Archive for November, 2010

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Seven new travel apps for your smart phone

I’m thinking about promoting Becca Torres, a Friendly Planet Travel reservationist, to travel app extraordinaire. She downloaded and reviewed several apps for us at the beginning of the summer to tell you what she thinks the best travel apps are for your smart phone. And since then, she hasn’t stopped downloading.

She’s been experimenting with even more apps to bring you her latest roundup. Keep reading to see why Becca likes these seven new travel apps. And if you see any that Becca missed that you think deserve a mention, let us know in a comment.

Whether you’re abroad or in the U.S., here are more travel apps I think are worth downloading. I hope you find them to be useful!

TripAdvisor – Gives reviews and advice on hotels, restaurants, flights, vacation rentals, travel guides, and more. It’s helpful if you need to book a hotel in a pinch or want other travelers’ opinions on a particular site. Free for iPhone and Android phones.

World Clock – Stop waking mom and dad up at all hours of the night because you can’t figure out what time it is at home when you’re on the other side of the planet. World Clock comes free with most phones, so put it to use and get the local time. Or opt for the $1.99 version on the iTunes store.

The Weather Channel – Leave your sunscreen at home or pack your poncho. The Weather Channel will tell you what the weather is going to be like in any part of the world. I personally live by it! Free on all smart phones.

Currency Exchange – Dollars to yuan? I can’t do that type of calculation off the top of my head either. Knowing the exchange rate will help you keep your travel budget balanced. Try the Lite version for free on your iPhone or upgrade to Pro for $0.99.

Google Earth – Never pull out a map again if you get lost and need to find your way. Find your location quickly, explore in 3-D, and search by voice to get you going. Available for free on any smart phone.

Twitter App – Keep family and friends updated on your travels in 140 characters or less. You can also search a destination and find out what is happening there. There are numerous Twitter apps to download for every smart phone, but I stick to Twitter’s official app.

Goby App – It’s only available in the U.S. right now, but it tells you all of the events that are going on in your city or town. With over 350 categories of things to do, you can easily plan your social life around this app. Free for the iPhone.

Reminder: Post a comment, win a free SCOTTEVEST Travel Vest

The clock is a tickin’ folks. I wanted to remind everyone that the deadline to enter to win a free SCOTTEVEST Travel Vest is Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 11:59 p.m. EST Friday, Nov. 19 at 11:59 EST. To enter, answer these two questions in a comment on our original giveaway post:

  • Which Friendly Planet Travel tour would be best suited for wearing the SCOTTEVEST Travel Vest on?
  • How would using a SCOTTEVEST Travel Vest on that tour change your trip?

You can find out all the contest details in the original post. There’s only one vest to give away, so enter to win before time runs out!

Our in-depth look at Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, part three

In part two of Ruthie Stein’s guest post on her trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, she told you all about the island of Santa Cruz and the breeding and rearing program of the giant Galapagos tortoises.

Now Ruthie will take you along the last leg of her tour to the islands of Floreana and Isabela.

I departed Santa Cruz on a two-hour boat ride on the Pacific Ocean towards Floreana, one of the smallest islands in the Galapagos, home to only about 130 people. My ride to the island was on one of  the smaller boats, but the sizes do vary. A majority of them fit a maximum of 20 people.

Here’s how the boats are set up. The front of the boat is covered and has four rows on each side that seat two people each, for a total of 16 passengers.The back of the boat, which is not covered, seats another four passengers for a total of 20. As I learned, if you’re more prone to getting seasick, sitting in the back relieves that feeling somewhat, but you’re also more likely to get wet during the ride. 😉

My ocean-front cabin on Floreana

When I arrived on Floreana, I checked into the Red Mangrove Floreana Lodge. One of the things that amazed me during my trip was how my luggage got from one island to the next. I never had to lift a finger! I’d hand my luggage over when I checked out of one hotel and by the time I arrived in my next hotel room, my luggage was already there. The Red Mangrove’s level of service was exceptional.

The lodge is made up of 10 independent cabins. The wood paneled rooms make you feel like you’re in the middle of the wilderness, until you hear the crash of the waves outside your door. That’s because every single lodge is ocean front!

When you step out of your room, there’s a wooden walkway that ‘s about six or eight feet wide separating you from the beach. The view is spectacular. I was able to see hundreds of sea turtles coming in and out of the water. And the cool breeze from the ocean kept me so comfortable at night that I didn’t need to turn on my air conditioner or use a blanket.

And keeping with their eco-friendly practices, the lodge provides your soap and shampoo in a dispenser, not in little plastic bottles. By refilling the dispensers, the lodge is creating less waste. This is just one of the many steps they take to protect the ecosystems on the island.

A Floreana finch

What set this lodge apart from all the other ones I stayed at was that it did not have a kitchen. Instead, you get to eat your meals with a local family. I ate breakfast with seven or eight other tourists with a family on their outdoor patio. Our hostess served eggs, a plate of cheese, fresh fruit, and yogurt. We also had a choice of cereal, coffee, tea, and fresh juice.

Getting the chance to eat with the local people was not only a delightful experience, but it gave me a chance to understand their culture, and as a bonus, providing meals for tourists helps maintain their livelihood. In addition, every person I met was welcoming, warm, and friendly. Most of the locals speak Spanish, which I do not. But nevertheless, they went above and beyond to make me feel comfortable.

