I can’t wait to pen my full review of them, but in the meantime here is a photographic glimpse into what that experience was really like.

Venice Italy

Venice, Italy

The Viking Star runs several different itineraries and routes, but I joined the Empires of the Mediterranean cruise, going from Venice to Istanbul. I had only been to Venice once before, but it was in the winter and the scene I was met with last week couldn’t have been more different. Warm temperatures and a city abuzz with tourists added a level of energy that wasn’t there in the colder winter months.

Rovinj, Croatia

One reason why I selected this particular sailing was because some of the ports of call included were new to me, including Pula in Croatia. While I did tour Pula, I also joined a Viking excursion to visit another nearby city – Rovinj.

Rovinj (or Rovigno in Italian) is an important city along the Istrian Peninsula, an area that is shared by three countries: Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. Although Rovinj is Croatian, the folks who live there will say they’re Istrian first and Croatian second. In fact this region is even officially bilingual – Croatian and Italian.

Tourist season was over, so walking through town was definitely quiet until I reached the harbor, where the entire town seemed to found a table at the waterfront cafes. I decided to join them, ordering an espresso and a pastry spending an hour or so doing nothing more than admiring the scenery in addition to my coffee. I love the Mediterranean for many reasons, but this laid back attitude and easy approach to life is what I enjoy experiencing the most.

Mostar Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

November 9 1993 is when the Old Mostar Bridge was shelled, its remnants crashing into the river below. It was just yet one more tragedy in a war full of them, although the symbolism of destroying one of the most iconic symbols in Bosnia and Herzegovina wasn’t lost on anyone.

The original bridge was built in 1566 and quickly became immortalized in songs, poems and artwork. Rebuilding it was never in question, it was how fast it could be done that everyone was concerned about.

A global coalition through UNESCO came to their aid and in 2004 the new Old Mostar Bridge once again stood high above the Neretva River.

I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina as an excursion on the Viking Star while docked in Dubrovnik and while the bridge was indeed great, so was exploring more of the old town of Mostar which has some spectacular views. I also learned a lot about Bosnia and I can guarantee it won’t be my last time visiting this very interesting country.

Kotor, Montenegro

I didn’t expect the day to end the way that it did. I honestly didn’t have the highest of expectations for Montenegro but after spending a day exploring this small country, I think I’ve fallen in love.

The Viking Star ocean cruise ship docked next to the ancient city of Kotor early in the morning; as classic a Mediterranean town as any out there, but with a twist. This beautiful bay may look like a fjord, but it’s not. It’s actually a submerged river canyon, a byproduct of the many earthquakes that have rocked the region over the centuries.

Kotor has been a town since forever and a prosperous one for much of its history. Classic Venetian design, a gorgeous old town, massive city walls and more cats per capita than I’ve ever seen all make this one of Europe’s best small towns, no doubt there. Montenegro is much more than just Kotor of course and spending the day exploring this mountainous but stunning country was just a wonderful experience. I never know when travel love will strike, but it definitely hit me in Kotor and it hit me hard. Add this city and country to your bucket list immediately if it’s not already on there – trust me on this.

Viking Ocean cruise ship viking Star

At sea

Sea days are an important aspect of any cruise, giving passengers the chance to relax and explore the ship. While I’m definitely not the kind of person who can easily relax, I found myself falling into a gentle rhythm and enjoying every moment of it. From the activities offered, amenities at hand and the overall look and feel of the ship, everything about my time onboard on the Viking Star wasn’t just luxurious, it was comfortable and yes, even relaxing.

santorini greece

Oia, Santorini, Greece

One of the first posts I published on my site was about Santorini, so it was great to reconnect with the island almost seven years after my last visit. These churches are the most recognizable icons of the Cyclades islands, and on Santorini alone there are more than 300 of them. Unlike churches in many other areas though, the majority of these are actually private.

