Travel and Escape
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Travel Time:

Reviewer Background:
This was my first visit to Vietnam.
I spent a week in Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Sa Pa and Halong Bay) traveling with a guide from HandSpan and checking out the area for a potential tour. The beginning of my trip was an overnight train to to the SaPa region. The train journeys itself was an experience. Fortunately I was moved to the new Tulico Carriage and avoided sharing a small train cabin with 3 men. I guess I'm getting a bit spoiled and prefer some level of privacy or at least to share with people I know or other women grin. Most higher end western tourist book the Victoria Express (Orient) carriages. However, you need to stay at the Victoria Hotels (the package is for the hotel and the train (and very expensive).

SaPa is a wonderful area though I realize the term "eco-tourism" is used a bit too lightly. There are many issues to consider around homestays and touring local villages to "visit" some of the fifty-four distinct ethnolinguistic minorities recognized in Vietnam. The walks, through local paths used to connect villages and rice fields, are great as long as you jump out of the way of motor-scooters which make their way through even the muddiest of trails and have become the mountain bikes of the hill country.

My homestay experience was good though I am not confident that this is an experience my guests (generally boomers) would enjoy. The family was wonderful (the mayor of the village and his wife hosted me for dinner). The accommodations very basic. What I find lacking is the education around what to expect and what is appropriate behavior while staying at these homes. How to use the bathrooms, eating protocol, greetings etc. The EcoLodge I stayed at for one night was lovely yet had it's own issues to deal with: how are they really interacting and supporting the local community and the environment? Is building a spa and offering European food (the bread was great!) appropriate?

The people in the area really are lovely....and the further away from the villages you get the more authentic the experience.

The Red Dzao is one of the ethnic groups that live in the north of Vietnam. Their name denotes the use red to decorate their clothing. There are two unique features of this tribe. The first is that you can know how rich a woman is by the size of her hat. The second is that to be beautiful it is thought that women should have as little body hair as possible...thus they often shave their hair and eyebrows.

Black Hmong and Red Dzao live in neighboring villages in this region. An interesting feature of Black Hmong women is to bind the calves with material and leather string to hold it in place. This is thought to prevent this area from growing large and muscular. Small calves (and feet) are a sign of beauty for women. Black Hmong like to wear their hair over the crown of their heads. Often wigs made of horse's tail are used to add more body to the bun and then wrap it to form a tall “pin box” type hat.

It was told to me that women generally marry around the age of 16, at that time men often “steal” these young women and bring them to their homes. If the woman refuses to eat for three days she is let go to return to her home. Should she take food, she is “accepting” of the man and will likely marry.

This minority group is also said to pick up languages very quickly. Many of the women selling textiles in town have picked up English and possibly French from the tourists and may end up becoming local guides.

I met this woman during a walk to the village of Ta Phin,Ta Phin, a lush valley nine miles out of Sapa near Sapa and spent the morning with she and her friends, visiting one woman’s home and watching the rice harvest.
Best Time to Travel:
During the Rice Harvest...I hit it just right!
HandSpanTopaz Eco Lodge
Lodging Details:

In Spa I stayed at Chau Long Hotel (new wing) in Sapa before heading out for my homestay experience in the Tay village. I then on to the Topaz Eco Loge (aprox one hour drive from Sapa).

Reviewed by Kathy Dragon

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Friday, March 21, 2008
Travel Time:
January-February 2008

Peripheral Information:
It was a strange journey to Kilimanjaro as I flew into Nairobi and expected to take the 6 hour bus ride to Moshi. However, the political situation in Kenya was rocky and though it best to get out of dodge without driving through the countryside on a bus. I took the Precision Air flight (rather scary planes) which take about 45 min.

This was the end of one of the fairly good hiking seasons. Weather was humid but once on the mountain it was cool/dry/sunny...much like Colorado. Day off the mountain (Feb 6th) it POURED and quite a bit of new snow on the mountain. Rainy season means SNOW, lots of it, on the mountain as well as muddy trails.

I'd been on the road for about 4 weeks before starting Kilimanjaro....two weeks in Argentina and Chile leading a Dragon's Path hike with 14 great folks from Breckenrige, then back to the US for 10 hours and connect to Capetown for my Inernational Organization Systems Development program..then a couple of days with my foreign exchange sister in Cape Town.

