About Travel With Chardoul, Inc.
Travel With Chardoul began in 1978, although I didn’t call it by that name then. The summer of 1978 had just begun. A member of the biology department at Grand Rapids Junior College asked if I would like to assist her with a group of students she had collected who were going to do a concentrated study of Costa Rica and Guatemala. A geology instructor rounded out our instructor staff. We had 25 students and we spent three weeks on the college campus in class from 8-12 five days a week. The main focus was the fragile ecosystem in tropical lands, modified by geologic (tectonic) shifts and economic/political decisions. We taught the students not only “things” but also how to observe and take note of what was observed and make some conclusions.
The three week in-class training also included some nature walks to learn how to observe, time in the Gerald Ford Natatorium to practice snorkel techniques, urban observations, and learning some “foodways.” Then came the actual performance with a total of six weeks in Central America. Students wrote comprehensive journals, we quizzed them orally, and the instructors learned from each other and shared experiences.
This program continued a second summer but because summer in Costa Rica is the rainy season, we decided to alter the program and move it to Christmas vacation (Costa Rica’s dry season) and include other instructors and administrators from the college as well as other adults and more students. The tropical biologist and I took four more groups, including dedicated birders. I took one final group of primarily adults to Costa Rica in 1993-94.
In the summer of 1986, l led a mixed group of college students and adults to the People’s Republic of China. As my advanced graduate studies dealt with U.S. – Chinese relations in the 1920s, I knew quite a bit about the country which had gone through so much in the twentieth century and wanted to share that information with others. Beijing, the Great Wall, Xian, viewing the karst formations on the Li River, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Shanghai were the places we visited.
In the summer of 1995, a zoologist and I took a group of primarily students with some adults to Ecuador. We visited an Amazon tributary (the Napo River), to explore the ecosystem there and see how the locals survived with their supposedly primitive lifestyle, but who had learned to cope with disease using products from the forest. We also spent time in the mountain highlands, climbing up to the 16,000-foot level of Mount Cotopaxi and observing market conditions and a snowstorm on the equator in July. Our final stay was a few days in the Galapagos Islands to see the blue-footed boobies, observe various tortoises in a driving rainstorm, we swam and sunbathed with sea lions, and carefully cleaned our shoes to ensure that we didn’t take microbes from one island to the next. We also spent some time at the Darwin Station (this is where he did a lot of his preliminary work on species differentiation).
In 1998, along with another instructor from Grand Rapids Community College (who was born in China), we organized a second trip to the People’s Republic of China. Rather than the traditional path, we decided to follow the path of Confucius along the western Pacific coast. I pride myself on being both an observer of current situations and also making comparisons with the past and also different cultures. I saw a lot of changes in China from 1986, primarily in the lives of people, their clothing, their food, and their transportation.
I took a small group to Greece in the spring of 2001. This was primarily an exploratory trip as I had not returned to the home of my parents since 1951. We visited the glorious city of Athens with its rich history and saw a city in turmoil as it attempted to prepare for the Olympics and extend its subway system. The main problem was that every time the workers dug down, they found more artifacts as the city was continually being built on the foundations of earlier generations. The classic tour to Delphi, Olympia, Epidauros, and Mycenae was augmented with a journey to central Peloponnesus over the mountains and then flights for three-day stays in each of the islands of Crete, Santorini, and Samos.
I organized a third trip to China in the summer of 2001. This was a more traditional itinerary and again, I noticed even more the spread of money to more people with traffic jams in Beijing, Xi’an, and Hong Kong. The inability to control the rising amount of pollution was the only downside to this rapidly developing nation. The itinerary included a six-day trip down the Yangtze prior to the completion of the Three Gorges Dam which raised the water level on the river several hundred feet.
Another tour of Greece in September 2003, the year before the Olympic Games, saw the completion of some of the projects. One of the most fantastic was the completion of the Acropolis Museum, which replaced the quaint little museum tucked under the foundation of the Parthenon. This new building has the entire long wall facing the Acropolis ready to receive the “Elgin Marbles,” the frieze taken off the Parthenon by Lord Elgin and placed in the British Museum “for safekeeping.” We also did the classical tour and included the fascinating series of monasteries at Meteora. Finally, we took an Aegean cruise for a week, even landing on Turkish soil to go to Ephesus.
