Golden Gate Bridge

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 4

It was last Friday afternoon when, after stopping to recover from the heat of Sonoma County, Woon Chi continued down the 101 toward San Francisco. Acting on an awesome tip from a familiar blog writer, he exited the highway just before the Golden Gate Bridge and drove toward Marin Headlands where he was greeted by a postcard view of the City by the Bay.

The City was nearly fogless and perfect, a rare summer pleasure, on its best behavior for the arrival of our foreign traveler.

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After crossing the bridge, Woon Chi (himself a young Jedi) of course went immediately to pay his respects to Yoda at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio. Insurance for a safe journey, I think.

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“Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice.”

Woon Chi stayed with friends who live in the East Bay, giving him a chance to see life on both sides of the Bay Bridge. The sunshine stuck around and it was a prime weekend for exploring. That predictable summer fog dumped over the ridge above Twin Peaks but, for the most part, the Bay Area showed Woon Chi its most agreeable mood.

Sunday afternoon brought some thoughtful deliberation … should he stay or should he go now? With temps in Yosemite nearing 100 degrees, a lingering hangover, and the notion of arriving in bear country at sunset, Woon Chi delayed his departure until Monday morning. After an enjoyable ride, he found camping outside Yosemite Valley and the next adventure began.

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Yes, another breathtaking view. And another one, and another one after that. Although it’s far, far away from anywhere else, Yosemite is truly one of the most beautiful places in our galaxy.

Yosemite’s waterfalls are raging this year, thanks to El Niño and a decent snow pack in the mountains. Woon Chi found the park’s most iconic views on a drive toward Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point. In his words, “Top of the world!”

After camping a second night, Woon Chi packed up this morning and headed east on Highway 120, past Tenaya Lake, through Tuolumne Meadows, right at Lee Vining and south past Bishop. He says the ride out of Yosemite National Park has been the highlight of his road trip so far.

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So there you have it, folks. Death Valley has been deleted from Woon Chi’s route for fear of melted treads and self-combustion amid today’s high temperature of 116 degrees (44C). The Excessive Heat Warning for the area says “no person or animal should be left in a closed vehicle.” Probably no one should be left in an open vehicle either. Wise choice to change course, Woon.

He arrived at his alternate destination this afternoon — Keough’s Hot Springs, with a shady place to pitch his tent. He’s lounging by the pool at an “unreal” and “so retro” “oasis in the desert,”  proving that sometimes it’s better when your original travel plans don’t work out.

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Next stop: Big Blue.

Have questions for Woon Chi about his road trip experience so far? Leave your questions in the comments and I’ll post the answers.

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Missed part of the road trip? You can catch up with Woon Chi here:

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S.

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 2

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 3

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 5

Experience
Oregon Coast

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 3

Woon Chi’s Excellent Adventure continues! After his bike died near Astoria, he rented a car for 24 hours until the requisite part arrived from Georgia and the bike shop got him back on the road. He made it to San Marine where he camped for the night.

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Along the way, a fellow cyclist chased Woon Chi down and chatted him up at the petrol station. Woon Chi’s rare motorcycle had caught his eye on the road. The two of them have similar bikes. Or as Woon Chi put it, using that universal and beloved phrase that comes in handy among all countries and cultures … same same but different.

And what would a road trip be without some other memorable characters along the way?

Making up for lost time, Woon Chi went full throttle all day Thursday for 292 miles/470 km, from San Marine to Eureka. The weather cleared and the coastline zipped along at his side.

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He arrived in Eureka around dinner time, located a campsite and celebrated the day’s journey in all-American fashion with a Clif Bar, a Drumstick and a Budweiser.

After departing Eureka early this morning, Woon Chi cruised the Avenue of Giants among some of California’s tallest redwoods.

He had his picture taken driving through the Chandelier Tree. This tree measures 16 feet in diameter (4.9 meters) and is about 2,000 years old — rooted at this spot since a few decades after the romance of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. The only thing rivaling the enormity of this tree is the intensity of the temperature on the road today: 98F/37C degrees throughout Sonoma County. Sweltering, even by Singapore standards! Woon and his bike are cooling off at the roadside before the final push into San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge awaits his arrival at the City by the Bay.

