Australia: Reunited and it feels so good (3/3)

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Reunited (as captured by Mum)

Mel and I reunited beside the luggage carrousel at the Melbourne Airport.  Mel and her Mum went out of their way to make me feel welcome, they’d turned their office/spare bedroom into my Australian home and it was so nice to enjoy clean towels, laundry and the company of my best friend in person!  I had a pretty awful cough (Contiki Cough: very contagious, spread by sharing drinks and making bad decisions) when I landed in Melbourne but I didn’t let it run one moment of time with my ‘sister’.

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Public Art Photo Op (fascinator included)

Mel and Mum were terrific hosts.  On our first night Mel and I went into the city for dinner at a lovely exclusive restaurant, where we once again, we dug into the Champagne.  It was the perfect way to kick off our time together – a throwback to the good old days of Paris.  It was racing season in Melbourne, and the stores were full of fascinators and the fashionista inside me LOVED it.  Mel will tell you that I behaved like a tourist, I bought a fascinator and wore it everywhere (city tour, tour of Parliament, trip to the zoo, penguin bus tour, lunch with friends), to this day, I still wear them as often as possible, and not always at the most appropriate times.  Thanks to my Melbourne experience I believe that “Every day is a fascinator day”.

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My Aussie Family xo

My favourite part of visiting with Mel and Mum was a terrific drive into the country to stay at a lovely cottage and see some great scenery.  It was so nice to enjoy the non-tourist road trip and the company of my Aussie Family.  We settled into our cottage and went for a hike into some beautiful wilderness and had a real Australian BBQ (honey, sesame, lamb) that was the most delicious thing I ate the entire time I was there.  Thanks ladies!  Our road trip was so special.  Mel and Mum obviously know me, because they surprised me with something I didn’t even know existed – a drive to The Twelve Apostles.  Are you noticing a theme? I really do LOVE big rocks.  The Twelve Apostles are really cool and I remember spending two hours starring out the car window loving every minute of the Great Ocean Road and the coast.  It really is beautiful.

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Sisters!

One of the last things Mel and I enjoyed together while I was in Victoria was a trip to the Phillip Island Nature Park to see the Penguin March.  It was COLD, but we braved the elements (and the poorly behaved, rule-breaking tourists) to witness hundreds of penguins parading from the sea and burring themselves in the brush and sand.  Such a neat thing to watch.

Part of what made my visit to Melbourne so special was how much I felt like family.  Mel, Mum and their friends were all excited to see me and in a strange way, it felt like coming home after a long Contiki trek up the coast and into the Outback.  Canadians and Australians are quite similar creatures.  I hope Mel enjoyed being a “tourist” in Victoria as much as I enjoyed doing it when she came to Canada! 

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Australia: An Outback love affair (post 2/3)

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I really love the red dirt

The second leg of my Australian adventure included 5 days in the Northern Territory (Alice Springs, Kings Canyon and Uluru).  We started and finished in Alice Springs.  “Alice” is a really interesting place.  There’s one good steakhouse, a few bars that have a really authentic country feel, a LOT of aboriginal people and some amazing culture if you’re willing to leave the comfort of your hotel and explore.

Our Contiki Tour Manager seemed to appreciate my sense of authentic adventure and over the course of those 6 days he went out of his way to give me some insight into the Outback lifestyle (more on him another time).  The climate in late-October is a dry heat unlike anything a Canadian is familiar with and there’s something about the red dirt that just makes you feel like you’re in another world altogether.  Good shoes and lots of water, that’s all you need to enjoy the outback.  I feel like any minute that I wasn’t on the bus, I was walking, hiking, exploring and staring up in the sky.

