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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts from March, 2013

Easter Around the World

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            This Sunday countries all around the world will be celebrating the Christian holiday of Easter. From an Easter egg roll with the President of the United States to decorating tress and bushes in Germany, Easter is wide spread holiday in both landscape and culture. Some traditions are joyous and others are sacrificial, however all celebrations are known to bring a variety of cultures and nationalities together.
 
United States of America
            Started in 1814 by First Lady Dolley Madison, the White House Easter Egg Roll is an annual event held on the White House Lawn for children and their parents. The roll happens on Easter Monday and is a race, where children push an egg through grass with long-handled spoon. This long time tradition has evolved over the years, and has hosted celebrities such as J.K. Rowling and Justin Beiber. In 2009, President Barack Obama and his family held their first Egg Roll and made headlines by being the first President to formally invite gay and lesbian families to attend the traditional event.
 
Cyprus
            Along with celebrating the traditional painting of Easter Eggs, the remote country of Cyprus has a customary tradition for people to light great fires in schools or church yards on Easter Sunday. This tradition is known as the Holy Fire and was first mentioned by the pilgrim Bernard the Monk in 870 AD. The Holy Fire is celebrated in many Orthodox countries, but is best known in Cyprus for it’s fierce competition between the neighborhoods over who has the supreme fire. Fighting for scraps and wood to create the biggest fire is a traditional ritual in Cyprus.
 
Germany
            Ostereierbaum, or Easter egg tree, is the German tradition of decorating trees and bushes with Easter Eggs. The origin of the tradition has been lost over time but the importance of the egg, as an ancient symbol of life, holds great importance to the German culture. Eggs are hung on branches of outdoor trees and bushes throughout the country, and also other German-influenced countries like the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and even the Pennsylvania Dutch region of the United States. The Germans also decorate the streets with Easter eggs including public wells or fountains on Good Friday. This tradition is called Ousterbrunnen, meaning Easter Well or Easter Fountain.
 
Colombia
            Instead of indulging in eggs and chocolate for Easter, Colombians like to eat iguana, turtle and the world’s largest rodent for their traditional Easter dinner. However eggs are incorporated into the cuisine with plates like turtle egg omelets, iguana soup, cayman stew, fried yucca and capybara, which is the world’s biggest rodent. Colombians travel for hours to spend the holiday with family and to prepare special meals, bringing exotic animals from faraway provinces to their relatives in big cities.
 
Great Britain
            In the United Kingdom “pace-egging” is a popular Easter ritual, which involves the rolling of decorated eggs down grassy green hills. The tradition is celebrated all throughout the United Kingdom, and was started with eggs originally wrapped in onionskins then boiled to give them a mottled gold appearance. An old Lancashire legend that says the broken eggshells should be carefully crushed afterwards or they will be stolen and used as boats by witches was turned into a customary tradition that is still practiced today.  You can join in on pace-egging at Holcombe Hill in Lancashire, Avenham Park in Preston, Bunkers Hill in Derby and Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. 

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Holi – The Indian Festival of Colours

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Holi; Credit-WoodlouseThe Hindu festival of Holi is celebrated on the last full moon day (or Poornima) in the Hindu Lunar calendar month of Phalgun. The days and dates vary every year. This year, 2013, the dates are March, 27th (Wednesday) and 28th (Thursday).

The Indian festival of Holi celebrates the arrival of spring, and all things new. It is probably the oldest of Indian festivals. It has ancient agricultural origins rooted in the wish for good and abundant harvests. The festival was inspired by nature’s colours, which covers the land after the grimness of winter; thus, the alternative title of “Festival of Colours.” It also marks the bringing in of the Rabi crop.

Without question it is one of the most colourful festivals in the world and the emphasis is on all things colour. It is a festival that is celebrated right across India – and the vast Diaspora around the world. In most places Holi is celebrated over two days but in some parts (especially the state of Uttar Pradesh) it lasts for over a week.

Celebrations take the form of people smearing coloured powder on each other. The colours are predominantly red, yellow and green. The powders are also mixed with water and thrown or sprayed by pichakaris (water pistols) at each other. On the first night there is also a community bonfire. There is much singing and dancing.

The festival has also taken on religious connotations with various stories associated with its origins. A popular and widespread one revolves around Krishna and his consort Radha.  Krishna had a mischievous nature and often played pranks on people around him. He would drench the village girls, including Radha in coloured water.

