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November 14, 2019 · 6:00 am

Should You Visit Japan in the Winter?

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Spoiler alert: you should! 

The Land of the Rising Sun rarely disappoints, regardless of the season you visit. In the Spring, there are cherry blossoms, in the summer, festivals galore. The autumn is a melodious eruption of colors with the changing leaves and the winter–well, the winter.

Tokyo brings in stylish events and warm, fairytale lights throughout the city.

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Here are 5 Reasons to Visit Japan in the Winter Months: 

1. Japan has Mild Winters.

While we usually associated winter in Japan with snow, the autumn and mild weather actually lasts a bit longer than in most countries. In November and December, autumn leaves and crisp air linger on.

Even when it becomes full-fledged winter, it’s still quite dry. Winter, which lasts from December to February, ranges from 10-12ºC (50-54°F) in the day, and 2-5ºC (35-41ºF) at night.

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2. Christmas is still a thing. 

Though Christmas isn’t a public holiday in Japan, it’s still celebrated, especially among couples. Rather than having any family connotation, it’s viewed more as a romantic time, like a second Valentine’s Day. This is accentuated by Tokyo bursting into thousands of LED lights. So expect magical winter wonderland if you visit in late December!

To enjoy the illuminations at their best, head out to Ueno or Roppongi Hills.

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3. New Year’s is marked by Festivals & Family Time.

New Year’s is a big event, even bigger than in the U.S., you might even say. The period from December 28 to January 5 is known as oshogatsu, a time to visit families and enjoy seasonal dishes (osechi ryori) like black soybeans, red sea bream, fish cake, and soft, delicious mochi. Don’t miss out on other events like temple rituals and ice skating rinks, a common sight during this time.

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4. Hokkaido is the Ultimate Winter Destination.

Hokkaido is a perfect winter destination you might not have heard of. The northernmost province of Japan, Hokkaido is renowned for its ski resorts, powdery snow, and hot springs resorts and towns.

If you’re in Sapporo in February, don’t miss the Snow Festival, a snow sculpture competition that attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. People come from all over the world to compete and show off their gorgeous ice sculptures.

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5. The View of Japan’s Mountains are unparalleled.

About 73% of Japan is mountainous, so don’t be surprised that some of the most photogenic shots you could take in the countryside are of mountains. And there’s no better time to enjoy the scenery than in winter. Due to the mild weather and clear skies, the view of the peaks, including iconic Mt. Fuji, are close to magical.

Take a train out from Tokyo is explore these peaks. It’s also a perfect time for quiet, introspective walks up these mountains or strolls through the countryside villas.

Thinking of Japan in the Winter? There are some amazing itineraries to explore the Land of the Rising Sun in Winter and multi-day hiking trips in the Spring. Call us at 503-224-0180 or email inquiry@wittravel.com to learn more from our travel agents. 

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Travel News: Yes, An Epic Around-The-World Train Trip Actually Exists!

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Welcome to the weekly installment of Travel News, where we look back at this week’s articles and essays and what’s going on in the world of trips and tours.

First, our favorites: it’s that time of year again when magazines are releasing their best countries to visit in 2020: Lonely Planet kicking off the trend, as usual. 

Then, with cruise season just around the corner, Conde Nast says you should Spend the Holidays on a Cruise this Year—because, basically, whether the kids are older or still believe in Santa Claus, don’t you want to give them a Christmas they’ll keep talking about for many Christmases to come?

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Go solo or with a partner discovering the Best New Orleans River Cruises. With scenic cruising, New Zealand checks off another tab on the growing list of why this country is just a must go: 8 Reasons Why New Zealand offers the best scenic cruising in the world.

And because you’ve always been secretly wondering: learn what the Most Expensive Bed at Sea costs.

In the world of Travel Tips, Conde Nast returns with a list on the Best Credit Cards with transferable points–so you can save on all those sweet mileage deals. 

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Insert Non Sequitur Here: Learn Why Denmark Put a 120-Year-Old Lighthouse on Rollerblades.

