Category Archives: Chats

Many Rivers To Cross With AmaWaterways.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

River cruising is becoming a preferred choice for vacations as travelers seek out new experiences. Hard to believe that the industry only emerged in 1992 after the completion of the Main-Danube Canal, making it possible for pretty much all of Europe to leverage its maritime landscape. While the Continent’s rivers had long been used for merchant trading, the completion of the Canal opened up new routes and provided the European travel industry with unique opportunities for travelers to experience this destination from an entirely different point of view.

While American travel companies didn’t jump on board until around 10 years later, they quickly witnessed the rise of river cruising once they rolled out their ships. One of the lines making a name for itself on this side of the Atlantic is AmaWaterways, which operates voyages in Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa. For anyone who’s never been on a cruise or doesn’t like the idea of being on the open ocean, river cruising offers a unique opportunity to test the waters. I had a chat with Gary Murphy, Vice President of Sales from AmaWaterways to learn more about its growing appeal.

Q: For an industry that’s fairly young, you’re doing pretty well. What’s all the fuss?
A: Over 90% of the folks who book with us are people who enjoy cruising but want a more intimate experience than on a gigantic ship. They love the feeling of going on a smaller boutique type of experience. Depending on the itinerary and ship, we max out at 162 guests. River cruising can be a very leisurely vacation or it can be extremely active. The ship is not the destination like it is on an ocean cruise.

AMAWaterways' Zambezi Queen

AMAWaterways’ Zambezi Queen

Q: What do you want people to know about this bird’s eye view?
A: When you look at river cruising, you need to look at it like a floating hotel. Many cities in Europe evolved along the banks of major rivers and a river cruise can take you right to the historic center of those cities. Often, you’re asleep when the ship is en route to the next destination. If you’re going through central Europe on a motor coach or train, you’re traveling during the day. On the ship you wake up in a new town, go out and explore it, come back to the ship for lunch, then cruise to another town. There’s always something new to see.

Q: What about those bikes on your European itineraries.
A: We once had a group of six women who planted the seed for guided bike tours. They were on a cruise in the Netherlands and didn’t take the daily sightseeing tours with us – instead, they borrowed our bikes and planned out their own routes, cycling to the next port and meeting back up with the ship. They did all the research themselves, which was a bit of work for them. So we thought, let’s do this for our guests. Now on every European itinerary (except Portugal) we’re the only river cruise line that travels with over 25 bikes stored on the ship. They’re completely complimentary and guests love being able to explore on their own or take a guided bike tour.

Q: So you’re giving it up for us gals here, right?
A: It was a great idea and we’re happy to give those women full credit! Women like to bike and they don’t want to have to carry their luggage with them or have a van follow them. Many of our ships cruise along the Rhine or Danube, both of which have paved bike paths along the riverbanks, completely separate from the roads. On certain days you can ride ahead of the ship, going through small towns along the way, and meet the ship in the next port. If the ship is in port all day, you can borrow a bike and sightsee on your own, returning to the ship later that afternoon. On our guided bike tours we have two guides, one who rides in front with the fastest rider and one who rides in back with the slowest rider. They’re there to keep an eye on everything.

Vineyards along Portugal's Douro River.

Vineyards along Portugal’s Douro River.

Q: What’s the most popular itinerary these days?
A: The most popular cruise for the company is also the most popular cruise with women, Budapest to Nuremburg on the Danube. It’s a great itinerary with Vienna, Budapest, a pre/post stay in Prague, and pretty little towns like Durnstein and Melk. Another popular one is our Paris & Normandy cruise. France is commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, and our Paris & Normandy itinerary includes some special excursions to the D-Day beaches. And we have a Knitting Cruise that sails over New Year’s in 2014, which is already 60% sold out.

The Danube.

The Danube.

Q: I don’t knit but it might be a good excuse to learn. Who’s the inspiration behind these ideas?
A: Kristin Karst, our Executive Vice President, is very creative, very active and she loves designing eclectic itineraries. For instance, she created a Chocolate Cruise where guests visit a castle, see how chocolates are made, and learn how to pair dark chocolate with red wine. Our culinary and wine tours are really popular. In Austria, guests on our wine cruises get to do a tasting of Sekt, the Austrian version of champagne, served inside a mountain cave outside the town of Schlumberger.