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Kings Canyon climb

Early on in our blog I confessed that I love big rocks… Kings Canyon is by far the coolest place I’ve ever been in the world!  Our group arrived at Kings Canyon and planned to climb to the top.  Standing at the bottom, you look ahead of you and see red dirt stairs that seem naturally formed in the rocks.  At first glance it’s steep, but you think it can’t possibly be a long hike.  It’s almost an hour, straight up those stairs… I had to stop several times (we all did), and at 11 am in the morning it’s already 45 degrees outside.  When I finally got to the top of the Canyon, I immediately forgot about the pain of the climb.  It’s just so naturally amazing.  I tell everyone I meet, do it while you can, don’t wait.  Our contiki group arrived at Kings Canyon the same time an AAT Kings tour group arrived.  No one from that group (all older adults) climbed up to see the Canyon from where we did; I remember in that moment being so conscious of how fortunate I was to have youth and energy for this experience.

That night, we slept outside under the stars at an old Camel watering station.  We were so far from any town/city or source of lights that staring at the stars was really magical.  I’ve always loved star gazing and in the southern hemisphere there were constellations that I’d never seen before.  Seeing the Southern Cross was something I’ll never forget.  I remember really wanting to share that moment with my Dad, so I walked a long ways down a dark driveway and called home on an old pay phone at 2 am.  There are experiences in life that you can’t capture with a camera, they just become part of you.  The magic of Kings Canyon was one of those for me…

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Kata Tjuta

When people think about the giant monoliths of the Outback, everyone talks about Uluru but Kata Tjuta is far more diverse in my opinion.  I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time exploring ‘The Olgas’.  I did watch the sun rise and set against ‘Ayres Rock’ with a plastic glass of well-deserved champagne.  Just walking around Uluru is a four hour trek and I will warn you that when the guide tells you to start in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction to avoid the mid-day sunshine you should listen.  Uluru was open for climbing the day I was there, but I chose not to – that’s a personal and individual decision.

Returning to the Outback is on my bucket list and I hope the next time I’m there Mel is by my side.

Categories: Australia, Contiki | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Trip of a lifetime: Australia (post 1/3)

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Sydney, Australia

(Jodie) Well, what do you do when your bff lives in Australia?  You email as much as possible, text all the stuff that is not appropriate for work, and Skype to share the really juicy details.  You also travel together! So, about 18 months after I first met Mel, I set out on the adventure of my lifetime… a four week trip to Australia!

Until I met Mel, Australia had never really been on my radar (crazy, I know), but the more I learned, the more I wanted to see.  Since Contiki had been so good to me the first time, I signed up for round two, and three, with a planned stop to visit Mel at the end of my trip.

Now I’ll admit, I’m a pretty good flyer – I power through.  But the flight from YYZ to SYD was LONG.  23 1/2 hours, with a very brief stopover in LAX.  I’ve traveled a lot but this was the first time since the 1980’s that I experienced an airplane without individual TVs in the headrest of the seat in front of you (Note to British Airways: this is just unacceptable).  All that aside, I remember landing in Sydney bright and early one sunny October morning ready for a month of adventure.

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Plumb and Jodie explore Daydream Island by sea

The first leg of my contiki tour had planned stops in Sydney, Daydream Island (Whitsundays) and Cairns.  My roommates this time were quite a collection, although I met a lovely British girl named Laura Plumb.  “Plumb” as I call her, is still a friend to this day… but my contiki Australia group was smaller, and more diverse than the European travellers for sure.  We flew from Sydney to Daydream Island and there was definitely a moment when I was sure that we were (fortunately?) going to lose a few inexperienced travellers along the way.

I’m not a huge fan of big cities, so I will say that Sydney was “nice”, but not really my thing.  I highly recommend the gay district.  It’s a lot of fun after dark, and feels really safe.  Drag Queen Bingo is always a winner.  Stop #2, Daydream Island, totally lives up to the hype.  It is a beautiful beach resort with plenty of activities and in true contiki spirit, we made the best of the nightlife.  By the time our group got to Cairns we’d been together about a week and knew each other pretty well… and thank god for that because after a night at The Woolshed there were very few secrets left.  Look it up.  The Woolshed is epic.  I certainly “let my hair down” that night, danced on the tables, drank wine from a pitcher and saw the sun come up.  It remains, one of the most fun nights of drunken debauchery that I’ve ever had.

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In my blue suit

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Petting Zoo?

