12 Days of Blogging: Day 2, Milford Sound, New Zealand

For my second installment of destinations, I’ve invited my friend and colleague Colin Mairs to write. He’s a native Scot but recently moved to New Zealand with his wife (who is from Mexico). We traveled together in Turkey a few years back and had a lovely time, he’s a sweetheart and easy to spend time with. I asked him where his favorite place is in New Zealand.

Take it away Colin!

What’s that Sound? It’s Milford Sound! Ba-da-boom!

In New Zealand’s South Island, five hours drive from Queenstown, is the ultimate bucket-list destination: Milford Sound.

Whilst I am not a huge fan of the term “bucket-list” (I have no idea why anyone would write a list on a bucket), Milford Sound is a top bucket-list destination within a major bucket-list country. It is one of the world’s most stunning natural beauty spots and a place that is truly evocative of the natural beauty of New Zealand. No wonder it attracts over half a million visitors per year!

I must say that the drive to Milford Sound is just as stunning as the destination. This is one day of your trip that you definitely don’t want to be cat napping. The scenery ramps up a notch with every mile as you make your way from Queenstown to Te Anau, then onwards into Fiordland National Park.

Fiordland!!! OMG!!!

Whenever I used to be asked what is the most naturally beautiful country I had visited I would reply honestly: Scotland. That was until I made the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

If you are self-driving allow plenty of time for this trip as you will want to stop often. Estimate 4 hours driving, plus 2 hours of combined stopping time on the way. Be sure to arrive in plenty of time for your cruise, which you should pre-book.

Your day from Queenstown to Milford Sound would look something like this:

7.30am – Depart Queenstown for Te Anau.

Bathroom break at Te Anau.

Into Fiordland National Park. stopping at signposted sights along the way.

1.00pm – Arrive at Milford Sound and check in for cruise.

1.30pm – Depart on cruise.

3.30pm – Return from cruising.

Drive back to Queenstown, or take the option of a 45 minute scenic flight back.

7.30/8.00pm – Approximate time of arrival back in Queenstown (if driving).

To make it a more relaxing journey consider sleeping the night before your Milford Sound visit, or that night, in Te Anau.

The Eighth Wonder of the World

The English author and poet, Rudyard Kipling, who wrote ‘The Jungle Book’ and my favourite poem ‘If’ ’,  visited here in 1891, aged 24 years old and said he considered Milford Sound the 8th wonder of the world – quite an accolade from Mr K.

The road is well signposted and there are various short walks at places like Mirror Lakes (the clue is in the name),

and The Chasm; a short loop walk where the main attraction is the natural sculpture of solid rock carved out by centuries of gushing water.

You may also encounter some cheeky kea parrots. If so, DO NOT feed them. They are smart birds and have learned that silly humans = free food. They are not violent or aggressive but are cunning pickpockets and are well known for thieving snacks from tourists’ backpacks.

Stop to fill your water bottle at a stream with clean natural water. Now you are really experiencing 100% Pure New Zealand!

On the road to Milford Sound you’ll feel at times as though you are the only one around in a vast wilderness, but upon arrival it can feel like New York’s Grand Central Station – travellers from around the world pile from coaches and cars onto sightseeing boat trips.

The feeling of isolation soon returns however, as the crowds disperse on separate cruises and each follows a different route out onto the Sound.

But wait…

When is a Sound not a Sound?

That could be taken as a rather philosophical question, but the answer in this case is: when it’s a Fjord. Although the English name for this place labels it as a sound; a large sea or ocean inlet larger than a bay, it is actually a fjord; a narrow sea or ocean channel between two bodies of land. It was named by explorer John Grono in 1812. Perhaps feeling a little homesick for his native Wales, he named it for the Welsh port town of Milford Haven.

When is a Fjord not a Fjord?

When it’s a Fiord! In New Zealand we have adopted the Norwegian term, but have anglicised the spelling.

The Maori people (the first people of New Zealand) named the fiord ‘Piopiotahi’ which translates as ‘the place of the single piopio ’ (a thrush-like native songbird which is now extinct). This name relates to the story of the death of Maui, demi-god and mythical ancestor of the Maori and other Polynesian people. After Maui’s death a single piopio flew here in mourning.

Stories and facts like these will be shared by your guide on the cruise. I recommend the Real Journeys 2 hour Nature Cruise to really get a good feel for Milford Sound. Other companies offer shorter cruises but after coming all this way you really want to get a decent amount of time on the water.

After cruising out as far as the mouth of the fiord/sound and gazing across the Tasman Sea, you U-turn and make your way back. A highlight is the up-close-and-personal with a waterfall. As the boat approaches the waterfall and the guide tells you that we are going under the waterfall and you may get wet. Trust them that you are going under the water and you will get wet!

My favourite part of the journey is always watching the people that are trying to take selfies with the waterfall behind them and then realise oh we are getting closer and closer and oh! this is wet. Oh! this is a real waterfall and we are really going under it and then they run with excited screams. Aaaaahhhhhh…..

Milford Sound is actually one of the wettest places on earth, with an average and 8 metres / 26 feet of rain per year! Yep, that’s 26 feet per year. So don’t be surprised if it is raining when you visit. If it’s sunny that is a bonus; who doesn’t love sunshine and blue skies? But if it’s raining, rain + huge granite cliffs that don’t absorb water =  stunning waterfalls!

Should I fly back?

How much money did you save up for your vacation? Do you want to make this bucket list visit even more bucket-listy? Fly backs from Milford Sound are some of the most amazing experiences… but not cheap. Around US$300 for a one-way 45 minute flight from Milford to Queenstown in a fixed-wing plane. If you’ve saved a decent splurge fund this is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Milford Sound feels like the end of the earth. There is one road in and one road. Whilst the road back is still stunningly beautiful it is a repetition of the experience on the way in.

All photographs by Colin Mairs except Mirror Lakes and The Chasm by Jocey K, and Kea by Bernd Hildebrandt, sourced from Creative Commons.

Colin Mairs is a Rick Steves tour guide in his native Scotland but now lives most of the year in New Zealand, where he also runs tours as Mondumo Small Group Tours. You can join him on tour to Milford Sound! Check out www.mondumo.com for full details. The tour visits Milford Sound on Day 8 of 14. Contact Colin: [email protected]

12 Days of Travel, Day 1: Bangkok

To celebrate the holiday season and project ourselves into a new year of travel adventures, I present you with a new travel destination every day. I hope these blogs will inspire you to dream big and make travel and beautiful experiences a priority for 2018.

Today we visit the capital of Thailand, Bangkok. I’ve got this magical destination on my mind because I’ll be there soon, in less than a month (squee!!).

As far as exotic destinations go, Bangkok is surprisingly affordable. Plane tickets from Seattle are under $1000, nice hotels can be had for under $75, and food is inexpensive. I was even able to afford a private guide for only myself, costing about $10 per hour. Locals speak English and it’s very easy to get around in a variety of transportation modes, including tuk-tuk, otherwise known as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Bangkok is not what I expected. I think I’ve watched too many Indiana Jones movies, but I was sure it would be very exotic, ancient and plastered in red neon and rickshaws.

Instead, I found a city that could easily be mistaken for Los Angeles. Warm and sultry climate, palm trees, food trucks, sprawl and high rises just like LA or San Diego. Traffic. Lots of traffic.

My fantasy of Bangkok was of an ancient city, but the most ancient part of the city is quite recent by European standards. The ancient capital of Siam was an island called Ayutthaya in the past, about 40 minutes away from Bangkok. After a series of wars with neighboring Burma, the capital was destroyed, its remains left sitting on the island largely as they are today.

