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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Shoulder Season Travel Deals Have Arrived

Shoulder Season Travel Deals Have Arrived

Christine DiGangi

Here's how much you save by waiting until after Labor Day to head to Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean.

When it comes to traveling, most people are familiar with the ideas of peak seasons and off-seasons — that taking a vacation is generally more popular (and more expensive) in July than in January. Between those extremes is shoulder season, the not-quite-best (or worst) time to go to specific destinations, which means there may be deals to score by booking fall travel.

The passing of Labor Day signifies the unofficial end of summer for many Americans, but you might be able to cling to warm weather and beach days by looking into a later-than-usual vacation. Travel analysts at Expedia say you can get an oceanside vacation for up to 38% off peak-travel prices by traveling in September or October, while the weather is still suitable for spending the day on the beach.
The analysts looked at flights from the top 10 departure cities in the U.S. (among them Chicago, Houston, New York and Los Angeles) and compared the prices of travel and lodging during peak months (June 1 through Aug. 31) and the shoulder season. Here’s what some of the average savings look like, according to Expedia’s analysts.
  • Hawaii
    Average ticket price: 17% less than during peak months
  • Mexico (Cabo, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun)
    Average ticket price: 8% less than during peak months
  • Caribbean
    Average ticket price: 7% less than during peak months
  • Mexico
    Average daily rate: 16% less than during peak months
  • Caribbean
    Average daily rate: 16% less than during peak months
  • Hawaii
    Average daily rate: 9% less than during peak months
Savings could be even greater (or less) depending on your specific destination and hotel choice, which is why it helps to do some research before committing to an itinerary. If you’re a credit card user, you might be able to further boost your savings by redeeming travel rewards. No matter how you pay for your vacation or how big of a deal you can get when booking it, it’s always crucial to make sure you’re not blowing your budget, because a relaxing getaway and happy memories tend to not be worth dealing with debt later on.
Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Cuba: Palos Verdes Art Center program to include museum visits

Cuba: Palos Verdes Art Center program to include museum visits
By Jane Engle

Get to know the art and people of Cuba on a tour sponsored by the Palos Verdes Art Center. The eight-day trip is a licensed cultural exchange program that includes visits to museums, art centers and homes of residents.
In addition to visiting Havana, the group will travel to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Trinidad and Cienfuegos, where participants will meet with Cubans and learn about their lives and the centuries-old sugar industry. The exchanges will be led by Mary Drobny, a Cuba specialist and art historian, along with a bilingual Cuban guide.
Date: Oct. 25-Nov. 1.
Price: $3,250 a person, double occupancy; $400 single supplement. The price includes seven nights’ lodging, round-trip airfare between Miami and Havana, Miami airport tax, visa, medical insurance, transportation within Cuba, entrance fees, most meals and a night of entertainment with Cuban music and dance. It does not include a Palos Verdes Art Center membership ($60 for a family; $50 for an individual), a $200 donation to the art center, tips to the guide and driver or Havana airport tax.
Info:Gail Phinney, Palos Verdes Art Center, (310) 541-2479 Ext. 305;

