Tips on how to embrace a slow travel philosophy, as well as great slow travel destinations

Since we travel full-time, we’re always looking for creative lodging options. Staying in far-flung destinations around the world—particularly for a week or more—can get expensive. A few years ago we discovered house sitting, a solution that enabled us to visit exotic (or just plain expensive) destinations affordably.

What is house sitting?

House sitting jobs typically entail watching someone’s home while they’re away, in exchange for free lodging. In our experience, most assignments involve some degree of in home pet sitting; we’ve also taken care of plants for a homeowner. We’ve found house sitting to be a valuable way to visit a new locale, while also living like a local. There’s nothing like walking Fido around the block to feel like you’re part of the neighborhood!

But other than hearing about such an opportunity via word-of-mouth through friends, how do you find available house sitting jobs, or find someone to watch your home and pets while you travel?

best house sitting websites, long term house sitting jobs

We’ve discovered a site called Nomador that connects folks like us who are interested in house sitting jobs with those seeking someone to watch their home while they’re away. One of the aspects we like about Nomador is its sense of community; rather than simply being a generic site that offers a list of houses, the company adheres to a set of standards that includes trusting others, a sense of commitment, generosity of spirit, sharing, curiosity of other cultures, open-mindedness and global awareness.

Nomador’s values mirror our own; embracing new experiences is the primary driver for our travels. The company itself started in 2014 in Sydney; house sitting in Australia is a popular lodging option. The Nomador community has expanded rapidly since then to include more than 85,000 members worldwide today.

Nomador is protective of its community, and charges a small fee to allow access to its full complement of registered house sitters and house sitting job opportunities. However, they also offer a free “Discovery Option,” which allows you to apply for up to 3 house sitting offers. This is a great way to dabble on the site to see if house sitting might be for you.

The site is also helpful for homeowners who seek the freedom to travel with the confidence that their home, pet, or garden is properly looked after. They can list their home using the free option, or by using the paid option they they can contact potential house-sitters directly. Nomador also allows potential house sitters to have their profile listed in a directory for homeowners to browse when they seek a house sitter.

House sitters wanted: finding short- or long-term house sitting jobs

The Nomador site is a breeze to use; it’s well laid out and explains the benefits of house sitting while offering clear tips to start the process. While anyone can browse the house sitting jobs on offer, you must set up an account to make enquiries. For security, the site requires an approved form of ID to protect everyone in the system, ensuring that they are who they say they are. Michael found it was very easy to set up. He uploaded a copy of his driver’s license, and in less than an hour his ID was approved and he had created his profile and was exploring house sitting opportunities.

Since many of the opportunities involve in home pet sitting, the house sitter profile includes a listing of the types of animals you are willing to watch: dogs, cats, horses, birds, rodents, fish, reptiles, farm animals, and exotic pets. We chose dogs, cats, fish, and farm animals. (Yes, we’ve watched chickens, goats and even a motherless calf in the past! Well, that’s really more Larissa’s gig.) You can also select which region of the world you are interested in, dates you are available, and whether or not you’d take care of a garden.

House sitting Melbourne, House sitting Sydney

In home pet sitting (well, technically it’s outside the house!)

As long-time travel buffs, we were like kids in a candy store when we reviewed the available listings. Want to spend two weeks in the Bordeaux region of France? Yep, you can find house sitting opportunities aplenty. How about house sitting in Melbourne, Australia? You’ll be saying “g’day mate!” in no time. Interested in the Pacific Northwest region of the US? Nomador’s got it covered. In fact, the opportunities looked like a wish list of where we wanted to visit next.

The listings we liked best included a detailed description from the homeowner of their residence; opportunities range from simple apartments to luxury house sitting. Homeowners also list the responsibilities expected of the house sitter, along with nearby amenities. The website offers a detailed search function if you know the specifics of what you’re seeking. We like selecting a geographic area, and then scanning what’s available.

Nomador provides handy icons with each listing (like little cartoon kitties or plants), so you can perform a quick scan to see what might be a good fit. Some listings are only available to subscribers, so after your initial review you may be ready to make that commitment. (Nomador offers two paid subscription options: $35 for 3 months, or $89 for one year.)

The responsibilities usually involved caring for pets, so the homeowner provides details about their critters. They usually describe the pets’ personality, which is always helpful, along with photos and a list of daily tasks that are required. This is a good time to figure out what type time of commitment you want to make. Some pets are basically house pets and don’t go out much, while one listing required taking the dogs for a two-hour romp in the park every afternoon. Whatever the requirement, make sure you are up for it. We look at the dog walking as a good time for us to get some exercise ourselves.

House sitters wanted, best house sitting websites

Once you’ve found a listing (or two or three) that’s of interest, the next step is to contact the homeowner through the Nomador website. After you make an offer that’s accepted, you then sort out the details of travel, and any specifics regarding the house sit directly with the homeowner.

People often ask us how we choose destinations when we travel. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding a house sitting job that works with our schedule in an area that intrigues us. That’s how we ended up tending that calf (plus some chickens) in Australia, and watering a prize-winning gardenia in Savannah, Georgia. We don’t house sit everywhere we go, but with the wide array of destinations where house sitters are wanted available on the Nomador website, it’s always an option we consider.

Thanks to Nomador for underwriting this post. As always, our opinions are our own.

 

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Larissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

We’d been in Hong Kong for a week and always noticed a particularly strong aroma of something faintly spicy, with vanilla overtones, on a walkway near our apartment.  We thought that whoever lived there must be an excellent cook. It smelled like whatever they were making was also tinged with a subtle amount of coriander or cumin.

A few clay pots in the walkway held a mix of plants; some arbor vitae, asparagus ferns and a few items we couldn’t identify. Maybe that was the source of the delicious aroma wafting through the air. We ran our hands through the leaves to release the oils and bring out their aromas but it wasn’t a match.

Hong Kong market thousand year old egg

Then we noticed that up the street from our apartment was Khalsa Diwan, the only Sikh temple in Hong Kong. Since it was only two doors from us we passed by every day. All day long and into the night adults and children scurried in and out of the temple grounds, the women resplendent in flowing gowns of various shades of orange appearing like a sun setting over rippled sand dunes.

One night we could see down the long corridor from the entrance a man perched on a large bed. All around him was bright white from the sheets covering the bed to his loose cotton clothes right up to the tall turban perched atop his head. The only dark spot in this sea of white was his long flowing beard. He appeared to be a holy figure in the temple.

Khalsa Diwan Temple Hong Kong

We finally realized that what we were noticing every day was not someone’s exotic cooking but sandalwood scented incense wafting from the temple. We can only imagine how strong it must have been inside the temple walls. For us the closest comparison would be the incense burned on Holy Days in an old-rite Christian Church.

The scent wafting from the Sikh temple defined the neighborhood better than any man-made signs would have done. Hong Kong is like that. For a blind person the city provides many walking hazards but a plethora of olfactory clues; a street atlas made visible by its aromas.

The wet market, with its fresh fish still flopping on the counter, is easy to decipher. As is the dusty, woodsy smell of the dried food market with its pungent aroma of mushrooms and ginseng.

Hong Kong dried mushrooms ginseng 900

The colonial-era tram (or ding-ding as it is called) rushes down the center of the street with its windows open to catch a refreshing breeze. These open windows also let in the fragrance of the city. An observant person can ignore the street signs and tell where they are by just sticking their nose in the air.

