7 Reasons to Sail on Anthem of The Seas This Winter

Anthem of the Seas is the third largest cruise ship in the world and after months of sailing in the Pacific and Mediterranean, the ship has finally arrived in the Atlantic.

As I approach the docks, my complete attention draws towards a majestic 18-story building. It is longer than seven Boeing jetliners and there’s a giant glass capsule jetting out of its top. Anthem of the Seas by Royal Caribbean is the biggest ship I have ever seen and most spectators at the port feel the same.  Along with 4,179 other passengers, I walk into this floating island with pure astonishment. In the next two weeks, I was about to experience over thirty dining establishments, nightly entertainment in four venues, adventures like skydiving at sea, my first Robotic bar, and nine amazing ports of call across five countries. From where I sit, this is the best cruise in the world.

With each passing year, the cruising industry is getting more innovative with high tech infrastructure, modern architecture, and upscale culinary experiences. For this winter, Anthem of the Seas promises the best travel experience in cruising to those looking for luxury at affordable prices. Here’s my review of Anthem of the Seas. 

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1. Largest floating bedrooms

The interior of Anthem of the Seas is modern and elegant, reminding me of some of the classy hotels you would see in Las Vegas. Intricate flooring and ceiling work are specifically chosen to set a different tone on each floor, so you can feel the change in ambiance going from one part of the ship to the other.

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With 2,090 staterooms Anthem has more guest accommodations than the tallest hotel in the world. It also has more balcony rooms than any other cruise ship. The most fascinating accommodations are the spacious two-story lofts and three-bedroom family suites that come with a living/dining room, a TV room, a balcony Jacuzzi, and panoramic views. Say goodbye to claustrophobia!

2. Widest culinary selection at sea

If you are used to the one or two dining options presented on most cruise ships, be blown away by the culinary selection here. On the Anthem, there are 18 restaurant concepts to choose from. Themed restaurants include Japanese, Italian, French, Asian Pacific, American, British pub, cafe, buffet, and much more. Each one has a unique ambiance and creative cocktail menu.

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While just the design of the restaurants is worth checking out, the food is comparable to any upscale restaurant on land. Where else can you taste creations by world-renowned chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Michael Schwartz, and Devin Alexander on a floating island!

Furthermore, you are not restricted to sitting at round banquet tables along with other guests you don’t know. Couples can easily have a date night while families can reserve larger tables for privacy. Did I mention that a server is assigned to you for the entire cruise, who travels with you from restaurant to restaurant?

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3. Nonstop adrenaline rush

The activities on the Anthem accommodate not only families but adventurers as well. Choose more relaxed bingo, guess the tunes, or jeopardy game time, but then you can also go skydiving with RipCord by iFLY, go-carting, rock climbing, and skating at SeaPlex, surfing at FlowRider, and be lifted 300 feet above sea level in a pod on the iconic North Star.

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4. Serious fitness solutions

Sure, most cruise ships have a little gym and nice spa services, but on the Anthem, they take physical health seriously. There are fitness classes – yoga, stretch, Pilates, spin, even a boot camp, for those who want to stay healthy. You can get a personal instructor who will train with you, a nutritionist to consult with, and can select from several anti-aging solutions.

5. The best of Broadway

Anthem of the Seas offers an extraordinary lineup of multidimensional entertainment in state-of-the-art venues with mind-blowing technology. Shows such as Spectra’s Cabaret, We Will Rock You, and The Gift are huge hits, while international artists from around the world fly in to perform live music throughout the cruise.

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6. Entertaining for kids and teens

On no other cruise will you find two entire floors dedicated to teens and kids. SeaPlex is the largest indoor active space onboard offering tons of activities to stay active, from basketball and ping pong tournaments during the day, to a floating DJ booth at night. Kids’ favorite characters from Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda entertain the young ones. There is also a state-of-the-art video arcade and 3D movie room, and a Johnny Rockets diner for when hunger strikes.

