By Megan Murphy, AFAR Ambassador

Photo by Megan Murphy

This October, Contiki set off on a high-energy Western Highlights tour through Southern California, Arizona, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas. Our crew of 55 young adventurers flew in from all over the world—Australia, New Zealand, England, Germany, Japan, and a couple from the Eastern United States—to experience the best of the nation’s west coast. Some traveled with groups or as couples, but the majority arrived solo, eager to make new friends and embark on the adventure of a lifetime with #NoRegrets. If non-stop action and excitement is what you crave, this tour delivers.

One of the greatest draws of Contiki? The optional excursions offered at each destination along the way, allowing you to tailor the trip based on your individual interests. Though plenty of fun-filled memories were made during our 8 days together, here are my top picks from our epic expedition.

Speed Boating in San Diego

After kicking off in Los Angeles (hitting silver screen sights and landmarks along the way), and soaking up the sun at Cali’s beautiful beaches, the stunning city of San Diego was on the agenda. Here, we got to play captain by driving our very own boats with Speed Boat Adventures, zipping around the harbor at high speeds while taking in sights of the downtown skyline, historic maritime ships, over-the-top yachts, and even sea lions.

Speed boating, Photo by Megan Murphy

Up in the Arizona Air

If you’ve never been in a hot air balloon before, I’d highly recommend it. An early morning ride with Hot Air Expeditions in Phoenix delivered the rush of soaring at heights of up to 5,000 feet over the expansive Sonoran Desert. After floating through the dry desert air (at multiple speeds based on wind patterns) for an hour, our flight concluded with a Champagne breakfast upon landing. Cheers to that!

Hot Air Ballooning by Megan Murphy

Hot Air Balloon by Megan Murphy

Rocky (Off) Road-ing

In Sedona, an artsy mountain town with incredible views of the massive, brightly-hued red rocks, we saddled up in open-air 4×4 Jeeps for a “Canyons & Cowboys” off-road adventure with Red Rock Jeep Tours. Our spirited guide, Wendy, greeted us with a full cowgirl getup (complete with spurs!) and a huge smile as she grabbed the wheel and navigated through the rough, rugged and rocky terrain; at times I was certain the Jeep would topple over. I was wrong.

We trekked along through the heart of historic Dry Creek Basin and the seven surrounding canyons, as Wendy enthusiastically told us tales of murder and moonshine and the early cowboy days at the old Van Derin cabin, where we stopped to snap a group pic and enjoy exceptional views.

Jeep tour, photo by Megan Murphy

Jeep Tours by Megan Murphy

Hikes & Helicopters in the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is like no other place the the world; a natural wonder that every American should try to see in their life. In my experience, nothing has compared to the body-encompassing feeling that takes over you when peering out into the vast desert below: the gigantic peaks and deep valleys, the spectrum of rich colors, the layers of igneous rock formations.

After stocking up on the necessities—sunblock, snacks and lots of water—we spent an afternoon hiking the canyon’s south rim down a steep, winding and quite narrow-at-times trail that provided endless photo ops. Others in our group saw breathtaking panoramic views from above, with a heart-pounding helicopter ride over the Kaibab National Forest and into the deepest and widest part of the canyon. Experience of a lifetime.

Grand Canyon by Megan Murphy

Grand Canyon View by Megan Murphy

Grand Canyon with Megan Murphy

Our journey ended with a bang: two outrageous days in Vegas—complete with a glitzy nighttime tour of bustling Fremont Street, Cirque Du Soleil show, music- and Champagne-filled limo rides around the Strip, VIP nightclub entry, dancing ’til dawn and all the debauchery you can get into in Sin City. Need I say more? Viva Las Vegas, baby!

Overall, I was impressed with the amount of opportunities for adventure on Western Highlights. Our rockstar guide, Christy, was knowledgable, friendly and fun—and always provided nightlife options for anyone looking to party. Trust me, there was no shortage of a good time on this tour. Even the road trips between destinations were amusing thanks to our lively coach driver/deejay, HB, who blasted upbeat tunes while cruisin’.

There was plenty of downtime and opportunities to relax during our journey, as well. But of the many memories made during the trip, it’s the once-in-a-lifetime thrills and the people I “got loose with” (as the Aussies say) that I’ll remember forever.


Interested in learning more about Megans journey? Read more about it on, the USTOA blog and check out Contiki’s Western Highlights tour.

An adventure lover at heart, Megan is a food, travel and lifestyle writer based in NYC. She has contributed to AFAR, Bon Appétit, Clean Plates, Eater, Food & Wine, The Daily Meal, Thrillist and Travel + Leisure, and runs her own website. Megan is happiest when embarking on new travel and dining experiences with her beloved family and friends, and her adorable dog, Cooper.

