November 17, 2014

Kangaroo Spotting in Australia

wildlife tours AustraliaSeeing kangaroos in the wild is one of the most coveted wildlife experiences for visitors to Australia. Catch them at the right time of day—they tend to relax and graze around sunset—and it could be one of the most memorable scenes from your trip.

Though we took this photo in a rural area along the scenic Great Ocean Road outside Melbourne, it’s possible to encounter kangaroos all over the country. Artisans of Leisure can arrange wildlife-spotting activities, behind-the-scenes tours of renowned zoos and wildlife centers, and naturalist-led tours in the Outback and Australian bush to see kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, wombats, platypuses and other indigenous critters on our exclusive Australia tours.

Destinations:  Australia, South Pacific

Tags:  Australia, Australia tours, nature, private tours, wildlife

November 11, 2014

Just Back: Insider Oaxaca

Artisans of Leisure travel specialist Stephanie Dosch just returned from Oaxaca, Mexico, one of our favorite destinations to experience traditional Mexican culture, history, food and crafts.

Here are some of the reasons we love it:

Private luxury Mexico tours

Markets
Oaxaca is known for its markets, and the sprawling Central de Abastos is considered one of the best in the world. On Saturdays, people come from the surrounding valleys to buy and sell everything from live goats to televisions. For travelers, there is plenty of local pottery and colorful produce to browse, as well as foods like tamales and tlayudas (stuffed tortillas) to sample.

Private luxury Mexico tours

Private luxury Mexico toursOn Sundays, the nearby town of Tlacolula hosts its weekly tiangui (indigenous market). Locals come from the surrounding villages to buy and sell their wares, and many women wear traditional dress.

Private luxury Mexico toursThese women are sampling chapulines, grasshoppers seasoned with salt and lime, which are considered a seasonal delicacy.

Private luxury Mexico toursLocals sell all kinds of handicrafts, like pottery, weaving and woodcarving, and produce like cocoa, flowers and exotic fruit.

Private luxury Mexico tours

Food
Oaxacan cuisine is famous throughout Mexico. Standout dishes include pillowy tamales, hearty tlayudas, spicy chilaquiles (crispy tortillas, cheese, chicken and sauce) and chocolate-y moles. The region also produces delicious cheese and smoky mescal (alcohol distilled from maguey agave juice).

Private luxury Mexico toursPrivate luxury Mexico toursA fun place for lunch is the Pasillo de las Carnes, or “Meat Hall,” in the Benito Juarez Market. Each stall has a grill and will cook the meat you buy to order. Strolling vendors sell tortillas, toppings and drinks, so it’s easy to create a delicious meal.

Private luxury Mexico toursChocolate is another famous local delicacy. Specialty shops around the Benito Juarez Market grind their own cocoa blends with sugar, almonds, oranges and spices. Many families also have their own recipes and have their chocolate ground to order.

Private luxury Mexico tours

Private luxury Mexico toursMost of the shops also have cafes where you can enjoy a cup of dark and aromatic hot chocolate.

Private luxury Mexico toursA favorite evening activity is a tasting in a mezcaleria (mescal bar), where you might see locals playing guitar and singing traditional songs while slowly sipping mescal.

Private luxury Mexico toursThe Town and its Architecture
The city of Oaxaca invites strolling, with its lively squares, colorful colonial buildings, beautiful churches made of green limestone, interesting shops and pleasant cafes.

Private luxury Mexico toursOne of the city’s main landmarks, Santo Domingo Church is decorated with intricate gilt carvings.

Private luxury Mexico toursPrivate luxury Mexico toursArt, Crafts & Culture
A haven for artists, Oaxaca also has interesting galleries and great museums, including the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, the Textile Museum, and the Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO).

Private luxury Mexico toursIn evenings, bands like this municipal police band play in the zocalo (main square) or in front of churches.

Private luxury Mexico toursIn the valleys surrounding the city, many villages specialize in local crafts. In the Ocotlan Valley to the south are villages that produce black pottery, embroidery, backstrap-loom weaving and alebrijes—intricately painted wooden carvings of mythical creatures.