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7. Inclusive to LGBT community

The daily cruise planner delivered to the stateroom lists all the activities happening throughout the ship. There are lunches for singles travelers and mixers for the LGBT community, offering a chance to make new friends onboard.

Anthem of the Seas sails around the world, and is now making its course around The Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti, Grand Cayman, Mexico, Honduras, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, Barbados, Martinique, and St. Maarten, offering guests the opportunity to truly immerse themselves in the destinations they visit.

The Best Adventures on Sea

A cruise vacation doesn’t have to be only about eating, drinking, and hanging out by the pool. Travelers can choose to participate in high adrenaline activities offered on board, that are safe for all ages. Here are some of the coolest adventures one can experience on the new Royal Caribbean ship, Anthem of the Seas

Skydive – Afraid of heights? Kids and adults can experience what it feels like to fly, within the confined wind capsule on board. RipCord by iFly® has introduced a groundbreaking simulator that gives a free fall skydive experience for an entire minute. The trainers show you proper posture for flying and also guide you through your flight.

skydive on Anthem of the Seas
Photo courtesy of Ana Loza from Argentina

Lift off – As we approach each port, the first thing locals notice is this giant capsule lifting off from the top deck of the ship. North Star is like a London eye that takes 14 passengers at a time, ascending gently 300 feet above sea level, and giving breathtaking 360° views. There are high power binoculars available inside the capsule so you see the surrounding areas. This is really fun while departing a port, so you can get a great view of the city.

North Star on Anthem of the Seas

Rock Climb – On the Anthem, there is a 30 foot high rock climbing wall where beginners can practice along the colored coded rocks, and advanced climbers can create their own pathways.

rock climb on Anthem of the Seas

Surf – Taking surfing lessons right onboard with FlowRider®, a 40-foot-long surf simulator located at the back of the ship. You don’t have to worry about high tides or jelly fish here.

surfing on Anthem of the Seas

Sports and more – The SeaPlex on deck 15 is the largest indoor active space at sea. Here’s where you will find most kids and teens playing video games, table tennis, and munching on hot dogs. Even adults join in the fun enrolling in circus school, basketball and cricket tournaments, roller skating and bumping cars.

bumper cars on Anthem of the SeasAll of the adventures are free for the cruisers on board Anthem of the Seas, although some may require advance reservations.

9 Places to Visit in Lebanon

Lebanon is a beautiful country in the Middle East, bursting with history, great food, and great culture.  It being a classic traveler’s destination, how can you decide where to go and what to see?  Since planning a trip can be quite the task, Go Eat Give has named the nine must see cities in Lebanon for your touring pleasure:

1. Beirut

This capital city of Lebanon is nicknamed “The Paris of the Middle East,” and is bustling with things to do. Along with great shopping and beautiful scenery, Beirut has a rich cultural history to explore. There are many museums and sacred religious sites there, such as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George, the National Museum of Beirut, and the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque.

Beirut

2. Baalbek

Baalbek is located on the western end of Lebanon and is home to some of the most well preserved Roman ruins known to mankind.   The city dates back over 9,000 years and was previously known by the name of “Heliopolis,” or The City of the Sun, during the period of the Roman rule. Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus are all believed to have been worshipped at the Baalbek temples.

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3. Jeita Grotto

Located in the center of the Nahr al-Kalb valley in Jeita, Lebanon, the Jeita Grotto is an amazing sight. The interconnected limestone caves, which can only be accessed by boat, span around nine kilometers in length. To make the grotto even more intriguing—it was a finalist to become one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

Lebanese journalists and photographers tour the Jeita Grotto by boat during a media day to campaign for the selection of the Jeitta Grotto as one of the seven natural wonders of the world

4. Sidon

This is a Lebanese town that is filled with old history and remarkable sight seeing.   Located on the western coast of the country, it was one of the most important Phonecian cities and is now known as an active fishing town. Sidon is home to the largest Lebanese flag and also the Old Souk, a famous marketplace.

