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Revisiting India with Louise Nicholson

A lot has changed since 2015 when we last caught up with author and India travel expert, Louise Nicholson. We recently interviewed Louise to revisit the wonders of this exotic far east destination. The most notable change is the drastic improvement in the country’s transportation infrastructure and hospitality amenities that have expanded the possibilities in an already expansive country. Read our Q&A and watch our interview with Louise below to learn more.

WATCH our interview with Louise Nicholson

Give us an update on what you’ve been doing? 

I’ve been spreading my wings!  Just done a fabulous new tour through Central India seeing a string of star sites and staying in great hotels that make this a new take for the first time visitor, and without tourist traps of the familiar Delhi-Agra-Jaipur itinerary.  And about to do a new tour to Ladakh in the stunning high Himalayas, seeing painted monasteries and staying lakeside on the Tibetan plateau in pristine mountain beauty – my stunner for July.  Also, working with museum trips, institutions, and lots of private trips for families.

When we talked in 2015, you gave us an overview of your top 5 destinations in India: Mumbai, Rajasthan (Vlarspur, Jodhpur, Nagaur), Tamil Nadu, Ajanta and Ellora and Sikkim. Anything new to report? 

My top favorite India destinations do change as places become more accessible thanks to India’s manic road-building and improvements in local accommodation.  So, while Mumbai, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Ajanta/Ellora are still up there, Sikkim’s formerly great hotel in the west has unfortunately plummeted in admin and staff.  I’d replace it with the newly more accessible glories of Central India’s early cities – where you can wander Champaner, Mandu and Chanderi’s stunning medieval buildings in beautiful rural settings with few tourists.  This region has additional options to visit India’s tribal belt villages and markets as well as see sophisticated weavers making exquisite traditional textiles thanks to great NGO leadership – such as Rewa and Women Weave at Maheshwar and LemonTree and Chanderiyaan at Chanderi.

What’s hot in India now?

  1. An increasing number of heritage hotels in off-beat places – for instance, there’s a beautiful mansion on the fringes of Kolkata, a fantastic multi-layered and complex city, so you could do a few city days and then a few in this rural idyll.
  2. Pondicherry.  The revival of the French colonial area began more than two decades ago and continues to be done with great taste thanks to the local conservation body INTACH.  There are now lots of beautiful historic buildings to stay in large and small, such as Palais de Mahe, and lots of stand-alone bars and restaurants, as well as boutiques stocking India’s superb young fashion designers – which I just don’t understand why they are not available globally.  The only downside of Pondicherry is there is no beach of quality, but Indian beaches rarely come up to US east/west coast standards.
  3. Ahmedabad city in the west.  Really buzzy with its old city heritage walks, the Calico museum of textiles, the LD Lalbhai museum of historic art, great Gujarati food found at House of MG’s rooftop restaurant, buildings by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.  And a newly opened (Jan 2017) gorgeous historic mansion renovated by Rahol Malhotra and containing the collection of another Lalbhai, Kasturbhai Lalbai, which has both historic and very good contemporary collections, a real treat.

 Anything that we need to me mindful of as we plan a trip to India?

My motto is ‘Less is more’, meaning the fewer places you go the longer you have in each and therefore the more you will get out of your whole trip.  India is not about manically ticking off places from the Taj Mahal to seeing a tiger; it is about getting down on the ground to see the sites, sure, but also to walk old cities, stay in a nature reserve for three days, encounter locals, visit markets, experience the contemporary such as going to the movies or hanging out in a cafe with locals or arranging a spice shopping outing and then a cooking demonstration.

Movies like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel idealize India as a place for expats to set down roots.  What’s your honest take on that consideration?

Well!  As you may imagine many of my friends and clients have asked me to set up my own Marigold Hotel in India!  Seriously, though, India is a very good place to select one place – very carefully – and put down roots for, say, six months or a year.  You would get to know the local people from mango sellers to schoolchildren, you would feel the rhythm of the seasons, share in the festivals, and also be able to contribute your skills and get a lot of fulfillment.  But choose carefully: a city may suit some, a village others.  But it is not a breeze.  India is simultaneously very welcoming and fairly tough.  You would have to be quite self-sufficient emotionally and self-starting in finding something to occupy your days, as Judy Dench and the other actors in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel showed us very clearly!

