Into the Wilds of Scotland

Scotland Kyle Lochalsh

From books and movies, I had always imagined what Scotland would look like and our “Country Roads of Scotland” escorted tour with Insight Vacations was the perfect way to experience the lush green heart of this magical land. Ten blissful days… and now Scotland feels like home.

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After touring lively Edinburgh for two sunny days we headed north, away from the crowds and up into the Highlands. Going off the beaten track delivered us right into the Scotland of my dreams.

Scotland Highlands1

The rugged landscape, the “dragon’s breath” that draped the mountaintops just before a rain, the wilderness of green tufted vales, the glens and straths dotted with woolly sheep, the lochs and rivers on the way to the Isle of Skye…and all those waterfalls seeping out of every cranny in the hillsides and mountains! Here in California we are so parched by drought that I had forgotten how lush a land can be.

Scotland Skye Portree

The Scottish people are so dear, so friendly, jovial and welcoming…and those accents, lilting and rugged like their country. Our Tour Director, Michael, was the perfect combination of doting shepherd and darling host. Meticulously detail oriented in his care for us, he was a font of encyclopedic knowledge of the Scots and their history and a very funny storyteller to boot. As he shared with us ancient Scottish history and stories of clan battles and royal intrigue, he would now and again slip seamlessly into a tall tale of his own escapades, catching us up in breathless attention until the punch line.

 

Scotland CullodenMichaels’s clear love of this country and its people shone through as he encouraged us to experience the enchantment and mythology of the Highlands at some very moving locations. Charming us with the lore of Loch Ness and its famed water horse, hearkening back to the heartbreak at Culloden Moor, sharing the mystical power of the Druid Temples, Michael often brought us to tears, especially those of us who have had a “bit of the sadness” come into our lives. And for anyone who is a fan of the “Outlander” time-travel books, this particular tour is a must, as we visited all things Clan Fraser. Many of us clung to the standing stones in hopes of being transported ourselves!

 

So much was included in our Insight Scotland Altnaharra1Vacation: our accommodations, daily breakfasts and most dinners, tours each day, plus a few surprise “flourishes”– complimentary stops along the way for homemade shortbread, Orkney ice cream, tea and cakes and clotted cream.

 

One favorite afternoon included a slice-of-life moment when we visited a sheepdog trainer on his Highland farm. The proud sheep farmer whistled and whooped to his dogs who were eager to show off how they keep those woolly beasts in line.

Scotland SheepdogsAfter trying our hands at sheep shearing and feeding the lambs, we couldn’t resist cuddling a few puppies from a recent litter. Our visit felt like such a privilege as, sadly, this ancient way of life is disappearing in
the Highlands.

 

 

Scotland Mey1 (2)In addition to the wild Scottish countryside and our very talented Tour Director, another highlight of this Insight Vacation was our fellow adventurers. We got to know everyone–their stories, their passions–over meals, while touring, and while exploring together in the evenings. Insight Vacations sets up so many meals together as well as the seating rotation on our coach so that we were always cozying up to someone new in those first early days. By the end of this adventure we had truly all become good friends and I look forward to traveling with many of them in the future.

Scotland Skye Castle ruin

For those travelers considering an escorted tour, an Insight Vacation offers the perfect balance of activities and free time…free time to explore tiny towns late into the long summer hours of daylight, to hike the castle-topped hills, to hunt down local pubs for whiskey and rousing music, to get up early (sometimes) for a quick walk-around in the bright, emerald dawn. From that dawn to late dusk, we were steeped every day in the Scotland I had hoped to see—dramatic, soulful, mystical.  Slainte va!

 

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Romance of the Star Clipper Tall Ship

From the moment we arrived at the pier in sunny St. Maarten, we knew our adventure cSCSails3 (2)ruise would be something out of the ordinary. Something timeless, something dramatic, something…like nothing we’ve ever experienced on a cruise before. The Star Clipper is a true tall-ship sailing vessel that makes her way over the seas powered by the wind for most of her journey. The wind! Think Christopher Columbus, think Magellan, think quiet sails billowing in the night breeze under a sprinkling of stars.

