Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Help fight hunger with Heifer International

Travel is a great way to meet people from other countries, but sometimes we don't have to leave home to connect with someone on the other side of the planet.

A charity called Heifer International helps people give the valuable gift of a farm animal to a family in a developing country. Today, as a small way to help fight hunger--which has already claimed more than 3 million lives this year alone--bloggers around the world are encouraging their readers to donate as part of a campaign called Unite for Hunger and Hope.

Want to find out more? Check out Steven Colbert's interview with Elizbeth Bintliff of Heifer International. If you live in Canada, see the Comedy Network clip; if you're in the U.S., see the clip on Comedy Central.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The inside scoop on beach rentals

Joyce Copeland's love affair with vacation rentals started about a decade ago, when she was planning a vacation for her extended family and spotted a newspaper ad for short-term rentals in Lake Tahoe.

"I was astounded by how little money we'd have to spend, and we could bring the dogs," she says.

Joyce often travels with husband Gary and their three canines.

On her way to Tahoe from her home in Northern California, she worried whether the home she'd rented for family coming in from California, Colorado and Arizona would live up to its description. Luckily, the cabin suited their needs to a T. It was close to casinos for those who liked to gamble and near five hiking trails for others who preferred the great outdoors.

"I was so totally blown away by how perfect it was that I started looking for books [evaluating vacation rentals]," says Copeland. When she couldn't find one, she spotted a niche and decided to write one herself.

It wasn't a total leap into the unknown. After taking a degree in magazine journalism, Copeland worked as an editor at Endless Vacation, a travel magazine for time-share owners. Later, she started writing for the high-tech industry. But around the time she rented the place in Tahoe, the dot-com world imploded and the idea of returning to travel writing seemed particularly appealing.

The result was several books on beach rentals in California. Then Copeland decided it was time to use the Internet to broaden her reach, and the Beach Vacation Rental Scout website was born in early 2009.

Copeland reviews rentals of all sorts--from modest to luxurious--along the California coast, and has plans to branch out to other American coastlines. She does her reviews based on stays (called In-Person Reviews, such as this report on Sanctuary by the Sea Pacific Grove) or detailed interviews with the property owner (called Snapshots, such as this piece on the Laughing Buddha Beach House in Pismo Beach).

Both types of reviews include insider tips from the owners about their favourite things to see and do in the neighbourhood--one of the key selling points of the site, says Copeland. The site also includes separate sections on pet-friendly homes and properties suitable for reunions.

After years of inspecting plumbing, testing ovens, evaluating linens and assessing the quality of ocean views, does Copeland ever get tired of sussing out beach rentals? Not at all. "It's just so diverse that, no, I never do," she says.

She's a passionate advocate for the advantages of rentals over hotels. "There's just such of wealth of things that you can do at a beach house," she says. "And to have your own private house--it almost makes you feel rich."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

3 Great Public Transit Options for Travellers

Many travellers who arrive in a foreign destination without a vehicle head straight to the rental car counter at the airport. While that can be the best strategy in some situations--if you're visiting a largely rural place, for instance--I'd argue that in many cases, you're better off taking public transit. Depending on the place, it's usually cheaper, faster and more fun. Plus, you get the added benefit of meeting locals, who aren't likely to jump in your rental car unless you're a contestant on The Amazing Race.

The following list is by no means exhaustive. It just highlights a few of the fun public transit experiences I've had in the last few years.

1. Swiss trains

Not surprisingly in a country famed for its watches, Swiss trains run largely on time. Well, at least they do in comparison to North American trains; last year, news reports that "only" 94 percent of Swiss trains ran on time had the country in a tizzy (oh, that Amtrak had such worries).

I was surprised, however, at how extensive the Swiss train network is. In international airports, train service comes right into the terminal. Out in the countryside, even small mountain towns like Lauterbrunnen, where I stayed, have great connections. (And in places where trains just can't get through, there's a good bus network.)

For visitors, the icing on the cake may be the luggage transport service. You can check your bag at an airport in North America and pick it up at one of 60 train stations across the country. On the way home, leave your bag at the train station and kiss it goodbye until it rolls off the carousel at the airport back home. Very, very civilized.

Want to see for yourself? You can buy a Swiss rail pass before leaving home.

2. Venetian vaporetti

By all means, take a gondola ride. You'll kick yourself all the way home if you don't splurge on this classic tourist experience. But gondola rides are usually leisurely round trips to nowhere. For practical trips, hop on a vaporetto--the Venetian version of a public bus.

In the photo, you can see a vaporetto stop at the very bottom of the picture, at middle right: two rectangular buildings with white roofs, at the end of a short dock.

You won't be alone on the vaporetto; water taxis are extortionately expensive, so many tourists travel like locals. One bit of advice: pack light. Huge suitcases (especially runaway ones on wheels) won't make you a lot of new Venetian friends, particularly during rush hour. If nothing else, don't forget to take off bulky backpacks and put them on the floor (a good piece of advice when travelling on any form of public transit anywhere, come to think of it).

Check the Venice Connected website for passes and fares, and read more about the vaporetto system at Europe for Visitors.

3. The bus from Santiago to Buenos Aires

This trip isn't for the faint of heart. Especially on the Chilean side, the road across the Andes consists of a series of steep switchbacks, with not a guardrail in sight. (See the photo for a glimpse of the view from the bus window.) And there have been accidents--not on our trip, luckily. Instead, my husband and I had the weird pleasure of watching a Thai martial arts movie dubbed into Spanish on the overhead TV screens, while surrounded by a team of teenage Argentinean water polo players cheering madly.

The kids were a blast, actually; we ended up practising our second languages on each other for much of the trip. And once we switched buses in Mendoza, we were treated to at-seat meal service (complete with wine). In the morning, we awoke to the sunrise over Argentinean ranch country.

If we had been better organized, we could have booked berths on the overnight bus from Mendoza to Buenos Aires, but even our coach seats were spacious and comfortable. And the price for the 21-hour trip? About US$55 for each of us.

For information on buses travelling east, see the Santiago bus terminal website (Spanish only). If you'd like to do the trip in the opposite direction, Omni Lineas has an English-language page.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Win a villa stay in Montserrat

The Caribbean island of Montserrat is one of my very favourite places to travel like a local. It's hard to do anything else; the island has only two hotels and they're only 18 rooms each, so even at a hotel you pretty much feel like you're staying with family.

Private villas are the main form of accommodation, and even though the word "villa" may conjure up visions of a grandiose mansion, many of these charming houses are well within the budget of the ordinary traveller. Here's a snap of Surfsighed, the lovely villa my sisters and I and our husbands rented last year. (Then again, if money is no object, you can rent or buy Paul McCartney's one-time digs.)

The island's tourism bureau is currently running a contest (with no deadline date, oddly) to win four nights in a villa, along with return airfare from Antigua, some restaurant meals and more. There's no cost to enter.

Looking for stuff to do when you get there? Check out "Do the Walk of Life," a series of Montserrat travel tips I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen in 2006 (check details before visiting, as some attractions may have closed in the meantime).