June 26, 2015

Four Ancient Sites Around the World That You Need to See

The world is full of amazing things from animals and architecture to jungles and restaurants. While these are all great things to work into any travel itinerary, sometimes the best sites are ancient. There are a few places that contain incredible feats of human ingenuity from thousands of years ago. When traveling to places such as Egypt, Turkey, China, or Croatia it’s important to take in as much history as you can through your travels. At Thomson Family Adventures we truly appreciate the past and embrace the beauty in those things ancient. Here are a few historical sites that everyone should see in their lifetime.

The Great Pyramid of Giza


Another very popular site among world travelers is the Great Pyramid of Giza. This is the oldest and the largest of the pyramids in Giza. It is also the oldest of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World and the only one that still remains. This single pyramid was built between 10 and 20 years and was finished around 2560 BC. For over 3,800 years this was also the tallest man made structure in the world! Although there is plenty of tangible evidence about who the builders of this temple were, like inscriptions from the workers on the inside of the stones, many people still believe that an alien source is responsible for its construction. What do you think— human strength and ingenuity or aliens!?

The Great Wall of China

Great Wall

This is one of the most visited destinations in the world and not by accident. The Great Wall of China was built in sections that date as far back 220 BC. Once the wall was fully completed, it stretched 13,171 miles across China and is still the largest man made structure in the world. This is an impressive feat considering the technological advances that the world has seen. Although it is no longer used as a main defense system, it is still awe-inspiring and should not be missed!

The Old City Walls of Dubrovnik


Croatia is a beautiful country and the city of Dubrovnik has been around since the beginning. As long as Dubrovnik has been around so have the old city walls. During Byzantine rule in the 7th Century, these walls were built to defend the city and they were quite effective. In fact, it is considered one of the greatest fortification systems of the Middle Ages since the walls were never breached during that time. The walls were continuously expanded and fortified up until the 17th Century.  In 1979 the Old City of Dubrovnik, which contains most sections of the Old Walls, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Underground City of Kaymakli


In the middle of Turkey in Cappadocia is a large network of underground tunnels and rooms that together comprise the city of Kaymakli. This intricate system contains hundreds of tunnels and goes eight stories deep into the ground. The tunnels run to caverns that were turned into meeting places and chapels; some rooms could hold as many as 300 people! Thousands of people used this city as a hide out during times of war. Today Kaymakli’s tunnels are not just a tourist attraction; a town built in the area still uses parts of the underground city as storage space, stables, and cellars. Can you imagine living underground for months at a time!

Call us today to find out how you can see these sites and so much more on your next family vacation!

June 23, 2015

What I’ve Seen: China

A couple of weeks ago we sent Grace, a member of our team here at Thomson Family Adventures, out to China to do some exploring and get a firsthand experience of traveling through China. We asked her a couple of questions about her trip so that you can get a better sense of what spending a family vacation in China with Thomson Family Adventures will be like!

Biking around Yangshuo

Biking around Yangshuo

Can you give us a brief overview of your trip in China?

I spent five nights in Beijing and three nights in Yangshuo, which means I was lucky enough to see two completely different parts of China! On the one hand, Beijing is a major bustling city with amazing historic sites dating back thousands of years. This includes the must-see spots like the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven (an icon of Beijing), and the disappearing hutongs that define the old city, accessible by foot and pedicabs. Alternatively, in Yangshuo, the beautiful karst formations are the main attraction, to which Chinese and international tourists alike flock to for vacation. Here, you’ll more than likely spend your days on a bike, bamboo raft, or on your own two feet exploring the area.

In Beijing, I was also invited to participate in seminars, lectures and experiences involving Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is super interesting stuff. I took a tai chi lesson at the Temple of Heaven, explored the ancient concepts of yin and yang (in both your body and the universe) and life balance. I also visited local TCM hospitals and even experienced a traditional reflexology treatment.

The inner moat of the Forbidden City

The inner moat of the Forbidden City

China is pretty far away, how was the flight?

