Authentic Crete

7 day tour, from $2,499


Scrubbing Back the Layers: A Turkish Bath Experience in Jordan

The moment she threw off her hijab and sheepishly smiled while saying, “there are no men here now, so it’s OK,” I knew we were in for something unique.

I’d heard about Turkish baths before, but I didn’t actually have any idea what they encompassed. They were this thing that you would simply smile about, and almost embarrassingly exclaim, “of course I know what those are!”

I’m not sure if my perspective about them would be different if I had experienced them first in my home country, but having my first time take place in Wadi Musa, Jordan while on a small group tour during part of our free time — well, let’s just say the memories are still resonating in one of the most powerful ways.

Note: due to the type of experience this was, it felt more respectful to not take any photos while we were inside the bath house. I've instead shared some of the moments that took place in Wadi Musa on the same day, to help paint the picture of this incredible destination. 

Step 1: Things Get Steamy (Literally)

As soon as we were all in the same room together — women only, as the men’s baths were on a different level — something came to life that I can only describe as a sort of female kinship. Here we were, on our small group tour, making the most of our unscripted time — and this was really the first moment we’d been able to delve into the layers of the female experience in Jordan. You could sense this combination of excitement, relaxation, and curiosity coming over the seven women in my group as we stripped down to our swimsuits and were led by hand into a room that immediately enveloped you in a cloud of steam.

It startled me at first, never having spent much time in a sauna before, just how much it encompasses the senses. After ducking into the first initial room, we were led toward the back of the structure, and I found myself holding on to the hand in front of me as I tried to see far enough beyond the steam into the space.

Immediately upon settling onto the marble benches with my companions, shoulders and hips close enough that you could feel the heat coming off all of us, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t going to last very long in this heat. Trying to take a deep breath felt a bit like when the heat of an opened oven hits you in the face, and the sweat was streaming down my arms, legs, back; all the way down to the roots of my hair I could feel heat penetrating my pores.

Any time someone would move to a different bench, they would disappear in a cloud of steam; the effect was almost ghostly, and the room soon echoed with our laughter and conversation as we grew accustomed to the pressing temperatures — knowing that in reality this was supposed to be great for you.

Step 2: The Bare Necessities

The next part of the process is where I’m trying to hold onto the details. After about 10 to 15 minutes of sweating out toxins and whatever mild anxiety I had about saunas, we were led in smaller groups of three to the next room. While communication was limited to a smattering of words about where and how to sit, there was a sense of kindness and care in every action, in every brush of the shoulder directing your next move.

After clambering up quite ungracefully onto what I can only describe to be a marble hybrid of a vet’s exam table, the woman in front of me used a variety of gestures and words to signal that this next part would be easier — better, maybe? — if I was comfortable pulling my one-piece swimsuit down around my hips.

I clasped at my chest in what felt like a comical fashion, looking around the damp, steam-misted room, wondering if I’d heard her correctly. I mean, there were only three other women in the room with me, but we’d only met each other a few days earlier when the tour began. In any other version of this situation I might have thought to be uncomfortable, but there was such a tangible sort of peace and sense of being in this safe space enveloping the room, that it felt natural and I agreed.

Lying back on the table, I concentrated on the droplets of moisture clinging to the tile ceiling above me, as my attendant stepped to the side where a bucket of water was being scooped out in large bowls by other attendants. Collecting a bowl of her own, the attendant stepped back to my side and poured the warm, soapy water across my chest. The process was repeated twice more across my body, water sluicing away the sweat the sauna had pulled from me.

Step 3: Scrubbing Back the Layers

As I started to relax more fully on the table, a doorbell rang from outside the room and my attendant apologized for having to step away for a moment. You could tell how protective the women were of this space; slipping in and out the entrance door only when needed, and without letting any of the heat escape.

As I lay there waiting for her return, I glanced to my right and saw a fellow woman in my group on a similar table, laughing softly and murmuring to the woman working with her. It was a tender, private moment that I think only other women can fully understand, and I glanced away, closing my eyes and soaking up the sound of language unfamiliar to my ears.

