Best Lodges in Central America… This month – the Pacuare Lodge Costa Rica

We travel all over the world in our business and get to experience many of the best lodges, resorts and hotels in their respective countries. The Pacuare Lodge in Costa Rica is always high on our list when people ask us for our favorite resorts.

All of the suites at the Paquare Lodge have indoor bathrooms with a tub and shower and some also offer outdoor showers. The suites begin with the premium Jaguar Villa. This 350 square meter villa is perched on a bank of the Pacuare River with a privileged view of that pristine waterway and the surrounding tropical foliage. The Jaguar Villa is their most luxurious suite. elements-travel-pacuare-lodge01Next is the Canopy suite. A private suspension bridge leads from the deck of the suite to a platform high in a massive rainforest tree that affords an amazing view of the Pacuare River and surrounding jungle. This suite is perfect for someone looking for some extra privacy, a couple celebrating a honeymoon or an anniversary, as it has added privacy. The Linda Vista suites are larger than the Canopy suite but a bit smaller than the Jaguar suite. These suites are 230 square meters and offer beautiful sitting areas as well as a deck with a hammock and an outdoor plunge pool fed by mountain spring water (this is very refreshing after a day of hiking or canyoneering) . River View deluxe and River suites are smaller versions of the larger suites and offer the same level of luxury seen in the larger suites. All of the suites have king beds and large bathrooms as well as hammocks on their terraces.  elements-travel-pacuare-lodge07None of the suites have electricity, but are lit by candle light. When you go to the dining facility for dinner, the staff will light candles in your room. This resort prides itself on the ecological friendliness of its operation. The staff is always conscious of the fragile nature of the rain forest and everything the resort needs is brought in by raft.

Meals are served in a common dining facility, which, along with the check in area, has electricity and WIFI. The dining hall has a bar upstairs with places for visitors to gather and share their adventures. The food is world class; dinner is prepared by locals and usually contains locally available ingredients. Main courses can include a rib eye steak with jumbo shrimp or chicken curry with jasmine rice. Also common is sea bass paired with jumbo shrimp. They also offer romantic dinners right by the river for those wanting to celebrate a special event or just be alone to dine. Another option is to dine on one of the Canopy platforms. The food was always well prepared and delicious.

The Paquare Lodge’s commitment to sustainable eco-tourism is primary. elements-travel-pacuare-lodge03The lodge offers many hiking excursions in the rain forest. These can include a visit to a remote jungle waterfall, or a visit to a typical Cabécar Rancho (thatched house) built by members of a nearby clan, where the son of a local shaman provides visitors with an introduction to his people’s culture and customs. Bird lovers can get an early start to their day with a 6:00 AM bird watching hike around the grounds of the lodge. This hike ends just in time to have a delicious hot breakfast before you enjoy the rest of your day. The Paquare Lodge also offers a canopy zip line tour high in the jungle canopy that ends at a platform only steps from the dining hall. You only have a short controlled rappel to terra firma. Our most memorable experience at the Lodge was the canyoneering. This involved a short hike and some instruction in waterfall rappelling, and then we rappelled down a waterfall in steps. The first descent was only 10 feet or so, but each step was longer, and as we gained confidence, the descents got longer and longer. The final descent is a thrilling 90 feet. Paquare Lodge recommends a level of fitness comfortable with moderately strenuous activity for hiking and white water rafting, and of course, for the zip line and canyoneering. The property also has a minimum age of 12. It is a non-smoking lodge.

Your choices for leaving the lodge are the same as arriving, white water rafting or four wheel drive vehicle. The raft trip out is four hours long and includes lunch. The river out has more class 3 and some class 4 rapids and is a great ride. You will be tired when you get to your next destination in Costa Rica!

 

Adventuring in a Panamanian Paradise

From Uncruise Adventures

Erika Hernandez Calvo, Expedition Guide, Safari Voyager

It’s another amazing day in this Panamanian paradise!

We woke up early to enjoy a delicious breakfast, gathering all the energy for what was to come later in the day. After getting ready, we boarded a skiff while Seamus, our deckhand extraordinaire, gave us a fun fact of the day. He always has something interesting and funny to share.

We set out from the Safari Voyager in search of a new adventure and landed on a black sand beach that was covered with thousands of red ghost crabs, which seemed to be running a massive marathon in front of us.

In the distance, on top of a Cuipo tree, a common black hawk was looking at us, or perhaps looking for prey.

“This is going to be a good day,” I thought to myself.

Punta Patiño is an example of a successful repurposing of the land. A former cattle ranch, it was purchased by the National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON), a non-profit organization that aims to preserve the forest that connects with the Darien National Park and La Chunga Forest Reserve through a biological corridor known as, “El Bagre.”

Our walk along the Labonga trail was a challenging one that required the presence of a local park ranger or “guardabosques” named Plinio. An indigenous Embera, Plinio has worked in the reserve for 14 years. On this day, he escorted us through the jungle with his big machete.

Plinio does not speak English, but he has lots of invaluable information that he is eager to share. So today, I became a student and a translator and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be there and learn something new.

It was a hot, humid morning, and we are soaking wet. But it didn’t matter because we are all in awe of this incredibly beautiful and dynamic rainforest.

After our walk, we enjoyed delicious coconut water from fresh coconuts that Plinio opened for us using his machete. It was the perfect thirst quencher after our hike.

