ALL POSTS IN [Editors’ Trips]

The mountain village of Furcy, Haiti. All photos by Kathleen Rellihan

“You’re going where?!”

I got that reaction a lot when telling people I was going to Haiti. That, and a long silence … or a raised eyebrow.

As someone who’s been known to plan last-minute trips, sometimes solo, I have been used to people doing double-takes. Usually, though, it’s just my dad who’s shocked, like the time I told him I was skipping Thanksgiving and heading to Iceland, alone, in the dead of winter.  But this time, it was pretty much everyone who was surprised.

Did they think Haiti was too dangerous? Did they have mixed feelings about the voluntourism that I was about to embark on  … that, perhaps, it wasn’t sustainable and, at best, just a feel-good activity. Or maybe my friends and family were just shocked that once again I was skipping Thanksgiving, and this time for an even less likely location … Haiti.

Haiti?

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Pat Weber of San Diego Surfing Academy with Robin, 9, of Boston area, at S. Carlsbad Beach. (Photo: Lori Hoffman)

Can someone learn to surf in just 1 day? How about learn to surf and participate in a surfing competition in 2?

If your teacher is Travis Long, the answer may be yes. At least that’s what this tandem-surfing pro and surf instructor with San Diego Surfing Academy has been saying ever since I touched down in Southern California a couple hours ago, and before then, when we were emailing coast to coast. Who could pass this up?

There’s just one small thing: Forget not knowing how to surf, I barely know how to swim. And come to think of it, I don’t own a bathing suit. Plus, I have a bad lower back. Other than that, this sounds like one great idea.

At least Travis thinks so. He’s even got us booked in a tandem-surfing competition, slated for the very next day. Swami’s 19th Invitational Surf Contest is an annual event put on by Swami’s Surfing Association at Cardiff Reef, CA. As the guardians of “sun, sea and surf since 1964,” this is one of the oldest surfing clubs in all of California, and … I’m starting to freak.

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Our Editors' Summer Vacations

See how some of the Travel Channel editors spent their summer vacations. Then, show us how you spent yours! Our 2013 Summer Photo Contest ends today. Upload your best vacation photos now for your last chance to win a $500 Choice Hotels voucher to use at any location.

Above:

“There’s no better way to celebrate summer than going out into nature, exploring a new climbing destination, Coll’s Cove, in southwest Pennsylvania and meeting new friends that gave us a tour of the boulders. – Arthur Hsu, Video Project Manager

Our Editors' Summer Vacations

Top Row, Left to Right:

“This was the view from our boat every morning in Greece  — I just wish it lasted longer than a week!”– Sara Gilliam, Interactive Producer

“Mud, barbed wire, trenches, mud and more mud — all this may not exactly sound like a good summer vacation, but when I joined thousands of hardcore fitness lovers with a clear eye for fashion (yep, everything from Harry Potter capes to bath robes!) and headed to a wide-open field near Pittsburgh, my summer fun really began. Thanks to 10 to 12 miles of obstacle courses (and good friends, old and new, to help me over walls), this summer experience left me on a very big high that could rival any vacation — the 10,000 volts of electricity certainly helped, too!” — Lisa Singh, Interactive Producer

“I stumbled upon my first ghost crab in the Outer Banks.  Nothing says summer like beaches and crabs!” — Kathleen Calaro, Ad Sales Coordinator

Bottom Row, Left to Right:

“On a recent getaway to Charleston, I escaped the city limits in search of the 400-year-old oak tree Angel Oak on Johns Island, just outside the city. I had heard this oak tree was shocking in size, but seeing it up close took my breath away — it towers over 66 feet high with a wide-spreading canopy 28 feet all around. After days of sightseeing on historic cobblestone streets, seeing this natural wonder was the perfect way to end to my trip.” — Kathleen Rellihan, Interactive Producer

“After driving down the mountain through a torrential downpour, we were treated to a huge rainbow stretching over Denver.” — Josh Levin, Online Production Manager

“This summer, I had my first foray into pet travel. A LOT of toys and treats, one tiny puppy, an airline-approved carrier, and we were off! The ultimate lifesaver? A puppy-sized dose of Benadryl. Don’t judge, it was my vet’s suggestion. It was all worth it when we arrived on the island of Nantucket, 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts  – I think it’s safe to say that Pearl the frenchie loved the strolls through town and expansive, unspoiled beaches as much as I did.” — Allee Sangiolo, Interactive Producer

Photo: Robin Bennefield

First Lady and style icon Jacqueline Kennedy found refuge horseback riding in Middleburg, VA, 50 years ago, and in the very place where she once rode, a stylish new retreat has arisen. This weekend, Salamander Resort & Spa opened its doors as the only new luxury destination and spa to open in the US in 2013.

