I’ve been a predictably poor blogger lately. After I got home from Rwanda at the end of December (still writing that post!) I went to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. I’ve been home in New York ever since – just two and a half weeks but it feels so strange. I have no travel plans for February so I put away my suitcase. There was a sense of loss that I know is irrational. Of course, it didn’t help to see social media feeds of all my friends (irl and online) at airports and new destinations.
There is something addictive about travel. Like other addictions, you gain a tolerance and each subsequent experience must be more challenging or grander or longer. The parts that were irritants at first – airport security, the dreaded middle seat, finding your ill-located airbnb – are easier as you refine your routine.
Eventually, you’ll take any little bit – a weekend holiday or even a day trip – because staying home is robbing your life of the thrills that you’ve been accustomed to. You spend find yourself daydreaming about being somewhere else. Even if you’d used to dream about being where you are now.
There are no direct flights from New York to Kigali so we chose to fly through Doha. We took advantage of a Qatar Airways offer that provides a free night’s hotel if you do a stopover with them. Our one night in Doha unexpectedly turned into two nights after a series of misunderstandings but I was glad to see more of the city.
Day 1 – Museum of Islamic Art + Souq Waqif
We stayed at Fraser Suites per our Qatar Airways offer in the old part of town, which was close to the Museum of Islamic Art and Souq Waqif. The Museum was a 10-minute walk away but Doha is not really a walking city and it felt a bit strange to be constantly walking amongst cars trying to park and wondering whether the sidewalk would continue after the next intersection. Expect to be taking Uber or taxis most places – it’s very affordable.
Like many other structures in Doha, the Museum is an architectural marvel. The inside is even better than the outside. My favorite exhibits were on the second and third floor where there were fewer tapestries and more sculptures and jewellery. It’s always delightful to see pieces from a dozen centuries ago and it looks like something you could pick up tomorrow from Neiman Marcus.
Souq Waqif is a century-old bazaar that’s probably the only place in Doha that retains traditional Qatari architectural style. As you might expect, the souqs sell artisanal crafts, jewelry, clothing, and perfumes. As you might not have expected, they also sell pets – there were probably more birds than people there. Events are also held there, including a yearly spring festival.
This was my first time in the Middle East and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect re: modest clothing and alcohol rules. It seemed like there was a mix, almost 50/50, between people wearing Western-style clothing and religious dress. Bars and restaurants serving alcohol are almost exclusively in hotels. You won’t be popping into a pub for a pint in Doha.
We treated ourselves to dinner at Nobu, which was housed in the Four Seasons. Best crispy rice I’ve ever had.
Day 2 – Katara Cultural Village + the Pearl
For our second night, we decided to move to West Bay, which is the modern part of Doha. My American Express Platinum card got us an executive suite at the Ritz-Carlton at a shockingly reasonable rate. West Bay and the Pearl region is full of luxurious skyscrapers, each with a more interesting design than the last. It kind of reminded me of the Bund in Shanghai – not particularly cultural but impressive and beautiful (so naturally, it’s where all the expats live).
The Pearl is a manmade island that hosts a number of high end restaurants and boutiques. It is essentially a fancy outdoor mall along with some residential areas (that allow ownership by foreigners, making it another popular area for expats). Although, the Pearl looks very built up already, there is still some construction left to do – with an estimated cost of $15B when it’s all finished.
The Katara Cultural Village is almost like a boardwalk. It runs along a beach and is home to a number of restaurants and shops. It’s quite tourist-y and meant to be that way. Free guides in the form of golf carts and drivers pick you up and take you around, pointing out each attraction with about as much enthusiasm as you might expect for a Lebanese restaurant in Doha. We visited Doha amidst its National Day celebrations so there were a few extras – like the camels featured in the photo above.
If we had more time, I would have loved to visit more museums – like the Sheikh Faisal Museum, which my friend described as “a hoarder’s dream house”.
All in all, I wouldn’t be dying to go back to Doha but it’s not a bad place for a short stopover. We were vaguely familiar with the political issues going on with Qatar, particularly over the FIFA World Cup, which Qatar is meant to host in 2022. However, there was really no mention or tension about this in Doha. Culturally, Doha is well-equipped for tourism and the locals were generally friendly, or at the very least, unbothered by foreigners.
I haven’t quite finished dismantling the mess of mittens and Sorels from our Thanksgiving trip to the Canadian Rockies and now it’s time to pack again for much warmer weather in Kigali, Rwanda. This will be my second time to Africa.
My first time was just last year – to South Africa – which I’m sure many people would not consider to be an accurate representation of the continent (if any one country could ever be). South Africa was (erroneously) never on the top of my list but the opportunity was too perfect to pass up. For months, I had been planning a trip across 15+ countries with two people I had never met for dozens of people who I had also never met. It sounds strange, I know. The point is, there was finally an opportunity to meet one of my fellow tour planners because he was the local guide for the South Africa leg of the tour.
We packed a lot into eight days but this post is about the middle three days, which was spent on safari in Kruger National Park. At over 7500 square miles, it’s about half the size of Switzerland, making Kruger one of the largest game reserves in Africa.
It was June, the beginning of winter in South Africa and the perfect time to spot wildlife, since much of the vegetation that animals normally use for camouflage had died. It didn’t take long for us to spot the big five (lion, buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, leopard).
