Ten hot backpacker destinations

Though the backpacker scene feels more hipster than hippie these days, the same formula remains: young travelers plus a small budget plus a long trip. While individuals certainly differ, the stereotype of a budget traveler toting a bedraggled pack to cheap destinations is there for a reason.

So where are the kids congregating these days? Here are our top ten backpacker locations (in no particular order):

Thailand A long-time favorite, Thailand’s low costs, relative ease of travel, and scenic beaches are obvious draws. Add to those hill tribes, jungle and elephant trekking, and some awesome grub, and you have a nearly perfect combination – which is probably why the country also hosts a number of expats.

Amsterdam Need we say anything more? Laws are loose, and for those American kids who never had the chance to experiment, the freedom is heavenly. Oh, and there are sex shows.

Guatemala Travelers learning Spanish flock to Antigua, where language schools and home stays are offered in the picturesque colonial town. Jungles, volcanoes, lakes and Mayan ruins round out the offerings.

Goa “Buddha Lounge” music drifts across Palolem Beach, an impossibly cheap swoop of sand on India’s west coast. It’s easy to drop out for a while here, renting out some small, rickety beach hut and bobbing around in the warm sea.
Nepal “Backpacking” takes on a literal meaning (as does “getting high”) when you’re trekking across the Himalayas. Long on the backpacker circuit, Nepal’s appeal is in cheap prices and natural wonders.

Bali An Indonesian island of volcanoes, jungle, beaches and, thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert, 30-something divorcees…. The backpacker hotspot here is Ubud, a smallish town in the center of the island that is a center for dance, music, and arts.

Australia Though Australia seems to churn out backpackers like Orcs from Mordor, the country itself is a sweet spot for extended travels. Big enough to explore for years, wild enough to satiate nature lovers, and warm enough for beach and surf fanatics, Australia has a broad-range appeal. Plus, the language and the culture are familiar, making it a nice introduction to travel for newbies.

Argentina Good wine, and Italian influence, a vibrant capital city, and budget prices: what’s not to appeal to a backpacker? Whether it’s club-hopping in Buenos Aires or working on an organic farm in the countryside, this South American country appeals to a spectrum of budget travelers.

New Zealand Another country that nails it all: great surfing and countless other outdoor activities, friendly folks, and the Flight of the Conchords.

Greek Islands A haven of sun, sand, and souvlaki, the Greek Islands have always been a favorite. There’s ritzy Santorini, mountainous Crete, party-time Ios, and dozens more. Take an overnight ferry, make some new friends, and party your holiday away.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Rene Ehrhartdt]

17 great destinations for romance

Some say that romance is a lost art – but it’s not. It’s just hiding, waiting to be uncovered in some of the most beautiful places around the globe. Whether you are trying to show that special someone that they truly are special, making a proposal, or rekindling the flame you once had with your spouse, setting the stage is your first step to success. Whether you are searching for the perfect romantic spot close to home or halfway around the world, the following 17 destinations are sure to bring out the romantic in each of us.

Paris, France
Who could leave Paris off a list of romantic places? You simply can’t. Montmartre is the most romantic neighborhood in “the most romantic city in the world.” Begin your tour of this hilly district with a ride up the Montmartre funicular as it glides along on its heavenly ascent to the Basilica of Sacre-Cœur at the summit of the highest point in the city. From here a dazzling view of Paris unfolds before you. Amble slowly, hand in hand, and wind your way along romantic back alleys and cobblestone streets, taking in the magic of the artist’s corner of Place du Tertre, descending the stairs of Rue Foyatier. and concluding at 15 rue Lepic where Amelie Poulain immortalized romantic conjuring at Cafe des Deux Moulin.Rome, Italy
With more than 280 resplendent fountains, a “Rome-antic” tour of this city must undoubtedly center on a day of gastronomy. Enjoy a cafe latte near the Fountain of Triton followed by a tour of Palazzo Barberini. View the Barcaccia Fountain and make your way up (and down) the Spanish Steps for fantastic vistas of Rome and savour a calzone from an authentic Roman trattoria.

At Piazza Navona, view the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Fountain of the Moor followed by an alfresco dinner and soak up the sights and smells. A bewitching time to enjoy the Trevi Fountain is late at night when mystical illumination cast spells and shadows. Before the effects of a day filled with romance takes over drop in to Il Gelato di San Crispino, reported to be the best in Rome.