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

2013: Top new trips to emerging places

2013: Top new trips to emerging places
Every year new destinations open up to adventurous travelers, whether through the efforts of enterprising tour companies, better access to backcountry, or increased political stability.
Be warned: these picks aren't for kicking back on the beach with a margarita—unless you're rewarding yourself after a 100-mile trek from the Colombian Andes. Now, you can cycle the once forbidden island of Cuba, explore unseen corners of Patagonia, and track gorillas in the deepest rainforest.
Check out our picks below before the rest of the world catches on:
Tsavo, Kenya: Africa's Appalachian Trail
Tropical Ice Ltd. is setting new standards for the continent's hiking options by guiding a seriously epic, long-haul trekking trip across central Africa. The 100-mile-plus walk traverses the massive Tsavo West and East national parks, following the courses of the Tsavo and Galana rivers.
The walking safari takes 11 days, utilizing 8 of the company's camps. As co-owner Iain Allan says: "The wonderful thing about this walk is that it follows no roads, only trails created by hippo and elephant, so we're able to explore some really remote areas—the Africa of my youth."
Also, Artisans of Leisure is offering new trip options in Kenya, on a broader basis.
Raja Ampat Archipelago, Indonesia
With more than 1,300 species of fish, six of the world's seven species of sea turtles, and at least 450 species of reef-building coral, biologists have good reason to dub the Raja Ampat (or Four Kings) Archipelago the "Amazon of the Seas."
In 2013, Asia Transpacific Journeys is pioneering a snorkeling expedition to this isolated corner of ocean, led by marine biologist guides, and Seattle-based outfitter SeaTrek Sailing Adventures provides trips in the region aboard its traditional ironwood Phinisi schooners.
The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos has been a leading model of eco-tourism for years, but even the best-laid plans can feel stale if you're looking for a true off-the-grid adventure.
A new Ecuador-based eco-outfitter, Opuntia, is starting to offer a new alternative to the islands' classic sailing trips with well constructed tours of the Galapagos' rugged interiors. They offer multisport adventure tours based out of boutique hotels on three different islands in the Galapagos. Think hiking active volcanoes, mountain biking coastal wetlands, kayaking with sea turtles and sharks, and snorkeling with sea lions.
ROW Adventures offers land-based Galapagos itineraries, as well.
Nicaragua: Volcano Surfing
This small, once off-limits Central American nation has long been attracting adventurous surfers and hikers, and in 2013, with a slew of new ecolodges opening, it's poised to draw even more travelers looking for thrills with a bit more comfort in mind. Sea kayakers are discovering its miles of pristine coastline and massive inland lake, and trekkers can explore the volcanoes and wildlife-viewing opportunities inland.
Austin-Lehman is introducing a new trip here this year that features mountain-climbing and black-sand "surfing" down Cerro Negro, and Adventure Life and Access Trips are introducing new Nicaragua tours, too.
Albania: A Trip Back in Time
As Albania's economy grows, more of its roads are being paved and long-haul cycling trips are becoming a more appealing option. You can pedal between friendly villages, through mountain passes, to undeveloped coastline— imagine exploring Croatia by bike 20 years ago.
Freewheeling Adventures is one outfitter starting to lead tours here this year, including a nine-day trip with days spent swimming at Dhermi, the country's most famous white-sand beach, and overnights in historic Gjirokastër, a UNESCO-protected town built around a 12th-century citadel.
If you prefer crafting your own itinerary, a number of new rental companies are cropping up in Albania's capital city, Tirana. The Tirana Backpacker Hostel, for one, has high-quality sets of wheels for €5 a day and provides suggested routes and points of interest.
Colombia: Peaks, Paddles and Pedals
Ringed by some of the best beaches and surf breaks on the continent, with jungle-clad Andes peaks at its core, Colombia is starting to make good on its geography after years of unrest, by opening up its countryside to active travelers.
A number of outfitters are starting to offer trips here. Adventure Life, for instance, is introducing not one, not two, but three new itineraries to Colombia in 2013 that include mountain-biking through the lowland tropics, old colonial towns, and coffee plantations, rafting the white water of the Chicamocha Gorge, and hiking.
Isla Navarino, Chile
Argentina's Ushuaia may be famous as the southernmost city on Earth, but it's tiny, tiny Puerto Williams, Chile, on Isla Navarino, that can lay claim to being the southernmost settled community on the planet. An overnight in the wind-whipped fishing community is a highlight, but the rugged surroundings are the real draw.
From Puerto Williams, hearty hikers with navigation experience can head out on the Dientes Circuit, an unmarked track that circumnavigates the island. (A good map and working compass are musts.) There are no established campsites—this is roughing it—but the views across the water of the other mountainous islands of Tierra del Fuego are incredible. The Dientes track was developed in the late '90's, but only in recent years has it started to gain real traction, as the number of trekkers in other Patagonian regions continue to grow and those seeking solitude are driven elsewhere.
Now, travelers more comfortable with support can enlist one of a half-dozen or so outfits offering trips of the Dientes. Erratic Rock is one of the best guiding companies in the region.
The Kamchatka Peninsula, Siberia
For years, the rugged Kamchatka Peninsula was off limits to tourism since it was the home base for Russia's nuclear submarine fleet. But after the end of the Cold War, many visa restrictions were lifted, and Russia is starting to give U.S. outfitters permits to operate here.
"Very lately tourism (in particular fly fishers in the summer) have started to return to this untouched wilderness, and the Russian government is allowing summer flights directly from Alaska to Kamchatka in order to foster the area's tourism development," says Ted Martens, of Natural Habitat Adventures.
Nat Hab will be offering an intensive new expedition to the region: 100 miles of hiking and kayaking from the foot of the active Karimsky Volcano, across the Siberian taiga to the headwaters of the Zhupanova River, through valleys with steaming geysers and roaming brown bears, ultimately reaching the Bering Sea.
