One of the best things we did on our New Year's trip to Whitefish, Montana was go on a dog sled ride through the beautiful Stillwater National Forest. It was amazing! I found Dog Sled Adventures, in Olney, Montana, after reading a few blogs and some TripAdvisor reviews of things to do in the Whitefish area. I was also thrilled to find a dog sled ride outfit that was owned by a fellow animal lover. The dogs at Dog Sled Adventures were mainly rescue dogs and were all treated well. Even the dogs that could no longer work remained in the dog yard and were taken care of.
When we arrived, the dogs were barking and jumping around very excitedly. They each want to go out on the rides, but only between 8-12 dogs are chosen per sled. Certain dogs partner together better, some dogs need more rest between rides-it seemed to be very much an art to get a team together and hooked up to the sled.
The afternoon we went, four sleds went out. We were bundled into the front of the sled while the musher (driver) stood on the skids at the back. It is windy when you get going fast, so lots of layers and sunglasses or goggles are necessary. The 12 mile loop takes about an hour and half, depending on how fast the dogs are running.
They can't wait to start running!
I can't recommend Dog Sled Adventures highly enough. The Lodge at Whitefish Lake helped us arrange a taxi to get out there-about 35-40 minutes from the Lodge. I did not rent a car during our stay since I was nervous about potentially driving in heavy snow. The road was actually very clear highway until we reached the driveway. A four wheel drive car would have handled it just fine. If you are thinking of booking a ride, call very far in advance. He fills the three rides a day in no time!
The Lodge at Whitefish Lake is located directly on Whitefish Lake, just a few minutes from the town of Whitefish, Montana. Whitefish is near the larger town of Kalispell and Glacier National Park. Arriving long after midnight, I did not see just how beautiful the Lodge was until I woke up the next morning. The style of the buildings reminded me a bit of a large Swiss Alpine chalet, but also of the "camps" you find all around the Adirondacks-natural stone, wood beams, and fireplaces everywhere. There was even a large fireplace outside the entrance doors, which made for a wonderfully warm spot to wait for your car! Since I was there New Year's weekend, the Lodge was still fully decorated for the holidays.
The restaurant and bar face the lake, and in the summer there is lots of outdoor seating on the porch and at the pool area. The views of the lake and surrounding mountains were really pretty. People were even cross country skiing across the frozen lake!
Also found along the lakefront was a year-round hot tub! You could walk out to the hot tub from the spa without spending too much time in the freezing cold.
At the Lodge, there are many activities including snowshoe rental, a spa, fitness center, and an indoor pool (small, but lots of fun for kids to play in.) I took advantage of the Lodge's shuttle service to town for dinner and shopping one night. The bus to Whitefish Mountain stops at the Lodge, and they offer some other shuttle trips up there as well.
Our next stop after Phinda was the AndBeyond Ngala Tented Camp. The Tented Camp is nearby the Ngala Safari Lodge, but is a separate entity. To reach Ngala from Phinda, we were able to fly directly from one airstrip to another. While this is usually more costly than taking scheduled flights followed by a road transfer, it is worthwhile to ask about including it in your rate. The time saved may be worth the cost. Our transfer was included in our rate as we booked everything through AndBeyond.
The absolute highlight of Ngala Tented Camp was the wildlife available for viewing. The tents, the food, and the guides were fantastic-but the game viewing was just incredible. I was blown away by the leopard and wild dog sightings. These are animals you do not reliably see on game drives, so it was a real thrill. We also spotted smaller animals such as jackals, which I had not had much luck viewing in the past. In addition, we saw lions, elephants, hippos, giraffes, and many other animals.
Other things I liked about about Ngala Tented Camp:
I was so happy with my stay at Ngala Tented Camp that I am planning a return visit next summer. Wild dogs do move their dens and territories quite frequently, so I am hoping above all that they return to Ngala's game driving concession.
One stop during my trip to South Africa was the Phinda Private Game Reserve, in the KwaZulu-Natal area. The reserve had four options for accommodations, and we chose the Vlei Lodge. The Vlei Lodge was in fact a camp set up, not a large lodge. The thatch roofed chalets were separated from each other by bushes and trees, which created a nice sense of privacy. The rooms and the large bathrooms were beautiful. The main building was at the center of the camp, just a two minute walk down a path. The main building had a nice sitting area and shady deck looking out over the vlei (grassy area) in addition to dining tables. Lunch and breakfast were served outside on the deck, which was lovely and warm mid-day.
