People who live on Canada’s Atlantic coast have seen the name many times – Valletta. That name is emblazoned on ship after ship that enters the container terminal in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We have often wondered if most of the people who see this on a daily basis have any idea where Valletta is. As travelers interested in the wider world, we knew that it was in Malta, but Malta was a mystery to us – until recently. [The reason the ships bear this moniker is that ship registration is a major industry there.]
As we often say, there is no better way to be introduced to new places that you might other wise never visit than on a well-selected cruise chosen with itinerary at the top of the priority list. That is how we found ourselves on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta.
Picture a tiny island (really an archipelago) located just 80 kilometres south of Italy and 284 kilometres east of Tunisia in Northern Africa directly in that passage between the Atlantic end of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Because of this strategic position, Malta has a rich history of a succession of ruling countries: the Romans, the Moors, the Sicilians, the Normans, the Spaniards, the British to name a some of them. It is this very richness that imbues the tiny island with its appeal for travelers who are interested in both natural beauty and the influences of historical evolution on a place and a people. We are those travelers.
Hiring the services of a private driver and a guide as we like to do, we were able to make the most of our short visit. We began with a walking tour of Valletta, a world heritage site. It’s a bit like walking through an open-air museum with historical artifacts that tell of the city’s storied past at every turn. The most historic buildings date from the sixteenth century and at every turn there is a story to be told.
We then drove out of the city into the beautiful countryside to the fortified city of Mdina (not a misspelling), inland slightly southwest of Valletta. Founded in 700 BC, Mdina was the capital of Malta until the 16th century. A walking tour of this historical masterpiece is a must-do when visiting Malta.
A visit to Malta wouldn’t be complete, though, without visiting a fishing village or two. The colourful boats, markets and buildings combine to provide you with a bit of a snapshot of modern life in the Maltese countryside.
Malta is a tiny spot in the world that should be on your bucket list, if it isn’t already there. If you get the chance to visit, even if just for a day, jump on that chance.
It’s really difficult to tell the story of a visit to Malta without numerous pictures, so we’ve put together a brief video of the sights we’d like to share with you.
Rome has long been known as “The Eternal City” allegedly because the ancient Romans believed that wars may rage, tempests might descend, disasters could occur, but Rome would endure all – and it has to be said that looking at the city’s endurance throughout the millennia, they may just have been prescient. Rome, though, is also know as a city for lovers – in our view for walking lovers. If you want to come to love the eternal city, get yourself a pair of (fashionable) walking shoes and come with us.
We have visited Rome on three separate occasions at this point. The first visit found us on a group tour with a guide where we spent most of our real walking time in Vatican City and the rest of it viewing the city largely from the windows of a bus, with a walk around the Coliseum thrown in. By the time that visit was over we were certain of one thing: we had a distinct feeling of “been there, done that” about the Vatican which was now forever crossed off our bucket list, and we had no feel for a city whose streets we had not walked.
Our second visit to the city required a bit more planning since we wanted to take a private tour. We had only one day since we had arrived in Civitavecchia on a cruise ship. [As an aside: if you like to cruise, it’s a great way to get a brief feel for a city so that you can return to spend more time – and you need to note that the port of Rome which isn’t in Rome at all is an hour-and-a-half drive from the city itself.]
We booked a driver to pick us up at the port and whisk us into Rome where we picked up the guide. This driver-plus-guide is the only sensible way to do a private tour in Rome since there is nowhere to park at most of the places you’ll want to visit, and you don’t want to waste time. The driver could stop anywhere – and we do mean anywhere – drop us off and return with the click of a cell phone button. Our knowledgeable guide showed us the inside and outside of the Pantheon, many churches, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps etc. We loved every minute of it and yet we still didn’t have a feel for the city.
Then we went back on our own with three full days to conduct our own self-guided walking tour. We checked in to the Grand Palace Hotel, a beautiful, atmospheric property close to the Borghese Gardens and planned our attack.
We would set out in a different direction on each of the three days we would walk the city. We began at the Borghese Gardens because of their proximity and spent the first day exploring around that part of the city. The next day we set out to do Ancient Rome. We revisited the Coliseum, and this time actually went inside. When we arrived though, the line for ticket-buying was too long for us to waste time so we went off to the other ticket spot to gain entrance into Ancient Rome. Much to our delight, it was a two-for ticket so we then had our ticket in hand to go directly into the Coliseum when we returned. We recommend that or buy your ticket in advance.
