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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two girls visit Our Chalet, a Girl Scout world center in the Swiss Alps.
World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
Two girls visit Our Chalet, a Girl Scout world center in the Swiss Alps.

 

Cookies fund world travel

By Beth Walton

Self-Disclaimer: I love Girl Scouts. I think it is one of the best organizations for young women, and I have a slight addiction to Do-si-dos.

I also believe my time as a child in Girl Scouts helped me develop the courage I needed to travel all around the world and pursue my dreams as an adult.

So, in honor of Girl Scout’s 100th anniversary this month, I am presenting you with an around the world Girl Scout heritage tour. Founded 1912, today the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) boasts 3.2 million members in more than 92 countries. A member of the international collaboration of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), GSUSA is part of a family of 10 million girls from more than 145 nations.

From the Americas to the Eurasian contentment, the globe is filled with Girl Scouts. A visit to their four world centers is a way to support the organization in a meaningful, less calorie-driven way.

Some of the spots on this tour are open to the public. Others are only open to Girl Scouts, their friends and family. But, with 50 million alumni in America alone, it shouldn’t be hard to find a suitable companion. Just ask your wife, mother, sister or neighbor. I bet you can find a Girl Scout nearby. So the saying goes: "Once a Girl Scout always a Girl Scout."

Our tour will start in America’s southeast in Savannah, Ga. at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, located in the heart of the city’s historic district. The 1880s renovated childhood home of Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low was Savannah’s first National Historic Landmark. Today, guided tours and programs allow visitors to learn more about Low and the history of GSUSA.

Next, head to New York City and see the gears turn at National Headquarters. There, approximately 400 staff work to serve the nation’s 100 Girl Scout councils. Guests can tour the facility and enjoy its museum and shop. Centrally located just two blocks from the Empire State Building and ten blocks from Rockefeller Center, National Headquarters is a highlight of any New York trip.

Before heading overseas, make a side trip to the town of Briarcliff Manor and see the Edith Macy Conference Center, a landmark destination detailing how the domestic Girl Scout movement turned international. It was at this site Low ushered in America’s first international WAGGGS confecence. Just 45-minutes north of New York City, 400-acres of wooded grounds and a historic Great Hall await guests. Perfect for large events, the grounds feature six corporate conference rooms, a 200-seat auditorium and attractive lodging options.

If time allows, head nation's capital. With March being the 100th anniversary and Women’s History Month, the Presidents Gallery By Madame Tussauds announced that it would be creating a wax statuette of Low.The statue will be unveiled in Washington, D.C. early summer.

Next stop: Mexico. Located in the town of Cuernavaca, just 47-miles from Mexico City, is Our Cabaña, the largest of the word centers. 

Pair your visit or stay with trips to nearby Cortes' Palace, a16th-century cathedral and Jardin Borda, once home to Mexican Emperor Maximilian. Not far away is the large city of Puebla and the towns of Tepoztlan and Taxco, all with great options for group travelers. A visit to the nearby Xochicalco archaeological site, which boasts a spectacular hillside pyramid village, can also be arranged.

Located just 47-miles from Mexico City, Our Cabaña is the largest of the World Centers.
World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
Located just 47-miles from Mexico City, Our Cabaña is the largest of the World Centers.

 

Mexico wasn’t hot enough for you? Head across the Atlantic to India for your next international Girl Scout adventure.

Sangam, situated along the banks of the Mula River in Pune, is only few hours from Mumbai. With its namesake meaning “coming together” in Sanskrit, this world center brings Girl Scouts and Girl Guides together from around the globe. Events emphasize cultural sharing, common links and the rich cultural heritage of India. At all times of the year, guests are welcome to visit or stay.

Ready to jump continents again?

Our last two spots take us to Europe. Start in London at the Pax Lodge, situated in Hampstead. The center is an ideal destination for schools, youth groups and even families who would like to experience a unique home-like environment. Next door to the WAGGGS World Bureau, guests of Pax Lodge are granted easy access to an assortment of thrilling program and activities that explore London and the Europe’s scouting history. Bonus: groups can purchase discounted tickets at the Lodge to some of London’s top attractions.

