Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Maximum Lima

It is often said that quantity is not quality, but if you can mesh the two terms together, the result can be memorable. Our first day in Lima was one of those “fill in every minute with experiences”-type days, and allowed us to totally immerse ourselves in the destination, which is exactly what we wanted to do.

Technically, aside from landing at Jorge Chavez International Airport at 6:30 am, we spent the day in the Lima suburbs of San Isidro, Miraflores and Barranco. After an all night flight from New York, with little sleep, we landed on time, went through passport control quickly, and despite our priority tagged luggage being the very last to be taken off the plane, we still left the terminal before 7:30 am. My colleague and I were attending the ASTA International Destination Expo and had arrived a few days early to get acclimatized. For me it was a welcome return to a city I had explored in 2003, but for my colleague it was a new adventure in South America. ASTA had arranged for a driver to pick us up and take us to the Westin Hotel, so even with the Sunday morning traffic, we were at the hotel and checked in by 8:30 am.

I will say that not all Westin hotels are created alike and that this is one of the best hotels I have every stayed at. The customer service is amazing, the concierge service is outstanding, the rooms --and even the decorations in the hallways--are warm, comfortable and inviting.

Historic homes in Barranco

Really the only negative of the day was when I went to open my suitcase—the lock was still on—but the slider—the part of the zipper that moves along the zipper chain, had been chopped off. Inside my suitcase was a note from U.S. Homeland Security explaining that they had randomly selected my suitcase for inspection and had every right to chop off the lock. Well, in effect my suitcase was totally ruined, but I would resolve that another day. Time was fleeting!

We changed our clothes and went downstairs where the concierge gave us a few orientation tips, and then the hotel put us in a car to take us to Miraflores. While only 15 minutes away, the hotel car costs $11.00 US. A street taxi costs 6 Peruvian soles (about $2.50 US). Everyone says to be very careful when hailing a street taxi as there are some ‘bad apples’ out there, but from this point on, we always hailed our own taxi never encountered any problems.
Spotting a café by Kennedy Park in Miraflores, we had breakfast with delicious coffee (in fact the coffee is great just about everywhere in Peru) and then walked the 30 minutes toward Larcomar, the seaside shopping complex that graces the cliffs of Miraflores. Below we could see surfers, kids playing football, and even some brave souls playing in the cold Pacific waters. Larcomar has many stores that you would see at a mall in Canada, with a few unique craft stores and restaurants, a video arcade and some fast food. After a quick look around, we wandered back downtown.

Sunday in Miraflores is quite relaxed (and very safe). There are art exhibits on the street and in the park. People are exercising in groups or doing tai-chi; walking their dogs, enjoying the flowers, attending the nearby church or chatting in the outdoor cafes. We headed over to the craft markets to browse the Inca-inspired textiles, chatchkas, masks, alpaca sweaters, ceramics, T-shirts, musical instruments and paintings. And then it was time to grab a taxi back to our hotel in San Isidro.

Once there we decided to break two of our own travel rules. 1) Try not to eat at the hotel (local food at a local restaurant is preferred) and 2) Only order room service in a hunger emergency. As we had only one hour before we would leave again, we ordered ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juices) and a club sandwich. The ceviche was fresh and delicious, the club sandwich was one of the best I have eaten anywhere.

The Bridge of Sighs and the Bar  Scene Barranco

While still in Canada, we had contacted Ronald Elward of Lima Walks regarding an afternoon tour of Barranco, and the message left in our room was that he would meet us in the lobby at 3:00 pm, So off we went again. We got a taxi to Barranco, which is a wonderful suburb just south of Miraflores known for its upscale, safe environment, colonial architecture, bars and nightlife in general. For two hours we wandered the streets, taking in the style and stories about the various houses and buildings. We learned that all the houses were built after the city recuperated from the great Lima earthquake of 1746. We wandered across the Bridge of Sighs (Puente de los Suspiros) where according to legend, anyone crossing the bridge for the first time while holding his/her breath will have their wish fulfilled, (I had already crossed it 9 years before so I was not holding out for any special favours) and then we ended the afternoon with cold beers at a café overlooking the ocean.

