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Exploring Alaska on the Wilderness Explorer with UnCruise (Initial Trip Report)

I’ve seen Alaska by tour, by train, by mega-cruise, and most recently by adventure cruising. If you want to EXPERIENCE Alaska, take a small expedition boat with UnCruise Adventures through the Inside Passage where you’ll be reminded at every turn that we are truly only guests in this Great Land. Hike, kayak, explore low tides, photograph bears, watch for whales. It’s impossible not to fall deeper in love with Alaska when you UnCruise.

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“If you feel like you’re being watched, tell me immediately,” said our guide.  “It’s actually true that the hair on your neck will stand up if a wolf is watching you.  Your body knows before your brain does.  So let me know.”

We glanced around a little nervously, and I asked: “Okay, so if we see a wolf, do we gather around you like you trained us to do for bear sightings?”

“Heck no, that doesn’t work on wolves. Standing still will just encourage it to come closer. We will stick together and calmly and slowly make our way directly back to the boat,” said our guide, and then marched on cheerfully pointing out the edible mushrooms peaking beneath the moss, the lichen dripping from the trees, the bear claw scratches on the trees, and the original wolf droppings that had prompted her lecture on being alert.  We scrambled to keep up, our rubber rainboots seeking traction in the squishy moss that covers so much of Alaskan wilderness.

I was on a deserted forest-covered island during my week on the Wilderness Explorer, an 70-passenger expedition boat sailing roundtrip from Juneau featuring two days in Glacier Bay and exploring some of southeast Alaska’s most remote waterways.  Most places in this area are inaccessible by road and so the water has been the major mode of transportation for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  There is no other way to experience the rich marine wildlife, stunning wilderness, and incredible animals that graciously let us become guests in their home for a few days during a trip to The Last Frontier.

The mega-cruise ships have a monopoly on advertising and would like to have you believe they are the only way to “see Alaska”.  But small boat cruises with an emphasis on active adventure are quietly gaining well-deserved recognition especially after last year’s events.  There are a myriad of ways to see Alaska, but if you want to experience southeast Alaska and not just see it, take a small boat.

UnCruise’s mission is to “provide our guests an enriching adventure travel experience and inspire an appreciation of local cultures and the natural world.” And indeed, enrichment and inspiration were around every corner during my Alaska trip. 

A highly skilled team of (mainly young) expedition leaders accompanied us on various excursions – their skillsets were awe-inspiring. For instance, one had led sea kayaking expeditions in Antarctica while another ran a full-time dog-sledding racing team in Alaska.   All were highly talented and had unique strengths that enhanced the passenger experience. Their passion for the outdoors, their impeccable safety training, their wealth of knowledge and eagerness to ignite a love of Alaska in their guests, were all truly inspiring.  It created a magical environment onboard, turning our group of strangers into a band of explorers bonded together through this experience.

It’s hard to envision what it means to be on an expedition/adventure cruise “with no ports” till you’re actually on it.  UnCruise was inspired by and designed for “people who don’t like cruising” and so there is much that is different from traditional big-ship cruising.  There are no casinos, no Broadway shows, no assigned seating at dinner or dress codes. Most of UnCruise’s itineraries in Alaska only start and end in towns and then are truly in the wilderness for the rest of the week. They also have itineraries in Baja California, Hawaii, the Galapagos, Belize, and Costa Rica!

Yet the lack of ports don’t prevent you from getting on land – it merely means you’re closer to wild Alaska.  Every day you have the opportunity to get onto land and explore – perhaps through bushwhacking, a term coined to describe hiking with no trail through fallen trees, tall grasses, muddy marshes, or up a steep incline, all in the name of adventure.  For a milder pace, try the beach walk or forest poke excursions, where guides will urge you to try to taste sea kelp or sea cucumber, or take a photo of you kissing the banana slug for good luck.

Skiff rides (inflatable Zodiacs) were also available every day, taking you off the boat towards the shoreline to explore by water, which is how we saw our first bear sighting on Day 3, a mama bear and her cubs staking out their claim near a river in preparation for salmon season.  And kayaks were also available almost every single day, both guided and unguided options.   Don’t worry, a Kayaking 101 class is offered early into the trip, allowing you to get comfortable and practice paddling before going out on a tour if you’d like more confidence.  I had a little trepidation since I was not an experienced kayaker, but after the beginners’ class I was in awe of how how majestic the fjords looked from my watery vantage point and knew I had to sign up for another kayak experience later that week in Glacier Bay.

I must admit I was a little nervous before departure on my UnCruise- I’m not unfit, but I’m also not a go-camping-every-weekend type of person. I thought I might be surrounded by 60 other passengers who had all climbed Mt Kilimanjaro or who regularly ran marathons or love climbing rocks with their bare hands, and that maybe I would be the least accomplished outdoors person there.

I didn’t have to worry.  While UnCruise in Alaska definitely tends towards the active & curious passenger, there were still a wide range of choices each day – you could take a skiff tour every day if you didn’t feel up to walking/kayaking. The passengers were a wonderful mix of ages and demographics and various physical abilities. The guides were always available for assistance or to give you insight on which activities you should choose tomorrow. For example, hearing me express concern about my fear of heights, the expedition leader made sure my assigned group for the glacier ridge hike was with people whose pace I could match and who wouldn’t mind if I needed to take it slow. (Spoiler: the glacier ridge hike was my favorite activity and I wasn’t scared after all!)

Lamplugh Glacier UnCruise

Some afternoons, some guests opted to enjoy the scenery from the bow or help themselves to the onboard library’s books.  No one forced you to do anything you didn’t want to do. I would say the only requirement would be mobility – this particular vessel does not have an elevator, and there are stairs required to step down into the skiffs and/or move about the boat.  The activities themselves were a good length as well – the pace of travel still managed to be relaxing, because since we were split into small groups for the excursions, not everyone could go out at the same time. 

Sometimes you might have a break after breakfast if your excursion wouldn’t depart till 10:3am during your UnCruise Alaska adventure.  Others might be the first excursion to depart after lunch, but would be back in plenty of time for showers, reading, investigating the snacks in the lounge, or taking a nap before dinner.  The time zone change for East Coasters like myself meant there were quite a few more naps than we had anticipated! 😉 There were almost always a morning and an afternoon activity offered and you often have a choice of 3-4 different excursions all designed for different abilities and tastes.  After the first day of activities, I was hooked.  Our interior room had a large window to the outside and I was even able to spot a bear through the mist right opposite us before breakfast one day.

Once we boarded the boat, we tossed our wallets in a drawer and didn’t open them again till disembarking.   Everything was included except staff gratuities – and I mean everything.  A glass of champagne at boarding and afterwards whenever you liked, daily skiff rides, kayaking lessons, guided hikes and beachwalks, hot chocolate for glacier viewing (tinged with Bailey’s if you preferred), warm cookies in the lounge every afternoon, open bar all day, interesting talks given by the guides in the evenings. Who knew a presentation on plants could be so funny and informative? Thanks Megan, I’ll always remember your opening line: “Everything in Alaska is edible…at least once!”

UnCruise Alaska kayaking

No other cruising style gets you on land quite as much as UnCruise in Alaska- and no other cruising style lets you experience Glacier Bay in the same manner.  Glacier Bay is one of the most beautiful places in North America – I had visited it before on a large cruise-ship, but of course never left the boat and simply enjoyed the scenery from my balcony. On UnCruise, while we certainly had the same scenic cruising  (and THREE bear sightings in the same day in Glacier Bay!), I also got to participate in a glacier ridge hike, climbing high next to Lamplugh Glacier by scrambling up a rocky cliff-face.

The same day, I kayaked close to the glacier face and a grey harbor seal popped his head up next to me to say hello. The stillness of the glassy water was broken only by the cracking of the glacier as it calved.  There was no noise pollution, no city lights, no loudspeakers.  Just nature and us tiny humans.

On our last night on UnCruise, as the ship navigated through Glacier Bay one last time before returning to Juneau, we abandoned our packing to rush onto the bow to a thrilling sight.  Humpback whales, who had accompanied us several times throughout the week, were there to escort us back to Juneau and swam with us for miles as the sunset turned the sky golden.  And suddenly we saw the orcas (killer whales), who the crew told us hadn’t been seen for five weeks. 

UnCruise Alaska orca

There were two orca groups, on each side of the ship, surfacing multiple times and playing with their prey.  We cheered on a lonely sea otter as he escaped their clutches and paddled past indignantly.   The orcas kept pace with us for an hour, then disappeared once more.   The captain of the Wilderness Explorer turned our nose for home.

This wasn’t my first trip to Alaska, and it won’t be my last, but certainly UnCruise transformed a magical land that I already loved by turning it into a fantastical world of bears, whales, glaciers, foggy mornings, and enchanting nature. I actually did try to persuade Mr TravelObservations to stay on for another week, but he seemed to think our cat might be miffed if we didn’t go home. 😉

As for the wolf, we never spotted him on that hike, although we knew he was there from the physical evidence, and he is probably still on that remote island we hiked on a mild afternoon in the Alaskan wilderness. UnCruise varies their itineraries each week and so we won’t know if another group will be hiking there again this summer. That’s the joy of small-boat cruising – aside from Glacier Bay on certain sailings, there are no firm promises about where you’ll go each day, as the captain will maneuver your route for the best animals, weather, and activity options.