Hong Kong is a hyperkinetic city that invades all five senses, in some cases overwhelming them. But for us, we knew that when we smelled the sandalwood that we had arrived home.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Our friends tell us, “You’re living the dream.” Well . . . yes and no.

In 2011, when Larissa was 52 and Michael 51, we walked away from our jobs in, respectively, life sciences and commercial real estate. Heartbreaking personal circumstances made our careers, and even our home, seem irrelevant and we needed a major shakeup in our lives.

So we sold our house in the Philadelphia suburbs, gave away our possessions and began crisscrossing the world, following a lifelong dream of becoming travel writers. More than five years later we’re still on the road, global nomads with no permanent address.

For the most part our grand experiment at reinventing our careers and ourselves has worked well. Our travel blog at ChangesInLongitude.com won a Lowell Thomas award, which led to a contract to write Philadelphia Liberty Trail, a new guidebook to the city’s historic district. We also write the “Field-Tested Travel Tips” column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Along the way we’ve visited all 50 states and 6 continents. Last year Michael’s book, the Roadster Guide to America’s Classic Car Museums was published.

That said, “living the dream”—particularly when you still need to earn  money—has its distinct downsides. We gave up the security of a monthly salary and benefits, we have no home to return to, and we are establishing ourselves in a totally new field: we had really stepped outside our comfort zone. At an age when we should be on a comfortable glide path to retirement, we live in cramped quarters and often report to editors half our age.

We’re not alone. Many Americans in their 50s are at a crossroads due to downsizing, buyouts or general dissatisfaction. If you’re considering personal reinvention, here are some lessons we’ve learned:

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–A dramatic change can lead to dramatic challenges. Taking a chance on completely overhauling your life might sound like a great idea, but the transition may be tougher than you think. Just selling all we owned and dismantling our prior lives took an emotionally charged year. With no prior experience, breaking into the travel writing field was not easy.

Starting our travel blog was a good first step, but that meant working for free and building up a following. Eventually a friend introduced us to the travel editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was intrigued by our tale of chucking it all and agreed to look at a few stories.

We agonized for hours over the wording of our first spec article, about bucolic Beihai Park in Beijing; we probably made about 50 cents an hour on it. But when we saw our names in print for the first time it was a rush that allowed us to imagine making a go of this new career.

larissa Buenos Aires
–Full-time travel doesn’t mean permanent vacation. At first we spent all our time exploring, eager to soak up a new destination. But that was exhausting; we had no time left to write about our experiences—the very activity that would bring in revenue. We soon realized that jotting a few notes in a café is not the same as writing an article on deadline so we applied the brakes and slowed down.

We now spend several weeks to a month or more at most destinations, touring less than half that time. We’ve taken “working from home” to a nomadic level. There are days we never leave the apartment, which might seem strange when Buenos Aires or Hong Kong is right outside the door, but the work needs to get done.

Our accommodations aren’t plush; we often stay in lodging we would have once considered quite rustic. During our remote stay in the Australian bush country, we gingerly used the outside bathroom at night, well aware that a deadly snake lurking there had killed a cow the previous week. But such inconveniences seem minor when kangaroos come loping through the yard at dusk.

Traveling the world

–If you’re joined at the hip, marital bliss can turn to blisters. That’s the dilemma we faced. Since we live, work and travel together, all that “togetherness” 24/7 can get old. In fact, we spend much of each day only a few feet apart from each other as we work on our various stories. That’s not a problem for Michael, but can you imagine how trying that is for Larissa? While visiting Singapore, about four months into our journey, we realized we each needed some alone time. Michael wanted to tour World War II sights in the city while Larissa was interested in gardening and food tours.

So we split up to pursue our separate interests for a day. The result was we had more interesting stories to share, both with each other and in articles. Now we occasionally spend time apart, last year Larissa visited Machu Picchu while Michael explored abandoned auto factories in Detroit. (Talk about different interests.)

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–A dream can fall flat, at least for a while. And that’s okay. Unfortunately the 50 cents an hour we mentioned isn’t widely off the mark for a travel writer these days. Our biggest challenge in our new career is earning a living. When we realized freelance writing alone wouldn’t pay the bills, we drew on our business backgrounds and leveraged our now extensive travel experience to pursue other interests. Michael has branched out into writing about classic cars for several publications. Larissa started teaching at the Close School of Entrepreneurship of Drexel University. Some of this work is done for on-line courses, still allowing her the freedom to travel.

–How long can this go on? People often ask, “don’t you miss home, and your stuff?” The answer is no. After years of accumulating things, we’re focused on collecting experiences. Instead of a new car or the latest flat-screen TV, we’re gaining a more enriching life learning how to surf in Hawaii or taking a self-drive safari in Namibia. Our lives are now too full to ponder about the possessions we’ve given up. As long as we can earn enough to make ends meet you’ll find us somewhere in the world, still living the dream.

Hover over these images to quickly pin them!

Here are some tips we’ve learned about how to live a nomadic life.

It was the summer of 1969 and, as Old Faithful was about to send its regular timed flume of scalding hot water about 140 feet into the air for a spectacular sunset performance, the crowds gathered in hushed anticipation. The geyser had been doing so like clockwork for eons and was one of the main attractions of Yellowstone National Park.

Old Faithful geyser scheduleMeanwhile, a nine-year-old Mike Milne (your humble storyteller) had somehow locked himself into the bathroom of the room he was sharing with his family at the Old Faithful Inn; mere steps from the geyser. They were on the trip of a lifetime and this was the moment they had been waiting for, save for a recalcitrant key that had somehow become jammed in the lock. As his older brother wailed from outside—“C’mon, we’re gonna miss it!”—the pudgy young lad (who also wore glasses, he was quite a dreamboat back then) struggled with the key, but to no avail. He didn’t get to witness Old Faithful on that fateful day and, like General Douglas MacArthur, vowed to someday return.

Decades later Yellowstone has become one of the most popular destinations in America as streaming caravans of tourists make their way to the rugged sight: Yellowstone is the fourth most visited national park, with over 4 million visitors per year. During Michael’s first visit in 1969 the park was popular, but nothing like this. Low cost airfare and a more mobile society have created massive crowds during the summer. But Yellowstone is magical—and relatively empty—in the fall, a season that’s perfect for snuggling up to a warm fire in the lodge and donning the first cozy sweater of the season.

Chromatic pool visiting Yellowstone in the fall

The park itself is aflame with the blazing leaves of quaking aspen, bigleaf maple, and cottonwood trees turning a brilliant yellow, and seems to operate on a slower pace. Deprived of the manic energy of all the summer visitors, it follows the lead of its grizzly bears and starts settling down for a long winter’s slumber.

Yellowstone Park waterfall

We visited in early October, just a week before most of the park closed for the year. This off-season period is the perfect time to enjoy the sights that make Yellowstone justly famous, without struggling for elbow-room while you do so. It’s worth noting that many of the park’s lodging options have also closed for the season by this point, so unless you reserve months ahead at one of the few lodges still open, you’ll have to stay outside the park. Fortunately, there are several routes to take into Yellowstone, with the towns nearby each offering their own flavor of Western life and good food and lodging options.

Buffalo Bill Museum of the West

Fifty miles from Yellowstone’s East Entrance, Cody, Wyoming transports visitors back to cowboy times. The town, founded by “Buffalo Bill” Cody, offers the spectacular Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a collection of five national-caliber museums under one roof. A member of the Smithsonian Affiliations program, it’s hard to imagine a better place to round out your Western education. Whether your interests are natural history, firearms, the local indigenous people, Western art or Buffalo Bill himself, you’ll find something to get you in the cowboy spirit.