Ronald had recommended the restaurant at Huaca Pucllana for dinner, so we took a taxi back to Miraflores and sat outside the Huaca until it opened. A Huaca is a ‘sacred place’ and this particular pyramid dates back about 1000 years. The restaurant next door allows you to experience fine dining while enjoying beautiful views of the historic site. We were seated at an outdoor table. With excellent service, amazing food (I had the grilled tuna, my colleague had the duck), a relaxed, almost mystical atmosphere, this is now entered into my list of top restaurants around the world.

Finally at 9:00 pm we headed back to the Westin for the night. Quite an active day but if anything it emphasizes all the things you can do to fully immerse yourself into a city, taking in the culture, the food and the spirit of adventure on the first day of any trip. It was our wish to maximize our time in Lima and we were now off and running!

- Steve Gillick, President and COO, CITC

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Much More than Machu Picchu

‘Tis the season to be selling Peru, so it seems. The destination has done a great job in promoting itself and the upcoming ASTA International Destination Expo in Lima seems to be the right event at the right time. In researching my talk on Niche Markets for the IDE, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there are about 75 more reasons to visit Peru than just exploring Machu Picchu.

To be clear, Machu Picchu is an extraordinary and overwhelming feast for the eyes and the imagination, and having spent a few days there in 2003 after hiking the Inca Trail I can say that the history, mystery and spiritualism of the sacred valley is something very special. In travel we talk about ‘serendipity’, which is supposed to refer to chance happenings, where you don’t expect something to occur. But at Machu Picchu, you already know about the site, yet the more you delve into the sacred secrets, the power of the Inca architecture, the intensity of the condor and mountain inspired rituals, the more each page of your guidebook turns into a serendipitous revelation.
Machu Picchu
But there is much more in Peru. A niche market is a subset of travel—reflecting a unique client interest that responds to a need. And we all have them. Photography is a niche, as is history, culture, shopping, food and drink. But then each category can be divided into more niches. A photographer may classify their own works of art as landscape/scenery or people/culture or wildlife and more. A culinary traveler may look for markets and then restaurants, followed by cooking schools, wineries, and unique local tastes such as pisco or ceviche (or even guinea pig).

Other unique niches include dark tourism (the Museum of the Inquisition), jewellery (the Gold Museum), adventure, both soft and hard, which can take in everything from trekking mountains to llama trekking to alpaca farming, and from paragliding to hot air ballooning; from scuba diving and ship wrecks to surfing, fishing (salt water, fresh water, deep sea) and cruising. And then there are the sustainability travellers, looking for more eco-friendly experiences in the Amazon or through voluntourism or live-like-a-local programs that emphasize learning Spanish or sharing thoughts and ideals with people who have an absolutely different life style than your own.

As travellers of all ages feel that travel itself is an experience that is owed to them, and each generation of traveler re-interprets how they like to travel (education, groups, FITs, physical activity or physical interaction with the land, people based travel and on and on) the importance of qualifying clients as to their needs—but also in being able to accommodate those needs-- falls into the exclusive realm of real-live-trained-travel-professional skills. Next time a client expresses interest in a destination known for a solo attraction, probe a bit deeper, research a bit more and you can come up with an amazing program of satisfaction and smiles.

-Steve Gillick, President and COO, CITC

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sunday in Havana with Steve

Our third trip to Cuba was an opportunity to do exactly what we wanted to do, on our own time. As most of the charters fly directory to the resorts, we chose a Sunwing flight into Varadaro Airport and then we made our way to the Iberostar Parque Central in Havana. The 2 ½ hour bus trip was broken up with a short break at a highway rest stop in Jibacoa where you can enjoy one of the creamiest Pina Colada’s you will get anywhere in the country. It just sets you in the right holiday ‘let’s start to relax’ mood!

The Iberostar is in a great location, down the street from the historic Hotel Inglaterra and the Capitol Building, and literally right around the corner from the Palacio de Bellas Artes and Obispo Street --which is the main pedestrian thoroughfare the runs from the El Floridita Bar (Hemingway’s famous Daquiri hangout) to the Plaza d’Armas.

