Best Blogs 2015 – holiday reading

 

imageAs I reflect on 2015 I have to say it was a brilliant year. I spent time with my much-loved family, I acquired a new darling little Chinese grand-daughter, I travelled, I had time with friends, I  pushed myself photographically and I’m still here. The aches and pains become insignificant when you weigh up the good times.

Many of you are too busy to read blogs throughout the year and I understand that. However I have chosen 6 of my most popular blogs from 2015 to give you some holiday reading. A little like  short stories. Click on the blue links to be taken to directly to my blogs. Enjoy

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Travel Trivia

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I loved my recent trip to Alaska, do put Alaska on your bucket list and don’t die before you get there!! Seriously it is magical. You can read about my week with the bears here.

Some of my comments  apply to other parts of the USA, not just the BIG state; some good some not so good!! But all written with you in mind, hopefully they are helpful snippets.

Tipping…I hate tipping, it almost spoils a pleasant dining experience. You are about to leave a restaurant following a delicious dinner and bingo!! The tip has to be calculated regardless of how good the service is.. Has it already been added?, always check this before adding your tip amount which is expected to run around 15% evidently. However many locals I gather only add 10-12%. I downloaded an app. to my phone which was helpful and I could set it to 15% or 12% or whatever.  There are numerous apps to assist you when travelling.

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I also got caught on a day trip on a tour boat, as we disembarked everyone was handing the crew/person who talked about the sights we enjoyed a tip over and above the fee we had paid!  Really!!

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Under this verandah in Seward were two restaurants – definitely not well sign posted.

Bottomless cups of Coke, Pepsi etc and Unlimited filter coffee seem to be the normal. I can never drink more than one at a time, but a nice gesture in most American eateries.

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The majority of Americans still think filter cona style coffee is great. Mention speciality coffee and they might point you in the right direction!  Alaska definitely has a culture of speciality coffee but there are many places like the Crown Plaza in Anchorage who have no idea! . Some shops sell nothing but coffee, not even simple food! Lots of roadside Alaskan cute coffee buses.. Hotels all seem to have FREE wi-fi. Last time I stayed in NZ or Australia this was not the case. Often only free in the foyers😳 IMG_4695

I love showers with spray heads, I only came across one bathroom with a hose spray shower. Most NZ showers have hose sprays – how else do you wash your underneath anatomy!!  Water doesn’t run uphill!! Oh well  just another American idiosyncrasie !!

Buying petrol, it is so simple in Australia and New Zealand but not in the big USA. Insert your credit card at the pump..it says “wait a Moment,” ( wait forever) go inside they say ‘try again, so you trot our dutifully and try again. No luck. Back inside. I ask is it because I have a Foreign credit card? The woman looks at me as though I am an alien… No kidding. She says to me you have to pay inside in advance. I ask how do I know the cost! “Well you can pay cash! Is there an ATM machine I ask?” “two blocks down the road” she mumbled, I might add it is raining !! Then she says “there is another garage in town you could try!” With that I drove to the next garage..went inside first off and the lady said I will put fifty on your card and if it’s less I will  refund you! OK I said and sure enough I received $5-75 change… All done with a smile. But it certainly was not simple.

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Another day I went to another Gas station and the machine accepted my card and I was done and dusted and refueled in minutes 🙂  On another occasion I was asked my zip code..I knew that wouldn’t work so I tried my sons’ American zip code but Visa knew that wasn’t right!! Back inside and this time the young lass held onto my credit card while I filled up and then she deducted the amount… Simple enough, but honestly American fuel businesses need a shake up!!!

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Food..burgers and chips paninis, Caesar salads , all pretty de ja vu – NZ we have a lot more ‘foodie’ eateries, Pacific Rim Cuisine is definitely a favourite of mine. I suspect NZ food is more expensive than the average traveller wants to spend though. High bar stools and booths are still very popular stateside. The best eateries often look quite dark and intimidating from the outside. Certainly you won’t find a meat pie for sale anywhere, hot dogs are the equivalent snack it would seem and endless chips.

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Key Lime Pie

Fine Dining… Yes definitely Alaska has some fine eateries. Seven Glaciers at the  Alyeska Resort in Girdwood and The Homestead near Homer are both well worth making the effort to dine at. Try specialities such as Halibut and Alaskan Salmon of course but don’t overlook the Kennai Scallops at Mykel in Soldotna, large succulent and sweet or the Black Cod called Sable Fish.

IMG_4088 The best Halibut and chips without doubt was in Whittier In a quaint little waterside café called Varley’s Swiftwater Seafood. I met people in there who had driven all the way from Anchorage for lunch and to enjoy the Halibut  ‘n chips and now I having eaten there I under stand why!! The best anywhere in Alaska.