Just an hour from the White House, beyond Beltway gridlock, and where northern Virginia’s Route 50 undulates past old Civil War markers and new wineries, Salamander Resort aims to make its mark as an escape for politics-weary Washingtonians and a destination for discerning luxury travelers.

Salamander is well on its way, with a bucolic location at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, grand country estate design, top-notch gastronomy and state-of-the art spa facilities. The 168-room resort is all the brainchild of Washington-area entrepreneur, Sheila C. Johnson, who co-founded Black Entertainment Television and executive produced the movie The Butler.

As it turns out, it’s nice to be inside Sheila Johnson’s brain, which appears to be filled with pastoral greens, creams and pale blues as displayed in the “Living Room,” an airy, elegant lounge space overlooking a 100,000-square-foot lush, sloping lawn.  Johnson’s personal style and even her personal items have made it into every aspect of the resort, from bronze statues of a proud equestrian and her own children in the Living Room, which happens to be modeled after her own living room to her nature photography lining seasonally-themed hallways and guestroom walls. Nearly 20 percent of the art throughout the resort is from her personal collection, including a 14-foot tapestry once owned by Napoleon.

Photo: Robin Bennefield
Bronze statue from Sheila Johnson’s personal collection.

Photo: Robin Bennefield
The Salamander stables.

Her passion for horses and equine pursuits are equally apparent at Salamander with a full-service equestrian center and horse trails, suites named for her daughter’s favorite horses, right down to stirrup-embroidered bed linens. These little details are almost as striking as the property itself.

Here are a few other things that struck this traveler during Salamander’s opening weekend:

 The Library

It sounds cliché but this really is the perfect place to curl up with a good book, and there are plenty for you to borrow — from aspirational biographies to gripping mysteries. The dark, supple leather chairs feel like a warm hug. I almost wished for cold weather to see this room with its fireplace blazing. There are also dark library-appropriate games like chess and backgammon.

Photo: Robin Bennefield

Harriman’s Virginia Piedmont Grill

When I ordered the BBQ’d Shrimp and Grits for brunch, the waiter smiled and said “good choice.” I always pay attention to server comments and selections, so I got my taste buds ready. They weren’t disappointed when the savory and mildly sweet shrimp, atop a creamy bed of grits, reached my mouth. Johnson has gotten Todd Gray, one of the best chefs in the DC area to lead the culinary charge at Salamander, and I’d say that was a good choice. The 3-course brunch with all-you-can-drink bacon-decorated Bloody Mary’s and mimosas with fresh-squeezed orange juice is a palate pleaser.

Photo: Robin Bennefield

 

Photo: Robin Bennefield

Salamander Spa

If there is a crown jewel at the Salamander Resort & Spa, it is the spa, which turns out to be Johnson’s favorite space at the resort, according to the its director of public relations, Matt Owen. A world-class destination spa has been at the center of Johnson’s vision for Salamander since 2002 and she delivered, with just one feature, actually 2: the heated stone Tepidarium chairs that cradle and deliver warmth along every inch of the spine. My sister and I made a circuit between the chairs, the gurgling vitality pool and an aromatic steam room with a eucalyptus steam that won’t quit. We ended with a citrus drench wrap made from honey, orange juice and Shea butter, feeling completely rejuvenated.

Photo: Robin Bennefield

Photo: Robin Bennefield

 

The Salamander Resort & Spa joins Johnson’s other highly-rated luxury properties, Innisbrook, Reunion and Hammock Beach resorts in Florida, and aims for the same 5-star ratings. But even with all the high-end pampering and luxe appointments, Salamander feels surprisingly homey and inclusive. It’s kid-friendly, with a collection of books and DVDs for kids in the library, and pet-friendly with water bowls strategically placed around the property for the traveling pooch.

The fall may bring even more amenities, like ziplines and a tree-top canopy tour of the 200 wooded acres on the property, along with what I’d come back for: treetop spa treatment rooms.

