What to Pack for an Alaska Cruise

What to Pack for an Alaska Cruise

Packing for a trip to Alaska can be a challenge: its northern reaches and varied geography means traveling through several microclimates. From mild to extreme, the temperatures will fluctuate.  Summer is the best time to visit though, which is why most cruises are scheduled June through September: the odds of spotting wildlife are high, salmon are swimming upstream, hiking trails are free from snow, and the weather is as good at it gets.  For some cruising basics, check out my previous articles: Journey through Alaska’s inside Passage and Fish & Feast in Ketchikan.

Alaska Cruise
Alaskan cruises sail through the inside passage – the coastal route that weaves through the thousands of islands, coves, and bays that dot the Pacific Coast of this northernmost state. Cruises will either travel southbound (Anchorage to Vancouver, Canada) or northbound (Vancouver to Anchorage) or roundtrip from Seattle, Washington (this itinerary may include more days at sea and less ports depending on the length of the trip).
Alaska Cruise. Vancouver
Alaska CruiseMost cruise ship excursions bring you up close to the great outdoors, so you can soak up all that majestic scenery and catch a glimpse of all the wildlife that draws travelers to the 49th state. How you choose to interact with nature is up to you: walking tours; hiking; canoe and kayak trips; helicopter and float plane excursions; fishing or boating are all options. But, don’t be afraid to try something outside your normal comfort zone, since the point of this vacation is to get out there and experience the wide-open spaces.  Check the excursions for details on activity level. Many outfitters provide you with additional garments or waterproof outerwear to protect you from the elements so don’t think you need to buy hardcore adventure gear to enjoy the “high activity level” choices. Dressing properly for excursions is key to comfort: wear layers that can be peeled off as the mercury goes up or added on as temps drop off.
Alaska Cruise
Layers:
Start with a short sleeve shirt or tank top, a long sleeve wicking layer, add a hoodie or fleece (on colder days a padded or PrimaLoft-type vest will come in handy), with a thin waterproof hooded shell on top.Alaska Cruise

Footwear:
Besides standard sneakers, waterproof hiking shoes (with Gortex) will keep the moisture at bay. Hiking boots are not necessary unless you plan on scaling great heights. Skip the UGG’s which will get soggy, or rain boats which don’t offer much support. Throw in a pair of flip flops for the hot tub or spa, and a pair of dressier shoes for the dinners onboard.

Pants:
Jeans, leggings, and comfortable, water wicking hiking pants (Prana is my go-to brand), are all versatile and low maintenance. Pack a pair of shorts — as you travel south to Vancouver, temps will rise, and you just might be able to lounge on the pool deck. Plus, a post- or pre-cruise stay in warmer locales in Seattle (click here to read my destination article) or Vancouver (click here to read my destination article) might include an overnight at a hotel with an outdoor pool.

Accessories:
For cooler days and for afternoons spent up on deck gazing at the glorious glaciers, pack a wool beanie, glove liners, and scarf — it can get windy up there. Light weight wool or breathable wool blend socks will keep feet warm and dry (Smartwool is my favorite).Alaska Cruise

Gear:
If you can, bring a real camera, not just a cell phone – the vistas are just too large! Bring binoculars – they are great for kids who may not be looking through a camera’s zoom lens. Pack a power strip for your cabin to provide extra places to plug in. A back pack or tote is essential for holding layers, water bottle, snacks, cell phone chargers and backup batteries.

Sundry items:
Sunscreen, bug repellant, and motion sickness pills for small craft excursions are all a must. Sunglasses and brimmed hat will be put into use during summertime since Anchorage can have over 19 hours of daylight!

Evening cruise wear:
Smart casual wear is acceptable at night — what you would wear to go out for a nice dinner at home (no ripped jeans or jean shorts). You will not be as dressed up as you are on a Caribbean cruise, and typical lightweight summer garments are not well-suited to this itinerary (think “shoulder season” or “transitional clothing” instead).  Throw in a bathing suit for the hot tub and spa, and some comfy workout clothing or stylish athleisure, which works well on those days at sea. (Athleta has great choices).