Why take a break from traditional cruise lines and sail instead on a tall ship with Star Clippers? So many reasons…A Star Clippers tall ship is an intimate luxury yacht (either 170 guests or 227 guests, depending on the ship) and offers unusual itineraries to small ports far from the mega ships and their crowds of thousands.

And for sailboat enthusiasts, the Star Clipper feels like home. She is sleek and luxurious with her dark, shining mahogany, her gleaming brass fittings and her four looming masts anxious to set sail. Most of the passengers of a Star Clippers voyage are either sailors and boat owners or, like me, just love all things related to sailing. Day or night, we could watch the goings-on up on the bridge, chat with the captain, peruse the charts, duck SCCrowsNest1under lines to winches, listening to commands called fore to aft.

This is adventure cruising at its best, with a crow’s nest to climb and bowsprit netting to stretch out on in the sun.

We started making friends right away with fellow passengers from around the world. Germans, French, Italians and Belgians mingled with Americans in a camaraderie bred of our mutual love of an adventure at sea. A glass of champagne in hand, we explored the decks that would be our home for the next seven days and nights.

Ahh, then it was time to set sail. The “Sail Away” was truly the highlight of every evening, a dramatic coda to the day as the crew hoisted the sails accompanied by Vangelis’ dramatic “1492: Conquest of Paradise.”  Music swelled as the sails filled and we pulled away from port.

Our itinerary included six intimate ports-of-call among the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands. SCGuadeloupe1Nevis, Domenica, Guadeloupe, Ile des Saintes, Antigua and St. Barthélemy welcomed us to their tiny villages and private beaches. At each destination we had the choice of several shore excursions. And on days when we were not enjoying whale watching, river tubing, submarine rides, a regatta race or historical tours, we played on our own secluded beaches. For those of us who love to laze on the sand and play in the surf, we were tendered ashore to our beach. Then the Sports Team followed with zodiacs filled with kayaks, sailboats, paddleboards and waterskis for us to enjoy throughout the day. The water was that perfect temperature, refreshing yet warm enough to stay in and play in for hours.

SCRoyalClipperRaceStar Clippers has three tall ships in her fleet and one day, two of these ships happened to be heading to the same port…so we raced! A dark-clouded squall blew up just in SCSails1time, we leaned hard into the wind and edged past our big sister, the Royal Clipper–what a sight!

After each day on land, we returned to the Star Clipper for happy hour in the Tropical Bar (as if every hour wasn’t already happy!). At dinner, open seating and casual, we shared stories with new friends. Our meals were prepared to the deliciously exacting standards of the acclaimed Chaine des Rotisseurs, featuring the kind of menu where you really wish you could try one of everything. Sometimes we did!

After dinner the guests and crew joined together to create our own nightly entertainment. The first night, a fashion show; the second night, wooden “frog” races and ridiculous antics; our talent show (I use “talent” generously) featured songs and skits with crew and brave guests; the trivia contest was raucous fun; a local steel drum band jumped aboard next; and we spent our last evening together dancing and limboing into the night.

SCNightSailsAnd at the end of each exhilarating day, those of us most enthralled by the sailing life would spend two or three hours up on the deck before retiring. We read, we dreamed, we relaxed and took a slow deep breath. We were savoring the romance of a bygone age of clipper ships, listening to the whispering sails and rush of the sea in the still, dark night.

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Aegean Dreams

On our first Crystal Cruise, my friend and I chose a round-trip Istanbul itinerary that carried us through the Greek Islands on the elegant Crystal Serenity, a sanctuary of gracious style, including ports of call that dreams are made of—Santorini, Mykonos and Istanbul.

