They took a flier and did it our way

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CAROL SOT­TILI

Next visit to Alaska, Carol Rich will do a “fly and ride.” She says, ”I would ride a Har­ley and it would be fab­u­lous, even though it would be chilly.”

For more than a year, Go­ing Our Way has helped craft our read­ers’ travel hopes into re­al­ity by fig­ur­ing out bud­gets, rec­om­mend­ing ho­tels, find­ing the best flights, lo­cat­ing tour guides: ba­si­cally putting a trip to­gether and ty­ing it with a bow. Some of our “clients” have taken their va­ca­tions — and at least some of our ad­vice— and have re­ported back. In this col­umn, we re­flect on three trips’ high­lights, low points and lessons learned.

Trip 1

A roots tour to Ghana for Vickie Jones, 37, of Alexan­dria, and her ex­tended fam­ily, rang­ing in age from 4 to 63. The Jones fam­ily took the eight-day trip in March 2010. Their tar­get bud­get was $2,000 to $2,500 per per­son. The ac­tual bud­get came to $2,225 per per­son. What went right: Jones didn’t go with the U.S. tour op­er­a­tor we had rec­om­mended. In­stead, she found a Ghana-based tour com­pany called Land Tours Ghana ( www.land­tours.com), and she has noth­ing but good things to say about it. “ They were great in plan­ning the lo­gis­tics, the ac­com­mo­da­tions, the travel be­tween cities, the itin­er­ary, the cor­re­spon­dence be­fore our trip and dur­ing our visit.” She was also very im­pressed with their tour guide, Em­manuel. So im­pressed, that since the orig­i­nal trip, she has gone back to Ghana twice to see her new friend.

Jones also said the food was ter­rific and the ho­tel per­son­nel very ac­com­mo­dat­ing: “ The Volta Ho­tel ( www.volta­ho­tel.net) even packed us a lunch of sand­wiches for one of our day trips.” High­lights in­cluded re­ceiv­ing names (Jones’s are Aku, for “ born on Wed­nes­day,” and Ka­fui, mean­ing “praise God”) and an emo­tional tour of the slave cas­tles in Elmina and Cape Coast led by the guide who took the Oba­mas on a sim­i­lar tour. What went wrong: Noth­ing ma­jor. “Maybe the scream­ing Ghana­ian ba­bies on the 10-hour flight back from Ac­cra,” Jones quipped. Street ven­dors were some­times ag­gres­sive, but guide Em­manuel helped man­age those sit­u­a­tions. Lessons learned: Jones said she could have stud­ied the jam­packed itin­er­ary more care­fully be­fore the trip to pre­pare for the fast pace. “It was ab­so­lutely the best way to see as much as we did, so we wouldn’t change it,” she said, “ but some­where along the way, I think maybe I should have paid at­ten­tion to the fact that there was a five-hour drive from one city to the next.” She also didn’t re­al­ize be­fore­hand that the canopy walk­way tour at Kakum Na­tional Park would re­quire walk­ing across seven rope bridges sus­pended high in the air. “Again, we prob­a­bly should have read that itin­er­ary. It was one of those ‘I am ter­ri­fied, but so glad I did it’ ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Trip 2