In the afternoon, we set out to kayak in the mangrove system of the small Rio Patiño. How amazing!

Calm waters, birds, the peace of nature surrounding us, and the feeling of being the very first explorers traversing through the canals…even though the canals have been explored before, it feels like no human has ever gone there but us.

All of us came back to the Safari Voyager with a huge smile on our faces and lots of stories to share from the days excursions.

Condor Tours & Travel, Inc. Receives 2017 Best of Lawrenceville Award

Lawrenceville Award Program Honors the Achievement

LAWRENCEVILLE August 2, 2017 — Condor Tours & Travel, Inc. has been selected for the 2017 Best of Lawrenceville Award in the Travel Agencies category by the Lawrenceville Award Program. They are located at 1760 Spectrum Dr Suite 106 off of highway 120. Condor has been in business for over 26 years with a team of travel designers that will insure a travel experience unmatched by any online company. They give you that personalized experience you want when investing in travel.

Each year, the Lawrenceville Award Program identifies companies that we believe have achieved exceptional marketing success in their local community and business category. These are local companies that enhance the positive image of small business through service to their customers and our community. These exceptional companies help make the Lawrenceville area a great place to live, work and play.

Various sources of information were gathered and analyzed to choose the winners in each category. The 2017 Lawrenceville Award Program focuses on quality, not quantity. Winners are determined based on the information gathered both internally by the Lawrenceville Award Program and data provided by third parties.

About Lawrenceville Award Program

The Lawrenceville Award Program is an annual awards program honoring the achievements and accomplishments of local businesses throughout the Lawrenceville area. Recognition is given to those companies that have shown the ability to use their best practices and implemented programs to generate competitive advantages and long-term value.

The Lawrenceville Award Program was established to recognize the best of local businesses in our community. Our organization works exclusively with local business owners, trade groups, professional associations and other business advertising and marketing groups. Our mission is to recognize the small business community’s contributions to the U.S. economy.

SOURCE: Lawrenceville Award Program

CONTACT:
Lawrenceville Award Program
Email: PublicRelations@thebestawards.org
URL: http://www.thebestawards.org

Embera Experience

Embera TribeFrom Uncruise Adventures

Archibaldo Kirchman, Expedition Guide, Safari Voyager

Today we had the opportunity to visit an Embera village, one of just seven indigenous groups that live in Panama today.

Local Darien drivers met us at the Safari Voyager in their dugout canoes and took us into to the mouth of the Mogue River, where we were able to experience the beauty of the mangrove forest and all the birds that live there.

White Ibis, Pelicans, Cormorants, Little Blue Herons, Mangrove Hawks and more can be seen in this wild forest.

After moving up the narrow river for about 30 minutes, the forest suddenly opened up wide around us. At first, we could hear music and then as we turned a corner, people appeared. Upwards of 30 Embera villagers were on the river shore waiting to greet us, playing their music with drums, maracas and homemade flutes.

The children took many of us by the hand and walked us into their village, excited to see the faces of the newcomers. Embera children

Formalities began with the presentation of the high personalities of the village. Later they gave an explanation of their culture, rituals and some of the dances that they perform which help with the healing process according to their doctor, or how they call him in their native language of Cholo, “Jaibana.”

The village was filled with children that were so curious about these new people that had arrived. It was special to watch them study our clothes, cameras and everything about us. They simply had seen people that looked like us before.

Dance time came and we were all invited to participate. They showed us their moves and we showed them ours. It was a joyful experience.
One of the most interesting parts of this experience was the exhibit of the Embera’s handcrafts. How they made these beautifully colorful works of art using just the materials available to them in the village. Embera women dancers

Baskets, plates, masks, wood carvings called, “cocobolo” were all on display. All were made by hand and all were absolutely beautiful.
When it was time to say goodbye, everyone walked us back to the river shore and waved as we hopped into the canoes and departed down the river. I wondered when it would be possible to go back and have this marvelous moment again.

Whenever that time comes, it won’t be a moment too soon.

Changes/Updates to Cuba Travel

Travel to Cuba will now require a bit more planning. Fellow travelers, here is the scoop on traveling to Cuba and complying with the reinstated conditions of this island. Although there may be more changes or updates to come, this is where our research at Condor Tours & Travel, Inc. has left us. Keep in mind, if you booked and paid for air or land packages prior to June 16, 2017, you are protected. This only applies to future bookings.

First, airlines and cruise lines are not affected by the Trump administration’s ban on individual travel to Cuba. You can still book one of the many cruise lines visiting Cuba and this may be the best way to see it. The great thing about cruising is that you don’t have to unpack and repack your suitcases after every stop. This makes seeing multiple locations very convenient and allows you to see more of the island. Of course, the down side is that you are limited to the cruise schedule and can’t get into the countryside. Royal Caribbean has four and five night packages that sail from Miami to Havana. Celestyal Cruises has a seven night cruise that sails from Montego Bay, Jamaica and visits Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba (near Guantanamo). Carnival has a ship sailing from Tampa that spends two days in Havana. Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Lines, as well as other cruise lines, also offer itineraries that include Cuba. These are just a few of the cruises that travel to Cuba that will be allowed to continue. You can book one of these cruises without fear of being in violation of the recent changes in US policy. Airlines have also been exempted from the recent changes, so flying to Cuba should still be possible, but without an authorized tour you may encounter issues returning to the US if you have not complied with the new regulations.