We'll end our trip in Switzerland at Our Chalet, the first world center built by the WAGGGS. Located in the picturesque Swiss Alps, the Chalet is connected to a network of trails and footpaths that lead to snow-covered mountains, sparkling blue lakes, alpine forests and wild flower meadows. Our Chalet offers a wide array of programs from high adventure activities such as skiing or hiking and leadership seminars. It's a great place to end. Afterall, Low did start Girl Scouts to bring girls out of their isolated home environments and into the open air.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The cast of Seussical the Musical brings the fantastic world of The Whos to life. 
Kris Sills
The cast of Seussical the Musical brings the fantastic world of The Whos to life. 

 

On stage or by bus

By Amanda Black

This blog ponders how a good theater show is like a successful group tour.

It’s a quiet Monday morning and everything is back to normal, except that feels a little strange. I just wrapped up a crazy, wonderful weekend running lights for Seussical the Musical. It was an all-volunteer production that played to about 2,000 people over the course of the weekend. 

It was magical; it was wonderful; it was tiring.

When my smoke alarm went off at 5 a.m. due to a dead battery, it gave me some time to think about things. I started thinking about how this successful theater production was like a group tour, since everything gets me thinking about group tours.

Here’s what I am thinking. Do you have any to add?

1). It takes a lot of people to make it a success.

A group tour or stage show requires a lot of hands to even happen, and each person has to play their part well to make the experience go well. For the play, we had 30 in the cast, a dozen directors/tech folks and even more when you count the ushers, popcorn makers, broom pushers, donors who allowed this all to happen and people who worked so stealthy, I didn’t notice. Then we had four packed houses, packed with people who kindly gave up three hours of prime weekend time to see Seussical.

Likewise, before anyone steps on the motorcoach, there are people working behind the scenes to ensure a good tour. A lot of phone calls go back and forth from tour planning staff to group sales departments, ensuring the group has somewhere to go when on their tour and a good time when they get there.

2). Everyone has a part to play.

Getting up on stage seems dreadful to me; I can’t sing on key and dancing in step is practically impossible. But that doesn’t mean I need to stay home. I do know my way around a light board, so I was able to be a part of that. But if you asked me to set up the lights in the first place, I couldn’t have done that. We needed a skilled tech for that, and we had that.

Likewise, there’s only one seat on the motorcoach with a steering wheel for a reason. The coach only needs one driver, but it also needs a guide, a tour planner, someone to greet the group when they arrive, etc. Plus, it needs people to take the tour (and pay too).

3). Sometimes you just have to do what the director says.

Enough said.

Yertle the Turtle is one of the stars of Suessical The Musical. 
Kris Sills
Yertle the Turtle is one of the stars of Suessical The Musical. 

 

4). It’s a chance to bond.

Either way, a lot of time spent with other people in a different-than-normal situation means you’ll make new friends quickly. It doesn’t mean everything will be smooth sailing the whole time. Close quarters can breed tension, but it will be diffused quickly when the next exciting thing comes along.

5). It feels weird when it’s over.

After we cleaned up the auditorium yesterday, I hugged a few people and went on home. It felt weird, and it still feels weird this morning. The assistant director said it was something like breaking up with a boyfriend. That sounds about right with me. Every play and every tour has its end. Then you go back to regular life.

And write blogs about it.

I can't recommend highly enough adding a theater show to your next group tour. Broadway.com does a ton of great things for groups, as do many regional and community theaters outside of The Great White Way. 

To whet your whistle, enjoy this video backstage at Once.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Few things are more beautiful than a garden in bloom.
Few things are more beautiful than a garden in bloom.

 

I've got a fever...a fever for gardening

By Amanda Black

I have a fever, and not the kind that more cowbell will fix*.

This is the kind of fever that only sunshine, a trowel and digging in the dirt will fix.

I want to get my garden started. But it’s only mid-March and my garden is located in Michigan, so I have to wait. We’re having an unusually warm stretch of weather, so I started the garden with what I can do — weeding. While this is not the most glamorous task, it felt so good to be out in the sun and fresh air. It was great to accomplish something (until that big spider crawled out and I decided it was time to stop).

When I was out running errands a week ago, including buying garden tools, I heard an interesting story on NPR’s Weekend Edition about how the Philadelphia Flower Show is trying to get more people interested in gardens. They made the show more interactive and more interesting. You can listen to and read the story at the NPR website.

Gardening is one of the most popular hobbies around — for good reason. 
Gardening is one of the most popular hobbies around — for good reason. 

 

I’m not your traditional gardener, so this really caught my attention. I am a few decades away from the old lady demographic, I live in an apartment and no one ever taught me how to garden. But there’s something about this genuine activity that feels so real. I've caught the fever, and I love it.