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I couldn’t help noticing the bullet holes in sooo many road signs. Despite signs saying no shooting near the highways!!

Road side notices in many areas are Double Fines for exceeding the speed limit. I wonder if that would work in NZ.? Maybe at Maramarua which is a bad crash site in the north Island!! I didn’t see any mention of speed cameras and I saw only one patrol car !

In Canada the ferries to Vancouver Island run hourly and the voyage is 90 minutes, with waiting time 2-3 hours. Beautiful ferries, they take cars and people, 400 at a time. But strangely you cannot buy a beer on the ferry or either side in the restaurants catering for the passengers. Very strange I thought. Turns out Vancouver was a ‘dry‘ city for twenty years!! The other interesting thing is there was absolutely no security checks for these ferries. Plane passengers are so tightly screened and yet a ferry with 2-4 hundred passengers and cars no one checked a thing… Is that weird or what??

A cold beer is pretty good on a hot summers day -

A cold beer is pretty good on a hot summers day –

Rental car people; well Hertz in Anchorage anyway. No service – there’s the car and a mumbled thanks on return. How hard would it be to talk to the driver, ask where you’re heading, make small talk. On return ask how was your trip? After all this is one of the last things you might do in a country or city… Leaves a bad impression when they grunt and point to the elevator!! They are just there because they can’t get a job anywhere else! Students on summer jobs are so wonderful, interested in you as a person, happy to be working, great attitudes. Alaska has sooo many of them, wonderful. IMG_4635

Up close and Personal with Bears

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A Mama Grizzly walking past my lodge.

A Mama Grizzly walking past my lodge.

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge 45 minutes by fixed wing from the Anchorage plane hub. I have never seen so many small planes in one place, sea planes, old planes, new planes, red, yellow blue planes. ( Apology to Dr Seuss) Every colour and model parked alongside either the gravel roads..(runways) or estuaries for float planes. My chosen plane was literally a tin box… And after a lengthy warm up period we took off west along the main land of Alaska. We flew over river mouths looking for and spotting beluga whales below us. They chase the salmon into a river mouth before having a feeding frenzy but schedules prevented us witnessing this massacre! The pilot pointed out all the volcanoes and the scenery beneath us kept unfolding. Vibrant green meadows, pools of deep midnight blue water, trees, braided river mouths, turquoise water channels, islands and eventually a long sandy beach where our pilot touched down perfectly.

Typical scenery on the flight in.

Typical scenery on the flight in.

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Our group of 14 required two planes and on arrival on the deserted beach 4-5 ATV’s hooked to trailers (with cushioned seats 😀) collected us for the short drive to the lodge through a couple of fords and plenty of mud! I thought, happily,I was back on the farm. By now the sun was shining and lunch was ready. Introductions all round: our group included a writer, a Scotsman, a Pom who lives in German, one Canadian, one Kiwi and a handful of Americans. Bankers, farmers, an horologist, two vets, a nurse, a neurosurgeon, a dentist and computer ‘geeks’s. I mean that in the nicest way😀and moi. All of our group were photographers from those with enough gear to sink a ship through to a point and shooter… The 12 -24 mm lens was the one that impressed me! The staff were fabulous, they included a half Kiwi, Alaskans and so forth- the chef Vinnie haled from Texas and was excellent…pork ribs to die for and fresh perfectly cooked halibut and of course the dark pink, very rich salmon caught 5 minutes away so it doesn’t get fresher than that. I have survived the week on a satchet of hot coffee topped up with the unpalatable filter coffee…tasted good, my friends know I have a coffee addiction! However the Russian River Chardonnay was perfection after a long day bear viewing! So what happens at Silver Salmon Creek.

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Silver Salmon Creek

Silver Salmon Creek

The lodge is set on 40 acres and surrounded by the Lake Clark National Park. The Park is 2.6 million acres, surprising how few people have heard of it! Dave the owner of the lodge owns a Cessna 172 and the signs as you exit the lodge that say “look both ways for aeroplanes” are not a joke! We were divided into a variety of groups depending on your days chosen activity.

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Bear viewing being the most popular, but salmon fishing was also popular… The limit is two salmon daily. I caught three and released two. The 14 pound silver was quite a fish- and she is still swimming upstream to spawn and then sadly unlike trout she will roll over and die. I fished with a rod and lure but some folk were fly fishing.

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My 14 pound Silver Salmon.

