Sleep Well, Do Good at This Sustainable Hotel in Antigua

When I first learned about The Good Hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, I thought, what a neat idea! This socially responsible business thrives on reinvesting 100% of their profits into the local community. Started by Amsterdam born, Marten Dresen, The Good Hotel came about from a personal backpacking trip through Guatemala which led to opening schools for low income children in the country. Now the Good Group trains unemployed and single women to work in the hospitality sector, and hires them to run their properties. Also, they invest in the education of kids from low income families, and source local products for use by guests.

The Good Hotel is located on a relatively quiet residential street in Old Town Antigua. The city is a charming colonial UNESCO World Heritage site with cobblestone streets and colorful bohemian buildings. One can walk along the streets lined with bougevvilla trees to get to the Parque Central (main square) in about 10 minutes.

As soon as I arrive at The Good Hotel, I can see the Scandinavian influences in the construction and decor. Though the building was a colonial private home, it has been renovated to look like a modern log cabin with high ceilings, farm style wooden sliding doors, white walls and contemporary chandeliers. The rooms are located along a long hallway surrounded by a garden with tropical foliage. They are minimalistic, yet functional. I stay at the Patio Room, which is the second highest category. Being in a corner, it has more privacy and a private patio with an outdoor shower. The Pila Rooms are about half the size and open up to the corridor, which gives a hostel like feel. These can get noisy as you can hear people passing through. There were no fans or air conditioners in the rooms so you have to keep the windows open.

On my pillow is a worry doll, a traditional handmade doll that according to local legend, takes away your sorrows, fears and worries. It is generally used to help kids overcome their problems and help them sleep through the night.

The common spaces at the hotel are inviting to grab a drink, catch up on emails and chat with other travelers. At the entrance, you can read about all the hotel’s projects and how your stay leaves a positive footprint in the community. The Living Room is modern with sofas, kitchen counters, a TV and garden tables. Each morning, I grab breakfast of freshly baked croissants and locally sourced cappuccino coffee. At night, I return for a glass of wine or a scoop of gelato. All the produce is locally sourced, fresh, organic and home-made by their team.

The friendly staff is always there to give advice on the best restaurants, attractions and how to get around. Because they are young and sustainable, I tend to take their recommendation and eat at Cactus Taco Bar (the best taco I’ve ever had),  in Antigua. There is also free WiFi throughout the hotel which works rather well, so you can stream movies or research your next destination.

The Good Group also has hotels in Guatemala and London, and plans to open in Amsterdam, Madrid, New York, Guatemala City and Rio over the next three years.

A Woman Who is Changing the Way We Travel

I first met Kelly Campbell at the 2011 Travel & Adventure Show in Atlanta where I was speaker. She & her sister, Anne, had a booth for The Village Cooperative selling fair trade jewelry & handicrafts. They also founded a travel company, The Village Experience, that organizes socially responsible tours all over the world. We became friends instantly sharing a mutual passion for travel and giving back.

Over the years, we have partnered on a Go Eat Give trip to Kenya, Destination Kenya in Atlanta, & more. I recently spent a few days at her home in Lamu, Kenya, where I got a deeper glimpse of her lifestyle. Here is an interview with this woman changing the world, one village at a time.

Hanging out by the pool at The Majlis Resort

What was your inspiration for founding The Village Experience? 

It is my opinion that Americans need to get out into the world more and experience the richness, diversity, and beauty of cultures outside of their own. This leads to better understanding, breaking down of barriers, tolerance to different religions, and so much more. Nothing brings me greater joy than watching my passengers experience something out of their comfort zone and thrive in the magic of it. I have many return passengers that have come to find travel as addicting and educational as I have.
What are 3 projects around the world you are most passionate about?

Safari Doctors – Lamu, Kenya. This organization operates medical clinics in twelve remote villages throughout the island archipelago that have little to no access to healthcare. I’ve been on many of the medical sails myself and have seen firsthand the obstacles these communities face on a daily basis just to care for their families. I knew the first time I sailed with Safari Doctors and met CNN Hero and founder, Umra Omar and her team, that we would be partnering on many projects together. Fast forward 3 years, and The Village Experience has helped to fund monthly medical sails and provide essential equipment such as satellite phones, vaccine refrigerators, solar panels, privacy tents, and medical examination cots. We’ve even built the first playground on Pate Island for the kids being served by the medical clinics.

Women’s Interlink Foundation – Kolkata, India. This organization works to root out human-trafficking, prostitution, and abuses against women by working on prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, and repatriation back into the community. They run several rescue centers for vulnerable girls, red light district after school programs for children of working mothers, street children drop-in centers in the slums, vocational skills training programs, and a rural community based tourism program. I love their holistic approach to tackling injustices against women, and I’m constantly inspired by the hard work and dedication of Aloka Mitra and her entire team of strong women. The Village Experience has provided Women’s Interlink Foundation with dormitories and new playgrounds for the rescue centers, sewing machines for their tailoring program, administrative support for the entire street kids program, funding for their artisan development program, and we even built the entire Tribal Village Home Stay for their community based tourism program in Shantiniketan.

