Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fancy a Visit to Fennoscandia?

Do you know which countries are referred to as Scandinavia? How about the Nordic region? Where and what is Lapland? Does Norway share a border with Russia? What the heck is Fennoscandia?

All good questions. Facts that I thought I had a handle on until I was recently schooled in my northern European geography and culture.

Scandinavia, a term which is often mistakenly thrown around to refer to most of northern Europe, is actually a region which includes three distinct kingdoms: Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and is categorized by a common ethno-cultural Germanic heritage and language structure. Whereas, Nordic refers to the geographical and cultural region of Scandinavia and also includes the countries of Finland and Iceland, and the territories of Greenland, the Åland Islands and the Faroe Islands. The Nordic region countries are often grouped together due to their similarities in history, geography and social structure. According to the Nordic Statistical Yearbook, "the Nordic countries cluster near the top in numerous metrics of national performance, including education, economic competitiveness, civil liberties, quality of life and human development."

While we are still on the topic of "scandi's," Fennoscandia is the geographical region within northern Europe comprised of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia's Karelia and Kola peninsulas. In order to understand where and what is Lapland, the definition of Fennoscandia must first be tackled.

Lapland, also known as Sapmi, is not a country, but the northernmost region of Fennoscandia largely lying north of the Arctic Circle. Characterized by reindeer, salmon, gold and the midnight sun, Lapland is a cultural region traditionally inhabited by the Sami people.

With this basic northern European geography lesson, you should now be able to easily select your next frosty vacation destination and navigate all of the most well-known scandi's with ease. And, yes, the kingdom of Norway is fortunate to bump up against Russia in the Lapland region within the Arctic Circle ... I bet that sub-zero border crossing would be fun!

Stockholm, Sweden: Mythical Party Boat to Scandinavia - July 2015

Upon moving to Finland and inquiring about weekend excursions, one suggestion always mentioned was taking an overnight ferry to neighboring Stockholm, Sweden. Several of our friends had taken this trip and likened it to a party boat with lively on-board entertainment and fun patrons.

Intrigued by a colorful weekend getaway, we did a bit of research and booked our round-trip ticket on the Viking ferry line departing from Helsinki. The Viking's Gabriella departed from the Finnish port at 6 p.m. and would arrive into Stockholm harbor 17 hours later. Because it's the journey and not the destination, and it was apparent that the vast majority of our weekend would be spent on the boat, we splurged for a suite. Our two-room en-suite came with a queen-sized bed, balcony, television and a mini-bar. The room was spacious and comfortable.
And, unlike the typical passenger car ferry, the Viking ship had all the amenities of a name-brand cruise liner: a wide range of restaurant options from grab-n-go and buffets to more formal dining, a number of bars including a karaoke nightclub, duty-free shopping, spa and sauna facilities, and children's area.

We spent the first evening walking the ship and dining at a garden restaurant overlooking the sea, before sleeping solidly in our eighth floor cabin for the night. The next morning we awakened to the captain's announcements and were greeted with a beautiful view navigating the Swedish islands that dot the channel into Stockholm's harbor. The boat docked slightly before 10 a.m. local time, and we had our running shoes on fully set to make the best of our six hours in Stockholm before the captain's horn would sound again indicating our departure.

A combination bus and boat tour appeared to be the most time-efficient way to see the city. For the next several hours we rolled by sinking storefronts built on man-made islands, the Vasa Museum home to the world's only 17th century ship and the popular ABBA tribute museum. The ride was enriched with tales of Stockholm's storied past dating back to the 13th century, with Danish Kings taking over Swedish thrones with ensuing bloodbaths, murder plots at masked balls, brawling oarswomen and the origin of the Nobel Prize. Before long we were jumping off at Gamla Stan, Stockholm's Old Town. With colorful buildings lining the cobblestone streets, we strolled through the heart of the city before grabbing a bite to eat at Restaurant Stortorgskallaren. The afternoon boat tour navigated the cluster of islands and peninsulas that comprise the city, and from the waters we snapped photos of the Royal Opera, City Hall and the Royal Palace. It was a short stay in Sweden's capital but it provided a satisfying taste of what the city had to offer.

Gabriella departed the picturesque Swedish harbor right on time and sailed out and around the rock islands and over the blue sea of the Baltic. While the ferry wasn't the frenzied party boat we were used to holding onto back home, that evening on board was amusing as we enjoyed uninhibited Finns and Swedes belting out tunes at the karaoke club and saw the sun set over the Åland Islands.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ocho Rios, Jamaica: Destination Wedding Planning Lowdown - June 2015

When it comes to planning your special day - a.k.a. a massive party for your closest family and friends - there are a myriad of choices to make. From the bridesmaids' toenail polish to the filling of the cake, countless decisions compound to ultimately create the perfect event.

