Travelers

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.”



May 10, 2013

A Worldwide Celebration of Mothers

My mother and I in Madrid (excuse the facial hair; Mom did NOT approve)

If there’s one thing that’s pretty much universal, it’s appreciation for mothers and all that they do for us. Almost every place in the world has some sort of Mother’s Day celebration; they’re not all on the same day, and every country approaches it differently, but  the general sentiment of love and appreciation for our mothers is something unhampered by cultural differences. I’m going to highlight a few particularly noteworthy Mother’s Day traditions from some of our favorite destinations:

In Mexico, Mother’s Day is no joke. Mothers are highly venerated in Mexican culture, and people really go all out to honor the women who raised them. For example, it’s customary for kids to greet their mothers with a morning serenade – the traditional song selection for special occasions like this is “Las Mañanitas.” In addition to the serenade, Mexican mothers are given cards, flowers, chocolates and gifts, and families usually celebrate with a morning meal together; typical dishes include tamales and atole.

Costa Rica considers Mother’s Day a national holiday, so banks, schools, government buildings and other offices are closed, and mothers are showered with gifts and flowers.

Panamanians take a very religious approach to their celebration of this special day (not surprising, given the extremely strong Catholic influence on all aspects of life in Latin America). Mother’ Day in Panama is celebrated on the same day as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as a way of drawing a connection between the Virgin Mary and mothers everywhere. There are festivals, dances and religious parades throughout the day honoring the mother of Jesus and all moms in general.

Egypt and Turkey are two of the countries with the strongest historical ties to Mother’s Day, both serving as partial inspirations for the origins of the holiday. One of the earliest known records of people celebrating a mother figure as a deity comes from the ancient Egyptians, who would hold a yearly festival to honor the goddess Isis. Isis is considered the divine mother of the pharaohs, and of the land of Egypt.

Turkey, however, probably gave us the most direct inspiration for the global celebration of Mother’s Day: the goddess Cybele. She came from the Turkish region of Anatolia and is revered as a mother goddess, representing things like fertility, the earth’s bounty, and motherhood in general. Celebrations honoring Cybele have been taking place since about 250 years before the birth of Jesus.

Perhaps the most unique take on Mother’s Day is the Thai tradition. The Thais first dedicated this day to birthday celebrations for Queen Sirikit, considered the “First Mother” of Thailand. She became Queen of Thailand in 1950, and has since been held in very high regard for her tireless work and endless devotion to her people. Queen Sirikit has become a symbolic mother figure for the Thai nation, and her birthday is commemorated each year with elaborate festivals, ceremonies, fireworks, charitable activities, etc. The Thai people take the opportunity to appreciate their beloved queen, as well as their gratitude for the unconditional love shown by mothers in general.

If you know of any other interesting cultural Mother’s Day traditions, or if your family does something special, please share it with us! Happy Mother’s Day, all!



May 9, 2013

Act Now and Save Big! Book Early for 2014!

2014 may seem far away, but doesn’t each new year always creep up and take you by surprise? Stay ahead this year and plan your travel early – there’s a BIG reward! On May 15th, our 2014 trip prices will be released, and they will be increasing by as much as 5-10%. But not to worry – if you book a 2014 family adventure before the 15th, we’ll honor our current 2013 prices. Between the huge savings and the peace of mind that comes with getting the planning out of the way early, why wait?

We already have families booked; just give us a call now so we can help you find the perfect adventure for your family in 2014 at a heavily discounted rate!



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!



February 19, 2013

The Beauty of Flexible Departure Dates

Young adult siblings on an elephant in Thailand.

We have plenty of prearranged departure dates to choose from, but there’s always the possibility that none of the dates you see listed fit with your busy schedule. Luckily for you, that’s not a problem; we can always organize a custom date just for your family.

We’re in this business because we want to deliver the ideal family adventure for each and every one of our valued clients, and we’ll never let rigid scheduling issues get in the way of that mission. You can even work with us to create your own private, custom itinerary or villa-style vacation if you’re not totally satisfied with what we already offer.

We find that the fact that we can always arrange custom dates is especially vital to emphasize when dealing with families with older teen and 20-something kids. Since this particular age group encompasses a wide range of life stages – high school, college, and the working world – what works for one young adult may not work for another. Older teens and 20-somethings have different school breaks and different opportunities for time off from work; this isn’t news to us, and we’re fully prepared to work with you to organize something that fits with everyone’s schedules.

Just give us a call and we can work through all your departure date concerns together.



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?



February 1, 2013

The Importance of Age Matching in Family Travel

Having fun with new friends!

We loved our Thomson trip with our teenage son Phil and can’t wait to do another. He really bonded with all the teens on the trip, and still keeps in touch with them. Even now, one year after the trip, he has just returned home from a visit with one of the other kids on the trip. As an only child, having other teens to share the trip with made all the difference in the experience.

