Banff mountain town

Eight Things To Do in Banff

Banff is a fantastic town in the Canadian Rockies that’s well worth a multi-day stay, perhaps on your trip with Rocky Mountaineer.  Wondering what to do with your free time here?  Here are my top suggestions.   Please note:  I have not included certain activities such as an excursion up to the Athabasca Icefields or the Banff Gondola because these are often included in Rocky Mountaineer packages.  If you are not traveling with Rocky Mountaineer or you do not have these activities included, you should definitely consider adding these to your itinerary!

Banff Upper Hot Springs

Entry to Banff Upper Hot Springs is first come, first served. Reservations and pre-booked tickets are not available:

Bow River Canoe Tours
River Explorer – Big Canoe Tours: Enjoy the serenity of the Bow River and marvel at the surroundings whilst on a Big Canoe Tour. As you journey upstream, our guides will entertain you with stories of the past, history of canoeing and interesting local facts. Every tour includes life jackets and paddles plus instruction on how to paddle as a team.

Wildlife on the Bow – Big Canoe Tours: Discover life on the Bow River. Join us on an early evening Big Canoe tour and learn fun facts about animal habitats, behaviors and conservation. Escape the bustling Banff Streets and get back to nature. Enjoy paddling up the scenic Bow River while keeping your eyes peeled for some of the locals – bald eagles, elk, muskrats and maybe even “Barry” our resident beaver.

Kayak Experience: Join us on a group kayak paddle to explore the Bow River. Check out the local wildlife, capture that perfect picture in front of Mount Rundle and maybe even catch a glimpse of our resident beaver, Barry. Connect with nature and other kayakers as you enjoy the serene surroundings and picturesque views from Vermilion Lake. Our friendly hosts will help answer your questions and point you in the right direction.

Banff kayak

Hike Johnston’s Canyon – Upper and Lower Johnson’s Falls trails

The Roam Bus offers daily service from the town of Banff to Johnston Canyon from late June to mid-September. For the schedule and fares see: Banff Roam Bus Service To Johnston Canyon. There is no public transportation to the falls outside of this time frame. Booking through a company offering a tour to the area or taking a taxi would be the only options.

banff canyon

Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Cave and Basics Tour – Looking for a quick introduction to all the highlights Cave and Basin National Historic Site has to offer? Join us for this accessible 30-minute indoor/outdoor tour of the 1914 Bathing Pavilion and its many hidden wonders—from Indigenous significance and historic architecture, to a mysterious cave and the birth of national parks in Canada, to the tiny and endangered Banff Springs Snail.
Discovery Tour – On this stroll along lush marsh boardwalks, you will meet colourful characters from Banff’s past and learn why the Cave and Basin National Historic Site is the birthplace of national parks in Canada. Open your senses to jaw-dropping views and bubbling hot springs that have inspired people to visit this special place for millennia.
Natural History Tour – The unique Cave and Basin landscape has been shaped by three things: hot water, biology, and people. Explore the biodiversity of the wetland area surrounding the Cave and Basin, where snakes, fish, birds, bears, microbes, snails, flowers, and humans all share a connection with the thermal waters.
Thermal Waters Pass:

Banf ATV tours

Lake Minnewanka Cruise

Feel the fresh mountain air, watch for wildlife and get adventurous on Banff’s largest lake. Choose from one of our acclaimed cruises and explore under the lead of a knowledgeable guide on a heated, covered boat. Or set your own course with a kayak, canoe or motorboat rental.

White Water Rafting

Raft gentle Class 2-3 rapids with the family on the Kananaskis River, get more adventurous on Class 3-4 rapids on the Horseshoe Canyon or go deeper and bigger with up to Class 5 rapids on the Kicking Horse River.

Rocky Mountain Raft Tours

Rocky Mountain Raft Tours offers scenic guided float trips on the Bow River within Banff National Park.

what do in denali

What to Do in Denali National Park in Alaska

Denali National Park is probably one of the top destinations you think of when you hear “Alaska,” and for good reason!   It is home to America’s highest peak, Mt Denali, rising 20,310 feet above the Alaska range. It’s so tall that it creates its own weather system and is often shrouded in clouds – visitors proudly brag they are in the “30% club” when they get to see it as it’s usually under cloud cover 70% of the time.  

Most visitors want to see Alaska’s “Big Five” animals in particular: moose, caribou, wolf, Dall sheep, and the brown/grizzly bear. See all five in the park, and you score what is called a “Denali Slam.”   Unlike most wilderness areas in the continental USA, you don’t have to be an extreme backbacker in the remote wilds to see wildlife here in Denali  – you have excellent chances of spotting amazing animals even without sleeping in a tent!  

Here are some of the top activities to do in or near Denali National Park – linger a while here to appreciate this incredible preserve, and resist itineraries that have you rush your experience!  

Denali park bus

Bus Tours  

The park’s interior is strictly protected and to preserve its wilderness, only approved buses may transit past the 15-mile mark.  The road is 92 miles long into the park.  If you have your own car, you may drive as far as mile marker 15.  

