I had first heard about the islands of Roatan and Utila back in 2003 when a former boss and Dive enthusiast told me how close they were to the United States. Great reefs, affordable accommodations, and cheap dives.
Since getting my dive master certification in Thailand a couple years back, I needed to make sure that I was diving about every 6 months or so in order to keep my skills up to date. I did some research on flights and figured it would be really easy to take off for a week dive trip to Roatan and Utila. Continental Airlines flies direct to the island of Roatan several days a week, and also to San Pedro Sula on the mainland of Honduras.
A couple of friends have made the trek via San Pedro Sula. A good cheap option is to catch a morning bus from the Central Terminal in San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba on the coast. It takes about three and a half hours on the direct and private Hedman Alas bus (approx $23 USD). You can also take a local Directo bus for about $5 that is a little slower. From La Ceiba, you can catch ferry aboard the Utila Princess which takes about an hour to get to Utila (two departures daily and approx $21 USD).
I decided to fly direct from Houston to Roatan, so that I could dive both islands. The only problem with this option is that you can't get to Utila directly from Roatan. I needed to take the Galaxy Wave ferry from Roatan to La Ceiba (two departures daily and approx $21 USD), and then change to the Utila Princess. It adds an hour and fifteen minutes to the trip (plus transfer/wait time), but it's not that bad.
In Roatan I spent a night and a day in the area of West End, not to be confused with the more upscale West Bay. This is where the more affordable housing is located, everything is walkable, and there are a good number of dive shops and restaurants to choose from. Most of the dive shops on Roatan and Utila offer accommodation for divers and this is usually the best and cheapest option. I chose Native Sons for two morning dives (about $25 a dive) and got a nice private room for $20 USD for a night. Both Roatan and Utila's reefs are protected as marine parks where a small daily fee must be paid for diving. Roatan is supposed to have the better preserved dive sites. I enjoyed both islands and found the reefs to be in decent shape, but lacking an abundance of marine life (although the area is famous for its whale sharks). Then again, I've been spoiled by diving Sipidan. I think this is due to overfishing in the area, even if the reefs are supposed to be protected. Unfortunately it's something I've encountered all over the world. Fishermen have been fishing these reefs for generations and it's their livelihood.
After two morning ferries from Roatan, I made it to Utila in the afternoon. Utila is a perfect backpacker town. No cars are allowed on the island, and you can walk/bike everywhere with ease. Accommodations, food, and drinks are cheap, and the diving is probably the best value in the Eastern Hemisphere, comparable to Koh Tao in Thailand. Some might call the island a scuba factory, but my feeling is that it offers travelers a chance to become certified divers without breaking the bank. You can get your PADI or NAUI open water certification plus four nights accommodation in the dorms for under $300 USD. A steal if you ask me.
It can be a little overwhelming when first getting to Utila. There are tons of dive operators and accommodations to choose from. My friend Alex from Spain recommended Alton's Dive Center. Alex trained me as a dive master and I trusted his judgement since he worked for Alton's as a DM the previous year. Other options on the island include Utila Dive Center and Cross Creek Dive Center (awesome lodging across the creek!). From the moment I got to Alton's I knew I would have a great week. The owner Mitch was extremely welcoming and generous. I signed up for a week of fun dives mixed with my wreck specialty certification. I paid about $25 or so for fun dives, and a little more to get my wreck specialty, which included two days of learning how to navigate around sunken ships safely. My private room (although sparse with a shared bathroom) was as whopping $10 USD per night ($5 if I wanted a dorm bed). Except for having about 3 different instructors take me through my wreck certification, I had a great time diving with Alton's. All the instructors and dive masters were friendly and I was able to get visit some good sites for the week.