One day we had lunch on our own porch, but ended up running inside with our trays to get away from the little monkeys that constantly scampered around the camp! At the main building, the monkeys still tried to take food, but they were afraid of the employees and a little less bold about jumping right on your table.
To me, the highlight of the game viewing at Phinda was the number of rhino sightings. Rhinos are hunted illegally for their horns throughout Africa, and the poachers are hard to stop in some areas. Phinda has done an amazing job keeping the poachers at bay, largely due to their good relationship with the local community. The reserve's land is actually leased from the local community and they have a mutually beneficial financial partnership. People in the community alert their friends on the anti-poaching force if they see someone new or suspicious in the area. We saw rhino each day we went on game drives, and were lucky enough to spot this baby rhino at the water hole with his mother.
Other sightings included elephants, giraffe, buffalo, hippos, a group of three cheetah brothers, and two prides of lions. As you can see above, the one pride had several young lions that were a riot to watch. At times, you had to drive a bit between good sightings, but overall there was a good variety of game in the reserve and the trackers did an excellent job of finding the animals. We had at most six people per open topped vehicle, so nobody sat in the dreaded middle seat where the view is not good.
Another note about Phinda Vlei Lodge-the food was out of this world. A woman named Happiness was the chef, and she was an incredible cook. Homemade bread and desserts, imaginative and varied menus, and lots of fresh fruit and produce from the area all made for memorable meals. She was sure to make a vegetarian option for me at each meal, and they were all exceptional.
Do you want to go to Africa but don't know where to start? It is definitely a trip that needs to be planned far in advance. The first time, I thought it was going to be a once in a lifetime experience. How wrong I was! I was lucky enough to return three more times, and am excited to be planning a trip for next summer. The animals are always the focus for me, but that does not mean there aren't other amazing experiences and activities. Culture, art, spas, and history can be a part of your trip along with the wildlife.
I strongly feel this is a journey to plan with a professional travel planner who is either based in Africa, or has been there A LOT. You need someone who can deal with the ins and outs of the camp transfers and local logistics. They can help you decide which area of Africa to concentrate on and then send you safari camp suggestions based on your budget. (If you want to do gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda, please note that everything else about your trip depends on the days you are given your gorilla permits. Do that first!)
One of the most frequent questions I get is, "Did it take forever to get there?" If you have miles for upgrading to business class, this is the time to use them. Being able to stretch out and sleep on at least one of the legs will help you be ready to hit the ground running on arrival. Depending on how long it takes you to get there, you may want to plan more than one day in Nairobi or Johannesburg to adjust before beginning the safari portion of your trip. When traveling to South Africa, a few days in Cape Town is a great way to start.
Getting There-South Africa
There are several ways to get to South Africa from the United States, and yes, they are all long. On my most recent trip, I used British Airways miles to book the tickets so we flew through London. I actually liked having a break between the two flights, but some people prefer the long South African Airways flights from the US to Johannesburg so they don't have to change planes. Flying the Middle Eastern carriers is getting more popular and they do sometimes offer competitive fares.
There are a few ways to get to Kenya, but there is no direct flight option from the US. You will need to change in Europe or the Middle East.
There are three main types of accommodations in the safari areas-lodges, tented camps, and mobile tented camping. Lodges are generally larger, with the rooms in one building or a few smaller buildings. Tented camps are permanent tents, with real floors and full ensuite bathrooms. Sometimes, the camps have a small chalet rather than a canvas tent, but they are stand alone rather than grouped in a building. Mobile tented camping is just how it sounds-the safari operator may set up the camp for a whole season, but it is not a permanent camp. Each type of lodging has its advantages, and I have liked doing a mix of camps and lodges. While some are quite luxurious and I know there are amazing experiences to be had at the mobile tented camps, that style is just not for me!
Some will be found in or adjoining national parks, some will be in private reserves. Trip Advisor reviews and each place's website will help you determine this. Something else to find out is what type of vehicle is used, and how many people per vehicle.
I will highlight some of my favorite camps and lodges in upcoming posts.
Before traveling to Paris last March, I spent a quick weekend in Chamonix. Although I am not a skier, there was lots to do and see in this charming town. There are beautiful views of the Alps and Mont Blanc from throughout the town.
