Travel Planning – These Sites Can Be Your Best Friends

No matter where you want to go, or how you like to travel, at least a little planning is necessary to ensure that you get the experience that you are looking for.  As one of my husband’s favourite t-shirts says:  “failure requires no preparation”.

Way back in the Dark Ages of life before the internet (i.e. the 1990s), I first discovered what would become a lifelong love of travelling.  Back then though, travel decisions were mostly made by picking things out of a hard copy brochure with a few lines of text and a thumbnail sized photograph, or on the advice of a travel agent (who frequently had “preferred provider” contracts with airlines, tour companies and hotel chains, so was unlikely to do a lot of lateral thinking to present you with options outside the offerings of those providers).  That is how I found myself on a seemingly interminable five week tour of Europe on a big yellow bus in 1991, and sitting in a business hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur on my honeymoon in 1992 with my husband and I looking at each other and thinking ‘okay – so what is there here that we want to see’?

In the intervening years, I’ve planned many trips to many places.  I’ve discovered that the planning can be almost as much fun as the doing.  So here are my “go-to” sites when starting to plan a trip to anywhere.

If planning a trip to a country or region, my first search is generally for upmarket small group tours.  Even if you’re not an “organised tour” sort of person, these can provide you with some great ideas about where to stay and what to see, as well as a logical itinerary.  Some offer customisable private tours.  After my “way too long on a big yellow bus” experience, I was somewhat wary of organised tours – till I went on two small group ones in the UK – one in Devon and Cornwall and another in Wales.  I got to see some fabulous places I never would have thought of on my own, or been able to easily get to on my own.  And in places that are culturally very different to the place you call home, a dedicated guide can be invaluable.

These are my favourite small group touring sites, based on destination:

United Kingdom

Europe

Italy

Croatia

Jordan

Turkey

If planning time in a city, my “go-to” sites are Viator http://www.viator.com/  and Get Your Guide https://www.getyourguide.com/   Both are tour resellers.  While Viator has better site navigation, Get Your Guide generally wins out for me, as it tells you the name of the tour company providing the service (which then allows more researching the tour company, particularly Trip Advisor reviews).  The tours on offer also give you an idea of the “big ticket items” that are likely to be overcrowded, and often some more quirky and interesting things to do.  ‘Skip the Line’ passes are a great idea for very popular tourist sites, and ‘Private Access’ tours can give you a much better experience with a knowledgeable guide than you would get by simply turning up on your own.  I have had some fabulous stays in cities like London, Munich and Singapore by doing a few well-chosen day trips and local sightseeing tours.

The big one is of course Trip Advisor.  I find it particularly useful at two points in the travel planning process.  Firstly, when deciding how long to stay somewhere, and secondly when I have a shortlist of hotels and activities and want to read reviews.  Trip Advisor’s “things to do in (location)” gives you a great overview of things to see and do.  You can also read reviews and see whether other people recommend spending your precious travel time undertaking particular activities.  The “reviews” function of Trip Advisor is now an absolute MUST for me, particularly with hotels, but also with tour operators and activities.  It is a great way to ensure that you’re not likely to get any nasty surprises if your chosen hotel looks nothing like their website, or is in an undesirable part of town.  Just a word of caution with Trip Advisor reviews – there are obviously some people in the world who have little idea about where they are travelling to, and write reviews accordingly (my all-time favourite is a review of a property which proudly markets itself as a “remote eco-resort”, and the reviewer was extremely unhappy that there was not air conditioning or fluffy towels.)

Another great resource is YouTube.  Many people upload short holiday videos – it can be a fabulous way to check if a particular site or activity is for you, especially if you are a little unsure of the physical exertion required.  Now I know just how fit I’ll have to be to do the Siq Canyon at Wadi al Mujib (and that we’re not mountain goat enough to manage the second waterfall crossing). I’ve also found a few things there that have looked like “must do’s” based on tour company offerings, but candid traveller videos show them to be so overcrowded and the actual experience so brief that they seem barely worth the effort (just look up “Blue Grotto Isle of Capri”).