Our first few days were spent wandering the back streets, taking photos, re-acquainting ourselves with the Brewery Restaurant in Plaza Vieja, where the outdoor seating, the live Cuban music, the crowds and the friendly waiters add up to a great experience in the Havana sunshine. 

Music in Plaza Vieja
But Sunday was the day we had set aside and actually made plans and, with a touch of serendipity here and there (it’s amazing what two finger puppets can get you), it turned out to be a very enjoyable day. We walked down Obispo Street and one of the few shops open at 9:00 am was a book store/poster shop. Many stores showcase posters of the 53rd anniversary of the Cuban Revolution featuring a picture of the aging Fidel Castro, but no one seemed to want to give one away or even sell a poster. This bookstore had a large selection of posters for collectors, some dating back to the 1960’s and sure enough, they had a 53rd Anniversary poster. As a student of history I bought one and while I’m still not quite sure where to display it, the poster is at least now part of the Gillick Archives!

Continuing on Obispo, we stopped at the bakery by the hotel Ambus Mundos (another Hemingway hangout) for some treats, and then headed to the Malecon for the 45 minute walk to Callejon de Hamel.

 Colourful Murals in Callejon de Hamel

The Malecon refers to the sidewalk/seawall/roadway that stretches along the coast of Havana. On this day the waters were rough and crashed against the wall as well as onto the sidewalk in various places—but allowed for a lot of dramatic photos. Many of the crumbling buildings we saw a few years ago along the Malecon have been torn down with some more modern apartments and hotels taking their place, but it is still a fairly quiet deserted area, especially on a Sunday morning. We passed lots of fisherman standing by or sitting on the seawall as we walked in the direction of the Hotel Nacional off in the distance.
  But the plan was to take a left turn before the Nacional to find Callejon de Hamel. We had been there before, but had read that on Sunday’s there was music and rumba dancing. The alley (callejon) is relatively short but full of colours and artistic interpretations of the Afro-Caribbean religion, Santeria. Salvador Gonzalez Escalona, the Camaguey-born artist painted many of the colourful murals in the 1990s, but there are also street sculptures, bathtubs featuring scenes from Saint Exupery’s Le Petite Prince. Art galleries, refreshment stands and a very small centre stage area.

Finger Puppet Bliss

The crowd started to gather by around 11:30 am and we tried to secure a good spot for taking photos. There were some children in the area so naturally we brought out the finger puppet toys to the delight of both the kids and their parents. One boy was so thrilled that we gave him second puppet and that led to an invitation to sit inside the chained off tourist area to have a front row seat for the festivities.

At exactly 12:00 noon, the crowd was greeted in English and Spanish (“...and welcome to our frennemies from the United States…ha ha ha “). Then the drummers started, the singers joined in, and for the next hour the rhythms, the dancing, the music, the interaction between the performers, the smiles, the intensity and the devotion to tradition, all took over to mesmerize and involve everyone in the celebration of the Santeria culture and religion.  
Celebrating Santeria
 With photos galore and even a few new friends, we walked back to downtown Havana through side streets, past the 1950’s cars for which Havana is famous, past brightly coloured and sadly dilapidated buildings, and through parts of the city where tourists don’t normally stroll. But in Havana there are salutations from people everywhere, and safety was never a concern.

We finished the day with a visit to the book stalls by Plaza D’Armas, a peak at the outdoor art market and craft market near in Central Park and then a snack of dark beer and tiny fried fish back in Plaza Vieja.
We left Havana the next day to explore other areas of the island. Due to our own time limitations, we could not return to Santiago or Trinidad this time, but were happy to have spent time in Havana. It is such a unique city and for those looking for a combination of history, culture, exploration and photography, then this is a must for any Cuba itinerary.

-Steve Gillick, President and COO, CITC

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Just say Noh!

Nightlife in Yokohama

At the recent Japan Travel Mart held in Yokohama, we had the opportunity to sample a variety of evening activities that were impressive, tasty, fascinating, educational, energetic, and just plain fun!