Not bad at all! My direct flight from Boston to Beijing lasted just under 14 hours, but somehow I managed to sleep for about nine of them on my way there! Crossing the International Date Line means that you lose a day on your way, though…  I left at 5PM on Sunday night Boston time and arrived in Beijing on Monday night, 7PM local time! This still boggles my mind – the closest I’ll ever get to time travel, I imagine. The great news about this particular jetlag is that I was alert and awake without an alarm early every morning, which is not always the case in everyday life. Coming home was also not a problem, surprisingly. If you can, take advantage of the time you have on a flight – it’s quiet, it’s simple and it’s uninterrupted. All you can do is be in the moment.

What was your favorite part of the trip? 

My two guides were amazing! My guide in Beijing grew up in the hutongs of Beijing, studied English at college and found himself in the tourism industry when China was just starting to open to visitors. Now, he’s a master-guide and interpreter, still calling Beijing “home.” My guide in Yangshuo was a young guy about my age who is also a Buddhist vegetarian, which was great news for me! We ordered all of his favorite vegetarian Chinese dishes.

What was your least favorite part of the trip?

No dessert! For some reason, dessert isn’t a typical course in Chinese meals… and with my sweet tooth, I certainly missed it. Good thing I packed an emergency dark chocolate, roasted almond and sea salt chocolate bar in my luggage.

And, of course, traffic in Beijing is just one of those inevitable parts of a trip that you have to embrace – it’s uncontrollable. Every time we sat back down on the bus, we knew the drive was going to be “twenty to thirty minutes, Beijing time.” Or, “We’ll get there when we get there!” Take the time on the bus to cool off, people watch out the windows or take a cat-nap.

For the ladies, squat toilets are certainly something to be aware of ahead of time… if you’re not expecting them, they will be a surprise.

How was the food? What kind of things did you eat?

Being a vegetarian, my stomach was on high alert going to China! Though I was worried, I found that I had absolutely no basis for these fears… the food in China is delicious and also varies from region to region. Just as we have local specialties, like clam chowder and lobster here in Boston, so does China. In the north, they eat more starches like noodles and dumplings whereas the Sichuan province is renowned for their spicy cuisine! Of course, if you’re in Beijing, you’ll likely try the Peking Duck as well. For vegetarian dishes, I enjoyed a huge variety of sauteed veggies in different sauces, including vegetables that I’d never tried before – Chinese eggplant, lotus root, garlic shoots, celery root, bamboo shoots – and timeless favorites – tomatoes, green beans, squashes, radishes, leeks, beets, broccoli and all sorts of greens. Also, you must try the fresh mango juice in Yangshuo- and the dragon fruit! The Guangxi province, where Guilin and Yangshuo are located, is known for its rice noodle bowls. My guide brought me to a local restaurant where we had ours with tofu, toasted soy nuts, chili oil and pickled veggies. If you can, give it a try!

Dinner time!

Dinner time!

Did you notice any families traveling in China? If no, why do you think that was the case?

Definitely. On my last evening in Yangshuo, we had dinner next to an American family – three generations with three kids ranging from three to about eight years old. I also had a great chat with an American father who had been touring with his wife and teenage and early-twenties daughters, but had to leave a few days before them to go back to work. He LOVED the pandas in Chengdu.

Also, we saw Chinese school groups of all ages at the major sites as well – the Forbidden City and Great Wall in particular.

Did you feel safe being in and walking around China?

I certainly felt safe walking around Beijing and Yangshuo if we’re talking about “violent crimes,” though you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times, of course. More than anything, the traffic is overwhelming, whether it’s vehicles, scooters, bikes or crowds. Pedestrians do not have the right of way.

Can you name one thing that you can only know from being in China? Something that you won’t find in any guidebook or on any website?

I love meeting local people when I’m traveling and asking all sorts of questions. These back and forth, genuine, spontaneous conversations are completely individual, unique and absolutely cannot be “out of a book.” For example, chatting with Duan, my guide, about his life growing up in China on our way to the airport for my flight to Yangshuo remains one of my favorite conversations from my trip. It’s a chance to connect with people, to find common ground and leave a piece of yourself behind as well.

Just hanging out on The Great Wall

Just hanging out on The Great Wall

If you’d like to learn more about China give us a call! Or check out the different family vacation options we have for China here!

July 16, 2014

New UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a Bit About Selection

South China Karst

South China Karst

After a recent 10-day meeting of the World Heritage Committee, a number of sites have been updated or newly added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. We’re proud to say that many of these sites are found within countries we have the pleasure of visiting on our family adventures – but before we get into which ones those are, you may be wondering what goes into the process of selecting a site for such an illustrious honor.