Also, Frontier Travel is introducing a salmon fly-fishing trip to the Ponoi River on the Kola Peninsula.
The Patagonian Corridor: Land's End
For years, some of Patagonia's most famous sanctuaries—Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park and Chile's Torres del Paine National Park—happened to be surrounded by some of the least developed land in an already staggeringly remote region. Now that's starting to change.
New roads and boat access are being introduced in the so-called Patagonia Corridor, the region that connects these two iconic parks with the Austral Way (the very end of the Pan-American Highway) and the base camps of Villa O'Higgins, in Chile, and El Chalten, in Argentina. That means it'll soon be much easier for mountaineers and climbers to explore the two parks and all the glaciers, peaks, and valleys in between.
Robinson Crusoe leads exploratory itineraries across the region.
Georgia: The New Alps?
A unique convergence of East-meets-West, Georgia combines the cultural appeal of medieval villages and old-world charm with massive snow-capped peaks and vast valleys. Georgia's 750-mile-long string of Southern Caucasus mountains, many of which top out above 16,000 feet, were long considered off limits due to political instability with neighboring Russia.
But after the first democratic election in the Republic of Georgia's history, in 2011, the Caucasus are starting to show up on more and more mountaineers' radars, andGeographic Expeditions and Natural Habitat Adventures are just two of the many outfitters taking notice and offering new trips here this year. Natural Habitat Adventures' Ted Martens sums up the country's appeal as a mix of untapped natural beauty and navigational ease.
"There's visa-free entry and many new and modern hotels, roads, and other infrastructure have been built to facilitate tourism," he says. "Our trips take place just south of the Russian border, an area that's peaceful as well as stunningly beautiful for trekkers and horseback riders."
The Azores: Hawai'i of The Atlantic
New direct flights from the States (just five hours from Boston) are making this remote volcanic archipelago newly accessible to U.S. travelers. The nine Azores Islands lie in the North Atlantic, about 930 miles west of the Portuguese coast, but their lush landscape seems more akin to something you'd find in the South Pacific. Visitors can trek between bright green peaks and geysers, bathe in open-air natural thermal pools, and spot 24 species of whales and dolphins that migrate past the Azores year-round.
Futurismo Azores Adventures offers trips from its base on São Miguel island, including diving excursions with local marine biologist guides. Hikers, meanwhile, can tackle the Azores' signature peak, Mount Pico—at 7,713 feet above sea level, the tallest point in the islands—in a two- to four-hour round-trip trek on Pico island.
Sweden's Arctic: Northern Lights on Skis
Seeing the Northern Lights is a bucket-list dream for many, but it's typically a pretty elusive goal. The pale green and pink celestial spectacle comes courtesy of a complicated scientific process—when highly charged electrons from the solar wind haphazardly collide with gaseous particles in the earth's atmosphere. In other words: Sightings are never guaranteed.
But prognosticators say that this winter may be the best in fifty-plus years for viewing the Lights, thanks to unique conditions during the 2012-2013 season. The pristine fjords of northern Sweden are one of the best places to experience the glowing show, and KE Adventure Travel is one of a few operators taking advantage. KE has a newNordic ski tour, with husky-dog sled support and overnights in cozy mountain huts.
If you'd prefer a DIY trip, be sure to include a visit to the Aurora Sky Station, in Swedish Lapland's Abisko National Park for your best chances at a light show.
Wales: Hiking the Wales Coast Path
All 1,000-plus miles of Wales' dramatic coastline are now accessible to hikers and equestrians thanks to a newly completed path that rings the entire country. The new Wales Coast Path links together existing trails, taking in some of the most undeveloped stretches of cliffs and beaches, along with old-fashioned, family-owned inns.
Trekkers can hike and haul their own packs or enlist companies like Celtic Trails orContours Walking Holidays to transfer their belongings between B&Bs. Horseback-riding trips are set to be introduced along the route this year, too.
Madagascar: Indian Ocean Outpost
The consistently high winds whipping along Madagascar's northern coast have put it on the map in a big way with wind- and kite-surfers. Aficionados say the conditions are world-class, but it's still a new enough sport here that there aren't crowds—though you may attract curious groups of friendly locals looking on from the beach.
Madagascar shines away from its shores, too, with a fantastical mix of plants and animals. More than 90% of the island-nation's wildlife is endemic, including playful lemurs, a long roster of bird species, and the cat-like fossa. Huge stands of native Baobabs—or monkey-bread trees—are also unique to the country.
Kensington Tours is starting to offer safaris to Madagascar this year.
Bhutan: A Pristine Kingdom
This year, access to this formerly closed-off kingdom will be easier than ever, as the only airline that services Bhutan, Drukair, will start offering daily flights from Bangkok, New Delhi, and Singapore. Internal flights are set to begin soon, too.
The country is already the host to a famed one-day, 166-mile mountain-bike race,Tour of the Dragon, and this year, Bio Bio ExpeditionsAsia Transpacific Journeys, and OARS will begin leading new multi-sport itineraries here, including whitewater rafting, jungle trekking, and, of course, mountain biking.
"These are perhaps some of the finest sections of Class IV to V whitewater in the world, with beautiful scenic views and untouched forests carving through terrain that few have seen," says OARS Trip Designer Barbara Neary. "Along the route, when travelers are not on the river, they will have a number of opportunities to interact with Bhutanese monks—who are always welcoming and engaging—at their monasteries and dzongs."
Mongolia: Land of Genghis Khan
The real appeal of Mongolia will always be in its seemingly endless green steppe, and horseback trips will forever be the best way to experience it, but to get there, you have to first navigate the country's capital, Ulaan Battor. And for years, a lack of infrastructure (or much of anything) limited access there.
