Suparstar Tony Hawk Carves it up on Stockton Sand Dunes

International skating superstar Tony Hawk dropped in on Stockton Sand Dunes prior to defending his Masters title at GENERAL PANTS BOWL-A-RAMA which takes place at Bondi Beach from February 18 – 19 2017.

Suparstar Tony Hawk
During Tony’s time at Stockton Sand Dunes he had the opportunity to sand board down some of the largest sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere with local tourism operator, Sand Dune Adventures. Sand Dune Adventures is a not-for-profit enterprise owned and operated by the Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council (WLALC). Tony also had the opportunity to gain insight into the richness of Aboriginal Culture and heritage, while riding a 400cc Quad Bike, and guided by an experienced Aboriginal guide.

Tony’s visit to the region is ahead of the Australian Bowl-Riding Championships and Surfest, two Newcastle events secured by the NSW Government through Destination NSW.

It’s not just Bondi that has great skate action. Dozens of skate-parks with steep bowls, ramps and rails are popping up all around NSW.

Professional vertical skateboarder, Renton Millar said, “At the moment NSW is going through an unprecedented boom period with skateparks. You’ve got timeless existing standouts like Bondi, Five Dock and Bar Beach, but getting added to the mix are amazing state of the art new ones at Mona Vale, Bateau Bay, Carnes Hill and Coffs Harbour.”

Here are just some of the places to skate in NSW:

Mona Vale Skate Park, Mona Vale
A predominantly street style park with a mini bowl and a refurbished historic vert ramp, Mona Vale Skate Park is a new addition to the Northern Beaches of Sydney skate scene and is ideal for all skill levels.

Empire Park Skate Park, Bar Beach
The ‘gold bowl’ at Empire Park Skate Park overlooks the surf breaks at Bar Beach. This brilliant world-class facility has recently been restored and is already a favourite destination of visiting pro skaters.

According to Tony Hawk, skating at Empire Park is not only a challenge, but a memorable experience. He said, “I’d never ridden that bowl prior to 2015. It’s a lot bigger than most concrete bowls I’ve ridden in the past. I’m a big fan of transitions, and I really enjoyed trying it out.”

Bateau Bay Skate Park, Bateau Bay
Known to locals as the Bato Yard Skate Park, Bateau Bay features the deepest bowl in Australia measuring four metres at its deepest point with a one-point-five metre vertical fall. Bato Yard Skate Park on the NSW Central Coast is fast gaining attention across the country as one of Australia’s top skate parks after a $2.25 million transformation.

Professional Skateboarder Renton Millar now calls it his ‘dream bowl’. He said, “To me Bateau Bay typifies exactly what you want in a modern park. Creative street tech, as well as some super fun small trannys. I think it’s just about the best skatepark in Australia. It’s skate dream material!”

Holborn Skate Plaza, Wollongong
Sitting on a prime waterfront location on Lake Illawarra, Holburn Skate Park was built by the community after they were invited to ‘have their say’ on construction and design ideas about the skate park facilities. Serious skaters can sharpen their skills and newbies can try their hand at carving it up in the bowl.

Port Macquarie Skate Park, Port Macquarie
Constructed on the foreshore of the Hasting River, Port Macquarie Skate Park has a clover style bowl with steel coping and a street style area with mini-half pipe, quarter pipe and grind boxes. It’s suitable for everyone from beginners to the elite.

To ensure fans don’t miss a moment of the action, this year’s GENERAL PANTS BOWL-A-RAMA Bondi will have free sideshow access to all of the activities happening in the area, and free viewing of the big screen right next to where all the bowl action is taking place. In addition, all-day single seat and special front row seats are available to purchase.

the most important lesson I’ve learnt about travel

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When I first met my best friend, I was convinced our stars had aligned. There we were, both late for a bus ride on a school excursion and assigned the last two seats, slightly uncomfortable to be sitting beside a stranger – one from a different year at school, at that. I shouldn’t have worried. By the end of that two hour bus ride, our sides were sore from laughter and our friendship was firm, even transcending the barrier between grade nine and grade ten. As anyone who has ever been to high school knows, that’s no easy task.

Since then, many of the friendships I’ve made have felt serendipitous. We just happened to be grouped into the same year at school, or assigned to the same project at work, or in the same bar some random Friday night. That’s how most relationships are formed: a group of people – whether it’s students, colleagues or acquaintances – are put in the same place at the same time, and left to work out their alliances. I never gave it much deeper thought; I just felt lucky to have found my people.