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5. Tyre

Tyre is another city in Lebanon that contains very interesting ruins and historic sites. One main attraction here is the Roman Hippodrome—an ancient stadium for chariot and horse racing! The Tyre Coast Nature Reserve is also the largest sandy beach in the country.

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6. Beit ed-Dine

Beit ed-Dine is a town famous for its’ magnificent Beiteddine Palace (shown below). This one-of-a-kind palace was built in 1788 and hosts the annual Beiteddine Festival and Beiteddine Palace Museum. Interestingly enough, after Lebanon’s independence in 1943 the palace was officially renamed the “People’s Palace” since it had been created by the people’s hard work and will.

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7. Faraya

Lebanon is known for it’s interesting climate, and this town is the perfect example why. Above this village lies the Mzaar Resort, which is a ski resort. The resort is only about 20 miles away from Beirut, meaning you could experience warm weather and winter all in the same day!

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8. The Cedars of God

Cedar trees are sacred and known to have covered Mount Lebanon in the past, but The Cedars of God is one of the last forests left in the country. This was caused by persistent deforestation by Lebanon’s ancestors, such as for shipbuilding and construction. The snowy area has great hiking and beautiful views.

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The name of this Lebanese village can be translated from Arabic into the “Monastery of the Moon.” It’s home to many important religious sites such as Saydet El Talle and the Mount of the Cross. This village is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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10 Ridiculously Cool Things That You Didn’t Know About Death Valley

Cold? If yes, sorry to hear that, but it seems like a perfect time to read about the hottest place in the country. While Austin Adventures has been traveling to Antarctica for some time now, in three short months, it will celebrate the departure of its inaugural trip to California’s Death Valley.

This national park is known for its superlatives (hottest, lowest, driest, etc.) but you may also be surprised to find out that you can play a round of golf at the aptly-named Furnace Creek. See below for some surprising facts about the area…

Death Valley Badwater Sign

1. 20 Years of Till Death Do Us Part! In 1994, Congress made this section of the Mojave Desert a national park.

2. Largest in the Lower 48. Measuring in at a whopping more than 3.4 million acres, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the contiguous U.S.

3. Record-Holder for More Than 100 Years. The highest recorded temperature in Death Valley is 134 degrees Fahrenheit which was measured in July, 1913 and is the highest recorded temperature in the Western Hemisphere.

4. A Year Without Rain. Death Valley is the driest place in the country. In 1929, not a single drop of rain was recorded.

Death Valley Dunes Sunset 2 5. How Low (on land) Can You Go? Death Valley is home to the country’s lowest point, Badwater Basin, which lies at 282 feet below sea level.

6. Notable Neighbor. Death Valley is only 80 miles from the highest point in the country, Mount Whitney, which tops out at an elevation of 14,505 feet. In other words, the lowest and highest points in the contiguous U.S. are less than 100 miles apart!

7. Lots of Life. Death Valley is home to more than 1000 species of plants (including 50 that are found nowhere else in the world), 300 species of birds, 51 species of mammals (including bighorn sheep and mountain lions), 36 species of reptiles and a handful of amphibian and fish species.

Scenic view of Death Valley sand dunes and mountains. 8. Humans Call it Home. Archaeologists have found evidence of human presence in Death Valley that dates back at least 9,000 years! The Timbisha Shoshone Native American Tribe has inhabited Death Valley for the past 1,000 years.

9. Golfers are Welcome! The Furnace Creek Golf Course at 214 feet below sea level is the world’s lowest golf course and golfers can play 18 holes year round (although the game is less popular in the height of summer).

10. February is Just Fine! The average high temperature in February is 72 degrees Fahrenheit and the average low is 46 degrees Fahrenheit – a perfect range for an active adventure vacation! February is also typically the wettest month. On average, it sees .51 inches of rainfall.