You don’t go to Cairns and not visit the Great Barrier Reef.  Problem: Fish scare the hell out of me.  The bus driver, in true contiki form, found out about my fear of fish and played The Little Mermaid Song, Under the Sea, over and over for me, until he was convinced that I would love the fish and turtles and the reef as much as Ariel.  I opted to wear every single bit of protective clothing offered to me to protect me from the small fish that I was sure were going to bite me, and I jumped in.  It’s beautiful… but I maintain that fish are very scary.

There’s a pretty awesome zoo in Cairns.  I’m not sure about the ethics of this zoo, but it’s pretty much a petting zoo.  You’re welcome to enter the Kangaroo cage, chase them around, feed them…

From Cairns I went to the Outback and those 6 days changed my life, forever.  More on that in part 2…

Categories: Airports, Australia, Cairns, Contiki, Daydream Island, Sydney, Travel, Travel Blog | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Lose (luggage) weight fast!

(Mel) I recently booked a seaplane as part of my adventures in the Yasawa Islands, Fiji. I couldn’t wait…and then I read the booking terms…15 KILOS OF LUGGAGE PER PERSON (that’s 33.06 lbs!). It is no secret, I do not travel lightly. While I am never ‘over’ the weight limit, I certainly ‘maximise’ my ‘capacity’ to make sure I can take everything I need! Here are some of my tricks and tips for smart packing…

Mel’s luggage weight-loss tips!

Tip 1. Know before you go!

Okay so my number 1 tip doesn’t directly relate to packing, it is making sure you know your weight allowances and restrictions for luggage before arriving at the check-in counter! With flying – different carriers, different rules. Best advice is book as many flights on the one ticket as possible – that way the ‘greatest’ allowance applies for all flights. If you are doing any group tours, make sure your luggage is also compliant with their rules.

Tip 2. Get some sample sized cosmetics

I recently signed up to bellabox, and it has been a real winner! I have sample sized items – everything from mascara to moisturizer, perfume to primer…all for AU $15 per month. Brands like Benefit and Clinque often provide samples to their customers – so don’t be afraid to ask for freebies next time you make a purchase!

Tip 3. Outfit colour schemes

Okay so I am sounding like a princess…but…having as many items that can work together is awesome for light packing. Different outfit combinations allow you to pack lightly and look fabulous! Do not be afraid to accessorize – it can take an outfit from day to night, with minimal effort!

Tip 4. You don’t need to pack  hairdryer

I carried mine around Europe to realise this. Hotels have them, most hostels have them. Check the facilities before you go!

Tip 5. Be sensible with shoes

Okay, so this is my Achilles heel (oh, bad pun!)…but I always, ALWAYS am let down with how many shoes I overpack. What you REALLY NEED is a “sensible” pair (for outdoor activitivies), one nice black pair (heels, wedges or boots), one cute neutral pair for day or evening use (wedges, ballet flats or sandals) and if your headed to warmer weather – flip flops! That is all you need. I don’t know how many times I have packed fabulous pumps and not worn them…

Tip 6. Wear it!

Coats take up too much luggage space. I know it is obvious, but any item of clothing (or footwear) that takes up too much space/or weight needs to be worn onto the plane. No one questions this, not even when I was wearing a ski jacket in Miami…just make sure you take it off before hitting airport security screening.

Categories: Airports, Fiji, Luggage, Travel, Travel Blog, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Luggage Lessons!

(Jodie) After a great trip to London and Paris, I packed up to head home.  My travel back to Pearson International Airport took me through Heathrow Terminal 5.  Just my luck, this was only 3 days after the grand opening of terminal 5, where cancelled flights, baggage delays and a temporary suspension of check-in were making international headlines.

Luggage Lessons

Luggage Lessons

As my flight from Paris to London taxied along the brand new tarmac I looked out the window of the plane and saw mountains of luggage stacked along the side of runways.  It was at that moment that I realized, with only a 90 minute stopover, my luggage and I would not be arriving in Canada together.

Lost Luggage Lessons:
– Be kind to the lost baggage agent. They’re the ones with information you need.
– Don’t throw out your baggage ticket until you claim your baggage.  Simple, but so important.
– Don’t panic. If it’s labeled you’ll get it back, eventually.
– Don’t let it ruin your vacation. It’s just “stuff”.