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What I always overlooked is that the class of legends I think of as “my people” actually aren’t as uncommon as I think they are. That’s not to take away from what I share with my friends – I still consider myself lucky that we found each other – but as I embark on more missions out there into the world, the more I see that ‘my people’ are really everywhere.

A recent study by the Common Cause Foundation has shown that, despite the bombardment of doom and gloom in the news, humans are actually inherently good. The common characteristic of humans is funnily enough – humanity, and nowhere is this truth more apparent than in travel.

When my best friend and I travelled through South America together in our early 20s, we undertook the incredible feat of hiking the Inca Trail for three days to Machu Picchu, on a tour with a group of strangers. Almost immediately, we fell in with two girls our age from Perth. The connection was instant; almost obvious. A similar sense of humour united us and as a gang we became inseparable, resulting in the four of us travelling together for the next few months. But on that first day of group hiking, we also make an unlikely friend; one who, if you compared us on paper, might not have been so obvious.

 

His name was Terry. Terry was alone on the trip, and we all walked at a similar pace, so the five of us wound up hiking together. Here, the wonder that is Terry began to unfold as he became an integral part of the adventure. Terry was 50-years-old and from Vancouver, seemingly born with a love for travel that lived beside his bones. He played along with our incessant storytelling and roleplaying. He never hesitated to sing the songs we made up in our delirious, exhausted state. When we asked him to pose for ridiculous photos, it didn’t even seem to cross his mind to say no. In short: He got us.

We all became fast friends, so much so that when the two girls from Perth flew across Australia to hang out with us at a music festival two years after the trip, Terry thought it would be the perfect opportunity to surprise us with a visit. We all wept with joy as we realised it was him walking toward us; a stranger we were fortunate enough to be randomly placed in a group with on the top of a mountain, on the other side of the planet, years before. The fact that Terry was separated from us by country, generation and gender meant nothing. He was just our friend.

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On a recent Intrepid Patagonia Wilderness trip, our group was similarly diverse, with people from a range of ages, backgrounds and beliefs. Again, a tangible bond would form between the people from the same countries or in the same age ranges as they’d go over the cultural touchstones that made up their shared experience of the world.

But as the trip went on and people really got to know each other, I found myself to be more compatible with some of the more unexpected people; whether it was the 60-or-so-year-old couple who were seeing the world in retirement or our Chilean hiking guide in Torres Del Paine who spends more of her life inside the remote park than outside of it. They’re the ones I’d laugh over wine with and rush to call friends, despite our apparent differences.

Not to subscribe too firmly to the “strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet” mantra, but if travel has taught me one thing, it’s that people really are inherently good, and travel is the ultimate unifier that can bring them together. Sharing experiences opens your heart and mind to people you might not even think of being friends with in your day-to-day life. When you’re thrust into a situation with strangers, it’s incredible how genuine connection – whether it’s through humour, shared beliefs, or even debate – can bridge any divide. No matter your interests, your gender, your socio-economic status, your tastes, your age, your upbringing or your country of origin, you’ll find common ground; you’ll find something to connect you. It’s a beautiful truth of travel. Wherever you go, you’ll find your people.

why travel makes the world smaller

connections

Every day we encounter hundreds, maybe thousands of people. We walk the streets, stepping in time with faceless foreigners, sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers on public transport, wait while unnamed hands prepare food, make coffee, take money, tear tickets. We smile when we pass too closely, apologise when our bodies touch. We slip though a sea of souls and stories, caught in our own world of wonder and crises.

We’re completely oblivious that behind all of those strange eyes, nameless hands, cloaked bodies, is a whole other world of experiences, challenges, stories – a history and life as complex and beautiful and heartbreaking as ours.

connections---eliza

It’s the unspoken problem with modern life, the malaise of our everyday existence. And it’s only when we break free of the everyday, when we stop walking the same streets, catching the same train, visiting the same cafes, that we’re forced to look up and actually see the world and its people again. To look up and feel the sun, hear the chorus of horns, songs, prayers. To look up and experience the smells and sounds that perhaps go unnoticed on familiar turf. But more importantly, we suddenly look up and into the eyes of a stranger.