Now, as the government introduces plans to double the country's foreign visitors to two million in coming years, that's changing. Foreign hotel chains are breaking ground in Ulaan B, and a new domestic airline, Mongolian Airlines, started flights last year and has plans for adding additional destinations within Asia this year.
A number of outfitters, including MIR Corp. and Nomadic Journeys are starting to lead horse-pack trips here, overnighting in traditional gers and visiting with reindeer herding families near Mongolia's alpine Lake Hovsgol.
Uganda: Gorillas In Your Midst
Uganda's mix of unique wildlife (mountain gorillas and chimpanzees) and natural wonders (the Nile, Murchison Falls, and the Rwenzori Mountains) is making it a big draw for 2013.
For the first time this year, Abercrombie & Kent is engineering its new itinerary to include days dedicated to tracking chimpanzees with university scientists. Guests explore Uganda's Kibale Forest, home to thirteen species of primates, including chimpanzees and mangabeys, as well as 300 species of birds. Later in the trip, there are days devoted to viewing other impressive game, on safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
"Because the region occupies the main migration corridor between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is prolific plains game here, primarily topi and Uganda kob, buffalo, hippos, and some of the largest herds of elephants anywhere in Uganda," says Abercrombie & Kent's Jean Fawcett. "Spotted hyenas are common and leopards are occasionally glimpsed, but the prime attraction is the large lion population."
Deeper Africa also introduced a new primate-tracking trip to Uganda in 2012.
The Congo: Rainforest Ecolodges
Long overshadowed by the violence of its larger neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the smaller Republic of the Congo is just starting to show up on tourists' radars.
That's thanks in large part to two new luxury safari camps opening this year in the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, which at long last will give travelers the chance to appreciate the pristine rainforest and wildlife-spotting opportunities in the RoC's rugged Congo Basin. Visitors can track western lowland gorillas and elephants with local guides (members of indigenous Pygmy tribes) and then overnight in luxury at high-end base camps.
Boundless Journeys is offering trips here, as well as the Africa Adventure Company.
Sri Lanka: Tropical Island Hopping
An untouched trio of mountains, jungles, and white-sand beaches has put Sri Lanka on travelers' maps for years, and now the country's recent stability has made it a more appealing option in South Asia than ever before.
In the interior, there's whitewater rafting, climbing, temple treks, and elephant spotting, while the coasts offer great surf breaks and kite-surfing havens. In 2013, there will be new outfitted trips here from Kensington ToursAsia Transpacific Journeys, with another to follow in 2014 from Civilized Adventures.
Jordan: Trek the Middle East
When EasyJet added flights from the U.S. to Jordan last year, it paved the way for easier travel to this mountainous country. Now, a newly developed rural hiking route in the north of the country, The Abraham's Path, allows hikers to meet and interact with local people in a genuine way.
Two new ecolodges, one set in a remote part of the Dana Biosphere Reserve and the other at a hot spring near the Dead Sea, are offering new-found comforts, and KE Adventure Travel is pioneering long-haul cycling itineraries across the country this year. Boundless Journeys' new-for-2013 trip, meanwhile, will focus on hiking.
Botswana: Safari By Paddle
The spectacle of Victoria Falls and the lions, leopards, elephants, zebras, and giraffes of the Okavango Delta have long made Botswana a top safari destination. Now, companies like Explore Africa are starting to showcase the country's paddling options, as well, with new trips along the Selinda Canoe Trail, a four-day, three-night paddling trip through the Selinda Wildlife Reserve.
Explore Africa is also introducing a way for equestrians to experience Botswana, with a new three-day horseback-riding trip out of Camp Kalahari, a traditional tented camp on a palm-fringed island known for its vast herds of zebra. Zu/'hoasi Bushman guides live nearby. There's also a new wildlife safari from Austin-Lehman Adventures and another from Uncharted Africa.
Cape York Peninsula, Australia
For all its fame and sea life, it's no secret that the Great Barrier Reef is losing its luster to bleaching and tourism. Still, the further north you go from the hotspots of the Whitsunday Islands and Cairns, the two main GBR jumping-off points along Australia's eastern coast, the more locals like to boast about the improved conditions of the GBR, and for good reason.
But none of the off-the-beaten-path beach towns along the mainland can compete with the undeveloped tracts of Cape York Peninsula, at the very northeastern tip of the continent. Even the heartiest Aussie will admit that this land is truly out there. It's accessible only via puddle-jumper planes and dirt roads suitable only for 4x4s, but for those divers and fishermen looking to taste the waters of the GBR as they were a century ago, this is truly the best bet.
However, the clock's ticking, as Australia's big-money mining companies eye the remote region for possible development for bauxite mines.
Koh Phangan, Thailand: Wild Beyond The Parties
This Gulf of Thailand island has long been famous with the backpacker set for its raucous full-moon party, but this year, its first airport opens, direct flights from Bangkok begin, and a number of new eco-minded lodges open up. Koh Phangan is poised to draw a more active, less hedonistic crowd.
Just like its more famous sister island, Koh Samui, Phangan has countless palm-fringed white-sand beaches, some of them reachable only by boat; but unlike Samui, Phangan also boasts a mountainous jungle at its core, most of which is protected as national parkland by Thailand. Visitors can trek across rolling green hills to seek out secluded waterfalls and snorkel in the pure waters offshore.
Namibia: Ancient Sands
There are only a few places in the world where you can discover pristine landscapes on foot, without a marked trail, where you can sleep out under the stars, and Namibia's NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of them.
The 200,000-hectare sanctuary hosts a number of guided walking safaris across sand dunes and lunar desert landscapes—or you can take a hot-air balloon tour above them. Sand skiing is starting to be developed here, along with sand boarding, hiking (the rim of the second biggest canyon on Earth is a popular trail), kayaking, and visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site at Twyfelfontein, which is said to hold the highest concentration of Bushmen paintings found in a single area in southern Africa.
