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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!

London Office Update!

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Apparently (so I’m told) we have some ‘regular’ readers (other than my parents), who check this page daily for the latest rants, raves and ideas that we have to share.  How cool!

First off, thank you (yes, YOU) for checking us out; we hope that you enjoy both our informative newsfeeds and anecdotal blog posts.  We are always open to suggestions and feedback; do let us know if there is anything specific that you would like to read about…travel plans that you want help with…burning questions about the universe that you need answered, etc.

Some of you might be wondering why, of late, we have been posting blogs less frequently.  There are a few reasons for this: for starters, check out the Beckham Bone Blog, which explains why I haven’t been getting around town to do all of the exciting/cool things that would inspire a juicy blog post…

More significantly, though, the last few weeks have been absolutely crazy here in London.  We’ve recently moved offices in order to accommodate our ever-expanding team of specialists.  An office move requires all sorts of fun little (and big!) tasks, which I never would have imagined.

Carrie at recording studioIn addition to helping my colleague Emma with the selection and ordering of new office furniture and decorations (as well as a Nintendo Wii…pictures to come), I was assigned the task of writing and recording the voiceovers for our new customer service call line.  What fun!  I actually got to go to a real recording studio—that of Mr. Tony Aitken, a most talented professional voice artist, who offered guidance and advice as we recorded the varied, numerous (and arguably humourous) tracks that will comprise the new customer service line.

You should definitely call in to listen for some hidden surprises (if not to book one of our tours!)—it will be the most fun you’ve ever had whilst ‘holding the line’, we promise.  I’ll post the new numbers once the line is up and running.

Other things to look forward to:

1. Videos:

We are in the process of adding a video function to our blog, which should prove to be entertaining.  I plan to upload some clips of different events going on around the city.

2. More tour reviews:

Lots of things to do and see in (and around) London!  Our top priority at the moment is our London Bike Tour; we want to get out there before the clouds…and rain…and cold…take over. (You should, too!)

Is there a particular tour you would like to read a review about?  Let us know.

3. New contributions:

Our Perfect Holiday Contest was a huge success.  We received so many creative entries!  We are always interested in new blog contributors; let us know if you have an exciting story to share.

That’s all for now!

Until next time…  :)

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Really low fares from London to Paris? Try the train!

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I have been flying across Europe for years, both for business and leisure, and I have to admit I have never had any amazing flight experiences. Not one single great story to tell about equipment, food or service. Sure, I have a slight preference for major carriers due to greater amount of leg room and (usually) easier to reach gates, but I most often end up travelling on low-cost carriers due to the price difference.

But now, I have something to say. Since my move to Paris I have been using the Eurostar train very frequently. THIS is travel!!!

To start, obviously, the train goes from Paris city center to London city center, so I avoid wasting time and money to reach remote airports terminals.

Next big thing: the Eurostar check-in is fully automated and takes about 10 seconds. Security is slightly faster than in airports but a similar process.

The next step is simply to sit down in your comfortable, wide seat and enjoy (or work, as I often do). No queuing up at the gate, no queuing up at the aircraft, no seatbelts, no security demonstrations and, more specifically, if you have to work on a laptop or can’t live without music (or both), no downtime switching off during take-off and landing. No complimentary coffee spilling over your book, no toilets for contortionists, no shaky situations.

Even more significantly: there is relatively little engine noise, so you can enjoy music, focus on work and have real conversations. Not to mention a large bar/restaurant area, where you can stretch and walk around.

The Eurostar booking process is also quite easy. The website is not top notch modern and sometimes goes bezerk, but it allows you to find the best fares and to select your own seat. You can pay online and just pickup your ticket at the machine once you show up for departure.

The Eurostar fares can be just as dramatically low as they can be high. Booking 3-4 weeks in advance gives you fares for 77 euros (60 pounds) Paris-London or London-Paris round trip! But booking within one week can take you north of 600 euros (500 pounds). If you’ve missed the good fares, try to search for ‘secondhand’ tickets on Google: there is one French website where you will easily find tickets. The fine print says that Eurostar tickets cannot be resold (the name is printed on the ticket). In practice, check-in and passport control are separate, and I have never heard of anyone being caught.

The only bad news is there can be queues at peak times.  If you’re travelling on a Friday evening London to Paris, for example, the station will be full of cosmopolitan commuters going home for the weekend.

Bottom line: I am surprised there are still flights operating between London and Paris at all. Unless you live or work next to an airport, or are on a connecting flight, there is no doubt in my mind: you should book early and ride the train.

Oh yes, and one more advantage: at arrival, get off the train, and you’re done! No taxing to gate, no shuttles, no luggage belts, no passport checks, not even customs….