If you prefer to go by land, we offer packages with third party suppliers in groups to Cuba and we can certainly put you in with a group option. Group travel is also authorized under the new guidelines within certain restrictions. Your group must qualify as an educational activity. Here is the specific wording from the Treasury Department’s office of Foreign Asset control (OFAC).

(b)General license for people-to-people travel. The travel-related transactions set forth in § 515.560(c) and such additional transactions as are directly incident to educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program are authorized, provided that:

(1) Travel-related transactions pursuant to this authorization must be for the purpose of engaging, while in Cuba, in a full-time schedule of activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities;

(2) Each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba;

(3) The predominant portion of the activities engaged in by individual travelers is not with a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba, as defined in § 515.337 of this part, or a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party, as defined in § 515.338 of this part;

(4) For travel conducted under the auspices of an organization that is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact, an employee, paid consultant, or agent of the sponsoring organization must accompany each group traveling to Cuba to ensure that each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.

You should note that your itinerary cannot have excessive free time. The US government will allow travel of groups to Cuba only if the trip is a full time educational schedule of events. Your trip will be highly structured. The US government requires the travel company to keep records of all expenses in Cuba and may require the company to provide those records on request.

Travel as an individual to Cuba requires a specific license. The purpose of the individual trip must also be educational or in the nature of a cultural exchange such as an artist traveling to Cuba to study or to perform. Of course, individuals with relative in Cuba may travel to the island to visit family members.

Traveling to Cuba requires a bit more planning, and you can’t go there and be on your own with free time to explore, but many groups go to Cuba, and we here at Condor Tours and Travel have the contacts to book travel to Cuba by attaching travelers to larger groups with set itineraries. Just give us a call and let us help you plan your trip!

Lori Snow at Condor Tours & Travel, Inc Earns Adventurist Certification From UnCruise Adventures

Lawrenceville, GA July 2017 – Lori Snow at Lawrenceville, GA based Condor Tours & Travel, Inc  completed a specialized training program and is now certified as an Adventurist with UnCruise Adventures. The line offers adventure cruises aboard boutique yachts and small ships in Southeast Alaska, Hawaiian Islands, Mexico’s Sea of Cortés, Columbia & Snake Rivers, coastal Washington, British Columbia, Costa Rica, Panamá, and Galápagos Islands.

To join the Adventurist Club, travel agents participate in a series of online tutorials and pass an online exam. The Adventurist program details the nuances of UnCruise Adventures’ inclusive small ship adventure and river cruises along with destination information.

“We commend travel agents who take the time to complete the certification program,” said Tim Jacox, president and COO at UnCruise Adventures. “By becoming a specialist, agents have the expertise to paint a clear picture of our small-group adventures for their clients.”

UnCruise Adventures offers an alternative to traditional cruising by taking travelers into areas that are not accessible to larger ships and on activities that focus on the wilderness, wildlife and culture in each destination. Seven adventure vessels offer opportunities for outdoor activities including kayaking, hiking, snorkeling, skiff explorations, stand-up paddle-boarding and whale watching. One replica coastal steamer offers river cruising with an eye on history and included shoreside tours to points of historical interest.

Lori is the CEO for Condor Tours & Travel and has been selling travel for over 20 years and is passionate about Latin America destinations. Condor Tours & Travel has been in business for 26 years , started by her father. She took over the company and now teams up with 6 other travel designers.  Her company does sell worldwide travel, so between her and her team, they can book you on any travel experience.  Adding Uncruise to our list of companies we represent and adding some of their itineraries to our web site is a step towards our interest in helping travelers experience “out of the box” travel experiences.

Lori will be on board with Uncruise in September where she will gain even more knowledge of the Uncruise travel products .  Because her interest in in Latin America she has chosen to do the itinerary  available in Panama.  Stay tuned for her blog after she returns.

About UnCruise Adventures

UnCruise Adventures’ yachts and small ships carry 22-88 guests on voyages in Alaska, Hawaiian Islands, Mexico’s Sea of Cortés, Columbia & Snake Rivers, coastal Washington, British Columbia, Costa Rica, Panamá and the Galápagos Islands.  Un-Cruise Adventures, under the parent company of InnerSea Discoveries Alaska Inc., is a member of Trusted Adventures, dedicated to the highest standards of small-group travel and to giving back to the places visited.
To learn more you can contact Lori and her team of travel designers at 770-339-9961 or email us at info@condortoursandtravel.com

Adventure in “The Land of the Midnight Sun”

I’ve heard Alaska called this my whole life. And, in my head, I knew what it meant, I just wasn’t prepared for the reality. In the summer, the sun sets late, at 11:00 PM more or less, and rises early, at 4:30 AM. Also, when the sun sets, it is really just below the horizon so nighttime is not dark, not ever. We were up at 3:00 AM for an airport transfer our last day in Alaska, and you could have read a newspaper outside by the sun light. Because of the four hour time difference from Atlanta to Alaska, we were up a lot of mornings really early and it was always light. Be prepared for these light nights and bring a mask to sleep in if you need darkness to be rested.

We just finished a ten day cruise and land package to Alaska. We covered 8736 miles during these ten days (some in our group covered more) – 1544 miles by cruising from Vancouver to Seward Alaska, 364 miles by train from Seward to Denali National park, 128 miles from Denali to Fairbanks and finally 6760 air miles from Atlanta to Vancouver (via Toronto) and then from Fairbanks back to Atlanta (via Seattle). There was some walking in there and a bus ride in Denali National Park, but 8546 is pretty accurate. This was an epoch journey for us and our group of 20.