ROW Adventures is beginning trips here, as well, including hiking in the Namib desert, tracking the elusive black rhino, and viewing desert-adapted elephants.
Ruaha, Tanzania: Safari on Foot
Since a recent boundary extension, Ruaha is now the largest park in Tanzania and, along with several adjoining game reserves, part of a massive mega-wilderness. The park has only a handful of tented campsites, all of which are concentrated in one condensed area, leaving a vast system of woodlands and rivers to explore.
This year, Ruaha wardens are making that easier than ever by opening up the major roadless sections of the park to a limited number of walking excursions. You can spot the Big Four (no rhinos) and experience true seclusion in the park. Mark Thornton Safaris seems to be leading the pack, with a few new Ruaha itineraries this year, along with Immersion Journeys.
"Often we focus on the river systems with hippos, crocs, and elephants," says Mark Thornton, of his namesake company's trips. "We also venture deep into the miombo woodlands for what we feel may be the deepest remote bush immersion there is."
Guyana: The Other Amazon
Truly one of the last untouched pockets of one of the last frontiers, Guyana's tract of Amazon rainforest is starting to open up to eco-tourism. A trio of lodges in Guyana (Iwokrama River Lodge, Atta Rainforest Lodge, and Rock View Lodge) opened in recent years with the participation of the local Amerindian peoples, and in 2012International Expeditions piloted a tour here, including hikes through the jungle to massive waterfalls and excursions to spot 800-plus bird species at the Asa Wright Nature Center in nearby Trinidad.
International Expeditions Emily Harley says Guyana has been the company's radar for years. "It was actually the first place that our Director of Program Development visited outside of the U.S. when he was studying biology in college," she explains.
"He's watched the area closely since then, but recognized that it needed some improvements to the overall infrastructure before it could support visitors. Now Guyana as a country is trying to develop its tourism base in a green and sustainable fashion, and we found a combination of activities, lodges, and guides that made this the absolute right time to offer Guyana to our travelers—there are gorgeous hikes, paddling, canopy walkways and so much more."
Myanmar: Cycling The Land of Temples
As Myanmar (Burma) takes steps toward democracy and opens its borders to foreign tourists, travelers the world over are starting to discover its broad appeal, including 2,000 ancient temples and pagodas in the Ancient Bagan region and the deserted white-sand beaches of the Mergui Islands.
This year, a slew of adventure outfitters are rolling out trips here: everything from pagoda-to-pagoda cycling with Backroads to beach-to-beach sailing trips through the Merguis with Siam Dive N SailClassic Journeys' new Myanmar itinerary will focus on cultural immersion—lunches at a traditional stilted house on Inle Lake and workshops with lacquerware artisans—and take in the classic sites, as well.
Classic Journeys Edward Piegza says the Bagan site is a stand-out. The atmosphere is extraordinary, in the same way the Angkor complex in Siem Reap is, but with far fewer tourists, he explains. It's not so much the pagodas themselves that are glorious, but the whole journey between them, too. It's a wide-open setting on the plain, with no development, no shops, no commercial ventures, just miles and miles of open land and pagoda spires that have stood the test of time and isolation.
Rossland, British Columbia: Red Mountain Resort
Rossland's Red Mountain Resort, just north of the Washington border, is undergoing a staggering expansion this year, adding nearly 1,000 new skiable acres on Grey Mountain over the next two seasons. Already, the resorts Red Mountain offers 1,685 acres of terrain, and this new boost will add a whole new peak to the mix. (To put the numbers into perspective, the expansion on Grey alone is about the same size as all of Mount Baker Ski Area in Washington.) Later in 2013, at the beginning of the next ski season, a new quad chair will open up 22 new slopes around Grey.
Meanwhile, in the summertime, Rossland continues to draw mountain bikers to its flagship Seven Summits trail, a 22-mile strip of single-track that was afforded the elite Epic Ride status by the IMBA.
Ladakh, India: Grand Canyon of the Himalayas
Journeys International is pioneering a new trip tracking snow leopards in this remote mountain region, while both OARS and Bio Bio Expeditions are breaking new ground leading trips running the Class V's of the region's Zanskar River.
"The Zanskar is one of the most stunning places you will ever visit," says Bio Bio Expedition's Marc Goddard. "Most of the real Tibetan Culture has left Tibet and regrouped in Ladakh, so not only do you have the amazing river and mountains, but you get to experience the Tibetan culture as it was before the Chinese took over Tibet.
Ibex Expeditions, meanwhile, is offering new mountaineering trips to some of Ladakh's lesser-known, less intense 6,000-meter peaks, which provide the bragging rights of a big Himalayan ascent without the usual amount of pain.
Cuba: The Rolling Revolution
As U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba have loosened in recent years, allowing educational institutions and travelers interested in cultural experiences—or "people-to-people interactions" as the government puts it—to visit the island, active-travel outfitters have started developing their own itineraries here.
This year, a number of companies are rolling out new trips to Cuba that combine cultural interactions (hiking with local university scientists, sampling cigars at a tobacco farm) with road cycling through neighborhoods full of Colonial-era architecture, hiking in the Zapata Peninsula national park (also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve), and sailing through the limestone caves near the Sierra de los Organos Mountains. In 2013, there are new itineraries on offer from Geographic Expeditions,International Expeditions, and BikeHike Adventures, to name just a few.
"Cycling through Cuba is one of the best ways to experience this fascinating country," says BikeHike Adventures Director Trish Sare. "The roads are paved and in good condition, and since most Cubans travel by bike, the streets are relatively car free and it's easy to have cultural encounters with Cuban cyclists along the way.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sipadan Island is a Scuba Diver's Dream

