Catalina Island Avalon Harbor

Escapes from LA: Catalina Island

I have to be honest. If you asked me to hop on a plane anywhere for a quick getaway, I’d say ‘take me to the Mediterranean!’ Who doesn’t love indigo water, crystalline shorelines, charming villages, locally made food and abundance of outdoor cafés? However, European destinations along the Med tend to be quite pricey, not to mention a long flight for us Americans (especially for other Californians like me). But that’s why I couldn’t be more surprised, delighted, and borderline obsessed with this European-esque destination that I recently discovered in my own backyard.

Avalon Harbor Catalina Island

Catalina Island is not exactly “new.” It’s been inhabited for at least 8000 years, originally by the Native American tribe, the Pimungans. More recently, William Wrigley (yes, like the chewing gum) owned the island and brought his baseball team there for their annual spring training from 1921-1951. And of course, Hollywood also fell in love with Catalina, using it as the location for many early films as well as the playground for the stars and show biz elite. After visiting for myself for the first time, I can see why this island has been so popular for so long.

 

WHEN TO GO

I visited with a group of friends in early March, far outside of Catalina’s high season, which typically runs from June through September. Off season, or shoulder season travel is one of my all-time favorite travel hacks. It generally results in a much better experience overall because you aren’t battling crowds, lines and high prices. My tip would be to travel in either March through May or late September through November, to maximize best weather and least amount of people. However, don’t forget that it is Southern California so even December or January could have perfect weather!

Avalon Harbor Catalina Island

We also opted for a weekday stay as opposed to the popular weekend trips, arriving on a Monday and departing on a Wednesday. Like off-season travel, weekday travel usually means better rates and less people so you can focus on enjoying the destination without as much hassle.

Catalina Express Ferry

GETTING THERE

Catalina Express

Catalina Island is visible from Santa Monica all the way down to Laguna Beach, but this large SoCal island is actually much further away than it looks. The Catalina Express offers daily shuttles via high speed catamaran that whisk you out into the Pacific and get you onshore in about an hour. It’s also a fun ride! We departed from Long Beach and I sat outside, enjoying the salty breezes and the watery views. We even had a dolphin sighting! Note: there is a full bar for those that want to start the party the moment we leave the mainland.

Luxe Tip–> For those that have less time and the itch to splurge, there are helicopters that can bring you over in just 15 minutes!

 

WHERE TO STAY

Though it is possible to experience Catalina for the day, I would recommend staying at least one night, ideally two. During the day, the main town of Avalon is usually busy with other daytrippers and the cruise passengers. However by night, the town empties out and you can enjoy the calm, quiet beauty of this island gem.

Pavilion Hotel Catalina Island

Pavilion Hotel

As I am the “Hotel Snob,” where I stay is very important and I would stay at the Pavilion Hotel again in a heartbeat. The well appointed property is located right on the main street, in the center of Avalon. It has water views, as well as a sunny complimentary breakfast and daily wine hour on the patio.  I particularly loved all the outdoor seating areas, fire pits and secluded loungers in the garden. This small hotel felt tranquil and private, even though it is just steps from the hustle and bustle of downtown Avalon.

 

The rooms are crisp and sea-inspired. New and clean, I wouldn’t call them extravagant in any way, but I wasn’t left wanting for anything. The separate sink and vanity area also served as a mini kitchenette with coffee and mini fridge. Of course, I would have loved it if the hotel had a pool but that is a rarity on Catalina Island in general.

 

WHERE TO EAT

Avalon Grille Catalina

Avalon Grille

This is one of the nicest options on the island and I’d recommend that you book it for one special dinner. The elegant menu has everything from well cooked steaks to local seafood to a mouthwatering burger. Definitely order the fried green beans to share! Also, as I’m always all about the atmosphere, I felt that the classy interior makes it work for a romantic night but the wraparound bar also makes it accessible for cocktails and appetizers. It was even busy on a Monday night, proving that the islanders love this spot as well.

 

The Lobster Trap Catalina

Image courtesy of Catalina Chamber of Commerce

The Lobster Trap

Another great dinner option at a lower price point is The Lobster Trap. This seafood joint is an institution in Avalon and you will be overwhelmed by the local “Cheers” vibe the minute you walk in. The owner was handing out shots, our makeshift table was on top of a pool table and there was a live lobster running across the table. However, the service couldn’t be friendlier and the no-frills seafood plates were fresh and delicious. I could see how a dinner here might turn into an all night affair as the bar was hopping, even on a Tuesday at 7pm.