Once again this summer, we were cruising with Holland America. This time we were cruising on the Noordam. This ship was launched in 2006 so it is newer than the Veendam however the Veendam had been completely refurbished in 2009 so the carpets and chair upholstery on the Noordam showed a bit more age. The Noordam’s deck count is amazingly short. Most of the public spaces are on decks two and three, while the pool deck (the Lido Deck) is on deck nine. Most ships we have cruised on have had the public spaces (casino, shops, most of the bars) starting at deck five and the Veendam’s public spaces are on decks seven and eight. It felt like we climbed stairs a lot less than we normally do on a cruise. We climb the stairs so we can justify the extra deserts we eat at lunch and dinner!

We boarded our cruise in Vancouver BC (British Columbia). Vancouver is a very busy seaport located in the lower mainland region of British Columbia (a province of Canada). Vancouver is one of Canada’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities with 52% of the people living there speaking a language other than English as a first language. There are many fine restaurants and hotels in Vancouver, and as we recommend arriving in your departure city a day before your cruise departure to take the worry out of air travel delays and cancelations, finding lodging and a fine meal will not be a problem. One thing about Vancouver that always stands out for me, is the appearance of the city. The glass towers of Vancouver are all built with green glass. Due to the hills of the city, you will nearly always have a great view of these very distinctive and beautiful green glass towers.

Leaving Vancouver, you will spend the first day of your cruise sailing the inside passage. This passage winds between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada. Land is close on both sides of the ship, and the views are magnificent. The land is tree-covered mountains that slope down to the ocean. Sea life often follows the ship for a time on this day. We saw a pod of Orcas swimming past the ship on a previous cruise, and on this one, we saw sea lions. If you have a sharp eye you will also see the white head of a bald eagle in the trees. This day is a great way to start the cruise if you came from the east coast and need time to adjust to the time difference. All the ships services are open just as if you were in international waters, so if you want, you can shop in the ships boutiques or try your luck in the casino. The weather was great on our day through the inside passage, if a bit cool, and many passengers spent time in the pools and hot tubs. Bar service was also available throughout the ship. We were traveling with a group of friends, and we all gathered together for dinner this night at the Pinnacle Grill for a special dinner. There is a small upcharge for this restaurant, and the charge is worth it. They serve amazing steaks cooked perfectly, huge shrimp cocktail, really tasty salads as well as great seafood like King Crab Legs or Sea Bass. The choices for desert include a molten chocolate cake, a banana tart and Crème Brule.

Our fist port of call was Ketchikan, Alaska, a city with an interesting history. The city is named after the Ketchikan creek, which flows thorough the town emptying into the Tongass Narrows just south of down town. Ketchikan was known in the early 20th century for the red light district centered on Canal Street which runs along Ketchikan creek. The district is a charming tourist area with a brothel museum (complete with a good natured working girl outside) along with some nice shops. This was our favorite tourist area on the cruise. We booked a private excursion for a close encounter with the American Bald Eagle. Six of us boarded a small boat which took us into the narrows to look for Eagles.

SONY DSC

We were not disappointed – eagles are common in Alaska and our captain knew just where to go to find them. We even watched an eagle fish for his dinner. I got some great photos and video of this magnificent bird in his native habitat. As a bonus on this boat trip we encountered some Humpback Whales. Our captain told us whales were relatively rare in the waters around Ketchikan and we should see more in Juneau, and he was right. Some of our group took a float plane trip to the Misty Fiords, another spectacular site near Ketchikan. They landed in one of the fiords and said the scenery was breathtaking.

Day three of our cruise found us in Juneau, the state capital of Alaska. An interesting fact about Juneau is that the only way in or out is by plane or boat (ship in our case). Juneau is the only state capital without road connections to anywhere! You can’t get there by car. Our excursion in Juneau was whale watching from a jet boat. We had been told that there were more whales in Juneau, so our expectations were high. We were not disappointed. The whales were common, and if you missed one (they don’t hang around for tourists) you would get a chance in another moment. We saw them surfacing to blow, but also saw feeding activity. This was an hour that went by really quickly. We headed back into port and a whale was hanging around the port right there at the dock. This was a real close-up view of one of these huge mammals. Juneau is at sea level and is surrounded very closely by mountains up to 4000 feet. Atop these mountains is the Juneau icefield which spawns 30 glaciers. Two of these glaciers, Mendenhall and Lemon Creek, are visible from Juneau. Davidson Glacier 5The cruise lines offer excursions to the top of Mendenhall by helicopter. We have done this excursion on a previous trip to Alaska. Glaciers are rivers of ice and the opportunity to walk on one is not something you want to miss if you have an adventurous spirit. Juneau also has a famous saloon, The Red Dog. Spend a moment in this place to get a feel for old Alaska.ay four brought us to Skagway. This town was the gateway to the Yukon gold fields during the Alaska gold rush. Most of the town is devoted to tourism so if you’re looking for souvenirs of your Alaska cruise, this is a good place to find them. A very popular excursion in Skagway is the White Pass and Yukon railroad. This scenic railroad takes you to Whitehorse Canada and is an all day excursion. Skagway itself has preserved the look of the town from the days of the Alaska gold rush. Visiting this town is almost like taking a trip back in time (with tourists thrown in). We took an excursion to the Davidson glacier. This included an hour boat ride to landfall then a short bus ride to the guides camp (comfort stations “outhouses” were provided here), next a short hike to a glacier melt river and finally a canoe trip up the river and across a small lake to the glacier. As with all of our Alaska excursions, the scenery was beautiful and we saw much wild life. We actually saw a black bear swimming across the lake. The surprised looks and comments coming from our guides made this encounter very special as the guides told us they had never seen a bear swim the lake and they were amazed that they saw it happen. bear in water 3We then hiked up the glacier and actually got close enough to touch it. This made our guides especially nervous and they scooted us back as soon as they realized the danger. Ice can apparently fall off a glacier at any time. No one in our group was hurt. Then we retraced our steps back to Skagway once again taking in the scenery of Alaska.

