We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing wonderful personalities in the travel community and today, we’re jumping for joy as we share our 10 Contiki Questions with Kristin Luna. She’s a travel writer and editor to one of the best travel blogs on the web, Camels and Chocolate, winning Bloggies Awards for 2009, 2010, & 2011!
Check out Kristin’s interview as she shares her travel knowledge with our Contiki fans!
What was the trip that made you decide to become a travel writer and how did Camels & Chocolate come to be?
When I was 20 years old, I bought a one-way ticket to London, a backpack, and a Eurail pass and spent the summer backpacking around Europe before studying abroad in Scotland. So many crazy things happened to me that year, from helping smuggle African refugees over the border in Austria to causing the Edge to crash his car. Sadly, this was before Facebook existed or blogging was a “thing” so all I have left of that year are some emails and disjointed memories!
Camels & Chocolate was born out of boredom at my former day job. I was working as an editor at a monthly magazine in New York in 2007 and spent ample amount of downtime reading other blogs. After awhile, I figured I might as well join the masses and start my own! I was gearing up for a solo couchsurfing trip around Iceland, so it was a good time to start a chronicle of my adventures. I focus mostly on first-person tales—the zanier, the better—and photography than details like when to go where that you can find in any guidebook or travel magazine.
When you’re young, particularly of college age, you’re still very malleable. The things I learned and cultures I experienced while studying abroad were invaluable to shaping who I am now—plus, they made me want to figure out how to turn traveling into a career. I loved studying abroad so much, I enrolled in a one-year journalism program in Holland and Denmark after college and then found a way to work for a study abroad program as an adult! If I had known about Semester at Sea while I was still in college, you couldn’t have kept me off the ship. Getting to see more than a dozen countries in one fell swoop is a dream for anybody, let alone when you are 19, 20, 21 years old and the world is your oyster. Plus, many of the program’s alumni take these experiences with them for the rest of their lives and use them for philanthropic purposes, such as founding companies like Kiva or Pencils of Promise (both started by former SAS students).
You have traveled to over 80+ countries and counting! Was there a particular trip or travel moment in your life that changed you or impacted your writing?
My first brush with guidebook writing was in 2006 when I got a contract to work for MTV and Frommer’s and spent six weeks in Spain researching for the book. I learned then just how tough a career travel writing was, which was helpful to figure out early on before I invested so much time and energy into building a career out of it.
In terms of places that have left a lasting impact on me, I’d have to say Rwanda. It was my first time in sub-Saharan Africa, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of a country that endured such hardships not that long ago and how former enemies now live side by side in harmony.
Do you prefer to travel alone or with a travel partner? What would you say the benefits of either travel style would be?
I like a mix of both. Obviously, I’d prefer if my husband Scott could accompany me on all my trips, but often I’m traveling for work and don’t get the luxury of a plus one. Besides, he has an office job with limited vacation time (though he was able to go with me on Semester at Sea, as well as on a two-month road trip of the Western United States last year).
I do enjoy traveling solo because then I’m on no one else’s time but my own. I like spontaneity and being able to do what I want when I want to do it. Being alone also makes you more vulnerable and open to meeting others, and when I’m with a travel companion, I find I don’t make nearly as many friends on the road as I do when solo.
While on Semester at Sea, I led a couple group trips through India and Cambodia, and I thoroughly enjoyed both opportunities. There’s just something about having others with whom to share such eye-opening experiences that can make a trip more impactful, not to mention a whole lot of fun.
Which destinations are you consistently drawn to, and why? (Places you’ll always come back and visit more than once)
Scotland. It was my first love, and you never forget your first love, right? Edinburgh is so charming and gothic, and if the weather weren’t so drab, I’d have a hard time living anywhere else.
The Bahamas. I’m a big scuba diver, and I think the Abacos and Exumas offer some of the best diving in North or Central America. Plus, the islands (there are 700 of them!) are so quick and easy to reach from the Eastern United States so theoretically, I could hop down there for a long weekend.
Lake Tahoe. I lived in California for four years, and my husband and I had annual passes to Heavenly and Northstar ski resorts, so we still try to get out there as frequently as possible. We’ve also made an annual tradition of skiing at a different Colorado resort each winter as there’s no better skiing in the United States than the Rockies.
What are 5 destinations that you recommend the 18-35 year old Contiki travelers MUST see?