The first night was an introduction to Yokohama where we could sign up for either an evening of food and hands-on creativity at the Cup of Noodle factory, or take the Izakaya bar cruising option. I happen to love Izakaya culture which involves traditional small, usually family-owned bars, that serve tasty snacks or meals, along with one’s beverage of choice: beer, sake or shochu.

Nogeh Street is the main thoroughfare in an area filled with literally hundreds of Izakayas, restaurants, standing sake bars and regular bars and extends down the numerous side streets. The deal was that we could choose two restaurants from a list and enjoy some tasty treats and a drink. We immediately dashed to our first choice, Nishiki Sushi, where there happened to be two seats left amongst the fifteen or so, available. We ordered Sapporo Beer and a sushi platter and fell into one of those melt-in-your-mouth sushi trances that one can only experience in Japan. Ahhh… if only Toronto sushi could taste even half as good as this! But the place was under attack by all the other Travel Mart attendees now (literally) chomping at the bit to get into the Izakaya, so we finished up and headed off for our second treat of the evening.
Nishiki Sushi
Yasu Bei is a very small Izakaya specializing in Yakitori, which are small bamboo skewers of grilled marinated meat and they are soooo delicious. In fact, once our set dinner was finished, we stayed in the restaurant for some time, trying different dishes, sampling the sake and chatting with other Travel Mart-ers. Thoughts of good food as well as finding time during the conference to return to the area to try out more Izakayas, turned the 20 minute walk back to the Intercontinental Hotel a very quick jaunt.

But more lay in store. The official Opening Night of Travel Mart took place at the Noh Theatre. Having attended a Kubuki performance a few years ago, I was looking forward to learning about Noh. When we arrived at the theatre. the performers were already in engaged in short skits in the entrance hall, to give the audience some insight into the masks, the intricately crafted costumers and character development. Noh, which grew up in the 14th century as a combination of Chinese art and Japanese dance, and originated at the same time as the tea ceremony—which we were invited to attend in another part of the theatre. Delicious powdered green tea was carefully prepared and then served in bowls, one at a time, with kneeling, bows, respect and care.

We were then invited to see a sampling of 5 plays in the actual theatre. The stage is quite simple and features a painting of a pine tree on the back wall, which some believe reflects the fact that originally Noh theatre was performed out of doors. Unlike Kabuki where men perform as both male and female characters, in Noh, men and women both perform. Some of the short plays silent, sad and thought provoking, one was loud, boisterous and the actions and speech of the actor were hilariously funny (and we did not need to speak Japanese to appreciate this) and other plays were creative, dramatic and gripping. On the whole it was a fascinating evening. Today, Noh theatre is making a comeback with young people. The traditional day-long plays are condensed at times and fit into an evening that might consist of two plays. For many seeking a night out, Noh is the way to go!
Taiko Drummers

Our last evening took place in the Pacifico Yokohama Convention Centre and featured the Taiko Drummers. The combination of tympanic energy and rhythm and the determined facial expressions of the young performers was electrifying.

And then, following a dinner buffet, a huge tuna fish, caught off the coast of New York State, was transformed before everyone’s flashing cameras, into the tastiest sashimi for the 300 Travel Mart attendees to sample.

Tokyo often gets the attention when people consider a trip to Japan, but there is absolute joy in discovering the secrets that other towns and cities hold, and Yokohama is no exception. The food, the drinks, the atmosphere, the entertainment all made for a great time, and of course, for that more eclectic experience….remember that all you need to say is Noh!

-Steve Gillick, President and COO, CITC

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Certification vs. Certification

Steve Gillick, CTM
The Canadian Institute of Travel Counsellors

Certification is offered everywhere these days, so no wonder there is such confusion! You can take a 10-minute online webinar and become a certified destination specialist (although I really would not bank my career opportunities on that one); you can be a certified travel counsellor, a certified cruise specialist; you can be certified as passing the TICO exam in Ontario or the OPC exam in Quebec, and if you tried to attain all the certifications possible, then you would most likely be labeled as “certifiable” (that’s an older term for ‘insane’ ) LOL.

