A mule ride to push your travel limits

by Eliza Myers 18. December 2013 17:38

“This was all your idea,” said my mother for the second time to double check I had heard her.

It was indeed my suggestion we take the time-honored mule ride down the Grand Canyon this past spring. Although my mom was never a big fan of heights, I felt convinced the miraculous scenery of the canyon would distract her of that fact. We weren’t off to a good start.

I turned around to see my mother staring intently at the ground instead of the wide-sweeping vistas all around us. I reminded her that the whole point of the ride was to enjoy the scenery.

“I have to watch her feet so I know she won’t walk off the edge,” she said clutching the reins tighter.

Although I suggested that our sure-footed mules Jan and Leslie could walk down the dusty North Kaibab Trail in their sleep, the vertical drop into apparent nothingness at the next corner had my mom yanking on the reins to convince Leslie to turn early. The mule continued to plod around the outside edge of the trail as it had been trained and stiffly pivoted itself around the sharp switchback, causing my mother to scream in alarm.

Clearly, my mom was out of her comfort zone. I waited for her to stop imagining terror around every turn and to start looking around at the spectacular view of striped peaks, plunging cliffs and vast empty spaces.

You would have never guessed we were related watching my mother’s grimacing face and my grinning face on the ride down. I let Jan do all the navigating while I took a constant stream of pictures until my saddle started sliding sideways from leaning too far.

When we reached our turnaround point, I began to think I had failed my mother by bringing her on this adventure she could now tolerate, but not enjoy. However, when the mules started lumbering back uphill, the slow pace seemed to work magic on her mood. I caught her smiling and lifting her chin high enough to gaze at the immense grandeur surrounding us.

Travel often pushes our limits. Whether you are nervous of heights or insects, everyone knows something that makes them hesitate. Overcoming that fear can be a reward unto itself. On the trail that day, my mother earned not only bragging rights, but also a realization that maybe she was braver than she thought.

At the end of the trail, my mom even thanked me for talking her into the ride – a statement I had to hear twice to believe.

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Travel Thoughts

What is your favorite art memory?

by Eliza Myers 22. October 2013 01:03

Some works of art take people's breath away. They stick with you long past your short visit. Our staff relate pieces of art that spoke to them while on the road.

"The Pieta by Michelangelo leaves me without words. Housed in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome, this marble sculpture does not speak to Jesus’ role as savior as much as it speaks to a mother’s loss of her son. 

The artist purposely distorted Jesus’ size as a full-grown man to illustrate that he was still Mary’s child and always would be. Her grief is human, not heavenly, which makes this sculpture all the more compelling for me."

— Mac Lacy, publisher

"As an artist myself, the expression of various artists has always fascinated me. But nothing compares to literally having my breath taken away upon seeing one of Monet’s many large water lily paintings on display at the Denver Museum of Art. I was in high school at the time, and the calming impact the painting had on me was astounding. I stood there looking at it for at least 20 minutes. It was so spellbinding, I didn’t want to leave the room. It was a moment I’ll never forget."

— Donia Simmons, creative director

"I’d studied Mark Rothko while I was an art student in college. Later, while in grad school at the University of Arizona, I fell in love with two of his paintings in their collection.

So, while visiting long-time friends in Houston, I made plans to see the Rothko Chapel. We entered the chapel with very different expectations. My friends were probably expecting to see pretty pictures of bucolic landscape or perhaps beautiful women or historic tableaus.

It quickly became clear that they weren’t expecting what we saw as we entered that large open room. I was immediately transported to that aesthetic region of my imagination by the large dark canvases. My friends — not so much. We stayed an hour or so, while I was absorbed by the power of Rothko’s work and my friends looked for something they recognized — anything they could call art.

They decided that I was seeing Elvis or perhaps Amelia Earhart — it was plain to them was that, clearly, I was seeing something they weren’t.

The moral to this story is that art is a personal thing. It is intensely personal for artists, and it is always a personal thing for us when we experience it. Even when we’re with people we love and share everything with, the experience of great art reaches places within us that only we and God know."

— David Brown, art director

"I have seen many famous paintings in my lifetime, but the one that stands out the most to me is “Washington Crossing the Delaware” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although I've seen this photo in many history books through the years, I was in awe of the shear enormity of this painting once I saw it in person. The painting stands over 12 feet tall and 21 feet wide!"