Vamos Adelante – Esquintla, Guatemala. This organization works in 24 rural villages along the slopes of Volcano Fuego. Most of the communities survive on seasonal work from the coffee plantations and sugar cane fields, and utilize the children in their families to help bring in extra income. Vamos Adelante works to educate the families on the importance of school, hygiene, nutrition, and healthcare. They provide medical clinics, distribute food to the elderly and malnourished, provide access to eco-stoves and clean water filters, build and improve schools, and work to empower the women in the villages. After traveling three hours up the side of the volcano, through multiple rivers and winding streets, the people I encountered captured my heart. There was no going back! The Village Experience has assisted Vamos Adelante in building new classrooms, renovated current schools, built a recreational center, started a women’s tailoring program, installed concrete floors/tin roofs/rain catchment systems for families in the program, and even provided a brand new cement mixer for the construction teams.

View from Kelly’s home in Lamu

You are on the road how many days a year? How do you balance personal and professional life? 

Most years, I am on the road approximately 270 out of 365 days of the year…either leading socially responsible tourism trips, scouting new destinations, fundraising, or working alongside our NGO partners. We are getting busier and busier, so it is getting harder to carve out personal time. What I find works best is to arrive to my work destinations early to rest and prepare for the passengers. Then, if time permits, I like to stay 3-5 days longer on my own to explore the destination at my own pace – sit at coffee shops and people watch, book hotels with beautiful views, scour the markets for artisan treasures, and try all the popular restaurants. I also made a commitment to myself to visit several new places each year to ensure I am continuing to see the world and growing in my knowledge. This year I will experience Greece for my 40th birthday – just my family and friends with me in private villas sitting back and watching the sun set over beautiful Santorini.

Now that I am an Aunt to twin 11 month old nephews, going back to the States or meeting them out in the world is becoming a huge priority. We already have a family reunion planned for January 2019 in Lamu, Kemya so that the family can have a true, relaxing vacation and the boys can begin their journey as world travelers.

What do you do for fun? 

The number one thing I do for fun is pack up my cooler with chilled white wine, fresh pasta salad, locally made bread, and imported chocolate and go sailing with my friends on Hippo Dhow or The Gypsy Catamaran. There is something so relaxing and therapeutic about being on the water, especially the Indian Ocean. We sail through the channels, anchor the boat on Manda Beach or one of the local sand bars, and then swim, walk the beach, and enjoy our cooler!
I also LOVE exploring markets around the world. The energy I feel the moment I step into a souk or mercado in a city like Marrakech, Antigua, Udaipur, Bali, or Cairo is such a high for me. I could meander through the alleyways for days on end, haggling for handmade items and sipping local coffee.
As a woman, what is your biggest challenge in your line of work? 
Being young women working in travel, fair trade, and philanthropy in the developing world means that my sister and myself often have to prove ourselves over and over again to people that are older than us and organizations they are more established than ours. They have no idea how far our reach is or how passionate we are about our work. The Village Experience is a woman owned organization with the ability to give a voice to women all over the world. That can be an intimidating idea for many men we encounter. Even so, we continue to focus on our mission of promoting socially responsible tourism through The Village Experience, providing a market for fair trade items through our Sora Nomad brand, and raising money to empower villages around the world through our partner NGO, The Village Cooperative.
Ream more about Kelly & Anne Campbell on their website

This Country Has the Best Olive Oil & You Didn’t Even Know It!

When you think of good quality olive oils which countries come to mind – Italy or Spain? But did you know Croatia is emerging as the best olive-growing region in the world? Total Croatia News reported that Flos Olei, the first and most respected guide to the best olive oils in the world premiered their 2018 edition where over 500 world producers from 50 countries participated, of which 75 producers were from Istria, the peninsula located at the head of the Adriatic.

Yes, I picked up a bottle of olive oil during my last visit to Croatia!

I was also fortunate to meet one of these award-winning olive oil producers at A Taste of Croatia with Chiavalon Extra Virgin Oil hosted by Drusk Trading Company at Oro Restaurant in Long Island City, NY. The founders of the olive oil company, Tedi and Sandi Chiavalon shared their interesting story with the attendees over fine Croatian food and wine.

Sandi was only 13 years old when he got into his grandfather’s olive groves. After his grandpa passed away, he decided not only to tend to the 50 olive trees left behind, he learned everything there was to learn about olives. He worked odd job and used his savings to buy 100 trees, graduated from the Agricultural Secondary School in Poreč, and enrolled at the Faculty of Agriculture in Zagreb. As business expanded, his brother joined in and they have over 7,500 olive trees producing more than 20,000 liters of olive oil.

What sets this first generation family-run producer apart is their dedication to quality. They harvest and process the olives the same day and produce certified 100% organic extra virgin olive oil from Istria. In 2016, the World’s Best Olive Oils included Chiavalon among the TOP 25 organic olive oil producers in the world!

“Our great advantage in the production of high quality olive oil. The secret lies in lower temperatures, thanks to which olive trees have a shorter vegetation period and the oil accumulation in its fruit begins later than in southern regions. When summer heat waves strike southern areas, the fruit already contains oil, so the high temperatures cause a considerable decrease in its quality. On the other hand, here in Istria, the accumulation of oil begins after the period of high temperatures has passed and can no longer have a negative effect on oil quality. This results in high quality extra virgin olive oil of an intense flavor and aroma, and elegant notes of various herbs,” say the Chiavalons.

Now to the taste test. How do you tell when a olive oil is good? Just like wine, olive oil has color, flavor and aroma. Good olive oil is generally more green in color than yellow. Take a sip, close your mouth and breathe through your nose. When you push the olive oil to the corner of your mouth, you should taste grass, artichokes or something spicy, bitter and earthy, never sweet. There may be fruity characteristics, nutty, buttery and elegant notes of various herbs.