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London Tourists: Mind your Beckham Bones

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About six weeks ago, on the way home from my office in London, I realized that I could no longer walk; that is, I shifted my weight from the side of my right foot (which, I suddenly/finally acknowledged, had been unnaturally stabilizing my gait for two weeks) and began to consciously move forward as human beings naturally should: by actually pressing the ball of my foot into the ground. Heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-ouch! Ouch! Ouch!  (Of course, when something hurts, you want to do it over and over…) OUCH.  Limp.  GP.  A&E…Stress fracture.”A fracture to my right second metatarsel,” I now casually spout off to any curious passerby who (skeptically) observes me hobbling on crutches without a plaster/cast…or any visible sign of injury.  For I have discovered that the word ‘metatarsel’ actually triggers a psychological mechanism in (most) members of the British public, whereupon glamourous images of David Beckham limping across the football field—sweat dripping from his brow as he winces in pain over his Achilles toe—flash across their mental television screens.  And suddenly, I become cool.  I have a seat on the tube, a hand with my handbag, a pint on my table…Really.At least 1/3 of the ‘Second metatarsel bone’ Wikipedia page is devoted to Beckham’s fatal fall in the 2002 Champions League match + subsequent media sensationalism.  The ‘Beckham Bone’, we now call it. Way to pave your eternal legacy, Big D.  Your heyday may have passed, but you will certainly have at least a photo caption in your great, great grandkid’s anatomy textbook (…Wikibook?).  May the Beckham Bone live on…Potential for increased sex appeal aside, having a stress fracture—albeit a small chink off the BB—actually sucks, and big time.  Especially in a big, expensive city like London.  Take my advice: if that dull-yet-concentrated pain in your foot seems to be worsening by the day, bin the fancy footwear and shuffle your trainers over to the GP (American translation: trash your stilettos and sport those sneakers to the doctor’s office…).Tourists Beware.The doc at the A&E’s first question: how long had I been ‘touring’ Europe? Ignoring his brash assumption that I was not, in fact, a well-adjusted Londoner (hmph!), I listened to what he had to say about tourists.  His insights were rather interesting; for apparently, tons of sightseers (usually Americans) visit UK hospitals each summer, reporting similar such pains in their feet.  Stress fractures are, in fact, common injuries among travelers that depart sedentary lifestyles to embark on a series of extended walking tours through Europe.  And to the utter dismay of the high-energy, culture-hungry tourist, the only treatment for a stress fracture is to sit still.”You must rest your foot for six to eight weeks.”Say wha…?Yes, one week of trapseing around Europe in bad footwear can (especially in the case of women with family histories of Osteoperosis) can lead to two months of lockdown.(FYI, metatarsel stress fractures are also common in army recruits, ballet dancers, and, of course, athletes.  In my particular case, the initial cause of the stress fracture was likely my participation in a weekly, high-impact dance class; walking around London in poor footwear certainly exacerbated the problem, though.  It’s all about the footwear!)Good-bye, Big Ben…Hello, Beckham Bone.Stress fractures seem like minor injuries but can actually become chronic problems if not properly treated: I’ve learned this the hard way, having prolonged the healing process by ignoring the doctor’s orders to sit still.  But the longer you don’t sit, the longer you won’t play.  So, “let pain be your guide”—and not the public eye—unless, of course, you can squeeze a few more pints out of the bartender with your polished Beckham banter…

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Small Town Getways (US and UK)

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TRUE OR FALSE:

In the past 30 days, you have:

1. ‘Accidentally’ elbow checked 5 or more fellow morning commuters in one 20 minute period.

2. Purposely umbrella-jousted a wandering sightseer to spite her for interrupting your morning commute, damn her tourist-idiot-who-gets-to-be-on-vacation…while you are stuck in flourescent lit basement office.

3. Submitted yourself to that recent Craigslist ad to become the poster child for the 2009 CACTS (Campaign Against Carpel Tunnel Syndrome).

4. Wished yourself away to an exotic beach and/or a vast expanse of desolate countryside.

5. Subsequently checked your bank statement and audibly cursed the ‘credit crunch’, Jesus, and your boss’s mother (in the middle of a conference meeting).

6. Gone and checked Craigslist—or Googled ‘CACTS’—after reading number 3.

If you answered TRUE to one or more of the above statements, particularly #6, I pity you. And I think it’s safe to say that you need a vacation (- holiday!).

Did you know that approximately 31% of employed US adults and 23% of employed UK adults will not use all of their vacation days this year? (See Expedia ‘Vacation Deprivation’ Survey, 2008.)

There’s something wrong here, people.

What’s the deal? ¿Que pasa?

¿Porque no nos vamos de vacaciones?

Why don’t you get out of that office and see some of the world?