Catalina Bluewater Grill

Image courtesy of @darinainwanderlust

Bluewater Grill

This one wins for best location as it is set on top of the water. We came for a sunny lunch and had a tremendous view of the Avalon Bay as well as fun, casual fare like shrimp caesars and fish tacos. I’d definitely go back for dinner or to check out their bar in the evening. Just like Europe’s sunny outdoor patios, the Bluewater Grill is a place you’d want to hang out for a few hours with a coffee or a cocktail.

 

Lloyd’s of Avalon

You have to give a lot of credit to a candy shop that’s been in business since 1934. They make all their own chocolates, salt water taffy and fudge, and even claim to have served Marilyn Monroe.

 

Scoops Catalina Avalon

Image courtesy of Scoops Instagram @scoopscatalina

Scoops

As always, I sought out the best local ice cream on Avalon and all locals pointed here: Scoops. This is the place to go for the best homemade ice cream and gelato. Beware though, in the summer the lines can get long!

 

WHAT TO DO

There is a LOT that you can do on the island, ranging from outdoor exploration, hikes, shopping, scuba, water sports and more. Normally the adventurer, I toned it back to focus more on relaxed, soft adventures as I was 7 months pregnant and I am happy that I did.View of Avalon Harbor Catalina

Golf Cart

Not only is the golf cart THE mode of transportation on the island, I find driving them to be so fun. It feels like you are on vacation! There are self guided routes that you can take to access the best vistas of the island and to take in a variety of landscapes.Golf Cart Catalina Island

 

Island Spa Catalina

Island Spa Catalina

This secluded hideaway is located at the end of Avalon’s main drag and it really is an oasis. When you step inside, the private courtyard has sun deck, a beautiful pool, a lounge area with sea views, and even a spa café. Take a class in their Wellness Studio or indulge in a massage at their spa. Or just grab a day pass for a day of R&R.

Descanso Beach Club Catalina

Descanso Beach Club

Just a 15 minute walk from the center of town along the water, the Descanso Beach Club was probably my favorite experience in Avalon. The sandy beach is bookended by natural cliffs on one side and the Catalina Casino on the other, making it feel like your private beach oasis for the day. If you come early, you’ll have it all to yourself but as the day wears on, the beach club kicks it up a notch. The outdoor bar and restaurant definitely becomes the place on the island to party!

Kayaking Catalina

The crystal clear water is not just perfect for swimming, you can hit up Descanso Beach Ocean Sports to rent an SUP or kayak. Take it a step further and go on a kayaking tour. I highly recommend the guided 2 hour kayak tour to Frog Rock. Our morning paddle out on the glittering water was breathtaking and I loved learning more about the life under the water from our knowledgeable guide. We stopped on a beach only accessible by kayak to rest, take photos, and enjoy some freshly made cookies. Pebble beaches, giant rocks, arid cliffs and glittering ocean–were we sure this wasn’t the Mediterranean?

 

Catalina Casino

Catalina Casino Tour

I am not going to lie, this walking tour was a bit a slow for me as it is geared towards an older set. But if you are a history buff, you will definitely appreciate the access to the first theatre in America that was “designed for talkies” as well as the pink art deco ballroom. From the top of the Casino, the views of Avalon and the bay might be some of the best on the island, so for me, that was the highlight. Plus, the Casino is the icon of Catalina so it important to understand its significance.

 

And More Adrenaline-Pumping Adventures

Many of my friends were able to partake in the more adventurous activities and the best reviews came from the East End hummer tour where my friends saw the island’s famous wild buffalo, parasailing 800 feet above the water, ziplining through canyons, and tight rope walking along the tree top ropes course.

East End Adventure Catalina

Image courtesy of the Catalina Island Company

Though I’ve mentioned the popularity of Catalina Island, I am actually most awed by the fact that the island is mostly untouched! 88% of the island is a nature preserve and the town of Avalon, the main hub of Catalina, is only home to 4000 residents. The rest of Catalina belongs to the bald eagles, the bison, the fox and the rest of the flora and fauna that live on or around its shores. For an island that is in plain sight of one of the US’s busiest cities, I am so impressed that it has retained its natural landscape and retro charm. Though you don’t need a passport to get here, it surely feels like you step off of the ferry into another world entirely.Selfie View Catalina

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Stay tuned for my video of this incredible island oasis COMING SOON!

 

xoxo

Kelley

torii gate

Top 5 Adventures in Setouchi, Japan

Japan might be synonymous with gardens, temples, sushi and cherry blossoms, but did you also realize that it is home to a wild variety of adventures? I spent 2 weeks exploring the Setouchi Region in Southwest Japan, which is famous for its breathtaking landscapes so it’s no surprise that outdoor adventures are plentiful here. I had no idea that Japan looked like this! We explored beaches and coasts, clear waters, rugged mountains, sweeping valleys and iconic cities throughout this region, and it is the adventures that stand out to me most. Here is a list of my favorite experiences throughout the region. Note that since Setouchi is all about the Seto Inland Sea, each of these experiences have to do with water in some way.