Why you've never seen a dive site like Sipadan

By Karla Cripps

For hardcore divers, the number of sites capable of inspiring that rare one-in-a-lifetime thrill is fast shrinking.
Overfishing, pollution, coral bleaching and seabed dredging have all contributed to the slow ruin of many of what were once the world’s top dive destinations.
Near the top of the list of remaining global greats is Malaysia’s Sipadan Island.
A contender on any dive publication's list of the "world's best dives," Sipadan lies 35 kilometers off the coast of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo.
"Sipadan is the stuff of divers' dreams, where you see turtles, sharks, barracuda, huge schools of jacks and many more, not just fleetingly but in your face all the time,” says Asia-based scuba journalist and author Chris Mitchell
Steve White, editor in chief of adventure travel magazine Action Asia, agrees that it's deserving of its rep as one of the top dives on the planet. 
"The coral and fish diversity in Asia far outstrips that of the Caribbean," he says. 
"The steep drop-offs mean that you get to combine the sights of a bustling tropical reef with blue-water pelagics on the same dive."
In other words, divers get the best of both aquatic worlds.     

Sipadan's rocky recent history

The sites below the surface might be the stuff of scuba dreams, but Sipadan's real fame comes from a less-than paradisiacal period filled with courthouse battles and armed struggles. 
First there was the hostage crisis of 2000.
Abu Sayaff, a Filipino Islamic separatist group, kidnapped 21 people from the island. The hostages -- 10 tourists and 11 resort workers -- were taken to a camp on the southern Philippine island of Jolo. 
In an effort to preserve the island’s pristine state, only 120 divers per day are issued permits to visit Sipadan.Over the following months they were released, allegedly after ransoms of up to $1 million per hostage were paid to the kidnappers.
In 2002, following an intense territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia,the International Court of Justice ruled that Sipadan is Malaysian.  
Few could deny Malaysia's fight for rights was at least partially motivated by the tourism value that comes from having ownership of such a rare island.
In order to protect Sipadan's fragile ecosystem, in 2004 the Malaysian government ordered all dive resorts off the island, banned night dives and set a limit of 120 divers per day.
Regardless, the divers kept coming.

Even Monsieur Cousteau was impressed

"There was some cynicism about the government moves at first -- especially when that barge sunk on the reef [in 2006] -- but banning resorts and instituting a permit system were necessary steps and appear to be working reasonably well," says White of Action Asia.
"Operators are respecting the limits, helped by the fact that there are many other good dive sites within reach, so not getting a permit one day doesn't mean you don't dive at all. Pressured dive sites elsewhere should look at the model."
"Usually you'd be lucky to see a turtle once in a weeklong dive trip," says scuba diving writer Chris Mitchell. “At Sipadan you're almost pushing them away.” Today, Sipadan seems to have a handle on its preservation, as the surrounding waters continue to teem with life.
"Jacques Cousteau raved about Sipadan when he first dived it [in 1989] and he was a hard man to impress,” says Mitchell.
“If you can imagine being the only people on this tiny island, camping on the beach and then wading into the gin-clear waters to see a smorgasbord of underwater life, you can understand why he would have been so thrilled." 
Despite its burgeoning popularity these days, Mitchell says Sipadan's abundance has been preserved. 
That said, local rangers need to remain vigilant and equipped with proper gear to track and intercept potential dangers to the island.
"As with everywhere else in Asia, governments need to invest more in careful monitoring of reef health, fund scientific research and come down hard on overfishing."