— Kelly Tyner, director of sales and marketing

"I encountered one of the most recognized works of art in the world when I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. I'll never forget my surprise at the small size of the portrait. Instead of being disappointed, I felt impressed such a small painting had inspired so many people and works of art."

— Eliza Myers, online editor

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Travel Thoughts

What great international experiences have you had 
that aren’t available at home?

by Eliza Myers 16. August 2013 23:06

We asked our staff, "What great international experiences have you had 
that aren’t available at home?" Here is what they had to say!

"One thing you just don’t find in America very often is a group of monkeys hanging out in the shade near a 400-year-old mausoleum. This incredible encounter happened to me in India, a country with many alien experiences for Americans, including its distinctive cuisine, traffic and occasional snake charmer. At the Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah in Agra, I not only got to marvel at an elaborate tomb that became the precursor to the Taj Mahal, but also got an up-close encounter with about 15 monkeys who regarded me with little concern as I snapped photos."

— Eliza Myers,
Online Editor

"Long dinners! I know it sounds simple, but at home I always feel rushed. Even on a domestic vacation, I don’t want to linger over dinner because I feel like its rude to take up a table when another party could be seated. Our international friends embrace and encourage spending the time to relax, socialize and fully enjoy the food as an experience."

— Stacey Bowman,
Director, Advertising Sales

"My family lived in Germany for four years when I was a young child, and I was in awe of the beautiful castles and Old World architecture throughout the country, sights that you definitely don’t see in America. I returned to Germany a few years ago and took a river cruise with Avalon Waterways down the Rhine River. It was just as impressive to me as an adult as I remembered it from my childhood."

— Kelly Tyner,
Director, Sales and Marketing

"I know it’s not for everyone, but my favorite international travel memory will remain walking the streets of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, by myself while on liberty from the USS Elmer Montgomery in 1973."

— David Brown,
Art Director

"A dozen or so years ago, a few of us went clubbing at a very haute disco on the Champs d’Elysee in Paris. A local VIP walked us past dozens of people in line and got us in. Last and only time I ever partied like a rock star in Paris."

— Mac Lacy,

"Walking on the Great Wall of China fulfilled a lifelong dream for me. I remember looking at pictures of the Great Wall in atlases when I was a child and wondering what it would be like to see it one day. In 2011, I found myself overwhelmed by the feeling of standing on the wall outside of Beijing, experiencing one of the world’s most amazing human feats firsthand."

— Brian Jewell,
Executive Editor

"Obviously, a Kenyan safari will generate amazing experiences not available in the United States, such as seeing the “big five” — lion, African elephant, cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros  — in their natural habitat, viewing Mount Kilimanjaro in fading daylight, taking a hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti and going inside a mud hut in a Maasi village.

"Among my many other distinctive international experiences are England’s Stonehenge, Amsterdam’s canals, market day in a small Italian village, Roman ruins in the south of France and dining on salmon cooked on the deck of a small cruise ship in British Columbia’s Princess Louisa Inlet. My most poignant international experience was looking out over D-Day’s Omaha Beach from the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, France, with its row after row of white crosses and Stars of David."

— Herb Sparrow,
Senior Writer


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Staff Soundoff

Great local restaurants and watering holes

by Eliza Myers 21. June 2013 19:00

We asked the staff of The Group Travel Leader, "What's a great local restaurant or watering hole that you've discovered on the road?" Here are some wonderful places to keep in mind when you're on the road.

"Best dive bar hands down goes to Veets Bar in downtown Mobile, Alabama. It’s cold beer, live music and bartenders with so much personality that they should have their own reality show. Veets is the real deal."

— Stacey Bowman,
Director, Advertising Sales

"Meers is the only thing that remains of a once bustling mining town called Meers, Oklahoma. The restaurant serves the best burgers I’ve ever had, and the atmosphere is great. Check it out at www.meersstore.com. Now, I am starving."

— Donia Simmons,
Creative Director

"I’ve tried, and I agree: You can’t go home again. Likewise, I’m beginning to think you can’t find good barbecue anywhere but home. I’m from Paducah in extreme western Kentucky, where I grew up eating barbecue unlike any I’ve had anywhere else. When I go home and especially when I’m visiting with old friends, barbecue is essential. If you’re ever in or even near Paducah, I recommend Harned’s Drive-In, home of old-fashioned barbecue and the friendliest, most energetic carhops around. I’ll have a large/hot, please."