Good olive oil when paired with the right ingredients, can enhance a dish significantly, as I found out through a 5-course dinner prepared by chef Djani Barbis, a notable NY chef of Croatian descent.


Dishes featured from the Croatian coastal regions of Istria and Dalmatia, included seabass tartare with lemon foam, octopus salad, seafood pasta with squid ink, filet mignon with champignon mushrooms, and delicate fruit crepes stuffed with fig-ricotta and wine-walnuts. Each dishes complimented very well with Chiavalons’ world-renowned extra virgin olive oil, and took me back to memories of being in Croatia.

If you can afford to take a trip to wander around the historic city of Zagreb, interact with the friendly locals of Samobar, or drive around the coast near Dubrovnik, then you won’t be disappointed by the scenery or the food! Personally, I will be dreaming of having olive oil, wine and truffles in Istria. In the meantime, click here to order Chiavalon olive oil online.

Fly to Africa in Comfort and Get Access to the Best Airport Lounge

Which airline would you pick for a long haul flight to Africa? Last month, I flew business class on Turkish Airlines (TA) from Atlanta to Tanzania and returned via Kenya (Thank you TA for the free upgrade!). This was my first time flying business on TA. Here’s what I experienced…

Seats

There are 28 seats in business arranged in 2-2-2 configuration. Each seat is quite spacious covering almost 3 windows to a person. There’s enough leg room to do yoga in your space! The seats recline 180 degrees to become a comfortable flatbed fitted with a thin mattress, pillow and comforter arranged by the flight attendant when ready to rest. There is also a chair massage setting, though you can barely feel it vibrate.

A bin in front of the seat made it convenient to store purse and shoes.

Amenities

From Atlanta – Istanbul, I was given a Bentley amenity kit with the basics (socks, eye mask, dental, lip balm, masculine scented lotion), from Istanbul – Dar, Cerruti toiletries, and during the return, a Furla kit. Pretty inconsistent with branding partners.

I did like how slippers were presented in a cloth bag (to store your shoes as well) and there was a note about how in Turkish hospitality you take off your shoes when you enter a home.

Food

One of the ways TA distinguishes itself from other airlines is by its cuisine. There was a chef on board who took orders and added finishing touches to the dishes.

The bar is in front of the seats in business class cabin, thought not always manned. Welcome drinks were non alcoholic (fresh lemonade and orange juices), while pre dinner drinks were offered a long time after takeoff. A variety of tea’s are also offered to help with jet lag, bloating and stress.

There were no Turkish food options available on Atlanta – Istanbul and Istanbul – Dar legs. Plenty of American and Italian choices, with the same 3 veggies popping up in every course. I had a healthy grilled shrimp and veggies salad and very dry and flavorless swordfish with Tuscan vegetables for dinner. The dessert tray was a huge contrast. There was chocolate mousse, lava cake, hazelnuts chocolate tart, cheese and fruit trays. I was tempted to taste them all, and they were delicious!

Food was generally well presented on a tray with white table cloth and a fake candle that looked like a Turkish lantern. It was nice touch to place the candles as nightlight when everyone had fallen asleep after dinner.

We gave our breakfast orders as soon as boarded and were served before landing in Istanbul. I had sliced fruit, room temperature coffee, tart mango juice, greasy croissants, and a rubbery feta cheese omelette. Yilmaz, the chef noticed that I did not care much for the food. He told me that they did not have a Turkish chef in Atlanta, which is why they weren’t able to offer any Turkish cuisine. (TA has not been able to find a good chef in the 18 months it has operated in ATL?)

The dining experience on the 7-hour Istanbul – Dar Es Salaam leg was no different. This time, there was a small Turkish salad with olives and cheese, grilled vegetable salad (tomatoes, eggplants, mozzarella), and entree of a tangy vegetable casserole (exact same veggies).

Snacks were generally a cheese sandwich (quality may vary) and sour cherry cake (TA does a good job with desserts).

On my return from Nairobi, the food and service were much better. Breakfast had fresh baked breads, olives and assorted cheeses. The sandwich had fresh slices of lettuce, green bell pepper and feta.

The Istanbul – Atlanta flight was perhaps the best one out of all four that I flew over a period of 3 weeks. An appetizer cart presented soup, salad, seafood and Turkish meze, along with warm simit bread. I enjoyed the lunch of eggplant, tabbouleh and beef wrap, and dinner of chicken brochette with spinach and rice with a glass of red wine. The seabass in parchment was well presented but the fish was thick and dry. I picked a slice of tiramisu for my dessert this time, which was amazing.

Entertainment

Business class seats are equipped with large screen TV’s and passengers are provided Denon noise cancelling headsets which are collected 30 minutes before landing. Movie and TV selection is decent, with Hollywood, Turkish and world movies. Having a remote with built in screen makes it much easier to browse than touching the screen (which is 2 feet away).

Turkish-American celebrity, Dr Mehmet Oz partnered with TA to talk about how to stay healthy on a flight. He says to “drink a lot of water and stay away from alcohol” in one of his videos. I found it rather difficult to get water on TA though. They ran out of water bottles on one of the flights (though business class was only half full) and I had to ask the flight attendant for a refill in my tiny glass every 30 minutes (on a 13 hour flight).

