Varadero, Cuba – S-Trip Grad Trip Review

The following is a review of my experience with S-Trip’s Varadero, Cuba Graduation Trip.  Even though this trip was over 5 years ago now, I remember it like it was yesterday.

My "Welcome Gift" from one of the staff..he climbed to the top of a tree and cut this down!

My “Welcome Gift” from one of the staff..he climbed to the top of a tree and cut this down!

Where I Went: Varadero, Cuba, on a Grad Trip with S-Trip

When I Went: June of 2009

Where we stayed: Sol Sirenas Coral, Varadero

Who I Traveled With: A group of 50+ 17 year olds on a high school graduation trip

Part of Our Group on a Party Bus

Part of Our Group on a Party Bus

What was the Travel Process like?

We were traveling from Kelowna, BC, so we had to overnight in Toronto on our way to Cuba.  This was all set up by S-Trip and included in the price of the trip.  Everything went very smoothly, all transportation was taken care of – including flights and transport to the resort from the airport.

Waiting to get on the bus to the resort

Waiting to get on the bus to the resort

What did you do during the trip?

We spent our days relaxing on the beach or in the pool at the swim-up bar.  There were a few days that we participated in excursions (see below).  At night, we either went to the nightlife activities included in the trip, such as the Pirate Cave night club, which was epic, or, if there weren’t any planned outings, we just partied at the disco at the resort.  One night we even took the party down to the beach with some drinks and Cohiba cigars and had an awesome time.

One of the pools

One of the pools

Did you feel safe?

I felt safe almost all the time.  This may have been partly due to my naiveté as a 17 year old Canadian girl, but there really wasn’t a whole lot to worry about.  The only place I felt slightly uneasy was in Havana because of all the chaos of the city and the armed guards on every corner.  Stick close to your group, use the buddy system and know your surroundings and you will be fine.

Havana

Havana

Did you have lots of freedom?

Yes.  The S-Trip staff didn’t really mind what we did, as long as they knew where we were and that we were safe.  They’re mainly there to ensure your safety but they’re also a lot of fun.

Maybe they gave us a little too much freedom…?  Just kidding.

Maybe they gave us a little too much freedom…? Just kidding.

Were you well taken care of?

Yes. Without being overbearing, the S-Trip staff were awesome at taking care of us while we partied, making sure that we made it home safe, and ensuring that we were having a great time.  A few of our group members (including myself) got quite sick, and they were well prepared and equipped to make sure that we were taken care of.

The Tight and Bright Party at The Pirate Cave

The Tight and Bright Party at The Pirate Cave

Was the resort nice?

The resort was an average all-inclusive resort.  The rooms had everything you needed but weren’t over-the-top, the grounds were well maintained and beautiful, and the pools were clean and common areas comfortable.  The best part about this resort is the beach.  It had the most incredible white sand and was lots of fun to party on at night.

Resort Lobby

Resort Lobby

Which excursions do you recommend?

We loved the Havana tour (included in the price of the trip) – which took us to many famous landmarks, markets, and the Cohiba Cigar Factory.  We also did the catamaran trip to Cayo Blanco, which is no longer offered through S-Trip (at least I couldn’t find it on the website), but if you have the opportunity to go, do it.  It’s so beautiful.  Just be wary of laying on the front of the catamaran while sailing – the combination of the motion, the heat, and the hangover created a few unhappy campers on our trip.

Cayo Blanco

Cayo Blanco

What do you wish you had known?

Cuba is not famous for its’ food.  We didn’t have any fantastic meals in Cuba, even outside of the resort.  Go for the experience, not the food.  Also, we went at the end of June, which means that there is an almost-daily dumping of rain in the afternoon.  It could be a perfect, crystal-clear and cloudless day, and then, within a matter of 5 minutes, these ominous black clouds would roll in and absolutely pour rain for about a solid hour, and then they clear out just as fast as they came in.  It was crazy.

Ominous Storm Clouds

Ominous Storm Clouds

Any other tips?

If you haven’t witnessed any first-hand displays of poverty before, be prepared to see some pretty heartbreaking stuff in Cuba.  For the most part, the resort is free of this, but as you venture into Havana, you will see just how poor some of these people truly are.  Bringing a few small gifts for the children in Havana is a good idea.  However – be prepared to be ambushed by groups of screaming children if you do have any treats!

The Beautiful Beaches

The Beautiful Beaches

I would recommend S-Trip to anyone looking for a fun trip and a great party.  If you have any further questions at all, feel free to give me a shout at admin@adventuretoanywhere.com.

Happy Adventuring!

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The Awkward Crossroads of a Twenty-Something Wanderluster

I turned 23 on the 1st of August.  23 is basically 25, which is almost 30, which is only 20 years from 50, which should mean that I should probably have my shit together by now, does it not?  I remember when I was growing up, and everybody told me that my teenage years would be the most awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing and uncertain years of my life.  Those people were wrong.  My awkward, mushroom-cut adolescence has nothing on my 20’s so far.

7 Years Old and ready for a Freakin' ADVENTURE

7 Years Old and ready for a Freakin’ ADVENTURE.  Told you I looked like a boy.

I moved out of my parents’ house two weeks after my twentieth birthday and came to Calgary, Alberta, to pursue my education and dreams of becoming a hairstylist at a top Aveda salon in the city (check).  Once I completed my year of education, landed the job I wanted and got back on my feet, I took a celebratory trip to Ixtapa, Mexico with my boyfriend, Sean, and that was it.  The Travel Bug that I had fought to keep quiet for years with textbooks, multiple crappy jobs, insane schedules and other distractions was awakened, and there was no turning back.

All of the plans and ideas I thought I had made for myself vanished.  No longer was it important to be “Debt Free by 23″ (that didn’t happen PS).  Owning my own home before I was 25 was no longer a priority.  My dreams of moving to California to pursue my career disappeared.  I decided that getting a dog didn’t make sense anymore.  I put off financing a new vehicle.  Nothing else mattered but Travel.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may know that my love for travel was sparked at a very young age.  I was fortunate to have two parents in the tourism industry and we were able to travel a lot when I was growing up.  My first overseas trip was a 10-day tour of Germany, Austria and Prague with my high school when I was 16.  That was when I caught this strange and beautiful disease called Wanderlust that people were always talking about.  After 3 years at a standstill, traveling to Mexico rekindled the fire, and I began planning our trip to Southeast Asia almost immediately after arriving home.

