Interview

February 15, 2016

What I’ve Seen: Alaska Family Cruise

One of our favorite team members here at Thomson Family Adventures, Christine, went on a family cruise through Alaska with Un-Cruise. She is the best person to give some first hand advice on exactly what a small ship cruise is, let alone how much fun it can be! We were able to pick her brain a bit for some insight into this awesome experience.

Can you give us a brief overview of your Alaska family cruise?

I spent 8 days exploring southeast Alaska aboard the Safari Endeavour, which is a small expedition vessel, holding about 84 guests and 14 crew members. We traveled up and down the Icy Strait into quiet coves and bays where we were able to get off the boat and hike through the fields and woods in search for some interesting wildlife. Each day was a new adventure!

What was your favorite part of the trip?

Being out in the wilderness every day. Waking up and walking out onto the balcony, looking around and being completely surrounded by trees, mountains and calm waters. It was a very calming and peaceful atmosphere.

paddle boarding on an family cruise to alaska

How many families were on the boat?

I would guess there was about 12-15 families in total. I traveled with two Thomson families. They ranged in age from 6-18 years old. It was really a great group of people to travel with. Everyone was friendly, laid-back, and ready for adventure. By the end of the trip we were all sad to leave each other.

How was it being on a boat for that long period of time? Were people getting sea sick?

Being on the boat for 7 days wasn’t too bad. There are plenty of activities to do while you are on board, not to mention the constant wildlife scene right outside the window. Each day you have the opportunity to get off the boat and go kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, and exploring on land so you really aren’t on the boat for that much of the day. The crew did a great job of entertaining everyone, especially the kids!

The water was really calm; we were never in open ocean so there was no one really getting sick. We did have one night of rough weather, but even still it was much calmer than “rough” weather out in the middle of the ocean. I think anyone who suffers from sea sickness would do just fine on one of these cruises.

What kind of things were there to do on-board the ship during this family cruise to Alaska?

While on board ship, there is a lounge with lots of board games and arts and crafts for the kids. There are binoculars everywhere, so you always have an opportunity to see the whales, sea lion, birds or jellyfish passing on by. There is some fitness equipment as well for those looking to get in a quick workout. Yoga in the morning. Presentations and group games in the evening after dinner. For those looking for a little downtime or time to themselves, there is a library with many DVD’s that you can borrow to watch a movie in your cabin.

sea lions as seen on an Alaska family cruise

How does this compare to being on a larger more traditional cruise ship?

It doesn’t compare at all. It’s a completely different experience. I wouldn’t even put these in the same category. Typical cruise ships offer a lot of on board amenities, its part of the draw. The Un-Cruise experience is very different. This ship is a place to sleep. The real draw is the great outdoors, the wilderness, the explorations, and the unwritten, unscheduled adventures you will find along the way.

Safari Endeavour - the ship used for our alaska family cruise

Safari Endeavour

Were there things to do in Alaska before or after the cruise started?

Yes, there are many things you can do before, or after your cruise. You can spend a night or two in Juneau beforehand, exploring the little town. They have some great markets, and traditional shopping centers that are great for souvenirs. You can also do some excursions like dog sledding, or a Glacial Helicopter Ride, zip-lining, snowmobiling, etc.

Best advice for someone who hasn’t been on this type of family cruise before?

Make sure you go into it with the right expectations. This is not a typical cruise, with lots of onboard entertainments, shows, concerts, room service, 24-hour buffets, etc. This is a small expedition vessel. The real entertainment is out in the wild. If you have the right expectations, this is truly an amazing experience, and I think everyone should visit Alaska this way. I’d also try and take advantage of some of the excursions before or after your trip. After all, this may be the only time you go to Alaska, right?



July 7, 2015

What I’ve Seen: South Africa

We are getting ready to launch a new family trip to South Africa and thought it would be a good idea to let you in on the experience! A member of our team, Claudia, went to Cape Town and out on safari to learn all she could about South Africa. We asked her a few questions about her trip to give you an idea of what your next family vacation might look like!

Here's Claudia and her friend Ivy at the Cape of Good Hope

Here’s Claudia and her friend Ivy at the Cape of Good Hope

Can you give us an overview of your trip to South Africa?

I spent two wonderfully busy weeks there in late April, early May. We stayed 5 nights in glorious Cape Town, one night at Grootbos in the scenic Western Cape, three nights in bustling Johannesburg (a.k.a. Joburg) and four nights in the bush. We drove six-and-a-half hours from Joburg to Timbavati Game Reserve, which provided great perspective from the Highveld to the Lowveld.