There are two main types of buses in Denali – narrated trips (tour buses) and non-narrated trips (transit buses). In addition, a few free buses travel routes around the park entrance, connecting visitor centers and points of interest in the same area where visitors may drive their own vehicles.   The narrated/tour buses have driver-guides onboard and have three basic itineraries:

  1. Half day: Denali National History Tour, about 5 hours roundtrip, to mile marker 27
  2. Full day: Tundra Wilderness Tour, about 8 hours roundtrip, to mile marker 82
  3. Fullest day: Kantishna Tour, about 12 hours roundtrip, to mile marker 92

The non-narrated/transit buses follow the same road but are informal and do not have a formal “tour guide” onboard, although drivers will stop for animals and will share key pieces of information.  These buses allow you to hop on/hop off at your convenience throughout the day for independent hiking, picnics, scenic viewpoints, and more.   (For updated tours in 2022, check out the National Park Service page here.)

What to do in Denali National Park

ATV Tours or Self-Drive Narrated Jeep Tours   

For an active adventure, consider renting ATVs or jeeps to explore through the back­coun­try adja­cent to Denali Nation­al Park.  These guided adventures will thrill you with their views of the central Alaska Range and one of the USA’s most scenic drives. These tours do not go on the central road referenced above in the bus tour but is no less scenic and wildlife spotting is often possible on the Jeep tours!

See the sled dogs

You can visit the park rangers’ sled dogs and find out more about their training, for free!  View a ranger-led sledding demonstration or simply stop by the kennels to visit the dogs.  This is a fantastic opportunity to learn more about Alaska’s unique mode of transportation if you didn’t get up close with sled dogs during other parts of your trip.  Free shuttles from the Denali Visitor Center depart daily in the summer to get to the kennels.  

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Denali offers hikes for visitors of all levels – for hiking enthusiasts, take the bus into the park and hop on/hop off throughout the day.  For those who prefer to learn from park rangers, the rangers offer several guided hikes (free!) from the Denali Visitor Center which is easily accessible either with your own car or with a shuttle from your hotel.  There are also trails in this area for you to do independently   Ranger led hikes from the visitor center tend to be easy-paced, but they also offer ranger-led off-trail hikes that are more challenging and will drive you much deeper into the park before beginning a longer hike off-trail.  If you’re not an experienced hiker but want to try off-trail hiking, I really recommend a ranger-led program.  


For cycle enthusiasts, you can bike the entire 92 miles of the Denali park road if you wish.  Electric bikes are allowed as far as mile 15.  

Whitewater rafting or float trips

Most tours take place on the Nenana River just outside the park. Choose to battle the rapids, or simply embark on a 13 mile easy float (no rapids) with a guide that will help you spot bear, moose, caribou, lynx, Dall sheep, from the river.  A river float is a very special way to appreciate the vastness of this area.  

Flightseeing tours 

Get a bird’s eye view of Denali National Park with an airplane tour. You’ll be able to see glaciers, the Alaska Range, and even get within 5 miles of Mt Denali itself.  Many people say this is an incredible memory-making experience and one of the highlights of their trip.

Denali Alaska

Do you need a car?

There are several hotels near the entrance to Denali National Park, often with restaurants in walking distance. Many hotels provide shuttles both from the train station and to/from the park entrance, so even if you don’t have a car, it’s quite possible to have a fantastic experience in this area.  

I’m in the 30% club of people who have seen Mt Denali and it’s beautiful!  What would you be most excited about experiencing in Denali National Park?

For more inspiration & for assistance in planning your next trip to Denali, please visit my Alaska planning services page!

things to do in Cartagena

8 Things To Do in Cartagena, Colombia

1. Stay inside the historic center 

The historic center of Cartagena is so magical, especially at nighttime, that I feel you lose something if you choose to head to the modern high-rise section where the Hyatts and Hiltons are. I’ve stayed both in the old city and the modern, beachfront area before and much prefer the historic area.  You can walk everywhere and easily find hidden gems for dining and shopping.  If you stay in the high-rise area, it’s a quick 10 min taxi ride into the walled section.  

Wherever you stay, I strongly recommend making sure you have a swimming pool for quick cool-offs – it’s very hot all year round here. On this trip I stayed at the 5-star Casa San Agustin.  Wow! I can’t thank them enough for such an amazing stay.  Upon arrival at Hotel Casa San Agustín, the sense of place is immediate. Thoughtful details evoke the city’s rich 17th century history as a Spanish stronghold: original frescoes in the Library, hand-wrought iron sconces and details, high wood-beamed ceilings, elegant tile accents, and a central pool set against an ancient aqueduct. 

Casa San Agustin’s staff are outstanding – friendly, not stuffy; genuinely excited to help you experience the culture of Colombia; and ever-ready to answer your questions on dining recommendations or help you to book a tour/activity.  You’ll feel right at home as soon as you arrive – and maybe start pulling up availability to see if you can extend your stay!

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The hotel itself only has 31 rooms & suites so it’s very intimate.  Every single room is different – some have private terraces with the occasional private pool, while others have a second living area – but all are consistent in their thoughtful details such as Italian linens, Nespresso machines, slippers and bathrobes, extra towels for terrace sunbathing, and lovely bathroom toiletries.  I also cannot forget to mention their restaurant Alma – it’s one of the best in the city and the chef is outstanding!  I have to admit, I never knew a ‘simple’ tomato salad could have me practically licking my plate!

