When is travel authentic?

An image from an online dictionary showing the meaning of the word authentic.

Authentic. It’s Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2023 and while the choice seems driven by the rise of AI in the public consciousness, it’s also a word that gets thrown around a lot by travel writers.

Travellers want an authentic experience when they visit a destination. They want the food to be the authentic. The encounters they have with the people they meet need to be authentic and even the souvenirs have to be authentic, but what does that even mean?

If we look at the entry from Merriam-Webster’s own dictionary, authentic can take on a variety of meanings. The first states that something is authentic if it is ‘based on fact.’ By that definition, aren’t all travel experiences authentic? Whether you went to Disneyland or lived in the jungle with a local tribe, they all are based on fact, therefore they are all authentic.

What about the next definition? It states that something has to ‘conform to an original so as to reproduce essential features.’ It gives the example of an authentic reproduction. So if I’ve visited a place like Frankfurt’s Neue Altstadt, what I saw was authentic even though it’s a reproduction of a place that was completely destroyed during the Second World War.

The dictionary goes on to state that something is authentic if it was ‘made or done the same as the original,’ such as authentic Mexican fare. What if I go to Chef Edgar Núñez’s Sud 777 Restaurant in Mexico City and he invents a dish that is unlike anything I have ever tasted. He is Mexican and his fare is based on fact, but is it no longer authentic if it is unlike what has come before?

“We see in 2023 a kind of crisis of authenticity,” Merriam Webster’s editor at large Peter Sokolowski told The Associated Press ahead of their word-of-the-year announcement. “What we realize is that when we question authenticity, we value it even more.”

When it comes to travel writing, I think that authentic has become a cliché that writers use to convince their readers that a place is worth visiting. In my mind, all travel is authentic, no matter if you prefer to do it while backpacking or staying in all-inclusive resorts. As the dictionary states, something is authentic if it is ‘true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.’

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Take a Christmas break in Mexico City

Christmas in Mexico City

A lot of travellers from Canada and the United States head to Mexico over the Christmas holidays for some time on the beach, but if you’re looking for something different, why not try spending some of your holiday in Mexico City as well?

There are plenty of direct flights to Mexican sun destinations, but before you book, consider connecting through the national capital and making a stopover there to discover the many events that are planned around Christmas and New Year’s Day.

In a virtual press conference this week,  Marcela Ortíz, the Deputy Director of Information and Digital Content, of the Ministry of Tourism, Mexico City, outlined some highlights of the 264 events and activities that visitors can experience if they visit during the holidays this year.

Among them is one of Mexico’s great Christmas traditions, the posada. It’s a community celebration that features a symbolic procession that re-enacts the journey of Mary and Joseph as they searched for a place to stay. Participants carry candles and sing Christmas songs as they make a pilgrimage to a local home where they will consume traditional foods and drink and break open  star-shaped, seven-spiked piñatas that are emblematic this time of year. Ortíz said there will be posadas and pilgrimages from December 16 to 23 in each of the 16 neighborhoods that make up Mexico City.

Another religious occasion that falls at this time of year is when Christians come to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe at La Basílica. An eye-popping six million parishioners are expected to flock to the world’s most-visited Marian church on and around December 12.

Another symbol of Christmas that has its origins in Mexico and Central America is the poinsettia flower. Visitors will get their fill of these lovely red and green plants on Paseo de la Reforma, the emblematic avenue of Mexico City, where the Christmas Eve Flower Festival will take place.

Also on Reforma, all 32 States of Mexico will host a Christmas Tourism Festival from December 12 to 17 where visitors and Chilangos alike can sample the crafts and cuisines from the country’s many diverse regions.

Ortíz said that the city’s neighbourhoods that are the most popular with tourists like Santa Fe, Paseo de la Reforma, Chapultepec, Zócalo, the Monument to the Revolution, Coyoacán, San Ángel and the Basilica, as well as Xochimilco and Polanco all have Christmas activities to seek out and are listed on their website at https://cartelera.cdmx.gob.mx.

Among the events she recommends includes, “Christmas in Mexico,” a show that will be put on by the Amalia Hernández Folkloric Ballet will perform at the Casitllo de Chapultepec. There’s also the The Christmas Craft Festival at the Casa del Risco Museum and the Coffee and Chocolate Festival at the Palacio de Minería.