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Missed part of the road trip? You can catch up with Woon Chi here:

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S.

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 2

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 4

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 5

Experience
Bali Villa

Add a Bali Villa to Your Travel Bucket List

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Full moon rising above Villa Dermawan

One of the things I love most about blogging is the support of fellow writers. Over the years, many of us travel bloggers have gotten to know each other pretty well despite never having met in person. Hearing from these people puts a smile on my face and inspires me to write more. Yesterday, Gallivance liked a post I wrote several years ago about Bali and Lombok. Their “like” got me thinking about Bali — which is never a bad thing. In doing so, I realized I haven’t written about one of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting Bali: renting a villa! If you haven’t yet experienced this, I hope you’ll add it to your travel bucket list.

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Our one-bedroom hut at Sacred Mountain Sanctuary Resort in Bali

The first time I visited Bali, I was on my honeymoon and we stayed at two boutique hotels during the trip. The hotels were wonderful and there are certainly many great options around the island if you choose this type of accommodation. But while living in Singapore, I was fortunate to return to Bali for several long weekends with friends. Instead of staying at a hotel, we rented a villa each time and relished every moment of having a private home and pool all to ourselves.

Our villa experiences were made most enjoyable by the hospitality of the Balinese staff tending the villas. Every villa typically employs at least two people who take care of the home and make sure you have an excellent stay. Their service is included in the cost of the villa, and they can help arrange other things like transportation and massages by the pool. Best of all, you can usually hire your villa staff to cook authentic Indonesian meals for you throughout your stay. Your villa vacation, already pretty spectacular, becomes even more delicious when you wake up to nasi uduk and fresh fruit or savor a poolside dinner of nasi goreng and satay.

So, need some villa recommendations? Villa Dermawan is located down a tiny brick lane about five minutes from the beach in Seminyak. A high gate and a Buddha statue greet you as you walk through the large front doors. An open-air kitchen and living room overlook the pool, which is next to the main master bedroom. A second master bedroom, open bathroom and sitting area are located at the far end of the grassy lawn. This villa is paradise for couples wanting space and privacy with authentic Balinese character.

Also in Seminyak, Villa Ipanema is modern in design with two stories and five huge bedrooms, each with its own ensuite bathroom. An open-air living room, dining room and kitchen face the pool. For a group of ten adults, this villa brings the pool and the party together for a super fun experience. (I saw it happen. I took part.)

Villa Phalosa hosted the wedding of two of my friends, on a large lawn with a pool facing the ocean. Both of their extended families stayed at this villa during the week leading up to the wedding. Rain was a possibility on wedding day so the bride and groom hired a Tukang Terang (rain stopper) — a Balinese man who held off the precipitation by performing a ritual at a local temple. He did a great job, as you can see in the photos — such a great job, in fact, that temps were sweltering and the wedding party and guests dove in the pool fully clothed shortly after dinner. What a night! (Bali creates these kinds of memories. I took part in this, too.)

And finally, Villa Kaira near Canggu offers everything needed for a luxurious group stay — private cottages, koi pond, spiral staircase, grassy lawn, pool and leafy view of the ocean. I attended a wedding here last May and thoroughly enjoyed seeing another awesome villa amid the idyllic beauty of Bali.

I’m barely scratching the surface here. Whatever your needs and preferences, there is likely an irresistible villa awaiting your arrival. Should you choose to tick this box on your bucket list, you’ll find there are loads of rental agencies with an endless number of villas to choose from. I have experience booking with Villa-Bali and recommend this company as they thoroughly inspect all the villas they represent (dream job!) and I can vouch for their office in Singapore (which may offer some comfort if you’re considering booking a villa but you’re a little scared of wiring your money overseas to places unknown).

So there you have it — a brief look at what you can expect when you rent a villa in Bali. And bonus! In terms of price, villas are often cheaper than neighboring hotels, especially if you’re traveling with a group that can share the cost. What you gain in private amenities and beauty is priceless, and should definitely be experienced at least once in a lifetime. Go, and see for yourself!