There’s so much more to describe about my UnCruise in Alaska experience and I look forward to sharing further advice and tips about UnCruise in Alaska on my website soon. In the meantime, click the buttons below or scroll for additional blog posts to help inspire your next adventure.

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What to do in Central Portugal

Central Portugal is one of the most visited areas on day-trips from Lisbon, but it deserves much more than a cursory eight hour tour in just one day.  History and church lovers will delight in visiting the monasteries, cathedrals, and castles that abound in this lush, beautiful area.  If you’re interested in the history of the Knights Templar (and their Portuguese successors, the Order of Christ), this area is rife with locations built by/for the Templars – your imagination will sure to be inspired!  I’ve visited this area more times than I can count, and there’s still something new to be discovered each time.

Spending the night will allow you to stroll their streets after the day-trippers rush home.  For example, Obidos is extremely popular during High Season, but in the late afternoon as the tour buses leave and a magical sunset glow descends over it, spending the night in its castle-hotel and waking up to explore the cobbled pathways alone is a delight. (One of my favorite memories with my sister was staying at the castle hotel!)

The Central Region isn’t all history and cathedrals, though.  Plenty of outdoor opportunities abound for nature lovers including a national forest, a surfer’s paradise, and hiking on broad river pathways.  There’s also a significant amount of sites important to Portuguese Jewish history as well. Here are some highlights of this important region in Portugal, including some off-the-beaten path recommendations.

The standard tourist route through the Central Region is listed in the first paragraph below. I’ve written a tiny highlight of this route, and I must emphasize that these sites are popular for good reason and I would still include them in your itinerary – but I wanted to leave room to introduce you to some off the beaten path experiences you may not know about Central Portugal! Read on to find out more.

Batalha Central Portugal

The route of monasteries: a typical tourist route in Central Portugal

  • Batalha, Tomar, Alcobaça:  These are three of my favorite monasteries and cathedrals in all of Portugal, and worth adding to any itinerary.  Don’t miss the tombs of Ines and Pedro at Alcobaça, Portugal’s real-life medieval “Romeo and Juliet” who met with a tragic ending because of their love-story.
  • Nazare:  This surfer’s paradise sees waves from 70-100 high. It’s a charming place to get a coffee or have freshly-caught fish for lunch on the beach before driving onwards – or stay the night in the area if you’d like!  Nazare, Alcobaça, and Batalha, are all very close to each other so many people visit them in the same day if you are not spending the night. 
  • Fatima: A popular day-tripper destination, but one that holds a lot of reverence for those interested in a pilgrimage to one of the important Catholic sites in Europe. 
  • Obidos: This medieval town is still circled entirely by its fortification walls, of which you can walk the entire circumference (be wary of the sections with no handrails). It’s an extremely picturesque town, and being an hour from Lisbon allows you to head there directly after landing at the airport if you wish.  Or spend your last night in Portugal here if you have an afternoon flight the next day.
Nazare in Central Portugal

But if you want something beyond the typical tourist route…

Paiva Waterways

You can visit the Paiva Waterways in either a Central- and Northern- based itinerary.  One of the most beautiful rivers in all of Portugal, this area is a series of steps, rope bridges, and hiking trails along the riverbanks. These outdoor staircases take you past waterfalls and panoramic vistas overlooking the river. 

Paiva Waterways Portugal

It’s a very unique and special area – be sure to consult a map, or take a guided daytrip out there, so that you know if you’re hiking in the “hard” or “easy” direction!  Many tours will also visit Aveiro on the same day, a charming town fondly known as the “Venice of Portugal” due to its canals and gondolas. 

Serra da Estrela

The highest mountain range in continental Portugal, the name means “Star Mountain”.  This area has scenic drives and fantastic hiking, and even skiing in the winter.  It also has some of Portugal’s most popular cheeses and honey and other local cuisines.  It’s best to visit during late spring, summer, and early fall for the best driving conditions. 

Central Portugal Serra da Estrela

Coimbra 

“Portugal’s third city” is small yet vibrant with a growing tourist scene and a highly educated population, thanks to the University of Coimbra which proudly holds its titles as one of the oldest universities in Europe.  The library at the university is consistently rated “one of the most beautiful in the world” and is open to the public with timed entry slots. 

The music style Fado is also omnipresent here, but very different from the fado you’ll hear in Lisbon.  Here in Coimbra, fado is sung by male university students, and often was originally used to serenade girls at their windows or to declare hopes and dreams for the future especially upon graduating from university.  Ask your hotel about the best places to listen to fado, as many venues will include English explanations and discussions before the performance.  Don’t tell the Lisbon residents but I personally feel Coimbra fado is much more upbeat and inspiring!

Coimbra is also home to the romantic hotel known as Quinta das Lagrimas (Palace of Tears), built on the site of Portugal’s very own Romeo and Juliet – except this Romeo and Juliet is a true story, the story of Pedro and Ines, whose forbidden love ignited a war between a prince and his father.  Visit the fountain where Ines was murdered on the grounds of the Quinta das Lagrimas, and see the secret spot where she’s rumored to have left her love letter for Pedro. (I’ve stayed here – it’s a true highlight for any hopeless romantic.)

Buçaco Palace in the mountains of central Portugal is also a wonderful hotel to either stop for lunch or stay overnight in Central Portugal.

As you can see, a trip to the Central Region could take up your entire itinerary in Portugal!  You’re also able to easily combine several spots here with itineraries based in Lisbon or on your way to the North.  I hope this has inspired you to take a greater look at this beautiful region. If you’re interested in an itinerary that combines Lisbon, Central Portugal, and Northern Portugal, here’s a sample one.

Are you interested in planning a trip to Portugal? Check out my trip planning services page.

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8 Best Scenic Train Rides in Switzerland

What is the best way to travel and explore an incredibly vast and beautiful country like Switzerland, you may wonder? There is no better way than traveling by train, especially when there are so many options and routes and every route worth exploring. Some of the most scenic train rides in Switzerland are very easy to incorporate into your itinerary planning.

Beyond their sharp punctuality, surplus scenic routes, and friendly service, the Swiss rail system provides you with an amazing experience and panoramic views that you can’t get enough of. Whether you’re looking for day trips from Basel or traversing Europe by train, the views will never let you down.

From sheer mountain peaks to dramatic waterfalls and verdant valleys, several trains are available to take you through an incredible journey considered undoubtedly the most scenic. So, here are some of the best eight train rides in Switzerland. 

1. The Golden Pass

The Golden Pass is one of the most popular among tourists. If you want to experience the Belle Epoque vintage carriages and the old-world glamour, then this is the train ride that gives you all.

The class Golden Pass line runs between Lucerne and Montreux. This tremendously scenic route runs in three different segments and offers sweeping views of a total of eight glistening lakes and snow-dusted mountain peaks.           

You may not want to even blink once the entire route, but the Montreux to Zweisimmen segment is highly recommended. You can take this route in the Belle Epoque heritage carriage designs, designed after an Orient Express from the 1930s, or choose the panoramic modern carriages instead.

2. The Bernina Express

The Bernina Express connects Chur to Poschiavo and Tirano in Italy. It does so by passing the Engadin Swiss Alps. This train with red carriages takes you through a montage of panoramic views and is rightfully considered one of the best scenic train rides in Switzerland.

Scenic train rides Switzerland

The Albula Line and the Bernina Line in 2008 were jointly named World Heritage Sites. This four-hour of spectacular journey crosses 55 tunnels and 196 bridges.        

It also goes through the Bernina pass at the above level of 7,391 feet. The segment from Chur to Pontresina is the first section, and this is the part that includes the famous and the dramatic Landwasser Viaduct.

This is a single curving track made of limestone and includes six huge arches. This train route is hence considered the best and is the most popular in Switzerland. 

3. The Glacier Express

Slowest Express Train in the World, but also the most scenic; this train connects Matterhorn to Zermatt and St. Moritz in the Alps. This train also passes through most of the same World Heritage Site like the Bernina express.

Scenic train ride Switzerland viaduct

The train takes pride in the equally mesmerizing views while including the Matter Valley and Matterhorn, the sparkling river Rhone and through the town of Visp displaying the massive rock walls.

It departs from Brig, and since both the trains offer similar routes but different Vistas, often visitors ride both Bernina and the Glacier during their time in the country.

4. Jungfrau Railway to Jungfrau Mountain

The Jungfrau railway takes its passengers to Europe’s highest railway station, which is 3,453 meters above sea level. The Jungfrau mountain sits between the Eiger and Monch mountains.

And the Jungfrau line runs through both the mountains, which exposes the travelers to incredible sights. Once the train reaches the top point, you can see as far up to Black Forest of France and Germany on a clear day. 

This ride allows you to take a walk on the glacier and visit the world’s highest chocolate shop. On your way down, the train crosses the Lauterbrunnen village, where you can enjoy gorgeous views of a waterfall. 

5. The Transalpine (from Austria to Switzerland)

This is probably one of the underrated train rides in Switzerland. The Transalpine route goes from Innsbruck and Zurich. And it will be fair to say it deserves more love and attention. 