16 years old in Salzburg, Austria

16 years old in Salzburg, Austria

The obvious issue here was finances.  I had raked up a significant, scary amount of student debt in only a year, was living pay check to pay check, had plans to move in with my boyfriend in the near future, and my expenses were only going to increase.  I was torn between quitting my job, selling everything I owned, picking up my life and hitting the road for a year or more (and hoping that Sean would come with me), or sucking it up, working hard to climb the career ladder, saving money like crazy to buy a house, and settling into domestic life at 22 years old.  Both options had appeal, but they were both so extreme.  I thought that there had to be a way to achieve some sort of balance.

I spent the next 10 months working 11 hour shifts, being extremely frugal with my spending, wearing the same few outfits in rotation and spending a lot of time at home watching Netflix.  With the help of some of my favourite money saving tips and a ton of fundraising for the volunteer portion of our trip, I managed to save enough to make Asia a reality.  Our 5 weeks in Southeast Asia were incredible, and after recouping at home for a little while afterwards, I came to realize that my appetite for travel was still as ravenous as ever.  Wanderlust truly is like a raging fire, and the more you feed it, the bigger and stronger it becomes.

At Ubud Palace in Bali, Indonesia

At Ubud Palace in Bali, Indonesia

So here I am today.  23 years old, happy to still be renting this lovely little condo with Sean, slowly making my way up the ladder at work, and trying to figure out what the next step is.  I have come to realize that selling everything and traveling long term is unrealistic for us.  I spent $20k on my education, and I intend to get my money’s worth.  To walk away from such a beautiful career that I enjoy so much with a company that supports me the way they do would be a massive mistake.  We have a lot of stuff in this condo, and, while traveling definitely made me appreciate minimalism, I like my stuff.  I don’t know if I like the idea of selling off all of my furniture and having absolutely nothing to come home to one day when I do eventually return.  I like routine.  Some weeks I just want to cook my own food in my own kitchen, go to yoga class, watch movies, sleep in my own bed and enjoy the comfort of my own home.

Long term travel is simply not in the cards for us right now, and that’s ok!  It took me so long to come to terms with this fact.  Being a traveler, seeing the world, owning a travel blog and living an adventurous life can not only be accomplished by being on the road 365 days a year.  This summer, I have spent a lot of time being a tourist in my own backyard.  I even wrote an article called “6 Ways To Live an Adventurous Life When You Can’t Travel“.  However, the time has come to begin planning another trip.  I’ve got a few things in the works right now, and I can’t wait to share them just as soon as they are finalized.

I think Travel means something different to everyone.  For some people, trips out to the cabin in the summer is enough.  For others, an all-inclusive vacation every winter does the trick.  Some of us require multiple destinations per year that are exotic and unexplored and unique.  Find out what Travel means to you, and then find a way to build it into the life you already have.  Ahhh…balance.

For me, that balance has come from a very structured budget in which I put a certain dollar amount per pay cheque into my “Adventure Fund” to pay for the year’s trips.  This way, I can keep my wonderful job, I can still be putting a little money aside for long-term savings such as a down payment, I can still enjoy going out with my friends every now and then, and yes, I can also still travel.  The trips may not be as extravagant or as extreme as I’d like them to be, but for now, this is what works.  All you can do, is do the best with what you have to work with, right now.  That doesn’t mean that it has to be this way forever.  I won’t always have to be a budget traveler.  I won’t always have to scrape together funds in order to live the life I want.  But for now, I do have to scrape, so scrape I shall.  It’s actually kind of fun.  You are really forced to get creative with ways to save and generate money!

Remember, what’s right for you may not be right for somebody else, and vice versa.  I am extremely blessed to have found a man who shares my passions both for travel and adventure as well as balance and stability.  I am also very lucky that we have a strong, trusting relationship in which we both feel able to travel on our own when the other one doesn’t have the means to join us.

Maybe all of your friends are beginning to get married, and you’re still hoping for that steamy, whirlwind romance while traveling through South America or Europe someday.  Maybe your best friend just bought her first home, and you are living in your parents’ basement in between the time you spend living out of your backpack overseas.  Or, maybe you’re close to somebody who lives a nomadic lifestyle, and you’re transitioning to life as a new parent.  Maybe you’re just not ready to grow up at all, and you’re booking a one-way ticket to anywhere but here.  Whatever your life looks like, whatever your future holds, go after it with all your heart.  Travel means something different to everyone.  Adventure means something different to everyone.  Find yours, and chase it forever.

Two Wheels and Freedom in Koh Lanta, Thailand

Two Wheels and Freedom in Koh Lanta, Thailand

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September 2014 Adventure Spotlight with Adam from adamexcell.com – Brier Island, Nova Scotia

This post is part of an ongoing monthly column called “Adventure Spotlight”.  If you’re interested in writing for ATA, click here.
Adam Excell is an extremely creative freelance photographer, designer and illustrator.  He approached me with the idea for this spotlight article, and I was so excited to share more about Canada’s beautiful East Coast with all of you.  If you’re interested in checking out more of Adam’s work, check out his website at adamexcell.com.
The Writer: 
Hey, my name is Adam Excell. I am a recently settled resident of beautiful Nova Scotia. I grew up in a distant suburb Southwest of Toronto. My parents are passionate about wild spaces, and exhaustively pursued the wild to expose my siblings and I to all its wonder. As a child, summer vacations were spent canoe tripping through Algonquin Park’s backcountry with my family. Before I could paddle my own boat, my parents would load a 17′ Prospector with all of our gear piled underneath my sister, brother, and I. Upon graduating high school, I headed for Kelowna and spent the winter season snowboarding every day. At the end of the season I moved to Calgary in pursuit of the rockies (and maybe a little cash flow). I worked 4 day weeks, and spent my time off in the mountains. During this time, I was fumbling around with Adobe Creative Suite designing t-shirts for an Australian print company. I had a ton of fun designing, and moved back to Southern Ontario for a graphic design degree. Upon receiving my degree, I landed a job with Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). The company resonates with my insatiable hunger for adventure, and has enabled me to get involved in a number of new outdoor activities. This past year has seen me transfer with MEC to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as I have always sensed the maritimes demanding my attention.
Where: 
Brier Island, Westport, Nova Scotia.
beautiful cove

