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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Top Travel Days of 2019, Hanging with the Monks and Buffalo in Luang Prabang, Laos

Guest Post and Photos by Amy Perry Basseches 

I started this Dream Day in January giving early morning alms to the novice monks, then I headed to the Traditional Ethnology and Arts Centre in Luang Prabang, a local enterprise founded in 2006 to promote the appreciation and transmission of Laos’ ethnic cultural heritage and livelihoods. It was fascinating to grow in my understanding of crafts from over 20 different Lao ethnic groups! 
A picnic at the famous Kuang Si Falls followed, getting damp from the mist. Finally, I was off to Laos Buffalo Dairy: a socially responsible sustainable farm and business whose aim is to improve rural prosperity and the health of the local population. The story behind this place is very unusual -- people in Laos did not milk their water buffalo as was done in other places. So Susie (an Australian corporate executive who moved from Hong Kong) showed local people how, and is now helping the region. “We cooperate with people from villages in and around Luang Prabang by renting their buffalo, which provides the families with a regular income stream from an underutilized resource. We built a facility for milking their buffalo and keeping them well fed, healthy and safe.”  Oh my: the delicious cheeses, ice creams, and cheesecakes!  
Both of my guides in Luang Prabang were former monks. Nick had been a monk for 7 years, starting at age 13, and, while we climbed Mt. Phousi after the Laos Buffalo Dairy, he told me that 70% of Lao boys become novices because it is the way to an education. One can stop being a monk at any time. Nick left to attend university, obtain a business and tourism degree, get married, and have a child. A few generations back, his family were opium farmers, he said. I loved hearing his personal story and talking to him. 
At the end of my Dream Travel Day, I ended up back at the lovely Sofitel. The hotel was originally built as the French Governor's residence in the 1900s, on the outskirts of town. I had an enormous outdoor tub in my patio area which was definitely enjoyed. Contact ActiveTravels if you too would like a Dream Travel Day in Laos. 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/21/20 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, January 20, 2020

Top Travel Days of 2019, Visiting Otavalo, Ecuador

Guest Post and Photos by Amy Perry Basseches 
In mid-February, I had a terrific week in Ecuador with my daughter, Sophie. On my Dream Day, I headed approximately two hours north of Quito to Otavalo, world-famous for its indigenous population, and for the Mercado Artesanal, where locals sell their handicrafts. This is South America’s largest outdoor market: you will find a wide range of weavings, jewelry, clothes, wood and stone carvings, paintings, and more. Although Saturday is the main market day, and the whole town is filled with stalls, there is plenty open at Plaza de Ponchos any day. Also, the grilled plantains from a street vendor were delicious.
After visiting the market, I had lunch at Hacienda Pinsaqui, built in 1790. Lunch is the major meal of the day in Ecuador -- usually soup, a full main plate (meat, vegetables, bread, rice), and dessert. At Pinsaqui, we enjoyed a lovely meal in an historic setting. The Hacienda contains more than three centuries of history. At one point, it was the largest in the area, essentially enslaving 1000 indigenous workers who created products for export to the US. Another time, it sheltered Simón Bolívar who prepared here for the Battle of Ibarra (1823) against the Spanish. 
We also visited the traditional weaving studio of Miguel Andrago. If you are looking for handmade, traditional weaving, go directly to this home and workshop just 10 minutes outside of Otavalo. The Andrago family (four generations working together) is preserving backstrap weaving without the use of electricity or chemicals (all natural dyes), trying to save “this vanishing art.” They do not sell their beautiful items at the Otavalo market, only at their studio.
Please contact ActiveTravels if you want to explore mainland Ecuador on your way to or from the Galapagos, or as a stand-alone trip. Finally, when in Quito, don’t forget to take the Teleferico gondola. The view, from lookout point Cruz Loma, reveals a unique landscape of the city and surrounding area. Options abound: hiking to the summit of the volcano Pichincha, camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing, and even paragliding. Of course, you could just sit with a picnic and take in the vista, including the world’s highest Catholic Church. I loved swinging on the giant swing.

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/20/20 at 06:00 AM
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Friday, January 17, 2020

Top Travel Days of 2019, Waking Up at Machu Picchu

Few sights I’ve seen are as majestic as Machu Picchu. After a 2-hour train ride from Ollantaytambo, you arrive at the town of Aguas Calientes and switch to a bus for a 20-minute drive on a series of switchbacks up to the base of Machu Picchu. Once here, you better have one of the coveted timed tickets to enter these late 15th-century Incan ruins that miraculously the Spaniards never found. Row after row of stone walls lead up the steep hillsides creating a far vaster archaeological wonder than one can imagine on that quintessential photograph from above Machu Picchu.

