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Travel With Marilyn

Find Packing Accessories to Fit Your Trip

Marilyn JonesEvery trip poses a new set of circumstances. How long are you going to be gone? Will you have access to laundry service? Are you flying? Will you need your passport? What about security?

I recently returned from a trip to South Africa. I used my new suitcase which was fantastic. It made it through airline abuse without a scratch. The downside was that it was a little too small for two weeks, so I also took a piece of carry-on luggage.

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With my backpack (made of the same heavy material as my suitcase) stuffed with my computer, cameras, extra set of clothes, and medications, I had two carry-ons. Even if I locked my backpack and my identification and credit cards were safe, there are two problems: getting everything out at the airport for security and boarding, and my backpack is not RFID-secure.

RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track information attached to objects including credit cards and passports. Although it has been around for years, its relatively new use is identity and digital theft. RFID skimming enables information from RFID-based smart cards to be read and duplicated.

So, I have an RFID neck stash that acts as a little purse.

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In it I put my passport, driver’s license, boarding pass, credit cards, a little cash, and any receipts I collect at the airport. It is small. If I get stopped for having three items (and yes, it happened one time out of dozens of flights), it easily fits into my backpack. It is also very easy to conceal under my jacket or sweater. I actually leave it on when I am on the airplane. I have heard too many horror stories of things being stolen while you are asleep or in the restroom. But that’s another story.

For an upcoming trip to Italy, I will be catching buses and trains to move around Tuscany and Le Marche regions. Although my South Africa plan worked, I don’t want to have two suitcases in tow. With the help of Eagle Creek, I will be touring around this magical country with a Gear Warrior AWD 29 — the bigger version of the suitcase I took to South Africa. Problem solved.

I’m currently in the process of packing and realized my toiletry bag has seen better days, so I set out to find a new one. I usually shy away from hanging toiletry bags, but I found one that was different. The bottom part is three inches wide with little sleeves to hold items such as hairspray, mouthwash, shampoo, and conditioner. There is room in the bottom for other items, as well as a front pouch, two pouches on the top part that fold out to hang, and a pouch on the front of the folded-up kit. I was sold.

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In Cambodia, a monkey attacked my RFID purse that I carry for the usual reasons as well as for water and extra camera batteries and SD cards. Fortunately, no travel writers were injured in the attack, but my purse did suffer a few ill effects, so I ordered a new one. It converts to either a cross-over bag or a backpack. And while I was at it, I found a zippered, leather, RFID clutch for evenings out.

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I always use packing cubes. I think of them as mini dresser drawers: one for tops, another for undergarments and pajamas, and so forth. After packing the cubes, they fit neatly into my suitcase. When I am at a hotel looking for clothes, I simply take out the cube, get what I want, and put the cube back; no fuss, no muss, no stress.

I also discovered packing tubes. Eagle Creek offers a tube cube that fits perfectly between the ribs caused by the suitcase handle. I ordered two. They are excellent for socks and other small items, and they save me even more space in the suitcase.             

While in Italy, the two cities I will be visiting are Florence and Venice. I found two travel guides I will be taking along: Secret Florence and Secret Venice to help me explore the legendary cities.

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I must brag, too, on my favorite travel shoes. They are lightweight,don’t take up a lot of space in a suitcase, and are so comfortable! I actually wore one pair out hiking in the Galapagos Islands, South Africa, Easter Island, all over Europe and the United States. CMUK shoes go everywhere with me when I travel!

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I’d say I’m ready: right luggage, RFID purses, new toiletry bag, packing cubes, packing tubes, guidebooks, and travel shoes.

Italy, here I come!!

           

A Luxurious Afternoon at Sea

Marilyn JonesCape Town is a beautiful city on the Atlantic Ocean and a must-see destination in South Africa. Naturally, because of its location, locals and tourists alike take advantage of all the leisure activities available, including an afternoon cruise.

 

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My cruise was aboard the Mirage. The 76-foot luxury catamaran was built to be able to host yacht parties as well as host smaller groups out to enjoy the sea breeze, scenic beauty, and marine animal life.