By Megan Murphy, AFAR Ambassador


The Grand Canyon by Megan Murphy with Contiki

The Grand Canyon

One of the most magnificent and diverse places on Earth, the United States is home to some of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to have experienced several of these spectacles on my first-ever Contiki tour.

The Western Highlights expedition ventured across Southern California and Arizona, ending in Las Vegas. There was plenty of action and excitement every step of the way, and an abundance of nature’s finest sights on display—from beautiful beaches and rocky deserts to exotic animals and the majestic Grand Canyon. Here are a few highlights from the trip that any nature lover would appreciate.

Beach Bound

There’s a reason why California is known for its beaches: they are some of the finest in America, if not the world. Our tour group soaked up some rays and Cali-beach vibes at Santa Monica State Beach and its iconic pier, and also explored Venice Beach’s lively boardwalk scene. More beach time beckoned the following day, as we cruised down the Pacific Coast Highway to stunning Mission Beach for sun, sand and surfing until the sun went down. There’s nothing like a mesmerizing California sunset to cap off your day.

Venice Beach with Contiki by Megan Murphy

Venice Beach

Mission Beach sunset with Contiki by Megan Murphy

Mission Beach sunset

All About Animals

We got in touch with our wild side at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. This sprawling wildlife sanctuary—which sits on 100 acres within Balboa Park—houses more than 3,500 rare and endangered animals in exhibits designed to replicate the animals’ natural habitats, and is especially beloved for their giant pandas. As an avid animal enthusiast, this was one of the destinations I was most excited for. Child-like giddiness came over me as I got up close and personal with all my favorites including gorillas, elephants, pandas, penguins, koalas, monkeys and flamingos.

Mama gorilla with her baby

Mama gorilla with her baby at the San Diego Zoo

Giant panda at the San Diego Zoo by Megan Murphy with Contiki

Giant panda at the San Diego Zoo

Flamingos by Megan Murphy with Contiki

Flamingos at the San Diego Zoo

Desert Destinations

After arriving in Arizona, an early morning hot air balloon ride in Phoenix was on the agenda. While peacefully floating in the air, we soaked up 360-degree scenic views of the rugged Sonoran Desert terrain and distant mountain peaks. Indigenous animals, including jackrabbits, deer and coyotes, and a variety of cacti species were spotted below as we peered down from our ballooned baskets.

Our next stop was in Sedona, a serene town with phenomenal views of the towering, vividly-colored Red Rock Mountains. After grabbing lunch on bustling Main Street, our group trekked through rocky terrain in off-road Jeep tours through seven magnificent canyons and historic Dry Creek Basin.

Ballooning over Phoenix with Contiki by Megan Murphy

Ballooning over Phoenix

Red Rocks

Red Rocks

The Grand Finale

How can I possibly describe the feeling of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time?

Mother Nature has a way of grabbing you by the heartstrings and never leaving you quite the same again. This was one of those times. I was whole-heartedly moved by this larger-than-life sight—captivated by the radiant color combinations, endless erosional forms and ever-changing ridges of light that deviated with the sunshine and movement of clouds, non-stop from morning to night. The sheer magnitude of the canyon can never be accurately depicted in pictures or by words. It has to be seen with your own eyes, and felt with your own soul. Absolutely incredible.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon

I heart the Grand Canyon

I heart the Grand Canyon

Discovering nature with Contiki was a life-changing experience that gave me, and my fellow travelers from all over the world, a new appreciation for why our great nation truly is America the beautiful.


Interested in learning more about Megans journey? Read more about it on and check out Contiki’s Western Highlights tour.

An adventure lover at heart, Megan is a food, travel and lifestyle writer based in NYC. She has contributed to AFAR, Bon Appétit, Clean Plates, Eater, Food & Wine, The Daily Meal, Thrillist and Travel + Leisure, and runs her own website. Megan is happiest when embarking on new travel and dining experiences with her beloved family and friends, and her adorable dog, Cooper.



By Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

As the one Wyoming resident on my recent Go Ahead National Parks tour, I had a grand old time talking local lifestyle with my new touring friends while visiting Jackson, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park. It’s not every day that I get sent out on assignment in my own backyard, and the opportunity to explore the great wild Wyo with a group of unfamiliar faces was part of the reason I accepted this assignment in the first place; the Cowboy State is one of the country’s most spellbinding destinations, and it’s always thrilling for me to be with people experiencing its wonders for the first time.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

As our bus motored through Grand Teton NP, our tour director, Adrian, tossed me the microphone, and I proceeded to rattle off a few facts about the local atmosphere.

