Destinations

August 29, 2013

Unreal Wildlife & Volcanic Terrain

My second day in the Galapagos began with a romantic Latin pop song, very gradually increasing in volume as it came over the ship’s speakers.  Just as I slipped peacefully out of my sleep and acknowledged that the music wasn’t simply a soundtrack to my dream, the ship coordinator softly informed the passengers that this was our 6:45 wakeup call, and breakfast would be ready in 15 minutes.

After a nice buffet breakfast in the main dining area, we prepared for the 10-minute panga (a small, motorized boat) ride to Puerto Egas on the island of Santiago. It didn’t take long to notice that this island was drastically different from anything I had seen on Santa Cruz. We spent about an hour and a half walking along a shoreline characterized by volcanic black sand, lagoons, and lava rocks, all harboring a magical array of birds, mammals, reptiles and crabs.

Sea lions lounged on the rocks and the sand. Galapagos marine iguanas rested on top of each other and made their way into the water, while brightly-colored Sally Lightfoot crabs scurried all around them. Fur seals (according to our expert naturalist guide, actually a type of sea lion, as opposed to true seals) kept each other company on rocky ledges overlooking pools of sparklingly blue water. Blue-footed boobies and American oystercatchers scanned the surface of the water for tasty sea life, yellow warblers and Darwin’s prized finches hopped around nimbly, and a mockingbird actually flew out of a nearby tree and landed on top of the backpack of a man in my group.

The scene was astounding, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. At this point, I was still utterly amazed at the fact that I could stand a foot away from any animal here and evoke no reaction of fear of defensiveness whatsoever.

After our guided walk, we descended upon a peaceful little beach and spent about an hour snorkeling. I saw vibrant schools of tropical fish, and legitimately almost crashed straight into two massive sea turtles by accident as they swam contently and occasionally breached the surface. Another optional snorkeling excursion a bit later in the waters around the famous Pinnacle Rock presented us with an ocean floor populated by starfish far bigger than I knew existed.

With the day’s snorkeling behind us, we made our way to the island of Bartolomé. As I was quickly coming to expect, this island was starkly distinct from the ones before. Its relatively recent formation is resoundingly evident, with fascinating, Mars-like terrain stretching vastly and only very new pioneer plants growing out of the volcanic ash covering the hillsides. Natural, black and gray rock structures stick out dramatically and beautifully all over the place, and the groove marks left by lava flows cut through the compacted ash.

We trudged up about 400 steps to the island’s scenic lookout point, and the heaving and panting was more than worth it. The iconic Galapagos view provided was absolutely stunning, with glassy blue waters surrounding the piece of the island that juts out, with Pinnacle Rock looming proudly on the right side, and the much larger island of Santiago in the background.

The group returned to the ship, and an unforgettable day was capped off with a delectable churrasco-style barbecue buffet and some stargazing on the top deck.



August 23, 2013

Fearless Tortoises and Endless Craters

Santa Cruz is only one of the 14 islands in the Galapagos archipelago, but this island alone harbors an incredible diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. A drive up into the highlands of Santa Cruz to see the giant tortoises that make their home here was my first activity, and it absolutely set the tone for my unbelievable Galapagos adventure.

Our pangas pulled into the rocky shore, and we stepped out amid cacti and bone-dry, gnarled shrubs baking in the sun. Here, we boarded a bus and started the drive up into the highlands. I can’t begin to describe how quickly and dramatically the landscape began to change; the forested mountain terrain grew lusher and lusher as we reached higher elevations, and it soon looked like we had reached a completely different island than the one we had only recently disembarked at.

Within ten minutes, the air coming in through the open windows was substantially cooler. The dry plant life of sea level gave way to lush, tropical vegetation. We made our way up through misty mountains, passing secluded houses with roosters and banana and guava trees in the front yards, and started to come upon small farms and grazing cattle. The place was like a one-stop microcosm of all the beautiful green places in the world, where jungle meets farmland and tropical meets comfortably temperate.

After the half-hour bus ride, we set off on a leisurely walk through the giant tortoise habitat. These gentle creatures were roaming slowly all around us, some as old as 100 and quite enormous. They spend the first part of their lives trying to make their way up into these highlands, so we were really exploring the tortoises’ land of milk and honey. The most striking thing about these tortoises (even more evident in the iguanas, sea lions and birds of the Galapagos) is their total lack of any kind of fear of humans.