Make sure to book Casa San Agustin with a Virtuoso travel advisor like myself in order to receive complimentary breakfast, $100 food & beverage credit, and upgrades at time of check-in based on availability – as well as benefiting from insider knowledge and careful trip planning skills!

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2. Coffee workshop 

Colombia is so proud of its coffee production so while in Cartagena, don’t miss the chance to learn more! I took a coffee workshop at Cafe San Alberto, one of the best coffee producers in Colombia and who suppliers the coffee for Casa San Agustin directly – so it’s easy to add this to your itinerary when staying at this hotel.   Cafe San Alberto has a coffee shop within walking distance and our 2 hour “Baptism by Coffee” workshop was wonderful. 

We learned how to detect sour, bitter, sweet tastes; how to properly read a coffee bag’s back label to determine the quality and freshness of the product; and how to discern good coffee through some blind tasting exercises.  Our barista, Einer, was fantastic at engaging with us and answering all our questions. I would highly recommend adding this type of activity to your itinerary.  Of course, I had to buy some bags of coffee from San Alberto to bring back home. 

3. Walking tour of Cartagena

On this trip, Casa San Agustin arranged a private walking tour for us through one of my spectacular on the ground partners there.  This is no ordinary walking tour focused on memorizing facts & figures – with our captivating guide, we learned about the secret codes embedded in the doors of Cartagena,  the meaning behind the women in colorful dresses selling fruit, the Afro-Caribbean heritage of the city, the fight for independence from the Spaniards, and a deeper understanding of the culture of the town known as “the jewel of Colombia.” 

A great tour guide can help focus on your interests – from military history to a photography workshop to helping you walk the fortifications to finding all the best street art to your heart’s content. Along with your guide, let yourself wander and get lost in the back-streets – you’ll find some amazing murals and artwork and hidden gems.

eight things to do in Cartagena

4. Watch the sunset

The Caribbean sunsets are just magical.   One of the most popular things to do is to visit Cafe del Mar – this cafe/bar is actually set on top of the walls surrounding the old city, so you have a fantastic viewpoint of the sunset.  If you actually want a seat and a drink, go about an hour before sunset as it gets crowded.   It’s a wonderful social atmosphere with music playing and everyone claps as the sun drops below the horizon.

Cartagena sunset

5. Visit the barrier islands of Cartagena

Cartagena is a gorgeous walled colonial city… it’s one downfall is that it doesn’t have great beaches right on its coast.  That’s why I tell people to stay in the historic center and not worry about if their hotel has a beach or not. 

The lack of beach is no problem, because right off the coast are the lovely Isla Rosario as well as Baru island which are probably the most popular excursion for both locals and tourists.  I’ve taken both private excursions and public boats to the islands, but the best excursion was on this trip with Hotel Casa San Agustin, because they own their own private beach club!

islands of Cartagena

6. Have amazing food

I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as much ceviche in the past three days on this trip, but there are lots of other options if ceviche isn’t your thing.  The fine dining opportunities are incredible. Fresh caught fish, meat, & imaginative vegetarian dishes are all available at top-quality restaurants throughout the town.  And the plantain chips served as appetizers are addicting! It would also be great to do a food tour here – there are so many exotic fruits, fried snacks like empanadas and buñuelos, queso costeño (local salty cheese), frozen treats, and more that you can try just walking around the city.

things to do in Cartagena

7. Explore Cartagena at night time

Cartagena is a destination that must be seen at nighttime. I’m an introvert and even *I* love being out at night in Cartagena.  The shops stay open late, the town squares have great people watching, and the neighborhoods become full of dancers, live music, street carts selling amazing snacks.  The colonial architecture and street-art murals are lit up by soft lights and there is something so magical about being out at night.  Everyone in the old city is walking around at night – it’s a very nocturnal culture full of joyful energy.  Don’t forget to sign up for salsa lessons too!

8.  Castillo San Felipe

The San Felipe fortress is the most well known landmark in Cartagena – built in 1639, it has never fallen in battle.  Take a little bit of your day to go and explore the tunnels and battle rampant (be aware there are some uphill climbs so wear appropriate shoes, and a hat is always a good idea in the Cartagena weather).

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9.  Shopping in Cartagena

Whether you prefer high-end boutique stores or local artisanal markets, there’s something for everyone here.  Also, Colombia is known for its gold and emerald production so jewelry lovers will be in heaven here – in fact, my fiancé gave me an emerald engagement ring precisely due to having visited the Emerald Museum together in Cartagena previously. 

10. Extend your stay

Cartagena is easily explored within 3 days, so it’s perfect for a long weekend or quick visit from the USA – there are direct flights from New York, Miami and Fort Lauderdale in particular.   If you’d like to extend your time in Colombia, Cartagena is still a perfect stop on your itinerary. 

If this is your second trip to Cartagena and you want to see more, I suggest either splitting your time between Cartagena and an overnight in the Rosario Islands/Baru,  OR for a longer trip combine Cartagena and Santa Marta, the gateway to Tayrona National Park.  (You can also stop in Barranquilla on the way to Santa Marta.) I know the next time I go to Cartagena I would love to add on extra days in Santa Marta, which is the oldest surviving city in the country and second oldest in the whole of South America. 

You can also fly between Medillin, Bogota, and other areas of Colombia.  Colombia is a stunning destination and there is always more to explore! Interested in booking a trip? Let’s start the conversation here.