When we travel we’re compelled to make friends of strangers, to ask for help, to connect. And in doing so, our world opens up. Suddenly empathy and compassion come easy. We learn quickly that everyone has a story. And it’s often those that you least expect that have the richest and most amazing stories of all.

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In my travels I discovered it was the loudest, most obnoxious, free-spirited Dutch girl I met in Italy who had suffered the most devastating separation and heartbreak. It was the fastidious, spend-thrift, whinging 65-year-old woman who cried the most heart-wrenching tears when we reached Gallipoli. It was the vein, superficial young woman I met in France who had a Masters degree and was working abroad to feed her children back home in America. It was the cheeky Kmher boy that had lived through the most vicious atrocities.

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. It’s an adage we’re taught from birth. But it’s only in living it over and over, meeting people from every walk of life, culture, creed, race, religion, people that challenge these shallow assumptions, that these words become imprinted on your heart and mind. Don’t judge.

And in hearing a little of someone’s story you inevitably learn more than just their context, their history – you learn about their every day. You learn what drives them, what makes their heart ache, what fills them with joy. And you quickly realise how incredibly similar we really are.

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You realise that everyone falls in love. Food may be scarce in some places, political tensions high, but love is universal, and heartbreak is universally soul destroying. You learn that in the end everyone wants to belong, everyone wants to feel part of something.

We are constantly barraged with tales of woe and dissidence. Of foreignness and difference, we’re separated into right and left, black and white, rich and poor, Colllingwood and Essendon (Manchester and Everton, Red Sox and Yankees). But when we travel, when we look up, when we see beyond the blank stares and nameless hands, suddenly those differences become pretty small. Suddenly faces become familiar, smiles infectious and walls fall down. Suddenly the world becomes kinder, smaller, more connected.

What life’s really like to trek the Inca Trail a traveller tells all

Inca-Trail,-Machu-Picchu---Unsplash

Let’s get one thing straight: Dead Woman’s Pass is as awful as you fear. It’s called ‘Dead Woman’ for god’s sake. Okay, so the name comes from the shape of the pass, like a woman lying down, not from actual deaths. But still. It’s a phrase that incites terror. And as I was slogging my way up, willing myself to just reach that next rock, that next bush, and as the snow line reached ever closer and the sun burnt ever stronger, I looked up at that reclining woman and cursed her and the Incas who had named her.

But let’s back up, to why I was huffing up the pass in the first place. I had decided to tackle the Inca Trail during one of those life reassessments that every human experiences in their mid-30s. In the span of a few weeks, I had registered for my first half-marathon, broken up with a guy, and decided to hike the Inca. The race because, well, why not. The guy because, well, meh. And the trail because it had been my dream since I first learned of Machu Picchu in high school Spanish class. And dreams are a dangerous thing. Abandon them and they haunt you forever. Follow them and you end up hiking to an altitude of 4,200 metres and wondering if dreamer you is actually a sadomasochist.

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I had arrived in Peru a week prior, on Intrepid’s Sacred Land of the Incas adventure. Even though I was lugging hiking boots and enough protein bars to feed a herd of llamas, it all seemed surreal. ‘One day’ had turned into next week and my brain couldn’t make sense of it. (Also, side note: the protein bars were totally unnecessary — the porters supply you with so much food that your belly barely has time to register a grumble before it’s time for a meal stop).

It didn’t help that I had caught a stomach bug while I was in the Amazon, mere days away from heading to Ollantaytamboand the start of the trail. For three days I shivered in the sweaty, sticky heat while my travel mates went off in search of anacondas and tarantulas. The Andes (and the strength to hike them) couldn’t have felt further away. On the morning we departed for the trail head, my stomach was still flipping — but this time not just from nausea, but from nerves. Reality had set in.

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Thankfully, the trail eases you in on the first day, leading you over Peruvian plains — undulating hills that are the closest you’ll find to flat in the Andes. It’s the teaser of what’s to come, when the hills get steeper, the steps higher, the air thinner. It’s the day when you learn how things work, like how the porters run past you, carrying packs bigger than you and weaving up and down and around staircases. It’s the day you learn that Inca steps are nothing like the stairmaster you trained on.

