Sunday, August 30, 2015

Travel Posts Featured in Online Publications - August 2015

To share my travel stories and try to attract new blog subscribers, occasionally I repost my blog entries on Twitter (Twitter handle @KimberlyLeupo). Over the last month, four of my articles have gotten "picked up" and shared globally through online publications.

I wanted to share the online publications and link to the blog posts just in case you missed them. Thank you all for your support. If you have feedback on any of my blog posts, have an idea for a story or would like to be a guest blogger, feel free to email me at

Havana, Cuba: A Romance with the Past
featured in "Travel Cuba @TravelNewsCorp."

Reykjavik, Iceland: Northern Lights & Glaciers featured in "The Arctic Monitor."

Fancy a Visit to Fennoscandia?
featured in "The Arctic Monitor."

Hostel Nightmares: How to Avoid Sleeping
with the Maid
 featured in "Hostel Today."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Drinking Your Way Around the World

Athens, Greece: Digging into an Ancient City - August 2015

After Greek island hopping, and before venturing to the countryside to visit the ancient cities of Corinth and Mycenae, my husband, James, and I had one day to take in historic Athens.

Based at the Hotel Central in the Plaka neighborhood, we made the most of our time exploring all of the must-see attractions:

The Acropolis. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the Acropolis of Athens is dedicated to the goddess Athena. First constructed in the 6th century BC the area contains the ruins of the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion, and provides breath-taking views of the modern city. Get there early to avoid the crowds and beat the afternoon heat. Also of note, your 12 Euro ticket is good for entry into several other ruins throughout the city.

Temple of Olympian Zeus. Taking more than 700 years to build, this temple is revered as one of the most significant in Athens. Unfortunately, only 15 of the 104 Corinthian-style marble columns still stand.

The Ancient Greek Agora. Long before the word agora became associated with a Greek marketplace, it was the site for orators to engage the public. The ancient Athens agora was the stage for the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates while being the heart of the city. Today you can walk the line of moments paying homage to each of the twelve mythological Greek gods on the way to visit the Temple of Hephaestus. Also of note the Roman agora is minutes away and, while smaller, is home to Hadrian's Library.

Our next stop was the Panathenaic Stadium. One of the most well-known sites in the country, the current stadium was built upon the grounds of an ancient Greek stadium which from 329 BC hosted games for centuries. The current stadium, constructed in 1894, is responsible for reviving the games and hosting the first International Olympic Games two years later. Fun fact: the term marathon, which also happens to be an Olympic sport, stems back to city of Marathon, Greece. Precisely 26.2 miles from Athens, it's where sandal-clad solider Phiddipides began the run to Athens to announce the victory of the Greek Army over the 50,000 Persian invaders in 490 BC.

For lunch we feasted on gyros and moussaka before walking busy Ermou Street to peek into shops selling leather sandals, Christian Orthodox relics and mink coats. We photographed the 11th century church of Panagia Kapnikarea, near Syntagma Square, and while in the neighborhood visited the Hellenic Parliament. There, every hour the soldiers of the Presidential Guard march in traditional uniform which includes funny-looking shoes with large wool pompons on the tip called tsarouhia.
The National Archaeological Museum. Our final stop was the largest museum in Greece which houses ancient Greek Art and where you can follow Greek history from the 6th century BC through the fall of the Roman Empire.
For dinner we enjoyed traditional Greek cuisine at The Old Tavern of Psaras in Plaka dining on eggplant, octopus and mussels washed down with anise-flavored ouzo. At the restaurant our animated waiter informed us that Greece is the origin of everything novel in the world and that the only word in the Greek language which isn't Greek is its name.
If you can weather the heat and mosquitoes, August is an ideal month to visit the city as the locals flock to the countryside and islands for holiday. We would not have been able to see as much of the city as we did without enlisting the help of our friendly driver, Kostas, from George's Taxi. Another handy tip is to download the free app: Athens by for accommodation and food recommendations as well as helpful information on getting around, attractions and history.