My friends and I rented an apartment from Snostation, a rental company located in Chamonix. We were a quick walk from the center of town and Chamonix Sud, another area with restaurants and shops. There was also a grocery store within a 5-10 minute walk to pick up some essentials on arrival. The ladies at Snostation were extremely helpful when letting me into the apartment and helping us out when the building's front door lock was broken (by someone else in the building!) It was great to have someone who spoke English a phone call away for questions. The apartment was well kept, and it even had a pretty view from the balcony.
One fun thing to do on Saturdays is visit the farmers' market in the center of town. If you are staying in an apartment, you will find everything needed for a fabulous après ski dinner. The rotisserie chickens you often find in French markets were available, as well as cheese, charcuterie, vegetables, and baked goods. Many vendors offered specialities from the surrounding Haute-Savoie region, as well as items that seemed a bit more Italian than French. It is easy to forget how close Chamonix is to Italy! (You can in fact ski there for a day while based in Chamonix.) A highlight of the market was definitely the buckwheat crepes we ate for lunch. Mine was filled with local goat cheese and honey and was completely delicious.
Even if you do not ski, you can still get up into the Alps via the Aiguille du Midi cable car. Yes, you will be traveling up the mountain with people with skis, snowboards, parasailing packs, and huge arrays of mountaineering gear (think icepicks), but all you need is warm layers and water. The altitude is quite high and you ascend rapidly, so keep drinking that water! There are viewing platforms on several levels, looking several directions-with large signs to show you what you are looking at (Italy, Mont Blanc, etc.) There are some places to sit and have a snack, but the altitude got to my group pretty quickly and we had no interest in staying up there for any extra time. Despite the sort of terrifying ride, I highly recommend trying the cable car. The views were just too amazing to miss. (Note that this is a different cable car than the one recently featured in the news for stranding riders overnight.)
My trip to Thailand was such an incredible experience. While it was fun and relaxing, I also learned so much. I knew a little about Asian art and Buddhism from classes in college, but was eager to learn more. Even though I did quite a bit of reading and research before leaving, there was much to be learned from the various guides we hired and other experts at the tourist sights. It was also helpful to really read up on the cultural norms in Thailand. Two things you will read about are dressing modestly, see my Bangkok post, and speaking respectfully of the King and Queen of Thailand. Thailand is a monarchy and the power held by the Royal family is considerable. You will not see articles or hear people talk about them the same way we might about Kate and Will, for example. Some people we met did speak freely about how they felt about the monarchy, but most will not speak to tourists about this matter. Remember if you are peppering your guide with a lot of questions about the King, you may be putting him or her in a very awkward position. Conversation about politics in general is probably better to avoid for similar reasons.
After a short flight from Chiang Mai, we arrived at Koh Samui's small and charming airport. We found our driver from the Four Seasons without any trouble and set off for the resort. There is a wide range of hotels available on Koh Samui, but we chose the Four Seasons based on the location away from busy towns and beaches. We didn't want to be near the party beaches! Each room having its own pool was another factor in our choice.
The hotel grounds were absolutely beautiful. The entrance to the resort was at the top of the hill, with the grounds spreading down the hill towards the beach. Buggies were easy to call and arrived promptly. I walked a few places for a little exercise, but rarely! The rooms were scattered along several winding pathways.
Each room had a gate, which created a very private feel in the pool and patio area. The patios were covered and had plenty of shade, not to mention gorgeous views.
We spent each day at the beach, where the main pool and a restaurant were also found. We ordered lunch on the beach, and they brought it right to our seats. No need to get up from under the umbrella and brush off your sand! The beach is a fairly small area, with rocky areas to each side. This keeps other beach goers out, but it also means you can't walk too far. The water was very, very low the days we were there. Apparently, this happens often in the summer. There was a swimming platform floating out in the water that I went out to on a paddleboard, but mostly we just waded around the sea and saved our swimming for the large pool that was right on the beach. There were interesting birds to watch and a few boats out in the sea. It was also interesting to watch some local people fishing out in the shallows and seeing their catch as they walked by. There were some games available at the beach as well if you got tired of relaxing and reading. (I did not!) In the usual Four Seasons way, they had thought of anything you might need-sunscreen was available at the beach, ice water was constantly refilled, and someone came around with small complimentary snacks from time to time. My favorite was the fresh corn on the cob, hot from a small grill the server actually carried around.