Free WiFi on board was a great feature, especially for the long haul flight. I was easily able to log in and had pretty good speed during my ATL-IST-ATL legs. There are USB chargers at each seat, though they don’t always work. I had to try 3 seats in business before I found a place to charge my phone.

Service

Service was rather mixed across board. The attendants at Atlanta airport were nonchalant, and the attendants on board addressed me as “lady.”I thought it was imperative to get to know the last names of passengers in business class, but that wasn’t the case 🙁 Only the Istanbul – Atlanta flight attendants (all women) regularly smiled and addressed me by name.

Wheelchair passengers may not find it convenient to fly TA as they have to get on and off the flight using outdoors staircases on the tarmac and get into a bus to reach the terminal in Istanbul. There is no separate entry/ early boarding for business class passengers and I did not see assistance for children, heavy bags or people who can’t climb a lot of steps.

Lounge

The highlight of traveling TA is their lounge at Istanbul airport (it deserves a separate post). This may be the best airport lounge I have seen! Two floors of comfortable seating, endless dining options, free flowing liquors, multiple coffee shops, a movie theater, library, kids play area, games and much more. I scanned my boarding pass to get in the lounge, stored my bag in the free locker, and took a hot shower in private bathrooms equipped with bathrobes, towels and soaps.

Then I scanned the 10 or so food stations to see what I was in mood for – Thai, pasta, meze, Turkish pizza, fresh fruits, pastries, Middle Eastern sweets? Too many choices and everything looked delicious!

A part of the lounge looked like a solarium with lots of greenery, sunlight pouring in and a piano. There was free wi-fi to catch up with emails, while sipping on made to order cappuccino.

TA lounge in Nairobi was pretty small and located at the end of the terminal that looked like a warehouse space. The interior was modern with wooden beams and old fashioned green couches. There was only one shower with no amenities, a prayer/ ablution room and a quiet room for people to sleep (in chairs). Attendants were not friendly at this lounge (perhaps they didn’t speak English) and the food was mostly American breakfast fare (pancakes, sausages, eggs, etc). American music played in the background and sports on TV. Barring the TA sign, nothing in the lounge indicated that there was any Turkish affiliation.

Have you flown on Turkish Airlines? What was your experience like? Share it with our readers in the comments section below…

Get Lucky! Have the Most Amazing Safari Experience

Are you addicted to those National Geographic documentaries on Wild Africa where they show lions hunting down a buffalo or thousands of wildebeests migrating across the Serengeti? I have probably exhausted the entire selection on big cats and wildlife shows found on Netflix. So, when I planned my trip to Masai Mara in Kenya with The Village Experience, I was very excited to get up close to the animals, this time in reality.

What I didn’t know was that I would be so, so close! And there would be animals everywhere! We (meaning my guide and I) really didn’t have to drive around looking for them. From the moment we were driving on the highway close to Lake Naivasha, I saw zebras running around. Over the next 24 hours, I saw 70 lions, 3 cheetahs, 1 leopard, and thousands of giraffes, zebras, elephants, wildebeests, impalas, gazelles, hippos, and buffalos!

Some people may think that this is an everyday sighting at a game drive in Kenya. But in fact, I was truly lucky. A few of my friends have been on safaris 4, 10, even dozens of times, and seen only a fraction of what I saw! Some of it may just be luck, choice of season, or my wonderful presence, but there are things you can do in advance to have an amazing African safari experience.

Stay close to the reserve

There are all kinds of tented camp accommodations around the animal reserves, some offer more luxury than others. My lodging at Sekenani Camp were comfortable and luxurious. I had hardwood floors, a deck overlooking a creek and a en suite bath tub with hot shower. I could hear hyenas, lions and birds from my bed all through the night! Don’t worry, there is always a security guard who accompanies you from your tent to the restaurant and around the property so you never walk alone at night.

Sekanani Camp was a 20 minutes drive from the Masai Mara park’s entrance. Being so close to wilderness meant, we really didn’t have to go very far to spot the animals. Zebras and giraffes were roaming right outside our camp.

Hire an experienced guide

I cannot emphasize enough how much a good driver and guide can make or break your safari experience. My guide, Danson Kahuria, was born and brought up near Masai Mara so he was quite familiar with the territory. He had also gone to college to learn about birds and animals, and conducts workshops of other guides.

Danson had a keen sense for knowing where the animals would be and how they typically behave. He could predict when a lion cub was about to yawn, which direction a leopard would walk towards, and which animal a cheetah was about to hunt down. As a result, I got to saw the big cats in action – eating, sleeping, mating, hunting – all in just a few hours!

A good guide will also maneuver the car (following park guidelines) in such a way that you can get the best photo opportunities! Since Danson knew which was the animals were going to turn, we were always ahead of their game.

Have some patience

If you have limited days, (I only had one) it is best to leave early morning for a game drive and plan to stay till sunset. Animals behave differently at different times of the day, so you want to be able to see their moods. My advise is to wear comfortable clothing, carry sunscreen, bug spray, a light jacket and lots of snacks and water for the day. I have heard stories of people going in a group and one of them was hungry so they left the park after a couple of hours. Remember you have to pay hefty entrance fees ($80-200/ person) so make the most out of it! Also, pack lots of extra batteries and memory cards. I took 500 photos and videos in less then a day!

Depending on your vehicle, you may have open roof or sides, to allow good viewing. But it also means more sun, heat and bugs, so be prepared.