The city was relocated at the end of the 1700’s to the banks of the Chao Praya river. The oldest district, Rattanakosin, and the area around the popular Khao San Road have a character that feels colonial and tropical, sort of like the Caribbean.

The main sights to see are the temples or Wats, along with the Grand Palace, the home of the Thai royal family. For a westerner, these sights are wild. The royal palace is a compound of colorful, elaborately decorated buildings all packed together. I would try to compare it to Disneyland in terms of visual richness, but the Grand Palace makes Disneyland look boring.

I have been in about a million churches all over the world, but visiting a wat, a Buddhist temple, is a totally foreign experience. The imagery of the Buddha with his meaningful hand gestures is a language unto itself. Color and sparkle, with gold all over the place, the temples of Bangkok are a trip.

Their religious traditions are so interesting to learn about. I participated as best as I could, ringing bells and dropping offering coins in beautiful offering bowls. The perspective of the locals on the meaning of Buddhism–that happiness is your responsibility and wealth has nothing to do with that–was humbling and explained why Thai people generally seemed lighter than Americans. I appreciated that people were welcoming in all of the religious sites and seemed happy to answer my questions.

People in Bangkok are friendly and typically speak English. For a major metropolis, it’s impressive how personal it feels and I credit the people for that. Every person I talked to was interested in chatting and as curious about me as I was about them. Ok, I am probably the tallest woman they’ve ever seen, but still.

Aside from the big sights, the highlight of Bangkok for me is FOOD. I am currently working out and eating little in anticipation of my trip, because I plan to EAT ALL THE FOOD.

You cannot even walk a few feet down the street without being presented with tempting food options. Fresh passion fruit juice. Pad Thai noodles. Meatball skewers. Smoothies. Fresh mango. Some options more…sanitary…than others, but for the adventurous palette, the streets of Bangkok are paradise.

Restaurants of all kinds beckon with lovely tropical scents, and the prices are almost comical. Another favorite of mine is the cold coffee served with sweetened milk, for a tiny fraction of the cost of a latte at Starbucks. It’s so cheap to eat in Thailand, I’m going to order one of everything!

Speaking of great deals, the markets of Bangkok are a circus of color and cheap knock-off T-shirts. The big weekend Chatuchak market is the Queen, selling all kinds of things, from junk to Indy handmade coolness. Other markets abound, touristic souvenir markets, food markets, flower markets and floating markets. Did I mention that they sell food at the markets? Score!

All of these beautiful things mixed together with the madness of 8 million people living side by side with the river. It seems like it should be overwhelming, but it never really is. Getting out on the water, either by long tail speedboat or by river cruise at night makes the city feel intimate. The river is the artery of the city that connects the districts and showcases the main sights.

Thailand and Bangkok were a highlight of 2017, as I’m sure they will be in just a month! The only word that I could summon to describe Bangkok is this — bonkers. It’s an assault on the senses, in the very best possible way.

My 2019 Thailand tour for Imprint Tours is about to launch! Travel with me in February 2019, seats will be opening up very soon. Send an email to [email protected]ventureswithsarah.net to be the first to have a chance to reserve a seat!

Travel Electronics Wish List

Travel has been made easier by travel electronics. I remember the days of lugging several pounds of books, reservations and camera gear with me. Now I can use my phone to do the same tasks as all of those things, and there are even more options beyond phones. If you’re looking for a gift or to upgrade your gear, the sheer abundance of travel electronics will make your head spin. Based on what I’m using and have seen on the road, these are my top picks and wish list.

Phones

iPhone 7

I bought the iPhone 7 last fall and I am happy enough with it that I wasn’t even remotely tempted to upgrade this year. My phone is my office–it runs my tours, my Etsy shop, my blog and my social media, as well as my communication with friends and family. If you have a good phone with service that works in all countries (like TMobile) you really don’t need any other travel electronics. I’ve tried several brands (including Android) and I am convinced that the iPhone universe is best for me.

The 7 has a big, clear screen, which has made it easier to do tasks I would normally need a laptop for. The camera is very good, even if I have some envy of the iPhone Plus models with the dual camera. If you have any previous version of the iPhone, this is a worthwhile upgrade, it’s a big leap in durability and technology.

My only gripe is that you need an adaptor to plug in headphones, as it has only one opening for both charging and headphones. That’s great if you drop it in the toilet because it is more watertight (not publicly admitting that I may have done that) but it makes it impossible to charge and use headphones at the same time. Is it smart to buy an outdated model? I think so. I don’t see the 8 as being much better, and you can get an unlocked 7 for a great price. Look for refurbished phones for an even better deal.

Camera

Sony RX100 mV

The camera on the iPhone has been enough for me for my low level of photography. I’m more interested in challenging myself to find good composition than in fancy schmancy gear. But I have a project coming up that needs better quality photographs, so I have a new camera on my wish list. My requirements are pretty simple- it must have excellent low light capabilities, it needs to zoom well and it must be able to link up to my phone, all in a tidy, lightweight package.

My reading and research has led me back to the same place, the Sony RX100 mV. This camera performs as well as the big DSLR I own with all the lenses, but fits in a pocket. The resolution is excellent, and it takes fantastic low light photos. As I take most of my shots quickly on the fly, this camera’s super quick focus is ideal.

It’s outrageously expensive, which is why I don’t own it yet. I have heard that the earlier versions of it are less expensive and lighter, so that may be the better route to go. So if Santa’s got some cash to burn, this tops my list.

E-Reader

Kindle PaperwhiteKindle Paperwhite

Of all the things my phone can do, ebooks would be what it does worst. I hate reading books on my phone or iPad. The display is just not suited to long term reading.

I have had at least five Kindles, and my abusive lifestyle has killed them all. I was hesitant to go back to that well, but there really is not better device for reading. A driving factor in my purchase is that I need reference books with me on the road. I also suck at returning library books, and the Seattle Public Library lets me check out books in Kindle format. That means that it’s really a cost saving measure. Think not of the cost of the device but of how much I’ll save in book fines!

I looked through all of the models available and chose the Paperwhite. I looooooove the gentle backlight. It looks more like white paper than a screen and is fabulous on airplanes. The more expensive versions are lighter and faster and whatnot, but I don’t need those bells and whistles. Considering that I’ll probably destroy it within a couple of years, choosing a lower priced model is smart. My advice: get a good, solid case for it.

Video Camera

GoPro SessionGoPro Hero Session

I wouldn’t recommend buying a separate video camera if you’re just a normal traveler without a YouTube channel. There are far too many travel electronics to tempt you to buy something solely for one purpose. You may, however, be the kind of person who has crazy adventures where whipping out your phone is either impossible or idiotic. I am one such person. I’ve whipped out my phone while riding a Vespa, bicycling, kayaking, bouncing up and down in a Jeep on a volcano. Not real smart. So I bought a GoPro.

GoPros are kind of a cult, like that InstantPot thing that everyone is suddenly talking about. If you don’t have one, you’ve probably not noticed them. They are little cube cameras that you can mount anywhere–on a hat, on your chest, on the dashboard. It takes just a second to push the button and start filming, so you can do it with messy fingers or even with your elbow. Some models are waterproof, which I’d strongly suggest.

You may think that this is something only for 25 year-old base jumpers with dreadlocks, and you may be right. But I’ve had a blast playing with mine. I’ll be using it in lots on my Thailand tour, filming my underwater snorkeling adventures, wild tuk-tuk rides and bathing with elephants. GoPros are reasonable, I think I paid about $200 for mine with some small accessories. Not bad for a fun toy, and not so much that I’ll be sad if a monkey steals it.