Bingo Boarding. Cross your fingers, Gatwick and Easyjet are pairing up for a trial of “Bingo Boarding.” This is in hopes to speed up the boarding process, starting with boarding people in window seats in the back, then followed by middle then aisle seats. Sounds like a more democratic approach, and it HAS been reducing the wait times by about 10%, so fingers crossed more airlines adopt this practice. The BBC quoted a spokesman from Gatwick saying: “Passengers can be seated until their seat number comes up on the large screen and then board the aircraft without queuing.” Wow, waiting without queuing – imagine that.

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And Yes, An Epic Around-The-World Train Trip Actually Exists! Train enthusiasts around the world can see 15 countries across 4 continents in an epic 57 days. Beginning in Chicago, you make your way to New York, then hop on a Transatlantic flight to London. Board the Eurostar then it’s Paris, through Geneva, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Hamburg, and up to Scandinavia for stops in Copenhagen and Stockholm–then St. Petersburg and Moscow. Zoom across to Mongolia and China to see Beijing, Xi’an, and Hong Kong. Jump across the pond to Australia from a major 3-night journey from Perth to Sydney. Then back into the USA for a tour of southwestern parks like Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef. Cap off the trip back to Chicago!

This epic journey starts at a price tag of $19,079, and includes every night in the train and hotel, sightseeing and 52 meals. Flights, though, are booked separately. Truly a unique way to see the world. Departs every since Thursday through 2020, so all board!

Live in Portland, OR or nearby? Call your travel agent at 503-224-0180 or email inquiry@wittravel.com. 

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Why NOW is the time to go to Myanmar

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WIT Agent Pam Davis recently had the opportunity to with V’Explore to Myanmar. She discovered that there has never been a better time to explore this fascinating nation. Read on to find all about this still-enigmatic country.  

Writes Pam:

“NOW is the time to go.  Tourism is now on the rise a bit. There are now direct flights from China into both Yangon and Mandalay.

Yangon, the biggest city, is easy to explore

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“Starting the trip in Yangon, we spent the night on arrival at the  Suli Shangri La Hotel.  The Yangon airport is not too far from the city center, but the trip takes about an hour because the traffic is incredible.  The hotel is lovely – my room overlooked one of the major temples of Yangon.

Buddhism in Myanmar means temples…

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“Buddhism is everywhere in Myanmar – it is more a part of everyday life for the people than anywhere else I’ve been.  Even in the streets of Yangon you see monks with bowls collecting food offerings.  People cook breakfast with a little extra, then go to the streets and give it to the passing monks.  This happens throughout the country.  People also go daily to pray in the various temples and shrines.

Visited Shweadgon Temple which is the major one in Myanmar, took a quick walk through the downtown area to see the old British colonial buildings, and ended at Scott’s Market, a covered market in the center of the city.  Stayed at the Rose Garden Hotel in Yangon.

Explore Myanmar & SE Asia with Vexplore Tours

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…A LOT of Temples

“Flew to Mandalay in the morning of the next day and stayed at the Mercure Mandalay Hill, a very nice property.  Mandalay also has a number of temples, a castle with wall and moat, and Mandalay Hill which is topped by another temple and has a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside.

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There’s even a breathtaking Land of Temples

“Flew to Bagan.  Bagan has been added to the UNESCO world heritage list for its temples.  The temples are built on a plain, nearly 40 square miles filled with temples that date anywhere from 1100 to the current day.  We were taken by a horse cart to visit the main sites, and participated in a meditation session with one of the monks.  Spent 2 nights in Bagan at a property called The Hotel at Tharabar Gate.  It was lovely, and near one of the main entrances to Old Bagan.

Explore: River Cruises in Myanmar

Buddha statues and Bungalows at Beautiful Inle Lake

“Flew to Inle Lake.  This was an interesting area – lots of different tribal groups with different traditional dress that is still worn.  In the lake there are houses built on stilts where the fishermen live, and the fishermen have an interesting way of rowing dugout canoes with their leg while standing up – I guess it frees their hands for fishing with nets and baskets.

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We also visited a cave where there were over 5000 Buddha statues that had been placed inside.  We were also there during the Full Moon Festival where 5 Buddhist statues are taken from the main temple and rowed on very ornately decorated barges to 5 different villages in the course of a week.