Last year, I had a nice container garden going. I would have starved if my meals depended on it, but it was a treat to use freshly grown mint, peppers, cabbage and other veggies in my meals. Even the Brussels sprouts tasted great.

I think I’ll plant something different this year. I was reading a seed catalog that said that yellow carrots are so easy to grow, they could grow in the middle of the road. That sounds about right to me.

 What’s going in your garden this year?

 

*Sorry for the Saturday Night Live reference if you don’t know what I’m talking about. If you do, enjoy the funny memory this will bring up. You have to watch if you haven't seen the More Cowbell skit. 

 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fish flinging is a sport, at least at Shanty Creek Resorts' annual Irish Celebration.
Photo: Rick Martinez
Fish flinging is a sport, at least at Shanty Creek Resorts' annual Irish Celebration.

 

Shanty Creek's end-of-winter fest goes on in luau-like conditions

By Rick Martinez

BELLAIRE, Mich. – It’s mid-March, 80 degrees and sunny at this moment.

And it’s St. Patrick’s Day.

I just saw some foursomes golfing. There was a guy running bare-chested down the street. Bicyclists and walkers are everywhere.

However, I’m not in South Florida. I’m not on the Gulf Coast. I’m not in San Diego.

I’m in Northern Michigan.

The key word is northern. This is a place where snow gets measured by the foot.

Still, here I am at Shanty Creek Resorts in what is still officially winter. I am relaxing outside in a short-sleeved shirt, looking out toward Lake without any thought of being chilly.

Yet, I just got back with my wife, my 15-year-daughter and a friend of hers from hanging out for a few hours at Shanty Creek’s Schuss Mountain ski area. No, I’m not talking water skiing.

We watched some hot-dogging teen-agers landing – or at least determinedly trying – some pretty nifty tricks atop snow skis and snowboards. They were taking part in the Epic Air Competition (with t-shirts available at the red tent boasting for the sponsor: Make it Epic.)

A few yards away, folks of all ages – mostly groups and families – were tossing frozen fish. Yes, real frozen fish. (Sorry, I forgot to check which species; my bad).

But they were big fish.

And it’s a lot more difficult to fling a fish than you might think.

Still, folks were lined up to take their shot at fleeting fame (or fearless infamy, considering some of the efforts).

The weather here Up North this weekend is more like the start of summer. Still, Shanty Creek is living up to its boast of being a year-round resort.

Other ski resorts have shut down because of the unseasonably warm conditions.

But four days before spring’s start, winter activities continue at Shanty Creek.

With the Irish Celebration going on today in Shanty Creek’s Schuss Village, the Schuss Mountain parking lot were pretty full along with some parked in overflow.

A young skier gains some tutelage from his mother at Shanty Creek Resorts' Schuss Mountain.
Photo: Rick Martinez
A young skier gains some tutelage from his mother at Shanty Creek Resorts' Schuss Mountain.

 

Besides fish flingers, there are Slush Cuppers (skiers and snowboards schussing their way down the hill to see how far across a pond they can get) and the Blarney Stone Rail Jam for snowboarders at Purple Daze Terrain Park.

There is also enough Kelly green to make most any Irishman smile (or, perhaps, any Michigan State University supporter; sorry University of Michigan fans).

My family is here hanging out for a long-planned snow skiing weekend and to recall some old memories since we haven’t been at Shanty Creek’s Summit Hotel & Conference Center in Summit Village for nearly a decade.

It’s turning out to be a winter weekend not to forget.

Last night, the girls went swimming. Under the star-crossed sky, my wife and I enjoyed wine and cheese on the deck. All of us slept with our screen doors open.

This morning, my wife and I went on a morning stroll in the woods and saw woodpeckers, wild turkeys and black squirrels only wearing short sleeves.

After getting our Irish on (or least some Celtic amusement) during the morning and afternoon, we’re planning to return to Schuss Mountain tonight to do some snow skiing under the lights.

There are several skiers and snowboarders on the Schuss Mountain slopes today, not daunted by conditions more akin to just before August than just before April.

While many are in regular skiing attire, there are folks schussing down in apparel more suited to a luau. While there is the distinct aroma of suntan lotion in the air, winter activities are still being enjoyed full bore.

The last time my family visited Shanty Creek, it was summer.

