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Monday, December 28, 2009

Resolution for 2010: Take a Bike Tour in Europe!

If you’re both serious and organized enough about self-improvement to be among those now busy listing their goals for the coming year, you might be thinking about such terminally boring objectives as losing weight, quitting smoking, embarking on a new career or finding any career, for that matter. But for cyclists with a taste for different cultures and cuisines, there’s no better resolution than taking a European bike tour in 2010.


For fully immersing yourself in a foreign country’s sights, sounds, scents and rhythms, a bicycle seat provides an ideal vantage point. With no glass or steel shielding you from sprawling vineyards and bucolic pastures, you’ll see Europe’s sights up close and personal. While some challenging climbing may be required to see majestic castles and forts perched atop islands or steep hills, you’ll be rewarded with local color like the donkey trains and families of gliding swans I encountered serendipitously on my 2009 tours in Holland and Greece.



While American firms like Backroads and Vermont Bicycling Touring specialize in making all arrangements for clients, their fees are often considerably more than what European firms charge. Even considering the weak dollar, an 8-day bike-barge tour in Holland booked through BikeToursDirect, a Tennessee-based firm that represents more than 40 European tour operators, runs about a third the cost of a similar VBT tour. The same is true of a 6-day cycling tour through Spain: roughly $4,000 for a Backroads tour vs. less than $1,800 for a tour arranged through BikeToursDirect.



Learn more about European tour options and booking at http://weuropetravel.suite101.com/article.cfm/how_to_book_a_european_bike_tour.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Amsterdam Must-See Attractions

I'm now proud to be a contributing writer for Suite 101.com, an online publication fueled by Google AdSense. I'll be sharing information about my travels abroad, as well as my passion for cycling, writing and Dutch culture in my articles on this site.

I invite you to check out and comment on my first two Suite 101.com stories on Dam Square, the social and historical heart of Amsterdam, and Vondelpark, a 120-acre urban oasis that softens the energy of the Netherlands' capital city. Find them at http://netherlands-travel.suite101.com/article.cfm/dam_square_heart_of_amsterdam and http://netherlands-travel.suite101.com/article.cfm/vondelpark_a_breath_of_fresh_air_in_amsterdam.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Final Top Tips (#10-13) for Solo Adventure Travel

If you've been following my posts on solo adventure travel, you may be experiencing a bit of wanderlust. Not to worry; a cure's as close as your nearest keyboard—one of your best tools for researching and planning an independent journey. Whether it's your first foray outside the world of organized tours or just another venture into the unknown, a trip embarked on without the help of travel professionals is guaranteed to give you a new sense of power, freedom and wonder.

It's a big world out there. To help you explore it, here are the final tips for solo adventure travel from my baker's dozen. Access all 13 in a picture-packed document from a link at http://wordgeisha.com/WGblog2008.html.

10. Break out of your comfort zone. When visiting a foreign country, things won’t be as they are at home. You may dine at midnight in Spain, hand-pick dinner from the kitchen in Greece and eat with your hands in Morocco. You’ll drive on the left-hand side of the road in London and forgo your bottomless cup of coffee in most European cities. By adapting to local tastes and customs and partaking of native specialties, you’ll enjoy the best quality and service for the lowest price while having the richest experience possible.

11. Be a citizen of the world. If you don’t like something, figure out how you can accept it. If you’re not enjoying a place, learn more about it so you can enjoy it to a greater degree. Remember that every culture and place has something unique to offer—something that will broaden your perspective and possibly give you something to weave into your own character and world view. Optimize your travel experience by stepping outside your ethnocentric cultural bubble and opening your mind.

12. Don’t be an ugly American! Europeans perceive Americans to be rich, rude, loud, naive and sometimes unrefined. Don’t give them any more ammunition than they already have: lower your voice and be respectful of cultural differences. Above all, be humbled by the fact that while millions of Europeans might be curious about America and alternatively amused and worried about Yankee ways, few would trade passports with you.

13. Bring your most extroverted self. You’ll meet more people and have more fun if you open up to folks you meet. Look for people you can connect with in hotels, hostels, coffeeshops, restaurants, bars, museums, tourist attractions, walking tours and anywhere else you find yourself in a foreign city. Opportunities abound when you’re waiting in line for breakfast, tickets and any attraction worth viewing. Be open and open minded in your communication. If excitement is waning on your trip, stir some up by talking to the people you encounter on your journey and making your own fun!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Top Tips for Adventure/Budget Travel, #7-9

If you've followed my first six tips for solo budget travel, you can probably guess that I am addicted to creative adventure. For those of you thinking about or planning one of your own, here are the next three tips out of my top 13.