Portland Head Light

Portland, Maine: This quaint, coastal town will win your heart over with its charm and history. The endless restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques will have you coming back for more.
Photo credit: Jessica Menk

 

STAY

West End Inn

West End Inn
146 Pine Street
Portland, ME 04102

This modern, chic B&B is located in the West End neighborhood of Portland. The historic, tree-lined streets compliment the beauty of this area. It’s about a 15 minute walk to the waterfront. The breakfast is plentiful, fresh and well thought out. You’ll want to get the Maine blueberry pancakes … at least once.

 

EAT

Jays Lobster House

J’s Oyster
5 Portland Pier
Portland, ME 04101

Skip the touristy lobster spots and hang with the locals. Get the lobster roll sandwich (a Maine staple). Trust me, you won’t regret it. Your best bet is to grab a seat outside with a view of the wharf. (pictured to the right)

Gorgeous Gelato
Gorgeous Gelato
434 Fore Street
Portland, ME 04101

It’s a little taste of Italy in the heart of Old Port. I’ve never had gelato this fabulous before. You can taste the fresh ingredients. My top 3 flavors: mango, tiramisu and hazelnut. (pictured to the right)


Flatbread Company

72 Commercial Street, Ste 5
Portland, ME 04101

Flatbread Company is a great place to enjoy the weather while sipping on a local craft beer. Their artistry in organic ingredients create tasty pizzas. The atmosphere is quaint, and reflects the culture. They also have a love for animals, so dogs are welcome in their outside area

 

SHOP

K Collette

K Colette
100 Commercial Street
Portland, ME 04101

This boutique is filled with artfully selected housewares from lush Egyptian cotton bedding to rustic and nautical vintage finds. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to wander around and get inspired. (pictured to the right)


Merchant Co. Handmade Vintage Goods

656 Congress Street
Portland, ME 04101

On the walk from the West End side of town, stop at The Merchant Company for unique handmade items. This adorable store showcases local items such as invitations, housewares, jewelry and more! Located in the Arts District.


RELAX

Novare Res Bier Café
4 Canal Plaza
Portland, ME 04101

This bar is a must-find for craft beer seekers in downtown Portland. They have extensive offerings of fairly priced drafts and bottles. Their bartenders are knowledgeable and will happily steer you toward something you’ll enjoy. It’s a little tricky to find, but ask around and don’t give up your quest! With their wine menu and food offerings they aim to please everyone, including those who aren’t hopheads and beer geeks.


You May Also Like:
Acadia National Park
Maine Weekend Guide
Maine’s Lakes

 

Plains Indian Museum Powwow

Plains Indian Powwow (Photo: L. Singh)

We love Wyoming. On July 10, 1890, the Cowboy State entered the Union, and with it a million travelers’ dreams were made. Including this one’s. Standing on Mirror Lake Highway, under the massive “Forever West” sign, puts it all in perspective: This is a place where you can roam free. And you’ll do a lot of roaming here. With just over 500,000 people — in a state roughly the size of the United Kingdom — Wyoming is the least populous of all the states.

Your first stop in this great expanse of the American Wild West is Cody, WY. Granted, this is a tourist hub, as the western-wear-and-trinket shops along Sheridan Avenue attest. But you sort of expect that: The town’s namesake, after all, was the late-great western showman Buffalo Bill Cody, who helped found this rugged stretch of northern Wyoming in 1895. See his apparition at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, a complex of 5 museums that tells the story of the American west through western art, firearms exhibits and stories of the Plains Indians.

The world of Native American culture comes to life every summer, just beyond the museum’s doors. For more than 30 years, the Plains Indian Museum Powwow has showcased dancers and drum groups from Northern Plains tribes. Members of Native American tribes come from neighboring states, such as Idaho and Nevada, and in addition to performing, they sell Indian jewelry, bead and quillwork, clothing and more. Try the fry bread, hand-made by Arizona native Mary Sounding Sides. She’s been making fry bread at the powwow for the past 10 decades. What’s her cooking secret? “No secret,” she says, “just something I learned as a girl.” Make sure you stay for the grand finale: Flanked by American and Native American flags, dancers march away; they may wave to you and invite you to join the march as well.