Private luxury Mexico toursArtisans of Leisure can arrange a visit to a workshop to see how alebrijes are made, from hunks of copal wood to finished products.

Private luxury Mexico toursTo the east, the village of Teotitlan del Valle is known for tapetes—hand-woven wool rugs colored with natural dyes made from marigolds, lichen, pomegranate, indigo and cochineal.

Private luxury Mexico toursGardens
We love the fascinating Ethnobotanical Garden, where visitors can learn about regional plants and how they fit into the indigenous culture.

Private luxury Mexico toursLuxury
Our private Mexico tours include a stay at the beautiful Quinta Real Oaxaca. Built as a convent in the 16th century, the hotel opens peaceful courtyards.

Private luxury Mexico toursRuins
Just outside the city and not to be missed is Monte Alban, an evocative site of ancient ruins with views over the city and surrounding valleys.

Private luxury Mexico toursA little farther afield, the ruins at Mitla are known for their grecas, or intricate geometric brickwork.

Private luxury Mexico toursNearby is Hierve el Agua. Resembling a frozen waterfall, the stalactite-like formation was created by natural mineral springs cascading over cliffs. The pools at the top are a popular place for a refreshing dip and taking in spectacular views over the countryside.

Private luxury Mexico tours

Contact Artisans of Leisure or your preferred travel specialist to start planning a private, customized tour in Mexico.

Destinations:  Latin America, Mexico

Tags:  architecture, best of Mexico, crafts, food, gardens, luxury hotels, Mexico, Mexicto tours, music, ruins

November 10, 2014

Letter From a Mother: Don’t Wait to Travel with Your Children

We were touched and honored to read this letter from the mother of a family that travels regularly with Artisans of Leisure. We hope you enjoy reading about how traveling together has become such an important part of their lives.

family travel EgyptAs my eldest daughter enters her senior year of high school, with her two sisters not far behind, I look back at how fast the time together as a family goes by. I am so grateful for the many, many travel experiences we were able to share; a time for just our family in unfamiliar and exciting places. Away from the blur of everyday life, and armed with a solid pact to “get along for this special time”, we turned ourselves over to the competent guidance of Artisans of Leisure.

family travel FranceOur first trip with Artisans of Leisure was to France and I thought that it would just be a special “once in a lifetime” trip. But the value they brought with their knowledgeable guides and drivers allowed us to see more places in a shorter amount of time. It was such an amazing trip that we scheduled more. The experience has been consistent throughout the many countries (11) we have traveled to with them.

Family travel RussiaOur Artisans of Leisure travel consultant, who has come to know our family well, suggested we visit places we never dreamed of going, like Egypt and Russia. These adventures opened our eyes to incredible histories and made us more aware of key happenings in the world. Our children have learned an appreciation of other countries and cultures, as well being enlightened to the blessings of being born in America.

Family travel ItalyIt is always a treat for me, the mom, not to worry about where we are going or whether we will be safe. I get to enjoy the trip along with everyone else in my family. The itineraries are always specifically tailored to our interests and energy levels. When my daughters were younger, we did history tours of amazing countries. Now, that they are teenagers, we have added more experiences into our explorations. This year, Artisans of Leisure recommended that we go to Africa. We are all looking forward to it.

Family travel ChinaI often hear parents say that they want to wait until their kids are old enough to appreciate or remember overseas travel, but truth be told, the older they get, the harder it is to find the time and encourage the interest. They are invested in sports, school, friends. etc. None of us remember all the information presented or the significance of every landmark, but we do remember sharing the time together and the special bond created by the experience. My husband and I remember, and that is invaluable. We started traveling overseas when my daughters were 8, 9 and 11. Traveling with them when they are younger sets the stage for continuing as they get older. I would say the sweet spot for historical travel is between the ages of 8 and 12.