Austin Adventures’ first Death Valley adventure vacation  departs on February 15, 2015!

~ By Katie Jackson on behalf of Austin Adventures

Qooqqut with unforgettable dining

What crosses your mind when your tour is called “Qooqqut with unforgettable dining?” Certainly not orange overalls, open air high speed boats, and battling trade winds in search of a lone restaurant located 50 kilometers away from civilization! Apparently, this is what I had signed up for during my recent visit to Nuuk, Greenland.

We met at the harbor of this world’s northernmost capital city, and noticed parked sail boats, water taxis, even a small cruise ship at the dock. But my guide pointed to our ride for the evening – a 7 passenger open raft with a motor attached to the back. Given the windy cool Arctic temperatures we were about to be faced with, overalls were mandatory, to be worn on top of the layers of sweaters and parkas I was already laden with. John, our Danish tour guide, warned me that it will be cold “like riding on a motorcycle at zero degree Celsius for two hours.” That’s why I look like a baby Polar Bear in this picture!

overalls for boat trip

We started off slow as we left the city and sped soon enough reaching 50km/ hour in the little boat. At first, I enjoyed the scenery – we had a beautiful view of Nuuk’s colorful homes, the statues of Hans Egede, and backdrop of a few new buildings against rocky hills. We whiz passed emerald blue floating glaciers, and within 10 minutes had reached very secluded areas. There was nothing but open waters, mountains and ice as far as I could see. After that, it was cold, wet, windy and bumpy for a VERY long time. John, our guide, explained to the passengers that this is how the Vikings traveled to dinner and the areas we were traveling through were Viking territories. I’m not sure what kind of restaurants the Vikings favored.

blue ice glacier

The second phase of our experience was fishing for entree. We stopped near a mountain where the water was deep enough to fish for cod and redfish. Line hooks were pulled down and everyone caught something. The catch was just pulled into the boat and stored for the chef who was going to cook us dinner that night.

catching redfish in Greenland

Another 20 minutes ride to the island of Qooqqut. It was a very scenic small village surrounded by hills, some green shrubs and lush backgrounds. The water was calm here and reminded me of Scottish Highland or South New Zealand.

Qooqqut arrival

The lone Qooqqut Nuan restaurant is run by husband (Greenlandic chef) and Thai wife. They also have a restaurant in Nuuk (at the harbor) and use to work at another one on the island that burned down.

Qooqqut Nuan restaurant.

The restaurant serves upscale Thai food using local ingredients. Wine/ beer was reasonably charged $10 per drink, and dinner was included in our tour. I ordered the Fish Dinner which had a huge platter with many interesting creations – red curry with shrimp, cod with spinach, redfish with sweet and spicy hong kong style sauce, and redfish with mildly spicy red curry. It came with a big bowl of salad (rare in this part of the world) and steamed rice. I also tasted Penang reindeer, a Greenlandic Thai fusion, with gamy chewy sliced pieces of meat that were probably hunted on the island, cooked with sliced onions, red and green bell peppers. The flavor were divine and unfathomable how someone could run such an upscale kitchen in the middle of nowhere. For dessert, I opted for European style crepe pancakes with ice cream and fresh fruit (watermelon and orange).

Greenlandic shrimp with salad

fish platter

Penang reindeer

During the delicious dinner, John informed us that in case we can’t make it back, there were hostel rooms behind the restaurants that were pretty nice to spend the night at. He also kept some sleeping bags on the boat, just in case we ended up on another uninhabited island. His tours generally ended around 10pm, but with the midnight sun this was not a problem. Now that it was end of August, and it was already past 10,  and getting dark, but we still had an hour to go.

Its a pity that we weren’t able to enjoy the jaw-dropping natural beauty, the secluded surroundings of the lone restaurant, instead headed right back into the dark waters. An afternoon hiking around Qooqqut, soaking in its fresh air and relaxing with its views, would have been a good addition to the itinerary.