Hotel Irma’s Gunfight (Photo: L. Singh)

More western lore comes to life at the town’s landmark, Hotel Irma. Buffalo Bill built this hotel in 1902, and named it after his daughter. The afternoon I swung by, I pulled a seat up to the cherry-wood bar that was given to Buffalo Bill by Queen Victoria — complete with an antique cash register from the early 1900s. You never know who you’ll meet as you sip a beer or lemonade; my bar buddy for the afternoon was a local Native American man named Oliver who told me about an upcoming powwow at nearby Wind River Reservation.

Stay ‘till the evening. It’s a little cheesy, but you’ll want to stay for Hotel Irma’s free gunfight show. Be patient with the sound system — this is live theater, folks, and sometimes the mics cut in and out. But you’ll get the basic gist, especially once you see “Wyatt Earp” shoot up outlaw cowboys Billy Clayton, and Tom and Frank McLaury.

Your next step: breathtaking Yellowstone. But you’ll need a full day for that. Check back later this week; we’ll give you the lowdown.

*Or, 5 Casual Observances for Summer Tourists From a Whirlwind NYC Weekend

Cronuts at Dominique Ansel Bakery

Courtesy of Dominique Ansel Bakery

1. The Cronut Craze — When I visited the Dominique Ansel Bakeryin SoHo back in May, you could still deign to enjoy your “DKA,” or “Cronut” seated on the small back patio (although we took ours to nearby Washington Square Park). Now the half-croissant, half-donut hybrid attracts lines around the city block –- and fans from as far as Singapore. I can’t blame them, though, the combination of flaky, delicious dough and caramelized crust is unparalleled. While we waited in line we were also treated to tasty mini-meringues — hope you are, too.

2. Pub Crawl With Pups — A friend’s birthday celebration took the form of a Brooklyn bar crawl with a “no presents, just pets” theme. Rather unsurprisingly, Williamsburg has a slew of establishments that not only allow, but also cater to canines and their owners. We started the afternoon at The Levee, think: a sea of sneakerwedges, $1 PBRs, never-ending buckets of cheeseballs and bar games ranging from Jenga to Big Buck Hunter. Later that evening we strolled to Luckydog, where more than one pug was spotted in skull paraphernalia.

The Standard Biergarten

Photo by Shawn Hoke, flickr

3. The Standard — Situated under the canopy of the High Line, in the heart of the Meatpacking District, the Standard’s open-air Biergarten serves up sausages, pretzels, beer (for 8 bucks a pop) and ping pong all summer long. There’s even homemade gelato at the Ice Cream Cart parked in front. It’s more casual than the storied rooftop, which boasts dramatic city views, live jazz music and almost-famous clientele. Both tend to get packed, so come early or expect to wait in line.

4. The Rain RoomMoMa’s must-see exhibit takes some coordination, but
the ticket line moves surprisingly quickly and the hours-long wait can be
spent perusing the magnificent modern art gallery and equally inspiring museum shops. I’d highly recommend planning one of your days around the 300-square-foot immersive environment, as admission is not guaranteed. And don’t worry, you’ll stay dry despite the falling water droplets, thanks to a system of 3D-tracking cameras that pauses the rainfall whenever a human body is detected.

5. No Reservations? No Problem. — Being a good corporate citizen, I can point you to a wealth of NYC recommendations. In a pinch, however, the power of recent Yelp reviews shouldn’t be underestimated. The app helped point us in the direction of some charming, more casual restaurants — like South Williamsburg’s Uruguayan resto Tabaré, SoHo’s cozy French spot Cocotte, and brunch at Café Cluny in the West Village — that we would have otherwise missed.

Cocotte

Courtesy of Cocotte

Also, dine off-hours when you can. After arriving rather late Friday night, it was nearly 11 p.m. once we checked into the hotel and headed out to dinner. However, we were able to walk right into Cocotte, its handful of tables having been occupied right up until that time. Dinner at Tabaré was at an early-bird 6pm — hey, we’d been at a bar crawl ALL day. Take advantage that you’re on “vacation time” — you’ll miss the trendy crowds, but eat well that way.

The word for local in Hawaiian is “kamaaina,” and to find out how to eat like a kamaaina, you have to ask one. On a recent trip to Honolulu, locals directed me to Kapahulu Ave, an unremarkable stretch of road in the shadow of Diamond Head, where the daily business of Oahu happens away from touristy Waikiki Beach. I got some of my best food tips on Waikiki Beach from a bartender at Duke’s Waikiki who drew me a map of Kapahulu on the back of a cocktail napkin. If you find yourself in Honolulu, play kamaaina for a day and take a trip down to Kapahulu Ave to one of these local foodie hot spots.

