Thailand, the most visibly gay country in Southeast Asia!
I just returned from Zoom Egypt with a small group and the question on everyone's mind is whether we/I felt safe.
I would say without any hesitation that we were safe in many ways. From a security perspective, given recent history the government has taken extra measures to secure all points of travel as well as tourist sites and areas. As an American we were made to feel welcome. We were often asked "where are you from?" as a way to start conversation, and invariably they would say "welcome!".
Despite the rhetoric about traveling in the Middle East as a gay person, I also felt very welcome and safe. It was a non issue. In fact, on our first day in Cairo I spend the day visiting at the beautiful home of an Egyptian couple I first met in Mykonos about 20 years ago. They have been together for 37 years and explained that gay life in Egypt is alive and well, although it's practiced differently than in the US.
It has been months since I returned with our group from Cuba, and I have to say that the experience has remained emblazoned on my memory. I can't seem to forget the wonderful people I met, the unparalleled architecture we saw, and the beautiful cultural performances we witnessed, such as an inspirational choral performance. It is amazing how little our group knew about Cuba when we arrived, and how much insight we gained by our visit.
Perhaps it is the gorgeous painting I bought in Cuba (my favorite in my home) hanging over my bed that keeps Cuba forever on my mind, or maybe it is the reminiscing with fellow Zoom Vacations travelers over the experiences we shared that we know few Americans get to encounter. Whatever the case, I haven't stopped thinking about our time there.
The whole time we were in Cuba, our minds were in overdrive, constantly making connections and drawing parallels and distinctions between our home countries and other places we've visited. Many people say that you should go to Cuba now before things change, and I know they are right. We may be nearing the end of an age, and it is an era that I can promise you do not want to miss.
Zoom Vacations is constantly fine tuning trips to make them better and better each time. Some changes and additions are subtle but significant. Here is a list of current and upcoming changes to our roster of award winning trips:
Zoom China - Upgraded hotel location on the iconic riverside Bund. Great shopping area and great river and skyline views of the Bund from our new hotel in Shanghai.
Zoom Argentina - Added an insider tour of the Teatro Colon to the itinerary. If you have even been to the Paris Opera House, you won't want to miss this. The welcome dinner is now at one of the top restaurants in South America, which was likened by one guest to Alinea in Chicago, considered the world's best restaurant.
Zoom Rio Carnaval - Now this trip includes Samdadrome tickets for the main Carnaval parade.
Zoom New Years - A Zoom Lounge will be available on Ipanema Beach with beverages and snacks while you sun tan and watch the hot Cariocas enjoy the beach. Also, a private Corcovado tour has been added to the itinerary.
Zoom Southern Africa August - Cape Town upgraded hotel and confirmed dinner reservations at the hard to get in Test Kitchen.
Zoom Peru - Confirmed dinner reservations at some of the best restaurants in town such as Central and Astrid & Gaston.
Read about our tour to China this May
The biggest misconception about China is that the food is all the same or is weird.
For some, Chop Suey, mysterious, gooey, MSG, salty and deep fried come to mind. However, the reality is that China is a humongous country whose culture is one of the oldest in the history or mankind. So, its foods are just as varied, flavorful, elaborate, and delightful as its geographic locations.
Every city we visit on Zoom China offers a different cuisine. For instance, Shanghainese cuisine is punctuated with hot spicy peppers, and because of its location on the water it highlights ample seafood. In Beijing, Pekinese food incorporates a lot of vegetables; and in Xian the food has a middle eastern flair because Xian was the end of the Silk Road, a vast trading network that lasted for a thousand years, which started in Eastern Europe, snaked its way through the Middle East, and ended in China.
Of course, because cities in China, like Shanghai and Beijing, are very international, the food scene has changed and some of the best French, continental and fusion restaurants can be found in these cities. So, whenever you have a taste for home, western style restaurants are never far away and in fact are very popular with the locals.
Read about our tour to China this May
The world is changing faster than ever. Communism has been reduced to a philosophical ideology that does not translate well to running a government. These are the lessons learned by Cuba and China.
Cuba is finally set to openly embrace capitalism by welcoming more U.S. travelers to an island that has been frozen in time for over 50 years. This means that U.S. citizens will be able to travel there with more ease, use credit cards and bring back Cuban products like hand rolled cigars and rum. At this time all travel to Cuba is limited to fully pre paid packages, requiring a U.S. Department of Treasury permit and Cuba Visa to travel there from Miami. Cash is the only form of payment while on the island. Typically, only non touristic activities are allowed. However, a properly designed itinerary will take you to powder white beaches, the finest restaurants in Cuba serving locally caught lobster, and excellent Chilean wines. You can also visit pop up gay bars and the most exclusive art galleries. Currently, one can bring back as much art and books as desired from Cuba.
As Cuba becomes more accessible to the United States Cuba's old world charm may start to look more like Miami Beach or San Juan very soon. Luckily, you can join Zoom Cuba for New Years and see for yourself what it's all about before things change forever.