- Kate, parent, Costa Rica Teen

We’ve organized a lot of family adventures over the years, and one thing we know for sure is that age matching has some priceless benefits. It’s hard not to enjoy a family vacation loaded with activities in a new and captivating destination, but an already-incredible trip can be improved dramatically by pairing your kids up with other kids of similar ages. The chance to share the experience of learning a new culture with peers and newfound friends holds a value that shouldn’t be underestimated. Whitewater rafting is a blast for kids no matter what, but doing it with other kids their age that they can relate to adds a whole new element of excitement to the adventure! Similarly, a too-cool-for-school teenager is sure to get more enjoyment out of a hike to Machu Picchu in the company of other like-minded teens than with just mom and dad or with a little kid who can’t keep the same pace… and we all know it’s much easier for you as parents and grandparents to let loose and enjoy your own vacation when you have the comfort of knowing your children or grandchildren are having the time of their lives.

We currently have several trips with families already booked, waiting for some new friends to join! Call us and see about joining one of the following:

Panama March 23 – 10-year-old girl

Galapagos and Ecuador Smithsonian March 8 – 18-year-old boy

Costa Rica: Volcanoes & Beaches June 15 – 15-year-old girl

Peru Smithsonian June 28 – 17-year-old boy looking for another boy in his age range

And there are plenty more in addition to these! Call Nicole for more information at 1-800-262-6255!



January 23, 2013

Around the Serengeti in 80 Minutes

Rising above the Serengeti

Following is part 4 of Ed Prutschi’s story of his familys’ Thomson Family Safari in July 2012. For more photos go here. You can follow Ed on Twitter @crimetraveller

It’s 4:30 a.m. when I hear a voice at the flap of my tent.

Jambo Edward!” It’s my guide sing-songing the traditional Swahili greeting. He’s wrapped tightly in a fleece sweater to ward off the cold, while clutching a kerosene lantern in his gloved hand to stave off the darkness. Today, we have planned the ultimate capstone to our Tanzanian safari — a sunrise balloon ride over the Serengeti.

I grab an extra cup of coffee and push steaming mugs of cocoa into my daughters’ hands before crawling into the back of our Land Rover. We bounce through the inky darkness at speed, pausing only when our driver slams on the brakes to avoid a baby hippopotamus. We inch our way cautiously past the massive mother following closely behind her calf and continue to our launch site.

After a short pre-flight briefing, I’m lying on my side stretched out awkwardly in a compartment of a giant wicker basket that has been tilted to lie horizontally. My nine-year-old daughter is beside me, giddy with a combination of excitement and lack of sleep. I can’t see them but somewhere underneath me, in a separate compartment, are my wife and seven-year-old. Tongues of super-heated gas belch massive noisy flames less than two metres from my head. The intense heat is a shocking contrast to the crisp cold of the Tanzanian pre-dawn. The blackness of the Serengeti plains is quickly giving way to dappled muted smears of purple and streaks of orange as we race against the rapidly approaching sunrise.

I clench my teeth and grip the side runners, anticipating a lurch as we tilt vertically to begin our ascent. Instead, I experience a gradual weightless feeling as we float into position and begin drifting upwards. The powerful heaters fire intermittently up into the belly of the balloon but I am struck by the intense silence that exists between the flaming blasts. Our pilot, Captain Frank Bellantoni of Serengeti Balloon Safaris, cracks a joke under his breath about Serengeti air traffic beating the daily grind along Highway 401. I stare at him slack-jawed and he chuckles. “I’m from Guelph, I could tell from your accents that you guys live close to home.” Two international flights, a bush plane, and countless kilometres along an off-road dirt path in a Land Rover and my balloon pilot turns out to hail from a town 30 minutes down the highway from my house. Small world indeed.

My reverie at this amazing coincidence is broken as I am suddenly blinded by the appearance of the sun. The difference is dramatic as I begin unzipping layers of fleece, my face already perspiring in the heat. We glide over a pool, soundlessly floating just 20 feet above the water. The grey blobs I initially thought were boulders crack open giant maws revealing enormous stained teeth. Hippos.

Captain Frank hits the jets and we begin to gain altitude. We skim past a tall acacia tree and stare down at a vulture’s nest. The mother bird glares at us with fixed black eyeballs. She ruffles her feathers but stays fixed to her perch. We are close enough to count the eggs huddled protectively under her belly. As we clear the tree and continue our ascent, the criss-cross of thousands of trails begins to unfold. We have arrived here just a week late for the grand spectacle of the Great Migration, where 1.5 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras pound the ground into zig-zag patterns.

A pair of bat-eared foxes dart out of a burrow while a group of five dik-diks appear to defy gravity as they bounce over a thin stream. A lioness suddenly senses our proximity and I can see the muscled fur of her shoulders tense, her ears twitch and flatten, as she turns her head skyward to watch our strange contraption pass overhead. We climb higher and higher until we can clearly see the ribbon of emerald green marking the path of the Seronera River slashing its way through the brown and tan coloured plains.