Wachau Valley Danube River Cruise

7 incredible countries you’ll explore on a Danube River Cruise

In Central and Eastern Europe, you’ll find some of the most spectacular landscapes, architecture—castles, churches and war memorials—as well as some of the most colorful, inviting cultures in the world.  But what’s the best way to see it all? By taking a Danube River Cruise, of course.


The journey begins with a guided tour through the beautiful medieval city of Nuremberg where you’ll see the Imperial Castle, the famous town wall and the legendary fountain of the Market Square. For history buffs, there’s a guided tour of the city’s most significant WWII sites, including the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, and the Nuremberg Trials Memoriam and Courtroom 600 (if the courtroom is not in session).

Nuremberg on a Danube River Cruise

Next, you can savor traditional Franconian specialties including Nuremburger bratwurst, rotbier (red beer) and lebkuchen (gingerbread). While en route to the next destination, Regensburg, you’ll cruise through the man-made Main-Danube Canal.

At Regensburg, you’ll be treated to a guided walking tour through one of Germany’s best-preserved medieval cities.  In Regensburg, you’ll see all the city’s architectural highlights, including the Old Town Hall and the Porta Praetoria. And if all that walking makes you hungry, there’s the old Bavarian specialties to satisfy you—beer, sausage, and pretzels. 

Next, take a bike tour to Walhalla where you will see the neoclassical white marble temple inspired by the Parthenon in Athens. 

The journey continues as you cruise to lower Bavaria’s city of Passau, where you’ll enjoy a walking tour along cobblestone streets and see Gothic and Italian Baroque architecture as well as St. Stephen’s Cathedral. If you’re looking to work in a little exercise, choose between a guided bike tour along the Danube, or a guided hike up to the Veste Oberhaus Fortress.


Continuing down the Danube, you’ll next stop at the scenic town of Melk, which is celebrated for its magnificent Benedictine Abbey. The abbey contains the tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau and the remains of several members of the House of Babenberg, Austria’s first ruling dynasty.  If you’d like something more active to do, you can join a guided bike tour that takes you through the UNESCO-designated Wachau Valley; or go on a walking tour along Dürnstein’s cobblestone streets to the famed Baroque church tower, Stiftskirche. Later in the day, set sail through the vineyard rich Wachau Valley. 

Melk Abbey on a Danube River Cruise
Melk Abbey

No trip to Austria would be complete without a stop in Vienna, “The City of Waltzes.” Vienna is a treasure trove and your tour showcases its regal splendors, including the majestic Opera House and the former Imperial Palace of the Habsburgs. Conclude your tour in the designated historic city center and visit St. Stephen’s Cathedral. For a more active exploration, take a guided bike ride to Klosterneuburg Monastery.


The city of Budapest is known as the Queen of the Danube, and your tour begins with a visit to the Great Market Hall. The remainder of this tour takes you to both the Buda (hilly) and the Pest (flat) sides of the river. Alternatively, hike up to Castle Hill for breathtaking views of the city. Cap the day off with an illumination cruise.

Budapest on a Danube River Cruise

Continue your trek through Hungary with a pitstop in Puszta. Known as the Great Hungarian Plain, tour a genuine Hungarian csárda (farm) run by world-champion carriage-drivers. Afterward, be treated to an unforgettable performance of horsemanship and then experience the Hungarians’ warm hospitality, along with a traditional lunch complete with authentic goulash. 

From Puszta, set sail to Mohács where you’ll enjoy a scenic morning cruise past a town sprinkled with magnificent churches, including the 18th-century Baroque Protestant church, the Roman Catholic church (1776), the Serbian Greek Orthodox church, the votive church (1926), and the Avas church with its bell tower.  Next, you’ll cruise to Pécs, a city founded more than 2,000 years ago by the Romans. In Pécs, you’ll find a city filled with historic architecture including the Christian Necropolis; St. Peter’s Basilica, the city’s main Catholic cathedral along with its catacombs; and Széchenyi Square, the heart of Old Town Pécs. For wine connoisseurs, there’s the Szekszárd wine region, one of the oldest red-wine-growing areas in Hungary, established more than 2,000 years ago.

Visiting Croatia on a Danube river cruise

The beautiful Baroque Croatian city of Vukovar is situated at the banks of the Vuka and Danube Rivers in the region of Srijem/Syrmia.  Known as the “hero town” for the valor of brave Croatian civilians and volunteers during the 1991 war with Serbia, your city tour will include important war landmarks such as Ovčara Memorial and Eltz Castle. Or, you can opt to go wine tasting in Ilok, a center of wine production since Roman times, where you’ll sample its famous Grasevina, Traminac and Frankovka wines. Back on board, cruise to Novi Sad, sometimes called the “Serbian Athens.” Discover Novi Sad on a walking tour to Dunavski Park and through Stari Grad, the Old Town center. If you prefer a more active exploration, join a guided biking or hiking tour. During the evening, visit Petrovaradin Fortress. 

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Explore Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, on a city tour that includes the Kalemegdan Fortress and the Serbian Orthodox Temple of St. Sava. Later, choose from three intriguing excursions. Visit the Royal Palace, the official residence of the Serbian Royal Family; and then tour the House of Flowers, the mausoleum of Marshal Tito, who became the first President of Yugoslavia. Or enjoy a taste of the region by sampling Serbian plum brandy, Šlivovitz, and delicious local delights at the Quburich Distillery. For those wishing a more active adventure, join a guided bike tour. 