We came to Koh Samui after some pretty strenuous sightseeing in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, so I have to admit we actually did not leave the resort to explore the island. If we had stayed one more day, I would have booked a tour of the island and a boat ride to the nearby marine park. We relaxed on the beach and spent quite a bit of time on our own patio swimming in our pool. My mother got a massage and reported that the spa was excellent. The treatment rooms were down a tranquil, forested path and very private. We ate our meals at the resort, and the food was very good. I think the breakfast may be the best hotel breakfast I have ever had. They put out a beautiful display of fresh pastries, tons of fruit, homemade yogurt in different flavors each morning, and eggs and other hot items cooked to order. The tables were all situated with plenty of shade and a view from each seat.
The highlight of the Four Seasons Koh Samui was definitely the warm welcome we received from the staff and the level of service was amazing. When we were chatting with the waitress and hostess at breakfast about the various tropical fruits that were new to us, we asked what durian tasted like. You hear about it all the time and is widely eaten in Thailand, but we hadn't seen any served. They had the chef pick up a durian on his next market run so we could try it! The caretaking continued even after we checked out. While we were waiting for the car, we got an email that said our flight to Bangkok was canceled. The men at the front desk kindly called Bangkok Airways and arranged for us to be switched to the next flight. He even had the boarding passes emailed to the hotel so he could print them for us before we left. It was extremely helpful to have him sort it out on the phone in Thai, rather than us trying the website. Meanwhile, we sat on chairs looking out over the sea sipping on the mango juice that magically appeared on a tray...What could have been a disaster turned out to be a lovely ending our stay.
In addition to spending a day at the Elephant Nature Park, we had two other days in Chiang Mai. We stayed at the Anantara Hotel, which is located in walking distance of many restaurants and the Night Market. The hotel grounds were simply gorgeous. One side of the property fronts onto the river, so you can watch small boats go by, fishermen at work, as well as a few interesting birds at the water's edge. We ate breakfast on the patio facing the river each day. Later in the morning, the inside would be preferable, but we found the shade to be very pleasant for breakfast on the early side.
We spent the afternoons under an umbrella by the pool. The water was really refreshing as it was very hot! Someone periodically came around offering drinks or ice water, but the bar was in easy reach if a server was not around. The spa is located just behind the pool, but it not affected by any noise from the pool. I tried a Thai massage and it was wonderful.
We booked a Kasara suite, which ended up being a very large space for two people. The laundry service included in this room rate was most welcome as we were halfway through our trip and had a suitcase full of dirty clothes! Although we did not find the flawless service we found at our other hotels in Thailand, the staff by and large was quite accommodating and eager to please. We booked the airport transfers through the front desk, as well as a tour guide for a day trip out to the hill country. These were both easy to arrange via email before our arrival.
After a few days in Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Mai on a quick Bangkok Airways flight. One of the activities we planned far in advance of arriving was seeing some of Thailand's famous elephants. Unfortunately, the more I researched the different elephant camps and treks found outside of the city, the more disappointed I became. Many of the elephants in the these venues are terribly mistreated and live horrible lives. However, I read about the Elephant Nature Park and was happy to find an elephant experience that was humane. The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for elephants (and cats and dogs!) from Northern Thailand and Burma where the elephants live in a somewhat wild setting. Visitors feed the elephants and go down to the river to bathe them, but there are no elephants rides or tricks performed.
You can schedule a visit online before arriving. They do have a limited number of visitors each day, so plan ahead. Their van will pick you up at your hotel in the morning. I asked our hotel front desk to call and confirm the day before. The ride through the forests and mountains was quite pretty. The driver shows a short video on the way about their work and the need for elephant sanctuaries. After arriving, you help feed the elephants and see them walking around the grounds. You are allowed to get quite close to them, but there is also a platform viewing area for those who are not as comfortable being close. A guide accompanies you throughout the day. Bring a large bottle of water and clothes that you don't mind getting wet (and dirty!) A vegetarian lunch was provided mid-day. After lunch, they show a video showing the traditional training process many of these elephants go through. It was absolutely heartbreaking, and I was not able to stay through much of it. You are welcome to leave and go out to the viewing platform until it is over.