Florence, Italy

In E.M Forster’s novel “A Room with a View,” Lucy Honeychurch found romance (and the view) in the orange and rose-scented hills of Fiesole overlooking Florence. Grab a table and soak up local flavor as art and culture surrounds you. Book your own room with a view at Hotel degli Orafi.

London, England

Place the sights of London at you feet aboard the London Eye, the largest ferris wheel in Europe rising 443 majestic feet above regal London. Pop the question in a private capsule kitted out with a bottle of Pommery champagne and decadent truffles. The 30 minute rotation of the capsule allows plenty of time to overcome any objections.

San Francisco, California

The “City by the Bay” is as photogenic as Grace Kelly. There’s something almost transcendental about Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, Coit Tower, Alamo Square, and Lombard Street that naturally stirs up salacious appetite. We’ve been smitten for years and the affair hasn’t seemed to ebb. The bar on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel offers stunning, 360-degree panoramic views.

Venice, Italy
A gondola ride in Venice has a heavenly price tag, but is a memory to last forever. There is simply nothing quite as romantic as settling into a red velvet-cushioned gondola as your gondolier paddles slowly through quiet canals and under historic bridges as you drift back into the 16th and 17th centuries. A bottle of Valpolicella beforehand at the Piazza San Marco and your gondolier could sound like Pavarotti.

Budapest, Hungary
Once considered the Paris of Central Europe, Budapest offers a heady blend of Eastern and Western European culture. Stroll over the Danube at Chain Bridge and take the funicular up to the Gothic Quarter with resplendent views over the city. Revel in centuries-old architecture and reasonably priced, hearty food and wine. Budapest is the only large city in the world with 118 natural thermal springs supplying nearly 20 million gallons of healing water every day. One of the most impressive is Gellert Spa.

Bruges, Belgium

Think Venice without the crowds. Medieval Bruges abounds with Gothic churches, 17th-century mansions, sparkling canals and flower markets. Most other European cities you’re looked at with disdain for eating on the street. Bruges responds with pedestrian-friendly pommes frites (fries in the US), stuffed into a paper cone, dusted with salt and slathered with mayonnaise. Go to the Louvre for art. Go to Bruges for chocolate. Consider the possibilities at the town’s official website.

San Diego, California
Can’t splurge on a romantic weekend in Paris? Budget-conscious Americans can retreat to a “staycation” in La Jolla, an affluent suburb of San Diego. San Diego can be your affordable base to tour this romantic getaway blessed with 366 days of warm sunshine, trendy boutiques, swanky restaurants and an active arts and cultural community. Toss in a few sumptous stretches of beach, ranging from quiet coves to heady surf, and you have a place that most closely resembles the French or Italian Riviera. Accommodation ranges from a Best Western to the opulent La Valencia, known as La Vie. La Dolce Vita, stateside.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
The South American capital of Buenos Aires breathes sensuality. Voyeuristic spectators can observe on city streets as couples maneuver between emotions of love and hate, contempt and passion, repulsion and desire, all within a 3 minute dance known as tango. Ditch the marriage counselor back home and take lessons at La Catedral in the microcentro.

— The above was written by BriBuenosAires, Seed contributor



Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Nestled amongst the Leeward group of the Society Islands of French Polynesia in the South Pacific, Bora Bora is still somewhat of a hidden gem. Many have heard of it, but few have actually experienced its beauty. The island itself is surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef and is home to an extinct volcano. The lagoon holds some of the most truly breathtaking water you will ever see.

With average water temperatures in the 80’s year around, there is never a lack of water activities available for couples to partake in. For the more adventurous at heart, take a trip inland to the massive peaks of Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu. Bora Bora may take a little longer to get to, but if you are looking for a not so well trodden path to romance, then it is well worth the trip.


San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan is the second oldest European-settled city in the Americas, giving it a rich cultural and archaeological history. With average daily temperatures in the 80’s all year around, the weather is perfect for strolling downtown along the old streets that are covered in cobblestones or lounging on the white sandy beach with the ocean breeze blowing by.