Enjoy a full day of scenic cruising as you pass through the Iron Gates, one of Europe’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. At the Iron Gates, the Danube narrows as it winds through a series of magnificent gorges between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains.

Iron Gates on a Danube River Cruise
Scenic cruising through the Iron Gates

Visiting Bulgaria on a Danube River Cruise

Explore Vidin, one of Bulgaria’s oldest cities, and surrounding areas with a choice of excursions. Discover Baba Vida Fortress, the largest preserved medieval castle in Bulgaria. Continue on to Belogradchik, one of Bulgaria’s natural wonders, where you can hike around its most spectacular rock formations. Alternatively, visit a local home for a demonstration of traditional Bulgarian yogurt and Banitsa, a pastry you will also get to make. You also have the choice to bike through Vidin and to the castle. 

Visit Bulgaria’s ancient capital, Veliko Tarnovo, with its medieval fortress and multiple orthodox temples. You can opt instead to go to Rousse, known for its 19th- and 20th-century Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo architecture, and then afterward visit the Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo with frescos revealing exceptional artistry of 14th-century paintings.

There you have it – seven incredible countries you can sail through on a Danube river cruise. River cruising is an incredible option for immersive and convenient travel – I’ve shared 10 reasons it’s different from ocean cruising and why you’ll love it right here at this link!

Are you interested in taking a river cruise on the Danube?

I’m a professional travel advisor with specialist credentials in many of the top river cruise brands and can help you in selecting the best river cruise brand for your travel style and the best itinerary for your wishlist. I am often able to add VIP amenities due to my relationships with the best river cruise companies in Europe. I’d love to help you plan your trip! Please reach out and let’s get the conversation started. You can also check out my River Cruise page here.

portugal lisbon

The best places in Portugal for history lovers

When you think of historic hotspots in Europe, Portugal’s extensive catalog may not immediately spring to mind. In fact, in 2019, Portugal was just the tenth most visited country in Europe by international tourists, with front-runner France receiving over three times as many visitors in the same year.  However, for tourists with a penchant for history, Portugal remains a very popular destination, with 17 UNESCO world heritage sites and thousands of years of history to discover. Whether you are spending time in the bustling metropolises or venturing further off the beaten track, there are plenty of prominent historic sites for you to discover right across the country.  Here are 3 of the best places in Portugal for history lovers. 

Belém Tower, Lisbon

history lovers Portugal

Situated on the northern bank of the River Tagus, Belém Tower is a distinct nod to the country’s celebrated maritime heritage which dates back to the 15th century. With construction beginning in 1514, the fortress was commissioned to defend Portugal’s valuable capital city from invaders, but was also used as a prison right up until the 19th century. 

Alongside the neighboring Monastery of the Hieronymites (Jeronimos), the Belém Tower was one of the country’s first sites to be inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage list. The unused tower remains a hotspot for tourists and locals alike, and has even been named as one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal! With kids under 12 going free and adults paying just 6, a trip to Belém Tower should certainly feature on your Lisbon to-do list. 


history fans in Portugal

Where better for history fans to learn about Portugal’s fascinating heritage than in Coimbra, one of the country’s oldest cities. If this alone wasn’t enough to entice you to Coimbra’s medieval, cobbled streets, maybe a potential trip to the city’s world-famous university can? Established in 1290, the University of Coimbra is one of the oldest universities on the planet and was the only operating university in Portugal for some centuries. 

In 2013, the University of Coimbra was awarded UNESCO world heritage status, owing to its stunning make-up and architecture, particularly that of the Joanine Library. Adults can pay 20 euros for a guided tour accompanied by a member of the university’s vast student community. They will guide you around the most beautiful buildings on site, including the Baroque-style library and the Royal Palace.

Historic Center of Guimarães 

history Portugal Guimaraes

Any historical tour of Portugal would not be complete without a visit to the historic center of Guimarães. Home to the country’s very first king, Afonso I, Guimarães is often referred to as the “birthplace of Portugal” and is synonymous with the creation of Portuguese identity. Situated in northern Portugal, Guimarães is no more than an hour’s drive from Porto, making for a perfect day trip away from the busy city center. 

The former capital city is famed for its groundbreaking architecture, and whilst Guimarães has since transitioned into a more modern city, many of the medieval structures remain intact, with construction techniques from the 15th to 19th centuries still very much on display. 

One of the must-see spots in the city is the Castelo de Guimarães, the site of many famous battles throughout the early years of Portugal’s independence. Whilst the castle was left abandoned for many years, 20th century restoration work now gives visitors a glimpse into the former glory of Castelo de Guimarães. Due to its historical importance and appeal, the castle sits alongside Belém Tower as one of the country’s Seven Wonders. 

Why stop your historic Portuguese pilgrimage there? There are plenty more spots to discover, each detailing a segment of the rich and complex heritage of a nation entrenched in European history.   You can add on visits to the historic center of Evora, the Convent of Christ in Tomar, the lighthouse of Sagres, or monastery of Batalha.  All of these are some of the best places in Portugal for history lovers. 