Family travel TurkeyNow that our time as a nuclear family, living under one roof, is coming to an end, I am so grateful that we embraced the moment and made time away together as important as all the other demands on our lives. I don’t want to stop the clock, I love watching my girls grow into adulthood and I am so proud of them. I just appreciate that time moves fast and we only have our children a short time. I am excited to see what happens as they venture out into the world, but of course, I will always be negotiating our calendars to plan another trip…

family travel Greece

                                                                          ~ P. Roy, Laguna Niguel, CA

The family has since taken their tour of Kenya and Tanzania with Artisans of Leisure. See a slideshow of their amazing photographs in our gallery.

Family safari Kenya and Tanzania tourContact Artisans of Leisure to learn more about customizing a tour for your family.

Destinations:  Africa, Asia, China, Egypt, Europe, France, Greece, Italy, Kenya, Russia, Tanzania, Turkey

Tags:  family travel, family trips, family vacations, luxury travel, private tours, travel with kids

November 9, 2014

Must Visit: Milan Expo 2015 (A World’s Fair in Italy)

Italy is adding another must-see destination to its already long list with the Milan Expo, which runs May 1–Oct 31, 2015. This World’s Fair explores the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” in individual country pavilions, as well as group pavilions with displays related to cacao, coffee, rice, spices and other foods.

Milan Expo 2015 China PavilionIn the World’s Fair tradition, Milan Expo 2015 will also feature incredible architecture, design, technology, innovation, and the opportunity to learn about international cultures and traditions.

Milan ExpoArtisans of Leisure can easily incorporate a visit to the Milan Expo into any of our private Italy tours. Contact us to learn more.

Destinations:  Europe, Italy

Tags:  architecture, Expo 2015, family travel, food, Italy tours, luxury travel, Milan Expo, private tours, World's Fair

November 5, 2014

Cape Town: Five Favorite Excursions

The Western Cape region surrounding Cape Town is a spectacular part of South Africa with a compelling history, great food and wine, and a wealth of beautiful landscapes. These five excursions from Cape Town exemplify why this is one of our favorite parts of South Africa:

South Africa luxury tours1. Cape Winelands
The largest wine region in South Africa, the Cape Winelands are world-renowned for beautiful vineyards and high-quality Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and other wines. The first grape vines were planted around present-day Cape Town in 1655, when the area was a Dutch colony. Over subsequent centuries, the vineyards were extended into the surrounding region. Today, this combination of history and fine wine (not to mention great food) make the Cape Winelands an irresistible excursion.

Winelands wine tasting toursArtisans of Leisure arranges wine tasting, vineyard lunches, reservations at top restaurants such as The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, visits to historic sites and other activities in Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. We can also include a stay at La Residence, one of our favorite luxury hotels in South Africa.

private Winelands tours2. Robben Island
A powerful way to learn about the history of apartheid in South Africa is to visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were exiled for years. Former inmates lead the tours of the island, sharing firsthand stories about what it was like to be a prisoner and showing the cell where Mandela was confined. Along the way, they also explain the other purposes this UNESCO World Heritage Site has served—including leper colony and military base—since the 17th century. Views across the water to Table Mountain are an added highlight of this excursion, which we can arrange upon request.

Robben Island3. Gardens
Garden enthusiasts visiting South Africa will want to see the country’s unique and wonderfully diverse native plants on display at top gardens. We arrange private excursions to renowned Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, which showcases indigenous flora from around South Africa, including water plants, cycads and fynbos vegetation. Another great option is a private excursion to Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden, which specializes in the succulent and aromatic plants of this arid region north of Cape Town. Artisans of Leisure can also arrange visits to Arderne Gardens and other smaller gardens in and around Cape Town.

Stellenberg Estate

Stellenberg Gardens4. Cape Peninsula
Extending like a finger south of Cape Town, the Cape Peninsula is an ideal excursion from the city. Our private tours of the region—included in our South Africa tours—feature experiences such as seeing a colony of endangered African penguins at Boulders Beach, looking for wild ostriches and baboons in the rugged landscapes of Table Mountain National Park, browsing for antiques in the artsy village of Kalk Bay, keeping an eye out for great white sharks and fur seals in False Bay, and venturing to dramatic Cape Point or the Cape of Good Hope.