Yellowstone park in fall buffalo

Note: This photo was taken with a zoom lens. Do NOT get close to the wildlife!

A day driving through the northern regions of the park took us past stunning vistas for which the park is justifiably famous. With virtually no one else on the road, we were able to explore at leisure. Occasionally, we’d spot a few cars pulled over by the side of the road, a familiar signal that there was wildlife in the vicinity to view. The bison proved particularly photogenic, especially when they chose to stop in the middle of the road and not budge for several minutes. We hadn’t seen any elk . . . until dusk.

45th parallel sign Yellowstone Park

A few hundred of them (yes, hundred) crossed our path, as we were leaving the park just after sunset. We bunked in for the night in the tiny hamlet of Gardiner, Montana, which sits just across the state line at the park’s Northern Entrance. Gardiner gives visitors a glimpse of life in days gone by, with only a few buildings and small motels lining the streets, many of which are unpaved. Later that night, that same herd of elk paid us a visit, moseying down the streets of Gardiner as if looking for their own room for the night.

Jackson wyoming antlers in park

From the southern approach, the town of Jackson offers the most sophisticated taste of the West near Yellowstone National Park. The village is located in the valley of Jackson Hole about 60 miles south of the park’s South Entrance, a drive that passes through Grand Teton National Park, with its breathtaking views of those rugged peaks.

Moose walking in jackson Wyoming

Jackson attracts high-end visitors who seek comfort mingled with a dose of ruggedness in their travels, which might explain the moose calf ambling along the side of the road as we drove into town. Our room at Spring Creek Ranch, perched high above the valley with the Grand Tetons in the distance, made Michael observe that the town had come a long way since his first visit, when the airport gates were literally two wooden gates, like you’d find in someone’s backyard.

Spring Creek Ranch Jackson Wyoming

The view from Spring Creek Ranch.

Meanwhile, back at Yellowstone we made our way to Old Faithful, located mere steps from the Old Faithful Inn with the balky bathroom door. (In Michael’s youthful memory it was over a mile, but whatever.) The geyser is showing its age a bit and is not quite as “faithful” as it used to be, emitting its scalding steam within a small range of times now. The crowds awaiting the sunset display were speaking in hushed tones, as if they too had succumbed to the languid rhythm of the final week of the season at Yellowstone. A small burst of steam shot into the sky, followed by the full force of the geyser. The setting sun turned the watery display into crystals jetting across the sky. It was magical, and more than made up for the 45-year wait.

Larissa Michael Milne Old faithful geyser

Decades later little Mikey Milne finally gets to see Old Faithful erupt.

Visitor Information:

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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During a nighttime stroll, we had become lost in the dimly lit, maze-like streets of old Saigon. A series of turns led us into a narrow alley whose sole purpose seemed to be connecting to other alleys. The winding streets felt as though laid out by a two-year-old chasing a kitten.

Locals, cooking their dinner on sidewalk grills, looked at us with amusement, while children stopped their games for a moment to point at us and giggle; obviously, we were well off the tourist path. One elderly man, sporting a wispy Ho Chi Minh beard, waved us away from one alley and pointed to another. We followed his advice, but ended up at a brick wall. Now what?

From an open-air building off to the side, a slight woman in her twenties, head shaved clean and clad in a plain gray robe, approached us and calmly said, “Come in.” Because we had no idea where we were, and only a vague idea of how to get back, we took her up on the offer.

Chaum Lam Pagoda altar (575x477)

Somehow, we had stumbled into the Châu Lâm Pagoda, a Buddhist convent, on the busiest day of the year – the Tet holiday. Sister Huê Chi led us inside to meet the Master of the convent, an elderly woman whose commanding presence belied her short stature. In the background, a nun struck a gong at regular intervals as the others chanted prayers to Buddha. Fragrant sandalwood incense from burning joss sticks wafted over us.

The Master led us by the hand to a table, where other nuns scurried to present us with traditional Tet dishes of sticky rice and bright orange mangoes. After finishing our impromptu dinner, we were led into the sanctuary.

saigon tet buddhist temple hands

Saffron-robed nuns bowed in rows behind small silver tables bearing prayer books. Their hands remained clasped together and their heads lowered as they shot curious sideways glances at us; the only Westerners there. Whenever we made eye contact we were met with a soothing smile. A few minutes later, we joined them in kneeling in front of a yellow-and-red altar dedicated to Buddha.

saigon ho chi minh city tet holiday

This magical event hadn’t been planned; in fact, we had gotten quite disoriented that evening. Though instead of pulling out a map or checking our GPS position on a cell phone, we decided to roll with it. It’s fun to plan your vacation ahead of time, but we find it’s best to just have a broad outline of what you want to see or do. Leave time for those serendipitous events that pop up out of nowhere and are impossible to schedule. Sometimes, to find the most interesting things, you just have to get lost.

We’re your average middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

We recently enjoyed a week in Bucharest, a city that pleasantly surprised us. While the Romanian capital is not among the first cities people think of when visiting Europe, we found it quite charming and extremely affordable. Initially we looked for enough activities to spend a week in Bucharest but ended up enjoying it so much we extended the stay.

Military Academy in Bucharest

Romania provides an authentic European travel experience at low prices that we haven’t enjoyed in decades. Part of that value is due to the strong dollar but part of it is also the fact that central and eastern Europe still provides many bargains. Those who treasure their old copies of Europe on $25 a Day would feel right at home here.

Bucharest park bench

During the late 19th century Bucharest was known as “Little Paris” and in certain sections, despite decades of an authoritarian regime that razed parts of the city, it actually does feel like Paris of times gone by, with a bit of Middle Eastern influences sprinkled in.

Bucharest School of Architecture

Avenues are lined with ornate domed buildings. Cafes with wicker chairs and tables sprout from wide sidewalks on sunny days while bakeries selling Turkish-style breads populate virtually every block.

Covrigul pretzel Bucharest

Don’t miss the covrigi (sunflower and poppy seed studded pretzels); in keeping with Romania’s good tourist value they sell for only 25 cents.

National Museum of Old Maps and Books Bucharest

Try to decipher Romania’s long and complicated history at the National Museum of Old Maps and Books; located in an old mansion at 39 Strada Londra in a quiet leafy neighborhood. Atlases and maps from the 16th through 20th centuries demonstrate graphically how the size and borders of Romania have transformed over the years as competing empires claimed parts of the strategically located country and also influenced its architecture, food and culture.

Romanian Athenaeum Bucharest 2

Bucharest’s orchestra hall, the circa-1880s French-designed Romanian Athenaeum, is an outstanding example of neoclassical architecture that is also a tribute to philosophy and culture. Names of great minds are chiseled in stone at the base of its dome: Moliere, Beethoven and others, along with our fair city of Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin.

Romanian Athenaeum Bucharest

The best way to view the Athenaeum is during a concert. During our visit to Bucharest the biennial George Enescu Festival was taking place. While enjoying a chamber orchestra concert we were able to appreciate the interiors many murals making up the “Great Fresco”: 25 scenes related to Romanian history that ring the circular auditorium.

Romanian Athenaeum Bucharest

A few blocks away the Old Town section of Bucharest offers a pedestrian-friendly area of cobblestoned streets full of boutiques, restaurants and bars. The neighborhood is not yet inundated with the weekend party-seekers that have turned other cities’ historic sections into interchangeable outposts of faux Irish pubs and chain restaurants.