The streams are idyllic and every so often a bear wanders into the river and the fishermen retreat to watch the bear catch a couple of fish. Bears have right of way everywhere in the park. Bear viewing is an adrenalin rush.

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We wear muck boots (Kiwi gum boots) as the fields are swampy in parts.the lodge rents waders, muck boots and fishing tackle and tripods and large lens….a pretty darn good service. So we head out to the river mouth to look for bears, there are about 9 different bears in the region this week, lone females or females with cubs. The male Grizzlies stay in the woods fortunately. Sometimes we sit and wait, other times we spot the bears and drive so far then stealthily walk across the fields to where they are. We generally give them about 100- 200 feet between us but sometimes they’ve been as close as 8 feet, no kidding! These bears are the 6th generation of bears used to humans so they ignore us but we are always told to huddle together when the bear gets close.

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The Bears frequently stood up on their hind legs.

The Bears frequently stood up on their hind legs.

The bears are busy filling up on the salmon before winter. The cubs are around 8-12 months maybe and they can’t catch fish yet. One Mummy bear lay down on her back near us and her two cubs suckled her…then they went for a sleep and we just sat in awe and silence watching this intimate bear family moment. So privileged. Then Mother bear tries to catch fish, often unsuccessful…they expound huge energy fishing and cover miles every day. They see a splash and leap,often missing their prey. Then they snorkel looking for salmon, funny to watch. After an active dive or two they shake their heads like dogs, a site to enjoy and all one can hear is the clicking of 14 cameras! When she catches a fish she often eats half of it before sharing with the cubs, a few fish die as they have already spawned and the cubs sometimes find these. The human group size is limited and the gun toting park ranger was around most days checking his territory and visitors to the park; a very pleasant fellow actually. A film crew arrived one afternoon to document a fly fisherman. There is one other lodge further up the road. The roads are local, everything comes in by plane or boat. No jetties and a tide that can drop and does 30 feet! One afternoon we sat in silence listening to the stream bubbling across a stony section of river, the odd plop of a fish jumping and observing the bears wandering silently along the river bank…so special. At times the bears are very vocal, the noise is similar to a contented cow mooing! There are bear foot prints in the mud and trust me those feet and claws are massive. Back at camp a cub tore strips of the laundry door! They have a keen sense of smell and will come into camp and steal the empty aluminium fish boxes, and cart them off forty feet before giving up… Every day we have had the big old mama grizzly wander through the campsite.

The entire 6 days has been adrenalin filled with daily bear encounters. Thank you to Dan and Tanya from Natural Exposures who have been taking groups of photographers to this unique spot for many years. 

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On two days I went by boat to Duck Island where the Horn Puffins live, the first trip we only saw a few as it was very windy and they had taken to the ocean fishing. Trip two was calm and what a transformation, puffins on every rocky outcrop darting back and forth in great activity, photographing a puffin in flight was challenging but so rewarding when one succeeded. These birds have exquisite face paint…beautiful. On another coast was an ancient fish cannery now closed down and derilect. Sitting around the camp fire was a fun way to relax at the end of the day but most people were in bed early, these days are tough, walking in boots through swamps takes it out of you!!! And bed becomes a desireable destination so we can leap out of bed at 6-30 and do it all again.

imageAfter all the perfect bear shot always awaits us! I travelled with a company called Natural Exposures and it was an Invitational trip. However you can apply to them and they have some amazing trips on their agenda. They’ve won awards for their trips so seriously check out their website.

Northern Lights - Alaska

One of the added adrenalin filled moments was waking up at 4 am and witnessing the Northern Lights.. This is what memories are made of!

Postscript – writing a blog on the iPad has a few difficulties so please accept my apologies re layout etc.

Thinking about travelling?

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Recently I have met a few women who live on their own and they are nervous to travel alone, seriously these small group type tours are made for you. I suggest you select a tour that involves your personal interest – fishing, opera, architecture, tramping, cycling, photography, wine and food, farming etc. This way the people on the tours will have shared interests with you –  you might even like them :):)

There are tours for everyone  – use Google to discover one to suit you. I am listing a few tours to give you an idea of the broad range available. Not recommending just mentioning them. Check on Trip Advisor before you book hotels and tours; sometimes it is surprising what you learn. There are far more tours than time and money to partake of. I could travel continually – not sure I want to but I could be tempted. Lotto is the answer!

I know most of my friends travel somewhere exciting every year. Some are photographers and they tend to single out photographic tours or workshops. But not everyone wants to get up an hour before sunrise or miss their G&T at 5pm! Holidays are expensive and you need to consider tailor-made excursions. Some travel 5 star plus, some go on Intrepid Journeys. Some fly economy some fly business. However you travel or wherever you go  there are always helpful hints and ideas to make the voyage easier. I wrote a blog on packing recently, a couple of people said it helped them.