To access my entire photo-filled tip list, I invite you to visit my website at http://wordgeisha.com/WGblog2008.html. And now, tips #7-9:

7. Make the most of your budget. You can visit most major European cities for under $100/day per person. In many ways, the less you spend, the closer you get to the local culture and the farther you escape from your own. By living as locals do, you’ll have more opportunities to see authentic cultural differences and gain perspective about the ways things are done in a foreign place than you would on a big, organized tour. Rather than viewing a limited budget as a restriction, see it as an enticement into local markets, bistros, dive bars and front seats at street shows in world-class cities.


8. Relish the joys of solo travel. Independent travel allows you to custom-tailor your trip to your pace and interests. You can go where you want when you want. To maximize those freedoms, do your research and be creative with your itinerary. Put yourself in places where you can meet and communicate with locals rather than relying on service rendered with purchased smiles. If you allow yourself to be herded around like a school child to establishments offering plain-vanilla experiences to travelers and financial kickbacks to tour companies, you’ll diminish your chance to absorb cultural differences—presumably an important reason you’re traveling in the first place. By investing yourself fully, meeting people along the way, you’ll have a chance to see how other people live, think and look at the world.

9. Be a cultural chameleon. Forget McDonald’s, Burger King and Starbucks! Leave Holiday Inn and Ramada at home! Travel is a cultural Pandora’s box rife with new culinary and recreational experiences; to fully appreciate these, eschew American-style hotels and restaurants and patronize establishments that reflect the culture you’re visiting. Drink Guinness in Ireland, red wine in France, raki in Turkey and ouzo in Greece. Eat crêpes in Paris, gelato in Florence, herring in Amsterdam, octopus in Rhodes and tapas in Madrid. Wherever you go, look for places that cater to locals rather than corporate institutions. By sleeping, eating and playing like a temporary resident rather than a tourist, you’ll maximize your travel experiences.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Top Tips for Adventure/Budget Travel, #4-6

With my next three tips for independent adventure/budget travel, I hope to inspire singles and couples to venture out on their own to exotic ports, without the safety and structure of an organized tour.

While this type of travel is a little more work, considering all the internet research and booking it involves, its rewards include a more intimate glimpse into a foreign culture than those giant floating cities offer. Travel through a foreign country on a cruise or American-style tour and the most up-close-and-personal view of a culture you're likely to get is via a random interaction with a clerk or waiter. Go it on your own and you'll be interacting with foreigners in a much more consistent and intimate way.

After you've tried it, my guess is that you'll agree with me: there's no better way to discover a foreign destination at your own pace, according to your own interests, than through independent travel. And with that I give you tips #4-6 of my top 13.

4. Spend your time where your dollar goes farthest. For the nightly cost of a standard room in London, you may be able to stay in a Turkish palace for a week. In Maramis, a nice room with wireless internet access and a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean cost me just 25 Turkish lira (about $17, including breakfast)—less than a third of what I paid for similar digs in Barcelona, London, Madrid and Paris.

There’s a side benefit to visiting places where your dollar stretches farthest: in cheaper countries where culture shock is greatest, e.g. Turkey, you can often find the most interesting gifts and memorabilia. If you have ample time, you can also save money by staying slightly outside of city centers. This makes especially good sense in places like Paris and London, where public transportation is so good, it's easy to get wherever you're going as long as you're near a Metro or Tube stop

5. Scope out FREE stuff. Take advantage of programs and volunteer opportunities that offer affordable and even free vacations, e.g. VaughanTown in Spain (www.vaughantown.com), through which any marginally gregarious and culturally inquisitive native English speaker can enjoy a FREE week-long vacation in four-star accommodations, all meals and wine included, just for gabbing with Spaniards (you pop for airfare). If you have skills to trade, try negotiating a deal with establishments in places you want to visit.

For fun, check out such free activities as the three-hour walking excursions offered by Sandeman’s newEurope in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Paris, Madrid and Jerusalem. In such cities as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid and Paris, some of the world’s best talent performs on streets and in public transport stations. Enjoy the free shows and don’t forget to leave a generous tip if the performers are good; they make an honest living this way!

6. Be creative with accommodations. In many foreign places, there are many alternatives to big, expensive American-style hotels. These include small pensions where you’re likely to get a good dose of local culture for a price well below what you’d pay at a Hilton. Universities, nunneries and hostels like the ones I stayed at in Dublin and Chicago provide other good accommodation alternatives; most are open to people of all ages at prices that are a fraction of any hotel room rate. Staying at these places puts a kitchen at your disposal, as well as the opportunity to meet travelers from around the world. There’s also www.couchsurfing.com through which you can connect with hosts offering FREE accommodations and priceless cultural insight.