Likewise, China is acting more like the West than it's old former proletarian ways. The government ruling party may say it is communist, but the government machinery is very capitalistic. China's luxury hotel offerings are multiplying so quickly that Zoom Vacations upgrades hotels practically every year. Zoom China 2015 is no exception with the addition of the Waldorf Astoria on the Bund, offering magnificent Shanghai Bund river and iconic skyline views. Also as a sign that its doors are open to foreigners, China is making travel there easier with visa waivers. For instance, you can travel to 11 Chinese cities including Shanghai, Xian, Guilin and Beijing for 72 hours or less without a China tourist visa.
While China is ahead of Cuba in terms of capitalistic ventures, it will be no time at all before Cuba starts making visible efforts at catching up with the other first world economies.
Zooming around the world to places like India, Myanmar, and southern Africa just got easier for citizens of 40 plus countries including Australia, Canada and the USA:
For India, you no longer have to go to an India consulate to apply for a visa. As of November 27, 2014, you may now apply for and get a tourist visa-on-arrival (TVoA) online, entitling you to enter India anytime within 30 days of the approval. The electronic travel authorization, which will be in the form of an email received from the Indian authorities, will entitle you to a 30-day stay in India. On arrival, simply present the authorization to the immigration authorities who will then stamp the entry into the country.
For Myanmar, a country with few consulates around the world, a simple online registration, which takes between 7-10 days to approve, is definitely the easiest way to apply for a tourist visa. It costs $50, and like the India visa, you will receive an emailed pre-approval letter confirmation that can be presented on arrival and the visa stamp placed on your passport.
For Southern Africa, it gets even easier to see this culturally rich region. As of November 28, 2014, you can now receive a UNIVISA upon arrival in Zambia or Zimbabwe. The UNIVISA costs $50 and will be valid for 30 days, as long as you remain within Zambia and Zimbabwe for hotel overnight purposes. It also covers Botswana and Namibia day trips without the added cost of a visa fee to those countries. At a later stage other popular tourist destinations such as Mozambique, Tanzania, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar are expected to be added to the list of UNIVISA participants.
People often ask us how we go about selecting new destinations for Zoom Vacations tours. We actually go about this in a number of ways. The main way is that while on our tours, our travelers often tell us the places they would like to visit. We really listen, and especially when we start hearing the same destinations mentioned over and over, it moves to the top of our radar. Also, destinations who often contact us to create tours to their locales. We have noticed that when destinations reach out on their own to attract LGBT travelers that these same destinations often have the background support and resources necessary to organize a truly memorable trip.
Once we have selected the destination, we bump up our research, verifying the best times to visit, and we make a plan to visit. We always scout out a destination before developing a tour. While there, we tour dozens of hotels, restaurants, and sites, finding the best of the best, and identifying opportunities for creativity.
For instance, I am heading to Myanmar this month. It is a destination about which many of our travelers have enquired, and coincidentally, it is presently "all the buzz" in the travel community. Its mystery and decades of isolation has peaked the interest of so many of us. While there, I will be finding the best hotel(s) and river cruise to host our future group, and I will personally interview tour guides and explore various excursions. I will also be looking for venues where we can add our own sense of magic to this magical country.
When I look back on 2013, it is interesting to review which memories stand outfor me. It wasn't any of the bigger purchases I made.
No, the first and most important things that come to mind are several of the trips I took, and the unique experiences I had in those destinations.
A few highlights include watching a cheetah stalk an impala in South Africa, drinking caipirinhas with new friends on the beach in Rio at sunset, and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Traveling has the power to inspire the mind, heal the soul, and energize the body. It gives us great memories to think about when things aren't going well, and it helps us create tighter bonds with the people who matter to us. Just like people matter more than things, to me travel matters more than things.
We have had guests on our tours whose lives have been changed for the better because of the unique travel experiences they have had or due to relationships they have built through traveling. And the more you travel, the more you make connections between similar things in different countries.
Traveling isn't merely a part of a fun life. It is an essential part of a healthy life, and maybe even a healthy planet. I am reminded of one of my favorite travel quotes:
"Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends."
~ Maya Angelou
I always get a kick out of the sentence, "why would you want to go there", as there are few places on Earth I wouldn't want to see for myself.
Arguably, almost every country has enough sites of interest and things to do to make a vacation. Granted, of course I understand avoiding a country embroiled in a natural disaster or human-made conflict, or countries that are antigay. However, I have noticed that some people hold ill-perceived ideas about some places, originating from the past.
For instance, myself and a lot of my peers grew up during the Beirut War, and a lot of us can't get past that. It's a shame, because Beirut is often called the Paris of the Middle East, and visitors to the city now can see that it is gaining back its former glory. Plus, there is so much to see and do outside of Beirut, throughout Lebanon, such as ancient ruins and natural wonders.
The other place about which many people have a misperceived idea is Vietnam. Before going, you may link Vietnam with war. After a vacation to this stunning country, you'll instead associate Vietnam with impeccable cuisine, natural beauty, gorgeous hotels, and a fascinating, beautiful culture.
One of my favorite activities that our travelers enjoy on Zoom Argentina is learning to dance the Tango from local professional dancers.
Tango is sexy and sensual without being overtly sexual. Before you see two men dance the Tango, you may assume that one dancer will appear feminine, and the other masculine, but this isn't the case. Instead, the dance lends itself to an uncanny juxtaposition of individuality and communion.