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Almost immediately, we started to see dolphins following the yacht; soon after, we came upon several African penguins floating on the surf hunting for fish. Along the shoreline we watched athletes parachuting off the face of the mountain and drifting toward the water in the shadow of Table Mountain.

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We passed seals and cormorants on rocks lining the shoreline, and a beach with its sunbathers and colorful umbrellas.

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The yacht was designed for luxury, and almost as soon as we boarded a shipmate brought a bottle of champagne and began to pour. I requested my usual Diet Coke, but they delivered it with just as much elegance as they had the bubbly for my friends.

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For private parties gourmet cuisine is offered, making the yacht the perfect location for any number of occasions — anniversaries, birthdays, corporate functions, and special events. The surroundings couldn’t be better, with the beautifully-appointed yacht and the glorious scenery of Cape Town, Table Mountain, and the ocean’s wildlife. Plus, the yacht was customized to withstand the unpredictable weather conditions of the Cape.

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Our excursion was a lovely way to experience Cape Town.

Back on shore, we stood and watched a seal clap its flippers and do “handstands" in the water just off the dock as a final anecdote from the cruise. The sea-air, sunshine, and natural beauty offered the perfect way to relax and enjoy another chapter of my South African experience.

Luxury Accommodations Add to South African Experience

Marilyn JonesA hotel can stand alone as a destination anywhere in the world. While traveling throughout South Africa I stayed at several hotels and resorts that were much more than a place to hang my hat and get a good night’s sleep. They had history, character, and charm.

The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa

The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa in Johannesburg was originally a private home. Many esteemed and honored guests — including Nelson Mandela, when he was finishing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom — stayed in the home. After it became a hotel, villas were added, each like mini-hotels with private lobbies, a bar, and service staff.

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In addition to the beautiful grounds, luxuriously appointed rooms, and excellent restaurants, the staff is one of the best attributes of the hotel with their friendliness, professionalism, and willingness to help no matter what is requested by a guest.

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Located in the residential area of Johannesburg, it is quiet and serene, very peaceful and relaxing.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve

Two hours south of Cape Town, almost to Africa’s southern tip, is Gansbaai and Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.

The Garden Lodge has 11 freestanding suites, and the Forest Lodge where I stayed has 16. There are also private villas. My suite was located in an enchanting Milkwood forest with a view of the Atlantic Ocean and featured a living room, bedroom, and two bathrooms.

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Activities include nature walks, horseback riding, whale-watching cruises, and shark-cage experiences. Nearby are the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary and Danger Point Lighthouse.

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Everyone was friendly and helpful, from the gift shop clerk to the restaurant wait staff.

Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate

There are two options at Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate in Franschhoek: The Owner's Cottage, where I stayed, and La Provençale Villa in the Vineyards. Both offer luxury accommodations, beautiful and welcoming décor, and impeccable service.

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Wine production can be traced back to French Protestant Pierre Joubert, who hid his Bible in a loaf of bread and fled his hometown of La Motte-d’Aigues in Provence to avoid religious persecution. In 1694, along with other Huguenots, he arrived in Olifantshoek (Elephants Corner; later to be renamed Franschhoek) and began the farm where Grande Provence is located.

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In addition to wine tasting and winery tours, there is the lovely town of Franschhoek with gift shops, art galleries, and sidewalk cafes.

The Silo

In 1924, a grain silo opened near Cape Town’s waterfront and served its original function until 2001. Most recently, the grain elevator portion of the silo complex was turned into a hotel, restaurant, and rooftop bar above what will become the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art.

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The Silo has 28 rooms, including a one-bedroom penthouse. Each room was individually designed and decorated by Liz Biden. Bright, colorful, and eclectic pieces contrast with the modern, industrial architecture. Rooms are bright, colorful, and offer either a view of the water-front or the city and Table Mountain.

