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Travel Advice

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

New Brunswick Week—A Perfect Day on Grand Manan

In desperate need of an iced coffee, I made the wise choice to stop at the Island Arts Café. Not only was the coffee good and strong, but within moments I was meeting an intriguing mix of locals. There was Wayne who spent the morning on the bay designing a herring weir, a fish trap that lures the herring inside a pen. The McCulleys, who fled Portland and moved here after a mere 4 days on the island. They now rent cottages to primarily writers and professors who desperately need to finish their books in quietude. And my personal favorite, Smiles Green, who just turned 100 this past November and still designs model boats. “Someone called me up to make them a sloop,” says Smiles. "Price is no option he said. So I made that sloop and charged him fifty dollars more than I would have.” 
Around every bend on Grand Manan is another vista of the sea and, of course, there are a myriad of ways to get out there. Kenda and Peter Wilcox, proprietors of Sea Watch Tours, will take you over to Machias Seal Island to see the puffins and those caped crusaders of the bird world, the razorbill auks. Kevin Sampson, owner of Adventure High, offers guided sea kayaking tours within the many protected coves that surround the island, where you’re almost guaranteed the chance to spot a minke whale and harbor seals. Yet, don’t be in a rush to go right back out to sea. First take time to luxuriate on terra firma.
Yesterday morning I drove along lupine-lined roads to the southern tip of the island, the start of a glorious hike atop a bluff that led from the Southwest Head Lighthouse to a distinctive coastal rock formation locals call Flock of Sheep. The narrow trail snaked over roots and moss though a forest of twisted krumholtz and dwarf pines that cling precariously close to the cliff’s edge. I looked down several times at the boulder-strewn coastline below, quickly realizing that with one misstep I’d never leave Grand Manan. I spotted lobstermen in the distance, but it was the exquisite shoreline that grabbed my attention. Usually, I sprint to the finish of a hike. This time I sat on several benches made of makeshift wood to drink in the stunning view. What’s the rush? 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 06/18/14 at 09:00 AM
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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why We Love Rick Steves European Guidebooks

In a May/June 2000 story for Transitions Abroad magazine entitled “The Best and Worst Of Europe—with Apologies to None,” Rick Steves writes “the area south of Edinburgh is so boring the Romans decided to block it off with Hadrian’s Wall.” In another section of the piece (still found online and worthy of a download), Steves notes, “Oxford pales next to Cambridge, and Stratford is little more than Shakespeare’s house—and it’s as dead as he is.” Then there’s this juicy tidbit: “A hundred years ago, Athens was a sleepy town of 8,000 people with a pile of ruins in its backyard. Today, it’s a giant mix of concrete, smog, noise, tourists, and four million Greeks. See the four major attractions (the Acropolis, Agora, Plaka, and great National Archaeological Museum) and get out to the islands or countryside.”

Best known as the host of the PBS series Rick Steves’ Europe, the man is also a prolific guidebook writer, one who is not in the least bit bashful about sharing his opinion. This is what we want in a travel guidebook, someone with an expert opinion we trust who can break down the destination for us. We don’t want a book the size of Anna Karenina detailing every nook and cranny of that country with little or no judgment (the old Lonely Planet guidebooks come to mind). Most of us have a week or two on vacation, if we’re lucky. We simply want someone to tell us you’d be a fool to miss the Sognefjord fjord in Norway or Burg Eltz castle in Germany, according to Steves. 
To see my latest column for Men’s Journal on how to pick a trusted guidebook, click here

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 05/29/14 at 10:00 AM
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Monday, May 12, 2014

Steve’s Packing List

Most people stress about packing for a trip, including Lisa who hates the thought of reducing all her possessions into one measly suitcase. I can often pack in less than 15 minutes, thanks to my trusty packing list that’s stored in my computer. Depending on the locale and weather, I adjust the list, but for international travel it will include passport, printed copy of passport page in case passport is stolen, airplane information, Imodium (no travel writer leaves home without it), other bathroom accessories, notebooks, pens, cell phone, cell phone charger, laptop or iPad, laptop or iPad plug and surge protector, headset for Skype, plug converter (incredibly important), iPod and headphones, iPod charger, Canon camera and additional long lens, camera charger, suntan lotion, Carmex, mosquito repellent, file on country included downloaded travel stories, two good books to read, the latest Economist (which takes about five hours to read, perfect for trans-Atlantic flights), baseball cap, two nice pair of pants for dinners, shoes, nice long-sleeve and short-sleeve collared shirts for dinner, cargo shorts with four pockets to hold my notebook and pens during the day, underwear, flip-flops, sneakers, swimsuit, money belt, $300 US cash, one credit card (one that doesn’t charge transaction fees), and business cards. That’s it. I’m ready to roll. Write it down once on your computer and you’ll have it for every trip in the future. 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 05/12/14 at 10:00 AM
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Friday, April 11, 2014