360 Camera

Ricoh Theta S

If you are shopping for the travel electronics enthusiast that owns everything, here’s a fun choice. I had a guy on a tour this year that carried a metal stick with him everywhere. He’d raise the stick above the crowds, and it had a thing on the end like a remote control. It just took him a minute, then he’d lower the stick. I was so curious about it, I thought it was an elaborate selfie stick (or narsissistick, as my delightful employer calls it).

Turns out that the stick was a 360• Camera, for taking virtual reality shots. Once the shots from this little camera are uploaded to your phone, you can move the phone all around and look at pictures from every angle. If you get cheap VR glasses for your phone, you can look all around like you are actually in the space. It is COOL. Yeah, I know, you really don’t need this. But it’s so fun and would make a great present for the photo nerd or avid traveler in your life. It’s so little, it even gets the packing ninja seal of approval.

Charge it up!

All of these travel electronics require charging, and finding outlets in foreign hotels is like searching for the holy grail. I have two pieces of advice on this front. First, buy long, durable charging cords for your devices. The kind with mesh cords and rubber connections last much longer. I suggest the 6′ length as it will always reach your bedside table.

Second, buy a charging base that has USB sockets in it as well as plug outlets. This saves you having to bring the base for every device you own.

Travel gift of the season: an extension cord power strip. This nifty one has everything you need, just add a simple plug adapter and you’re set. At about $16, this solves many problems for little money.

What travel electronics are on your Christmas list? Comment here or on my Facebook page.

Presepe, Nativities in Naples

Naples street sceneAn hour south of Rome by train lies the crazy city of Naples or Napoli. It is one of the most lively and gritty cities that you’ll find in Europe. Sometimes it’s downright intimidating. But in the midst of the chaos is something unbelievably sweet, a street full of artists making nativity scenes for Christmas. Nativities in Naples are incredible, and a delightful treat to seek out.

Nativity Scene Origins

Naples nativity setsI, as most Catholics, grew up with a nativity scene that we’d set up every year. The plaster figures were painted by my mom before I was born and she still uses them now. I remember setting up the scene with my sister, using whatever embellishment I could find around the house to make it more interesting. Tinsel, garlands, real straw and even little twinkling lights have adorned our nativity scene. Not sure it was very accurate from a historical perspective, but it was always fun.

Little did I know then that I was doing something that’s been done for about 800 years. Tradition says that Saint Francis of Assisi was the first to come up with the idea of a nativity scene. Back in the 1200’s when he was teaching the word of God, he was given the title of Friar by the Vatican, which means “Free to Roam” and he did just that. Not a priest by title or nature, he wandered from house to house teaching the Bible in the local language. That was pretty radical back then, remember that mass was said only in Latin until the 1960’s.

One of Francis’ teaching tools was said to be a set of dolls that he used to illustrate stories, and that began the nativity scene craze that we still honor today. Some stories say that he used real people and animals to recreate the birth of Christ.

Italian Presepe Today

Most Italian families continue the tradition today by setting up a manger scene, presepe or presepio. Scenes are prepared to decorate the house for the December 8th holiday of the Immaculate Conception. This holiday celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary without sin–not the conception of Jesus, easy mistake to make. Italy loves Mary, the big Italian Mamma in the sky, and her December festa celebrates her with flowers, family feasts, and setting up her big scene in the manger. Baby Jesus is not in attendance on December 8, he hasn’t been born! The tradition in my house, as well as in Italy, is that he doesn’t appear in the crib until Christmas, where he remains until the scene is taken down after Epiphany.

Italian nativity sceneA Typical Italian Nativity Scene or Presepe

Nativities in Naples

Nobody does nativity scenes like the Italians. And no Italian does the nativity like a Neapolitan, although believe me, they try. Along the street of San Gregorio Armeno in the heart of Naples, you find little shops selling all sorts of parts to create elaborate scenes.

Naples, Via San Gregorio

The shops set up display scenes that span entire walls with hundreds of characters, some several feet high with flying angels. Some displays have moving parts and sounds.

Naples, nativity scene accessories

I’ve even seen one with a water feature, a moving water wheel with a mill stone that moved! In Assisi some years ago I saw a nativity scene that took up an entire room, whirring with a cacauphony of lights, song and buzzing motors.

Naples, nativity scene characters

In every presepe scene there are the traditional characters, but also peasants, farmers, princesses and….Beyonce? The artists in Naples have recently diversified away from the biblical and added pop culture icons, politicians and sports stars. You may not recognize many of the modern figurines on display, though, they are often famous Italians that are found in tabloid stories.

The grandest, the mother of all nativity scenes in Naples is perched high above the city in the Monastery of Saint Martin. Surrounded by gorgeous views of the bay and Vesuvius, the elegant 14th century monastery has been converted into a museum. It houses an eclectic collection with many items from the time of the Bourbon domination 200 years ago. One whole room is dedicated to a single nativity scene. It’s more than 20 feet wide and 10 feet high, with more than 400 large characters. In true Naples style, go big or go home.

Naples, nativity of San Martino
Certosa di San Martino, the largest nativity scene in Naples

You don’t have to go to Naples in December to check out the workshops of the nativity scenes. The shops are open and busy all year round. Many of the figures are handmade right in the workshops and some will let you see the figures being assembled and painted. There are plenty of fakes and knock-offs, so check to make sure what you buy is made in Naples. You can buy a whole scene if you visit and have it shipped home, but it will cost you– the elaborate ones can run thousands of Euro, which makes sense considering the amount of labor involved. I think I’ll stick to my mother’s handmade one, even if the celebrity additions are tempting!.

It’s a good thing to see artists at work. It’s a better thing to see them working on a craft that is 800 years old in this modern age. Italians are keeping the nativity tradition alive, even if it may be a little strange to see Marilyn Monroe at the birth of Christ.

Take a walk with me along Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples:

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VlXYoqnkkI[/embedyt]

Weighing Travel Gear: A Spreadsheet

Weighing travel gear is a great way to make sure you don’t over pack. My whole philosophy on packing is that you can bring what you want as long as you stick to your target weight. What that target weight is, well, that’s up to airline regulations and how much weightlifting you do. But who has time to weigh all of their stuff (other than me)? I’ve done the homework and have created a spreadsheet of typical weights for you.

Why Bother Weighing Travel Gear?

Nobody wants to schlep around a heavy bag. As I have elaborated on in other articles, packing to weight can change the way you look at packing. Rather than thinking of packing a certain number of things, paying attention to the total weight can free you to make better choices. Going through the effort of weighing travel gear can also give you an awareness of why you might be taking more than you need. If I can’t decide between two similar items, a quick weigh takes the choice out of my hands.

What Weight Should I Shoot For?

luggageThe overall weight of your bag should be a little less than the maximum carry-on weight for your airline. I aim for 16 pounds, as this is often the maximum weight that is allowed in the cabin of European airlines. US airlines typically allow up to 25 pounds, but that is a miserable amount of weight to drag around, in my opinion. Ultimately, you should be packing to the weight that you can realistically handle. You may only be able to carry 10 pounds, but that’s still possible!

How to Use This Spreadsheet

I have gone through my typical items and made a list of what you might potentially pack. The weights are in ounces. Keep in mind that your things probably don’t weight the same as mine. These are target weights more than absolute weights. If you can do better, great! And for a point of reference, I am 6’2″, I weigh around 180 and I have size 12 feet, so I am larger than a typical woman or man and should have heavier clothes than the average person. That means you can do even better than I do!

You can come up with an estimate of your bag before you even pack. Print out this spreadsheet, grab a calculator and add up all of the items you plan to pack. Compare your results with your actual bag. How did you do? Post results in the comments!

