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12 Amazing Solo Vacations to Take in 2020

Don’t have anyone to travel with in 2020? That’s no reason to stay home. Solo travel is on the rise, and tour operators are expanding their offerings to meet the increasing demand. Below are the 12 best solo vacations for 2020, covering every corner of the globe. Some of these trips made the list because they’re specifically designed for solo travelers; others offer discounted single supplements or roommate matching so you don’t have to pay extra fees for traveling alone.[st_content_ad]

Note that all trips and single supplement discounts were available at the time of publication, but they could sell out at any time. If you’re interested in these solo vacations, it’s best to book early.

Explore Madeira, Portugal, on Foot

Exodus Madeira Portugal Hiking Excursion

Sweeping coastal views, sleepy fishing villages, and sheltered forests await on Exodus Travels’ Walking in Madeira itinerary. The seven-night trip includes leisurely walks of up to nine miles a day along some of Madeira’s most breathtaking hiking trails. The trip ends with free time to explore Funchal, the island’s historic capital. Exodus will match you with a roommate, or you can pay a modest single supplement for your own room. Departures are available every month throughout 2020.

See Morocco from the Mountains to the Desert

Camel Back Ride Sahara Desert Morocco

Overseas Adventure Travel is one of the best tour operators for solo vacations, thanks to free single supplements on most trips. That includes one of its most popular tours, the 14-night Morocco Sahara Odyssey, which takes you through the narrow streets of ancient medinas, over the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the dramatic peaks of the High Atlas Mountains. Unique experiences include lunch in a Berber home and a couple of nights under the desert sky in a private tented camp. This trip has available departures between April and December 2020.

Explore Northern India’s Icons

Amber Fort Jaipur India.

See the Taj Mahal and much more on this dedicated solo trip to India from Intrepid Travel. The seven-night itinerary starts and ends in bustling Delhi, where you’ll discover the city’s oldest mosque and have free time to explore on your own. Then you’ll head to Jaipur to visit royal palaces and soar above the city in a hot air balloon before visiting the 14th-century village of Karauli and touring the magnificent Taj Mahal. Intrepid will match you with a same-gender roommate so you can avoid paying a single supplement. This trip departs on select dates between April and December 2020.

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Take a Hiking Vacation in Vermont

hiker on long trail vermont.

Escape to the pristine mountains of Vermont on a wellness getaway, hiking each morning and enjoying spa treatments and fitness classes each afternoon. New Life Hiking Spa is the perfect retreat if you need a little R&R, drawing numerous solo travelers (mostly women) of all ages. Small-group hikes, communal meals, and friendly public spaces offer ample opportunity to get to know fellow travelers. New Life’s 2020 season runs from May 14 through October 5 and is held at Killington Mountain Lodge.

Discover Ireland Your Way

cliffs of moher ireland sunset.

Not big on group tours? Consider Great Value Vacations’ Irish B&B Getaway package, which includes airfare, a rental car, and accommodations at bed and breakfasts around Ireland, allowing you to wend your way through the countryside at your own pace. Highlights include dramatic coastal roads, lively villages, and historic castles. The itinerary can be customized for six to nine nights, and you may depart any month of the year.

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Have an Adventure in Colombia

colombian coffee REI adventures.

REI’s Experience Colombia tour showcases the breadth of the country’s landscapes, from the lush green highlands where world-class coffee is grown to the sandy beaches of the Caribbean coast. This eight-night itinerary starts in Bogota and finishes in Cartagena, with plenty of adventures along the way—like mountain biking through coffee plantations, hiking to a rare tropical glacier, and sea kayaking to a colorful coral reef. If you’d like to avoid a single supplement, REI will pair you with a same-gender roommate. This trip is available between June and December 2020.

Live Like a Local in Nepal

g adventures nepal living like a local.

Get an intimate glimpse of what life is like in rural Nepal on a fascinating six-night journey with G Adventures. After a night in Kathmandu, you’ll travel to the farming village of Panauti to meet your host family. You’ll spend the next few days learning to make dumplings, tasting local wine, hiking to villages and monasteries, and even playing volleyball with the locals. G Adventures will pair solo travelers with a same-gender roommate so you don’t need to pay a single supplement. This trip is available on select dates through December 2020.

Eat Your Way Through Central Mexico

Oaxaca City Street Mexico.

Flash Pack targets solo travelers in their 30s and 40s, matching each person up with a same-gender roommate so you can avoid single supplements. If you love good food and unique culture, give Flash Pack’s Cultural Journey into the Heart of Mexico trip a try. The eight-night itinerary features tequila tasting in Mexico City, a cooking class in Oaxaca, and lunch aboard a vibrantly colored trajinera boat in Xochimilco. You’ll also go swimming in natural thermal pools at the foot of the world’s only petrified waterfall. This trip departs on select dates between April and December 2020.

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Spot Rare Wildlife in Madagascar

black and white ruffled lemur madagascar.

Keep an eye out for lemurs, chameleons, boa constrictors, and numerous rare birds as you travel with Explore! through Madagascar: The Lost Continent.  In addition to wildlife-watching treks through the island’s national parks, this itinerary also features a walk along a spectacular canyon, a visit to Madagascar’s oldest palace, and a stay in a local community guesthouse. Explore! will match you with a same-gender roommate if you don’t wish to pay a single supplement. This trip has departures between April and November 2020.

Go Off the Beaten Path in Nicaragua

granada cathedral Nicaragua,

Less visited than neighboring Costa Rica, Nicaragua has its own magic to discover. Road Scholar puts some of the nation’s most intriguing spots on display in its seven-night Exploring Nicaragua: Colonial Towns to Countryside package, with highlights such as a visit to a rum factory (complete with tastings), a cooking workshop in Leon, a walk through a cloud forest, and an expert talk on Nicaragua’s history by a former guerilla. Road Scholar is currently offering single rooms at no added cost on this itinerary. This trip has several departures between September and December 2020.

Discover the Best of Tuscany and Umbria, Italy

tuscany italy winding road.

There’s a reason Tuscany and neighboring Umbria are two of Italy’s most beloved regions. Discover them for yourself on Insight Vacations’ Country Roads of Umbria & Tuscany tour, an eight-night voyage to destinations such as Florence, Assisi, Siena, and San Gimignano. You’ll dine in the kitchen of a local chef in Orvieto, then learn about traditional textile weaving in Perugia and visit a family-run olive mill in Assisi. Single supplement discounts up to 90 percent are available on select departure dates between May and October 2020.

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Have an Adventure with Fellow Women

woman standing above dubrovnik.

If you, like many female travelers, feel safer and more comfortable in the company of other women, consider booking a trip with Adventure Women, which offers active, women-only tours to destinations around the world. Most of the company’s clients come alone, so you’re sure to find common ground with your fellow travelers. Solo vacations for 2020 with availability at press time include a nine-night Tanzania safari, an eight-night sailing trip around Croatia, a nine-night culture-focused trip to Oman, and more. You can choose to be matched with a roommate or pay a little extra for your own room.

For more ideas, see The Top Travel Destinations for 2020.

More from SmarterTravel:

Sarah Schlichter wants to take every one of these solo vacations. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Categories
Adventure Travel Cities Island

10 Bucket List Cruises for 2020

When it comes to cruises, travelers have a dizzying array of options, from small expedition ships visiting remote islands to big vessels with all the trimmings. Whichever type of ship fits your travel style, there’s a bucket-list cruise out there for you. The list below offers the best cruises for 2020, spanning itineraries around the globe at a variety of price points.

Note that all listed cruises had available cabins at the time of publication, but sailings may sell out at any time. Book early to avoid disappointment.

Go Island Hopping in Indonesia

Satonda Island in Sumbawa, Indonesia

Pink sand beaches, Komodo dragons, and hidden waterfalls you can swim in are just a few of the unforgettable sights you’ll see on an eight-night Indonesian island cruise with Intrepid Travel. You’ll board a 48-passenger motor-yacht in Bali, then set off for some of the archipelago’s less-traveled gems—including Satonda Island, where you’ll swim in a volcanic crater lake; and Banta Island, where deserted beaches are the norm. You’ll also learn about traditional weaving techniques and have lunch in local villages. This trip departs on select dates between May and September.

Discover the Peruvian Amazon

View of a small village in the Amazon rain forest on the shore of the Yanayacu River in Peru

Home to rare and endangered wildlife, the Amazon is the ultimate destination for nature lovers. Explore the Peruvian part of the rainforest with this new 10-night Uniworld itinerary featuring kayaking excursions, jungle walks, tours of remote villages, and nights gazing up at the stars. During your trip you’ll see animals such as monkeys, sloths, exotic birds, and maybe even the elusive pink dolphin. The all-suite Aria Amazon has just 16 cabins, each with floor-to-ceiling glass windows to let you watch the jungle slipping by right from your bed. This bucket-list cruise departs on select dates in September, October, and November.

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Find Paradise in the South Pacific

Young couple snorkeling over reef next to resort on a tropical island with over-water villas

Tahiti. Bora Bora. Moorea. Stop daydreaming about these idyllic islands and knock them off your bucket list with a Paul Gauguin cruise in 2020. The one-ship luxury line offers a variety of South Pacific itineraries, but there’s a reason its seven-night Tahiti and the Society Islands cruise is a classic: It includes stops in Moorea, Huahine, and Taha’a, and caps things off with an overnight stay in Bora Bora, giving you plenty of time to snorkel in the lagoon, swim with reef sharks, take an outrigger canoe ride, or simply relax on stunning Matira Beach. The ship holds just 332 passengers and has three dining venues, a spa, and a watersports marina. This itinerary sails on select dates throughout 2020.