The ride back was not as bumpy, but felt much colder because of the darkness and slight rain. The memory of a fabulous dinner was rapidly overtaken by my head and neck pain and a frosty nose. It was 11pm when we returned to the harbor. The city looked dead. John called us a cab to take us back to Hansina’s Guest House.

I would definitely take this tour again, but during the day, in a covered boat, and spend some more time on the island.

Touring Greenland offers Qooqqut with unforgettable dining tour for DKK 895 ($179) per person, which includes 2 hours of sailing, some time for fishing, and a two-course dinner. Drinks are not included. Warning: if you have prior neck or back injury, you may not want to take the bumpy ride.

Where is the longest zip line course in Central America?

The longest zip line course in Central America is 2,300 feet long and located at Mayflower Bocawina National Forest near Silk Grass Village on the Southern Highway in Belize. Nestled amidst 7,000 acres of pristine lowland broadleaf forest in the saw-toothed Maya Mountains, the adventure center offers day and night time zip lining, waterfall rappelling and hiking.

1.5 miles of zip lines stretches across 12 platforms, starting with short easy zips that get longer, faster and steeper. The last one is the longest, lasting over 30 seconds. There is also a surprise rappel built into the course. Make sure to keep an eye out for waterfalls!

After a thrilling adventure, enjoy a lunch of fresh juice, fried fish, and rice and beans at The Wild Fig Restaurant with a great view of the park. Nestled in the heart of this beautiful National Park is Mama Noots Eco Resort; a spacious jungle lodge operated entirely on solar and hydro energy.

Stay overnight at a Canopy Hut and experience the stillness of the jungle at night. This is also a great place to wake up early morning and do some bird watching. Over 193 species of birds and a few tribes of howler monkeys are residents of Bocawina.

Seven reasons to go CouchSurfing

CouchSurfing is the world’s largest social travel network, connecting a global community of travelers, adventure seekers, and lifelong learners who are dedicated to sharing their cultures, hospitality, and authentic experiences. Members use the website to arrange offline interactions like a shared meal, an overnight stay, or a hike. There are currently more than 4 million CouchSurfers, in 86,000 cities, speaking 366 languages. Continue reading “Seven reasons to go CouchSurfing”

Honeymooning at the top of the world (part 2)

Continued from part 1…

We start our second day crossing the Dudh Kosi (Milk River) on a steel suspension bridge about 50 metres (165ft) above the river – it’s a thrilling feeling with mountains on each side and the roaring river below. As we cross, the wind pushes us to one side and you feel slightly unbalanced and we both have butterflies in our stomachs.

Crossing one of many suspension bridges

The last 3 hours of the day’s trek is a steep ascent – more than 1000 meters – just up, up, up…until we finally reach Namche Bazaar at 3,440 metres (11,286 ft). This was definitely physically the hardest day of the whole trek but the next day is a rest day to give our bodies more time to acclimatize to the altitude. Well, “rest day” – the term is a bit misleading and sounds better than what it is. The point of a rest day is to climb above the altitude you are sleeping at, spend a couple of hours and then descend. This will help the body acclimatize faster. So we climb 350 metres (1150ft) uphill, have a break while watching recreational planes land and take off. The attraction is the highest located hotel with a view of Mt. Everest at 3880m (12,730 ft). So if you are rich enough you can fly directly to this hotel spare yourself the walking, see Everest and fly back. In the afternoon we watch the movie Into Thin Air based on Jon Krakauer’s account of the fatal summit attempts in 1996.

For days we walk along narrow trails that wind around cliffs, go down to the bottom so that we can cross the river that runs through, then it’s back up the mountain, around the mountain, ascending, descending, ascending…We walk through valleys surrounded by beautiful blankets of autumn colors. The smell of pine forests remind me of walks with my mom back in Denmark where I grew up. But Denmark is one of the flattest countries on earth and Nepal one of the highest. The contrast could almost not be bigger.