Ancient Rome is a must-see to get any feel for what this great city was in the days of the Roman Empire. Make no mistake, it is a Roman ruin that has not been restored, but that is its beauty. The walls are real, the cobble-stone streets are real, the tiles are real, the arches are real – none of it is the well-intentioned rebuilding that is based on some scholar’s research. We took our time and walked. Then it was into the Coliseum. Again, the ruin is in its ruinous state and it’s magnificent. To see the labyrinth of halls and cubicles that formed the underground of the “main stage” fires the imagination as we pictured the gladiators fighting one another as well as wild animals and condemned men. Just blot out the sights and sounds of the milling tourists and the sensation grips you.
Of course we also spent a day walking the streets of modern Rome, browsing and window-shopping at the likes of Dior and Chanel. We dined in a number of lovely trattorias and savored a new wine each evening.
Is three days enough? If you plan your walking tour well and are prepared to walk seven to ten kilometres a day, you’ll likely end up as we did – with a real sense of the ancient and the modern of the city of (walking) lover
If you have a few minutes, we’ve captured the highlights in this video…
We’re just back from another wonderful travel adventure that took us from London to Istanbul with many fabulous experiences in between.
We began with three exceptional days in London to visit our son, then flew from Gatwick to Rome where we spent three days on self-guided walking tours. After Rome, we boarded an Oceania ship and set sail for various islands – Crete, Sicily, Santorini – then Athens and Turkey, ending in Istanbul. Along the way we did some touring on our own, a few of the dreaded “shore excursions” (we’ll tell you about the good and bad of those in the upcoming posts) and several private tours. There is little doubt in our minds that when you need to be guided around a new-to-you city where there is a significant language barrier (and sometimes even when there isn’t) you cannot beat a private guided tour.
We’ve had private tour experiences in places like Costa Rica, Tahiti, England, France and Ireland among others, but our recent sojourn in Turkey reiterated for us the myriad reasons why for us it’s one of the very best ways to experience a culture.
The tour really began months before as we searched online for the ideal tour. We had used several tour companies previously – with great results – but this time those ones didn’t really have what we were looking for. During the research we discovered a company called Tours By Locals. Based in Vancouver, this Canadian-owned company has local guides seemingly all over the world. We zeroed in on Istanbul and found that their presentation of the guides was fascinating. Each guide was showcased by personally-written biographies, a listing of credentials and the all-important feedback and ratings from previous customers. We zoned in on a young man named Emre Ozkara and contacted him to see if he could accommodate our needs in Istanbul.
This company permits you to make the arrangements directly with the guide thereby eliminating communication barriers and allowing you to get to know your guide through email. Then, when you have come to a decision about the tour, the guide prices it for you, uploads it to the company, and the itinerary is sent to you via the company’s web site. You pay the company who then pays the guide after the tour is over. For a discerning traveler, knowing that you have third-party recourse is comforting should anything go wrong. We were happy with this layer of security, so we booked the tour.
Emre did his homework and emailed us to let us know that he had noted that our ship would actually be docking in Kusadasi down the coast from Istanbul several days before our final disembarkation and private tour days in Istanbul. A home-town boy from Kusadasi, Emre indicated that he would be visiting his family at the precise time we were there and did we want to add a day tour to the ruins at Ephesus to the Istanbul days? We had already booked a small-group tour of the ruins through the cruise line, but the price was almost identical (!) and we thought that we would, indeed, prefer a private tour. Since it was early enough to cancel the group tour and get a refund, we went ahead. We were very glad we did.
Just as promised, Emre was waiting for us at the cruise terminal in Kusadasi where he whisked us off in a BMW 4X4 to Ephesus (more about that in a later post). While we were driving to Ephesus, he got to know us a bit better discovering that in addition to history and culture, we are also interested in food and wine. After finding that we would be happy with lunch at a boutique winery (we were not aware that Turkey had such places), he made a call and the arrangements were complete.
To say that our day with our private guide was fabulous would be an understatement, but we didn’t’ know at that point how fabulous our time with this guide would be.
Three days later, as arranged, we were picked up at the cruise port and had a general orientation to Istanbul before checking into our hotel. The next morning, Emre and his brother who was to be the driver arrived at the hotel to begin our in-depth two days touring the magnificent city of Istanbul.
What can we say? He is among the best private tour guides we have ever had. What makes a great tour guide? Here’s what we think. A guide should demonstrate…
A commitment to determining our personal interests;
Deep knowledge of the history and culture;
Passion about sharing the culture; and
An extraordinary ability to tell a story – not relay facts.