For more detailed descriptions, you may like my articles on what to do in Central Portugal as this is a very historic area of the country.  Portugal is truly a history lover’s paradise!  




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What to pack on UnCruise in Alaska

What to pack for UnCruise in Alaska

Are you unsure of what to pack for your UnCruise in Alaska?  It’s one of my favorite ways to experience Alaska and you can read my previous trip report here. UnCruise does a great job of telling you their suggested packing lists on their website, so I suggest you make sure you consult all your pre-departure documents to make sure you’re ready for your trip!

Here are all the items that I was glad I brought on my UnCruise in Alaska, and some that I wish I had packed:

What to pack for your UnCruise in Alaska:

  • Rubber rain boots: UnCruise does supply these onboard but I appreciated bringing my own so that I knew they would fit well.  I suggest bringing your own if you have unusual feet sizing.   Trust me, if you do any type of land activity, you will wear these every day.   If you plan on ONLY kayaking for the majority of your trip, you wouldn’t wear them – sneakers are preferred for that activity.
  • Shoes for the boat: I liked having a pair of slip-on shoes to be more comfortable on the boat.
  • Sneakers/hiking shoes: Although you’ll wear rubber boots for most of your trip, you may appreciate having sneakers either for 1) onboard the boat 2) certain stops such as Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay which have some boardwalks/hiking trails that are well maintained or 3) your pre- and post- stays on land in Alaska.
  • Waterproof rain-coat: I cannot overemphasize how important it is to protect yourself from inclement weather.  RainPROOF is better than “rain resistant”.  Kayaking and other activities will continue regardless of rain so you want to keep dry!  If possible, the type with ventilation zippers are useful.
  • Rainpants (waterproof)

My rain pants were the best investment for this trip.  I purchased mine at REI and Mr TravelObservations purchased his at Columbia Outlets.  If you’re kayaking you will splash water inside your kayak and/or be in the rain.   During hikes, I wore these over athletic pants and it protected me when scooting along a wet log or getting splashed during the skiff ride. 

Most people without waterproof pants regretted it.  I liked the kind that zipped at least halfway up as then you could put them on without taking off your shoes.

Rainpaints are designed to be an outer layer, not your complete outfit.  You can wear workout clothes or hiking pants underneath them so that you can take them on/off if you need to.

What to pack for UnCruise in Alaska
Rain pants, rubber boots, hat, and waterproof raincoat with a sweatshirt underneath on a beach walk during my UnCruise in Alaska

  • Socks: Bring extra socks so that you always have a dry pair available.  Wool is better than cotton.
  • Long sleeve layers (thin enough to go under your fleece sweater) 
  • Short sleeved t-shirts
  • Puffer jacket: I personally liked my thin down packable jacket and layered it under my raincoat or had it handy for rushing outside to photograph orcas.
  • Fleeces/sweatshirts/hoodies: Everyone is very casual onboard.  During cooler days you’ll definitely enjoy the comfort of a fleece or sweatshirt over your layers.
  • Vest – padded or fleece
  • Wool-lined tights: I liked to wear these under my hiking pants for kayaking or for glacier days when the wind was colder, but you could also wear a pair of workout leggings instead or long underwear
  • Brimmed hat: A baseball cap was useful for keeping rain off your face.
  • Winter hat: Keep your ears warm or layer over your baseball cap while kayaking or in cold weather.

Vest, fleece, hiking pants, boots – another outfit during a mild day with UnCruise in Alaska.

  • Hiking pants: If possible you’ll want to make sure you have NON-JEAN options for daily activities.  Jeans are very heavy and take forever to dry when wet!
  • Real camera: If you have a camera with a great zoom, this is invaluable for taking animal photos.  Don’t buy a new expensive piece of equipment if you’re not sure how to use it though – practice before you go.  Some smartphone zooms are also very powerful nowadays.
  • Sweatpants/lounge clothes for walking to/from the hot tub if desired: It’s very casual on board and most people didn’t blink an eye if you had to dash back to your room in a towel, but you might want to bring lounge clothes if you prefer.
  • Gloves – lightweight: Most people don’t need heavy snow gloves, but a cotton or wool pair is great to take the wind chill off.  You might want to bring multiple pairs so that if they get wet, you have a new pair for the following day.
  • Swimsuit – for hot tub or polar plunge or snorkeling
  • Binoculars – only if you have them already.  UnCruise supplies these on board, so no need to buy a pair of your own if you don’t already own one.  However I was glad I brought the ones I already had since they were more lightweight and I was used to them from my previous cruise.
  • Small backpack or daypack: Very useful for skiff rides and hiking, to keep your water bottle, camera equipment, scarf/gloves even if you don’t think you’ll need them, snacks, etc.  It’s good to always have a layer of clothing to take on/off as the weather changes constantly. 

What did I wish I had brought?

  • Next time, I will invest in waterproof gloves.  Kayaking in the rain I was perfectly dry thanks to my rain pants and rain coat… except for my hands which got pretty wet and soggy.
  • A hanging toiletry bag and/or a hanging organizer – my room had a closet that was very tall to accommodate life jackets inside so there was some wasted space, and I could have hung up things on the bar inside (no point in hanging up my sweatshirts! 😉
  • The phone water protector cases for peace of mind during kayaking photo opportunities. 

What does UnCruise supply onboard?

