I Left a Piece of My Heart in Africa: Part 1

— Amanda Vallone

 

On September 21, 2017, of group of 19, including my family, and myself departed Daytona Beach for our very own African Adventure. None of us knew what was in store. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I watched every movie, read every lonely planet blog and article, spoke with my Salute Africa Rep more times than was humanly possible, and (tried) reading as many books as I could about the culture, destination, and trip… But the fact was: none of our 20 extremely well-traveled explorers had ever stepped foot in Southern Africa. Kenya, yes; Egypt, sure; Asia, a dime a dozen; Europe, almost everyone. But this African Adventure was a first for us all… In so many ways.

We were picked up in style from Roseborough Travel via luxury limo bus to make our way to the Daytona airport so we could have a nice and smooth departure out of our nearby airport.

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I won’t sugar coat this part; our flight was cancelled due to engine failure. We were extremely happy they figured that out while we were still on the ground!2

We were re-accommodated on a later flight, but we missed our first day in Cape Town because of the delayed flight and missed connection (thank God for travel insurance and pre-nights).

After many hours of flying, we finally arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, to a very cosmopolitan airport, that in my opinion was more streamline and even more lovely than most we have here in the states (this was my first pleasant surprise). As soon as we grabbed our luggage and walked out the exit gates we saw James, our tour director for Cape Town (our next very pleasant surprise).

The very courteous, pleasant, informative, and yes, handsome, James brought us to our home for the next 3 nights, the Southern Sun Cullinan, a waterfront area hotel in Cape Town with free shuttle access to the VA waterfront.

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The hotel was our third and most amazing pleasant surprise of the evening. Yes, I looked at every photo online. I read all of the trip advisor reviews.  But this hotel is rated a 4* hotel, and when you are going to another country, 4* is a different standard than we as U.S. travelers are used to. There is a sliding scale of the rating standards. OMG, we pulled up to the Taj Mahal of hotels (okay, I might be exaggerating slightly…). After spending 2 days on airplanes, though, this did feel spectacular.

The Southern Sun Cullinan gets its name from the largest Diamond in the world. It was found in the diamond mines in Africa, and when the diamond cutter went to make his first cut he passed out from the stress. This diamond now sits in England on the crown jewels.

Table Mountain

Prominently overlooking the city of Cape Town, this 600 million year old flat-topped mountain is one that is not to be missed. With its own rich diversity of plant life distinct to the Cape alone, it is no wonder Table Mountain is one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of Nature.’ You can see Table Mountain from all over Cape Town, but you cannot truly say you have taken in all of its glory, or truly visited Cape Town for that matter, until you have stood on top.

So if the day is clear and you get out early enough in the morning, you must get to the top of Table Mountain. We had pre-arranged tickets thanks to Salute Africa and Roseborough, which cut our wait time down by over an hour and a half on that day. The short ride in the cable car was fun; it spun slowly so that no matter where you were standing you could see different views — and yes, we saw many mountain climbers making their way to the top (eeek!).

After reaching the top there was a nice coffee shop and a gift shop, plus a ton of area to walk around. From the top you could see so many beautiful sights including: Devil’s Peak to the east, Lion’s Head to the west, the dramatic backdrop of the city of Cape Town, Signal Hill, the City Bowl, and Table Bay Harbour. The highest point on Table Mountain is towards the eastern end and the views are simply fantastic.

Fun Fact: There are more indigenous plants on Table Mountain alone than in all of Great Britain.

And there were these little animals called the Dossie. They looked like a large rodent, but they’re actually the closest living relative to an elephant.

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If you’re a thrill-seeker but climbing up the mountain isn’t enough for you, maybe rappelling down the mountain is more your style? It’s actually abseiling off Table Mountain (backward rappelling) that you would be doing. And though no experience is necessary, it is not for the faint of heart. Our Adventurous Explorers looking to partake in this will have a helmet and be hooked to a cable with a harness and a pulley system as they take their 367 foot long controlled descent off of Table Mountain. Truth be told, I would totally do this (it’s my kind of crazy). But even to me it looked slightly unnerving. I mean it when I say, you really can’t say you’ve visited Cape Town until you’ve stood on top of Table Mountain, or abseiled to the bottom (and maybe left some of your breakfast there).

Is it wheelchair accessible? Yes! Workers took my mom in her wheelchair, as well as a few walking with canes, up an elevator ahead of the group so they would not need to stand in line.

Child friendly? YES! Especially if you dose your kid with hot cocoa like I did.