One of the first decisions, that will ultimately set the stage, is the location. Have you always envisioned a traditional wedding ceremony in a century-old church? How about outside underneath a pergola draped in Spanish moss?

Well, my groom had only one request for our special day: to be wed on the beach with the ocean waves as a backdrop. With that in mind, we started the journey of planning the ultimate destination wedding.

Destination Selection. Countless locales can serve as the idyllic setting for your destination wedding. Thankfully having narrowed our search to the beach, we were able to rule out the castles of Scotland and hills of New England and focus on tropical vacation destinations with a surplus of sun and sand. After probing the internet, I consulted "The Knot's Guide to Destination Weddings." The manual detailed the most ideal locations for a beach wedding: from Central America and the Caribbean, to the remote islands of the Pacific Rim and wild coasts of Australia.

My groom and I had two factors to consider: 1.) We wanted a destination that would be as easily accessible as possible for our family and friends in the U.S. and 2.) We also needed it to be a country in which neither of us had ever been. (In addition to the destination being the setting for our exchange of nuptials, it also marked my 100th country!) We sifted through the contending locations and narrowed the search to Bermuda and Jamaica. After researching flights, costs and venue selection, we landed on a well-known resort chain in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Timing. Several factors were considered when selecting our wedding date: event planning time, guest travel arrangement preparation, work schedules and, maybe most importantly, hurricane season in the Caribbean. I elected to be a June bride and crossed my fingers that the seas would remain calm and the afternoon rains wouldn't roll in until well after we said "I do."

Guests. Prior to our wedding and still today, my groom and I are in the unique situation of living abroad and far from our family and friends. Therefore, our wedding was the perfect excuse to lure all of our favorite people to the same location for - as my little sister enthusiastically referred to it as - "the party of the century." Due to the distance and cost, not all of our loved ones were able to attend the festivities but those who did had a blast and got along marvelously. Many of our 60 guests elected to lengthen the trip and make it their summer vacation.

Festivities. I received two sage pieces of advice from yet another sister regarding the whole wedding planning gig: 1.) Invest in a solid photographer and 2.) Plan to make your destination wedding a multi-day affair. From her destination wedding experience on the cliffs over-looking the ocean in Big Sur, California, and I'm sure many brides would agree, the wedding day is a blur and it all goes by so fast. If you are able to schedule a few extra wedding-related events involving all of the guests, it'll provide for more opportunities to spend time with people and enjoy yourself.

Aligned with that thinking, we hosted three-days of activities in which all wedding guests were invited: 1.) The Welcome Dinner: Basically a meet and greet in a picturesque setting: formally dressed tables on a pier stretching into the ocean with a plated meal at sunset followed by a slightly deranged fire dancer performance. 2.) The Wedding Ceremony and Reception: As requested by the groom, we were married on the sand with the ocean behind us at noon. (The wedding time was strategically picked so that the majority of our fun-loving friends and family would be in the right state of mind to remember the nuptials.) Following the ceremony, we ushered our guests off the beach and onto a veranda to enjoy rum cocktails and a steel drum band before heading indoors for the reception. 3.) Catamaran Cruise: The day following the wedding we rented a large sailing boat and invited our entire 'wedding party' on a two-hour sunset cruise with music, booze and appetizers.

Details. Details. Details. Destination selection, timing, guests and festivities are a few of the important decisions you'll need to line out early for your destination wedding, but there are no less than twenty-five thousand other choices and preparations you'll encounter leading up to your special day. Because I am a list person and find intense satisfaction from scratching off my completed to-do's, I was guided through the process with help from "The Knot Book of Wedding Lists."

A destination wedding is not unlike any other where the following needs to be considered:

Save-the-Dates. Invitations. RSVPs. For our wedding we combined the save-the-date magnet, invitation and RSVP into one mailing and sent it to our guests as early as possible to ensure them ample planning time. (And plenty of time to secure a valid passport ... Claudia!) For this piece, I enlisted the help of an extremely talented graphic designer at Socially Inked which made the process a dream. Not only did my friends at Socially Inked craft the perfect pre-wedding communications, they also helped to make my visions come to life with our wedding favors and bridesmaids gifts.