This time, it’s turning out to be one of the coolest (or, perhaps, I should say hottest) winter adventures we’ve enjoyed in quite some time.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Perillo Tours is offering a gluten-free Tuscany itinerary that includes Florence.
Photo: Perillo Tours
Perillo Tours is offering a gluten-free Tuscany itinerary that includes Florence.

 

Hats off to Perillo Tours and its gluten-free itinerary

By David Hoekman

Something for everyone, as a tour selling point, is easily lost in the plethora of available group tours.

Every destination has something for everyone, and tours marketed in that way don’t bubble to the top of the pile.

So I was pleased to see earlier this month that Woodcliff Lake, N.J.-based tour operator Perillo Tours has announced its first gluten-free escorted tour of Italy’s Tuscany region in cooperation with Zenfully Delicious.

It’s the first time I’ve seen a tour specifically marketed as a gluten-free tour.

The eight-day food lover’s tasting extravaganza this fall includes guided market tours, gluten-free food and sulfite-free wine tastings and a cooking class with ingredients fresh from the farmers’ market — all during the Tuscan harvest.

Gluten-free Italian vegetables 
Photo: Perillo Tours
Gluten-free Italian vegetables 

 

Hosted by Jennifer Lannolo, creator of Zenfully Delicious, guests will stay in a Tuscan villa situated in the historical center of Figline Valdarno and visit the nearby cities of Chianti, Florence, Siena and San Gimignano.

Gluten-Free Tuscany will depart the U.S. on Oct. 11 and return on Oct. 18.

For those allergic to gluten, how cool that they don’t have to worry about whether their next meal will make them sick. Getting sick when you’re on vacation is the worst.

So here’s a tip of the fedora to Perillo Tours and Zenfully Delicious for putting together a unique itinerary.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The first Klompen Dancers, originally known as Dutch Villagers, being trained in 1933
Photo: Tulip Time Festival
The first Klompen Dancers, originally known as Dutch Villagers, being trained in 1933

 

Time travel and other oddball fascinations

By Aaron Ogg

There are a few topics, subjects and activities with which I’m inexplicably obsessed. Among them are Star Wars, craft brews and Words With Friends (I generate words while you sleep … even when it’s not my turn).

Somewhere in my second tier of oddball passions is vintage photography. I adore seeing decades-old photos of where I grew up, places I’ve visited and destinations I’d love to scratch off my list of must-sees. I use a couple of iPhone apps regularly — Instagram and Hipstamatic — that can give pictures a more aged look, but it’s just not the same. 

For example, it was so cool today to visit the Facebook page of Tulip Time Festival — an annual celebration scheduled May 5–12 this year that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Holland, Mich., — and find a photo of the original Dutch Villagers, later known as the Klompen Dancers, from 1933. Seeing how the buildings and facades I see all the time used to look makes me happy!

I was discussing this joy with GTM colleague Amanda Black (@amandagrouptour), senior staff writer, and she shared with me an amazing website — a suite of websites, actually — that I hadn’t heard of. The site is lileks.com, run by journalist, columnist and blogger James Lileks, of Minneapolis. It’s packed with so much neat stuff, including a page devoted to postcard scans of motels mostly from the 1950s and ‘60s, organized by state with very amusing commentary.

Another page is called “Coffee and Chrome,” and features cafes and restaurants in the days before big chain eateries.

I only wish Amanda had shown me this site a little closer to 5 p.m.

Group tours often are big on nostalgia. Presenting a historical account of a particular place can be a great way to engage visitors representing several generations. Who doesn’t love to reminisce about “simpler” times?

What are some of your favorite cities or destinations that have undergone big changes over the years? 

Monday, March 5, 2012

A peacock in all its glory at the Toronto Zoo
A peacock in all its glory at the Toronto Zoo

 

Happy birthday, CityPASS

Bargain hunters rejoice!

CityPASS is celebrating its 15th birthday. The company bundles admission tickets and perks for top attractions in 11 different cities.

Launched simultaneously in San Francisco and Seattle in 1997, CityPASS is the brainchild of co-CEOs Mike Gallagher and Mike Morey, who parlayed their respective attraction marketing and industry research skills into the creation of an easy-to-use pass offering prepaid admission — and often line-skipping VIP access — to a city’s most popular sights.

Currently, CityPASS packages are available in San Fran and Seattle as well as New York City, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Hollywood, Southern California, Houston, Philadelphia and Toronto.