For more travel tips, check out my recent articles: A Few of my Favorite Travel Things, Twelve Packing Tips Every Travel Should Know, and Smart Traveler Tips.

Need help putting together your bucket-list trip or dream vacation?

Email me: mollie@herrickstravel.com, and find out about upgrades, special amenities, and VIP service for Herricks Travel American Express/Altour customers.

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Cruise Around Iceland

Cruise Around Iceland

Most Iceland itineraries include a stay in Reykjavik, the capital city.  A series of day trips from this home base will give you a glimpse of this island nation’s extreme natural beauty: glorious geysers, gleaming glaciers, and volcanic springs. But, experiencing all that the “land of fire and ice” has to offer, requires a days-long drive around the extensive outer loop roadway… or a cruise around the island’s perimeter.

My recent articles on Iceland highlighted the Best of Reykjavik, a Day at the Blue Lagoon, and an Excursion around the Golden Circle. After these amazing adventures, we boarded a Windstar Cruise, docked in downtown Reykjavik, and embarked on a week-long circumnavigation.

Our home for the seven days was the Star Legend. Windstar’s small, boutique-style ships take you into off the beaten path ports — a more personalized approach to cruising that larger ships can’t match. The Star Legend, one of the cruise line’s yacht-style ships, carries 212 passengers in 106 suites. This small ship is big on service. The staff is exceptionally welcoming — by the second day they greeted us by name; by the end of the week we knew all of theirs.

The Star Legend has just enough onboard services to keep you busy on those occasional “days at sea” including a small outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, main dining room, library, coffee shop, salon/spa, casino, several bars, specialty restaurant, and a show lounge. The well-stocked watersports platform, a real benefit in warmer climates, unfortunately did not apply to our itinerary.

On board, it was very easy to meet fellow travelers. The Yacht Club, with its cozy chairs and sofas, was a favorite hangout with floor to ceiling windows offering extensive views of our fjord entrances and exits. It was the perfect place to grab freshy baked cookies and cappuccino, dig into a novel, mingle with shipmates, and play games and work on puzzles (yes, the old-fashioned kind that require no smart phones or laptops). The ship has an “open bridge” policy, which my sons took full advantage of, chatting up the captain and chief engineer about navigation tools and cruising speeds.Windstar Cruise, Iceland

While larger ships can make claim to an abundance of onboard activities, dining outlets, and entertainment options, the star attraction of small ship cruising is the ability to access smaller ports and offer unique, small group excursions. And now, a rundown of the ports we visited on our Iceland cruise:

Heimaey Island:
Located about 10 kilometers off the southern coast of the country, it is most famous for the 1973 five-month long volcano eruption that forced its inhabitants to abandon their home and flee to the main land. Afterwards, over 400 homes and buildings had been completely covered by ash and lava. Visit this island to experience this “Pompeii of the North,” which also happens to be the breeding ground of the largest colony of Atlantic Puffins.

Heimaey Island, Iceland

Seydisfjodur:
Seydisfjordur, IcelandOur favorite port was both a fjord and a charming and creative town of just 700 people. For a glance, rent the 2013 movie Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The town is featured in the scene where Ben Stiller takes his long board and skates for miles through picturesque scenery. The photogenic Blue Church, which gets a quick glimpse in the film, and the quirky Technical Museum of East Iceland, are both worth a visit. A half-day hike Chasing Waterfalls was our most memorable excursion of the whole cruise. Climbing the trails that wind their way through the Vestdalur Valley (a protected nature reserve) offered a true feast for the eyes (and the heart). At every turn, at every new height, the spellbinding display of waterfalls, mountains, valleys, and ocean vistas unfolded.

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Chasing waterfalls in Seydisfjordur

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Akureyri:
A small city in northern Iceland, it’s the second largest urban area and a center for the fishing industry. Located in the Earth’s sub polar region, its only 60 kilometers from the Arctic Circle. The most popular excursion, Jewels of the North, includes stops at Godafoss Falls, Lake Myvatn, Dimmuborgir (a dramatic landscape with strange lava formulations and caves that have become the source of Icelandic folktakes), Skutustadir (a crater-pocked landscape formed by boiling lava and gaseous explosions), and Namaskard (an other-worldly geothermal field of mud-pots, steam vents, Sulphur deposits, boiling springs, and fumaroles).

