Ireland Travels

Friendly and fun loving people, breathtaking landscapes, and so green! Of course I am referring to Ireland! We just got back from an amazing 10 days there and we didn’t even scratch the surface of this amazing country.

We decided, on our first trip to Ireland, we did not want to drive and weren’t really thrilled with the idea of being on a large coach with a totally filled itinerary so we booked an independent hosted vacation through Monograms, owned by Globus Tours.  Monograms takes care of your hotels, transfers, transportation, and some must see sightseeing while also giving you your freedom to explore on your own with the help of a dedicated host in each city you visit. The hosts can give you helpful suggestions to make the most of your time like dining and shopping recommendations, setting up optional tours, providing maps and brochures of local activities, etc.

We flew into the Shannon International airport on the western side of Ireland since most itineraries plan a route so you don’t backtrack and you can depart out of Dublin or in our case, Belfast. Our host, Tommy picked us up right outside of customs and escorted us to Limerick, our first stop for two nights. Tommy was full of information and told us some of the history of his country and pointed out a few landmarks on the way.  We arrived at our hotel in the morning, but rooms weren’t available until the afternoon. We decided to go out and have breakfast and ride the hop on/off bus until we could check in.

Limerick is the third largest city in Ireland, but on a Sunday morning it was quiet (maybe too much time in the pubs the night before?). The hop on/off bus took us on a tour of the city and we got off to explore King John’s Castle, built in 1200 on the Shannon River for protection from surrounding Gaelic kingdoms and any rebellious Normans. It was partially destroyed in 1642 and today you can explore the ramparts and learn more of it’s history through the interactive exhibits.

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The next day we took a full day tour to the Cliffs of Moher. We stopped along the way at Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient burial site dating back to 3800 BC.

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Driving through the Burren region was like looking at a lunar landscape.

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After a nice pub lunch in Ballyvaughen, it was time for the main attraction! We had great weather and the sun was shining as we walked up the trail to see the cliffs and they did not disappoint!

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Seeing these cliffs, at over 700 feet tall, meet the Atlantic ocean is simply stunning. We returned back to Limerick for a second night.

Tommy arrived in the morning to transfer us by mini-van shuttle to Killarney where we would be spending 3 nights. On the way we stopped in the gorgeous village of Adare.

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Then arrived in Killarney where we met our hostess, Dee. She showed us the main street of Killarney and we were off to explore and have lunch. Later we went on a jaunting car ride (known to us as a horse drawn carriage) into the Killarney National Park and stopped at Ross Castle to take pictures.

Pub life is huge in Ireland, it is a place to go to socialize, exchange news, listen to music, and enjoy a beer. We were able to sample quite a few local brews and hear traditional Irish songs in Killarney.

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We had the next day free to explore Killarney and we decided to take it easy and use the spa at our hotel and relax. We were at the halfway point in our trip and used this time to regroup, it is a vacation after all!

Our last day in Killarney, we took a tour of the famous Ring of Kerry, a 110 mile scenic drive of the Iveragh Peninsula through coastal seaside towns. We stopped at a historic bog village, watched a sheep dog trial and learned how the dogs work to control the sheep.

We stopped for lunch and continued onto Sneem, a small picturesque village, for shopping and free time before continuing our journey back to Killarney through the national park and once last stop at Ladies View, a scenic overlook of the lakes of Killarney.

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We travelled by train from Killarney to Dublin. The train is modern and clean, easy to navigate, and it took a little over 3 hours to arrive in Dublin. We were met again by our local host, Damien, who gave us a short panoramic tour of the city on the way to our hotel. After dropping off our bags, we rushed over to Kilmainham Gaol (jail) and took a guided tour to learn of the history of the many rebellions that took place in Ireland between 1798 and 1916 by strong willed, courageous Irish Nationalists who were looking for freedom from British rule.

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On our way back to our hotel, we saw an Oktoberfest celebration going on with beer, German food, and music so it looked like a fun place to grab a bite to eat for dinner.

Our next day in Dublin was rainy, but we headed out to sightsee. We stopped first at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and couldn’t go in because a ceremony was going on so we walked down the block to Christ Church Cathedral, a medieval church dating back to 1030. It began as a Viking church and later the Church of Ireland. We visited both the church and the crypt underneath.