— David Brown,
Art Director

"Throughout my years of travel, I have had the opportunity to eat at some terrific locally owned restaurants. Here are three that stand out in my mind: Felix’s Fish Camp in Mobile, Alabama, has the most amazing shrimp and grits. Steel Restaurant and Lounge in Atlanta is known for its signature Chilean sea bass — and it’s to die for. Local Gastropub in Memphis, Tennessee, has an avocado stuffed with crabmeat on the appetizer menu. It’s so fantastic I made a meal out of it."

— Kelly Tyner,
Director, Sales and Marketing

"Sometimes, the best trips are trips home. My favorite local joint is Ferrell’s Hamburgers in Hopkinsville, Kentucky: hand-patted hamburgers on a 50-year-old grill, 10 seats at the counter. The only thing green about this place is the waitresses’ aprons."

— Mac Lacy,

"I had a fantastic lunch last fall at Nellie’s, a small local joint in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that serves authentic New Mexican food. My heaping plate of chicken enchiladas came smothered with some of the most amazing green chile sauce I’ve ever tasted, and topped with a fried egg. I had never eaten enchiladas with an egg before, but the experience was so blissful that I now order a fried egg on top every time I go out for Mexican food."

— Brian Jewell,
Executive Editor

"George Street in Newfoundland, Canada, has not just one great local bar but several fun hangouts all in a row. The two-block district is said to have the most bars and pubs per square foot of any street in North America. I loved meeting all of the friendly Newfoundland locals at spots like Trapper John’s and Lottie’s Place, and hearing their recommendations for which pub I should try next."

— Eliza Myers,
Online Editor

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Staff Soundoff

“What is your secret to passing the time on a long flight?”

by Eliza Myers 24. April 2013 19:36

The staff at The Group Travel Leader, Inc. relate their secrets to passing time on a long flight.

"Fortunately, I have trained myself to sleep on long flights. As long as I have my travel pillow and don’t stare at any bright screens for too long, I drift off into a sort of half-slumber. Ideally, that way I’ll be a little more rested after I arrive."
Eliza Myers,
online editor

"E-readers have been a salvation for me. Long flights are a great time for uninterrupted reading. Instead of having to choose one or two heavy books, I now have a whole library on my Nook and iPad. Of course, I also work in a nap."
Herb Sparrow,
senior writer

"As a mom, passing the time really means keeping my 3-year-old son occupied. This basically involves having a stash of all of his favorite treats, a backpack full of crayons, coloring books, cars and of course his headphones and DVD player with as many DVD options as possible. It’s all about keeping him quiet in order to keep the peace on the airplane and not have the business travelers giving me the evil eye if he starts getting too loud!  If I am alone on a plane trip the answer is simple — I sleep!"
Laura Camic,
sales manager

"My answer is iTunes and an iPad.  Currently on long flights I’m reading “I’m Your Man,” a biography of Leonard Cohen, and listening to Van Morrison’s "Astral Weeks.'"
Mac Lacy,

"I’ve flown twice in the past 17 years, so I asked John Brewer, vice president of sales, Aetrex Worldwide, who flies about 200 days a year for his answer. He said “I get some very good sleep on flights between eight and 18 hours. I watch a lot of movies on long flights.

“Then there is always work to keep me busy. I actually enjoy long flights.  It is a time that’s just mine, no phones, no emails.”
David Brown,
art director

"Long flights give me a great opportunity to catch up on my favorite podcasts. As soon as we’re allowed to switch on electronic devices, I queue up an episode of “Stuff You Should Know,” “Freakonomics” or “The Dave Ramsey Show.” You may also find me playing games like pinball or Tetris on my iPhone while I listen."
Brian Jewell,
executive editor

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Travel Thoughts

Five favorites: Museums

by Eliza Myers 20. November 2012 17:51

Courtesy The Field Museum

I found it very difficult to rank my five favorite museums, since I tend to be a fan of almost all museums. History museums especially intrigue me, since even a small, budget-conscious museum can have incredible stories to tell. So I tried to pick the ones I would happily get lost in over and over again and still discover new fascinating nuggets of information.

If you don't see your favorite museum, feel free to comment, because I know there are so many wonderful museums I have yet to explore.