Bison are less friendly than elk, moose are less friendly than bison, and bears are least friendly of all. Except for badgers. And wolverines. They’re worse than bears. Cows are cool, but bulls are mostly ornery. More on bulls later.

Mountains are for climbing, woods are for hiking, and rivers are for traversing. And yes, Surf Wyoming is a real thing.

Geyser gazing is a great pastime, rodeo is a real sport, Rocky Mountain oysters (those poor ballless bulls) are not at all what they sound like, and you should wear your best boots and spurs when you visit the Million Dollar Cowboy.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

As I wrapped our Wyoming Q&A, we arrived at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, and thrust ourselves into the throngs of onlookers eagerly awaiting the great geyser’s eruption. Adrian’s clever anecdotes and inside knowledge of both Grand Teton and Yellowstone lent the parks a feeling of familiarity and deepened the sense of spectacle, and left each of us charged to explore on our own. Many of us used our time to wander the boardwalk and gaze into bubbling mud pits, fumaroles and geysers, and a few were lucky to spot bison and coyotes playing in the muck.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

We rolled on, deeper into the park, taking in the spellbinding views and ancient majesty at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where silence fell upon our party like a blanket. We hiked String Lake together, marveling at the towering Tetons, so close we could reach out and touch them, and floated down the serpentine Snake River with the good folks from Solitude Float Trips, who graciously shared the water with us (and a few of woodland creatures for good measure). In the evening we wandered the streets of picturesque Jackson, huddled under the elk antler arches in the town square, feasted on rustic pub grub at The Local, sampled quintessential craft beers at the iconic Snake River Brewing Co., and went all the way nouveau-Wyo at Thai Me Up and Melvin Brewing. Jackson’s sensational food scene is certainly its robust food scene.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

The Wyoming segment of our Go Ahead tour was a remarkable three day stretch that blended into one epic experience. I live and play in Wyoming, and I know this part of the state well – and I know that Go Ahead delivered an immersive, experiential adventure, with plenty of time for solo exploration. As far as glimpses at the Wyoming way of life go, this was a great one.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Interested in learning more about Shawn’s journey? Read more about it on and check out Go Ahead’s U.S. National Parks tour.

Flash is a journalist, photographer, and author based in Wyoming. His work has been published by AFAR, GQ Magazine, USA Today, Voyeur Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Get Lost Magazine, Celebrated Living, Asian Geographic, Food and Travel, American Cowboy, and more. Flash is the reigning 2016 SATW Bill Muster Photographer of the Year.

By Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador

The Grand Canyon with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

How can I accurately describe in words an adventure that takes me through five states, six national parks and a legendary Navajo tribal park, up and over desert mesas, deep into bottomless canyons, out into the rugged backcountry of the Mountain West, and through the very heart of the American Road Trip Experience? A lofty goal, to scribble prose about such an experience – an experience so grand that even photographs fail to capture its essential essence.

That said, it sure is fun to try.

Go Ahead U.S. National Parks Tour (credit: Flash Parker)

This was my first time on the road with Go Ahead tours, but it was obvious from day one that I was late to the party – it seemed as if more than half of or touring party had been on two, three, ten, twelve tours in the past, and while we exchanged pleasantries during our introduction dinner in Santa Fe, they raved about the good times ahead for us all (spoiler alert: the trip was every bit as remarkable as advertised). Yet instead of a lengthy debrief – a thinly-disguised effort to guard against a diary-style diatribe, if I’m being honest with you – I thought I’d write about a few of the experiences that truly touched me during this adventure.

The Grand Canyon, Go Ahead U.S. National Parks tour (credit: Flash Parker)

I’ve been a journalist for more than 10 years now, and I’ve been fortunate to have been sent out on assignment to some of the most remarkable places in the world, to do some of the wildest and strangest things imaginable. Sure, a few of those places are probably best characterized as terrifying, and a few of the situations I’ve put myself in have made for less than ideal travel memories, but I hope, I believe, that each new experience helps me appreciate the next deeper, and allows me to live in the moment each time I set out to do my job.

Wildlife on Go Ahead's U.S. National Parks Tour (credit: Flash Parker)

Enter the tour company Go Ahead and their National Parks tour. Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, peering out over an endless expanse of ochre and rust and cinnamon, condors diving to un-seeable depths, and clouds retreating toward a shimmering horizon, I quietly reflected on my entire career, and was charged with the realization that this moment ranked among the most moving.