Day five was a sea day cruising through Glacier Bay. We cruised through this bay for six hours or so and saw numerous glaciers, and if you were looking in the right direction you got to see the glaciers calving (ice breaking off the glacier to fall into the bay). Whether or not you saw the calving, you heard it! A loud crack followed by a low rumble and then a splash. You do have to be very lucky to actually see the glacier calve – I missed it, but some of our group saw some at the Margerie Glacier. This was the favorite day of the cruise for some of our group. Glaciers up close are just awesome sights. The wall of ice is really impressive. This was the last full day of our Alaska cruise.

We sailed through the night to Seward, Alaska. This is the terminal port for north bound cruises from Vancouver. This port is not very picturesque but on the good side, you’re not there very long. There are two ways to get to Anchorage from Seward – by bus or train. The busses are well appointed motor coaches with bathrooms, and the road from Seward to Anchorage is another scenic drive with mountains and rivers and wildlife to be seen. The train from Seward to Anchorage is really nice. The train cars have two forward facing seats and two rear facing seats with a table between them. The train ride was about six hours and the trip by bus is a bit shorter four and half to five hours (remember – Alaska is big). We actually played some bridge to pass the time on the railroad trip to Anchorage and the time passed really quickly. We arrived in Anchorage about lunch time and went to Humpy’s for lunch. This is a local place serving some really good bar food (sandwiches, fish tacos, wings). The place was filled with locals and was really good. We spent the afternoon walking around the town and doing a bit of shopping (replenishing necessities) at a downtown mall. For dinner we went to Simon and Seaforts. This is another local place serving aged steaks, oysters, and some amazing king crab. This place was not a budget restaurant, but it was worth the price. The place was really busy and since we had not made a reservation we found a table in the bar and ate there with another couple from our group. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city but we were able to walk through most of the downtown area and explore the city on our own using our feet. We walked to both restaurants, also.

We caught another early train for the ride to Denali the next morning. This train had double decker train cars with traditional forward facing seats up top and a dining area below. The upper deck also had an attendant serving beverages and lite snacks and a tour guide who talked us through some interesting facts and stories about Alaska (and some really bad jokes) helping to keep the train ride interesting. The dining area seats about half of the people on the train car so the attendants come and get you when it’s time for your meal. The train ride is nine hours and they serve both breakfast and lunch. We only ate lunch on the train. The food was good but the service was just okay; we had to wait a bit longer than we would have liked for our meal.

I’ve mentioned the scenery of Alaska quite a bit in this blog. Words can’t really describe how beautiful and massive this state is. Except for the cities, Alaska is huge, and the views you get on the train and bus rides are really hard to describe properly. You see huge U-shaped valleys carved by glaciers with mountains on both sides or braided rivers of glacier melt that look just like braided hair. You never really feel closed in on this trip. The mountains are always in the distance looming over everything and the forests run unbroken for as far as you can see. And you can see forever, it seems. We saw where two rivers came together, one river was glacier melt and looked almost like really loose mud flowing, the other river wasn’t glacier melt and it was as blue as could be. These two rivers came together and ran for miles, brown on one side and blue on the other. Needless to say, the mountains were covered in snow and ice and stay that way year round.

We arrived at our resort, the McKinley Chalet Resort, in the late afternoon. The Chalet is located on the banks of the Nenana River, less than two miles from Denali National Park. The rooms have a rustic theme and our room had two bedrooms. The Chalet has two full-service restaurants, The Canyon Steak House, where we had breakfast one morning, and Karsten’s Public House. We had dinner at Karsten’s with some of our group; wings and brisket and a glass of the local beer. The meal was excellent. The Canyon Steak House is a fine dining restaurant that we didn’t get the chance to try. Others in our group said they ate there and that the steakhouse served an excellent meal. We had booked our excursion to Denali through Holland America, so we didn’t have to worry about booking it at the hotel. However, we did book a white water rafting trip for the next day after our tour of Denali, and booking it was simple. We booked our white water rafting trip through an agent on the train while traveling to Denali from Anchorage. On the eight hour bus tour of Denali, the only thing included in the tour is a small bottle of water and a snack box. They recommended purchasing a lunch box from the coffee bar at the Chalet, and we were glad we did, because the lunch box included an additional bottle of water along with a sandwich, chips and an apple (plus a cookie). Do this – you will be glad you did. The bus ride is on a modified school bus. The major modification is a more comfortable seat. On the Denali tour, remember you’re driving and looking for wild life, and there is always a chance you won’t see much. The tour the day before us saw wolves (eating a kill), bears, caribou, moose and eagles. We saw one moose (leaving the park), also some caribou and some bears. However the trip was in no way disappointing. Denali is one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen and we saw both peaks of Denali Mountain (Mount McKinley). Only 30% of visitors to the park see even one of the peaks, and we saw both. Even if we had not seen the peaks the tour would have been amazing, because the views of Alaska are breathtaking.