In fact, Tango is so popular that Argentinian doctors have been prescribing it for heart attack patients, saying that it can generate the same beneficial effects for coronary arteries and for the heart as walking and jogging. Plus, it's so fun that patients have better odds of keeping up the exercise.
After our class, that evening we see the masters of the dance in action at the best Tango show in Buenos Aires. It's truly sensational, and something that I wish everyone could see in their lifetime.
One of the greatest joys of traveling is trying new dishes, authentic to the destination. Even better, is when we have the opportunity to learn how to make these dishes ourselves.
For instance, on our trip to China, a woman we know named Mrs Woo invites us into her home and teaches us how to make traditional Chinese dumplings, or Jiaozi. Here is a recipe that we adapted a bit in the Zoom Kitchen. Perhaps this recipe can become a special addition to your next dinner or cooking party!
* 3 cups all-purpose flour
* up to 1 1/4 cups cold water
* 1/4 teaspoon salt
* 1 cup grated carrot
* 1 TB soy sauce
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1 TB Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
* 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
* 3 TB sesame oil
* 1/2 green onion, finely minced
* 1 1/2 cups finely shredded Napa cabbage
* 4 tablespoons shredded bamboo shoots
* 2 slices fresh ginger, finely minced
* 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
Stir the salt into the flour. Slowly stir in the cold water, adding as much as is necessary to form a smooth dough. Don't add more water than is necessary. Knead the dough into a smooth ball. Cover the dough and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
While the dough is resting, prepare the filling ingredients. Add the soy sauce, salt, rice wine and white pepper to the grated carrots, stirring in only one direction. Add the remaining ingredients, stirring in the same direction, and mix well.
To make the dumpling dough: knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball. Divide the dough into 60 pieces. Roll each piece out into a circle about 3-inches in diameter.
Place a small portion (about 1 level tablespoon) of the filling into the middle of each wrapper. Wet the edges of the dumpling with water. Fold the dough over the filling into a half moon shape and pinch the edges to seal. Continue with the remainder of the dumplings.
To cook, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add half the dumplings, giving them a gentle stir so they don't stick together. Bring the water to a boil, and add 1/2 cup of cold water. Cover and repeat. When the dumplings come to a boil for a third time, they are ready. Drain and remove. If desired, they can be pan-fried at this point.
I just came back to my hotel room, after a great day snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef with our group, and it got me thinking: what makes something considered one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World?
I did a little research and found compelling reasons for each of the current 7 Natural Wonders. Here is a list, as well as why they are, well, wonderful.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest individual formation created by living organisms.
The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, are naturally occurring lights that create intriguing and spectacular displays in the sky.
The Grand Canyon is an almost unbelievably massive gorge located in the state of Arizona, created by the Colorado River.
Paricutin is a cinder cone volcano in Michoacán, Mexico. It's the youngest in America and its birth was witnessed by a human.
Victoria Falls is a waterfall in southern Africa on the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is considered to be the world's largest sheet of falling water.
Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world, reaching a peak of 29,029 feet and the greatest altitude on the earth's surface.
Rio's Guanabana Bay has been eroded by the Atlantic ocean and is surrounded by majestic mountains that offer many different perspectives of the harbor.
Currently, Zoom Vacations visits Four of the Natural Wonders: the Great Barrier Reef, Guanabana Bay in Rio, Mount Everest, and Victoria Falls.
People have often asked us why Zoom Vacations offers yachting voyages instead of big cruises. If you join us on one of our yacht voyages, you will have your answer in about two seconds, as you are welcomed aboard with friendly smiles, a cold towel, and a glass of champagne.
Our mega-yacht voyages embody great attention to detail, customization, quality, and casual elegance-- all hallmarks of a Zoom Vacation.
Since the yachts are smaller we can visit smaller ports, inaccessible to larger ships, and we can stay longer at each destination. The food is exquisite, and since it is all inclusive, our time onboard is simply effortless. Once you start comparing the two experiences, you realize that there truly is no comparison. Pictures of a recent yachting adventure can be found on our Facebook page. In fact, the photo above is from one of our stops at St. Barth's in the Caribbean.
Social media has replaced the paper postcard as a means to communicate with friends back home. Facebook in particular continues to let our friends and family know where we are, that we're safe, we're enjoying ourselves, and what we're up to, in real time.
And it's not just about what we're writing but also what we're posting, such as movies, articles, and pictures, that help our friends and family travel and experience the destination vicariously. Facebook can also help us connect with locals when we're traveling. While I was on Zoom Peru just a few weeks ago I posted that I was going to Lima and one of our Zoom alums contacted me and we met up after not having seen each other for a few years.
So, as you can see, social media has closed the circle connecting us with family back home while at the same time connecting us with friends locally when we are abroad. Facebook has become a travel resource.
During Zoom Vacations tours, we update our page on Facebook with periodic photos of the trip, allowing you to see the tour unfold in realtime. If there is a trip you've been considering, following Zoom on Facebook can be a great way to see what you may experience on the tour. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to learn more about the destinations you have or have not been to.