Weighing Travel Gear: The Spreadsheet!

Weight Spreadsheet weight, oz oz oz oz oz oz oz oz oz oz oz
Tops Bottoms Outerwear Underthings Toiletries Electronics Day Bag Shoes Other Luggage Moneybelt
Long Sleeves 6 Long Pants 10 Rain Jacket 12 Light Socks 4 Toothbrush 2 Cell Phone 5 Sunglasses 4 Walking Shoes 10 Zip-Loc Bags 1 Backpack 48 Passport 2
Short Sleeves 4 CapriPants 9 Heavy Coat 18 Heavy Socks 7 Toothpaste 2 Headphones 2 Guidebooks 14 Sandals 10 Packing Cubes 2 Rolling Bag 112 Credit Cards 1
Sleeveless 3 Shorts 8 Light Jacket/Fleece 14 Underwear 1 Dental Floss 1 Tablet 22 Books 10 Trail Shoes 16 Laundry Line 1.5 Packable Carry-On 5 Local Currency 1
Sweater 8 Skirt 6 Vest 7 Bra 4 Deodorant 3 Charging Cords 2 Notebook 4 Flip-Flops 8 Clothing Soap 2 Toiletries Bag 5 US Currency 1
Cardigan 8 Dress 8 Gloves 5 Pajamas 8 Comb/Brush 2 Plug Adaptors 2 Pens/Pencils 1 Flats 8 Plastic Cutlery 3 Health Insurance Card 1
T-Shirt 4 Belt 8 Scarf 3 Swimsuit 8 Hair Fasteners 1 Back-Up Battery 7 First Aid Kit 3 Slippers 6 Washcloth 2 Driver’s License 1
Leggings 6 Hat 3 Face Cream 2 Camera 10 Stain Remover 1 Shopping Bag 2 Plane Tickets 1
Jeans 16 Shampoo 2 Laptop 32 Water Bottle 5 Moleskin 2 Reservation Vouchers 1
Conditioner 2 Extension cord 6 Tissues 1 Earplugs 1 Moneybelt 2
Razor 1 WetWipes 1 Flashlight 3
Shaving Cream 2
Body Soap 2
Foundation/Face Powder 1
Lipstick/Chapstick 1
Mascara 1
Eyeliner 1
Eyeshadow 1
Glasses/Case 4
Contact Lenses/Solution 3
Vitamins 3
Medications 3
Sunscreen 3
Make-up remover 2
Nail file/clippers 2

Recommended Travel Gear: What’s in Sarah’s Bag?

Sarah Murdoch recommended travel gearRecommended Travel Gear lists abound on the internet, but are they for real? Some are clickbait, some are top ten lists written without much expertise or thought. I have been traveling professionally around the globe for a long time and I’d like to think that I have it down to a science. If you’re looking for the best recommended travel gear, either for a travel gift or for yourself, here you’re going to find what is actually in my bag. For reals. No joke.

This is a list for quick reference, as a companion to my blog and YouTube packing videos, with links to take you directly to the things I use. Most of these items have been written about at some point on this blog, but always ask if you’d like more information. A reminder: I only suggest things that I truly like and use, none of my suggestions are paid, but I do work for Rick Steves, just so you know.

Recommended Travel GearSarah’s Recommended Travel Gear List

Bags

These are my actual bags that I use. For other options, including a great rolling bag, see ricksteves.com.

Main Backpack- Tom Bihn TriStar

Day Bag- Tom Bihn Medium Cafe Bag

Extra Bag- Lewis n Clark Hideaway Duffle

Packing Cubes- Eagle Creek Specter

Shoe Cube- Lewis N Clark Packing Tube

Stuff Sacks- Lewis N Clark Ditty Bag

 Outerwear

I’ve done some exhaustive research on jackets and found some great solutions. More on that hunt HERE.

Winter- Arcteryx Nuri (Best Coat EVER)

Spring/Fall- Eddie Bauer Microtherm Storm Down Jacket

Summer- Eddie Bauer Rainfoil Packable Jacket

Vest- 32 Degrees Packable Down Vest

Clothes

Clothes are very subjective! Below are some of my classic favorite items, basics that will work for almost anyone.

Top-Eileen Fisher Stretch Silk Jersey (Anything Eileen Fisher is a winner)

Pants- Eileen Fisher Washable Stretch Crepe

Cardigan- Eddie Bauer 7 Days 7 Ways Cardigan

Sweater- Lark and Roe Cashmere Pullover in Black

Leggings- Felina Black Leggings

Skirt- Fold Over Knit Skirt

Scarf- Big Gray Silk Scarf

Tank Top- Banana Republic Essential Tank

Dress- Eddie Bauer Aster Crossover Dress

Underthings

A truly subjective item for recommended travel gear, but these are solid picks. Costco often carries great socks and undies.

Moneybelt- Rick Steves Moneybelt

Socks- Kirkland Signature Merino Wool Socks

Compression Socks- Sockwell Graduated Compression socks

Undies- Felina Bikini 

Bras- Freya Balconette, Black and Nude

Bathing suit- Freya Bikini

Pajamas- Fisher’s Finery Silk Chemise

Shoes

My shoe choices change frequently, but these are the most reliable which I’ve used for several years. For more, see my recommended travel gear shoe spreadsheet.

Walking Shoe- Asics Metrolyte

Flip Flop- Teva Mandalyn Mush Wedges

Spring/Fall Slip-On- Tom’s Black Wool Shoes

Summer Slip On- Sketchers Sweet Pea

Sandal- Birkenstock Mayari

Toiletries

Specific thoughts on each of these items HERE.

3-1-1 Toiletries Bag and Bottles- Lewis n Clark Flat Bottle Set (Great Value!)

Lipstick- Revlon Colorstay Overtime

Mascara- Neutrogena Waterproof

Moisturizer- Neutrogena Healthy Skin

Face Powder- Bare Essentials Bare Minerals

Toothbrush- Violife SlimSonic

Toothpaste- Marvis

Shampoo- Biolage Shampoo

Conditioner- Biolage Conditioner

Razor- Venus Travel Razor

Deodorant- Milk and Honey Natural Cream Deodorant (Yes, it really really works!)

Day Bag

Phone- iPhone 7

Back-up battery- Anker Powercore 10000 (Seriously don’t forget this)

6 ft extra durable Charging Cable- Amazon Basics

Plug Adaptor- DuaFire Travel Plug Adaptor with USB

Tablet- Ipad Air

Reader when traveling without iPad- Kindle Paperwhite

Headphones- Bose Soundsport Comfort Earbuds (These are the best and last forever.)

Waterbottle- Hydroflask

Pens- Sharpie Stainless Pen

First Aid Kit- Rick Steves Travel Aid Kit (A starter version of my Box of Awesome)

Guidebook- Rick Steves, obviously!

Bonus Items

You really don’t NEED any of these things, but you want them, I know. It’s ok. Pick only one or two.

Watercolor Set- Windsor and Newton Travel Set

Brushes- Folding brushes for watercolor

Sketchbook- Artist field journal

Flat Iron- BaByliss Pro Nano Iron (This is AWESOME for curling hair in minutes)

Down Pillow- Soft Down Standard Pillow

Zippered Pillow Case- Linenspa Pillow Protector (Doubles as laundry bag!)

Travel Blanket- Pembrook Fleece Blanket

Coil Water Heater- Lewis N Clark Immersion Heater

Titanium Mug- Ninja Prepper Mizu Double Wall Mug

Spork/Bottle Opener- Ninja Prepper Yari

Wine Bottle Opener, Travel Friendly- Jetsetter TSA Compliant Corkscrew

That covers most of what I pack. I will add to this from time to time, so check back. Details on all of these things (mostly) can be found in my packing articles, which you can find HEREComment if you have anything to add to this list.

