Alex heard of Zoom Vacations years ago and had always wanted to join us on a tour. Our Danube River Cruise trip lined up perfectly for him and his travel-buddy, Steve, and they joined us on this unique Easter Europe vacation.
We interviewed our feature traveler a little bit differently this time around. Last month, we interviewed Rick before his Zoom Vacations Southern Africa trip. Rick has now returned home from his southern African adventure and below are his thoughts as he reflects on the tour.
Zoom: Did this tour live up to your expectations?
Rick: The tour surpassed my expectations. I was ready for fabulous hotels, and informative tours. What I also got, was an engaging and enthusiastic tour guide in Cape Town (Tim), who was informative, engaging, and with whom the group easily established a rapport, an over-the-top safari experience beyond anything I could have imagined, from the 5+ star lodge to the fabulous meals (oh, those 8 course lunches!), incredibly friendly staff, unforgettable walks with well behaved lions and cheetah, and an exciting ride with Mary the elephant! In addition to the safari at Krueger, the activities in Livingstone / Victoria Falls were thrilling! Not to mention the fabulous property with wildlife walking on the grounds freely!!! I could easily have added an extra night or two on my own there.
Zoom: You said you were hoping to have an incredible and unforgettable cultural experience, and appreciation for the miracle that is the animal kingdom and nature. Did this happen?
Rick: From the unique fauna in Hermanus and the Cape Town botanical gardens we got to see, the baby elephant in Krueger mocking a charge to our jeep only to be frightened at the sound of the engine starting up and running to its mother, the giraffes staring at us with curiosity as we drove by, and the exciting close encounters with lions and cheetah, I can certainly answer yes!
Zoom: What was your highlight of the trip?
Rick: For me, the entire safari experience. The luxurious 5+ star lodge in the middle of Krueger National Park, where equally wonderful meals were served along with excellent South African wines, our knowledgeable, friendly, and welcoming safari guides, who took us on twice daily game drives, the two swimming pools for afternoon cool downs, all made for an experience I will always remember.
Zoom: There were some other Zoom Vacations travelers with whom you have traveled in the past, did you enjoy seeing them again?
Rick: I loved seeing Bob, my roomie for this trip, and John again. They made the trip that much more fun and special, as I consider them my friends.
Zoom: You said you were anticipating making new friends on this trip Did that happen, and in the way you expected?
Rick: I absolutely loved meeting the other travelers. Several reside in the NYC area, and I look forward to keeping in touch with them, as well as those who reside in other states.
Zoom: Did you do as much shopping as you planned?
Rick: No. Now I have to go shopping in NYC to make up for it. I still have availability on my credit cards.
Zoom: How do you think that Zoom vacations tours are different from going on your own? How are they different from other companies?
Rick: For one thing, I could never have organized such an ambitious itinerary on my own, and thus, would have missed out on several activities. I think Zoom selects the activities it knows are interesting, and must-sees! All of our activities were coordinated efficiently to make the best use of our time.
I think Zoom differentiates itself from other companies by limiting group sizes, which allows for a very personal touch, and through the final product it markets. Tours are designed for travelers who want to experience their time away from home in style. The fact that there is a Zoom escort on the trip to ensure all is going smoothly is also a plus.
Zoom: Zoom Vacations owners, Joel and Bryan accompany almost every tour. Does this have an impact? How?
Rick: Yes. For me, it is comforting to know that a Zoom escort is on the trips to ensure the itinerary is being followed, to handle any changes to the itinerary that might arise, or other unforeseen situations. It also adds the very personal touch to the travel experience.
Zoom: Was the tour better, worse, or as you expected it would be?
Rick: Much better. The group of 19 were a delight to be with; logistically, there weren't any hiccups; and we had great weather each and every day!
Zoom: During the trip, you decided to sign up for Zoom Vacations’ India tour, 2017. What made you decide to sign up for this trip?