 For centuries whenever a captain returned home following a particularly perilous voyage, he would build a small church as a way to thank God for bringing him back home alive. Each one is dedicated to a different saint and they open their doors to the public once a year on that particular saint’s feast day. The owners prepare a massive meal and welcome anyone passing by to enjoy the feast. The colors are also important – the white walls symbolize purity and the blue domes represent the sky and closeness to heaven. Today of course they mostly just symbolize this truly gorgeous part of the Aegean Sea.

Athens Greece

Athens, Greece

After leaving Santorini, the Viking Star arrived in Athens – a city I’ve not had good experiences with. In fact I usually say it’s one of the few places I actually don’t like – a rarity for me believe it or not. That’s why my visit was important, to experience the city once again and to see if my opinion has changed.

I’m a history nerd so I joined a tour examining not only Athens’ ancient past, but its modern history as well. I was on edge though. It’s not my favorite place and so I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be there, but by midday I noticed that I had relaxed. From the mighty Acropolis to tiny streets festooned with flowers to the kind people I met – it wasn’t a bad day. Has my opinion changed? Eh, I don’t know but I do know I left the city in a much better mood than I did seven years ago when I first visited. I firmly believe in giving places we don’t like second chances, and I’m thrilled Athens and I were able to have that long awaited second date.

Ephesus Turkey

Ephesus, Turkey

I didn’t really expect Ephesus to have changed that much in the few years since I last visited – Roman ruins tend to stay in ruin. But as a history and antiquities nerd, I was excited to once again visit what was at one time one one of the most important cities in the world. At the center of any visit to this remarkable city is of course the site featured here, the Library of Celsus.

At one point it was the third largest library in the world, and was a center of learning and debate that attracted some of the sharpest minds for centuries. More than that, it shows how very important this once lost city was in our early history. At its peak, hundreds of thousands of people called this bustling seaport home. One of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World – the Temple of Artemis – was located here and St Paul even visited to preach the gospel. It amazes me then to think how it could ever have been lost in the first place, but it was and luckily for us that remarkable history is being recovered.

 Only about 25% of the ancient site has been uncovered, making me wonder what other treasures are hidden below the hills surrounding it. Ancient sites are exciting to me not because of the ruins though, but for the opportunity to step back in time and to better understand the ancients in the best way possible – by walking in their footsteps.

Istanbul, Turkey

I decided to do something a little different in Istanbul and joined a walking tour highlighting the food of the city. My Walks of Turkey guide met me at the ship, and we hopped on a ferry to cross the water over to the Asian side of the city.

 As you may know, Istanbul straddles two continents, Asia and Europe, separated by the Bosphorus Strait. The food tour itself was amazing and I found myself trying dishes I had never even heard of before. But that’s not the story that Istanbul begs to tell, at least not initially. No, instead this city very much is a product of the water which has brought people to this important part of the world for millennia.

14 million people call this city home today, but it seems as if Istanbul has always been an important city. Thanks to that sea connection as well as its position on the Silk Road, traders from around the world have arrived here not only to sell their wares, but also to leave a part of their own cultures behind. The result is an amazingly dynamic culture where flavors from China, India and Africa all commingle in harmony.

As I walked down to the ferry port I stopped along the promenade and noticed this fabulously colorful sunset. Looking out across the water at the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace I was struck not for the first time just how gorgeous this city is. There’s a certain mystique to Istanbul, an otherness that has endeared people to it for centuries, but at the same time it’s also approachable and at times even familiar. I don’t know of any place that manages to balance all of these qualities so well, and it made that ferry ride back through the sunset so very special.


I hope you agree with me that together as a collection, these Instagram photos and short entries do a good job at sharing not just brief moments in time, but what the overall experience itself was like. People at times put down social media, and that’s sometimes deserved, but I love it for its ability to connect us all and to give us the opportunity to tell stories in ways completely new and different.

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A Small Collection of Brief Travel Rants Thu, 19 Nov 2015 04:55:18 +0000 Some of the aspects of travel that have me feel ranty lately.

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Eiffel Tower Paris

Maybe it’s because I’m sitting on a plane, sandwiched into a seat that was clearly designed for hobbits and not a person over the 6-foot mark that I may be a little cranky. Sure, that’s part of it, but it’s not the whole of it. I’m cranky because of a few things I’ve noticed while traveling recently and so I thought I’d blow off a little intellectual steam about them here today.