Santorini is a circular archipelago, island remnants of a collapsed caldera bathing in the Aegean Sea. Visiting Santorini requires scaling the cliffside up to the bustling town of Fira by your choice of donkey or funicular. We chose the funicular and clambered into the cable car with an Italian family, singing “Funiculi Funicula” all the way to the top. The rewards at the top include views of islands jutting out dark against deep Aegean blue. Oh, and wonderful shopping. Fira is a marketplace brimming with silver and leather, food stands and taverns, most opening onto those dramatic views.

But I dreamt of getting lost in the whites and blues of a quieter Santorini. So we hopped a local bus to visit Oia (pronounced EE-ah), a nearby village with fewer tourists–and where my travel dreams came true.

Oia is a bright maze of white geometrically-shaped homes and shops dotted by those iconic blue domes. Riots of hot pink bougainvillea exploded over pergolas and laced between the storefronts. From the main pedestrian street—narrow and peopled with Europe’s most cosmopolitan couples—we could look down past the steep bleached labyrinth of homes hugging the cliffside all the way down to the water. As we ambled from shop to shop, each offered more unusual artistic wares than the last. So many finds, so much to bring home! We escaped the mid-day sun to lunch on succulent prawns, then lingered in this charming village not wanting to miss a single shop, a single artisan–ceramics, jewelry, textiles, sculptures. As the sun began to set, we longed to stay on in the cool of the lengthening shadows until the very last tender zipped us back to the Crystal Serenity, anchored in the bay.

At dusk we sailed away from sparkling Santorini, a shimmering necklace draped atop the cliffs. What could possibly rival our Santorini, our Oia? When we awoke the next morning we found out. Mykonos!

The Old Port of Mykonos is presided over by five stout, thatched windmills worn by the sea-winds. This enclave of Mykonos was once a lively trading center and, so, a favorite target of pirates. Waterfront homes featured basements with windows just above sea level…and cannons! The intrepid inhabitants regularly had to fire their family’s cannon to fend off invaders.

Wander off the waterfront and you enter what is lovingly called Little Venice, a warren of bone-white alleyways studded with colored doors, stairways topped with shutters in shocks of reds and blues. Shopping here is a joyful romp through a labyrinth of crafts and trinkets. After our shopping lists were complete, we visited a Greek Orthodox monastery, its plain exterior belying the ornate golden iconography inside. A quick swim and drink at a local beach and the sun was setting on another gem of a day. We left Mykonos behind for a full day of sailing, headed for our last stop, Istanbul.

We sailed into Istanbul at two in the morning. Party boats were anchored off our portside and dance music played for the revelers, revealing Istanbul to be a lively destination for millennials.

A few hours later the parties had died down and a watery quiet came to rest on the bay. The sun still far from rising, I looked from our balcony out over the silent shoreline with  Istanbul’s mosques and minarets sparkling in the darkness. Knowing that each mosque has its own muezzin who calls worshippers to prayer with warbling incantation, I wondered if a city this large has one main muezzin who sings to his city or if each muezzin chants his own call to prayer. Within minutes I found out. From every corner of this sleeping city muezzins sang out the day’s first call to prayer, deep bass voices underpinning the higher warbling tenors, rising, falling in a glorious holy cacophony. Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and colorful spice market punctuated our adventure in true Turkish style. Thank you, Crystal, for the cruise of a lifetime.

Lisa Kallen, Alamo World Travel

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The Lure of the Big Island

To those of us who have lived on the East Coast, Hawaii has always been an exotic destination that promises fragrant breezes and endless beaches.  Now that I am a California girl, Hawaii has been that much easier to get to–a weekend  jaunt to Oahu,  a hiking adventure on Kauai, a romantic getaway to Maui.

And there is the Big Island, inescapably huge and yet somehow bypassed. So this year, when my 21-year-old twins and I had endured an unusually challenging winter, I thought of the Big Island as a respite, a cure for what ails us.