San Juan has somehow managed to blend a modern metropolitan city with the antiquities of the past in a way that offers something for everyone. The pace is slow in keeping with its Latin roots, but vibrant nonetheless. The island of Puerto Rico is only 100 miles wide and 40 miles across making day trips to the tropical rainforests that cover the interior or the less crowded beaches of Ponce an easy drive. Beautiful beaches, stunning history and warm tropical nights filled with the sounds of Latin music – a definite recipe for romance.

Savannah, Georgia
Savannah is for the hopeless romantic. Take a step back in time to an era where romance was still alive and well. Savannah sits along the Savannah River and is only about 20 minutes from the Atlantic. Some of America’s most treasured eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture can be found in Savannah’s large historic districts.

With warm summers and cool winters, the weather in Savannah is usually agreeable. It’s almost impossible to walk down the streets of old Savannah and not envision ladies in antebellum gowns riding alongside their beau in a horse-drawn carriage. If old fashioned romance is what you are looking for, then Savannah is your city.

Bali, Indonesia
The island paradise of Bali covers about 2,000 square miles and is located at the westernmost tip of the Lesser Sunda Islands. With a history that dates back to at least 2000 B.C., the Balinese people are an interesting mix of Chinese, Arab and Indian. While you can find modern conveniences on Bali, you may also encounter pockets of native people that are forbidden to have contact with outsiders. If seclusion and privacy are your ingredients for romance, then Bali is the spot for you.

With temperatures in the 80’s year around, you will definitely want to find your own slice of beach paradise while you are there. Bali has gorgeous white sand over much of its beaches, but if you want to see something unusual, check out the black sand found on the west coast. Bali is one of the few places left where you can still find a secluded little cove along the beach to make your own little romantic hideaway for the day.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta can be found along the Pacific Coast of Mexico, in some of the most crystal clear water on the planet. The city itself somehow manages to blend modern restaurants and shops with centuries old architecture and culture. With perfect weather year around and breathtaking sunsets daily, you are bound to feel romance in the air here.

While you will find American tourists in Puerto Vallarta, you will find a more sophisticated class of tourists – this is not Cancun’s party central. Just a short drive to the north or south and you will find lovely little towns for shopping or more private walks along the beach. Mayan ruins and tropical rainforest canopy trips are also perfect day trips from Puerto Vallarta. Grab a margarita, pull up a rock and watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.

New Orleans, Louisiana
The Big Easy. If you like music, culture or people then this is the romantic city for you. The French Quarter in New Orleans is a world unto itself. Definitely skip Mardi Gras, but any other time of the year it feels as though you have been transported to another time and place where music and love are perpetually in the air. The people (or more appropriately – characters) that you will encounter in the French Quarter just seem to exude fun, happiness and romance. If you want to spend some time alone, follow the ocean along Interstate 10 for a day trip and soak up some of the most beautiful scenery the south has to offer. If you aren’t in love when you get to New Orleans, you will be when you leave.

Santorini, Greek Islands
Imagine watching a breathtaking sunset from your Santorini villa perched on the side of a volcano overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It’s like being inside a Hallmark card. The views are like nothing found elsewhere on the planet. Black sand beaches cover most of the island but a gorgeous and unique red sand beach can also be found on Santorini. If you are feeling adventurous, there a number of islands close by, all within an easy day trip and just waiting to be explored. Romance seems to be carried on the wind in the Mediterranean and Santorini is a perfect example

— The above was written by Leigia Rosales, Seed contributor

Related:
* The 25 greatest cities in the world for drinking wine
* The 20 greatest cities in the world for foodies
* 20 great destinations for shopping
* 35 fantastic U.S. beaches for summer

Ten Great Cities for Photography

Some cities just draw you in, beckoning you to capture their souls on camera. There are billions of places in the world where photo ops abound — The Pyramids, Rome, London, and The Great Wall of China are a few of the most famous examples.

Here are ten less common places where magnificent scenery, people, and everyday life are like no other — and can lead to some terrific travel photography.

Budapest, Hungary

Quite simply, Budapest has the most exquisite architecture. The detail of the buildings is like no other, especially at dusk — they all seem to change color with the succession of each frame.

Further, the winding River Danube dividing the city is a spectacular sight, with its bridges spaced at precise intervals.