Happy Packing!

Best Travel Backpack

If you’ve got a trip coming up, finding the best travel backpack can be key. I’ve tried many types and brands in my years of tour guiding, including Rick Steves, Eagle Creek, Eddie Bauer and some smaller brands. I always suggest using a backpack, because a travel backpack is easier to get around with than a rolling bag. It also means you MUST pack light! Here is a round up of the best travel backpacks that I’ve tried this year.

Overall Best Travel Backpack

Cotopaxi Allpa

I saw this backpack come up on my feed last spring and I was intrigued. I’ve never found a travel backpack in the right size range that really functioned perfectly and was durable as well.The backpack was still in development, but I sent Cotopaxi an email and they sent me a sample to review.

I was impressed with how quickly they got me the backpack and how beautifully it was presented. They were on Kickstarter at the time, so I had low expectations. I am an architect, you may remember, so I am a sucker for beautiful design and presentation.

This backpack came with me on every trip from June through October. It was tossed around, sat upon, loaded up and generally manhandled in a rough and careless way. After many miles, I can give you my honest opinion, this is now my favorite backpack.

Pros

This travel backpack is beautifully designed. I got the black, gray and turquoise bag, colors that look great together. It is sleek without being boring, with a pop of color on the outside and a bright, cheery gray-yellow interior.

Cotopaxi Allpa 35l

The Allpa has tons of well-designed compartments. When it is unzipped, it opens flat but everything is neatly packed in a mesh zippered section. One large section has compression straps, and that’s where I put my pants and flat-fold times, as well as my pillow. The opposite side has a smaller zippered section where I put my cubes for tops and undies. Two zippered pockets on this side were where I put my jewelry and medications. Tidily tucked under the front cover, a separate section fit my toiletries bag and electronic cords, which made those things easily removable for airport security.

Cotopaxi Allpa review

On the back of the bag, near the straps, a long zipper opened to the bottom of the main compartment, which came in handy for grabbing my rain jacket. The zipper on the opposite side opens to a compartment meant for a tablet, but is where I stored my laptop, paperwork and receipts. I like this feature because I was able to fly through security, quickly removing and replacing my laptop in the bag.

Basically, every thing that I pack had a specific place which made it super easy to find my belongings on the fly.

The backpack is designed with no zippers or pockets on the main body, which is nice because it keeps it compact. I had no problem fitting it into airplane overhead compartments, or keeping within airline bag guidelines.

The construction of the bag is heavy-duty, with big, tough zippers, thick cordura fabric and a water resistant front panel. I get caught in the rain occasionally, so the laminated front is a big plus. It did actually work, keeping my things dry. The straps and back panel are well padded, making it very comfortable to wear, even when packed to the gills with several bottles of wine.

Cons

The weight of a bag can contribute to the overall weight in a significant way. While this bag is not as heavy as a rolling bag, it is a little on the heavy side for a backpack. The hefty structure and padding are not light. If it were me, I might have used slightly less padding to save on weight.

Cotopaxi Allpa coverThe laminated cover panel is a great idea and looks slick in black. That panel got scratched almost immediately, though, and has shown wear and tear after dozens of flights. I’m not particularly fussy about that sort of thing, but if you’re the kind of person that gets bent out of shape when you have water spots on your car, this will be an issue.

It would be nice to have a slot for a water bottle on the side. I know, that’s probably asking too much from a bag that is practically perfect, but just saying’.

In the end- the Cotopaxi Allpa is the best travel backpack I have found. It performs better than the more expensive Tom Bihn Tristar that I have been using for ages. I will probably keep it in regular rotation when I am on the road for extended periods of time.

Best Ultralight Backpack

G4free backpackAs I wrote in my article on ultralight packing, a light bag can reduce the weight that you carry since the bag can be a big part of the overall weight. I looked into getting a super light travel backpack for going to Thailand, and I liked my choice so much that I also took it to Italy for guidebook research.

The G4Free travel backpack is a pretty simple bag. It’s just a sack that you can cinch at the top, and a flap that secures with buckles. Because it lacks any real structure, you need to compartmentalize your possessions with packing cubes or sacks. It’s not the handiest arrangement but it works.

Pros

This backpack is light, really light. It folds into itself, and would make a good choice for an additional, souvenir bag. It expands depending on how you cinch the straps and fits a surprising amount.

The price is right on this backpack, it is less that $20 sometimes! Although I cannot guarantee the lifespan, the fabric has been durable enough for two long trips to Thailand, Cambodia and Italy.

Cons

If you need padding or structure, this bag is not for you. It’s basic and has no compartments, save a zippered pocket on the front and water bottle slots.

The size of this bag is small, it may not be big enough for big packers, but maybe that’s a good thing. It will help you pare down what you bring!

In the end- The G2Free backpack is a great, cheap, lightweight option for anyone on a shorter trip looking to optimize the weight of their bag. It made me feel like a footloose vagabond, tossing around a rucksack like a teenager.

Always a Great Travel Backpack

Rick Steves Convertible Carryon

Rick Steves Convertible Carryon ReviewI have a bunch of the Rick Steves backpacks, and I’ve used them for years. They are solidly designed and very practical. The newer models are smaller than previous versions, so if you have an old one, you may consider upgrading to the current version that fits on all airlines. A well priced, good choice for any length of trip.

Reader Suggestions

I cannot vouch for personal use of these backpacks, but this community of travelers is a wise one, so I’d trust their judgement. I am sure you’ll find the best travel backpack for you among these suggestions.

Osprey Porter 46L– Osprey is a brand I see often on the road. Their bags are economical and well built. This model is a little bigger than what I choose, but would work well for those looking for a light, economical model that is bigger than the ultralight I suggest above.

Bags Weekender– This is a very cool backpack with lots of functionality. It works with the Ebags packing cube system. It’s a little more bells and whistles than I need, but if you are the type to organize your underwear by color, this may be for you.

Fjallraven Travel Pack– This backpack is a direct competitor to the Cotopaxi, with a design that seems almost identical. Fjallraven is a very popular line in Europe and is known for good quality. I would bet this is lighter than the Allpa.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut-Tom Bihn makes great bags that will last forever. They are made of super durable fabric, I own about six bags from them. They are not cheap, though. The Aeronaut is their classic backpack, with a big center compartment and two side end compartments. It’s a greta bag, I’ve just never bought it as the two sizes are too small and too big.

November Adventure Newsletter

I’ve just returned from two months in Italy guiding tours for Rick Steves and am ready to make some big announcements!

November 11,2017

Hello all of you beautiful adventurers! It’s been a crazy, busy fall. I’m home now and getting organized for some wonderful new projects.

In this issue:

  • New Tours Open for Sign-ups
  • Blog News
  • Art Giveaway

New Adventures with Sarah Tours!

Would you like to travel with me? While I continue to enjoy approaching two decades working with Rick Steves, I am also ready to launch my own exciting itineraries, and you are invited!

To sign up for any of my tours, please email me at [email protected]

I can save a spot for you and send out the tour application forms.

Spaces are limited, so sign up soon!

Piran, a Croatian coastal gem

Taste of the Adriatic – October 2-14, 2018

 

In this tour, we will wander along the coast of Croatia, sampling the foods, soaking up the sea air and sunshine while learning about a region that figured into much of Mediterranean history. This area used to be a part of Venice, so I am particularly excited to share my passion for Roman and Byzantine history, as well as discussing the rise and fall of Venice. My friend Andrew Villone of Savor the Experience Tours is quite a foodie, and will take us to some of his favorite off-the-beaten path spots to enjoy true local experiences.