If you can't wait for future posts, you can access my baker's dozen of tips through a link at http://wordgeisha.com/WGblog2008.html. If you have some of your own, please share so we can establish a dialogue about adventure/budget travel. Stay tuned for more and please add your own tips with a comment!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Top Tips for Adventure/Budget Travel, #1-3

Having spent nearly half of the past two years abroad, on trips to Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Turkey and my beloved Holland, I've picked up a few tips for independent adventure/budget travel. This is travel that doesn't involve travel agents, package deals or organized tours, on which all decisions are made by you. It's the kind of travel that makes me feel alive and creative; I hope you'll share my passion for it!

On all my recent journeys, I've traveled solo, but was rarely alone unless I wanted to be. My best experiences have been in Amsterdam, but that is probably because I love everything about the place and what makes it tick. What's your favorite city and why do you love it?

I'd like to share some of what I've learned in the past few years with other travelers, starting with my first three tips for adventure/budget travel of a baker's dozen. If you can't wait for future posts on this blog, you can access my 13 top tips for independent adventure/budget travel from a link at http://wordgeisha.com/WGblog2008.html.

Do you have a tip for solo adventure travel on a budget? I invite you to share it with me and my readers; let's establish a community of like-minded globe-trotters! And with that invitation, I give you my first three tips from my top 13:

1. Don’t be afraid to go on your own! With all the resources in print and on the Internet, planning and booking an affordable trip without a travel agent or tour company is now easier than ever. Whether you organize yours down to the last detail (not recommended) or leave some things open to serendipity, it’s simple to research and reserve transportation, accommodations and even entertainment via the Web and travel guidebooks—based on personal interests and stamina. For reservations on the fly, travel with a laptop or find Internet cafés throughout Europe and Eurasia.

2. Be creative with flights. It may be cheaper to book an overseas flight to London, Dublin or Frankfurt rather than flying directly to your final European destination. From any hub city, it’s usually easy to get to other destinations affordably via independent, no-frills airlines, e.g., Ryanair, easyJet and Pegasus. All these airlines have user-friendly websites that make online booking a breeze. Two cautions:

a. They often fly to small, out-of-the-way airports, so you need to factor in the time and cost of getting to your final destination;

b. You’re limited by baggage weight and amount restrictions, so pack accordingly...lightly…or be prepared to pay a hefty overage charge or be bumped from a flight (as I was) if you have more than one carry-on.

You can also save time and money by flying “open jaw” (into one city and out of another), avoiding a costly and inconvenient return to your starting point.

3. Use local transportation. Unlike Southern California, Europe is easy to get around via plane, train and bus. From Nice, I explored the French Riviera for pocket change, hopping on and off luxury coaches that travel between cities; in Turkey, I toured via comfortable, air-conditioned buses locals use, for far less than it would have cost me in gas or tour services for the same journey. Many European cities, e.g., Paris, London, Amsterdam and Madrid, are easy to get around via metro, tube and tram. By learning local transportation systems, you’ll save hundreds in taxi fares and/or escort-tour services.

Thanks for visiting. Watch for my next three tips soon!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

10 Commandments of the Southern California Writers’ Conference

My head is spinning like an out-of-control top, processing information gleaned at this past weekend’s Southern California Writers’ Conference in Irvine. Along with a few hundred other writers, editors, agents and publishers, I spent 2½ days in workshops, critique sessions and discussions on the craft of writing and the business of publishing.

For those unable to make it to the Crowne Plaza this year, here are my top takeaways—10 commandments for writers from top industry experts:

1. Thou shalt establish an online presence.
In a world now connected by social media, authors can’t afford to be offline. For promoting your book, creating and widening your audience and establishing intimacy with readers, an active presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social and professional networking sites is essential.

Take it a step farther by communicating your message or platform through a utube.com interview. Have a friend interview you about your book or a topic that relates to it and post a link to it on several sites.

Websites especially good for writers, authors and people who love books include goodreads.com, shelfari.com and librarythings.com. Personally, I’m a FB addict, don’t understand Twitter and have a minimal presence on LinkedIn. Wherever you stand, remember the more times you appear on the Web, the better—if you’re serious about establishing an online presence. So integrate channels and post, post, post.

