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TRAVEL: Planning a winter vacation? Think Costa Rica

By Sarah Thomson

After a long day of travel, leaving Toronto at 6 a.m. with American Airlines and a plane switch in Miami, we arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica by 2 p.m., picked up our rental vehicle and made our way to the coast. Taking the new highway from San Jose to Quepos took us approximately 3 hours and we arrived at Arenas Del Mar just as the sun was setting.

We were greeted by two friendly attendants who loaded our bags onto a large golf cart and shuttled us up a paved path, through the jungle, to our room; tree frogs and night bugs filling the canopy above us with their calls. Stopping at the reception area, with pool and bar, we picked up our key and were informed of the Calypso dinner being served on the beach.

Our room was a spectacular corner suite facing the ocean and beach. The polished wood accenting the windows and stone tiling was elegant. Heavy doors slid easily open to a huge wrap around balcony that could be accessed from both the master bedroom and living room (where the kids slept on a pull out couch that was made up and ready for them). The balcony off the master bedroom had lounge chairs and a huge Jacuzzi tub that overlooked the cliffs and sea below, around the corner the balcony off the living room had a couch and big comfy chairs. Trees surrounded us— the jungle sounds of bugs, birds and howler monkeys, combined with the luscious earthy smell of vegetation, made everything seem surreal.

Most of the living area is outside with large covered terraces providing shade and great views. We could see the lanterns on the beach burning, and hear the surf pounding against the rocks far below.

After pulling our swim suits from the luggage we changed and caught a chauffeured golf cart down the path to the pool (the golf carts ferry people up and down the path to the beach and reception area). We had a quick swim then changed for dinner and made our way to the candle lit beach. An area under the palm trees was filled with white linen covered tables and chairs.  A Calypso trio played soft music—without an amplifier. The music, with the rhythm of the waves in the background and the warm breeze combined to make it a beautiful evening. Dinner was fantastic and my 7-year-old was invited to play the maracas with the band and without any hesitation he was up there loving the attention (what he’s lacks in shyness he makes up for in smiles).

We woke up the next morning to the sound of the parakeets and toucans in the trees that surround our terrace.  The sun was just rising, and with it the jungle came to life.  Our boys’ excitement and desire to explore was infectious and we went for an early morning walk before going for our free breakfast. The resort has two beaches. One is secluded and protected by large rock outcroppings at either end and the other larger beach is part of Manuel Antonio National Park and stretches for miles.

It wasn’t long before the boys were soaked and playing in the waves. (*Note to parents: put them in bathing suits the moment they wake up because the ocean is warm and irresistible). As the sun began to rise and heat up the beach, we made our way back to the resort, changed and went for breakfast of fruit pancakes and delicious coffee.

Arenas Del Mar Nature Resort is an elegant introduction to the beauty of Costa Rica. It is by far one of my favourite hotels in the world, with a combination of elegance and design that works perfectly with the natural beauty of the jungle that surrounds it.

It is: quiet, calm, elegant, peaceful, natural, warm and amazing.

It is not: loud, party place, crowded, busy, cold and average.

I hope to come be back to this beautiful resort very soon.

 

Take a look at the beautiful beaches below.

 

 

Follow Sarah on Twitter at @ThomsonTO.

TRAVEL: The floating village in Cambodia

By Tania LaCaria

Life is different for the people who live in the Floating Village of Chong Khneas outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

A visit here is not soon forgotten – the architecture, the lifestyle, and the friendly villagers make for an incredible experience. All you have to do is find a Tuk Tuk driver in Siem Reap who will take you over to the village shore for a reasonable rate (put on your best negotiating face because the starting rate for a 45 minute drive will not come cheap).

After you reach the shore, you will have to pay for a ticket on a boat that will tour you around. Eager tourists are to blame for the heavily inflated boat ride prices, but at this point, the high prices are inevitable (Cambodia is notorious for exploiting tourist curiosity), and luckily still affordable by North American standards.