Beautiful Cove, Brier Island in the Distance

Why: 
Choosing a spot to highlight in Nova Scotia was far more difficult than I thought. I have just returned from my second trip to Brier Island, and feel inspired to share this most recent experience.
Top 5 Experiences (it was all one really great experience): 
My friend Allison and I left Halifax around 9am, with a hefty 5 hours of travel ahead of us (including 2 ferries to the isolated island). By Nova Scotian standards, this is about as far as you can possibly drive in any direction from Halifax and is often a deal breaker for locals.
Within the first hour we hit scenic Wolfville, the gateway to the Annapolis Valley. In the distance, the red cliffs towering above the Minas Basin burn bright in the morning sun. From here we continued westward through the valley, where small farms and vineyards occupy the roadside. After about 3 hours of easy highway driving we hit Digby, where I consider the bulk of the drive to end. I know from here there is nothing but winding country roads and spectacular views of the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary’s Bay. I notice myself slow down, as rushes of cool sea air and warm sunlight flow through my car. We stop at a couple of beaches on the Digby neck before making it to the first ferry to Long Island. We arrive 20 minutes before departure (both ferries cross once an hour), and we walk along the small shoreline. The fishing buildings are old and tired, though offer their unique aesthetic to our appreciative eyes.
After a quick 4 minute traverse across Petite Passage, we decide on a quick lunch at Cory’s Cafe (the haddock burger was super tasty, cash only). On our way across Long Island we notice signs for Beautiful Cove, and decide to make another stop. A gravel road cuts through a small collection of seaside dwellings, and we find ourselves looking out from the Eastern shore of the Bay of Fundy for our first time. The water rolls calmly below us, and we catch sight of the Brier Island Lodge across Grand Passage. The town of Westport sits quietly on the opposing shore, where brightly coloured wharfs and houses are stacked neatly in a row. After a quick romp around the cove, we make our way to the ferry. We arrive just on time, and make the quick crossing to Brier Island.
Before heading to the beach, I decide to check on availability at the lodge. To my delight they have 1 room for the night which will be a reasonable $99, phew. We make a 10 minute drive through the town and across the island to Big Pond Cove, a secluded stretch of seemingly untouched white sandy beach. We absorb what’s left of the afternoon sun and jump through frigid waves as long as we can. By 6pm we’re sun kissed, famished, and make our way back to the lodge.
Upon entering the lodge’s dining room, we are greeted by panoramic views of Grand Passage and familiar faces from my previous visit. In our state, we make quick work of the haddock dinner special, and talk with the lodge manager Jess about our day. I mention that we plan on heading behind the property and across the island to Seal Cove, an incredibly picturesque spot to watch the sun melt into the water. Jess informs us that there is a cabin just off of the trail, and that we are welcome to spend our evening having a fire overlooking the water. The walk along the beaten path takes all of 15 minutes, where we are welcomed by a low sun burning pink through the ocean spray, and a harrem of seals orbiting a partially submerged boulder.
We spent the night at the fireside, keeping the flames low enough to allow the starry sky an opportunity to show off its lustre. The dense band that is the Milky Way slowly creeped its way across the sky as hours trickled by. I had brought a couple of headlamps with me, which proved to be essential in our safe return to the lodge.
Secluded Cabin facing the Bay of Fundy at Seal Cove

Secluded Cabin facing the Bay of Fundy at Seal Cove

Sunset at Seal Cove

Sunset at Seal Cove

With morning came the bustle of visitors throughout the lodge preparing for another day they will spend on whale watching tours. The water is currently filled with pods of humpbacks, and sightings are nearly guaranteed. Breakfast was buffet style, with plenty of early morning cuisine standards to start our day off right. A thick fog blanketed Long Island, and a cool drizzle soaked the backs of the lodge’s resident sheep as they groomed the property’s lawn.
After checking out we made our way through town, and noticed a used bookstore on the main street with all books half priced. This was an opportunity I wasn’t ready to drive past. A lovely retired couple greeted us as the front of their home, and warned us things were a “bit messy” as new windows were being installed. They had converted the front rooms of their humble abode into a book store of sorts, and the treasure hunt began. With a couple of “new to me” books under my arm, we continued across the island to West Lighthouse. Not to our surprise, we had the whole coast to ourselves. A candy cane striped lighthouse stood proud on the rocky cliffs that overlooked the Bay of Fundy. Hours passed easily as we hopped from rock to rock, traversing this wildly untouched shoreline.
By mid afternoon, we felt ready to get back on the road and head slowly for Halifax. We stopped to check out the Balancing Rock on Long Island. The approach is about 20min, and requires visitors to use about 300 stairs as they make their way down the edge of a cliff facing St. Mary’s Bay. The landscape visible from the observation deck is reminiscent of the steep wooded shores of British Columbia. It’s a pretty amazing sight, and well worth the exercise.
Something I wish I’d known: 
The island is tremendously remote, and with better preparation we could have circumnavigated the whole island in an afternoon. I would’ve liked to have brought more Nalgene’s, snacks, and maybe a stove for a hot dinner during the hike.
Best Piece of Advice: 
Try as hard as you can to resist making too many plans, and go with the flow. Nova Scotia is amazingly under-utilized and the people are all very kind. Without plans and timelines, adventures are so much more rewarding. Talk to as many people as you can, as the people you see out and about are doing the same thing as you and can offer really great advice for things to see and do. Have fun out there!
When you make it out to beautiful Nova Scotia, be sure to spend a day or two visiting the fine folks on Brier Island. If you have any further questions, please feel free to email me at hello@adamexcell.com
West Lighthouse, Brier Island

West Lighthouse, Brier Island

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Royal Tyrrell Museum – Drumheller, AB

Most people are surprised to hear that I have lived in Calgary for over 60% of my life and had never been to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller until this summer.  We picked a sunny day in August to make the drive out to Drumheller and visit the museum, and I am so glad we did.