Unlike anywhere else on earth, you can stand a foot away from an animal in the Galápagos Islands and it won’t show the slightest bit of apprehension, because they have been so perfectly protected that they don’t associate the human form with any kind of threat. We’re not their natural predators, and tireless efforts have gone into making sure these islands represent only the natural circle of life and evolution, so they’re perfectly content ignoring our presence and going about their business.

On the way back down from the highlands, we stopped off at the site of “Los Gemelos,” or “The Twins,” which are two vast collapsed volcanic craters. We stepped off the bus and started walking down a path surrounded by lush moss and scalesia trees (found only in the Galapagos) when, all of the sudden, the earth opened up. The path dropped off into a deep sea of rich vegetation, bordered by a sheer rock face stretching all the way around. The mist made its way across the crater and sent shivers down my spine and I thought to myself: “This is just day one.



August 16, 2013

I wish I wasn’t in the Aisle Seat…

Flying to the Galapagos Islands

That’s a thought I never expected to cross my mind, but I realized a few days ago that to be two seats away from the window on a flight into the Galapagos Islands feels like a tragedy. Before I left for this trip to Ecuador, my highly general expectations associated wildlife with the Galapagos, and scenery and culture with the Andean Highlands – it didn’t take long for me to learn that the striking landscapes of the Galapagos are most definitely not to be overlooked as a huge part of what makes this natural paradise so extraordinary.

As we flew over the islands, it looked like someone had combined Mars and the US Southwest and plopped the result into the middle of the Pacific. Still, looking down on these arid, craggy, cacti-dotted masses of hardened lava on a deep blue backdrop, I had no idea just how unique this undisturbed ecological sanctuary would prove to be.

Once the flight touched down, it was evident that this place was going to waste NO time establishing itself as a destination like no other. After a 5-minute shuttle from the airport to the dock I was about to embark from, the sea lions of the Galapagos greeted me with a nice initiation to the next few days of my life. I hadn’t even boarded the small boat (called a “panga”) that would take me to the ship I would be staying on when I almost tripped over a sea lion lounging – carefree as could be – on the dock. A few moments later, a few more sea lions hanging out on the rocks beneath the dock started up a symphony of playful barks. Not a bad how-do-you-do from the most well-preserved ecosystem on earth…



July 30, 2013

A Heartwarming Tale of Rescue on Safari!

The magic of an African safari is something no family can fully prepare for. Everyone’s experience is different, loaded with spontaneous cultural and wildlife encounters that couldn’t possibly have been written into an itinerary – that’s what makes a safari in Tanzania remarkable.

A prime example is the unplanned wildlife rescue mission undertaken by the Hartz family on their recent Tanzania Active Safari for Families with Teens. Jennifer, Eric, and their four teens were riding along in their safari vehicle, wildlife viewing in the Eastern Serengeti Ecosystem, in the private nature refuge that Thomson guests have exclusive privileges to visit. Suddenly, they spotted a Kori Bustard (a large, mostly ground-dwelling bird) hobbling along with something sticking out of its back.

They followed the bird in their rover, hoping to help in any way they could. Upon closer inspection, the Hartz family and their driver realized that the poor thing had been struck between the shoulder blades by a Maasai arrow. Hunting on this property is strictly prohibited, but somebody had attempted to make an illegal dinner out of this Kori Bustard. The family, along with their guide and driver, removed the arrow as carefully as possible, applied Neosporin to the wound, and patched it up to the best of their ability. Afterwards, they sat back and watched as the bird went on its way, concerned but gratified in the knowledge that they probably just saved its life.

That uplifting tale of chance and compassion is exactly the type of thing that makes a safari such a special family adventure. In addition to saving an unfortunate Kori Bustard, the Hartz family had plenty of other wonderful experiences… a bike ride into a village quarry near Gibb’s Farm where bricks are hand-made by local workers, and a rewarding encounter with friendly and enthusiastic Maasai children, to name a couple. But this unexpected act of kindness and teamwork is something that will surely stick out as a particularly fond travel memory!



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!”



May 28, 2013

How a Family Adventure Feels at 17

Hannah and Frank

We received this email  from 17 year old Hannah whose family lives in New Jersey. We know how our guides can impact adults and children alike, and we never tire of hearing about it. These are the life changing experiences we travel for!

“I’m writing to give you feedback on one of your Tanzania staff members, Frank Julius.

I went on a family safari in Tanzania over the December holidays (2012) with my mom, dad and 15-year-old brother, and Frank came along as a mentor. We met up with a family we hadn’t met before with two kids, ages eleven and eight.