When I was finished fueling up for the day, I spent a lot of time hiking. It’s the best way to see different kinds of indigenous animals and birds. I walked up to the Asilo de la Paz (Peace Asylum), the site of an artesian spring, one of the few year-round sources of fresh water in the Galapagos.

Galapagos penguins

Then I went to the Cueva de los Piratas (Pirate’s Cave), where pirates carved temporary shelter out of soft stone. This was also where Margret Wittmer, one of the original settlers, gave birth to her son Rolf, who promotes responsible tourism to the Galapagos Islands through his foundation. Afterwards I saw a profusion of Floreana finches on Cerro Pajas (Bird Hill) and more Galapagos tortoises at another reserve.

After two days of exploring life on Floreana, I hopped on another two-hour boat ride for Isabela. The amount of wildlife you see when approaching the island is unbelievable. I saw sea turtles, sea lions, and tropical penguins in the turquoise water. But that was nothing compared to what I saw on my tour of the bay.

Some colorful crabs

The blue-footed boobies, colonies of marine iguanas, and crabs were just stunning. I’ve never seen more colorful animals in my entire life. The crabs were a brilliant red and orange, and there was a small canal where you can go snorkeling. I opted not to, but the canal was full of resting white-tipped reef sharks. I was able to see them above the water as the snorkelers swam around them.

But my most memorable moment on this trip happened on Isabela, and it doesn’t include any of the animals I saw. It came in the form of a very tall volcano — Volcan Sierra Negra, to be exact. It’s the second largest volcano in the world and I hiked that baby. 🙂

We took the cheetah, which is the big truck with a heavy axle and big wheels from the hotel to the base of the volcano. Our naturalist guide led us up the four miles to the top of the volcano. (That’s right. I said four miles.) It had rained a few days prior so the hike was muddy, which made it even more adventurous.

Our trek to the top of the volcano

The route was surrounded by vegetation and lava rock. And just like every other place I had hiked so far, we were not allowed to pick up anything — not a single piece of lava rock or a petal from a flower. This is all done to protect the delicate ecosystem. The only thing we were allowed to take was wild guava fruit that grew along the trail, which was delicious and refreshing.

When our group reached the top of the volcano we explored the caldera and the fissures in the ground from the last eruption (it’s dormant now!). I also took some time to relax and take in the spectacular view of Isabela from the top. Then we began our descent back to the Red Mangrove Isabela Lodge. It was the perfect place to relax after a long hike. The oceanfront lodge has a beautiful wooden deck by the sea and a rooftop terrace with sea vistas for miles.

After my time on Isabela, I went back to Santa Cruz for a night before departing for Quito, which would eventually bring me back home to the U.S. I was sad to leave the beautiful islands, but I was coming home from one of the most amazing experiences of my life that I will never forget.

I was so fortunate to get the opportunity to go to the Galapagos Islands. I can say first-hand that it is one of the most beautiful places on earth that we should never take for granted, and we should do everything in our power to protect and preserve it.

A rainbow over Floreana

Why the National Geographic Channel’s ‘Great Migrations’ is a must-see

If you’re a nature lover, you probably have the National Geographic Channel set on your DVR, I know I do.

This Sunday night, I’m looking forward to its new new seven-part series, “Great Migrations.” It will cover the annual journey millions of animals take to ensure the survival of their species.

One migration that I’m very excited to see, which centers around Kenya and Tanzania, is that of wildebeest. Their annual migration is considered one of the most spectacular in nature.

Over a million wildebeest, along with 450 other species of wildlife, make the circular migration year after year. Friendly Planet Travel offers several tours to Africa where these migrations take place. Travelers frequently ask me about when and where they occur, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you a little bit more about it.

Wildebeest are herbivores and need to graze constantly. As a result, they move as the seasons change to find fresh land and water. In Tanzania, the wildebeest herds gather in the Southern Serengeti. During the rainy season in April and May, the herds begin their migration northward by heading west first.

The wildebeest herds move to the flourishing grasses and open woodlands of the Western Serengeti, whose sweeping vistas make it the best place to watch the migration unfold. This is also the time when the wildebeest mate.

By June, the herds are heading north towards Kenya. One of the most breathtaking sights of the migration is that of the herds congregating to cross the Grumeti River in Tanzania and the Mara River in Kenya. From July to September, wildebeest tackle the strong currents and the crocodiles that wait for them in the waters.

For tourists, it’s amazing to watch the lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs follow the herds. Unfortunately, a quarter of the wildebeest won’t make it, falling prey to predators or drowning in the rivers.

By the time November rolls around, the wildebeest return south to the Serengeti plains to give birth to their calves. Until the end of March, this is the perfect time to see almost a half million calves running with their mothers. The sight of the mothers and their young also attracts predators, including lions which hunt them as prey.

Then the migration begins all over again. The wildebeest migration is often spontaneous because it revolves around the weather. If the rainy season starts earlier, so does the migration. But no matter when it starts, their migration is an integral part of Africa’s ecosystem.

Wildebeest crop the grasses, fertilize the soil, and serve as food for predators. It’s important for people to understand this, and I’m sure “Great Migrations” will let us enjoy a view of their incredible journey as never before seen. That is, unless you are lucky enough to join us in Africa to see it for yourself, in person.

So I’ll be tuning in Sunday night. Will you? If you do watch it, let me your thoughts in a comment on this post.

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