If you're looking for beaches, these are not the islands for you. Actually, if you're not really into diving at all, I might steer clear of Utila. There aren't really any beaches for laying around, and most dive centers have docks set up with hammocks and areas for chilling out, reading, and sun bathing. Aside from diving and relaxing, there isn't much else to do on the island itself. If you do find yourself visiting, then definitely take four days to get your open water certification. Two other must do's while visiting is a fish dinner at RJ's (across from Alton's) and drinks at Treetanic, a bar that is perched up in the canopy of several massive trees. It's like drinking in a huge outdoor tree house, and definitely one of the coolest bars I've visited on my travels. Ah, I wish I was there right now.
Here is a link to my photos of Diving Utila and Roatan.
July 16, 2011
October 13, 2009
The second day at The Adventures in Travel Expo proved to be just as entertaining as the first. There seemed to be less attendees than the previous day, but the guest speakers drew some large crowds. In addition to checking out more exhibitors, which included tour operators and tourism boards, I was able to sit in on lectures by Tony Wheeler, Zac Sunderland, and Patricia Schultz.
Tony Wheeler co-founded the Lonely Planet publishing empire with his wife Maureen back in the early 1970's. It's a pretty amazing story documented in their book Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story (which he autographed for me...thanks Tony). His lecture was a mix of the Lonely Planet's modest beginnings (their first trip from England to Australia via the silk road), plus additional trips with his family in the nineteen eighties, and what he has been doing more recently. I was pretty amazed to find out that in 1994, Tony and Maureen traveled across the US, and created what was to become one of the first travel blogs. They sent daily emails to Tim O'Reilly, founder of Web 2.0, who then posted them online. Some really cool trips that Tony has done in the last several years include:
- The Plymouth - Banjul Challenge in 2007. Tony and Maureen drove a tiny used Mitsubishi hatchback car from Plymouth, England, all the way to Banjul, Gambia. The event is for charity and all cars who make it to the finish line, are then auctioned off. Their car which was purchased for $700, was sold for over $1000.
- The Soyuz rocket launch from Kazakhstan. This is where Russia launches their spacecraft, and as a spectator, you can get within several hundred yards of the site. Go Russia and your lack of safety regulations! Tony showed a video clip he took and it was pretty amazing. For $30 million USD, six months of cosmonaut training, and some language courses in Russian, you too can fly into outer space for two weeks. This is where I need your help to make Globe Stompers as big as Lonely Planet, so I can do this at some point in the future. Although, Tony did not fly, he just watched the launch.
- The Tour d'Afrique bike race from Cairo to Cape Town. Tony rode with the Lonely Planet team who took four months to complete the course. The riders rotated the roster every two weeks.
You may have heard that on July 16th, 2009, Zac Sunderland at age seventeen, became the youngest person to sail solo around the world. It's amazing to think that Zac, who still has three classes to go before graduating high school, has experienced more in thirteen months than most people do in their entire lives. His trip was one of the most amazing journeys, and I was captivated the whole time he spoke. His tale included dodging pirates, fixing a broken boat multiple times, and weathering massive storms, so to speak. He's currently training for an Mount Everest expedition, and will be base jumping off the Golden Gate bridge in two weeks. I'm getting excited for his upcoming documentary, which is currently being edited down from over six hundred hours of footage taken from multiple cameras on his boat.
Patricia Schultz is the author of the best selling book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. This book was a staple of ours before Julie and I set off on our around the world trip. I am happy to say that I've been to many of these destinations, although I still have a ton to go before I die. Here are some tips that Patricia shared with the audience:
- Rule of thumb, avoid travel destinations with airports nearby. Go further out and you'll have a more authentic experience with less tourists.
- Home Exchange is a good site where you can swap your apartment/house with someone else in another area or country. Just like the movie The Holiday with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet.
- One of the top three experiences in life should be an African safari. Travel to Namibia which is a new adventure capital.
- Take the new express train in China, which travels from either Beijing or Shanghai, all the way to Lhasa in Tibet. The compartments even have oxygen to help you breathe at altitude.
- Bhutan and Myanmar are two must see destinations.
1. Museyon Guides has come up with a concept that pairs interests with travel. Check out their Music + Travel, and Film + Travel guides.