According to UNESCO, “To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.” These criteria range from naturally occurring phenomena to sites of vital cultural significance and shining beacons of human ingenuity. The decision process is not taken lightly; every site on the list has very rightfully earned its place, whether for “exceptional natural beauty” or “conservation of biological diversity,” cultural/historical significance or for being a quintessential example of human creativity.

At this recent meeting, an extension was added to China’s “South China Karst” World Heritage Site, praised for its unique and breathtaking karst formations, “including tower karst, pinnacle karst and cone karst formations, along with other spectacular characteristics such as natural bridges, gorges and large cave systems.”

Among the cultural sites newly added to the distinguished list: the “Andean Road System” that runs through Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; the “Grand Canal” in China; the “Precolumbian Chiefdom Settlements with Stone Spheres of the Diquís” in Costa Rica; and two sites in Turkey – “Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape” and “Bursa and Cumalikizik: the Birth of the Ottoman Empire.”

July 23, 2013

On a Scale of 1 to 5, our Guides are Often a TEN

A Great time at the Great Wall.

Our friend Linda from Ohio just returned from a big family trip to China, her first with us. We try to call everyone when they get home, but we didn’t have a chance – her email came in almost immediately:

“You were right.  It was a great trip for a family.  We LOVED it. Tom and I have taken many trips but this one for us will always be the very special one. It exceeded any expectations that I had.

To see the eyes of our children as we traveled each day was incredible. They were filled with such excitement. I know that I was very nervous about taking the children to China and realize I could not have been more wrong. It was a trip of a lifetime for our family. All ages loved it and we loved learning about the Chinese culture and most of all we loved our new Chinese friends. Chuck and Ping were exceptional. They did everything possible to make our trip special for our family. They became part of our family almost immediately. They took very good care of us all. Chuck was the “magician” of the trip, making good things happen constantly and Ping was “Pied Piper and “Mary Poppins” all rolled into one. The children ( and adults) adored her. She had an endless bag of goodies and always kept the children amused.

The trip was a perfect blend for all ages (8-73) . China will always be a very special place for our family. We have so many wonderful memories and over 2000 pictures to share. It was a well documented trip! Many thanks to all of you for making this trip possible for our family!”

February 5, 2012

An Ancient Story from China

Floating on the river

Thanks to the Linden Centre for their retelling of this story about the Chinese New Year.

Long ago, the world was not a safe place; monsters dominated the world. There was one horrifying monster that came out on the same day each year to eat people. This monster was named Nian, and the people marked the end of a year by his visits to the human civilization. That is where the Chinese word for year came from.

This monster was the most feared by the people because every time it came out, whole villages would be destroyed at a time. So, every time the monster came, people would huddle together in their homes and stay up all night, wanting not to be eaten. This happened for many years until a wise man thought up a plan to scare the monster away.

This man proposed that the people should light bamboo. The bamboo would crack and make a lot of noise, possibly scaring the monster away. The villagers thought this was a very good idea and started to light the bamboo. The noise was tremendous. The monster was scared by the loud noise and ran back to its cave without eating any people.

The next morning, everyone was present. They were all elated. The people congratulated each other for executing the plan effectively. So, from then on, people stayed up late, lit firecrackers (to simulate the lighting of the bamboo), and congratulated each other when the new year came.

This is a well-known story among China, The origin of the Chinese New Year itself is centuries old, it can be traced back to Xia Dynasty, which is around 4,000 years ago.

You can stay at the Linden Centre on our Smithsonian Family Adventure

February 8, 2011

Noodles, Pandas, and the Love of my Daughter

Learning the Fan Dance with family in Huxian

As soon as my daughter Mira could speak, or maybe even before, she began her obsession with all things Chinese. So when, at age 15, she and I had the chance to visit China we never gave it a second thought. Little did I know then what an impact this family adventure would have on the rest of our lives.

China is so spectacularly different from anything we see, smell, eat, or do in our lives in the USA and Canada. First of all it is ancient. Their history goes back so many dynasties your head will spin with the history. Then, not only do they speak a different language (duh) but the culture is so entirely different. It’s in the air; you will see and feel it as you walk through the cities and villages, and speak with your guide. Not only does the food taste different than Chinese food at home, even the KFC tastes different.