Sunsets in the mara are spectacular. Don’t miss it.

Respect the animals

Remember, you are in the habitat of wild animals. Take every precaution to respect that by not getting out of your vehicle, feeding them or attracting their attention. Some people get excited and want to get closer, but park rangers are always secretly watching and will fine you if you get off the marked trails. Also, please do not litter the park.

An African safari is a bucket list for most people. If you get a chance to be one of the lucky ones to see wild animals in their natural habitat, do it right the first time!

Most Delicious Things to Eat in Ireland Right Now

Prior to visiting Ireland this summer, I had very little knowledge about Irish cuisine. The handful of Irish restaurants in Atlanta are known for their pub style atmosphere serving burgers, fried foods, potatoes and lots of beer. Though that is an integral part of the Irish culture, modern Irish cuisine has evolved quite a bit in the past couple of decades.

Over tea at the Burren Perfumerie, my new friends Birgitta Curtin (proprietor of Burrren Smokehouse, Roadside Tavern and speaker on Irish cuisine) and Sadie Chowen Doyle (perfume maker and owner at Burren Perfumerie) informed me that they have witnessed the evolution of Irish cuisine during their life in the Burren. “Just 10 years ago, the only cheese they could buy was imported from other parts of Europe. Now, there are so many cheese makers in Ireland and our cheese is so good!” says Doyle.

Ballycotton hake with mussels at Ballymaloe House

Back when resources were scant, hearty stews and meat pies went a long way to fill the family. But now, Ireland has progressed a lot as a nation. Tourism sector has expanded, trade is thriving and many Irish people earn a decent living.

Couple that with artisanal producers, innovative chefs, and world-class ingredients, you have the perfect recipe to create amazing food.

Fresh and Organic Ingredients

Practically every restaurant I went to in Ireland featured only fresh ingredients, many of them sourced from their own farms. Homemade Irish soda bread, Jersey cow butter, raspberry jam, honeycomb ice cream, dexter beef, curried parsnips, fresh beet salad…the list goes on!

Curtin smokes salmon from the northwest part of Ireland, which is organic and sustainable. Each fish is spaced out in clean waters and fed natural foods, so the salmon has three times more Omega 3 Fatty Acids than any other salmon. Her hot and cold smoked salmon can be found at many restaurants across the country and shipped all over the world. Of course, I tasted it throughout my trip!

Smoked salmon for breakfast at Park Hotel Kenmare

Other local seafood includes oysters, mussels, hand-dived scallops and hake. Most of the fish is caught that morning and served to the guests on the same day.

Local But International 

A common theme across my three dozen meals was internationally inspired recipes cooked with local Irish ingredients. French and Italian cooking techniques were used the most, offering homemade pasta, risotto, terrines, puff pastry and decadent cakes and tarts.

Barley and mushroom risotto at No 1 Perry Square
Banana, pecan and date pudding with fig ice cream at The Mews in Kenmare
Saffron and smoked knockanore herb cheese risotto at The Ice House

Michelin Star Dining

Ireland has over a dozen Michelin star restaurants. I ate at two former winners – Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry and Dromoland castle near Shannon. At both places, I met people who had come from all over Ireland just to eat at the restaurants. Set in idyllic atmosphere, offering personal service and mouth watering dishes, these were a rare treat!

Flourless chocolate cake at Earl of Thomond
Carrageen seaweed pudding at Ballymaloe House

Cooking Schools

The Ballymaloe Cookery School located on a 100 acre organic farm in County Cork is one of the most recognized cooking schools in Europe offering 3-month long residential programs. One can stay in the charming countryside and learn to cook Irish and international cuisines using farm ingredients. Students go beyond the kitchen to help milk cows, make yogurt, gather eggs, and tend to herb and vegetable gardens. The Belle Isle Cookery School  at Belle Isle Estate complete with 17th century castle on the shores of Lough Erne in County Fermanagh is another popular cooking school.

Greenhouse of Ballymaloe Cookery School

Fine Spirits Too

The Irish love their drinks. From triple distilled smooth whiskey to craft beers and homemade liquors, there was no shortage of spirits at every meal. As a good tourist, I took tours of the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson factory. I discovered that many French wines such as Château Lynch-Bages and Château Léoville-Barton are made by Irish descendants.

House brews at the Burren Storehouse

Good Food Everywhere

You don’t have to go to fancy restaurant in Ireland to taste good quality food, which can be quite expensive. Even roadside fish shacks, food courts and all-day cafes serve excellent dishes made fresh daily. The English Market Cafe in Cork City and O’Connors bar in the Ring of Beara were couple of my favorites.

Fish & chips at Skinny’s Diner

Have a favorite Irish dish or restaurant to recommend? Leave your comments below…

Show Up at a Destination Without Lost Luggage

Have you ever arrived at your destination and discovered that your luggage never made it? Travel can be stressful as it is, and if your belongings don’t show up with you, it adds to the stress. Though sometimes things may be beyond your control, you can take these precautions to avoid lost luggage on your next trip and know exactly what to do in case you do encounter such as situation.

Pack a Carry On

Though you may want to travel light, I firmly suggest a small backpack to hold valuables, such as passport, money, jewelry, camera, tickets, credit cards, copy of itineraries and important documents. Many hotels require you to show a passport to check in, so if you lose your bag you may not be able to get a room. I also keep a copy of the documents (passport, drivers license, itinerary, tickets, etc.) on my phone and laptop (backed by Evernote) in case I lose my backpack.