Experience the Caribbean’s Quieter Side

People take bath in Emerald Pool near waterfall Central Forest Reserve. Dominica island, Lesser Antilles

Some of the busiest ports in the Caribbean see millions of visitors each year. If that sounds a little busy for you, consider a cruise to the Southern Caribbean, which tends to be less visited than the busier Eastern and Western regions. Princess offers a variety of Southern Caribbean itineraries, ranging from seven nights to nearly three weeks. Ports to look out for include Dominica, with its lush waterfall hikes; Antigua, which has a beach for every day of the year; and stylish Martinique, known for cultural history and a touch of French flair. Cruises depart on select winter, spring, and fall dates.

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Take an Epic Journey from England to South Africa

Aerial view of Praia city in Santiago - Capital of Cape Verde Islands

If a one- or two-week vacation just isn’t long enough, treat yourself to this 28-night Fred.Olsen cruise from Southampton, England to Cape Town, South Africa. In the beginning of the trip you’ll call at various Atlantic islands including Madeira, Tenerife, and the archipelago of Cape Verde. You’ll then have numerous days to relax at sea aboard the 881-passenger Boudicca as you approach the African mainland, where you’ll stop in two different port towns on the coast of Namibia. Excursion options there include bird watching, sandboarding down dunes, and colonial architecture tours. You’ll finish with an overnight in Cape Town. This cruise departs on November 5.

Discover the Mekong River

Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia

Colorful floating markets, quiet fishing villages, and the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat await on a Mekong River cruise with G Adventures. Between the trip’s beginning in Ho Chi Minh City and its final stop in Siem Reap, you’ll visit temples and palaces, taste fresh fruit and honey, learn about Cambodia’s difficult history, and meet welcoming locals. This nine-night cruise has departures throughout the year. (It’s also available in reverse.)

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Savor Food and Wine in the Pacific Northwest

Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon

Taste your way through Oregon and Washington on a seven-night culinary journey along the Columbia River with Uncruise. An onboard sommelier assists with wine pairings on the 86-passenger Legacy, which stops in ports such as Astoria and Walla Walla. Activities include everything from culinary demonstrations and wine tastings to art museum visits and boutique shopping. This trip departs throughout fall 2020.

Get in Shape on a Fitness-Themed Cruise

WOD on the Waves fitness bootcamp

If getting more exercise is one of your 2020 resolutions, pack your sneakers and head to the Bahamas with WOD on the Waves. This four-night fitness cruise aboard Celebrity’s 2,170-passenger Infinity ship is jam-packed with workouts ranging from boot camp to yoga, as well as seminars on fitness and nutrition. You don’t need to be a hardcore athlete to join the cruise, as there are options for all fitness levels. The cruise sails round-trip from Miami on April 16 and includes stops in Nassau and Cococay, a private island in the Bahamas.

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Sample the Best of Northern Europe

People are walking on Viru street at Viru gates in Tallinn, Estonia

From colorful historic capitals to the deep, pristine waters of Norway’s fjords, there’s more to see in Northern Europe than you could ever manage on a single trip—which is why a cruise can offer such an appealing sampler. Italian cruise line MSC offers a variety of Northern Europe itineraries; enticing options include a 14-night round trip from Copenhagen with stops in Finland, Russia, Estonia, Norway, and Germany; and a seven-night voyage from Warnemunde, Germany, stopping in Sweden, Estonia, Russia, and Denmark. Trips run throughout the warmer months.

Take an Adults-Only Voyage on a Brand-New Ship

exterior of scarlet lady the new virgin voyages cruise ship

The latest venture from business mogul Richard Branson is a new adults-only cruise line called Virgin Voyages; its first ship, the 2,750-passenger Scarlet Lady, will make its maiden voyage in April 2020. The ship will spend its first year cruising the Caribbean, mostly on four- and five-night sailings calling at ports such as Cozumel, Key West, Costa Maya, and Playa del Carmen. With short itineraries, a sleek ambiance, and plenty of onboard nightlife, Virgin Voyages will likely draw a younger crowd than most traditional cruise lines. Learn more about Virgin Voyages.

What to Pack

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

For more ideas, see The Top Travel Destinations for 2020.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Categories
Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Outdoors

Luck and Shipwrecks at the End of the World

Luck and shipwrecks at the end of world

On our first day in Antarctica, we rescued a shipwrecked yacht, and things only got more exciting from there.

The morning dawned bluebird bright and the scene looked orchestrated. Cue the penguins porpoising just below. Enter diving whales, stage right. Set it all against a backdrop of the most beautiful golden light you’ve ever seen. If it were a movie set, it would be too perfect, too over-the-top. But that’s Antarctica for you. The natural reality is better than anything humanity could design.

Antarctica makes you feel small, and humbled, and incredibly lucky to be here at all. The climate can be harsh and unforgiving, and heart-breakingly beautiful at the same time. The land and the ice in Antarctica have been here for millions of years before I was born, and will be here for millions more after I’m gone.

Our boat is old too, and has already lived many lives. Around since the 1980s, the Ocean Atlantic has been a Russian spy ship, car ferry, rumored private charter for Vladimir Putin, floating bordello, casino, and, most recently, our newly refurbished expedition ship chartered by Chimu Adventures for its 10 Day Discover Antarctica cruise. In an increasingly disposable modern world, the Ocean Atlantic keeps making itself useful.

Ocean atlantic ship

The thing about Antarctica is it makes you throw away your plans and gifts you with a better one. Not many Antarctica cruises pass by Melchior Island, but the Ocean Atlantic had stopped there for an excursion, where we discovered the stranded yacht, and added three more guests on to our cruise.

If we hadn’t stopped to help, we never would have shared a delicate, golden sunset with thousands of tiny penguins on Danco Island. If there had been enough snow to go snowshoeing as planned, I never would have gotten to kayak through Antarctic waters and witness a seal surprise itself as it rolled off an iceberg and belly-flopped into the ocean. If our Zodiac group hadn’t voted to speed around the entire Half Moon Island, we never would have had the chance to see a rare white fur seal play-fighting with ordinary gray ones.

[st_related]Kayaking in Antarctica[/st_related]

On the white continent, you’re at the mercy of the weather. The daily itinerary is announced in hopeful terms. “We plan to … ” “We hope to … ” Never “we will.” Before I left, that’s also how I talked about my Antarctica trip, as if speaking the words I’d dreamed of for so long: “I’m going to Antarctica” would somehow pop the magic bubble and something would jinx the trip, keeping it as just a wish.

I didn’t think anything could top our first day in Antarctica. Waking up to icebergs outside my porthole feeling incredibly alive as we raced around Melchior Island in Zodiacs, the crisp and pristine air nipping at my face as if to say: You’ve arrived. Feel it. Try to take it all in as the day rushes by all too quickly. Hold onto each rare moment tightly, knowing that you’ll never have this precious time again.

Sitting on the top deck, basking in the rare Antarctic sunshine and watching the cloudless sky slip by, I thought for sure the trip had peaked here.

Penguin

And then came the second day. I had barely woken up, and then I was at Port Lockroy, where curious penguins waddled over to nibble my ski pants to see if they were worth eating. Afraid to move or breathe and break the moment, I nearly cried with happiness over being near these adorable animals in their natural habitat.

Back on the boat, sailing through the Lemaire Channel. This narrow section of water is often too ice-choked for ships to traverse, but on this day, conditions were good and our captain was confident that we would be the second ship to make it through in the past few months.

The lemaire channel

Our vessel was the only man-made thing in sight. On the Lemaire Channel, 3,000-foot mountains tower on each side of the ship, looking close enough to touch. I had to crane my neck back to see the summits, jaggedly piercing the clear blue sky above. Pristine white snow spilled down the sides, collecting in icy-blue glaciers leading to the water.

Wandering albatrosses with their elegantly long wingspan swooped around our boat, and every so often, a minke whale would surface in the waters below, giving us just a glimpse of its tail or offering us a blow from its spout. Penguins swarmed in formation just off our bow, jumping in and out of the water in a graceful show diametrically opposed to their clumsily cute waddles on land.

Icebergs in antarctica

In the afternoon, we reached Pleneau Bay, the “iceberg graveyard” where all the glacial chunks collected, like a museum of expertly curated natural beauty. These glaciers had birthed massive icebergs, the site of which anywhere else in the world would be singularly awe-inspiring; but here, they were more common than the penguins. I discovered a new shade of blue every time a new one went by. How could today be anything but the best day of the trip?

And then came day three. A quick Zodiac ride from the Ocean Atlantic, swinging my legs over the big rubber sides, splashing through the water, climbing over the rocks, and I was finally setting foot on continental Antarctica. (Our earlier stops on the voyage had been Antarctic islands.) After dreaming of this for so long, I was flooded with joy to be standing here on this remote continent. Throaty cries of penguins trumpeted a congratulations and welcomed me on shore.

Antarctica continental landing

A short walk up a steep hill, and a staggeringly beautiful Antarctica scene spilled out before us. Starched-white, pillowy snow framed a bay of clear blue water studded with fluorescent blue icebergs. Mountains beyond the bay reached up to the cloudy sky, and both were infinitely reflected on the surface of the mirror-like water.

A slippery hike up a bigger, snowy hill gave us even better views. The penguins looked like tiny black dots and our boat looked like a toy off in the distance. I sat in the snow and took in all the elation and thankfulness of being here in this moment.

All too soon, it was time to head down. But I’d go the fun way. I got a running start and sledded down the bumpy track carved out by those who had slid before me. Crisp and clean Antarctic wind rushing past my face, the continent beneath me, until I landed laughing in a graceless heap at the bottom of the hill.

The water in Antarctica is incredibly pure and unspoiled. For the last week, we’d been surrounded by the inescapable ocean. You start to imagine jumping in, and today, we’d get the chance. The French call it “l’appel du vide” (“the call of the void”). That strange longing to throw yourself off a cruise ship into the waters below, even though you don’t want to die—you just want to feel what the fall would be like.