As a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old, my brother and I weren’t in need of the same type of mentoring as the other kids were. Instead, Frank became a friend to us. He played soccer and goofed around with the younger ones, but Frank and I also had interesting intellectual conversations, discussed our lives and compared cultures. He has incredible people skills, is able to shift seamlessly between adults and children, and developed lasting relationships with each person on our trip, regardless of age. The two families went in separate trucks, and we always hoped Frank would end up in ours.

I was also incredibly impressed by Frank’s intellect. He is so well read, world-aware and ambitious. I was amazed to hear that he speaks six languages, and we enjoyed practicing Spanish together throughout the trip. As I observed with all the other Thomson staff members, he was very knowledgeable about the animals and wildlife. He went beyond just facts about the animals, permeating our observation with jokes and anecdotes.

Without Frank, this trip would have been a completely different experience for my family and I. We had amazing luck with sightings in all the parks, took incredible pictures and had wonderful stays at all of the camps, but what was most impactful to me were the people I met along the way. Everybody was lovely, but I developed an amazing friendship with Frank. We continue to keep each other updated through Facebook today, and I hope to keep in touch with him for the rest of my life. Anybody who gets to go on a Thomson Family Safari is in for an amazing experience, but a trip with Frank is guaranteed to be all the more unique and memorable.”



April 3, 2013

A Spotlight on David Jaffe, Mentor Extraordinaire!

The legend himself, David Jaffe

Families traveling with us to Alaska this summer have the privilege of being accompanied by our friend David Jaffe, a brilliant scientist, wildlife enthusiast and all-around rugged outdoorsman. This guy’s the real deal, and his presence is a HUGE asset to the trip. So in order to effectively promote the adventure, I wanted to get some info straight from David about the kinds of things he does to engage the kids on the trips he joins. I emailed him and asked for a few words that I could use to write something up… as it turns out, the response he took the time out of his busy life of adventure to provide for me is pretty much perfect as is:

Howdy Joe,

Thanks for the thought and the enthusiasm. I just got out of a two week silent meditation retreat. Trips I have worked with TFA have really been quite remarkable with last year’s being SUPREME. The kids were awesome, the adults were so supportive and the staff on the boat amazingly cooperative. So, from my side…hmmm….As an environmental educator and outdoor wilderness-expedition guide for 13+ years, I have developed various curricula that cater to various environments to engage a diversity of backgrounds and capabilities. I incorporate fun, engaging activities that involve sensory exploration as well as a more academic side. I begin with some ‘sense of place’ activities (maps, where are we, get out and look around type games and activities). More central to the trip would be more about “interconnections” (activities that illustrate how natural environments and components of diverse ecosystems are interrelated). Towards the end of the trip, I try to instill a sense of “stewardship” (activities and games that exemplify the “so what?” of the trip. How can I bring what I learned here in Alaska, Peru, Belize…to my home city and maintain a sense of cultural and environmental stewardship and awareness)…Of course all this more curriculum based stuff is mingled with a healthy dose of riddles, arts and crafts, jokes, storytelling and jumping off the deck of the boat into glacially clad waters…

I am excited about this opportunity. Hope all is well, please send hellos to Moo and others!

David

I think David’s email speaks for itself – he’s great with kids, an expert naturalist, beyond intelligent and full of personality!



March 12, 2013

Top 5 Reasons to Visit Alaska (and a Cool Slideshow!)

Click to see our Alaska slideshow

I feel like I’m doing the great state of Alaska a disservice by limiting this list to five reasons, but “7,000,000 Reasons to Visit Alaska” would have been a bit excessive.

Alaska is by far the largest American state, and there is a LOT more to this place than snow and whale blubber.

1.) Great Outdoors/Final Frontier. If you’re a nature lover, Alaska is where you want to be. It’s an unspoiled wilderness boasting secluded bays and coves; lush temperate rain forest; mountains; caves and rocky islands; glowing blue glaciers; quaint fishing towns… not to mention abundant wildlife, like eagles, brown and black bears, humpback and orca whales, sea lions, seals, moose, caribou, deer, elk, otters, etc.

2.) An Active Family’s Dream-Come-True. For the outdoorsy, adventurous family looking for some fun bonding time, it doesn’t get any better than Alaska. You’ll cruise in style around floating chunks of ice in the Inside Passage, stopping throughout to explore via kayak or skiff, swim and snorkel, hike forest trails and enormous glaciers, fly over an icefield by helicopter and even ride a real dogsled.