Akureyri, the Capital of the North

Godafoss, Iceland

Godafoss, appropriately translates to “Waterfall of the Gods”

Namaskard, Iceland

Namaskard, a sulfuric “Martian landscape,” is a geothermal wonder

Namaskars, Iceland

 

Namaskars, Iceland

Isafjordur:
Located in the northwest of the country, this “ice fjord,” once known as a trading post for foreign merchants in the 16th century, is now a nature and adventure lovers paradise. Gentle fjord kayaking, hiking, and horseback riding are popular excursions. Equestrian fans will be intrigued by old Icelandic laws: to keep the famous “Icelandic Horses” purely bred to withstand the harsh elements, the country forbids the import of horses, and any horse that leaves Iceland is barred from ever returning.

Iceland

In a kayak, you can see the fjord’s beauty up close

Grundarfjordur:
This fjord, perched on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, in the western portion of the country, is well-known for its dramatic landscapes. Weather permitting, partake in a glacier hike to the top of Snæfellsjökull Glacier, which rises 4800 feet above sea level —  its snow-cap covers a volcano. According to Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, the entrance to the planet’s core lies through a caldera (crater) at the top of this glacier. On our excursion, we donned helmets and flashlights and visited a lava cave deep underground and explored a cavern that had been hidden from the outside world for thousands of years.

Grundarfjordur, Iceland

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Sevastopol: Crimea’s Shifting Seaport

Sevastopol: Crimea’s Shifting Seaport

Who knew that a summer vacation could turn into a such a valuable lesson in Eastern European politics, history, and geography for my boys? Our recent cruise to the Black Sea included stops in Greece, Turkey (covered in my recent post “Where East Meets West”), Russia (“Sochi: Sub-tropical Olympic City”), and Ukraine. Thanks to this unique family trip, my kids have a deeper understanding of the ever-changing current events unfolding in this part of the world. How fortunate to have experienced Crimea during peaceful times.

Our Regent ship’s itinerary included a stop in Sevastopol, the coastal, Black Sea city in the southwestern part of the Crimean Peninsula; its subtropical climate has made it a popular seaside resort destination. Crimea extends out into the Black Sea—it’s basically an island, except for the narrow strip of land that connects it to the Ukrainian mainland in the north; (it’s eastern shore is separated from mainland Russia by just a narrow strait of water.)  During its complex 2,000-year history, this territory has changed hands numerous times – Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Russians have all called it their home. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became a Republic of the newly independent Ukraine, and home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. Since then, the city’s status has remained calm until recent events—Russia’s annexation.

Artillery Bay, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

SEVASTOPOL’S APPEALING ARTILLERY BAY

On an already warm, cerulean-sky morning, we embarked on a walking tour of Sevastopol’s sun-drenched, bustling port area. It was surprising to see the Mediterranean-style architecture, palm tree-lined boulevards, and colorful sailboats floating through the harbor area. The city’s seaside promenade was filled with souvenir shops and terrace-fronted restaurants with menus written in Cyrillic script—not surprising since the majority of the population is Russian. Rich with thousands of years of history, our local guide pointed out that Sevastopol is a living museum—1,800 monuments dot the city.

Monument to Scuttled ships, Sevastopol, Crimean, Crimean Peninsula

The “Monument to Scuttled Ships”–Russian ships, flooded to form a line of defense from the Allies during the 1854 Siege of Sevastopol

The next stop was Chersonesus, the archeological remains of the ancient Greek colony dating from the 5th century BC, nicknamed the “Ukrainian Pompeii” or the “Russian Troy.” Wandering amongst Greek theatres, Roman temples and columns, we watched the locals as they took advantage of the seaside location, diving into the dark blue waters from the narrow strip of beach that abutted the ruins.