After our bus tour of Denali, we went white water rafting on the Nenana River. Denali Whitewater Rafting 4The Nenana is a glacier melt river and in early June, the river was flowing enough to give us a great ride through class three rapids. The water was cold, as you can imagine, however the rafting company provided dry suits to all rafters and we never really got cold, except for our feet. Wear extra socks, you will need them. Our guide was really experienced and took us on a great ride. We hit all the rapids just right to get maximum white water. This was a really long day so we skipped dinner and went right to bed after the rafting trip.

The next morning, our last full day in Alaska, we boarded a motor coach for a two hour ride to Fairbanks. There was one stop in Nenana Alaska, a small railroad town with bathrooms and a bakery and small gift shop, plus some really cute puppies available for petting. We arrived in Fairbanks and went straight to the dock for the Riverboat Discovery. We ate our lunch here at the riverboat dock in a family style restaurant. Everything is served on the table and you load your plate as you want. The meal included salad, roasted vegetables, beef stew and bread. Also included was dessert. The food was hearty and good. If you have eaten at a family style restaurant before, you will know what to expect. After lunch we boarded the riverboat for a three hour journey up the Chena River. The boat travels up the Chena to the home of Susan Butcher, the first women to win the Iditarod sled dog race. Susan died a few years ago from cancer but her husband greets the riverboat and shows some of their dogs, and later he boards the boat to greet tourists and sign books. The riverboat also visits a recreated Chena Indian village, allowing you to immerse yourself in the ancient Indian culture of the area. This was a nice diversion and we enjoyed it.

The sense of size that you get from Alaska is hard to describe. The mountains were always there looming in the distance. I really think that the emptiness of Alaska is what makes the countryside seem so huge. The lack of people and towns of any size just emphasizes how big this place can seem. I’ve had experiences in empty places before – horseback riding in Uruguay through the empty pampas where you could not see evidence of people, and the lack of people in the Straights of Magellan are two examples. But the views of mountains, valleys, and rivers of Alaska stand alone in majesty. This was a long trip and not everyone can take two weeks for one trip. The cruise would be a great trip by itself, and the land package also would stand as a great trip without the cruise (with a few added days for the Yukon, perhaps), but putting the cruise together with a land package seems to be the most popular way to see Alaska. And working through the cruise line was easy. One last note, Holland America has the logistics of this trip down pat. Our bags were in our hotel room when we arrived at every destination, every time. We never had to wonder where our bags were.

Alaskans are proud of their state and love to show it off. Give them a chance to show you their state. A chance to see bald eagles in the wild is special for us in the lower 48. Watching whales feed is something you won’t soon forget and the sight of a grizzly bear in the wild is thrilling. Condor Tours and Travel is experienced in booking Alaska and we have multiple options for visiting the Land of The Midnight Sun.

Cruising the St. Lawrence River and Nova Scotia

When people call us about booking a cruise, they usually ask about the Caribbean. It’s easy to see why. The weather is usually great, with warm temperatures and lots of sun. Alaska is another popular destination for cruising. Of course, Alaska is the largest of the 50 states and has one of the smallest populations; much of the scenery is unspoiled wilderness with little or no evidence of humans. Cruising on the St. Lawrence River and the waters off of Nova Scotia and Maine is similar to cruising Alaska (without the glaciers). The land here is sparsely populated, and the towns are small, just like most of the ports of call on Alaska itineraries. However, there are far fewer ships sailing these waters and visiting these ports. On our cruise, we were the only ship in port. You will have more space to explore without running into hundreds (sometimes thousands) of other cruisers visiting the same port. We recently cruised from Montreal up the St. Lawrence River and then through the bay of St. Lawrence to Prince Edward island. The cruise then went around Nova Scotia to Maine and finished in Boston.

We cruised on the Holland America Veendam. This ship was launched in 1996 and received a complete refurbishment in 2009. The ship is not new, however every space was clean, and we didn’t notice any excessive wear and tear. The carpets all looked fresh, and the public spaces were well maintained. The front desk staff was extremely helpful if we needed them for anything. This was our second cruise with Jude, the cruise director, and we were surprised that she remembered us from a cruise in February of 2015. Holland America has reduced ship board announcements to a minimum. This makes paying attention to the “where and when” pamphlet you receive every morning critical if you don’t want to miss a specific activity. We really recommend downloading the navigator program, which you can do free on the ship to keep track of everything.