Antarctica polar plunge

The polar plunge was held just off the coast of the continent, in the calm waters of Neko Harbor. The waters may look bath-like, but the temperatures were not. Icebergs could be seen bobbing in the distance. An orca whale and a leopard seal had been spotted hanging around. The water temperature was 35 degrees, and the air temperature was 33.  Barefoot, bathrobe-clad guests lined up in the mudroom, where normally, we’re bundling up in as many layers as possible before putting on our jackets and boots and boarding the Zodiacs. Today, we’d be hurling ourselves off the gangway and into Southern Ocean.

Seventy brave cruisers were lined up, buzzing with nervous excitement. As I got closer to the watery exit, the cold air crept in, curling up around my feet and under my robe, making me reconsider my plans for a swim. The crew fastened a belt and rope around my waist, already wet and frigid from the plungers before me. At least if I literally froze upon entry, they’d be able to fish me out quickly. My body went into autopilot. The crew guided me to the gangway and told me to give a wave to the parka-wearing spectators on the top deck. There was nothing left to do but freeze on the landing in indecision or quickly fling myself off the ship. I plunged down into the depths of the clear blue water and surfaced, surprised that the shock of the water wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. Temporarily numbed, I managed to enjoy a moment or two of paddling in Antarctic waters before making a beeline for the ladder back to the warmth of the ship. The adrenaline kicked in and I was greeted with a towel, robe, and congratulations from the crew. Judging from the post-plunge photos of my star jump, it was probably for the best that I forgot to check my scores from the judges out on the Zodiac, who were raising paddles marked on a 1-10 scale.

The elation and excitement of the accomplishment overwhelmed any feelings of shivering cold. It was by far the best day of the trip … until tomorrow.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by Chimu Adventures on their Discover Antarctica Cruise. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for more photos from her trip.

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Experiential Travel

Cruise Expert Shares Her Favorite River Cruise Benefits

Sailing along the Mekong River, SmarterTravel’s Christine Sarkis took some time to sit down with Gina Kramer, an editor at our sister-site Cruise Critic to discuss the benefits of river cruises. Aboard the new Avalon Saigon, they talked about what it’s like travel through Vietnam and Cambodia by river cruise and outlined three notable benefits.

For more details about each reason, take a few minutes to watch the video. Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t think they enjoy would enjoy cruising, you just may come away with an urge to set sail.

River Cruise Benefits

River Cruise Ships Are Smaller Ships: Whereas ocean cruise vessels can house thousands, river cruise ships top out at hundreds—and are often significantly smaller. For instance, the Avalon Saigon has room for just 36 guests. A smaller ship means that passengers can explore smaller places where larger ships could never go. And that offers the chance to forge a deeper connections with locals.

There’s a Smaller, More Intimate Feel Onboard: The small-ship environment is ideal for people who want to enjoy a cruise but who are intimidated by larger ships or put off by crowds. This more intimate atmosphere feels relaxed, fosters friendships, and offers a great passenger-to-crew ratio.

River Cruises Tend to Be More Inclusive: Kramer notes that anyone who has gone on a mainstream ocean-going cruise line has likely felt at least a little nickel-and-dimed by the a la carte pricing model of shore excursions, drinks, Wi-Fi, and special meals. Onboard river cruises, in contrast, most of what you do—from shore excursions to most drinks—is included in the cruise fare.

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Christine Sarkis visited Vietnam and Cambodia as a guest of Avalon River Cruises. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

Categories
Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Outdoors Sustainable Travel

10 Things to Know About Hurtigruten, Norway’s Expedition Cruise Line

Sailing on a modern-day cruise ship may be a long way from the perilous polar expeditions of 19th- and 20th-century Norwegian explorers—but when you cruise with Hurtigruten, those adventures don’t seem so far away.

This expedition company based in Norway isn’t your typical cruise line. Onboard, the vibe is more about casual dress and learning about wildlife than evening wear and hairy-chest contests. Hurtigruten sailings draw adventurous travelers seeking to explore remote places like Greenland, Antarctica, and the far reaches of Norway.

Intrigued? Here’s how to decide whether Hurtigruten cruises are right for you.

Hurtigruten Has a Long, Adventurous History

Now celebrating its 125th anniversary, Hurtigruten was founded in 1893 as a solution to a problem. Back then it was difficult and time-consuming to travel by sea between northern and southern Norway; because there were relatively few lighthouses, nighttime sailing was dangerous. But Richard With, a sea captain from northern Norway, was adventurous enough to take the risk.

In 1893 his steamer, DS Vesteraalen, began weekly sailings between Trondheim and Hammerfest and, later, between Bergen and Kirkenes. The latter route took just seven days and was dubbed hurtigruten, or “the fast route.”

A few years later, With pioneered a regular service between mainland Norway and the remote northern islands of Svalbard. Since then, Hurtigruten has expanded its operations to exotic destinations around the globe.

hurtigruten ms fram greenland

Hurtigruten Sails to Norway, the Poles, and Beyond

For many years the company’s North American name was “Norwegian Coastal Voyage,” and this route is still the one for which Hurtigruten is best known. Eleven ships explore the fjords and islands between Bergen and Kirkenes year-round, allowing travelers to enjoy the midnight sun of the Arctic summer or the northern lights that wash over the winter sky. You can book a one-way journey or stay aboard for the entire 12-day round trip from Bergen.

What makes this voyage unique is that Hurtigruten’s Norwegian coastal ships also serve as ferries for locals (some of whom only stay on for a few hours) and as cargo delivery vessels. This means they make frequent—and sometimes very brief—stops, but you’ll still have time to explore the larger ports along the route.

A few of Hurtigruten’s expedition ships travel more widely, offering cruises to Antarctica and to various parts of the Arctic including Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland, and the Northwest Passage. During the shoulder seasons (spring and fall), you can explore non-polar destinations such as Europe and the eastern coast of North and South America.

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The Ships Aren’t Large

If the thought of cruising with thousands of other passengers makes you want to run and hide, the modest size of Hurtigruten cruise ships might offer a better fit. No ship carries more than 970 passengers, with most having a capacity of 400 to 600. MS Fram, the line’s main expedition ship, carries 318 passengers, and Nordstjernen, which sails in Svalbard, holds just 149.

These vessels have a more intimate feel than bigger ships from lines like Carnival or Royal Caribbean, but keep in mind that this also means fewer amenities. On Hurtigruten ships you’ll only have one to three restaurants to choose from, and onboard entertainment is limited, with no casinos or production shows. If you’re content to read a book, soak up the passing scenery, and attend lectures about the local culture and wildlife, these ships might be right for you.

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Sailings Can Be Unpredictable

Cruise ships are always at the mercy of waves and weather, but that goes double for expedition sailings in remote parts of the world. A few years ago, I was aboard Hurtigruten’s MS Fram on a trip from Iceland to Greenland, and we missed two scheduled port days due to heavy fog and ice.

“We always have a plan B, C, D, E, and F,” a member of MS Fram’s expedition team told me on a more recent sailing. This means you shouldn’t have your heart set on visiting a particular port—but you can count on the captain and the expedition team to make necessary changes to maintain passenger safety and comfort.

dinner on ms fram hurtigruten

The Cuisine Reflects Norwegian Heritage

If you’ve ever wanted to eat like a Norwegian for a week or two, this is your chance. Even on non-Norwegian sailings, items like brown cheese and gravlax (cured salmon) are regular items on the buffet, and other Scandinavian dishes—reindeer soup, anyone?—often show up on the set dinner menus.

It’s all part of the line’s “Norway’s Coastal Kitchen” initiative, which focuses on locally produced ingredients and sustainable seafood. If you love fish, you’ll be in heaven. If you don’t, there are plenty of other alternatives, including meat, pasta, and a small salad bar.

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Expect a European Crowd and a Laid-Back Vibe

Despite growing popularity in North America, most of Hurtigruten’s passengers come from across Europe. PA announcements are given in multiple languages depending on the mix of nationalities onboard; this typically includes English, Norwegian, and/or German.

Onboard dress is casual at all times, though many passengers take it up a notch for dinner (think dress pants and a nice top). You can leave your suit or formal gown at home.

arctic superior cabin on ms nordnorge

Don’t Expect Fancy Cabins

As on many expedition vessels, the staterooms on Hurtigruten’s ships are more functional than luxurious. In lower-priced categories, expect fold-down single beds that can’t be pushed together. If you’re looking for a more romantic option—i.e., a double bed for you and your partner—you’ll have to upgrade to a superior cabin or suite.

Balconies are few and far between, available only on select suites on certain ships. But if you have the budget, they’re worth paying for; imagine gazing out at Antarctic icebergs floating under the midnight sun from your own private verandah.

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Do Expect a Variety of Excursions

Hurtigruten excursions vary widely depending on where you’re sailing, but might include activities such as snowshoeing in Antarctica, hiking through a Viking settlement in Greenland, dog sledding in Svalbard, or visiting a working farm in Lofoten, Norway. There’s generally a range of options for all physical abilities. As on most larger cruise lines (and unlike on many expedition lines), Hurtigruten excursions cost extra.

lecture aboard hurtigruten ship

You’ll Learn Something New

Most Hurtigruten ships have a dedicated expedition team aboard all sailings. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, these experts lead excursions and give onboard lectures on everything from Viking history to Arctic wildlife. You might also hear them over the PA system offering information about the port you’re sailing into or about a whale just spotted off the bow.

Hurtigruten Is Environmentally Responsible

With sailings in some of the world’s most endangered places, Hurtigruten takes its environmental obligations seriously. The company recently announced that it will eliminate single-use plastic items aboard all its ships by July 2018 and retrofit up to nine of its older vessels to run on a combination of liquefied natural gas and battery power (both cleaner options than diesel fuel). MS Roald Amundsen and MS Fridtjof Nansen, new expedition ships that will debut within the next two years, will use hybrid technology that reduces CO2 emissions by more than 3,000 metric tons per year.