Chersonesus, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

In Greek, Chersonesus means “peninsula,” an appropriate name for this ancient seaside colony

Nearby is the recently restored Byzantine-style St. Vladimir Cathedral, built in the 19th Century; it’s the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Covering our arms and legs in respect before entering, we studied the dramatic marble-clad interior punctuated by bold frescoes, mosaic tile-inlaid floors, and vibrant stained glass windows, committing it all to memory since interior photography was forbidden. Outside, we took a break from the sun’s heat, pooling our Ukrainian hryvnia to buy soda bottles and freshly baked pampushki (garlicky rolls) from a nearby vendor.

St. Vladimir Cathedral, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

St. Vladimir Cathedral commemorates the baptism of Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev

A must-see is the Panorama Museum, which memoralizes the defense of the city during the 1853-1856 Crimean War. Opened in 1905 on the 50th Anniversary of the defense of Sevastopol, the cylindrical building houses the impressive 377-foot long, 46-foot high circular canvas of the famous battle as depicted by artist Franz Roubaud. An 80-step climb to the top of the display reveals the massive work of art, an impressively accurate portrayal, which is best viewed by walking around the elevated observation platform in the center of the hall.

Outside the museum, the boys stopped in the parking lot to admire a vendor’s display of Soviet-era memorabilia artfully arranged on the hood and roof of his beat up, Trabant. As they picked out brass military pins and wool caps, the gentleman patiently explained the unit each item hailed from—Air Force, Army, Navy—with some vintage Aeroflot wings and KGB insignias thrown into the mix.

Trabant, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

A “vintage” Trabant–a popular Eastern European car–makes an appropriate backdrop for a display of Soviet-era memorabilia

Now, at home as we turn on CNN, read the Times, and watch as another chapter of Crimean history is written, we feel very fortunate to have visited the Crimean Peninsula and learn about its multi-faceted heritage and culture. We only hope that recent events are settled peacefully, not only for the residents, but also for those who have not yet had the opportunity to experience and appreciate first hand its rich and unique history.

Herricks Travel American ExpressReady to plan a unique trip for you or your family? Contact me at mollie@herrickstravel.com. For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

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Istanbul: Where East Meets West

Istanbul: Where East Meets West

Before our first visit to Istanbul, it was hard to imagine how this historic Silk Road city straddles two continents – Europe and Asia. Its dividing line is the 17-mile long Bosphorus Strait, the narrow channel of water that connects the Black Sea to the north, with the Sea of Marmara to the south.

Although no longer the capital, Istanbul is Turkey’s largest and most memorable city. Ancient religious places of worship and palaces mix with modern European-style buildings and hotels. This blending of old and new makes this ancient city unique – it’s no wonder it has been used as the dramatic setting of many Hollywood films.

With only a few days at the conclusion of our Regent Cruise, we confined most of our sightseeing to central Istanbul, which can be divided into four distinct areas: Seraglio Point (home to Topkapi Palace), Sultanahmet (dominated by Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque), the Bazaar Quarter, and the trendy Beyoglu district. It is easy to walk or take a taxi between locations, but try to have your destination written down and ready to hand to the taxi driver to avoid any confusion.

Galata Tower, Istanbul, Turkey

Medieval Galata Tower in the Beyoglu District stands tall just north of the Golden Horn

Topkapi Palace, originally built as a residence for Sultan Mehmet, and then serving as a seat of government is now a museum. Allow several hours to explore its many courtyards, apartments, and pavilions. A must see is the Treasury room with its vast array of jewel-encrusted artifacts including the Topkapi dagger. Rent the award-winning 1964 film, “Topkapi” to see the Hollywood version.

Across from the palace is the Blue Mosque, which takes its name from the 20,000 blue-green Iznik tile-work interior. No expense was spared in designing one of the most famous religious buildings in the world. The dome and six minarets of this 17th century masterpiece can be seen for miles.

Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey, Blue Mosque

As we sailed up the Bosphorus, we caught our first glimpse of the Blue Mosque

Not far from the mosque is the Haghia Sophia. This Byzantium Church is over 1,400 years old but is well preserved thanks to recent renovations. In the 15th century, the Ottomans converted this architectural wonder into a mosque. In 1936 it became a museum, and now many of the intricate mosaics and frescoes have been restored to their original grandeur. And, for a bit of trivia, in the movie “Argo,” you can watch actor Ben Affleck have a clandestine meeting in the Haghia Sophia.