Oh, but it is wonderful, so enchanting to visit this place with a Wall so Great you could see from outer space, and peaceful pandas munching on bamboo, and fishermen training the cormorants to catch their fish. Terra Cotta Warriors lined up endlessly, to protect their sleeping emperor. Temples and palaces, and tai chi in every beautiful park….

There is so much to learn about when you visit China. This makes the visit thrilling, but also a bit, well, stressful. Yes, having everything seem different, and nothing seem familiar is exciting and draining. And this is why, at the end of the day when Mira and I would return to our top rated hotel – not to be confused with an American 5 Star but a small semblance of Western life – we bonded in a new way. WE were all that was familiar to each other. Laughing, sharing our amazement, talking about what we had done that day; what would be an ordinary mother-daughter conversation about our day at home in Boston took on a completely different, unique, unforgettable glow in China.

Did you know that in China, a bowl of noodles is actually just ONE LONG NOODLE?

Now I am preparing for Mira to turn 21. We’ve had our many difficulties over the years as mothers and daughters do, and I think a lot about the things I wish I could have done better as she was growing up. (do all parents do this?). But one thing I am so grateful for is our adventure to China. In any moment of family tension or discomfort, she and I can still pull up the stories, the shock and amazement and fabulous wonder of our adventure. Yes, even the embarrassing moments, like learning the fan dance or trying to learn Tai Chi. We can instantly laugh about the things we did together, the entirely unique experience of our two weeks in China. Would I be wrong if I said we love each other more for it?

Are you thinking about sharing something life altering with your child or even your whole family? Maybe it is China, or maybe something a bit closer to home. Thomson Family Adventures has the expertise and creativity to set the stage for your adventure to one of many exciting places we know well. You’ll discover all of the meaning and have all of the fun, while we ensure you don’t have to worry about a single detail. Except showing up at the airport on time! Call us now at 800-262-6255 to change the rest of your life

May 3, 2010

World’s Expo: Shanghai

Shanghai Skyline

Our China Adventure just got even better for 2010! Enjoy our breathtaking Great Wall, Guilin, and Giant Pandas tour this summer and have the opportunity to stay on and visit the 2010 World Expo. So once you’ve explored history with a walk on the Great Wall, visited the terra cotta warriors, and perhaps hugged a baby panda you can get a peek at the future too. Our three night package begins at just $295 per person

With an urban theme of “Better City, Better Life” the 2010 World’s Fair runs May 1 to October 31 in Shanghai. Built along the waterfront of the Huangpu River in the downtown area, this will be the largest and most expensive Expo the world has ever seen. In stark contrast to the ancient China seen on the tour, here you’ll witness stunning architecture and the latest in environmental technology while exploring different areas of urban development in the five pavilions of innovation: Urban Footprints, Urban Planet, Urban Dwellers, Urban Beings, and Urban Dreams.

In a quote from the official Expo website : “World Expositions are galleries of human inspirations and thoughts”.

If you’ve been thinking of traveling to China you just may not want to miss this year’s chance to discover extraordinary new worlds with your family.

March 10, 2010

Thomson Family Adventures and Avatar

Southern Sky Column, Zhangjiajie China

Truth is I have not yet seen the movie Avatar, but everyone I know who has says it is awesome. Just this week I learned that the very beautiful national park of Zhangjiajie in the Hunan province of China has been credited with inspiring the scenic landscape of Pandora. Wow!

This is ‘wow’ because we’ve found ourselves over and over having to convince our traveling families that this is a place worth visiting, even though almost no other Westerners are ever found here and previously no one else had ever heard of it. It was one of our true ‘off the beaten path’ spots we could quietly share with families who would then share the pathways with the Chinese and Koreans who frequent this lovely place. In fact one could Google ‘Zhangjiajie” and come up with … nothing. I’m pretty sure along the way we’ve been accused of making it up. But not any more!

Now it seems Hollywood has discovered this amazing sliver of nature and things will be changing fast. Avatar is the biggest selling movie in China, ever. Just this week the Chinese had a ceremony, and the once Southern Sky Column in Zhangjiajie will now be known as the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain.