This is what we got. Imagine sitting on the carpet at the back of a quiet mosque in the heart of Istanbul (after visiting the bigger tourist magnets like the Blue Mosque) and listening to a story about the Muslim way of life and how this religion is a part of but doesn’t define the Turkish culture. Our understanding of Islam now goes far beyond the front-page stories we see on a daily basis in the media. Emre knew that we were interested in this story: not everyone would be, but he had gotten to know us and we asked the questions. He also arranged two wonderful lunches including one at Deraliye, a new Ottoman food restaurant that had searched out and presented twelfth and thirteenth century dishes. What a great experience!
After our days in Istanbul, we were dropped at the airport as we requested in the tour package. We were truly sorry to say good-bye to our guide who had made us feel that we had shared a bit of his culture and his home. What a way to go!
Bespoke…the very word conjures up images of the rich and famous standing in front of a mirror as they are measured for their custom-made suits and dresses. It seems like anything that is custom-made for you must, by its very nature, be expensive and out of reach.
But what if you were able to work with a travel professional who was an expert in her field to create for you that customized trip that would fulfill your dreams of seeing some places that have long been on your bucket list? And what if you were picked up at the airport by an immaculately-clad driver who led you to a shiny black Mercedes to take you on an orientation tour of the city before ensuring that you were well taken care of at your hotel? And what if this whole experience didn’t cost you nearly as much as you’re beginning to think as you read this?
Well, welcome to the world of bespoke travel – and we’re just back from another customized tour, this time created for us by world-renowned Kensington Tours.
It all began at the Dublin Airport last month when we were that couple being escorted to the Mercedes by the impeccable driver who then proceeded to not only drive us to our downtown hotel, but act as our guide. An expert in Irish history, he was an amazing font of information that we capitalized on the next day as we explored Dublin on our own (after following his spot-on recommendation to dine at Trocadero that evening).
Although it had been the plan to have the same driver from the very beginning to the bitter end, our scheduled driver was ill and was replaced while we were still in Dublin by Kevin – and he was as wonderful as the first driver. We were soon to find out that his extensive knowledge of Ireland and all things Irish, coupled with the fact that he seemed to know everyone in the country (and we do mean everyone), were designed to make this trip a flawless experience of a lifetime that will go down in our travel books as the only way to go!
While still in Dublin, Kevin took us on a half-day trip to Newgrange to visit the stone-age passage tomb that pre-dates the Egyptian pyramids. Never hovering over us, he provided us with important clues to maximizing the experience and then left us to take advantage of the venue on our own with the expert guidance of the tour leader. (One important tip he gave us was to buy an Irish Heritage card that would give us access to many heritage sites throughout the country for one small price. No more buying tickets!). This passage into ancient history is not to be missed while in Ireland!
Picking us up at 10 am the next morning, Kevin slightly modified our planned itinerary to improve our experience. We are always open to suggestions from those who know better and we were not disappointed. As a trio we reviewed each day’s itinerary in advance to ensure that what we experienced was not only the best of Ireland, but the things that were of most interest to us as individuals. This attention to personalization is one of the things that we seek as discerning travelers who are focused on service and value. And we received both.
Although we had chosen to book our own hotel in Dublin, we allowed Kensington’s Ireland specialist to select our deluxe accommodations for the rest of the trip. We were not disappointed on this front either. We spent the first night in Cork at Hayfield Manor, a wonderful property at the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac bordering on the University of Cork. The service at this highly-recommended hotel is outstanding, as is the dining.
We then spent two nights at Killarney Park Hotel in County Kerry, a surprisingly special place. Purpose built as a hotel only 20 years ago, this property imbues you with the feeling that you’d been transported into a centuries-old country manor. Its location downtown Killarney allowed us to spend a wonderful evening exploring the tiny streets, eating at a restaurant recommended to us by Kevin, and then spending an hour at a pub with a beer in hand humming along with the Irish singers. It was reminiscent of our university days when Irish music was all the rage on Canadian university campuses. But that was a long time ago!
Our last two nights on the road were spent at Ashford Castle. What a wonderful experience. To describe our experience at this castle would take an entire blog post – and we’ll do that next week, so come back if you want to know more about it.
Every moment of the trip was an experience to be remembered for a lifetime. From our visit to Trinity College and the Book of Kells in Dublin, to Blarney Castle, the Irish pub night, the breathtaking Dingle peninsula, the monastery ruins, and everything in between, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to travel.
We have already begun to plan our next bespoke trip with Kensington. Now all we have to do is decide if it will be South America, a safari in Africa or the Great Wall of China! Stay tuned.
Now if you a few minutes, come along with us on our tour of Ireland.
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