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Our third stop was to Trinity College to view the Book of Kells, one of the most popular attractions in Dublin. The book was written in 800 AD and contains the 4 gospels in Latin surrounded by ornate drawings and script. Afterward we grabbed lunch at a pub, walked around Grafton Street, the main shopping area, and then back to the hotel. Our time in Dublin was coming to an end too quickly, but we had one more city to visit.

We left Dublin on a train for Belfast this morning, the train was a quick 2.5 hour ride, but it was like we stepped into another world. We were no longer spending Euros instead using the British sterling pound, the people spoke with a different dialect and accent, and there was an easy calmness around the city compared to the hustle and bustle of crowded Dublin.

After checking into our hotel, the Europa, we walked across the street to catch the hop on/off bus. The live commentary really made Belfast come to life as we learned some of the history of the city and it’s war torn past. We visited Titanic Belfast, in the heart of the Titanic Quarter area of the city. This iconic building showcases Belfast’s history in ship building, how important and innovative the Titanic was at the time, the amount of man power that went into building the Titanic, and the devastation of it sinking and the lives lost as a result.

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Afterward, we went to the most famous bar in Belfast, The Crown Liquor Saloon, a Victorian era pub with beautiful stained glass.

Our last day in Belfast, we spent the day on a full day excursion to the Giant’s Causeway. We were delayed a bit waiting on others for our group tour, but once we made it out of the city, the day cleared up and we had beautiful weather to enjoy the northern coast. Our first stop was to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. This place was amazing! Pictures can’t even do it justice.

Next, we stopped for lunch before arriving at the Giant’s Causeway. We took a short shuttle bus down to the interesting rock formations along the sea and had time to explore and enjoy the spectacular views. The name, Giant’s Causeway, comes from the story of the giant, Finn McCool, who lived in this area.

We were sad to leave Belfast the next morning and are already planning a return trip to both Ireland and Northern Ireland. We left a piece of our hearts there after experiencing such amazing Irish hospitality.

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Debunking myths: What is a travel agent and who needs one?

Many of you have probably thought to yourselves:

“I didn’t even think travel agents existed anymore.”

-Travel agents do exist, but we aren’t often found in storefront locations anymore, we’ve become mobile to better serve our clients and keep our costs lower, similar to realtors, insurance brokers, graphic designers, etc. Mobility allows us to better serve our clients and has become more convenient for you than driving to an office or storefront setting.

“I’m pretty savvy with the computer/iPad and use expediaorbitztravelocityhotels.com

-I love the internet and could not do my job without it! It is a great research tool to get ideas about where you would like to go and what you would like to do. However, there are downfalls-reviews are hit and miss, most people who write them either had the best or worst experience of their lives leaving us confused as to who is telling the real story. We also don’t know who is writing them, what their expectations were, and when one person loves or hates it, should we base our decision on them and their opinions or should we take more time to figure out what is important to US?  We say “Use the internet to look, call a travel agent to book.”

“I know there are travel agents out there, but won’t it cost me more to use them vs. doing it online myself?”

All of the online booking engines and websites offer many of the same promotions and pricing since a commission is built into the price.  What you do not receive when booking online is a dedicated agent to help you before, during, and after the trip. You aren’t getting the experience of an agent who has been to many of these resorts, sailed on these cruise ships, been to these destinations and can ask you the right questions to make sure you are getting the vacation you want, not the vacation Uncle Fred told you he enjoyed 10 years ago. We want you to get the best price, but more importantly, we need to match the right vacation to you.  Going on a “cheap” vacation and being miserable the entire time is not fun or worth the price you paid. There are deals and specials, but we want to make sure you will be happy!

“I’m not sure I need a travel agent, I like researching and planning and have had good luck so far doing it myself.”

I am so happy to hear you’ve had success in planning your own travels and maybe you don’t need or want assistance.  In some cases, there isn’t much I can do that you can’t do yourself, like when you rent a car to see family, need a flight to Syracuse, or a 2 night hotel stay in the Poconos.  Here is what I can do for you and why you would want to book your vacation through a travel professional.