Old Town Bucharest

The funky Left Bank atmosphere attracts primarily locals—unlike similar neighborhoods in Prague or Paris where English and German speakers dominate—Romanian is the language most often overheard. As the city sees increased international tourism in the next few years this vibe may disappear, but for now it still feels like visiting “Old World” Europe.

Four decades of communist rule left an indelible mark on the city, yet Bucharest is assimilating that part of its past into the capitalist present. It is impossible to miss the Parliament Building, a brooding hulk of marble perched imposingly on a hill at the western end tip of Bulevardul Unirii (Reunification Boulevard).

Palace of the Parliament Bucharest

Ceaușescu’s massive monument to the glory of the party (and himself) was still unfinished at the time of his overthrow in 1989. It now is famous as the “world’s heaviest building.”  Unfinished at the time of Ceaușescu’s death, Romania’s central government now occupies it.

Venture two blocks from the Athenaeum to Revolution Square (formerly Palace Square) to witness the site of Ceaușescu’s downfall. In December 1989 Ceaușescu delivered his final speech from the balcony of the building fronting the square that housed the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. Encouraged by the fall of the Berlin Wall, change was coming quickly to Romania. During the speech the crowd turned on the dictator, leading to protests that were met by government gunfire into the square. The resulting revolution was brief but bloody: over 1,000 civilians killed and a fleeing Ceaușescu and his wife executed within days.

Revolution Square Bucharest Romania

Today the space is peaceful with the pylon of the Memorial of Rebirth honoring the fallen piercing the sky. Rotating art exhibits fill the square while the Royal Palace across the street is now the National Museum of Art of Romania featuring Romanian artists along with Old Masters like El Greco, Rembrandt and Rubens.

Ateneuli Park, a small wooded space sandwiched between the Athenaeum and Revolution Square, is a perfect spot for an impromptu dessert picnic of a salted caramel éclair from the nearby French Revolution bakery. Like the fresco in the Athenaeum’s rotunda, Bucharest has come full-circle and “Little Paris,” with a few 21st-century twists, has returned.

For a tasty look at Romania check out our story on Romanian pastries.

 Visitor Information for a week in Bucharest:

  • There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Bucharest, however there are airline alliance connections through many European gateway cities.
  • The unit of currency is the leu (plural lei, pronounced “lay”). The exchange rate is around 4 lei to $1.00.
  • The language is Romanian, although most Romanians in Bucharest speak at least some English. Romanian has its roots in Latin; anyone familiar with French, Spanish or Italian will notice similarities.
  • Bucharest in Your Pocket is a free online guide that offers helpful, up-to-date tourist information http://www.inyourpocket.com/bucharest.
  • Our top travel guides for visiting Bucharest.

The lovely city of Bucharest, Romania offers plenty to see during a week-long visit

We’re global nomads who have been traveling the world since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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The Royal Yacht Britannia, the private yacht of the British royal family, is open to visitors just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland.  No longer in active service, HMY (Her Majesty’s Yacht) Britannia served the royal family for almost 45 years.

The 400-foot yacht was launched in 1953 shortly after Elizabeth II became queen. It was taken out of active service in 1997, due to cost cutbacks in the British government. Today the ship is anchored permanently in Leith, Scotland, about five miles from central Edinburgh. Visitors can tour the ship at their own pace; each admission ticket includes an audio headset that provides self-guided information.

Royal Yacht Britannia at sea

Royal Yacht Britannia during her days at sea.  At 5,500 tons (4% the size of  the Queen Mary 2) the yacht resembles a miniature cruise ship.

The tour is comprehensive. A set route guides visitors over several decks encompassing virtually all aspects of the ship. The dedicated staterooms of both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are each on display. Additional staterooms in the family quarters were used by whoever happened to be on board at the time, including honeymooners Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Royal yacht Britannia Queens bedroom

Queen Elizabeth’s elegant and spacious stateroom aboard Royal Yacht Britannia.

Despite the small number of passengers, Britannia served as the Queen’s official residence while she was aboard, and was often the site of state dinners and receptions wherever the ship was in port. The State Dining Room, which can seat 96, is set as it would be for such a dinner. Although permanently docked, the ship still hosts official royal functions; the pre-wedding reception for Zara Phillips (daughter of Princess Anne) and her fiancee was held on Britannia in 2011.

dining room her majesty's yacht britannia

The State Dining Room on the Royal Yacht Britannia can seat almost 100 for official state dinners.

Those who are more interested in the Britannia’s mechanical side will enjoy visiting the bridge, crew’s quarters and engine rooms.  All are kept in top working order; the crisp white paint and polished brass epitomize the term “ship shape.”

Royal Yacht Britannia-polished brass

From the topmost deck down to the engine room, all the brass on Royal Yacht Britannia is kept well-polished.

After your unofficial “inspection” of Britannia, indulge in a little royal treatment by having lunch or tea onboard. The aft lounge on Royal Deck has been converted into a tearoom, where visitors can enjoy a light meal. With large windows overlooking the gleaming teak decks, relax over tea and a scone, and enjoy the luxury of living the life of royalty . . . even if only for a day.

Royal Yacht Britannia-Afternoon Tea

Visiting Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia

Address:  The Royal Yacht Britannia, Ocean Drive, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6JJ

Website:  For further information visit The Royal Yacht Britannia.

Time to Allow:  About one hour to tour, additional hour for lunch or tea.

Who should go:  Those interested in the Royal Family, lovers of ships and nautical history.

Is it worth it?  At £12 for adults/£ 7.50 for kids (approx. $19/12 US) it’s not cheap, and there may not be enough to keep little ones engaged. But it is a one-of-a-kind vessel, and a true piece of 20th-century British history. And it’s fun to pretend you’re the Queen’s guest for tea, even if you do have to pay for the meal!

And the nautically-minded can stop by the Officer’s Club for a photo op!

Royal Yacht Britannia-officer's club

Like it? Share it . . . Pin it!Feel like royalty--for a day--by visiting Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh, the ship where Princess Diana spent her honeymoon.

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Los Angeles is the focus of a sprawling metropolitan area with widespread places like Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Pasadena, all connected by the infamous freeways. But walking around downtown Los Angeles, no car required, is a fun way to spend a day in this auto-centric city. Read more

We were staying for two weeks in the bucolic Devon countryside, nestled in a remote cottage perched on the edge of Dartmoor. This legendary, perhaps haunted, bog was made famous in works such as The Hound of the Baskervilles. Our visions of long walks down sun-dappled country lanes were washed out by two weeks of rain during the wettest spring on record; which, for England, is saying something. Determined to “keep calm and carry on,” we donned our raincoats and stiff upper lips, and explored the soggy countryside. What we didn’t know was that we were about to encounter killer cows in England.

The moors of Devonshire, home of the "Killer Cows"

Maps in England highlight public rights-of-way where anyone can take a stroll. We brought along such a map and assumed that with it we wouldn’t get lost. That was our first mistake.

Larissa killer cow in England

Larissa rethinks her choice of jacket color when trying not to be noticed by a bull in England.

After an hour we found ourselves somehow in a farmer’s pasture sinking ankle-deep in mud (and whatever other mud-like substance might be deposited in a cow pasture). We stared up a rise at a herd of longhorn bulls none too happy about our presence. That’s when we realized we were on the wrong side of the fence and the only way out was through an electrified gate. Oh, and there was a bull with horns six feet long (okay, maybe three feet long) blocking it and staring at us ominously, as bulls so often do.