$3850 per person, airfare not included, $600 non-refundable deposit due at sign-up. More here https://adventureswithsarah.net/adventures-with-sarah-taste-of-the-adriatic/

Lake Bled, where we will dine in a magical castle

Savoring the Veneto and Slovenia – October 16-26, 2018

The Veneto is one of my favorite regions in Italy, I’ve spent lots of time exploring it for fun on my own. I’m also half Slovenian and have always enjoyed travels in my grandparents’ homeland. I’m teaming up with my friend Andrew Villone of Savor the Experience Tours for an experiential tour of our favorite spots, exploring the links between these cultures. We will ride bikes in the countryside, explore the architecture of Palladio, skip along the Prosecco Road, nibble on foods you’ve never heard of and so much more. Food, wine and fun with a healthy dose of learning!

$3100 per person, airfare not included, $600 non-refundable deposit due at sign up. More here: https://adventureswithsarah.net/adventures-sarah-tours-slow-veneto-slovenia/

The blue city of Chefchaouen, a tangle of colorful streets

Morocco – November 4-16, 2018

Have you ever dreamed of wandering the exotic markets of Marrakech? Does Casablanca call to you? Would you like to ride a camel across the great expanse of the Sahara desert? Join me on an adventure into an exotic land, exploring the culture up-close and personal. We will sample spiced Moroccan cuisine, visit Roman ruins, sip mint tea, walk through beautiful blue painted villages, and have the opportunity to learn to cook or take a hot air balloon ride. One of the nights will be spent sleeping in a desert Riad camp! This is a true experience for the senses! I cannot tell you how excited I am for this tour, it will be filled with beautiful days, an absolute delight for artists and photographers. I’ll be bringing my supplies for watercolor and providing lessons along the way.

$3400 per person, airfare not included, $400 deposit refundable for 30 days due at sign-up. More here: http://imprinttours.com/tours/morocco-2016/

Join me in Cambodia in 2019!

Looking Ahead to 2019

2019 tours with me will be open for reservations in December. In February 2019, I will again offer Thailand and Cambodia (2018 is sold out). I’ll be following those two up directly with a tour of Vietnam.

Later in 2019, I am looking to potentially offer a tour of Bali and Indonesia, possibly April 2019. In November 2019 I am considering a tour to Israel.

If you are interested in taking any of these tours, please contact me at [email protected]. Although I’m not booking them yet, I’ll create a priority list and contact those on the list first when these tours become available.

Blog News

Adventures in Sicily

I’ve been a bit absent lately, but for good reason. I am currently developing some big projects, including a new book. I am also developing a new website just for information on travel to Sicily. AdventuresinSicily.com has just been launched, and I’ll be writing content for it all winter. Even if you aren’t planning a trip to Sicily, there will be fun stories and adventures, as well as recipes for my favorite Sicilian dishes. Adventures in Sicily can also be found on Instagram and Facebook, follow me there! https://adventuresinsicily.com/

Dream of Italy

I was recently featured in “Dream of Italy” magazine, written by PBS TV show host, Kathy McCabe. She’s got a great website and I hope to collaborate with her more soon. Check her out here: https://dreamofitaly.com/

Coming Soon

I’ll be writing often this winter, including reviews of bags, interviews with interesting people I’ve met, updates on travel shoes, and city guides to my favorite places. I am always happy to take suggestions for articles, shoot me a message if you’ve got a good one.

Share Me and Grow my Adventures

Share the love! If you have a favorite article I’ve written, please help me by sharing those articles. Sharing my work on Reddit, Pinterest, Facebook or travel discussion boards is a ton of help in allowing more travelers to find my writing. If you find a way to share my work in a meaningful way, let me know and I’ll send you a thank you reward!

Christmas Giving, Supporting Puerto Rico

The holidays are coming again, so just as a reminder, if you shop at Amazon by clicking through my site I receive a tiny commission. This Christmas, I have decided to share the proceeds of my commission. I will be donating at least 10% of my Amazon revenue to Puerto Rico relief efforts. I have had many wonderful tour members from Puerto Rico in the past, and one contacted me recently for help publicizing relief efforts. Here is the organization I’ll be donating to: https://www.youcaring.com/peopleofpuertorico-957793

 

Adventurous Art Prints

Sarah’s Annual Art Giveaway!

If you’re a regular follower of my blog, you know that I annually send out a thank you to my blog followers. This year, I am again giving away my travel-themed artwork. I like to paint and make lino-cut prints, it’s a fun way to celebrate my favorite destinations. I’ll be giving away up to 200 randomly selected, handmade prints of my work. Each print is a unique work of art, and this year I’ll be giving away a few prints that are also watercolored. My prints sell from $15 to $50 each, additional prints are available at my Etsy store. Coming soon- t-shirts, luggage tags and more!

https://www.etsy.com/shop/AdventurousArtPrints

This is a first-come, first-served process, please contact me at [email protected] with your name and mailing address. Please note that I cannot accept requests without a mailing address.

I’ll be accepting requests through Tuesday November 14. You are welcome to share this with friends who would like to receive a print.

Thank you for your support, sending you big hugs from rainy Seattle!

Bacio,

Sarah

 

November Adventure Newsletter

I’ve just returned from two months in Italy guiding tours for Rick Steves and am ready to make some big announcements!

November 11,2017

Hello all of you beautiful adventurers! It’s been a crazy, busy fall. I’m home now and getting organized for some wonderful new projects.

In this issue:

  • New Tours Open for Sign-ups
  • Blog News
  • Art Giveaway

New Adventures with Sarah Tours!

Would you like to travel with me? While I continue to enjoy approaching two decades working with Rick Steves, I am also ready to launch my own exciting itineraries, and you are invited!

To sign up for any of my tours, please email me at [email protected]

I can save a spot for you and send out the tour application forms.

Spaces are limited, so sign up soon!

Piran, a Croatian coastal gem

Taste of the Adriatic – October 2-14, 2018

 

In this tour, we will wander along the coast of Croatia, sampling the foods, soaking up the sea air and sunshine while learning about a region that figured into much of Mediterranean history. This area used to be a part of Venice, so I am particularly excited to share my passion for Roman and Byzantine history, as well as discussing the rise and fall of Venice. My friend Andrew Villone of Savor the Experience Tours is quite a foodie, and will take us to some of his favorite off-the-beaten path spots to enjoy true local experiences.

$3850 per person, airfare not included, $600 non-refundable deposit due at sign-up. More here https://adventureswithsarah.net/adventures-with-sarah-taste-of-the-adriatic/

Lake Bled, where we will dine in a magical castle

Savoring the Veneto and Slovenia – October 16-26, 2018

The Veneto is one of my favorite regions in Italy, I’ve spent lots of time exploring it for fun on my own. I’m also half Slovenian and have always enjoyed travels in my grandparents’ homeland. I’m teaming up with my friend Andrew Villone of Savor the Experience Tours for an experiential tour of our favorite spots, exploring the links between these cultures. We will ride bikes in the countryside, explore the architecture of Palladio, skip along the Prosecco Road, nibble on foods you’ve never heard of and so much more. Food, wine and fun with a healthy dose of learning!