Up close and personal in Normandy.

Up close and personal in Normandy.

Q: You’ve added a new destination in 2014 that’s long been closed to tourists. Tell me about Myanmar.
A: It’s a niche market. We like going into destinations that are interesting to operate in. Our president, Rudi Schreiner, is a river cruising pioneer who loves going into new areas of business and designing ships that best serve that area. Our ships in Mekong are hands down the best ships there. Rudi is designing a ship for Myanmar, a beautiful small ship with only 28 suites. It’s the perfect size to operate on the Ayeyarwady River.

Q: For all its popularity, there’s not a lot of advertising for river cruising. Why is that?
A: We advertise in conjunction with retail travel agents and all of our business comes through them. We create a lot of educational tools for travel agents because it’s very important for them to understand our product and the exceptional value we offer. A good travel agent can point out the differences and benefits between competitors and help clients determine which river cruise is the best choice for them. The best travel agents are the ones who know how to match their clients to the right product.

Q: Younger people don’t typically cruise, are you seeing any changes there?
A: We’re seeing them in multi-generational family travel because river cruising lends itself to that type of vacation experience. For instance, teenagers or active folks can bike, their parents can go on a culinary tour, the grandparents can go on a leisurely walking tour, and then you all meet back on board to share a meal and spend some time together as a family.

You know, two years ago I went surfing in Indonesia and brought my family with me. We were standing in the airport and my daughters started complaining about the long flying time. My 16-year old turned to me and said, “Dad, we should have just taken another river cruise!”

Curious if a river cruise is the way to go? Learn more at AmaWaterways or speak with a travel agent.

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In Iran, You Had Me At Headscarf.

One of the largest squares on the planet awaits you in Isfahan, Iran.  (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

One of the largest squares on the planet awaits you in Isfahan, Iran. (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.  Destroy your reputation.  Be notorious.
–Rumi

“That movie was not a fair portrayal of the Iranian people. Everyone in there was angry or had a sour look on their face.  They looked scary.”

I was playing catch up with my nomadic soul sister, Suzanne Anthony, and we were talking about the film Argo.  She’d been to Iran and I was curious to hear about it.  Like the tales of a 1,001 nights, she had me at headscarf.

During the US’ war on Iraq, one of the many casualties was the looting of its museums. Suzanne figured that with the drums of war banging away, it might not be long before Iran was in its crosshairs. She’d always had an itch to see Iran’s famous, hand-painted, blue-tiled, honeycombed mosques, and she figured it was time to scratch it.

The beauty of the blue mosques.  (Photo credit:  Suzanne Anthony)

The beauty of the blue and white tiled mosques. (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

Suzanne’s a solo traveler but Americans aren’t allowed to travel to Iran alone. They have to go with a tour group. I had to admit, it’s not every day you see vacations to Iran marketed. “I don’t think it’s something the market will bear because people are terrified of going. It’s all fear. Look what happens when you tell people you’re going to Mexico,” she said. “The media doesn’t help.”

She got her visa and chose GAP, a Canadian tour company because the travelers they attract are younger and adventurous, more the backpacker type than the academic and older folks that book with US tours and do everything together. Her fellow travelers were Australian, Romanian and New Zealanders, and their Iranian tour guide allowed them to cut loose during the day.

She flew to Tehran alone but admits to being weirded out as the plane descended and a flight attendant announced, “By decree of Islamic law, all women must cover their heads.” Her nerves grew a bit more frazzled when she learned that US citizens must be fingerprinted. “The first thing the immigration guy said to me was, ‘Welcome, welcome! I love America. USA good. Welcome.’ He could barely speak English but he could tell I was nervous,” Suzanne said. From that point on, the little fear she had disappeared.

A big attraction traveler, Suzanne went for those blue-tiled mosques but what the attraction became when she arrived were the people. “It’s a very young group. They work very hard to let you know that they’re cultured. So they always want to talk about music and poetry. The Persian poets like Rumi from old Persia.” Music’s important too but Western music is stifled. She told of guys dressed like punk rockers in skinny jeans with spiked hair. Of one listening to his iPhone who asked her, “Do you like rock n roll?” She replied, “Yes, I love rock n roll.” He got wide-eyed and whispered, “I do too but here it is forbidden.”