The best way to resolve these questions is through a brief Certification ‘Primer”.

CTC and CTM: the National Certification Programs
In Canada’s travel industry, individuals can become a Certified Travel Counsellor (CTC) or a Certified Travel Manager (CTM). These programs are national in scope—meaning that they are valid throughout the country. Each program is based on national standards determined respectively for the occupation of travel counsellor or travel manager. These standards are developed by the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council (CTHRC) with the support of CITC (the Canadian Institute of Travel Counsellors).

Standards are set through a series of national focus groups in various regions, comprised of a variety of stakeholders including educators, leisure and corporate travel counsellors, owners, managers, trainers and suppliers. The standards define the basic skills required to successfully perform the jobs of travel counsellor and travel manager. Standards are reviewed, revised, updated or discarded every 3-5 years, so that they reflect the current skill environment for the profession. So to give just one example: in the ‘old’ days there were fairly uniform baggage rules for every airline, usually 2 pieces of checked luggage. Nowadays each airline has its own rules and regulations. The standard that covers the knowledge of baggage rules has therefore been revised to reflect this change.

While it is a bit confusing that CITC confers the CTC designation, the proper way to refer to the designation is in fact “ I am a CTC” and not “I have the CITC” (As a matter of note, CITC owns the trademarks “CTC” and “CTM” in Canada as they pertain to travel industry professional designations).

The ONLY way to acquire the CTC or CTM is to register and pass the various evaluations associated with each program and then to pay annual professional dues to CITC to maintain use of the designation. There is no other way to acquire the CTC or CTM. Certification information is available at www.citc.ca/en/certification.

TICO Certification
The Travel Industry Council of Ontario regulates the industry in Ontario and enforces the provincial legislation that mandates that every person who sells or advises consumers about travel products and services must pass the TICO Travel Counsellor Exam. There is also a Supervisor/Manager Exam.

TICO has contracted CITC to administer these exams and herein lies some confusion. When someone passes one or both of the TICO exams, they are formally “TICO –Compliant”. Some people get confused for two reasons:

1) TICO refers to the program as being ‘certified” to sell travel

2) CITC administers the program under contract with TICO

So some travel professionals, believe, upon passing the TICO travel counsellor exam that they are now CTC. They are NOT. They are TICO-compliant and that is all. And some travel professionals who pass the TICO Supervisor/Manager Exam believe they are now CTM. They are NOT. They are TICO-compliant and that is all.

TICO compliance requires an understanding of Ontario provincial legislation, as reflected in the Travel Industry Act 2002 and Ontario Regulation 26/05. National certification (CTC/CTM) requires knowledge of the nationally determined skill sets required to perform the duties of a travel professional. www.citc.ca/ticoexam

OPC Certification
Similar in nature to Ontario’s TICO exam, the Office de la Protection du Consommateur (OPC) has a mandatory provincial exam requirement. The passing of the OPC exam means that travel professionals are OPC-compliant. They are not Certified Travel Counsellors or CTCs. If anything those who pass the provincial requirement can refer to themselves as an OPC-certified travel counsellor but the OPC must be mentioned to qualify what kind of certification has been earned. If the OPC is dropped from the title, then the travel professional in question may be misleading the public and industry. http://www.opc.gouv.qc.ca/

CLIA certification
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has offered cruise-specific designations for many years. The programs, based on rigorous cruise knowledge and experience include the ACC (Accredited Cruise Counsellor); MCC (Master Cruise Counsellor); ECC (Elite Cruise Counsellor); ECCS (Elite Cruise Counsellor Scholar, and the new LCS (Luxury Cruise Specialist). Many travel professionals who have earned the CTC or CTM designation, have also earned a cruise specialist designation and it is not unusual to see both marks of distinction on a business card or letterhead, for example, Josephine Smith CTC, MCC. http://www.cruising.org/