From the moment we flew over from Maui, we could tell this island was different. Sprawling Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, and her lush green flanks gave way to the dry, near-barren leeward side as we dipped down into Kona. Centuries of lava flows have hardened into fields of chocolate-brown and ash-black rock, swirled and cracked and starkly beautiful. The road up the coast to our hotel on Hapuna Beach cut through miles of these old lava fields, tufted with shrubs trying to take root.

After driving north about 30 minutes, we turned away from the barren lava flows into the luxurious and garden-wrapped Hapuna Beach Prince Resort. The Prince hugs an intimate turquoise cove of bright sand and calm waves. Soothing breezes, birdsong and traditional Hawaiian music enwrapped us wherever we wandered on the resort. Every room enjoys an ocean view, service was beyond friendly, food was tropically-inspired and our mid-May stay felt uncrowded, unhurried.

Between lounging on the pristine beach and snorkeling nearby, we quickly relaxed into a Hawaiian state of mind and body. But we came to the Big Island for more than relaxation. We needed to see that huge volcano. Knowing that a trip from Hapuna Beach down to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was a three hour drive, we stopped along the way at Honaunau Bay, a prime snorkeling spot with an expansive reef. We snorkeled our way among the contours of the reef and its colorful population of fish until we came upon a lazy manta ray vacuuming a path along the bottom. Fifteen minutes later we pulled ourselves away from watching the manta and ended up hovering near a small family of green sea turtles, or honu, before we ended that day’s snorkeling.

We had timed our drive for a late-afternoon arrival at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and headed to the Jagger Museum 4000 feet up the side of Mauna Loa. The Jagger Museum features scientific and historic exhibits for all ages and is the staging area for observing the volcano’s activity at night. From dusk until the full dark of evening, light emanated from deep inside the crater changing from a soft glow at first to a deep, bright orange that reflected up onto the evening fog. We drove back into the night thankful to Mauna Loa for sharing her dramatic brilliance with us.

The other activity we were eager to try for the first time was ziplining, an adventure where you fly along metal “ropes” in a zigzag over rainforest and waterfalls. We chose a 9-line adventure over the Umauma River and Falls. Helmeted and harnessed at the top of the first tower, that first step is a bit daunting…until you take it. Then all we felt was the brush of the wind on our skin, hearing the roar of the falls below as we cut between mango trees over cow pastures and guava orchards, over waterfalls and lava tubes. We screamed all the way down to the first landing where some magical mechanism slowed our speed easily and we were caught in the capable hands of our guides who unhooked us and cheered us on. At the end of each individual zip line, as we waited for our fellow zippers to have their ride, we enjoyed stunning views of the falls from decks set upon cliffs along the river chasm.

In just under two hours the Big Island showed us some of the secrets she only used to reveal to intrepid hikers. But ziplining lets us “soft adventurers” in on those secrets too. Mahalo, Hawaii, we will be back.

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AEGEAN BREEZES

I can’t figure it out. What was my favorite thing about our 9-night Windstar Cruise from Athens to Venice? The exotic ports of call? The French doors flung open all night as the sound of the Aegean serenaded us to sleep? The service-with-the-biggest-smiles attention? The open bridge policy to watch all the goings-on of the captain’s maneuvers in and out of harbors? The tour guides fascinating us with quaint stories of ruins and wineries? Must I choose?

Our first three days brought us to the Peloponnese in Greece, visiting the sites of the first ancient Olympics, Olympia and Itea, with their ruins and stadia and temples honoring the gods who featured so prominently in the games.

Christiana, our insightful guide during our tour of Delphi, brought the history of this sacred site to life. Known in ancient times as the Omphalos, the navel and center of the universe, it was the site where people came from across all of Greece once a year to beseech the Oracle of Delphi for her prophecies, surrounded and perhaps influenced by vapors emanating from the rocks in the darkness beneath the Temple of Apollo.