And on the subject of luggage… I’ve learned a few things throughout my travels.  I have some comfort items I just can’t live without including my Lug Pillow and Blanket which has become my security blanket away from home.  I’ve also learned that the best part about traveling with your best friend is that we manage to save space by sharing.  One of us packs a hair dryer, the other packs a straightener.  I’ve also learned that if you forget it or realize you need it after it’s too late, you can always go and buy it!

Important note: Mel comes with baggage!  But she also comes a very long distance and often stays much longer than I do… so she always gets a pass for her “over packing”.  She brings a scale to avoid the extra baggage fees and I can tell you that my favourite part of vacation is watching her try and fit her items back in her matching luggage and still come in under the weight allowance.  It’s always an impressive feat, and she never fails at it.

Categories: Airports, London, Luggage, Travel, Travel Blog | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bus-etiquette! How to be a respectful citizen of the tour bus

Organized tours, day trips – whatever! There is often a lot of time spent on a tour bus. The bus can often make or break relationships with your fellow travelers. We have done our share of organised group tours in Europe, Australia, USA and Cananda. We’ve put together some handy hints on how to be a good citizen of the bus based on our own experiences on tour…

1. In the words of USA Contiki Tour Manager Drew, “coffee, no donuts!”. This related to using the coach bathrooms. Follow it!  And please, just try NOT to use the coach bathroom at all – the bus makes FREQUENT stops.  With four tours between us, neither of us has EVER, used a coach bathroom.

2. Trust us, the “bus ride of shame” is worse than the “walk of shame”.  Enough said.

All aboard the courtesy express!

All aboard the courtesy express!

3. Be kind, always. Don’t talk to someone because they have something you need. This happed to me in Paris, when a fellow traveler who was “unfriendly” all week suddenly became my BFF after realising I had a mini laptop and mobile internet (it was the days before iPhones and iPads!). It is too late on the last day of the tour to forge a relationship with someone after seeing they have the iPad/charger/medicine/hair product etc. that you need!

4. Be respectful to those with motion sickness (i.e. Mel). Don’t sit up the front of the bus because you want to develop a personal relationship with the bus driver…give the seat to the vomitor. Makes everybody’s life better.

5. Win the fight against boredom! While there is some gorgeous scenery to be had, Freeways can get pretty monotonous after an hour or six. Pack things to keep you entertained such as books, iPods, puzzles etc. It is also a great opportunity to write your memories in a travel journal.

6. Mix it up.  Jodie and I break this rule.  We sit together, in the same seat (the one behind the door mid-bus) always.  Get to know your fellow travellers, make some new friends, learn about some new people – that’s all part of the adventure.

7. Okay, so food is an important part of traveling – but keep the smelly stuff off the bus. If you are allowed to eat on board, no smell please!! Keep it to water and basic snacks.

8. Don’t profess out loud that sitting up the back of the bus makes you “cool”. It does not, we’re adults now, so shut up!

9. Be Cold and Flu ready! Germs run rampant group tours. I was unfortunate enough to come down with the Flu on a bus ride somewhere between San Diego and Phoenix. Do your bit to protect yourself and others from illness. Have hand sanitizer, drugs, tissues and anti-bacterial spray ready to go! If you are sick, do your best to prevent spreading germs to your tour mates.

10. And last, but by no means least…be ON TIME.  If the bus departs for the next destination at 12 p.m., that means we ALL LEAVE AT NOON.  Not 12:05 p.m. and then another few minutes while you run to grab a drink or a restroom break… not 12:15 p.m. when you casually stroll up because you’re under the impression that your time is more valuable than mine, it’s not.

Categories: Contiki, Manners, Travel, Travel Blog, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We’ll always have Paris

(Jodie) When I set out on my european adventure, I had high hopes for Paris.  I dreamed of shopping on the Champs-Elysées and watching women in 6 inch Christian Louboutins navigate beautiful cobblestone streets lined with small shops full of the best fashion that Paris had to offer.  In hindsight, I should have managed my expectations.

