Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure

26th Jan 2008
Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 1/18 by Jenny McIver
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 2/18 by Jenny McIver
Cable Beach, Bahamas
Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 3/18 by Jenny McIver
Maui, Hawaii
Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 4/18 by Jenny McIver
Ein Bokek, Israel
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Masada, Israel
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Western Wall, Jerusalem
Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 7/18 by Jenny McIver
Istanbul, Turkey
Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 8/18 by Jenny McIver
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 9/18 by Jenny McIver
Marrakech, Morocco
Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 10/18 by Jenny McIver
Marrakech, Morocco
Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 11/18 by Jenny McIver
Casablanca, Morocco
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Libson, Portugal
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Seville, Spain
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Marbella, Spain
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Barcelona, Spain
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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
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Photo of Around the World in 30 Days: Serenity & Adventure 18/18 by Jenny McIver
Running the Marrakech Marathon!

My third annual month-long trip around the world almost didn't happen due to work conflicts. But, at the last minute my schedule cleared and I decided I had time to go! I booked the entire trip in about 2 weeks and since I used miles for the RTW ticket I had to take what I could get for the itinerary. The flights were definitely the toughest. Imagine trying to cash in miles for more than a dozen flights on two weeks notice. This is the kind of thing most people book at least 6 months in advance if not longer. But, with daily persistence on the phone with the Skyteam Around the World desk, I think I finally have a workable itinerary. I planned this trip last-minute so packing, booking hotels etc. was an ordeal. Even though on short notice, I am glad I took this trip.

To give you a little background: The rules on the Around the World ticket with Delta (or rather, Skyteam) are pretty simple, you pick a direction (east or west) and keep going until you get back to your starting point, no backtracking allowed. Once again I chose to go east since it allows me to choose overnight flights which save time and hotel nights. Of course, if I had all the time in the world to spend entire days on a plane and money was not an issue, I think I’d go west, it would be a lot easier from a jet lag perspective. After experiencing the Atlanta snow, I decided to head to Santiago first. But, due to the last-minute planning and no ticket availability I ended up in the sunny Bahamas! Not bad at all! 

Despite those challenges, I still managed to squeeze a lot of amazing places into the trip and even ran a marathon in Marrakech! Destinations for this year's trip included the Bahamas, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Israel, Turkey, Thailand, Vietnam & Maui. 