Quick facts

In East Malaysia, Sipadan is the country's only oceanic island.
This means it rises from the deep-sea floor, unlike a continental island, which is an unsubmerged part of the continental shelf.   
According to Sabah tourism officials, Sipadan was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano that rises 600 meters from the seabed.
The Sipadan Water Village Resort has 42 cottages built over the shallow reef of Mabul Island.For divers, this is the main attraction -- a 600-meter wall dive just 15 meters from the shore that looks off into the deep blue.  
Sipadan's waters are home to a reported 3,000 species of fish, hundreds of species of coral, an abundance of rays and sharks and large populations of green and hawksbill turtles. 
There are 12 dive sites off Sipadan Island -- the most popular are Barracuda Point, Turtle Cavern, South Point and Hanging Gardens. 
The island is open for divers from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- no night dives allowed.
The number of divers allowed to access Sipadan has been limited to 120 per day in an effort to preserve the island’s pristine state.
Sipadan is an ideal dive destination year-round, though most dive operators in the area say the best months to visit are April to December. 
"Scouring forums like can be invaluable in finding the best times of year to avoid the crowds at Sipadan," says Mitchell. 
Where to stay
Divers aren't allowed to stay on Sipadan Island itself, but they can stay closeby at over-water resorts or nearby islands.
Visitors are recommended to book dives through resort operators well in advance to ensure they secure a permit. 
Top options include: Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort, built on stilts over the water; Sipadan Pom Pom Resort; and Sipadan Water Village Resort on Mabul Island.
Getting there
From Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, fly to Sabah capital Kota Kinbalu. Flight time is about two and a half hours. 
Then take a 55-minute flight from Kota Kinbalu to the town of Tawau. An hour’s drive gets you to the even smaller township of Semporna, where you can catch a speedboat for the 40-minute ride to Sipadan.
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Monday, August 22, 2011