Specialist Certification
Many organizations and some associations offer Destination and Lifestyle specialist programs. When someone passes the evaluation (a test, Exam or assignment) after studying the program material, they can become a specialist, eg Alaska Specialist or Wedding Specialist. However only after the specialist acquires a level of experience defined by the specific course, can that person properly earn the right to use “Certified Alaska Specialist” or “Certified Wedding Specialist”. In other words, the use of the word “certified” should not be used casually or in a flippant fashion. This is earned through experience and education. There are usually no initials that accompany these types of designations, but again, becoming a Certified destination specialist does not mean you are a CTC. The CTC and CTM must be earned through Canada’s travel industry certification programs. www.citc.ca/en/certification

For questions about certification or to confirm the status of your own or a colleague’s certification, please contact members@citc.ca

Presenting: The most Boring Destination on the Planet!

No one plans to deliver a negative destination presentation, but so many do through lack of skill, poor preparation, ignorance of how to use a podium or PowerPoint (PPT), failure to use voice inflection. No willingness to engage the audience and total disregard for the room set-up.

And people with impressive titles are mostly to blame. Some work for tourist boards; some work in HR, some manage or train in agencies, some represent tour operators and some simply don’t think they have a problem. The greatest misconception is that if someone can get up in front of a large audience without experiencing stage fright, then they are qualified to ‘present’. NOT SO!

I have lots of boring presentation stories but one of my favourites was at an international conference where two presenters, representing an exciting South Pacific Island were scheduled to speak. I made sure I sat near the front and was ready to take notes and possibly to even plan a visit there next summer.

The presenters started by introducing the Island, but not themselves. They then showed a Power Point full of un-photo-shopped (and sometimes blurry) photos, as they simply read from a script when each new slide appeared. A question from the audience totally threw their presentation off-balance as they had to huddle to discuss the answer and then gave that “ please approach us after the presentation and we will respond to you” reply (which of course was disappointing as we thought that they were the experts on the Island). The room was set up for about 150 chairs. The screen was 6 X 6, so was nowhere near adequate for any type of visual presentation, and the slides—many of which contained statistics on visitation or other text, were absolutely useless. I was not the only one to leave after 30 minutes of the 60 minute talk. There was no enthusiasm, no atmosphere… but a very big and expensive handout. One wondered why speakers were needed in the first place.

Experienced presenters are fussy people. They want to know how many people are in the audience and the backgrounds (experience) of those people. (Know they audience). They want to know the room size and the set up; whether there is a speaker system; what type of microphone is being used (a podium mike or a lavaliere?). Do they speak behind a podium (some prefer not to hide from the audience but to be out and about as they deliver their talk) or can they wander around?

Presenting in general means that you need some inflexion in your voice as if you are actually interested in what you are saying, and that you may even be enthusiastic about the topic at hand. Engaging the audience is a sure way of getting them to pay attention—perhaps a quiz or a short exercise with the person sitting next to them. A small prize (even a chocolate bar) also adds something to the event—but of course at a destination presentation, the prize should relate to that destination!

Power Point is wonderful but the whole purpose of the tool is to make a point, powerfully! Visuals are supposed to complement a presentation and not BE the presentation. Nothing is worse than a speaker reading his/her slides to the audience. In most cases, audience members can read for themselves. The PPT is supposed to be the visual backdrop to the points you are making. Therefore large graphics or a few large words will do the trick as you converse with the audience.

Videos are very popular now and very effective. They can be built into a PPT presentation or as stand-alone visuals, but again, the video should not be the whole presentation, unless advertised as such.

And a last note about PPT. There are lots of gimmicks out there from sound to animation. Everything should be done in moderation (including those cutesy slide transitions), otherwise the presentation gets boring or simply silly to watch, and no one will take you seriously.

Destinations themselves provide a goldmine of creative ideas when it comes to presenting their features and benefits. There are so many areas where the presenter can engage the audience with infectious enthusiasm, and talk about everything from history, culture, niche markets, accommodation, transportation, adventure, the people, the shopping and more.

For those presenters who think they are doing a great job, but the audience is yawning, sneaking out, doodling on their note pad, texting or playing hangman with their seat-mate, you may want to re-invigorate your presentation skills and do your ‘destination’ the proper promotion it deserves.