Next we squeezed through the Corinth Canal, an engineering marvel from start to finish, with barely a foot to spare on either side of our ship at its narrowest point. After winding through the glorious fjords of Montenegro, we rounded one last turn and the Captain let out three long low horn blasts. He was signaling our arrival to the Island of the Madonna that guards the entrance to the port of Kotor. In a sweet ritual that has been reenacted every time a ship enters this dramatic harbor,  someone on the Island of the Madonna then tolls its bells in response, like two lovers calling to each other from afar.

Croatia surprised us the most. Two stops in Dubrovnik and Hvar introduced us to the Dalmatian Coast, the home of craggy cliffside villages, islands and inlets stretched out along the Adriatic Sea. We began our day in sunny Dubrovnik kayaking among fortress walls and cliffs, ending with some snorkeling in a sea cave. Hot and hungry, we cooled off with the creamiest gelato and wandered the narrow streets of shops and homes climbing up the hillside.  Halfway uphill we boarded a gondola and glided to the top of the mountain with glorious views of Dubrovnik below us and  islands stretching off into the afternoon sun. Not wanting to leave our breezy perch, we dined on juicy tomatoes and burrata and a savory seafood risotto at the Restaurant Panorama with its namesake views.

Probably the only way to top Croatia was our last stop, Venice, la Serenissima. We sailed into the Grand Canal to a dramatic thunder and lightning storm that lasted until we docked. With her rich history of trade, art and decadence, there is no better city to get lost in than Venice, to wander among the alleyways that always lead to water and bridges, quaint shops and eateries. And instead of busy streets filled with buses and taxis, Venice’s “streets” are its canals, plied by water taxis and gondolas, not a car in sight.

I think my favorite thing about our WindStar cruise is the “Sail Away,” the nightly ritual with music, lights, pomp and circumstance when the ship pulls away from the pier and we set sail for our next destination.  Guests drop everything to run up to the Sky Bar on the top deck to catch this event. Two of the ship’s officers in their dress whites stand poised waiting for Vangelis’s music to crescendo and then ever-so-slowly raise the WindStar flag, inch by dramatic inch, until, over the course of three minutes, the flag is fully raised up into the evening breeze. This mesmerizing ritual would neatly wrap up the day’s adventures and was a sweet harbinger of the adventures to come in the morning. Sail Away was the time to gather together with other guests to share stories of wine tastings and hikes, olive presses and swims. All washed down with a glass of wine or the signature cocktail of the day as fellow guests on this intimate ship became fast friends.

Lisa Kallen is a Travel Consultant with Alamo World Travel, specializing in tours, cruises and customized vacations to Europe, the Americas, South Pacific and Asia. Visiting family in La Bella Italia is a favorite vacation along with “soft adventures” just about anywhere in the world. You can reach her at 925-837-8742 ext. 18 or  lkallen@alamoworld.com

#Athens #Croatia #Venice #Greece #Cruise

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AEGEAN BREEZES

I can’t figure it out. What was my favorite thing about our 9-night Windstar Cruise from Athens to Venice? The exotic ports of call? The French doors flung open all night as the sound of the Aegean serenaded us to sleep? The service-with-the-biggest-smiles attention? The open bridge policy to watch all the goings-on of the captain’s maneuvers in and out of harbors? The tour guides fascinating us with quaint stories of ruins and wineries? Must I choose?

Our first three days brought us to the Peloponnese in Greece, visiting the sites of the first ancient Olympics, Olympia and Itea, with their ruins and stadia and temples honoring the gods who featured so prominently in the games.

Christiana, our insightful guide during our tour of Delphi, brought the history of this sacred site to life. Known in ancient times as the Omphalos, the navel and center of the universe, it was the site where people came from across all of Greece once a year to beseech the Oracle of Delphi for her prophecies, surrounded and perhaps influenced by vapors emanating from the rocks in the darkness beneath the Temple of Apollo.