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Royal Malewane

There are so many different things to do in South Africa, but it would seem sinful to leave without witnessing the magnificence of this country’s animals. Voted one of the top 50 resorts in the world by Conde Nast Traveler readers in 2016, Royal Malewane is a perfect base for game drives.

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The luxury safari lodge in Greater Kruger National Park offers amazing game viewing with the most qualified guiding teams in Africa.

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My guide, Noelle, and her tracker, Lawrence — both exceptional at their jobs — allowed me to witness the Big Five (elephants, giraffes, rhinos, lions, and leopards), all manner of antelope, gazelles, exotic birds, wild dogs, and hippos, as well as other African wildlife.

South Africa has so much to offer including luxury accommodations where surroundings and service are exceptional destinations in their own right.

Ho Chi Minh City Cyclo Tour

Marilyn JonesA cyclo is three-wheeled bicycle taxi popular in Vietnam and, for an afternoon, my transportation around bustling Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

 

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At first I was skeptical; I mean, you just go ahead and read the description of a cyclo. But I was with an Exodus Travels tour group — my family for two weeks last summer — and almost the entire group decided to go on the tour. So I decided to put a little adventure into my stay in the city.

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The cyclist would be my chauffer for the afternoon along main thoroughfares and into back alleys. Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam with a population of more than 10 million in the metropolitan area. This is a bustling city with a lot of traffic. At first it was a little unnerving; hundreds of motorcycles and cars swallowed us up as our guides and cyclists took us past towering skyscrapers and beautiful parks. Soon though, I relaxed and just trusted I would be safe. Traffic seemed to accept cyclos and not just tolerate them.

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Soon we left the busy streets and headed down an alley. We rode past vegetable stands, tiny shops, and into the flower market. This is a large area with several streets and alleyways. We were surrounded by colorful blossoms, their scents floating on a slight breeze. Stopping for a walk through the area, we were able to admire and photograph creative bouquets and unusual varieties up close.

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Back on the cyclo, we headed down residential streets. Children waved from balconies and we were met by smiles at every turn. We also made a stop at a Buddhist temple before heading back out into heavy traffic for the journey back to the hotel.

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It was a fantastic experience! I would recommend it to anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City.

If you are interested in a cyclo tour, ask the concierge at your hotel for recommendations.

Luggage to Withstand Airline Handling

Marilyn JonesI travel a lot — usually one international destination a month. So I am always on the lookout for the very best in packing tools: the right luggage, packing cubes, RFID totes, and so forth.

My beautiful, hard-sided luggage was, shall we say, a little mistreated by several airlines this past year. With each trip, little by little, cracks began to appear until there was a hole in one corner. Not good.

Planning for a trip to South Africa, I was in need of a new piece of luggage. Not only had my last suitcase become a victim, the suitcase I was using before it had turned up on the baggage claim conveyor belt with a big dent in it the very first time I used it.

What’s positive about hard-sided luggage is obvious: it protects what’s inside, including your precious souvenirs. I love to shop in foreign lands and often fill every nook and cranny with my purchases.

So what’s the answer? I’ve seen rips and tears in soft-sided luggage as well, and the protection isn’t there, so I decided to do some research before deciding on the next piece of luggage.

My conclusion? It’s about the “bones” of the piece — material and zippers. I know that may sound too simple, but there are vast differences in all three. After reading a lot of reviews and descriptions, I found three I felt would serve me well:

Briggs & Riley Transcend 24" Expandable Upright

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Photo courtesy Briggs & Riley

The North Face Longhaul 26"

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Photo courtesy The North Face

Eagle Creek Gear Warrior AWD 26

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Photo courtesy Eagle Creek

All three are excellent choices, but I chose the Gear Warrior AWD 26, mainly because my Eagle Creek backpack has served me well, price and design. When it arrived I knew I had made a wise choice. It is made out of the same durable material as my backpack and has all the features I was looking for.

Although I chose a soft-sided piece, I packed all my South African purchases in between clothing to the center of the luggage or carried items in my carry-on. Everything arrived home safe and sound. And so did my suitcase!