Rick: India has been on the bucket list for several years now. For one reason or another, I've postponed it, but 2017 will be the year! It is also nice to know that a fellow traveler on this trip plans to book the Zoom India 2017, as well.
Barry has joined Zoom Vacations in China, southern Africa, and now Cuba, so he is very familiar with what we do at Zoom and we're very familiar with Barry and his award-winning smile and zest for life.
Zoom: Why did you decide to join Zoom Vacations in Cuba?
Barry: I have had a life-long interest in diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. I grew up during the Cold War and have always been fascinated at how a small country only ninety miles from the border could have such a significant impact on US history. As we all know, America's embargo against Cuba is the longest-lasting single foreign policy in our history! When President Obama's administration began to normalize relations with Cuba, I knew that I wanted to witness this society first-hand because of the images I had in my mind from motion pictures and limited television exposure. I had previously traveled with Zoom to China and South Africa, so I knew that the "behind the scenes" efforts by Zoom would create a first-rate experience for me as a traveler interested in learning more about the Cuban culture.
Zoom: This last trip to Cuba was one of our larger groups. How was it being with a slightly larger group?
Barry: The size of the group has never been a concern to me as a Zoom traveler. I have been on a group as small as six, and a group as large as twenty-eight. I travel for my own enrichment, regardless of group dynamics. I believe that Zoom's clientele are sophisticated, experienced travelers who want as memorable an experience as I do.
Zoom: What was your highlight of the trip?
Barry: The highlight of the trip for me was the excursion to Valle de Vinales. The mountain vistas were spectacular and the visit to the family tobacco farm was unforgettable. To see what most Americans would consider to be a primitive operation was fascinating, from the family's home, to the drying barn, to the demonstration of making cigars. I purchased as many of his hand-rolled cigars as I could to bring home!
Zoom: How did you find the educational activities?
Barry: The educational activities were outstanding. I learned about Cuban art, music, cuisine, politics, and the Cuban education system not only from our guides, but from the scheduled lectures and visits with the Cuban people we were fortunate to meet.
Zoom: What did you think of the food options?
Barry: It's Cuba, so options are limited as far as menu selections, but the venues, especially the paladares, the mountainside restaurant in Vinales, and the New Year's Eve celebration in Plaza de la Catedral, were superb! Black beans and rice are staples at every meal, the lobster ceviche at La Fontana is a treat I would recommend to anyone, and the mojitos, Cuba Libres, and daiquiris were a great way to start the evenings. Zoom added a special touch to the dinners by creating small group events complete with Cuban transportation via a convertible classic car or a coco cab!
Zoom: What were the benefits of traveling as part of a gay group to Cuba?
Barry: Certainly, a gay group provides a level of comfort and a "common denominator" that allows everyone to be themselves. I enjoy the fact, however, that Zoom is "inclusive!" I have made great friendships on Zoom trips with our "straight allies" who joined us for these once-in-a-lifetime journeys.
Zoom: Would you recommend this trip to your friends?
Barry: I would certainly recommend this trip to my friends. In fact, I already have!
Zoom: Did Cuba live up to your expectations?
Barry: Cuba exceeded my expectations because it is such a step back in time. Although it may sound cliche, it is like visiting a movie set with characters right out of central casting. In this case, however, they are not cast members, they are real people living real lives in a unique society.
Zoom: How were the Zoom concierge and guides?
Barry: Joel was the consummate professional on every level, seeing to it that everyone had the best experience possible. Graham and Nacy, our local guides, were knowledgeable, respectful, and great fun. Both of them went above and beyond any reasonable expectation to insure that we all enjoyed every moment of our time in Cuba. Graham, our American guide who is a medical student in Havana, seemed to enjoy the trip as much as the Zoom guests! Nancy, our Cuban guide, touched my heart. She is a 27 year old bright, courteous, and ambitious young woman who was born and raised in Havana and has never been to the US. I could barely hold back tears when I hugged her on our departure because I wanted to bring her home with me so that she could experience a culture and opportunities she has yet to observe and be offered.