For every block of Paris that met my lofty expectations, there was an entire arrondissement that scared the hell out of me.  At one point I remember Mel and I being so desperate to get out of out wherever we were that we crawled on the floor of the metro to get a train.  Some outfits wait a lifetime to be worn in Paris, and there I was violating them on the dirty metro floor.

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Eiffel Tower

Paris did deliver some incredibly magical moments… but to their credit, most of them were artificially created by the contiki crew.  We had not taken the nicest route into the city – my first impressions of Paris was miles and miles of railroad tracks and villages of homeless people on the side of the road.  I remember looking at Mel, heartbroken by reality.  About an hour later the sun had set and we were driving through what I figured was the centre of the city.  The tour manager was pointing out important buildings and trying to give us the lay of the land.  At one point, he asked us all to get up (while the bus was moving, but hey, it’s contiki) and look out the left side of the bus… we were passing a building that he claimed had some significance to Napoleon.  Everyone was looking, there was nothing to be seen.  Then he shouted, “turn around”, and there it was for the first time, the Eiffel Tower, all lit up with sparkling white lights.

The next day, the contiki crew orchestrated another Parisian adventure for our travelling pleasure, but credit for this one goes entirely to the driver.  We were on the bus when suddenly circus music started to play loudly over the speakers.  The next thing I knew we were in the middle of the crazy Arc de Triomphe roundabout weaving through traffic (around and around and around) while dancing in the aisle.  I also recall a contest where we challenged the bus driver to pass through an arch that left about once inch of clearance on either side.  Though, travelling with an organized group isn’t always my thing, I do appreciate the little things this crew did that made some pretty fun memories.

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The Paris Opera House with Canadian friends Dan and Jocelyne

All in, Paris was an experience I’m glad I had.  I loved the gardens, the cafes, the opera house, and the small museums.  There are certainly parts of Paris that satisfied my need for fashion, french culture and the laissez-fair lifestyle.  I will probably never go back to Montmartre and I’m proud that I have never stepped foot inside The Louvre.  Go ahead and judge me but I took 12 years of French Immersion classes out for a real local experience and several years later, I still have no regrets.

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Calling Mr. Windsor Knot…

(Mel) Mr Windsor Knot, wherever you are, I thank you. This is an open letter thanking you and your Corporate AMEX for the greatest. night. ever.

It all started on a wild night at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. This was our last night on our Contiki London and Paris Tour. I make no apologies.

Mel gets wild at the Moulin Rouge

Mel gets wild at the Moulin Rouge

I am a prude and I had no idea how risqué this show was about to become. The solution to my prudish ways? Drink more French Champagne. Note ‘Champagne’ not Sparkling Vino!

Our table was seated across from a boozy group of English Businessmen. From the moment we arrived, there was one particular gentleman that caught our attention, Mr. Windsor Knot. He was the archetypal Investment Banker type. Plummy accent, quaffed hair, Savile Row suit polished off with an exquisite silk tie in the finest double Windsor knot I had ever seen. It was like a cross between a young Hugh Grant and Prince William had stepped into our lives. Utterly sublime.

Our faux pas happened when Miss Canada indulged a little too much in the French Bubbly and accidentally spilled a whole €150 of the precious liquid ALL OVER MY DRESS! Oh l’horreur. However, this incident happened in 2008, before the global financial crisis hit and when spending $1000s of dollars a night on “client hospitality” was not scrutinised by companies. There you sat flirtatiously laughing at us in your lush velvet seat of the Moulin Rouge. Saucy minx.

One would expect that this would end up in total embarrassment. Not at the Moulin Rouge my friends. Instead, Mr. Windsor Knot gathers a waiter and sends an expensive bottle of bubbly to our table…along with his phone number for Miss Canada.

Mr. Windsor Knot, if you are out there this is my Thank You. I am sorry Miss Canada never called. I am not sure whether it was the completely ridiculous phone number (that included a country code!) or our completely ridiculous behaviour that evening. But it was what it was, and it was magical. All I hope is that your devilish good looks and your Public School charm never wears off.