Oh, right, because the world suddenly got a bit, er, A LOT expensive. But it is important that you break free from your ‘daily grind’ every once in a while, even if only for a few days…and even if you’re not going far. And EVEN if you think you can’t afford it. Because believe me, you can. Stop it with the grande lattes, walk/cycle to work, and pack your lunches. It’s time to plan your (affordable! nearby!) vacation.

Staycations?

…are great if you live in Maui, San Diego, West Palm Beach, Aspen, Savannah…Cornwall, Devon (…or even Thanet?). But what about those of us who are stuck in congested, landlocked metropolises? Who wants to join the tourists in museum queues (- especially the ones that you’ve been stabbing with your umbrella?) Not I…

Sometimes, all that you really need to recharge your batteries is a change of scenery and a bit of small town charm. When’s the last time you visited a mom and pop grocery store? A kite festival? A bog snorkelling championship? A craft show?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s time to abandon the city chaos, and get rural.

small town getaways with Big Time Charm:

1. Saugatuck, Michigan, USA

Nationally renowned beaches? Check.
Thirty plus art galleries ? Check.
Music? Theatre? Internationally acclaimed film festival?
Check. Check. Check…

Midwestern village, population 1,000?

That’s right!

Having spent a large chunk of my childhood locked in ‘the middle’ (of Missouri, specifically), I can empathize with those who long to dip their toes in something other than the local chlorine pond. How to solve this without spending your annual bonus on gasoline/airfare? You’ll have to make do with the lakes (as in Great. Though we went to the Ozarks when I was a kid.)

Chi-towners: you’ve got options (and loads of them!). I know, I know, the urban backdrop of North Ave Beach is no Cinque Terre village. So then try something new: cruise up the coast of Lake Michigan for a bit of sun, fun and culture…in Saugatuck! This harbour town is the hub of Michigan’s ‘Art Coast’—apparently a culture vulture’s ‘seaside’ heaven—boasting Victorian B&Bs, steamboat cruises, outdoor exhibitions, fairs, festivals, nightly shows and, of course, a do-it-yourself ‘Art Barn’.

What more?

Distance? 127 miles from Chicago, 193 miles from Detroit.

During? Summer for beaches (though they claim to have ‘six seasons’)

2. Lewes, Delaware, USA:

Lewes, Delaware (pronounced like the name ‘Lewis’) is actually my hometown, so I can vouch for its loveliness…with about 12 years of experience to draw upon. This quaint, beachside gem’s claim to fame: it is, officially, the ‘First Town in the First State’, having been settled by the Dutch in 1631. Beyond the easily accessible beaches: Lewes Beach on the Delaware Bay ( = no waves!) and Cape Henlopen State Park on the Atlantic Ocean ( = waves!), the historic downtown area boasts a range of high quality, locally-owned shops and cafes, alongside fantastic eateries, canal front accommodation, and a handful of interesting, historic landmarks (including ‘The Cannonball House’, named for a British ‘gift’ that has been lodged into its foundation since the War of 1812…).

Tips: go outlet shopping (Delaware is one of two states with no sales tax), and check out the Kite Festival if you visit in March.

(If you want to know about specific restaurants, hotels, nearby bar scenes for young people, etc, post a message below, and I will get back to you with loads of info!)

Distance? 119 miles from D.C., 120 miles from Philadelphia, 203 miles from New York.

During? May, early June, or mid-late September (less people, less jellyfish).

3. Lewes, England, UK:

Okay, we’ve pond hopped to the ‘original’ Lewes! (not surprisingly, Lewes, Sussex County, Delaware was named after Lewes, East Sussex, England…oh, what a transnational blog this is…)

Right…so Londoners, have you ever sipped a pint of Harveys Old Ale on a Sunday afternoon?

Lewes, home of Harveys Pub and Brewery, is a lovely little market town that can be reached by train from London in under two hours. A welcoming bunch, the chirpy Lewesians take pride in their local and national culture, identifying with a range of historic sights (- including a castle!) and, famously, the most debaucherous Guy Fawkes Day celebration in the country, which they host each year on November 5th.

The canal-front town is set against picturesque, chalky white cliffs: catch a ride to the top for some amazing views. And don’t forget to take a tour—and a taste—of Harveys Brewery!

Distance: Under two hours from London by train.

During: …predict British weather? Your guess is as good as mine. I would avoid Guy Fawkes Day (but if you really want to go, you should find a local to stay with).

4. Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, UK

Fancy a bog snorkel? In Wales’s, um ‘wildest’ peat bog?

Take an amusing—and last minute—break from the humdrum of city life by discovering the smallest town in Britain! Llanwrtyd Wells is known for its quirky annual festivals, the most popular being the annual Bog Snorkelling Competition, which will draw in competitors from all over the world and is happening THIS BANK HOLIDAY MONDAY AUGUST 25th.