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The Royal Tyrrell Museum is the only of its kind in Canada as it is dedicated exclusively to Palaeontology.  Named after Joseph Burr Tyrrell – the man whose discovery of the first Albertosaurus in 1884 led to fossil hunting in the Canadian Badlands – the museum first opened its’ doors on September 25, 1985.  Although the museum is relatively young in age, it has established itself as Canada’s authority of Palaeontology, attracts up to 150,000 visitors annually, and houses some of the largest and most important dinosaur fossils in all of the world.

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Admission to the museum is extremely reasonable.  Rates can be found here.  Depending on how in-depth you wish for your visit to be, I would suggest spending anywhere from 2 to 5 hours at the Museum.  It is a massive facility, and will likely prove to be quite exhausting to little patrons.  The entire site is wheelchair and stroller accessible, contains a cafe, picnic area, gift shop, and can house large groups as well.  For more information on museum amenities, click here.

Fossil Preparation Area

Fossil Preparation Lab

Fossil Preparation Lab

Fossil Preparation Lab

Interactive Q&A With a Palaeontologist

Interactive Q&A With a Palaeontologist

Now comes the part where I compare Drumheller to another location in the Alberta Badlands that we visited earlier this summer, Dinosaur Provincial Park.  Many people make the mistake of thinking that the two are one in the same – and are then disappointed to learn that they are over 2 hours apart.  If you’re looking for a fun place to take the kids, an educational day at a museum, or a rainy day activity – then Drumheller would be your best bet.  However, if you’re looking for spectacular badlands, camping, and hiking – then Dinosaur Provincial Park is the place for you.  After visiting Dinosaur, I will admit that I was slightly underwhelmed by the badlands and hoodoos of Drumheller.

We thoroughly enjoyed the education that the Royal Tyrrell Museum provided, but we didn’t have much interest in the surrounding trails.  In Dinosaur Provincial Park, there were a few fossil beds you could view and short write-ups that you could read, but the education couldn’t compare.  However, the hiking and camping, and the scenery itself, was second to none in Dinosaur.  So consider your priorities before you make a decision as to which location to visit – but if you can visit both, I would strongly suggest it, as they both have incredible things to offer!

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Shelly - The Resident Soft-Shelled Tortoise

Shelly – The Resident Soft-Shelled Tortoise

Have you ever been to The Royal Tyrrell Museum?  What did you experience?  How would you compare it to Dinosaur Provincial Park?

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Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte

I know, I know, what do PSL’s have to do with travel, you ask?  Absolutely nothing.  But here’s the thing – I am absolutely obsessed with this fall favourite from Starbucks.  We have steamy, passionate love affairs every year when the leaves begin to turn.

The only thing is…as someone hell-bent on traveling the world…I don’t enjoy shelling out $5 a drink on these things.  Nor do I enjoy thinking about how much sugar and how many calories they contain.  I decided to try a homemade alternative this year, and I was absolutely blown away by how amazing it was.

Essentially, this recipe is for a homemade Pumpkin Spice Syrup that can be made ahead and stored in the fridge for up to 10 days, and you can add it to your morning coffee or latte.

Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte

Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte

Here’s what you’ll need for the Pumpkin Spice Syrup:

-1 1/2 cups water

-1/2 cup honey or maple syrup (I used honey)

-1 tsp ground cinnamon

-3 tsp pumpkin pie spice

3 tbsp canned or fresh pureed pumpkin (note: NOT pumpkin pie filling!)

Directions:

Combine and whisk together water, honey, cinnamon, pureed pumpkin and pumpkin pie spice in a saucepan.  Bring to a rolling boil, whisking frequently.  Let cook for approximately 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow the syrup to cool before transferring it to a mason jar for storage in the fridge.  If you’d prefer it without the pumpkin fibres, you can drain the mixture in cheesecloth, although the fibres cook down to almost nothing and didn’t seem to bother me at all.

For the Pumpkin Spice Pumpkin Spice Latte (if you don’t have a fancy latte maker):

Brew your favourite coffee or espresso.  Heat either milk or cream (I usually use cream) in the microwave (or a steamer if you’re lucky) for about 30 seconds, and then froth the milk if you own a frother or a handheld frother.  (I got my handheld frother at Stokes for around $5).  Combine coffee with desired amount of Pumpkin Spice Syrup in your favourite coffee cup, add frothed milk or cream, and garnish with cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice if desired.  Proceed to cry tears of sheer bliss.  Enjoy!

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Summerhill Pyramid Winery – Kelowna, BC

We had been awake since 4 AM and had been driving for 7 hours when we arrived at Summerhill Winery in Kelowna, BC.  I had spent 8 years of my life living only a few kilometres away from Summerhill, yet I had never actually taken the time to do an in-depth wine tour.  When an old friend of mine from high school, Mike, heard that I was coming into town for a few days and was interested in writing about Summerhill, he offered to show us around.

The Entrance to the Wine Shop & Sunset Organic Bistro

The Entrance to the Wine Shop & Sunset Organic Bistro

Summerhill Winery

Summerhill Winery

Summerhill Winery

Summerhill Winery

My boyfriend Sean and I are both pretty passionate about wine.  While our knowledge is nowhere near as extensive as it could be, we both have seen some pretty incredible wineries in our time.  Sean spent 3 months backpacking through Australia and New Zealand after high school and visited dozens of beautiful wineries, and, well, I grew up in The Okanagan Valley.  Enough said.

Not only was it lovely to see Mike, catch up and reminisce about all of the shenanigans from our youth, but I was also blown away by his passion for his job and his extensive, impressive knowledge about each and every grape, bottle of wine, piece of history, and part of the winery itself.  We spent over an hour touring, tasting, and immersing ourselves completely into the splendour that is Summerhill Winery.  Mike had every answer to every question, and then some.  I have known Mike for long enough to know that, when he is passionate about something, he throws himself into it 110%, and wants to learn absolutely everything about it.  This is especially evident when it comes to his work at Summerhill.

Mike and I

Mike and I

The View from the Terrace

The View from the Terrace

Let me start by sharing a brief history of this incredible place.  First of all, it is important to note that Summerhill Winery is, in fact, Canada’s most visited winery.  Developer and Proprietor Stephen Cipes first visited the Okanagan from New York in 1986 and decided that the environment was absolutely perfect for growing grapes to produce sparkling wine.  He brought the grapes over from France and planted them on his own hands and knees.