My attendant returned and she had what looked to be some sort of hand-shaped loofa grasped in her fingers. She smiled at me, nodding in that universal way of, “OK, all good to proceed?” and I nodded and returned her smile. Starting on the more tender area of my belly, she began exfoliating the skin, working her way up my chest, around my neck, down my arms, legs, and curving around the soles of my feet.

The brisk yet kneading movements were equally intense yet soothing. The exfoliation around my chest had me jumping and smiling apologetically, while the skin of my outer legs conformed seamlessly to her movements.

I was turned to my stomach and similar treatment was applied to the length of my spine, reaching the arches and curves along the way. I couldn’t decide if I was being charted a bit like a map, or had become more like a turkey being prepped for Thanksgiving dinner. Either way, I saw my outer layer of skin slowly being scraped away and was content to lose myself in the experience.

Step 4: Reawakening the Spirit

Throughout the process of exfoliation, the woman who had initially greeted us by removing her hijab could be heard singing from somewhere in the room. I might not have understood the Arabic words she was vocalizing, but as the lulling melody drifted through the room, the sound seeped beneath the newly revealed layers of my skin, wrapping around my heart.

In that moment, scrubbed down and exposed in a way that transcended being mostly bare-skinned on a table, I had never felt so viscerally female. It was raw around the edges, not unlike the rest of me, but so elemental that my spirit felt reawoken.

After the exfoliation, new buckets of warm, soapy water were poured over me, and the scrubbing motions were replaced with the kneading of the muscles in my shoulders, neck, legs, hands and feet. The movements were supple, my skin and body finding solace in a place of ultimate relaxation and reflection. I rotated from my back to my front once more before being eased into a cross-legged sitting position. My attendant worked out any lingering kinks in my neck before turning me to face her and assist me off the table.

The floor was cool to the touch, and my toes curled around it as I stood, hands at my side, the details of the room coming back into focus. Two more buckets of water were brought and pored over my head. It ran through my hair, moving in rivulets down my softened body, pooling at my feet. As I stripped off the rest of my swimsuit completely and wrapped myself in the towel I was given, it occurred to me that most of my companions were now all in the room together, each with the same dazed, glowing look on their faces.

We didn’t quite know yet the words to describe what we had just experienced, but we did know it was unlike anything that had come before. Different small groups have moments that bring them together — cementing a shared experience — and that small group of women became more than just my friends in that moment; we became part of each other’s stories, our reservations scrubbed away in the heat of that bath house.

Step 5: Celebrating the Female Experience

We sat afterward in our towels in the same waiting room we’d been greeted in, sipping on tea with fresh mint leaves. There wasn’t a ton of chatter, but there was a pulse to the room that hadn’t been there before. Our host sat with us on the couches — her silver-speckled black hair frizzy around her face, water marks on her loose gray shirt; her hijab sat discarded nearby, almost like an afterthought. She encouraged us to relax and sip our tea, and her presence was a calming companion to the daze we all still seemed to be in.

Soon, we’d once again return to the lively and heat-soaked streets of Wadi Musa, but in those last few moments, we soaked up the final sips of quiet serenity like a fresh cup of Jordanian tea.

We had flushed and rejuvenated skin, yes, but if anyone were to ask me about the benefits of a Turkish bath experience, I’d lead instead with the gift of connection that it imparts. This is not an experience that allows you to hide — physically or emotionally — from yourself. It demands your vulnerabilities in a way that feels more like being asked for a hug or a warm squeeze of the shoulder. Especially as a woman, to have that opportunity to scrub away the things that often hold us back — including ourselves — you can’t ask for a more priceless gift.

Our bodies deserve as much love and self-care as the other parts of our lives that we nurture, and when we give ourselves the permission to do that, it reminds me of how a Jordanian cup of tea goes down: sweet, spicy and capable of making you believe in a little bit of magic.

Tiffany Harrison the Partnership Marketing Manager for Club Adventures, by AAA Exclusive Vacations. Club Adventures offers a lineup of small group adventure tours, helping Members to explore the world through a local lens. A firm believer in how immersive travel can change the world, Tiffany has been collecting stories and experiences ever since she hopped on a plane for the first time ten years ago to study abroad in Scotland. In her role, Tiffany supports AAA agents and members through strategic marketing efforts, helping bring to life the Club Adventures brand message.