Santorini, Greece: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly - August 2015

The Good:
  • Scenery. The island of Santorini is a photographer's dream. White walled buildings and blue domed churches clutch to rock cliffs surrounding seas of the brightest blue. Winding cobblestone alley ways and terraces overlook black, white and red beaches. The views are incredible and the sunsets glowing. Santorini's two islands sit at the edge of a massive sea-filled cauldron formed by a volcanic eruption circa 1500 BC.
  • Public Transport. Surprisingly, no matter your budget or preference, the public bus is your ride of choice. It conveniently navigates all the major towns on the island with several pick-ups each hour. It is clean and costs only a couple Euros each way.
  • Food. While pricey, there is no shortage of dining options on the island. Nearly every hotel or bed and breakfast has a restaurant. The seafood selection is vast and some places appeal to customers by hanging fresh daily catches in the windows. Gyros and souvlaki vendors are everywhere, but it's wise to grab a bite on the side streets or in an eatery without a view to enjoy for a fraction of the price.
  • Shopping. Countless shops line the walkways of each of the main towns on Santorini. You can find everything from high-end jewelry and fashion, to locally-made handicrafts and artwork. As with elsewhere in Greece, be sure to haggle and scout out the competition before your buy.

The Bad:
  • Hoards of Tourists. Santorini is a tourist island. Every year more than 500,000 tourists flock to the 37 square mile island with many ascending in mass from cruise ships; it's not uncommon to find a handful of cruise liners docked at the old port of Fira each day. The narrow streets become elbow-to-elbow and lines for popular attractions wind around blocks.
  • Getting Around. Because the towns on Santorini are located up and around volcanic cliffs, getting around should be a key consideration. To access our hotel room from the reception, we descended five stories by elevator and then an additional eight flights of stairs by foot. Walking from town to town looks doable on the map but considering most of the journey is uphill and through narrow corridors, this may be an overly ambitious activity. Regardless of how you plan to get around, be sure to bring good walking shoes; water footwear is also recommended if you plan to explore the hot springs or seas around the volcano.
  • Transportation Options. Aside from the public bus, cars, ATV's and scooters are available for rent. The cost is minimal but beware: parking is limited on the island, drivers can be certifiable and, depending on your rental agreement, any mishap can result in your paying the full price of the vehicle.
  • The Heat. While the mercury doesn't rise to record-breaking heights, the heat on the island can be suffocating. Steep stairs, scarce shade and masses of people only compound the feeling in the summer months. On any excursion, be sure to bring plenty of bottled water as the tap water is unsuitable for drinking.
  • Late Bookings. Summer is peak tourism season and many hotels book up months in advance. Waiting until the last minute can lead to paying exorbitant amounts or getting stuck with less than desirable accommodation.

The Ugly:
  • Taxi Shortage. With tens of thousands of tourists meandering through Santorini's towns, it's surprising that only 36 taxi cabs work the island. Because of the demand, it is a good idea to arrange airport pick-up and return with your lodging well in advance. Pre-arranged tours and excursions are also a good idea, as well as taking advantage of boat transportation when attempting to span the islands.
  • Route to Fira Port. The Old Port of Fira is where many boat excursions depart. The easiest path down the volcanic cliff is by way of the cable car, however if a cruise ship is in port, this may not be an option due to the massive lines. In this case, you are forced to trek down the steep mountain by a 600+ step path paved in animal excrement and traveled by herds of donkeys and their angry handlers. Rumor has it that the donkey handlers purposefully push and scare tourists to deter walking the trail. The slippery and smelly hike down the hill is not for the faint of heart.
  • Toilet Paper Robbery. According to the locals, a woman whose sanity is questionable robs all of the toilet paper from the restrooms of Oia's main square every morning. She then sits at the entrance to the restroom charging a fee for the paper and shouting obscenities at the passersby. Tourists are advised to bring their own tissues to town and ignore the crazy woman.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Crete, Greece: The Birthplace of European Civilization - August 2015

The front page of the town newspaper told the incredulous tale: "Greek woman slays Turks and saves innocent lives." And so it happened on a stormy afternoon in 1897 in Chania, Crete when Captain Anna Kontogiani came upon the attempted hangings of several innocent Greek countrymen and single-handedly took a knife to kill three Turkish military soldiers. Anna, referred to by her fellow male army soldiers as "Spanonikolis" or "Nick without a beard," went on to lead the Cretian Greek resistance in liberating Northern Greece from Turkey.