My job, as a travel agent, is to:

  1. Qualify and match you to the right vacation. (We go over your wants and needs, level of activity, length of time you’d like to be away, weather, budget, and many other factors to determine how to make this vacation perfect for you.)
  2. Personalize your trip to include your interests (For example, I can arrange WWII history tours, brewery tours, wine tastings, picnics, birdwatching, etc.).
  3. Advise you on how to prepare for your trip (Packing tips, things to do, currency exchange, visas/passports).
  4. Be your resource and support contact for any issues that could arise. (Travel delays, accidents, lost baggage, etc.)

Some examples of vacations I have planned for my clients include private, guided touring of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand; escorted group tours in Europe, ocean and river cruising all over the world, African safaris, visiting Peru with a trek to Machu Picchu, independent, custom itineraries with air/hotel/tours/rail of Italy and France, Caribbean all inclusive resorts, ski packages, etc. You dream it and I will make it happen. I have travel partners throughout the world to make your vacations memorable and amazing.

If you have questions or are ready to start planning your next vacation with me, contact me at escapetheordinarytravel@gmail.com

Kate Clisson

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Mysterious and Magical Morocco

Morocco is North Africa’s gem and is waiting to be discovered by more Americans.  I know some perceive the area as unsafe due to Islam being the primary religion, it’s culture reflecting it’s deep rooted Arabic influence and its proximity to many countries that are deemed unsafe by the Dept of State through their Travel Warnings and Alerts website. So lets look at a map.

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Morocco is located toward the top left below Spain and Portugal. A ferry can take you between Morocco and Spain in 30 minutes. Morocco is bordered by Algeria to the east and the Western Sahara to the southwest.  Morocco claims the Western Sahara as a territory, but it has also been disputed and the Polisario front has been trying to win independence from Morocco, but currently there is a cease fire in place and is far enough from the popular tourist destinations in Morocco and should not affect your decision to travel unless something changes. There is a Dept of State warning regarding travel to Algeria and it concerns southern and eastern Algeria in particular, but again there is no issue in Morocco and as a tourist you would not be in harms way.

I know Africa seems like a giant disaster and a place no one should choose to go to much less on vacation. Africa consists of 54 countries and almost half are on the Dept of State warning and alert list, but there are amazing places, people, and culture to discover in the rest.  In the past 2 years we have been to South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, and Morocco and have never felt like we were being put in harms way. As long as you use a reputable travel agent and tour operator there is little reason to be concerned. I would not recommend traveling alone to these countries and doing it yourself type of vacations, but with a little planning, you can have a great, safe vacation.

Morocco is so unique because it blends European, African, Arab, and Berber cultures and is like no other place in the world. Morocco is controlled by a monarchy as well as a parliament. Morocco has been ruled by Romans, Arabs, Berbers, and before declaring independence in 1956, Morocco was a colony of France.  This explains why so many people speak Arabic, Berber, or French.

We arrived in Casablanca and had 2 nights to relax before our tour started.  We stayed downtown at the Sofitel which was a great hotel, but not quite up to the standards of the chain.  We were welcomed with mint tea during check in and we were upgraded to a room with a view of Hassan II Mosque.

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We broke down and had Pizza Hut for lunch around the corner from our hotel.  For dinner, we had true Moroccan cuisine at La Sqala.  It is a great restaurant located inside of an 18th century fortress with dining both inside and outside surrounded by their gardens. The food was very good and one of the best meals we had while in Morocco.

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The next day, we took a cab to the Habous Souk in the morning and found a delicious pastry shop for a light breakfast before getting our shopping on.  In Kenya and Tanzania, we could not shop a lot because of luggage weight restrictions for our small plane flights and there weren’t too many opportunities in the bush.  There are only so many wood carvings and beaded jewelry you can buy as souvenirs for yourself or friends and family back home.

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After bartering and buying, we then had to buy another suitcase for our treasures and we still had more than week in Morocco! We decided to get massages at the Sofitel spa and relax downstairs for drinks and tapas since tomorrow was going to be a very early morning where we meet up with other travel agents and start our escorted tour of the country.