How to dress? You must wear clothes… hahaha. Okay, but seriously, Cape Town was fairly chilly and we felt it there at the top of the mountain — burr…

Hout Bay

Also known as ‘Wood Bay,’ Hout Bay is a town about a 30 minute drive from Cape Town, South Africa. At the southern tip of Africa, where two of the world’s greatest oceans converge, a total experience of land, sea and the rainbow culture of the Western Cape offer you the most exciting land based whale watching venues in the world! It is also generally referred to as the entire valley, and the boarding the Cape Peninsula. For the sake of this blog, I refer to Hout Bay as the general area or the entire Valley.

Chapman’s Peak Drive

The 30-minute scenic drive from Cape Town, known Chapman’s Peak Drive, is all about incredible scenery. It was most easily related to our amazing drives along Big Sur in California — by the way South Africa looks more like Hawaii and Northern California than any other destination we could relate it to.

Known as the “Chappies” to residents, Chapman’s Peak is the rocky coastal roadway overlooking Noordhoek and Hout Bay. It is also where we were able to see whales (humpbacks making their way with their young from Antarctica), boulders, seals, and baboons. And to our surprise Chapman’s Peak Drive also forms part of the route for the Cape Argus Cycle Tour and the Two Oceans Marathon. The winding cliff roads made our entire group think these people might be crazy, but who are we to judge?

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Seal Colony

When one thinks of Africa, she normally would think of the big 5 Game animals — specifically Lions, Rhinos and Elephants… But South Africa is home to many more species of quite amazing creatures. The South African Cape Fur Seals are the only species of seal to form permanent colonies in Africa. These Cape Fur Seals can be found in South Africa and Namibia.

We took a boat, the Nauticat, out into False Bay to see a colony of Fur Seals. There was at least 150 of them living on this big rock formation out there. The boat ride took about 30-45 minutes, and it was pretty rough and choppy.

I would highly recommend sitting outside and in the front of the boat — I know the front is not where one who gets seasick would normally sit, but this was where the best wind/breeze came from. Do NOT sit inside the boat, like my family did, unless you have a spectacularly strong stomach.

I sat in the back of the boat outside for most of the trip and had a nice ride, but once we arrived to the seals the front was so crowded that it was hard to capture the amazing pictures everyone else got. The seals were barking, jumping, going wild with anticipation (the probably though the tourists looked quite similar to them because we were all so excited, too). It almost seemed like they were putting on a show for us.

Boulder Beach

After a beautiful drive and quite full day, we made our way out to the next most unique animal, in my opinion, for South Africa. And it also just so happens to be one of my favorite animals — the PENGUIN!21

Boulder Beach is located off a picturesque drive in Simons Town, and is unique to an endangered land-based colony of African Penguins. This colony of cute little birds is one of only a few in the world, making the site famous to locals and international visitors.

There are only about 2100 penguins at Boulder Beach, which may seem like plenty for your one stop for the day, and it is quite enough in terms of a “tourist” hot spot to visit. But the sad yet harsh reality is that this colony of incredible animals was moved from the Vulnerable to the Endangered Species list for good reason. The beach was turned into an animal sanctuary in 1983 after seeing an 80% decrease in the population worldwide, which helped considerably for a while. The census of penguins had grown in 2005 to 3900, but then in 2011 decreased back down to 2100 birds. I am so thankful I had the opportunity to visit Boulder Beach and see these birds.

Fun facts about the beach & penguins:

Come one, Come all! – The beach itself is ideal for children as immense boulders shelter the cove from currents, wind and large waves. The Penguin walking area is also a great spot for the wee ones. Not only are you teaching your young about the beautiful birds of the world, but it really is just fun. I brought my very own mini-explorer Aurora, and she loved it!

Thou Shall Keep Thy Hands to Thyself! – Seriously, don’t touch or feed the penguins unless you want to be left with a nub. These birds may look cute and cuddly, but their beaks are as sharp as razors and if they feel threatened they have no qualms about nipping a finger or nose. And as mentioned earlier, you have 2100 of those beaks to compete with.

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Walkways, Parking, and Viewing – Within the park itself, the Boulders consists of 3 beaches, 1 penguin viewing area, and 3 boardwalks. The boardwalks were built to allow for safe and beak-injury-free viewing of these wonderful birds. There are specific viewing hours and limited parking, so depending on the season you go, be sure to arrive with sufficient time and the ability to search for parking. Parking is available at either end of the park, on Seaforth Rd and on Bellevue Rd.

