"what is my one favorite place in the world?." But I always come back to the same response - "it depends on my mood!" Today, I'm in the mood for India.
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.
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.
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.
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.