Next we squeezed through the Corinth Canal, an engineering marvel from start to finish, with barely a foot to spare on either side of our ship at its narrowest point. After winding through the glorious fjords of Montenegro, we rounded one last turn and the Captain let out three long low horn blasts. He was signaling our arrival to the Island of the Madonna that guards the entrance to the port of Kotor. In a sweet ritual that has been reenacted every time a ship enters this dramatic harbor,  someone on the Island of the Madonna then tolls its bells in response, like two lovers calling to each other from afar.

Croatia surprised us the most. Two stops in Dubrovnik and Hvar introduced us to the Dalmatian Coast, the home of craggy cliffside villages, islands and inlets stretched out along the Adriatic Sea. We began our day in sunny Dubrovnik kayaking among fortress walls and cliffs, ending with some snorkeling in a sea cave. Hot and hungry, we cooled off with the creamiest gelato and wandered the narrow streets of shops and homes climbing up the hillside.  Halfway uphill we boarded a gondola and glided to the top of the mountain with glorious views of Dubrovnik below us and  islands stretching off into the afternoon sun. Not wanting to leave our breezy perch, we dined on juicy tomatoes and burrata and a savory seafood risotto at the Restaurant Panorama with its namesake views.

Probably the only way to top Croatia was our last stop, Venice, la Serenissima. We sailed into the Grand Canal to a dramatic thunder and lightning storm that lasted until we docked. With her rich history of trade, art and decadence, there is no better city to get lost in than Venice, to wander among the alleyways that always lead to water and bridges, quaint shops and eateries. And instead of busy streets filled with buses and taxis, Venice’s “streets” are its canals, plied by water taxis and gondolas, not a car in sight.

I think my favorite thing about our WindStar cruise is the “Sail Away,” the nightly ritual with music, lights, pomp and circumstance when the ship pulls away from the pier and we set sail for our next destination.  Guests drop everything to run up to the Sky Bar on the top deck to catch this event. Two of the ship’s officers in their dress whites stand poised waiting for Vangelis’s music to crescendo and then ever-so-slowly raise the WindStar flag, inch by dramatic inch, until, over the course of three minutes, the flag is fully raised up into the evening breeze. This mesmerizing ritual would neatly wrap up the day’s adventures and was a sweet harbinger of the adventures to come in the morning. Sail Away was the time to gather together with other guests to share stories of wine tastings and hikes, olive presses and swims. All washed down with a glass of wine or the signature cocktail of the day as fellow guests on this intimate ship became fast friends.

Lisa Kallen is a Travel Consultant with Alamo World Travel, specializing in tours, cruises and customized vacations to Europe, the Americas, South Pacific and Asia. Visiting family in La Bella Italia is a favorite vacation along with “soft adventures” just about anywhere in the world. You can reach her at 925-837-8742 ext. 18 or  lkallen@alamoworld.com

#Athens #Croatia #Venice #Greece #Cruise

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The Romantic Rituals of the Sea

Remembering fondly…After winding through the glorious fjords of Montenegro on Windstar Cruise’s lovely power yacht, Star Pride, we rounded one last turn and the Captain let out three long low blasts that signaled our arrival to the Island of the Madonna that guards the entrance to the port of Kotor. In a sweet ritual that has been reenacted every time a ship enters this dramatic harbor, then someone on the Island of the Madonna tolls its bells in response. Like two lovers calling to each other from afar. I find fascinating the world of sailing, the nautical world and all its rituals and superstitions. From raising the flag of each country we enter, even to the side of the ship that the flag is flown on, the Captain and his crew were eager to share the stories, handed down through centuries, of why they do what they do. When you go on a small-ship adventure like a #Windstar Cruise, you can dine with the Captain, chat with the crew and enjoy their “Open Bridge” policy. Or simply relax on deck, drink in hand, and soak up the sun along with the strange rituals of the sea.

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