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Stayed at the Treasure Inle Lake Resort which had overwater bungalows built on docks stretching out into the water.  There is a lot of building in this area – a new Novotel Resort and a beautiful property called the Aureum Palace Hotel which is a 5 star property.

Read more about Buddhas & Boats on Inle Lake

Final Impressions of Myanmar?

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I found the country to be very beautiful, the people warm and welcoming.

Enjoyed the country and enjoyed traveling with V’Explore.  I’ve found their service to clients to be excellent and they have excellent ground services in all the countries where they travel.

Good to Know Before You Go

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Daily costs are very affordable

Meals and taxi costs are very low – a dinner with drink at a hotel restaurant came to $10.

A “high tea” at the Leading Hotel in Yangon was $18.00 and rivaled anything you’d see at the Empress in Victoria.

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Be Prepared to Haggle

You do need to practice your bargaining skills when shopping in the handicraft markets, but for $5-$20 you can get some beautiful things.  Even in shops, the list price is just a suggestion and you can almost always get a 15-20% discount by asking.

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The Countryside is Rugged

In the countryside the roads aren’t as good so everything just moves at a slower pace.  As long as you have a good local operator they take all of this into account when doing the transfers.

Traffic is Rough

Traffic throughout the country is horrendous – a 5 mile trip can easily take an hour, 2 lane roads become 4 lanes automatically and you are sharing the road with cars, trucks, horse and bullock carts, scooters.

Interested in checking out options to Myanmar? Call our travel agents at 503-224-0180 or email inquiry@wittravel.com. 

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Cruise Panama & Colombia in October 2020

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Looking for a unique cruise for next year? Join Lindblad Expeditions on their 8-Day Expedition of Panama & Colombia in October 2020.

All aboard the 100-guest National Geographic Quest for an amazing 8-day journey on the Caribbean coast!

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There are few itineraries that let you explore Panama and Colombia in depth. Travel from the historic Panama City, across the world-famous Panama Canal. Then pass along the coast, visiting iconic ports along the way to Cartagena.

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On this small-ship expedition, feel like a true explorer into Nature & Culture:

  • Transit the Panama Canal over 2 fascinating days & 1 dramatically illuminated night; experience Gatún Lake in the Canal Zone.
  • Explore UNESCO World Heritage Site Portobelo, Panama, for its 17th and 18th century history; and Colombia’s Santa Cruz de Lorica, with its fascinating European and Middle Eastern architecture and culture.

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  • Meet the people of Guna Yala (formerly the San Blas Islands) and discover their renowned handcrafted mola textiles; see hatmakers weaving the vueltiao, Colombia’s national symbol.
  • Hike amid the region’s splendid tropical biodiversity—spotting some of the 1,900 bird and 450 mammal species.

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  • Snorkel, kayak or paddleboard in crystal clear waters in untouristed regions.
  • Visit Santa Cruz del Islote, Colombia, one of the most densely populated islands on Earth—with 600 inhabitants on land the size of two soccer fields.

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Looking for a cruise but not sure what to expect? Chat with our travel agents on cruises, at 503-224-0180 or email inquiry@wittravel.com.

Read more on Lindblad Expeditions, in Alaska and in Baja

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Travel News: And the Top Destinations for 2020 are…

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1,300 Travel Advisors did a Survey on Top Destinations for 2020

Virtuoso’s Luxe Report surveyed 1,300 travel advisors from agencies around the world, revealing everything you need to know about travel in 2020: 

Top travel trends are 1) multigenerational travel, 2) authenticity, 3) active or adventure trips, 4) family travel (immediate family) and 5) celebration travel.

Top emerging destinations are 1) Croatia, 2) Antarctica, 3) Iceland, 4) Japan and 5) Portugal.

Top global destinations are 1) Italy, 2) Greece, 3) France, 4) Japan and 5) Croatia.

Top adventure destinations are 1) Antarctica, 2) Alaska, 3) Galapagos Islands, 4) South Africa and 5) Iceland.

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Top Millennial destinations are 1) Greece, 2) Bali, 3) Croatia, 4) Iceland and 5) Cambodia. Top Cities are 1) Paris, 2) Barcelona, 3) Florence, 4) Rome and 5) London.