This EuroCity Express, unlike the others in the list, is not marked to be a sightseeing experience. Nonetheless, it is one of those train rides that will take you across awe-inspiring sceneries and landscapes in Switzerland and Austria, and even Liechtenstein.

The scenery outside is gorgeous but what adds to the experience is the first-class car. The giant windows allow you the full view that you can soak in.

6. Cogwheel Railway to Mount Pilatus

The Cogwheel Railway to Mount Pilatus is the ‘Steepest Cogwheel Railway in the World.’ The train takes you on a 30-minutes journey which begins at the Alpnachstad. The train runs during the months between May and November.

scenic train rides Switzerland

If you want to reach the top during other times, you can take the cableway or the aerial gondola. On reaching the top, you can visit the historic Pilatus Kulm Hotel. You can enjoy refreshments at their restaurant, or you even walk around enjoying the stunning views. 

7. Gornergrat Cog Railway

A marvel of modern engineering, this train allows visitors to experience Switzerland’s most spectacular panoramic views. The train starts at 1,603 meters above sea level near Zermatt and travels up to 3,089 meters in 33 minutes.

scenic train rides Switzerland

You get the view of the iconic Matterhorn outline and the surrounding glaciers and peaks. You can enjoy a leisure stroll enjoying a sample fondue maybe, and so much more.

While taking the route back, you can enjoy several restaurants and small bars on the car-free roads of quaint villages.

8. Erlebniszug Rheinschlucht

Imagine traveling on a train among the most beautiful nature and its views, and now imagine traveling on an open train! All the fresh scents and smells, different sounds of nature overwhelming your senses.

This yellow beauty is a different experience in all. It is a different aesthetic and is for you if you have a different taste from the AC compartments and prefer the more natural winds. 

However, the Erlebniszug Rheinschlucht runs only during the summer, which makes sense but reduces the opportunity. 

What do you think of these top scenic train rides in Switzerland?

So here you have some of the best eight train rides in Switzerland. This list has something for everyone: modern luxury, vintage carriages, open-carriage trains, and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.. All you need is to bring your camera and settle in for the ride!

How to plan your rail-based vacation

I work with rail partners all over the world to help secure your tickets up to 24 months in advance and to design itineraries that will thrill you. By working with me, you can rest assured your itinerary is perfectly customized to your wishlist and travel style. Head over to my train-travel planning services page or contact me to start the process.

Where-to-see-bears-in-Alaska

Where to see bears in Alaska

One of the main reasons to visit Alaska is to see the incredible wildlife, and at the top of everyone’s list are…bears! If you’d like to see bears from a distance, you may see them during a drive through Denali National Park or sometimes along the side of the road in certain areas.  

But often, these experiences are just fleeting. If your lifelong dream is to see bears feeding during the salmon rush, and you want to see the famous bears standing in the waterfalls fishing for food… well then, I need to make sure you know about the incredible bear-sighting opportunities available by taking a floatplane from Anchorage or other areas into the national parks nearby, such as Katmai or Lake Clark.

These stunning remote areas are home to hundreds of bears who all congregate during salmon season and are practically posing for pictures. You can do this as a day trip and fly roundtrip back to Anchorage the same day, or for a fantastic experience, you can stay the night in nearby wilderness lodges to get extra bear-viewing time.  

What type of bears are in Alaska?

Grizzly bears live in the Interior and Arctic regions of Alaska, such as Denali National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Park. They tend to eat roots, grubs, and small rodents, and because of the difficulty in finding an abundance of food, grizzly bears tend to be smaller and more aggressive than brown bears. 

The best viewing option for grizzly bears is in Denali National Park. Still, because of this vast wilderness landscape, sightings are not always guaranteed, and you might only be able to view them through binoculars from the park tour bus. 

Brown bears are found in Alaska’s coastal regions, such as Katmai National Park, Lake Clark National Park, and Kodiak Island. Imagine watching bears stroll along the coastline, catch salmon at Brooke Falls, dig for clams, or minding their cubs. 

If you’re wondering what the real differences between grizzly bears and brown bears are, here’s a great article from the rangers at Katmai National Park.

Where to see bears in Alaska?

For a popular “bears fishing” option, visit Katmai National Park’s Brooks Camp.  This is where you can take the iconic photos of bears in the waterfall catching the salmon. This may be the highlight of your trip to Alaska! Dozens of bears congregate here at peak salmon season along the Brooks River. 

Suppose you don’t have a lot of time or aren’t comfortable with close bear encounters. In that case, you can also observe all breeds of Alaska bears at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center south of Anchorage – it’s an easy stop on your way down to Seward or just as a day trip.

Other unique bear watching opportunities include:

  • From Anchorage: Spend two days, one night on Kodiak Island:
    Kodiak is the second-largest island in the U.S., behind Hawaii! Your pilot/guide will lead you to a safe viewing distance where you have ample time to watch and photograph bears. Choose between a rental car for independent exploration, or take a guided sightseeing tour to learn about native Alutiiq culture, Russian American history and get a taste of modern-day Kodiak.
  • From Anchorage: half-day experience at Redoubt Bay
    Redoubt Bay is one of the easiest and most accessible locations for bear viewing from Anchorage. This half-day bear viewing trip to Redoubt Bay Lodge provides an excellent opportunity for bear viewing! It’s easy to depart from Anchorage, and it’s a one-hour scenic flight by seaplane across Cook Inlet to the foothills of the Aleutian Range and the Lake Clark Wilderness Preserve.Upon arrival at Redoubt Bay Lodge, you’ll embark on a half-day guided bear viewing tour by pontoon boat to Wolverine Creek Cove. From the water, you can safely watch and photograph Alaska’s magnificent bears in their natural habitat. You will spend around 3 hours on the water while at Redoubt Bay.
  • From Homer:
    Enjoy a day trip out of Homer, Alaska, on a scenic flight by small plane, to either Lake Clark National Park or the east coast of Katmai National Park (this tour does NOT go to Brooks Falls). You’ll be able to see glaciers and volcanic landscapes during your flight.You’ll land on the beach and have around 3 hours with a guide to view brown bears in their natural habitat. Always from a safe distance, you’ll be able to see the bears fishing, digging for clams, grubbing for roots and grasses, socializing, and raising their young.

 

  • From Wrangell: Anan Creek Bear Observatory Tour
    Located in Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, 35 miles south of Wrangell, Anan Creek is a good option for travelers who don’t want to backtrack to Anchorage for their tour. A 45 to 60-minute jet boat ride will bring you from Wrangell through the Eastern Passage to Anan Creek. Since you’re on a boat, you’ll also have the opportunity to see seals, sea lions, dolphins, and the occasional Orca whale along the route.After disembarking your jetboat, you can walk the rainforest trail (1/2-mile) to the observatory platform. You’ll be accompanied by a guide at all times and given a bear safety briefing. You can view both black and brown fears fishing thirty feet below you at the river.

 

So, are you excited to go bear watching in Alaska? Would you take a day trip or want to spend the night in a bear-watching lodge??

Is bear watching in Alaska on your bucket list?

I hope you enjoyed these tips on where to see bears in Alaska. If you’d like more Alaska trip planning advice, enter your email below to receive a free PDF download. Or if you’re ready to get starting on planning an Alaska vacation, visit my Alaska trip planning services page!

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Rocky mountaineer trip planning

Rocky Mountaineer Trip Planning Checklist

So you’ve fallen in love with Rocky Mountaineer and want to take an amazing glass-domed train through the Canadian Rockies? It can be overwhelming to know where to start, so I’ve written a checklist to help you in your Rocky Mountaineer trip planning process! Sign up below to receive these tips as a beautiful PDF.

One of the most stunning locations in North America, the Canadian Rockies are home to five national parks and are considered a UNESCO heritage site. Rocky Mountaineer is a luxury train company that organizes tours and train trips along the 1885 Canada Pacific Highway tracks. Rocky Mountaineer’s custom-designed, all-dome fleet ensures unparalleled views of Western Canada’s spectacular scenery through areas unreachable by cars or other tour operators.

Read on my step-by-step guidelines to make your Rocky Mountaineer trip easier to plan – scroll to read the article, or use the form below to receive it to read later!

Free PDF: 8 page Rocky Mountaineer 
Planning Tips! 

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Rocky Mountaineer Trip Planning step 1: Decide when you would like to travel 

Spring (April, May)

 

• Lakes, streams, and waterfalls swell, and snow dusts the mountains. 

• Bears lumber out of hibernation and birds begin nesting. 

• The crowds of summer tourists have yet to arrive

Summer  (June, July, August)

 

• Warm weather urges vegetation to flourish, and the days grow longer. 

• Baby animals emerge under their parents’ watchful eyes. 

• The rainforest is at its most lush and the arid desert canyons display an especially rugged beauty.

Fall (September, October) 

 

• The forests create a vibrant display of red, orange, and gold, mixed with evergreen. 

• Snow dusts the mountain peaks. 

• Animals forage through the wilderness to prepare for the coming winter. 