You, a backpack and the wilds of Africa

Even with its abundant wildlife, stunning landscapes, precious gems and distinction as the cradle of humanity, Africa still leaves some travelers uneasy despite their fascination and longing. To dispel your fears, we caught up with Valerie Bowden, Africa travel expert, author, and blogger at BackPackingAfricaforBeginners.com. Valerie shares her personal account and love story with the continent, and how anyone — even a solo woman traveler –can explore the wilds of Africa safely.

WATCH our video interview with Valerie Bowden

Tell us about your website and what you do?

After my seven-month backpacking trip across Africa, I realized that a lot of people want to travel the continent, too, but they don’t know how. So I decided to start a blog and write an ebook, both called Backpacking Africa for Beginners, to help more travelers choose Africa as their next destination. While I share some personal stories, I mainly concentrate on providing practical how-to information to make their journey safe and fun.

How does a young woman take on the intrepid adventure of backpacking Africa alone? 

I was never that adventurous growing up, but I always wanted to go to Africa for some reason. After months of searching the internet, I finally found someone who had traveled the continent and was willing to give me some advice. He didn’t say much, but he told me that I’d be safe, and that he had seen other girls traveling solo. That was enough reassurance for me, so I booked my ticket.

To be honest, my original plan was limited to visiting five countries in two months, but the more I traveled, the more comfortable I felt. Plus, I realized Africa had a lot to offer. So I just kept going and going. Eventually, my trip ended up including 13 countries and took seven months. 

Africa is known for political instability, crime, and violence in some areas, but you say Africa is safer than Europe is today. Talk about that, because the big question on the minds of many travelers is, will I be safe? 

Most African countries are very safe to visit. The rise of crimes against tourists in Europe along with the threat of ISIS is making enough people, including myself, reevaluate what destinations are safe to visit. For the average tourist, the biggest crime they have to worry about in Africa is getting pick-pocketed. I recommend following basic common sense (not walking alone at night, not walking off with people you don’t know, etc.) and asking locals for safety information specific to the area. For example, everybody told me in Kilagi that I could walk down a dark alley with all my valuables, and I would be fine. But in Nairobi, I was told to take a taxi once it got dark even if I was only going a few minutes away. By following suggestions like this, I never put myself in a compromising position.

I actually just met a backpacker from Colombia, and he expressed that African countries are even safer to visit than South America. He cited the kindness of locals in Africa as a big advantage.

Which areas offer beauty, wildlife, and adventure while ensuring one’s safety, particularly if you’re a woman traveling this country alone?

Ironically, as women, we feel like it’s harder to travel alone. But in some ways, it’s actually easier. Throughout my trip, locals would help me, citing, “This is how I would want someone to treat my mother (or sister, or wife, etc).” And when I hitchhiked, I felt like individuals and families were much more willing to pick up a female traveler than male. I met dozens of other girls traveling Africa solo along my trip, and they all agreed with me.

As a woman in Africa, I think you can have a great time in almost all the countries. Just be more careful not to wander off at night or drink so much that you’re unaware of your surroundings. But again, that’s basic common sense that you should follow anywhere in the world. 

How would you categorize ways to experience Africa – we know safaris are a big one, but what are other options and what would one see and do? 

Besides safaris, travelers can enjoy outdoor activities (hiking, climbing mountains, visiting waterfalls,), adrenaline-pumping experiences (shark cage diving, sand surfing, bungee jumping), rest & relaxation (spas, wine tastings, luxurious resorts), historical sight-seeing (the pyramids in Egypt &Sudan, the churches

in Lalibela), cultural immersion (visiting rural communities, seeing huts, going to local markets, meeting locals), animals/marine life (snorkeling, scuba diving, walking safaris, riding ostriches, petting zoos, gorilla trekking, rescued animal orphanages), festivals, shopping, and so much more! 

How much time do you need to plan for a safari and how does one go about planning this type of trip?

If you’re new to Africa, I recommend going on a safari in one of the three most popular spots. This means visiting the Kruger Park region in South Africa, the Serengeti in Tanzania, or Masai Mara in Kenya. You’ll have a much smoother experience given that their tourism industries are more built up. You can explore lesser known, more rugged areas the next time.

It’s best to plan your trip around the time of year you can go, and what you want to see. Do you want to see the Big 5 game (African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros), the Great Wildebeest Migration, etc.? As far as which resort or tour guide to pick, check out reviews online from other travelers. They’ll give you the latest and most specific up-to- date information. Resorts will prefer you pay online before you come. But it’s not necessary. Once you arrive in the country, you’ll find dozens of tour agencies and resorts willing to help you make your trip spectacular. 