The Italian Riviera: Friends and memories for life

Exploring the Italian Riviera with new friends

by Travis Snelling

In June, 2019 Club Adventures brought together 13 strangers from across the US of different ages and backgrounds. They embarked on an adventure to explore the Italian Riviera from Tuscany to Cinque Terre. Nobody knew what to expect, or who they’d be traveling with. They left in search of incredible food and scenery, but they came back with lifelong friends and experiences that will be a part of them forever.


8 Unscripted Moments from Greece

Homer once said: “The Journey is the thing.” These are wise words to heed.

Travel is about exploration. It is these unscripted and unexpected moments that I always cherish and remember the most. It’s rarely about the destination, instead, it’s about what happens in the spaces in between.

I chose to tour with Club Adventures because of their commitment to build itineraries with balance. They encourage unplanned adventures and make space for them to happen. Participants are not bound to a full-day itinerary, nor are they herded like sheep on and off buses, rushed through museums, and required to attend precisely timed meals. 

On a 9 day journey through Greece, such flexibility gave our group inspired moments that will last a lifetime. Here are 8 of mine.

Watching a Sunset

It’s my belief that the majority of world problems could be solved by gathering at sunset. There’s something magical about the palette of a sundown; it draws people together to watch the sky explode with color as the sun disappears below the horizon. 

I felt this deeply atop Lycabettus Hill in Athens. With a free night worked into our first day of the itinerary, I climbed the 277-metre hill to enable views of the expansive city below, and joined a few other hundred people. I arrived with a half hour to spare, took a couple of photos, and lowered my camera with the intent to enjoy the crowd. I pulled out a can of beer that I had brought along, and cheers’ed a couple of others that had the same idea. I made some new friends and we all chatted about what our plans were in Athens and in Greece. Even after the sun was gone we stuck around for the magical moment when Athens and its limestone ruins were suddenly illuminated in golden light.

 

Sharing Dinner

What I love most about meals in Greece is the atmosphere produced by the shared experience. Meze are selections of small appetizers brought to the table for everyone to indulge. Meats, vegetables, salads, cheeses, tzatziki, bread - the combinations are endless, as can be the evening. When you sit down at a table for dinner in Greece, that table is yours for the night.

At our first evening group dinner together, the meze was brought to the table and everyone rushed to fill their plates. None of us realized at the time that there would be more plates to come, and then more plates, and then more plates. Most of our party were full after ten minutes.

We all learned to pace ourselves as the tour went on after spending our hunger so quickly on that first night. But the memories of those first bites of meze, however rapidly they passed by me at the time, are etched on my palate forever.

Simple But Not

It was late afternoon on the island of Naxos and we needed to find lunch. There were six of us who ventured on our own into town and dined at one of the seaside restaurants. After our meal, the owner of the restaurant brought over dessert: a dish of Greek yogurt topped with candied carrots.

“Please, this is complimentary for our guests,” he said generously.

The balance of the sweet candied carrots combined with the sour tanginess of the yogurt made for a perfect combination. I turned to the owner and commented how delicious and yet how simple the dessert seemed. He laughed and said: “Simple? No, not so simple.”

I learned that the dessert actually takes over a day to prepare. The shredded carrots are slowly reduced for hours in a mixture of honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, and water.

Thankfully, he knew I meant no disrespect with my comment, and we both burst out laughing as I eagerly finished every last bite.

Give it Thyme

In Naxos, the island is known to be blessed with rich, high-nutrient soil. It’s also unique to the other islands with the amount of rain it receives due to its mountains and micro-climates. And with rich soil comes quality food. I had already sampled some of their finest cheeses and meats on our trip.

What I wasn’t expecting was their exemplary honey.

As we waited in the small town of Halki to go into a museum, our guide suggested we stop into a local shop and sample some. It was a small shop and had it not been for our guide, I probably would not have stopped in. But thankfully, we did. 