My advice to anyone is to travel – wherever you can, as much as you can, and in whatever way that suits you best.  Do your research to ensure that you spend your precious time and money having the experiences that you want.

Roam around the world.  It’s good for you.

 

 

A Winter Break in the Austrian Lakes

Hands up anyone who grew up in a musical household and remember ‘The White Horse Inn’ (or to give it the correct title, Im Weissen Rossl am Wolfgangsee).  The Weissen Rossl does exist, perfectly perched on Lake Wolfgang (Wolfgansee in German) – and it is an absolute delight.

Hoping for a classic Austrian White Christmas, we stayed at this beautiful hotel over Christmas 2015 as part of a tour with Australian based tour company Albatross Tours.

Although our fantasies of a snowy winter wonderland were dashed (everywhere we went, from Munich to Salzburg, the locals were telling us that it was unusually warm for December), the Im Weissen Rossl and the town of St Wolfgang did not disappoint.

Generously sized rooms, most with balconies and individually furnished with king size ‘French double’ beds, comfortable  chairs and lavish bathrooms were just the first impression of this beautiful property.  ‘Spa baskets’ in every bathroom with pool towels, slippers, bathrobes and spa menus were just the beginning.

The star attraction at the hotel is the outdoor area on the lake.  Floating on the lake itself are a generously sized lap pool heated to 30 degrees year round, and a whirlpool spa that can comfortably seat eight.  There is something deliciously decadent about comfortably swimming outdoors when the ambient temperature is hovering around 5 degrees Celsius, and you’re looking at snow-dusted mountains across a still and frigid lake.

white horse inn pool 2

The day spa treatments at Im Weissen Rossl are divine, highlighting , treatments with a local flavour.  I spent a glorious couple of hours with the Alpine package – a foot bath (delivered in the sensuously warm waiting room in a large stone bowl filled with hot water, hay and flower petals), followed by something I have never experienced before anywhere – a suspended bath where I did not get wet.  In the treatment room, I climbed onto the bath table, where I was covered in muslin hay bags and securely wrapped in a sheet.  At the touch of a button, the surface I was lying on descended into a warm bath, allowing the aromatic hay and warm water to cradle me for half an hour.  Following the bath was a thirty minute massage, also featuring warm hay packs.  I have tried local specialty spa treatments all over the world, and this ranks right up there with Balinese massages.

The food here is also delightful.  From beautiful buffet breakfasts to gourmet dinners, the Seerestaurant with views over Lake Wolfgang is simply superb.  The evening table d’hote menu features local produce with a gourmet twist – a “foodie’s” dream.  Two bars are open for pre and post dinner drinks.  The Poststuberl Bar looking out to the village square became my nightly haunt.  By the third evening, my glass of local Riesling with an accompanying complementary glass of pretzels or nuts was at my customary table within moments of sitting down.  They also make the best Brandy Alexander that I have tasted since the seventies.

The hotel’s website is here http://www.romantikhotels.com/en/hotels/romantik-hotel-im-weissen-roessl-am-wolfgangsee-st-wolfgang/overview/#current-content and you can read the TripAdvisor reviews here https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Hotel_Review-g296672-d280598-Reviews-Romantik_Hotel_Im_Weissen_Roessl-St_Wolfgang_Upper_Austria.html

Advent and Christmas in Austria is something very special, and very different to the way we celebrate the season in Australia.  The small village square in front of Im Weissen Rossl (bounded by the village church and the post office) hosts a small Christmas market as well as some seasonal entertainment.  Christmas Eve is magical – a small brass ensemble play Christmas carols to an appreciative crowd all warming their hands on mugs of Gluhwein.

For any Australians or New Zealanders looking for a very special Christmas and New Years experience, I cannot find enough superlatives for Albatross Tours.  Small groups, excellent hotels, fabulous experiences and a leisurely-paced itinerary make for a truly pleasurable holiday with a difference.

You can find details of all the Albatross tours (Summer Tours, Anzac Commemorative Tours and Christmas/New Year Tours) here https://www.albatrosstours.com.au/ Reviews of Albatross Tours can be found here http://www.globaljourneys.com.au/reviews/albatross.php