I was on Day Five on an 8-day trip with the outfitter, Abercrombie & Kent, to Lima, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Cuzco. We arrived at Machu Picchu a little after 2:30 pm, when the crowds were already thinning, to feel the smooth rocks of the temple, see the maze of aqueducts, and find the sun dial that was used to predict summer solstice. The tightly knit stone structures are impressive, but to be honest, pale in comparison to the surrounding landscape, a panorama of jagged peaks that lead to the snow-capped Andes in the distance. This includes Huayna Picchu, the striking peak you see behind every photo of Machu Picchu. We had the opportunity hike this peak the next morning at 7 am, but I chose to hike part of the Inca Trail rising above Machu Picchu to the Sun Gate. Every step you took on the 3-hour round-trip trek was another breathtaking view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. Fantastic!
Abercrombie and Kent really earn their money on this portion of the trip. We have all heard of the overcrowding at Machu Picchu and by the time I arrived back from my hike on the Inca Trail around 10:30 am, there were hundreds of people on the Machu Picchu grounds. But the past day we really saw the site in relative quietude. We arrived mid-afternoon the day prior when the crowds were less (after having a memorable lunch aboard our train), stayed at the base of Machu Picchu at the only hotel on the grounds, the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge (only 31 rooms, booked a year in advance by Abercrombie and Kent), and then received one of the few tickets the following morning to enter the grounds at 6 am, when there were few if any people around. Walking above Machu Picchu as the sun rose and the clouds cleared was an unforgettable experience.

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/17/20 at 06:00 AM
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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Top Travel Days of 2019, The Much-Needed Therapeutic Waters of Temagami

In April, I crashed my car and had to deal with an unexpected, exorbitant tax bill. May brought the death of Lisa’s dad, Ken. Then in early June, we learned that one of our trusted tour operators that we like to use for Africa trips had just went bankrupt. Needless to say, by the time I reached the waters of Lake Temagami in late July, my nerves were shot. All I wanted to do was jump in the water and swim. And for 3 days, that’s primarily what I did. Dove in the heavenly waters of this vast lake and swam free crawl, backstroke, elementary backstroke, underwater, to a small island directly across from us. It was a perfect cleansing of my body in these pristine waters, happily washing away the year’s stress with each stroke. 

I had no idea where we were, a place called Ojibway on an island 20 minutes by boat from the parking lot some 5 to 6 hour drive north of Toronto. Amy had found the place because her daughter, Sophie, was counselor at Keewaydin Songadeewin summer camp in Vermont, sister camp to Keewaydin Temagami located on the same island as Ojibway. There were no campers during our stay, because the Temagami camp is primarily used as a base for long-distance canoe trips for paddlers, upwards of 6 weeks in summer. Ojibway felt like summer camp for adults in one of the most serene settings I’ve visited in Canada. The inviting waters entice you to grab a canoe and paddle to your heart’s content, following the loons. Meals are served family-style on the long tables and the food was surprisingly good. So was the company, many of whom had a long history with this island, including a woman from Mississippi, who told me that her grandfather had found this place in the early 1900s, not wanting to deal with the crowds in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Her family has been returning here for over a century. And who can blame them! 
It's hard to find a more peaceful and stress-free setting, one where your WiFi only works close to the dining area (and very slow at that). You’re free to discard the smart phone and read your stack of books, go for a paddle, have gin and tonics on the deck, and yes, swim. I want to hold on to that image of me diving off the dock at Ojibway to hopefully keep my blood pressure down the rest of the year. At least, until I return to this special spot again. 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/16/20 at 07:00 AM
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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Top Dream Days of 2019, Biking Acadia National Park

I loved getting the chance to show my Laguna Beach buddies Holly and Tim my favorite playground in New England, Acadia National Park, in early July. We did all my top picks from climbing Acadia Mountain to strolling the rugged shoreline from Thunder Hole to Otter Point, but I really savor the serenity of biking the car-free Carriage Path Tails, that glorious 45-mile network John D. Rockefeller created in the first half of the 20th century. We were happy to hear about a free bike shuttle in operation from late June through Columbus Day that runs from the village green to the parking lot at Eagle Lake. We waited less than 10 minutes before being brought over to the lake and biking the circumference, up and down the hard-packed roads always with water and mountains in sight. We biked under one of the many stone bridges to see an often-overlooked gem, Bubble Pond, nestled peacefully between the gently sloping mountains. Then we headed north to bike around Witch Hole Pond and to stop and see the stone steps that form gently flowing Duck Brook. We crossed the bridge here, took a left on the bike trail, and soon caught up with West Street, which led right back to the Acadia Bike Rentals store on Cottage Street. A perfect way to spend the morning. 

We grabbed lunch and then strolled back to Saltair Inn, our lodging for the trip, located within easy walking distance of the restaurants and shops of Bar Harbor, but far away from the crowds. Owners Matt and Kristi are the perfect team. Kristi serves up yummy breakfasts each morning like blueberry pancakes and stuffed french toast, while Matt divulges the insider information on Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park that only a local would know. He designed the bike loop above and told us about a small trail near the restrooms at the Bass Harbor Lighthouse that led down the freshly cut stairs to a bed of rocks, where we not only had great views of the lighthouse, but spotted dolphins and seals in the sea. Matt also made Tim very happy by sending us over to McKay’s Public House for a cask ale pour of Maine brewed Sebago Ale, which we downed each night. 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/15/20 at 06:00 AM
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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Top Dream Days of 2019, A Madrid Tapas Crawl