Additionally, keep a change of clothes and medications. One time I flew to Omaha for business and my luggage did not arrive till the next day. I had to sleep in the oversized Delta branded t-shirt and go in to work wearing jeans, t-shirt and sneakers. Looking back, it would have been nice to pack clean underwear, slacks and dress shirt in my day bag.

Track Your Bags

Left your purse in the bathroom or a laptop in the sleeve of your airplane seat? I am guilty of it. Many of new luggage brands have built in tracking devices. I attach a Homing Pin ($10) on to my laptop, backpack and check in suitcase. That way, I can track your lost bags even if they weren’t lost by an airline and have them delivered to me for a small fee.

Check In On Time

Also, make sure to check in at least 1 hour before departure to give the airline enough time to load your luggage on to the aircraft. Take a photo of the bag, note its weight and contents before handing it over to the airline agent. Save the luggage tag carefully as it is the only numbers you will be able to use to communicate with the airline about lost or delayed luggage. On one instance, my luggage did not arrive to India for 10 days and Air France could not track it. Apparently, it was lost at Sharles de Gaulle airport along with 80,000 bags during a snow storm. I had to give detailed descriptions of the contents in my check in for the airline to reimburse.

Be Smart About Booking Tickets

As a rule, if I have more than 1 flight changes or less than 1 hour between flights, I do not check in any bags. The chances of losing a bag goes up significantly if there are multiple carriers involved or if they don’t have enough time to move them between connections. You really can’t blame the airline for this. Often times, busy airports require loading up to 200 bags per aircraft in just a few minutes.

Have you gotten a good deal from another city and then bought a connecting flight on another ticket? Even though both the airlines may share systems (Skyteam, One World, etc.) they don’t necessarily talk to each other. On a recent trip to Japan, I traveled on Delta from ATL-LAX, got out to get my luggage and rechecked it at China Souther for LAX-TOK. Though it is inconvenient, it ensured that I got a luggage tag from the last carrier and if anything were to happen, I will not be shuffled back and forth between Delta and China Souther to find out who made the goof up. With connections, try to book all legs on one ticket.

Report Immediately 

In case of lost or damaged bags, report immediately to the Baggage Claim Customer Service of the airline you flew and don’t leave the airport without addressing the matter. After a one hour flight from EDI-SHN on Aer Lingus, I found the handle of my checked in bag was completely broken. It was clear that it had been mishandled. I went to the customer service counter of Aer Lingus in the baggage claim area and reported it. At first, they told me that “wheels and handles are not covered” but I stood my ground and refused to leave unless a solution was found. I was heading off on a 12-day trip around Ireland with a broken bag. The agent went to the back room and gave me a brand new American Tourister of about the same size for no charge.

Get Insured

If you paid a baggage fee (for checked bags) the airline is required to issue you a refund when your bag does not arrive with you. Your luggage is considered lost only after 21 days. The airline may reimburse you for the contents and the expenses occurred during the delays, but don’t expect too much (average comp $100/ day). It is better to have a back up travel insurance such as Allianz Global Assistance. An Annual Deluxe Plan costs $350 and reimburses up to $1000 for Baggage Loss/Damage and $200 for Baggage Delays. 

This is the suitcase I carry when I travel. It is easy to identify at the luggage carousel, hotels and especially when traveling with groups. Get your own personalized luggage on UGO Bags. Use discount code “sucheta20” to receive 20% off until November 15, 2017.

The Most Adventurous Things to Do in Iceland

Is watching the northern lights on your bucket list? The dazzling aurora borealis can been seen over Iceland practically every night from October to March. With cheap flights on Iceland Air and Wow Air, now is the time to start planning aurora hunting tours to Iceland.

Most airlines offer free stopovers in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, which gives enough time to enjoy the lights. If you want to see a good bit of the island, I recommend spending 1-2 weeks exploring the different regions. I rented a car and drove around the western and southern parts of the island for about 10 days. Driving is easy as the roads are well kept and not very crowded. It also allows you to pace your journey and make frequent photo stops. Guide to Iceland offers a list of self-drive and bus tours that include hotels, car rental and destination guides.

Discovering the diverse scenery that changes from icebergs and black beaches to mossy fields and snow covered lava were some of my highlights of my trip.

Here are ten of my best adventures in Iceland:

Photo by Iceland Tourism

Aurora Hunting

The capital and largest city in Iceland is a fun place, especially during the night. Explore the museums, cobblestone streets, art galleries and cafes. Have a romantic dinner at Fiskfelagid, a cave style upscale restaurant that serves a globally inspired menu, and watch the magnificent star studded sky with dancing green and orange northern lights right in the city!

Reykjavik has great nightlife, but plan to arrive at the club after midnight as locals generally party into the wee hours of the morning.

Floating in the Blue Lagoon

Put on a silica mud mask and soak in the healing warm waters of the Blue Lagoon. The geothermal spa is located very close to the international airport and is a good place to stop as soon as your arrive and just before you leave Iceland. Make sure to book your tickets beforehand and plan to spend a couple of hours here.

Not Jumping on Moss

From Reykjavik, I took a small plane to Höfn on the southern coast and started my road trip. The Golden Circle route is perhaps the most visited part of Iceland. If you have a limited time in the country, there are three spots you must see. These includes Þingvellir National Park, the geothermal valley of spouting geysers at Haukadalur, and the magnificent Gullfoss Waterfall.

Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a good place to dive into the geologic history of this volcanic island. Get out of the car and see the moss-covered fields, but please don’t jump on it like Justin Bieber did!

Horseback (Pony) Riding in the Countryside

Take a scenic horseback ride on pony-sized Icelandic horses. Two designated horse trails run through the national park. These pretty horses are the only horse that can tölt, while other horses walk, trot, canter and gallop. Tölt is a four-beat gait where at least one foot is on the ground at any time, so there is no period of suspension. (I had to look that up).

Standing in Between Continents

Walk between continents at Leif the Lucky bridge, which crosses one of the rifts created by the mid-Atlantic ridge. It is noted that the mid-Atlantic ridge is pulling apart North America and Europe by 2.5 centimeters each year. Black lava surrounds the 50-foot bridge and you can stand at the so-called midpoint for a photo op.

Boating Along Glaciers

Take a boat trip on the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. At first, the majestic icebergs floating gently appear eerily still. When I parked my car, there was not a person in sight, just me and the glaciers, in total silence. The Zodiac tours offer an opportunity to get close to the blue ice. You may even get lucky and spot some seals.

Black Beaching

A small fishing village, Vík í Mýrdal (aka Vik), is home to the black beach Reynisfjara along windy Atlantic coastlines. This is no tropical sun tanning beach. Watch for basalt columns jetting out of the oceans, nesting sea gulls, puffins, fulmars, guillemots, and of course, dangerous waves.

Hiking a Glacier

For some real adrenaline, hike, walk, climb or snow mobile on one of the volcanic glaciers around Iceland. This is where you can see the real “Fire and Ice” magic playing out. I took a relatively easy walk at Skaftafell Glacier, though still had to watch out for hundreds of feet deep crevasses!

Climbing Waterfalls

Iceland is a country of waterfalls and I visited many of them. Plan your trip to include as many as you can see. Though some of them may be caked in ice during winter, each of the waterfalls has a different backdrop, height, flow and color. The most popular one is Gullfoss also known as ‘The Golden Waterfall’ as it has a majestic 32 meter drop into Hvíta glacier river.

Smelling Sulphur

Watch colorful mud pools, crater lakes and Sulphur deposits at Krysuvik-seltun hot springs, formed by volcanic eruptions. There are marked walking routes, though you may not be able to stand the strong smell for very long.

Do you have a favorite place in Iceland? Please share with our readers in the comments section below…

My Mountain Hermit Training in Japan

Read part 1 On My Way For Yamabushi Training

I survived! I am officially one of the first few non Japanese speakers in the world to have received Yamabushi mountain hermit training. It was a wonderful experience and I feel stronger, accomplished and that I have spiritually grown to another level.

The 5-day program designed by Megurun Inc. is the first of its kind. Yamabushi training has been offered to the Japanese people for hundreds of years. In fact, many people take solitary retreats in the mountains and its popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways every now and then. But these are generally 3-day programs where large groups of people undergo the training with minimal interaction with the master. They are expected to ‘just experience’ as they push their physical and emotional boundaries.

In my case, there were only 2 people in the program, which was led by Master Tak who is fluent in English and Japanese. He described the process in great detail and guided us through the journey. Tak-San was a business professional who moved to the area to seek solace. After years of practice, he is now a Master Yamabushi and trains others.

On the first day, we stayed at a modest hotel in the city of Shonai, which was crowded with local tourists who had come to worship at the three sacred mountains of Deva. Located in the Yamagata prefecture of northern Japan, the area is known as “hidden Japan” as it is relatively cut off from other cities and not many foreign visitors go there.

This day was intended to disconnect from daily life, prepare for shugo (the training) and embrace Japanese culture.

We spent most of the day at a Zen temple with a Buddhist monk. He showed us their way of life, which included proper posture for sitting on the floor in lotus position, focusing one’s attention to meditate, and sharing their humble lunch. We got to see where the resident monks eat, pray and sleep on tatami mats. We also witnessed a prayer ceremony where the monks played drums, chanted the sutras and blessed us for our journey.

Then we had a calligraphy master, Mayumi Honma, teach us how to write ‘Uketamō’ in Japanese. This phrase is very important as it is the only word we are allowed to speak during Yamabushidō. It means, “I humbly accept with an open heart” and is a readily used response to everything the master instructs us to do (as we would say OK in English).

Calligraphy is an ancient Japanese art of writing, but it is much more than that in the spiritual sense. To do it well, you have to have a lot of focus and a steady hand. You have to be silent and be in the moment. Using a brush and ink, there is no way to go back and erase mistakes. You have to start all over.

For dinner, we went to a farm-to-table family-run restaurant where we tasted local specialities, including dadachamame (indigenous edamame) grown only in this area.

The next morning we transferred our bags to Daishobo, a pilgrimage lodge at the base of Mount Gassan. At one time, there were almost 300 pilgrimage lodges in the area, but now the number is reduce to less than 30. The lodges were family-run not-for-profit businesses, but the new generations don’t want the upkeep.

Daishobo is also home to Master Hashino, a 13th generation Yamabushi, who designed my program. He is in his 70’s now and worked in civil services professionally, and has been a Yamabushi for over 40 years. He still climbs mountains on a regular basis!