Location Scouting Trip. While nearly every wedding website dictates this as crucial, because both my groom and I wanted the wedding trip to be our first time on the island, we skipped this step. However, I can see how this would have been helpful in determining venues and meeting with the resort staff early. I'm also confident it would have alleviated a lot of stress involved with tackling resort issues prior to the event and helping the guests with their travel arrangements.

Caterer. Cake. Flowers. Decor. Musicians. Videographer. The one benefit of hosting your wedding at a resort whose business is weddings (pulling off up to nine each day!) is that they serve as the primary interface with local vendors. While we made the selections and footed the bill (nothing is really included when you have a wedding at an all-inclusive - FYI), the resort assisted with the coordination of the food, cake, flowers, reception logistics and provided a videographer. In many cases we made our selections from a pre-set list without a lot of wiggle room after the resort wedding contract ink dried.

Photographer. Although outlined in the aforementioned contract in bold print as strictly forbidden, we flew in our own professional photographer from the States under the guise of family. Wedding photography is just too important of a detail to be left to chance and the resort provided no opportunity to vet potential vendors. And before long, our talented photographer "cousin" Brian did become part of the family (he is currently one of my Mom's fiercest competitors at online scrabble) and captured our special moments beautifully.

So yeah, there are a lot of decisions that come with planning a wedding and a destination wedding is no different. Not to mention the details involved with bridal attendants, the gown, gift registry, the ceremony and reception agendas, seating charts, the honeymoon ... Once in a lifetime is certainly more than enough for me and that's enough wedding reflection for this afternoon. The anxiety is slowly creeping back. Time to grab a cocktail!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

New Zealand: Flashback - January 2007

  • Book a ticket to New Zealand.
  • Rent an RV.
  • Mix one Brazilian athlete with one German writer.
  • Add a Portuguese driver and a Chinese comic.
  • Sprinkle an American girl throughout.
  • Simmer on low heat for one week.
  • Season with wine, chocolate and wasabi cheese to taste.

During the summer of 2007, four of my international friends were the key ingredients as we spent ten fun-filled days on the open road exploring the north and south islands of New Zealand.

For our ultimate road trip we met up in Auckland on the North Island. The first stop was to the small down of Matamata, one of the locations where "The Lord of Rings" was filmed and referred to in the movie as the village of Hobbiton. We posed in hobbit houses and danced around the Party Tree; having never seen the films, I was content enjoying the green rolling hills and quaint dairy farming landscape. Next up we explored the steaming geysers of Rotorua before driving our tripped-out RV onto a ferry in Wellington to reach the South Island. 

Navigating twisting roads with incredibly polite drivers, we took the coastal route and headed south. Sheep dotted the hillsides and we jumped fences giving a couple little lambs a good chase. With awe-inspiring scenery, like Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers and Mt. Cook National Park, every day looked like a painting. Although it was summertime, there was just enough chill in the air and often a bit of drizzle to require a jacket.

With no shortage of wine in our comfortable ride and our sights set on the snow-capped southern alps, we ventured all the way down to the Milford Sound before turning inland. The glacier water run-off opened up into vast lakes colored the iciest blue. We rode on to the adventurer's paradise of Queenstown joining fellow campers and backpackers as they enjoyed the myriad of outdoor activities in the area like bungee jumping, canoeing, boating and zip-lining. Our adventure came to a close in the European-esque city of Christchurch with its city squares and ornate architecture. After a week of incredible photographs and unforgettable memories, we bid farewell to the beautifully wild kiwi nation and hopped our short flight back to Sydney, Australia.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Red Center, Australia: Flashback - March 2007

Scorched red Earth. Blanketing humidity. Menacing biting flies.

A visit to Oz isn't complete without a trip into the Red Center. The central part of Australia is desert. Difficult and expensive to reach, the most populated town in this area is Alice Springs.

The main attraction is Ayers Rock or as the local aborigines call it, Uluru. The massive and towering red rock sits in the center of flat grasslands. An awe-inspiring natural formation, it has been at the root of centuries-old tales and is one of the most iconic symbols of the country.

Kissing the sky at more than 1,000 feet, it is frowned upon by the locals to climb the mighty sandstone rock.

Not far down the road are the equally impressive Olga mountains: rounded, red rolling mounds that appear to tumble over the arid desertscape below. If you aren't too consumed swatting pesky biting black flies, take a ride on a camel through the scorched outback to catch a glimpse of some of the island continent's most deadly creatures like venomous snakes, scorpions and spiders.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Five Reasons to Raise an Eyebrow at Bolivia

Formerly known as Upper Peru, Bolivia is land-locked South American country in the Amazon Basin. The nation boasts 38 official languages and capitalizes on the exports of coffee, cacao and Brazil nuts. While notorious for being home to the most dangerous road in the world, "The Road of Death," Bolivia also has a few other questionable claims to fame.