False Baypenguins 5. Hermanus
The scenic drive from Cape Town to Hermanus is known as the Cape Whale Route. From June through October, the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean serve as breeding and calving grounds for southern right whales. These large baleen whales often breach and lobtail close to the shore during this period, making for an entertaining drive. We can make reservations at a top local restaurant in Hermanus to dine on fresh seafood for lunch before returning to the city.

Cape Whale Route

HermanusAny of these excursions can easily be incorporated into our private South Africa tours. Contact one of our South Africa specialists for details of to begin planning.

Destinations:  Africa, South Africa

Tags:  Africa, Cape Peninsula, Cape Town, excursions, gardens, Hermanus, luxury hotels, luxury tours, museums, Robben Island, South Africa, South Africa tours, tours, wildlife, wine tasting, Winelands

October 22, 2014

Hiking in Bhutan

BhutanOne of the most popular activities that we arrange in Bhutan is private hiking excursions, including day hikes, shorter hikes and scenic walks, and overnight treks. This is a great way to experience the beautiful Himalayan scenery, visit local villages, meet the people, and learn about Bhutanese traditions and beliefs.

Bhutan walking tours

overnight treks BhutanArtisans of Leisure arrange hikes from Paro up to Tiger’s Nest, a mountaintop monastery that is Bhutan’s most famous attraction.

private Bhutan toursWe also arrange day hikes in valleys throughout Bhutan, including Thimphu and Punakha. En route, hikers stop at local farms, waterfalls, temples, monasteries and rural villages.

short hike BhutanOur guides also help travelers experience the local lifestyle during the hikes, whether it’s seeing the farmers working in the terraced rice fields, learning folklore, or visiting holy locations.

trekking tours BhutanDuring hikes in more distant locations such as Gangtey and Bumthang, there is also the chance to see native wildlife such as langurs, red pandas and rare bird species.

Bhutan natureOvernight treks offer the adventurous traveler a chance to get more off the beaten track and convene more fully with nature.

Bhutan hiking toursBhutan toursAfter the hikes, a favorite pastime is soaking in a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath, followed by a soothing massage.

Bhutan bathView our private Bhutan tours or contact us to learn more.

Destinations:  Asia, Bhutan

Tags:  active tours, active travel, adventure, adventure travel, Artisans of Leisure, Asia, Bhutan, Bhutan tours, Buddhism, camping, cultural tours, guided hiking tours, hiking, Himalayas, nature, trekking tours, wildlife

October 7, 2014

Notes from Our Travelers: A Romantic and Luxurious Honeymoon in Switzerland

Luxury Switzerland honeymoonMany of our travelers ask us to plan trips that celebrate some of the most important moments in their lives, including spectacular customized honeymoons.

We were delighted to plan a private tour of Switzerland for Brian and Allison Reichenbach, newlyweds who have generously allowed us to share their photos on our blog.

The honeymooners started in Zurich, with private touring of the historic center and two nights at the Baur au Lac, a luxurious lakeside hotel.

Honeymoon amenities“Welcome reception in our room at the Baur au Lac in Zurich! We were upgraded to deluxe suites at every hotel and each room was more lovely than the last. The most enjoyable part of changing cities was the welcome we received at each new hotel—Champagne, chocolate, cheese, etc.—wonderful!”

Zurich tours“We received the 5 star treatment everywhere we went, which made travel in a foreign country feel like a true vacation rather than a project.”

Luxury Switzerland honeymoonThey continued to Lucerne, where a highlight is the historic bridge and its painted panels.

Lucerne bridgeThe Reichenbachs said that they enjoyed the cheese in Switzerland, including fondue.

Swiss fondueThey also visited Reichenbach Falls. In addition to sharing their family name, the waterfall was the setting for a dramatic scene in a famous Sherlock Holmes story.

Switzerland outdoors tours“The special detour we made to Reichenbach Falls was fabulous, and we appreciate Artisans of Leisure’s help inserting that in to our travel plans. Worth the detour!”

Next, they ventured high into the Swiss Alps.