Since then, Stephen Cipes and his team have taken Summerhill Winery to levels of excellence unparalleled by any other wineries in the area.  Winning countless awards, developing a completely organic practice of winemaking, creating a stunning wine shop, and building a pyramid with such precision and alignment that it is second only to the Great Pyramid of Egypt, where the wine is stored while it ages, Summerhill has developed an exquisite reputation while maintaining completely reasonable prices on their bottles of wine.  My personal favourite is the Cipes Brut – which won “Sparkling Wine of the Year” in all 2014 Canadian Wine Championships.  It truly is phenomenal, and it sells for only $26.95/bottle.

I was very interested to learn about the organicism that this winery is so passionate about and committed to.  It turns out that the grapes are grown with minimal to no intervention by humans, pesticides, or anything else.  This is not one of those perfectly manicured vineyards that you may have seen elsewhere.  The grapes are free to grow in their twisted, natural way – and you will see why once you taste the wine.

Pinot Noir Grapes

Pinot Noir Grapes

Summerhill Winery is also home to Sunset Organic Bistro, which combines world class flavours and ambience with local and organic ingredients.  The property also has plenty of unique banquet spaces, suitable for groups from 15 to 250 people for events such as weddings, conventions, or group tours.

The wine shop is open 7 days a week, year round.  The hours change seasonally, so be sure to check before you visit.  Tours run at 12 noon and 2 PM Monday – Friday, and 12 noon, 2 PM and 4 PM on Saturdays and Sundays.  There are additional tours offered in the busy summer months.  Tours cost $10, which includes four wine tastings, and a $5 rebate if you choose to buy any of the wines.  Summerhill even provides an organic sparkling apple juice if you choose to bring the kids along.

The Pyramid

The Pyramid

The Pyramid

The Pyramid

Inside the Pyramid - The View Looking Up

Inside the Pyramid – The View Looking Up

Empty Barrels ready to be filled inside The Pyramid

Empty Barrels ready to be filled inside The Pyramid

Summerhill Winery is an absolute must-do during your visit to Kelowna.  I am embarrassed to know that I lived just up the road from this incredible place for 8 years and never actually took the time to learn what all the fuss was about.  That being said, if you’re an Okanagan local, and you haven’t yet taken a tour of Summerhill Winery, you should probably be getting in the car right now.  It is an absolutely unforgettable experience, no matter how many other wineries you have toured in your life.  I could go on and write a small novel about this place and I still wouldn’t be able to say all that there is to say about it.  You’ll just have to visit it yourself.

Inside the Wine Shop

Inside the Wine Shop

Tasting Menu

Tasting Menu

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11 Travel Tips for Couples from 4 Travel Bloggers

I like to think that my boyfriend, Sean, and I make a pretty epic team of travel companions.  I cannot count the number of times that we have shared in a victorious fist-bump in airports, hotels, backs of tuk-tuks in Thailand, or in various other locales throughout our travels as a couple, to celebrate the fact that we accomplished something awesome together.  Whether it’s making a tight connection in an international hub, finding a wicked deal on a hotel room, or booking the tour of your dreams, travel as a couple brings about an entirely new range of emotions and experiences with each other.  Most of these are happy, but what happens when the inevitable tension arises?

Like any traveling couple, Sean and I have also had our fair share of arguments abroad.  Patience gets tested, privacy is a thing of the past, and comfort is not always a top priority.  I thought it would be a good idea to write a post about how we keep the peace, romance and excitement in our relationship when we travel.  But, instead of just writing about Sean and I, I went out and tracked down three other travel bloggers who also travel in a couple to share their experiences, too.

Here are our 11 Travel Tips For Couples:

The Blogger: Mary Kate from Wanderlusty Writer

The Blog: http://wanderlustywriter.wordpress.com

The Social Media: – twitterinstagramtumblrpinterest – 

The Couple: Mary Kate and John have been together for three and a half years, and in that time they have traveled to over 9 destinations together in Europe, South America and North America.

1. Know what type of a traveler your significant other is.  And know what type of a traveler you are. Are you a planner? Does he like to just wander around and see where he ends up? Figure out what’s important to you both and structure your trip accordingly. I personally like to plan a few big things (i.e. Hearst Castle is kind of a necessary stop when on a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway), but then I like to be a bit more spontaneous the rest of the trip. My boyfriend is also pretty flexible, with one exception: food. While I’d happily ignore my hunger pains to wander around a museum for an afternoon, he becomes impossibly cranky when skipping lunch. So now I know that on our trips, it’s important to have mealtimes planned into every day. Lesson learned!

2. Splurge (a bit) on accommodations. In my traveling days of yore (read: as a poor college student) my list of musts for a place to stay was one word long: cheap.  A couple of years ago, my boyfriend and I took a trip to Paris, and I unthinkingly booked us at the same super cheap hotel I’d stayed at the whole time I lived abroad. As soon as we arrived, my boyfriend looked around dubiously. “Why don’t any of the sheets match?” he asked. “Is this really as hot as the shower gets?” And then, “Why is this mattress like a lump of cardboard?”  When I was 21, none of these things mattered;  we’d be trying to cram so many people into the hotel room I’d be lucky if I even got a bed. But when you’re traveling as a couple, it’s really nice to have a comfortable hotel room to return to at the end of the day. Don’t go crazy—I am still cheap when it comes to hotels, since if you travel the way we do, you’re really only there to sleep—but it is possible to find a hotel with hot water and a comfortable bed that isn’t insanely priced. Bonus if your room has a balcony for the two of you to relax on with a drink at the end of the day.

3. Spend a little time apart  This might sound weird—being together was the whole point of this trip, wasn’t it? But hear me out. Traveling can be stressful, and no matter how well you plan, unexpected things are going to come up. Even when you’re with the person you love more than anything, you’re going to get a little frustrated with each other.  I’ve found a little alone time—whether it’s an afternoon at a park he doesn’t care about seeing, or a drink alone at a café—to be invaluable. Then you have things to talk about when you meet up again! Oh and ensure you each bring a good book (or three). It allows you each a mini-escape from one another, whether at the train station or just a half hour on your hotel balcony. Sticking your noses in your books definitely beats spending that extended layover in the Dusseldorf Airport snapping at each other over circumstances you can’t control.