2. Contiki, a tour company specializing in trips for 18-35 year-olds (I just make the cut on this), has some fun new trips coming up for Summer 2010. I asked Jennifer Dimucci, a sales manager with the company, how one becomes a trip leader? Out of hundreds of applicants, they only choose a couple new leaders each year. It's a mix of luck and previous experience. Do you have what it takes to be a trip leader? Check out their jobs section to apply, cross some fingers and toes, find a four leaf clover, and start building up some karma points.
3. Cactus is an organization that arranges language trips abroad. It's way more fun to learn Italian in Rome, than online or listening to CD's.
4. Travel Daddy is a social networking site where you can find activity buddies while on the road. I tend to meet people in local hostels, but if you had a larger trip planned and wanted to find people ahead of time, this is a good way to do it.
5. If you are an adventurer with a some money saved up, why not take a cruise to the North Pole. Expedition Cruises run two week trips which give you anywhere from twelve to twenty four hours on the North Pole. They do not guarantee that you will find Santa Claus, but you can try.
6. My favorite booth was that of the Jamaican dog sled team. Yes, you read that correctly! The movie Cool Runnings brought us the story of the Jamaican bobsled team, and now Newton Marshall will compete in the 2010 Iditarod trail sled dog race across Alaska. I'm from Canada, and I don't even like the cold. Good luck Newton and team Jamaica.
I really enjoyed my two days at the expo, meeting tour operators, tourism agencies, and listening to stories from guest lecturers. I will definitely attend the event next year when it comes to town, but right now I have my eye set on something bigger. Next week, Quebec will play host to the Adventure Travel World Summit. This looks amazing.
October 10, 2009
The tag line for the two day Adventures in Travel Expo is "The Show For Real Travelers." What exactly makes a real traveler? Is it number of countries visited, exotic locations, travel style? The aim of the show is to bring together consumers and companies of the travel trade, ranging from trip operators to tourism bureaus. Throw in some celebrity speakers, and it becomes a go to place for anyone who is interested in travel, both domestic and abroad. Armed with a camera and press pass, I decided that it was worth checking out. The show will be at New York City's Javitz Center through October 11th, and will then be moving to Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Seattle.
The show is a mix of everything to do with the travel industry. The event space is broken down into geographic areas such as Africa, Latin America, Asia/South Pacific, and the Caribbean. There are tourism bureaus from countries such as Thailand, Mexico, Malaysia, and Israel. Then there are the numerous tour operators, airlines, magazines, book publishers, and even a mini rock wall if you feel like getting a bird's eye view of the event.
You could easily spend a full day here. I spent more than six hours speaking to the numerous exhibitors that peaked my interest, and I only covered about half the show. Then again, I'm addicted to travel and everything looks fun to me. I'll be profiling some of the exhibitors in the future, but here are the highlights from day one at the Adventures in Travel Expo:
1. G.A.P Adventures has launched a partnership with the Discovery Channel, and has created Discovery Adventures which are new trips based on featured destinations from the Discovery Channel.
2. Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer's Travel Guides, shared his tips on budget travel. He spoke about Exploritas and ElderHostel. If you're looking for mature trips that combine grandparent and children travel, this could be a good option. Untours for un-tourists, is where you can book furnished apartments in major cities around the world. Now is a good time to visit China on the cheap with Chinaspree. Ho Chi Minh City is one of the cheapest places to live as an ex-patriot. Iceland, Ireland, and Italy (dubbed the Three I's), are the latest destinations in budget travel. Take advantage of Eurofly for cheap flights to Italy. The Caribbean and Mexico are practically giving away package holidays this time of year. Vacmart is a good place to check for specials. And my favorite special, the U.S. Virgin Islands are promoting twenty five cent per night hotel rooms, in honor of a new commemorative quarter by the U.S. Mint. Go to bookit to take advantage of this. Not only did Arthur give an informative talk, he also signed a copy of his new book for me, conveniently titled Ask Arthur Frommer: And Travel Better, Cheaper, Smarter.