South Africa has a troubled history that’s not too far in the past; could you still signs of this as a traveler and did it affect your trip in any way?

I was amazed how far the country has progressed since apartheid. For example, in 1950, the South African government banned marriages between whites and people of other races. The Population Registration Act of 1950 provided the basic framework for apartheid by classifying all South Africans by race, including Bantu (black Africans), Colored (mixed race) and white. A fourth category, Asian (meaning Indian and Pakistani) was later added. In some cases, the legislation split families; parents could be classified as white, while their children were classified as colored. In December 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world, the first in Africa, to allow legal marriages between same-sex couples. Pretty impressive! (The ban on interracial marriages was lifted in 1985.)

What was the best part of this trip for you?

Wild dogs spotted on Safari

Wild dogs spotted on Safari

It’s difficult to pick my favorite part of the trip, as there was something special in each location. Cape Town is unbelievably beautiful and the bush (safari) is tough to beat with opportunities of being a stone’s throw away from rhinos and wild dogs. For me, Joburg was an unexpected highlight. I had the opportunity to visit a few inspirational museums that exhibit and display the hardships of apartheid in a way that leaves you craving to learn more about this tumultuous period. In addition to perusing the museums, I was able to explore two townships – Soweto and Kliptown – two very different communities all striving for the same thing – a better life. The people of Johannesburg are prosperous people and the spirit of entrepreneurship is everywhere.

What part did you like the least?

Flying. I’m not a big fan.

South Africa isn’t typically thought of as a safari destination but you went on one there. How was it?

Stopping for a sip of water!

Stopping for a sip of water!

Actually, South Africa is a popular destination for safari-goers. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to experience a handful of safaris in Tanzania, which is completely different than the safari experience in South Africa. In Tanzania, it’s like stepping into Noah’s Ark. You’ll see hundreds and hundreds of wildebeest, zebra and antelope and the vastness of the country is grand; whereas, in South Africa, the experience is intimate. You’ll see a few rhino, wild dog and lion in an up-close and personal way. The experience is quite exhilarating! I truly feel like people seeking a 10-plus day trip filled with extraordinary wildlife viewing should consider our family safari to Tanzania. If you and your family are seeking a little bit of everything – including marine life – family South Africa is the trip for you.

Would you take your kids or niece and nephew on this trip?

You betcha! I have a poster pinned on my cork board at work that reads, “Seek Adventures That Open Your Mind”.  South Africa will open your mind! South Africans are strong, curious and aware people. The older generation had to be this way in order to survive, and it’s places like South Africa that the next generation must experience to understand how history has shaped the world we live in today. Apartheid cannot be forgotten.

What about your parents or grandparents?

You betcha! South Africa is very diverse. Come learn about the Land Big 5, the Marine Big 5, South Africa’s turbulent history, its vibrant cultures, and tasty wines all while being awed by its surrounding natural beauty!

Did you feel culture shock at any point, why? If not, why do you think you didn’t?

I did not and that’s probably due to my trips to Tanzania and other underdeveloped countries in the world. There are considerable differences between the US and South Africa, but I never felt inconvenienced. I could connect to WiFi at the hotels, I could easily access money at ATMS and I had no problems conversing with people in English as is commonly spoken throughout Africa, along with 11 other official languages.

Did you feel safe in South Africa? Whether it was your time out on safari or walking around Cape Town?

The Gardens at Kirstenbosch in Cape Town

The Gardens at Kirstenbosch in Cape Town

Truthfully, I never felt unsafe or in harm’s way. I may have had my adrenaline rise as a pride of lions walked by our safari vehicle, but I never felt unsafe.

How were the flights getting to and from South Africa?

My international flights were smooth. I flew roundtrip on Delta Airlines. On the outbound flight I flew from Boston to Cape Town via Amsterdam, a flight I’m very familiar with. On the return, I flew from Joburg to Boston via Atlanta, the largest airport hub in the world. The flight from Joburg to Atlanta was slightly under 17 hours long.

Is there something about South Africa that you could really only know from being there? Something you won’t find in a guide book?

The entire experience. To learn, read a book. To experience, go travel.

The view from famous Table Mountain

The view from famous Table Mountain

There you have it— South Africa in a nutshell! If you have any lingering questions just give us a call and we’ll be happy to answer them for you and set your family up with an incredible vacation experience!



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!