Mary Kate and ___

The Blogger: Alyssa

The Blog: Asked not to be linked

The Social Media: – twitter – interest - instagram -

The Couple: Alyssa and Jesse have been in the making as a couple for over 5 years.  It took them a little bit of time to reconnect, but they are now happily engaged to be married.  Alyssa currently lives in Cambodia and travels with Jesse whenever she can.

4. Get some alone time.  You’re on the plane together. You’re eating together. You’re in a room together. That’s A LOT of “together” time. And you love each other and want to be in each other’s company, fair enough. But each day, take 30-60 minutes for yourself. Meditate, pray, journal, social network, whatever you need to do to have some “me” time. This stops you feeling suffocated so you can still enjoy your time “together”. Because after a week of being in each other’s pockets, you still want to have that butterfly feeling you had before you left for the vacation.

5. Get lost together.  One of the best memories I have of traveling as a couple was when my fiancé attempted to find a little café in Paris that he had been to before. We walked up and down the same street for 2 hours. He never found it. But we did find another adorable quaint restaurant that ended up serving the greatest champagne either of us had ever had. Get lost together; you never know what adventure awaits you.

6. Do a bucket list item together.  This sounds super cheesy, and maybe it is. But one thing I always wanted to do was to put a lock on the famous lovelock bridge in Paris with someone I loved. Find a cool “bucket list” idea for the place you’re in or plan in advance for somewhere you want to go and accomplish it together. It creates an extra special memory that you can hold with that place forever.

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The Bloggers: Brooke & Wilhelm Genn from The Nomadic Newlyweds

The Blog: http://thenomadicnewlyweds.blogspot.com

The Social Media: -instagramfacebook – 

The Couple: Brooke and Wilhelm met in the US and fell in love with one another’s sense of adventure.  They have spent their first year as newlyweds globetrotting and writing about their experiences on their blog.

7. Brooke’s Top Tip – Schedule Downtime.  Plan out every minute of your adventure…then delete ¼ of the itinerary.  Put RELAX on the calendar…go ahead – write it in!  For me, prioritizing downtime is KEY to keeping my cool despite any travel blunders that arise. This is my #1 tip for enjoying your expeditions and for savouring the company of your travel partner!

8. Wilhelm’s Top Tip – Be Authentically Spontaneous.  Don’t do it for the photo. Your most beautiful and romantic moments will happen when you aren’t concerned with your social media following.  That being said – we always have the point-and-shoot camera in an accessible pocket – photos are important, just not more-so than the experience.  Keeping this tip in mind truly helps us experience our adventures more fully – here’s hoping it helps you, too!

The Nomadic Newlyweds at the Trevi Fountain, Rome

The Blogger: Me! (Ashley) from Adventure To Anywhere

The Blog: http://adventuretoanywhere.com

The Social Media: – twitterinstagrampinterestfacebookbloglovin – 

The Couple: Ashley and Sean met when they were 11 years old, but it took them until they were 20 years old to become a couple.  They fell in love with a passion for travel and adventure, and have traveled in 6 different countries during their two and a half years as a couple.

9. Have pep talks before situations arise that you know will be stressful.  There was a time that Sean and I had a ridiculously short connection in Bangkok to board our flight to Chiang Mai, during which we had just over an hour to clear customs and immigration, get our bags, re-check in, get through security, and get on the plane.  We were super organized with our customs forms and we had a serious plan of attack to ensure that we could make our connection.  A few minutes before we landed, Sean said to me, “Just know that no matter what happens, and no matter how stressed out we get, and no matter how many bickery things we say, and even if we snap at one another because this is stressful, even if we miss our flight and end up stranded in Bangkok…just know that I still love you.”  This was one of the sweetest and kindest things that he could have ever done for me.  There is nothing worse than being that stressed-out, frazzled couple screaming at each other sprinting through the airport.  Just chill out and remember why you’re here in the first place, even under pressure.

10. Lay out your pet peeves before departure.  Whenever I travel with another person, I make sure that they are well aware of my main pet peeve – wasted time.  I absolutely hate sitting around trying to decide what to do as the day passes by, or sleeping in past 11 and wasting away the best part of the day.  You don’t have to come with me, but if you travel with me, you have to know that I will be heading out shortly after 7am in order to get the most out of my day!

11. Make a list of personal “Must-Do’s”.  Every time we visit a new destination, we each choose at least one thing that we absolutely must do or must see before we even arrive, so that the other person understands how important it is to us once we are there.  When we were in Thailand, for example, it was essential to me that we visited the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, and Sean wanted to do some kind of cool boat adventure in Koh Phi Phi.  We ended up on a night swim with bioluminescent plankton.  Both experiences were incredible.

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What are some of your favourite travel tips for couples, or even for friends traveling together?  Comment Below!

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A Brutally Honest List of 6 Reasons Why I Decided To Travel Solo

I had been thinking about solo travel for a long time.  A really long time.  Like, since I was 13.  Unfortunately, I grew up in an environment that instilled a huge amount of fear in me, especially around the topic of travel.  I learned to be afraid of everything, of everyone, when I was anywhere other than in the safety and comfort of my own home.  Every stranger was a murderer.  Every public place was a ticking time bomb.  Every bar was ready to be shot up at any moment.  Every plane was destined to crash.  These examples may sound incredibly extreme, but this is how I felt for a very, very long time because of that fear-based energy that I carried around with me as a result of the ‘warnings’ from others.

Maybe they were just trying to protect me.  Maybe they were afraid of losing me to a life of passionate travel.  Maybe they truly believed all of those things themselves.  But no matter the reason, I found myself in a sad state of affairs while I was traveling through Asia earlier this year.  The trip was incredible, and had so many beautiful highlights, but what the photos and the stories don’t show is that I suffered from dozens of panic attacks in the 5 weeks I spent in Asia.

I would feel them coming on, mostly at night, when I began to realize that I was in an unpredictable environment, and it was getting dark.  But I didn’t just have them at night when I was trying to sleep in strange places…I had them on boats, in airports, on planes and even in restaurants.  It got completely out of control.  If I’m honest, I sent off an initial application to the counsellor I was seeing for a while I was lying in bed, shaking, in Narita, Japan, post-anxiety attack.  I knew that I had to get these attacks under control, because they were beginning to ruin my life.