The other story is about the legendary demon king, Hiranyakashyap, who tried to kill his son Prahlad. The king got his demoness sister, Holika, to carry Prahlad into a fire. She was reputedly immune to the flames. However, in this instance she died while Prahlad came away unscathed. It is a moral tale of the triumph of good over evil.
 

Image credit: Woodlouse

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Touring of Mount Titlis, Switzerland

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Mount TitlisTravelling to Mount Titlis is a joy in itself. The journey from Zurich unrolls picture postcard perfect scenery in the way that only Switzerland produces.

The mountain is located in the heart of the Urner Alps in Central Switzerland. At 3,238 metres it is the highest mountain in this region. It has three main faces. The Titlis Glacier occupies the north face. The steeper and rockier southern face houses the Wenden Glacier.  The east side is also covered by the Firnalpeligletscher.

What gives the mountain its greatest attraction is the fact that a large part of the mountain is above the snow line. This means that its slopes are clad in snow for all 12 months of the year. It is subject to freezing temperatures, even in summer, and that brings in the visitors and snow enthusiasts. The Engelberg-Titlis combination has over 82 kilometres of slopes and five cross-country ski runs.

The mountain dominates the surrounding region – the Engelberg valley – in the Obwalden Canton. The slopes offer absolutely clear and stunning panoramic views of the area around.  Titlis and Engelberg provide much more than scenic photo opportunities for visitors. The facilities are excellent and typical – if rather expensive – Swiss high quality.

Skiing is the biggest and most obvious activity taking place here. However, you cannot ski all the way down from the top. Despite that there are several great runs down the mountain, one of which is via Jochpass, that takes you right to the village. The FSI organises an annual world ski jumping event in Engelberg. You can indulge in free-style or cross-country skiing.

The many slopes can be used for sledding, tobogganing and other snow-related activities.  There is long sledging slope of almost 4 kilometres. You can also go winter hiking or don a pair of snow shoes and take one of several trails.

What also makes Titlis famous the world over is its cable car system. The cable car was inaugurated in March 1967. The system incorporates a rotating gondola. Known as the Rotair this revolving car is the first of its kind in the world. A ride in it is a must and your breath catches several times on the way up because of the sheer beauty of the place and the novelty of the ride.

The system comprises of three stages that takes you all the way – from Engelberg to Klien Titlis (the summit). The first stage takes you up 1,262 metres to Gerschnialp; the second to Trübsee (1,796 metres) and finally the Stand (2,428 metres). There are shops and restaurants around the cable car station at every stage.

The last part rises above the glacier and from the station you can visit a glacier cave. The cave is brightly lit, which is a bit cheesy. It would have been more fun and exciting if you had to walk in with only a torch!

If skiing is not your style or you don’t know how or if you don’t have the time you could take a guided coach tour out of Zürich and spend the whole day at Engelberg-Titlis. That way you can enjoy the scenery and snow without the pressure (or expense) of staying and skiing.
 

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Why Travel Insurance is Mandatory

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Travel Insurance

Travelling abroad is still a big deal, even today when it is so commonplace. Vacationers will research and make the most painstaking plans about what they will visit; where they will stay; the activities they will undertake and the tours they will get on. They make contingency plans for funds, should they over spend on the budget.

Yet one of the most important aspects of travel is very often neglected. That piece of the travel package is insurance. For many prospective tourists it does not even enter into their thinking.  They do not cover themselves especially at a time, when more and more travelers are planning daring and adventurous overseas trips involving risky activities.

Every year millions of people are travelling abroad for a variety of reasons – vacations, study, work, business and sightseeing. Yet they assume that there will be no problems and that the trip will be trouble-free. Any one of a hundred things can go wrong when travelling abroad.

There are a host of reasons why you should take out travel insurance when travelling abroad. They could range from small yet important inconveniences to medical problems. You should make sure you buy comprehensive travel insurance because it provides the most effective cover in case your property is lost or stolen or you get injured or sick while you’re abroad.  Effective travel insurance may be the safety net that could save you in the event of unfortunate and unforeseen incidents or accidents while far from home.

One of the most common problems is the loss of valuables. For a variety of reasons things such as cameras, mobile phones and wallets get lost or stolen. Lost luggage by airlines is another common occurrence. Do not depend on airlines to compensate you for losing your luggage.  Legally airlines only have to pay per kilo of lost luggage. That does not mean that the value of your belongings will be compensated.