And what about those headscarves?

What to wear? (Photo credit:  Suzanne Anthony_

What to wear? (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

“It was funny for me that the headscarf is a very powerful symbol that people fear. Women are asked to take them off in the US and women are asked to put them on there. We’re so focused on the power of a headscarf.” She remembers a gorgeous woman who stopped to ask her what she thought about wearing the headscarf and she answered, “I respect your customs and I’m willing to do it to visit your country. What do you think about it?” The woman wore a purple scarf, tossed it over her shoulder and said, “My god does not care about such things.”

On a visit to the holy city of Mashhad, all the women on the tour had to sport a chador, the black robe that covers you from head to toe. A bit freaky at first, they got over that feeling quickly when the Iranians looked at them and giggled. Blending in among a sea of black was an experience Suzanne had never had. She felt a huge energy shift. “All of a sudden you’re one of them now. You’re not the lone vanilla scoop in a chocolate sundae. You’re swept up in that mystique.”

The hospitality also blew her away. “They’d say, ‘Can you come to my house for tea?’ The whole Muslim culture is very much based around hospitality, that if you have a guest in your country it’s considered a gift. You’re considered a guest of honor.” These aren’t things we hear about in the media. Suzanne constantly met people throughout the towns she visited who’d say to her, “America very good.”

They’d also ask a lot of questions but there was one in particular that gave her a lump in her throat. “What does America think about us?”

“You don’t want to answer that question. So I just said people don’t know very much about you, they’re afraid of the government. One woman said, ‘Our government is crazy.’ And I said, our government is crazy too. They’d go on to say, ‘I hope someday our countries can be friends.’”

She went for the blue tiled ceiling but found so much more.  (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

She went for the blue mosques but found so much more. (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

Isfahan, with one of the largest squares in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, was her favorite city. Travelers flock there for the Iranian and Islamic architecture, art, history, and parkland. But it was the blue mosques that she couldn’t wait to see. “I’m just crazy about those because you go inside these mosques and the ceiling’s are all honeycombed. Just to walk through a giant mosque and have every surface around you in these blue and white tiles is just beautiful. I couldn’t seem to get enough of those.” She came to feel the same way for the mirrored mosques. She also fell in love with the city of Shiraz with its poets’ shrines.

They visited a caravanserai, a sort of open-air dinner theatre in the desert. It turned into a wild and memorable experience when an Iranian tour group arrived and threw the party of all parties. “They threw upon the doors and dragged us into their party. Before you know it, we were all dancing. It was wild, the headscarves started to loosen and come off and everybody was on the dance floor. As quick as they blew in on their tour bus, they were gone and we were all stupefied. It was like prohibition. Here they were out in the desert and they were breaking all the rules.”

Oh what a night! The caravanserai courtyard.  (Photo credit:  Suzanne Anthony)

Oh what a night! The caravanserai courtyard. (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

Suzanne thinks it would be an amazing thing for more Americans to visit Iran. Why? Because she thinks if you open up your mind and your heart, it’ll be an enriching experience like no other. “I was relieved to not have everybody be right who thought something bad was going to happen to me there,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Go and see it for yourself.” Another plus, women don’t have to pack much because nobody’s really going to see you!

My nomadic soul sister, Suzanne.

My nomadic soul sister, Suzanne, chills at the caravanserai.

I’ve barely scratched the surfaced here. Visit Take To The Highway to get all the details behind Suzanne’s incredible journey in Iran and to follow her other trails.