  • Hiking poles
  • Binoculars
  • Water bottles
  • Rubber boots
  • Special lifejackets for kayaking and other activities
  • A shared clothes dryer for passengers to toss in really wet clothing if you need to re-use it**I was on the Wilderness Explorer, please check with your travel advisor for your specific boat as this article is specific to my experience.

Do NOT pack:

  • Formal clothes
  • “Dinner clothes” – there is no dress code for dinner on board, most people will wear the same things all day, or change into clean clothes if it was a very cold/muddy day
  • Snowboots/snow-jackets
  • Any type of high heels

I hope this helps as you research what to pack for your Alaskan cruise!  Let me know if you have more questions about what to pack for your UnCruise in Alaska and be sure to check out my Alaska travel planning services page.


lisbon portugal

Best Things to do in Lisbon and Porto That Aren’t Touristy

Lisbon and Porto are fantastic cities to visit on your first trip to Portugal, and you could spend several days in each! I think both of these cities are the perfect choices for the first timer’s visit to this beautiful country.

Since I’ve been to Lisbon and Porto more times than I can count (and lived there!), I wanted to share some of my favorite things to do that are a bit more off-the-beaten-path.  I still recommend visiting all the popular sites like St George’s Castle, the Jeronimos Monastery, and wandering around the Alfama neighborhood, but here are my personal favorites if you have visited previously or like to get off the beaten path a little bit – or want suggestions for a rainy day!

Lisbon Story Center

This charming museum right near the main tourist office in the Praça do Comércio is a guided tour with earphones that is controlled by GPS.  In this multimedia experience,  the narrator will start whenever you are at a new “chapter” of Lisbon’s story.   The section on the Lisbon earthquake,  for instance,  will actually start trembling to replicate the earth moving.   The section about Lisbon’s growing importance as a sea port has barrels and fake sea gulls and a model ship.   The museum is about 45 minutes with the guided narration,  and I think it’s a wonderful stop at the beginning of your stay to get acquainted with Lisbon’s history (most other sites in Lisbon and Portugal don’t do that good a job of explaining their history).

Lisbon: Find the ‘Miradouros’

Whenever you see a signpost that says “Miradouro” in Lisbon, you know you are guaranteed a wonderful sight.  Miradouro means “viewpoint” and there are wonderful terraces built on Lisbon’s highest points (this is the city of seven hills after all).  Climb up to a miradouro on a summer’s evening, buy a cold drink or listen to a musician playing outdoors, and enjoy the sunset over the Tagus river from your incredible vantage point.

Lisbon: Coach Museum & Naval (Maritime) Museum

The Maritime Museum is definitely worth a trip and can sometimes by overlooked by visitors,  but it’s a great explanation of Portugal’s relationship with the sea and has an impressive collection of royal barges. It’s now housed in a wing of the Jeronimos Monastery so it’s easy to visit when you’re in the Belem area of Lisbon.

Another Belem museum is the Coach (Carriage) Museum, actually one the most popular museums in Lisbon.  It houses a unique collection in the world consistig of vehicles from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries including coaches, berlins, sedan chairs and carriages – all of which are decorated in a rich and profuse style.

Lisbon: National Tile Museum

The Museu Nacional do Azulejo (Portuguese for National Museum of the Azulejo), occasionally known in English as the National Tile Museum, is an art museum housed in a converted convent dedicated to traditional tilework of Portugal. The museum’s collection is one of the largest of ceramics in the world.  You can even do a tile-painting workshop here if you would like to make your own azulejo.   This is not a normal ceramics museum with glass displays – it almost feels like a living work of art, since the convent itself is decorated with tiles and still maintains its gorgeous chapel and cloisters.   Even the museum’s cafe is stunning – set in an 18th century kitchen and decorate with food-themed tiles.  It’s easiest to get here directly with a taxi or Uber, as it’s not near the historical walking center.

Lisbon:  Visiting the lesser-known sites of Sintra

Sintra, the beautiful mountain town close to Lisbon, is one of the most popular day trips for tourists and even when crowded is very charming – a castle or palace on every hillside everywhere you look.  Tour companies often only bring their buses to two or three main sites here though – so I like to visit the lesser-known sites of Sintra sometimes!  For example, Montserrate is an incredible palatial villa inspired by Moorish architecture in the midst of stunning botanical gardens (there’s a baobab tree!).  There are beautiful stone structures surrounded by exotic plants and it’s the setting for a photographer’s dream!  In 1809,  Lord Byron visited Monserrate and became fascinated with its desolate, yet romantic character. He decided to write about Monserrate in what later became a classic work of poetry: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Another tip for Sintra:  everyone lines up to see Pena Palace, yet very rarely do visitors venture more than a few steps into its extensive gardens.  Buy a ticket to see the grounds of Pena and tour the outside of the palace, but skip the inside and after exploring the perimeter of the palace, head to the gardens and enjoy exploring – keep an eye out for the duck’s houses in the middle of the lakes, shaped like little castles!

Lisbon and Porto: Food Tours…and any excuse to eat, really

If you had to choose between a food tour in Lisbon and Porto, I tend to prefer Porto because the northern region does have some unique food dishes that they are very proud of and tend to incorporate into their tours.  Of course all tours will have the tasty pastels de nata (egg custard tarts) that Portugal is known for, as well as meat croquettes, bifana sandwiches, or perhaps piri-piri chicken.