When I finally arrived in Moshi I was a bit ready for a break...which wasn't going to happen!
Reviewer Background:
I've never been too interested in climbing Kilimanjaro...not too into ascents. I'd rather do point to point, long distance trips with interesting cultural features. However, I was going to Africa and thought I needed to try it. It was sort of a big birthday and needed a physical challenge.
I'd been in Africa (South Africa) for about 10 days before my arrival in Nairobi. All actually went well there but the political situation was very much effecting not only tourists but all associated businesses. Flights were canceled and their was a feeling of anxiety in the air. I ended up spending a night a the small lodging of a great Spurwing Tours and then the following day visiting an orphanage near, the Giraffe Center and then the Norbie Game Park. My flight left relatively on time but the airport, wait and long long day left me exhausted.

The tour didn't start out well. I obtained my visa at the airport ($100) and need to show my yellow fever proof of vaccination...(which I had decided to get though I was told it was not mandatory) in Denver during my few hours home. Thank God and they would have given me the shot at the airport. After picking up my trekking bag I exited to find no sign with my name (always dreading that) and then the only person there with a "Zara" t-shirt (the company I thought I was traveling with) told me I was not with Zara though he did know Robin, owner of Adventures Within Reach, a friend from Boulder who I booked the tour with. I then learned that Robin wasno longer working with Zara.

Fortunately I guy I met on the plane was going to the Keys Hotel (the name of my I thought) and he offered to let me ride with his transfer taxi the hour to Moshi. All was good!! Until I arrived at the hotel and realized there were two keys hotels and i was at the wrong one (the Keys II was the one I had been dropped at and looked much nicer than the one I ended up at.
Finally got dropped at the Keys...which I must say is quite a depressing set up but don't have time to go into that other than to say I would not stay there again.

Eco Tours (Phillip-Owner) ended up being at the hotel to meet me and tell my of course someone was at the airport (no, they were not...empty...) and that his company would be running my tour.

On to the Trek: I ended up doing the trek Solo...well, me, three porters, a good, assistant cook, guide and me...7 of us...for 5 nights 6 days. That is a lot of time.

The Rongai route was good. I would definitely recommend it. However it is days up until the summit were basically 1.5 to 2.5 hours of walking...tried to do extra in the afternoon but nothing like the 6-8 hours I was expecting. I'm a fast walker but really could have trail run the first four days in about 3-4 hours. I know...acclimatize!!

The best was that it was quiet..only 2-4 others at the same camp each night vs 200+ on many of the other routes. The weather was great...sunny, dry, hot during the day (like summer in Colorado mts) then cold at night...generally clear.

So here is the itinerary:
DAY 1: To Simba Camp (First Cave)

1950m to 2880m
6400ft to 9450ft
About 2 hours / 4 miles
Transfer by Land Rover (about ROUGH!!!! 4-5 hours) to the attractive wooden village of Nale Muru. After signing in and preparing the porters, you will begin the hike on a wide path that winds through fields of maize and potatoes before entering pine forest. The track then starts to climb consistently, but gently through attractive forest that shelters a variety of wildlife. The forest begins to thin out and the first camp is at the edge of the moorland zone with extensive views over the Kenyan plains. (2 hours)...there is a lodge near the start ...can't find it but I would rather drive, get there, spend the night, and do the first two days from there in one day....we didn't start until 3pm or so.

DAY 2: To Second Cave

2880m to 3450m
9450ft to 11,320ft
About 1.5 hours / 4 miles
Temperatures: low 40's to high 60's F
The morning walk is a steady ascent up to the Second Cave with superb views of Kibo and the Eastern ice fields on the crater rim.

DAY 3 To Third Cave

3450m to 3870m
11,319ft to 12,700ft
About 2 hours

DAY 4 To Kibo Camp

3870m to 4750m
12,713ft to 15,600ft
About 2.5 hours

Hike to Kibo campsite at the bottom of the Kibo crater wall. The remainder of the day is spent resting in preparation for the final ascent before a very early night!
This is the first place I saw the masses of hikers. I asked to camp away from them and had a quite camp close to the lower rocks. In hindsite it might have been good to actually go up the mountain mid day rather than at night. Weather changes and you don't get sunrise but if you get cold...well.

Day 5: Asscent: I left camp at 1:00 am and began the long hike slowly in the darkness on a switchback trail through loose volcanic scree to reach the crater rim at Gillman’s Point (5685m,18,650ft).Though I started an hour later than most I still made it to Gillman’s far too early and very cold. Not what I needed to be told to slow down in order to make the summit for sunrise at Uhuru Peak. At that point I could have cared less about the sunrise and just wanted to hit the point and go back down. However, I slowed down, froze further if that is possible, and arrived at the peak at 6:20am. The sunrise is incredible and definitely the highlight of the hike. The glaciers of course make it all worthwhile. Less than two weeks earlier I had been viewing the Patagonian Ice-field Glaciers and now here I was in Africa.