Tuk Tuk drivers assume the role of tour guide as they try to solicit tourists who are intrigued by the sounds of visiting a remote village on the water. Luckily for the fare-hungry drivers, most tourists cannot pass up the opportunity to catch a glimpse of such a different way of life – after all, who wouldn’t want to see an entire community made up of wood structures that are teetering on stilts over the Tonle Sap by boat?

Houses, temples and shops are constructed out of wood boards and stand a couple of metres above the water’s surface. The Tonle Sap stretches far and wide; it is actually the largest lake in all of Southeast Asia, and supplies the 1300 houseboats in the community with freshwater, fish, and one giant recreational swimming pool.

The homes in Chong Khneas are beautifully painted and fully functional. They have makeshift “driveways” with boats tethered to poles, ladders that lead up to the indoor living space, and a storage deck for cows and chickens that is suspended beneath the house (but still above the water).

It’s quite rare to see the trees and shrubs that grow right out of the water. If it weren’t for the deliberately elevated houses, one would think the area had been flooded. It’s a surreal sight to say the least, but it’s nothing more than everyday life as usual for the Chong Khneas community.

The drive over to the Floating Village is just as memorable as the village itself, especially since you cross paths with more smiling children walking along the side of a dusty gravel road than you can count. My experience with children in Cambodia up until I visited the Floating Village had been really sad. All of them in the main tourist areas of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap had approached me begging (literally, tugging on my clothing) for money, food, books, jewelry…anything that they could eat or sell. It is heart-breaking being unable to give money to a single child in a group of 20 kids that seems to turn into a group of 30 kids within a matter of minutes; but despite the poverty and harsh living conditions, the children of Chong Khneas will wave excitedly as you drive by and put on their best I-know-how-to-scream-’hello’-in-English show. It’s a beautiful (and equally heart wrenching) scene. You will be tempted to jump out of the Tuk Tuk and hug them all…which is no problem because they will all want to hug you too.

A visit to the Floating Village is particularly memorable during the Water Festival season. There are various water festivals celebrated in various parts of Cambodia throughout the year, but the most famous takes place in Phnom Penh during October and November. The festival marks the end of the rainy season when the flooded Mekong River finally redistributes its water back out to connected river arteries including the Tonle Sap, and the fishing season commences. In Chong Khneas, you will see children by the boatloads engaging in one giant water-fight on the lake.

They playfully attack each other with large buckets and plastic bags full of water (Cambodia’s version of the water balloon) all in the name of fun. The sounds of deep-belly laughter bounce off the lake and fill the air with genuine sounds of happiness. Even the local monks and novices participate in the celebration. It’s a strange albeit wonderful sight to witness a saffron-robed monk pelt a dripping wet opponent in a nearby tin boat with a water bomb.

It’s refreshing to witness such happiness in a country that is afflicted with the scars of recent genocide (even if it is naive to believe that the temporary laughter is indicative of emotional repair). The pain and suffering of the people of Cambodia knows no boundaries, and yet, most of the people are strong in spirit and determined to persevere in rebuilding a country that is safe, just and stable.

If you haven’t had a chance to experience warm-hearted-Cambodia, be sure to visit Chong Khneas. Just don’t forget to bring an open mind and plenty of benevolence.

 

Tania LaCaria is an award-winning Interior Designer and Decorator from Toronto, Canada. 

TRAVEL: Cruises can be so Epic

By Murtaza Adamjee

For over 40 years, Norwegian Cruise Line has been the leader in innovative cruise travel providing guests with some of the most contemporary ships at sea. Particularly, the introduction of freestyle cruising has provided guests with a greater degree of freedom and flexibility when on board one of Norwegian’s 11 cruise ships.

Norwegian’s latest, the Norwegian Epic, launched mid-July with record breaking sales amidst its inaugural festivities in Europe, New York, and Miami. Upon closer examination of the cruise ship, it is apparent the Epic offers a truly innovative and unique experience.

Built for 4100 passengers and weighing in at 155, 873 gross tons, the Epic has been deemed the world’s largest floating entertainment venue. Here is a closer look at some of its key features:

Accommodation:

Accommodations include a variety of suites – from the largest villa suite complex at sea, to studios designed for the solo traveler, to spa suites that offer a complete spa vacation. The ship also includes two private decks at the top of the ship that offer private restaurants, bars, and pools, and family-friendly accommodations.