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Wheelchair Accessible – Yes, kind of. So you will see that I often, especially on this trip, talk about wheelchairs or special needs. Though I in no way use a wheelchair or accommodation, my mom who travels with me quite often has been in a wheelchair since I was four years old. She can walk a little, but not long distances. So this is important for this area. Wheelchairs – YES! All the viewing areas have ramps and are on boardwalks so it is wheelchair accessible. Just be careful to park in the regular lot. There are regular parking lots, and then there is alternative parking pretty far out. If you go park further away, you will be directed down a beautiful walking path covered in sand. Anyone who has pushed a wheelchair before knows it is not easy to push one through sand (remember you are on a beach). So, as long as you park in the regular lots- you are golden!

Who are you calling a Jackass?!? The aquatic birds were formerly called Jackass Penguins due to their donkey-like braying. You have the biggest chance of really “getting this” noise and experience from March–May.

Cape of Good Hope

Known as one point with one million points of view, and home to the famous sign most people who visit South Africa get their photo in front of showing “furthest point South West,” Cape of Good Hope. Cape Point is in the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve within Table Mountain National Park. Cape Point is a narrow stretch of land that encompasses beautiful valleys, beaches, plant life, and over 250 bird species.  This really was an amazing stop for the day.

As we entered the nature reserve, we were greeted with troops of baboons lining the roadway. This was our first experience seeing so many all at once — they later turned into sightings for us like Sandhill Cranes in Central Florida, or even alligator sightings here or deer sightings up north (pretty common, yet still pretty freaking cool).

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Things to see:

Lighthouse – In 1859, the lighthouse was put at the highest peak above sea level to help protect the sailors coming into the bay.  By day, it was a navigational landmark and by night, and in fog, it was a menace plagued by violent storms and dangerous rocks that over the centuries littered shipwrecks around the coastline. The lighthouse still stands there today, and you can visit it to look out on the coast of South Africa.

What the Funicular? – We took an exhilarating ride on the Flying Dutchman, a funicular that departs the bottom of the mountain every three minutes. The Flying Dutchman Funicular is believed to be the only commercial funicular of its type in Africa, and takes its name from the local legend of the Flying Dutchman ghost ship. So what is it? It is like a tram ride, but rather than being suspended from above, this cart is run on a rail system. It’s pretty cool and it saves you from going up the many steep steps and through the endemic fynbos (meaning fine bush) on the hike to the top.

Wheelchair accessible? YES! Mom got onto the flying Dutchman in her wheelchair and I had a few others with canes or walkers that were accommodated with seats. 40 people can fit into this trolley-type car, and it is totally worth the ride.

Also Known As: In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias named the shipwrecked point, ‘Cape of Storms’. The ‘Point’ was treated with respect by sailors for centuries.

All these views, now I’m hungry! – No need to worry, you do not have far to go — the Two Oceans Restaurant is where we had lunch for the day, and it was incredible! We of course had group reservations and our meal was included in the tour — Thank you Salute Africa for recommending this! I got the fish, of course! And it was superb. Also, the wine, produced right in South Africa, was not only quite tasty, but extremely affordable. A glass was about $3 — HELLO! The Wine-o in me rejoices! Two Oceans even made a special kid’s meal for Aurora the Explorer. Oh, the views weren’t too shabby either. The whole back side of the restaurant overlooks the bay and is ceiling to floor glass, giving patrons the most spectacular views. The restaurant is as famous for its seafood as it is for its views, including a superb wooden deck that looks out onto one of the most stunning ocean views in South Africa.

 

 

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Explorer Spotlight: Jeffery Higgins

The best part of the trip for me from an activity perspective was the downhill mountain biking.  I always thought mountain biking was a technical thing – around rocks, over roots, through a stream – but this was totally different. Daredevil stuff in a beautiful setting.  The speed and the scenery were great.  If anyone thinks they have the guts, I highly recommend this activity in Ecuador or anywhere else.

I think our favorite location was Banos. There was a ton of stuff to do, and we could’ve easily spent another couple of days there without getting bored. Kind of a hippie, ski-village vibe without the snow.  Lots of outdoor activities, decent nightlife.  It’s obviously geared towards tourists without being tacky or “touristy.”  Still hidden off the radar, so easy to take in on a limited budget.

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Doing the sporting activities in a different country was interesting because of the risk element & because of the level of cultural immersion.  I’ve never felt so far from the US or what I considered “normal” life.  Plus, some of the activities were a little dangerous, and because of the language barrier (more on that later), the safety training was very different than you would get for similar activities in the US.  I know we talked about it before, but if anyone is going on this trip, they will enjoy themselves a lot more if they have at least a little experience with whitewater rafting, canyoning, or fairly intense hiking.  You don’t want to be a rookie at everything.