The route back to Gillman’s allows for photo time and ideally to let the sun start to warm you. The descent, about 2 solid hours surfing scree, seemed endless. Back to camp for 45 min then a 6 miles walk to Horombo that seems pleasant at the start and then unending two hour later.

Day 6: one of my favorite walks...through rain forest. A steady descent takes us down through moorland to Mandara Hut (2700m / 8858 ft), the first stopping place at the Marangu route. Great path to the National Park gate at Marangu. At lower elevations, it can be wet and muddy.

A vehicle meets us at Marangu village to drive you back to your hotel in Moshi ...POURING RAIN all the way back ...about an hour or so drive.

Full day in Moshi which I could definitely do without.
Best Time to Travel:
December, January, July, August, September
Adventures Within Reach (US booking agent/Tour Operator)
Eco-Tours: Moshi based company
Great experience, not sure if I would do it again but glad I did. Only downside other than the hotel really was that I ended up working/consulting for free most of the the trip training the staff and owner of EcoTours on how to run a better trip. I generally don't mind helping folks out but this is what I do for a living and I was paying for the trip. I was somewhat disappointed that they really didn't have a lot of experience how to create trips targeting the type of guests (boomer and beyond, North Americans) I take. The guide and cook were more than happy to take all my suggestions and everyone seem thrilled that I was helping them create better trips that they felt could differentiate themselves from the 100's of tour operators. Yeah, seems like everyone runs pretty much the same or similar operation.

Compared to Peru and Nepal these operators have a lot to learn

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Reviewed by Kathy Dragon

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Thursday, November 01, 2007
Travel Time:
October 15-23, 2007

Peripheral Information:
This is the beginning of the dry season as well as the middle of the rice harvest (which last approximately 2 weeks depending on how many family members help with the harvest).
It can still be hot and humid with occasional rains.
The Full Moon festival at the end of Oct. offers candle lit bamboo boats built by the monks which are floated down the Mekong!

Laos has two seasons; the wet season runs from around May to October, and as with many Southeast Asian countries, the wet season is characterized by a downpour for a few hours a day rather than all day torrential rain.
The cool dry season runs from November to February and the hot dry season from March to April.
Mid-October through December may be the best time for active travel as the rivers are still higher and good for river travel and the air is cool and days are relatively clear.
Reviewer Background:
This was the last week of a month trip to SE Asia which began with PATA in Bali, then on to my International OD program in Singapore, then 10 days in Northern Vietnam. I hesitated to even go to Laos and am so glad I did!! I spent the entire week in Luang Prabang and loved it.

I arrived back last night from a month in Bali, Singapore, Laos and Vietnam. I spent a full week-a lifetime-in Luang Prabang, Laos and loved every minute of it.

Each morning I woke at 6 am and went to my guest house porch to watch the monks passing with the alms baskets. Daily morning fair-trade coffee at a cafe along the muddy waters of the Mekong river. Days were spent biking to local villages or nearby waterfalls and Wats (temples). Afternoon massages and evening conversations with monks and listening to 5:30 pm chants before enjoying tasting local Lao dishes wrapped in banana leaves, accompanied by sticky rice and a big beerlao.

While in Luang Prabang, I stayed at AMMATA GUEST HOUSE 37 KHUNSUA Rd Phonheung village tel (856-71) 212175 or 020-7607304 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (tell them Kathy Dragon says hello!) which I LOVED for $15/ 4 on the 2nd floor is a corner room with a nice view of the monks each morning from the lovely porch. Simple rooms have AC. No fridge or tv (or safe...see below!). Great little staff...wonderful pots, flowers, plantings everywhere and outdoor tables to relax at. No breakfast (really, what do you want for $15??. Make sure to go to Saffron Cafe along the Mekong for the best fair trade coffee in town. In the evening try the Big Tree Cafe ( for lunch or dinner. Mi Ja just opened the restaurant and it is very good. Her husband is a photographer so check out the gallery.

My first two nights I had booked Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel across from the night market on the main st. Beautiful rooms and great staff as well as wonderful bakery/mac cafe attached..downside was the rooms on the front are VERY noisy though they offer a private balcony. All rooms have AC, fridge, tv. No safe (why would you need it in LP??). Rooms online are approximately $40 plus booking fee.