Istanbul also dazzles from below. The Basilica Cisterns or “Sunken Palace” is a massive underground water cavern of beautiful arches and Roman columns, originally the Byzantine city’s main water storage during times of siege. Now this cathedral-size interior presents a mystical aura, with its dramatic lighting and fish filled pools—an appropriate location in the classic James Bond film “From Russia with Love.”

The Turkish people, known worldwide for their hospitality, are extremely welcoming especially to children. No shop could be entered without accepting generous offers of apple tea and biscuits, which my boys happily obliged. One of our favorite stores, Iznik Classics, offers the hand-made, color-rich tiles and ceramics Turkey is famous for.

Iznik tiles, Istanbul, Turkey

We loved the Iznik tiles so much, we brought some home

After a day or two of touring, a shopping trip to a bazaar provides a welcome change of pace. The Grand Bazaar with its labyrinth of streets is filled with over 4,000 booth-like shops. It is impossible to walk even a few steps without being summoned to sample all the exotic wares contained inside: intricate gold jewelry, embroidered silk scarves, antique copperware, and Turkish rugs.

We spent hours wandering, bargaining, and getting lost. My son reminded me that actor Daniel Craig furiously drove a motorcycle across the roof of the Bazaar in “Skyfall,” the most recent James Bond flick. The Spice Market, although smaller, is worthy of close inspection. Known by its Turkish name, the Egyptian Market, it is filled with fragrant spices from the Orient and endless displays of dried herbs, tea, honey, nuts, and caviar. We filled several satchels with all sorts of delicacies to enjoy upon our return to the states.

Next to the Spice Market is one of our favorite restaurants Hamdi. Perched several flights up it offers majestic views of the Galata Bridge, the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn, the inlet that forms Istanbul’s natural harbor. After a long morning of walking, my kids dove into plates of meze (appetizers), lamb kebab, humus with pide bread (similar to pita), numerous cups of traditional Turkish tea, and ample plates of sweet baklava for dessert.

Hamdi Restaurant, Istanbul, Turkey

The dramatic view from Hamdi

Baklava, Hamdi Restaurant, Istanbul, Turkey

Delicious Baklava — rich, sweet pastry filled with layers of filo, nuts and honey

At the end of the day, we went back to our hotel, the Four Seasons—perfectly perched on the shores of the Bosphorus. Originally a 19th-century Ottoman palace, it was transformed into an elegant property that perfectly blends traditional and modern decor. The boys cooled off in the marble-rimmed pool and heated up in the hot tub. We spent our evenings on the terrace at Aqua, the hotel’s romantic Mediterranean restaurant, feasting on plates of homemade spaghetti and langoustines. The Bosphorus Bridge provided us with our own movie-set backdrop as we watched the ferries make their way under this architectural wonder, beautifully illuminated by an impressive LED rainbow light show.

Four Seasons Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey

The Four Seasons Bosphorus offers views across the water to the Asian side of Istanbul

At home, we often reminisce about Istanbul’s exotic sights, tastes and smells. And, when we make our Turkish tea and sip it from our glass, tulip-shaped Spice Market teacups, we think often of returning to this distinctive city that connects the continents.

Four Seasons Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey

The Four Season Bosphorus pool — the perfect place to end a day of touring

Interested in visiting Istanbul by ship? Check out Regent Cruise Lines  — their small, luxury ships specialize in unique ports and top notch service.

Herricks Travel American ExpressReady to plan a unique trip for you or your family? Contact me at mollie@herrickstravel.com. For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

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Journey Through Alaska’s Inside Passage

Journey Through Alaska’s Inside Passage

Although it is rarely represented properly on a U.S. map, Alaska looms large over North America – it’s actually twice the size of Texas. For the traveler, this means you could spend months exploring “The Last Frontier”—mountain climbing in Denali National Park, biking in Fairbanks, fishing for Sockeye, and exploring Juneau, the state capital. With a coastline longer than all other states combined, many people choose to cruise Alaska on their first visit in order to cover a lot of territory in a short amount of time.