• The crowds of summer tourists wane in October

Step 2: Choose a route on the Rocky Montaineer

  • First Passage to the West (Vancouver to Banff or Lake Louise)
  • Journey Through the Clouds (Vancouver to Jasper)
  • Rainforest to Goldrush (Vancouver to Jasper via Whistler)
  • Circle Journeys – combine two rail routes to return to your original point of origin. 

Step 3: Choose a service level 

Silverleaf:

 

  • Single-level glass-dome coach 
  • Breakfast and lunch served in the comfort of your seat 
  • Two Hosts and culinary team member Outdoor viewing area
  • Hotels:   Accommodation is in a standard room at a comfortable hotel, with restaurants on-site or just a short stroll away.
Goldleaf:

 

  • Bi-level glass-dome coach 
  • Exclusive dining room 
  • Gourmet à la carte meals 
  • Large outdoor viewing platform 
  • Four Hosts and full culinary team
  • Hotels: Accommodation is in a premium hotel, with restaurants and other amenities on the premises.

*Note: Goldleaf hotels can be selected if you are traveling Silverleaf on the train, and vice versa. 

Step 4: Decide how you want to explore the rest of the Rockies once you disembark the train. 

  • Trains embark/disembark from Banff, Lake Louise, or Jasper.  From there you’ll hopefully spend a few days exploring the incredible Rockies before heading to the international airport!  Escorted transfers, tours, and self-drive packages are available to move between locations.  You can mix and match, for instance you can choose to take small group tours as a day-trip even if you chose self-drive, and any important attractions such as admission tickets to the Banff Gondola, a ride on the Ice Explorer at the Athabasca Icefields, or a cruise on Lake Maligne can be included ahead of time. 

Step 5: Choose the length of your vacation 

  • While an itinerary can be designed for as few as 5 nights, how much free time you have will be determined by the length of vacation you’re interested in.  Rocky Mountaineer has both “Short Journeys” and longer “Highlights” packages available. 
RM18_Onboard_GoldLeaf_Service_Platform

 

Step 6: Decide whether to depart from Vancouver or Calgary. 

  • All Rocky Mountaineer itineraries can be reversed – you can choose to do train first or train last.   If you fly into Calgary, you will do the “non train” portion first.  If you fly into Vancouver, you will do the train first. 

Step 7: Choose any add-ons if desired. 

  • Additional sightseeing in Vancouver including visiting Viictoria on Vancouver Island 
  • Wildlife Discovery Tours 
  • Meal plans and/or breakfast included available to add to hotel packages 
  • Sonora Resort pre- or post-stays with included flight transfers
  • And more! 

Step 8: Pack and depart! 

Work with your travel advisor to get packing lists and other important pre-departure information, then relax and enjoy your amazing vacation!

Ready to start the Rocky Mountaineer Trip Planning process?


I work with travelers from all over the USA to design and customize their luxury train vacation with Rocky Mountaineer. By asking a few simple questions, I cut down on the information overload and offer you my years of expertise to produce the perfect itinerary for your needs and make sure you are receiving the best value for your vacation. If you haven’t read it yet, you can access my article on “Why I Love Planning Rocky Mountaineer” here!

Rocky Mountaineer Trip Planning Lake Louise
Photos courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

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Planning Tips! 

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Portugal Douro Valley

What to do in Northern Portugal

Northern Portugal is a perfect region for travelers interested in adventure activities, winemaking, hot springs, and history. Northerners are proud of their culinary and historical heritage,  reminding visitors that Portugal’s first king was born in this region and that some whisper the food in Porto far surpasses that of Lisbon (but don’t tell the Lisboetas!).

In this article, I’m focusing on the incredible lands just outside of Portugal’s plucky “northern capital,” Porto. Spend a few days in Porto to shake off your jetlag – but to truly appreciate this region, continue north or east to experience some of the most stunning scenery and enchanting vistas in all the country.   

It’s almost easy to believe in magic as you explore mist-shrouded rock formations, stumble upon wild ponies next to hidden waterfalls, and visit ancient wolf-traps built by the Romans, still preserved today. Shepherds still disappear up into the mountains for weeks at a time, bringing their flocks down to greener pastures with the help of the distinctive Serra da Estrela dogs bred to protect against predators.  Or head to the sparkling, wide rushing waters of the Douro River,  “the river of gold” that has given birth to the oldest demarcated wine region in the world burst with vitality in the spring and summer. 

If you’ve previously ended your first trip to Portugal with an overnight in Porto after flying into Lisbon and working your way up through central Portugal (a common itinerary), here are additional reasons to return and discover the North in depth!

Geres National Park in Northern Portugal

Peneda-Geres National Park will wow you with its wilderness and beautiful vistas.  In the summer, jeep tours are available with kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and swimming in wild waterfalls. 

In the fall and winter, the park becomes somehow mystical with mist-filled mountain views and the hope of glimpsing the Iberian wolves or wild ponies that still live here.  Canyoning, rock-climbing, and abseiling are also available with local tour companies; horse-back riding can also be arranged.  

Roman roads and mile markers are still visible, reminding us the area is thousands of years old.   (Neolithic tombs are also present here.)  A quirky site is the village of Vilarinho das Furnas, a sunken town beneath a lake whose ruins are visible at low tide. 

Villages in this area will make you feel like time has stood still, with many still living in rock houses built by hand.  Due to some of the remote parts, I recommend English-speakers travel with a guide and/or take a tour to get the most out of their experience! You’ll get so much more out of the experience instead of trying to drive yourself.  (You can read my own trip report here.)

Geres National Park is only about 90 minutes’ drive from Porto, and even closer from some of the other locations located in this article such as Braga, so it’s easy to work it into a Northern Portugal itinerary no matter where you are staying. 

Wine tasting in Northern Portugal

Spend some days in the Douro Valley at the many wine estates that line this steep valley’s riverbanks.  If you don’t have a car, consider staying in Pinhao, which is on the train line and offers enough activities for a weekend stay as there are vineyards within both walking- and taxi-distance.  If you have a car or a private driver, or are open to private transportation through the hotel, your options greatly expand and there are some beautiful luxury properties available.  

You don’t need to be a wine lover to appreciate the beauty of this region.  Stay at the extravagant Six Senses Douro Valley Spa Resort set in the hills overlooking the river, with biking and picnics provided along the estate grounds, cooking workshops, and spa facilities that will rejuvenate you after a day spent on the road.  

In good weather, kayak on the Douro river or hike in the valley, or simply visit some of the historical villages if you’d like a break from wine-tasting. Some highlights of a day’s touring are: 

  • Amarante, the “city of love” (in the Minho region but very close to the Douro);
  • Lamego with its impressive theatrical 700-step outdoor stairway; and
  • Mateus Manor House, an 18th century Baroque masterpiece with fantastic gardens.

Note: Viano do Castelo is due north of Porto and located in the Minho province, well known for its vinho verde (young wine) – visit the Minho area if you’re particularly interested in this type of wine, as it isn’t produced in the Douro Valley. 

Wellness travel experiences in Northern Portugal

For those seeking to refresh both their bodies and souls, there are several hot springs sources in the north, and spa hotels have popped up accordingly.  Look for the Portuguese word “termas” (thermal) or “caldas” (hot) to alert you to public hot springs. 

Some of the best ones are the Termas de Vidago and you can stay at the lovely Vidago Palace Resort hotel to partake.

The Geres Thermal Spa has been used since the 17th century and could be worth a stop after a day’s activities in the national park. 

Historical towns in Northern Portugal

Away from the Douro Valley and slightly northeast of Porto, history lovers will delight in visiting both Guimaraes and Braga – often visited on the same day due to their proximity. Guimaraes, in particular, is worth an overnight stay if you enjoy a slower pace of travel, especially due to its beautiful convent-turned-hotel overlooking the city.  

While Braga is more traditionally both Baroque and Gothic,  Guimaraes has preserved its medieval center, so its architecture is quite different from many other towns in Portugal. It’s more reminiscent of German or Swiss villages.  It’s a pleasant town to explore both the tiny castle and the Ducal Palace. Afterward, partake in some traditional northern food in the outdoor dining in the town square. Guimaraes is known as “the birthplace of Portugal” as the first King of Portugal was born here. 

When to go?

Insider tip:  Out of all the Portuguese regions, this area receives the most rain and wind in the winter and can be ten degrees colder than the other southern regions.  Although Portuguese weather can be enjoyable even in winter, if you don’t like rolling the dice on rainstorms, it’s best to visit before the end of October or after the end of March unless you plan on many indoor activities. 

Are you inspired to visit Northern Portugal now? Sign up below to receive my other insights about the best places to visit in Portugal or visit my Portugal page.

Free PDF: “Portugal BEYOND Lisbon & Porto”

Sign up to receive this free 12-page guide of Portugal’s best kept secrets – more than 25 suggestions to inspire you to go beyond the cities for an exciting & unique itinerary tailored to your interests. 

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Portugal Travel Advising

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the fascinating geography, rich history, proud gastronomy, and authentic culture that’s available in Northern Portugal.  You could truly design an entire itinerary around this region. Not sure how to start? I’ve lived in Portugal and personally experienced how wonderful your Portugal trip can be. Learn more about my travel consulting here or contact me here.

