Posts Tagged ‘smithsonian journeys’

Highlights of Costa Rica

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader James Karr is the Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Washington. He specializes in tropical ecology, ornithology, and environmental policy and has done extensive field work in Central and South America. Here, he shares some thoughts on his recent travel through Costa Rica with Smithsonian travelers.

Costa Rica's pristine beach

Costa Rica’s pristine beach

As study leader on two trips to Costa Rica with Smithsonian Journeys in March-April of this year, I spent time in one of the most delightful and easily accessible parts of the tropical world. At the end of each trip, I asked each member of the group to name three of the trip’s most memorable experiences. Whenever I do this I am impressed by the common themes that emerge, as well as each person’s unique perspectives.

Everyone’s highlights centered on Costa Rica’s well-deserved reputation as a nature tourism destination. People recalled walking in the “awesome diversity” of cloud forest, especially the hanging bridges that take one into and above the forest canopy. They talked about peering into the fuming crater of the Poas Volcano or seeing the smoking cone of the Arenal Volcano at sunrise and sunset. Others were delighted to see legendary birds such as the jewel-like resplendent quetzal, scarlet macaws, and magnificent frigatebirds. During a boat trip along the Tempisque River, we saw herons, egrets, crocodiles, monkeys, and even a large boa in a tree. Daily nature walks on the grounds of our hotels allowed us to see numerous orchids and other flowers as well as tropical butterflies and birds. On top of everything, we feasted on a wide diversity of tropical fruits and delicious local dishes.

The violet sabrewing hummingbird.

The violet sabrewing hummingbird.

Many in our groups appreciated the warmth of the Costa Rican people and the chance to learn about growing and processing coffee before it reaches our coffee cups. Others were delighted to learn about the connections among sugar cane, molasses, and rum; the cultivation of pineapple; vanilla from an orchid; and the odd fruit that provides cashews. We learned about making (and also tasted) a wine from palms and visited a factory that makes delicate, beautiful wood products. We also visited the shop of a local artisan where he creates unique masks and bigger than life-size costumes for local parades and other celebrations.

Others were struck by the geological and topographic diversity of Costa Rica from high mountains to the Pacific Ocean beaches. Some took the opportunity to sit and read in the tropical garden outside their room while others delighted in the Pacific coastline, where they walked the beach or swam or snorkeled in warm ocean waters. Still others had the thrill of a lifetime gliding on ziplines in the cloud forest at Monteverde.

People join Smithsonian Journeys expeditions with their own unique blend of expectations and even fears about what they will encounter. Many have personal bucket lists. But all seemed to find revisiting the trip by recalling their top three memorable events a refreshing reminder of trip experiences. Some even noted that they would change their list as a result of our discussion, because it reminded them of things that hadn’t come to mind as they wrote their top three.

Click here for more on James Karr and traveling with him, and here for more on travel to Costa Rica.

What do you love about travel? Please share.

Book of the week – Smithsonian Natural History

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Our book partner, Longitude Books, is always looking for new top reads for curious traveler.

This week, they’ve recommended you try Smithsonian Natural History, The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth.

smithsonian natural historyEvery kingdom of life, from bacteria, plants and animals to the minerals and rocks that make up the Earth is featured in this stunning visual survey, just the thing you need to get you ready for your next Journey out into the world.

With more than 5,000 color images, this book, which celebrates the centennial of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The first chapter introduces Earth, its geology and life-forms, followed by in-depth chapters on minerals, rocks, and fossils; microscopic life; plants; fungi; and animals, each with informative descriptions and rich images. Ever wanted to know more about the Mexican red-kneed tarantula? Then this is your book.

Wew have 40 itineraries focused on teaching you more about natural history. Click here to learn more.

More Q&A with Journeys Director Amy Kotkin

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Last week, Journeys Director Amy Kotkin answered travelers’ questions about top travel destinations for 2012 and where you should go next. This week, she tackles more of your questions about Smithsonian Journeys and travel value.


China's Yangtze River

China’s Yangtze River.

Q. Is Smithsonian Journeys part of the Smithsonian Institution?  How are they related?

A. Smithsonian Journeys is very much a part of the Smithsonian Institution! As the Institution’s travel program, we share the goals of education and outreach with the whole Smithsonian staff. Just as the Smithsonian seeks to share knowledge of the world around us through museum exhibitions, publications and on-line resources, Smithsonian Journeys shares the world through first-hand experience in destinations worldwide with Smithsonian experts! Your participation in Smithsonian Journeys benefits the Institution’s myriad activities, helping us preserve our national treasures and shape the future through science, research and exhibitions.

Q.   What does All-Inclusive mean? 

A. That’s a good question, because it can mean slightly different things on different trips.  Take our All-Inclusive Mediterranean Cruises, for instance. These are fabulously priced trips that include international air fare, port charges, hotel stays before the tour, on-board gratuities, shore excursions, and wine with dinner each night on board! In essence, 90% of what you need on tour is included. Why not 100%? Because we know that though you are looking for a great deal, you also want to shape your vacation to your own tastes and pace. So, while all morning excursions are included, for example, we leave the afternoons up to you! Explore independently, relax on board in lovely ports, or join an optional afternoon excursion at a modest additional cost. On most of our small group land tours, international airfare is included, all gratuities, most meals (though again, we want to make sure you have time to explore on your own, including finding a great restaurant!) as well as the services of a full-time tour director and study leader. We never want you to pass an envelope at the end of the tour, or feel that you have been “nickel and dimed.”