If I didn’t already have plans to go to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, I would so be there.

Distance? 104 miles from Birmingham, 202 miles from London.

During? Now

May you escape the big city madness for one last summer adventure!

Cheers to small towns, quirkiness, and last minute whims…..

 

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PERFECT HOLIDAY CONTEST FINALISTS

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Thanks to those who participated in the 2008 isango! ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest! We were overwhelmed with enthusiastic responses and sincerely apologize for the delay in posting the finalists. But we’ve finally done it! Hooray! The top 5 entries have been selected, and it’s time to VOTE!

FYI: though we could only select 5 finalists, we truly enjoyed reviewing your (100!) entries. We admire your imaginative efforts; thus, the majority of this blog is dedicated to the bulk of entries that did not make it through to the shortlist. We have explained why certain types of entries were not selected and have included some relevant travel tips to assist you in actualizing your dream getaways!

If this sounds boring to you ( – it’s not, actually!), you can skip straight to the action, and:

CLICK HERE to VOTE for one of the TOP FIVE ENTRIES

…as selected by our team of travel writers and product specialists. Go ahead, do it! But remember, you can vote once, and once only!

SOME TRENDS AND TIPS:

(By the way, we’ve listed the finalists at the bottom of this blog in hopes that you will actually read the rest of what we have to say!)

…right, so we learned a great deal about your travel desires and needs from reading your entries—namely that most of you are in need of a good, long holiday! There were also some recurring themes:

1. “It’s not where you are, it’s who you are with…”
A large number you would prefer to spend your precious time away from the office on a romantic getaway with your significant other. Your descriptions of destinations were often very imaginative, but also quite vague, as you focused on the experience that you would have with the love of your life—just the two of you—isolated in paradise. These entries were fantastic (and heartwarming) but were also, unfortunately, more difficult to judge as sometimes we were not sure where, exactly, you aimed to go on your holiday! We suggest visiting the Romantic Retreats section of the isango! website to transform your, ahem, ‘daydreams’ (wink!) into reality.

2. Family First.
A large percentage of you have young children and thus face difficulties with planning to please multiple parties. For you, the ‘perfect holiday’ is one that is free of logistical nightmares: your entries thus tended to be long lists of things that you wanted to avoid (long queues, large crowds, flight delays), rather than of things you actually wanted to do. Though we can do nothing about rubbish airlines (except to complain right alongside you) we can help you to avoid ‘on the ground’ family feuds by encouraging you to plan a detailed itinerary prior to departing. Start with our list of Family Tours under the Activities section of our website, which can be narrowed down, for example, to theme parks and self drive tours.

Others of you focused on the needs of your parents and grandparents, wishing to fulfill their dreams by taking them to parts of the world that they have always wanted to see. We suggest starting with our Seniors category and narrowing your options down by country, or city, from there. (You can also always contact one of our friendly customer service reps if you have any questions!)

3. Some of you are, well, CRAZY…
Really, wow. You submitted some fantastically wild travel ‘plots’ (- you know who you are!). Check out some of our quirkier blogs for more unconventional ideas and inspiration.

Now, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for!

THE FINALISTS:

1. Hanlie Burger, ‘Shipwrecks, Sand Dunes and Desert Elephants’.

2. Louise Brown, ‘Northern Solitude’

3. Sarah Berl, ‘Spelunk!!’

4. Marian Redmond, ‘Campania Felix’, and

5. Sarah Stocks, ‘Tropical Rainforest? Or is it?’

A huge CONGRATS to Hanlie, Louise, Sarah, Marian and Sarah—and all of our participants—for dreaming up such fabulous ‘perfect holidays’! We cannot thank you enough.

Please vote here, and to pass this email along to all of your family and friends!

You can also check out more blog coverage of the contest here.

Thanks again for participating!

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Globe trotters unite: a journey with a purpose.

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Our ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest entries have been rolling in! A few of you got very creative with your responses, crafting globe trotting itineraries with inventive themes. Here are some of our favourites thus far:

1. ‘Southern Music Odyssey’, by Greg Davies

A road trip with a difference—i.e. not your usual ‘Route 66’ or ‘Coast to Coast’ American Dream. Due to my late grandfather’s musical obsession that he passed onto me, my dream holiday would be to drive the southern United States, visiting and enjoying some of the famous sights and sounds of Country music—the Grand Ol’ Opry, Memphis, Tupelo, Austin, Nashville—all in an old convertible…staying at old-style motels along the way and enjoying southern hospitality and good ol’ time music, the way it’s meant to be enjoyed!

2. ‘A Taste for Travel’, by Lydia Houghton

I’d have lobster in Cancun, cocktails in New York, A balti in Bombay, A Guinness in County Cork, coq au vin in Paris, a pizza in fair Rome, a chop suey in Beijing, and Swedish meatballs in Stockholm.