Grand Canyon Views with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

Adrian, our energetic and informative Go Ahead guide, had slyly enriched our experience prior to our arrival by telling us stories about the architect Mary Colter and her efforts to design and build the Desert View Watchtower (as well as the Lookout Studio and the Hermit’s Rest). By the time we climbed the steps of the 70-foot stone monolith ourselves, it felt like we somehow deeply connected to the place, and that we knew a little something of the secret history of the Grand Canyon itself. Adrian’s thoughtful commentary – whether flecking conversations with anecdotes about mule trips into the Grand Canyon, or bear safety in Yellowstone – helped transform a sightseeing tour and into experiential travel expedition, and for his knowledge on geography, wildlife and history, I know I’ll be forever grateful.

Desert View Watchtower with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

I’ll remain grateful also for Adrian’s brilliant on-site recommendations. I knew I wanted to set off on my own for a more rigorous hike. I peppered him with constant questions about rim walks and hikes to great viewpoints; art galleries and artists in residence; and the best gift shops through which to procure walking stick medallions (in case you’re into that sort of thing…), and each time he responded with thoughtful commentary and useful references. And when he suggested that we embark upon a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon on our free day, I thought he was a certifiable genius.

Artist at Work in the Grand Canyon (credit: Flash Parker)

What could I possibly say about a helicopter ride of the Grand Canyon that I couldn’t convey in photographs? Here’s a quick glimpse at this once-in-a-lifetime experience, courtesy of the folks at #FlyTheCanyon.

Grand Canyon Bird's Eye View with #FlyTheCanyon and Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

By the time my feet were back on solid ground, I was so energized that I truly believed I could conquer the canyon – so I gave it my best shot by racing down the legendary Bright Angel Trail. Notorious for its unforgiving incline (10% for much of the trail) and extreme weather variations – it can be a cool 60F on the canyon rim and a blazing 105F on the floor – the Bright Angel is best tackled over two days. Since I was working with a little less than half a day, I decided to tackle the 12-mile round-trip journey to Plateau Point, rather than the 20-mile march to Phantom Ranch.

Hiking in the Grand Canyon with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

At times my odyssey was grueling, but it was rewarding throughout – views from deep in the canyon itself are unparalleled, and there’s nothing like the sensation of trekking along until the hustle and bustle of the South Rim is muted, and all that remains is ancient rock and raging Colorado River. When I arrived at Plateau Point, I thought of my new Go Ahead friends, and how the trip had been designed with something for everyone in mind – my free time allowed me to get out into the wild and challenge myself, create a story to call my own, and a few memories to share when I returned to civilization. Go Ahead had delivered on their promise to immerse me in the National Parks experience fully and completely.

Go Ahead U.S. National Parks Tour (credit: Flash Parker)

Go Ahead U.S. National Park Tour with Flash Parker

Interested in learning more about Flash’s journey? Read more about it on and check out Go Ahead’s U.S. National Parks tour.  

Flash is a journalist, photographer, and author based in Wyoming. His work has been published by AFAR, GQ Magazine, USA Today, Voyeur Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Get Lost Magazine, Celebrated Living, Asian Geographic, Food and Travel, American Cowboy, and more. Flash is the reigning 2016 SATW Bill Muster Photographer of the Year.

By Kasey Austin, Vice President of Operations, Austin Adventures


Behind every great tour experience is a phenomenal product manager – these “Modern Day Explorers” scout undiscovered experiences in new, emerging destinations, rediscover what’s new in beloved places, and get to know the community with the single goal to design enriching itineraries for you to book.

How do these explorers find the most memorable, culturally rich experiences you ask? Well, in 2016, USTOA is taking you behind-the-scenes with a handful of these Modern Day Explorers to find out. Today Kasey Austin of Austin Adventures reveals her experience in Yellowstone National Park. So, in her words… 


One hundred years… On August 25, 2016 the National Park Service is celebrating its Centennial, its kick-off to a second century of stewardship, its 100th birthday…whatever you call it, it’s a BIG DEAL! At Austin Adventures, we’re fortunate to host adventure vacations in the United States’ most precious gems, the national parks. This year is the most special year in the national parks’ history to date as we celebrate the big 1-0-0-TH birthday of the National Park Service. As our beautiful, precious parks grow their reputations as memorable vacation destinations, my job as an itinerary developer is to figure out ways to provide our guests with extraordinary experiences in these parks that rapidly grow in popularity each year. My week spent as a United States Tour Operators Association Modern Day Explorer gave me the chance to explore new places, meet old and new faces and show off a side of Yellowstone National Park that most visitors never see. Here are a few national park vacation planning tips I thought of along the way!