It gets colder in the mornings and the landscape becomes more barren and unforgiving. At Tengboche (4,360 m/14,300 ft) we spend our second rest day. There is not much to do; the village seems to only exist for the trekkers passing through except the monastery (which must be the highest located monastery in the world!) which is now said to be home to 60 monks, reflecting its financial prosperity. However, it is also said that fewer and fewer young boys join as monks as they prefer to work in mountaineering or trekking-related activities.

It was my first experience inside a Buddhist monastery – the humming sound of about 40 monks chanting prayers was slightly hypnotic and calming and because I didn’t really understand what was going on it became all the more exotic and mysterious.

Monks chanting prayers at Tengboche Monastery

Nowhere in the world is a trek more spectacular than in the Everest region. It’s where four of the world’s six tallest peaks Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu rise above everything else, crowning the towering ridges that straddle the Himalaya.

Mountains make you feel small and insignificant – in a good way – it makes you see yourself in a different perspective. While walking you have time to reflect on so many things that you might not normally do in your everyday life. It makes trekking therapeutic experience both mentally and physically.

We are starting to feel the altitude; slight headaches and short-of-breath-ness. Our guide assures us that eating loads of garlic will cure our symptoms, so we eat cloves of raw uncooked garlic. I’m sure our breaths must have smelled really well…

Late morning on day 9 we reach Gorak Shep – a 3 hour trek from Lobuche. We are now at (5170 m/16,961ft) After an early lunch we take the trail to Everest Base Camp through the once vast Gorak Shep Lake. It’s strange to see sand and sea shells at this altitude. After a couple of hours we reach the Khumbu Icefall which is regarded as one of the most dangerous stages of the South Col route to Everest’s summit. Climbing through the icefall can be an extremely dangerous adventure as the icefall is continually moving, sometimes as much as two to three feet in an hour, and I’m happy that we are not doing that. We have reached the goal of our trek. We are standing at the foot of the tallest mountain above sea level! It’s incredible!

My husband and I at Mount Everest Base Camp.

When we arrive back at Gorak Shep, my husband is not feeling well. He is nauseous and has a headache – clear symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and that your body has not acclimatized well. We go to our room to take a rest before dinner – he is still not feeling well after an hour and I’m starting to get a little cold. Like most lodges along the way, this one also consists of 4 wooden walls, no insulation and a little window. I go downstairs to order a hot drink and to inform our guide that my husband is not feeling so good. Our guide jumps to his feet and runs up to our room to check on my husband. Within 3 minutes he is back downstairs to inform me that we are leaving NOW! We have to pack and leave NOW – immediately. I’m too focused on leaving instantly that I don’t have time to be nervous about my husband, and I trust that we are in safe hands.

It’s 5.30pm and the sun has just set over the Himalaya and we are about to walk on a small stony path – IN THE DARK! Now that’s scary! Luckily, we have a full moon so the landscape is slightly lit up and this merciless place corresponds to what I imagine it must be like to be walking on the moon. There are no sounds in the night – only our footsteps on rocks can be heard – it’s absolutely silent, like we’re wrapped in an invisible blanket. It’s so beautiful and unreal – this moon landscape at the top of the world; it’s rough and poetic at the same time.

We finally get down to an altitude of about 4280 m (14,070 ft) and we will stop here for the night. Thank goodness the decent seems to have helped my husband’s condition; he says he feels better. Or maybe he’s just too exhausted to feel sick. I’m exhausted – it’s been a long day with a 7am start and it’s now 9pm. Last time we ate was 10 hours ago. My husband goes straight to bed and the guide and I eat a small bowl of noodle soup.