The Field Museum
I still remember walking in and gazing up at the toothy, 13-foot-high Tyrannosaurus skeleton named Sue. At that moment, history felt real, instead of just a set of stories. That is part of the magic of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: The exhibits do not just tell you about how dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures lived; they let you stare them down.

The Field Museum has so many engaging exhibits, I could go back again and again and not get my fill. Displays of a preserved mammoth and the infamous Lions of Tsavo especially stand out in my mind among the numerous exhibits.

The Louvre
Just the building itself is a work of art. Built originally as a fortress and then used as a palace, the Louvre in Paris houses incredible works of art that span time and geography. Since it is one of the largest museums in the world, it felt like a maze I could happily wander through for days.

Although I made sure to see the famous works, like the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, what I enjoyed most was discovering works I had never heard of that nearly took my breath away.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History
The entire National Mall in Washington is worthy of much praise. However, there is something very patriotic about seeing the National Museum of American History while in our nation’s capital. It reminded me that it wasn’t always known that America would become its own country and remain that way through the Civil War, economic depression and other hardships.

The museum is proof that even a country as young as ours can have a rich history, with memorable artifacts such as the American flag that inspired Frances Scott Key and President Abraham Lincoln’s top hat.

British Museum
The British Museum in London comes as close as you can get to gathering the entire history of humanity and fitting it all inside one building. From early Mesopotamian artifacts to the eye-catching Great Court room built in 2001, the museum presents a comprehensive look at human culture. My favorite section centers on the Egyptian legacy, with artifacts including the Rosetta Stone, mummies and statues of the kings of Egypt.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
If you like music, Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum can be a blast. Each level of the museum explores different genres of rock music with artifacts, interactive exhibits and, of course, lots of music to hum along with.

I found it particularly interesting to look at some of the crazy outfits worn by past rock stars, such as the glittery costumes of Queen and Michael Jackson’s famous sparkly glove. The museum also taught me what a wide variety of music inspired and shaped the rock music genre.

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Travel Thoughts

The balancing act of travel

by Eliza Myers 19. July 2012 23:11

You never know how people are going to travel together until you hit the road with them, which is why I felt nervous about my husband’s first family vacation with my mom and brother to Yosemite National Park this spring. Although I had traveled with them individually, I was unsure if everyone’s travel styles would mesh well.

On the Mist Trail hike up to Vernal and Nevada falls, it became clear how their traveling preferences differed. Jeremiah is focused when hiking and likely to choose 12-mile trails going uphill the whole way. My mom and brother like to amble along shorter trails so they can stop to rest and examine less noticeable things like rock lichen.

One clue the hike felt overly taxing to my mother was when she nicknamed the 300 steps up to Vernal Falls as “the stone stairs of death.” After hearing this, I moved ahead and matched Jeremiah’s quick pace to check on him.

“We’re making good time. I think we can make it to the top of the Nevada Falls,” said Jeremiah, although we had previously agreed to only hike to the falls’ base.

“OK. How high of an elevation gain is that?,” I asked.

“Another 1,900 feet.”

“Right, so twice as high as we just walked?”

“Yeah, but we can walk up it quickly.”

Worried about how my mother would feel about this change in plans, I slowed down to see how she felt.

“I can’t feel my feet. It’s weird,” said Mom. “I can feel my legs, but they are really mad at me, so I wish I couldn’t.”

After these two varying accounts, I wasn’t sure what to suggest. How do you keep everyone happy when traveling? It is a trick group leaders have had to learn through years of experience. Group leaders have to master the art of meeting everyone’s travel expectations even though those can differ among people.

Fortunately for me, when Jeremiah learned my mom was tiring, he volunteered to only go to the base of the falls as agreed. He compromised as my mom and brother compromised to hike farther than they might have on their own. But once we got to the base of the magnificent Nevada Falls, everyone was satisfied. That’s the power of travel: Even when both sides concede things, one impressive view can make everyone 100 percent happy.

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Travel Thoughts

From Morro Bay to Monterey on Big Sur

by Eliza Myers 31. May 2012 23:33

I looked and looked, but the view at McWay Cove in Julia Pfeiffer State Park did not feel real. The impossible beauty I beheld had to be part of some highly imaginative dream. Or I had been suddenly whisked up to heaven. Since neither of those seemed true, I had to accept the most likely scenario: I had fallen into a screen saver picture.