It would be such a treat to take a break from all the cooking, but the only problem is… my tummy might need tucking!

3. ‘Natural World Wonders’, by Chris Woodroofe

My Perfect Holiday would be a tour around all of the natural world wonders: Serengeti Migration, Galápagos Islands, Grand Canyon, Iguazu Falls, Amazon Rainforest, Ngorongoro Crater, Great Barrier Reef, Bora Bora Cappadocia and Victoria Falls. All I would need would be a backpack, a diary, and a camera…this would be my perfect holiday—very simple, but very rewarding, as the natural world wonders are being destroyed…

That’s all for now!

The official shortlist will be posted on the isango! website very soon. Be sure to vote!

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Transform Your Dream Holiday into Reality…

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It’s FAMILY TIME!

We’ve gotten some fantastic Perfect Holiday contest entries so far—do keep ‘em coming!

And, after further perusing your travel whims and fantasies, I’ve discovered that many of you dream not simply about secluded, romantic getaways as discussed in a previous blog: you want to get your entire families on board. What a task…

I know it seems difficult to fathom actually leading your family on an Arctic fishing trip…or guiding them through a bustling north African market. So many things to worry about: the cost, transportation logistics, and accommodation… your daughter’s current vegetarian phase…your son’s incredibly fair skin…your mother’s bouts with vertigo…

But have you ever actually tried to translate one of your visions of paradise into a real-life family holiday? Why not give it a try? Just cast all of the logistical details aside for a moment, and focus on the actual on-the-ground experiences that you desire: you can do this by first compiling a concrete, feasible list of tours and activities.

To assist you in this process, I have pasted some descriptive and imaginative Perfect Holiday contest entries below, responding with some suggestions.

1. Debbie’s Arctic Adventure:

“I’d take the family to Iceland for the most exhilarating holiday ever. We’d go whale watching in Husavik where humpbacks, minke, orcas, sperm whales white-nosed dolphins and harbour porpoises leap in the waters of the North Atlantic. We could go snowmobiling on the Solheimajokull glacier. We’d visit spouting geysers, bubbling mud baths and bizarre rock formations and bubbling lava flows in the Golden Circle. I want to tee off at 3am in the Arctic Open where amateurs and professional golfers compete through the night under a spectacular orange night sky. My kids could swim in the sea at the geothermally heated beach at Nautholsvik Bay, and I could ease my bad back in the pure, mineral-rich geothermal waters of the blue lagoon, a bright blue pool in the middle of a lava field which is world renowned for it’s healing properties. On September 20th is the Summer Solstice, the apex of a month of 24 hour daylight when the country celebrates the magic of the midnight sun. (Of course they also experience an equivalent month of darkness so everyone makes the most of the spectacle and parties through the night.)”

Debbie, thanks so much for that insightful description of Iceland! There are plenty of structured, guided tours of these places that you could sign up for to keep your family happy and busy—most of them from Reykjavik. I suggest checking out the following:

1. The Golden Circle Tour

2. Excursion to Snæfellsjökull National Park (Snæfellsjökull Glacier).

3. Blue Lagoon Experience, Reykjavik.

Good luck, Debbie!

2. Karen’s Paradise:

“My perfect holiday is landing in a place where the views and the heat take your breath away from the moment you arrive. I stay in a place where the walls are white, the floors terracotta and the flowers, red. I throw cases on the bed, take out all I need and head out to the pool. I smooth sunscreen on my son and watch, smiling, while he plays and explores and squeals excitedly over the lizards he finds. I lie with my eyes closed behind my sunglasses, sipping a chilled cocktail while the sun makes my skin tingle. My little boy calls from the pool, so I get up, walk to the edge, take a breath and dive into ice cold, ice blue water that in that second makes me feel more exhilarated than I have ever felt before. Later, we visit hot, exotic, noisy markets and walk round, holding hands, buying fabulous things we’ve never seen before. We visit a restaurant and eat delicious, local seafood with velvety wines from a table that faces the ocean as the sun sets. Beautiful people in traditional dress play music and dance while night draws in on the first day of our holiday…”

Well, Karen, this could be a number of places! A few destinations come to mind…have you ever considered visiting the Strait of Gibraltar? You could stay on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain to get your dose of sun, sand and relaxation… and take an excursion to Tangier, Morocco for the ultimate, colourful and cultural experience.

Some organised tours that your son might enjoy:

Kayaking Excursion in Nerja (Costa del Sol, Spain)

5-Day Morocco Sightseeing Tour from Costa Del Sol (from Spain to Morocco)

Strait of Gibraltar and Tangier Sightseeing Tour (Daytrip from Spain to Morocco)

Thanks again, Debbie and Karen!