Hawaii

Seven things NOT to do in Hawaii

Hawaii is such a unique and diverse vacation destination and US travelers are rushing to plan their trips there during this time when domestic travel feels “safer”.  After all, Hawaii can actually feel like an exotic, international vacation without ever leaving the good ole USA.  There is so much to do in the Hawaiian Islands – a wide range of activities and experiences – however I always like to share my top things NOT to do when visiting this fantastic vacation destination.   Here are seven things to avoid on your next Hawaii trip. 

DON’T try to visit too many islands in too little time!

Hawaii is not meant to be experienced in a hurry, so why do so many people want to visit all 5 major islands in 10 days?  Each time you switch islands, you basically use up a day of your vacation with packing, checking out of your resort, returning your rental car, early arrival at the airport, baggage claim, picking up your new rental car, driving to your new hotel, and settling in.

I recommend no more than 2 islands in a week (focusing on only one is even better!), 2 islands in 10 days, or 3 islands in 14 days to be able to enjoy each destination to the fullest.

DON’T assume that a Hawaiian vacation is like staying at an all-inclusive resort!

First of all, there is no such thing as an all-inclusive resort in Hawaii.  State law prohibits the inclusion of alcohol in a hotel room rate/package.  And, it would be pure torture to think that I had to eat all my meals at my resort when there is so much deliciousness waiting outside. 

The best case scenario is to find a good resort package that includes a wonderful breakfast each day and explore the many culinary options that are open to you.  Plus, Hawaii is an easy driving destination and some of the best experiences are found outside of the resorts.

DON’T ever turn your back on the oceanha!

The Hawaiian locals have the utmost respect for the sea and understand its power.  No selfie is worth your life when a rogue wave or unexpected blowhole decide to make themselves known.  Enjoy the amazingly beautiful waters of Hawaii in a safe and smart way and ALWAYS observe warning signs, flags, and lifeguard’s advice.

And “No Trespassing” means just that.  Don’t wander onto private land looking for a nice hike.

DON’T pack your stilettos and neckties!

“Formal” attire in the islands means putting on a fresh Aloha shirt and your best flip flops.  Men do not wear ties under normal circumstances and women can get by with sundresses and sandals. 

However, DO remember to bring strong, reef-safe sunscreen and your favorite sunglasses and/or sun hat.  The rays can be brutal and you don’t want to ruin your vacation with a killer burn.

DON’T forget to leave your road rage and impatience at home!

Life just moves slower in the islands, and you need to adjust your expectations.  NEVER honk your horn unless it is an emergency (soooo rude!) and always be generous letting locals pass you or letting people merge or turn into traffic, If it takes a moment for someone to acknowledge you because they are “talking story” with someone else, take a deep breath and smile.  Your turn will come!  And a meeting time usually means 10-15 minutes later.  Get used to it…you might even relax a little!

DON’T let a luau be the only cultural education you get!

Before you leave for your vacation, do a little reading on the fascinating Hawaiian history and culture.  There is so much more to Hawaii than the beach! 

Learn some much-used Hawaiian words and attend cultural workshops and classes that are often offered free at your resorts.  And, most of all – be respectful of the Hawaiian ways and customs.  Even though it is still the USA, you are a lucky visitor.

DON’T eat at a chain restaurant!

Please, do not join the 1 hour wait for that table at the Cheesecake Factory, or stop into Burger King for lunch!  You can do that at home.  The cuisine in Hawaii is one of the best and most diverse in the world, so take advantage of it! 

There is an incredible Food Truck culture with gourmet quality food at reasonable prices.  Some local diners/shacks offer the freshest seafood or most rib-sticking plate lunches you will experience.  Farmers’ Markets and road stands are all over with freshly baked banana bread, local fruits and veggies, and incredible just-squeezed juices.  Eat like a Hawaiian during your stay and you will thank me later!

For information about current entry requirements to Hawaii please visit this official page. 

Ready to start planning a trip to Hawaii?  Let’s start the conversation by filling out my trip request form. 

leopard on brown trunk tree

How to choose an African safari

An African safari is the epitome of bucket-list trips – yet costs vary widely and it can be so confusing for travelers to know what’s “worth it”. There are some nuances that will make your safari less or more expensive and you will have to prioritize your wishlist. Don’t get too caught up in slight cost differences between safaris before making sure you understand what it includes – it could be that one offers a much greater value than the other, based on my tips below.  Here are four key components that will help you choose an African safari.

Here are some differences to think about when choosing your safari: 

1. Choose your African safari destination 

Do you want to have a city & culture experience as well, or is your sole focus purely on animals?  If you want your experience to be 100% on the animals, then consider a destination like Tanzania or Kenya. 

If you want your trip to include cities and culture like restaurants, museums, non-animal focused touring, wine-tasting,  then consider a country like South Africa where you can spend several days in Cape Town and other areas learning about the culture & history before jetting off on an incredible safari. 

If you want to have a “relaxing” time after the upbeat pace of a safari,  then don’t forget to add on an escape to Zanzibar to enjoy the blue waters and fantastic culture on this spice island.  

2. Choose your lodging type

Are you the type of person who places great emphasis on the type of lodging during your trip?  For example, a “treehouse” style accommodation or upscale tented safari camps will generally take you into the 5-star category and the correlating increase in your budget.  By contrast, regular lodge-style safari camps are generally in the 4-star category,  and may offer buffets instead of plated meals for certain price points. (To be clear: your lodging will still be extraordinary at the 4 star level as well!)

Another item that can add to your budget is special requests.  If it’s always been your dream to have a sunrise hot air balloon over the Serengeti,  you’ll need to make sure you have room in your budget for about $500 extra per person.

3. Choose an African safari drive type

choose-african-safari-lion1

Although many of us assume safaris take place in “national parks”, there’s an incredible nuance here to be aware of.   Certain safari camps are located on private property which means they have more freedoms with safari logistics.

For instance, a safari located on a private reserve can offer safari walks with a guide on foot as well as nighttime drives to find animals by moonlight.  They can go off-road to track animals better and have more free-range.  By contrast, a safari on public land often is not allowed to go off-road and must stick to designated paths.  They also cannot have bush walks or nighttime drives.  If nighttime drives and bush walks are important to you, you should let your travel advisor know before booking so the best property can be selected for you.

Another nuance can be the size of the vehicle and whether it is “open-top” or not.  Some travelers prefer vehicles with no top so they have the ultimate freedom in photography and viewing.  Other travelers may have to use a traditional Jeep with a top, and take photos from the window only.   Finally, it’s important to find out if everyone in the vehicle will be seated by a window, or if there will be anyone “stuck” in a middle seat.

In order to see the wide range of animals and scenery on an African safari, many travelers choose to stay in multiple safari camps. Think about whether you would like to fly or drive between camps (certain distances may not even offer the choice of a drive) and bear in mind long drives can often be uncomfortable on bumpy roads.

4) Choose between “private” and “group” safaris

choose-african-safari-rhino

Many partners offer “group” departures as a way to guarantee specific dates and to bundle your costs more efficiently.  If the group departure meets your wishlist, it’s a fantastic way to get everything you want in one package.  Airfare from major US cities is often included.  This means the specific safari camps are chosen ahead of time,  and that your transportation between the camps is provided for throughout the itinerary. The package is sold to the general public with anywhere from 10 people to 20 people in the group. 

Your costs are slightly decreased because you’re not paying for private transfers on your own between camps.   Group departures are available anywhere from 4-star properties all the way up to incredibly luxe and dreamy camps!  Think of this as slightly similar to using a group tour to see Europe or Alaska – because of the bulk purchase, you may be able to stay at nicer hotels or have some curated experiences that would be above your budget on a customized trip – it’s the same concept in African safaris.  

By contrast, a “private safari” means that everything has been selected specifically for you.  Each safari lodge has been proposed based on your criteria – perhaps you have some special requests like a particular type of accommodation.   Bear in mind that while actually at the safari camp, you’ll still be sharing vehicles with other travelers during the actual day activities to see the animals, but your transfers between each location are generally private – which is why it can be slightly more expensive depending on the itinerary.  (By the way – ultra luxe camps do offer the ability to have a PRIVATE game drive every day, just you and your party.)

Of course, since this is such a bucket list trip, why not create your own group?  With as few as 6-8 people, you’d have an entire safari vehicle to yourself with private experiences during your trip and can customize your wishlist around your own departure dates.  It’s the best of both worlds – bulk pricing, but a highly specialized curated experience based on your wishlist.

Are you ready to start planning?

For your inspiration, here is a fantastic article written by one of my safari partners and published in Travel & Leisure: https://www.travelandleisure.com/trip-ideas/safaris/how-to-plan-safari-during-covid.

You don’t have to make all these decisions on your own. Working with a trusted travel advisor provides you with a “shortcut” to the best options for your travel style, wishlist, and budget. Learn about my travel services here or contact me to start planning the safari of your dreams.

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Portugal’s Alentejo Region: A Place Where Time Stands Still

This week I’m thinking back to my stay at the fantastic Herdade dos Grous (Estate of the Cranes), a working vineyard and farm in the incredible region known as the Alentejo, in Portugal.  The estate dogs followed me around as we hiked the property in the early morning, shrouded in mist. The afternoon sun warmed up the lake enough for kayaking and boating.

