Morocco is such a special place, geographically, culturally and historically.
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.
Myanmar is the newest Zoom Vacations destination (March 12-18, 2015). For sometime now I had been waiting for the right time to visit Myanmar, which many had told me is a very special country. Sandwiched between India, China and Thailand, Myanmar has been influenced to some degree by the best of these 3 iconic cultures.
Myanmar is called the Golden Land because there is always a 24 karat golden domed pagoda within eyesight. For 50 years after English colonialism ended, Myanmar was sheltered and isolated by various dictatorships and military governments. Until recently the country had seen very little tourism within its poor tourism infrastructure. Today, however, Myanmar is quickly developing a luxury tourism infrastructure that is putting it on the bucket list of every discerning traveler. Recently, Zoom Vacations was honored to be one of only 17 international travel professionals and media to be invited on the inaugural sailing of the 5 Star M/V Sanctuary Ananda from Mandalay to Bagan.
What I discovered along the way is a country of charming, hospitable, deeply spiritual and accepting people. Truth be told, what made the trip so enjoyable for me was the ability to travel on the Ananda along the Ayeryawaddy River, visit temples, markets and villages, then return to the comfort of the Ananda. The Ananda is the newest most stylish boat on the Ayeryawaddy. But in addition to the luxurious surroundings, another thing in which the Ananda excels is the food. The kitchen is personally overseen by the former executive chef at the Bangkok Mandarin Oriental. He was even kind enough to offer an onboard cooking demonstration and shared his love of cooking and simple, yet mouth watering Thai soup recipe. Every meal was something to look forward to and nothing (except for some breakfast dishes) was ever repeated. Lunch and dinner were perfectly paired with just the right wines every day.
But Myanmar is not just about the Ayeryawaddy River. There are also Inle Lake, a picturesque fishing community, and Yangon, with its bourgeoning art scene. Plus, of course the Chinatown night market, reclining Buddha, and Scotts Market, which are also to be seen and experienced.
Today, Myanmar is quickly developing a luxury tourism infrastructure that is putting it on the bucket list of every discerning traveler. For instance, three years ago Myanmar saw 300,000 visitors; this year there are 2 million visitors and counting.
Myanmar is also perfectly combined with Laos and or Thailand. Contact me for more information.
A l lot of people ask us how Zoom Vacations chooses a group trip destination and how we develop a trip.
Zoom Vacations chooses a trip destination the same way that it develops a trip - thru in-person research and relationship building. Every Zoom Vacations tour begins with a research trip to the prospective tour destination to assess whether it is gay-friendly, the variety of accommodations and activities available, as well as physical beauty and appeal of the destination.
There is no substitute for getting a feel for a destination in-person, walking thru every step of a future trip and face to face relationship building. This translates into a better experience for our guests. Every Zoom Vacation is a combination of carefully orchestrated activities and events as well as free time to explore the destination. Therefore, I am constantly traveling the world in search of the next perfect destination and to better understand how to make our next Zoom Vacations trip a success. Next on my list; Myanmar and Laos.
We had a question come into the office the other day that I thought I would answer for other readers as well.
I live in San Diego and we have an awesome zoo here. Why do you recommend doing a safari in Africa?
That is a great question! This is like saying that you have a subscription to a gourmet food magazine, so why would you eat. Traveling to Africa and seeing the Big Five up close and in their natural habitat is something everyone should experience at least once in their life. It is sheer magic. Every moment is unpredictable, just like nature. You never know if you will see a lion and lioness mating, a leopard taking down an impala, a pair of zebra frolicking, or a baby rhino curiously approaching your vehicle.
But it's not just about the animals. The landscape plays just as much a role in the magic. On June 22, UNESCO declared the Okavango Delta its 1000 World Heritage site. One of the unique characteristics of the Delta is that the annual flooding from the river Okavango occurs during the dry season, with the result that the native plants and animals have synchronized their biological cycles with these seasonal rains and floods. It is an exceptional example of the interaction between climatic, hydrological and biological processes.
The Okavango Delta is home to some of the world's most endangered species of large mammal, such as the cheetah, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, African wild dog and lion. I am headed back to southern Africa with a group in literally just days to experience South Africa, Zambia and Botswana again, and I just cannot wait! Let the magic begin!
It was a busy year for me and the Zoom team. I traveled a total of 161,014 miles, the equivalent of over 6 times around the world, on 69 flights and a mega yacht to 31 countries.
In addition to the scheduled tours we offered all year, 2013 had a few highlights that made it particularly special.
A couple on Zoom Peru got engaged on Machu Picchu (read about them in our Featured Travelers section).
We celebrated many birthday celebrations, honeymoons and long term relationships in exotic locations around the world on Zoom Southern Africa and our Zoom cruise. And for the first time, broke the Zoom record for longest lunch (6 hours) of eating, laughing and imbibing on Zoom Argentina.
Zoom's Marie-Noelle Marechal was invited to attend a travel convention in China to get new ideas for upcoming Zoom China tours.
I received a very exclusive invitation to attend the International Luxury Travel Market Americas in Mexico, where I met one-to-one with the best travel luxury hotels and suppliers and industry leaders from around the world with whom we will partner to continue developing the bespoke experiences you have come to expect from Zoom Vacations. I then continued my research to Mexico City and the West Coast of Mexico on a most luxurious Four Season educational trip where they pulled all the stops. They know that our clients only want the best, so they gave me a big taste of it.
Zoom's Bryan Herb and I researched the Orient Express Luxury train, the Royal Scotsman, through Scotland, and made great connections with London hoteliers for future trips.
Bryan attended the largest tourism convention in Africa as the guest of the South African government, and continued on to Botswana and South Africa to research upcoming group and private tours in some of the world's top lodges.
Zoom Vacations acquired its adorable new mascot, Ms. Buddha-Licious, a rescue puppy who reminds us every day what it means to give and accept unconditional love.
Bryan led a lively educational panel discussion on travel to Asia at the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Convention in Chicago with guests from all over the world attending.
Team Zoom raised over $7,000 for the American Cancer Society, by participating in the Chicago Marathon.
I am writing this from my hotel room in Buenos Aires, full of thoughts about how this city has changed since we offered our first tour here nine years ago.
It has certainly become more gay friendly and accepting, both in the mentality of the locals and as evidenced by anti-discrimination laws that have been enacted.
The gay scene in Buenos Aires is better than ever, and you can go out every night of the week and find something happening.
Also the exchange rate has become very favorable for foreigners. Currently there is a double economy. The official exchange rate of 6 Argentinian Pesos to the US Dollar that you get at banks and ATMs, and the unofficial exchange rate of 10 Argentinian Pesos to the US Dollar that you can get at unofficial exchange
houses. So, your spending money while in the country will go further if you pay with cash.
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.