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It’s also on that first day that you realize what it means to be an Inca Trail trekker. Permits are given out to 200 trekkers (and 300 porters) daily, so even in moments when you feel tired and sore and totally alone, you’re never far from someone who’s able to give you a friendly nudge. Sometimes I was someone else’s cheerleader, and sometimes it was someone giving me a push. On day two, as I struggled to move myself up the final 200 metres to Dead Woman’s Pass, I could hear hikers at the top calling down, urging me on. As I staggered the last few steps, a trekker from another group congratulated me by name. Because that’s the thing about the trail: you see and talk to the same strangers again and again, until they’re not strangers any more. You bond over everything from sore knees to altitude belly, and sometimes there are celebrations thrown in. Like on our second night, when we snacked on banana cake for two trekkers’ wedding anniversary — a surprise dessert made by our porters with nothing but a camp stove.

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Over the days, you battle steep climbs and steeper descents, lost toenails and broken blisters, and you’re guaranteed to curse yourself at least once for not opting to take the train instead. After all, the vast majority people who visit Machu Picchu don’t take four days to get there. So why suffer the trek?

Well, because like with so much of travel, the reward isn’t the arrival but the journey. Machu Picchu gets all the fame and glory, but there are hidden treasures to discover along the trail, too — and unlike the finale, they’re only accessible on foot. Yes, hundreds of people trek the trail every day, but when you turn a corner and see the glorious ruins of Sayacmarca perched on a clifftop in the distance, or peer down and find Qonchamarka peeking out from beneath a jungle canopy, you’ll be forgiven for feeling, just for a moment, like you’re the next Hiram Bingham.

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On our last morning, we reached the Sun Gate early enough that there was still mist draped over the mountains. By the way, all those photos you’ve seen of people standing before Machu Picchu? Those aren’t taken at the Sun Gate, no matter what their Tinder profile says. The Sun Gate is much higher, and gives you a view that stretches far beyond the ruins. It’s the first glimpse you get of Machu Picchu and it encompasses views of the surrounding peaks and the valley leading down into Aguas Calientes. You can spy the buses coming up the roadway and congratulate yourself for getting here the hard way.

After four days of hiking, I sat there, my aching feet dangling over a ledge as I watched the mist move in and out. I cried. Dammit, that sounds so cliché, but it’s true. I sat there with my back to everyone and dripped tears down my dirty face because dreamer me totally deserved this.

5 reasons you should try a sailing adventure

sailing---Michael Foley

Sailing used to be the domain of three types of people; pirates, the super-rich, and the hardcore adventure junkies. Not anymore. ‘Soft-adventure’ sailing trips are becoming increasing popular globally, but especially in Europe. The dramatic coastlines, favourable exchange rates, variety of cultures, languages and cuisines have made Europe a haven for no-experience-necessary sailing adventures. Here are 5 reasons why you need to jump on board, kick your deck shoes off, and set sail for that horizon in 2016.

1. It’s the ultimate hassle-free adventure

Imagine a holiday with no taxis, no checking-in or out, no deadlines, no rendezvous points, no late-night city arrivals, no cramped public transport and no need to go in search of food. Once you’re aboard a sailing boat, life takes a turn down easy street. Use the sun as your watch, the coastline as your map, and the wind as your guide.

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2. All-action Admiral or Chief of Chilling

Here’s the best part, it’s totally up to you. Sailing holidays are perfect whether you fancy yourself as a modern-day Christopher Colombus, or prefer to sit back, relax and watch your crew do all the work as you sip leisurely on a martini. We love to get involved and act out our childhood dreams, setting sail for paradise islands and finding buried treasure, but it’s your holiday and so you can do as little or as much sailing as you want.

 

3. Live the high life

As much as we love the phrase life’s about the journey not the destination, travel days on land can be sweaty, cramped, stress-inducing affairs. Travelling on a purpose-built boat couldn’t be further away from that. You’ll feel a gentle summer breeze, cooling your bronze, sun-kissed skin as you float across the Mediterranean Sea, before watching the sun set over King’s Landing – Dubrovnik to non-Game of Thrones fans – while enjoying a glass of champagne out on deck… you get the idea. Paradise.

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4. Travel-sickness-resistant sailing

The Mediterranean Sea in summer is more like a lake and really safe to sail on, even for complete novices. But if the idea of sailing on open water doesn’t quite float your boat – sorry, couldn’t resist that one – then there’s a more sedate option; river cruising. Think an excellent bottle of red, strong cheese, fresh grapes and plenty of sunbathing as you float down theCanal du Midi and you won’t be far off. Choose where you stop, how long for, and hop on and off as many times as you like, and any travel sickness will be a thing of the past.

