May 4, 2015

Temples and Shrines in Kyoto

 

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By Noemi Gamel

There is no shortage of temples and shrines in Japan thanks to the long and diverse history of Zen, Buddhism, and Shintoism. If you like history, comparative religion, or architecture, you can spend days contemplating these amazing buildings. If you are traveling with children, however, it is easy for them to get “templed out”, as Tristan phrased it one day.
So if you are going to Japan with kids, make sure you get the highest yield to avoid temple fatigue. In Kyoto, some of the highlights include Fushimi Inari and the Arashiyama district in the western outskirts of Kyoto.

 
We spent one afternoon at Fushimi Inari, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of rice and patron of business. This is a great shrine for kids to visit because there are many activities, such as walking the pathway of hundreds of traditional gates and guessing the weight of a rock to make your wish come true. The scenery is also very beautiful.

 
I also highly recommend a day trip to do a walking tour of the Arashiyama district. Your first stop should be Tenryuji Temple, which is one of the largest and most impressive Zen temples in Japan. The gardens are elegant and breathtaking, as are the simple buildings in the temple complex. From there, walk through the bamboo groves to the villa of Okochi Sanso, a popular actor who died in 1962. Though not a temple, the grounds are very pretty and offer scenic views of the area. You will be treated to a sweet and matcha tea at the end. After the villa, take a walk through the back streets of Arashiyama to the Gioji Temple. This is a very small temple, especially compared to Teryuji, but the moss gardens are so beautiful and intricate that you cannot miss it. Afterwards go to the main street of the Arashiyama township to shop and eat.

 
One final note about each of the temples mentioned above. All of them are working temples where priests work and the devout come to pray and participate in ceremonies. Depending on when you arrive, you might have a normal visit or be treated to something special. Stay flexible and enjoy your time in Japan.

 

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April 27, 2015

Kaiten Sushi in Japan

By Noemi Gamel

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One of our favorite dining experiences in Japan has been kaiten sushi. You may have seen it before in movies or your hometown, where the sushi is placed on a conveyor belt that travels around the counter, and you pick whatever looks tasty. In Japan, this is considered a form of “fast food”, and it certainly can be speedy dining experience, but that is about where the similarities to fast food end.

 
We went to a kaiten sushi spot located in the Tokyo Skytree that we loved so much we went back for more! The line to get in can be long but it is worth the wait. The sushi chefs at the center greet you with a hearty welcome in Japanese. The first time, we were lucky to get a four-person booth that abutted the conveyor belt. Kara and Tristan had a blast grabbing plates of sushi as they passed by.

 
If there was a particular dish you liked, you could ask the chef, or in our case, point to the picture menu, and he would custom make a few plates for you. Kara did that with the sweet omelet sushi.
Judging by how packed the place was, it was clearly popular with the locals. We were the only Westerners in the restaurant. I got the feeling that the kids’ excited squeals were a bit of a source of entertainment for our fellow diners! Our inability to speak Japanese was not a problem with the conveyor-belt set up. We just picked what looked good! There were several families with small kids there. Apparently some traditional sushi restaurants in Japan do not allow children, which is one of the perks of kaiten sushi. They are kid friendly.

When you are done eating, you just stack your plates on the table and the server counts them with a scanner and hands you your bill. Kaiten sushi tends to be a little cheaper than traditional sushi restaurants.

 
Have you ever tried kaiten sushi? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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April 24, 2015

Why You Should Travel to Italy

 

 