The lodge was basic – 2 floors with open rooms that can accommodate up to 35 people. The women stayed upstairs and the men downstairs. Meals, chanting, meditation and orientation were also held downstairs. Basically, not much privacy which is how Japanese people traditionally travel. You just find a spot on the floor to put your bedding down and sleep there.

There were male and female toilets outside the main house. We weren’t allowed to take showers during the program.

During this time, we had an impeding typhoon headed towards Shonai. Typhoons can bring a lot of rain and strong winds (similar to tornadoes). Being an unseasoned hiker, I was already nervous about the steep hikes we were going to do and started feeling more anxious. Tak-San remained calm and said he was closely monitoring the weather. We would still hike in the rain, but will change our route if we were in the eye of the typhoon. At that time, I reconsidered what I had signed up for.

Click here to read what happened next…

Review of Air Canada

Recently, I got a chance to fly on Air Canada, one of the largest airlines in North America. I took two flights making my way from Atlanta – Toronto – Tokyo and back. Fortunately, I was upgraded to business class (thanks to Air Canada’s PR!) which made the 24-hour long journey relatively easier to get through. Here is my unbiased review.

Planes

The E175 plane between ATL-YYK was very old, with 1-2 configuration, small seats even in business class, and outdated TV screen (ones where you see a mouse pointer and a rotating wheel each time you select a tab).

Between YYK-HND, the Boeing 777-300ER plane was newer and more spacious, with a total of 40 seats, spread across two cabins.

International Business Class cabins had a 1-2-1 configuration, each of the Executive Pod seats equipped with 18″ touch flat screen TV’s and flat beds. The firmness of the mattress on the chair could be adjusted using a touch screen comfort system, though I could not feel the difference. There was also a chair massage but I could barely feel it vibrating. The pillow and comforter were quite comfortable for a good night’s rest. There was also an adjustable armrest and a foldable tray table.

Air Canada provided a Canadian-brand Escents Aromatherapy amenities kit for business class passengers with just the basics – socks, toothbrush, ear plugs, lip balm.

The business class cabin had a total of three restrooms, including two between business class cabins, and one at the very front. The restrooms were standard size, and didn’t have especially nice finishes or amenities.

Timeliness

3 out of my 4 flights were delayed by at least half hour. One of the flights was related to a typhoon in Japan, others did not have an explanation.

Entertainment

Noise cancelling headphones were given to the passengers in business class cabin. The selection of movies and TV shows included French, English, Japanese and Hindi, though not as many as I have seen in some of the other airlines. I had seen most of the new releases two months ago on Delta. Also, the ‘search by category’ was rather funky, resulting in English movies when I selected Hindi language.

A selection of premium newspapers, including route-specific titles were offered before takeoff.

Each seat had a personal power supply and USB port for charging electronic devices. It’s always great to arrive at your destination with your cell phone fully charged. There was no Wi-Fi on any of the planes.

Duty-free selections could be accessed from the screen monitors as well as the inflight magazine. Most products were standard, with nothing new or exciting.

Food

The food on board was quite good on Air Canada. Drinks and salted nuts were offered soon after takeoff, though a generous pour of champagne was served in a regular glass.

Meals were served 60-90 minutes after takeoff. For lunch, I had a fresh mixed greens salad, poached tiger prawns with marinated artichokes, grilled eggplant and zucchini lasagna, cheese tray and a decadent dark chocolate fondant with hazelnut praline and cherry compote. This was the best dessert I have eaten in air!

Plentiful snacks were stocked in the galley for between meals, and water bottles were passed out at regular intervals. Since I was flying between Canada and Japan, there were Japanese menu options also including dim sum, noodle soups, congee, chicken teriyaki wrap and yakitori chicken.

The menus on Air Canada are created by celebrated Canadian Chef David Hawksworth.

Service

I have mixed feelings about the service provided by Air Canada. Only on one of the flights, the cabin attendant introduce himself before takeoff and asked for my order. At other times, nobody bothered to even bring a welcome drink before takeoff. Service during the flight was courteous and to the point. I didn’t feel like anyone went out of their way to make me feel special.

The on-ground staff was a bit more courteous and smiling.

Prior to landing, the flight attendant passed out enveloped asking for donations of left over currency for the The Air Canada Foundation, a registered charity focused on the health and well-being of children and youth. I thought this was a great idea since I hate bringing back foreign currency coins, which I eventually lose or never use again.

Lounge

I visited Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto on a Friday evening. Though parts of the airport are quite modern, the lounge looked outdated with uncomfortable brown and blue leather chairs and dirty tables. Limited food and drinks were offered to guests. At dinner time, there was only mac n cheese, nachos and salads. They did have kids play room, a loud entertainment room, and a business area. I was also able to use complimentary shower facilities where they provided a towel, but no toiletries. Also, there is no place to hang your clothes in the shower rooms so leave your jackets outside.

Air Canada is Canada’s largest airline and the largest provider of scheduled passenger services in the Canadian market, the Canada-U.S. trans-border market and in the international market to and from Canada. Air Canada is among the 20 largest airlines in the world and employs 30,000 people. Its corporate headquarters are in Montreal, and four major hubs are Toronto (YYZ), Montreal (YUL), Vancouver (YVR) and Calgary (YYC).

In my opinion, Air Canada can be best described as ‘safe, reliable and no frills’ airline that prioritizes serving the people, environment and community.