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 5. Well within your budget

With favourable currency exchange rates, cheap flights right across Europe, there’s never been a cheaper time to hit the open sea (or river). Whereas sailing was once reserved for those with an entourage of luggage porters, it’s now accessible for anyone with a thirst for sea-bound adventure and a pair of half-decent sunglasses.

3 amazing women you’ll meet on a homestay

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Staying in another person’s home, hearing their stories, meeting their family…it’s about as close as a traveler’s ever going to get to the real thing. A country’s wealth isn’t in landmarks or temples: it’s in the homes of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That’s an Intrepid homestay. You’ll live with a local mother and her family, eat what they eat and sleep where they sleep. Whether it’s a Mongolian Nana or a Peruvian Mama, the cooking, hospitality (and life wisdom) are simply the best.

Here are three of our favourite mothers you’ll meet on an Intrepid homestay:

Nana Khandaa

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Country: Ikh Uul, Mongolia

Motherly advice: Khandaa and her family, like half of all Mongols, are completely nomadic. They move with the seasons (around four times per year) to allow their livestock to graze and the grass to replenish. Khandaa teaches us how little we truly need to be happy. Her entire home and life can be strapped to the backs of a few donkeys. Her family live only with the essentials, and find happiness with only a handful of physical possessions. Lesson learned.

Trip: Meet Khandaa on a homestay on our 15-day Wild Mongolia tour

Mama Julia

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Country: Canocota, Peru

Motherly advice: Mama Julia is a strong woman living in a remote 600-person village, high in the Andes Mountains. She owns a big property and grows all the food for her and her family. She teaches us how disconnected we’ve become from our food and its origins. How many of us ever see the path of our food, or know how to tally the cost? Peru’s alpine communities need to be self-sufficient, and their footprint is smaller because of it.

Trip: Meet Julia at a homestay on our 21-day Peru Encompassed tour

Su Wenzhi

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Country: Suji Village, China

Motherly advice: Walking into Wenzhi’s home is like taking a trip back in time. Her house, which belonged to her ancestors, feels like it’s been untouched for 100 years. The rooms are filled with antique photos and little family heirlooms. The whole place is like a shrine to times gone by. It’s a beautiful reminder of the importance of family, of knowing where you come from and taking pride in your cultural heritage.

Our guide to Egypt’s Abu Simbel Sun Festival

abu-simbel-sun-festival---mariejirousek

Put yourself in Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt’s shoes. It’s 1813 and you’re on an archaeological dig in the Egyptian desert, near the old Nubean border. The sands fall away and suddenly you’re staring at the discovery of the century: an enormous head carved from stone, the tip of the great statues of Abu Simbel. It took Jean-Louis another four years to clear away the desert sands and actually enter the temple itself, built by Rameses II (or at least the slaves of Rameses II) about 3000 years ago.

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Image c/o Dennis Jarvis, Flickr

The origins of Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel is still one of the premier antiquities in all of Egypt: two temples dedicated to Rameses II and his wife, Queen Nefertari. The entrance was built so that, twice a year, the sun would shine a beam into the inner sanctuary, illuminating the three statues there and leaving Ptah, the god of the underworld, in darkness. So precise was the design of the temple that this phenomenon occurred on the same two dates each year: October 21 and February 21 (believed to be the Pharaoh’s birthday and coronation, respectively).

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Image c/o Jon Freeman, Flickr

The Sun Festival

When the Egyptian government wanted to damn Lake Nasser in the mid 20th century, Abu Simbel was due to be swallowed up by the river. So the authorities actually moved the temple to a new location, cutting the monument into blocks weighing up to 30 tonnes (and you thought moving house was a pain). The Sun Festival still takes place though, the dates just shifted a day forward (due to some complex maths involving the sun, the earth and a protractor).

Each year you can go to Abu Simbel, on October 22 and February 22 and see the light spear through the darkness, illuminating the statues carved inside. It’s one of the cooler, more Indiana Jones-style things you can actually do in a world of pop-tarts and microwaves and Miley Cyrus.