7 global cities where the US dollar goes far

7 global cities where the U.S. dollar goes far

There are affordable destinations that offer a rich feast for the senses


Many Americans are working long hours to offset smaller work forces, stagnant incomes and other such trials and tribulations of our economic malaise. Needless to say, we could all use a vacation. But the same weak economy that has worked us to exhaustion has also decreased the value of the American dollar so much so that a getaway seems virtually unfeasible. Though the U.S. dollar has seen a slight recovery of late from previous all-time lows, it's still losing to many other major currencies, including the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar, the Chinese yuan, the Mexican peso, the British pound and the euro. Hard-earned and hard-to-come by American dollars would be squandered on sky-high exchange rates in many desirable destinations.
So what's an R&R-deprived American to do? Help is here, in the form of seven unique and exciting destinations where the U.S. dollar travels as far as you do.
Hanoi, Vietnam
Previously known as the backdrop to many a war film, Vietnam is becoming more popular with vacationers in recent years. French colonial charm blends with Eastern influences from centuries of Chinese hegemony in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital and second-largest city. The local currency is the dong (VND), and $1 is worth approximately 20,595 of them. Though you'll have plenty of money to haggle with vendors at the Night Market in the lively Old Quarter, sample eccentric local delicacies from dog meat to cobra, or maybe even take a Vietnamese cooking class, Hanoi offers a handful of free activities as well. Visit various outdoor wartime sites, watch locals practice tai chi by the peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake, or join one of the free student-run tours around the city. To save even more, find a bed and breakfast in town for as little as $15, sample various rice dishes from street vendors for $1, and wash it down with a fresh, light and cheap Bia Hoi, a Vietnamese beer ubiquitous on the streets of the Old Quarter.
Cuzco, Peru
Until the dollar rebounds, trade the Eiffel Tower for an equally beautiful cultural landmark: Machu Picchu, Peru, where the U.S. dollar gets you 2.75 Peruvian nuevo soles (PEN). Cuzco, the capital of the Incan Empire, is one of Peru's largest and liveliest cities, located just 75 miles from Machu Picchu. The journey will take a little effort, including a taxi and a train, and some money (the trip costs just over $50 each way), but the favorable exchange rate guarantees a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a relative steal. Cuzco's myriad accommodation options begin at less than $10 a night in a hostel. In addition to walking, taxis are a common and inexpensive way to get around the city, with short rides costing only 2 to 4 soles. Local buses and vans are even cheaper. For bargain meals, shy away from fancy restaurants serving foreign food and stick with the smaller joints offering local fare such as chifa, a fried rice dish brought over to Peru by Chinese immigrants, or cuy, a regional specialty of roasted guinea pig. Since Cuzco is known for its indigenous population, you can find unique local products at a great price, but watch out for tourist traps. Both food and goods cost less the farther you get from the bustling main square.
Sibiu, Romania
While Bucharest remains Romania's capital and largest city, Sibiu, in southern Transylvania, was coined the European Capital of Culture in 2007 thanks to its old Germanic charm, colorful squares, stunning medieval architecture and plentiful culture and music festivals. Despite rising economic development and Romania's recent admission to the European Union, Sibiu offers plenty of bang for the America buck. The national currency is the leu, of which one U.S. dollar buys almost three. Dinner for two with multiple courses and drinks at a good restaurant in the popular Small Square will only cost about $35 — an affordable opportunity to sample regional specialties such as a clear sour soup called ciorba and tuica, a local plum brandy. Guesthouses in the main square start around $31 a night while hostels start at just $14. Regional products such as wools, leathers, fur, wine and artisan food products are great buys for American visitors. Visit Sibiu's unique museums, hike the nearby Fagaras or Cindrel Mountains, or simply stroll the old medieval town, which is the main attraction in and of itself.
Chennai, India
Though it may cost a few American dollars to get to India, you'll save once you're there, considering that one U.S. dollar is worth nearly 45 rupees. Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is India's fourth-largest city, with direct flights from North America. Formerly known as Madras, Chennai was one of the first outposts of the East India Company, and its foothold, Fort St. George, was built in 1640 and still stands today. There is much to do in Chennai, from visiting India's first zoo to viewing Mughal-era paintings at the National Art Gallery and bargaining for bangles at the Pondy Bazaar. Chennai is also known for its beautiful beaches (but don't count on taking a dip — strong currents mean swimming is prohibited). Restaurants range from budget, many of which are strictly vegetarian, to upscale. Try one of the many South Indian fast food stands where masala, pongal and dosa cost only a couple of dollars. (Spend the money you save on bottled water, as tap water can be risky.)
San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala
Find inner peace and topographical splendor in the spiritual oasis of San Marcos La Laguna, a quiet town on Lake Atitlan in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. One U.S. dollar gets you more than 7.5 quetzal, Guatemala's local currency. The beautiful volcanic Lake Atitlan is one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country, and San Marcos is a quiet — and cheap — way to experience it. Still present in San Marcos is a rich Mayan culture, evident from the brightly colored clothing to the local cuisine. Drive or take a bus for less than $5 from Guatemala City to the quaint town where you'll find more footpaths than roads. Once you're there,travel the lake in lanchas, small boats, for about $1 to $4 a ride to the various surrounding towns. Climb the dormant volcanoes for stunning views of the country, or relax with reiki, massage or yoga. Vegetarian cuisine is dominant in San Marcos and you can purchase inexpensive fresh produce at open-air markets. Hostels can be found for as little as $7 a night per person while resorts and eco-lodges, where meals are sometimes included, can range anywhere from $40 to $140 a night.
Fez, Morocco
For an unforgettable getawaythat will overwhelm your senses but not your wallet, head to Fez, Morocco, home to the best-preserved old city in the Arab world. The original walled city, or medina, comprises thousands of sinuous streets and alleys filled with historical buildings, old Arab architecture, vibrant street life and endless souqs, or markets, selling everything from slippers to spices, and ceramics to cell phones. Since $1 gets you about 7.8 Moroccan dirhams, local goods are great buys — if you know how to bargain. Other major sights in the medina include the colorful and pungent tannery, where leather-making and dying techniques remain unchanged since the Middle Ages, and the centuries-old University of Al-Karaouine. Though the university is part of a mosque, which non-Muslims are not permitted to enter in Fez, the courtyard and library are worth the visit. Street food in Fez is often just as good as in restaurants and half the price, offering delicious regional specialties such as couscous, meat kebabs or harira (soup with meat, chickpeas or lentils) for just a few bucks. Traditional guesthouses called riads start at around $65 a night, while hostels start at $25 and can even include breakfast, all-day tea and Wi-Fi.
Vientiane, Laos
Formally referred to as Lao People's Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR, it is known to many visitors, drawn to its relaxed lifestyle, as "Lao -- Please Don't Rush." Though the capital city is becoming more popular, Vientiane retains a small-town feel and is perfect for those looking to relax. Popular activities include watching the sunset on the city's stunning Mekong River while drinking Beerlao, the national beer of Laos, indulging in a Lao massage (which will only cost you about $3 to $6), and chatting with local monks at Sangha College. The local currency is the kip, and one dollar gets you 8,000 of them. Vientiane has no shortage of restaurants ranging in fare from regional specialties to Tex-Mex. For those on a tight budget, noodle shops offer $1 meals. Even the most upscale of restaurants in the capital top off at $20 per person or less. Laos is known for its silk, which you can buy for a fraction of the price as in the U.S. (but beware of synthetic imposters).