May your holiday wishes come true!

Happy planning!

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What’s your ‘perfect holiday’?

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Ladies and gentlemen, get excited!

TOMORROW (July 11th, 2008) marks the start of our first ever ‘PERFECT HOLIDAY’ CONTEST.

Basically, you will get the chance win a £500 isango! credit towards your dream holiday by sending us your inventive description of what, exactly, constitutes your ‘perfect holiday’.

Watch this space for more details.

***Update – 14 July 2008***

Official ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest entry site:

 

http://www.isango.com/PerfectHoliday.aspx

In the meantime, to get your creative juices flowing (because I know you’ve all been dreaming of that perfect, exotic and adventurous getaway and thus will be entering the contest), here is a sample list of some perfect, exotic and adventurous ways that you could cash in that grand prize!

isango!’s 2008 Staff Picks…

1. Diving in the Red Sea

Diego’s love of wetsuits has drawn him to the warm waters, beautiful coral reefs and colourful exotic fish of the Red Sea. A haven for divers, the Sinai Peninsula coast offers some of the world’s finest underwater excursions; the chance to explore this rich biodiversity tops many travellers ‘must do’ lists. A truly unforgettable experience!

2. Golden Triangle Tour in India

This vibrant, picturesque journey takes you to three of India’s most fascinating cities, bringing the colourful history of the country to life. Delhi’s heady mix of cultures enthrals visitors, while the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur (which matches most of Bernie’s clothing—his reason for selecting this fine tour) is thought to offer the finest examples of Hindu architecture in the world. The unquestionable highlight is, of course, the magnificent Taj Mahal.

3. Amazon River Cruise

Single and sassy, Sarah likes to make the most of her (exotic!) holidays. Aside from Brazilian men, she enjoys a fair bit of rainforest adventuring.

Covering half of Brazil, the Amazon Rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest in the world and home to over a third of the world’s species. At its heart, the lifesource of the rainforest provides the intrepid traveller with a pathway through this region’s rich ecosystems.

4. Helicopter Ride Over Grand Canyon

When he’s not lounging in his leer jet, Ranjan likes to take fancy helicopter rides across America! He reports that photos, guidebooks and superlatives cannot do justice to the overwhelming landscape of the Grand Canyon. The only way to truly appreciate the scale of this natural wonder is to soar above its cavernous depths and majestic colours on an exhilarating flight.

5. The Inca Trail: Cusco and Macchu Picchu

An anthropology geek (yes!), Carrie’s excursion of choice must be, she reports, ‘enriching’ and ‘educational’. Among millions of other culture-hungry travellers, she is enthralled by the sacred legacy of Peru’s Inca civilisation.

This fascinating journey begins in the ancient city of Cusco and continues through the most significant of Incan archaeological sites (sigh!). Its climax and undeniable highlight is the dazzling, mountain top “lost city” of Machu Picchu.

6. Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater

Ajay and Amrit are up for an African safari adventure!

Arguably the world’s finest nature reserve, the Serengeti National Park and the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater provide a refuge for a fascinating variety of wildlife. After encountering some wildebeasts, zebras, lions and elephants on a guided land excursion, take to the skies on a breathtaking hot air balloon ride! You will come to understand why the term Serengeti, meaning ‘endless plains’, is so apt.

7. Diving with the Sharks in Cape Town

This is one for the thrill seekers, like our globe-trotting Emma!

Leave behind Cape Town’s white sands, blue skies and rolling green mountains and dive deep into the ocean for an experience that is sure to stay with you forever. Nothing can prepare you for the rush of adrenaline you will feel when you come face to face with one of nature’s great predators (so we assume that she would have reported).

8. Great Barrier Reef Cruise

Like Sarah, Jess is constantly on the move. On a quest for friendly adventure (and Aussie love!), she has most recently set her sights on the coast of Queensland.

The largest single structure made by living organisms, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 2000km along the northeastern Australia. Home to an abundance of plant and marine life and blessed with year-round sunshine, the reef and nearby tropical islands attract divers, snorkelers, swimmers and cruisers from around the world (providing the perfect backdrop for some romantic dinners!).

9. Adventure Cruise in the Galapagos Islands

When Daniele is out of the office, we suspect that he is hiding on an exotic island with his blackberry. It was thus no surprise that he selected this remote archipelago off the coast of Ecuador.

Boasting some of the world’s most unique animal species, the Galapagos were long untouched by man until made famous by Charles Darwin’s natural selection studies. And though many have followed in his pioneering footsteps to explore the islands’ unique ecosystems, the natural habitats have been well protected and preserved.

Escape the office to join Daniele, and you may encounter some giant Land Iguanas and Blue-footed Booby birds!