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Sarah Schlichter traveled to Canada and New England as a guest of Hurtigruten. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Categories
Booking Strategy

The Best Cruise Ships for Every Taste and Budget

Looking for the perfect cruise ship? There’s a source of solid advice for that: the 2108 Cruisers’ Choice Awards, from Cruise Critic.

[st_content_ad]Based on reviews posted to the Cruise Critic site during the past year, the awards recognize the best ships in multiple categories: best cabins, best for dining, best for entertainment, best for fitness, best for value, best for families, and so on.

Whatever your idea of the perfect cruise ship entails, Cruise Critic has you covered.

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Here are some examples of the best large ships in several categories. If large ships aren’t to your taste, there are also ratings of mid-sized, small-mid, and small ships for each category, making it easy to home in on ships that meet your criteria.

Top 5 Large Ships Overall

  1. Celebrity Equinox
  2. Harmony of the Seas
  3. Celebrity Reflection
  4. Celebrity Silhouette
  5. Allure of the Seas

Top 5 Large Ships for Value

  1. Celebrity Silhouette
  2. Celebrity Equinox
  3. Harmony of the Seas
  4. Celebrity Reflection
  5. Allure of the Seas

Best Large Ships for Entertainment

  1. Allure of the Seas
  2. Harmony of the Seas
  3. Disney Dream
  4. Oasis of the Seas
  5. Freedom of the Seas

Best Large Ships for Dining

  1. Celebrity Equinox
  2. Celebrity Silhouette
  3. Celebrity Reflection
  4. Allure of the Seas
  5. Oasis of the Seas

As an admitted non-cruiser, I find these recommendations very helpful; without them, I’d be clueless. If I were in the market for a cruise on a large ship, my clear choice, as someone who cares most about dining and value, would be either the Celebrity Silhouette or the Celebrity Equinox. Both are top-rated in the relevant categories, as well as in the Best Overall category.

Reader Reality Check

What are you looking for in a cruise ship? Comment below.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Luxury Travel

Ritz-Carlton Reveals Plans to Upgrade the Cruising Experience

I’ve always thought of cruises as occupying the higher end of the leisure travel space. At least one company apparently feels there’s an opportunity to push cruising even further into the realm of the luxurious (and the pricey).

This week, Ritz-Carlton, the purveyor of luxe resort hotels, announced The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, a “unique combination of yachting and cruising (that) will usher in a new way of luxury travel for guests seeking to discover the world in a relaxed, casually elegant and comfortable atmosphere with the highest level of personalized service.”

Notice the use of the word “yacht,” to emphasize the new service’s smaller scale and exclusivity. In place of the jumbo floating hotels operated by other cruise lines, the three specially designed Ritz craft will be a relatively modest 623 feet long, fitted with just 149 suites, each with a private balcony, and two duplex penthouse suites.

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Because of the ships’ smaller size, itineraries can feature smaller ports inaccessible to traditional cruise vessels, like Capri, Portofino, St. Barths, and Cartagena. Trips will be between seven and 10 days, and cover the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America, depending on the season.

Naturally, given the Ritz link, everything will be high end. According to the press release:

Throughout the journey, guests will indulge in a cruising style that is unparalleled in the ultra-luxury cruise and private yachting sectors. The Ritz-Carlton yachts will feature a restaurant by Sven Elverfeld of Aqua, the three Michelin-starred restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg; a signature Ritz-Carlton Spa; and a Panorama Lounge and wine bar, offering a wide variety of on-board entertainment. Additionally, the yacht will offer one-of-a-kind curated destination journeys through collaborations with local chefs, musicians and artists, allowing guests to experience the locations in unique and experiential ways, both onboard and ashore.

Yes, like a floating Ritz-Carlton.

The first of the three Ritz ships, designed by Tillberg Design of Sweden, is scheduled to begin cruising in the fourth quarter of 2019. The company will begin accepting reservations in May 2018.

That leaves plenty of time to save up for what will undoubtedly be a very pricey cruise experience.

Reader Reality Check

We can dream, right?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Packing

How to Pack for a Galapagos Cruise

Be you bucket lister or wildlife buff, the idea of cruising the Galapagos is imbued with animal magnetism. It’s evocative of a science fiction adventure — ship as time machine transporting travelers to a prehistoric land of black lava, alien cactus trees and giant tortoises.

It turns out that planning for such a voyage, which includes ticking off items like “underwater camera housing” or “quick-drying pants that magically become shorts,” is oddly satisfying. So with the determination of a flightless cormorant who hasn’t had eel in a week, I began researching, prepping and packing for a July Galapagos cruise aboard Metropolitan Touring’s 48-passenger La Pinta.

As I dug through travel message boards and guidebooks, and picked the brains of past passengers, there emerged four cornerstones of the successful Galapagos cruise: protection from the sea and weather, proper footwear, a touch of pre-cruise study, and a means to record the experience of wandering onto a beachhead littered with groaning sea lions and thousands of fluorescent orange crabs.

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Protection from Sea and Sun
The packing list skewed more backpacker’s trek than cruise. Instead of a blue blazer and dress shoes, I stuffed my carry-on with quick-dry shirts, zip-top bags to protect equipment and a floppy hat to repel the equatorial sun. Also part of the regimen: two large tubes of sunblock, one SPF 45 for the delicate face, the other a waterproof 30 for the rest of the body — plus aloe, should I forget to re-apply either.

The sea poses its own problems — the wind-drawn Humboldt Current can bring with it nauseating, choppy waters from July to December — so I scored some Dramanine (which I later found that La Pinta offered in an all-you-can eat basket). Other passengers ultimately went with the prescription motion sickness patch, the dot-behind-the-ear option not available in South America.

Footwear
Simply put, lava, over which many of the hikes take place, is unforgiving. Still, I left my hiking boots at home, opting instead for the TEVA sandals I’ve taken over rocky Greek Isles, European cobbles and dessert sands. However Galapagos visitors roll, they should make sure they’re properly out-footed. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I’ll just bring my oldest pair of shoes and then dump them at the end of the trip,’” said John, one of our guides. “If there’s one tip I can offer, it’s to bring a solid new pair.” (Break them in pre-trip to avoid calluses.) Sure enough, one French passenger suffered a dual sole-ripping on a single walk. His well-worn boots literally ripped in half. Given his propensity for mocking American dining habits, no one seemed too upset for him.

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Pre-Cruise Enrichment
The Galapagos is a place where pre-knowledge enriches the experience — or so I was told. “On the Origin of Species” felt a little too “Challenges of Modernity,” a 200-level class, so I tapped Dominic Hamilton, Metropolitan’s Head of Communications, for something less collegiate. He suggested three: “The Beak of the Finch,” a non-fiction look at a pair of evolutionary biologists who watched natural selection, in real time, shape a colony of finches; “My Father’s Island,” a memoir written by a woman whose family colonized Santa Cruz in the 40’s; and “Galapagos, the Islands That Changed the World,” a photo-laden companion book to the BBC documentary of the same name. My public library had them all and all were winners.

Capturing the Tortoise
Though the local wildlife remains bizarrely apathetic to encroaching, camera-wielding homo sapiens, a colleague’s husband suggested renting a telephoto lens. I discovered LensProtoGo, which ships the lens in a waterproof, nearly indestructible Pelican case. The Nikon 80 – 400 millimeter telephoto lens costs about $1,600 new but only $15 a day to rent, and is ideal for framing the red-rimmed eye of the swallow-tailed gull or spying on other expedition ships. If you do bring the “bazooka” and plan on switching lenses, don’t forget the accouterments (a sensor cleaning kit). Jumbo-sized zip-top bags, procured from Amazon.com, would shield my camera equipment, already in a water-resistant bag, during wet landings (when Zodiacs pull up to a beach rather than a natural “dock”).

A second splurge, inspired by Galapagos cruise vets who shared regrets, was an underwater camera. I opted for a waterproof case for my Canon S90 point and shoot, which cost about $150. The video I took underwater, including a spiritual moment with a baby sea lion, was worth the cost.

The one thing I didn’t pack? My cat, a plague-like invasive species, had to stay.

— written by Dan Askin

Categories
Adventure Travel Outdoors

Top 12 Animals to Spot in the Galapagos Islands

For travelers who love wildlife, a Galapagos cruise should be at the tippy-top of your bucket list. Not only is this remote chain of Ecuadorean islands home to some of the world’s rarest animals — tropical penguins, anyone? — but its relative isolation has also engendered a community of creatures who are strikingly unafraid of humans. Forget the telephoto lens; on these islands, you’ll be up close and personal with hundreds of animals during a weeklong visit.

Round a curve, and you might come upon a waved albatross right in the hiking path, sitting serenely for several minutes while you and your fellow tourists snap photos just a few feet away. Walk along the coast, and you might spot Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttling along the rocks, a blue-footed booby preening its feathers and a pile of marine iguanas soaking up the sun.

I spotted all of these animals and many more during a week aboard International Expeditions’ 32-passenger Evolution. Read on for a checklist of 12 amazing animals to keep an eye out for during a Galapagos cruise.

1. Sea Lions

Why They’re Cool: It’s hard not to love sea lions, the islands’ largest and most charismatic mammals. Their size (up to 550 pounds) and distinctive bark make them easy to spot. You can occasionally find them in unexpected places, like sleeping on a park bench or flopped on a dock with people and boats bustling around them. But you’ll usually see them lazing on the beach or romping in the sea; the pups are particularly fun to watch when they body surf on the waves.

Where to See Them: Beaches and coastal rocks just about everywhere!

2. Frigatebirds

Why They’re Cool: This large sea bird is best known for the male’s vibrant red throat pouch, which balloons dramatically to attract a mate during breeding season (typically during March and April, but breeding can occur throughout the year). Females are distinguished by their black and white coloring. It’s common to see frigatebirds wheeling overhead while at sea; they may even alight in your ship’s rigging to rest.