  1. Kayak the Floating Gate

torii gate

 

You’ve probably seen images of this incredible gate, the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. Itsukushima is a Shinto Shrine and World Heritage Site, and I think it is a marvel unto itself. Built to honor the gods of the sea, it has been a popular place of worship for sea travels ever since the Edo period. This outdoor shrine is located on the shores of the sacred Miyajima Island, constructed near and even in the water. But this particular torii gate might be one of Japan’s most iconic images. The gate is built right on the water so during high tide, when the water surrounds it, it appears to be floating. High tide is the perfect time to see it up close, by kayaking!

Itsukushima Shrine

We rented kayaks from a small shop, right in the center of town. They helped us bring the kayaks out to the shore and provided a guide to help us paddle and navigate the two-seater kayaks. It was helpful to have help paddling since I had to stop a few times to take photos! I couldn’t believe how stunning the gate was as we passed through it. The vermillion color, the ornate carvings and the striking backdrop is even more tremendous when you experience it on the water. I will cherish the photos I took of this kayak adventure forever.

 

2. Fly in a Seaplane

Setouchi Seaplanes flight seaplane

The Seto Inland Sea is home to thousands of islands and it is probably the most dramatic part of this entire region. To take in the breadth of the sea as well as the beauty of the terrain, a seaplane gives you an incomparable perspective.

Setouchi Seaplanes

I couldn’t recommend Setouchi Seaplanes more. This company has an ultra hip, ultra modern checkin counter and lounge, complete with complimentary drinks and snacks. Check out their cute selection of souvenirs from their gift shop.

From there, you are guided onto the dock for a quick security check and then onto the seaplane. With one seat on either side, and 3 rows behind the pilots, our group of 6 had plenty of room. There are two amphibious aircraft available and I was excited that we flew in the bright red and green “L’ala Rossa.” As we took off from the water, it was exhilarating to see the islands, roads, and bridges get smaller and smaller. What I didn’t expect was how photogenic the landscape would be from this angle. I was captivated by the glittering sea, the uninhabited islands and the miniscule speeding boats as are we soared for 50 minutes. The pilots pointed out highlights along the route and I felt the entire service was very professional and the planes were very well maintained. Let’s not forget, it definitely pumps the adrenaline too!

 

3. Bike the Shimanami Kaido

Shimanami Kaido Biking

With over 37 miles of paved bike paths, it is no wonder that cyclist flock to Setouchi for their biking vacations. Not only are the paths very well constructed, they are extremely scenic as well! We picked up our bike at our homebase, the Hotel Cycle in Onomichi, and from there we biked along the coastal paths. This allowed us to stop at beaches, admire water views, cross some of Setouchi’s many architectural bridges and hop from island to island. We biked to Ikuchijima Island to explore the vivid Kosanji Temple. And if you are hungry, check out the delicious tempura restaurants in town!  

 

4. Cruise the Oboke Gorge

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley Boat

Yet another water adventure can be found away from the Seto Sea, up in the mountains of the Iya Valley on Tokushima Island. Surrounded by what seems to be endless, wooded peaks, this region is already spectacular. But try experiencing it by boat.

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley

We embarked on a sightseeing boat to explore the Oboke Gorge, a crystal clear part of the Yoshinaro River. The cruise was very relaxed and peaceful. It was such a lovely way take in the fresh air and surrounding nature of the Iya Valley. Plus the water is so clear, you are can see wild koi fish splashing about under the hull.

 

5. Cross the Kazura Bridge

Kazura Bridge Iya Valley

You wouldn’t expect a bridge to be an adventure, but this one is! The Kazura Bridge is a hanging rope bridge that spans 50 feet above a river. It is thought to have been built by the samurai that lived in these mountains, who chose to built it out of vines and ropes so they could cut it down in case they were being trailed by attackers.

Standing on the Kazura Bridge

Now it is a picturesque tourist destination for it’s Iya Valley views but also for the bragging rights of crossing it. I am not going to lie, I was a little scared when I stepped on it. I had not expected the vines to be so far apart, making me very aware of the 50 foot drop between each step. The bridge also sways with movement and with the wind, so hold on!

 

The best way to understand these adventures is to see them!

Check out my Adventure video where I dive into all these Setouchi experiences and even more that I didn’t mention! 

Kauai Sheraton Aulii Luau

Top 5 Things to do on Kauai, Hawaii

Hawaii and I are in a serious relationship. We just met last spring, when I first landed in Maui with my husband. We spent 10 days roaming her grassy hills, sand swept beaches and lush jungles. Eager to return and explore more of Hawaii’s shores, I returned to Oahu, just a few months later. This time I was on a film assignment so it was I was accompanied only by my camera. Together with our rental car, we saw all ends of the most populated island–from Waikiki to Kailua to the North Shore.