A "Killer Cow" blocks the gate in England

Like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the bulls started pawing the ground and glaring at us. We froze, not wanting to antagonize our new friends. After 20 minutes of playing statue in the drenching rain and sinking deeper into the muck  (Michael sank quicker, weighed down by his discovery, earlier in the week, of donuts pumped full with Devonshire cream), he heroically told Larissa to run for it while he distracted the bulls with his umbrella. (Hey, it’s all he had.)

England electric fence for "Killer Cows"

Larissa thwacked across the muddy field in her hiking sandals while Michael charged up the hill, his souvenir umbrella from the Louvre in Paris leading the way. Unfortunately it didn’t open since he had forgotten to undo the strap. Once that was all sorted out he charged again, counting on the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa to frighten the bulls.

 Our only protection from the "Killer Cows" of EnglandSomehow the bulls weren’t scared of this choice of weapon.

While Michael held the confused bulls at bay, Larissa employed the dexterity of a bomb squad engineer to unhook the electric fence from the car battery that powered it. We scrambled over the fence, proud that just one of us tore their pants, only to run into the neighboring farm’s tenacious sheep dogs who promptly started biting Michael in the ankle.

If this is a bucolic walk in the English countryside you can keep it.

We’re global nomads who have been traveling the world since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Michael and I have been on the road for over three years now with no fixed address, yet people still ask us where we call home. We finally have a good answer: we live at Airbnb. We thought it would be useful to explain how Airbnb works.

We don’t work for them, nor do we live at their corporate headquarters (although considering their funky new offices in San Francisco that might be fun). We’ve used Airbnb on four continents, and in the past year alone we’ve spent about 200 nights at Airbnb properties: if Airbnb were a country, we’d qualify for citizenship.

Airbnb has changed the way we travel. We still stay in hotels, but when planning destinations, Airbnb is the first place we check for lodging.

There are several reasons why we keep going back for more:

1. Multiple Lodging Options:

No matter whether you’re looking for a luxury condo in Buenos Aires or a spare bedroom in Nashville you can find it on Airbnb. I like the variety; when staying somewhere a week or longer we prefer a house/apartment to rent, whereas for a night or two a private room in someone’s home is perfect. Think of it as “Aunt Mabel’s spare bedroom (with better furniture) meets Couch Surfing, meets VRBO.”

how airbnb worksThis Buenos Aires studio is a far cry from couch surfing

2. Cost:

A big advantage here. It stands to reason that going direct to the source would be more cost-efficient. Plus the more “homey” aspect means you’re foregoing costly things typically associated with hotels, like daily maid service. Note: Airbnb does tack a service fee on top of the quoted price, but on the whole it’s still a better value than comparable hotels.

3. Off the Tourist Track:

Staying in someone’s home puts you in a residential neighborhood, whether a city high-rise or a country farm. It’s a real pleasure to get away from motels at interstate exits or lodging in touristy locations. We loved our flat in the Cihangir neighborhood in Istanbul where all the grocery stores delivered — and we got to know the guy in the video shop.

how airbnb worksOur quiet residential neighborhood in Istanbul

4. New Friends in New Places:

The whole Airbnb experience tends to draw hosts who genuinely like to entertain and share info about their hometown. A dialogue begins with the reservation, so you already know someone local by the time you pull into town. Our host in Memphis joined us for ribs at the local barbecue joint and in Malta we received a homemade version of the island’s traditional Easter cake. We even met one host’s father: a 90-year-old D-Day veteran who literally shared “war stories” with us. We’ve stayed in touch with many of our Airbnb hosts and now have friends all over the world.

how airbnb works-D-day veteran90-year-old D-Day veteran “Beamy” Beamsderfer, the father of one of our Airbnb hosts, shared war stories with us

5. Easy to Use:

After traveling full-time for over three years I’ve used just about every vacation rental website out there, and Airbnb’s is by far the easiest. Searching for places is simple, the pricing structure is clear and booking is done by credit card once you’ve set up an account. I’ve recently noticed other websites styling their design to look virtually the same as Airbnb, yet the search functions and variety of properties Airbnb has on offer are still the best.

6. Personal profiles and reviews:

A big part of the Airbnb experience is establishing an online profile and collecting reviews — for both hosts and guests. Think of it as an online booking site and TripAdvisor all rolled into one. The system is designed so you can’t pad it with fake reviews, thus crappy lodging or disrespectful guests are easily weeded out and don’t stay on the site for long.

how airbnb worksWould you trust these people in your home? Fortunately our Airbnb profile says we’re good houseguests, so our Nashville host Jeff let us (and our visiting nephew) strum away!

Even if you’re not constantly on the road like us, adding Airbnb to your lodging repertoire will give you new options and change the way you travel. There are still times when other lodging options are a better fit, such as when we spent a week in hotels on the Las Vegas Strip for the full-blown thick-of-the-action experience, or when we needed to find a quiet writer’s retreat for three months to finish our latest book.

But on balance, it’s fairly accurate to say we live at Airbnb. It’s our (sort of) home address.

Note: We have fully paid for all of our stays.

***Get a $20 Credit on your first stay***

Thinking of trying out Airbnb? Take advantage of Airbnb’s referral program.  Sign up here: Airbnb new member. You’ll get a $20 credit on your first stay over $75.

 

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We’ve been on the road since 2011 with no home and no fixed address. Whenever we meet people they are surprised that we are true nomads. The first question we often get is, “How do you live a nomadic life?” Here are some tips for wandering the world.

How to live a nomadic life

how to live a nomadic life bedouin camp

1)      Give it up — If you have a house, sell it: if you have stuff, get rid of it; if you have an office-based job, leave it. If you’re going to wander the world, you don’t want to be weighed down by things back home.

2)      Put yourself in a box — Life sometimes intrudes on the fantasy of chucking it all. You’ll need a place to receive the occasional mail. Set up a P.O. box or use a trusted friend or relative’s address.

3)      You can bank on it — The Internet that is. Set up banking and paying all your bills online. The good thing about a nomadic life though, there are many less bills to pay. No cable, WiFi, mortgage/rent, home insurance, real  estate taxes, utilities; well you get my drift, it’s a lot cheaper to be  a nomad.

4)      To store or not to store? — That really is the question. Although we got rid of most of our possessions before leaving, we still had enough junk left over to fill a 10’ by 10’ storage unit. We thought it was stuff we’d still need or want. Guess what? We were wrong.  After returning to the U.S. we got rid of the remaining items.

5)      The telephone game — I got rid of my cell phone before leaving in August, 2011 and have lived without one ever since. It’s remarkably freeing. Set up a Skype account so you can still keep in touch with those you want to call. Think of all the time you just freed up by not checking voice mail or texting all day.

6)      Book it — Libraries are a wonderful resource on the road. Almost every town has one, they offer free Wifi and are quiet, air-conditioned places to hang out. We skim through the used book rack to buy $1 books. If we stay someplace for a week or more we get a library card so we can check out books and DVDs for free.

7)      Playing doctor — Health insurance is a major issue. Check into plans for travelers but be aware that some of them require you to have a base health insurance policy first. Many nomads get minimal coverage or go places where health care is so cheap they travel without insurance. We have a basic policy and skip things like medical evacuation coverage. We had our own health insurance for years before we started our nomadic life. Unfortunately under the ACA the price has gone up. You’ll have to choose the plan that works best for you.

8)      The world is flat — Skip the hotels and rent flats or apartments. They are a cheaper option for long-term travel. See our tips for long-term apartment rentals. During our journey Airbnb has become our default rental site to the point that we now live in “Airbnb World.”