10. Giza Pyramids Tour

Rish’s macabre fascination with embalming fluids has made Egypt his destination of choice. His obvious starting point: the alleged tomb of King Khufu.

Travellers will delight in the mystery and legacy of the Pyramids of Giza! Surrounded by a necropolis of ancient monuments, including the world famous Sphinx statue, the Pharoah’s tombs envelop some of the world’s fascinating secrets, as preserved for over 5000 years.

Excited? Inspired?

The isango! ‘PERFECT HOLIDAY’ CONTEST starts tomorrow! Stay tuned!

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Where to Dine in Nice, France

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This is the second, juicy post in the Nice, France, series (check out the Nice, Part I blog here). In fact, this will probably be the juicest post of all, given that it’s all about food and wine!

After 7 years living in Nice, I’ve experienced lots of good restaurants…and lots of places to avoid!

I’ll save you 7 years of exploration with these few lines.

Local Specialties

The local cuisine is strongly Mediterranean – think olive oils, vegetables, fresh fish and delicious, roasted meats. Local specialties include the socca, a thin waffle made of chick peas, the pissaladiere, a thin, pizza-like bread with onion and olives, petits farcis, which are roasted vegetables stuffed with flavored meats, and, one of my favorites, la daube, which is basically beef stewed in red wine and served with fresh tagliatelle or ravioli.

There are many small restaurants in the Old City serving local specialties at decent prices – just ask around for a place that serves fresh socca. To try most local specialties in one sitting, look for L’Estocaficada, which has prices around 35 euros and serves 12 or so local specialties.

For some more upscale cuisine, try to get a seat at the bustling La Merenda. They don’t take reservations and only accept cash – it’s very small and always packed, so you can imagine how good the food is!

Local tip: just behind the Nice Etoile shopping centre (tramway stop Jean Medecin), there is a small, hidden street called rue Biscarra with 4-5 small restaurants that have terraces and small tables. These restaurants are beyond the typical tourist radar – definitely worth a visit! The best one is Vin Sur Vin, a winery serving wine (yes), cheese and sausages platters, fantastic meat and a consistently tasty dish du jour.

The old town is also full of hidden surprises. If you want join some locals for a few drinks, look for Les Distilleries Idéales or La Civette du Cours.

A (Michelin Star) Japanese Chef in Nice.

Yes, Keisuke Matsushima is a Japanese chef who has practiced French cuisine with top culinary experts; lucky for us, he ended up in Nice, where he setup a comfortable Zen-style restaurant, “Keisuke Matsushima” (previously called Kei’s Passion). This French restaurant – with a Japanese twist – is definitely worth a visit: think wasabi beef or fried zucchini with green tea sauce. Yum. His Michelin Star means prices are in the range of: 40-50 euros (lunch) and 130-150 euros (dinner).

(If you can’t live without your Japanese food while on holiday, there are plenty of sushi/Japanese restaurants in Nice, but they are mostly managed by Vietnamese or Chinese staff. In fact, there is only one real Japanese restaurant called Kamogawa, with real Japanese staff. Sushi-ya is a decent sushi shop with a Chinese chef, who did actually work for years making sushi in Japan. MySushi in the old town has a real Japanese chef but it’s overpriced , probably due to it’s centural location.)

Italian Restaurants in Nice

Given Nice’s proximity to Italy (and remembering that the Nice region was once part of the Italian Kingdom!), it’s not a surprise to find a flurry of Italian restaurants – pasta, pizza and all the rest – scattered throughout the city. But beware! Most of them are pale imitations, copying the Italian menus but delivering bland versions of the dishes. For a relatively safe bet, try La Villa d’Este and La Voglia (same owners, different locations – the first in the pedestrian rue Massena and the second just next to the Cours Saleya or “flowers market” in the Old Town). Both places serve wood oven-fired pizzas, abundant antipastis and pasta al dente. Unbeatable is their spaghetti ai frutti di mare (with seafood), served in the perhaps the largest individual bowl I’ve ever seen. Also delicious is their tiramisu dessert.

For something upscale, right across the street from Villa d’Este is the Boccaccio, famous for its seafood platters. For fresh seafood, don’t miss the traditional Cafe de Turin in Garibaldi Square. Another nice pick is the vegetarian-friendly La Zucca Magica, next to the port, with a fixed price menu (around 30 euros) changing every day.

Ice Cream (French – glace ; Italian – gelato) in Nice

Despite its proximity to Italy, the vast majority of ice cream shops in the French Riviera are rip off joints, only serving scoops of the same industrial ice cream that you can buy yourself in any supermarket.

A couple of exceptions can be found in Nice: Fenocchio and Crema di Gelato.