In Greece, not only is honey used for food, but it’s also used for medicinal purposes like curing wounds and treating burns. Needless to say, they take their honey seriously. I was solely there to eat it, and THAT, I did.

The shop specializes in unique honey that I had never heard of. First was the honey that is made from the Heather flower; the scent is extraordinary and the taste has a resemblance to a sweet caramel. The second honey I didn’t expect as it was made with wild thyme. It was intensely aromatic and had a salty, tropical flavor. It would pair perfectly with some fresh yogurt and almonds.

This unexpected stop turned into me walking out with two jars of honey that I would bring home to remind myself of the small shop in Halki on the island of Naxos.

Let’s Dance

Above the main town in Naxos lies a church and monastery are built into the mountainside. Our group suggested to our tour leader that we change the plans for the evening and hike up there before dinner. I could tell by her smile that she was excited at the idea.

“I’ve never been up there, so I’m really happy to find a way to go up!” she exclaimed.

Six of us made the trek at dusk in hopes that we’d catch the sunset. The church’s setting was incredible and the boulders lining up to the church had been painted white to give the illusion that it was one with the mountain.

We spent a fair bit of time at the top of the church, and didn’t have enough time to go and see the monastery. Instead we turned back towards town, giving up on the hopes of a sunset due to the clouds which had rolled in. But we were in high spirits on the way down and Sylvia broke out into a song. We all recognized the tune she was singing, as we had heard it the night before at a live music performance. 

“Do you know why this song is so famous in Greece?” she asked. None of us could respond.

“It’s for the Syrtaki dance, and it’s a dance based on bonding and togetherness, in essence for pride in Greece.” As we continued our walk down she found the song on her mobile and said emphatically: “Let’s dance.” 

Here we were, in a surreal moment on Naxos island, walking down from a mountain and learning the Syrtaki dance. What looked like simple footwork of crossovers and kicks turned out to be quite difficult and confusing for most of us. From wrong steps to wrong kicks it was a funny sight to behold. But we laughed, we sang, and we continued dancing.

Find Your Own Beach

If you’ve seen pictures of Greece, the deep blue and turquoise waters against crystal white beaches will be familiar. On the island of Ios, there are lots of these little paradises. Without a sailboat to cruise along the coast and pick one to visit, I knew I’d have to find a way to hike to one.

With an afternoon to myself, I scanned a map and found a beach that was a few miles from our hotel. From what I could tell it would take me a couple of hours to get to and It would be up and over several steep hills. And so I set off in high hopes I would find my paradise.

 

There were no people along the path I took, only a few goats that looked shocked to see me. And when I first set eyes on my destination from above I knew I’d be rewarded. I quickened my step and within half an hour I was on the shoreline letting the waves hit my feet. And the best part, I had the whole beach to myself. I settled in for the afternoon and relished the opportunity to find my own beach. What had been known as Sapounochoma Beach was now Pete’s beach. At least for the day.

The Rush of Three Thousand Year Old Wind

The wind rushed up the hillside past the white painted city of Fira and hit me square in the face. It had enough power to briefly take my breath away. I was facing the caldera of the volcano on the island of Santorini and in complete awe. Nearly three thousand years ago, an eruption occurred shaping what Santorini now is. As I stood on the edge of the cliff looking down, I wondered if this powerful act of nature could happen again in my lifetime. 

The wind followed me that day as I joined several from our tour group to walk from the town of Fira along the cliff’s edge towards the town of Ia. We were told that this year there had been an abnormal amount of rain on the island and it seemed as if the entire path was in bloom. This hike took us past incredible views of the sea cliffs, through the white painted towns, and ultimately down into the town of Ia. But as popular as we were told that this hike is, we saw very few people actually doing it. I was shocked by this, as this excursion presented the Santorini that I was going to remember.

 

Sipping Protected Wine

As we drove from the port of Santorini to our hotel in Fira we could see odd bushes in the vineyards which lined the highway.

“These are the way that they grow grapes here in Santorini,” our guide explained to us.

We were eager to learn more so Sylvia rearranged our schedule and planned for us a visit to a vineyard to learn about how the people from Santorini challenge this harsh climate to produce award winning wine.