A picturesque scene from an Italy family vacation
If you haven’t decided where to go on your next family vacation, we can help with that. There are many reasons why you should travel to Italy. There’s a history lesson at every turn, offering new ways to explore centuries-old Etruscan villages; Roman ruins; medieval walled towns; and Renaissance cities that boast some of the world’s most revered artistic treasures. Italy also boasts an astonishing 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites — 46 cultural and four natural.
Italy has no shortage of breathtaking natural landscapes, either. Its Mediterranean coastline stretches for miles, showcasing rugged cliffs, hidden coves, jutting fjords and harbor towns. From the Italian Alps and lakes region in the north to the verdant vineyards and olive groves in the central region to the volcanoes of the south, it is incredibly beautiful.
Another reason why you should travel to Italy is one that you’re probably already familiar with: the food! Pasta, pizza, fresh seafood, rich pastries, refreshing gelato and so much more have helped to make Italian cuisine a favorite for families everywhere.
We love Italy and know what a great destination it is for families. That’s why we’ve put together our Southern Italy: Volcanoes and Islands program that we’re débuting in 2016. The area from Naples south along the Amalfi Coast to Sicily is full of sights that are perfect for families to explore. The scenic coastal region is known for dramatic cliffs and medieval villages. There’s also ancient Pompeii, the Roman city that was buried under the ashes after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Your kids will love hiking to the top of the now-dormant crater and wandering through the wonderfully preserved ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 Family hiking on an Italy family vacationSpeaking of UNESCO sites and volcanoes, our Southern Italy family vacation boasts two of the country’s four natural UNESCO sites — the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago north of Sicily, and Mount Etna, the country’s largest volcano. Both destinations are included on our trip, and your family can discover them in a variety of fun ways: from a kayak, on foot and from a boat. You can also swim and explore the islands’ sea caves. We’ve also factored in some free time for you to pursue your own interests in this amazing area.

Our General Manager, Jim Kackley, explains — in a nutshell — why you should travel to Italy. “Italy is such a wonderful destination filled with warm people, great food and incredible history. Many of us have been there without our kids, and now it is time to take them to see some of this wonder.”

 

 



April 20, 2015

Cherry Blossoms in Japan

By Noemi Gamel

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No one takes cherry blossom viewing as seriously as the Japanese people. They even have a verb to describe it: hanami, the art of viewing flowers.   I was worried that we were not going to arrive in Tokyo in time for hanami, but fortunately that was not the case. We spent two nights at a hotel near Narita airport before interrupting our RTW trip with a brief trip to the US for job interviews.

 
On the morning of our only full day, we went to Sakura no Yama Park to hanami. The park was full of Japanese people who were there not only to view the cherry blossoms, but also to watch the airplanes from Narita airport arrive and take off. We felt like locals! We also felt like we were witnessing a very intimate, integral part of Japanese culture.
During cherry blossom season, the Japanese will take days off work to pack a picnic and come to different parks throughout the country to hanami. Most pack bento lunches, place a blanket on the grass under the trees, and enjoy the view for hours. We saw some hardcore cherry blossomers with tents, as the day was chilly, windy, and the skies threatened rain. Nevertheless, no one seemed bothered by the less than ideal weather.

 
Children ran around in the park. Young couples took selfies with the cherry blossoms. Multi-generational families ate together among the trees. We felt humbled and blessed to be part of this essential element of Japanese culture for the day.

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April 14, 2015

Beijing in 72 Hours

By Noemi Gamel

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China’s visa requirements for those of us traveling with an American passport are rather strict. We were not able to get a visa to go to mainland China during our Round The World Trip, so we took advantage of the 72-hour visa-free transit policy. You can visit one of several choice cities for 72 hours as long as you fly in and out of the country via a direct flight. We chose to spend our precious limited 72 hours in Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

 
Ask anyone what are the “must-see” sights in Beijing, and you will universally hear the same answer: Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, and a daytrip to the Great Wall of China. While we have usually limited our sightseeing during the Round The World trip to one activity per day to keep costs down, we could not keep to our usual relaxed, slow-paced schedule on the 72-hour transit.

 
We spent one full day touring the historical sights of Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and Temple of Heaven. The architecture in all of these sights was breathtaking. We also learned a lot about Chinese culture and history on these tours. The weather was cold and wet, but we were rewarded at the end with a visit to a traditional Chinese teashop where we sampled some of the best tea I have ever had. We also went to a Chinese acrobat show that night. The following day we took a tour to the Great Wall of China. The weather was kinder to us, so we were able to enjoy just sitting on the wall and enjoying the views.

 
This portion of our trip taught me that sometimes you have to change your routine when you are traveling long term. We were so busy during our time in PRC, that we did not home school. Nevertheless, the kids (and we!) learned so much on the trip, that we left with a newfound appreciation for the Chinese culture.

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April 8, 2015

Hong Kong: Bright Lights, Big City

By: Noemi Gamel

Before visiting there, whenever I thought about Hong Kong I thought about Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. After spending four days there, I now have a completely new set of images to associate with this amazing city that truly is an urban paradise.