Other great places for dinner include Tum Tum Cheng (or Tum Tum Banboo-they have two restaurants now) and Tamarind, both which offer great Lao food as well as cooking classes.The Three Elephant restaurant and Blue Lagoon Cafe (best service in town) are both good. I loved the Sala Cafe...I was the only customer and enjoyed a Lao BBQ (you must experience cook the food on your table with sort of a BBQ/WOK contraption that allows you to steam the veggies and cook the meat/fish.

Other places to stay: For a lower budget, I looked at the Lao Wooden Housee (brand new and very nice) at $30+/night and the Senesouk House (opposite Vatsene temple) at $25-35. The Sayo Guest House has large rooms with very high ceilings (one of the old french houses) and now has two properties, one on the water and one across from one of the Wats (temples). Rooms are from $30.

A must is the SPA GARDEN (they also own the Aroma Spa on main street) which offers more upscale massages than us generally found in LP (fyi: $3/hr Lao massages are not for me...I tried one!). For $15 the aromatherapy massage was excellent and I added another hour of back and shoulder for $5 more.
Best Time to Travel:
Dry Season beginning Oct.
North by Northeast Tours
I would definitely go back and spend more time in Loas, heading to the North and visiting the hill tribes in that area as well as the eco resorts.

Reviewed by Kathy Dragon

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Monday, August 21, 2006
This summer I've had a number of friends visit me in Boulder. We've hiked to Isabel Glacier and Chautauqua, taken cruiser bikes around town and walked along Pearl St. They’ve stayed at the St. Julian, dined at the Kitchen, enjoyed tapas at Seven Euro Bar and coffee at Trident. At the end of their visit they generally question why I would ever leave. They also want to buy property.

These friends aren’t wide-eyed tourists, but rather world travelers who I have guided on trips to some of the most beautiful destinations on earth. They’ve been to Europe more times than they can count, hiked in Peru, Patagonia and Nepal, sailed along the Turkish coast and scuba dived in Indonesia. They aren’t easily WOWED!

It sometimes is hard to justify leaving Boulder other than the occasional need for sea salt and humidity. Those of us from the East Coast find ourselves inviting family here for holidays. The weather is nearly perfect, we have the mountain playground in our backyard, great festivals, music, shopping, dining….and if we need to experience a different culture we can just hop over to Santa Fe, Salt Lake or Cheyenne right?

Who needs to Escape beyond Boulder? Beyond Colorado? Beyond the US?
We all do. Get out your passport, here is what I have learned.

Traveling within the US it is easy to stay connected. For many of us it is actually really difficult to disconnect. Our blackberries are vibrating, we are think about work, family, finances, news. Even when we are in the mountains we are thinking maybe we should get home…beat the traffic, get some work done, catch up before the week begins.

When we travel to a destination where the language and culture is different we spend a significant time figuring out how to live day to day. We slow down as things move slower. This is really good for us. We are consumed by simple things like what to eat and how to greet people we meet. Visiting a market or biking to the next village becomes exotic. We feel huge accomplishments when we successfully order a cup of coffee or read a local train schedule.

We return home with olive oil from a producer we met, a textile from a village we visited, a stamp on our passport. Oh, and we also have a new form of social currency when we join our friends out for Tapas or Cerviche . We scour the produce and grocery aisle looking for items that connect us to our travel experience.

I believe there are actually valuable long term results from going across the Pond/Border/Continent. We read the paper and listen to the news differently. We picture the people in the villages, we feel the texture of the land, we taste the unique flavors of food, we think about the differences and similarities. It is difficult to return from Europe and not re-evaluate our desire for large cars and complaints around the price of gas. Visiting developing countries questions are quest for accumulating larger houses and material goods. Traveling with one suitcase or backpack refreshes our reality of what we really need. Experiencing long meals surrounded by friends and family as a daily occurrence brings questions of independence and interdependence.

With the NW parkway we are now 40 minutes or less to DIA with no traffic. The reality is we can fly to South America and Europe in less time than it takes us to get to upstate NY. Start planning your escape…you can justify it.

So…where to go. Here are a few tips and suggestions. Keep in mind these are my personal preferences and not for everyone.

• What are you looking for? Classic, Adventure, Cutting Edge I classify destinations into these three categories. Think about what you are looking for before you choose a destination.
a. Classic= Italy, Ireland, and Australia etc (well know, must go there, easy to travel within);
b. Adventure = Patagonia, Himalayan Trek, Inca Trail, Kilimanjaro (remote, more physically demanding, uncertain weather and transportation)
c. Cutting Edge=just off the radar. Most people (maybe not in Boulder) ask where or why. Think Slovenia, Bulgaria, Laos.