Swiss AlpsSwiss Alps tours“In Interlaken, our guide took us up to see Jungfraujoch. This man was amazing: a true Swiss mountain guide with wonderful stories about mountain climbing and growing up in Switzerland. He navigated the masses of tourists masterfully and we waited nowhere and saw everything.”

They also toured a cheese factory on the way from Interlaken to Lausanne…

Switzerland cheese tours“I wanted to tuck this into my purse…”

…and visited one of Switzerland’s most charming small towns.

Gruyeres“Our lunchtime view in Gruyeres, where we had tasty raclette. All of our guides gave wonderful recommendations.”

The honeymooners ended their tour with several days at the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne.

Switzerland's best hotels“Every single hotel was absolutely fabulous, but the Beau-Rivage Palace was probably our favorite. Restaurant Anne-Sophie Pic there was also above and beyond—every bite was more interesting and spectacular than the last and the service was wonderful as well.”

From the Beau-Rivage, they explored top attractions in the beautiful Lake Geneva region, including Chateau de Chillon.

Chateau de Chillon“We loved having a private guide at Chateau de Chillon—it makes a huge difference in how much you learn and how easy it is to navigate. Additionally, you get the chance to chat with local people, learn about the culture, and get recommendations you don’t find in the guide books.”

They also visited the ancient vineyards in the Lavaux region, where they sampled Swiss wines.

Switzerland wine tours“Our guide worked there at the vineyard and his passion for the wine and the winery itself was so evident that it was contagious. We left with a renewed interest in wine.”

wine tours SwitzerlandOlympics Museum Switzerland“We also loved the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. We went after our wine tasting and it’s a really wonderful museum, just a short walk from the Beau-Rivage Palace.”

Luxury travel Switzerland“Other companies we’ve used aren’t even comparable to Artisans of Leisure. Traveling privately with Artisans of Leisure was so much more relaxing and tailored to us and felt much more like a true vacation.”

Switzerland honeymoonCongratulations again to the newlyweds! It’s always gratifying for us to hear how much our travelers enjoy themselves on our tours.

Contact us to learn more about our private Switzerland tours or planning a private honeymoon tour in one of our many other recommended destinations for a romantic getaway.

Destinations:  Europe, Switzerland

Tags:  Artisans of Leisure, cheese, culinary tours, Europe, Europe tours, honeymoons, luxury honeymoons, luxury tours, nature, romance, Switzerland, wine tours

October 3, 2014

Spain Through the Eyes of a Sixth-Grader

More and more Artisans of Leisure travelers want their private tours to include activities based on their passions.

soccer tours of SpainOne such traveler is Derek S., an energetic sixth-grader who loves soccer. Last spring break, Derek’s parents surprised him with an Artisans of Leisure private tour of Spain that included Madrid, Barcelona, Toledo and Valencia.

To help Derek and his family connect with Spain’s vibrant futbol (soccer) culture, we arranged private tours of top soccer stadiums and procured difficult-to-obtain seats to the Copa del Rey championship soccer match between top teams Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in Valencia.

Barcelona for kidsWe recently spoke with Derek for more insight into what he loved about his trip, including not only soccer, but also Spanish food, art, architecture and more:

Q: What grade are you in?
A: 6th

Q: What’s your favorite thing to do?
A: Play soccer. Obviously.

Q: How often do you play?
A: A lot. Every day

Q: Who is your favorite team?
A: Chelsea. Definitely.

Q: Why?
A: I don’t know. I just love them. I have so many Chelsea shirts and Fatheads and balls.

Q: What are Fatheads?
A: Things that stick to your wall. Like a sticky poster.

Q: How did you find out you were going to Spain for spring break?
A: My parents told me.

Q: What were you most looking forward to in Spain?
A: The games. I went crazy when I found out we’d see both teams play against each other.

Q: Who were you rooting for?
A: Real Madrid.

Q: Why?
A: I thought they were the underdog, and I wanted them to win. Which they did. Two to one.

Spain family toursQ: What was the highlight of the game?
A: When it was 1-1, then they scored in the 88th minute, and Barcelona hit the post shortly thereafter. But the second goal.