 
If you enjoy the noise, bright lights, and chaos of a large city, Hong Kong is the place to be. You will find trendy restaurants, a Starbucks on every block, and an efficient mass transit system that puts New York City to shame. Every night, a group of about forty buildings along the harbor put on a glitzy light show. It is free, popular, and not to be missed.
Space is a high commodity in Hong Kong. We stayed at a guesthouse in a prime location but the room was the size of a postage stamp. If one of us needed to walk around the room, the other three had to climb on the beds to provide enough space!

 
Within the concrete jungle of Hong Kong, there are many hidden gems of greenery. We spent one afternoon in Hong Kong Park, and another day in Lantau Island admiring the Big Buddha. If you are ever in this city, you must visit Victoria Peak to catch a glimpse of the skyline.

 

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March 30, 2015

Singapore: A Blend of Many Cultures

By Noemi Gamel

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Visiting Singapore has been on my bucket list for years. Its reputation for immaculate cleanliness, international diversity, good food, and fun stuff to do with the family make it a top destination in SE Asia.

The city did not disappoint us! It indeed was very clean. I have never seen bathrooms or a subway station as clean as I did in Singapore. I loved the mix of cultures as the Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Thai, and Vietnamese worlds blended into one gorgeous microcosm.

While Thailand is known for its pad Thai, Vietnam for its pho, and Cambodia for its Khmer “amok” curry, Singapore does not necessarily have a signature dish. Instead, Singapore is known for its food stalls. The hawker food stalls provide one of the most evident proofs of the Singaporean diversity. When you enter a hawker eating house, you will find hundreds of stalls, each specializing in one dish. All the cultures that come together to contribute to Singapore’s diversity are represented. How do you know which stalls out of the hundreds are the best? As with other places, follow the locals. Chris and Tristan stood for almost half an hour to sample the chicken and rice at the Maxwell Road eating house, and they were not disappointed. Kara and I opted for the curry puffs, being vegetarian.

The food is not the only thing in Singapore that is borne out of a mix of cultures. The architecture features blends of the old, as evident in the Merlion, and the new, which you can see while walking down the waterfront. The Gardens by the Bay also feature modern architecture and breathtaking landscape designs.

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March 25, 2015

What’s a Rafiki?

 

Rafiki” means friend in Swahili!

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Did you know that each Thomson Family Adventure—with eight or more guests—is accompanied by a rafiki*? Our rafikis work with our guides; their main purpose is to enhance the overall trip experience, and especially to engage the children in their new surroundings. We used to call these companions “mentors,” but the job title didn’t convey the rich benefits of this staff member. We settled on rafiki as an acknowledgement of our flagship destination, Tanzania—and so you would ask “what’s a rafiki?”

Depending on the trip, the rafiki may be local to the destination, or may be American. While the job description may vary with each trip, there are some constants to the work. In essence, a rafiki is the “fun person” on board who provides lots of opportunities for recreational and bonding activities, especially among the children. A rafiki comes prepared as a resource, always offering a fun activity or great information.

 

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A rafiki’s job is:

• To provide kid-friendly enrichment activities for up to an hour each day, enhancing the overall trip experience
• To provide organized fun for kids that helps them get to know each other
• To provide things for kids to do during delays, flights and long bus trips
• To give parents the chance to relax and enjoy a stress-free trip because their kids are engaged in interesting activities that help them appreciate other cultures.

A rafiki is not:

• A babysitter. While there are times when the rafiki will supervise the children, he or she is not there to discipline or take over parental duties.
• A tour guide. The local guide is the trip’s expert on the country visited. Any questions about the itinerary or the country should be directed to the guide. This includes food and lodging issues, concerns about excursions, and questions about local culture or native flora and fauna.

Here’s what past travelers had to say about their rafiki friend:

 

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TANZANIA:

“The guides and rafiki were exceptionally wonderful and very kind! They answered all our endless questions… This is the best trip I’ve had”

–Jennifer Wineman: 12/22/14

 

“Our favorite part of the trip was the animals and hanging out with the rafiki and other kids. We were glad to have the rafiki along as he was willing to discuss political and social issues.”

–Maguire: 07/25/14

 

“Hooking us up with two other families with kids the same age may have been the highlight of the trip. They all bonded well, facilitated by the rafiki. This was appreciated and the rafiki was really good at this work.
–Rosentreter:  07/25/14

“The rafiki was wonderful. He was smart, informative, warm, and great with all ages. He was committed to ensuring a great experience for us all. He was fun to be around, funny, adventurous, attentive, and patient, all with a good sense of humor.”