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Thanks, James and Terri, for the “like” that inspired this post!

Miscellaneous Travel

Telunas Island Getaway

After just 45 minutes, our ferry drops us at Batam where we’re greeted by smiling employees from Telunas. They lead us out of the port to the gritty local dock where a long boat pulls up to the elevated walkway. Our luggage is lowered over the high point, into the hands of the crew and down to the boat. Fishermen clean their boats, a woman sells homemade samosas, a few smokers linger about and we’re eyed with curiosity as we walk to the end of the dock where the boat picks us up. There’s nothing fancy about the start of our weekend getaway, and we like it this way. We’ve shrugged off the glitz of Singapore and we’re on our way into the Karimun region of Indonesia’s Riau Islands.

The long boat sits low in the water. The loud but hypnotic motor pushes us through the waterways at a determined pace. The boat ride is as much about seeing life on the water as it is about getting to Telunas. We pass several villages constructed above the sea on mazes of posts and beams sticking out of the water. Laundry hangs, women stand in their doorways and watch the world drift by, and minarets of the village mosques reach into an empty sky. After two hours we’re in the middle of nowhere — no services, no boats, no one around except our passengers and crew. The crew know these waterways by heart, finally steering us toward a wooden pier in the distance.

We pull up and disembark, greeted by the dense foliage of a tiny island somewhere southeast of the Malacca Strait. A warm welcome leads us up the pier and into the heart of Telunas where we find an open-air lodge with a panoramic view toward Pulau Sugi. We’re offered a tropical drink and then escorted to our bungalow — one of sixteen in a row perched above the eastern shore. We open the front door to a charming two-story abode that rivals just about anything you might find in Maldives. The spacious interior includes a sitting room, loft and wonderful master bedroom that opens to a large deck overlooking the water.

We’re free until dinner so we fill the afternoon with cocktails on the deck (we’ve brought our own bar) and a few games of Uno in the lodge. Every now and then we can get a signal, but the relief of unplugging outweighs the work of trying to plug in. And that’s the idea — be still, be present, be here… go for a walk, paddle out, read a book, enjoy the company of who you’re with. Some guests might be bored — the island is tiny — but succumb to the remoteness of Telunas and you might end up feeling more connected than ever.

Over the next two days, we walk all the way around the island — passing through jungle, wading around the rockier parts of the western shore, and ending back at the pier. We jump off the pier, whooping it up like children. We play Crazy Eights, drink gin and tonics and dive into the Indonesian set menu every chance we get. The food is delicious and I devour the Nasi Uduk at each breakfast. We get to know the employees — young local men and women who clearly enjoy working here. We watch a beautiful sunset at the pier and trade smiles with a boat captain who drops off a load of sand. A Telunas employee translates for us — the captain has owned the boat for 10 years and also runs a homestay just down the waterway.

And that’s it. Nothing fancy, nothing frivolous. Just a true island getaway where you have exactly what you need, and what you make of that is entirely up to you.

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Visit the Telunas website for more information.

Miscellaneous Travel

Lesser Known London

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London. Just saying the name conjures up all sorts of iconic images — Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace, to name a few. I recently returned from spending a week in London — my first time back since living there for a year and a half from 2006-2007. What struck me upon return was that I found myself going back to see and experience some of London’s lesser known attractions. While living there, I had time to dive a little deeper and I found some nuggets of art, architecture, science and culture that remain my favorite experiences of the city. They showcase notable creativity and expression in various forms. If you’re headed towards Piccadilly Circus, I hope instead you’ll consider veering off the beaten path to these lesser known highlights of London.

The Wallace Collection
This exquisite gallery is a window into aristocratic lifestyle and art collecting by Sir Richard Wallace and the Marquesses of Hertford between 1760 and 1880. It all sounds very regal, and it is, but this is a family collection of art within their home at Hertford House. Viewing the Wallace Collection is less like a museum experience and more like taking a step back in time, where the interests and passions of the collectors are evident in the work presented.