Blog - Kasey jumping_YL Sign

Access to National Park Lodging

First things first, like any great itinerary creationist, I’m going to first review local lodging and make sure I can secure it before I move on to any other steps of the itinerary building process. When traveling to Yellowstone, you’ll notice that Xanterra Parks & Resorts is the official in-park provider of all lodging, whether you’re looking to stay at the historic Lake Hotel or the famous Old Faithful Inn. In the peak summer season, it can be more challenging to find last minute accommodations, especially as the popularity of our national parks continues to grow. But, as a tour operator, we’ve been planning for two years prior to your vacation date, so even if you’re not able to secure room space for your get-away, all it takes is a simple call to see what lodging and itineraries we have available in the national park you want to visit. We’ve already done the planning for you (what a piece of cake!)

Blog - Old Faithful Inn

Finding New, Unique Ways to “Discover” Old Favorites

So you’re planning a trip to Yellowstone and you want to visit the iconic spots – Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic, Mammoth Hot Springs, Lake Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River… the list continues. Go on your own during the busy summer months and risk visiting these beautiful places with hundreds of your closest friends if you choose to walk in from the parking lot and stick to the boardwalks. With a tried and true adventure itinerary and knowledgeable guide, you’ll discover these old favorites by hiking into the Grand Canyon “the back way” through flowery meadows, lodgepole pine forests and secret backcountry geyser basins. You’ll “happen” upon Old Faithful after having taken a fascinating walk past bubbling hot springs and goopy mud pots where you won’t see another tourist just a mile from the main boardwalk. Our jobs as adventure professionals require us to find those hidden attractions, just outside the public eye, and combine these experiences with the “gotta see ‘em” icons to create a one-of-a-kind adventure vacation.

Blog - Grand Canyon

There’s More to Yellowstone than Yellowstone Itself

Alright, so that heading is a bit confusing…! What I’m trying to say is that even though Yellowstone is the number one attraction on your Wyoming/Montana vacation, sometimes you’ve got to head just outside the park’s borders to truly add rich experiences and appreciate the region’s majesty. We combine our Yellowstone Vacations with zip lining outside the park’s west entrance in the Gallatin Canyon; horseback riding outside the park’s north entrance in Paradise Valley; and rafting outside the park’s south entrance in Jackson Hole. No trip to Yellowstone is complete without some exhilarating adventure activities – as a tour operator, we’ve scoped out all the options and picked the best of the best for your vacation out west! Plus, you won’t be dealing with the same magnitude of crowds if you wish Yellowstone au revoir for a few days (don’t worry, it’ll still be there when you return!)

Blog - Horseback riding

We are a tour operator who is proud to operate in our national parks. Heading into century number two of a dedicated National Park Service, places like Yellowstone will be dealing with the challenges and growing pains of an ever-increasing tourist population. However, with a USTOA member, your vacation to a national park can be one you’ll remember, without the crowds, hassle or planning that goes into creating the ultimate adventure vacation. We do all the work for you and love what we do!


Interested in learning more about Kasey’s journey to Yellowstone National Park? Go behind-the-scenes with Kasey with our video series, A Modern Day Explorer’s Quest to Yellowstone, launching later this week.

 Ready to visit? Visit for details on traveling to Yellowstone with Austin Adventures.

Kasey works with ground operators around the world as well as domestic guides on the home front when it comes to the details of planning a vacation. She grew up in the business learning about adventure travel from a kid’s perspective and now puts what she’s learned since she was six years old to use both in the office and out in the field. Kasey has guided trips across the western United States and gets out to travel abroad whenever she gets the chance.

By Ann Shields, AFAR Ambassador


Every guidebook description of Skagway, Alaska—no matter how brief—mentions its Fourth of July celebration. Every single one. How can one day be that print-worthy? Well, I’m here to count the ways:

  • Skagway’s Fourth of July celebration starts on the Third of July. It’s that good. The campgrounds and RV parks are filling up with attendees and parade participants have arrived and are milling around town, looking for action. A bagpipe band (Ensemble? Corps?) holds a practice session at the intersection of Broadway and 2nd Street. They’re casual, wearing sweatshirts and jeans, but the pipes sound strong and echo off the mountains that hug the town. Dogs and toddlers run around, confused and excited by the noise and people.
  • Because of the long hours of summer sunlight up here, the fireworks don’t start up until almost midnight. Shot off from a boat, they scream into the sky between the walls of the fjord, spectacular, reflected in the water. Again, the booming bounces between the rock faces of this box canyon, making it echo as long as the colored light falls from the sky. It goes on for a ridiculously long half-hour, relentless, no Grucci Brothers orchestration of highs and lows, just fun, over-the-top, pretty explosions. Afterwards, everyone wanders back into town from the water’s edge, pulling sleepy kids in wagons.
  • When morning comes, the bagpipes have begun warming up and people drift outside. The cross streets are blocked off. Three cruise ships arrived early and the brilliant white Holland America Line ship seem to be watching over the proceedings from its dock at the end of Broadway, massive and jarringly modern in this townscape of historic buildings.
  • The parade starts with floats from local businesses—decorated work trucks and tractors piled with employees and their families throwing candy to the spectators. Sled dogs, harnessed to a crepe-paper-festooned ATV, yap and strain and pull it up the street, clearly bummed out when they have to slow down for the stupid slow float ahead of them. A couple, dressed in vintage wedding finery, ride a three-wheeled bike back and forth along the street with a Just Married sign on the back.
  • A regiment of Mounties, in full Dudley Do-Right red woolen jackets and black jodhpurs, have come across the pass from Canada to march on our holiday, our smiling neighbors.


A regiment of Mounties in Skagway


  • A huge papier-mâché head of Teddy Roosevelt looms down the street, leading several National Parks Service floats, homemade extravaganzas honoring the 100th anniversary of the national parks. Behind Teddy, female park rangers, each costumed and wearing beauty-pageant sashes bearing the names of national park, laugh and throw candy and wave. Ms. Statue of Liberty tries to read aloud the act of Congress that created the parks but she can’t stop laughing.


National Park Rangers in Skagway


  • The parade goes around twice.
  • A post-parade schedule is circulated. It includes band performances, foot races, tug-of-wars (tugs of war?), arm-wrestling, eating contests, more. A basketball hoop is set up on Broadway and one-on-one contests and free throw competitions go on the rest of the day.
  • An epic egg toss begins: Close to a hundred participants line up across Broadway from their partners, the parallel lines of players extend seven blocks. The eggs are lobbed across the street and caught, or not. The losers step back, some with actual egg on their face; more and more missiles are thrown and the winners continue to close up positions until their ranks only span one block. The crowd is noisy, taunting, cheering, laughing. The length of Broadway is splattered with broken eggs. Finally a young couple, with impressive lobs and heroic lunging catches, win.


Epic Egg Toss in Skagway


  • Up on the commentator’s platform, arm-wrestling begins. The kids’ divisions go first with contestants standing on folding chairs to reach the high table. The two final young competitors in the Girls Under-12 division are so well matched that their grimaces and moans continue for long minutes, a standoff.  The commentator laughs, then cheers, then is at a loss for words. The girls strain on. No one in the rapt crowd is thinking about the strong men who’ll compete next because these two girls are determined and impressive superheroes.
  • In the foot races, the boys and girls run with a grace and lightness, even when they’re trying their hardest, that makes even the fastest adult look thick and plodding.  Poor adults.
  • Cheating is apparently condoned in Skagway tug-of-war. Grown-ups and teenagers regularly step in to pull and even up the teams during the little kids’ contests.  It is noisy and fun and good-natured and inclusive.


Tug-of-war in Skagway


In addition to organized events, there are:

  • Dogs in tiny red, white and blue top hats.
  • Toddlers twirling and dancing to the drums and bagpipes.
  • Old people who set up their own chairs along the parade route holding court for the rest of the day.
  • The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, still in their magnificent uniforms, holding hands with their own kids and laughing.
  • Off-duty pipers in kilts, drinking beer at the bar of the Red Onion Saloon.

Broadway is crowded well into the evening, when the cruise passengers wander back to their ships, sidestepping broken eggshells. Everyone, townspeople and visitors, seems tired and really, really happy.

In summary, the guidebooks are right. If you can make it up to this tiny port town at the top of Alaska’s Inside Passage for the Fourth of July, you should definitely come to Skagway. I kind of cheated: My trip was part of a sponsored exploration of the Yukon-Alaska land programs offered by the Holland America Line, but I’d do it again on my own dime.  This day is the feel-good stuff of small-town mythology.


Interested in learning more about Ann’s journey with Holland America Line? Visit

In these quiet days leading up to her Powerball win, Ann Shields works as a freelance travel editor and writer. A fan of literature, museums, history, high-minded cinema, and bad television, Ann lives in New York with her husband and two teenaged children. She likes road trips, local bars, getting lost, and laughing, so Ireland ranks high on her list of favorite places.