Who would have thought that grapes could grow out of volcanic rock? And how do they survive the challenge of such strong winds?

On Santorini, they’ve found a way. First, despite the volcanic rocky ground, it is incredibly fertile due to the immense density of minerals. To battle the winds, the Assyrtiko vines are trimmed and intertwined at ground level into a basket. The basket naturally shields the grapes from not only the harsh winds but from the extreme summer heat.

The Santorinians have been doing this technique for quite a while, but it was not until recently that the world is starting to take notice of the unique taste of Assyrtiko. The sweet wine only gets better with age, but shockingly, the wine is only aged for two months before being bottled and ready to drink. It’s sharp, citrusy and refreshing. With a few years of age, we were told that the wine truly rounds out.

Santorini itself is the secret to this wine. Others have tried to duplicate the grape in other environments with little success. And hence, the grape and wine have earned a ‘Protected Destination of Origin’ status from the European Union. There may be Assyrtiko wines, but it’s something special to have a bottle of Santorini Assyrtiko. That’s reason enough to bring a few bottles home with me.

Pete Heck is the Chief Pretty Photo Maker of Hecktic Travels and is also the guy who fixes everything Dalene breaks on this website. Pete was an accountant in his former life but now enjoys snapping photos, cooking, sampling the weirdest of foods, and discussing conspiracy theories.


Tuscan Living

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Croatia in Motion

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Reflections of our adventure in the Amalfi Coast

The first time I went to Italy, I was 22 years old. I had saved for years to be able to spend a few months backpacking through Europe, my ultimate dream for as long as I could remember. More so than any other country I visited that summer, my expectations of Italy were high. I dreamed of sitting in cobblestoned squares with a glass of cold white wine, church bells in the background. I dreamed of rolling green hills, of turquoise Mediterranean waters. I dreamed of wandering tiny towns with even tinier streets, getting to glimpse just a bit of Italian culture and history with my own eyes.

Thankfully, Italy met all of my expectations and then some. My trip to the country was brief, my adventure a whirlwind, but I saw enough of the country - of its architecture, of its food, of its jaw-dropping beauty - that I knew I'd return one day.

What I didn't know then was that, over the next 13 years, my travel blog would develop into a full-time career. Travel blogging and writing would end up taking me back to Italy again and again; whenever I had a few days to spare, I'd eagerly look into ways of visiting a new city or region in Italy. After visiting over 100 countries, Italy keeps me wanting to return.

Timing is Everything

Despite my frequent trips to Italy - over a dozen in total - there was one region that always seemed to elude me. I had traveled around Northern Italy on my own many times but had never made it to Naples, Sorrento, or the Amalfi Coast in the south. Despite the Amalfi Coast being at the very top of my "must see" travel list, the timing never seemed to fit.

There was also the question of logistics; despite being an avid solo traveler, I knew I didn't want to see the Amalfi Coast on my own. I knew that the drive along the coast itself was one of the most beautiful in the world and that there was no way I could trust myself to keep my eyes on the road when there was so much beauty just outside the windows. And as much as I love traveling on my own, there's no denying that, sometimes, you just want someone to take care of things for you, to not worry about which train to take or how to find the hotel.

The solution to all of my Amalfi problems, then, was a tour. When I first read the Club Adventures itinerary for Naples, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast, it almost seemed too good to be true: a food tour in Naples, the birthplace of pizza; a day spent exploring Vesuvius and Pompeii, learning about the ancient volcano and the lives it claimed; limoncello tasting near Sorrento, including a tour of a lemon farm; wandering the winding streets of Capri; and finally, of course, having a full three days on the Amalfi Coast, taking in some of the most beautiful sights in the world.

Travel through a Local Lens

I'll be honest. Despite how amazing the tour sounded, I still felt nervous; I'm used to traveling solo, to doing things my own way. But from the moment I met Andrea, my local leader for the small group tour, I felt at ease. I loved that the tour group was small enough that we could all get to know each other well, and a fantastic dinner at a local trattoria in Naples on our first night cemented instant friendships.