Family:

The Epic offers a number of family-friendly activities: An aqua park with three multi-story waterslides, six bowling alleys, Nickelodeon at Sea which offers Nickelodeon-themed entertainment and programming, a sports complex, a rock-climbing wall, and supervised activities when adults need a little getaway.

Dinner:

The Epic includes 20 different dining options inspired by the world’s leading culinary destinations. The cruise ship offers an upscale steakhouse, authentic Teppanyaki, Italian and Chinese fare, sushi, a salad bar, and its signature French restaurant.

Entertainment:

The Epic offers world-class entertainment for its guests on board. Norwegian Cruise Line is the official cruise line of Blue Man Group, best known for their theatrical shows that combine music, comedy, and theatrics. For the first time, Blue Man Group performs their act at sea aboard the Epic. The ship also features Cirque Dreams & Dinner, an interactive theatrical dining experience with music and mayhem, and is the official cruise line of Legends in Concert, The Second City Comedy Troupe, and Howl at the Moon Dueling Pianos.

The ships nightlife includes SVEDKA, one of only 14 ice bars in the world and the first ice bar at sea, along with Spice H20, an Ibiza-inspired beach club. Throw in a full-action casino with a high-roller ambience, and the Epic is sure to offer something for everyone.

The Norwegian Epic is currently sailing her first Eastern Caribbean cruise which departed from Miami on July 10, 2010 with visits in St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau, Bahamas. To book a cruise, or to find out more information on Norwegian Epic, visit www.rosedale.cruiseshipcenters.com.

 

Follow Women’s Post on Twitter at @WomensPost.

TRAVEL: The Darien Gap is no man’s land

By Tania LaCaria

With his backpack strapped on tightly, he traipsed through the humid, overgrown jungle greenery. Careful not to slip on algae-covered boulders, he watched his right foot move in front of his left, never taking his eyes off the ground. Suddenly he felt a jarring shock to his system; he’s thrown to the ground from behind. They pulled his backpack off his arms, tied his wrists, shoved their hands into his pockets and pushed his face into the wet earth. He knew the Darién Gap was a dangerous place, but he was certain he could cross without injury.

Men shouted at him in local tongue, pushing barrels of their machine guns into the back of his head. They wanted his money, his cell phone, and his shoes, but they were careful not to take the GPS he was using – it could lead authorities back to them. As he lay there in his sweat-soaked shorts and soiled t-shirt, he knew he had made a mistake attempting to cross the infamous Darién Gap.

The Darién Gap is not accessible by any road, bus, train or plane for a reason. It is a dangerous place where many curious travelers are left to perish under the thick tropical tree coverage – most of whom end up victims of violent guerilla crimes.

A 48,000 kilometre-long stretch of paved road called the Pan-American Highway will take you all the way through North, Central and South America; except, of course, once you hit the Darién Gap – 321 kilometres of highly dangerous land between south-eastern Panama and north-western Columbia.

The Darién Gap has gained notoriety as a kind of “no-man’s land”. The lack of accessibility should come as a warning to travelers; sure, the Pan-Am highway drops off before the Gap on either end in order to preserve the natural environment, respect the indigenous tribes that live in the Gap and to prevent trafficking of drugs from Columbiainto Panama. The more important reason, however, is that it simply isn’t safe to travel through.

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) guerilla group has been present in the Darién Gap for years, and now, they are virtually unbeatable. The horror stories of muggings, kidnappings and murders almost always trace back to the FARC – this dangerous group now seems to “run” the entire Darién Gap on a platform of fear.

Being a traveler that prefers to err on the side of caution, the thought of crossing the Gap has never entered my mind. But that doesn’t mean I cannot empathize with the curiosity travelers share. What does it look like? How much fear-mongering is the media responsible for? How do the villagers live? I suppose these questions will remain unanswered (for myself) for quite some time.

In the meantime, I will re-direct my quest for first-hand worldly knowledge and curiosity elsewhere — preferably to a destination that will not leave my loved ones muttering, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

 

 

Follow Women’s Post on Twitter at @WomensPost.