Q.  Why do some tours include roundtrip airfare and others don’t?  Can I use my frequent flyer miles? 

We are delighted to offer included airfare on many of our tours, through special arrangements with our travel partners. We provide this feature on as many tours as possible, though included air is not available for all routes. If you’d prefer to use your frequent flier miles, you are always welcome to get a “credit” for unused airfare, resulting in a lower tour price. However, many of our travelers find that the included airfare is so reasonable that they opt for our air packages and save their frequent flier miles for other travel!

Want to learn more? Click here to read last week’s Q&A with Amy.

Where do you want to go next? Let us know!

Evocative Ephesus

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Karen Britt is Professor of Byzantine Art at the University of Louisville and has excavated in Turkey, Greece, and Israel. Here, she shares her thoughts on exploring Ephesus with Smithsonian Travelers, which she did on our recent tour through Turkey.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus. Photo: Amy Kotkin.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus. Photo: Amy Kotkin.

Each time I visit Ephesus, I am surrounded by people: those visiting the spectacular site today and those who lived in this bustling metropolis centuries ago. Undoubtedly, a vivid imagination—something I have had since childhood—led me to archaeology. As a young girl and later, as a teen, I read a lot and almost exclusively books about people who lived in the past (think: Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Laura Ingalls Wilder and biographies for kids). Consequently, the people who lived in the past were real to me, so real that I thought of them as my friends and their enemies were mine. Although older, the past remains real to me; historical figures still seem like friends and enemies except now they sometimes switch sides! As an archaeologist, I am fortunate to be able to dwell in and on the past a good deal of the time and to have acquired the tools necessary to reconstruct past cultures.

Smithsonian Travelers enjoy Ephesus

Smithsonian Travelers at Ephesus, Turkey. Photo: Karen Britt.

As a specialist in Late Antique and Byzantine archaeology, when I walk through the streets of Ephesus today, it is not difficult to envision the past: it is a remarkably well-preserved site. As I stroll down the colonnaded Curetes Street with its mosaic-paved sidewalks, I enjoy the breezes from the harbor and imagine the cooling sounds of water splashing in fountains (nymphaea) adjacent to the street. I can picture the upper and lower markets (agoras) full of shoppers bargaining for supplies with vendors. When I close my eyes, against a backdrop of temples, mansions, the Library of Celsus and countless public statues, I see men moving along bustling streets as they make their way to the theater and women rushing to take advantage of their limited hours in the baths.

Walking toward the Double Church of the Virgin, I am transported back to the important ecumenical Church Council of 431 that occurred here.  I envision robed bishops, from near and far, heatedly debating, for months, the nature of Christ. Was he truly man and truly God simultaneously? And if so, how should the Virgin Mary’s relationship to Christ be defined? Weighty matters, indeed, were decided in this place, matters of enormous consequence for the future development of the Church.

On a glorious spring morning, as I sit on a fallen column in the atrium of the church and gaze toward the well-preserved apse of the sanctuary, I cannot imagine ever tiring of Ephesus. Each and every time I visit, the stones speak to me.

If you’re ready to see Ephesus for yourself, click for more on our Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast tour. Karen Britt will be traveling with you next to Anatolia, and click here for more information on this tour.

Q&A with Journeys Director Amy Kotkin

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Amy Kotkin has been developing educational programs for the Smithsonian Institution since 1974 and is Director of Smithsonian Journeys. Here, she shares her thoughts and recommendations for travel in 2012, as we launch our new travel season.

Q.  Every year Smithsonian Journeys adds new destinations.  What are some of the highlights for 2012?

Amy Kotkin with artist in Turkey

Amy Kotkin visits with an artist in Turkey.

A. Just when we think we’ve been everywhere – a new destination beckons.  Or, we “re-imagine” existing destinations by looking at them in novel ways.  Always “looking around the corner” at what’s next is truly invigorating for our staff. For 2012, we’ll offer a cruise to Southern Spain and Morocco on the elegant small ship Corinthian II.  While we know that there was significant cross-cultural fertilization between these two regions going back before the middle ages, the opportunity to see how this is reflected in the art and architecture of Spain and Morocco is simply dazzling, as well as thought-provoking! Speaking of cruising, we’ll also be offering our first in-depth cruise to Crete!  We’ll encircle the island on the gem-like yacht Callisto (with only 34 guests), stopping at charming small towns, ancient ruins including the magnificent Minoan palace at Knossos, Byzantine chapels.  Two new holiday trips will also make their debut in 2012!  Christmas in Vienna and Prague promises festive performances, special access tours and fine food. Jane Austen’s Christmas features time-honored English holiday traditions.

Q.  What are your most popular destinations?

A.  Wow! So many come to mind.  But if I had to identify the top three just in terms of enduring interest over many years, Turkey, China and Peru top the charts for because of their amazing cultural treasures.  Having been with Smithsonian travelers when they first beheld the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, China’s Great Wall and Machu Picchu, I can tell you that these are truly magnificent, moving experiences.  Of course Egypt is on nearly everyone’s “life list,” and we are happy to have resumed our expert-led trips there.  For natural history – Alaska, Galapagos, Tanzania and the Amazon are “the classics.”  Interest in these incredible destinations never wanes.

Q.  Early Booking Savings!  Why do you and so many other companies encourage early bookings?  Are there really deals to be had or is it just a gimmick?

A. No! They are not a gimmick!  It is always worthwhile for Smithsonian and our tour operators to fill our tours long in advance.  That way, reservations for hotels, meals, special tours, and excursions can be locked down early and assure us of the best services possible.  Confirming all tour details several months before departure is well worth our while, and therefore, we are happy to encourage early bookings by giving you the incentive to do so.  Ultimately, early booking is in everyone’s best interests.  You get a better price and we are able to assure an optimal tour! Be sure to take a look at our early booking incentives featured on our website under Special Offers.

Amy will be back next week to answer more of your questions.

Have a question for Amy? Send her a note at