-Steve Gillick, President and COO, CITC

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Habarana Highlights!

Having just returned from the ATOURZ/CITC/Sri Lankan Airlines Fam trip to Sri Lanka, I find that the experience of being there again (I first visited in 2005) is still a strong, pleasant memory of smiling people, culture, history, tastes, smells , sights and discovery. While every one of the seven days in the country was packed with experiences and activities, the two days in Habarana were possibly the most impressive.

Habarana lies in the centre of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle where a number of fascinating attractions can be reached by car, usually within an hour, including Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Minneriya National Park. While we did not see Anuradhapura on this trip, we explored the other sites—each being an adventure unto itself.

First off, I should note that we were based at the Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana for two nights, with each of the Fam participants (or pairs) having their own ½ bungalow to themselves on a large treed property, bordering a river with monkey troops patrolling the treetops, a variety of birds visiting the mangrove-like trees off shore, and the occasional mongoose poking around the dining hall in search of scraps.. It was like living in a park—with your own house! And we had the opportunity to check out the nearby and uniquely architecturally-designed Heritance Kandalama hotel with its distant views of Kandy and Sigiriya, as well as the Vil Uyana Villas, where one can actually walk to Sigiriya from your luxury private accommodation in about an hour.

Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes reservoirs, temples, the Royal Palace complex, a huge Dagoba (Stupa) and sacred rock carvings of the Buddha. Polonnaruwa was a major city in the 10th to 12th centuries and is a great place to explore and appreciate history. A travel tip: When you are asked to remove your shoes before entering the temples, consider the 95 F weather and keep your socks on. The alternative is burned feet on the hot stone surfaces!

Sigiriya is another UNESCO Heritage Site that features water gardens, frescoes, a mirror wall and then the huge carved paws of the lion which presumably formed the basis of a lion’s head carved in the rock. The ascent to the top of the rock was through the paws and into a passageway in the lion’s mouth. This is a walker/hikers paradise based on the 1000 + stairs required to ascend to the top platform. The unique, natural rock formations in the park are impressive, before you climb the winding staircase to view the frescoes, and then descend another winding staircase before starting to climb up, up, up. The story of Sigiriya comes in different versions but involves murder, deception and sibling rivalry…ahhhh the stuff that makes for great drama!

Dambulla Caves

Dambulla, yet another UNESCO Heritage Site is a bit of an uphill climb, even if the bus parks in the upper parking lot but the caves are worth the huffing and puffing. Five caves are filled with over 150 images of the Buddha as well as some kings of days gone by. Strolling through and reflecting on the peaceful gaze of the Buddha’s can be a soul-soothing exercise, especially if you can wait out the bus groups and try to be alone, in silence and comtemplation.

Minneriya National Park is something you don’t expect in Sri Lanka. Most groups (including our own) spent time visiting the elephant orphanage in Pinnawela, but at Minneriya you board jeeps and head out to see wild elephants doing what wild elephants do in their family groups. Whether it is a fascination with two-week babies sleeping under the protection of their mother and aunts, or watching youngsters playing like kids in the water, or simply listening to the chomping of grass and gazing at eagles soaring in the sky or listening to the cries of the peacocks, this is a wonderful place for nature lovers.

And there is more in Habarana. There are some nearby spice gardens where you can tour and learn about ayurvedic medicinal plants, and even a Primate Research camp where you can learn about the indigenous monkeys and how to differentiate between the grey Hanuman Langur from the Toque Macaque. (Either way don’t get too close or you will lose your glasses or hat or camera)

Tea pickers
And again, Habarana is only one ‘area’ of Sri Lanka. On our Fam we spent time in Colombo and Kandy and Bentota Beach, each of which was a feast for curiosity and an opportunity for conversations with Sri Lankans to learn about their lifestyle and share experiences. In fact everywhere we went we heard the Sinhalese greeting of “Ayubowan”—that translates as ‘May you live longer and be healthy’. Time to add Sri Lanka to that long list of ‘must-sees”.

-Steve Gillick, President and COO, CITC