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Indiana Jones would be all over this stuff. Image c/o Ye Wang, Flickr

The locals still celebrate the Sun Festival twice a year, and it’s an amazing time to visit Egypt. There’s traditional Nubian dances being performed, street food everywhere (save stomach space for some fresh koshari) and live music outside the temple.

How do I get there?

To see the Sun Festival at its best, it’s probably wise to book a group tour. There’s a secure convoy of approved vehicles that are allowed to visit the temple on these particular days, something you don’t want to navigate by yourself. Our newEgypt Experience – Abu Simbel Sun Festival takes you on a felucca cruise down the Nile towards Abu Simbel. We’ll drive you from the river to the temple site, then fly you back to continue your cruise down to Luxor. You’ll also get an expert local guide who can expl

How to choose the best small group tour company for you

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Picking a group tour company that fits ‘just right’ is hard. Really hard. Mostly because it’s impossible to run a tour that pleases all of the people all of the time. We like to think we get darn close, but there will always be travellers looking for something slightly different: for a few more people (or a few fewer), for a younger or an older crowd, for more free time, or a tighter itinerary. Travel isn’t like buying a new toaster. There are a lot of variables to consider (not to impugn toasters in any way, I’m sure picking one is harder than it looks).

Let’s be honest. We’re biased. We think we Intrepid is pretty cool. But in the interests of a robust and open discussion, here are the things you should consider when choosing a small group tour company.

1. Group size

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The first big decision. When you envision a ‘group tour’, how many people do you see touring alongside you? Five? Ten? Fifty? The phrase ‘small group tour’ can be (and is) used to describe all of the above.

For us, a small group is, on average, about 10 people. It can range up to 12 or 16 depending on the destination, and go as low as 1 (when the departure has been guaranteed), but 10 is the norm. If you’re after a big bus tour with 50 other travellers and a guide wearing a head-set, we’re probably not the company for you. And that’s okay. There are plenty of big tour operators like Contiki and Trafalgar that prefer the en mass approach. For us, 8-16 is the perfect number to fit into a local bistro, or catch a train, or visit a little backstreet bodega. To get that local edge.

2. Price

Price is often the first thing people compare when looking at different tour companies, but it can be a little misleading. Because some companies send people on huge tours of 30 or 40 travellers at a time, they can secure bulk rates for their rooms and activities. So you might save $100 or so, but it could mean you’re getting a much less bespoke and personal experience. Choosing a ‘cheap’ trip also increases the chance that your accommodation will be a) a bit lame, and b) far away from the city centre.

The thing to look for is value, not just price. Are there lots of included meals? Does the company list the hotel for each night? If so, check it on Tripadvisor. Are there heaps of included activities? Do you get a local guide? If the tour is ticking a lot of those boxes, it’s usually worth paying a bit extra. Like anything else in life, you get what you pay for. For our part, we always aim for a competitive price, not necessarily the lowest price. We’d rather give you an amazing experience and charge a little more than cut corners to save a buck.

 

3. Itinerary

A lot of small group tours will share similar itineraries, but there are companies out there that really make an effort to go that extra step.

Generally speaking, you should look for an itinerary that hits all the major highlights (your Kyotos, your Machu Picchus, your Berlins and Ngorongoro Craters) but that then includes a couple of left-of-centre stops along the way. Ask anyone that’s done a bunch of small group tours: it’s often the unexpected places, the ones you’d never even heard of before, that end up being the most memorable. It’s just one of those things. Make sure to read the online trip notes thoroughly to help you make an informed decision, and if you have questions…ask! Give the company a call and check about that beach stop on Day 4, or the length of the hike on Day 7. We’ve got a whole team of Adventure Specialists waiting by the phones that can help with itinerary queries. It’s kind of their jam.

4. Local leaders

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Our local leaders are something we’re pretty proud of, and it’s a policy we’ve been had in place since the late 90s. Now, the vast majority of our guides are born-and-bred locals who know their destinations like the back of their hand. This approach has a few advantages. One, you get cool local knowledge on-tap. Two, it keeps money in local pockets and contributes to local employment. Three, the whole experience of travel becomes so much richer.

If local leaders are important to you, do your research. Brands like Geckos and Peregrine Adventures use local leaders on all their tours, and they’re specifically trained in first aid and vehicle maintenance (in the case of our overland truck drivers). Not all of the industry can say the same. Try to find companies that don’t just employ local leaders, but look after them too. There’s too many examples in the industry of local guides being paid poorly and receiving no training, just so a company can slap the word ‘local’ on their marketing material. Not cool.