Fira, Santorini Islands, Greece
Everyone has seen images of Santorini, one of the famed Greek Islands, but somehow when it’s captured through your own lens, it speaks to you of ancient time and tradition, of a different culture that you have only read about in history books.

Views of the volcano and spectacular sunsets in Fira, Santorini’s capital city, seem surreal. The people and their faces, the blue sky touching the blue water — both blue, yet somehow distinct — and the white stucco houses and churches, restaurants and tavernas are images that bring a serenity to your heart and a love for all things Greek!

Tokyo, Japan
Alive and bustling around the clock, people-watching in Tokyo is like no other place on earth. The vibrancy of this 24-hour city — the neon signs and jumbo-trons in Shibuya, the color, the streets — you don’t know where to look first.

Divided into sections called wards, each section has its own allure. Despite the differences among the wards, though, you can easily sense the fast pace of this city in its photos.

San Francisco, California, USA
Synonymous with diverse culture, ocean scenery, and unusual topography, this San Francisco is a photographer’s best friend. The streets winding through here — from exclusive Nob Hill, to Chinatown, from Fisherman’s Wharf, to the Embarcadero, from Haight Ashbury, to the Mission District — provide the contrasts of life in this hilly town.

Moreover, the fantastic views of the San Francisco and Bay Bridges make for a fantastic portfolio of visual memory. Even the weather is photogenic — with it’s rolling fog enveloping the bridges and hovering close to the ocean.

%Gallery-15480%

Paris, France
No list would be complete without mentioning Paris, for obvious reasons. Despite having seen thousands of images of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, each one still makes me gasp just a little. Moreover, taking my own photographs of the sights of Paris, both day and night, make me smile.

This sophisticated City of Lights has “that Wow Factor.” Snapshots of Moulin Rouge, Sacre Coeur, The Louvre with it’s glass pyramid, or sitting on a park bench in the Jardin des Tuileries capturing the heart of the French people, all display such a span of eras in France — new versus old. The meandering Seine River, with boats lazily drifting by, reflect a relaxing calm. The allure of this city is that even if you have never visited, you can identify it unmistakably through photos.

%Gallery-83462%

Nazare, Portugal
This seaside village, north of Lisbon, is an out-of-the-way, modest, fishing village. The people sitting on their stone sidewalks, playing musical instruments, or selling fruits and nuts under colorful umbrellas, have that intriguing look from another time. Their happy and smiling faces will fill your lens with joyful simplicity. Even the food is delightful to photograph with it’s authentic ethnicity, caught right at the ocean’s edge and cooked to perfection.

One of the other things you may be drawn to in Nazare are the old doors and doorways, brightly colored and uniquely shaped and sized. A collection of those door photos is one of my prized possessions, since it always conjures memories of my visit.

Obidos, Portugal
This l3th century Portuguese town, built within a castle, is a step back in time. Nowhere else I’ve seen can you zoom back in time that far while surfing the Net in the local cafe.

Capturing people at work here — serious and intense — in Obidos was my favorite, not to mention that they still live in colorful village apartments above their stone shops with clay roofs, surrounded by olive trees and churches. It’s here in this picturesque village that I’ve captured countless photos of the intricate stone and exquisite tile work for which the Portuguese are famous.

Lucca, Italy
Calling all food and wine lovers! Lucca, a city in central Italy, beckons you. Located on a wall with an amazing array of churches, this village waits to be viewed and appreciated.

In Lucca, you can learn to cook and eat Italian food, bike, sightsee and capture the most unforgettable photos of authentic Italian life. Nothing is more beautiful here than pictures of food, because in Italy, food is an art!

Hollywood, California, USA
Hooray for Hollywood! Quintessential Tinseltown! This is where star-gazing in every form is a pastime. Celebrities abound, and glitz and glamor is everywhere. All the landmarks, from Hollywood and Vine, to Sunset Boulevard, to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, seem surreal and indulgent.

Everyone’s seen images of Santorini, but when it’s captured through your lens, it speaks of time and tradition, of a culture you’ve only read about in history books.

Casts of characters (literally and figuratively) line the streets, sometimes in the flesh and sometimes in the form of the Walk of Fame Stars. It’s everywhere, waiting for the eye of the lens. be sure to keep your camera firmly in hand, ready for that celebrity sighting.