(Comment box at end…please add your tips, thoughts and favourite small group ideas, and share my blogs with your friends..)

I like to make my travel as easy as possible so I am happy to pay extra to have a car meet me in a foreign city. In New York and London especially; so much easier than fighting through hoards of people to a taxi ramp that looks like a wreckers yard or lugging luggage from one platform to another to catch a different train line in a London subway.  The extra $$ means I arrive relatively relaxed, that is worth a lot to me.  Mind you I am travelling alone. If you have a spouse to share the stress and carry the bags I’m sure it is much easier. What happened to old-fashioned porters I wonder??

I will never forget struggling up 50 stairs with my luggage over a small bridge and down 50 stairs when travelling from Florence to Cinque Terre…it nearly killed me! Europe is like that. Actually  elevators existed as far back as ancient Rome; Archimedes was building them in 336 B.C., and gladiators and animals rode lifts to the Roman Coliseum arena by A.D. 80 So why they don’t have lifts is beyond me.

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These days many folk book online but it isn’t actually cheaper, agents get paid by the hotels and wholesalers, not by you.  Recently I spoke to someone who proudly told me they’d booked everything themselves online, a complex trip with airline connections etc. That is all very noble until things go wrong, and they do go wrong. You realise you didn’t allow your self-sufficient  time and you’ve missed a connection. Then you pay;  you pay with a stressful few hours and with a cash outlay, neither are very funny.  If your travel agent makes the mistake he or she pays! Recently I missed a flight in the USA, my print out said it was departing at 11-30am and when I checked in they said the flight left at 9-15am. I showed them the paper  print out and was I sent to a different desk where  3 staff looked at their screen and announced I had to pay US$100.00. I was OK paying  as in the back of my brain somewhere an alarm bell was ringing…I remembered my agent had changed that flight but I hadn’t printed out the new details. All I wanted was to get onto the 11-30 am flight which of course was already over booked  as most American flights  are! Then the staff supervisor said “who changed the flight?” They didn’t know if it was them or my agent, so they refunded my $100.00 ushered me through an express way and I was on the flight quick as  a flash of lightning.The flight I originally wanted in the first place as well ! Had I not booked through an agent I would have been in all sorts of trouble. So I think  agents are invaluable. If you live in Auckland and don’t have an agent I suggest you call Steve at Fortis Travel.  A type of insurance. is the way I see it. I still do a heap of research but they often have hotel specials etc. On the subject of insurance, paying with your Visa Gold card gives you some insurance but some destinations it is definitely insufficient. Read the small print. When I went on safari to Africa for example, I took out additional insurance.

A friend recently arrived at a hotel all booked by her travel agent to be told they had no rooms available! A quick call to her agent and a 3 way phone chat soon had them booking my friend into a suite at no extra charge. And so the stories go.

There are many women who travel on their own ( and a few men).  I suggest you google trips that pertain to your interests. There are many garden tours in Europe and similarly painting, music or art appreciation tours. There are numerous cycling and photographic tours and other  genre too. I have listed a tiny selection here… but these trips are going to be far more rewarding than a 1000 or 2000 person cruise ship in my humble opinion.

 

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APT is a travel company renowned for running excellent coach tours, owned and operated by Australians.

Typical of their trips…10 day Discover with Botanica World Discoveries the wonderful gardens of England and Wales in Spring with this relaxed tour in Southern UK while accompanied by a Botanical Guide. Highlights include The Chelsea Flower Show and 32 hectares of Bodnant Gardens or this one : Discover the pristine lakes, Romanesque architecture and gardens of the Italians Lakes district, before crossing into Slovenia to the beautiful town of Bled. Continue into Croatia then sail along the picturesque Dalmatian Coast.

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 ART….Try this  trip  to Japan.199x199xJapan1-199x199_jpg_pagespeed_ic_9zQUXshaT3LMC-0688-Edit

Chihuly Glass – I’ve seen his work in the USA and London and love it.

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An ‘ornament’ I spotted in Bond Street and regret not purchasing 😦 as we often do when travelling.

 

FOOD AND WINE

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New Orleans

Stories by Ken Burns Tauck’s 8-day Cajun Country and New Orleans tour includes Tauck Exclusives like Stories by Ken Burns, a Cajun house party, private demo at the New Orleans School of Cooking, an authentic streetcar tour, a private jazz experience at Preservation Hall, a private farewell jazz reception and dinner at Arnaud’s, five nights at historic French Quarter hotels and more!