I think a food tour is often the best way to see much of the city on foot while learning about their culture through gastronomy.  Guides will often give you fantastic recommendations to return to specific restaurants for dinner throughout the rest of your stay. 

Something else to try is sampling petiscos! These are somewhat taking to Spanish tapas, and are typically found in taverns and small restaurants.   These wonderful small plates often feature meats and cheese, octopus salads, codfish cakes, or marinated beef.  They are fantastic to share among friends or over a glass of wine!

Porto: Crystal Palace Gardens

These idyllic gardens are wonderful to visit in Porto. There are even some wonderful lookout points over the river and the city, and there’s a one-star Michelin restaurant hidden in the gardens as well.  At first when entering, everything looks perfectly manicured, but then you realize there are steps and trails down the hillside that allow you to explore various sections. There are also several themed mini-gardens including the Garden of Feelings, the Garden of Aromatic Plants, and a Rose Garden.  There are also several peacocks that are happy to pose for photos. Don’t miss the library, the cafe, and the pond with ducks either!

Porto:  Vila Nova da Gaia

Situated on the other side of the Douro River in Porto is Vila Nova de Gaia (or just Gaia).  You can easily walk across the bridge multiple times a day between the two towns. Despite its location, Gaia is actually a city in its own right and extends quite some way from the riverside.

This is where all the port wine in the world originates and has done since the 17th century. Historically barrels of wine from the upper Douro Valley would be transported by boat to Gaia. Once here the wine would be taken to one of the port lodges that dominate the riverfront to be made into port. These days the barrels arrive by road, but the process is the same.

You can spend the afternoon visiting over 20 port cellars that allow drop-in visitors for wine tastings right here in Gaia, if you don’t have time to make it to the Douro Valley during your trip.  Familiar names such as Sandeman, Taylor’s and Cálem all have tasting tours where you can familiarize yourself with ruby, white, tawny, vintage and crusted ports from a number of vintages.But even if you don’t drink alcohol (Mr TravelObservations does not drink, which is why I have so many options for non-wine focused activities in this list), Gaia is a charming area to explore on foot and I quite like its riverside restaurants for a wonderful view of Porto at night as you dine outside.  There are also mazes of cobblestone streets to explore and some great artisan shops as well.

Porto: World of Discoveries

I visited the World of Discoveries on a very rainy day in Porto and it was great for an indoor activity, if you like museums in general. For half of the experience, you are in a BOAT and you go through real water sailing past narrations of Portuguese history.  It wasn’t very crowded when I did it, so it didn’t feel Disney-esque at the time.  This interactive museum is geared towards families, but I still appreciated learning more about Portugal’s Age of Discoveries through this medium on a rainy day.

Porto: Alfandega light shows

Alfandega means customs house, and the customs house on the river in Porto has been transformed into a conference center and permanent exhibition space. In the original customs house level below ground, authorities have set up some for the most incredible light displays.  It’s an incredibly interesting way to experience art.  The Porto Legends exhibition is permanent, and then there are temporary light shows that change depending on the season.  “Porto Legends, the Underground Experience” is an immersive virtual show that tells the culture and history of the city and the northern region and also features narration by Jeremy Irons.  The focus here is on myths and legends, not history.

Porto: Catch the sunset

You can go to the Jardim do Morro, a small park in Porto, for sunset.  It’s on the hill next to the top of the Dom Luis Bridge. People go there and sit on the hill and have a glass of wine or a picnic.   You can’t miss it, it’s pretty obvious when everyone starts congregating.  People also stand on the bridge but you have to be careful of the tram passing by!   Grab a baguette and some cheese and a beverage of your choice and just enjoy the view.

So there you have it – some of my favorite things in Lisbon and Porto to suggest for visitors who may be on their second visit and want to go beyond the standard first timer’s tourist sites.  Truthfully, there is so much to do that I’ll probably have to write a Part 2 eventually.  Let me know if you’ve visited either city and think I should add anything else to my list!

Lisbon and Porto: Fado, or dinner with Fado performance

Fado can be an acquired taste, but the Portuguese are fiercely proud of this melancholy musical tradition that’s on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list.  I normally like to go to this restaurant for a fado dinner in Lisbon:  because it starts earlier (8pm).  It also funds a student program so they have artists in residences who perform and who explain in English between sets.

Fado has strict etiquette, so it’s not a reflection of the restaurant if you think the service is bad.  For instance, they will only take orders in between sets, they don’t like to be passing around food during the music.  They also expect people to be very quiet and listen to the music,  it’s not “background music” for chatting. Sometimes they don’t even let people enter the bar if the set has begun, they have to wait outside till there is a pause!

Traditional Fado is found on every street corner in the Alfama in particular if you just want to go for a stroll but it often doesn’t start till midnight or later.  That’s why I like to take guests to an organized dinner where the singers will explain a little bit about the songs between sets.

You can also visit the Fado Museum in Lisbon to learn more about this art form.

By the way, fado is a little different all over Portugal.  In Coimbra, only males sing fado, particularly university students It’s a bit more energetic and youthful, I like Coimbra fado a bit better myself as it tends to sound more hopeful than tragic!

Are you visiting Lisbon or Porto soon?

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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.


“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.


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


“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.