Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Malaysia: Exploring Exotic Borneo

"Look at that peeping tom," my nature guide exclaimed as we walked by one of the luxurious chalets positioned on the river front. My head swiveled quickly to catch the monkey jumping up and down on the chalet wall peering through the windows. As I laughed, we watched on, realizing that the monkey was enthralled with his own reflection on the windows.

1 little monkey jumping on the wall.

After a few weeks exploring Borneo I'd become accustomed to events like these which would normally have seemed out of place in my concrete jungle (or...suburban jungle). I had already dined in the rainforest on tropical beaches, scuba dived in one of the best dive sites in the world, and spent sunrises and sunsets cruising the Kinabatangan River looking for wildlife...all in Malaysian Borneo. And now I was experiencing something truly fascinating and unlike anything I'd ever seen nestled deep into the rainforest at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. The journey to get there was an adventure in and of itself.

At the crack of dawn my driver Wan picked me up in his 4x4 truck to begin the drive. As he quipped, "You can call me Obi Wan Kanobi," I knew we would get along on this 2.5 hour drive. While we drove down the well maintained roads, I questioned whether the massive tires on the truck were really necessary or whether it was all for show. Then we turned off the main road and quickly the scenery changed from small villages to thick, lush, dense rainforest. We continued on, spotting elephants, monkeys, and even a cobra (from the safety of our vehicle)! 

Then we came to a small river and Wan charged ahead in our 4x4. Clearly...the tires were necessary. As we emerged into a clearing after a magical drive, the lights of the main lodge house flickered as if to welcome me to my home for the next few days. I was greeted by the friendliest people who showed me around the open air lodge, complete with an amazing restaurant which receives daily shipments of food (all by 4x4!) which is turned into a fascinating array of local and international dishes.

4x4s are for a reason!

Over the next few days I fell in love with the enchantment of the rainforest and its wildlife. Without another lodge or reserve in a 2 hour radius, the wildlife is very active and the rainforest has been well maintained. Unlike other safari style resorts where I'd stayed, this one was tucked away, a true gem hidden from the masses. I felt like I was in a secluded area, where I would wake up to the sounds of the rainforest...frogs, birds, a light morning rain on the roof of my chalet. And then I would quietly stir for a day of activities: bird watching from the canopy walk, hiking to a beautiful view over the rainforest, floating the river on inner tubes, or walking nature trails with our amazingly knowledgeable guide. 

The main open air lodge and restaurant.

Excellent meals and tropical fruits!

When my final day at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge came to a close I waved goodbye to my new friends at the lodge and my only solace in leaving such a beautiful place was knowing that I would return to share it with travelers on our 12-day tour of Malaysia. To this day, each and every time I return and pull off that main road, I do so with the same anticipation of my first visit...with a surprising and unexpected adventure awaiting me in the middle of the lush rainforest.

Join us on our Discover Malaysia Food & Adventure Tour March 7-18, 2018. Read what our travelers loved about Malaysia here, and review the itinerary and details here. The tour is limited to 12 people so please send us a message at info@thetablelesstraveled.com to reserve your spot or to inquire about availability. Enjoy more photos of our trip to Borneo below.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

4 Ways to Get to Machu Picchu without Hiking the Inca Trail

Machu Picchu has quickly grown in popularity among travelers after being voted one of the "New 7 Wonders of the World" in 2007. In visiting the 15th century Incan city, the first thing that comes to mind is a strenuous hike traversing the Inca Trail for 4-5 days to reach the ruins located at an altitude of about 8,000 ft. Which, to many minds, doesn't necessarily sound like a "vacation." Rarely do I consider something a vacation if there isn't a toilet.

As such, when we launched our "Taste of Peru and Machu Picchu Tour" some of our travelers hesitated on joining because of the common misconception that the only way to reach the ruins was by means of hiking and camping. Although there are many multi-day treks which accomplish that goal (and work up a serious appetite), we're here to set the record straight that there are other ways to reach the UNESCO World Heritage Site without the need to train like an athlete beforehand.

The city of Cusco is most often the starting point for a journey to Machu Picchu. Travelers arrive to Cusco via flights from the capital of Lima. Although there are buses that make the journey, we recommend the 1 hour 20 minute flight since there are numerous daily departures on LATAM and Avianca Airlines and they are relatively budget-friendly.