Where to See Them: Throughout the islands; the main nesting colonies are on Genovesa and North Seymour

3. Land Iguanas

Why They’re Cool: There’s a spot on Santa Cruz Island called Cerro Dragon, or Dragon Hill, that’s aptly named after these nifty-looking reptiles, which come in a striking array of green and gold shades and can grow more than three feet long. The iguana populations on several islands were severely threatened by introduced species such as feral dogs (who ate the iguanas) and goats (who ate the vegetation the iguanas relied on for food), but the eradication of these predators has allowed their numbers to rebound in recent years.

Where to See Them: Santa Cruz, Isabela, South Plaza, North Seymour

4. Sally Lightfoot Crabs

Why They’re Cool: Viewed up close, these ubiquitous crabs are absolute stunners, their shells decked out in vivid shades of red, orange and blue that look like they’ve been applied with an artist’s brush. They’re fun to watch too as they nimbly pick their way along slippery coastal rocks. In fact, their swift, sure movements are thought to have earned them their name.

Where to See Them: On rocky coastlines throughout the islands

5. Green Turtles

Why They’re Cool: It’s not uncommon to spot the shell of a passing sea turtle from your ship or panga, but it’s 10 times cooler to actually get in the water and swim with these gentle creatures. Wearing a snorkel and a wetsuit, you’ll skim along the surface as the turtles glide serenely beneath you, sometimes just a few feet away. Others hulk like rocks along the sea floor.

Where to See Them: The waters off of Isabela, Fernandina and Santa Cruz

6. Galapagos Penguins

Why They’re Cool: Think of penguins and you probably picture ice, snow and frigid weather, but here in the Galapagos you’ll find the world’s only tropical penguins. They’re small — just 14 inches tall — and typically spotted on the rocky coastlines of Fernandina and Isabela islands. Unfortunately, their population is endangered; because they reproduce slowly, they have a hard time recovering from the islands’ occasional El Nino weather events (which bring warm, less nutrient-rich waters).

Where to See Them: Fernandina, Isabela, Bartolome, Floreana

7. Darwin’s Finches

Why They’re Cool: At first glance, these small birds don’t look like anything special; there are at least 13 species of them in the Galapagos, all in varying shades of gray, brown and black. But they played a key role in scientific history. Charles Darwin’s observation that there were similar, but not identical, species of finches on different islands led him to theorize that they’d evolved in isolation from a common ancestor. Today you can challenge yourself to identify the variations between species as you move from island to island.

Where to See Them: Throughout the Galapagos

8. Waved Albatrosses

Why They’re Cool: These magnificent birds are unique to the Galapagos and have a wingspan of nearly eight feet. When you land at Punta Suarez, you can walk down a trail through their breeding and nesting grounds; along the way, you might see a mother sitting on her egg or a pair of birds clacking their long beaks together in a common courtship ritual. Toward the end of the trail you’ll reach a dramatic cliffside where you can watch the albatrosses step to the edge, unfurl their wings and set sail on the wind currents.

Where to See Them: Espanola (April – December)

9. Flamingos

Why They’re Cool: The flamingos in the Galapagos are said to be the most brilliant shade of pink of any flamingo species, thanks to their diet of brine shrimp (rich in the carotenoids that create the pink pigment). You’ll spot them stalking on their impossibly spindly legs through shallow lagoons, feeding with their heads upside down in the water.

Where to See Them: Isabela, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Santiago, Rabida

10. Blue-Footed Boobies

Why They’re Cool: Did you know that the color of those famous blue feet can tell you about the bird’s sex life? Males who haven’t mated in a while will have more vibrantly colored feet to help attract a partner, while the feet of more “profligate” birds, as our guide put it, are often a more faded shade of blue. Another, not-so-fun fact: The population of blue-footed boobies is plunging. Scientists pin the blame on declining numbers of sardines, the boobies’ main food source, likely due to overfishing or global warming. Fortunately, the Galapagos’ other two species — red-footed boobies and Nazca boobies — are faring better.

Where to See Them: North Seymour, Espanola, San Cristobal

11. Giant Tortoises

Why They’re Cool: Deep in the lush highlands of the Galapagos’ wetter islands, you’ll find these slow-moving giants, weighing up to 550 pounds and living up to 150 years! (Fun fact: The tortoise’s shell gives hints about how old it is; older animals have shells that have been worn smooth from years of rubbing up against bushes and rocks.) Because baby tortoises are vulnerable to predators introduced by humans — such as rats and dogs — many of them are now raised in captivity by the Charles Darwin Foundation until they’re about four years old, when they’re returned to the wild with a better chance of survival.

Where to See Them: Santa Cruz (in the wild and at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora), San Cristobal, Isabela

12. Marine Iguanas

Why They’re Cool: Endemic to the Galapagos Islands, these are the world’s only marine lizards. You might see them swimming in the ocean in search of red and green algae, their main source of food, but they’re most commonly spotted sprawled out on the rocks, warming themselves in the sun. They’ll let you get pretty close, but be warned: they spit! (No, it’s not something you said. They’re just clearing salt water through their nostrils.)

Where to See Them: Along rocky coasts and cliffs throughout the Galapagos

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Categories
Adventure Travel

Norwegian Coastal Voyage

Author: Ray Lewis
Date of Trip: May 2008

This past May, my wife and I spent 16 days on one of the most entertaining, scenic trips that we have ever done. We happened across a trip being sponsored by Vantage World Travel which struck our fancy so we signed up for it. It was a trip on a Norwegian Coastal Voyage ship from Bergen, Norway to above the Arctic Circle at Kirkenes, Norway right next to the Russian border. This cruise is on what they call the ‘Hurtigruten’ ships or the ‘fast route’.

We flew into Bergen and spent two nights in Bergen at the SAS Norge hotel, right in the center of Bergen. Before I go any further, I must say that this trip is not an economy trip by any means. Norway is probably one of the most expensive countries in the world for American tourists. We encountered prices like $5 plus for a cup of coffee and $12 for a glass of beer and $16 for a glass of wine but if you are prepared for these prices, you can have an almost religious experience cruising the Fjords of Norway.

After two days in Bergen, we boarded the Hurtigruten ship, Midnatsol, or ‘midnight sun’. We left Bergen in the early evening after registering and getting acclimated to the ship and having a buffet dinner. When we boarded, they were very clear to inform us that the Hurtigruten is not a ‘cruise ship’ but us rather a working ship. The original, and still primary purpose of these ships is to deliver people and cargo to all of the ports up and down the Norwegian coastline. A note of warning, they post the departure time at the exit point and if you aren’t there, they go without you and its your responsibility to get to the next port of call.

Our tour director from Vantage was named Karin and she was a very energetic, knowledgeable person who was constantly working to make our trip a delightful experience. She even exceeded anyone’s expectations because if she didn’t know an answer to a question, she’d spend as much time as needed on the internet to find and deliver the answer to you when finished. Now late April and early May in Norway can be any type of weather that you can imagine. In Bergen, all of the mountains surrounding the city were snow covered. Since we were getting near the time when it is bright all of the time in the land of the midnight sun, it never really got dark, only like dusk but with the curtains pulled, you never knew that when in your cabin. The cabins are average sized but very nice and comfortable. The meals were excellent but, if there is one negative comment, they could make the food labels on the buffets larger so that you could read them. If you didn’t eat fish, you could get fooled by the presentation and get some when you didn’t want it. My wife does not eat fish, and had a couple of experiences where she got fish that she didn’t want. Both breakfast and lunch are buffet while dinner is served but only one entree unless you don’t eat fish and then, they give you a tag that you place at your placesetting which says “iccke fiske” which I was told means ‘no fish’. My wife had that and we joked about her inability to eat icky fish. I could go over all of the food that they served but that would take too long and you just need to know that they have a very varied menu and it was wonderful. They make their own liver pate which was served at breakfast & lunch as well as homemade soups and wonderful entrees.

Our first night was spent cruising from Bergen to several fjord cities, such as Maloy, Torvik and Alesund. Alesund is where the very scenic Geiranger Fjord is and there was an excursion to the Geiranger Fjord by small motor craft which tied up to Midnatsol while steaming along and transferred passengers from one to the other all while sailing. This was before we reached Alesund and when there, we unloaded cargo and departed after retrieving our sightseers. We went on the Molde and enjoyed the sight of the very heavily snowcapped mountains. The air temp was about 30 to 35 degrees f. but not uncomfortable. When we departed Molde, we set sail for Trondheim, the ancient Capital of Norway. We arrived in early morning and there were a few optional trips available. We went to the Trondheim “Nidaros” Cathedral, the sight of the Norwegian coronations and we also took a trip to the “Ringve Music Museum” where one family collected a great number of musical instruments, mostly pianos of all types, shapes and sized and strings but guide who took us around only was able to play the pianos, not the strings. He and all other guides were students at the University and all played at least one of the instruments. Very interesting. The collector was a russian noblewoman who married a rich Norwegian. From there we cruised to Rorvik. We navigated through several small islands and there were lighthouses on most of them so that navigation could be done more easily. In December, that must be a difficult journey with very little light. At Rorvik, we unloaded cargo & passengers and took on cargo and passengers. This is an every stop procedure. Many of the people along the coast use the fast line somewhat like any other means of transportation. That ended day 3, counting the two in Bergen. We next went north all night, stopping at ports along the way but many after we had retired for the night. On day four, we crossed the Arctic Circle and they held a raffle to guess the correct time but we didn’t win. Our first port of call was Ornes, a place where the Svartisen glacier meets the water. It is the second largest glacier in Norway. We were headed for Bodo & then began cruising along the Lofoten Islands. Bodo is a small quaint city just above the Arctic circle but on a very hilly area. It has a population of 45,000 and was occupied by the Nazis in WWII. We left Bodo and went to Stamsund in the Lofoten Islands. These are extremely rugged, hard rock islands in the North Sea and very picturesque. Many of the houses there are built on stilts to keep them out of the water. There were the picturesque wooden slatted A frames used for drying Cod and it looked like a picture book. We went to Stamsund, Svolvaer, Stokmarnes,and Sortland before we got to Risoyhamn. Our ship navigated the narrow Raftsund Strait and we had a very enjoyable day. The Raftsund Strait is where the famous ‘Trollfjord’ is but I’ll cover that on the southbound trip.