April Newsletter Now Available at

Besides being on call when mishaps happen and earning the chance to win free hotel stays, another integral part of an ActiveTravels membership is our monthly newsletter. These stories are not the usual travel fluff you see in magazines. They’re first-hand insightful commentary curated from over 20 years of being a travel writer. Or a topical news peg like an intriguing new resort that comes across our desk. Since we started ActiveTravels, we have been churning out these monthly newsletters hoping to inspire your travels. One of our long-term goals was to categorize each of our headings, so you can have this library of information at your fingertips. We’re happy to report that it’s now available on our website. Simply type in your password and you’ll find more than 15 Quick Escapes, ideal for a weekend getaway. Or check out our main feature, “News from the Road,” which tackles one region at a time, like the Greek Isles, Kenya, French Polynesia, or the Canadian Rockies. 

Hopefully, we inspired you to travel this month with our feature story in the April issue on Bermuda, hotels we recommend in Prague, a Quick Escape to Portsmouth, and a new website that allows you to reserve flights for extended periods of time without full payment. 
Happy Travels!
Steve and Lisa 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/11/14 at 10:00 AM
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Monday, March 24, 2014

March Newsletter Now Available at

While some Greek isles like Rhodes, Mykonos, and Santorini can be overrun with tourists in the summer months, there are those isles like Folegandros and Tilos that seem to be a coveted secret among knowing Scandinavian travelers. Moments after you arrive at the main square in Folegandros, you realize that this is the authentic Greece. People dine on wooden tables under a string of electric light bulbs. Men with mustaches out of a 1880s barbershop photo grill souvlaki on an open grill. Older men drink coffee at a small café. All is framed by whitewashed buildings and churches. Tilos is an island where the locals, still unaccustomed to tourists, greet you as if you lived there your whole life. A place where one picks fresh figs off the tree and finds deserted medieval castles that request no admission fee.

In this month’s issue of our newsletter, we turn you on to some of our favorite Greek isles. We also divulge four of our favorite properties in Reykjavik, already becoming a favorite summer getaway for our clientele. If you want to do some spring skiing during the maple sugaring season, Stowe is the perfect choice. Lastly, we discuss the allure of going on a Maine windjammer cruise (just in case you missed all the blogs I posted last week). 
I’m off to St. Augustine, Winter Park, and St. Petersburg, Florida. I’ll be back on March 31st. Happy travels! 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/24/14 at 10:00 AM
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Friday, March 07, 2014

The Fall and Rise of the Travel Agent

In 1990, I left my job as a broker in Manhattan, booked an open-ended ticket to the South Pacific, New Zealand, and Australia, and wrote my first travel story, “Dining with the Descendants of Cannibals on a Fijian Island” for the Miami Herald. It would prove to be start of a career where I would write more than 1500 stories (over 300 articles for the Boston Globe alone) and visit over 80 countries. Then the recession hit. I lost more than half my editors in 2008/2009 as magazines folded and newspapers either eliminated or greatly reduced their travel sections. Wanting to utilize my travel expertise, I convinced my wife to join me in a business venture and become an accredited travel agent. 
Close family and friends scoffed at the idea, as if I just announced that I was becoming a blacksmith. After all, wasn’t it President Obama who suggested in a town hall meeting that travel agents were becoming obsolete? How could they possibly prosper against big-pocket online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, and Orbitz? There was just no need for them anymore, or was there? Since we opened our home-based travel agency,, in May 2012, without benefit of advertising dollars or a marketing department, there has been a steady stream of traffic. At a recent breakfast at the Four Seasons Boston for travel agents, many people we met in that room said they had a banner year in 2013. 
To read my entire essay on the role of the travel agent, just published in an academic journal by the Boston University School of Hospitality, please click here

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/07/14 at 10:59 AM
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Thursday, February 13, 2014

February Newsletter Now Available at

Not surprisingly, we booked quite a few trips to Tuscany last summer. The hotels that received rave reviews from our clients are featured in this month’s newsletter, “Eat, Play, Live!” You’ll also find a detailed description of Israel from our own family trip, a highly reputable outfitter from Croatia that we recommend, and why we believe Global Entry is better than TSA Precheck. 