Flash back to 12,000 BC on the same island where it is believed that early humans first made landfall from Africa on wooden rafts. Thousands of years later in the 7th millennium BC, during the Neolithic period, inhabitants of Crete are credited with developing one of the first written languages: the currently undeciphered Linear A script.

Fast forward to the present: tablets, pottery and other relics from the Neolithic and other historical periods are being unearthed and help to solidify Crete's title of being the birthplace of modern European civilization.

Only a few steps down the street from an active archaeological dig is the former homestead of Captain Ana Kontogiani. Restored after being bombed by the Germans in World War II, today it is a charming hotel run by Ana's grandson Alex Stivanakis. Alex and his eleven-year-old daughter, also named Anja, own and manage the twenty rooms in the Kasteli Studios & Apartments and are delighted to share the colorful history of their home island.

A moment's walk from Kasteli is the beautiful harbor of Chania where million-dollar yachts rub up against humble fishing boats and seafood and souvalki restaurants overlook the water. A short bus ride away is the port of Kissamos where you can board a ferry to visit the islands of Gramvousa and Balos, and splash through the crystal clear waters of the green lagoon.

Definitely a picturesque spot for a holiday or lesson in history, Crete with its snow-capped white mountains is the largest of the Greek islands and only a 30-minute flight from Athens.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Merzouga, Morocco: Camping in the Sahara Desert - August 2015

From Marrakech it took two days driving through steep mountains, grassy hills and rocky desert plains to reach Merzouga. Fewer than thirty miles from the Algerian border, Merzouga was home to our camp post and the town most accessible to the Erg Chebbi sand dunes. Erg Chebbi is one of two patches of the Sahara Desert lying within the Moroccan borders and was our targeted destination for a wild night camping under the stars.

As we rolled up to the camp post, tired and sweating, my sister and I caught our first glimpse of the towering red sand dunes in the distance. We scrambled in the 116 degree Fahrenheit (47 Celsius) heat to grab the basic necessities for the night, and as much water as we could carry, and prepared for our two-hour trek to the campsite.

No one spoke English at the camp post. Anxiously anticipating our desert trek, we stretched out on thin cotton mats trying to keep cool inside the adobe hut. A long black-haired Moroccan woman grabbed our scarves and artfully wrapped them around our heads with a swath to protect our faces from the blowing sand.

It was time to go. Outside the camels were being lined up and saddles secured. We each mounted our one-hump ride while he was in a sitting position and then with a tap from the guide, the camel rocked and sprang upright, jolting us five feet in the air.

Our dozen-camel desert caravan rode for nearly two hours in the intense heat up, over and around magnificent sand dunes. Some towering as high as 500 feet, the dunes appeared to glow in the late afternoon sun. The vast seas of wind-blown sand stretched on for as far as the eye could see. There were patches of tall grass clutching to life in the sand and the occasional brave black bird skimmed the horizon.

The weary camels groaned and spat. We had to grip the saddle bar fiercely so not to tumble forward as we descended the steep dunes and the camels' hooves sunk in the deep sand.

Moments before sunset we reached our campsite. Dismounting the camel was an even more arduous task; we held on tightly as the animal bucked forward collapsing his front legs then fell backwards. Eager to feel the sand between our toes, we left the camels and raced up to the top of a dune to watch the sun go down and all of the colors around us began to shift. Tricked by the clever light, the vibrant red dunes slowly turned into a washed out gold and soon the sky was black and blanketed with stars.

Our campsite for the night was humble: wool blankets draped over sticks with rugs covering the sand. Illuminated by candlelight, our guides graciously prepared tajine and tea before uncovering their leather drums to share some Moroccan song. When the music stopped, the desert was quiet. Still. Vast. Intimidating.

But the silence vanished as the night drew on and the wind blew. There was even an extremely rare light rain over our campsite that evening. After spotting a handful of shooting stars and stealing a bit of sleep, we joined the camels for a sunrise trek back across the mountain dunes.

Casablanca/Marrakech, Morocco: Six Days in Morocco - August 2015

Morocco is a vivacious country thriving in the desert. Sharing its language, love of pastries and ornate interior design with France, one may think the northern African country identifies more with Western Europe than its nearby neighbors. Even with its French flare, Morocco is unlike anywhere else in the world.