We backtrack down to Lukla over the next couple of days and it feels good to be finishingour trek. It was an amazing experience – an experience you could never have predicted. It’s definitely a honeymoon to remember – but I’m sure most honeymoon couples will tell you that. It almost feels like this was a symbolic trip of what is in store for us in our future life together – sometimes life is uphill and you’re out of breath, but after that it’s downhill and life is effortless and sometimes you don’t feel well, but by supporting each other we will make it. We started this journey together and we are going to finish it together.

~ By guest blogger, Ann Wilson. Ann is founder and CEO of Friends of VIN. She lives in Netherlands with her husband and travels to Nepal every chance she gets. To support Friends of VIN, visit www.friendsofvin.nl

Honeymooning at the top of the world (part 1)

First I would like to kindly thank Sucheta for letting me write a guest entry on her blog! I recently met Sucheta in Nepal where I was re-visiting VIN (Volunteers Initiative Nepal) whom I worked for last year. This year I set up a partner foundation called Friends of VIN (visit our newly launched website Friends of VIN) and I was in Nepal to catch up with VIN’s founder Bhupendra Ghimire and to check out our new project location in a remote area and rural area of Nepal; Okhaldunga.

But let’s briefly rewind to 2008 – it was a leap year…and the reason I remember so clearly is that this was the year where, on February 29, I proposed to my then boyfriend. Only 2 weeks prior had I heard about this old tradition of women being “allowed” to propose on this day. It’s believed to originate from Ireland in the 5th century when St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for a man to propose. Tradition has it that in case the woman’s proposal was rejected, she would receive 12 pairs of gloves – so I thought: what the heck – I have nothing to lose!

Two and a half years later – July 2010 – we got married on a boat in Amsterdam– and it was a fantastic day!

We discussed a couple of options for our honeymoon – We wanted something out of the ordinary – not the Maldives or any other luxury beach holiday. So we came up with the South Pole on an old Russian expedition ship or trekking in Nepal…and since my husband knows how much Nepal means to me and since our very first conversation included Nepal, he wanted to experience it with me. And there was an extra bonus for me – my lifelong dream of working in Nepal as a volunteer would also come true.

We were greeted at the airport by Raju Shrestha – co-owner of the travel agency Himalayan Rejoice with whom we had booked our trip. The first days involved sightseeing of many of the famous sights in Kathmandu; the Swayambhunath Temple (also called the Monkey Temple – guess why…), the Boudhanath Stupa, the Kumari’s (Nepal’s living Goddess) Palace, and Durbar Square.

We rose early to go to the airport as we were on the first flight to Lukla. The airport terminal for domestic flights was quite chaotic compared to European standards…a lot of shouting and waving of tickets in the air – there was no check-in line; it was sort of just a lot of trekking tourists with sleepy looks in their eyes huddled in pairs or groups while their trekking guides were trying to get all the luggage checked in.

Finally we were on the plane – but ended up waiting outside on the tarmac as we couldn’t take off due to the mist in the valley. This is quite a common phenomenon in Nepal – and it means that many flights are delayed or cancelled. So if you are planning on going trekking in the Everest region and want to fly in to Lukla, you should give yourself a couple of days at each end of the trek to allow for changes to your flight schedule. Or maybe you don’t want to fly into the world’s most dangerous airport, but will opt for a 7-10 hour bus ride to Jiri and then start walking…In the beginning of November this year, around 3,000 trekkers were stranded in Lukla because no planes could leave or arrive for the matter due to bad weather.

Seemingly randomly, our guide found a porter that he already knew – among hundreds of men. It’s amazing how that worked. Our porter works independently meaning not through a travel agency and doesn’t own a mobile phone, so I guess we were lucky that he wasn’t on another job…

Hundreds of porters waiting for a job at our arrival at Lukla airport.