Ono Hawaiian Foods
726 Kapahulu Ave.

Photos: Robin Bennefield

When I asked a local named Larry the best place to have an authentic Hawaiian meal, he said Ono Hawaiian Foods, without hesitation. He also told me that “ono” means delicious in Hawaiian. According to Larry, the lau lau is ono. So, I had to go and give it a taste. Ono has all the characteristics of a hole in the wall: it’s tiny; the staff tells you to sit wherever you want; and there are framed pictures of famous Hawaiians all over the walls. One non-local catches my eye: Richard Chamberlain of Thornbirds fame, which boosts its quirk level about 10 points in my book. I order the pork lau lau and I get a hunk of taro leaf-wrapped pork, accompanied by small bowls of raw onions, lomi salmon, dried beef, poi and hanupia. I get an explanation of what I’m eating from Toyo, the gregarious manager, whose mother started the local favorite over 50 years ago. The lomi is a salmon salad with tomato that tastes like salsa, the dried beef is like bits of well-seasoned beef jerky, the hanupia is a slightly-sweet, Jell-O-like coconut pudding, and the poi is the purple, tangy, gooey by-product of pounded taro root, which Toyo tells me is very healthy and good for digestion. He also explains that the lau lau, which reminds me of a Southern dish of collard greens and ham hocks, is typically steamed in a pit in the ground. But the thing that he most wants to tell me, when he finds out that I write for Travel Channel, is that Anthony Bourdain once sat 2 tables away.

Side Street Inn on Da Strip
614 Kapahulu Ave.

Photo: Robin Bennefield

Bourdain also visited the original Side Street Inn on Hopaka St., but I stopped into its outpost on Kapahulu one Monday afternoon only to discover that this is the best place to watch Monday Night Football — at 3 p.m. — especially if you are a Seattle Seahawks fan. A rowdy bunch gathered to watch football over pupu platters of Chinese fare like eggrolls and spare ribs, along with heaping plates of fried rice. I elected to try the Hawaiian take on sliders: Kalua pig sliders with healthy heaps of pulled pork on top of fluffy Chinese buns served with a sweet barbeque sauce. Talk about ono, especially with a lychee martini, my favorite drink in Hawaii next to the mai tai.

Waiola
3113 Mokihana St.

 

Photos: Robin Bennefield

Going for a shave ice is probably the best way to eat like a kamaaina, and some will tell you that the best place to have one in Honolulu is at Waiola just off Kapahulu. A shave ice in Hawaii is not to be confused with Italian ices or snow cones on the mainland. The biggest difference is the powdery ice — the consistency of snow. Hawaiians like to have their shave ice on top of ice cream, azuki beans, a Japanese sweetened bean, or tapioca pearls, and top it with sweetened condensed milk, known as a snowcap. Like most shave ice stands, Waiola offers a rainbow of exotic flavors like lychee, passion fruit, guava and kiwi. Cars cram the few spaces in front of the small store, as brightly colored as its cold cones. Listening to people order here is a little like listening to someone order coffee at Starbucks. There’s definitely a shave ice lingo. I opt for the more tropical flavors — lychee, pineapple and lilikoi, or passion fruit — on top of ice cream with a snowcap.

Leonard’s Bakery
933 Kapahulu Ave.

Photos: Robin Bennefield

I love fried dough of any kind anywhere in the world, so there was no way I was going to pass up a stop at Leonard’s, known for its malasadas. The Portuguese-style warm balls of fried dough are sprinkled with sugar or filled with cream flavors like hanupia, that Hawaiian coconut pudding. Leonard’s first introduced malasadas to Honoluluans in 1952 and they’ve been beloved ever since. The old-school signage and tiny pink interior hint at the sweet yumminess inside. I order 3 malasadas, original white sugar, hanupia-filled and li hing mui sugar, a tangy, salty, sweet dried plum Chinese confection. They make me want to start saying ono instead of yum.

For more, local Hawaiian foodie suggestions, watch Andrew Zimmern turn kaimaaina in tonight’s episode of Bizarre Foods America: Undiscovered Hawaii at 9|8c.