Road Town, Tortola, BVI
Down into the Caribbean Sea we go to capture a special kind of tranquility in photography. The small Island of Tortola, BVI, (capital city: Road Town) accessible by a ferry, entices you right at the dock.

The houses are brightly painted in Caribbean blues and greens, with splashes of pinks and corals. There’s nothing like a photo of that gorgeous aqua clear-to-the-bottom water! Further, sunsets on Cane Garden Bay are tranquil purples, golds and blues. Also, the slower pace is evident and amazingly (and easily) conveyed through a lens.

Hundreds of thousands of places around the world are worthy of being photographed, but these wonderful places are each a treasure trove to be captured and remembered.

%Gallery-7928%


Want more? Don’t forget to check out Gadling’s series, “Through The Gadling Lens,” which explains how to get the most out of your travel photos.

Cruising the Greek Isles on the MSC Musica: Best trip 2009

I never saw myself as a cruise ship sort of traveler until MSC Musica made me a changed woman.

I’m the person who lived for two years in N’Jowara, The Gambia in a room at the back of an empty shop house without running water, window panes or electricity. Until my MSC Musica cruise, my extended boat travel was five days on the Niger River in Mali, first perched on feed sacks in a ramshackle wooden cargo boat before switching to a small boat that was poled by a man and a boy. By the time I set foot on dry land in Timbuktu, I thought of changing my name to Huck Finn.

Back in February, I wrote a post on cruise ship deals. By the end of the post, I thought “If this is such a deal, why aren’t I going?” Since one of my mom’s lifelong dreams has been to go to Greece, I put the two ideas together and searched out a cruise. The Musica, one of the ships in the MSC cruise lines fleet, seemed perfect. After one day into the cruise, I knew I picked right .

Unfortunately, my mom had had to pull out of the cruise 10 days before the ship was to depart. Fortunately, my teenage daughter was able to switch in for my mom for a $100 charge to change the ticket.

Why MSC Cruise Lines? When picking a cruise ship, know yourself and what kind of vacation you’re after. MSC is geared towards multi-generational travel. If you’re a single person looking for love, this isn’t it. If kids make you shudder, look elsewhere.

I picked this company because kids 17 and under travel for free if traveling with an adult. One kid per adult. This gave me the idea of taking my seven year old son with us. Originally, my teenage daughter hadn’t wanted to go.

Also, MSC was offering half-price deals. We were able to get a ocean view superior room with a balcony for about $1,600 per person for the 7-day cruise. If I had planned to go without my mom, I would have gone for the inside room for $999 a person.

Other pluses were the ship’s activities–most importantly, Kids Club. The ship also has an exercise room, two swimming pools, a hot tub, various food options and activities geared for people of all ages. There is a stage show each night and the shore excursions promised a wide variety of options from adventure to cultural to historical.

Because MSC is an Italian cruise line, the feel is European. This was a way to travel to Greece with an Italian twist. That also had a big role in my decision to go with this company.

With that said, if you get irritated by hearing announcements in five different languages you might get irritated. Our shore excursions were in English and sometimes in another language. When the guide was speaking in the other language, I was able to let what he or she said in English resonate. I liked this.

Food and Drinks: There were two dining options covered by the cost of the cruise. Two restaurants offered sit down meals where you ordered off the menu and one restaurant was strictly buffet. Ah, the buffet. Located on the top floor of the ship with expansive plate glass windows, the buffet called to us for breakfast and lunch. We also took fruit, yogurt, salami, cheese and bread with us from the buffet so would have a snack on our shore excursions.

During breakfast coffee and juice were included.

For dinner, we were assigned to a table at one of the dining rooms. Because there were only three of us, we were assigned to a table with two American women who were living in Vienna for the fall. Meeting up with them each evening was terrific. They seemed to enjoy us as well.

Dinner was a five-course meal of various options, My son ordered off the adult menu after deciding that the kid’s menu was too normal . At 7, he’s an adventurous eater. The food had a European bent and, in my opinion, was splendid. As a seafood fan, I had my fill. I did order one glass of wine with each meal. The $5 price was fair.

At 4 p.m. each day there was a high tea sort of offering with desserts, coffee and tea. This was also included in the set price, as was the midnight buffet. I only went to that once. On the 2nd to last night, there were ice sculptures and fruit and vegetables that had been carved into animals and flowers.