This video explains how it all works. Enjoy!

When I traveled to Toronto a few years ago, my friends and I traveled on a shoestring budget to put it kindly — a Taco Bell/Tim Horton’s kind of budget. We lived it up thanks to the CityPASS packages we purchased.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of Tim Horton’s, let me describe it to you. It’s a Canadian institution — a coffee and doughnut shop found by a Canadian hockey legend. Now they’re expanding past Ontario and Quebec, but at the time, this was an exotic treat like ketchup-flavored potato chips and buying gas by the liter.

Happy birthday CityPASS! Here's to 15 more great years ... and more than that! 
Happy birthday CityPASS! Here's to 15 more great years ... and more than that! 

 

Let me return to my story. We knew that on our limited budget, the CityPASS was they way to go. Everything was paid for advance, and we were able to visit some of Toronto’s best. The zoo was especially delightful, as was the trip to the top of the CN Tower and a springtime tour of Casa Loma.

I’m sure we wouldn’t have been able to see so much without the CityPASS tickets and our Priceline-purchased hotels.

Next time I go to Toronto, I know I’ll get my CityPASS ahead of time.

In celebration of its 15th anniversary, CityPASS is launching a Happy Traveler Getaway that will give away two trips for two to any CityPASS destination.

In addition to two CityPASS tickets for the respective destination, winners will receive round-trip airfare for two, a four-night hotel stay, an allowance for a full-sized car rental or public transportation and $1,000 to use toward meals, shopping and other expenses. The contest is open to U.S and Canadian residents; for more information, visit CityTraveler.com/happytraveler.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Beth rides an elephant during a recent trip to Thailand.
Beth Walton
Beth rides an elephant during a recent trip to Thailand.

 

Beth Walton joins Group Tour

Allow me to introduce myself as one of the new staff writers for Group Tour Media.

My name is Beth Walton and just one month ago I was sure I was doomed.  

Since leaving my parent’s home in Holland, Mich., to attend Albion College at the age of 18, I have lived and worked in six U.S. states, eight American cities, and on one island

I am proud to say that at least three times I packed my red Ford Focus with all my earthly belongs and headed cross-country—once west to Nevada, once north to Minnesota and once east to Maine.  

When I was 25, I backpacked from Saigon to Delhi. I have been to 11 different countries; 12, if you recognize Tibet.

Simply put, I am not very good at staying in one place.  I suffer from a serious case of wanderlust.

So, you have to imagine my disappointment this November when I was working as a Peace Corps’ volunteer in the Republic of Kazakhstan and I received a phone call saying they were shutting down all operations in country.

I had one week to pack my things, say goodbye, and depart from the Silk Road village named Zhanakorgan that I had called home since May. We were being evacuated.

Beth and her husband, John, visit the Taj Mahal.
Beth Walton
Beth and her husband, John, visit the Taj Mahal.

 

Having spent the last eleven years of my life trying to figure out where to go next, I couldn’t believe it. I was being forced to go back to where I started and there was nothing I could do about it.

Before I knew it I was headed back to Michigan, jobless, carless and homeless.

At 29-years old, I was about to once again inhabit my mother’s basement. This time, with a husband in tow. The depression set in as soon as the jetlag wore off.

Weeks later, during a seemingly impossible Internet search for West Michigan employers seeking carless, vagabond journalist types, I nearly fell out of my chair. Less than one mile from my mom’s basement was a job perfect for me. 

Group Tour Media was hiring a staff writer. Here, I would be able to pair my love for travel with my love for journalism. Through writing, I would be able to help people experience everything North American group travel has to offer.

As the one of the newest staff writers here, I am excited by the possibility of helping people go to a new place for the very first time, taste unfamiliar food, hear new conversations and different perspectives. I’m excited to help organizers plan trips where people bond with their surroundings and each other. To me, these are the things that broaden one’s physical and emotional comforts, and these are the things that define travel.

Distance is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if you are going to Holland, Mich., or to a county so obscure most people haven’t heard of it. What matters is what you make of it.

For the first time in years, I’m happy to say the last place I travelled was home.

Beth Walton stumbled into journalism after being cut from her high school basketball, volleyball, cheerleading, and softball teams. She has since written for City Pages, Minneapolis’ Alternative weekly; The Las Vegas Review Journal; USA Today and The Holland Sentinel. A graduate of Albion College and Western Michigan University, she currently resides in Holland, Mich.

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