9.15.2019

postcard from Helsinki

Helsinki Cathedral (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

Helsinki is definitely well worth a visit... first, because it is the hub for Finnair. Finnair has a comfortable business class that offered advantageous pricing for our flight to Europe. You can include a layover of up to 5 days in your itinerary.

Senate Square in the city's center is dominated by Helsinki Cathedral. During our visit, the steps in front of the church were filled with tourists, all enjoying the brilliant summer sunshine. As with other Lutheran churches I saw in Scandinavia, the pulpit faces sculptures of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon — a not-so-subtle reminder to the preacher to remain true to the theology of these Reformation leaders.

Oodi Library (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved
Include Oodi Library in your visit. The winner of the 2019 Public Library of the Year, the architecture is stunning — and you'll be amazed at the variety of resources available to visitors. These include sewing machines, large format photo printers, 3D printers, a laser cutter, and music studios. You can even play a virtual reality game. The library has a restaurant and wine bar and, yes, there are books and magazines too! Find something to read from the shelves (which include English-language books), and nestle in one of the library's many reading nooks to enjoy your selection.


copyright (c) 2019 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.

9.13.2019

why???



I received a mailing this morning. Inside was a glossy 12-page brochure whose cover was graced with the photograph above. The brochure, sent by a cruise company, advertised its ideas about Family Sailing. My immediate visceral reaction: "Why???"

My travel philosophy is simple — we travel to expand our horizons. Such was the very theme of my very first Travel Horizons post on October 4, 2006. I would never spend my dollars to take my children to the stunningly beautiful fjords of Norway, only to have them ignore the gorgeous views while they drive go-carts around a track on the top deck of a megaship.

Every traveler, and every travel advisor, is different and I would never disparage anyone's personal preferences. I'm only saying ... my philosophy of travel is about expanding our travel horizons ... experiencing the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, history, and cultures of the world's varied peoples.

I am here reprinting my words from nearly 13 years ago. This remains my guiding philosophy when planning my travels and those of my clients.
This is a new blog about travel. I am calling it Travel Horizons. 
One of the wonderful things about travel is that it expands our horizons, literally. A horizon is defined as "the circular boundary of the part of the earth's surface visible from a particular point." 
When we stay in one place, we see the same horizon day after day. What lies beyond those familiar horizons? This is the question, the basic curiosity, that leads to exploration, to discovery, to travel.
This space will be dedicated to sharing the new horizons that travel opens to us. In the months to come, I will write about where I have been, what I have seen, and how these experiences have broadened my own horizons. I invite you to be a part of this conversation.
copyright (c) 2019 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.

9.10.2019

postcards from St Petersburg | Catherine's Palace

Catherine's Palace (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

Catherine's Palace is one of the most popular attractions near St. Petersburg. The wealthy and powerful residents of this region of Russia were able to build some of the most elaborate homes imaginable, all at a time when the vast majority of people lived in unimaginable poverty.

The top two photographs, taken from outside the palace, show some of the statues and carvings that odorn the building.

Catherine's Palace (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

The walls of the famous Amber Room (pictured below) are covered with naturally occurring amber from the floor of the Baltic Sea. I rather surreptitiously snapped this picture with my camera resting in the crook of my arm, as photography is not allowed within the room.



Pro Tip: Do not visit Catherine's Palace UNLESS you go with a guide from a connected tour company who can get you in and skip the lines. Otherwise, you could be in a queue for as long as three hours.

copyright (c) 2019 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.

9.05.2019

selfies in St Petersburg

taking selfies (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

The Church on the Spilt Blood is one of the quite remarkable places to visit in St. Petersburg. It gets it name from the historical event that here took place in March, 1881 — the fatal wounding of Emperor Alexander II. The imperial family built this elaborate memorial between 1883 and 1907.

The church's interior is decorated with elaborate glass mosaics. These are dramatic pieces of religious art, well worth a visit even if you're into neither religion nor art. But, seriously, I don't get what the two teenagers in the photo are doing — taking selfies with their phones and not admiring the the mosaics.

dome of the Church on the Spilt Blood (c) 2016 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

St. Petersburg is a most incredible destination, and be watching for more "postcards" from here. 

copyright (c) 2019 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.

9.01.2019

running through the fountains

running through the Joke Fountains (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

We visited the fountains at Grand Peterhof Palace our first morning in St. Petersburg. One of many ornate palaces in Russia, Peterhof was built by Peter the Great. Though one of the most popular attractions in Russia, we never felt hemmed in by crowds because the grounds are so massive.

Grand Peterhof Palace fountains (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

Don't miss the Joke Fountains (pictured at the very top of the article). A fountain randomly* shoots jets of water at pedestrians who walk along the cobblestoned path in front of these benches. The young girl in the picture has dashed along that path, successfully missing the spray of the fountain. Obviously, it's a fun place for kids!

The beautiful gardens of Peterhof Palace rival Versailles in their scale. Be sure to visit on a sunny day!

*randomly? ... not really!!! A park attendant, hidden in a small booth behind the fountain, controls when the fountain shoots its water.

copyright (c) 2019 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.