Along with the included food options, there were other specialty restaurants, but since those cost money, forget that.

I ordered one glass of wine from one of the ship’s bars on a night that I went dancing.

Every day there was a specialty mixed drink, specialty coffee with alcohol and an ice-cream treat concoction, but those cost money too. No thanks.

Before we boarded the ship in Venice, I purchased a water package and a soda package. The water package provided us with two large bottles of water each day and the soda package gave my son and daughter a soda with their dinner. We used one bottle of water at dinner and took one bottle of water with us on our shore excursion. Buying the packages made beverages less expensive. There was a wine package, but since there was only me I figured my kids didn’t need a drunk mom to take care of.

We filled other water bottles with water at breakfast and bought other water on shore.

What did we do on the ship?

I took in the free yoga lessons, stretching classes, dance classes and arts and crafts activities that were offered at various times during the day on the ship’s deck. I also worked out three times in the workout room.

Each night we went to the show that was a mix of dance, singing, acrobatic and magic acts.

My son was thrilled with Kids Club. The hours were extensive. If I had wanted to, I could have left him there when my daughter and I went on shore excursions. Taking him on shore excursions, however, was one of my trip highlights, so he came with us. He did go to the shows at night with the Kids Club gang and stayed at Kids Club doing organized activities each night until 11:00.

One bonus of Kids Club was its international flavor. My son was one of the few kids who spoke English and was the only American. This was something he enjoyed, but he is the type who will talk with anybody. Bruno and Andrea, the two adults in change of his age group were absolutely superb and offered a wide range of activities to help kids feel special and a part of the group.

My daughter was not interested in the teen activities, but was not bored. She read, hung out with me or her brother, and spent time by the pool.

Other teens I met loved the teen activities that tended to be teen driven. Games, contests, dancing–that sort of thing, were offered daily.

I did not get a massage, a facial or pay for other classes that were offered. The prices seemed fair, but I splurged on shore excursions for the three of us.

Shore excursions and why the ship Musica? In the summer, the Musica is used for the Greek Islands in the Sun route. Starting in Venice, it makes port calls at Bari, Katakolon, Santorini, Mykonos, Piraeus/Athens, Corfu, Dubrovnik and then back to Venice.

At each stop we went on an organized shore excursion. In general, shore excursions made our travel experience more meaningful. They weren’t cheap but were well worth the money we paid for them. The only excursion I thought we could have done without was the one in Athens.

From Piraeus, the port town that’s connected to Athens, taxi drivers park right outside the terminal so its possible to hire one to take you everywhere that the excursion wemt and more. Our tour was fine, but there are places I would have liked to see.

Also, the Acropolis was so crowded that we kept losing our tour guide. On the other hand, the tour guide pointed out highlights near our ship like a traditional market and a couple of churches. After our tour was over, I walked around for two hours by myself. If I hadn’t been on the tour, I would have missed them.

Here’s an Acropolis tip. Have your kids wear something red so you can pick them out from a crowd.

On the Katakolon excursion, go to Olympia and include the museum. It’s not much more money and makes the tour more meaningful.

On Santorini, we went to the black sand beach and hung out. Renting an umbrella with chairs cost $5 for the day. We took the cable car down from the town to the boat shuttles that took us back to the ship. Don’t walk along the path. Even though walking is free, the donkeys make a mess of the trail. I heard that from several people. Be warned, particularly if you like your shoes.

The Mykonos stop did not involve a tour. We ate dinner and shopped. Man, I loved this place. Look for items made from olive wood. We also started buying soap for everyone we could think of. By the end of our trip, you’d think our friends and family had a hygiene problem. I loved the soap. Soap packs easily.

At Corfu, our tour took us through the old city and then to the bay of Paleokastritza and up to a monastery. We hopped out at the beach where we took the paddle boat ride before rejoining our tour bus. From this bay you can see the small island that is supposed to be Odysseus’ ship that Poseidon turned into a rock. My daughter saw it first and was thrilled.

Dubrovnik is a gorgeous, gorgeous city that has taken care of its historical architecture. After we took the tour that included the maritime museum and the aquarium, we returned to the 2nd oldest synagogue in Europe, the oldest pharmacy in Europe and went to a gallery that pays tribute to the world’s conflicts through photographs in order to promote peace. Before we left, we had time to walk around the top of the old city walls.