$3100 per person, airfare not included, $600 non-refundable deposit due at sign up. More here: https://adventureswithsarah.net/adventures-sarah-tours-slow-veneto-slovenia/

The blue city of Chefchaouen, a tangle of colorful streets

Morocco – November 4-16, 2018

Have you ever dreamed of wandering the exotic markets of Marrakech? Does Casablanca call to you? Would you like to ride a camel across the great expanse of the Sahara desert? Join me on an adventure into an exotic land, exploring the culture up-close and personal. We will sample spiced Moroccan cuisine, visit Roman ruins, sip mint tea, walk through beautiful blue painted villages, and have the opportunity to learn to cook or take a hot air balloon ride. One of the nights will be spent sleeping in a desert Riad camp! This is a true experience for the senses! I cannot tell you how excited I am for this tour, it will be filled with beautiful days, an absolute delight for artists and photographers. I’ll be bringing my supplies for watercolor and providing lessons along the way.

$3400 per person, airfare not included, $400 deposit refundable for 30 days due at sign-up. More here: http://imprinttours.com/tours/morocco-2016/

Join me in Cambodia in 2019!

Looking Ahead to 2019

2019 tours with me will be open for reservations in December. In February 2019, I will again offer Thailand and Cambodia (2018 is sold out). I’ll be following those two up directly with a tour of Vietnam.

Later in 2019, I am looking to potentially offer a tour of Bali and Indonesia, possibly April 2019. In November 2019 I am considering a tour to Israel.

If you are interested in taking any of these tours, please contact me at [email protected]. Although I’m not booking them yet, I’ll create a priority list and contact those on the list first when these tours become available.

Blog News

Adventures in Sicily

I’ve been a bit absent lately, but for good reason. I am currently developing some big projects, including a new book. I am also developing a new website just for information on travel to Sicily. AdventuresinSicily.com has just been launched, and I’ll be writing content for it all winter. Even if you aren’t planning a trip to Sicily, there will be fun stories and adventures, as well as recipes for my favorite Sicilian dishes. Adventures in Sicily can also be found on Instagram and Facebook, follow me there! https://adventuresinsicily.com/

Dream of Italy

I was recently featured in “Dream of Italy” magazine, written by PBS TV show host, Kathy McCabe. She’s got a great website and I hope to collaborate with her more soon. Check her out here: https://dreamofitaly.com/

Coming Soon

I’ll be writing often this winter, including reviews of bags, interviews with interesting people I’ve met, updates on travel shoes, and city guides to my favorite places. I am always happy to take suggestions for articles, shoot me a message if you’ve got a good one.

Share Me and Grow my Adventures

Share the love! If you have a favorite article I’ve written, please help me by sharing those articles. Sharing my work on Reddit, Pinterest, Facebook or travel discussion boards is a ton of help in allowing more travelers to find my writing. If you find a way to share my work in a meaningful way, let me know and I’ll send you a thank you reward!

Christmas Giving, Supporting Puerto Rico

The holidays are coming again, so just as a reminder, if you shop at Amazon by clicking through my site I receive a tiny commission. This Christmas, I have decided to share the proceeds of my commission. I will be donating at least 10% of my Amazon revenue to Puerto Rico relief efforts. I have had many wonderful tour members from Puerto Rico in the past, and one contacted me recently for help publicizing relief efforts. Here is the organization I’ll be donating to: https://www.youcaring.com/peopleofpuertorico-957793

 

Adventurous Art Prints

Sarah’s Annual Art Giveaway!

If you’re a regular follower of my blog, you know that I annually send out a thank you to my blog followers. This year, I am again giving away my travel-themed artwork. I like to paint and make lino-cut prints, it’s a fun way to celebrate my favorite destinations. I’ll be giving away up to 200 randomly selected, handmade prints of my work. Each print is a unique work of art, and this year I’ll be giving away a few prints that are also watercolored. My prints sell from $15 to $50 each, additional prints are available at my Etsy store. Coming soon- t-shirts, luggage tags and more!

https://www.etsy.com/shop/AdventurousArtPrints

This is a first-come, first-served process, please contact me at [email protected] with your name and mailing address. Please note that I cannot accept requests without a mailing address.

I’ll be accepting requests through Tuesday November 14. You are welcome to share this with friends who would like to receive a print.

Thank you for your support, sending you big hugs from rainy Seattle!

Bacio,

Sarah

 

Travel Festival Packing Talk: My Handout

I’m speaking at the Rick Steves Travel Festival, teaching my “Pack Light and Pack Right” class. If you can’t make it to Edmonds, you can follow along on my Facebook page, Adventures With Sarah, where you’ll find the live streamed video. 

Here are my quick notes…

Lecture by Sarah Murdoch


No one has Ever said, “I wish I’d have packed heavier”

Packing Light Philosophy

* Always carry on your bags—don’t check on the way over. Checking bags on the way home is fine, and often necessary.

* Keep to the lightest airline maximum carry-on weight, or what you can reasonable manage

* I suggest no more than 16 pounds

* Take as much as you want, just stick to your weight target

* Take only what you need, you can always buy things abroad

* Be practical

* Pack at least a week before your trip, revisit your choices before departure

* Take your packed bag for a walk and make sure you can handle it

Choose the Right Bag


* Backpacks are best to keep footloose and fancy free, they also keep you honest about weight

* Rolling bags are fine, but be careful about dimensions, check with your airline.

* Before buying, compare bag weights empty, much of a bag’s weight is the bag itself

* Fancy bags with bells and whistles are rarely light, choose something sturdy and practical

* Pick a daybag that is comfortable, with plenty of room

* Cross body bags are smarter than backpacks, many museums don’t allow backpacks of any size

* A packable souvenir bag can double as a picnic shopping bag or laundry bag. Many uses.

* Packing cubes keep a bag organized and easy to navigate
Dress Smart


* Don’t buy “travel clothes” unless you love them. Most of your own clothes are fine

* Choose clothes based on weight and versatility

* Layering is the key to dealing with a variety of temperatures

* Don’t bring anything you would be sorry to lose or see damaged

* Wash everything you plan to bring together on an extreme setting in your washing machine, since this is probably how it will be washed abroad

* Europeans tend to dress up, just so you know

* Skirts and dresses are a smart alternative to shorts and can be dressed up or layered in cooler weather

* Leave room in your bag to buy a piece of clothing, clothes make fun souvenirs
Toiletries


* All liquids must be under 3 oz in a clear, quart sized bag

* If you need more than 3 oz of something, fill more than one container

* You can always buy things abroad

* Cream deodorants take up less space

* Concentrating liquids helps maximize your 3 oz

Shoes


* Minimum two pair, one athletic or walking shoe, one lightweight alternate–preferably sandals in summer

* Buy shoes at least one month before departure

* Break shoes in well

* Bring band aids or moleskin just in case, blisters happen

Electronics


* Do you really need that?

* Choose electronics that can solve multiple problems, bring fewer items

* Buy long charging cables, adapters and a power strip as there are often very few outlets in a room
You Don’t Need That

* Excessive make-up and perfume

* Full-size toiletries

* current converter 

* Hair dryer

Where Have I Been: A Visual Tour

Hello my friends in the bloggosphere, sorry for my absence these past weeks. I’ve been on tour, guiding four tours for Rick Steves. I have been busy with some very exciting projects that you will hear about soon. Until then, I thought I’d give you a visual, rather than verbal, survey of my weeks in Italy. Enjoy!