What does this all mean? Maybe that you want to go to China this summer and see it for yourself! I can pretty honestly say you’ve never seen anything like it. This is the very place I learned I could sweat so much as to soak through my back pack as I climbed the approximately 3, 275 stairs to the top, with amazing views the whole way. Don’t get me wrong – Mira and I thought it was the coolest thing we ever did. The best part is you don’t even have to do the walk up – you can ride an elevator!

So if you always wanted to go to China, and your kids are enthralled with Avatar – you just gained a new edge for taking them. Let us show you how fabulous this can be; no special effects, just pure, awesome nature.

February 28, 2010

A story from the Great Wall

Mira (with Tommy) on the Great Wall of China

Back in August 2005 my daughter Mira and I had quite an adventure in China. Mira was 15, and had always wanted to go to China; her fascination with finally being there made her game for anything. And we did everything, in a constant state of WOW. There is so much to absorb in China – it is so different, so completely OTHER from anything we’d seen before or have since. I think we laughed for two weeks straight.

We flew 14 hours on a nonstop from Newark to Beijing. Our bodies were completely confused by the 12 hour time difference, but that made an early morning start in Beijing perfect for Mira who would never dream getting up at 6AM – unless it felt like 6PM! This being before the Olympic clean up, the air was thick with pollution. The sheer numbers of people was mind boggling, bicycles careening with cars through major 8 lane intersections with no traffic lights. Terror would make us want to close our eyes – fascination made us keep them open. We joined the throngs shuffling through Tiananman Square where hundreds, maybe a thousand, were already lined up to pay their respects to the tomb of Mao. Then on to the Forbidden City where the architecture of endless hall after hall is astounding. First you pass through the Gate of Imperial Supremacy (formerly the Gate of Supreme Harmony) which is in front of three grand halls. Each name is sweet in the saying of it, and part of learning each name is hearing what each used to be called — so that each hall has at least two and in some instances 5 names. Now, I don’t want to ruin the surprise if you’re planning on visiting, so I will just say Mira and I were particularly enthralled with the Imperial Garden with its Hill of Accumulated Elegance, now known as the Hill of Accumulated Beauty. Sadly we were not allowed to take the time to accumulate either beauty or elegance while we were there, even though I fear we were in desperate need of both.

But the real point of this story is about how our need to feel connected through our favored technology is never left behind behind. even when we think we’ve left it behind. For me it’s usually email (how many exhausted evenings did I waste trying to connect in the ‘business center’ of each hotel, instead of going straight the bed??) For Mira it was her newly acquired cell phone, a precious tool in her arsenal of accoutrements. Looking back I see how silly it was of me to even suggest she leave it at home – after all, at work we field calls from grown men and women who can’t part ways with technology even though they know better. They just have to be constantly connected with the job they are taking a vacation from. Oh well, I suppose that’s a topic for another posting.

Change scenes: We have driven out of the smoggy city to a section of the Great Wall. We rode a cable car to the top of the mountain, walked past vendors roasting crickets (or something crunchy..) and selling t shirts, then climbed many steep steps to the top of the wall itself. Whoa, what a sight! It is here, gazing off as far as we could see over rolling hills, following the snake of the Great Wall slicing the landscape that I hear a familiar sound. Wait, is that Mira’s cell phone RINGING? IN a split second I am thinking: I know she brought the phone to China, but why would she turn it ON. Why would it be in her pocket and not the hotel safe? And why would it be RINGING? We are on the GREAT WALL, in CHINA, in the middle of nowhere, without a cell tower or electric socket in sight. How can this be…

I tell her she can answer it, but she has one minute. My heart pounds with the worry of how much this is going to cost me. Here is how the conversation goes:

Mira: Hi Nora!

Nora: Hey Mira, how are you doing?

Mira: Oh I’m good

Nora: Hey, I thought you were going to China

Mira: Yeah, I’m here now, standing on the Great Wall

Nora: WHAT?!?!

So there you go, in a world where a Western flush toilet can be hard to find, you can get better cell phone service than in some parts of the USA.

PS – our cell phone service was with Verizon, we did not have any special add on for international service, and the cost of that one minute call? A 60 cent roaming charge.