Maui sunset

Just recently,  exactly one year from my first trip to these paradisiacal islands, I flew back to Hawaii yet again. This time I was visting Kauai. What made it even more special was my mom was joining me. I couldn’t wait for her to experience the state that I loved so much. An added bonus was that since I am pregnant, this was a little mother/daughter babymoon!

Babymoon in Kauai

I’d heard all the rumors that Kauai was “the best” and I assumed that there was a reason that this verdant island was the top pick for honeymooners. But I thoroughly loved Maui and Oahu, both for different reasons; how could Kauai really compete?

From the moment I stepped outside of Kauai’s Lihue airport, I felt a big difference in just the air! The air was fragrant and more humid than other islands. As we drove to the South Shore for our stay at Ko’a Kea Resort, we passed through many lush landscapes which could have been out of Jurassic Park (it was filmed here after all!).

Koa Kea Resort Kauai pool

Our resort was a stylish boutique and it was small–which I loved. It felt totally laid-back and manageable–not a huge box style hotel. Poipu Beach was calm, clean with a good amount of sunseekers, but it not packed to the gills. There was even room for the seals that nap on the beach just about every afternoon.

Driving on Kauai

To me, Kauai is the more rugged, natural and chill version of the other islands. I’d maybe describe it as the hippie little sister with a lot of wild beauty and spiritual depth. In just 6 days, my mom and I put over 1000 miles on our car so it’s safe to say, we covered a lot of ground. However since my mom and I were not in a condition to hike, we limited activities to those accessible by easy walks, drives or boat rides. The following were the five highlights of our trip that I’d recommend to everyone–suitable for all ages and abilities. And next time I return, I plan to embark on some epic hikes, cruise the rivers on kayaks and take to the skies by helicopter.

 

  1. Snorkel with Seals 

Underwater snorkeling Poipu Beach

Poipu Beach is located in the sunny south of the island, which has the least rainfall on the island and thus the best conditions for snorkeling. It also helps that the waves are generally mild, making it family friendly and easy to see the world that is brimming with life just under the water.

Seals on Poipu Beach

I was staying just steps away from this beach at the Ko’a Kea Resort, so it made it easy to head out there each morning when the water was at its glassiest. To my surprise, the schools of brightly colored schools were just steps from the shore. I was barely standing in 4 feet of water and all I had to do was look down to see hundreds of multi hued fish! To be immersed in the marine life, snorkel between the shore and the small island off of the beach. But definitely try to get there early as many tourists know about this spot as well.

Since the seals seem to love to sunbathe on this beach, you might get lucky and be in the water as they pass by. These graceful creatures are still wild and respect them by giving them their space. If one comes near you, don’t try to touch it or swim near them. We are the outsiders in their home so we need to be good guests.

 

  1. Experience a traditional Hawaiian Luau

Aulii Luau Kauai

I love how Hawaii’s history, traditions and stories are still such a strong part of the islands today. The vibrant culture unlike any other state in the USA, let alone any other place in the world. It is so special to see how it is still alive and I think one of the best ways for mainlanders to understand it is through a luau.

Aulii Luau Sheraton Kauai

It was our first night on Kauai, we were lucky enough to attend the Aulii Luau on the South shore. My mom was giddy –this would be her first luau ever and she’d always wanted to experience one. The outdoor party was taking place at the Sheraton Kauai, just steps from their pink sand beach, in a prime spot for one of Poipu’s signature sunsets. The gold, pink, purple and orange of the sunset was just the opening act for a memorable, Hawaiian evening.

Sunset at the Aulii Luau Kauai

We had Premier seating, which allows you reserved seats at one of the front tables. General seating is at one of the long tables further back and it is first come, first served.  I recommend the Premier if you are most interested in dancing. You might be the farthest from the food, but you are closest to the stage and thus can appreciate all the details, especially the expressions on the dancers’ faces!

Kalua Pork Buffet Aulii Luau Kauai

The buffet dinner included a lot of fresh, local dishes and Hawaiian specialities. I tried the purple poi for the first time and enjoyed the kalua pig. Following the meal, there is a whole dessert table. The pineapple upside down cake was the winner there for me! We had to walk to get our own drinks which included mai tais, blue Hawaiian’s and beer and wine options. As I was pregnant, I did not indulge but my mom enjoyed a mai tai and the white wine.

But not surprisingly, the show itself was the best part. The talented dancers gave skilled, emotional performances, each one very different from the one before. The bright and wild, costumes and the tiki stage design was a sensory overload. I particularly loved the coed performance with the grass skirts. And of course, the fire dancer brought the audience to gasps, oohs and ahhs. What a way to spend our first night in Kauai!