3. Holly Morris, writer, travel show host, and producer, spoke about her work with the Globe Trekker series, Adventure Divas, and her favorite places to visit. Funny enough, one of these locations is the Cascade Range in North America.
4. I took a trip back in time by visiting with the guys from Witch's Rock Surf Camp. Located in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, this is the place where I originally learned how to surf. The camp has expanded and they are now running surf trips to other countries. If you've always wanted to learn how to surf, and have a week's vacation to spare, this is the place to go.
5. AFAR is hands down the coolest travel magazine on the market. I just read their premier issue cover to cover, and I'm hooked. It's a bi-monthly publication that has profiled travel in a new way. The one section that caught my eye is Spin the Globe, whereby they ship a writer off to a new destination unknown to them. It makes for a good story, trust me.
6. The online hostel booking site Hostels Club, is running two specials at the moment. If you are a citizen of either the US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, and traveling to Europe, go to www.hostelsclub.com/strongdollar, and you'll only be charged in US dollars for the Euro equivalent. Meaning, a dorm bed that costs fifteen Euros, will only cost you fifteen USD. If you go to www.hostelsclub.com/mytrip, you'll only pay a one time registration fee for life as long as you continue to book with the same email address.
If you can't make it to the Adventures in Travel Expo in New York, or one of the other cities on their tour, you can see a list of the exhibitors online. Check back tomorrow for a report about day two at the show.
August 20, 2009
I've wanted to visit Sweden for quite some time now. Maybe it goes back to my childhood, loving the Muppets and of course the Swedish Chef. It could also be that I grew up in Toronto, with one of the first Ikeas outside of Sweden, and my childhood bedroom was filled with furniture that had names such as Malm and Ektorp, which seemed to come from a world away. Okay, so everyone is really, really good looking, including the fast food attendants at Max (much better than McDonald's), but the main reason I wanted to visit, is that I've met so many nice Swedes while traveling, that I figured a country full of friendly people had to be a great place to check out.
While I was getting my dive master certification in Thailand, I met Andreas and Nicole, a very cool couple from Stockholm. They were getting certified to dive, and I was assisting the instructor on the course. We shared a crazy twenty four hours of diving and partying on the island of Ko Phi Phi, and I figured it would be fun to go visit them in their native city. I was already in Europe, and although Stockholm is quite far from Rome, a flight on Ryan Air cost me approximately Sixty Euros, so I couldn't really pass up the opportunity. Ryan Air really is one big flying bus, no perks, and tons of hidden fees. But if you can master the art of booking on the cheap days, fly with only a carry-on bag, and print your boarding pass ahead of time, it's worth it for the price.
I ended up staying at the Best Hostel Old Town (great name, right?) in Gamla Stan, meaning the old town in Swedish. The location could not have been better, as it was right on the water with amazing views. Gamla Stan is situated on a tiny island, in the middle of the river which separates the shopping area of Norrmalm to the north from the cool area of Sodermalm to the south, with its trendy neighborhood of SoFo (South of Folkungagatan). The old town has beautiful cobblestone lane ways, shops, restaurants, cafes, and the Royal Palace. You can pretty much walk the whole area in less than an hour, it's that small.
The Best Hostel Old Town is in a very old, but recently renovated building. The place was so big, with tons of rooms, several kitchens, and multiple floors. The layout was strange with many stairways, that you really did need directions on finding your room. I was happy once I checked in. I booked myself into a seven person dorm, and I was the only one staying in the room for several nights. The place was clean, modern, had fantastic beds, a good kitchen, free Internet, and for $30 USD a night, it was a big upgrade from the horrible hostels in Rome.