On the next day, we went to Harstad and Skjervoy and saw the ancient Trondenes church. It was used for christenings since 999 a.d.. We then cruised through a fjord area on our way to Tromso.The town is very colorful as the residents have painted their houses all different bright colors. While cruising here, we passed under a very long, over 1200 ft long, bridge connection the mainland to Senja. On cruise day six, we reach Havoysund and Mehamn. This is the area known as the NordKapp or North Cape and is very mountainous, windy and at least when we were there very snowy. We will get back to this later also. We strolled Finnsnes and enjoyed our mini sightseeing tour there. On this day, we went to Hammerfest, Havoysund, Honningsvag and Berlevag. Honningsvag’s church was spared in WWII since the German Commandant spared it because he enjoyed organ music. These are all fishing villages of small size but all different and scenic.

On day 10 we arrived at Kirkenes, the land of Iron mines, Sami people and reindeer. We took a trip the the now closed iron mines and the russian border, where they still maintain a Closed Border and don’t look too friendly. I was very beautiful from the top of the mountains looking at the Harbor with ice floating in it and our ship docked waiting for our return. They were working on re-opening the mine as prices for iron have risen to where it is now profitable to operate the mine again. We stopped in Vasdo, where an old german garrison was overlooking the North Sea. We also went out to a Sami Tepee (they have a special name that I don’t remember) and drank reindeer broth or as they referred to it ‘tea’. Next, we cruised to Honingsvag, Havoysund, Hammerfest, Oksfjord, Skjervoy and Tromso. Recognize the names, we’re now travelling south and hitting the same ports, some now in day and some in night, somewhat reverse of the northbound voyage. This is the North Cape area and we took a side trip to the northernmost point on the European continent, appropriately called Nordkapp. They have a visitors center there and we had breakfast there, rather than on ship. We had to leave the ship very early that morning. The food was nice, warm, tasty and filling. They had young people serving coffee at the tables who were dressed like TROLLS and they very readily posed with guest that wanted their picture taken with a Troll. In the trip up to this point, it snowed very hard and there were white-out conditions for about 15 to 20 minutes but it soon left and it was nice. (As an aside, the previous Vantage tour 2 weeks earlier had to be pulled out of snow and then convoyed back to the ship after getting stuck. What fun and something to talk about.)

We visited with a Sami native who raised reindeer and had the obligatory store full of ersatz Sami ware. I’m not sure but we re-joined the ship at either Hammerfest or Havoysund. Then we went on to visit Oksfjord and were surprised when we entered the harbor to see a band of 15 or so people of all ages from early teens to 50’s playing marching music dockside while we were in port. We were told that these folks decided that since it was approaching ‘constitution’ day or some other day which was a national holiday the following week. These folks must have been all of the musicians in the village as it only had a population of 1,400.

The next thing we did was to go an an Eagle safari. They have Sea Eagles or Ernes in Norway, not Bald Eagles like we have in the USA. We boarded the MS Orca while both the Midnatsol and Orca were under way. We went into the Trollfjord, the very narrow fjord in the Lofoten islands. Wow, its breathtaking there. While on the Orca, the crew fed seagulls and periodically when an eagle was sighted, they would throw fish that had air pumped into them so that they would float and the Eagles would swoop down and collect their bounty. It is very difficult to catch this on cameras as they fly so fast but it was very entertaining and I’d recommend it to anyone capable of getting on board.

We continued our most magic cruise and continued our wending our way through the rock islands and into ports at the end of fjords. At one port we saw a very large ship with a flat open area and were thinking that it looked like it could be used to haul Minke Whale (the only whale being legally hunted) on deck but we’re not sure. When we returned to Bergen, it was warm, in the 60’s and the snow had left the surrounding mountains and all of the flowers, tulips, rhodys and azaleas were in bloom. It happens fast where its cold. I would recommend this trip to every independent traveler, just for the sheer pleasure it will bring.

Ray Lewis

Categories
Adventure Travel

Two Asian rivers and two experiences

Author: John M.
Date of Trip: April 2007

Cruising two of Asia’s great rivers – the Mekong and the Brahmaputra – is rather like comparing driving the Hume highway between Melbourne and Sydney with a journey across the Nullabor Plain. And, if like me, you like being in sight of land 100 percent of the time, a river cruise is the only way to go.

The Mekong is an almost frantic river that carries a never ending stream of barges, cargo and passengers vessels, and its banks are regularly lined by cities, villages and crops. People are everywhere, be it on boats or on shore. The Brahmaputra, on the other hand, is remote and brooding. Because of massive annual flooding – the width varies from up to 25km in the monsoon season to less than five km in the dry – villages are few and far between and generally built some distance from the banks, while the scenery varies from massive sand islands to dense jungle habitats for elephants, rhinos and tigers.

I travelled both rivers within a 12 month period, and was astonished by the differences. Each offered unique 7-night cruises aboard immensely comfortable vessels with generally two on-shore excursions per day. And each is adventurous.

The Mekong cruise is operated by Pandaw, which has two superb vessels – the “Mekong Pandaw” and the “Tonle Sap Pandaw” – reminiscent of those of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and accommodate up to 60 passengers in total luxury. They ply between the Mekong Delta and Cambodia’s Siem Reap, and is a very professional operation.

The Assam Bengal Navigation Company makes no pretences about copying the Pandaw’s modus operandi, and cruises various sections of the Brahmaputra River in smaller but similar vessels that carry up to 24 passengers. While less luxurious, they are more intimate. It’s also more of a “do it yourself” type of cruise in terms of getting to and from the start-finish points, and perhaps more for experienced ‘travellers’ than ‘tourists’.

Both cruises are memorable.

My “Mekong Pandaw” cruise whetted my appetite for the Brahmaputra cruise, and later this year I am doing the Pandaw’s challenging 12-night Upper Irrawaddy cruise in Myanmar/Burma.

I met my travelling companions at the plush Riverside Renaissance Hotel in Saigon, and after a 2-hour bus journey to My Tho on the banks of the Mekong, we arrived at the vessel where we were shown to the massive rear saloon for our initial briefing before being handed the keys to our cabins.

The cabins are on three decks, and decorated in teak. Each is large, and air conditioned, and have their own ensuite bathroom and toilet, twin wardrobes, writing desk, very comfortable twin bunks, and cane furnishings. I was travelling in the bottom of the range cabins, which meant that I had two portholes as opposed to large windows, but it was larger and cooler than those on the upper two decks.

The vessel has a vast canvas-roofed panoramic sundeck with sun lounges, a self-service bar stocked with beer, soft drink, water and tea and coffee (all free); a plush dining room where meals are eaten in an informal atmosphere; plus the delightfully decorated rear saloon – ideal for before and after dinner drinks with your fellow passengers.

Meals are what one would expect in a quality restaurant. The buffet breakfast is vast, with juices, tea and coffee, fruit, cereals and porridge, eggs, bacon, tomatoes, sausages, hash browns and Vietnamese specialities. Lunch is also self service and very expansive (often including soup and desert), and the evening meal is always a three course table service event – and features a choice of western and Vietnamese or Cambodian dishes. Australian European and American wines are served with lunch and dinner.

The morning and afternoon on-shore excursions generally last about 2-3 hours each and use much smaller vessels that can navigate the myriad of canals and tributaries that feed into the Mekong. They include visits to magnificent temples through to an orphanage and school (both supported by Pandaw), brick works, snake wine makers, toffee manufacturers, a trishaw ride, floating fish farms, and walks through riverside villages and local markets. The cruise gets off to a wonderful start with an afternoon excursion of the floating markets at the Mekong delta.

Days merge into each other as you make new friends, enjoy the excursions and meals, or simply laze in the glorious sun on the panoramic deck, which also makes an excellent viewing and photographic platform. That the vessel is stable is symbolized by the full-size billiard table on the top deck.

The final several hours of the cruise is by a large high powered luxury speedboat 150km across Lake Tonle Sap to Siem Reap, location of the amazing Angkor temples. The lake is the biggest in Asia and doubles in size when the Mekong floods, forcing water to literally run uphill via the Tonle Sap River.

The Pandaw’s Mekong cruise also stops at large cities, including Chau Doc, near the border of Vietnam and Cambodia, and Phnom Penh – where passengers visit the Killing Fields Memorial Stupa and the grim S21 detention centre, as well as the Russian Market.

By cruise end, passengers have travelled 750km and seen a side of Vietnam and Cambodia that is rarely seen by Western tourists. The Brahmaputra cruise is an entirely different experience.

I flew into Kolkata and the next morning took a flight to Guwahti, in Assam, where I was met by representatives of ABN who took me on a five hour drive to Bansbari, the company’s jungle lodge on the edge of Manas National Park and only a short drive from the India-Bhutan border. After a four night stay, I was driven for about six hours to Silghat, to join the ABN vessel “Sukapha”. She is a relatively new ship and sister to the much older and restored “Charaidew”.

Both vessels are similar in design to the “Mekong Pandaw”, but are smaller and only have one accommodation deck for 24 passengers in 12 cabins. The “Sukapha” has a large saloon and outdoor area at the bow – offering splendid panoramic views – a large top sundeck with an honesty bar, and an excellent dining room. Passengers can also have access (for a fee) to the on-board massage parlor.