A sail­ing char­ter tour of the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands for Cindy and Jeff By­ron of Nellysford, Va., to cel­e­brate Jeff ’s 65th birth­day. The trip was sched­uled for Jan. 30-Feb. 6, 2010, but a ma­jor snow­storm in our re­gion ex­tended it to Feb. 8. The tar­get bud­get was $5,000 to $6,000; the trip cost about $7,800. What went right: The By­rons rented one of the boats we rec­om­mended — the Corus, a 45-foot ketch owned and crewed by Bill and Ann Hasted — through Amaz­ing Char­ters ( www.amaz­ingchar­ters.com) “Bill and Ann were won­der­ful,” said Jeff. “ The food and ser­vice were im­pec­ca­ble. Ann is a world-class cook. They are both ex­pert sailors. And the boat was beau­ti­ful.” The cou­ple liked the Hast­eds so much that when the Corus broke down, they opted to stay aboard, which leads us to the trip’s down­side. What went wrong: On the third day of the trip, the boat’s trans­mis­sion died. The Hast­eds spent an­other day or so try­ing to get it fixed be­fore a me­chanic fig­ured out that it would need ma­jor re­pairs. Af­ter a three-hour tow to an­other port, which turned out to be “a beau­ti­ful re­sort ma­rina” called Nanny Cay, the By­rons made their de­ci­sion. “Cindy and I kept talk­ing about what we wanted to do, and we re­al­ized that the thing we liked least about the whole trip was sail­ing,” Jeff said. “So I said to Ann, ‘If it’s all right with you, we’d like to stay on the boat.’ ”

For the rest of the week, Bill took the cou­ple to dif­fer­ent places each day via speed­boat, and they snorkeled, ex­plored and ate de­li­cious pic­nic lunches. And when their flights home were can­celed be­cause of snow, the Hast­eds let them stay aboard for a cou­ple of ex­tra days free of charge (the By­rons bought the wine). Lessons learned: No more sail­ing yachts. “I’ll go on a power­boat,” said Jeff. “Bob­bing along on a sail­boat when you are not do­ing the sail­ing is bor­ing.” And for cou­ples like the By­rons, who are not used to hav­ing ser­vants, be­ing waited on in such close quar­ters was ini­tially dis­com­fit­ing, al­though, Jeff added, “We did get used to it.”

Trip 3

A solo ad­ven­ture trip to Fair­banks, Alaska, and De­nali Na­tional Park and Pre­serve for Carol Rich, 51, of Ash­burn, taken Sept. 16-24, 2010. The tar­get bud­get was $2,500 to $3,000. Rich came in un­der bud­get at pre­cisely $2,254.84.

What went right: Rich fol­lowed Go­ing Our Way’s ad­vice to fly into An­chor­age, a much cheaper des­ti­na­tion via air than Fair­banks, and to rent an SUV. “I’m glad I rented an SUV be­cause I had to drive gravel roads and rut­ted roads,” Rich said. “Some of the places I stayed, like the Me­an­der­ing Moose (www.me­an­der­ing­moose-lodg­ing.com) in Tal­keetna, were back in the woods.” She was pleased, how­ever, with the ease of the driv­ing — “ there was no traf­fic” — and the beau­ti­ful scenery along the way. While none of her lodg­ing choices was lux­u­ri­ous, “each had its own par­tic­u­lar charm.” Rich was also taken with the na­tive Alaskans. “Ev­ery­one loved talk­ing,” she said, “and they were all su­per-help­ful.” What went wrong: The north­ern lights were not ac­tive, so one of Rich’s life­long de­sires was not ful­filled. And she didn’t see much in the way of wildlife. Also, when Rich moved her travel dates up by a cou­ple of weeks, she didn’t take into ac­count that her trip would co­in­cide with the an­nual road lot­tery, a four-day event that draws hun­dreds of win­ners of the once-a-year chance to drive their own cars on the road into De­nali. “I was com­pet­ing with the lucky 400 for a room,” she said, so lodg­ing choices were nar­rowed. Lessons learned: Next visit to Alaska, Rich will do a “fly and ride.” “I would ride a Har­ley and it would be fab­u­lous, even though it would be chilly,” said Rich, a mo­tor­cy­cle owner. So she may just brave the crowds and move the trip into sum­mer, but then she’d have to give up an­other chance to see the aurora bo­re­alis. De­ci­sions, de­ci­sions.

PHO­TOS FROM CAROL RICH

Carol Rich, left, on Eldridge Glacier, and, above, the plane that took her there. Her take on Alaskans: “Ev­ery­one loved talk­ing.”

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