Top family destinations are 1) Hawaii, 2) Italy, 3) Orlando, 4) Costa Rica and 5) England.

Top honeymoon destinations are 1) French Polynesia, 2) Italy, 3) Greece, 4) Bali and 5) Maldives.

Top solo travel destinations are 1) Italy, 2) England, 3) United States, 4) France and 5) Spain.

Top travel motivations are 1) celebrating a milestone, 2) discovering new destinations, 3) spending time with loved ones, 4) rest and relaxation, and 5) crossing off Wanderlist destinations.

Virtuoso is an exclusive network of high-end travel companies.

Agents Of Change: The Internet Didn’t Replace Travel Advisers

Boston Globe reports: it’s a profession people may think had succumbed to the onslaught of airline and hotel websites and online booking services such as Expedia and Priceline. BUT the travel agent is alive and well, with collective gross bookings of just under $113 billion in 2017. That number is projected to rise to $127 billion by 2021.

“We used to just walk down the street and be reminded of travel agents sitting there behind their windows and with all their special offers,” said Claudia Unger, a research analyst at Phocuswright. “Because we don’t see them, we just assume they’re gone. But most of them have moved into the online space or become independent contractors.”

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Even Phocuswright predicted, in 2006, that travel agents would become extinct. Instead, more than half now work out of their homes or have affiliated with “host” agencies such as Travel Experts, Andavo, Cadence, and Virtuoso. 63% said business is up, 83% are positive about the future. 

The vast expansion of the online travel universe has had another, unexpected consequence: The intimidating number of choices is beginning to channel people back to human experts. Many agents liken themselves today to financial advisers or personal trainers. It’s a definition especially appealing to millennials, about a quarter of whom said they plan to use an agent for at least one vacation in the next two years, MMGY reports. That’s an even higher proportion than for baby boomers who grew up at a time when travel agents still were omnipresent. 

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Archaeologist Discovers Ancient Maya Civilization Sites Through An Online Map

National Post reports archaeologist Takeshi Inomata has used the online map to identify the ruins of 27 previously unknown Maya ceremonial centers that contain a type of construction that archaeologists had never seen before.

Inomata, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, was thrilled when he made a major discovery using a lidar map he had found online, in the public domain, entirely for free.

The map, published in 2011 by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, covered 4,440 square miles in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas. The outlines of countless archaeological sites stood out to Inomata.

So far, he has used it to identify the ruins of 27 previously unknown Maya ceremonial centers. Inomata’s new findings include large constructions that are low to the ground,  up to two-thirds of a mile in length, and easily obscured by thick brush.

“If you walk on it, you don’t realize it,” Inomata told the Times. “It’s so big it just looks like a part of the natural landscape.”

His findings are now inspiring other archaeologists to take a look at publicly available LiDAR maps.

Using NASA data from a survey of Mexico, Charles Golden, an anthropology professor at Brandeis University, spotted ancient settlements near the Usumacinta River on the Mexico-Guatemala border.

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Denmark Sets Border Checks At Swedish Border

Denmark’s Justice Minister Nick Haekkerup announced in Copenhagen that the country will set up temporary internal border checks at the border with Sweden starting next month. The move comes after two Swedes were charged with being involved in an explosion outside the Danish Tax Agency in August.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at the time that the government was considering strengthening controls at its border with Sweden. Denmark is connected to Sweden via the Oresund bridge across a 10-mile strait. Thousands of citizens from the two countries commute across the border daily by train and car. Both countries are members of the European Union. 

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Is a Month in Kotor Bay, Montenegro, worth it?

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Our clients the Kafourys traveled to Montenegro earlier this year! Here are their impressions of a month in lovely Montenegro.

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Wanting a location where we could be reasonably warm in March and look out on water, we chose Kotor Bay in Montenegro because of a distant memory. More than 40 years ago when it was Yugoslavia, we drove the entire Dalmation Coast, ending at the city of Kotor which had been heavily damaged by an earthquake just a year before.  We really knew little about modern Kotor or the rest of Montenegro for that matter. 