9)      Go the extra mile — When we were traveling around the world we rented a car where we needed one. Back in the U.S. that got expensive so we bought a car. You’ll put on many miles as a nomad so skip the gas guzzler and get a car with great gas mileage.

10)    Take a break — Constantly moving from place to place can get tiring. We try to stay a minimum of a week anywhere. We’ll also set up firebreaks where we’ll stay at least a month or two to recharge our batteries and catch up on our writing. When that happens Larissa even makes the investment of buying a bottle of ketchup. I’m concerned though that it could be a gateway condiment and the next thing I know she’ll be buying mustard and relish.

Bonus tip: Don’t worry, be flexible — Every place you stay may not be as comfortable or as nice as you like. We’ve had relatively good luck in this department, mostly due to Larissa’s thorough vetting of our rentals. But the beauty of living a nomadic life is that if you don’t like an area, you’ll soon be moving on. And if you do like it, then you can stay longer.

Any questions you have or tips you’d like to share?

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Attracting millions of tourists a year, Paris is one of the most popular destinations in the world. But there are still plenty of off the beaten path sights in Paris where a visitor can roam freely.

Explore the hidden gardens of the Eiffel Tower

eiffelt ower gardens and ponds

The lines to ride the elevators to the top of the Eiffel Tower often serpentine around the base as visitors wait for hours. Less known are the lovely gardens and hidden ponds tucked away at the base of the structure. Take some time to explore these undiscovered areas. They offer a unique view of the symbol of Paris, offering a sense of solitude mere steps away from the tourist throngs visiting the Eiffel Tower.

Excite your tastebuds on “Falafel Alley

PAris Las du falafal (800x626)

Falafel is a deep-fried ball or patty made up of a mixture of chick peas, fava beans and spices. It’s served in a pita with tahini sauce and shredded vegetables. Rue des Rosiers in the 4th arrondissement is home to two of the best falafel places in Paris: Mi Va Mi at #23 and L’As du Fallafel at #34. The latter often has long lines winding down the block while you can often stroll right into Mi Va Mi. That’s what we suggested doing. Both places are so good there’s no need waiting to fill your falafel craving if you don’t have to. (But to be fair, the line does move quickly.) If you’re more in a meat mood, try the shawarma too.

It’s always tea time at the Museum of Tea at Mariage Frères

tea museum mariage freres paris (800x558)

Mariage Frères at 30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg is a must-see destination for tea lovers. Part shop and part tea room, real aficionados will head down the stone stairway to the basement to see the underappreciated Museum of Tea. Two rooms are chock full of exhibits about the history of tea and the Mariage Frères brand. After you peruse the examples of tea and antique tea canisters displayed, head upstairs for a hot cup of tea or buy some leaves to brew your own later.

Roam a quiet village in the city

butte aux cailles paris

If the hustle and bustle of Paris have you longing for a quiet country feel, head over to Butte Aux Cailles at the southern end of town.  This pocket neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement seems like it was carved out of a provincial town. The quiet, hilly streets are dotted with charming cafes and shops—but nothing particularly hip or trendy. An afternoon stroll through Butte Aux Cailles provides a breath of fresh air and a chance to recharge your batteries before heading back into the center of the City of Light.

Turn the page on the Left Bank

Paris san francisco bookstore (800x638)

Head over to the 6th arrondissement where two Americans from California operate used bookstores within a coin’s toss of each other. The San Francisco Book Company opened in 1997 while Berkeley Books was formed in 2006 by three employees of the former store. They each offer a stellar selection of quality used books with a few new popular titles thrown into the mix. There is a story behind this perhaps not so friendly competition but neither bookshop owner has revealed it. Either way, readers benefit from the thousands of reasonably priced titles on display.

A people’s tribute to Princess Diana

Paris diana memorial graffiti (800x574)

When Princess Diana died in a car accident in Paris in 1997 near the Place de l’Alma, the site of her death became an instant area for makeshift memorials devoted to her memory. It’s right by the Flame of Liberty, a sculpture that is a replica of the flame atop the Statue of Liberty in New York City, which was placed here in 1987 to commemorate American-French relations. Plans to dedicate a permanent memorial to Diana in Paris have never materialized, so her fans and followers still gather by the Flame of Liberty and inscribe notes to her on the stone walkway nearby.

 

On a first trip to Paris most visitors go through the checklist of “must-see” attractions: The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame are usually the most popular. But there are many less crowded sights in Paris.

Imagine strolling through a museum and you are the only one there. Or finding a quiet corner in a park to get attached to the rhythms of the city without the crowds. Here are a few such places to visit in Paris.

5 less crowded sights in Paris

1) Picpus Cemetery

This bucolic setting (pictured above) is Paris’ only private cemetery. It holds the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette. A US flag always flies over this hero of the American Revolution, courtesy of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  The cemetery also contains the remains of victims of the Reign of Terror who were guillotined in 1794. Rows of manicured rose gardens leading to a simple stone commemorating those who died create a poignant tableau. (Thanks to one of our readers, Barbara, for suggesting this site.)

picpus cemetery paris

2) Musee des Plans Reliefs (The Relief Map Museum at Les Invalides)

A visitor can spend days at Les Invalides, the French military museum that also houses Napoleon’s tomb. But tucked into a quiet attic space is the Relief Map Museum, a collection of 30 antique scale-models of fortified sites from the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the room-sized models are over 300 years old. They were used by kings and generals to plan military fortifications and engage in war games. Due to its almost clandestine location, this museum is usually empty and you’ll have it to yourself.

less crowded sights in paris (640x501)

3) Les Egouts (The sewers)

How many cities can claim a sewer system with a literary heritage? Les Egouts are featured prominently in Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables. Believe it or not, they can make for a fascinating half-hour. Visitors stroll along open culverts carrying effluent, and who knows what else, from the city streets above. Wear a hat because sometimes those rusty overhead pipes leak. It’s a short walk from the Eiffel Tower so you can combine the two to see Paris from both its crystal-clear heights and murky depths. Sure the Eiffel Tower is romantic, but was it featured in The Phantom of the Opera? Here’s information on how to tour the sewers of Paris.

Paris sewers

Book a unique Paris tour with Viator.

4) The Catacombs

Miles of underground pathways containing the bones of over 6 million people, many of them arranged in quite decorative poses. It’s also where the French Resistance hid from the Gestapo during World War II. This site is best visited in the winter, spring or fall to avoid the peak summer season when there are long waits to get in. However those long waits are due to entry being limited, so once you descend into the Catacombs it won’t be too crowded. If you do go in summer go later in the day. It’s popular with teenage boys and other ghoulish types.

Catacombs mortal sign

5) Chateau D’ Vincennes

If you can’t make it to the château region try this local spot. Located on the outskirts of Paris, but easily reachable by Metro, this 14th-century structure is one of the best preserved castles in Europe.  Don’t forget to visit the dungeon where you can see the cell of the infamous Marquis de Sade.

Chateau de vincennes

Like it? Share it . . . Pin it!Five sights in Paris where you can avoid the crowds and still get a good dose of the city's history

Here’s a list of Larissa’s favorite offbeat sights in Paris.

What favorite bits of Paris do you recommend?

Book your own unique Paris tour with Viator.

We’re global nomads who have been traveling the world since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.


Last week Michael wrote about some of his less crowded sights in Paris. We both love the nooks and crannies of the City of Light, and fortunately there are plenty of them. My suggestions are a little less grim than his—I prefer to spend my time above ground.