Spain soccer toursQ: Tell us about your favorite meals.
A: All sorts of paella, especially the cooking class in Valencia learning Valencia paella (chicken, rabbit, lima beans, other beans) and the seafood paellas in restaurants.

I loved marzipan desserts. I had it in Toledo. I had marzipan cake at Adolfo. So good. The other marzipan were other assortments. They look different but they all taste the same. Excellent. I love marzipan now. This was the first time in my life I had it. I never knew what it was.

cooking class ValenciaQ: Did you get to play at all? Soccer?
A: Sure. Yeah, sometimes on the beach I got into games people were playing. On the street I saw someone kicking, and he passed it to me, and we started playing freestyle street soccer.

Q: Tell us about the hotels.
A: I liked all of them. They all had great breakfasts. Tons of stuff. Fruit. Sausages. Pancakes. Mini donuts. Crepes. Bread. Even Japanese food and samosas. So good.

The people were so nice. They were very welcoming, especially at Hotel Arts in Barcelona. They had me answer questions about my favorite color, animal, etc. They showed us all around. I loved the club lounge. There was a corner with lots of food‎ and some was piled high with other food around it. I liked their soup at lunchtime. Cream of cabbage. Also, the ham and their pastries (croissants and donuts).

Q: What did you do during the winery visits?
A: Well, for me it wasn’t that fun. But Jean Leon and Albet I Noya both had cool underground rooms with wine tanks. They gave me grape juice in a wine bottle and chocolate eggs for Easter.

Q: Tell us about Toledo.
A: We saw a lot of buildings. There were so many. The cloister nuns were cool. They lived in a room that was locked up. It was their choice. They live there for their whole lives. All they do is make and sell marzipan and communion crackers. I met a nun and she gave me some. The guide introduced me. They only leave if they have a doctor’s appointment or something.

We saw the armor and helmets. Lunch was great. Adolfo. Really good. I had duck liver and pig. And the marzipan cake for dessert. It was so good. It was different colors and shades as you ate deeper.

private Toledo toursQ: What about Valencia?
A: The game was awesome. During the touring we went to the harbor to the marina. We went to an open area mall, and they had an exhibit for game day about the Copa del Rey and the teams, and they had a mini store. We went to the market and we saw a real pig’s head with its nose, pigs’ feet, live eels, shells. ‎They also had real snails moving around in a bucket. We saw a science museum, opera house, aquarium. I went into a giant bubble. I loved bouncing inside and pretending it was TNT and would blow up.

private Valencia toursfamily travel SpainQ: Tell us about Barcelona.
A: Gaudi. Antoni Gaudi. My favorite artist. We saw a bunch of his things. For Easter, we saw Mass in Catalan in the Sagrada Familia. We went all over Parc Guell. La Pedrera. We saw Casa Battlo. Easter was so crowded at Sagrada Familia.

Barcelona for kidsWe toured stadiums in Barcelona and Madrid. We went into the locker room in Real Madrid and saw their names, players’ pictures and jerseys in the lockers‎. We went all over the stadium grounds.

stadium tours SpainQ: Memories of the trip?
A: The game. The stadium tours. The cooking class and the tapas tour. The last night in Madrid, our guide took us to five places to try tapas. It was the best. The first place had the best Spanish tortilla with onions. We tried a bunch of other places and had seafood, croquettes, one place that only had things with ham (it was a ham shop), and the owner gave us a packet of ham.

We saw a lot of other art and museums. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch had three sections and when it’s folded it shows the earth, and inside is the beginning of life, sins, hell. That was in Madrid.

Q: What do you like about traveling with Artisans of Leisure?
A: Well, they give us the best things to do. The trips have everything you would want.

Q: Where do you want to go next?
A: Maybe Sweden.

Contact Artisans of Leisure to customize a private tour based on your interests.

Destinations:  Europe, Spain

Tags:  art, Europe, exclusive activities, family tours, family travel, family vacations, food, football, holiday travel, museums, soccer, soccer tours, Spain, Spain tours, sports, wine