Categories: Contiki, Moulin Rouge, Paris, Travel Blog | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Stonehenge

(Jodie) Stonehenge has always fascinated me, I love the mystery.  Years later, I have realized that big rocks all around the world (Stonehenge, Uluru, the Olgas, Kings Canyon, the 12 Apostles) capture my imagination.  The contiki bus drove out to Stonehenge on Easter Monday and there were very few visitors there that day.  The emptiness made it even more mysterious and magical.  I remember it being very cold and wet that day – and when a Canadian tells you it’s cold, that’s saying something.  Mel seemed equally interested in the magic of the monoliths before us, so we grabbed our self guided tour radios and headed out to explore.  We enjoyed it so much, we took the tour twice that day, and then hurried back to the bus to claim “our seat” and warm up with hot chocolate.  

Mel and Jodie at Stonehenge

Mel and Jodie at Stonehenge

Stonehenge was magnificent, and a place I can’t wait to return someday, but something else stands out to me about our visit to the prehistoric monument.  It was the place where I first realized that Mel and I were quite compatible travel partners.  We both have distain for tourists who wander through life watching it from behind the screen of their camera rather than embracing and enjoying the experience first-hand.  Mel and I are travellers, and I hope we always will be.

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see”           ~ G.K. Chesterton

Categories: Contiki, London, Stonehenge, Travel, Travel Blog | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

It all began on a cold, rainy day in April

(Jodie) For me, traveling to London and Paris was my first international vacation alone.  My family and I had been on plenty of all inclusive beach vacations, but I’d never been to Europe or done much non-business travel on my own.  I was desperate for an adventure and choose Contiki because I liked the idea of traveling with people my age and being matched up with a roommate (in hindsight I might have over valued that benefit).  Nervous and excited, I was researching about the tour and found that Contiki had online forum where you could meet people prior to your trip.  I signed up and the first person I wrote to was Mel.  I remember thinking she was organized, friendly and an experienced traveler.  When I boarded the flight from Toronto to London, I was excited to see the mystery of Stonehenge, the history of London, and of course, do some shopping in Paris.

The obligatory tourist photo

The obligatory tourist photo

(Mel) I was hooked on travel from the moment I stepped onto flight GA719. I was a 12 year old traveling on a school excursion to Bali. From that moment it was always “where is next?”. Studying abroad took me to the USA and opened me up to new friends and adventures abroad. From then on, I had caught the travel bug and traveled North America extensively.

I decided to take the Contiki London and Paris tour as I wanted to see a little bit of Europe and make a few new friends along the way. I went onto the Contiki forums to meet my fellow travelers. The first person that sparked my interest, was Jodie.  I was a little skeptical of Jodie of first, firstly because I hadn’t had much luck on the Contiki forums with a previous tour group (some peoples’ internet personas are nothing like the reality) and secondly she told me to stop shopping and save more money for Europe.  Seriously… are you my Mother?  But I found myself chatting everyday to Jodie in the lead-up to the big adventure (well, as big as 2 weeks abroad could be!). I liked this girl and was hoping we might have been paired as roommates!

It was Easter Sunday 2008. I had traveled from Guildford, Surrey into London. I set myself up at my hotel room and then explored The Charles Dickens Museum, Oxford Street and St Paul’s Cathedral (for Easter Service). The Contiki meet-up was at 7:00 pm. I am always unfashionably early! It turns out, so is Jodie!

(J) Sitting in the lounge of the Imperial Hotel we met in person for the first time and the rest is history.  We weren’t roommates on the tour, Mel had a single room and I had a comical series of roommates that kept us both entertained, but we did become seat mates on the Contiki bus.  Mel is even more organized than I first suspected and to this day she still uses her travel experience and international charm to gain access to opportunities that are truly once in a lifetime… There is, of course, a little luck involved sometimes too.

(J & M) We created this blog to share our stories, inspire new adventures and re-live the magic that we’ve found in small towns, big flashy cities and everywhere in between.  While sometimes unbelievable, our stories are true and we hope that you enjoy reading about them as much as we enjoy sharing them. 

Categories: Contiki, London, Paris, Travel Blog | Leave a comment

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