Obviously, different types of explorers and demographics will come at Africa in vastly different ways. For a younger person with limited resources, what’s the shoestring approach to getting to Africa and which country would you recommend as a starting point for first timers? 

For the shoestring budget, I recommend bringing a tent and sleeping in the camping section at backpacker lodges. Frugal travelers can also save money by taking local buses and eating at cheap local restaurants.

Malawi and Mozambique were two of the cheapest countries I found. But for someone who is really apprehensive, start in South Africa. It’s the most developed and easiest country to travel in Africa. Go there first. Travel around until you get the hang of backpacking. After that, you can explore cheaper countries.

What about the more mature traveler who has more disposable income and may want to experience a wildlife adventure, but on a gentler scale? 

There are many beautiful and luxurious resorts in Africa– especially in safari areas. They offer international comforts with a taste of Africa. It’s great for someone who wants to see animals and experience Africa, without the typical discomforts and annoyances that budget travelers will no doubt face.

This kind of traveler will find Africa a joy to travel. I think they’ll even be surprised how comfortable and extravagant it can be. My only warning is that at times some roads and paths may be uneven. Just make sure you’re in good walking shape, and you shouldn’t have a problem. 

What is your favorite African destination and why? 

I love Malawi. It’s cheap, locals are friendly, and Lake Malawi is unbelievably gorgeous. Uganda is a great destination for an adrenaline junkie. When I was there, I trekked gorillas and went white water rafting on the Nile.

When is the best time to visit Africa?

Right now! But practically speaking, it’s best to look up weather information per country so you travel at the right time. For example, in Ethiopia, I would avoid coming during the rainy season (July-September) because it’s a lot harder to travel then. But sometimes coming off-season has its advantages. Visiting Kruger Park in South Africa is actually better in the off-season because it’s cheaper and the colder weather brings more animals out of the shade. So do your research before you come based on the specific area you want to visit. And keep in mind some of the countries are so big that rainy season will occur at different times depending on which part of the country you’re visiting at that time. 

Any final thoughts or advice for our viewers/readers?

Just come! I know it’s hard to believe that Africa can be so magical and safe to visit. But it is! According to the Africa Tourism Monitor, over 65 million international tourists came to the continent in 2014 alone. While the media might pick up on the few cases that something bad happened, the majority of people who come will have amazing, lifelong memories.

ExpertFlyer & appPicker’s Top Travel App Picks for 2017

In 2017, there are no more and no fewer topics to discuss when it comes to travel.  We all want to decrease wait times and costs, while increasing comfort, fun, safety, and flexibility.  That’s a tall order requiring time, commitment and research.  It’s no wonder developers are hard at work to help solve this dilemma with just the right app – In fact, there are an estimated 80,000 travel apps on iTunes alone!

As consumers look to simplify their travel experiences, having to vet tens of thousands of apps to make life easier doesn’t seem so easy.  So, how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? We asked app expert, Tiernan Quinn, founder and CEO of appPicker.com, the leading indie iOS app blog on the web.

According to Quinn, there’s so much more than counting downloads when it comes to identifying a truly unique app that fulfills its promise and fills a niche that no one else has conquered. “We get under the hood, and manually test and explore new apps on a daily basis so we can provide a true testament to the app’s performance – which many times is not reflected in an iTunes rating,” says Quinn.

You can view appPicker’s top travel app picks here (Shameless self-promotion: ExpertFlyer Seat Alerts app tops the list!).

WATCH our video interview with Tiernan Quinn, founder and CEO, appPicker.com

Adding to appPicker’s list, we’ve come up with a few other appetizers to snack on that promise to make your travels more bearable – and who knows, maybe even fabulous!

Skip the Line!
Don’t wait in line at top attractions or museums like the Eiffel Tower, Vatican, or the Louvre. Many of the world’s most popular monuments now offer fast-track tickets that let you skip the line and head straight in, leaving you more time to enjoy the experience. You can compare multiple skip-the-line options easily at PlacePass.com. 

Fly Away – Fearlessly
SkyGuru app is designed for the vast international community of air travelers who experience anxiety while flying. It is the brainchild of Alex Gervash, a professional pilot and founder of the Fearless Flying research and treatment center. SkyGuru is the first app that merges mobile technology and professional aviation data to analyze and make predictions on flight processes, guiding passengers through the more anxiety-provoking moments in real time. SkyGuru users have already navigated more than 3,600 flights in over 60 countries around the world.