In September 2004, I led a group to Italy. The main excitement was the impending passing of Pope John Paul II, so the Ellipse in front of St. Peter’s Basilica was crowded with devout Catholics and many sound trucks which were there for the “death watch.” The Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel were wall to wall people. The day we left for the Renaissance city of Florence, the Pope passed away. Day trips to Pompeii, Siena, Perugia (Grand Rapids’ Sister City), Assisi, and Montepulciano were followed by a great one-night stand at a private island in Venice harbor (and I bought a tie on the Rialto Bridge). We finished the Italy trip by taking the train to Milan to see “The Last Supper” and the Duomo.
In September 2006, I took a group to northern and eastern Spain, visiting Basque areas as well as Catalonian Barcelona. I concentrated on the rich Spanish architecture on this trip. This included a three-day stay in Valencia, the home of Santiago Calatrava, probably one of the world’s most prominent architects. (He has designed the re-building of St. Nicholas Church at Ground Zero in New York City, which will be an architectural marvel when it is completed in several years.) The lunch stop in Cuenca on the way to Madrid will never be forgotten. Our stay in the capital city was in the Golden Triangle, with easy access to the three wonderful museums as well as the central city.
In September 2007, we found ourselves in the Republic of Ireland, working around the southern rim of that reawakened nation and checked out the pubs as well. Entering at Shannon, we visited Galway and Connemara, Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, “doing” the Ring of Kerry, around the Dingle Peninsula, experiencing the winds at the Cliffs of Moher, Killarney, Cork, the Waterford factory, the Jameson distillery, a night in a castle, and Dublin to see the Kell documents at Trinity University (where I bought a school tie), and flew out of Dublin. Many of the group still communicate with our driver/guide: Dick McBride.
I broke with the September routine and selected mid-November 2008 (because of the end of the monsoon season) to take a group all the way to Thailand to experience that rich culture. We even trod into Burma (Myanmar) and Laos on short excursions. The long cross-Pacific air trip was something to remember.
In April 2009, we steamed up the Danube River, spending three days each in Budapest and Prague. We also visited the cities of Vienna, Salzburg, Dürnstein, Melk, Deggendorf, Passau, Regensburg, and Nuremberg, as well as ventured up the Danube Gorge on a special trip to Weltenburg Abbey. This trip included the four countries of Hungary, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic.
In September 2009, my group joined me on a trip to Scotland, Northern Ireland (Ulster), and the Republic of Ireland. Flying into Edinburgh, we marveled at the Castle, Holyrood House, and everything in between on the Royal Mile. With a stop at St. Andrew’s, we continued north to Inverness where we were guided by a gentleman in full kilt (MacDuff tartan) to the Culloden Battle Site, attempted to view Nessie at Loch Ness, then flew to Belfast where we stayed at the most bombed hotel in the world (no problem for us). We walked on the Giant’s Causeway, one of nature’s most astounding geologic sites and then spent several days in (London)Derry. We were thoroughly indoctrinated on the “Troubles” between Catholic and Protestant factions. We stopped for a “photo-op” in Blacklion, County Cavan, then continued to Dublin, where most visited the Guinness Factory (momentous because we were there only a couple of days prior to the 250th anniversary of Arthur Guinness’ first production of “that black stuff.”) Our last stop was in Killarney (meeting up with Dick McBride, who was waiting for us at our hotel) where we observed trained border collies manipulating different kinds of sheep on a day excursion to the Ring of Kerry. During the trip, we tasted haggis (don’t ask what is in it) and “neeps” (turnips).