Travel and terrorism

Few things have made me as angry as learning about the tragedy in Paris last week. The loss of life and the injuries are shockingly awful, but so is the effect that terrorism has. Most of my travel friends very quickly started posting on social media how important it was to visit Paris NOW to not just show solidarity but to prove to the terrorists that they have not won. I agree, whole-heartedly, but the plain fact is that most people do not. Most people are intimidated by those attacks, they are fearful, they will change their plans and that all pisses me off. Who is it for some punk lunatics to do this to us all? I have no answers, I have no remedies and I’m not going to offer the same trite advice as everyone else is doing, even if I do agree. But this is a rant, so you really shouldn’t have expected any solutions in the first place.

What has happened to flying?

Was it ever good? Was there really some sort of mythological golden era when Don Draper wore his fedora onboard, was met with a chair that looked like a loveseat all while smoking his way across the country? I’m not sure if it was ever really great, but one thing is for certain it’s not great now, nor has it been for quite a while. Rather than bash airlines, like everyone does, I don’t think it’s entirely their fault. Sure, some are better than others and they DO carry some of the blame, but first and foremost I have to attribute a least a portion of the blame to my fellow travelers. Far too many seem to lose all self-awareness when they board a flight, turning into some of the worst people I’ve ever seen. I don’t think they’re ordinarily horrible, but in the confines of that small metal tube some switch is activated, and the worst comes out. It’s not that they’re mean, it’s that they haze zero consideration for the hundreds of other people surrounding them. I’m currently sitting next to a gentlemen who has what appears to be a 19th century steamer trunk wedged under the seat in front of him, forcing him to share my tiny allotment of foot space. The other person across the row to me thought that he could magically leave his seat without disturbing his full meal tray in front of him. He was incorrect in that assessment, as the torrent of red wine everywhere around us proved. Then there’s the lady doing yoga in the space next to the lav. Who are these people? They must otherwise be fully functioning adults; they somehow bought a plane ticket, got themselves dressed this morning and made it to the airport. They can handle themselves in real life, so why not on board a plane?

There’s a lot to blame the passengers for, but there’s also a lot to blame the airlines for as well. They’ve turned us into the monsters we’ve become. In the attempts to avoid paying bag fees, oversized valises are being wheeled onboard in numbers that seem completely out of proportion with reality. They’ve made the seats smaller, less comfortable with fewer amenities. The only way to have even a modicum of space with peace and quiet is to buy a business class ticket, and not even that guarantees anything. Flying British Airways recently, I was upgraded and shocked by what they consider to be one of their best business class products. The seats were squashed into the cabin to maximize space, but not privacy. Business class is the new economy, so much so that I see more and more families up there, avoiding whom is in all honesty a big reason why many book business class in the first place. It’s despicable, and BA should be ashamed. But they’re of course not alone. So many airlines are degrading their inflight experiences that when we do find ones we like, we gush and fawn over them. I know I have.

Viking Star Cruise Ship

The best way to travel is…

There is no shortage of annoying, pompous travel writers and bloggers and most of them espouse their philosophies on what the real way to travel is. The problem is, it varies and is reflective only of what they enjoy doing. It could mean backpacking, staying in hostels, “going local” (whatever that means) or any number of travel styles. The truth is, there is absolutely no right or wrong way to get out there and see the world. Being told otherwise is just another impediment to travel. People start to feel bad about how they want to travel and so they just don’t do it. Whether it’s a cruise, organized tour, with friends, with family, alone, independent, whatever, I don’t care, as long as you leave home then you are traveling correctly. Any sort of travel, whether it’s two towns over or around the world is an enriching experience; we always learn something whether we like it or not and that, more than perhaps anything else, is what makes travel so amazing. So ignore the “experts” (There’s actually no such thing) and just do whatever makes you happy. Problem solved.

What has you feeling a little ranty lately?

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