Home to Mt. McKinley (North America’s highest peak), massive fjords, glaciers the size of Rhode Island, the northernmost rain forest, and the treacherous Chilkoot Trail, Alaska combines geography, earth science, and history lessons all rolled up in one unique vacation. An Alaskan cruise usually means a trip through the Inside Passage—the coastal route that weaves through the thousands of islands, coves, and bays that dot the Pacific Coast.

We chose a one-week cruise with Regent in order to minimize days at sea and also to make time for both a pre- and a post-trip. And, a smaller ship allowed for more stops and excursions. Before flying to Anchorage and embarking on our cruise in Seward, we spent several days in Seattle, which I covered in previous posts, “Seattle Top Spots” and “Four Days in Seattle.”

Seward, Alaska

Our cruise began in Seward, a busy fishing port on the Gulf of Alaska’s coast

At the conclusion of our cruise, we spent a few days in Vancouver (the subject of my “Canada’s Outdoorsy Urban Oasis” post). Many cruise lines follow this same route, from Northwest to Southeast and in reverse. Other ships embark from Seattle and can last 10 to 14 days. To take advantage of the most outdoor activities, the best time to cruise Alaska is summertime, when days are longest and temperatures are warmest. But, definitely pack lots of layers, a waterproof jacket, boots, hats and gloves, because the weather can change rapidly.

Regent Cruise

To reach Hubbard Glacier, we sailed through Yakutat Bay

Our days were exciting and included a JetCat Sitka wildlife tour, a scenic helicopter tour, a hike through Juneau’s rain forest and a walk to Mendenhall Glacier, and a trip back in time at the Skagway Gold Rush Museum. Our ship offered a wide range of active excursions: kayaking, biking, and dog sled adventures. In the summer, the fog can roll in quickly, so excursions can be cancelled at a moment’s notice, so backup plans are necessary.

Early one morning, we gathered on deck to watch as the ship approached one of the highlights of the cruise—Hubbard Glacier. This “river of ice” measures 76 miles long and 7 miles wide and it is the state’s most active glacier. It is very common to see sheets of ice separate themselves from the glacier, and crash into the sea with a loud crack that can be heard for miles. These pieces, christened icebergs, filled the bay and we watched in awe as these icy-blue splendors floated past the ship.

Disenchantment Bay

Pristine Disenchantment Bay

Hubbard Glacier

From a distance, Hubbard Glacier’s size is deceiving –it’s actually more than 30 stories high!

The one-week cruise made stops in several ports: Seward, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan (covered in my post “Fish & Feast”). The scenery and wildlife viewing in between ports was equally magnificent and kept us up on deck with camera and binoculars in hand as we scanned the horizon for humpback whales and porpoises.

Although this was a long journey, we look back on our visit to the 49th state grateful for our eye-opening experiences and reassured that the wilderness does still exist. And, even though Alaska is so large and so far away, upon our return, we felt a little bit closer to it.

Alaska iceberg

Although they got a bad rap in “Titanic,” icebergs are quite beautiful

Juneau

Tongass National Forest, the heart of the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest

Mendenhall Glacier

Easily accessible, Mendenhall Glacier is located just 12 miles from downtown Juneau

Skagway, Alaska

In Skagway we took off on a helicopter tour

Herricks Travel American ExpressReady to plan a unique trip for you or your family? Contact me at mollie@herrickstravel.com. For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

Email subscribers: to view my previous posts, and my ENTIRE blog, please click here uniquefamilytraveler.com. To become a subscriber of unique family traveler, please enter your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the blog (if reading on a cell phone, please scroll ALL the way to the bottom), and then respond to the follow-up email. Thank you!