And then…After a hearty breakfast of potatoes and chili we take the first steps of the first meters of many thousands. It is like we have landed somewhere in the 1700s; cows, chicken, yaks and dogs are running among the many children who are chasing the animals with wooden sticks or playing in the shade. Men are carrying heavy loads of everything ranging from firewood to dirt to bags of rice on their backs. Women are busy tending to their farms and household chores, washing the dishes at the public water pipe or taking a shower – also at the public water pipe. A stark contrast to our urban lives back home in Amsterdam.

The route takes us through beautiful greenery and sounds of people and animals. Every now and again we come face to face with a yak train – which of course has the right of way. You can always hear them coming by the sound of the bells dangling from their necks and it’s important to go towards the mountain so that you don’t get pushed off the cliff accidentally…the yaks are carrying goods to the villages higher up as well as trekkers’ backpacks.

We pass many shrines and stupas which you must always walk around clockwise. We also pass many Buddhist prayer wheels and you are encouraged to spin them as you pass. In this way, the prayers are spun out to the universe and will save you from chanting them. In the distance we see lush forest rising high up until they eventually meet the raw grey and brown mountains with their snow-capped peaks which will dot our horizon over the next couple of weeks.

Hills, mountains and rivers make up the landscape on our way to Everest Base Camp

As you would expect we meet our first ascent of many and for about an hour our legs (and lungs) are given a good work-out – far better than any gym can offer. And the views are just stunning, the fresh air sweet and soothing, so much better than the Kathmandu smog and dust.

More coming…

~ By guest blogger, Ann Wilson. Ann is founder and CEO of Friends of VIN. She lives in Netherlands with her husband and travels to Nepal every chance she gets. To support Friends of VIN, visit www.friendsofvin.nl

Up in the air

This was my first time taking a hot air balloon ride so you can tell I was excited. I woke up at 4:45am, took a quick shower and headed on to The Westin Kierland hotel lobby for an early morning pickup. Rainbow Ryders, Inc. were my trusted company for the adventure while flying over the Phoenix-Scottsdale area.

Till this day I had no clue about the intricate details that go into flying a hot air balloon. First, you have to check the direction of the wind and identify a launching location accordingly. This can take some time as you may need to travel to several different locations before settling for one. After the blessings of the clouds and winds, we pulled up on the side of a road (across from a Dunkin Donuts) which had vast empty fields.

Second, came the process of arranging the baskets, hooking up the pipes, unwrapping the nylon, turning on the fans and inflating the balloons. We were carrying everything we needed to fly our balloon in the back of the trunk in a box! The experts at Rainbow Ryders got to work immediately and within a few minutes had everything set up. I helped as air was fanned into the 120,000 cubic feet envelope. It slowly began to take form of a giant balloon spanning quite a distance.

Next hot air was blasted using propane tanks which caused the balloon to rise. Now, us (the passengers and the flyer) had to get into the basket quickly. There is no door or latch, you just have to jump in. Since our basket was very small (3 people), we had a rough take off. The basket shook, shivered, went up in the air and came back down several times before we were finally floating above ground. All I could do was hold on tight and laugh at the balloon’s animated behavior.

Once in air, it was smooth sailing. I could see the arid Arizona landscape with mountains, open fields, giant cactus’s and some dried up creeks. It was quiet and peaceful. The sun was also rising into the horizon which caused reflection on the hills, creating a picturesque Kodak moment. You could see other balloons in the air by now, of different colors and sizes. We probably flew for 45 minutes. The balloon needed constant fuel and direction, which our experienced guide Richard provided.

Like takeoff, landing was a bit rough too. “It all depends on the wind when we get to the ground” said Richard as he gave as security instructions under high and low wind landings. In the end, no one was hurt and I had a lot of fun! The riders from other balloons met up in the field for champagne and breakfast after the beautiful morning flight.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely! It is a once in a lifetime experience that you will cherish memories of forever (although I would love to do it again).

Rainbow Ryders offers hot air balloon rides in Arizona and New Mexico to individuals and groups. Their pilots are FAA certified and have over 150 years combined experience with  15,000 hours of balloon flight time.