Flying into Nassau over crystal blue waters, I started to think maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Are the Bahamas adventurous? No. A step outside my comfort zone? Certainly not. But, after all, my next stop was Morocco where I was planning to run a marathon so maybe easing into this trip by starting off with a little R&R was not such a bad way to go. My hotel for the 2 nights I was staying in Nassau in the Sheraton Cable Beach. The hotel was actually quite nice. It had recently undergone a complete renovation and looked brand new. My room was excellent with a great view of the white sand beach and sparkling turquoise sea outside. I was relaxing already. There wasn't much to do other than laze around on the beach or go to the casino but, hey, that’s just fine with me.
Photo of Sheraton Cable Beach Resort, West Bay Street, Nassau, New Providence, The Bahamas by Jenny McIver
My plan was to run a marathon in Marrakech. So, on my first day I decided to spend most of the afternoon touring Marrakech and then get to bed early to get a good nights sleep for the race. After doing some research I decided, against my will, to hire a guide. We walked around the main square, Jemaa el Fna, which is the lively heart of Marrakech and borders on sensory overload. Everything from spice vendors to street entertainers to snake charmers, you name it, it can probably be found in Jemaa el Fna. After dark, the square becomes what they call a “rolling restaurant”. Food vendors from all over the city set up stalls complete with seating for customers. Waiters even stand outside and hand out menus. Coming to the Marathon, I have to say this was definitely the toughest marathon I’ve ever done. I hit a wall in the first half itself, but with a little motivation from a young girl, I was somehow able to finish it! What a day!
Photo of Place Jemaa El Fna, Marrakesh, Marrakesh-Tensift-Al Haouz, Morocco by Jenny McIver
Well, I have to say that those expecting romance or adventure here in Casablanca will be sorely disappointed. Humphrey Bogart never came here, and the film Casablanca was filmed entirely in Hollywood. ”Casa”, as the Moroccans call it, is actually Africa’s second-largest city after Cairo with a population between 3 and 4 million. It’s a very modern city compared to Marrakech and also home to Africa’s largest port. I planned to check out Casablanca’s biggest attraction and Morocco’s major landmark, the Hassan II Mosque. Proclaimed as a triumph of faith and craftsmanship, King Hassan’s mosque, on the shores of the Atlantic, was finally opened in 1993 after 6 years of construction. It is the second-largest mosque in the world, after Mecca, and possesses the tallest minaret (656 ft high). The mosque’s beautiful setting on the coast with breakers crashing at its base was apparently inspired by the Koranic verse: ‘the throne of God is on the water’. The prayer hall inside can accommodate 100,000 worshipers. It was beautiful and worth the stopover in Casa.
Photo of Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Grand Casablanca, Morocco by Jenny McIver
My first observation about Seville was that it was much bigger than I had pictured it. There was a decent-sized area that constitutes the “old town” where all of the main historic sites are located and then that area is surrounded by a really generic, large European city. Though the old town is small, it is quite easy to lose your bearings (as I soon discovered) while wandering around. There were a number of small, winding city streets that the locals apparently think should remain nameless because I couldn’t find a sign on any of them, nor did they seem to exist on either of the two maps I looked at. My first stop was the Catedral de Sevilla, the largest Gothic building in the world and third largest cathedral (after St. Peter’s in Vatican City and St. Paul’s in London). The cathedral’s central altar is over 60 feet tall and is said to be the largest in the world. The tomb of Christopher Columbus is also located within the cathedral. Next door is La Giralda, a 12th century Moorish tower. The view is fantastic and I had earned it after walking up the steep ramps to get to the top. Just across from the cathedral is the Royal Palace, Alcazar. Formerly a Moorish fortress, it’s still used by the royal family when they visit Seville.
Photo of Seville, Spain by Jenny McIver
I arrived in Lisbon just before sunset and was amazed at how beautiful the city is. It actually reminds me a lot of San Francisco (with an oddly similar bridge and even cable cars). My first stop was the Belem Tower. Built in Manueline style during the Age of Discoveries in 1520, the Tower served to defend the Tagus River bank. Once a symbol of King João II’s power, as the new centuries passed, the tower has been given different functions such as a customs control point, a telegraph station, a lighthouse and even a political prison. UNESCO classified it as a World Heritage Site in 1983. Next to the Belem Tower was the Discoveries Monument which was built on the bank of River Tagus in 1960 to honor the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. It was designed in the shape of a caravel, on which Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, and many relevant heroes of Portuguese history are shown riding.
Photo of Lisbon, Portugal by Jenny McIver
For my first day in Barcelona, I spent the afternoon taking a walk down “Las Ramblas”. This pedestrian-only street stretches for about a mile from the Placa de Catalunya all the way down to the port. Along the way, there are restaurants, cafes, stands selling flowers and animals (which was a little odd), a huge market and more street performers than you’ve ever seen in your life. The first thing to know about Barcelona is that the city’s architecture is heavily influenced by Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi. I was not that familiar with Gaudi’s work but examples of it can be seen all over Barcelona and it is really unusual and impressive. My first stop was Barcelona’s most recognizable landmark, Gaudi’s unfinished and indescribable La Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family). Next on my list was La Pedrera (Casa Mila), an apartment building, considered Gaudi’s greatest work. Like the church, this building also had sort of a “melting” appearance. It was built between 1905 and 1910 and it’s a wavy gray stone structure with balconies covered in seaweed-like wrought-iron. Also like the church, it is much better seen than described. In fact, I discovered that Barcelona on the whole is a tough city to describe.
Photo of Barcelona, Spain by Jenny McIver
Istanbul is a city rich in history. Formerly Constantinople, and cradle to the Ottoman Empire, it was founded 667 years before Christ and is the only city in the world built on two continents. I indulged in a nice Turkish Bath (not very expensive at about $40 for the whole service, including a massage.) My first stop was Istanbul’s most recognizable landmark, the Blue Mosque. The mosque was built opposite Haghia Sophia (originally a Christian church) to underline the supremacy of Islam over Christian Byzantium. The Blue Mosque gets its name from the blue Iznik tiles that dominate the interior. After leaving the Blue Mosque, I wandered over to the Grand Bazaar. Originally designed as the trading heart of an empire, the Grand Bazaar is a shopper’s delight for carpets, spices, souvenirs, leather goods, you name it. After the bazaar, I wandered around town a little more and ended up down by the Bosphorous waterway which links the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, dividing Europe from Asia (Istanbul sits on both sides of the Bosphorous, hence the “city on two continents” title). There are a number of ferries that run along the Bosphorous linking central Istanbul with outlying towns. It’s a great view from the bridge to watch all of the fishermen lining the railing and the ferries going by below.