What’s Fare is Fare
There are more than 100,000 flights each day, and airfares change by the minute. Fareness.com will show round trip fares across 190+ departure dates and many trip lengths to global destinations with one fraction of a second search. Users are shown the soonest/cheapest flight options on a scrollable calendar. iOS app users can download the app here.

You’re Speaking My Language
When it comes to international travel, and booking great accommodation, in particular, it’s an advantage to speak the language of the country you are flying to. Have you tried Lingviny? Ok, the name doesn’t roll off the tongue, but this cool Chrome extension integrates with your Gmail and helps you write emails in any language with the help of professional translators.

Travel Procrastinators – There’s an App for that
The Last Minute Travel Deals app promises to deliver substantial savings even to last minute Louie’s. The app enables travelers to book and save up to 60% on everything from hotels and flights, to car rentals, vacation homes, activities, and transfers, regardless of where you are in the world – either well in advance or the day-of travel.

House, Hut or Hotel?
Travelers who are just looking at hotels are missing out. There are a ton of non-hotel options, such as Airbnb, Couchsurfing, vacation homes, and hostels, so if travelers don’t use a site like AllTheRooms they will miss out on a huge swath of potentially perfect options. And if you’re up to roughing it a bit, here are some sites that allow travelers to stay for free with locals  — often the best way to experience a foreign culture.

Shane Hobel: How a Survival Training Getaway Will Change Your Life

We’re continuing our series on personal retreats as a getaway option with purpose.  To many, a typical retreat experience screams yoga, self-help, healthy eating, and spirituality – with mostly females.  Well, we found Shane Hobel, a wilderness survival expert and founder of Mountain Scout Survival School. Shane takes city-slickers out of their comfort zone and teaches them the skills to survive comfortably without the luxuries of our modern world. He’s been featured on Doomsday Preppers, Mansome, WPIX 11, Cablevision, History Channel’s MonsterQuest,The New York Times, The New Yorker, and CNN, as well as prominent regional newspapers and news stations.

WATCH our interview with Shane Hobel, wilderness survival expert

Tell us about Mountain Scout and some survival getaway options for somebody who wants to learn more about surviving outdoors without the modern day conveniences we’re all used to.

Mountain Scout has teaching locations in and around New York City as well in the Hudson Valley. We’re actually the only school that teaches both urban survival, as well as wilderness survival, and we’re the only school allowed to teach in Central Park. We offer the urban programs in NYC, and some of the wilderness and urban programs in Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Westchester, and up here in Putnam, as well as Dutchess counties.

The wilderness survival side is about connecting to our ancestors’ skills, and understanding ones relationship out here in the world. On corporate retreats, private groups and getaways, we give students that fun day or team building day. Everyone’s goal of what they want to achieve at the end of the day is different. It really depends on what they’re looking for, but everybody walks away with a bit of that relationship, of knowing what they can do out here in the vast world.

Think of it this way: what would happen if I took away all the things that are a part of your life: your car, your apartment, the refrigerator, the cable TV,  electronic devices, etc. Take away all these things and what do we have left? You soon realize what’s important in the world and in life. It’s shelter, water, fire, food, tracking, awareness, and movement. This just scratches the surface, but it’s a tremendous experience. Continue reading →

Why Palm Beach County, FL needs a cultural concierge

Known the world over for fabulous beaches, exciting nightlife and upscale living, Palm Beach County, FL, also boasts a tremendous array of cultural attractions. ExpertFlyer goes One-on-One with Bama Lutes Deal, the first cultural concierge, to learn about the finer things in Palm Beach County.

WATCH our video interview with Bama Lutes Deal, cultural concierge.

 

Why did Palm Beach County decide to establish a Cultural Concierge?

Palm Beach County is Florida’s Cultural Capital™, with more cultural venues and events per capita than any destination south of Atlanta.  With so many museums, art galleries, performance halls and other cultural venues, visitors to The Palm Beaches have 42,000 cultural offerings to choose from.  With so much for tourists to experience, the Cultural Council decided to bring in a cultural expert who could curate events and help travelers plan the cultural aspects of their visits to The Palm Beaches. The goal is to showcase our vibrant cultural landscape and help travelers fell more like locals, to help them find authentic local experiences that reflect their own tastes and interests. Continue reading →