5. Online reviews

Always a great way to check the value of anything. Read what people are saying as much as possible. Our website includes a bunch of reviews on every trip, but if you want to check an external source, try TourRadar. They’re like Tripadvisor but for group tour companies. You can compare brands, see what people are saying, and make up your own mind. Another excellent source of reviews is social media. Check a brand’s hashtag on Instagram or Facebook (#LiveIntrepid, get around it) and see what travellers are saying on the ground, in real time. You can get a feel for the style of the trip, the number of people, the standard of accommodation. There’s nothing better than public validation to put your mind at ease.

6. General ‘vibe’

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As hard as we try to make it so, Intrepid won’t be for every traveller in the world. Some people like cruise ships and big bus tours. Some travellers prefer seven swimming pools, marble bench tops and a fully stocked minibar. That’s never going to be us. And that’s okay. You’ve got to find a company that you gel with. Whose vibe feels right. The quickest way to work this out? Go on the website. Read the blog. See how the tour company speaks and how they act. Do they have a goodresponsible travel policy? Is that something you care about? Do they look fun, or a bit boring? Do their itineraries feel generic, or are they pushing boundaries? And you know what, it may take a few tries before you find a small group tour company that fits you ‘just right’. But when you do, it’s a good feeling, and you’ll know the search was worth it.

We sent an internet addict on a trip without phones. This is what happened

phones---digital-detox

This is no joke. Like a lot of travelers, I’m dependent on my smartphone. On Google. On Facebook. On being able to be connected 24/7. In fact, I AM connected nearly 24 hours a day – as a travel blogger, it’s basically my job to be on my laptop for hours a day, and to constantly be updating Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat. And let’s not even get started on how often I check my email…

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But this isn’t healthy. I don’t actually need to refresh Facebook every 5 minutes, or check my email more than 15 times per day. I don’t NEED to respond to every blog comment within minutes of someone posting it. Addictions like this are hard to break. They become second-nature; our phones are now just extensions of our hands and they go everywhere with us, from work to restaurants – even to the bathroom.

Being aware of how dependent I am on all my gadgets, I decided to take a break.

RELATED: CHECK OUT OUR BRAND NEW RANGE OF DIGITAL DETOX TRIPS

If you read all the popular “travel trend” articles at the beginning of the year, you probably noticed that “digital detox” trip were predicted to be big in 2016. A digital detox is basically just taking a trip the way people used to do it: sans cell phones and laptops and cameras and anything else with screens. As a tech addict, I knew this would be a challenge. But it was a challenge I wanted to set for myself.

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So I teamed up with Intrepid Travel to go to Ecuador for a week without technology. The “Ecuador on a Shoestring” trip I went on is now offered as an official digital detox trip by Intrepid, but I just went with a regular group – and did my best to not do any of my usual while-I’m-traveling tasks. This meant no blog posts, no emails, no Snapchatting. I even left my camera at home, lest I be tempted to spend more of my time behind those screens.

And yes, it was difficult. I struggled with disconnecting (especially when others on the tour were still checking Facebook and posting to Instagram along the way), and I struggled with shifting my focus from documenting every aspect of my trip to just living it.

But I learned some surprising things during my digital detox trip, too. Things like:

It’s easier to leave social media behind than you probably think

The easiest part of the digital detox was actually ignoring social media for a week. I didn’t miss the Twitter check-ins, or stressing over which photo to share on Instagram. I didn’t have to worry about finding wifi to upload my snaps, and I could be blissfully ignorant of how many likes my Facebook posts were getting.

I realize that, as a blogger, I use social media differently than the average person. But disconnecting from the constant refreshes and notifications was easier than I thought it would be.

I rely on social media for more than I realized

Even though it was fairly easy to ignore Facebook and Twitter for a week, I quickly began to realize just how truly disconnected I began to feel without my regular check-ins. Like many, I’ve become reliant on social media for everything from family updates to getting the latest news. Without Facebook, in particular, I felt totally out of the loop with what was going on in the world.

In a way, though, it was kind of liberating – I got to spend a whole week without hearing about Donald Trump every day.