Spending a month in this small but fascinating country was a gamble that paid off 

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Kotor Bay

Kotor Bay is often compared to the Norwegian fjords and Italian lakes, with steep mountains dropping directly down to the water. Small medieval villages line the bay. The country, and especially Kotor Bay, is becoming the next Adriatic Coast destination now that Croatia is overwhelmed by tourists.  Cruise ships now enter the bay at the city of Herzig Novi and dock at Kotor for day visitors beginning April 1.

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First Impressions of Montenegro?

We flew to the Dubrovnik airport [in Croatia], rented a car, and drove to a small village called Orahovac which is on the bay.  Fortuitously, both the house we rented and its location proved to be perfect. As we were in low season, the 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom house was a bargain.  Both the upstairs bedrooms and lower floor living room/kitchen had large windows looking directly to the bay, and both levels had terraces accommodating chairs and tables.

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Because of its southern exposure, we had sun from early morning till evening. In front of the house was a quiet, narrow street that was used more for strolling than driving. On the other side of the street, a single line of a few small houses, low enough that they did not obstruct our view, faced directly on the bay. Public access to the beach was just steps away.  

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Kotor Town

A 15-minute drive to the end of the bay from Orahovac found us in the town of Kotor.  Backed up against the steep hills, and surrounded by Venetian walls, the old city is pedestrian-only. Visitors walk through narrow cobblestone streets, into lovely squares, between ancient stone mansions, and into medieval churches. 

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Perast

About 10 minutes the other direction is Perast. This town became one of our favorite villages in the world due to Its spectacular location on the bay and the beauty of its buildings.  Golden limestone shines brightly against the cobalt water and the green hills on both sides of the bay.

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During its height in the 15th and 16th Centuries, Perast was major seafaring center. Now it has lost most of its populations and is left as a collection of ancient mansions (rapidly being restored and turned into hotels and tourist apartments) and centuries-old churches.

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Seafood restaurants built onto the water line esplanade. These provide surprisingly sophisticated meals, with seafood their specialties. A half-mile or so offshore are two very small islands. One is a monastery off-limits to tourists. The other holds a church with an amazing history. Both the island and church were built by local sailors in gratitude for being saved from battles or storms at sea.

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Behind the mountains that create the bay are more and more mountains and the sturdy folk who have eked out their existence here. High-quality roads are being built into the hinterlands, and those visitors who want an escape from the beaches of Montenegro’s coastline can find adventures here.  However, many roads remain driveway-wide.

 

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Podgorica, the Capital

Montenegro’s capital city, Podgorica (formerly Titograd) was virtually destroyed in WWII and rebuilt, but has nothing to offer. Better is the former capital from 1878 until WWII, Cetinje. We became quite fond of this small town surrounded by mountains. It has a lovely, human-scale feeling with a pedestrian Main Street, many parks, and modest former embassies that have been turned into well-done museums. Everywhere there are explanatory signs in English for those of us who don’t speak Serbo-Croatian.

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Further south, we visited Skadar Lake which has small villages and eager boatmen to show passengers the abundant waterfowl. This lake is divided between Montenegro and Albania. Since we had not been able to enter that former tightly restricted country when we were here in the 1970s, we decided to see what it was like.  A short drive around the south side of the Albanian Skadar Lake revealed an impoverished country that was in the process of development. 

 

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Toward Albania

 

Driving the coastline was a spectacular treat, as sheer cliffs meet the ocean. Further down Montenegro’s Adriatic coast from the bay, tourism (largely beach-oriented) becomes more intense around Budva and Sveti Stefan. Continuing along the coast to the border with Albania, tourism thins despite interesting towns such as Bar, and Ulcinj with its significant Muslim population.

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So, was it worth it?

One month in Montenegro exceeded our expectations.  Our weather was sunny and pleasant. We encountered exactly one American, dined well, met kind and friendly neighbors, and felt completely safe. We do strongly advise going in low or shoulder seasons to avoid heavy traffic and crowded sites, not to mention inflated prices.

The Kafourys booked their trip with Willamette Intl Travel. Our travel advisors can craft together the perfect getaway for you and yours. Give us a call if you’re in the Portland OR area — 503-224-0180 or info@wittravel.com. 

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