Why excursions are worth the money:

The tour guides provided background history and information that we would not have found out otherwise. As we drove in the tour bus, there was a running commentary of what we were passing.

We were guaranteed we would not get lost and miss the ship. Organized tours watch your back. This lowered my stress level to zero.

Tours were a chance for us to meet and interact with other people. This made the cruise more engaging and friendly.

Because we picked tours that most interested us, we were able to gear the trip towards what we wanted to experience without wasting time at each port as we attempted to find our way.

The variety in the tour offerings made each of our days different than the rest. By the time we arrived back in Venice, I felt we had a rich overview of Greece and knew of places where I would like to return–Mykonos is number 1. Our Bari and Dubrovnik stops were splendid as well. We didn’t stay in Bari, but headed out though the rural landscape to the Crystal Caves.

Because we were on a tour, my children and I were on equal footing. I didn’t have to be in charge to get us anywhere, therefore I could just enjoy myself. Whining by any of us was a minimum.

Tips for picking shore excursions:

Let your kids pick the tours. While I was buying the water and soda packages, I let my kids go through the various tours to pick out what they wanted. I did ask them to pick a variety and not the most expensive ones. Their choices were perfect. My suggestion when picking excursions is to plan a mix where it’s not all beach and not all history. Throw some activity into the mix. On Corfu, we rented paddle boats for an hour.

Do not skimp on excursions. Each time we went to shore, I thought, we’re not going on this trip again, and I’m not missing the money I spent.

Instead, I have memories that reminds me every day at how wonderful my kids are. Sappy sounding, maybe. But, I’m telling you; this trip was worth every penny.

Bribe if you have to: I got my son to agree to walking around the top of the wall of the old city in Dubrovnik by promising to buy him something. I bought him a ceramic fish that looked like one of the fish in the aquarium we visited there. For $6, I got a bargain.

Tips in general for enjoying the cruise: Be open to experiences and people. The more easily you talk with people, the more fun you will have. Eventually, I found out that I knew or at least recognized a lot of people because I was going to classes and taking in activities.

Besides shore excursions and the glasses of wine and the beverage packages, the only other thing I bought was the professional picture taken of us on the way to dinner one night. There’s a really hokey sunset backdrop, but the three of us looked better than usual. I bought the picture for my mom. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have been on this trip.

Take time out for Venice: When booking our flights, I arranged them so we would have two nights in Venice at each end of the cruise. I wanted to give us enough time for a missed flight connection if we had bad luck, get over some jet lag and take advantage of Venice. This also allowed for travel on our own to satisfy the need for unplanned adventure at our own pace.

We stayed the first two nights at the Antico Doge, the most elegant place I’ve stayed in my life–it used to be a palace. For the two nights after our cruise we stayed at the Hotel Abbazia, a former abbey which is an excellent location near the train station, the water taxis and the bus station. Both places served a wonderful breakfast.

If you do have time in Venice, go to the Jewish Ghetto. This is the first ghetto in the world and is being revitalized by the Jewish community who live around Venice. Originally, this is where the city’s foundries were located.

Look for the tribute to the people who died in the Holocaust on one of the plaza walls. You’ll notice it because of the barbed wire. There is also a kosher restaurant that is superb. The owners just opened a guest house next door. The restaurant is located on the plaza.

Through the Gadling Lens: adding some oomph to your landscape shots

I was recently talking to a friend of mine, and he was lamenting the fact that his landscape photographs seemed a bit “boring.” “I look at all these other landscapes in the Gadling flickr pool,” he said, “and they’re so much more exciting than mine. What can I do to make my shots more compelling?”

To be honest, of all my photography, I struggle with making my landscapes interesting more than any other — shooting people is easy, I think. It’s really good scenery that’s difficult. And so I thought I’d go through some of the amazing landscape photographs in our Flickr pool, and point out some of their aspects that make them compelling. With some luck, some of the observations will help catapult us all into become the Ansel Adams-quality photographers we all can be.
1. Shoot with a relatively wide angle lens.