Braced for an adventure, my sister and I spent six days sweating, laughing and running through this captivating country.

Our travels began in Casablanca. An international hub likened to New York City, Casablanca is an industrialized city of more than 3 million people and sits on the Atlantic coastline. While there, we spent much of our time in the old town central medina, or market. Not unlike the other medinas we'd explore, Casablanca's market was a cobblestone maze of winding, narrow alleys lined with shops and stands selling anything and everything from jewelry and tunics, to spices, cooking pots, camel bone boxes and furniture. A few other notable sites in the city include the Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Cathedral and the Twin Towers Center.

Just a short two-hour drive north is the city of Kenitra where I detoured for a quick work trip. Also a hub for industry, the city recently embraced new visitors. Four-foot tall white and black winged storks, and their massive nests, have taken over the town. It was impossible not to cast your eyes on the nests looming atop roofs and electric poles and see the flocks flooding the sky. In addition to the enormous birds, while in Kenitra I got my first taste of the local cuisine. At a traditional Moroccan restaurant with wall murals and clanking jeweled curtains, perched atop colorful pillows, my colleagues and I dined on kebabs, couscous and the ever-present national delicacy tajine. Tajine is a meat and vegetable stew, sometimes spiced, cooked in a triangular vented pot. To accompany our meal, we sipped on mint lavender tea with just a touch of sugar. I looked on with awe as our host poured the tea from five feet in the air learning that the dramatic gesture is a sign of respect for guests.

A humming three-hour train ride took us from Casablanca to the inland cultural epicenter of Marrakech. With the tropical vegetation of Southeast Asia, the relentless, intrusive hawkers of India and the conservative garb and ritual of the Middle East, Marrakech ignited all of our senses.

During our time in the loud and bustling city we found our oasis in a cozy riad in the medina. A riad is a typical Moroccan home or palace with an interior courtyard or garden. Riad Itrane offers ten rooms each meticulously decorated with hand-carved wooden doors, stained glass windows, beautiful iron work, colorful decor and exquisitely carved ceramic light fixtures. Daily breakfasts with locally-picked dates, figs and almonds, as well as homemade breads and jams were delightful to enjoy in the open courtyard or on the rooftop overlooking the city.

Our riad was centrally located right off Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square, so that it was easy to explore old town Marrakech by foot. Walking through the walled city center, elbow-to-elbow with locals and tourists alike, our hearts raced with both excitement and fear. We stepped cautiously as snake charmers from the Sahara Desert were scattered on carpets beating their drums and blowing their flutes somehow mysteriously controlling the cobras and rattlers that slithered at their feet. Men worked the crowd leading monkeys in diapers while Muslim women with only eyes showing beckoned for the chance to paint henna designs on our hands and feet. Set up throughout the square were vendor stands selling fresh-squeezed juices, wooden carts peddling cactus fruit and endless makeshift businesses displaying their handicrafts on carpets ... all while motorbikes zipped by and horse-drawn buggies parted the crowds.

With thousands of souls wandering, selling, yelling, haggling, charming, dancing, eating and gawking in the square it was almost surreal to see the commotion come to a screeching halt as the Islamic prayer bellowed over the loud speakers. Every day, five times a day, order would blanket the square as the vast majority of men stopped whatever they were doing, lined up orderly in rows, and repeated verses as part of the Islamic ritual.

The chaos and color of Marrakech was intoxicating, but we knew there was more to Morocco than city life. Before too long, we escaped to the countryside, bouncing from village to village over the ever-changing terrain. Navigating the white-knuckle curves of the Atlas Mountains, we saw goats grazing and thousand-year-old fossils for sale; over the hills and into the valleys were cactus of all shapes and sizes, and oases of lush palm trees; hijab wearing women were spotted carrying sacks atop of their heads and men leading donkeys loaded with supplies traveled to and from the mud brick houses that lined the roadways.

We climbed the steps of the village of Aït Benhaddou where Indiana JonesGladiator and the television series Game of Thrones were filmed, and dipped our toes in the crystal clear waters within Todgha Gorge, before heading to the red sand dunes of Merzouga for an unforgettable night Camping in the Sahara Desert.