Over the next nine days, I realized the small group tour was helping me discover so much more of Italy than I would have on my own. Firstly, we had Andrea, who was not only a wealth of information of history and culture of the region but an excellent resource for recommending the best local food and wine in each restaurant (we all agreed that Sorrento really does have the best limoncello). But we had so many other local people join us, too, not only experts in their fields but people whose passion for their culture and their hometowns became infectious.

  • There was Lilli in Naples, who insisted we try one of each of the local Neapolitan pastries, then took us for pizza in one of the most authentic restaurants in the heart of the Old Town.
  • We met Luigi near Sorrento, whose entire family runs a lemon farm; he showed us how to make the best limoncello possible before treating us to an incredible meal, all made with homegrown ingredients.
  • There was also Maria, who picked oranges grown in the sunshine on her family's farm near the Amalfi Coast for us; we learned about the way of life there, and how her family has lived on that same land for generations.
  • There was the family at a vineyard in Tramonti, a short drive from Amalfi, who gave us a tour of their property and prepared a traditional meal for us... which included, of course, a sampling of wine from their 500 year old vines.
  • And then there was Giovanni, the man who got us safely from Point A to B. Finally, I got to experience the road trip I had dreamed of for so many years. Along those twisting roads that took us from Sorrento to Amalfi, the coast unfolded in brilliant bursts of blue and green: the emerald hills and vineyards, the aquamarine sea, the endless azure sky. And while the entire tour was wonderful from start to finish, it was experiencing this - this Italy of dreams, this Italy that you can’t believe exists until you see it with your own eyes - that will forever stand out in my mind.

Over the next few days, we explored the towns of Amalfi and Positano by bus, boat, and foot, including the stunning hike of the Path of the Gods. Our small group spent some time together, and some time apart; we could choose how much time to have on our own, which was perfect for a person like me, used to independent travel. But more often than not, I chose to be with the group. We really had become like family, and every night we laughed and shared stories over plates of pasta and bottles of wine.

On the final morning, as I took the boat from Amalfi one last time, I watched the town for as long as I could until it disappeared from view. There's no denying I love Italy, and that I will return one day, but I knew that even before I started the Club Adventures tour in Naples. What I didn't expect was to create such strong memories on the tour. I didn't expect to meet so many local people who would show me things I'd never seen before, never in all those previous solo trips.

I thought I had already seen the best of what Italy could offer, but I was wrong. It turns out there was so much more to see and learn, and this time I had a group of new friends to experience it all with.

And honestly? You have got to try that limoncello. It really is the best.

Brenna Holeman is the blogger behind This Battered Suitcase, which specialises in long form narratives and solo travel tips. With over 100 countries under her belt, she’s a big fan of window seats, souvenir shopping, and local whisky.


Discovering the Balkans with Club Adventures

When I stumbled off the plane in Belgrade, Serbia, I was jet-lagged and haggard, but ready for an adventure. I was one of the lucky few who got to head out on Club Adventures’ first small group tour, and I had packed accordingly. Though I would be spending 8 days touring the Balkans, I’d only brought a backpack and a Club Adventures tote bag.

Club Adventures, powered by AAA Exclusive Vacations, is a brand-new small group travel company focused on culturally immersive and adventurous travel opportunities. Joining me on their maiden voyage were Bethany Hodge – the Travel Product Manager for Club Adventures (AKA the architect behind all of their trip itineraries), Lucas Bialecki – Club Adventures’ National Account Director, and ten AAA travel agents. Most of us were complete strangers, but that would change fast.

We were greeted in Belgrade by our Local Leader, Filip Friskich. Filip was tall, charmingly blunt and almost exclusively wore punk rock T-shirts. Like all Club Adventures Local Leaders, Filip was local to the area – having grown up in Croatia. He would be our guide throughout the trip, leading us through a total of four countries: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia. After a dinner out in Belgrade, we fell asleep in our local hotel.

The next day, we loaded into a stylish red minibus, helmed by our quiet and pleasant driver, Vlado. (In all the time I spent with him, Vlado only said 3 words to me: “Feeling okay?” and “Cold!” They each felt like gifts.) We were on our way to Sarajevo.