Island Hopping.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.  (Photo credit:  Brendan Vacations)

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. (Photo credit: Brendan Vacations)

One of the gifts of working in travel is the wide network of colleagues you meet along the way.  Across air, car, cruise, destinations, hotels, travel advisors, tour companies, and event specialists—we’ve cumulatively traveled the globe!  So it’s always a treat when you run into each other because chances are someone will have just returned from a trip.  One of the features of Ports Are Calling will be a Q&A with industry insiders—or people who have a thing for travel—to spread the word, share a moment or shine a light on a particular destination or travel experience.   I recently caught up with Catherine Reilly, Managing Director, Brendan Vacations, Ireland.  When she’s not crisscrossing her motherland, Miss Reilly can often be found hiking near Lake Como or exploring a new destination experience.  Because she’s blessed to travel so much, she considers herself a “privileged delinquent” and it was good to learn about her recent visit to Easter Island.

Rapa Nui view from the top.  (Photo credit:  Explora lodge, Rapa Nui)

Rapa Nui view from the top. (Photo credit: Explora lodge, Rapa Nui)

Q:   What inspired you to travel to Easter Island?
A:   I’ve visited South America several times, places like Machu Picchu, Patagonia, Galapagos  Islands, the Amazon Rain Forrest, Iguassu Falls, and the wonderful cities of Santiago, Quito, Rio De Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Lima and more. I love this continent and this time a visit to Easter Island fitted nicely into my travel plans.

Q:  So you obviously have a thing for South America.  What is it about that continent that attracts you?
A:  Reading about South America as a child I think I was first attracted by the wonderful place names, Paraguay, Uruguay, Patagonia, and Lake Titicaca.  Now as a traveler I am inspired by its ancient civilization and culture, that’s what draws me back again and again. 

Q:  Do you think that might have something to do with the ancient history that’s in your bones as an Irish woman?
A:  In Ireland all around us we witness our ancient civilization.  At Newgrange for example we have a structure built thousands of years ago that remains today. At Machu Picchu the ancient civilization of the Incas is powerfully presented to us and through the statues on Easter Island we learn about the ancient Polynesians.  The debate continues as to whether these structures, temples, monuments were built to venerate their dead or worship their Gods, or were there other reasons? That said, the fascination is with the people who built these amazing places and things with such engineering skills, knowledge of geometry, astronomy, and respect for their environment. Today we visit, stand in awe and remind ourselves they didn’t have metal yet!

Unfinished Moai.  (Photo credit:  C. Reilly)

Unfinished Moai. (Photo credit: C. Reilly)

Q:  What about Easter Island surprised or fascinated you?
A:  The locals refer to their island as Rapa Nui and you visit to see the Moai (not statues). Interestingly, ‘Rapa Nui’ is the name of the country and the local language and ‘Rapanui’ refers to the people.  The island is so small, about 26 miles long. The biggest attraction is, of course, the Moai, there are so many of them and they are all over this little island and they’re so big.  They’re not protected in any way, so the island relies on the visitor to treat these treasures with respect. What’s fascinating is not just the monumental stonework and the amount of effort it took to build the Moai, there is also the mystery of why the islanders toppled them all over.

The Moai.  (Photo credit:  C. Reilly)

The Moai. (Photo credit: C. Reilly)

Q:  They’re statues but the Moai sound like more of a presence?
A:  Oh, absolutely, yes, the energy on the island is amazing.  It’s like when I walk around some places in Ireland, I feel like I’m walking in the footsteps of my ancestors.  There is a presence on Easter Island and when you visit Rano Raraku, the quarry where there’s something like 400 of these statues still there in various stages of carving, some are half-finished and some are just heads, it’s like one day, the people making them just all up and left.

Easter Island.  (Photo credit:  Brendan Vacations)

Easter Island. (Photo credit: Brendan Vacations)

Q:  Aside from the Moai, were you drawn to any particular part of the island?
A:  My favorite place on the island was the Rano Kau, a crater shaped like an amphitheater. When I arrived at the crater it was clear just how remote it all is, truly wonderful, you’re just surrounded by the big, blue ocean.  The island is Ireland green, and the ocean around it is all different kinds of blue and turquoise, and every time you look at it you can see a different color.

Catherine at Rano Kau on Easter Island.  (Photo credit:  A. Reilly)

Catherine at Rano Kau on Easter Island. (Photo credit: A. Reilly)

Q:  How’s the island hospitality?
A:  It’s fantastic, super friendly.  The population on Easter Island is approximately 5,500.  It’s governed by Chili and 60% of the islanders are Rapanui, and the rest are from the mainland. Most of our guides were Rapanui and they were all very proud to share their stories.  The islanders are extremely welcoming. The post office will even stamp your passport with a Rapa Nui stamp!