Another high risk possibility is a medical emergency either from an accident or from an existing condition. Medical treatment abroad can be expensive. A good insurance policy could save you spending a small fortune in such an event. Whether you are travelling on business or pleasure you do not want the trip ruined by illness and huge medical bills.

A good travel insurance policy should cover the following possibilities:

•    Medical and injury cover
•    Accidents
•    24 hour emergency assistance
•    Lost and stolen belongings
•    Cancellation of your trip
•    Bad weather
•    Strikes
•    Terrorism coverage
•    Cover for the entire duration of your trip

When looking for a good travel policy – find the right product rather than a cheap one. It might not be worth the initial saving. Older travelers may be taking a huge chance if they do not buy travel insurance. Studies show that one in ten of them don’t take any insurance at all. Many people deeply regret not taking out travel insurance. Don’t wind up being one of them.
 

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Houseboat Cruises, Kerala

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Houseboat Cruise, Kerala; Credit - PandiyanOn the tip of the south-western Malabar Coast of India lies a tiny piece of green heaven.  Self-titled, “God’s Own Country,” and rightfully so it is the state of Kerala. Bounded by the blue Arabian Sea to the west and the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats to the east, the state has many treats for the visitor.

One of Kerala’s most exquisite features is the vast network of natural waterways, canals, lagoons and rivers that criss-cross the state. They stretch from Kochi to Quilon. The backwaters of Kerala have always been a source of livelihood for the natives. Their transportation, agriculture, fisheries, culture and entertainment are derived from these waterways.

These picturesque, serene and languid backwaters provide a superb backdrop and means of seeing a rural and otherwise untrammelled Kerala. And the best way to truly experience the magic of the state is to take a languid houseboat cruise through these waterways. Places bearing exotic names like Alappuzha, Kumarakom, Kottayam, Kollam and Kuttanad drift by as you enjoy the fabulous and spicy cuisine from the comfort of your cushioned water palace.

Your Houseboat

The Malayalee word for houseboat is kettuvallam, which can be hired from a number of private operators, through travel agents, hotels and also the Kerala Tourism Department.

There are several options to the tours. The State Water Transport Department has half day and one day budget cruises between Alappuzha and Kollam and from Kochi with several departures during the day. Then there are the more upmarket, leisurely and luxurious tours.  You could choose from a wide range of time-tables, budgets, routes and destinations.

The choices could range from as short as a day to a week. But keep in mind that monotony and boredom on the longer trips can be a hazard. Two days (or 48 hours) is probably the best length of time – enough for you to take in most of the various sights and scenes along the way.

The houseboats are rather large barges that can vary in length from 80 to 110 feet. You will have plenty of space to lounge and stretch your feet. The houseboats’ capacity can vary from two to a family size with multiple bedrooms with many being quite exotic. They have living rooms with onboard kitchen facilities. Many are also air-conditioned! You can get fresh-cooked meals and drinks.

Here is a sampling of some of the dishes that you could on your cruise. While not watching the passing scenery you could get your fill of Kerala’s unique foods, many served on traditional banana leaves.

Karimeen Pollichathu: A fish offering baked with a paste of chillies, spices and curry leaves.

Fish Molee: Sear fish cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with spices.

Appam & Mutton Stew:  Appams are soft-centred, lacy pancakes to be had with mutton, banana, or mixed vegetable stew.

Fresh Coconut Water:  The best drink in Kerala.

So depending on the length of the cruise, the number of people and the boat facilities the prices can range from US$80 to almost US$300. You can generally hire a houseboat without too much notice or advance booking except during the tourist high season.

The high season runs from December to the end of January when the weather is relatively cool and dry. March to May is very hot and humid – so an air-conditioned boat is a good idea. Doing a cruise during the monsoon period has its own magic but the monotony is terrific as it can rain non-stop and visibility may be rather limited.

The houseboat cruises is a brilliant and delightful way to slowdown and relax from a hectic travel schedule all the while experiencing a visual and scenic paradise.
 