In September 2011, my travel group accompanied me to France. We flew into Paris, spent three days visiting museums, churches, Montmartre, sampling Parisian food, experiencing the fantastic Metro, then went to Monet’s home in Giverny and immersed ourselves in his life. This was reinforced with a short stay in Rouen, where Monet painted a series of views of the Nôtre Dame Cathedral and we saw where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. We continued on to Caen in western Normandy that we used as a base to visit the D-Day Beaches, pray at the American Cemetery off Omaha Beach, and see the famous Bayeux Tapestry. We compared the Abbaye-aux-Hommes with Abbaye-aux-Femmes (both built by William the Conqueror). There was a change of hotels and we drove all the way to St Malô and spent an evening in the ramparts for dinner and shopping. Then back to Mont-St-Michel where we all climbed the 282 steps and a long ramp to the top. That afternoon, we motored east to Tours, which we used as a base to visit three châteaux as well as St Martin’s church and Leonardo da Vinci’s home. From there to Beaune in northern Burgundy at the fantastic Le Cep Hotel (built in the 14th to 16th centuries). A great wine museum, a planned lunch, a trip through the “Route des Grand Crus” to the Roman town of Autun (one of our few wet days) where the Australian expat Rob Uhrey took us through the St. Lazere Cathedral. We had a nice group pre-dinner party where we sampled some of the wines we had purchased (hey! We were in Burgundy!). An excellent tour at Cave de la Reine Pédauque and then off to Dijon, where we experienced a major tear-up of the streets of the city streets, the melt-down of our bus driver, and the bawling out by our Dijon city guide for tardiness. She took us to Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, then a final dinner after checking out the mustards (remember, we were in Dijon!). The next day we rode the TGV which got us up to 167 mph returning to Paris for one final night on the town. The next day, Antoine met us at the hotel breakfast room and took us to the airport for our flights back to the U.S.
I think that you have noticed that I happen to like September as a group travel month. There are several reasons why I tend to concentrate on that month:
1) The weather in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere is better then than the heat of the summer (particularly in the southern part of Europe);
2) It is what is called in travel parlance “the shoulder season” when prices for both air tickets and land accommodations are moderated. Now, keep in mind that the prices are not the cheapest because that occurs in those months when the weather is least conducive for tourists.
3) The summer vacation has ended for the majority of tourists and the Europeans are back from their extended August vacations and are “on station” just waiting to provide excellent service for Travel With Chardoul groups.
So in September 2012, I led a group to Russia. Because I honestly would rather stay away from Russian hotels for a variety of reasons, I chose to make this a river cruise. I settled on Viking River Cruise line because I liked their itinerary and also the amenities on their ship, Helgi. Our group flew to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, then boarded our ship for three nights in Moscow. The ship was docked on the outskirts of Moscow, so this required a 45-minute coach ride into the heart of the city. Our guide, Natalie, accompanied us to the major sites of Moscow: the Kremlin, several monasteries, the renowned subway system, and a brilliant night cruise on the canals of the city. Over the next week we traveled on rivers, canals, and lakes through northwestern Russia, including a trip on Lake Onega when we got almost to the Arctic Circle to visit Kizhi on an island in the middle of the lake for a fascinating trip the Church of the Transfiguration with its 22 domes and an entire wooden construction without the use of a nail! We then spent another three nights in St Petersburg (called Leningrad during the Communist dictatorship). This absolutely beautiful city, initially built by Peter the Great and enlarged by Catherine the Great, constructed on a series of islands connected with many bridges, houses some of the glorious building projects like Peterhof, the Hermitage, more cathedrals, the Catherine Palace, the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island, and a great canal-river cruise to see the fantastic architecture of this unique city on a beautiful cloudless day as we crossed under bridges having to duck our heads to prevent decapitation (Kathy Griffith was not with us). We left Russian territory on a train destined for Helsinki, Finland, where most of my group got a chance to see an entirely different culture for an additional three nights. After an orientation city tour, we were on our own to explore. We flew out of the airport back to the United States from there.