We biked to and from breakfast on provided bicycles and explored the vineyards with a picnic tucked in our bicycle baskets.  I had a wonderful private riding lesson at their stables.  We took an off-road jeep tour of the property that ended in a sampling of regional snacks and drinks.  And every evening we feasted on sumptuous local fare at the property restaurant that serves its own beef and wine produced a stone’s throw from the dining room.

Introducing…the Alentejo region of Portugal 

This area is truly a place where you feel like time stood still.  Choose this destination for relaxed travel, rural scenery, farm to table cooking experiences, sweeping plains of olive groves and cork trees, horse riding on traditional ranches, and stays on gorgeous estates with wine-tasting, bird watching, hiking, and other activities included.

The Alentejo is the region between Lisbon and the southern area known as the Algarve, but is one of the largest regions in Portugal, comprising 30% of the whole territory – yet only 7% of the population.

Here in the Alentejo, golden grains wave languidly in the breeze,  farmers still herd their flocks with their traditional methods, cork trees line the roadways, and olive groves dot the flat, straight plains.   It’s a slower way of life here,  with rich opportunities for immersive experiences.

Alentejo Reguengos

Due to its size and shape, it’s quite diverse, and while many people think of it as a dry inland area, it also has a substantial coastline with tourist-free beaches.

This is a region for those who love rural-based vacations, who want to eat the fruit of the very lands they’re staying in, who wonder what Tuscany was like before the crowds arrived. 

For a city-stay in the Alentejo: Evora

Evora in the Alentejo

Its best-known city, Evora, is considered the gateway to the Alentejo due to its proximity to Lisbon (90 minutes by car).  It well deserves its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.  Evora is a perfect city-stay for those who want to dip their toes into an Alentejo stay but who lack the transportation or the time to reach the more rural areas.

Evora has over 2,000 years of history within its walls – notably the Roman ruins of the Temple of Diana in its center.  If you’re not too spooked, check out the eerie “Chapel of Bones”. Visit local marble quarries or sample Alentejo wines either in town or on a daytrip outside to the countryside.  The Alentejo is fiercely proud of its wines, notably the red ones, and feel they are just as important a region as the Douro wine valley. The old town is a labyrinth of cobblestone streets, with history around every corner.

Archeologists may be interested to learn that the “Stonehenge” monoliths of Almendres Cromlech are just outside Evora as well.

Almendres Cromlech Evora

For rural tourism in the Alentejo:  the countryside

After your stay in Evora, head into the deep countryside to fully experience the Alentejo.  Many are in the Beja area but as the region is quite large you have a great choice of geography. Stay for a few days at one of the many estates (often called Herdades) designed for you to relax and enjoy the scenery around you.  Typical amenities include:  farm-to-table cooking, horseback riding, bird watching, wine tastings, biking around the estate, day-trips to local castles or towns if you have a car, jeep tours, lake kayaking and/or boating.

Insider tip: Summers in the Alentejo, particularly inland, are extremely hot.  I recommend making sure your accommodation has a pool if you’re traveling in July or August.

Due to the Alentejo’s size you have a wonderful array of options where to stay:  a luxurious 500-year-old convent turned into 5-star hotel, a castle-like hotel in the northern Alentejo with a spa and fantastic pool overlooking the plains, a 19th century farmland estate owned by the same family for the past two hundred years, wellness boutique resorts near the seaside, and more.

The Alentejo is also a perfect destination for travelers who may have fallen in love with Portugal on their first visit and ready to expand their explorations beyond just Lisbon and Porto.

Monsaraz Alentejo

If you only have a day-trip from Lisbon:

Evora, mentioned above, is reachable on a daytrip from Lisbon if you can’t spend the night, as it’s quite easy to access either by car or public transportation. Tours here can also include a stop at a Lusitano horse farm as well as special wine tastings in addition to exploring the historical center of Evora.

Arrabida Natural Park is technically in the Alentejo and easily reachable on a daytour from Lisbon.  This beautiful area with secret beaches and lush forests surrounding lagoons feels different from the deep Alentejo but is a wonderful area to explore, full of biodiversity.

Monsaraz

Where to stay:

  • Convento Do Espinheiro, Evora – luxurious 500-year-old convent turned into 5-star hotel
  • Pousada Mosteiro Crato – castle-like hotel in the northern Alentejo with a spa and fantastic pool overlooking the plains 
  • Sao Lorenco do Barrocal – located near Monsaraz, 19th century farmland estate owned by the same family for the past two hundred years.  Farm to table dining, horse back riding, vineyards, family-friend activities, cooking workshops, watersports on the nearby lake, and more. 
  • Quinta da Comporta – sublime, contemporary escape on the coastline, focusing on sustainability, relaxation and wellness

Are you inspired to visit the Alentejo now? Sign up below to receive my other insights about the best places to visit in Portugal or visit my Portugal page.

Blackberry Mountain

Best hotels and resorts in the USA to replace your international vacation 

Thinking about a getaway in the next six months?  There are an incredible number of fantastic vacation options right here in the continental USA.  If your nest-egg for your annual European vacation has gone unused this year, why not think about making reservations at one of these American properties instead? 

In this article I’ve assembled a list of some of the most fantastic properties for all styles of travel – seaside escapes, rural retreats, wellness-focused getaways, desert ranches, mountainous adventures, and more. 

Not finding anything that fits the bill?  Contact me for a curated proposal designed around your wishlist, budget, and dates. 

*Each US state has its own travel advisories and procedures for Covid-19 travel.  Each resort listed will also have its additional health and safety protocols.   Please consult the appropriate state, national, and property-specific websites and/or your travel advisor in order to make appropriate decisions before you travel.

Escapes By the Water 


Ritz Carlton Amelia Island – Florida 

A tranquil resort on Florida’s northeast coast, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is an invitation to escape from the outside world and discover a new one. Set along 13 miles of beachfront, the hotel is an exploration in coastal treasures including the multi-faceted flavors of both salt and infused bourbon, the meditative movements of a hammock massage and the unspoiled natural beauty discovered while kayaking the Intracoastal Waterway.

Inn at Perry Cabin – Maryland

The Inn at Perry Cabin is so cozy and relaxed, you’ll be aching to stay indefinitely. Set in a manor house in the resort town of Saint Michaels, this intimate retreat offers just 78 guest rooms, all with turned-wood New England beds, stacked with pillows and lighted by lamps. Each evening, your turndown service includes freshly baked cookies – a delightful way to end the day. The Spa at Perry Cabin is not to be missed; treatments are based on local botanicals, such as linden blossom, verbena, and black birch. Take time to relax in an Adirondack chair on the lawn and watch the boats cruise by.

Adventurous guests can sail the Miles River to the breathtaking Chesapeake Bay or visit Philips Wharf, a non-profit oyster farm that is helping restore the estuary and serves guests the freshest, tastiest oysters imaginable. Landlubbers can explore the gardens or hop on a bicycle and tour beautiful, historic St. Michaels.  Tennis courts and a golf course are also available.

Montage Palmetto Bluff – South Carolina 

Nestled along the scenic May River in South Carolina’s Low Country, Montage Palmetto Bluff is set within a vibrant 20,000-acre community between Hilton Head Island and Savannah. Providing guests access to all that Palmetto Bluff has to offer, the resort encompasses an extensive nature preserve, two picturesque villages featuring eight Southern-inspired dining options, a riverfront marina and a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course. The resort has beautifully appointed cottages, cottage suites and resort rooms as well as luxury two, three and four bedroom home rentals. Spa Montage is one of the top-rated spas in the United States. 6 on-property restaurants and a gourmet food shop all provide for an array of dining options from casual to exquisite. Multiple pool facilities, fitness centers and a movement studio with complimentary classes are available. Extensive activities are offered including: equestrian, boating, kayaking, 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course and croquet and tennis facility.

Grayfield Inn – Cumberland Island, Georgia

*Rates include breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. 

Cumberland Island offers 18-miles of nearly-isolated beachfront, 300-year-old live oaks draped with Spanish moss, crushed shell paths, and an abundance of wildlife untouched by the outside world. Greyfield Inn is the sole commercial establishment on Cumberland Island, giving guests an unprecedented opportunity to connect with nature at its most pristine. Bike on winding, live oak-lined trails that lead to historic relics and natural wonder. Swim and sunbathe on a secluded 18-mile beach. Kayak through picturesque Lowcountry marshes and discover wildlife never seen before. Explore miles of hiking trails. Get lost or tour the island with an expert naturalist. At the end of the day, unwind on the porch with a cocktail and recount your adventures.

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Back to Nature

Primland – Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia
Southern comfort comes with a shot of refinement at Primland. Here, it is all about the simple pleasures: spotting white-tailed deer on a woodland trail, fishing for trout in a babbling brook, riding horses through fields of wildflowers, climbing trees to get that much closer to nature. A massive, eco-conscious resort in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Primland never forgets its connection to the land nor its commitment to luxury, with its 51 rustically elegant suites, cottages, and storybook tree houses. There is also an 18-hole golf course, an organic spa inspired by Native American rituals, and Orvis-endorsed wingshooting.