The little cove’s rocky cliffs, hills blanked with colorful flowers and 80-foot waterfall that flows into bright turquoise waters is unbelievably gorgeous. I knew I had found my new mental happy place. This breathtaking view stood out among numerous other immaculate vistas along the Big Sur route that goes up the coastal Highway One from Morro Bay to Monterey.

The elephant seals agree that this coast is pretty close to paradise. For April and May, the Piedras Blancas beach is covered with hundreds of female and juvenile elephant seals.

For a second, I entertained the horrifying idea that the elephant seals laying along the beach may all be dead from their absolute lack of movement. However, I soon learned that these seals were only very, very tired. Apparently months of hunting and giving birth in the ocean really tires you out. They hardly budged except to nestle further in the sand and the occasional sparring (play fighting). Some seals seeking an ocean swim would move a couple of feet toward the water before having to stop and take a short nap before moving again.

Along with elephant seals, I spotted harbor seals, sea lions, incredibly cute sea otters and two humpback whales on a whale watching trip in Monterey. The whales became an immediate trip highlight for me, since I had always wanted to see a whale in the wild after watching hours of National Geographic shows on these giant creatures. Watching them play next to the boat and occasionally look at us with curiosity was more than I ever hoped for.

Saying goodbye to the coast was difficult, but I took with me the ability to close my eyes and picture McWay Cove any time of day.

All photos by Jeremiah Myers

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Yosemite, Big Sur and Whale Watching

Yosemite National Park

by Eliza Myers 31. May 2012 22:26

While stopping a minute to look up the endless stone steps cut into the cliff’s side, I felt certain the upcoming Vernal and Nevada waterfalls would be worth the climb. I knew this not just because of the occasional glimpses of the powerful Vernal Falls, but also because I was standing in a rainbow.

Wind blasts Vernal Falls’ spray far down the mountain, giving the Yosemite hike the name Mist Trail. It felt like a sideways downpour, although looking up revealed only blue skies. The wind-blown water produced vibrant rainbows that appeared to follow me up the trail.

The sublime waterfall views that followed are typical of Yosemite. Everywhere you turn is larger-than-life scenery too magnificent to believe. You might spend twenty minutes soaking up the majesty of a waterfall before turning around and spying a towering dome filling the skies.

My favorite view, Glacier Point, allowed me to look at the landscape seemingly from the top of the world. Many of the domes, waterfalls and valleys of Yosemite lay before me in a dazzling vista waiting to be explored.

After four days of hiking every trail I could, I had already made plans to return some day. I can’t feel totally satisfied I’ve seen it all in Yosemite till I’ve climbed every mountain and looked up every waterfall.

All photos by Jeremiah Myers

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Yosemite, Big Sur and Whale Watching

Just go for it!

by Eliza Myers 18. February 2012 01:18

“Drivers in India like to play the game of chicken,” said Anil Bahal, my India tour guide with Globus, as we watched cars weave through traffic. “They like to drive at you until the last second. Driving in India may not be half the fun, but it is half of the experience.”

Watching the cars moving haphazardly through the traffic near Agra, India, I felt very thankful to have an experienced Indian driver at the steering wheel. Just looking out the window, I saw four people on a motorcycle, cows wandering beside the road and about 20 people sitting on the roof of a moving bus, since there was apparently no room inside.

India is an exotic destination, no question. It is a total culture shock to most Americans, who aren’t used to seeing cows walking down main street or giant monkey-shaped statues next to places of worship. I was clearly out of my comfort zone, and I loved every minute of it.

I tried to soak up everything about the fascinating country while I was there. I shopped at a local market, tried flavorful menu options and even danced in a wedding procession outside my hotel.

I hate to think of all the fun memories I would have lost if I had felt too fearful of the unknown to go. People who know little about current events told me that it’s too dangerous to go to countries like India. I received similar warnings about Israel, Jordan and Mexico, and had extremely safe and culturally profound experiences in each of those countries.

Choosing the more alien destinations over the familiar favorites can end up being a worthwhile decision. Sure you can always go to your favorite beach for relaxation, but it shouldn’t be the only traveling you do. Travel to exotic destinations can teach you not only about those places but also about yourself and your culture by comparison.

Always encourage yourself to try new destinations, even if you may feel uneasy about it at first. The security of traveling with a group can help people explore regions of the world they wouldn’t have dreamed of going on their own. In the end, I always have the fondest memories for the more adventurous trips like the one to India.

The traffic in my hometown was oddly quiet once I returned.

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