By Ann Shields, AFAR Ambassador


At the risk of sounding like a flake, it seemed that as I approached Denali, I could feel its power grow.

Denali Roadway

I first noticed things were changing when we crossed a clear geographic divide between where we had been and where we were headed. Specifically, past the summit of Broad Pass on the journey between Anchorage and Denali, rivers begin to flow north, not to the Pacific, but to the Bering Sea, the Arctic Sea. (The Arctic! In my mind, my New York apartment swept exponentially further away.) During the last Ice Age, the region around this pass was buried under three miles of ice. The single thing tall enough to be seen above the thick rigid blanket was Denali. We can’t see Denali from here, but now we know it’s there.

The observatory train I was riding the McKinley Explorer, picks up the course of the Nenana River at the base of Panorama Mountain. The schist monolith looms tall above the rest of the incredibly high mountains and the train tracks pass by too closely to see it by itself, to truly measure its height or to photograph it to prove to others how tall it truly is. This mountain, unlike it green-mantled neighbors, rises in shades of grey, like a graphite-pencil drawing of a mountain against a backdrop of lively green, like the deepest chord on a pipe organ made manifest. Even its flanks are divided by alluvial piles of grey avalanched rock—the other mountains have waving ferns and buoyant moss and high grass tucked in their pleated skirts. The young train guide says: This mountain is tall, yes? We all nod, eyes on its immensity looming above the windowed dome of the train. He says: If you stack three of this mountain, one on top the other, that’s how tall Denali is.

In the dinner-theater production at the McKinley Chalet Resort, the lovely Holland America Line property directly across the Nenana River from the national park, the actors perform the story of the first ascent of Denali by two local characters. The backdrop hung behind the delightful cornball antics of the performers is painted with a deliberately amateurish abstraction of the mountain, a strangely mesmerizing canvas of ice blue, shimmery white, angles and ridges with orange-pink sunset tones.  The cast members ham it up and laugh, sing and tell jokes, cajole and engage the audience, but that unblinking backdrop tells the story that they can’t. Outside those faux-rustic walls, there is a mountain.

Only 30% of visitors to the park actually get to see Denali—the mountain is more often than not obscured by the clouds that snag on its peaks and gather around it. Rain was forecast for my first day in the park so I brace myself for the possibility of not seeing the mountain.

Denali Bus

The admirably democratic tradition of the National Park Service invites everyone to enjoy Denali National Park and Preserve but here everyone is limited to just one way in: the Park Road, a 92-mile-long road that runs west from the entrance on the east side of the park, roughly paralleling the Alaska Range. At the park gate, visitors on my tour, the Tundra Wilderness Tour, rich and poor, old and young climb onto tan-colored converted school buses to be driven as far as Mile 62, the Stony Hill Overlook. The narrow corridor of the vast six-million-acre park visible from the road is thrilling, glorious, and diverse, but the thought of all those many mountainsides and valleys and glaciers and wild animals beyond its reach is distracting. During the course of a seven-hour round-trip, my busload encountered antelope, Arctic ground squirrels, moose, Dall sheep, and the big-ticket item: a blond grizzly bear asleep on a hillside who woke, walked a bit and then stretched out to sleep some more.

Denali Antlers

Along the way we also saw braided rivers, glacial valleys, several mountain ranges, and the geologic big-ticket item, Denali. Just nine miles into the park, the bus climbed a rise and the driver said: There it is. Unlike the purple and green mountains around it, Denali is snow white. Its implausible white expanse is easy to mistake for a bunch of cumulous clouds clustered above the smaller mountains, until your eye notices the sharp lines and angles in that white mass, angles that make it unlike any cloud you’ve ever seen. Then you realize that those many clouds are in fact just one 20,000-foot mountain, so much taller and more magnificent than expected and you catch your breath. Or I did, anyway.  And maybe you weep a little. And proceed to take pictures and stare intently at the mountain, to capture its greatness and to remember the thrill of standing before it. And to feel grateful to be among the 30% of visitors who get to see it.

Denali Mountain

When the bus proceeded down the road, the mountain was obscured again by closer hills and by roadside spruce forests. At the next rise where we could possibly see it again, its peaks had been swathed by lavender-grey. The clouds remained for the rest of the day, but edge of the north peak, a classic pyramid-shaped mountaintop, would occasionally cut through the cloud to assert its presence. I found myself distracted by those clouds, watching and waiting for the knife-edge of the peak to appear.  And when, at the end of the day, the bus passed beyond any possible sightline of Denali, around the far side of the mountains that border the park, I was sad. I do believe I was leaving a sacred place.