Five less crowded sights in Paris

 1) Malmaison  

The former home of Josephine Bonaparte, this “petite château” sits among beautiful gardens on the outskirts of Paris. It is easily accessible by metro and bus. Meticulously restored with many original furnishings, Malmaison offers insight to the country life where Napoleon spent his weekends away from Paris. History, culture, gardens and a cool chateau in one tidy little package. Far more digestible, and less crowded, than Versailles.

Less crowded sights in Paris Malmaison (550x440)

Malmaison was Napoleon and Josephine’s love nest.

2) English Language Bookstores of the Left Bank  

For a glimpse into Paris’ literary past, start with a visit to Shakespeare & Co., perched opposite Notre Dame cathedral. It’s a 1950’s-era reboot of the original shop that closed during WWII, that somehow manages to channel ghosts of both the lost the beat generations. It’s a tiny, creaky old place with tons of great titles. Don’t miss the mini-museum on the 2nd floor. Once you’re in a literary mood, amble over to the Odeon neighborhood where two competing used bookshops, San Francisco Books and Berkeley Books (there’s a story behind this budding rivalry), offer previously read tomes at reasonable prices. They each have good Paris-related sections, including guidebooks.

Less crowded sights in Paris-One of the left bank's English bookstores

Channel your inner Hemingway at Shakespeare and Company

3) Musée Marmottan Monet

This small museum boasts one of the largest collections of Monet’s works in the world. It is the “city sister” of the well-known Monet Gardens at Giverny. Housed in a former mansion in the 16th arrondisement, the Marmottan’s manageable size and bucolic setting enable a slow perusal of some legendary artwork, including paintings by Monet’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist colleagues. An excellent collection of medieval illuminations is also on display.

4) Saxe-Breteuil Market

A street food market in spectacular setting behind the Ecole Militaire with a view of the Eiffel Tower. It is crowded, but not with tourists carrying guidebooks. Open every Thursday and Saturday morning, Saxe-Breteuil is where residents of the 7th and 14th arrondisements shop for groceries. If you don’t have a flat with a kitchen you’ll only be able to ogle the cabbage-sized artichokes, Breton lobsters and fresh duck eggs. But even a visitor with a small hotel room can pick up fresh Normandy cider, ham cut to order off the bone and a hunk of aged Auvergne cheese.

Less crowded sights Paris-the tasty Saxe Breteuil Market

Sniff out a few bargains at the fish counter.

5) Canal St. Martin

This multi-locked canal forms the spine of a neighborhood north of the Bastille. Trees and tiny parks line the 4 km long waterway, arced with delicate iron footbridges every few blocks. The streets alongside house some funky shops and small cafes. There are plenty of spots to enjoy a simple picnic while watching the barges and tour boats float by as they are raised and lowered through the locks.

Less crowded sights in Paris- Canal Saint-Martin

The canal provides a relaxing setting for a picnic.

I hope you found these “less gritty” and “more pretty” than Michael’s suggestions.

Like it? Share it . . .Pin it!Here are 5 lesser-known sights in Paris that are truly peaceful & pretty--including Napoleon & Josephine's love nest & an Impressionist museum that's NOT the Musee d'Orsay ;)

Can you recommend some other sights in Paris?

We’re global nomads who have been traveling the world since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Is it possible to travel on your own in Africa?  I really wanted to go on a safari, but Michael’s not too big on nature stuff and neither of us like group tours.  The challenge was on: I needed to find a way for us to take a road trip, seeing Africa on a self-drive safari.

Many of the African countries popular for viewing wild game, such Kenya and Tanzania, caution against moving about the country on your own due to safety concerns. The result is group safaris. Usually bulky, uncomfortable overland vehicles that leave at the crack of dawn, cramming as much as possible into the day.  (Did I mention we really don’t like to get up early?)

Self-drive safari in Africa

Sleeping in is always an option on your own self-drive safari. We enjoyed a late breakfast at Ai Aiba Rockpainting Lodge after our solitary stroll amid the rock art.

To my delight I learned about Namibia. The 22-year-old nation on the southwest coast of Africa has developed a reputation as a safe spot for drive-yourself vacations. It offers an abundance of wild animals, a sterling national park system, and spectacular scenery.  It’s big and sparsely populated, larger than Texas with only ten percent of the people.

Self-drive safari in Africa

Not much traffic in sparsely populated Namibia.

Visitors typically begin in the capital city of Windhoek, flying in via Johannesburg or directly from Frankfurt, Germany on Air Namibia. Begin your road trip right at the airport. Pick up a rental car; almost all are 4-wheel drive SUVs or pick-ups. Namibia boasts excellent roads, but the well-marked secondary routes are gravel and the extra control and high clearance come in handy.

Self-drive safari in Africa

Driving on gravel roads or the signature red sands at Sossusvlei makes renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle a must in Namibia.

Namibia has stayed away from large-scale tourism. Most accommodation is of the “boutique” variety.  Whether lodges, tent camps or bed & breakfasts, all are perfect for a romantic stay. (Even the tent camps: we found one with a queen-sized bed and air-conditioning!) During our 3-week self-drive safari we stayed in a few of each. Our criterion of a double with en-suite was easy to find in all price ranges. We opted for 3-4 star quality, which cost us anywhere from $75/night with breakfast to about $250/night per couple, including breakfast and dinner. Prices were higher at more remote locations.

Self-drive safari in Africa

Our air-conditioned tent at Etosha Village-complete with queen-sized bed and open air shower-just outside of Etosha National Park.

The best part was that the entire trip was at our own pace. Self-drive also meant self-scheduling. We rose when we wanted and could spend as much time as we liked just absorbing Africa. During a pre-breakfast hike (which for us was 8:30) we searched for 500-year-old rock paintings of giraffes, and then turned to see a pack of live giraffes ambling by, oblivious to their portraits set in stone. Driving among the signature red dunes at Sossusvlei, we simply pulled to the side of the road for an impromptu picnic when the mood struck.

But nothing can compare to a drive all by yourself through the vast Etosha National Park to view wild game. Imagine rounding a bend on a dusty road to find a water hole with 30 elephants cavorting or another with a giraffe placidly taking refreshing sip, the two of you as the only observers.  Nature has invited you to a private showing, and it’s truly a “pinch me” moment. Even “I’m not a nature boy” was impressed.

Self-drive safari in Africa

It’s easy to get a great photo when you’re the only one around!

If you made it this far you might want to read how we avoided getting eaten by a lion in Namibia.

Planning:  There are several companies that can help you plan your self-drive holiday, however we chose to book our own. The Namibia Tourism Board publishes a comprehensive 200-page visitor’s guide that reviews sights, suggested itineraries, travel companies and lodging options. 

Getting There:  The capital city of Windhoek, which is just about in the geographic center of the country, is a great place to begin and end your safari. Most flights are routed through Johannesburg, however Air Namibia also offers one direct flight daily from Frankfurt, Germany.

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The second most popular question we get about how to travel for a year has been: How do you decide where to go? (We’ll tell you the most common question later.) Trip planning is different for everybody but here’s how we did it.

We knew there were certain sites that were “must sees.” Our top five were: the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, Sydney Harbour, Petra and wild game in Africa. On top of that there were a few destinations that we definitely wanted to include in an around-the-world itinerary: Paris, Buenos Aires, Dubai, Hong Kong and Jerusalem.

travel for a year Sydney Harbour

We originally hoped to go to Tokyo, but when we were planning the trip in early 2011 Japan was feeling the aftershocks of their earthquake. Things were still a bit unsettled there, so we decided to postpone Japan for another time.