 

  1. Cruise the Na Pali Coast by Boat

Na Pali Coast Holo Holo

This might be one of the most well-known areas of the island but no one lives here and there are no roads. The 15 miles of coastline is nature at its most beautiful. Sheer, jagged cliffs, soaring mountains and rocky coves meet the swells of the sea along this magical stretch. It is no wonder that it is such a sacred part in Hawaiian legend.

We chose to explore the coastline by boat. We embarked with Holo Holo Boat Tours, a highly rated  boat tour company that operated out of nearby Port Allen harbor. Our vessel was a 65 foot power catamaran– the island’s fastest tour boat. It was very spacious and had plenty of spaces to sit, which came in handy on this 4 hour tour.

Na Pali Coast Holo Holo Charter

The route was up to the coastline and then back, but along the way, we had quite a surprise show. Whales were jumping out of the water, slapping the surface and diving down deep, showing off their tales. I have been on whale watches before I’d never seen so many whales, so close!

Na Pali Coast tour with Holo Holo

Once we made it to Na Pali, the boat slowed down so we could fully appreciate the drama of this place. Our captain told us more about the landscape, pointing out sites of importance for the Hawaiians and even spotting a sea turtle swimming in a cave. As we cruised back down, the sun was setting and an onboard dinner was served–chips, guacamole, cheese and crackers and some delicious kalua pork tacos. This was a memorable way to spend an afternoon on Kauai and we were happy to have sailed with Holo Holo. Just note, it is a bumpy ride so be prepared for a roller coaster style ride and to get wet!

 

  1. Wake up with Waterfalls and Breakfast Bowls

Acai Bowl Kauai

The island has hundreds of waterfalls in its rich jungles, but there are five that are the most well known for their grandeur and convenience. Since we were not hiking on this trip, we chose the easiest one to drive too: Opaeka’a Falls. Located just near the cute town of Kapaa, you drive just off the main Highway 56 to a convenient parking. From here, you can view the falls from above. The 151 foot falls are 40 miles wide and lovely for a photo opp.

Opaekaa Falls Kauai

After, make sure to stop for breakfast or lunch in Kapaa. I strongly recommend the salads and coffee at the trendy Java Kai. Or if you want a cute back patio vibe with banana trees and chickens running around, EatHealthy Cafe was as delicious as it was adorable. My coconut bowl there was very memorable but their entire vegan menu looked great.

EatHealthy Cafe Kauai

 

  1. Explore the North Shore

Hanalei Bay North Shore Kauai

We stayed on the South Shore, but I had to check out the legendary North Shore of Kauai. My mom and I drove up early on a Saturday, knowing that it’ll take over an hour and it did! We headed to the town of Hanalei, nestled at the foot of vibrant green mountains and next to the surfer’s paradise of Hanalei Bay. The town had a laid-back, slightly touristy vibe, with charming shops, cafes and restaurants. We snagged a few t-shirts and some coffee before settling on a food truck for picnic lunch to go.

Fresh Bite Kauai Hanalei

Don’t be fooled, the Hanalei food trucks are excellent and we loved Fresh Bite, which served up locally grown greens and organic meats in their salads, sandwiches and poi bowls. I highly recommend grabbing your lunch to go so you can enjoy it on the sand of one of the nearby beaches. (Need more info on the food trucks? Go here.)

Mai Tai at the St Regis Princeville

After your beach day, check out a hotel icon and have drinks at the St. Regis Princeville. We were hit with a sudden rainstorm, a common occurrence on this side of the island, but that didn’t dampen our outdoor happy hour! We had a dry seat overlooking the bay and were delighted to witness a complimentary Hawaiian song and champagne sabering just before sunset.

Happy Hour at St Regis Princeville Kauai

 

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Kauai is a stunning island and for us, it was restorative, natural and just uplifting. It has an overall ambiance that is very positive if you are open to it. For a babymoon and a mother/daughter trip, it was PERFECT. But I would recommend it to all sorts of groups of friends, families, couples and adventurers! If you have any tips, please let me know for my next trip!

 

xo

Kelley

Travel Adventure Show LA Kelley Ferro

Speaking at the LA Travel & Adventure Show: My thoughts…

 

 

LA Travel Show Kelley Ferro Savvy Traveler

In February, I had the honor of speaking at the Los Angeles Travel and Adventure show and I have to say, it blew me away. I’ve spoken at a dozen or so travel conferences around world, including some you may be familiar with like Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX), TTG/TTI, Eye for Travel, Social Media Week and Travel Blogger Elevator, but I really enjoyed mixing it up by speaking directly to consumers versus professionals in the travel industry.