History with a Local Lens

When we arrived in the city, we met up with our Insider Expert (our city-specific guide), Muhamed Vlajčić. Since we were all starving, Muhamed treated us all to Bosnian burek, a flaky, spiral pie with various delicious fillings, from spinach to cheese to meat. Burek quickly became a tour group favorite. After we were full up with pastry and yoghurt, Muhamed took us on a tour of Sarajevo’s Old Town. We started to learn about this great city at the intersection of Eastern and Western culture. And we also started to learn about its painful past, like when we come across souvenirs made from old bullet casings.

The next day in Sarajevo, Muhamed took us on a tour called “Times of Misfortune,” which detailed the Siege of Sarajevo and the Bosnian Genocide. Our normally chatty and cheerful group grew quiet as Muhamed told us about his own experience growing up during the siege – and the literal scars he still carries. We headed to the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum and learned about the secret tunnel that became a lifeline to the people of Sarajevo. We even went through a small section of the tunnel, which was cramped and dark. I’m not a tall person by any means, but I had to double-over to walk through. Claustrophobia rose in the back of my throat like bile, and I scrambled out of the exit like I was being chased. I’d only walked about 80 feet. I can’t imagine going through that tunnel for 370 yards.

We returned to the city proper, and Muhamed guided us up to the top of the Yellow Fortress, so that we could view the city from above. It was a beautiful tapestry of red-roofed buildings and winding roads, nestled among the mountains. To see a city that survived so much was incredibly moving. Sarajevo was a trip favorite. None of us wanted to leave.

Travel Unscripted

On the bus the next day, Filip said, “Anyone sitting on the right side might want to move. Because of the cliffs.”

We were driving to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro, along winding mountain roads. Also, every couple of minutes I would look out my window and see nothing but a sheer drop down a cliff-face. It was beautiful, but it was also a little like being on a rollercoaster for six hours. At one point, the bus pulled off the road and we all actually screamed – but we weren’t plunging off the mountain. We were stopping for a surprise picnic.

“This was all Vlado’s idea,” Filip said as he opened a box of burek.

“Vlado!” We all cooed, and Vlado shrugged demurely.

When we reached the highlands, it felt like we were in a different world – a world of rugged mountaintops and sky and green grass. We came across a group of wild horses on the road and stopped to gingerly approach them.

“This,” Bethany said while she snapped some photos, “is really travel unscripted!”

I could write a novel about all of the beautiful things we saw on our ride to and through Durmitor National Park. We were unendingly spilling out of the bus to take pictures. At one point I started shouting about “Lord of the Rings.” When we reached the little ski lodge where we were spending the night, we were drunk on the scenery (and possibly the altitude).

In the morning, we left the mountains and arrived at the Adriatic Sea’s Bay of Kotor. Kotor is a beautiful beach town, crowded with tourists and locals alike. Our insider expert led us through Kotor’s Old Town, where fat feral cats roam around medieval-era buildings. We were then invited on a small boat tour, where we visited Our Lady of the Rocks, a church built on a man-made island in the middle of the bay. Some of us also took the opportunity to jump off  the boat for a sunset swim.

Small Group Experiences, a Lifetime of Memories

The next day, we had some free time in Kotor. I took the opportunity to wander around the Old Town myself, before retiring with a pastry and a good book to my hotel balcony, which overlooked the city and the water. I felt very European. That evening, a few of us got together for dinner and talked about how close we’d gotten over the course of the trip. It was amazing, the way we were willing to open up and share our life stories with what had previously been a group of strangers. I guess that’s what small group travel does, though. It brings people together.

My final stop was in Dubrovnik, Croatia. We were greeted by our local guide and headed to Dubrovnik’s Old Town – a medieval fortress that serves as King’s Landing on “Game of Thrones.” We walked along the walls around the city, which provided picturesque views of the Adriatic Sea. Afterward, we toured through the streets and heard ancient stories about Dubrovnik’s past.

That night, we had our last dinner as a group, in a restaurant at the base of the building that doubles as the “Game of Thrones” Red Keep. We were already feeling a little sentimental, but then Filip put us all over the edge by gifting us each a copy of “The Bridge On the Drina,” a famous novel about the history of the region we’d traveled through together. I couldn’t believe the trip was coming to an end.