In 2013, I organized a late September early October group trip to Perú. The obvious leading objective was Machu Picchu, but the city of Lima was quite interesting both at the beginning and end of the trip, made even more enjoyable and enlightening by our guide, Adrian Macedo, who was with us the entire trip. He taught us a lot about Peruvian culture and foodways by taking us into the main market and letting us sample different fruits and other edibles. We had a great dinner experience at a private home. We flew to Cusco, the Inca capital, alighting at 9200 feet – quite a difference from sea level 80 minutes earlier. A Mother Earth ceremony, Andean food, the Pisac Marketplace at 9700 feet, then to the Sacred Valley, which is the access from Cusco to Machu Picchu. A stop at Ollantaytambo, a great fortress, allowed several of our more adventurous to climb to the top. Then we boarded a domecar for the 100-minute ride along the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes. The little bus maneuvered the 13 180º switchbacks up the mountain to Machu Picchu where we spent parts of two days climbing around this utterly fantastic site. Ah, then the Pisco Sour demonstration at our hotel preceding dinner. Cusco showed us its wares after we returned from Machu Picchu, including Qoricancha, Q’enqo, and Sacsayhuamán (at 12,000 feet), before a visit to the Alpaca Factory. Another domestic flight to Juliaca in the southern part of Perú as the airport for Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world) with our new guide Charo, where we spent part of a day on the reed islands with the Uros peoples and even dressed in their native costumes. Another boat ride to Taquila for lunch at 12,500 feet. Charo took us into a peasant home in the highlands to see how a llama farmer lives. We then went to Sillustani at 13,500 feet to view Colla people’s burial sites that looked like silos. Then flew back to Lima for a great dinner at Huaca Pucllana to prepare for our next day four-hour trip down the coast to Pisco; from there, we flew in a 12-passenger plane over the Nazca Lines. An overnight in Paracas (the northern end of the Atacama Desert) and then a four-hour open speedboat trip to see the Candelaria and the Ballestas Islands with their 400,000 birds. That night we were back in Lima for our early morning flights back to the United States.
In September 2014, I led a group to Portugal. The intent was to cruise up the Douro River to sample the many varieties of fantastic wine located there and to see how the vineyards are established. Most of the Grand Rapids contingent flew Delta to Detroit and then to Amsterdam, skirting a storm around Detroit. After the overnight transatlantic flight, we checked in to the Lisbon Tiara Park Atlantic Hotel a day before the regular AmaWaterways trip began that would be the same hotel so we would not have change hotels. Located across a great park from the Gulbenkian Museum, I walked the group there in the morning, then lunch in the park. In the afternoon, we took cabs to Castelo de São Jorgeo. The following day, the AmaWateways portion of the trip began with a whirlwind morning coach tour of Lisbon and Belem and afternoon on our own. A trip to Sintra and the fantastic Pena Palace took up much of another day. On our trip to Porto, we stopped in Fatima on our coach trip and boarded AmaVida at Vila Nova de Gaia. We traversed five locks on our trip upstream, including one that has a 115 foot lift (highest in Europe). AmaVida has an interesting propulsion system: Jacuzzi jets in pods that are maneuverable, so no rudders or screws that would give sideways motion (torque) that would not be tolerated in the locks with only inches to spare. We departed the ship on a daily basis to visit various vineyards. We even crossed into Spain to visit Salamanca. Port wine is fortified with grappa. The trip finished with a walk through Porto.
In late February 2016 we made the long trip to New Zealand. As this country is literally on the other side of the world – both on the other side of the International Date Line as well as south of the Equator – one of the considerations I had to ponder and decide on was the long trans-Pacific flight. I scheduled us to arrive a day early to accommodate the time zone change (and also, because we left on a Tuesday, the flight cost was less). The group from Grand Rapids flew to Los Angeles and from there non-stop to Auckland, the largest city. The two main islands, appropriately called “North” and “South,” are very different. As the hotel that Globus had selected for the tour group was the Hilton, I chose to have my group stay at the Crowne Plaza, a more centrally located hotel for one night. Most of the group took a boat cruise to Waitomo Island giving everyone a chance to see how Auckland is situated with water on both sides.
The next day, we transferred to the Hilton which is at the end of Prince Wharf and filled out vouchers for optional trips. An orientation motor coach tour of Auckland for most of the group followed by a harbor cruise. Lots of sailboats!