Over the last 2 months I’ve managed a couple of fun vacation runs — a variation of a mileage run that involves actually leaving the airport and exploring a city — to Moscow, Paris and Johannesburg. My trip to Moscow was a weeklong vacation, while my runs to Paris and Johannesburg were just extended weekends. A little crazy, I know, but the experiences and sights were well worth the expense and travel time. And besides, or perhaps most importantly, I earned a LOT of miles, ate caviar and saw elephants.

Total Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM): 29,043
Total Redeemable Miles (RDM): 58,086
Flying Time to/from Moscow: 23h 13m
Flying Time to/from Paris and Johannesburg: 37h 40m

Saint Basil's Cathedral

Photography by Arthur Hsu

This year, I’m hoping to earn 150,000 SkyMiles in order to book a round-trip business-class award ticket to Australia — a ticket that would normally cost approximately $16,000 (yes, you read right). I was inspired to book both of my recent “vacation runs” after I saw posts about cheap tickets on FlyerTalk. Another great site to follow is The Flight Deal, which gathers airfare deals that make the most of your miles and money.

When booking mileage runs, be sure to check your fare class.  Some fare classes don’t earn miles or only earn a reduced number of miles. For my trips, I flew Delta T class and KLM/Air France R class, both of which earn full Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQM). Both trips also had a low cost per mile (CPM), which is important for a great mileage run. Typically, you want the CPM to be under 5 cents per mile.

Moscow Cost per Mile: $0.0347
Johannesburg Cost per Mile: $0.0420

A mileage run is a trip solely for earning EQM, so oftentimes you never even leave the airport. But in this case, I turned them into vacations.

My trip to Moscow was the first time I used Global Entry, a Customs and Border Patrol program that expedites the immigration process when returning to America, which I was approved for the week before leaving for Russia. Thanks to this program, it literally takes less than 1 minute to clear customs. If you don’t have it, I recommend you apply since it also includes TSA Pre-Check, which gets you through security quicker and with fewer hassles.

Overall, Moscow is a beautiful city with many activities, but in my experience, it is also very expensive. I stayed at the Hotel National, where Lenin stayed while the Kremlin was under construction. It’s also a Starwood property, with which I have Gold elite status, and so I earned 8,852 SPG points thanks to my stay.

Hotel National, Moscow

Photography by Arthur Hsu

While in Moscow, I enjoyed the various sites such as Saint Basil’s Cathedral and a day trip outside the city to Troitse-Sergiev Monastery. If you find yourself in Moscow, be sure to explore the metro system — the various stations are truly beautiful, each with a different design. I also enjoyed proper meals, including a 10-course omakase meal at Nobu Moscow. Don’t worry, I also sampled iconic Russian cuisine such as caviar and borscht.

Komsomolskaya Metro Station, Moscow

Photography by Arthur Hsu

My trip to Johannesburg was a much shorter and farther excursion, with a 12-hour layover in Paris and about 37 hours in Johannesburg. With such a short amount of time in Paris, I made my way into the city and used a hop-on/hop-off tour bus to see the major sites before I returned to CDG and grabbed some food and Scotch whisky in the Air France Salon to await my flight to Johannesburg.

Once in Johannesburg, I took the Gautrain, Africa’s first rapid rail system, to the Radisson Blu Gautrain hotel, and shortly after, my guide arrived to take me on a tour of Joburg. I liked the sound of Cashan Private Day Tours, which offered custom city tours, and I was able to book a half-day tour with Penny Cashan. Our first stop — and most surprising and enjoyable element of the tour –  was the Market on Main, which occurs every Sunday at the Arts on Main in the Maboneng Precinct, with great food and various art galleries. I had no idea that Joburg has such a thriving art community.

The next and last day in Joburg, I booked a 1-day safari with Felleng Tours to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. This turned out to be a great experience, since we were able to take the time to find 2 of the Big Five– the white rhino and the African elephant — along with many other amazing animals and sights. Fortunately, the daytime temperatures were low, so the animals weren’t hiding in the shade.

Elephant in Pilanesberg Game Reserve

Photography by Arthur Hsu

Back at O.R. Tambo Airport, I headed to the Air France Salon before deciding to check out other lounges in the airport thanks to my Priority Pass membership, which gives me access to lounges around the world where I do not have elite status. Properly hydrated and nourished, I headed to the gate to catch 2 flights home — just short of 22 hours with a connection in Amsterdam. Now I need to start thinking about my next mileage run.