Too soon Captain Frank announces that we are approaching our landing site. The balloon descends, the basket bouncing as it hits the ground before gripping the dirt and finally tipping smoothly over, leaving us lying on our backs staring up at the blue sky. Our safety latches are quickly unhitched and champagne flutes are pressed into our hands (fresh orange juice for the girls). We toast our successful flight before being driven just a few hundred feet where, in the shade of a giant acacia tree, we settle in for breakfast. Toast. Fruit. Eggs to order. All while a group of disinterested wildebeest, zebras and gazelles chew their own morning repast within sight of our tables.



December 19, 2012

A Family Holiday Story

Thanksgiving Oysters

Reprinted with permission from the Taking the Kids blog

Oysters await at our T-Day breakfast

By Andy Yemma

Maybe Christmas is the big day in your house. Maybe it’s the family Hanukah or Kwanza party.

For us, it’s always been Thanksgiving, from the time the kids were small and we flew from Chicago to New York to celebrate with Eileen’s parents. It’s the touchstone of our year – and this year was especially poignant as we gathered, now our kids flying in from around the country.

This Thanksgiving marked 30 years of marriage for Eileen and me. She’d floated the idea of taking everyone on a vacation Thanksgiving week but the kids nixed that idea. They wanted the Thanksgiving we always had—running in our town’s Turkey Trot, cooking together, arguing over doing the dishes, football, walks with our pooch on the beach and Scrabble in front of the fire. The last few years we’ve treated everyone to a Broadway play too.

Where did the last 30 years go, we asked as we started preparing for the annual Thanksgiving Day feast, ordering a 20-pound grass-fed, chemical-free turkey from a farm in Vermont (most expensive turkey ever!), buying potatoes, yams, onions, green beans, cranberries, stuffing mix, you name it.

Our youngest daughter, Melanie, about to graduate from college, is helping to run her college farm and writing a column about cooking for her college newspaper. So she had a lot to say about the menu. Our daughter, Reggie, is embarking on a new career as a teacher and pursuing a graduate degree. Thanksgiving is the only trip home from the West Coast she has time for all year! Our son Matt is building his own business and working on a graduate degree as well. Both Matt and Reggie have significant others in their lives who joined us, as did 13-year-old Enesi Domi, who we have come to know through the Fresh Air Fund. He brought his older sister with him this year.

The kids all told us how excited they were for our annual family reunion. “I wish it was Thanksgiving already,” Melanie said back in September. They swapped ideas for side dishes they promised to make. Matt and his girlfriend Emmie picked up 3 dozen oysters from a fish market in New York City—a new tradition, the kids decided, would be oysters and champagne for breakfast Thanksgiving morning. Several of signed up for the annual 5-mile, 2.5 mile run-walk fundraiser.

But you know that old expression of “regression to the mean?” Once they all get home it’s like they revert to their old pecking orders. Some of the oldest sibling rivalries start to percolate. One of them suggests getting some Diet Coke (which I can’t figure out how we forgot during our multiple shopping forays). Another immediately pipes in that drinking soda is bad for you, not to mention all of the packaging.

Despite the interminable discussion via email, text and links about the menu, some of the menu items fall a little short of perfection – like the “hockey puck” homemade biscuits and the pumpkin pie, though yummy, that we put in too large a pie pan. There are disputes over whether to listen to music or watch football. They don’t let me watch the news, preferring music instead. They complain we use too much water to do the dishes. Perfection? Not.

But then we all gather around the table and, as is our tradition, we tell each other what we’re thankful for this year. “Thank you for being such wonderful kids and such terrific, responsible adults. We can’t imagine our lives without you!” Eileen says.

The kids are thankful for all the good eats they didn’t have to pay for and, I’m glad to say, the time together. With assorted friends, we had at least 10 for every meal that weekend. Afterward, I don’t even know how many loads of wash we did of sheets and towels. Yes, it is a lot of work—and a lot of expense—to gather the gang and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I know next year we’ll be joking about the hockey puck biscuits and the soda pop just as we always do about the time out late beloved black labrador, Gus, ate a large snoutful of the homemade pate a cousin had brought and left in a vulnerable place.

As the kids packed up to leave the nest again we feel a bittersweet mixture of pride and relief. How did they grow up so fast?

Nothing lives up to expectations, we agree, but that really doesn’t matter—as long as we can laugh about the imperfections. That’s what makes us a family, after all.

So don’t set your expectations too high for Christmas. Relax and enjoy the imperfection.

We can’t wait for our next adventures with them – to the Bahamas with Matt and Emmie in December; skiing with Melanie in February in Colorado, visiting Reggie and Dan in San Francisco in the spring! And of course, next Thanksgiving.