 

 

 

Of course, I cherish my travel industry “colleagues,” and love learning, sharing and growing in this tight-knit community, but there was something really refreshing about speaking to the enthusiastic traveler. I mean, every one of us in the industry is started as just someone that loved to travel, so at the the LA Travel & Adventure show, I felt like I was speaking to “my people.” The chairs quickly filled with attentive faces, I saws notes frantically being scribbled down, and then hands shooting up to ask engaging questions like “when is the best time of year to go there?” and “what tour operator do you recommend?” At the end, I stayed around to talk individually with those that had more to ask. It is such a thrill to see how my experiences directly can improve someone else’s travels. In the end, that is why I do all of this!

My focus was on the “Top Ten Bucket List Experiences and How to Do Them”–a daunting top ten list, I have to say. It was particularly hard as I have had probably a HUNDRED experiences that I’d consider “bucket list,” and every time I travel to a new place, I find out that there are hundreds more! However, I wanted to keep this talk personal and meaningful so I only chose adventures that I had PERSONALLY experienced.

Let me preface this the way I prefaced my speech–I clearly haven’t been everywhere and don’t know about about every experience. As much as I try, I will never see and do everything. But at this rate, with 50 countries under my belt and a pretty packed non-stop travel schedule for the past 10 years, I think I’ll have a pretty good handle on it when I’m 100 years old. 

I also am not being paid to recommend any of the destinations or tour operators that I suggest in this article nor in my speech. 

Top Bucket List Experiences

How I chose to organize my top ten was focused more on the type of experience than the actual specific destination. I feel that certain travel experiences transcend the specific destination, though certain places enable you to get that experience (make sense?). For each bucket list experience, I gave specific examples where I went to have those memorable moments.

Below I’ll outline a handful of my bucket list adventures and some related video but you’ll just have to come to my next presentation to hear the rest! I will talk about #1, #2, #3, and #5 in my top ten list.

 

#1. The “Get Out of Your Comfort Zone” Trip: Papua New Guinea

I am not saying that you need to be uncomfortable on every trip, but just once, choose a destination, an adventure or a tour that might push your boundaries. Maybe it’ll involve camping outdoors, trekking or pushing yourself in some physical way. Or maybe it’ll be more about an emotional stretch–for instance volunteering at an orphanage or animal rescue center, or living without the luxuries and amenities of the modern world, as many do.

The one destination that had a profound impact on me in this way, was Papua New Guinea. As soon as I landed, I had that overwhelming sense of “wow, I am in a totally different world.” Few roads meant that we used charter planes to access different villages. I was traveling on a private journey with Swain Destinations, a luxe tour operator that has run a lot of tours in PNG and know how to facilitate incredible experiences.  In each of the location in PNG, welcoming locals brought us into the daily markets, told us stories through dance, and shared their belief system, traditions and everyday life.

Papua New Guinea travel

For one part of the trip, I lived in an open air lodge with electricity only a few hours a day, cold water and one option for every meal. I made bedfellows with some interesting wildlife a few times but in general, I enjoyed the simplicity of it! I was staying along the Karawari River, exploring the Sepik region, the lowlands of Papua New Guinea. Each day we took a river boat to experience life on the river and to stop at small villages and meet the people that called them home. I tried my hand at chopping sago palm, which I later helped form into sago pancakes with a village mom. I was granted access in the male-only spirit houses, an integral part of transition into manhood for the village’s male youths. I even took a GoPro selfie with a group of beaming children and wove baskets with a local teenager–and all this without sharing a common language!

The experience put so much into perspective for me in terms of what we value as humans and what we need to not only survive, but to thrive. I boarded my return plane a changed woman.

#2. The Animal Trip: South Africa & Churchill, Manitoba

For me, this is a very important one as we as a race are continuously depleting the chances for survival for many of our planet’s most amazing creatures. I will try to stay positive and focus on what we can change, but I do believe that understanding the need for conservation efforts is the first step to improving the situation.

Safari Polar Bears & Lions

There are many tours and experiences out there that will give guests up close experiences with wild animals but I strongly encourage you to look deeply into the activity that you book. There are many that aren’t following the conservation guidelines or respecting the wildlife, the land or the local people. I fortunately found Swain Destinations, which took me to Kruger National Park where I was able to see lionesses and cubs, lounging cheetahs, grazing rhino, stoic elephants and lionesses with cubs. But they also made sure that the guides were from the local villages, that they supported local anti-poaching and conservation organizations and the hotel property was involved in environmental sustainability efforts.