I know now that this anxiety was not so much coming from travel (at the time, I also suffered from constant anxiety at home, at work, in the car, etc.) but from a place much deeper that had been repressed for a very long time.  Through a few counselling sessions, lots of reading, frequent meditation, journaling and a huge amount of gruelling self-work, I was able to come to terms with my anxiety and, while it still creeps up on me every once in a while, I have seen a massive improvement in my mental health.

Two days ago, I booked my trip to Costa Rica.  My hands were shaking as I hung up the phone.  I watched the money leave my account, and even that didn’t scare me as much as the fact that I had actually booked my first solo trip to a region I’ve never been and a continent where I don’t know a single soul.  But despite the anxiousness, I was excited.  So excited.  But people keep asking me why on earth I chose to go alone, so I decided to share my reasons.

Ixtapa, Mexico

Ixtapa, Mexico

1. I want to rebuild my independence

I have the most incredible man in my life that I could ever ask for in a million years.  He is such a strong, stable foundation of support for me, and while my life had been falling apart this past year, he had been doing everything he possibly could to help me put it back together.  I can truly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Sean.  However, before he came into my life, I was fiercely independent.  So much so, that I refused the help he was trying to offer me, I was terrified to settle into a relationship with him, and it also took a total of ten years for me to finally decide to give him a chance.  It became easy to rely on this down-to-earth, level-headed, stable soul who loved more than anything to take care of me.  And hey, it’s nice to be taken care of sometimes!  But in my weakest times, I couldn’t help feeling like I was losing my independence, or even choosing not to use it at times.  While I understand that it is ok to let people help you, and even more ok to let people love you, I think the biggest reason for deciding to take this trip alone is to simply prove to myself that I can.  I want to be able to rely on my own decision-making, my own instincts, my own desires.  I love Sean more than life itself, and he is so excited and supportive of my solo adventure.  Plus, he’s going back to school this year, so I’m going to have to learn to do a lot more on my own if I want to continue to travel as much as I do.

Southern Thailand

Southern Thailand

2. I have had a really freaking rough year

I’m not going to expand on this point much, because the last thing I want to do is wallow, but this past year really has been tough as hell.  It had some incredible parts as well – traveling to Asia, watching one of my best friends get married, seeing so many babies born, completing an obstacle course and mud race, receiving my first paid writing gig and backpacking through the Waterton Backcountry.  But some of the most devastating events in my life have also occurred this year.  I chose to go to Costa Rica in January of 2015 – a perfect time to set a beautiful intention for the New Year ahead.

Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg, Austria

3. I like being alone

I don’t have a ton of close friends.  I have many acquaintances, professional relationships, and strong friendships with coworkers and family, but real, true, close friends are something that I am extremely selective with.  Because of this, I am decidedly a bit of a lone wolf.  I enjoy my alone time.  I love learning new things.  I like going at my own pace.  I think spending some true, intimate time with myself will be wonderful.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

4. I love the having the freedom to be Selfish

When people ask me why I don’t want to have children, my automatic response is that I am too selfish.  I usually say this in a joking way, but there is a huge amount of truth to it.  I love doing whatever I want.  I love being able to drop everything and go to a yoga class, or run out to the grocery store to spend an entire day trying a new recipe, or making a split-second decision to hop in my car and drive to the mountains.  I’m so excited to do what I want, when I want in Costa Rica.  When you travel alone, you’re not obligated to participate in anything you don’t want to.  You don’t need to worry if everyone else is enjoying themselves.  You can just focus on yourself.

Cuba

Cuba

5. I want to force myself to be more social

When Sean and I traveled through Asia, we met plenty of wonderful people, but we kept to ourselves for the most part.  Sometimes I think traveling with a partner prohibits you from making new connections with people.  I’m so good at telling myself that I don’t like being around people, but I want to change that.  I love building new relationships, I just don’t like that initial awkwardness of introducing yourself to another human being and attempting to make yourself look like a desirable person to hang out with.  I’m hoping that my time in Costa Rica will force me to become more social and outgoing with the people I meet.

Narita, Japan

Narita, Japan

6. And yes…I need a journey of self-discovery.

Oh, how cliche…a privileged Canadian twenty-something attending a yoga retreat in Costa Rica.  Guaranteed number one question I’ve been asked so far… “So, are you going to ‘Find Yourself’?”  Actually, people asked that when I went to Asia, too.  Why does someone have to be lost to travel?  But, you know what, yes, actually, I am.  As a matter of fact, I am hoping to do a little bit of self-discovery while I’m by myself in the middle of the Costa Rican Jungle.  I’m hoping that I will experience some spiritual transformation as well.  It sounds terribly cookie-cutter, but there’s a reason why the majority of solo-travelers I have met have a hell of a story to tell about why they decided to travel alone.  Most of them are healing from hurt of some sort, whether they choose to admit that or not.  Because travel is amazing.  You rely on the kindness of strangers.  Your heart feels full.  Your spirit feels alive.  You see things that you didn’t know you could ever see.  You meet other beautiful people who inspire you.  Of course we travel to heal.  We travel to run.  We travel to disappear for a little while, to be someone else for a while, to disconnect, unplug and enjoy.  Why would anyone not want to embark on a Journey of Self-Discovery to somewhere they’ve never been?

Sunrise from Mount Batur, Bali, Indonesia

Sunrise from Mount Batur, Bali, Indonesia

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Moraine Lake, AB

Moraine Lake is a glacier-fed lake located about 14km from world-famous Lake Louise, Alberta.  I had lived in Calgary for most of my life and had never been to this iconic lake, so on my 23rd birthday, I decided to make the trek up and see what all the fuss is about.

Moraine Lake is approximately a 2.5 hour drive from Calgary, but it is a beautiful drive through the Rocky Mountains.  Since it is located within Banff National Park, a Park Pass is required if you plan to visit Moraine Lake.  See more info regarding Park Passes here.

We went on the Friday of the August Long Weekend without even thinking, and it was absolutely packed.  There is  a large parking lot near the lodge, which was full, and people were parked on the side of the road for over a Kilometre outside of the lot.  If you can avoid going on a weekend or holiday, I would strongly suggest it.