2. Thou shalt blog.
This is such an important part of #1 above, I’ve made it a separate commandment. A blog is like a phone number today; it’s a way to build and maintain a following and establish an interactive dialogue. In an age when authors are responsible for the bulk of their own marketing, blogging is a mechanism through which we can provide information to readers while building credibility and allegiance with an audience. Effectively done, it can even be a money-maker.

Consider “blog touring”—making guest appearances and posting video interviews on popular blogs, with the other blogger’s permission, of course. It can also be used to advocate other writers and their works.

If you don’t want to commit the time to maintain your own blog, join a group with like-minded authors; check out possibilities on yahoogroups.com and meetup.com. Whatever you post, make your content so valuable to readers, they will be grateful they get it for no fee other than a small time investment. Cross-pollinate by posting links to your blog on numerous sites.

3. Thou shalt master the art of query letters and synopses.
These are our primary selling tools, a necessary bridge from writing to publication. In queries, be confident, never cocky or boastful. Let your credentials speak for themselves. Single-space, with double spaces between paragraphs. Keep queries to one page. Include intro hook, book summary, author’s credentials and offer to send chapters or entire book. Get ideas from book jackets and flaps; editors know how to reel in readers. Find the right editors/agents from acknowledgement pages in similar books.

Single space short synopses (1–3 pages), with double spaces between paragraphs. End with author qualifications, target audience, marketing plan. Learn more from Maralys Wills’ Dam the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead.

4. Thou shalt write what you know…or what you want to know more about.
It’s logical you’re better equipped to write about a subject you’re familiar with or passionately curious about than about something that bores you. And nearly everyone knows something about one topic or another in a meaningful way. If you parent an autistic child, use your experience to deepen your writing. If you’re fascinated by the lifecycle of hummingbirds or the sex life of dogs, let your interest inspire your research and writing. If you’ve battled lung cancer or suffered other adversity and triumphed over it, use your experience to inform fiction or nonfiction.

5. Thou shalt get off Writers’ Island.
When we write, we sit on a deserted island. We do our job better when we get out of solitude to communicate with other writers, industry professionals and our audience. Good places to start include absolutewriter.com (a writers’ forum) and Writer Beware (the public face of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Committee on Writing Scams) at www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/.

Other ways to get off the island include reading industry publications, e.g. Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly, entering contests, and attending writers’ conferences and meetings of local groups. For those in Orange County, CA, the OC chapter of the Southern California Writers Association (ocwriter.com) meets on the 3rd Saturday of every month in Fountain Valley. In L.A., there’s The Greater Los Angeles Writers Society (http://www.glaws.org/).

6. Thou shalt offer up back-story in small doses.
All characters come with baggage; back-story fills in the details, provides motivation and tells readers what’s driving each one. We’re writing about what happens because of back-story.

Be careful to break back-story up, like air in a balloon that you let out slowly, a little at a time. When writing it, ask yourself: why is this paragraph here? Does it further plot and/or character development? Have I used a transitional sentence to create a bridge from and back to the main action? Does it come from the point of view of the character who has the most to lose?

One trick for keeping back-story to a minimum is to inject description into the narrative, e.g., “He was driving a new, 1967 Mustang convertible” tells readers your plot begins in the year your character purchased his new car.

Back-story can be incorporated into characters’ memories and recollection flashbacks. If more is essential, consider an info-dump in the form of a brief (no more than 3-page) prologue.

Fluff is the evil cousin of back-story. While it can be used to set a scene, be careful not to let it overtake your narrative.

7. Thou shalt use dialogue to move your exposition forward.
Use comedy, sex, romance and anger in dialogue to smuggle in exposition that moves your story forward. Make your characters interesting as they talk and use speech to further your plot. Don’t try to capture an accent with misspelled words; simply state that your character has one.

8. Thou shalt show, not tell.
This is the mantra of good storytelling, but it can’t be repeated enough. If your character has a volatile temper, it’s more effective to demonstrate it through action and dialogue than to merely state a personality trait. Same goes if a character is meek, needy, shy, money-grubbing or psychopathic. The most effective descriptions come through actions and dialogue, not narrative words.

9. Thou shalt keep your story linear.
Editors don’t like flashbacks, dream sequences and openings starring a child-version of a central character. Use recollections—short recalled tidbits—to convey something that happened earlier, but does not further your plot.

10. Thou shalt write from the heart.
This is so obvious, it hardly needs to be a commandment. Yet many writers miss the boat by not digging deep enough into the recesses of their own hearts. Complications arise from not paying enough attention to emotional logic, not knowing your characters and being clueless about what sets you apart from other writers. When you figure out who you are and what makes your characters tick, you’ll be better equipped to find your voice and write from the heart.

http://www.wordgeisha.com/