Old Edwards Inn & Half-Mile Farm – Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina   
Old Edwards Inn and Spa sits atop the beautiful southwest plateau of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The acclaimed European style resort fills several blocks filled with amenities, music, dining venues and individually appointed guestrooms, suites and cottages. Meals at the onsite restaurant are sourced from The Farm at Old Edwards. Spanning four beautifully landscaped blocks in downtown Highlands, the resort is in the heart of a walking mountain town filled with restaurants, live and performing arts, boutique shopping and pristine outdoor recreation on the fun and scenic Southwest Plateau of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

At their sister property Half-Mile Farm, discover a Napa-style setting and inn surrounded by bucolic landscapes and mountain vistas on the outskirts of downtown Highlands, NC. For guests 18 and older, an expanse of green lawn and views of glistening Apple Lake welcome you, and luxurious amenities invite you to stay and indulge.  Feel at home in modern farmhouse guestrooms and rustic-luxe cabins with fireplaces, stylish comfy interiors, and balconies that offer tranquil views of the courtyard, lake and surrounding forest. Half-Mile Farm is a peaceful getaway where adults can relax and recharge in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

Blackberry Farm & Blackberry Mountain – Tennessee

*Rates include 3 meals a day as well as pantry snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, and non-guided activities. 

Blackberry Farm is a 4,200-acre estate nestled in foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee. The property has built a reputation as an unrivaled food and wine destination, providing farm-to-table cuisine and an award-winning wine collection of more than 160,000 bottles. Blackberry Farm’s passion for authenticity is expressed through its very own Foothills Cuisine®, which pays homage to local and seasonal ingredients, including those grown on the property’s garden. Guests also enjoy private fly-fishing, horseback riding, hiking, and more, to complement spa services in The Wellhouse at Blackberry Farm.

Blackberry Farm’s sister property, Blackberry Mountain, is no less stunning. In wild, imposing natural surroundings, the owners of Blackberry Farm have opened an establishment that prioritizes overall wellness, outdoor adventure and inner serenity. Rooms take the form of cabins and cottages designed with nature in mind, places to unplug from the world and reconnect with oneself.  Go mountain biking, rock climbing, horseback riding, and hiking on 5,200 pristine acres, more than half of which have been dedicated to conservation. Hike up or catch a ride in a house Lexus to one of the ridgetop cabins, or stay closer to the Lodge in a cottage made from reclaimed rock and wood – then admire the idyllic setting from your private patio or soaking tub. Find further serenity with an aerial yoga session, forest meditation, or holistic health treatments in the subterranean spa.

Salamander Resort & Spa – Virginia (near Washington DC)

Salamander Resort & Spa offers the refined sophistication of a luxurious country estate in the Virginia’s exclusive horse and wine country, just 40 miles from Washington, D.C. This luxury Virginia getaway brings together today’s sought after key elements of time-saving accessibility, authenticity of cultural and historical experiences, unique culinary and wine programming, and an innovative spa and wellness concept. Just 35 minutes from Dulles Airport, the 340-acre resort is located within the historic village of Middleburg, VA, which houses more than 100 unique shops, restaurants, surrounding wineries and equestrian fields. Their 14,000 sq ft stable at their Equestrian Center (riding programs available for guests) will be sure to dazzle the most avid horse-lovers.

The Inn at Dos Brisas – Texas (Hill Country)

Nestled between Houston, Austin, and College Station, Texas lies a culinary oasis where luxury meets rusticity. Upon the hills of Washington County, at the end of a winding road framed by lakes, wildflowers, and pecan trees, you’ll find the only Forbes five-star restaurant and Relais & Châteaux property in the state – The Inn at Dos Brisas.

After an action-packed day brimming with horseback riding, fishing and clay shooting, or a quiet escape full of yoga, couples’ massages and food and wine classes, guests from both ends of the spectrum come together to dine in the only Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant in Texas. Our renowned restaurant features fresh produce picked just for you from our extensive certified organic gardens and greenhouses. The cuisine is artfully plated and expertly paired with wine from around the world, thanks to our in-house sommelier. Following dinner, stroll back to your opulent casita or hacienda, unwind by the fire or take a dip in your private plunge pool—all while enjoying the postcard-worthy vistas. Whether you’re in the mood for a family trip, romantic retreat, or last-minute getaway, our staff will ensure your stay at Dos Brisas is an exceptional one.

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Wellness, Fitness, And/or Spa-Focused

Lake Austin Spa Resort – Austin, Texas
*Rates include 3 meals per day plus snacks & non-alcoholic drinks, unlimited use of lake water sports equipment, unlimited smoothies and juices, up to 20 daily fitness activities, lake adventure outings, and wellness programs, and more.

Waterside luxury with the welcoming comfort of a friend’s lake house. Relax and rejuvenate on the lush, secluded shores of Lake Austin—perfect for a calming escape, but just 30 minutes from the excitement of downtown Austin. Nestled in the quiet serenity of Texas Hill Country, our all-inclusive waterfront oasis offers a true sanctuary for rest, renewal, and reinvention. Rediscover yourself and let the stress and demands of your everyday wash away. With only 40 inviting, uniquely-appointed rooms and suites, our focus is on providing guests with an intimate, customized wellness experience like no other. Come see why we were recently named the #1 Destination Spa Resort in North America and the #2 Destination Spa Resort in the World in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards.  Escape the demands of your daily grind and embrace restful relaxation in a way that only a private lakefront setting can offer.

Photos courtesy of Lake Austin Spa Resort.

Canyon Ranch – Tucson, Arizona and Lennox, Massachusetts

*Rates include all meals, non-alcoholic beverages, daily activities, airport transfers, and daily service allowance towards a wide range of experiences,  or choose the new “Pathway programs” with themed groupings of activities and experiences for additional value. 

Canyon Ranch wellness resorts offer an integrated approach to everyday wellness. Fitness experts lead daily classes and outdoor adventures. Gourmet chefs prepare fresh, energizing cuisine. Demonstrations and daily lectures equip guests with tools to take home. Board-certified physicians and spiritual specialists care for mind and spirit. Cultivating a personalized and preventative experience, Canyon Ranch wellness resorts cater to the individualized needs of every guest.

TUCSON: Founded in 1979, Canyon Ranch in Tucson is a year-round luxury vacation destination dedicated to life enhancement. It is located on 150 lush desert acres in the foothills of Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains and accommodates 240 guests.

LENOX: Canyon Ranch in Lenox opened in 1989 and is nestled among 120 woodland acres just 150 miles from New York City and 130 miles from Boston. The historic Bellefontaine Mansion serves as the architectural focal point for the property and houses the Health & Healing Center. The property accommodates 200 guests.

Whether you are in need of a full lifestyle reset or a digital detox, Canyon Ranch experts have created a range of focused Pathways to help you find what you need now to pursue your best life. Pathway programs include Lifestyle Reset, Reconnect With Joy, Transition Purposefully, Personal Discovery, Optimal Health Exploration and Outdoor Escape. Whether you choose to visit Canyon Ranch in Arizona or the Berkshires, the Pathways experience you choose will lead you somewhere meaningful, positive, and empowering.

Photos courtesy of Canyon Ranch.

Miraval Resorts – Arizona, Austin, & the Berkshires

*Rates include all gourmet meals, non-alcoholic beverages, nightly resort credit to use toward spa services & private sessions, complimentary airport shared shuttle service and unlimited access to daily complimentary wellbeing activities & resort amenities.

These wellness resorts can be found in Arizona, Texas, and Massachusetts.  Miraval is a top-rated, all-inclusive destination resort and spa dedicated to helping guests live life in the moment. It is consistently ranked as one of the world’s top destination spas by top travel and lifestyle publications.

Opened in 1995, Miraval Arizona pioneered the destination well-being spa resort category with its comprehensive program of activities, experiences, and personal treatments. Miraval’s core is mindfulness, and its motto, “life is better when in balance”, guides each visit. Activities include fitness, meditation, yoga, well-being, equine, hiking, biking, and metaphysical exploration.

The Lodge at Woodloch – Poconos, Pennsylvania 

*Rates include 3 meals per day, outdoor adventure excursions, group fitness classes, speakers and workshops, hydrotherapy sessions, and more. 

Overlooking Little Teedyuskung Lake in northeast Pennsylvania, the spa at The Lodge at Woodloch has been exalted as one of the world’s best. And guests praise The Lodge for its cozy accommodations (most are equipped with private verandas, oversized showers and marble baths). Recent visitors can’t stop raving about the warm, welcoming staff as well as the wide array of on-site activities, which include everything from yoga and tai chi to cooking demonstrations and art classes. And then there’s the spa: This oasis provides pure relaxation. Indulgent travelers soak up in the Aqua Garden and then lounge on the rocking chairs that speckle the nearby terraces. And if you’d rather clear your head on the greens, the Country Club at Woodloch Springs is the spot for you. After a long day of hitting the links, savor tasty culinary delights at TREE, the Lodge at Woodloch’s organic-oriented dining venue.”

For a family-oriented resort, check out their sister property Woodloch Pines.