Moraine Lake Parking Lot

Moraine Lake Parking Lot

Roadside Parking

Roadside Parking

Once we found a place to park, we embarked on what was about an hour long stroll around the lake.  It’s not a hike by any means, more of a nature walk, but it’s amazing how much more peaceful things become when you walk even 250 metres away from the main lodge and “Rock Pile” that everybody climbs on top of to take photos.  (We didn’t.)  There are lots of little spots off the trail to sit and lounge in the sun, read a book, or snap a few photos.  Canoes can also be rented from the lodge, so expect to see lots of people out on the water if you visit during the summer months!

Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake

Beautiful Colours

Beautiful Colours

Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake

Turquoise Waters

Turquoise Waters

If you’re looking for an upscale dining experience, the Walter Wilcox Dining Room located within the lodge looked beautiful.  There is also a smaller area with snack concessions as well as cold drinks and (highly overpriced) local beer by the bottle.  In the lodge you will also find public washrooms and, of course, a gift shop.

The Lodge at Moraine Lake

The Lodge at Moraine Lake

The Dining Room

The Dining Room

Moraine Lake is a beautiful place to spend a sunny afternoon in the summertime.  There are several hikes located nearby as well if you’d like to extend your time.  The walking paths around the lake are suitable for adults, children and seniors alike.  Some people even had their strollers on the trails.

For more information, visit morainelake.com

Taking in the Beautiful Surroundings

Taking in the Beautiful Surroundings

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5 Tips for Dealing With Language Barriers while Traveling

Would you like to hear a story about how I ended up on a field trip in rural Quebec with a Peanut Butter and HAM Sandwich for lunch?

I knew you would.  When I was in grade 10, I participated in a French Language Exchange through my high school, which was sponsored by the Government of Canada.  We were matched up with an exchange student, and they spent a week in Kelowna, BC with us and our families, and then we spent a week in Baie Comeau, Quebec with them and their families.  I was picking up on french quickly, but one day, when my exchange mother was making our lunches for a field trip to the aluminum mine, I forgot the word for “jam”.  (It’s ‘confiture’.)  Anyway, I kept saying that I wanted a “Sandwich beurre d’arachide et JAM.”  As it turns out, the french word for ham is “jambon”, so she thought I was trying to ask for a peanut butter and HAM sandwich.  She looked at me like I was an alien as she assembled the grotesque meal, and I didn’t have the heart to stop her.

It can be really difficult to keep your vocabulary straight when you have traveled to several countries that all speak different languages.  Actually, it can be really difficult to travel in countries that speak different languages, period.  If you’re new to the game of language barriers, you’re in for quite the experience.

Smartling is an ingenious product that provides users with the technology to remove these language barriers, specifically in business situations, in order for them to reach their Global Market.  As a part of Smartling’s “Breaking The Barrier” Campaign, I now present to you…

 

 

My top 5 tips, tried, tested and true, for embracing the challenges of multi-lingual adventure.

A selection of my favourite menu translations from Thailand.  They are partial to "Vagtables", and I do NOT want to know what "Mental Cheese" is...

A selection of my favourite menu translations from Thailand. They are partial to “Vagtables”, and I do NOT want to know what “Mental Cheese” is…

1. Memorize Basic Phrases

Before I travel someplace that doesn’t use english as a first language, I try to set aside a few minutes every day leading up to my departure to practice memorizing basic phrases of the country.  Even just being able to say Hello, Please and Thank You in another language can be extremely helpful and will help to gain the respect of the locals.  However, if you want to take it one step further, learn how to say things that you might use frequently, such as “Do you Speak English?”, “I do not speak Spanish”, “Where is the Toilet” and “How much is this?”

 

2. Keep a “Cheat Sheet” on you for emergencies

Once you’ve memorized your basic phrases, you may want to write a few more phrases down on a small piece of paper that you can keep in your wallet just in case.  Things like numbers from 1-10, how to ask for directions, how to explain any special needs or circumstances that you may have or anything related to the travel process itself will be valuable.  I usually carry around a very small notebook and pencil in my bag so that, if worst comes to worst, you can write things down in attempts to communicate with someone.  This can be especially helpful when hiring a taxi in parts of the world where you have to agree on a price before you leave.  That way, the driver cannot claim to have said a different amount.  (ie. fifteen becomes fifty).

Our german home stay dad, Wolfgang - Ellwangen, Germany

Our german home stay dad, Wolfgang – Ellwangen, Germany

 

3. Have a Sense of Humour

I once received a question via email asking “is it awkward when you can’t understand somebody?”  Of course it’s awkward!  But it’s life!  It’s just as much a part of travel as losing your luggage or being taught how to swear in German.  People will laugh at you.  People may even get frustrated or upset with you.  But most people are generally very understanding, and just as confused as you.  Try to keep your heart light and laugh it off when things get uncomfortable.

 

4. Get Comfortable with Charades

You will inevitably have to act out certain things on your travels, so just come to terms with it now.  Here are just a few examples of things I have had to act out for an unfortunate crowd of onlookers; “Where is the toilet”, “May I have a napkin”, “Is there a Bank nearby” and “Do you sell finger condoms” (that last one was super awkward trying to act out in multuple Thai pharmacies in Ao Nang when Sean severely injured his toe!).

Thai Coca Cola…I Hope?

Thai Coca Cola…I Hope?

 

5. Try Not to get Frustrated

It is easy to get overwhelmed when you’re first adjusting to a new place with a new language.  You’re most likely overtired, jet lagged, hungry, and craving something that you can’t get in the country you’re in.  I vividly remember having a full blown meltdown in the middle of a roadside cafeteria-style restaurant somewhere in Germany because I didn’t understand how the lineup for the salad bar worked.  Just try to take some deep breaths, collect your thoughts, and remember that humans are mostly good and willing to help.  And even if you do make a fool of yourself, chances are that you will never, ever see those people again anyway.  And if you do have to see them again, you’ll have made a new friend who speaks another language!

Our lovely volunteer coordinators in Bali

Our lovely volunteer coordinators in Bali

 

What are some of the ways that you handle language barriers when you travel?

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