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The internet does in fact go on without you

At the end of the day, the internet (and the world) will go on without you. My blog did not implode. My email inbox did get wildly out of hand, but I was able to get it back under control pretty quickly when I got home. And, more importantly, I didn’t really miss anything while I was disconnected.

I know that FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real concern for many people like me. But when you’re away from Facebook memes and hashtags and the newest Snapchat filters, you’re not really missing out – those things will still be around once you’re reunited with your devices.

Not being connected leaves more time for other interests

Without blogging and ‘gramming and snapping to worry about, I found myself drawn to other things that I enjoy doing that often get pushed aside when I’m at home and busy on my laptop or phone. Things like coloring and watching the sun set and reading a real paperback book (yep, they still make those).

I read my book for hours on end while sitting on a balcony in the town of Banos. I took notes in a little journal with a pen (and came to the horrifying realization that my handwriting has definitely suffered from disuse over the past few years). I went on hikes in the Amazon and bartered for textiles and searched for street art.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t have done any of these things if I’d been “connected” on this trip – but not having my safety blanket of phone and laptop definitely left room for other things.

Overall, there is definitely something to be said for waking up every morning and being present in each and every moment. My Digital Detox allowed me to truly disconnect from my devices and better connect with the world.

Germany’s grunge capital why Leipzig is the new Berlin

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Ask the kids in Germany. They’ll tell you. With a grunge, hipster scene, splashes of urban graffiti and a nightlife that can rival that of Europe’s cultural capital, Leipzig is fast becoming the new Berlin.

Sitting just south of the capital, Leipzig is small, with a vibe more akin to Berlin’s trendier neighbourhoods and the smaller towns and villages of Germany. The aesthetic feel of the city is a bit of a hodgepodge, with historical and modern day architecture intertwining, especially in the main square of the city — Augustusplatz — where traditional German-style buildings sit side-by-side with refurbished Baroque classics, Art Nouveau masterpieces and slick, modernist glass.

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Rewind 25 years ago and the future of Leipzig was in doubt. Days before the fall of the Berlin Wall there were concerns for the crumbling East German city. Buildings were abandoned, places left to deteriorate and no proper industries were feeding the stale economy. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and late 1990s, over 100,000 people left the city, most going to find work in the bigger urban centres like Berlin and Munich. Despite its stunted popularity growth after decades of urban shrinkage, developers, entrepreneurs and creatives alike are now catching on to one of Europe’s most liveable cities with its potential to become the next big thing. It’s one of the great examples of European urban renewal, an economic and social regrowth driven partly by affordability (cheaper rents attract a more bohemian crowd) and partly by city policy. And the plan is working. Travellers are coming in their droves.

Leipzig is undergoing a resurgence. Part of the appeal, over say the bustling streets of Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain in Berlin, is its slower pace and more intimate setting. There’s a new lease of culture, life and industry, all without the hefty price tag. The young creative scene is thriving with a combination of alternative cultures displayed throughout the city. With over 500,000 citizens occupying Leipzig today and despite the high unemployment rate, there is a buzz in the air. No wonder the locals are calling it ‘Hypezig’.

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The ‘it’ district, Plagwitz, is decked out in industrial chimneys and brick housing combined with rejuvenated, once derelict buildings. Various styles of colourful murals and street art are not the only artistic flair oozing out of the city either, with numerous art exhibitions being housed in dilapidated warehouses and factory buildings including Westwerk in the trendy district of Plagwitz. Covering over 10 acres, the former cotton mill, Baumwollspinnerei, is now the centrepiece of Leipzig’s art tourism appeal – it’s home to over 120 artists’ studios and workshops.

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Image c/o Hammonia, Flickr

In certain areas of Leipzig, you could be mistaken for thinking you’re in Berlin. The artistic neighbourhoods do have a lot in common with Berlin’s famed hipster and nightclub hotspots, Kruezburg and Friedrichain. In Leipzig though you get the feeling that the city isn’t trying too hard. The art scene is happening naturally, with some of the country’s most exciting up-and-comers getting on board. For the party animals out there, there’s also a techno clubbing scene that’s gaining international attention.

These are the spots in Leipzig that many of the creatives – the young and the trendy – flock to on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s all about the no-thrills, cheap-living, open attitude to let be, in a city that embraces the alternative. You thought Berlin was the centre piece of alternative in Europe? Think again.