When people talk about having some primal response or epiphany by visiting Bali or Rome or a safari camp, I listen and nod and wonder if maybe they’re still a bit giddy from jet lag.  More than a week has passed since I returned to the city (my trip had been a sponsored exploration of the Alaska-Yukon land programs offered by the Holland America Line, so I had a lot of experiences to process). It’s been nearly two weeks since I was near Denali, but I do still feel altered, like I came near a great force, a powerful presence.  I’ll admit it would sound flakey to the pre-Alaska me. But now I’m a different me. I’m already plotting my return to the mountain.


Interested in learning more about Ann’s journey with Holland America Line? Visit

In these quiet days leading up to her Powerball win, Ann Shields works as a freelance travel editor and writer. A fan of literature, museums, history, high-minded cinema, and bad television, Ann lives in New York with her husband and two teenaged children. She likes road trips, local bars, getting lost, and laughing, so Ireland ranks high on her list of favorite places.

By Nina Dietzel, Special Correspondent, AFAR


After a thorough immersion into Nashville and Memphis’ music scenes, our Trafalgar travels brought us to Natchez, Mississippi, and Louisiana. I had forged quite a vivid idea about the area after reading ‘The Bone Tree’ and ‘Natchez Burning’, the first two books of an epic trilogy of race, family and justice by Natchez author Greg Iles []. I couldn’t wait to see how the real South matched up.

Joe Stone’s home and B&B in Natchez, Mississippi

Joe Stone’s home and B&B in Natchez, Mississippi

Be My Guest

Nothing drops you faster into the culture of a place than an invitation to a local’s home. We only spent a night in Natchez, but we were treated to a double dose of the fabled southern hospitality at two of the grand antebellum (pre–Civil War) homes in town.

The Elms in Natchez, Mississippi

The Elms in Natchez, Mississippi

Our magical evening began with a short piano concert at Joe Stone’s home, which was built around 1850. Joe, a musician and antiquarian, played for us on his Steinway Grand, and between pieces told us about the music, Natchez, and his own intertwined history with ‘Stone House’, which has been in his family for over 130 years.

After the concert, we walked across the street to ‘The Elms’. This mansion, even older than Joe’s by 50 years, belongs to chef Ester Carpenter, who treated us to an incredibly picturesque dinner on her magnificent porch, surrounded by ancient oak trees.

My only regret about Natchez? I wish we’d had more time in this storied town. I would have loved to wander through the streets to take a closer look and try to run into some of the characters of Greg Iles’ novels that I had read so much about.

Frogmore Plantation Now & Then

The next morning, we finally crossed the vast Mississippi into Louisiana, the third and last state on our tour through the South. The goal was to visit Frogmore, an 1800 acre cotton plantation dating from the early 1800s that still works today as one of the most technologically advanced cotton estates in the area. In addition to farming their very land, owners Lynette and Buddy (George) Tanner are passionate about sharing an authentic slice of plantation history. Over the years, they have painstakingly restored a number of buildings that date as far back as the early 1800s. The timeworn kitchen, plantation store and slave quarters now provide a powerful background to Lynette’s historical tours of Frogmore.

Lynette Tanner, owner and expert guide at Frogmore Plantation, Louisiana

Lynette Tanner, owner and expert guide at Frogmore Plantation, Louisiana

There was no sugar coating on the hard parts of Southern history. Lynette gave us an honest overview of what life on the plantation must have been first for the slaves, and later on for the sharecroppers. She read us passages from ‘12 years a slave’ by Salomon Northup, a slave’s memoir from 1853 that, as you may remember, was turned into an Oscar winning film directed by Steve McQueen in 2013. Lynette’s compassion, vigilant research and deep knowledge on the subject made for a deeply memorable and thoroughly educational experience.

Carefully restored slave quarters at Frogmore Plantation, Louisiana

Carefully restored slave quarters at Frogmore Plantation, Louisiana

Y’all Take Care, Until our Paths Cross Again

As our breathtaking trip neared its end, I began to think about the vast number of unforgettable experiences we were able to pack into such a short timeframe. It’s such a gift, to experience a new destination, and to be left with the feeling that you have barely scratched the surface. Trafalgar has given me this gift. I’m longing to come back for more now, on my own. And this time, without a schedule.

Interested in learning more about Nina’s journey with Trafalgar? Visit

Nina Dietzel is constantly exploring as a photographer and AFAR Ambassador. She has photographed Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, collaborated with British sculptor and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy, and documented the making of @Large-Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Her focus is travel and art, and her personal work has been exhibited in the U.S. and Germany.