5.) Altitude Sickness. Many parts of Bolivia sit at the altitude that jet liners fly. The city of La Paz is the highest capital in the world resting in a bowl-shaped valley at 11,910 feet. Also within the country's borders is Lake Titicaca - the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,382 feet and also one of the world's deepest. The people of Bolivia build their homes at all elevations and those who elect to nest in the Andes Mountains live at more than 10,000 feet and frequently circumvent clouds drifting through their living rooms.

Life and travel at such elevations often times brings with it altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is a potentially deadly affliction occurring in humans at elevations above 8,000 feet. The illness is caused by acute exposure to low levels of oxygen, with symptoms ranging from headache and fatigue, to fever, nausea and loss of consciousness. Combat altitude sickness by staying hydrated, ascending gradually to higher altitudes if possible, getting plenty of rest and taking medicines or drinking cocoa leaf tea.

4.) Little Black Hats. With tiered, flowing dresses and colorful shawls, it's the little black hats that have come to be the unique accessory to distinguish Bolivian women. The little black hat, also known as bowler hat, bob hat, billycock or bombin, is a hard, rounded, felt hat that was originally designed for British soldiers. The hats migrated to Bolivia in the early 1920s when an influx of Brits traveled to the country to work on creating a railway. Rumor has it that the hats were too small for the working men's heads so they gifted them to the Bolivian Quechua women. The trend caught on quickly and while they were imported from Europe for several decades, the little black hats are now manufactured locally.
3.) Invasive Body Searches. El Alto International Airport in La Paz is the world's highest international airport at more than 13,000 feet above sea level and considered by many as the most invasive. Plan for several hours to get through the passport and customs lines upon arrival, only then to have to endure the dreaded drug search. Due to the country's rampant drug problem, both your body and your luggage will be aggressively searched for illegal narcotics. In an attempt to somehow protect the last shred of dignity one may have, the body drug searches are performed in a small, windowless room. Be wary though, while unpleasant security personnel frisk you from head to toe, their corrupt colleagues may be snatching the valuables from your luggage.

2.) Drunken Tour Guides. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Bolivia is the Uyuni Salt Flats. Spanning more than 4,000 square miles, the Bolivian salt flats are the largest deposit of salt on the planet containing more than 64 million tons of salt. When it rains the water forms a thin layer covering the flats which reflects the entire sky. The salt flats were formed from the evaporation of prehistoric lakes and now serve as prime breeding ground for pink flamingos. A visit to Bolivia wouldn't be complete without tricking your friends with optical illusion photos taken from the flats, but beware: to get to the flats, you must enlist the help of a local tour company for a three to four day tour by 4x4 vehicle. Most companies have the unfortunate reputation of employing drunk drivers. Accidents in the salt desert are commonplace so be sure to scout your tour company and select your tour guide wisely.

1.) Witch Markets and Deadly Superstitions. While more than three quarters of the Bolivian population is Roman Catholic, the practice of voodoo is ever present. Many in Bolivia regularly worship "El Tio," or Satan, and "Pacha Mama," Mother Earth, with ritual sacrifices. In villages and cities alike, witch markets touting potions, amulets and powders are abundant. Walking through the beaded entrances, you'll see dried frogs, armadillos and medical plants for use is centuries-old voodoo rituals. The Bolivian people, half of whom live in poverty, believe these rituals can bring health, luck, beauty, fertility and fortune. One well-known belief is the ritual of planting a dried llama fetus under the foundation of a new home as a sacrifice to Pacha Mama. This act of respect ensures for the safety and luck of the home-dwellers. For added security and good fortune, it is rumored that many Bolivians bury a human under their house. The only stipulations are that the person must be killed for the sole purpose of the ritual and that he must die happy.
Anyone going to La Paz should try to see the witches market. It is an unusual place that makes it interesting. Weird, colorful display of voodoo stuff for sale from anything to charm a lover or cure a serious ailment. Whatever your heart desires is long as you believe in "magic." You have to be prepared to do a lot of walking though. The streets are uphill and because of the altitude in La Paz it can be more tiring. Some areas are very crowded too. Along the way you can buy and try their fresh fruit shakes and empanadas Bolivia is known for.