Vietnam

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HALONG BAY IS A BEAUTIFUL PART OF THE WORLD.

A fun tour with Peta Mathias might be the best ticket…

“We start our tour in the north in Hanoi where we find out how to make rice paper and tofu, eat street food which is THE Hanoi specialty, learn how to cook at my friend’s house and drink the famous Hanoi fresh beer. We then jump on a plane to Hué (which is like going from Paris to the South of France),where we stay at the most exquisite French Art Deco hotel. Hué is the ancient Imperial Capitol of Vietnam and is most famous for its intricate imperial cuisine, fabulous imperial sites and is a huge centre for Buddhism.

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Culinary Tour of North India 11 Days / 10 Nights

Our tour starts in Delhi, which offers a panoramic vista of heritage and modern India that you will experience during the city sightseeing tour. Mughlai Food will be our first culinary experience known for its richness, exotic use of spices, dried fruit and nuts.

I loved India and my earlier blog might be useful. How to avoid Deli Belhi etc.

CYCLING

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Take a cycle holiday in France to enjoy the scenic beauty, enchanting culture,  delicious food and fine wine the French countryside has to offer. From the iconic high passes of the Alps and Pyrenees to the gently meandering valleys famous for their wine production, it is possible to find cycling routes in France to suit all abilities and interests.

Ireland

  • Cycle along Kerry’s dramatic Emerald coastline.
  • Meet the welcoming people of Dingle and Kerry and explore the many small villages along the way.
  • Cycle the world famous Slea Head and Adelaideexample – DAY 3 Springton to Tanunda – Enjoy the picturesque scenery and infinite views as you ride into the epicenter of the Barossa Valley • Some of today’s ride includes parts of the world-famous tour down under cycling race.

 

HISTORY

Summer Antarctic Expeditions exploring New Zealand’s remote Islands are popular for the adventurous. Check out Heritage Expeditions. Galapagos to the Chathams and further south from $800.00  a day.

PHOTOGRAPHY –  “have camera will travel”

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Alaska with our best known Kiwi photographer Chris McClennan We are very excited to be putting together an exclusive Alaskan Winter photo tour for 2016 featuring the famous Iditarod dog sled race, the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) and of course some spectacular Arctic landscapes.

Kenya 2017 with Daniel Cox ( I’m going on his Alaska Brown Bear trip this year) read on.. 16 Guests MaximumOPTION 1: FULL SEAT Allows each guest to have a seat and window on both sides of the vehicle. This gives ample room for camera gear and allows for photographing from both sides of the vehicle –  This is what makes this tour so special, an experienced guide and space! Two different pricing structures depending on your vehicle needs/preference.

Antarctica  My dream trip –  this tour flies from Punta Arenas, Chile to Antarctica’s King George Island and back, eliminating days of travel in the challenging waters of the Drake Passage. John Paul Capanigro is a superb photographer, one of the best!

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Photos by John Paul Capanigro

 India 2015 – hurry for this one.. but another dream photo trip. I’ve been to Rajasthan and loved every day! Led by Brendan O’Hagan and organised by CANON NZ for photographers.

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Rajasthan place in the sun.

CRUISING – I have never been cruising so this advice is from a trusty friend.

Major decisionSIZE DOES MATTER”

 Large ship or boutique vessel??  this has a huge impact on your enjoyment. Large cruises offer an exceptional array of entertainment options, dining venues, and amenities and are typically the way to go if you’re traveling with younger children or a large group looking for lively nightly activities.  However I imagine you’re hoping for a more intimate, relaxing luxury experience with attentive service and a sophisticated ambiance so please consider choosing a smaller luxury cruise.  Silver Seas are evidently top-notch. Their small ultra-luxury ships can sail up narrow waterways into the heart of a city, or tie up right at the pier while others must anchor off shore, these factors can make quite a difference to your holiday. I’m saving this treat up for my older age!!

FISHING

I hear Mexico is amazing fishing. Cabo Fishing offers world-class sportfishing charters in Cabo San Lucas Mexico, possibly the best sportfishing waters in the entire world, that is after New Zealand I say. (tongue in cheek!) April May and June are the best times so escape our winter.

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So folks, cash in your childrens’ inheritance and travel while you still can. If you are alone look at the tours I’ve mentioned.. small and manageable. ( Ideal for couples too of course) I can’t keep listing tours but trust me there are some awesome adventures waiting to be had!! And don’t take more luggage than you  can carry; lighweight with 4 wheels, passport and go!! See you there!!

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