Rome is always my home, but there’s always more to learn, and new people to learn from.
Sicily was one of my main destinations this fall, and is always a passion of mine.
Byzantine mosaics are a passion of mine, and so is Sicily. I spent time investigating both in October.
Naples is not my favorite city, I’ll be honest. But I’ve made a point to get to know it better this year, and guess what? It’s pretty cool.
I’ve seen the Vatican Museum more than 100 times, but I always find something new that I’ve never noticed. Guiding is like being a permanent student in the world’s best classroom.
Even the rainy days can bring surprises, like a double rainbow!
Im always looking for ways to bring people to an authentic slice of Italy. Here, I did a wine tasting and lunch at a farm where the family cooks with ingredients from the field. We even met the cows!
Keeping up on my art history also includes staying current. Venice is a playground of modern art, this year I loved the Biennale and the Damien Hirst show.
Some experiences are classic. Yeah, I’ve done this a million times but it’s always a great experience to watch my tour clients light up on a gondola.
Exploring deeper into Italy has been a recent hobby. Vicenza is one of many gems I’ve been researching. And the architect in me swoons over Palladio.
Lake Como is always a favorite, I enjoy doing nothing there, la dolce far niente, as we say.
Off-beat museums are a pleasure. This one, about the Italian colonies in Africa, was a surprise, hidden in Ragusa, central Sicily.
Always looking for a way to develop my knowledge and skills, I’ve been taking food tours in cities. Fun and educational! (Burp!)
I’ve made some wonderful new discoveries, I can’t wait to tell you about them, like beautiful islands off the coast of Sicily.
Possibly the best part about travel for me, the new friends I meet and the old friends that I continue to have adventures with. My travel family is wonderful!

12 Ways to be a Good Tourist in Venice

It’s high season and the crowds in major cities in Europe are swarming. Venice is always a popular attraction for visitors. While the steaming mass of tourists come and go, frustrated locals feel the pressure of crowding every day. As with any cross section of humanity, there are thoughtful travelers and…not so thoughtful travelers in the mix. This city is a jewel of world heritage, so the question looms: how can one be a good tourist in Venice?

Tourism pressure happens worldwide. I’m a tour guide all over the world, but Venice is near and dear to my heart. I spend weeks there every year and am sort of a quasi-local, or at least my Venetian friends think so. I feel a deep sympathy and connection to this creaky place and its residents. Help me help my city.

Not Always A Fan

My first few visits to Venice were not so great. I was a poor student. Existing on $20 per day was tough even in the dark ages. I stayed on the Giudecca and drank 1000 lira wine (50 cents a bottle). I was scandalized by the prices and the crowds. The city seemed like a big, hollow stage set with no life inside. It seemed like an elaborate seashell, abandoned by its hermit crab and left to be tossed about by the ocean.

Guiding tours in Italy required me to dutifully return again and again. Eventually I met some locals who became friends. Looking at the city through their eyes changed the way I felt about the city. As with any place, finding the soul lies in the people who live there.

What I found was a city that has a glorious past that few really understand beyond gondolas and Carnevale masks. A city with secret pleasures, traditional culture, modern life and salty old sea dogs, all mixed together. It has been a great gift to find the soul of a city as complicated as Venice.

Love/Hate Tourism

As much as locals may grouse about tourism, they secretly all know that they cannot live without it. The city was massively powerful and controlled trade from 1200-1400. After the fall of Constantinople in the 1400’s and the discovery of the New World, Venice slowly declined. Their dominance of the trading world slipped away.

To compensate, Venetians did what they did best, entertained international guests. Venice has been an international hub for more than 900 years. A natural outgrowth of hosting the international community became hospitality, and not just a place to sleep. Entertainment, in the form of music, theater, parties, gambling, and, um, female companionship, grew to be their business in the 1600’s.

I tell you all of this simply to point out one thing: tourism is nothing new. Anyone who complains about the number of foreigners in Venice just needs to take a visit to the Accademia painting gallery and check out some of the scenes from Venice in the early 1400’s. The faces and commotion would look current if you changed the elaborate clothing for jeans and tennis shoes.

International visitors are integral to the long history of the city. You should not feel an ounce of guilt for visiting, or let any locals make you feel unwelcome. Visitors make the city as they always have.

What to Do in 12 Thoughts

Some people will visit Venice and feel turned off by the mass tourism and tacky-tacky shops. Others will fall in love at first sight. No matter how you feel about the city, we as visitors need to learn to live alongside the locals in a healthier way. I have a few simple things you can do to achieve this goal.

  1. Keep to the right. The streets of Venice are tight, barely two people wide in many spots. If you’re ambling along, stay close to the right and let others pass you. If you see delivery people, move out of their way as quickly as you can. Just like the freeway at home, if you’re on the wrong side of the road, driving too slow, or blocking lanes,  you’ll get some colorful hand gestures.
  2. Make eye contact, smile and greet the locals. You are a guest in their city. You’re in their house. Pretend like every local is your grandma. Smile and say “Salve”, an all purpose greeting in Italian. They will be shocked…and may smile back.
  3. Dress for success. Locals have complained to me that tourists tend to dress like they are going to the beach when they come to Venice, with short shorts and bikini tops. The local culture is actually very conservative. I tend to dress up in Venice, wearing a nice dress and styling my hair for once. The city inspires me to be my best self, let it speak to you that way too.
  4. Don’t block bridges. This is the most crazy-making habit I see. I realize that the best photos are on a bridge, overlooking a canal. But don’t forget, those bridges are arterials. When you block traffic to take that Christmas card photo, you’re holding up a bunch of folks who just need to get to the grocery store. Be a thoughtful photographer. Early mornings are better anyway.
  5. Sleep in Venice. I know it is ridiculously expensive. But you’ll never really feel the magic of this city if you are tucked away on the mainland, or even worse, on a cruiseship, after the sun sets. Do yourself and the local economy a favor and sleep in this magical place. You’re worth it.
  6. Eat local. The Venetians are cracking down on chain restaurants and take-away shops for a reason. Venetian food has good choices at every price level, you just have to look for it and be willing to go local. Cheapskates can eat Venetian Tapas–cicchetti– and those with more money can splash out for a sit-down meal. Walk a few minutes out of center and you’ll find some good local restaurants. Supporting quality restaurants will encourage more quality places to develop.
  7. Shop thoughtfully. I know that plaster model of the Bridge of Sighs looks tempting, but it wasn’t made in Venice, probably not in Italy. There are plenty of shops that sell handmade souvenirs that are good quality from local artists. Jewelry, masks, art prints, you name it, you can find it if you ask around. Getting into the back streets of the city can help.
  8. Don’t feed or touch the pigeons. They may look romantic but the locals call them the flying rats. I am so disgusted when people feed and hold them, it’s unsanitary. Yuck, but also, they poop on buildings, which destroys them. Feeding pigeons helps them thrive. Don’t do it.
  9. Get away from the Piazza. Everyone lingers in San Marco, but there is plenty more to see in Venice. Dorsoduro, Cannaregio, Santa Croce are all lovely districts with hardly any people in them. See the main square at off hours.
  10. Be courteous and patient on transit. Using the vaporetto  can be frustrating. The locals depend on it to get around their city. Can you imagine how complicated everyday tasks must be? Give them space, offer your seat. Try to get on and off quickly, and stay out of the way.
  11. Carry your bags over the bridges. All of us who love the city cringe when visitors drag their bags up and down the steps. The wheels on the bags are chipping and damaging the steps. They actually outlawed wheeled bags in Venice…for about five minutes.
  12. Garbage is a problem. The garbage cans in busy areas can overflow. Be thoughtful about your garbage and don’t heap it on top of a full can. And please don’t toss things in the canals, including yourself! (Ewwww)

All in all, the bottom line is this: buy local, stay local, be cool and make an effort to try and understand the city. Thoughtful tourists are welcomed with open arms, and usually find a deeper connection and appreciation for this lovely place. Take care of this place and it will love you back.
Been to Venice? What would you like to see visitors do to be the best sort of guests?