Australia: I can’t imagine a country with more diversity. Whether you’re a traveler who looks for culinary, cultural, nature or high-adrenaline experiences, you’ll find it all here. A bonus if you can hop over to Tasmania from the mainland, as it’s one of the more unexplored and stunning places I’ve visited, rife in unique wildlife like the wombat and Tasmanian devil.
Cambodia. Aside from ancient relics like the temples of Angkor, Cambodia has some of the nicest, most genuine people in the world. It’s affordable, which makes it a great destination for younger travelers, and it’s easy to get around speaking English. It’s also a living history lesson for those who didn’t learn about the Khmer Rouge in school and being bordered by Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia makes for a manageable combo trip if you’re hoping to see more of the region in one trip.
New Zealand: The adventure capital of the world, New Zealand is ideal for adrenaline junkies. While there, I bungy jumped, Zorbed and went blackwater rafting in caves full of glowworms. It was wild! Plus, the countryside is just so rugged, sparsely populated and beautiful.
South Africa: For those who have reservations about making their inaugural jaunt to Africa, South Africa is a great place to start. It’s relatively easy to get around, it’s very traveler-friendly and it’s so massive you could spend months there and just graze the service. I’m partial to Cape Town, but the Winelands of Stellenbosch, the Garden Route, the Cape Peninsula and its penguins, West Coast National Park and, of course, Kruger are all must-sees.
The United States: I can’t leave out my home country, now can I? I feel like American travelers often overlook what’s in our backyard. There’s so much to do within the 50 states—from the Canyonlands in Utah to the islands of Hawaii to the Deep South in Savannah—that we need to make a concerted effort to spend as much time exploring our own country as we do visiting others.
What are some of your top tips or travel advice for travelers who are looking to either travel alone, or to travel as part of an escorted tour like Contiki?
Leave your shyness at home. One of the benefits to organized group travel is the possibility of meeting like-minded travelers from all over the world, and you don’t want to miss out on such an awesome opportunity. Some of the friends I’ve kept up with over the past decade have been people I met in hostels while backpacking, at airports during layovers or through organized tours.
An 11-year-old child who was on Semester at Sea with me said she’d tell any future student doing the voyage: “Don’t start to change on the 111th day, change the first day.” I think this can be applied to all travel—don’t waste time. Make friends and begin to change from the get-go.
What are the must-have items that you pack with you every time you take a trip?
I have an array of Canon DSLR cameras and lenses, so depending on the trip, I always bring a combination of those along. I also use a Canon G12 and the underwater housing on dive trips, and I always travel with my MacBook and my iPhone. And because I’m an organization freak, I love using the Grid-It to keep all my cords, batteries, etc. in one place.
What are your favorite travel rituals?
I love the moment when I’m all checked in at the airport and am just waiting for my flight to board. It’s like the weight of getting ready for a trip—the packing, the details, the leaving everything in order back home—has been lifted off your shoulders and there’s nothing left to do but enjoy the ride. When I get onto the plane, I have to unpack my carry-on so I have my magazines, e-reader, computer, snacks and headphones all accessible and not stored in the overhead bin when I need them.
Plus, I really love to read so being in airports and on planes gives me an excuse to take a break from social media and spend some quality time with my Kindle whittling down my ever-growing reading list. I usually don’t sleep on planes as the excitement of being able to read without interruption and watch some in-flight movies keeps me busy.
You have a “life list” on Camels & Chocolate. What destinations are still on that life list and where are you headed to next?
I’ll be back on Semester at Sea’s M/V Explorer ship for a couple weeks as part of another program called Enrichment Voyages. I’m working as the communications coordinator, and we’re visiting Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador and Costa Rica.
The places I most want to visit at the moment are Palau, the Galapagos Islands, Fiji, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Given my love of diving, it’s no wonder all of my dream destinations are tropical! Though two of my most memorable trips to date have been Iceland and Norway’s Arctic island Svalbard, so for that reason, Greenland is a must for me in the future, and train travel is one of my favorite ways to get around, so I will hop aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway from Saint Petersburg to Mongolia one of these days!
Kristin Luna is a Tennessee-based travel writer and nomad. She writes for Frommer’s and various magazines, as well as shares adventures and photography on her blog, Camels & Chocolate: Tales from a Travel Addict.