The twin-bunk cabins are a little smaller than those of the “Mekong Pandaw”, but still well equipped with an ensuite shower and toilet, writing desk, chairs, and wardrobe. It’s a more intimate cruise due to the significantly smaller number of passengers – but on trips like this you generally find that only interesting people book them. My cruise, for instance, included a hilarious Italian millionaire businessman (he once rented a vast apartment in the centre of Rome to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) and his wife, the owner of one of Britain’s most successful independently-owned travel agencies, the UK’s first female Uniting Church minister (she professed to hate Easter and always took holidays at that time), a former CIA officer, and a couple of very humorous Indian travel agents.

Meals are similar to those of the “Mekong Pandaw”, although much more casual, and there is no table service for the evening meal. While local alcohol and soft drinks are free on the Pandaw, the ABN charges. Excursions are more remote, and made via a much smaller tender vessel that accompanies the “Sukapha”.

We visited a number of Missing tribe villages where visiting Europeans are still regarded as a novelty; Majuli – the world’s largest river island where we saw magnificent dancing monks; Hindu monasteries and temples; and majestic Kaziranga National Park – which is home to tigers, one horned rhinos, elephants and teeming birdlife. ABN has since opened a small luxury resort near the Park’s entrance.

The river is much quieter than the Mekong. Most cargo travels by road, so the river is very sedate in terms of traffic. The widespread flooding during the monsoon means that the river is constantly changing direction and creating new sand islands and channels – which makes navigation difficult. It is quite common to spend a day zigzagging and travelling twice as far as one needs to. But, as the with Pandaw, the top sundeck is comfortable and affords splendid views as you laze on lounges sipping a gin and tonic or take photographs.

The cruise, which covered about 350 km, ends near Sibsagar, and passengers are either taken to their prearranged accommodation in Dibrugarh or Jorhat – or to the cities’ airports for either the return flight to Australia, or the next section of one’s visit to India. Unlike the Pandaw, which operates the same trip up and down stream, the ABN offers a choice of about 6 different cruises as well as voyages along the Hugli River.

You can’t possibly compare the cruises, for each is so different despite being undertaken in very similar vessels. But each provides lifetime memories. Both navigate two of Asia’s greatest rivers, and both have wonderful on-shore excursions. Photographers, in particular, would love either cruise – for subject matter abounds.

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Beach Budget Travel Cities Entertainment Family Travel Food & Drink Outdoors Romantic Travel Senior Travel Theme Park Weekend Getaways Women's Travel

A Guide to Your Girls’ Getaway Weekend in Myrtle Beach

For the ultimate girls’ getaway destination, you need a little bit of everything: some nightlife in case you want to go out on the town, but also some peace and quiet for real relaxation. This is a vacation, after all.

That’s why Myrtle Beach is the go-to location for girls’ weekends. It’s got live music, wineries, spas, and, of course, miles of sand. Here’s how to have the ultimate girls’ getaway weekend in Myrtle Beach.

Day 1, Evening/Night

Arrive to Myrtle Beach hungry—you’re going to want room for fresh-from-the-boat seafood. Start off south of town at Drunken Jack’s, where waterfront dining means the views are just as good as the food cooked up by the 2015 South Carolina Chef of the Year. Another option, north of the city, is The Brentwood. Here, French and low-country fusion food is served in a Victorian home.

Once you’ve stuffed yourself silly, head to The Chemist for the area’s best cocktails before moseying over to Fat Harolds Beach Club. Instead of sand, you’ll find the state’s official dance: the shag. DJs start playing at 7:00 p.m. nightly. Go on a Tuesday for free lessons.

Day 2, Morning

Get a leisurely start to the second day of your girls’ getaway weekend in Myrtle Beach at the open-air Hudson’s Surfside Flea Market. A mix of useful and quirky objects from hundreds of vendors vie for your attention, but it’s fun too just look, too. For more traditional shopping, there are many retail areas in greater Myrtle Beach, including The Market Commons and outlet stores. Don’t forget to score free coupons before pounding pavement.

Shopping complete, head to the beach to relax. Surfside Beach is a good option after visiting Hudson’s, or find a stretch of undeveloped sand at Myrtle Beach State Park after your visit to The Market Common.

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Day 2, Afternoon

When you’ve had your fill of Vitamin D, get out of the sun and head to Conway Glass to get your craft on. Browse the shop’s hand-blown wares or take a class of your own. Create utilitarian objects like bowls or paperweights, or more decorative pieces like ornaments or flowers. During the summer, opt for a less-warm sweet grass basket weaving workshop at Hopsewee Plantation. You’ll learn from Vera Manigault, an eighth-generation weaver renowned for her art.

If crafts aren’t your thing, Duplin Winery, the oldest and largest winery and vineyard in North Carolina, has a location in North Myrtle Beach that lets you watch the bottling process and, of course, try some wine. For $10, you can sample up to 10 wines (with crackers and dip to keep your stomach happy). You get to keep your glass and have a full serving of your favorite wine.  The winery specializes in wines made from Muscadine grapes that thrive in the area.

For beer lovers, New South Brewing microbrewery offers tours in the off season (non-summer months) and pours drafts year round, like its White Ale and IPA. Seasonal specials rotate, but include its Dark Star Porter.

Day 2, Night

Kick off the evening with happy hour at Rockefellers, where raw or steamed oysters are $0.55, house liquor is $3, and wine is $3.50. Shellfish season is May to October in Myrtle Beach, and Rockefellers raw bar delivers. For surf and turf action, head to Thoroughbreds Chophouse and Seafood Grille for the best of land and sea, or pay a visit to Big Mike’s Soul Food for downhome cooking.

Stomach full, make your way to The Bowery for live music. Prefer your music more classical? Check the Long Bay Symphony schedule for tickets to the area’s professional orchestra.

Day 3, Morning

Start your morning at Shanti Yoga ($15 for a walk-in class) or at one of the area’s spas for a manicure, pedicure, or massage—with a glass of Champagne, naturally. The Awakening Spa offers mineral baths, while the Cinzia Spa gives you access to spa amenities like a saltwater whirlpool and Turkish hammam. Feeling ultra-zen, you’re ready to tackle the rest of your girls’ getaway weekend in Myrtle Beach.

Day 3, Afternoon

Head to the 9,100-acre Brookgreen Gardens. A National Historic Landmark that was once four separate rice plantations, the gardens are now filled with the plants and animals that call South Carolina Low-country their home. It’s also home to the country’s first public sculpture garden. A number of tours are available daily, though you can explore the gardens, zoo, and trails on your own, too. The $16 ticket covers everything, but you can pay extra for things like a boat ride and a visit to the butterfly house.

If you’ve tired flora and fauna, the gardens abut Huntington Beach State Park and Atalaya Castle, located across Route 17.

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Day 3, Evening

End your girls’ getaway weekend in Myrtle Beach with cherry on top of the ice cream sundae. Painter’s Homemade Ice Cream has a sundae named after famed Myrtle Beach native Vanna White. But the institution that’s been around since the 1950s is also is known to serve up its creations to other celebrities, including Eric Clapton. Two locations—one in North Myrtle Beach and one in Murrells Inlet—make it easy to indulge anywhere you go.

Extra Time

If you’ve planned an extra-long girls’ getaway weekend in Myrtle Beach, consider a riverboat cruise. Barefoot Princess Riverboat offers sightseeing as well as sunset cruises with dinner down the Intracoastal Waterway.

Of course, there’s always more shopping. Pawleys Island’s Hammock Shops Village is home to more than 20 stores housed in cottages, including the famous hammock shop. Another visitor favorite is Barefoot Landing, located along the Intracoastal Waterway and a 27-acre lake.

The Best Myrtle Beach Girlfriend Getaways Deals and Packages (Sponsored)

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Entertainment Experiential Travel

Swimming Among the Piranhas: Facing My Fears in the Amazon

“It’s not actively bleeding,” the paramedic mused as he examined a small cut on my heel. “It probably won’t attract the piranhas.”

Feeling less than reassured, I eyed the pitch-black waters of the Amazon River that I was about to plunge into for a refreshing afternoon swim. My itinerary for the week flashed through my head: still to come was searching for caiman (a crocodile-like creature with teeth that were just as strong and sharp) and fishing for piranhas, all in the same river I was about to dive into.

Caiman. Piranhas. Swimming. It seemed to me that one of these activities did not quite fit with the other. On the other hand, when else would I get a chance to swim in the Amazon River? Besides, the Peruvian sun overhead was beating down, and the mosquitoes were relentlessly feasting on my sweaty limbs. The water would offer relief (but hopefully not the eternal relief kind). I took a leap of faith.

The water was cool and dark—we were swimming in a section of blackwater.  Here, the river was opaque and black, stained by tannins leached from the decaying vegetation below, which meant (for better or for worse), I couldn’t see what other creatures were sharing the water with me.

Behind me, I suddenly heard a sharp exhale of water, followed by a gasp from my fellow swimmers—grey river dolphins splashed in the river just a few yards away, alerting us to their presence with bursts of air from their blowholes. Rather than fearing the boat and group of tourists in their water, they seemed amused by us, possibly because we were using brightly colored pool noodles to stay afloat in the river.

The Amazonian river dolphins are revered and protected by locals—thanks in large part to local legends that promise harm and misfortune to anyone who kills or eats the creatures. The dolphins circled around us for a few magical minutes before disappearing back underwater and heading on their way.  I felt reassured—it’s said that dolphins won’t swim near caimans, so I hoped my chances of becoming bait were lower than I had feared.

As we bobbed gently in the water, the sounds of the jungle surrounded us. The boat engine was off and the air filled with the calls of parrots, the chatter of monkeys, and the constant buzz of insects. I was well and truly immersed in the Amazon—feeling its cool water around me, hearing its jungle song, and seeing the green trees towering around me.

