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Spanish experience was truly fit for a …pilgrim

Friday, December 28th, 2007


Contra Costa Times

No one snoozed in the pews when visiting Santiago City’s church service.  “It was theatrical,” marveled Lafayette’s Marcia Linn.  “There were four monks harnessed in a basket that allowed them to work a pulley system to propel an incense burner filled with hot coals fifty feet into the air.  Every day we saw hundreds of people arriving as pilgrims to attend the service and take communion in every possible language.  Everyone hugged the statue of St. James.”

Linn stayed at northern Spain’s five star Parador Santiago de Compostela, considered to be the oldest hotel in the world.  The plumbing has been upgraded since its transformation from a Royal Hospital in 1499, where it sheltered numerous pilgrims. 

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela or “Way of St. James” path begins in many European locales including Le Puy, France, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The journey is marked with scallop shells along the 326 mile route.  The shell, found along the shores of Galicia, serves as a metaphor for the pilgrims.  As the waves of the ocean wash the shells on the shore, God’s hand guides the pilgrims to Santiago.

The cuisine of the area offers Spanish style seafood with fresh, local ingredients and wines.  Don’t miss the Galacian almond cakes, “polvorones” cookies or apple and caramel cream “filloas” pancakes.

While today’s pilgrims might carry Palm Pilots, a recent survey by Forrester Research found that nine percent fewer people booked travel online this year than in 2005.  Information junkies may roam the web, but travel agents still provide value in taking the stress out of vacation planning.


The government of Bhutan, situated between India and Tibet, requires guided assistance when traveling in their country.  Guide Tenpa Chophel spoke recently at REI Concord about Bhutan’s high value, low impact tourism policy launched in 1974.  “Visiting Bhutan is not easy,” notes Chophel.  “Visitors must spend $200 per night minimum, with 30% of that fee returning to the government for development.  By charging a tariff, it limits visitors and preserves our culture, heritage and traditions.”  Low impact translates to less garbage and allows the trekking routes to remain pristine.

Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon, is located along the southern slopes of the Himalaya mountain range.  In this isolated local, the Buddhist culture remains untouched by the outside world.  In 18,000 square miles of jungle and Himalayas, there are more than 165 animal species.  It is one of the least densely populated countries in the world.  For further information on a Chomolhari Trek visit

As we close the travel books on 2007, I’d like to share some trips and trends that I discovered while attending the Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas.  Author Pamela Danziger, “Let Them Eat Cake – Marketing Luxury to the Masses” notes, “old luxury is about a thing, while new luxury is about an experience.” 

Is a Mexican experience on your travel agenda? Cancun’s Ritz-Carlton is offering wine and tequila tasting and Chef’s Table sessions in their new culinary center.  Perhaps you are worried about Europe’s weak exchange?  Your dollar will stretch farther in South Africa.  On my wish list to visit; the Singita Game Reservesor the Royal Malewane in Kruger National Park. Are you looking to give back to a community while on vacation? Voluntourism is on the rise with tax-deductible programs in place to the Peruvian Amazon jungle community of Yantalo.  In closing, not only were Actors Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson recently spotted in Peru; several Lamorinda residents are off to ring in the New Year in Machu Picchu.  Have a Pisco Sour for me!

Grandeur of Ethiopia well worth the effort

Friday, July 27th, 2007

World traveler and Moraga resident Margaret Stithem entertained her fellow Planned Parenthood Auxiliary members at a meeting sharing slides from a recent trip to Ethiopia. This African adventure composed of 17 travelers was an Elder Hostel trip planned by Destination Horizons. They took the historic route to the Land of Queen of Sheba, visiting many different sights including churches built down into the rock with gorgeous artwork inside. “I wouldn’t go for the food and the water is a terrible problem,” notes Stithem. Yet she adds that this is a land of beautiful people.

Two times the size of Texas, Ethiopia is composed of seventy ethnic groups where English is widely spoken. The economy is supported largely by agriculture and coffee. The economy is not prosperous and young children can be found herding goats to help support the family. Stithem remarked that they are trying to modernize the cities but the area has been plagued by terrible droughts.

She particularly enjoyed Gonder’s Lake Tana which serves as the headwaters of the Blue Nile and is surrounded by magnificent twelfth century castles. Some structures span 60 feet in height, are carved of granite and are 1,800 years old.

It wasn’t bad water nor did foul weather leave fellow Auxiliary member Lorelee Mogg shanghaied in her Holland America cabin with husband Bob. While sailing the cruise ship to China, Moraga’s Mogg fell captive to the Norwalk Flu. “We had been instructed to report immediately to the staff if we experienced any symptoms,” reflects Mogg. “A nurse came promptly with pills and told us that we would be quarantined for 48 hours so we missed two days in Shanghai.”

Bob had to be quarantined with Lorelee, but did not get the flu. “The ship did everything they could to make our 48 hours comfortable and compensated us financially,” reflects Mogg. And what if the Mogg’s decided to mutiny and leave the cabin? “They could put us off the ship!” exclaims Lorelee. In fact, Mogg tells a similar story of a flu-struck passenger’s wife leaving the cabin on the last day of quarantine to have a drink in the ships bar, as she was healthy and felt it safe to leave her husband. The cruise ship company, who will remain anonymous, withdrew the compensation from their bill.

So how can you minimize your chance of contracting Viral Gastroenteritis, the gastrointestinal illness known as norovirus? According to industry newsletter Cruise Week, cruise any time from June through October. Norovirus is seasonal, and there are very few outbreaks in the late spring, summer, and early fall. Flu season, especially January and February, brings the greatest number of outbreaks. Also consider a small luxury ship. Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea have never had norovirus outbreaks. By contrast, within the past five-plus years (Jan. 2002 through May 2007), there have been 23 outbreaks on Holland America, 18 on Princess, 13 on Carnival, 12 on Royal Caribbean, 11 on Celebrity, 10 on Norwegian Cruise Line, 4 on Cunard, and 1 on Disney in 2002, according to Centers for Disease Control records.

If you’re looking for outdoor adventures closer to home, check out Weekend Sherpa, The weekly e-newsletter gives insiders’ recommendations on the Bay Area’s best outdoor pursuits and little known adventures. Ever slept in a yurt in Big Sur or wanted to volunteer to help Mother Earth? Weekend Sherpa leads the way.

Next month well visit the 49th state admitted to the Union. That’s right, we’re Alaska bound! Where have you been lately? Drop me an e-mail of your travels.

Nancy Brown grew up in Moraga and lives in Lafayette with her husband and children. She looks forward to hearing of your adventures at

Carefully planned trip to Africa worth the wait

Friday, March 16th, 2007
 Lion Can you name the big five? No, we're not talking top college or even sports teams; we're talking lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape Buffalos. Oh my! These are the majestic animals one hopes to see ... [Continue reading this entry]