Morocco drew us in and put us under her spell. The country was alive and all-consuming: the locals humble while cunning, the scenery diverse, and the sensations hypnotic. Six days provided a satisfying sampling of Morocco's flavor, and we just may go back again someday for another taste.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Pohja-Lankila, Finland: Finnish Cottage Culture - August 2015

Driving down a rolling dust-covered road. Towering spruce and chalk-white birch trees line the way. The blissful scent of summer in the air. The sun shines suggestively through. A bull frog groans in the distance as a black fly buzzes by. Commanding granite boulders and vast lakes dotted with forested islands catch your gaze. The trees sway and whisper in the wind beckoning you home.

Welcome to your summer cottage. In Finland, summer cottages are an institution as described by @OurFinland. "In the holiday seasons, Finns flock to the countryside for quietness and relaxation in cozy hideouts."

The Finns cherish their summer cottages as a peaceful respite from the rest of the world. Whether living in the city or a small town, most Finns boast a secondary "cottage" home and have grown up either owning, sharing or visiting a cottage with family and friends. It may be miles or hours away, but it is a source for conversation and longing all year long.

With temperatures barely reaching 23°C (73°F) during the summer months, the holiday cottage season is not very long in this Nordic country. But despite the brief duration, summertime is treasured by the Finns and many save all of their prized vacation days to spend at the cottage.

When talking with Finns about cottages, the more secluded the better. With more than 70 percent of the country covered in forests, 60,000 fresh-water lakes and no fewer than 20,000 small islands, Finland is the perfect place to carve out a parcel of land for your summer home. The typical Finnish summer cottage is humble. Often times without electricity or running water, some only accessible by boat, it is a place to rest and enjoy the outdoors. Most cottages are near a lake so that common outdoor activities include boating, canoeing, fishing, swimming and yard games. Most are also suited with hammocks, fire pits and nearby walking trails.

But the most important feature of the Finnish summer cottage is the sauna. And as far as saunas go, the bigger the better. @OurFinland explains it best: "There is nothing more Finnish than sauna, a piece of culture that is passed on from generation to generation. Sweating out the stress with regular cooling dips in the lake is the ultimate way to purify both body and mind. The post-sauna feeling in the light-filled summer night is bliss defined." Whether it be an indoor electric sauna, or a more commonly-found outdoor, wood-burning outfit, the Finnish practice of warming in the sauna and then jumping in the nearby lake waters embodies the relaxation and peace of summer.

To better appreciate the lifestyle of our Finnish friends and neighbors, we rented our very own summer cottage in Pohja-Lankila north of Imatra this July. The beautiful two-bedroom home was far from humble showcasing a breath-taking view of Ilmajarvi lake. While the temperatures hovered around "chilly," we enjoyed ten days of peace and nature in the Finnish spruce forest. During our time at the cottage, we picked blueberries, enjoyed a roaring campfire, paddled our row boat around the dozens of uninhabited islands catching European perch and lahna carp brim, and fully embraced the sauna ritual.

The Finns have relaxation figured out. Summer cottage living away from the commotion of town. No street lights. No cars whizzing by. No other voices to be heard. Only the sound of silence. Seclusion and peace defined.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Twenty Questions Every World Traveler Asks. Can You Relate?

Traveling nourishes the soul, fuels the heart and broadens the mind. But while you are wandering the globe, often you must rely on strangers to show you the way. Throughout my travels, several of these questions made it into my daily mantra and seemed to always keep me guessing.
1.) Why can't you understand me?
2.) How much farther from here?
3.) Where am I?
4.) Is breakfast included?
5.) Is the conductor going to come by to see if I bought a ticket?
6.) What is the latest I can sleep and still make my flight/train/bus?
7.) How do they know I'm not a local?
8.) Think people can tell I'm wearing the same clothes as yesterday?
9.) Do I tip in this country?
10.) What do you mean my bag didn't make the flight?
11.) Do you speak English? 
12.) What if I board with business class?
13.) How low are you willing to go?
14.) I'm lost. Can you help me?
15.) Is it safe to drink the water?
16.) Voltage smoltage. What's the worst that could happen?
17.) What if I don't make my flight/train/bus?
18.) Is there free WiFi here?
19.) How long until I'm home?
20.) What day is it?