Go Under the Radar:
Here is a challenge….look under the radar. For your most unique and authentic experience look deeper. This opportunity exists in every category…

Most of us travel to Peru because of Machu Picchu without spending more than a day in the nearby Urubamba valley which offers ancient ruins, remote villages and incredible hikes. We connect Italy with Tuscany or the Cinque Terre without considering Sardegna and Puglia. Our destination is “Patagonia” and we spend little time researching the island of Chiloé (Chile) or the wine country of Mendoza (Argentina).

Cutting edge destinations are often completely under the radar. A few years ago I took 18 women on a hike trip to Slovenia. Not one of them knew exactly where it was when they sent the deposit. Slovenia resembles Switzerland 50 years ago with 180 mt. huts, 40 km of coastline, and is one of the most, if not the most, beautiful countries I have visited.

Croatia, the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Ladakh are three of my favorite new discoveries. Certain countries or regions have only recently developed a tourist infrastructure. Go when the infrastructure is established but before you find it in the travel magazines (or on Matt Lauer’s list)

Cities vs Countryside:
My personal feeling is that unless you absolutely love cities, spend as little time in them on your first trip to the destination. Large cities can take up a good deal of time and energy and in general don’t offer the authentic experiences you might find in smaller villages or towns. Paris, London, Rome aren’t changing THAT quickly. It is easier to get back to cities for a shorter vacation in the years ahead. Of course flying in to these destinations and having a day or two to adjust and explore is great…

Villages vs Wilderness:
As you know, we live in the most beautiful places. Hiking in Rocky Mt. National Park is as spectacular as any destination in the world. The villages we stay in, the people we meet on the local paths and in the mountain huts, the owner of the local Trattoria; the farmers, weavers, school children… these are the connections that will stay with us and make us feel like we really have had an experience. I recommended making villages a major part of your escape.

Self Guided or Small Group:
if you are short on time and want to have a through-the-back-door experience I recommend signing up with one of the great small tour operators, many of whom are based here in Boulder. Trips range in price based on your accommodations needs (and often the size of the brochure, so ask for references), they all should connect you with a local guide who knows the best bike and hiking routes, great local restaurants, and everyone in the area. If you have time and love planning your itinerary, the self guided experience is great but know that you’ll likely be working through guide books or travel sites which offer the same information that every other tourists is using.

So, dust off or apply for your passport. Use your frequent flyer miles, check out deals to London and do extra research on carriers within Europe such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet who offer incredible deals for getting about in Europe. Book a hiking tour, a volunteer vacation, rent a villa on line or do a house trade. Traveling internationally offers a new and always valuable perspective. Your Escape is justified!

Reviewed by Kathy Dragon

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Sunday, January 15, 2006
Travel Time:
December 27,2005-January 10th, 2006

Peripheral Information:
This time of year is New Zealand's summer and they had an exceptionally dry spring...until we arrived!! Then came rain, wind and finally SNOW below 1300 meters which made going over the Waterfall Face of Rabbit Pass impossible. Once we arrived in Able Tasmen National Park the weather improved and we had 3 spectacular days.
Though our time was short (only 12 days) our team of 6 had an amazing adventure...trekking in one of the most remote regions of the South Island, day hiking around Wanaka and along the Greenstone Trek, and finally exploring Able Tasmen National Park by foot and kayak. We had RAIN, wind, snow, and sun to complete our adventure. vegan trail food, local Pinot Noirs, and an eclectic mix of cuisine off the trail. We stayed in tents, huts, boutique hotels; traveled by boat, helicopter, kayak, plane and van. Lots of card games played and books read!!
Best Time to Travel:
January-March. Try to avoid Christmas/New Years as most NZers take off 3-4 weeks at this are booked, service can be poor due to the influx of travelers. Feb./March are preferable months due to crowds as well as more stable weather.
The Grand Traverse is the longest guided trek in New Zealand. Following the main divide of the South Island this route has exceptional views of the highest peaks, including Mnt. Aspiring

The track winds its way up the valley sidewall under the awesome East face of Mnt. Awful. This is really an Alpine Paradise. The climbing ends at Gillespie Pass and one of the great view points of the Southern Alps, from here the track meanders through the beautiful Siberia Valley and then plunges steeply to the Wilkin River. From here the trek gradually rises until reaching the Top Forks. This area is one of New Zealand’s treasures with outstanding native bush and hanging glaciers. The final challenge... torrents of water pouring of the surrounding cliffs as the trek offers an improbable scramble up the Waterfall Face leads to Rabbit Pass before before heading down the East Matukituki Valley.

This is a unique and challenging trek.

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Reviewed by Kathy Dragon

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