Watch Mommy Points‘ tips to earn airline elite status.

Getty Images

This weekend Thailand celebrated its New Year, know as Songkran, with the world’s biggest water fight. Songkran is an annual Buddhist holiday that traditionally calls for Thais to visit elders and temples on the first day of the year. The days leading up to the New Year are less serious and filled with epic water battles across the country. For the 3 days leading up to the New Year, there isn’t a dry spot in Thailand, as the “Land of Smiles” fills its water guns and buckets and takes to the streets for the celebratory dousing of passersby. This festival is based on a renewal and cleansing tradition stemming from the water blessing in temples for the New Year. Each year this all-out water fight only gets bigger — and wetter– in Thailand.

Last year, I unintentionally planned a vacation to Thailand during Songkran. As a tourist, I didn’t know what to expect. I prepared myself with a waterproof camera case, a poncho (that proved useless) and the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mindset — I bought a water gun in a Thai market for protection. As most tourists who find themselves in Thailand during Songkran can probably attest, I felt lucky to be here to witness something so unique and at the heart of the country’s culture: a veritable national party.

Thailand, a country already so well-known for its hospitality, welcomes droves of tourists during Songkran to join in its annual water fight. So take it as a compliment if you get soaked with a water gun here. It means they like you.

During the 3 days of Songkran, I was lucky enough to see 3 different cities celebrate it.  The first day of Songkran, I was in Pai, a small mountain town in the north of Thailand. Pai has become a favorite among expats and tourists looking for a nature reprieve from Thailand’s congested bigger cities. The small town of Pai is centered around one main street and everyone in the town seemed to be on it during Songkan — either in a truck filled with young mischievous water-throwers with trashcan-size buckets full of water or lined up on the streets for a prime spot to watch the action. And as I would learn repeatedly throughout Songkan, the ultimate target for drenching during the festival is always the tourist. My introduction to Songkran in Pai began when I was ambushed by a group of young monks armed with super soakers (see photo).

Photography by Stephanie Price

Next stop on the Songrkan tour was Chiang Mai, my absolute favorite city in Thailand, less touristy and globalized than Bangkok, but still with plenty to see, do and taste. As our bus from Pai pulled up to the gates of Chiang Mai, I quickly realized that Pai was just a trickle of water fights compared with this city’s all-out water war. There was no shortage of water in Chiang Mai either, as the fuel for this 3-day water fight here mostly comes from the river that runs through the city. By the second city, my travel companions and I had amped up our ammunition; water guns just weren’t as effective — or as fun — as entire buckets filled with water.

 

Photography by Stephanie Price

Our last stop on the Songran tour was Bangkok, Thailand’s bustling capital city. This was also the last night of the celebrations before people throughout the country would flock to temples for a more serious (and drier) day with family — but not before one last big splash. So we found ourselves in the epicenter of the country’s water festival, on the biggest night, in Thailand’s biggest city. Think New Year’s Eve in Times Square, but instead of noisemakers, everyone’s armed with water guns. Our hotel was smack dab in the middle of the action on Khao San Road, a 0.5-mile-long strip full of bars, restaurants, hotels, stores and heaps of tourists mostly of the young budget-traveler type.

As I learned firsthand, staying dry as you walk through Khao San Road is the least of your problems during Songkran. I could barely walk through this street because it was so crowded with Songkran revelers. While Thais are generally known to be laid-back people  – often, you can even escape the water splashing if you just shake your head or hand — we found no such luck here. No matter how much we pleaded, we couldn’t escape getting soaked in Bangkok. The water battle on Khao San Road was unlike anything I could have imagined. Few would ever take a camera out here to document the craziness for risk of it getting ruined. Luckily, neither did I.

On the early morning of the New Year, after a final night of water mayhem, we were due to fly home. We woke up and breathed a sigh of relief that finally the crowds on Khao San Road had gone home and we could skip the bathing suit under our clothes and poncho for the trip to the airport. So we packed into a tuk-tuk (Thailand’s rickshaw) with all of our luggage (cabs were nowhere to be found on this national holiday) and headed to the airport. But to our utter surprise, we received one final drenching at a stoplight from a truck that still had a bucket of water in the back from the night before.

Soaked and carrying our wet bags, we arrived at the airport laughing, knowing there was no better way to leave Thailand than with one big splash.

 

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