Featuring European artists from the 14th to 19th centuries, the Wallace Collection includes work by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Watteau, among others. It was here that I first saw the work of Canaletto (still a favorite), with his meticulous scenes of life on the water in Venice.

The Wallace Collection is comprised of more than paintings. Every room is a discovery in itself, from furniture to porcelain to opulent chandeliers and interior decoration. But the largest part of the Wallace Collection is armor — an incredible display of design and decoration forged by the requirements of battle. These are some of the finest pieces in the world, up close and very personal. Come into the house and have a look. There’s something for everyone to appreciate.

Closest station: Bond Street

Liberty
This historic store might be overshadowed by Harrod’s and the big names on Regent Street, but Liberty is a shopping experience unlike any other. It began in 1874 when Arthur Lasenby Liberty created his store in the likeness of an eastern bazaar, captivating London shoppers — way back then and still today.

The tudor-style exterior holds a treasure trove of unique products and the entrance on Great Marlborough Street is always flanked by colorful cut flowers in crates and buckets. The interior maypole is a glorious welcome and exploring the building’s nooks and crannies could keep you busy for a whole afternoon. From housewares to rugs to fabrics to clothing, Liberty is London shopping at its best.

Closest station: Oxford Circus

The Prime Meridian, Time Galleries and the Great Equatorial Telescope
There’s just something fun and cool about standing with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one foot in the western hemisphere. You’ll have to venture south of the Thames to tick this experience off your bucket list. Head to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, located among the leafy lanes of Greenwich Park.

Pay for admission to the Flamsteed House as it includes access to two galleries that illustrate the history of longitude and accurate global time keeping. It’s hard to imagine a world without either. Groundbreaking innovation is on display here — creative thought applied to science, technology and geography.

Don’t miss the stairs up to the Great Equatorial Telescope. Built in 1893, it’s one of the largest in the world (and impossible to photograph in one frame). It’s housed in the “onion dome” and host to observing evenings where the general public can view the night sky.

Closest station: Greenwich

The Borough Market
Lesser known may not describe this market anymore. It’s grown in size and popularity since I lived in London. But what you’ll find here are locally-made, gourmet products from small farms and producers you may not find anywhere else. From organic fruits and veg to delectable meats and cheeses, make sure you arrive with your appetite and get ready for a culinary experience. It’s a crush on the weekends, but the full market runs from Wednesday to Saturday. Where else are you going to find a grilled cheese sandwich made from melted raclette for £6? Just look under the tracks at London Bridge station.

Closest station: London Bridge

The Chapter House and the oldest door in Britain
Beyond the main architecture of Westminster Abbey, the Chapter House is a bright octagonal room filled with stained glass windows from the 19th and 20th centuries. Enter through the vestibule from the cloisters and don’t miss the small, dark door on the right. It’s the oldest door in Britain and dates to the 1050s yet there’s very little indicating its historic status.

Closest station: Westminster

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The Ardabil Carpet
The Victoria and Albert Museum holds one of the oldest and finest carpets in world history. Made by hand in Iran, the Ardabil Carpet dates to the 16th century and is one of a pair. It’s made of silk and wool, in ten colors, with a knot density of 340 per square inch. This gives a carpet a supple, luxurious feeling in hand. But you can’t touch the Ardabil Carpet — it’s is entirely enclosed and only lit for ten minutes on the hour and half hour.

The carpet measures 38 feet by 18 feet and the motif is one connected design. At such a large scale, only a master carpet weaver could conceive or create such a work of art. This weaver wove his name and an inscription into the carpet, but I’ll leave that discovery to you when you visit the V&A. It’s a memorable museum not just for the Ardabil Carpet but for its focus on fashion, furniture, jewelery and textiles.

Closest station: South Kensington

The Choral Evensong
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a popular stop on London itineraries, but not many people know about the Choral Evensong, held daily under the dome. Admission is free, seats are arranged in a semicircle and sometimes attendees are invited to sit in the quire — a special opportunity to be seized when available. The 45-minute service includes prayers, psalms and canticles. Regardless of your faith — all are welcome — hearing the Cathedral Choir sing in the grandeur of the space is a stunning acoustic experience.