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Las Fallas – Festival in Valencia

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            In March Valencia is home to one of Spain’s largest celebrations called the Falles, which is a traditional celebration commemorating Saint Joseph. The celebration lasts for 5 days and 5 nights, and is a perfect reason for a vacation. From March 15th-19th the streets and small neighborhoods of Valencia will be filled with people of all ages throwing fireworks and noisemakers into the streets to celebrate the culture and history of Valencia. Known to Spaniards as Las Fallas, there are 6 main events that make up the popular festival that cannot be missed! La Despertà and La Mascletà are events that occur in Valencia’s neighborhoods and are large displays of fireworks, firecrackers and musical celebration. La Despertà happens at 8:00 am but if you are not a morning person La Mascletà is the larger celebration at 2:00 pm.

La Plantà is an event that happens on the first day of Las Fallas and marks the start of the festival. Neighborhood leaders, also known as the Casal Faller, produce a structure known as a Falla, which is eventually burnt down at the end of the festival. A good way to see the Falla's and the neighborhoods is through a walking tour around the city. A walking tour will also show you where the fourth event of Las Fallas is, the L’Ofrena Floral, which is the floral offering given to Saint Mary by the Casal Fallas. This event occurs on March 17th and 18th and is a larger event than described because by the end of March 18th Saint Mary is beautifully covered in flowers and floral arrangements. 

If the firework displays at 8:00 am and 2:00 pm are not enough for you, Els Castells and La Nit del Foc, the night of fire, are nighttime fireworks displays at the old riverbed in Valencia. They occur on the first four nights of Las Falles and each display gets progressively grander. If your looking for something to do in between the multiple fireworks displays, bike and tapas tours are an excellent way to learn about the culture and history of Valencia.

All of these events and information will get you ready and excited for the final event of Falles, which is held around midnight on March 19th, La Cremà. The Falles that were constructed by each neighborhood are burnt in a huge bonfire to symbolize the end of winter and beginning of spring. This tradition started in the Middle Ages when artisans disposed of their winter wood by burning them to celebrate the spring equinox. This ritual evolved over the years into Las Fallas, which is now one of Spain’s largest celebrations. So hurry up & book your trip, celebrate the coming of spring with the people and community of Valencia. 

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Hop-on Hop-off Sydney

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Hop-on Hop-off Sydney Bus Tour; Credit - express000
Whether you drive, stroll or take a bus through Sydney you cannot help but notice that it is a really beautiful city. It sprawls around one of the most beautiful harbours in the world – Port Jackson more famously known as Sydney Harbour. The presence of rivers and the sea; the numerous inlets and coves that make up the city all means that the place is chock-a-block with the sails of hundreds of boats. This makes for a wonderfully picturesque setting.

Research has shown that the Sydney area has been inhabited by humans for over 30,000 years but modern settlements came up after James Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770. The site of the first town in Australia was at Sydney Cove in 1778, which was a penal colony. Today the city is spread out over the surrounding hills and coastal areas that include the famous Bondi and Manly Beaches.

Despite the dominating presence of water, Sydney also boasts some really attractive and well-maintained parks and green areas such as Hyde Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens. The city is also surrounded by several National Parks.

Along with natural beauty, Sydney offers great shopping and dining experiences. The best eating places are around the beaches and waterfronts. It also hosts many international sports events and arts festivals.

Sydney enjoys generally fine weather and is a great place to visit throughout the year. It has plenty of sunshine and fabulously blue skies. So the hop-on-hop-off open top bus tour is a great and most convenient way to see the city and that too at your own pace. It allows you to follow your own sightseeing plans.

The hop-on-hop-off bus tour includes stops at the following places:

•    Circular Quay
•    Wynard Arcade
•    Queen Victoria Building
•    Town Hall
•    William St
•    Kings Cross
•    El Alamein Fountain
•    Woolloomoolloo Bay
•    Sydney Opera House
•    Botanical Gardens – (Scenic walk to
•    Mrs Macquarie Chair)
•    Parliament House/NSW Library
•    Hyde Park
•    Australian Museum
•    Central Station
•    Power House Museum
•    Sydney Fish Market
•    Star City Casino
•    Maritime Museum
•    Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre
•    Imax/Chinese Gardens
•    Sydney Aquarium
•    King St Wharf
•    Campbells Cove
•    The Rocks

Notes:
•    The tours include full English commentary. Some include entry fees to several attractions.
•    They don’t include meals, drinks, tips and gratuities.
•    Children below 4 years old are free of charge, provided they do not occupy a seat.
 

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