3.) Rich History and Native Culture. Alaska is brimming with fascinating history and unique culture. The place hearkens back to an exciting time in American history, when ambitious people ventured west to the great frontier in search of gold and great fortunes. And your family will get a taste of some of Alaska’s indigenous culture, visiting the authentic native Tlingit village of Klawock and learning about the traditional art of carving colorful totem poles.

4.) Pleasant, Refreshing Summer Climate. The summers in Southeast Alaska are typically pretty mild, with temperatures often in the high-50s to mid-60s. It can be very nice to get away from the heat and humidity of your home city and enjoy the comfort of a mild coastal climate with crisp, clean air and ocean breezes.

5.) David Jaffe – Mentor, Expert and Outdoorsman. With Thomson, your family will have the privilege of traveling alongside an expert mentor, our friend David Jaffe. He’s a rugged adventurer and veteran outdoorsman with a contagious love of travel and cultures. David has a long, impressive list of accomplishments, from extensive marine and avian research to experience as a research consultant for the Nature Conservancy and as a biological research technician at Yosemite National Park. He’s been a TFA mentor since 1998 and is excellent with children. With David onboard, your kids will be constantly enthralled and intrigued.

Bonus: The Special Privilege of a Smaller Ship and Secluded Spots! I couldn’t resist; I just had to mention the perks of traveling on the M/V Wilderness Discoverer. This is a comfortable 76-passenger ship with a friendly, knowledgeable crew. Her size allows for some extra special experiences, since we have the opportunity to navigate and drop anchor in secluded, pristine coves that large cruise ships aren’t even allowed to enter! The Wilderness Discoverer really makes for a wonderfully intimate adventure!



March 7, 2013

Gray Whales in Baja – Our Video Contest Winner!

Check out the video here!

Congratulations to Remy for winning our most recent video contest! We had some really outstanding entries this time around, but we selected this exciting footage for the way it showcases some of the close-up interaction families get to have with the gray whales on our February departures to Baja. It also brilliantly captures the magical atmosphere of family fun on all of our adventures!

Great job, Remy! And to all our traveling families, keep the videos coming!



February 14, 2013

You’re Never Too Old to Learn from Travel

An action shot from the game

When I consider the significance of travel in my own life, the clichéd-but-apt adage “Don’t let school get in the way of your education” comes to mind.

Three years ago, I was a junior in college; I was in the middle of a wonderful classroom education that, unbeknownst to me, couldn’t hold a candle to the 5-month practical learning experience I was about to dive into. I left in early January of 2010 for a semester abroad in a small city outside Madrid. Now, I’ll be honest here – I spent very little of those next 5 months attending classes or doing homework… but I also gained a concentrated dose of real-world knowledge and insight worth about 5 years of highlighting textbooks and attending lectures.

In addition to the 5-month period of culture shock and adaptation that was my semester abroad in general (that’s a long story for another day), I had opportunities for some incredible shorter travel experiences afforded by my proximity to surrounding countries. The most memorable of these was a week spent in Morocco with a small group of friends.

One vivid memory in particular that will stay with me for as long as I live took place on a humble little beach frequented by Moroccan locals. As a few of my American friends and I were walking along the beach, a young Moroccan man – probably about 26 – approached us. Seeing that we were white and out-of-place, he assumed we were probably from Spain and asked us somewhat shyly in soft, shaky Spanish: “¿Queréis jugar con nosotros?” (“Do you guys want to play with us?”) He motioned to a group of about fifteen Moroccans of various ages kicking a soccer ball back and forth and setting up makeshift goals with sticks and rocks. My friends and I looked at each other a bit uneasily, ignorantly considering all the worst case scenarios in our heads (locals running off with our valuables, etc.) as most sheltered First World kids can’t help but do when presented with the unfamiliar. Then we shot a mutual glance and shrug, as if to say “How often do we have the chance to play a game of pickup soccer on the beach with a bunch of Moroccans?” and I told the man we’d love to accept his gracious offer.

The friendly game that followed was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life; we laughed, high-fived, and congratulated each other’s athletic accomplishments through smiles and body language. I was ashamed to have ever – even if only for a brief moment – doubted these hospitable people’s genuine intentions. After a few hours of soccer, we shook hands and the Moroccans placed their fists over their hearts as a gesture of peace as we parted ways. Forcing myself to let go of ignorant preconceptions and embrace the new and different taught me that you get as much out of a travel experience as you put into it, and that you’re never too old to learn from the world around you. Do any of you have stories to share from your own experiences that highlight travel’s profound teaching power?