Polar Bear Churchill

I also have to mention experiencing the polar bears in their natural element: the tundra. Tauck, a well known luxury tour operator, organizes trips up to the very remote Churchill, Manitoba, only accessible by train or plane. Churchill is the “capital of Polar Bears” as it is in the midst of where polar bear territory. We were able to get a close up view of these majestic, endangered bears emerging from hibernation. I learned so much about their life cycle, how they hunt, raise young and how they are struggling to cope with our warming climate that I hope I can be an ambassador for their plight.

#3 The Road Trip: Switzerland

I think most people have done a road trip or two, whether it is a day jaunt to a neighboring town or a long haul to Grandma’s house. But I’m referring to a longer road trip, where you experience a totally new environment, moving from point A to point B. The reason I like road trips is because there is so much focus on the journey. What you see out the windows is often the true look into the local life of the destination. You’ll see cars going to work, vendors selling roadside food and will pass small town life in between.

Switzerland Road Trip

What I also really enjoy is being able to pull that car off the main road and taking a side route, meandering through in little village, stopping for a bite at mom & pop restaurant–you can do what you want! It’s that flexibility and spontaneity that we don’t often find in our daily lives and this is one of the rare opportunities where the unexpected can be much better than what you had planned.

As I write this, visions of driving across Switzerland in the sunny Autumn weather springs into mind. Turning a corner and gasping at the snow covered mountains, or passing young cows jingling their brass bells or getting lost on a medieval carriage road and realizing it might be the most magical road you’ve ever seen–these images won’t leave my memory! My cameraman Sam and I drove a spectacular route: from Geneva to Lausanne, on to Vevey and Crans-Montana, then Zermatt and ultimately, Basel. We went from a cosmopolitan French influenced metropolis to a bustling university city to historic lakeside village. Of course the alpine village of Zermatt was breathtaking and the culturally rich Basel felt like the epicenter of cool, modern life. Yet it was all those moments in between and the unexpected stops–even the car train that took us through the insides of a giant mountain–that painted a real-life picture of Switzerland.

 

#5. The Travel Back in Time Trip: Egypt

You may think that humanity today is intelligent but take a look at what the Egyptians were doing in 3000 BC. There are many ancient civilizations with artifacts, architecture and visible impact still accessible today. However to me the Pyramids of Giza, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, Luxor Temple, the Valley of the Kings, the tomb of King Tut and the Temple of Dendara were each so impactful, I have to recommend a trip to Egypt for your bucket list. The fact that you can see all of them on the same trip is truly awe-inspiring.

Sphinx Egypt Cairo Giza

I traveled with the very reputable Abercrombie & Kent, a tour operator that at the time in 2014, employed over 300 locals on the ground in Egypt. This not only made the tours, the guides and the experience feel seamless, it also added to the sense of safety in this often tumultuous country. Your view of humanity will be forever changed.

 

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I have to stop myself before I write a novel about these Top Ten Bucket List Experiences but I hope this gives those of you that weren’t at the LA Travel and Adventure show, a little taste of what was discussed.

If you want to learn more about my travels, check out my Youtube series and subscribe!

If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll answer you!

 

Oh, and check out this fun video that my friend Sarah Dandashy of AskaConcierge made just after my talk. She is a go-getter and glad I got some of the energy of the day on video!

 

Travel Well,

xx Kelley

Papua New Guinea: A Country Profile

Explore this remote part of the world with me as I go from Papua New Guinea’s mountainous Highlands to the Karawari River and Sepik in the Lowlands. With few roads, we took a charter plane between locations on the most remote experience of my life!

 

Sponsors: United States Tour Operators Association

Custom tour itinerary provided by Swain Destinations.

Tohoku Japan Ginzan Onsen

The Five Places You Need to See in Tohoku

Before coming to Japan I hadn’t heard of the Tohoku Region and now I’ve been completely charmed by this pastoral, natural part of northern Japan. This is the antithesis of the bright lights and hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and that’s what makes it special. Many retreat up North to enjoy farm fresh foods, breathtaking natural beauty and to take step back into Japan’s traditional roots.

1. Spend a morning at Hirosaki Castle

Though not quite a castle in the “fairytale” sense of the word, the Hirosaki Castle is a lovely Japanese style building, with ornate roof details and impressive silhouette. However, the real reason you visit is for the vast park that surrounds it. We happened to be fortunate enough to be visiting in the spring, when the cherry blossoms were at the height of their bloom. It felt like walking through a sea of pink, every different hue, with delicate petals floating in the breeze. The cherry blossoms created avenues of flowers, and I meandered over bridges that crossed the series of pleasant canals.  Everywhere I turned was worthy of a photo–especially when I got to the viewpoint of the majestic snow capped mountain in the distance.

My Recommendation: Go there early (like 7am) if you want more flowers than people in your photos. Also, next time I go, I am bringing a picnic so I can waste an afternoon under one of the swaying sakura trees.