Stay tuned for our trip to Rabat, Fez, Meknes, and Volubulis before we attend the ASTA conference in Morocco.

 

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Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Safari

It is Monday Feb 16, 2015 and we have 4 more nights of safari in Tanzania. On our way to the Ngorongoro conservation area, we stop at Lake Manyara National Park.  This park is known for tree climbing lions, but we did not see any.  We did see a blue monkey, which we had not seen elsewhere, but other than that the stop was uneventful.

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Now it was time to drive to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge for 2 nights.  I had been looking forward to seeing the Ngorongoro Crater or more technically caldera ever since I read a story about it in 8th grade.  I was fascinated that this mini eco-system could exist and imagined the area overflowing with animals.  The caldera is very large covering over 102 sq miles with areas of grassland and forests so do not think you will be stumbling over animals left and right. Over 25,000 large animals live in this area including black rhino, zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, and hippos.  A common misperception is that the animals do not leave or cannot leave and this is not true, wildebeest and zebra, do vacate the crater during the wet season.

From the lodge it takes some time to reach the bottom of the caldera since the lodges are located on the rim overlooking the area. It was much cooler and cloudier at the lodge which was a welcome respite from the heat we had been dealing with. The Sopa lodge is close to a descent road so we saved time staying here than some of the other options in the area.  The food was average and the internet was spotty, but overall a nice stay.

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The most interesting thing we saw were the hyenas eating as a pack and the jackals on the outskirts waiting for scraps. We saw a mom and baby hippo out of the water, relocating to another part of the river and rhinos playing around with one another in the dust and dirt.

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Our next 2 nights we spent at Serengeti National Park at the Serengeti Sopa Lodge, it was about a 5 hour drive from Ngorongoro. Again we were swarmed by Tsetse flies in parts of the Serengeti that were more woodlands and they were absent in the plains.  Here we saw tons of zebras and wildebeest since they are constantly moving in search of food and water.

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At this point we were spent and just plain tired of game drives, long car rides, and the repetitiveness of our days so I think we were definitely cranky and impatient to leave. We had a couple more game drives before a flight to Arusha, but it was anti-climactic since the game viewing just wasn’t as good as Kenya for us.

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We did see a family of hyenas before going to the airstrip and they were being very playful which was fun to watch.

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Another small prop plane took us to Arusha where they had lunch for us and a day room at a local hotel where we could relax before our international flights began.

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We then had a very long evening and day ahead of us since we were traveling to Morocco next for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) International Destination Expo. There is no quick way to get to Casablanca so we flew from Arusha to Nairobi to Dubai to Casablanca.  We definitely spent more time in vehicles and planes than any other vacation we’ve taken, but it was worth it to experience these bucket list destinations.

Next up our Moroccan tour of Casablanca, Fez, Rabat, and Marrakech.

Kate

 

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Tanzania and the tsetse flies

Today, Sunday February 15, we end our safari in Kenya and head to Tanzania for our last 5 nights of safari.

We leave Daniel at the Kenya/Tanzania border where we are handed over to our last guide of our trip, (I cannot remember his name) who was not as personable as the other 2 and spit out facts like he was an encyclopedia and kept pointing out plants and birds which we didn’t have an interest in.  He also wasn’t a great animal spotter and in Tanzania, he never went off road like we did in Kenya so the wildlife viewing was much more sparse since we basically had to luck out and have an animal either cross the road or be near the side of the road.  He also pointed out many animals from a distance, but we couldn’t get closer or had already seen them much closer.  As a guide, he didn’t really try to connect with us and had his own agenda of what he thought was important to explain.

The border crossing was a bit unorganized, but we showed our yellow fever vaccine card and our pre-purchased visas and were on our way.  The drive was long from Amboseli to Tarangire National Park where we only had 1 night.  Tarangire had excellent bird viewing and many elephants, but the tsetse flies were swarming and felt like horse/yellow fly bites.  We had to close the truck top and windows so the drive became extremely hot and unenjoyable. We stayed at the Tarangire Sopa Lodge which was nice and very quiet at this time of year.