Disclaimer: There is no right or wrong way to travel. This is merely a guide of how I plan trips in an organized fashion and I thought it might be useful to others. You mustn’t be surprised at my fastidiousness – the name of this website literally translates to “plan”.
If you’re just looking for the template, it’s here.
After I have a rough idea of when the trip will begin and end, I start looking at flights – sometimes months in advance, sometimes within a couple days of leaving. If you have the luxury of time, I recommend tracking the most appealing flights with Google Flights (select outbound and return flight, then scroll down and click “Track price”).
Despite normal human preferences, I have left at all hours of the day with layovers between half an hour and 13 hours. The worst layover time is probably between three and six hours. It’s long enough so that your travel time is significantly increased but not long enough to leave the airport. If you find yourself booking these kinds of flights pretty often, it’s very worth it to buy lounge access. Priority Pass is probably the most popular lounge membership – it gets you into over 1000 lounges worldwide with an annual fee of $99 (each visit costs $27 on top of that). They’re typically not the most luxurious lounges but generally beats sitting at the gate for hours on end. You can purchase one-time passes to many airport lounges but some of them require a certain class of ticket.
There are also credit cards that offer lounge access – I personally have the American Express Platinum card but I think the best travel credit card overall is Chase Sapphire Reserve
The LoungeBuddy app is handy to scope out lounges ahead of time but beware, it may not show all the lounges that you have access to so it’s worth double-checking with whoever you have your membership through
If your travel companions are booked on the same flight but on separate reservations, most airlines offer the option to link your reservations. This means that you will be seated together by default, saving you the mad dash to check in online once the 24-hour window opens hoping to find two/three seats together. All you have to do is call the airline with your booking confirmation numbers. If there are multiple legs and some legs are operated by other airlines, call the airline that the flight is operated by (e.g. if you booked through United but the particular leg of the journey is operated by Lufthansa, call Lufthansa).
Which seat should you pick? It depends on the plane so it’s often worthwhile to check out SeatGuru
If you are traveling with other people and they’ve booked different flights, it is highly advisable to share flight numbers. Between unexpected changes (delays, early arrivals) and the possibility that you won’t have wifi/data once you land, knowing which flight your travel companions are on is very helpful. Plus, it’s easier to coordinate transportation between the airport and your accommodations.
Johnston Canyon is a popular tourist attraction in Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest national park. In the summer, it’s an easy hiking trail with views of waterfalls, tunnels, and pools. In the winter, it’s a slightly harder hike, requiring ice cleats for most sane people, with a frozen version of the same views. For the adventurous, ice climbing is possible below a certain temperature.
Although many go with a tour (I did it through Discover Banff), it’s not strictly necessary. The area has ample signage and established trails – it’s impossible to get lost. There’s no entrance fee to Johnston Canyon (there is one to enter the national park but once you’re through, there’s no additional fee for the canyon) and it’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Budget about two hours to see (and photograph) everything to your heart’s content. Dogs (on leash) are allowed.
According to our guide, no one is sure who Johnston really was. The rumor is that during the mid 1880s, when the Canadian Pacific Railway was being built, a group of weary workers in a mountain town bar came across a man who claimed to have literally struck gold. Eager to have a piece of the riches, they pressured the man into telling them where he had found the gold. Reluctantly, the man pointed east, towards the canyon, promising to meet them there the next day.
The next morning, the workers went searching for gold in the canyon but all they found were waterfalls and rock formations. Disappointed, they went back to the bar to drown their sorrows where the bartender informed them that the man from yesternight had in fact headed west.
They pressed the bartender – who was this trickster who had sent them on a wild goose chase?
“I’m not sure – I think he said his name was ‘Johnston.'”
We caught an early morning flight from New York to Panama City, landing around 3:00pm. It was an easy Uber to reach our accommodations – by the way, Uber Panama has an option to select an English-speaking driver for a marginally higher price but don’t bother – you’ll be waiting for Godot.
We resisted the shiny new city center and opted to stay in Casco Viejo, the historic district. A two-bedroom suite at La Isabela housed the three of us comfortably with room to spare. I would happily stay there again.
Glitzy hotels with brands you’d recognize are plentiful in the city center and surprisingly, much more cost-efficient than options in Casco Viejo. However, after visiting the city center, I stand by our choice to stay in the historic district. Alongside the Waldorf and Hilton, the city center hosts grey office buildings and American clichés like the Hard Rock Café and Hooters. The area lacked Casco Viejo’s charm and elegance. Plus, all the nightlife is in the old part of town.
After checking in, we had dinner at Caliope, which was only a few minutes walk from La Isabela – that’s the other great thing about Casco Viejo, everything is concentrated in one corner so we never walked more than five minutes to get to our next destination. The food was exquisite and the atmosphere even better. Would highly recommend making a reservation.
We were there on a Tuesday so the nightlife wasn’t exactly at its peak. But we checked out a few spots if only to familiarize ourselves with the area. First, we stopped at Casa Casco, a rooftop bar so chic that you’ll feel like the glass elevator is actually teleporting you to Miami. Next, we went to Gatto Blanco, which turned out to be a bit much if you’re pushing 30 and it’s a weeknight. Right next door to Gatto Blanco is Tantalo, the perfect medium between hip and handsome.