Sochi: Russia’s Sub-tropical Olympic City

Sochi: Russia’s Sub-tropical Olympic City

 

Our recent family cruise on the Black Sea included a fortuitous stop in Sochi, Russia. We embarked in Athens, sailed across the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles to the Sea of Marmara, up the Bosphorus Strait through Turkey, where our ship, Regent’s Seven Seas Mariner, entered the Black Sea. Besides being an exceptional lesson in world geography for my boys, it was an opportunity to explore several unique ports in four countries on this lovely turquoise sea. Most memorable was Sochi, located close to Russia’s border with Georgia.

At the time of our visit, the 2014 Winter Olympics (February 7th -23rd) seemed very far off. I noticed only a small billboard in the port announcing this upcoming international event that would draw thousands of visitors to this city, established as a fashionable resort under Stalin and home to his dacha, or summertime residence. While the mighty snow-capped Caucuses, Europe’s tallest mountains, loom above the harbor, this tourist destination actually enjoys a sub-tropical climate in its lower elevations and features inviting sand and pebble beaches and graceful palm trees along its coast. The Olympic events will actually be split between the coastal and mountainous districts, roughly 30 minutes apart.

As we strolled along the lovely sea promenade in shorts and t-shirts under bright skies and sunny 77 degrees Fahrenheit weather spending our rubles on cold bottles of water, it was hard to imagine Sochi serving as this winter’s Olympic venue since its average February temperature is a balmy 50 degrees. It is actually the warmest city to ever host winter Olympic games and according to Time, for the past year, Russia has been diligently stockpiling snow and inventing ways to keep every flake frozen.

Our visit to Sochi included a tour of the Russian Tea Plantation, the only one in the country and because of the city’s unique climatic conditions — warm, humid and consistently sunny — it’s the northernmost such farm in the world. Up in the mountains an agronomist, who specialized in the technology of growing tea, greeted us near the fields and expounded on the distinctive history of tea in Russia. A quick hike down a forest path led us to a wooden izba (chalet) where we were treated to a tea tasting and serenaded by a folklore troupe in traditional dress — their lively Russian melodies accompanied by accordions.

Servers produced traditional Russian samovars to dispense the freshly brewed black tea, which was served with delicious homemade breads and pastries, honeys, nuts and jams. We explored the Russian handicrafts – matryoshka (nesting) dolls, lacquered boxes, and painted clay figurines — in the tiny gift shop at the front of the chalet. On our journey back down the mountain, into the city proper, I gazed up at those beautiful and majestic Caucuses, and prayed for snow in February 2014.

Sochi, Russia

Sochi’s Sea Terminal and its notable 71-meter high steeple tower

Sochi, Russia

Sochi — Russia’s Riviera on the Black Sea

Sochi, Russia

The view of the Caucuses from the Russian Tea Plantation

Sochi, Russia

A Russian folklore troupe performs at the Tea Plantation

Russian matryoshka nesting dolls

Russian matryoshka nesting dolls

For more information:
Sochicityguide.com
Sochi Winter Olympics

Herricks Travel American ExpressReady to plan a unique trip for you or your family? Contact me at mollie@herrickstravel.com. For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

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Vancouver: Canada’s Outdoorsy Urban Oasis

Vancouver: Canada’s Outdoorsy Urban Oasis

After a week-long Alaskan cruise, which included journeys on a plane, bus, skiff, helicopter, and JetCat boat, it was gratifying to reach dry land in Vancouver and finally explore on foot. As our ship, Regent Navigator, docked, the breezy promenade and massive sail-like rooftop structures of Canada Place came into view. This relatively young, international city with a distinct Asian flair has a laid-back, outdoorsy vibe. Filled with a delightful mix of traditional and modern architecture, Vancouver is surrounded by water on three sides and ringed by lovely, sandy beaches. British Columbia’s “west coast wonder”offers visitors the perfect mix of history, culture and outdoor pursuits all wrapped up in a pleasing, temperate climate.