In the morning, I shared a cab with Julia Ivey, another member of the group. We hugged at the airport like we were sisters, and then parted ways.

“Was that your friend?” asked a young couple who were also New York-bound.

“Yeah,” I replied. They all were.


Flavorful Forays: 10 Places Around the World Where You Must Try the Food

Nothing brings out the foodie in anyone more than a trip abroad. Every Anthony Bourdain wannabe knows that to truly experience a culture, you must experience its cuisine. Here are 10 places to travel and savor every bite along the way.

1. Japan

Everyone knows Japan for its sushi – in fact, the dish is now ubiquitous in many parts of the world. Sushi isn’t the only delicacy hailing from this Asian nation. Head to Osaka, home of takoyaki (balls of savory batter filled with diced octopus), or to Hiroshima for okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made with eggs, cabbage and other ingredients.

2. Singapore

Singapore’s long history as a major trading port of Asia has influenced its palate, fusing the culinary styles of the Malay, Chinese and Indian traditions. It’s easy to sample it all at Singapore’s famed food hawker centers, found in many spots around the island city-state, serving everything from entry-level Hainanese chicken rice to spicy laksa noodles.

Read more about traveling to Singapore.

3. Philippines

With roots in Malay tribes, the former Spanish-turned-American colony now has an independent identity that is influenced by its past – especially in its cuisine, where the flavor profiles are salty, savory and sour. Sisig – spiced minced pig head and liver served on a sizzling platter with a tangy splash of calamansi (Philippine lime) – is a culinary crowd-pleaser.

4. Montreal

France meets North America by way of the Canadian province of Quebec, where the French influence on provincial cuisine is evident. However, the quintessential Montrealer dish is poutine, a platter of french fries smothered in brown gravy and topped with cheese curds. Some eateries even take this base recipe and add on another true Montreal delicacy: smoked meat.

5. Italy

Pasta is often associated with Italian cuisine, with so many varieties hailing from different regions. When in Rome, do as the Romans do: Eat bucatini all’amatriciana, a typical pasta dish of Italy’s capital city – with pecorino Romano cheese, of course. When in Piedmont, have agnolotti with white truffles. When in Tuscany, do gigli with a nice ragu.

6. Spain

Beyond the Valencia-born paella, there are many other must-try dishes when traveling through the 17 autonomous regions that comprise Spain. In Catalonia, sample the noodles of fideua de peix. Up north, try polbo a feira, an octopus recipe from Galicia. Want to sample a variety of dishes in one sitting? Order tapas – small plates intended to share.

Read about food and sights in Barcelona, Spain.

7. Hungary

Hungry in Hungary? There are delicious ways to satisfy your craving with classic dishes like chicken paprikash or goulash, a traditional stew of meat, potatoes and vegetables. If you’re a fan of all things fried, a real favorite is langos – a deep-fried bread typically smothered in a garlicky cream sauce and cheese. Add bacon, if you’d like.

8. France

France is synonymous with good food; so much so that the English word “gourmet” is borrowed from French. Each region of the country boasts a proud local cuisine, so you’re bound to find a great meal wherever you travel, from the fish bouillabaisse of Provence to the coq au vin of the Burgundy region. Bon appetit!

9. Thailand

There’s spicy and then there’s Thai spicy, which is a whole other level of heat. If you’re keen on embracing it as the locals do, go beyond the trite orders of pad thai by dining on panang gai (chicken in a spicy red curry from the southern region) or yum jin gai (a spicy chicken soup from the north).

Read our tips for traveling in Southeast Asia.

10. Peru

Peru’s dishes are as diverse as its landscapes. Citrusy ceviche, a popular seafood dish, hails from the shore, while papas a la huancaina (potatoes in a creamy yellow pepper sauce) are farmland fresh. Meat eaters on their way back from Machu Picchu will appreciate a tender steak of alpaca, a lean red meat similar to bison.

Now that you know what to order in these countries, make sure you show your manners. Check out our slideshows on the appropriate behavior when dining in some of these countries.