–Lori Rafkin: 12/21/12

 

ECUADOR:

“Our rafiki made our trip perfect and so easy. She was smart, helpful, energetic, and highly knowledgeable. Do not underestimate the rafiki as a big part of the trip’s success!”

–Freeman: 02/19/11

 

“Our rafiki kept the kids happy and taught them a lot in a very fun way. She was great.”

–Smith-Barr: 02/19/11

 

“Our rafiki very much enhanced our overall travel experience with activities and games. He became part of our family.”

–Doug Listman: 12/21/11

 

COSTA RICA:

“The rafiki was good and especially helpful with the kids.”

–Jeff & Shari Grimes:  06/16/12

 

“Our rafiki was great with the kids, enthusiastic, and energetic.”

–Zilkha: 02/18/12

 

 

SMITHSONIAN:

“The rafiki initiated and anticipated… a great help and enhancement to the trip. She was really a pleasant surprise, how having a rafiki made a better vacation both for the kids and adults.”

–Barb Barney:  07/05/14

 

“It was a wonderful trip. The guides and rafiki made it especially nice. Would highly recommend the trip and hope others got the same guides and rafiki.”

–Linda & Leland Foster: 07/13/14

 

“The rafiki was the nicest and smartest person in the entire world.  She was so nice and I am sad to say goodbye to her. She (and the other family) made the trip.”

–Trip Gorman: 12/26/14

 

“Our guide, rafiki, and photographer went above and beyond to help the children bond with each other and make the activities fun. They enabled the adults to have a great time also.”

– Whitman: 03/15/14

 

*NOTE: There are no rafikis on our Trips with Teens and 20-Somethings, and certain custom and private trips.



March 23, 2015

A Fishy Pedicure

By Noemi Gamel

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You know that nasty feeling you get when your feet are calloused, dry, and flaky? The Thais have found the perfect solution for this! All you have to do is dip your bare feet in a tank and little fish will eat away the dead tissue off your feet.

 
Fish spas are becoming increasingly popular in Thailand. We had heard about them before visiting the country, but we did not find our first fish spa until almost at the end of our six weeks of travel in Thailand. As soon as we spotted the fish spa while walking down the street in Krabi, we signed up! The fish that do the dirty deed are toothless garra rufa, or “doctor” fish. I don’t think the name is that appropriate since doctors don’t usually give you a pedicure!

 
The experience was…ticklish! Tristan only lasted a few minutes. Chris, Kara, and I took advantage of the full 15 minutes for which we paid. I was literally twisting my body with laughter because of how ticklish the fish nibbles felt on my feet. Nevertheless, it was fun and at the end, my feet really felt silky and smooth.

 
Have you ever had a fish spa or similar experience? Let us know in the comments below.

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March 16, 2015

Supporting Good Causes While Traveling

By Noemi Gamel

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While we were in Koh Lanta, Thailand we stayed at a family-run resort that was up the street from the Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW) shelter. One day, upon Kara’s insistence, we decided to stop by and check it out.

 
I was apprehensive about what we would see there. I was worried we would see animals in smelly cages and poorly nourished. My fears were unfounded. LAW is an organization whose mission is to rescue homeless and abused animals in Ko Lanta. They provide shelter, coordinate adoptions, and arrange low-cost/free sterilization clinics in the area. The facilities were clean and spacious. The dogs, cats, and one rabbit looked well nourished and healthy.

 
For visitors and tourists, LAW allows them to walk the dogs or cuddle with the cats. We made sure to do both. They also provide tours of the shelter. Some of the stories were very sad, and Kara and I shed some tears. Nevertheless, in the end, we were uplifted to learn that the animals at LAW experienced happily ever afters, whether it was by being adopted or remaining at LAW for the rest of their lives. We enjoyed the visit so much, that we went back another time before leaving Koh Lanta.

 
You may wonder why we spent time while in Thailand visiting an animal shelter full of dogs and cats. There were no tigers or elephants or other “exotic” animals native to the area. The truth is, we like cats and dogs. We also appreciated the efforts of LAW and wanted to support their cause. I think one of the great things about traveling is that you don’t have to spend the entire time doing something exotic. Sometimes, just sitting and cuddling with a cat, no matter where you are in the world, is all you need to make a good day.

 
If you ever have the opportunity to responsibly support a good cause while traveling, please do so. If you have other recommendations of good causes to support while traveling, let us know in the comments below.

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