Vancouver

Canada Place and its sail-like rooftop structures, echo the country’s nautical roots

A quick taxi ride brought us from the terminal to The Fairmont Pacific Rim, home base for our three-day visit. The hotel is sophisticated, but casual, and its soaring lobby offers cozy seating areas where we relaxed and enjoyed a drink. Our family of four met up with our guide and embarked on a three-hour private walking tour with a lovely young woman from Tour Guys. A graduate student with a wealth of knowledge, she engaged the boys with stories of the city’s roots. We spotted the ubiquitous floatplanes hovering in and out of the harbor, and stopped to admire the majestic Olympic Cauldron, lit during the 2010 Winter Games. We wound our way through the distinctive neighborhoods, Gastown and Chinatown, where we jumped into a taxi and continued our tour on Granville Island, the city’s creative center. After saying goodbye to our guide, we wandered around Granville, enjoying the galleries, a seafood lunch, and dessert at the Public Market.

Granville Island

Granville Island Public Market offers an endless mix of edibles

During our three days, we visited the Vancouver Aquarium and Stanley Park, and enjoyed the diverse cuisine and the views from the outdoor restaurants that dot the perimeter of the peninsula-shaped downtown area. Our last morning, we picked up boxed lunches from the Fairmont’s  Italian-inspired lobby café, Giovane, and then joined a fishing excursion at Coal Harbor marina. At the end of our long, but satisfying days, we relaxed at the Fairmont’s outdoor pool, and daydreamed about our next trip to Vancouver.

If you have only a few days to explore Vancouver, here are my recommendations:

Tour Guys: A great company that gives you a local’s perspective. They offer small group and private tours (as well a free public tours) that cover all the popular areas while getting into the “nooks and crannies regular sightseeing tours don’t go.”

Chinatown: North America’s third largest Chinatown — visit the summertime weekend night market and the tranquil Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Park.

Gastown: The starting point of modern-day Vancouver, its handsome brick and stone buildings house the best bars, restaurants and unique independent shops. Stop for a photo-op by the statue of “Gassy” Jack Deighton and the famous Steam Clock on Water Street.

Stanley Park: One of North America’s largest urban green spaces, it’s surrounded on three sides by stunning ocean views. Stroll or bike along the 8.8 km seawall, making stops along the way for a picnic lunch at one of the sandy beaches. Bikes can be rented at Spokes, near the park’s entrance.

Granville Island: A favorite urban hangout featuring plenty of waterfront shops and galleries, and an indoor Public Market with rows and rows of delicacies.

Vancouver Aquarium: Located in Stanley Park, my kids were mesmerized by the stunning iridescent, jellyfish displays, Beluga whales, and adorable sea otters and penguins.

 

Vancouver Aquarium

Vancouver Aquarium, home to 9,000 critters including these enchanting jellyfish

A sampling of our favorite restaurants:

Simply Thai: Located in hip Yaletown, Vancouver’s “little SOHO,” it offers authentic Thai in a warm and inviting setting. My kids devoured the delicious and beautiful steamed, violet-colored flower dumplings stuffed with minced chicken.

Coast: Fresh British Columbia seafood at its best, in a dramatic, high-ceilinged setting. The extremely professional and knowledgeable staff guided us through the menu, which also features a unique sushi selection.

The Sandbar: The perfect spot for lunch on Granville Island, with dramatic views of False Creek from its outdoor dining area.

Teahouse in Stanley Park: Set on a bluff overlooking the ocean, it features Pacific Northwest cuisine. Try to get a seat outside on the lovely patio.

Bella Gelateria: All natural, award-winning gelato, ice cream and sorbet — worth the wait in the line that forms outside its door. Located right around the corner from the Fairmont Pacific Rim, so of course we went … EVERY night.

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Smoked-salmon flatbread at the Teahouse in Stanley Park

Simply Thai Vancouver

Delicious and beautiful steamed, violet-colored flower dumplings at Simply Thai

Vancouver

A stunning view of downtown Vancouver and False Creek from the Sandbar restaurant on Granville Island

Stanley Park

Our walk around Stanley Park started with a view of Coal Harbor

Stanley Park

Gorgeous views from the grounds of Tea House restaurant in Stanley Park

Bella Gelateria

One of many visits to Gella Gelateria for the freshest and creamiest gelato

Vancouver

Vancouver’s proverbial picture-postcard views don’t disappoint

Herricks Travel American ExpressReady to plan a unique trip for you or your family? Contact me at mollie@herrickstravel.com. For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.