In the heart of the Historic Center, Ortíz  added that visitors can enjoy the Verbena del Zócalo, with its Christmas fair and its spectacular and colourful Christmas lighting; live music and pastorelas, which will be free. It will start mid-December and run until the first days of January 2024, from Monday to Sunday..

Finally, to end the year, the countdown will be celebrated in a Time-Square style, but with Latin flare, at the Ángel de la Independencia, which includes a must-see New Year’s Eve concert.

If you love games and you love to travel, check out Trip Chaser

Trip Chaser card game

If there’s a Venn diagram for people who love to travel and people who love board games, you’ll find me sitting right in the middle of where those interests intersect and if you’re the same then you’ll want to take a look at Trip Chaser, a made-in-Canada card game that its inventors say is just like real travel but without the suitcase, spending or stress.

The game originated during the pandemic when, like a lot of people, Dalene and Pete Heck, found themselves with a lot of time on their hands. They figured it was the perfect time to revive an idea that they had held onto for years which was to invent a card game related to travel.

The Hecks certainly had a lot of real-world experience to draw inspiration from as the couple had chronicled their travel adventures as digital nomads on their blog Hecktic Travels for eight years.

Originally from Alberta, they bought a one-way ticket to South America in 2009 for what they thought would be a one-year backpacking journey. That turned into an eight-year odyssey that had them spending time in 60 countries. They were even named National Geographic Travellers of the Year in 2014.

Unfortunately, their travels were cut short when Dalene was diagnosed with leukemia. They came home to Canada in 2016 and she has since been cured, but the pandemic kept them grounded and that’s when they began to work on Trip Chaser. 

I received a review copy of the game and tested it out with my board gaming group which has been playing games on a monthly basis for the past 19 years. We’re such die-hards, that even during the depths of the pandemic, we were meeting virtually to play games online with Tabletop Simulator.

Trip Chaser comes in a small box that has three sets of cards: destinations, events and money. The general idea is to collect pairs or triples of destination cards, pay the money to take a trip, draw an event card to see if it was successful or not and score points for the most trips. There are other rules, like buying trip insurance to avoid bad outcomes, haggling with other players to trade cards and working to meet the conditions to score bonus points at the end of the game. 

trip chaser game

Unlike a lot of games, this one comes in a tidy package which means there isn’t a lot of superfluous plastic and cardboard. There aren’t even printed instructions included. They are available online and there’s even an added video to help explain them. The decision to forgo a written rule book was by design so as to reduce the game’s environmental impact. The Hecks are proud to note that they’ll be planting one tree for for every game purchased via Ecodrive, powered by Veritree.

The game takes about an hour to play, is good for two to six players and is very family-friendly. The unanimous vote for Trip Chaser from my gaming group was a big thumbs up. We thought the artwork on the cards was fantastic and as enthusiastic travellers ourselves, we definitely enjoyed and identified with many of the wacky event cards that came up during our games. We also appreciated there being a trading mechanism as it’s something that keeps all players engaged during every turn.

It’s not a heavy game by any means and won’t be the centerpiece of your gaming night, but it’s a fun opener that will get your competitive juices flowing before you tackle something heavier. If there’s one criticism, I would have liked to have seen Canada featured as a destination, but maybe that will come with future expansions of the game.

The couple were selling copies of the game directly from their website for $45, but it’s already sold it . However, it is still available on Amazon.com.

Are eSIMs a better deal than your phone company’s roaming plan?

traveller using a mobile phone

A press release from Freedom Mobile landed in my inbox this morning announcing its “Roam Beyond” plan aimed at international travellers and while it’s cheaper than a lot of other roaming plans that other Canadian mobile providers offer, it might be more expensive than coupling your existing plan with an eSIM from providers like Airalo or Sparks.

Freedom Mobile’s “Roam Beyond” plan lets customers stay connected in 73 destinations including the United States and Mexico, popular locations in Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East and others.

The package gives you 60 Gb of international mobile data for the introductory price of $65 per month after a digital discount.

“We’re shaking up the international roaming market, which our competitors have allowed to stagnate for too long. We continue to disrupt the status quo and go above and beyond our commitments to Canadians,” said Pierre Karl Péladeau, President and CEO of Quebecor, the parent company of Freedom Mobile, in the release.