8.31.2019

should you take a guided tour?

our guide for the Hill of Witches (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

Is going on a guided tour worth it? Now that we're back from our Windstar cruise around the Baltic Sea, I wanted to reflect on this question. Whether you're on a cruise — or touring a new destination by land — you always have the choice of exploring independently, joining a group tour, or hiring a private guide. Here are my thoughts about making that choice.

Independent exploration is typically the most cost-effective option open to you. Some tourists do extensive research in advance of their trip. It's always a good idea to consult a guide book or to google "ten best things to see in ..." Select the attractions that most interest you, map them on a google map, save the map to your iPhone, even copy notes to your map — or simply tear the relevant pages out of your guide book and bring them along.

But don't discount the value offered by a great group tour or private tour.

(1) Benefit from expert local knowledge. Do you know to avoid the Vatican Museum in the mornings (when the groups from the cruises are all there)? Do you know that the Louvre is closed every Tuesday? Do you know the attractions that are truly engaging and not just tourist traps?

(2) Bypass long lines. Catherine's Palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia is a phenomenal place to visit. So is the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. But both have LONG lines. You can easily waste three hours waiting on queue when visiting Catherine's Palace. With our private guide, we skipped the lines and got right in to the palace, ahead of all these people.

three hour wait to get into Catherine's Palace (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

(3) Get in before the thundering herds.
We arrived at the Hermitage a bit before 10 a.m. There were already long lines of tourists waiting for the doors to open at 10:30 a.m. Our guide got us in at 10 a.m., thirty minutes before the general public, thirty minutes before the hallways were choked with hoards of people. We saw this grand staircase shortly after we entered. 30 minutes later, these stairs would be full of people. (Pro tip: if you've purchased early admission, make the most of it by visiting the WC in advance!)


(4) Wander purposefully. Think about the last time you visited a famous museum. Did you know how to map out an ideal visit? Or did you find yourself wandering aimlessly, glancing at some of the paintings, but not really knowing what to look at or why it was significant? A great guide can transform a museum visit. I still remember our visit to the Prado Museum in 2009. In one efficient hour, our private guide (an art historian) gave us a comprehensive lesson on Goya and Velasquez and took us to all of their works (which happened to be scattered throughout the Prado in various galleries). Not a step wasted!

(5) Hear and enjoy the whole story. Look again at the picture at the very top of this article. This was taken during our group tour of the Hill of Witches near Klaipeda, Lithuania. Now, it's totally possible to go there on your own, take the round-trip path up and down the hill, and look at the elaborate carvings. And the visit would be free (except for the cost of a taxi or rental car to get there).

But we had the most incredible tour guide. She was such a gifted storyteller. The dozens of carved statues portrayed traditional stories from Lithuanian folklore. Our guide grew up hearing and loving those stories. She told those very stories every night to her own young daughter. She exuded so much delight when she told them to us, and her voice conveyed an authentic sense of drama. Our guide was utterly captivating and treated us to an unforgettable introduction to Lithuanian culture.


The expertise of the guide makes all the difference. Of the nine guides we had over the course of our cruise, this guide in Klaipeda was superlative. We had seven very good guides, one mediocre guide, and one guide (in Tallinn) who was totally crappy — bored with his job, boring to listen to, and lazy. He gave the group "free time" several times — totaling 75 minutes of a four hour tour. He called it "time to shop," but we could have done that on our own time, not his. It would have been better to explore Tallinn on our own than walking around with a crappy guide.

So how can you avoid guides who are crappy and get the best? Use a Virtuoso onsite who knows the best guides in their areas of expertise. And book early — the best guides are the first to be reserved!

copyright (c) 2019 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.

8.28.2019

what to do when you visit San Francisco

Victorian houses in San Francisco (c) 2019 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

One of my clients will be visiting San Francisco, so she asked for ideas on what to do on her free days. I wrote an email with links, and I'm repurposing that content here for my readers on Travel Horizons.

Alcatraz Island is a really worthwhile visit. You must get tickets in advance; spots on the ferry out to the island always sell out. The cell house audio tour is the highlight of your visit. You put on headphones and listen to a very well done, pre-recorded tour through the old federal prison.

San Francisco City Guides offers dozens of complimentary walking tours of the city. The program is sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library, and your hotel tax helps support this program. You will learn a lot about the history of the city — the Gold Rush, fires, and earthquakes — and get to know the neighborhood of your choice. See their entire set of offerings here, but I especially recommend the tour called Omni Hotel Walk. Happening on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m., it's marketed especially to Omni guests (but open to everyone), so you'll tend to be in a much smaller group.

SFMOMA, otherwise known as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, this very fine and newly expanded contemporary art museum is located right next to the St. Regis San Francisco.

de Young Museum, another very fine museum located in Golden Gate Park, has a diverse set of permanent exhibits encompassing art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas ... and usually a special exhibition as well. General Admission tickets also get you into the Legion of Honor museum the same day.

Golden Gate Park is the green heart of the Sunset neighborhood. Stretching out to the Pacific Coast, enjoy a stroll through Golden Gate Park after your visit to the de Young. The park offers a number of other attractions including the Golden Gate Park Aquarium, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the California Academy of Sciences. Or just bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the sun — or fog....

copyright (c) 2019 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.