LAN flight from Lima to Cusco, now LATAM Airlines

In addition to the travel options I mention below there are also alternative treks, hikes, and walks which will lead you to Machu Picchu. However, I'm assuming if you're not interested in a 4-day trek on the Inca Trail, you're probably not interested in a 32 km walk to Aguas Calientes. Wild assumption, I know. That said, here are 4 ways to reach Machu Picchu without breaking your back:

Step 1: Travel from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (also referred to as Machu Picchu village) 
We recommend transiting to Aguas Calientes at least one day prior to your visit to Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is a small town approximately 6 km from the ruins; it is primarily a tourist hub with hotels, restaurants, and a train station to serve travelers on their way to the ruins.

1. Train from Cusco - From Cusco you can catch a taxi to Poroy, a small town about 25 minutes away, which has a train station. The train journey is about 3 hours and 20 minutes and stops once on the way to Aguas Calientes. This route is operated by PeruRail and IncaRail.

2. Bus/Drive + Train from Cusco - Given that Cusco is at a higher altitude (approximately 11,000 feet), we recommend spending time in the Sacred Valley (approximately 6,000 feet) before slowly progressing to Machu Picchu and then Cusco. If you choose this option, you can first fly into Cusco, then take a taxi or private vehicle directly to Urubamba or Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. From Ollantaytambo you take the train to Aguas Calientes which is about a 1 hour 50 minute train journey.

Views driving through the Sacred Valley on the way to the train station in Ollantaytambo
A PeruRail train arriving in Aguas Calientes

Step 2: Travel from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu Ruins
After arriving by train to Aguas Calientes we recommend staying at least one night. The train track runs through the middle of the town so it's easy to access most hotels on foot.

3. Bus - Starting at 5:30 AM every day, there is a circuit of buses which ferry travelers on a 25 minute ride to the entrance gates of the ruins. Tickets for the bus should be purchased in advance and you can take the bus round trip to return to Aguas Calientes.

4. Hike - Okay...so this one might actually break your back a little. However, this is the only alternative from Aguas Calientes to reach the ruins. If you wish to hike to the ruins entrance gates, it is an 8 km hike from town, up a steep mountainside path.

Waiting for the first bus of the morning to take us to Machu Picchu Ruins!

On our 9-day small group tour of 12 people maximum, we crafted an itinerary which gives you the best of both worlds. You get the breathtaking views looking out over Machu Picchu, with the creature comforts of some of Peru's finest award-winning lodges and accommodations. We use a combination of private transfers in air-conditioned vehicles, train travel, and the Aguas Calientes bus to reach Machu Picchu. We take the guess work out of buying tickets, securing entrance times, and all of the finicky logistics. For more information on our itinerary and whether it's the best fit for you, please email us at info@thetablelesstraveled.com or call 425.894.8976.

Main square and cathedral in Cusco

Cheesemakers in the markets in the Sacred Valley

Visiting the Maras Salt Mines

Right before we jumped on paddleboards on this serene lake

A lesson in roasting at the coffee museum

One of the best sandwiches in Lima - yum!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

5 Tips for Using Your Cell Phone Abroad

International travel can wreak havoc on your cell phone bill. When I worked in the telecom world we frequently had clients who ran up bills over $2,000 a month from roaming on their vacations, and having no clue that data was still running on their phones.

Nowadays the major US cell phone carriers have international roaming plans which vary in their offerings and cost. However, if you’re leaning towards “going dark” and foregoing an additional plan while traveling then here are some tips to make sure you’re not racking up bills that will cost you more than your trip!
  1. Understand what you’re being charged for – most cell phone bills are broken into three parts where you’re charged for (1) voice, (2) text, and (3) data. Data seems to be the most complicated for my clients when they talk about international usage. If you are connected to a wi-fi network accessing the internet or apps, then you are not using data. If you are not connected to wi-fi and you’re accessing the internet or apps that require internet then you’re using your data. As soon as you arrive to your hotel, connect to the wi-fi network to limit the data you use.
  2. Turn off your “roaming data” – an easy way to prevent data charges is to turn off the setting on your phone which allows “international roaming.” Here’s a tutorial for iPhone users and Samsung users.
  3. Use apps for messaging & calls – there are many apps which can replace your “voice” and “text” usage. That way, when you’re connected to wi-fi you can use that connection (as opposed to your voice, text, or data usage) to talk or text. Apple users can use iMessage, FaceTime, and voice calls (for iPhone5c or later) over wifi. Anybody can use apps like WhatsApp, Skype, and Google Hangouts which allow you to message, call, and video call with other users who have the apps. To call regular phone numbers (people who don’t have these apps) you can also use Skype over wi-fi and purchase credits (like a calling card) at a very low per-minute calling rate.
  4. Download maps for offline use – travelers commonly rack up data usage from using their maps for directions or navigation while traveling. In the Google Maps app you can still use the compass/orientation even if your data roaming is turned off. Additionally, you can download maps (over wifi) for offline use while you’re walking around. (Google Maps instructions for offline downloads.)
  5. Monitor data usage – if you decide to leave your data plan on, but want to make sure you’re not going over the allotted amount, you can use a free app like My Data Manager to monitor your usage.

Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using technology efficiently while traveling. In the coming months I’ll share more tips about the best ways to use tech tools. If you have specific questions let me know and I’ll answer them! Shoot me an email at info@thetablelesstraveled.com.

Monday, January 30, 2017

3 of "The World's 50 Best Restaurants" are...Where?!

Every time I casually tell people that Lima, Peru has three of The World's 50 Best Restaurants (from Pellegrino's annual list), they can't believe me. And then the question usually follows jokingly, "Did they serve you guinea pig?" And then I deadpan, "Yes." Because, yes, they do serve guinea pig. And YES, it was one of the most savory, succulent, and delicious things I've ever eaten. Ever.

When I discovered that Lima was a food haven I was well into planning our Peru trip and had heard from most people that the capital city was one that was "skippable." Well...I'm telling you from experience...if you like food, it is decidedly not skippable.

In two days, I dined at 3 of the best restaurants in the world. Central for lunch, Maido for dinner, and Astrid & Gaston for lunch the next day. Don't worry - I still ate breakfast at my favorite sandwich shop. Sandwiches aside, these 3 meals represented a huge variety of food inspiration, and creativity. Each experience was unique.

Waiting outside of the beautiful mansion of Astrid y Gaston for lunch. 

One of the first courses at Central...I was confused about what to eat.

Since dining there last year, Central rose in the ranks to #4 best restaurant in the world, and #1 in Latin America. Their tasting menu is based on altitudes, from the highest of highs in the Andes to the lowest of lows in the Amazon. They source ingredients from distinct regions of the country and create dishes you couldn't even imagine.

When I went to Maido it was ranked #44 and in 2016 it was the restaurant that took the "highest climber award" on the list to #13. Unlike your inability to tell your children that one of them is your favorite, I have no qualms about picking my favorite restaurant in Lima. And although I loved all of my eating in Peru, Maido stole my heart. During the 13 course tasting menu at the Maido sushi bar I was blown away by every single serving - a fusion between Japanese and Peruvian food, better known as "Nikkei" cuisine. The most umami based flavor explosion I've ever tasted was the thinly sliced and seared steak nigiri with a ponzu-infused quail egg on top. There is so much to say about this one piece of nigiri that in reality there is nothing I can say to do it justice.

The following day I made my way to Astrid & Gaston, now housed in a beautiful mansion with its own garden used for herbs and vegetables in the restaurant's daily preparations. Perhaps it was the fact that I was easing into the routine of eating at fancy pants restaurants, but regardless, this was the environment where I felt most at ease, most welcomed, and most befriended by the hosts and servers that I felt like I was sitting in a friend's home kitchen. This is where my guinea pig fantasies became realities. It was served in a trio of tastings - all with an Asian flare.

After lunch at Astrid y Gaston...full, happy, and loving Lima.

After 3 unforgettable meals in Lima I can assure you that if you're lucky enough to get reservations (or come on our group tour ... shameless plug) it is a city where your taste buds will be delighted. Some folks have responded by saying they don't like the idea of dining in "fancy, famous" restaurants while they're traveling because it doesn't feel like an authentic, local experience. And I would beg to differ. At least in Lima, I would. As I sat sola dining in these fantastic restaurants I eaves dropped (I admit) on conversations all around me. The majority of diners were locals, who worked nearby, or had a special occasion, or in one circumstance had been trying to get a reservation for a year. They were trying food that they deemed, rightfully so, to be a modern representation of their local cultural cuisine.