What isn’t obvious in the release is that the $65/month plan  pairs the roaming plan with a regular Canada-wide calling plan. Normally, a national plan with 40Gb of data from Public Mobile costs about $40 per month so you’re effectively getting 20 Gb more of data and international access for an additional $15.

You’d have to do the math based on your own plan with your existing provider and your travel needs, but with eSIM providers like Sparks and Airalo, you can buy electronic SIM cards for individual countries and regions for a few dollars, if all you need is a gigabyte or two of data over a week. They also offer more expensive plans for entire regions or continents that offer 10 Gb of data or more that can be used over longer periods.

If you haven’t used them before, eSIMs act like the physical SIM cards that travellers would buy from local providers in the places they are visiting to load into their phones to take advantage of lower local prices.

These eSIM cards give you data only access to local cellular networks and are not for calling home or sending texts to your friends, but with apps like iMessage, WhatsApp, Skype, TextNow and the like, it’s easy enough to stay connected using data only.

The catch with eSIMs is that they only work on the latest phones, so if you want to try one out the next time you travel, be sure to find out if your mobile device supports the technology.

Score Black Friday cruise deals with Azamara, Cunard, Emerald, Windstar and more

Azmara cruise line

If you are looking to book a cruise, Black Friday/Cyber Monday/Travel Tuesday is a good time to snag a deal. Here are some of the offers out there:

Azamara Cruises

Azamara is giving travellers double stateroom upgrades, $1,500 onboard credit, and 20 per cent off suites on select 2024 sailings starting at $1,512 per person, to explore Australia, Asia, Europe, South Africa, and South America 

This offer is available to select international markets and the booking window is from now until December 1, 2023 

Stateroom category upgrade offer applies to new, individual, and non-contracted group bookings created between September 7, 2023- December 5, 2023 and only applies to select sailing departing between January 3, 2024- November 9, 2024 

Cunard Cruises

Luxury cruise line Cunard kicks off the holiday season by offering travellers Black Friday / Cyber Monday promotions, available on select itineraries, sailing from January 2024 through May 2025. Voyages are available all around the world on all of Cunard’s Queens – flagship Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth and their newest ship launching in May, Queen Anne.

New voyages booked from November 16 through December 4, 2023, will receive up to 40 per cent off launch fares and an onboard credit up to $1,000 per stateroom. Various itineraries include the brand’s signature Transatlantic Crossing, exploring the great wilderness in Alaska, navigating through the Norwegian Fjords, celebrating the July 4th holiday in New England and much more.

During the promotion, featured itineraries starting at $799 per person include a Transatlantic Crossing on their flagship Queen Mary 2, The Norwegian Fjords on Queen Anne, Alaska on Queen Elizabeth, Independence Celebration on Queen Mary 2, Southern Japan on Queen Elizabeth and  Australia’s Sporting Greats and Wellness Voyage on Queen Elizabeth.

 * Promo Code: RD5; offers apply to the first two guests per booking.

Emerald River Cruises

For Black Friday/Cyber Monday, Emerald Cruises is offering a special second guest sails free on eight Rhine, Main and Danube river itineraries with 34 departure dates spread across the season. Savings range from $4,100 to $8,580 and are not combinable with other offers. Examples include The Enchantment of Eastern Europe cruise between Bucharest and Hungary’s Budapest; Danube Delights, which showcases the best of the historic Danube River; and Rhine Castles & Moselle Vineyards, sailing through some of Europe’s most famous wine regions.

Scenic River Cruises

River cruise line Scenic is offering bonus savings of up to  $1,000 per couple on select eight to 13-day Rhine, Main, Danube and Moselle journeys. When combined with the Super Early-bird special, guests can enjoy total savings of up to  $1,600 per couple and free or reduced airfare. On select 15- and 16-day journeys, guests can fly Business Class air for  $595 (not combinable). The deals encompass, among others the nine-day Black Sea Explorer with Bucharest; the 11-day Gems of the Danube with Prague; and the 15-day Romantic Rhine & Moselle.

Windstar Cruises

Select one on your upcoming/applicable cruise: free pre- or post-cruise hotel nights, up to $1,000 onboard credit or premium suite guests can select a free upgrade to an all-inclusive fare featuring wifi; unlimited beer, wine and cocktails; and all gratuities, plus enjoy reduced deposits of just 5 per cent.

Cruise Critic