As far as advice for others looking at a trip to Ecuador, tourism seems pretty new to them.  As a result, things there are cheap (since the money-grab hasn’t started yet), there aren’t many opportunities to buy souvenirs (let alone the t-shirts or hats most Americans expect), and the language barrier is VERY real.  Even at a major hotel in the capital city, the desk clerks didn’t really speak English & were not very sympathetic if you didn’t speak Spanish.  I kind of liked this (after all, I want to know I’m in Ecuador, not feel like I’m in Epcot), but people should know what they’re getting into.

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As for the adventure aspect, G Adventures tells you just how physically challenging a trip will be.  Travelers will be wise to listen to them.  I think this trip rated a 4 out of 5 as far as how challenging it was & that was a very accurate rating.  In pretty much every activity there was a real risk of harm and people experiencing minor injuries (twisted ankles/knees, minor falls, blisters, cuts, bruises) throughout the trip.  In addition, because of the altitude & intensity, fitness should be taken into consideration.  You don’t need to be an Ironman triathlete, but you need to do more than walk the dog to get ready to make it through this trip.

 

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Iceland – The Land of Northern Lights, Magical Trolls, and Mystifying Foods: Part 1

by Amanda Vallone

 

Every year we plan a trip for the first quarter to go somewhere “big” as a group. In 2015, we went to China; 2016 it was Germany. For 2017 we decided to visit Iceland. Automatically people ask, “Why in the world did you go to Iceland in February? Wasn’t it cold?” Well the answer is “Yes!”

Iceland in February is very cold. It ranged anywhere from 0 to 32 degrees, depending on where we were located and the day. But the temperature was not really that bad.  Being a native of Buffalo, New York, I grew up in cold weather; what got to me was the wind. The wind was freezing, bone-chilling cold. So, I suppose that make you want to stop reading and say, “ehhh Iceland isn’t for me!” Well WAIT ONE MORE MINUTE!!!

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To answer your question, we chose February because of the Northern Lights. We were on an Aurora Borealis trekking expedition. If you have read a blog by me in the past you may know my daughter’s name is Aurora, and though she may be a princess in my book, Disney’s Briar Rose was not her namesake! Rather the beautiful greens, purples, and blues of the northern lights were the inspiration for my child’s name – Aurora and our quest for viewing these lights everywhere we can. Many people travel to Iceland on a journey to discover these beautiful lights during the winter because there are few hours of daylight. Actually, sunrise is somewhere around 10am and sunset is somewhere around 6pm, so you have the largest opportunity to see the auroras during the winter months. Also, Auroras go in cycles. Aurora flares go in 10-40 year cycles and this year was the last year in the cycle. Quite honestly, Aurora is a bit of a diva – even on the best of auroral flares you may not see her in all of her beauty because she will hide under cloud cover.

 

 

On our recent trip to Iceland we did not truly see the Aurora Borealis the way we thought we would. We did however have a heck of a great time experiencing everything else Iceland had to offer. One evening in Reykjavik, we sailed into the darkness of Faxafloi Bay in search of the northern lights. My hubby George and best friend Sherri both saw a slight streak of green dance through the sky for a moment. But the even better part of that excursion was getting into these crazy outfits. It was one size fits most and for a 6’4 “retired” football player (offensive lineman) squeezing into this tiny red suit was quite the entertaining event for all of us to watch. And it was a great show that George put on.

 

 

So besides Northern Lights, why else visit Iceland?

Well honestly, the rest of the trip was the icing on the cake, it was spectacular!

From waterfalls to glaciers, volcanos to fun food this trip was superb. So I will just go stop by stop.

 

The Golden Circle

 

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This is a route that encompasses many of Iceland’s most renowned national wonders and some of the best stories.

We went to Thingvellir National Park – Iceland’s most historic area where in 930 A.D. Icelanders gathered and formed one of the world’s first parliaments.

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It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it is where the North America and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. The views were so magnificent here it was unbelievable. We walked along a very icy path to see each of these sights and the sun hitting the water and ice in the background was so worth the cold, wind, and walk. Simply stunning.

There was one section that was quite disturbing. Our guide told us a story that back in the 17th century public execution was part of Icelandic way of life. From beheading to hangings, there were multiple ways of punishment. But at Thingvellir there was one disturbing part in particular – the pool of shame. A stain on Icelandic history, it is now recognized by a plaque at “the drowning pool” where parents would bring their “loose moraled” daughters who got pregnant out of wedlock to this pool and tie them up and drown them L How Sad!