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For the amount of time we spent traveling and the tsetse flies, I would have skipped this park especially since we were only there 1 night and the next day we still had a long drive to Ngorongoro Crater.

Stay tuned for my last blog on Tanzania covering Ngorongoro and Serengeti.

Kate

 

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Meeting the Masai people

We arrived in Nairobi and are met by our new guide and driver for the next 2 days, Daniel. We stopped for lunch at a Brazilian steakhouse (these must be pretty popular in Nairobi since this is the 2nd meal at this type of restaurant, but does not compare to our Texas de Brazil).  After lunch we began the long drive southeast to Amboseli National Park which is located on the border of Kenya and Tanzania with views of Mt. Kilimanjaro. At this point, I think for us and for most people, the safari game drives, the long drives to parks, the lodges without air conditioning and average food/buffets/set menus, and overall traveling is getting tiring. We would have been happy to leave Kenya once we arrived in Nairobi, but safaris are unpredictable and you don’t know what you will see or when you will see it so we may have felt differently if the first part of safari hadn’t been so incredible.

Daniel said the weather was abnormally warm for this time of year and the rains should have come and cooled down the area by this time.  Unfortunately for us, none of the lodges and camps we stayed at had air conditioning and it was uncomfortable.  We stayed at the Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge which is a beautiful property, but the rooms were small and hot and we had to beg for an extra fan.  Everywhere we stayed had some sort of fan, but once the mosquito netting is put down around the bed each evening, it was stifling.

Outside of the park, there is a Masai tribe village so we met with the son of the leader and he showed us around. He explained how they make medicine and fire, showed us into one of their homes, and welcomed us with a traditional song and dance.  Lastly we went to see the children in school who also welcomed us with song.  You do pay to go into the village, they do try to sell you handicrafts, and they do ask you for donations for their school.  I understand paying for the experience since these people live a hard life off of the land and it is an authentic village, not like what we would see at Disney or a re-creation of their life and times, but it also felt like we were expected to pay and keep paying the entire time we were there.  We still learned and appreciated the experience, but it is something to be aware of if you do decide to participate in a village tour.

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The game viewing at Amboseli wasn’t great and we didn’t see anything we hadn’t already seen throughout Kenya.  We did see Mt. Kilimanjaro since it was a clear day.

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This is the end of our safari in Kenya after 2 nights in Amboseli so it is time for Daniel to drive us to the border of Kenya and Tanzania.

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The Magical Masai Mara

Masai Mara Game Reserve is included in almost every safari tour of Kenya whether or not the Great Migration is occurring (it takes place in July/August).  We came to the park in mid-February during the dry season, but had no problems seeing an abundance of animals so don’t worry too much about the time of year when visiting. The Masai Mara borders Tanzania’s famous Serengeti National Park so animals wander freely between the 2 looking for food and water. The Masai tribespeople can also be seen sharing the land with the wild animals.  This reserve is where you can take a hot air balloon ride over the savannah, but we opted out of this due to the prohibitive cost of almost $500 per person.  We could not justify the cost and chose to do additional game drives instead.

We stayed at the Ashnil Mara Camp which is comprised of 40 luxury tents. It was very warm so we enjoyed the pool during our breaks from the game drives.  Also the camp had limited electricity during certain hours of the day so this made it difficult to be in the room without a fan running.

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Our game drives here were the best on the entire safari, we saw a pride of animals eating a cape buffalo, a mother cheetah with her 3 cubs and another lion pride with cubs.DSC_0533 DSC_0557 DSC_0576 DSC_0627 DSC_0708 DSC_0738 DSC_0753 DSC_0763 DSC_0769

 

More lions!

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It was simply a once in a life time experience to see the cats in the wild, they never ran from us and it was like we weren’t even there!

We also saw a hyena pack leaving their den, hippos, and wildebeest.

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The next morning, we had a short game drive to the airstrip where we took a very small prop plane that held about 8 people back to Nairobi.  We said goodbye and thanked Thomas for all his hard work to make our safari incredible. The flight is about 1 hour and we were back to where we began, but our safari continues to Amboseli National park, the last park we visit in Kenya.

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Follow us to our last park in Kenya and onto Tanzania.

 

Kate

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