Closest station: St. Paul’s

 

Miscellaneous Travel

Magical Maldives

Like drops of glass in a cobalt blue ocean, the islands of Maldives look like they exist in their own world. We fly over them, gaping at their rings of aqua blue, anticipating our toes in the sand at the edge of the water. We land in Malé – a solitary airstrip in the middle of the ocean — transfer to a speedboat, and soon find ourselves at the jetty of Olhuveli island.

We’re introduced to Olhuveli by Azim, who thoughtfully explains the details of where to eat, everything to do and why we should pay attention to the currents when we’re swimming. But at this point we’re not paying attention to anything except the palm trees and island vibe around us, ready to sprint to our bungalow so we don’t miss a minute of today’s sunset.

Our bungalow does not disappoint, with a spacious floor plan and perfect deck above the water that inspire us to imagine our dream house of the future. We sleep with the doors open, hearing ocean waves and the occasional splash of a big fish-little fish pursuit below the deck. Sharks, rays and tropical fish are abundant here.

Beauty is the agenda of every day, to be savored at any hour – warm light at sunrise, illuminated water at midday, a vibrant eastern sky in the afternoon and an unpredictable sunset every evening. Even rain, fierce and forceful in the middle of the night, has never sounded more magical than from the sheltered perch of our overwater bungalow.

We’re in Maldives on Boxing Day, marking the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami that decimated many coastal communities of the region. All the resort employees we ask tell us a story of where they were on the day – most of them so young they were on their native islands, in grade school at the time, let out of class in the midst of rushing water and debris. Some islands have yet to recover from the tsunami, but most have rebuilt. Because Maldives’ was close to the earthquake’s epicenter, comparatively small waves swept across the country before they had time to develop into the larger, more destructive waves that hit Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand.

On our last night in Maldives we dine at the seafood grill, in a glass hut set up for just the two of us, and choose a fish from the live tanks. The staff catches the fish and the chef prepares it masterfully, but it’s such a large catch we can only eat half of it. Sajid, our server, tells us it’s no problem — come back tomorrow and they’ll serve us the rest for lunch. Really? Really. No problem. We move on to the cultural performance happening in the main bar. Resort employees are dressed in feylis, dancing and drumming, inspiring guests to get up and experience the music of the Maldives. It’s a perfect night, on a tiny island, in the Indian Ocean.

Our vacation passes quickly but every hour brings a sight to behold, a view not to be missed. There are lots of activities to do, and there is nothing to do. Nothing is my favorite. The water mesmerizes, the clouds drift past and we dream of eschewing all other beach vacations if we can just return here someday. The spell is cast and the magic is real.

Olhuveli Drum Line

Olhuveli Drum Line

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Olhuveli Beach & Spa Resort is located on South Malé atoll, about one hour from Malé by speedboat. The resort is family-friendly, relaxed and more affordable than many newer, trendier resorts in the country. The island has two beaches, two swimming pools and a beautiful house reef for snorkeling. A watersports center rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and boats, and a PADI dive center is located at the end of the jetty. Excursions leave daily and dive boats are well equipped. Olhuveli has numerous dining options including large breakfast and dinner buffets, a Thai restaurant, a beachside bar and a seafood grill with live tanks and tables in the sand. Accommodations include standard rooms, beach villas and several types of overwater bungalows. Bed and breakfast, full board and all-inclusive rates are available. Overall, staff were incredibly friendly and welcoming, and several claimed January to March is the best time of year to visit. http://www.olhuvelimaldives.com

Miscellaneous Travel

Cowbells & Caravans: How to Tour with the Tour de France

It’s summertime and I’ve been in the U.S. working for the past three weeks, leaving my blog stagnant and unattended. So hey, why not share a timely post from the past? The 2014 Tour de France is currently pedaling its way toward Les Alpes. Here’s a post from 2012 about the race, the party, and what makes The Tour an epic travel experience.