Ice Cream in Nice, France

Fenocchio has 2 shops in the old city, the largest one on the small square Rossetti, where they serve many flavors including local herbs (and even flowers!), such as tomato, garlic, lavander, thyme, violet, or rose. A must try experience.

Fenocchio’s icecream is produced in-house and is colder and icier than the real Italian gelato (if you squeeze it with your teeth you will feel like you are crunching many microscopic ice crystals….)

Crema di Gelato, on the sqare facing the Justice Palace, is totally Italian (so Italian that the owners barely speak French) and only serves 15-20 flavors, but the quality is divine. Unmissable are nocciola (hazelnut) and amarena (sour cherry and cream).

(Italian gelato is softer and smoother than ice cream as you may know it…)

Two other excellent gelato shops, which are located less central, are La Gelateria Torinese in Avenue Gambetta, and Arlequin on Avenue Malaussena.

Nice’s Nicest Beach Restaurants

Don’t expect to find fancy food here, but the charm and atmosphere of dining on the beach – overlooking the blue sea and sailboats zigzagging around the bay – is unmissable. I guess this is why the food is generally overpriced.

I’ll never remember a beach restaurant for the food that they served me…but they are worth the extra cash for the scenery, especially if you’re with good friends or on a romantic getaway.

Two are worth noting here: the first one is the Castel Plage, which the ‘leftmost restaurant’ on the Nice beach (when you’re staring at the sea). It’s quite posh and located just below the rocks, which makes the scenery even more beautiful.

The second one is the Hi Plage. This is brand new – just opened in the summer 2008, and I haven’t tried it, but it sounds great: the interior is apparently designed by the uber-trendy Hi Hotel, and the food is prepared by the one and only Keisuke Matsushima – him again! Can’t wait to try this one!

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Oktoberfest 2008: Plan Ahead!

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One of the biggest mistakes that I made when I was living in Florence back in 2004 was not preparing myself—mentally and logistically—for the craziness that is Oktoberfest. I decided to travel to Munich, Germany for the beloved international beer-a-thon on a last minute whim…fun and exciting, I know. But also…stupid. Young people actually do end up sleeping in train stations, and hotel owners do actually check to make sure you haven’t crammed 14 people into your two double bed shanty…..

Don’t get me wrong—my weekend at Oktoberfest was one of the most amazingly fun weekends EVER. I highly recommend going if you have the energy and the funds!

If you are aching to prost the night away with a group college pals and local, lederhosen-clad brethren this year, then don’t put off organizing your excursion until the last minute. There are a few details that you must consider…now!

First of all, Oktoberfest doesn’t really happen in October: the festival runs for sixteen days up until, and including, the first Sunday in October (it starts on September 20th this year). Most of the “regulars” have their accommodation and traditional costumes sorted out months in advance (the costumes, I learned, are actually a big deal for German participants, serving as important markers of cultural status/pride), if not on the day that they left the festival the previous year.

The most resourceful students on my study abroad program had booked their flights/trains and hostels the previous July …i.e. NOW, if you are planning to travel to Munich this September/October. I made the mistake of waiting until September to plan my trip, and, by this time, there were virtually no flights left. The few available seats that remained were outrageously priced, so I ended up taking a long, expensive overnight train. Book your flights now!

By the time I looked into accommodation, there was not one single hostel bed free in the city. I definitely do not recommend the “figure it out when we get there” approach—over 6 million visitors will be sleeping in and around Munich when you visit. Fortunately, someone in our group was resourceful enough to find us a reasonably-priced hotel room (reasonably priced because we split it 9 ways! And – eek – almost got caught! I do not recommend this approach!) …just two weeks before our visit.

Once you are finally at the fest, another useful tip: instead of gulping down a breakfast beer, start the day with a shandy (a tasty mix of beer and lemon soda), rather than overflowing steins of potent booze. The locals have already caught onto this trick, and they will be the ones that start at 10am and are still table dancing at dusk. Mix it up! You have all morning, afternoon, night, followed by the next afternoon, morning, night… afternoon…

Lastly, after a few days of tabletop debauchery, I realized that there was so much to see in and around the beautiful city of Munich! I definitely recommend planning a few excursions and activities; I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the city on a bike tour, which was led by a lively guide and, of course, included pub stops!

Also, though it feels strange, and even ‘wrong’, to abandon the world’s largest drinking festival to visit serious and solemn historical landmarks, you must consider: what is the likelihood that you will ever be in Munich, or for that matter, Germany, again? I personally chose to spend a day exploring the history of the region and took a trip to nearby Dachau; my visit to the Memorial Camp was life-changing, and I definitely do not regret it.

Well, that’s all on Munich/Oktoberfest for now! Do post a message if you have any questions or insights, and I will get back to you as quickly as possible.

I do hope that you make the most of your German adventure by planning smartly and traveling safely…

Good luck, and have fun!

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