My plan of four days in Stockholm quickly turned into a week. The weather was unbelievable and everyone was in such a good mood, I just couldn't leave. The days were sunny, and I mean sunny. About twenty hours worth of sunshine in the summer months. It was really strange to be out drinking on a terrace at 11 pm and have the sun just starting to set. It's even stranger to get out of a bar at 3 am and have the sun starting to rise. I could only imagine what it must be like in winter when it's reversed and you have twenty hours of darkness, plus cold temperatures. Apparently people can get pretty grumpy, and I don't blame them. The city reminded me a little of Montreal, since it's so cold in the winter, that when the springtime comes, everyone is out enjoying the fresh air. In Stockholm, everyone rides bikes. The lanes are great, and it's such the norm that commuting is easy. One thing I highly recommend is getting yourself a three day rental from the tourist information office or kiosks around the city for $10 USD. You can pick up and drop off bikes at various points around Stockholm, not a bad deal at all.
Nicole and Andreas were amazing hosts and it was so great to see them after about six months. Nicole is a fashion designer and Andreas is an actor, and they made sure my week was filled with a mix of sightseeing and partying with the who's who of Stockholm. It was fun to meet all these great people and I now have lots of new Swedish friends. Alex, who is also another actor, was gracious enough to let me stay with him after I was tired of my hostel. Nizar, who has the site Cool Stockholm, put on a massive 35 hour party at Bern's, one of the hottest clubs in the city. That made sure my Friday and Saturday nights were set. We also spent an evening enjoying the large terrace at Mosebacke, a really cool beer garden. It's a great setting, but expensive burgers at $22 a pop really put a dent in my wallet. I just want to put prices in perspective for any traveler to Sweden. This country isn't cheap, and since they tax the hell out of liquor, a night out on the town could potentially kill your backpacking budget. Another good outdoor area for food and drinks is Medborgarplatsen, which has a huge square and is located by the subway stop with the same name.
A unique spot which is also worth mentioning, is the ThaiBoat beach bar and restaurant. Since we were all reminiscing about Thailand, Nicole and Andreas thought it would be fun to take me to a large boat floating on the river, which had a little man made beach on board, and served food and drinks. We ended up going twice during my week since it's a really great restaurant, decked out in Thai fashion.
Besides touring around the old town and visiting the Royal Palace, I walked the shopping streets of Drottning, Biblioteksgatan, and Gotgatan, and also checked out the bohemian boutiques and cafes in SoFo. In addition to recommending the fashion boutique Acne, where Nicole is a designer, I would also check out Solo which is a fantastic store with the trendiest labels in Sweden.
Just outside of Stockholm, there is one of the World's most breathtaking archipelagos of tiny islands. I was highly encouraged to take a day trip, and I'm glad I did. Since you could literally spend days touring around the islands, I chose to travel an hour by ferry to the quaint town of Vaxholm, which is a popular summer destination for Swedish tourists. It is a tiny town, with little shops, and a several public beaches for swimming. The scenery along the way was breathtaking, particularly all the small islands with private homes, and this would be the place to live if I was working in Stockholm. I would be married to a supermodel, own Ikea, and just commute to the city center by Jet Ski. Hey, can't one dream?
My last night in the city was spent Bar-be-cuing in a tiny park in Sodermalm. I was lucky to cross paths with my friend Hannah who I had met rock climbing in New York. She had just moved back to Sweden and introduced me to yet another friendly group of Swedes, who invited me to try out their Swedish grill. My friend Scott, also put me in touch with his friends Lars and Jennie, who took me out on the town and got me to try Herring (Strommings Rule in Swedish) from a street vendor. It was amazing, and I highly recommend it. They served it in a pita with mashed potatoes, and cole slaw. Strange, but so tasty. I swear, everyone in that country is awesome. I would consider moving there, shacking up with a Swedish girl, and living the Scandinavian dream...if only the winters weren't so cold and dark. It's okay, I still love you Stockholm.
Here are photos from my week in Stockholm, to better understand why I love this city.
To get a little idea of the crazy partying that went on during the 35 hour event at Bern's, check out this video clip.