Eventually, I climbed back into the boat, exhausted and exhilarated. Our guide pulled celebratory beers out of the cooler, and we sipped ice-cold cervezas as our skiff raced back to our home for the week, the Delfin II, a river cruise ship that was tied up a few miles away. The wind and still-powerful setting sun dried us off quickly as we sped over the water. As the brilliant green forest rushed by, I gazed down at the water and felt a huge sense of pride, happiness, and relaxation.

A trip down the Amazon forces travelers to meld with the ways of the river—there’s simply no way to make the river to adapt to your small, human needs. No matter how luxurious your tour, you have to confront all of the wonderful and sometimes scary aspects of the jungle and the water. You can’t explore the lush green forests without getting a few bug bites and spotting a few snakes. There’s certainly no Wi-Fi (even on a luxury river cruise) and so you’re forced to disconnect from your usual life—your only focus is the environment around you. Forgot something or want a snack? The nearest corner store is hundreds of miles away.

The Amazon forces you to be truly, authentically present within it, and that’s what sets this destination apart. You’ll come here and face your fears: of piranhas, of being disconnected, and of being vulnerable. But you’ll be rewarded with a true sense of discovery and accomplishment. And, of course, bragging rights for having braved swimming in the Amazon.

 

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Caroline Morse was hosted by Delfin Amazon Cruises on her trip to the Amazon. Follow her on Instagram TravelWithCaroline and on Twitter @CarolineMorse1 for photos from her adventure. For more information about Delfin Amazon Cruises, visit www.DelfinAmazonCruises.com

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Group Travel

The Ship That Sails to Yesterday: Exploring Myanmar’s Hidden Corners

This ship is built for the journey. The waters are shallow here on Myanmar’s upper Irrawaddy River, and ever-shifting sandbars constantly reinvent the wending path downstream. Only fishing boats, barges, and a few small ships designed for shallow-water sailing ply these waters. Built locally, the Avalon Myanmar is one such ship.

As a guest aboard the ship on one of its first journeys downriver, I got a rare peek into this little-known stretch of the world’s second-most isolated country. These are hard places to get to. The roads are challenging, the airports few; but the river weaves a story of place, offering a look at a world that—for better and worse—won’t remain the same much longer. Here’s what makes it an exceptional journey right now.

The River Less Traveled

Even in off-the-beaten path Myanmar, there’s a tourist circuit. This isn’t it. The northernmost point on the Avalon Myanmar’s itinerary is Bhamo, a small town near the China border. Embarking this far north, along a wild stretch of the river, gives you the chance to see a wonder few outsiders have ever witnessed: the Irrawaddy’s Second Defile, a dramatic passage between soaring limestone cliffs, past hillside monasteries, and along vast swaths of undisturbed forests.

The treasure-chest of untraveled wonders continues as the ship heads downstream—to riverside villages, where the small group mingles with locals; and into farming communities, jungles, and monastic settlements. It’s only once the ship reaches Mandalay that you start to notice other visitors, those who have come from around the world to see famous attractions like the long teak U Bein Bridge and the ancient capital of Bagan. And while Myanmar’s best-known sites are definitely worth a visit, it turns out to be the modest moments—standing in a bustling village market or watching a line of monks collect alms on a dusty road at sunrise—that are its most enduring keepsakes.

A Small Ship

With just 18 staterooms built for 36 guests, the Avalon Myanmar is one of the world’s smallest commercial river ships—and that suits the environs perfectly, because when you get off the ship you’re not heading into a capital city or even a bustling port. You’re walking a narrow gangplank over a muddy shore, and then ascending a sandy riverbank to discover a tiny village or a vibrant town full of people who are thinking about daily life, not tourism.

To be part of a small group is to find yourself in a singalong with kindergarteners in a one-room schoolhouse, or visiting with a grandmother musing about village life as she hangs laundry and tends her newborn granddaughter. Around here, a small group is like a small ship: It offers access to places the bigger ones can’t go.

RELATED: Beautiful Myanmar: 26 Revealing Moments Caught on Video

Life on the Irrawaddy

The Irrawaddy is a demanding river, especially in the dry season when shallow water levels expose ever-shifting sand bars. Along particularly tricky stretches of the river, you can hear the recitation of river depths as crew members on the lower deck prod the river bed with long measuring sticks and relay the numbers in a meditative chant. Local pilots join the crew at points along the river, and after a day or two, you get a sense that to be on the Irrawaddy is to be, by necessity, constantly present and completely in touch with your surroundings.

Each evening, the ship pauses for the night. Watching the crew toss the heavy rope onto a sandy bank and scramble into the shallows becomes the dusk routine. Sailing during the day offers a gentle unspooling of river life and the rich chorus of rural Myanmar—monks chanting, children playing, motorcycles revving—as it drifts across the water.

Rare Creatures

The Irrawaddy River dolphin is headed toward extinction. Fewer than 100 of these creatures—which resemble the love child of a beluga whale and a stuffed animal— remain in the river. But the remaining few dolphins have forged relationships with the local fishermen, helping them to round up fish into nets in exchange for a cut of the piscine profits.

The dolphins are elusive, but just knowing they’re out there keeps the crew and passengers scanning the horizon. Word of a sighting spreads quickly—the ship will often stop to give people a better chance at a glimpse of the silver shimmer of wet skin as it arches through the surface.

To see a dolphin is to strike that first connection with the river, to understand it not just as an artery but as the true lifeblood of this region: a source of food, of water, of livelihood and, in the case of the dolphin, of a fading magic that lies beneath its waters.

RELATED: 8 Reasons Why You Should Go on a River Cruise

A Sunrise Culture

There are early risers, and then there are the people of Myanmar. Particularly in smaller towns, life here starts as early as 4:30 a.m. For North Americans, the extreme time change is an easy gateway to this sunrise culture. It’s certainly one worth dragging yourself out of bed for. For it’s these early morning excursions that yield incredible moments like watching the dawn almsgiving to a silent procession of burgundy-robe clad monks, or catching what has to be one of the world’s best sunrises in Bagan, where the darkness lifts to reveal a landscape of delicate silhouettes and a sky full of hot air balloons.

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Local Economies

When, in 2011, Myanmar’s National League for Democracy and party leader Aung San Suu Kyi declared an end to the longstanding unofficial ban on tourism, they did so to encourage responsible travel that connected travelers to the people rather than the government. Aboard the Avalon Myanmar, this idea plays out in many ways each day. At each stop, the local crew of this Myanmar-built ship buys fresh provisions; it also donates food alms to local monasteries along the way.

The crew maintains strong relationships with the villages and offers monetary donations to local schools and communities at each stop. There’s a clear and constant effort to help villages benefit from micro-scale tourism without putting undue pressure on the traditional rhythms of life. And as the days go on and you grow more attached to the people of Myanmar, this becomes a vital distinction.

RELATED: Why I Hated Group Tours (Until I Tried One)

The World Beyond the Internet

Unsurprisingly, the world’s second-most isolated country is not a world leader in Internet access. While you can find a decent connection in an increasing number of hotel lobbies (especially in capital city Yangon), access in the rest of Myanmar is spotty at best.

Aboard the Avalon Myanmar, you may go four or five days utterly disconnected from Wi-Fi unless you’ve got the world’s best phone plan (and even then … ). After a day or two, though, most people aboard start to realize that this isn’t the time before Internet, it’s simply life outside of it.

Which really frees up time to scout for river dolphins.

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Christine Sarkis traveled to Myanmar as a guest of Avalon Waterways. She has her fingers crossed that the people of Myanmar will benefit from the country’s current changes. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

(Photos: Christine Sarkis)

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Categories
Packing

What I Packed: Myanmar in Winter

I spent 11 days in Myanmar aboard Avalon River Cruises’ Avalon Myanmar in December.

Where: Myanmar (you may know it as Burma)

When: Mid-December

Weather: Hot in Yangon, where I spent three days. Cool in the mornings and hot during the day on the Irrawaddy River between Bhamo and Bagan.

Type of Trip: Cruise

Trip Length: 11 days, including three travel days

Mouse over the items below for detailed explanations of what I packed. Any time you see the Thinglink icon on a photo (bottom right), you can mouse over it to interact with the image.

The Clothes

The Airplane Outfit

The Shoes


Packing Challenges: This is the only time I’ve ever needed to basically acquire a totally different wardrobe for a trip. I wanted to respect cultural practices around color, modesty, and also stay comfortable in the climate (which at this time of year, ranged from cool in the mornings and hot during the day along the northern stretches of the Irrawaddy River to hot nearly all the time in the capital city of Yangon).

In this predominately Buddhist country, colors have great significance, so I opted for brightly colored fabrics that were light enough to be comfortable on hot days. Since in my daily life, I mostly wear black, gray, and browns—and a lot of jeans, this presented a logistical challenge. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money buying clothes that I likely wouldn’t wear back home, but I wanted to be culturally respectful while traveling in Myanmar. I also needed modestly cut clothing—no tank tops or skirts that showed any leg—which meant I couldn’t use my usual hot-weather wardrobe.

So I did a lot of clearance shopping. Those Target skirts you see above were $6 each. The Gap T-shirts were under $12. Ultimately, I got everything I needed for less than $100.

For my travel outfit, I wanted something that would adapt to different temperatures (cold flights, hot airports, etc.) and would be comfortable enough to sleep in for a series of overnight flights (on the way back, I spent two overnights in a row on planes).

And for shoes, I chose two pairs that would be comfortable for walking, breathable, and protect my feet from rough ground.

What I Should Have Left Behind: The LOLE pants were useful, but they ran large so I needed to pull them up a lot and they weren’t as flattering as they might have been in a size that fit better.

What I Should Have Packed: Since I was traveling with items that largely weren’t part of my usual wardrobe, I didn’t feel entirely at home in my clothing during the trip. I wish I had brought a few more items that I really liked wearing, instead of opting only for cheap and practical. I saw a lot of people wearing some black, so I probably could have gotten away with a few of my standard travel favorites.

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Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.

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