It’s April 30th. Do you know where your summer vacation is? If you live in Europe or you’re a cycling fan, maybe you do. If not, listen up. It’s called the Tour de France and it kicks off two months from today.

Do you love sports? Do you love cycling? Do you just love to ride a bike? Silly questions… of course you do! Just had to make sure I was speaking to the right audience before I justify my almost irrational claim that the Tour de France is, in fact, The Greatest Annual Party in the History of World Sports. If you like cycling, mountains, France, road trips, baguettes, cheese, wine, beer, camping, cowbells, socializing with happy people from around the world and never having to buy a ticket for a three-week-long sporting event (or even just ONE of these things)… then GO to FRANCE in JULY.

During the month of July, all of France is crazed and excited about cycling — a fact understood and accepted nationwide. This goes a long way in how you’ll be received as a spectator of the race and participant in The Greatest Annual Party in the History of World Sports. French people look forward to meeting you and welcoming you to their country. They let you camp on the roadside, they do their best to keep the traffic moving, they expect that you’ll respect their terrain and the riders who are cycling past you and, most importantly, they don’t try to control an event that has a life and spirit of its own.

Putting out the bike on race day

That’s really the best thing about this race and this party: the freedom. You go because you love it, you don’t have to follow a strict schedule or spend a lot of money (unless you want to), there are few rules or regulations about where you can or can’t spectate, and in the process of touring with The Tour you get to see the charming towns and stunning scenery of France, like this stop on our route in 2009:

Annecy, France

So how do you tour with The Tour? Here’s what I recommend: get a good map, review the race route, focus on one week if you have limited time (we’ve picked the mountain stages in the Alps twice so far), rent a car or a camper van (satellite TV optional), fly into Geneva with your camping gear, pick up the vehicle, arrive at the first stage on your itinerary the night before it happens, find a place to park, make your campsite and let the party begin. You’ll be surrounded by joyful, like-minded enthusiasts and the rest of the adventure will unfold in front of you as you watch the race and follow the caravan to the next stage of The Tour. It’s really that simple.

A typical scene along the route

Car or camper van — either one works!

There will be good shwag, great food, priceless opportunities to ride the stages if you bring your bike, an amusing caravan of sponsors before every stage and the daily chance to be within reaching distance of the world’s top 200 elite cyclists. Listen for the helicopters and you’ll know they’re approaching. Ring your cowbells as they cruise past you or display your patriotism as you run alongside — participation is up to you, just try not to spill your beer!

The sponsor caravan arrives on Col du Petit Saint-Bernard

The lion, symbol of The Tour

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Alberto Contador

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The infamous Lance Armstrong

The peloton following Contador, Armstrong and the Schleck brothers

Mr. Producer, flying the California flag while he drinks a beer

When the High Alps are over and it’s time for The Tour to head to Paris, return to Geneva and ditch the rental car. Hop a quick train to Paris and check into your hotel a night or two before the race arrives on the Champs Elysée. Eat and drink copious amounts of wine, cheese and French food at the adorable sidewalk cafes as you wait for The Tour to arrive. On the final day of the race, get out early to enjoy breakfast and walk around central Paris on one of the few days when its main thoroughfares are closed to traffic, and The Greatest Annual Party in the History of World Sports culminates after seven laps on brutal cobblestone streets.

Touring with The Tour is like taking a great novel on vacation with you… heroes and villains, egos and underdogs, triumphs and tragedies. The Tour is a living, breathing, dramatic story of strategy that unfolds across hundreds of kilometers during which weather, illness, doping, crashes, climbs, descents, ethics, controversy, exhaustion and plain old bad luck can and will affect all of the riders in the race. The Tour is life, on two wheels, for three weeks, during which you will party, eat, sleep and repeat amidst some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll love touring with The Tour.

Did I mention it kicks off in Liège two months from today? Yes, that means you still have time to book your ticket, plan your route, pack your bike and GO. It really is that much fun, and there’s even this to look forward to at the very end:

All images  ©2012 compassandcamera.com

Culture