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Historical & mountainous

Omni Homestead – Hot Springs, Virginia

Open since 1766, The Omni Homestead is one of America’s most storied resorts, offering unparalleled hospitality and southern charm in a 2,000-acre setting within the Allegheny Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Renowned for its natural hot springs, The Homestead is distinguished by 483 luxurious guest rooms and suites, 72,000 square feet of meeting space, a wide array of fine and casual dining choices, an expansive spa, championship golf courses that include one of the nation’s finest mountain courses (The Cascades), Allegheny Springs, a two-acre family-friendly water attraction complete with lazy river, water slides and water play zone. The resort also offers the South’s first downhill ski area, an Equestrian Center, top-rated Shooting Club, archery, canoeing, falconry, Segway tours and a wealth of other recreational attractions.

Photos: The Omni Hotels & Resorts Media Library

The Greenbrier – West Virginia

The Greenbrier’s stately grandeur is unmistakable –sprawling Georgian architecture, meticulously manicured gardens, ballrooms, sweeping staircases and lavishly distinctive décor draping every surface.  It is a timeless classic that maintains a high standard of elegance while catering to the expectations and creature comforts of twenty-first-century travelers. 

A scenic and picturesque setting, The Greenbrier resort is located in the Allegheny Mountain range that flanks the eastern seaboard. In its earliest days before the Civil War, American gentry was lured by the cool summer breezes and restorative mineral waters that bubbled up from these mountains.  Drive through the main gate today, and you’ll immediately feel whisked back to grander times. Long-honored traditions and a checklist of “holiday” must-haves have shaped these 11,000 acres into a vacation paradise–spacious accommodations, private estate homes, boutique shopping, golf courses, pools, tennis courts… everything that you would expect from a destination resort.

Omni Grove Park Inn – Asheville, North Carolina 

Serving guests for over a century, The Omni Grove Park Inn welcomes you with a tradition of southern hospitality amidst the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Relax in our unique subterranean spa with an indoor pool or enjoy a round of championship golf on our Donald Ross-designed course. When it’s time to dine, enjoy one of our four locally-sourced restaurants. Then, retreat to stylish 5 star hotel rooms with stunning views and plush bedding. We know you’ll enjoy the classic comfort and modern convenience of our resort. Noted for its understated elegance and southern charm, ten U.S. Presidents and countless luminaries from the worlds of art, entertainment, sports and politics have stayed at this one-of-a-kind hotel. Offering sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, innovative and locally sourced restaurants, a Donald Ross designed golf course, an expansive tennis and fitness center, an award winning spa and spacious convention facilities. This AAA Four Diamond Property is listed on Fodor’s “Top 10 Luxury Spa Resorts” and Travel + Leisure’s rankings of “Top Spa Resorts” in the world.

Photos: The Omni Hotels & Resorts Media Library

Western Adventures

Lodge at Blue Sky – Park City, Utah

The Lodge at Blue Sky, Auberge Resorts Collection, is a contemporary luxury resort set on a 3,500-acre ranch near Park City, Utah. Blue Sky is the ultimate outdoor playground offering guests transformational Western-inspired experiences year-round. The accommodations are designed to mirror the unique aspects of the environment on which they are situated and offer guests another powerful opportunity to reconnect with nature.

Amangiri – Southern Utah

Amangiri (which means peaceful mountain) is located on 600 acres in Canyon Point, Southern Utah. The resort is tucked into a protected valley with sweeping views towards the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Built around a central swimming pool with spectacular views, the resort blends into its dramatic surrounds of deep canyons and towering plateaus. Amangiri’s Aman Spa features a floatation therapy pavilion, a water pavilion with sauna, steam room, cold plunge pool and step pool, a fitness centre and a yoga pavilion.  Note:  They have a sister property Amangani in Jackson Hole.

Four Seasons Teton Village – Jackson Hole, Wyoming 

Located only one mile from the entrance to Grand Teton National Park, guests can enjoy easy park access complete with summer park packages that include passes and the option of to-go picnics. In the winter the location of the base camp ski concierge takes skiing to a whole new level of ease. Guests enjoy on-property demo level rentals, ticket purchasing options and retail for the left behind items. The unique naturalist packages bring guests a bit closer to the magic of the valley with the stargazing experience, wildlife safaris and exclusive fly fishing tours.  Fuel up with a hearty breakfast at Westbank Grill before your morning ski, hike, bike, raft – you name it – then come back for a soothing massage in our Spa or a soak in our year-round, heated pool before meeting for dinner at The Handle Bar. In Wyoming, evenings are for kicking up your boots and gathering with friends and family around the fire – and we’ve saved you a seat.

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© Don Riddle / Four Seasons

Bush Creek Ranch – Wyoming

*Rates can include all meals, horseback riding, fly fishing, shooting sports, children’s programs, mountain biking and trail programs, yoga sessions, and additional all-inclusive amenities

Experience the award-winning Brush Creek Ranch, an authentic western ranch resort destination. This truly magnificent luxury getaway is home to the Travel + Leisure #1 Resort in the US, #1 in the West, Top Family Friendly Resort and #14 Hotel in the World, the Conde Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice #3 Resort Hotel in the U.S. and the highly-touted Forbes Travel Guide Five Star Hotel.

Immerse yourself in the storied Great American West at our three, all-inclusive, luxury ranch resorts located in stunning Saratoga, Wyoming. Explore the North Platte River Valley of south-central Wyoming, nestled between the ancient Sierra Madre mountain range and stunning Medicine Bow National Forest.  Brush Creek Ranch offers 30,000 acres of a working cattle ranch. Surrounded by prairies, mountains, creeks and rivers, our luxury ranch is perched in the center of the true American West. Adventure into views, experiences, and moments that will leave you speechless.

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Photo by Josh Carter on Unsplash

Enchantment Resort – Sedona, Arizona

Enchantment Resort is located in Sedona, Arizona, 110 miles North of Phoenix and Scottsdale, and 114 miles south of the Grand Canyon. Surrounded by the towering red rock walls of Northern Arizona’s Boynton Canyon, Enchantment Resort combines the rugged grandeur of the Southwest landscape with equal parts luxury and Native American culture. The 70-acre resort is designed to embrace the awe-inspiring scenery with one-story guest accommodations and panoramic views of rock formations and pine forests.

The resort lies within red rock Boynton Canyon, a scenic box canyon in the Coconino National Forest. The destination appeals to couples looking for a romantic getaway, friends seeking an active or restorative getaway and multi-generational families wanting to reconnect in a place of stunning beauty. More than 100 weekly activities include guided hiking and mountain biking treks, and room keys provide guests with direct access to Boynton Canyon Trail adjacent to the resort. Guests also enjoy exclusive access to Mii amo spa and Seven Canyons golf club.

Photos used with permission from Enchantment Resort.

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All-inclusive Fun in the Sun

Club Med Sandpiper Bay – Port St Lucie, Florida 

Located along the St. Lucie River, amid wonderfully lush vegetation, Club Med Sandpiper Bay enjoys a delightfully tropical climate, a Sports Academy with top-ranked coaches, and an adult-exclusive infinity pool with a dedicated bar. This family-friendly destination is best enjoyed by active families due to the wonderful number of inclusions such as trapeze lessons and sailing lessons.  One of the few “all inclusives” in the USA that actually includes your alcoholic drinks as well – the other is The Bungalows, featured below. 

Club Med Sandpiper Bay

The Bungalows – Key Largo, Florida

All-Inclusive adults only (21+) resort offering a unique tropical experience set on 12 waterfront acres of lush landscaping with spectacular sunset views and approximately 1,000 feet of shoreline. Inclusions encompass Luxurious Accommodations, Unlimited Dining and Premium Beverages, Non-motorized Water sports, Daily Yoga Classes, Land Sports, Bicycles, use of Fitness Center, and much more.

The resort features multiple indoor/outdoor dining options, a waterfront tiki bar with direct sunset view, a boutique full-service spa, two resort pools, and water sports including kayaking, paddle boarding, tricycle water bikes, and the like. Accommodations feature 900 square feet of private indoor and outdoor living space, decorated with a contemporary “beachy” motif, and expansive private outdoor space. The outdoor area for each bungalow includes an ample private deck, a private outdoor garden shower and soaking tub, all set amid tropical landscaping.

Photos courtesy of the Bungalows Key Largo.

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Rocky Mountaineer’s New USA Train Route 

Finally, for a domestic vacation for train-lovers, consider Rocky Mountaineer’s new 2021 route from Denver to Moab.  The two-day train journey travels between Denver, Colorado to Moab, Utah with an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.  Glide over the Great Divide as you toast champagne among friends. Witness the enchanting hoodoos, spires and spectacular landscapes while learning the history of the region. Highlights from this route includes Mount Garfield, Ruby Canyon, the Continental Divide, Moffat Tunnel, Byers Canyon and Mount Peale. Experience all the breathtaking scenery while enjoying world-class service and regionally-inspired cuisine. Get the sense of adventure you crave, with the exceptional service you deserve on this journey of a lifetime. You can read all about in my article here.

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I hope you enjoyed this list of aspirational American vacations!  For rates and further details about any of these properties, please contact me so I can VIP your experience when you book through me.  If you’re not quite sure which one suits your wishlist, let’s set up a call and I’ll help you narrow it down!