 

 

 

Gulfoss- aka the Golden Falls

 

Gulfoss is a spectacular double cascading waterfall that is simply stunning. You can view it from above and see the rush of the waters (as seen in the video clip here). OR view from below.

 

 

To view from below, be VERY careful! You must go down a very steep set of about 100 wooden steps. In the winter the mist from the waterfall creates ice on the stairs and makes it difficult.

*****Packing tip: This was the second place we noticed you really should have Yak Trax or something similar for traction. You will need them! ****

 

 

 

Seljalandfoss

 

Gulfoss may be the most popular of all the falls in Iceland, but Seljalandfoss was my favorite. We could actually walk behind the waterfall! This is again a place that you must have the proper footwear and rain jackets/waterproof jackets or you will not be a happy camper. In order to protect my water “resistant” jacket I wore one of those cheapie ponchos and I was happy I did. I still got soaked! Was it worth it? TOTALLY! Seljalandfoss is a MUST for an Iceland trip.

 

 

 

 

 

VIK

 

From there we went onto the southwestern-most village in Iceland, Vik. We stayed at Hotel Katla Hofdabrekka, in the “new” side. From the outside pulling up it was slightly worrisome. I was told it was somewhat like a compound by others who had gone before me. When I pulled up, I thought – OH NO, the 22 others I brought with me will hate this. Oh boy was I wrong! This place was spectacular! Truly amazing! The outside of the hotel looked slightly like a “compound” sure. But the rooms inside were very stylish and “ikea” inspired. The breakfast and dinner we had daily at the hotel were wonderful! And if you can get a room at the very end of the hallway it is even bigger than all of the rest. SCORE!

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While in VIK we experienced some very bad weather. All buses and drivers were grounded because there were gale-force winds in Southern Iceland and that same day 4 buses had been blown off of the road, as had a few cars. For our safety we actually missed some of our planned tour. So instead, we had a cocktail party. Because that is the way Roseborough Travel likes to make our clients happy. And honestly, the bar was the only thing that was open. The hotel brought in a speaker that told us the history of the area and land that Hotel Katla was built on.  We also took a hike up the mountain in the background.

 

 

 

YOU EAT WHAT?!?!?!?!

 

Have you heard of the local delicacy and culinary tradition – Hakarl –  fermented, putrefied, shark meat? It is Greenlandic Shark that is not only extremely ugly, but doesn’t have kidneys so it is toxic to humans to eat. So years ago the Vikings devised a technique to be able to eat this shark – squeeze out the toxins,  burry it, dig it up, hang the meat, and let it rot. When it smells nice and ripe – like rotten cheese and turpentine – it’s ready. GROSS! And they eat this stuff! It is on buffets in restaurants and offered to guests as a kindness in tradition.

So did we eat it? Of course we did! I am not one to pass up any crazy food while traveling to a destination. And we washed it down with a shot of Brennivin, an Icelandic liquor with the taste of caraway seeds.

Now the question is: How would you say cheers to that? Skal! In Icelandic!

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Look out for Iceland Part 2!

Explorer Spotlight: Patricia Bovio

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What made you interested in traveling to Hawaii as a family?

 

We’ve wanted to visit Hawaii for a while. We were also very attracted to what it has to offer and that there are so many different things to do like hiking, sight-seeing, nice beaches, etc.  We got the recommendation of doing a cruise and that was definitely the best option to see different islands without the hassle of traveling in between.

 

What was the best part of Hawaii?

 

We absolutely loved all the islands and what each had to offer. Our absolute winner was Hilo and the excursion to the Kilauea. Seeing the old lava flows and the volcano so close, made for an extraordinary experience that we will never forget. We really got to see Mother Nature in all its splendor.

 

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How would you describe traveling with your 2 year old to Hawaii?

 

Surprisingly it was not too bad (other than the long flights), we were also surprised to see many other families traveling with babies and young kids as well. Because we were doing so many things and constantly changing sceneries, Sophia was busy and entertained. We did not even have to go around everywhere with toys or other things, only plenty of drinks and a few snacks. All the tours we took were very patient and accommodating with us and the baby. The cruise was definitely the best way to go, since we wanted to see more places and did not have to worry about constantly packing and unpacking and the time that consumes. The only disadvantage was the limited space; next time we will definitely look into having a little bit more room.