Zoom: How was this trip similar to Zoom Africa? In other words, after being on a few Zoom trips now, what would you consider to be the hallmarks of the Zoom experience?
Barry: The trips I have made with Zoom to China, South Africa, and Cuba are carefully planned to the smallest detail. The hallmark of a Zoom trip for me is that I don't have to do the "thinking and planning!" Therefore, for me, it is the ultimate vacation!
Conrado and Jaime first heard of Zoom Vacations over ten years ago, and when they decided to go to India, they knew who to call. It was their first Zoom Vacation, and we hope it will not be their last, because they were such wonderful travelers! Always friendly, open to trying new experiences, appreciative of the wonderful things that happened to them on the trip, and always so courteous and respectful of local customs, people, and culture. Plus, with all their shopping, they significantly improved the local economy!
Zoom: It seems to us that a lot of people have misperceptions of what India really has to offer. Do you think that India is how people think it is?
Conrado: No, we believe people only know the poverty and negative image about India but there is so much more. History, culture, religion, natural beauty are just a few things people should know more about India
Zoom: Did anything surprise you about this trip to India?
Jaime: The enormous gap between poverty and wealth is greater than we imagined. The orderly chaos on the streets is actually fun to experience!
Zoom: What do you think that most people would appreciate about a trip to India?
Conrado: Amazing food, beautiful temples and palaces. Spirituality and very kind people.
Zoom: How were the accommodations on this trip?
Jaime: Excellent accommodations in general but the 3 palaces in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur were out of this world. We felt like royalty in all senses.
Zoom: What were your top three highlights of the trip?
Conrado: 1- Staying at incredible palaces where facilities and levels of service are outstanding
2- Guided visits to amazing temples of many religions and styles
3- The customized events we had for our group, such as the high tea at an old palace in Varanasi where the current Maharaja still lives.
Zoom: Did you eat well? Do you have a favorite meal or dish from the trip?
Jaime: All food was amazing, and we really enjoyed trying all different cuisines and never got sick, which is a usual concern we heard before going to India.
Zoom: On this trip, we did a lot of driving through India. How was that for you?
Conrado: It was very comfortable in the vehicle we had. The driver was outstanding. It was interesting to witness the countryside, very different landscapes, local customs such as festivals and processions on the road and we even saw some shepherds with their herd of camels. Travel time felt shorter than expected.
Zoom: How was it being part of a gay group in India? Did you feel comfortable?
Jaime: Yes it was very comfortable and fun, especially when everyone went crazy shopping all the time!
Zoom: What did you learn about India, Hinduism, Buddhism, architecture or spirituality that you didn't know before?
Conrado: A lot of interesting facts about religions, their history and current practices.
Zoom: India is also known as a shopper's paradise. I know you bought some great things there, did you find this to be true?
Jaime: Yes! it was beyond our expectations. We love art and antiques and bought several valuable pieces for very reasonable prices
Zoom: You also took our add-on trip to Nepal. What were your impressions of Nepal?
Conrado: We loved Nepal and its people. It is a very spiritual place and were glad to visit even if some temples were damaged by the earthquake. There were many things to see that were not affected by the earthquake and people were very thankful for our visit. Food was excellent and the hotel was amazing, its architecture is completely different, very traditional Nepalese. Would go back in a heartbeat.
Zoom: Do you think it was worthwhile going to Nepal as well? How was it different from India?
Jaime: It is very worthwhile to visit, climate was perfect. Nepal is like a little India but several decades back in time. People are still more innocent, nice, polite and service oriented.
Zoom: Is there anything else you two would like to add?
Conrado: Zoom had many small details with us including daily surprise gifts that gave it a plus. Everything was very well planned but still we had options to adjust the schedule when the group agreed on a different alternative. Of course we would like to thank Bryan Herb for the excellent attitude, humor and service he provided as the zoom concierge with us during the trip. He did a fantastic job coordinating and arranging every little detail!!