We also had a few other criteria:

1)      Weather – We didn’t want to be anyplace during their winter. Packing for a temperate climate is easier, plus we just didn’t want to be cold.

2)      Geography – We wanted to hit 6 continents. Antarctica would be left out for this go around. It’s too expensive, plus see the previous comment about cold.

3)      We were going to North Korea for the Mass Games which only occur in August/September so we had to work around that.

Our planning bible was National Geographic’s 100 Countries, 5,000 Ideas: Where to Go, When to Go, What to See, What to Do . It provides an overview and photos of each country along with information on the best time to visit for weather, etc.

travel for a year Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Along the way we came across an issue which severely impacted our planning: the Schengen Agreement. The what agreement? This obscure little treaty limits how long travelers can visit most of continental Europe to 90 days within a 180-day period. We didn’t know about this when the trip started, but later on it severely limited our options when we were in Europe.

Combining the must-see sites, destinations and criteria gave us a sort of framework to wrap the trip around. When we left America we had the first two months planned. September would be spent in China and North Korea, followed by a month-long flat rental in Sydney. Beyond that we had no idea where we were going.

travel for a year Dubai harbor

Initially we thought we would always have the next two months planned out, but that notion quickly fell by the wayside. As we got deeper into the trip we became more adept at planning and more used to being flexible. We often didn’t know two days ahead of time what country we would be in next. But that unknowing became part of the fun.

We had decided against buying a round-the-world airline ticket, so we had more flexibility. However, airfare was part of our planning equation since we were always buying one-way tickets. In Australia we couldn’t explore as much of the country as we wanted since flights were ridiculously expensive. In Southeast Asia it was the opposite, there we found low-cost carriers that allowed us to hop around quite cheaply.

Vietnam Airlines duct tape

Okay, so maybe some of the planes were held together by duct tape but we were assured they were safe. 

A major source of destinations that popped up during the trip was recommendations from other travelers we met along the way. Namibia and Turkey were not on the radar for us when we started out. But so many people gushed about them that we added them to our list. We’re glad we did, as they became two of our most enjoyable places.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi

Yes, that’s Larissa as we toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Michael was petrified of breaking the PDA rule, hence his “no hands” pose.  

Our favorite trip planning tools

We brought with us an inflatable globe and a fold-out map of the world. They became two of our essential trip-planning tools. We’d sit for hours poring over them to pick our next destination. It’s incredibly fun to plan without any time constraints. That only became an issue towards the end of the trip when we had set up a date by which we had to return.

map round the world trip planning

The trusty map displays the end result of all our planning.

At some point we realized it’s not like this is the last trip of our lives, so we don’t have to see everything on this go around. That realization made planning easier. Overall it worked out pretty well. While we didn’t enjoy every place that we went, we had a pretty good batting average. It’s helpful to start out with some idea of where you want to go, but make sure to be flexible along the way.

Oh, and the most popular question we get? “What was your favorite place?” There were so many so we still haven’t figured out an answer for that one.

What would be some of your “must sees” on an around the world trip?

Earlier this year we attended the Travel Bloggers Unite conference where we met many people who were going to travel for a year. Most of them were lugging huge backpacks, while we had wheeled suitcases. One girl looked longingly at our bags and said “I wish I had done that instead of a backpack.”

We’re not packing geniuses, we’re just not backpackers. So when it came time to plan this trip backpacks never entered the equation. Each of us had plenty of business travel experience, where a wheeled suitcase is the luggage of choice. Our motto was “go with what you know.”

How to travel for a year Paris vacation apartment rental

This apartment was our home in Paris for two weeks. 

The same goes for our lodging options. A married couple in their 50s is not really interested in a hostel dorm room. Many hostels do offer double rooms with private baths, but we were surprised to discover that the prices for two people were often similar to a decent hotel, guesthouse, or even a small apartment. Again, we’ve chosen to go with what we know and have found lodging that is comfortable and within our budget.

For more of our luggage and lodging advice read the article we wrote, Career Breaks: They’re not just for backpackers, for Meet, Plan, GO!, the organization that helps people with career break planning (their online editor was one of the envious backpackers at the conference.) Take a look and you’ll also find many other helpful posts on the site about planning your own grand adventure.

As a schoolteacher, my mother Marian has always had a natural curiosity about the world and a love of travel which she instilled in her two sons. When I was nine years old she took us on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Grand Canyon. For the first time I realized there was an exciting world out there.

We hadn’t seen my mom since we left on our year-long around-the-world trek last August. We asked her if she’d like to meet us someplace along the way. But lately she says “I’m too tired, I don’t get around easily, I’ll just slow you down.” I knew these were just excuses that could be overcome.

Larissa and I chose a destination my mother couldn’t resist: Italy, the birthplace of her parents. When she brought up her age we reminded her that Grandpa had made his last trip to the old country when he was a mere ninety-six years old. And then I suggested she come over for her birthday. It’s a particularly poignant day for her; she shares the same birth date as my father who died four years ago. Since then birthdays have become a painful memory of her loss. She couldn’t  resist the comforting distraction of traveling with us on that day.

italy apartment rental

Our Italian apartment with the Gulf of Salerno in the distance.

Mom agreed to visit so Larissa found a rental apartment in the hilltop village of Corpo di Cava, near the Amalfi Coast, where we would spend a week. Perched on the edge of a cliff, the house provided sweeping views of the nearby hillsides and overlooked an 11th-century Benedictine Abbey. The warmth from the woodstove was a cozy respite during what turned out to be a chilly rainy week. Since this trip was about spending time together, the wet weather relieved us of any burden to run out and see as many sites as possible.  It gave us the perfect excuse to slow down and sit by the fire while we ate home-cooked Italian food and caught up on our lives over the last half-year.

One sunny day we took in the spectacular ruins of Pompeii. The sight is a bit of a physical challenge since it stands on a hill beneath the brooding hulk of Mt. Vesuvius. Mom travels with a lightweight folding chair that lets her sit down anywhere. Periodically she was content to rest and observe the passersby.

folding travel chair

The folding travel chair always comes in handy.

After an hour of clambering over ruins and people-watching, she decided she had seen enough of the ancient Roman town. Larissa and I still wanted to discover more so I escorted mom back to a piazza in town knowing she’d occupy herself with a gelato while we continued to explore. This arrangement allowed us to each enjoy Pompeii at our own pace.

Rocky Giuliano Naples (506x550)

Our pizza guide in Naples, 10-year-old Giuliano.

Afterwards, we meandered through the chaotic streets of Naples in search of pizza. Here is where mom’s background as the daughter of immigrants came in handy. Speaking Italian she asked a father and son if they could recommend a good pizzeria. Ten year-old Giuliano piped up, “Come on I show you.”

So away we went, following the young boy through the streets of Naples. It worked out perfectly, his short-legged stride at just the right pace for mom. Before this trip I thought our roles would now be reversed and as adult children we would be doing the leading. But here was mom in Italy, using her language skills and newfound energy to once again lead us.

Mom Milne walking Naples (2) (575x431)

Larissa trying to keep with an energized mom.

Oh, and her birthday? We celebrated it at a restaurant in Salerno. The staff made a big deal out of the event and baked a special cake for her. Mom was overwhelmed. She said it was the first birthday she had enjoyed since my dad died.

Every year we wonder what to get mom for Mother’s Day. It turns out the greatest gift we can give our parents is ourselves, the special moments that we share together. They’ve certainly earned it.

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Mother’s Day, 2012.