Q:  Where did you stay?
A:  I stayed at the Explora lodge, which is five miles from Hanga Roa, where 95% of the population lives and the only place on the island with electricity and running water. There are hotels, restaurants, mini markets and the usual souvenir shops. The local currency is the Chilean peso but you can easily use US dollars. 

Q:  How’s the local cuisine?
A: The food was excellent, great variety, with lots of fresh fish and vegetables. It was all very tasty and healthy. 

Q:  Any interesting experiences?
A:  One of the traditions on the Island is a triathlon with the difference being that it takes place during the Tapati festival in February. It’s only open to Rapanui men, and one of our guides participates each year so it was interesting to hear about it from his perspective. It’s a race that requires extreme stamina. The contestants paddle across the lake 650m in canoes made out of reeds. They then pick up enormous heads of bananas and run one and a half times the circumference of the lake. They then swim and surf across the lake atop a reed surfboard. The men are very scantily clad for this competition.

Q:  How many days do you recommend to visit and what time of the year is the best to go?
A:  I travelled there with LAN, a South American Airline from Santiago.  The flight was just under six hours and there’s daily service. I travelled in the off-season in April, there was some rain but I was able to see the Moai practically alone. It’s quite remote, the island is situated in the Pacific Ocean, half way from the coast of Chile and Tahiti, three full days are a must. The Tapati Festival happens in February and that’s peak time to visit.

Q:  Most people over pack for trips, what do you recommend for an Easter Island visit?
A:  You’re visiting a special place that so few others have ever set foot, so bring an open mind.  After that, all you need is casual clothes and comfortable walking shoes—something closed toe is good, not flip-flops or sandals. High season is January through March but the weather is fairly good for the remainder of the year, so I’d recommend sunscreen and a hat.  Pack a light rain jacket for an off-season trip.  It’s an island so there are beaches where you can swim, and for divers there are caves to explore.  Make sure you have plenty of memory card space and batteries for your camera.

Q:  Why should people visit Easter Island?
A:  Because it’s one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world with a unique history and archaeological wealth greatly disproportionate to its size. A visit to the island will unlock some of the mysteries associated with Rapa Nui, sort out the facts and fiction.  

Q:  Do you recommend hooking a visit to Easter Island onto any other destinations?
A:  For sure—Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil.  Chile and Easter Island for example.  Chile is home to some of the most beautiful and exotic scenery in the world, from the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, to the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park in the Extreme South, not far from Antarctica, to the beautiful city of Santiago and the nearby vineyards—the itinerary choices we can design here are as diverse as they are endless.  Brendan’s team, Boutique Journeys, creates amazing South American itineraries and extensions to Easter Island.

Empire of the Incas, Peru.  (Photo credit:  Brendan Vacations)

Empire of the Incas, Peru. (Photo credit: Brendan Vacations)

Q:  Easter Island is considered something of a “bucket list” destination.  How popular is it for Brendan customers?
A:  It used to be difficult to get there but flights have increased and it’s becoming more popular for us each year. When you consider that only a total 4,000 travelers visited the island in 1989 from all over the world and in 2012 that number increased to 85,000.  That’s still a small number in global tourism terms, but when you think of the size of the island and the number of inhabitants a different picture emerges.  If tourism continues to grow, they’re going to have to protect the island in some way because it’s a heritage site. They will probably have to restrict visits, like they do on the Galapagos and on the Inca trail. It’s not a place that you can get to easily so the folks who book with us tend to have a traveler, not a tourist, mindset. They’re not looking for the creature comforts—they’re looking for an experience.  The Brendan team does an excellent job in managing expectations and matching the needs of the customer with the experience

Q:  So it sounds like the ideal thing would be to figure which South American country you’d like to explore and build Easter Island into the itinerary.  If anyone is interested in booking a trip with Brendan to discover Easter Island, what should they do?
A:  That’s easy, they just talk to their travel agent!