First things first: make sure that you’re using the right lens. As you probably remember, we discussed the various types of lens for various types of photography before — and the upshot is that if you’re shooting a landscape, you need a lens with a smaller focal length, rather than one with a larger focal length. For most landscape photography, I would choose a lens of, say 50mm or less. If you choose one much larger — say 100 mm — you’ll likely be disappointed how much of the scenery the lens crops out of the resulting image (although that type of lens is fabulous for portrait photography).

2. Consider focusing on the foreground.

Like many of you, I’m sure, when I’m taking a photograph of a landscape, I tend to focus on the horizon, figuring that it makes the most sense: “looking out there,” after all, tends to be what we do when we take in beautiful scenery.

However.

In looking through the Gadling photo pool, I’ve noticed that there are some photographers who, when taking their amazing shots, focus instead on the foreground, rather than the horizon. And as I think about it, this seems completely logical: after all, when we look out at a vista, our eyes naturally see all of the details closer to us, and what’s farther away isn’t as detailed. Why didn’t I think of this?

The following are some great examples of what I mean:

The two photographs, above, were shared by arex and shot in the San Francisco Bay area (as is likely obvious by the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in the background of the second image). Notice how, in addition to using a wide angle lens, arex focused on the details in the foreground: the foam of the advancing wave in the first picture, and the bubbles of the retreating wave in the second? By focusing in the foreground, arex added a wonderful depth to the image, which conveys how beautifully vast the vista was. If, instead, arex had focused on the horizon, I don’t think the image would’ve been nearly as impactful.

3. Add people to the foreground, to help emphasize scale.

Sometimes, when you take a shot of a beautiful vista, it can be difficult to really communicate how vast the scenery is, or how massive the mountain, or how expansive the ocean. One great way to express the impressive nature of your shot is to place someone in the foreground for the purpose of scale.

Here’s what I mean:

See how the figures in the foregrounds of each of the images shared by jlaceda and Buck Forester, above, show the scale of the scenery behind them? I love how huge the view looks behind the person in the first image, and I really love how the figure in the second image has his back to the camera, and indicates toward the view: this sort of stance helps direct your focus, rather than compete with your attention as it would have had he faced forward. Beautiful work, both.

4. Consider using a novelty lens.

Novelty lenses can be considered more of an extravagance than a necessity; however, they can add wonderful dimension to a landscape shop. I’m a fan of the Lensbaby, a series of lenses designed for SLR cameras that can help you “selectively focus” on certain aspects of your image, leaving the remaining images deliciously out-of-focus. Here’s are a couple of great examples:

Both of the above images were shot and shared by ashcrowe, using a Lensbaby lens. Notice how there is a portion of each image that is in sharp focus (known as the “sweet spot”), while the rest of the surrounding portions of the image increasingly blur? The result is a lovely nostalgic effect, which plays beautifully to the antique subjects of the photographs, and makes for a compelling landscape photograph. Great work.

4. And finally, don’t underestimate the power of Photoshop.

Or, for that matter, any post-camera processing software. I’ve discussed before how I believe that post-camera processing is a tool for conveying exactly what the photographer was experiencing at the time of the shot, and I really believe that this sentiment is never more true as in the realm of landscape photography. In fact, when it comes to landscapes, I’m far more likely to really go to town in using photoshop, because it helps convey exactly the type of mood I was in, or the emotions I was feeling at the time of the shot. And the following are wonderful examples of exactly what I’m talking about:

The really fabulous shot shared by crafterm in Tasmania, Australia is made only more stunning by his processing treatment post-camera. The boat sitting on the still water is quite old, and as crafterm says, “I’m sure it could tell quite a few stories judging its age and use.” He further makes his point by treating the photograph in a sepia tone — as a viewer, the image looks very vintage and classic, as well.

And finally, I really love the image above shared by B
ryn Tassell
of the coastline on Vancouver Island. The photoshop treatment makes the entire scene other-worldly, not to mention conveys the absolute stillness of the water at the time of sunset. An absolutely amazing image.

Hopefully you find the handful of tips above useful in keeping at the back of your mind next time you’re out on your intrepid travels, and are capturing images of the stunning scenery. If you have any additional tips or images to share, please do so in the comments below. And as always, if you have any questions, feel free to send them directly to me at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom. I’m always happy to answer them here on Through the Gadling Lens.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more, click here.