We loved our Madrid tapas crawl so much in early April that we did it twice. We met Marcy Forman, co-owner of Valesa Cultural Services, one of our preferred tour operators for clients headed to Spain, at the lobby of our hotel, Gran Hotel Inglés. Marcy has lived in Madrid for over 20 years and one of her favorite things to do is bring friends on an authentic Madrid tapas crawl. We started at Casa Toni, known for its crispy lamb tripe, an older specialty that’s hard to find in town these days. After downing the tender meat, we strolled around the corner to my favorite stop of the night, Casa del Abuelo, known for their tasty garlic shrimp. The dish comes out sizzling with a hefty chunk of bread, and is best paired with a short glass of sweet wine. Then it was off to La Campana, known for its fried calamari served in a large bun, bocadillo style. Next stop, the splashy Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid’s main public market, serving everything your heart desires, from acorn-fed Iberian ham to razor clams to fried croquettes, all washed down with sangria or cerveza. Our final stop was Chocolateria San Gines, in operation since 1894 and known for only one item, fresh out of the oven churros. Order a half-dozen, thin or fat, and it’s served with a steaming hot coffee cup of chocolate that many customers drink after dipping the churros. Sublime! We had so much fun with Marcy that we took our daughter, Melanie, on the exact same tour the next night. 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/14/20 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, January 13, 2020

Top Dream Days of 2019, Seeing Big Buddha in Hong Kong

I loved our entire week in Hong Kong last January, including two great hikes climbing up Victoria Peal and atop the Dragon’s Tail, but our day with Big Buddha is perhaps the most memorable. It’s hard to grasp the immensity of Big Buddha until you’re high in the sky on a cable car looking down at this massive sculpture perched atop the hillside on Lantau Island. The sitting Buddha is one of the largest in the world at 112-feet high. We jumped on the excellent subway system to the Tung Chung station and then walked over to the Npong Ping Cable Car. We waited in line with our timed ticket and soon we were on a 25-minute cable car ride past the international airport to the mountainous silhouette that houses Big Buddha. Once the ride ended, we walked past the shops and climbed the 268 steps to go face-to-face with the statue, which made its debut in 1993. Amazing! Then we strolled over to the large Po Lin Monastery, where people were lighting incense and saying prayers for good fortune at the start of the Chinese New Year. 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/13/20 at 06:00 AM
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Friday, December 20, 2019

See You Again in 2020!

It seems like yesterday that I was writing a story for Men’s Journal on the best trips to take over the new millennium. Now it’s 20 years later! This year has been a banner year for ActiveTravels, reaching long-term goals on both sales and membership. It’s a privilege to write about my journeys all these years and to send clients to the countries and states that excite me the most. 2020 marks the 30th year of being in the travel industry and there’s no way I’d still be here without your support, especially post-2008 recession, when publications folded and half my editors found other lines of work. I’ve been blogging ever since and I’m excited to report that next year, this blog will finally be updated as we make important changes to the ActiveTravels website. Thank you for your support and please stay tuned. 

We’re off to the outskirts of Playa del Carmen to get some much-needed R&R with the family. Have a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year! We’ll be returning the week of January 6th with our Top Dream Days of Travel in 2019. 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/20/19 at 06:00 AM
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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Austin Adventures Offers Mother/Daughter Hiking Trip to Zion and Bryce

Austin Adventures recently announced the wise decision of making Kasey Austin president of the company. I had the pleasure of traveling with Kasey and her dad, Dan, founder of Austin Adventures on a fantastic trip to the peaks surrounding Colorado Springs in 2015. I’m happy to announce that one of Kasey’s first moves as president is creating more multisport trips for women, including a 6-day mother/daughter group trip to Zion and Bryce August 23-28, 2020. Cost is $2898 per person, double occupancy. Other women-only trips include hiking in the Canadian Rockies September 6-11 and a multisport adventure to Peru and Machu Picchu September 12-20. ActiveTravels is happy to check availability and help with airfare and lodging/route before or after your adventure. 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/19/19 at 06:00 AM
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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Camp Sarika to Debut at Amangiri Spring 2020

Those of you who like your adventure lathered in luxury most likely know about Amangiri, the 34-suite lodge unveiled by exclusive Singapore-based hotelier Amanresorts. Amangiri is located near Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in Utah’s canyon country, surrounded by stunning mesas and remote desert. Now you can get a little closer to nature thanks to ten luxury all-weather tents that are set to debut next spring. Evenly divided between one and two-bedrooms, the 10 units are equipped with a living area, dining area, as well as private bathrooms with a bathtub, and indoor and outdoor showers. The one-bedroom tents are approximately 1,900 square feet, while the two-bedroom tents offer over 2,800 square feet of canvas-covered comfort. Wake up with morning yoga, then spend the day hiking in the canyons with a naturalist, boating on Lake Powell, or staring in awe at the Vermillion Cliffs. Afterwards, reward yourself with an outdoor spa treatment. 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/18/19 at 06:00 AM
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photo of Steve Jermanok
Longtime Boston Globe travel writer, Steve Jermanok, dishes out his favorite travel locales and provides topical travel information that comes across his desk. is an Austin-Lehman Adventure's Top 125 Best Travel Blog Semi-Finalist

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