Dining options on the Veendam are varied. The traditional buffet, The Lido Market, has taken the standard ship’s buffet and made it more of a themed experience. They have added in more fresh food, and everyone we talked to that tried the salad bar loved it. There is a decided Asian and Italian slant to the offerings in the Lido Market, so we could always find something we liked. Breakfasts in the Lido Market were some of the best I’ve had on cruise ships. We did not have a bad meal the whole trip. A portion of the Lido Market is converted into Canaletto. This restaurant serves great Italian food every evening. Reservations are required for Canaletto, and there is a small upcharge. Another dining option with a small upcharge is The Pinnacle Grill. We ate twice in this restaurant on our seven night cruise. Great food and impeccable service are the hallmarks of this amazing place to eat. Dive In, the burger joint, offers pool side hamburgers and hot dogs for lunch. There is also a taco bar set up close by. We had burgers twice on our cruise and visited the taco bar one day as well. On the lido deck aft of the Lido Market is Slice. This is a pizza parlor offering fresh pizza all day. We didn’t visit this place to eat because the early May weather was cold and rainy for our entire cruise. All of the restaurants offer gluten free options, including gluten free hamburger buns and gluten free pizza. The Lido Market had gluten free toast and bagels for breakfast, and the main dining room brought gluten free rolls to our table. We were also able to order gluten free desserts at every meal.

Deck 8, The Upper Promenade, is the deck where we spent most of our time. We had really bad weather, with temperatures in the 30’s and 40’s with winds up to 25 mph and rain every day, for most of the cruise, so pool time was limited. Deck 8 has four bars, the casino, a coffee bar, and all the shops on the ship. There was classical music every night in the Explorer’s Lounge and in the ocean bar. In Mix, the combination sports bar and piano bar right next to the casino, a piano player played more contemporary selections as well as requests. Bar and casino staff were friendly and efficient, however in the evening when the bars were full, service could be delayed. Some reviews have mentioned slow drink service on this ship. We did have to wait once or twice for a moment or two to order a drink, but I found it refreshing to be able to sit in a bar and listen to the music or just people watch without have to turn down ordering a drink every minute or so. Bar service was not a problem for us. The Crow’s Nest offered live music by night that was more contemporary and of course another bar.

We visited five ports of call on this cruise: Quebec City, Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Sydney of Cape Breton Island, Halifax Nova Scotia, and Bar Harbor, Maine. You will need a passport on this itinerary.

Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America. The old city is well preserved without being too touristy. The town can be walked, and there are many nice coffee shops and sidewalk diners to get a bite or just a pastry or cup of coffee. There were even a few fur shops, which is appropriate as Quebec was founded to service the French fur trade. The town is dominated by a huge Fairmont hotel and the Citadel of Quebec. The Citadel is an impressive star fort on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River and can be walked to from the ship. We didn’t take an excursion from the ship, we just walked through the old city and had a nice time. There was snow still on the ground in early May. Take a jacket.

Charlottetown, PIMG_0062rince Edward Island is small city on the southern shore of PEI (Prince Edward Island). This city also had very little tourist feel and was charming. We walked around the city in the morning and bought some locally made ice cream as well as some local chocolates (this is a weakness of ours!) IMG_0066The children’s novel, Anne of Green Gables, is set here, and much of the town’s tourism is themed around this fictional character. In the afternoon, we took an excursion booked through the ship’s excursion desk to a local falconry for birds of prey. We had close-up interactions with two of his birds, a hawk and a falcon. This was a one of a kind experience and I highly recommend this tour.  See the video here!

Sidney on Cape Breton Island is a small town you can cover by foot in an hour or so. You will want to book an excursion here to see the area. The fortress of Louisburg is found here. This is a reconstructed fort that predates the American Revolution. The fortress has locals in period costumes and is treated like a theater, much like old Williamsburg in Virginia. A very charming time can be spent here reliving the past in a living theater.

Halifax, Nova Scotia is a large city and if you’ve been internet deprived during your cruise, this is a great place to get reconnected. The city has a hop-on hop-off tourist bus that is very convenient to the cruise port. We just did a walking tour of the boardwalk along the port and then walked up to the Citadel of Halifax. This fort, built from 1828 to 1856, is Canada’s most visited national historic site. The fort is garrisoned by men and women in the uniforms of the 78th Highlanders (a renowned Canadian regiment). These men and women conduct firing demonstrations throughout the day as well as conducting a changing of the guard ceremony every hour. The Citadel also contains the Army museum highlighting Nova Scotia’s contribution to Canada’s military operations from World War 1 through the War in Afghanistan. There are also regular pipe and drum performances. Entrance to the citadel is free and was a highlight of the trip.

Bar Harbor, Maine is a charming small town. The town has many shops and restaurants as well as some magnificent homes lining the Atlantic Ocean. There is a museum in town dedicated to preserving a record of the area’s native population. Acadia National Forest is close by, and you can take an excursion to this beautiful forest. You will clear US customs before being allowed to visit Bar Harbor. This only takes a few minutes but must be done by everyone on board before anyone can exit the ship. This is the only port where you use tender service from the ship to shore; at all other ports the ship docks at the port.

So, if you’re looking for a cruise vacation with a little less tourist feel and you want to visit this lovely part of the world, consider taking a cruise. You won’t regret the decision.

Condor Tours and Travel, Inc. is a finalist in Gwinnett Chamber’s IMPACT Regional Business Awards

Gwinnett County (METRO ATLANTA) GA – Condor Tours & Travel, Inc. has been recognized as a leading area organization by becoming a finalist for an IMPACT Regional Business Award.
Designed to be reflective and unique to Gwinnett and across metro Atlanta, the program pays tribute to premier organizations in top industries that are driving economic development and job creation, while enhancing our quality of life.
We at Condor Tours & Travel have worked hard to create job opportunities to the local community. We also work with local companies to offer travel opportunities to their employees. For 26 years we have supported the Gwinnett County community.