Photo of Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey by Jenny McIver
I headed to the much awaited experience at the Dead sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth at about 1300ft BELOW sea level. It is actually composed of two shimmering blue lakes, linked by a canal, and fed by the River Jordan. Now, there are a couple of important rules for swimming (or floating) in the Dead Sea. First, it is dangerous to swallow any of the water or get it in your eyes, so you have to be a little careful. Next, there is a strict “no-splashing” rule. And finally, due to the high mineral content, you can’t stay in the water too long or it will irritate your skin. When you do get out, you have to shower off right away. Fortunately, there are plenty of showers located on the beach for this purpose. I floated for a few minutes and got out.
Photo of Dead Sea, South, Israel by Jenny McIver
Aside from a dip in the Dead Sea, the main attraction in this area is Masada, site of a mass suicide by the Zealots in AD73 to avoid capture by the Romans and, today, a symbol of national pride. Diligent research revealed that the best time to see Masada was an early morning climb to the summit to watch the sunrise. The next morning I prepared for my climb up the "Snake Path" trail. We made it to the top in about 45 minutes and were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise. The Judean Desert spread out below and the Dead Sea sparkling turquoise in the distance. Truly, utterly amazing. Biblical, some might say. After exploring the ruins at the top for about an hour, I started the climb back down which was much easier going now that the sun was up.
Photo of Masada, Israel by Jenny McIver
My first stop was the Western Wall, a site crucial to the Jewish faith. Jews visit it regularly, mainly to mourn the loss of the Temple which once stood above but was destroyed in 586 BC by Babylonians and again in AD70 by Romans. The atmosphere is one of hushed silence and people take turns placing tiny folded notes to God between the stones. Next, I navigated my way to the Dome of the Rock. The Golden Dome of The Rock is the focal point of the Jerusalem skyline. Its exterior consists of a myriad of tiny, painted tiles in every imaginable shade of blue and green, topped by inscriptions from the Koran.
Photo of Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem by Jenny McIver
On my first day in Thailand, I decided to visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market. I did a little shopping at the market and finally bought a few gifts. After spending sometime in Krabi, I headed to the Phi Phi Islands. We headed out for the hour-long ride to the Phi Phi Islands and it was a stunningly beautiful ride. Small islands of limestone cliffs dot the Andaman Sea everywhere you look. Ko Phi Phi is made up of two islands, Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh. Entering the Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh was like entering another world. The soaring limestone cliffs, turquoise waters and stunning little coves of sandy beach are enough to make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. It is quite possibly the most beautiful place I have EVER seen. I spent about an hour and a half snorkeling and marveling at the views before heading back to Phi Phi Don for lunch and an afternoon of enjoying the beaches there.
Photo of Ko Phi Phi Leh Ao Nang Krabi Thailand by Jenny McIver
I have to admit, I didn’t have high expectations for Vietnam. Actually, I guess I didn’t know what to expect. The first morning in Saigon I got up early to see the sun rise over the Saigon River from my room and start exploring the city a little more. My first stop was Saigon’s oldest and largest market, the Ben Thanh Market. It was interesting but a lot like all the other markets I had seen on this trip so I didn’t linger. Next stop was the 130-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral. The building’s distinctive red bricks were imported from Marseille and its twin bell towers dominated the Saigon skyline until well into the 60’s. From the cathedral, I walked down the street to the Reunification Palace. The site was a center of power in Vietnam for more than a century, most recently as the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace.
Photo of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by Jenny McIver
After a 36-hour train ride from Saigon, I arrived in Hanoi and took a day trip out to Halong Bay. I booked a private junk boat tour and requested that the driver and guide make one stop on the way out of town at the main tourist attraction in Hanoi, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Next, we headed to Halong bay. The spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay is made up of 3,000 islands over 580 square miles spreading to the Chinese border. Halong means “descending dragon” and is a reference to the legend of the enormous beast that is said to have careened into the sea at this point cutting the bay from the rocks. It was very relaxing to just glide along the glass-like emerald-green water taking in all the island formations and the other boats around you. The islands were lovely but the highlight of the tour was definitely the 'Hang Hahn Cave' Mai took me to after lunch. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. The cave was just discovered in 1996 and has only recently had things like steps and lights added to it so that it is accessible to tourists. It was remarkable inside, loaded full of stalactites and stalagmites. A real geological wonder. You couldn’t help but just look around in awe.
Photo of Halong Bay Vietnam, Hàng Bạc, Hanoi, Vietnam by Jenny McIver
Though I have been to Hawaii several times, this was my first trip to Maui. I was struck by the beauty of the island. From the spectacular lush green mountains to the royal blue waters surrounding it, Maui is quite a welcome sight for the weary traveler. But, it is not just the physical beauty of the island that is the draw. Every year, from December until April, Maui’s favorite wintertime visitors are in residence. The Humpback Whales, thousands of them, migrate from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to the warm and sheltered waters of the Hawaiian Islands. I was skeptical as I scanned the calm water but after a just a few minutes of diligent observation, I was rewarded with the splash of a Whale's tail in the distance. How cool is that!? On the rest of the drive I had four more whale sightings and I was hooked. I always thought you had to go out really far on boats to see any whales but here on Maui, all you have to do is look out at the water from the beach, your hotel room, your car, wherever. They are literally everywhere.
Photo of Maui, HI, United States by Jenny McIver