Join us on a culinary adventure for 9 days on our "Taste of Peru and Machu Picchu Tour." Groups are limited to 12 travelers for intimate experiences. Call us for more information or to hold a spot - 425.894.8976.

Fun street art in the Barranco neighborhood of Lima with the ocean in the background.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Exploring Italy's Hidden Gem, Emilia-Romagna

"Go to Bologna," Casey encouraged as we strolled up to the 15th green under the surprisingly warm Seattle summer sun. I received news during our round of golf that "Italy" won in our poll for which country people wanted to visit on our next food tour. Being that (a) Casey is a well-traveled food lover with trustworthy recommendations, and (b) I was playing poorly, I spent the balance of the game badgering her for advice about the must-see, off-the-beaten-path places in Italy.

The name of this Italian city sounded oddly familiar even though I didn't know it. After pecking a few letters into Google it dawned on me I knew this city because...my baloney has a first name it's...from BOLOGNA. Yes, Bologna is the home of Mortadella sausage which is the root of what we know as baloney in America. 

I am, admittedly, not the biggest fan of baloney. Thankfully, even though Bologna, the capitol of the Emilia-Romagna region, didn't tantalize my taste buds with its namesake meat treat, there was plenty more in store from neighboring cities in the region. Parma won me over me with its Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and its Prosciutto di Parma ham. You noticed a theme, didn't you? Call a food by where it's from.

During a hot August day, I met Alessandro from Italian Days Food Tours. We strolled through old streets of Bologna while he picked out cured meats, cheeses, and a baguette and then navigated us to Osteria del Sole. We settled into a back deck table while Alessandro unrolled the snacks from their protective papers and gave me the history of the bar which opened in 1465. Older than 'Murica. Like...way older. They were drinking at that bar before we were even a country. I digress. While I debated whether Alessandro was going to be admonished for unfurling our snacks at the bar, he casually mentioned the bar didn't serve food so patrons should bring their own. BYOF. I can dig it. You order a bottle of Pignoletto (a local, sparkling white wine) and chow down on whatever delicious grub you've rounded up from nearby vendors.

Then and there, I knew this guy was legit. Alessandro oozed excitement for his treasured Emilia-Romagna. He was the food ambassador of Bologna to the world. And he was there to teach me their ways. 

As he shot a quick glance around the room he produced a small glass bottle from his pocket, asserting in a hushed tone, "This is the real stuff. Real Italians bring their own balsamico." He slowly tipped the bottle over a piece of cheese as the balsamic slowly crept out in a thick, syrupy consistency. It was nothing like the "balsamic vinegar" I'd seen at home. The sweet and sour taste of the balsamico combined with the rich, nutty flavor of the Parmigiano-Reggiano balanced each other perfectly. I mopped up every last drop of the liquid gold balsamic with bread as Alessandro contently surveyed his new found faithful follower. He didn't need any further words. Emilia-Romagna was my heaven.

Days later I returned with Angela from Savor Seattle Food Tours to indulge in a food excursion unlike any other. Alessandro swept us up in his world dazzling us with personal stories about families and producers as we visited a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, a Prosciutto di Parma factory, and a farm where they aged Balsamico in Modena. We were then spoiled with a lavish pasta meal served family style with views of the vineyards, and we finished by climbing into the countryside hills to hunt for truffles.

With full bellies and happy hearts, Angela and I sat silently whizzing by picturesque views on our fast train back to Florence. My mind recalled Casey's worthy recommendation as I pondered how this magnificent region had flown so far under the tourist radar, clearly playing second fiddle to its neighbor Tuscany. 

In merely one year since my delightful first experience with Emilia-Romagna, it has garnered significantly more publicity. I now see it regularly mentioned on food blogs (pot, kettle, black), Instagram feeds, and travel and food shows. Our little gem is becoming more and more popular, thanks in part to passionate locals like Alessandro. 

Travel meetup in London. Good to see the king of cheese-pushers. I'm an official follower - fork bracelet and all.

And although I sing Alessandro's praises (if Parmigiano-Reggiano is the king of cheeses, Alessandro is the king of cheese pushers - I can hear him now shouting, "Mangia! Mangia!"), a little piece of me is sad that this beautiful region which offered me a respite from the constant sea of tourists will soon be swarmed by the crowds. Regardless, Emilia-Romagna will remain a gem in my heart...and hopefully yours too.
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