Recipients will be selected in the following sectors:
• AEC (Architecture, Engineering & Construction)
• Education
• Healthcare
• Hospitality
• Information Technology
• International
• Nonprofit
• Service
• Small Business

“Bringing together leaders across these important industries is another example of how the Gwinnett Chamber can fulfill its mission to serve as a community forum,” said Dr. Dan Kaufman, President & CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber. “We are honored to provide a platform that showcases these excelling organizations, which are what makes the metro region a leader in so many areas.”

The awards ceremony will be held 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 10 at the Infinite Energy Forum.
An overall IMPACT Regional Business Awards recipient will be selected from one of the above category winners.

MEDIA CONTACT
Lori Snow – 770-339-9961, loris@condortoursandtravel.com

PROGRAM CONTACT
Cally D’Angelo | 678.957.4958 | CDAngelo@GwinnettChamber.org

Panama – It’s More Than the Canal

A highlight of visiting Panama is a tour of the Panama Canal. This modern wonder of the world, completed in 1914, is a must see for anyone visiting this amazing country. Most vacations to Panama include a visit to the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center offers a great view of the Miraflores Locks and the entrance to the Culebra Cut, which travels through the mountains of Panama to Gatun Lake. There is a movie on the construction of the original canal as well as the new locks and it has a nice gift shop. You can actually see in the distance the new locks that are now open. In addition, many people choose to book a partial transit of the canal for a close up view of the operation of the canal locks and the precise work involved in moving ships through this engineering marvel. Today however, I’m writing about the nature you can see while here.

Panama is one of the most biodiverse destinations in the world. With over 950 species of birds known to exist in the rainforests, Panama is a must for bird watchers. Your birding book will be filled with brilliantly plumaged rainforest birds and you will have amazing pictures to share when you return home. Birds are found all times of the year in Panama, and while the months of January, February and March are Dry Season in Panama, it can rain anytime, and Panama is warm all year round so weather isn’t usually a factor in scheduling your trip.

Barro Colorado Island (BCI), an island in Gatun lake formed when the Chagres River was dammed to create the Panama Canal, is a special destination close to Panama City. This island, isolated from human influences, is home to a Smithsonian Institution research facility. Hundreds of scientists conduct research projects on Barro Colorado Island every year. You can visit this nearly pristine rainforest environment after only a short drive and boat trip from your hotel, and experience unspoiled natural habitats. You will be doing a lot of walking on this excursion, so bring good hiking shoes or boots. To visit BCI, you must make a reservation in advance, or you will not likely be able to go, as they limit the number of guests, and it sells out. Tours generally include transportation to and from the island (often by boat from Gamboa), a two to three hour guided hike, lunch, and a visit to the museum. Hikes through the island offer the opportunity to spot many creatures, including monkeys, anteaters, birds, and insects.

The Jungle Boat Tour is one of our most popular excursions. This boat tour of Gatun Lake is a great way to have an up-close encounter with native animal species. You will see monkeys, and they will usually come on the boat for a snack. You may also see crocodiles, sloths and many birds. You will arrive at the floating lodge hidden in one of the finger lakes for a nice “comida tipica” (typical lunch.) This is a morning tour, so your afternoon is free for other adventures. The Jungle Boat Tour originates from Gamboa, a town where Gatun Lake meets the Panama Canal, cut through the Continental Divide.

Another tour offered near Gatun is the Aerial Tram Tour, where you will experience the rainforest from a different perspective. Glide through the canopy of the forest, from the shadowy rainforest floor through the understory, and into the sun drenched canopy. You will be accompanied by a guide on this mile-long trip, who will describe the flora and fauna that you will see. The tram ascends 280 feet over half a mile and ends at a spectacular viewpoint atop a hill. You may visit the Observation Tower where you will have a panoramic view of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal.

If fishing is your thing, Panama offers some of the best Bass fishing in the world. The Peacock Bass was introduced to Panama in the 1950’s and flourished in the warm waters of Gatun Lake. This fish is a fighter, renowned for its strength and endurance. Panama also has great salt water fishing opportunities. The waters here are the yearlong home to Black Marlin, Yellowfin Tuna, Roosterfish, Cubera Snapper, their famous Corvina, known in the United States as Sea Bass, and more than twenty other prized gamefish.

The indigenous tribes of Panama have been somewhat successful in resisting cultural influences from the modern world. The many tribes of indigenous people are spread throughout Panama and many are very remote. The Embera people, however, reside close to Panama City and you can visit one of their villages to observe a native village in action. You travel by land to Madden Lake, where you join up with the Indians in their dugout piragua boats and head up the upper part of the Chagres River above Madden Dam. This tour also gives you the opportunity to share a lunch cooked over an open fire of fish and plantain. The more adventurous folks can take the piragua to a tributary river and hike to a water fall for a swim.

You can spend a week in Panama and the surrounding rainforest with so many different choices, then head to the beach area to relax for a few days. The Pacific coast beaches are the most popular in Panama and are as close as 30 minutes and as far as eight hours from the city, so you decide how secluded you want to be. The closer to the city you are, the bigger the hotels will be; further away from the city, you can enjoy the small boutique type properties. Don’t miss out on all that Panama has to offer by doing a one day cruise in and out. Plan to spend seven to ten days exploring this beautiful country. Condor Tours and Travel offers many packages to expose you to this emerging country.