We spent a few interesting hours in Hobbiton, then to the Glowworm Caves at Waitomo. From there to Rotorua for several nights to see the hot springs at Te Puia and experience a Hangi dinner where I was made a “chief” and went through a “Powhiri” and I learned a bit of the Haka. “Kia rite!” (“be prepared!”)
We flew to Wellington, got an orientation tour, including Mount Victoria to see the ancient volcanoes. Some of spent time at Te Papa, a great museum. From there to Christchurch on the South Island to see the earthquake damage. From there to Mount Cook National Park in the Southern Alps where Sir Edmund Hillary trained to climb Everest. We finished our time in New Zealand in Queenstown, an exhilarating several days that included a long trip to Doubtful Sound and a wine tour.
I broke with tradition somewhat and planned another trip the same year. But this one was in late September and early October 2016 to southern France. I incorporated a “canned” cruise from Chalon-sur-Saône to Arles along with an extension that I designed for my group that explored some of the most interesting areas in Provence for an additional five days. My most recent journal is from that trip and you can access it here: France Journal
In 2017, I led a group to the charming island of fSicily for nine days and the Amalfi Coast for five additional days. The 24 of us had the advantage of having a fantastic Tour Manager who accompanied us for the entire two weeks. I was assisted greatly by the totally effective professionalism of Collette who provided choices for hotels, local transportation, sites to visit, restaurants, and our local guides. After that, six of us continued to the Greek island of Corfù for an additional week. Go to “Intro” and scroll down to see the travel journals for both the large trip (Journal for Group Trip to Sicily & Amalfi Coast, September 2017)Corfù Web Journal and the Corfù trip (Corfù Web Journal ).
The 2018 trip was to Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Again, I tapped in to the expertise of Collette Explorations. There was no way that I could have provided the scope of what we saw if I had designed the trip on my own. My previous experience in Vietnam was compliments of the United States Navy in 1966, when my very slightly refurbished LST took almost three months to make the trip from Little Creek, Virginia to our first landing in Chu Lai, South Vietnam on 11 May 1966. We spent the next few months going up and down the Mekong and Bassac Rivers, providing support to various American military units and a South Vietnamese detachment. So, I attempted to recruit my fellow shipmates, but none wanted to make the return trip; so I took a small group and met others in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) for 20 days. Our Tour Manager was again outstanding. Here is the journal for that trip.
The 2019 adventure was to Greece. Once more, I turned to Collette for assistance. Because of my wife’s and my own Greek heritage, I decided on returning to that sunny spot of the world. I thought it would be appropriate to follow the path of my namesake, St. Paul. Look at the file of trip journals for what we did.
2020 I had scheduled a trip to begin in Amsterdam for several days, then a seven-night cruise up the Rhine to Switzerland, followed by an additional four nights in that country with two nights each in Lucerne and Zurich. But the “best laid plans of mice and men” took precedence. Covid-19 happened. As I had scheduled the trip using the services of AmaWaterways, that company went along with me and allowed me to reschedule the trip for early August 2021. All of the original signers were able to make the change, and I added several additional fellow travelers.
2021 The Rhine trip actually took place. It began with a very productive several nights in a centrally-located hotel in Amsterdam near Centraal Station. A walking tour where our Travel With Chardoul contingent met other fellow travelers and we were split into three walking groups: fast, regular, and “relaxed” (this was the pattern that we would follow throughout the trip, but on the Rhine portion of the trip, bikes were added for the really adventurous. We also had a canal cruise and a day trip to a Potemkin-type village north of Amsterdam to see the Netherlands in the 18th century. Then the week aboard our river cruiser. Because of Covid restrictions, the passenger list was restricted and minor face mask provisions were instituted. Every stop, we were hailed by our local guides as their first “customers” in 18 months! Needless to say, we were treated very well. We departed our ship in Basel, then spent two nights in Lucerne with the highlight there on the cog railway up to Mount Pelatus. Then motored to Zurich for a final two nights.
If you have someplace you are very interested in visiting, please let me know. I have some ideas for future trips, but am open to suggestions. It takes a lot of time to put a trip together, but it is something that I really enjoy doing.