Since we started ActiveTravels, we have been churning out these monthly newsletters hoping to inspire your travels. One of our long-term goals was to categorize each of our headings, so members can have this library of information at their fingertips. We’re almost there. We’ve been working with web designers and we hope to be finished with this task by the end of the month. Simply type in your password and you’ll find close to 20 Quick Escapes to tempt you, or peruse our main feature, “News from the Road,” which tackles one region at a time, like Kenya, Turkey, or the Canadian Rockies.
I’m off to Jamaica for a much needed vacation, back on February 24th. Happy travels! 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/13/14 at 11:00 AM
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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Key to Getting a Better Hotel Room

For those of you who missed my story in this Sunday’s Boston Globe, here’s the unabridged version on how to get a better hotel room:
After an exhausting 4-hour flight delay, you arrive at your hotel, only to wait on a long line at check in. You can’t help but take out your frustration on the person working the front desk. She smiles, types in your information, says, “Have a nice night” and hands you the key to the worst room in the property. You know, the one that’s next to the noisy ice machine a good quarter-mile from the elevators. 
Don’t underestimate the power of the front desk, notes Jacob Tomsky, author of the best-selling Heads in Beds (Doubleday), now available in paperback. Tomsky, 35, spent a decade in the hotel industry, 7 of those years manning the front desk at an upscale midtown Manhattan hotel. We caught up with him in New York to get some pointers. 
So how do you get the front desk to give you the best possible room?
Kindness and patience are always the best start. The front desk is doing their best to please everyone, so there’s no need to go overboard about that one special occasion that brought you there. The key here is to differentiate yourself from the 300 other people checking in that day. Providing a gratuity right away will go a lot farther than anything else. It’s a nice way to thank the agent for their hard work. It will also make them pause, look up and do everything to find you the best room and upgrade you. 
Was there ever a case when someone’s rude behavior resulted in a downgrading of a room? 
Absolutely. Almost daily. If you are demanding and say something terrible to me or my co-workers, then I’ll put you into a room that’s horrible, one that’s loud or has an obstructed view that doesn’t let in any sunlight. And the best part, you’ll never know. 
Is it better to book a room via a travel agent or calling the hotel directly than to reserve through websites like or Priceline? 
From a business standpoint, people who book through third-party travel sites are looking for a discount. The likelihood that they’ll return to your hotel is close to nil. So discount reservations are our last priority. Also, those third-party sites often don’t know the property. I once had someone checking into a midtown Manhattan who wanted a beach view. A good travel agent knows to call the hotel 2 to 3 days before you arrive to speak to the front desk or general manager. It’s a business of people serving people. The more you can connect with the hotel, the better your stay. 
Is it worthwhile to return to the same hotel in a city to hopefully get the best room?
Definitely. I had guests meet me just one time and then email me upon their return. I’ll go out of my way to ensure they have a nice room. The best time to get an employee’s name is not when something goes wrong, but when it goes right. When you return to the property, you can find that employee and pick-up where you left off. It’s all about relationships. 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/11/14 at 11:00 AM
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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Countries on My Wish List for 2014, Panama

The Panama Canal turns 100 in 2014. That alone will garner the country much press. But we like the fact that Copa Airlines, the wonderful Panamanian airline, is now offering direct flights to Panama City from Boston. At this point, there is no direct service to any other Central American country from Logan, including Costa Rica and Belize. What you’ll find is the same rainforest, exquisite coastline, eco-resorts, macaws, and howlers you’ll find in Costa Rica with far less traffic. Upscale lodgings like the Waldorf Astoria are also starting to pop up on the Panamanian map. Go there now before it becomes overbuilt. 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/16/14 at 11:00 AM
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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Countries on My Wish List for 2014, Iceland

If you’ve seen Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you realize that the diverse landscape of Iceland plays an important role in the movie. Other television series like Game of Thrones also adore the mix of fjords, mountains, and hot springs as their backdrop. A popular destination for Europeans these past two decades, Iceland is finally catching on with Americans. The most acclaimed drive in Iceland is the Golden Circle, with stops at Tþingvellir, the historic rift valley where the Icelandic parliament first convened in 930 AD; Geysir, the geothermal hot spot that lent its name to all geysers; and the majestic Gullfoss waterfall. After the drive, it’s time for a dip in the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous geothermal pool, before hitting the eclectic restaurants (dishes include smoked puffin breast) and electronic music clubs in Reykjavik. It’s no surprise that Iceland is on the minds of many of our clients for upcoming travels this summer. 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/15/14 at 11:00 AM
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about us
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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