If you travel by air, it is worth the research to find a good quality piece that will serve your needs. Once you check that bag, it’s out of your control!

Sunrise, Sunset — Life in the South African Bush

Marilyn JonesSouth Africa has so much to offer, including its wonderful wildlife! I spent several days at Royal Malewane Lodge touring Thornybush Private Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. Reserves are open to the national park, allowing access to a much wider area for animals like elephants, lions, rhinos, wild dogs, giraffes, leopards, impalas, and several species of antelope and exotic birds.

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My guide, Noelle van Muiden, and her tracker, Lawrence, traveled all over more than 35,000 acres in search of animals. “There are more than 60 types of mammals, more than 300 different birds, and approximately 150 different species of trees and shrubs,” Noelle explained as we bounced along in search of our next sighting.

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Game drives take place early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the animals are most active and the light is perfect for photographing the glories of South Africa. By understanding animal movement and communicating with other guides, as well as Lawrence’s incredible sight and listening abilities, the pair usually had a plan when we climbed up into the truck and set out on an adventure.

One morning, Noelle was driving down a road when Lawrence says simply, “Owl.” She backed up, got out her binoculars, and couldn’t see it. Then she got out and invited her four passengers to get out and look. None of us saw it until it moved and eventually flew away. How he saw it while we were moving still boggles my mind.

On another occasion he said, “I hear elephants drinking.”

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Noelle drove slowly drove off-road through thickets and brush until we came to a pond where a dozen or so elephants were drinking water. We sat in the truck along the water’s edge, watching and photographing the amazing scene. One elephant came quite close to me and looked me in the eyes before moving on. Others began to eat from trees lining the pond.

Lawrence often spotted lion tracks and could recognize when they were made. We saw several lions on our game drives as well.

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Every day, we saw the sun rise and set on this magical land.

“How do you put a feeling to the experience?” asked Director and Head Ranger Juan Pinto one day just after lunch.

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Indeed — there are no words to describe the feeling of being in the presence of these majestic animals in the wild.

Insight into Guatemalan Coffee Production

Marilyn JonesI am not a coffee drinker, so I was just going along for the ride with my fellow Bella Guatemala Travel tour group as we left Antigua for Café Azoteca Coffee Estate, in business since 1883. Our coffee museum guide began our tour by explaining coffee production worldwide before telling us about the history and traditions here.

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Azotea farm was purchased by doña Dominga Mont and her son-in-law, don Marcelo Orive. Together they began the cultivation of coffee. We passed exhibits and dioramas that illustrated the history of coffee harvesting in Guatemala and explained the growing and processing of the bean.

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“The coffee plant is grown under a dense canopy of shade trees,” he explained.  “At harvest time, our workers hand-pick only the ripe red beans. The beans are then wet milled, sun dried, and dry milled. Processed beans are hand-selected to assure quality and uniformity.”

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Outside, we walked along a wide dirt road into an area where the beans were being grown. He showed us the red, ripe beans and explained that the farm uses an organic pest control system as well as composting for fertilizer. “We are very environmentally friendly.”

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Azotea, which is a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm, is staffed by 65 workers during the high season and hosts 3,000 visitors a month.

We walked through a beautiful garden with colorful flowers of every description; many I had never seen before.

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We then headed for the coffee shop. Many on the tour sampled the coffee and purchased bags of the fragrant beans. After we had time to look around the store, our Bella Guatemala Travel guides, Jose Antonio Gonzalez and Emilio Faillace, invited us to yet another museum — Casa K'ojom Mayan Music Museum.

Here we learned the history of Guatemalan musical instruments, with numerous instruments and dioramas adding to the understanding of this history. A short film was shown as well, bringing what we had learned to life with spectacular sound and color.

The gift shop was a wonderful collection of traditional souvenirs along with handcrafted items including instruments made by local artisans at very reasonable prices.

I can easily recommend the tour, museums, and gift shops to everyone visiting Antigua, whether you drink coffee or not!