2. Eat Wanko-Soba

Wanco Soba

Tohoku is famous for its buckwheat noodle, soba. I tasted it in tea, in ice cream and in many variations of the noodle form. However, the best soba experience that I had was Wanko-Soba in Morioka. Here, diners are encouraged not only to eat soba but to eat as much as they can and as fast as they can. An average lunch can turn competitive as the waitresses serve you soba in small “mouthful” sized dishes. The waitresses tower over you, shouting encouragement as you slurp, refilling as fast as you can eat. Of course the other options were delicious as well–I really enjoyed their tuna sashimi and pickled vegetables. But if you plan to nab the record, don’t waste stomach space. You are going to need it since you’ll need to eat over one hundred bowls! Slurp!

My Recommendation: Bring a competitive friend and have a soba eating contest!

3. Stroll through a Samurai Village

Kakunodate

Kakunodate

Tohoku is known for it’s storied Samurai culture and to get as close as you can to it today, visit Kakunodate, a well preserved Samurai town. There is one completely original house dating back 200 years and it’s still in the ownership of its original Samurai family line. There’s another home that also has a museum, just a few steps down. The museum has an impressive display of Samurai gear, with intimidating swords and helmets. Even just wandering down the streets, stopping for an ice cream  and to admire this organized village, makes for a picturesque visit.

My Recommendation: Earlier is better to avoid the crowds!

4. Commune with Nature

Sanriku Fukkuo

The rugged coastline of Tohoku blew me away. It looked like the Mediterranean coast or even New Zealand–but it certainly did not look like Japan. The Sanriku Fukko National Park stretches along a pristine part of the coast, with three steep trails that allow you to walk through old forests and view the majestic cliffs. There are three lookouts with views, number 2 being the best.
My Recommendation: If you want a good workout, hike all the way down to the beach to get up close with the bright blue waters.

5. Visit Teapot Workshop Iwachu Nambu Tekki

IMG_1333

I hadn’t paid much attention to teapots until now. Tea is an extremely important part of Japanese culture and here at the factory, you can witness how some of the finest traditional teapots are made by hand. You can step inside the workshop, watching the craftsman painstaking create the signature dots that cover these iron pots. Each teapot takes about 2 weeks to create so it’s no wonder that they aren’t cheap. I toured the museum but was most taken by the gallery where their finest work is on display. Neon colors and even Hello Kitty tastefully grace some of the newer models of this old brand.

My Recommendation: Visit the workshop first to understand the intense labor and dedication needed to create each teapot. Then go to the shop and buy one for yourself!

BONUS TIP: GINZAN ONSEN

Ginzan

Ginzan-Onsen is a hot spring town, built lining a central spring. Stay at one of the handful of traditional style hotels, from boutique to more contemporary, each with their own onsen experience. The postcard worthy town has charming pedestrian bridges, boutique shops and several eateries. But the real reason to come here is to soak in the geo-thermal waters. I didn’t realize how therapeutic it could be until I tried it for myself. After a few minutes in the healing waters, I felt renewed from the inside out.

My Recommendation: Check out Ginzanso if you want large tatami style rooms with your own private onsen on your deck.  

For more recommendations, leave me a comment! Be sure to tune in to CNN on May 18th to watch the full video of my Tohoku experience!

Adventure in Bahia, Brazil

I strapped on my sneakers and dove headfirst into all the adventurous activities of Bahia in the Chapada Diamantina National Park–from snorkeling in underground caves, ziplining off cliffs, hiking up mountains and swimming in grottos–this state of Brazil has so much going for the intrepid traveler. Our homebase was Lençóis for 4 action packed days. Check out my favorites!

Show: Live like a Local in Brazil with Kelley Ferro USTOA Travel Together

Country Life in Saxony

Live like a Local: Saxony, Germany
USTOA’s Travel Together Series hosted by Kelley Ferro
The cities were really picturesque but it wasn’t till I explored outside of the towns that I was truly blown away by Saxony’s beauty. Impossibly green, rolling hills, wildflower fields and lazy rivers—I can see why Saxony is popular for it’s hiking, biking and outdoor pursuits. The Bastei Rocks was a particular highlight.

Papua New Guinea: The Lowlands & The Sepik

We visited the Lowlands, an area of PNG located along the Karawari River. This region is known as the Sepik and we were exposed to local life along the river. Custom tour itinerary provided by Swain Destinations.

Sponsors: United States Tour Operators Association

Custom tour itinerary provided by Swain Destinations.

 

 

Papua New Guinea: The Highlands

Let’s travel to Papua New Guinea! Explore the tribes of Tari, the famous Birds of Paradise and all the adventure of the Highlands.