Monday, July 6, 2015

Europe on a Platter, Part 1: The A-Z of Contiki's European Escapade

Europe was waiting for me. Somehow, I just knew this. 

I am very blessed and grateful to be a kid who was able to travel pretty early on in life, particularly to the US since I had been granted a green card that required me to be there at least once a year. But ever since I was young, I dreamt of Europe. 

That is why when I finally, finally, FINALLY got the opportunity to go, I jumped in heart first. I was in the habit of putting my dreams off, and this was one of them. But as my last post already illustrated, I was done. I booked a flight that left 3 weeks later and allowed me to stay for 2 months. I didn’t want to spend another minute doing what I didn’t want to be doing, so I took off on what I was sure to be one of my greatest adventures. 

I had craved for Europe a long time, and now it was time to devour it by the platter. As you can imagine, there is just too much to say about my experience in that continent, so I’ll be dividing up my posts, starting with my Contiki experience.

Maxing out on life





I was determined to soak in as much of Europe as I could, to spend as much time in every country that I could find a connection to stay with. Though it did cross my mind, Couchsurfing was out of the question. My family was simply too taken with Taken (the movie) to let me set foot on a plane without knowing with whom and where I was staying beforehand. 

It was my grandmother, however, that convinced (threatened) me to take a Contiki tour. Bita (short for abuelita) didn’t believe I wouldn’t try and Couchsurf unless I had my days filled, so she nearly threw a fit when we spoke about Europe.

And now that I’ve gotten that out there, 

To my Bita,

THANK YOU SO VERY FREAKING MUCH. You do not insist on things often but when you do, it has always been, firstly, terrifying but secondly, JUST SO VERY ON POINT. I will never understand how you do it, but thank God for your almost omniscient presence in my life.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Contiki is a company that holds tours for people between the ages of 18 and 35. They are globetrekkers with tours all over the world, but I had always wanted to take one of their European ones.

I took the European Escapade tour, a tour that lasted 25 days too short and took us to 11 different countries. These countries included France, Spain, Italy, Monaco, Vatican City, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, Liechtenstein and Belgium.

European Escapade Route, as pictured on www.contiki.com


Can you say trip of a lifetime?

I can, and I do. That’s exactly what it was. The tour was 25 days of my eyes being shot wide open, my heart falling for multiple locales and people, my body taking more alcohol and cholesterol than it ever has before, and my mind opening to the huge influx of sights, sounds, and cultures. I met some of the best people in my life on that tour, and I am more than elated to know they are now my lifelong friends.

But how does it actually work, you ask? Well, let me break it down for ya.

The Structure 

We were 46 tour-goers plus the Contiki staff that joins you on every trip, a trip manager and coach driver. Our dynamic Contiki duo went by Tammy and Artur, respectively.

The tour was categorized as “High Energy”, which meant several things: 1.) The tour was packed to the brim with action, or as Contiki would say, “exploring by day, living it up by night”; 2.) The tour would travel by a coach dedicated to our tour; 3.) Accommodations would include Special Stopovers & Cabins owned by Contiki. 


The Transportation 

The coach comes standard for most Contiki tours, I believe, save for the sailing and cruise ones. We were extremely lucky to get a new bus (ours would be its 2nd tour), and it was totally pimped out. I have been on a few coaches in my life, and this was definitely the best one I’ve been on. It fit us 46 with quite a few seats extra, and thankfully, the seats themselves were as comfortable as seats on a bus could be. Current with the times, there were plenty of power outlets to go around, and was complete with an AV system that played movies decently but was ready to rock your tunes magnificently. We found this out through many impromptu sing-alongs to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. Only thing that sucked was that at one point, our air conditioner did break down and despite it being only Spring, it happened to fall on some of the hottest days on our trip. Our dear of a coach driver, Artur, went to have it fixed as soon as he possibly could though. Considering the coach is pretty much home for 25 days, I was more than happy with ours.

Merry-making on the coach


About to embark on a journey of #NoRegrets


The Accommodations

Accommodations on Contiki were almost always better than expected. I loved all the Contiki-owned places we went to, which included: Special Stopovers like Chateau de Cruix in the France’s Beaujolais wine region and Hopfgarten in Austrian Tyrol, Contiki villages, or hotel/hostels. I adored each of the Special Stopovers (SS). The Chateau, especially, was gorgeous both in architecture and its surroundings. 



The beautiful Chateaux de Cruix in the Beaujolais Wine Region of France


Also, each SS has its own Contiki-only nightclub, so prepare yourself for battle on these nights. Because “battle” doesn’t even cover the blood-pumping moments, spiced up with alcohol, the uphill struggle to get to your room after, and the hell of trying to wake up to leave the next day most likely at about 8AM, that you will experience.

Good times in The Cave

Contiki villages, such as the ones in Rome and Venice, were always satisfactory. I cannot say that each of them were stunning architectural masterpieces but they were functional. Some were of the cabin-style, while some were just trailer-like. Each of them had showers, beds and shelter above your head. Considering you are most likely to spend your night out at the pub or out on the town anyway, I found that the accommodations were more than enough.



Contiki Village in Rome


Of the hostels/hotels, I loved the Generator in Barcelona and the Wombat in Vienna. Frankly, I didn’t feel as comfortable or safe in the Ibis hotel in Paris and Hotel Nieu Slotania in Amsterdam.

Overall, when it comes to accommodations, do not expect luxury locations. DO take into account the amount of resources that go into a 25 day tour, with your own coach, the gas that it takes to get to your destinations, the food that fills your belly every morning and evening, the electricity and water you expend, and most of all, instead focus on beautiful Europe and the lands and experiences you've overcome to be where you are in that moment.


The Experience

High Energy tours travel to each city and spend about 1-2 days there. In between destinations, you have Drive Days, which usually means about 8-10 hours of being on the bus. But before you throw your Contiki plans out of the window because of this, know that Drive Days are 1.) sometimes the days you’ll actually see some of the best sites on the tour; and 2.) the times you get some much, MUCH needed rest after the previous night’s debauchery. Most of the people you meet on a Contiki tour are, after all, of the same intent to maximize each day. This often includes copious amounts of alcohol in local pubs. 

As I also mentioned, Contiki tries to use everyday to allow you to see something worthwhile. This is why instead of trying to get you to each big city quickly, the coach makes stops in places of great value and not just gas stations to have lunch. To name just a few of the Drive Day stops, we got to see, there was the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Swiss Guard memorial in Switzerland, as well as Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Though the first was a check off the bucket list, the last 2 sites mentioned were a couple of the sights that really, truly moved me. 


The Lion of Lucerne: a memorial to the Swiss Guard, loyal and brave to the end.



The ironic beauty of Mauthausen concentration camp.


Of course, the big cities you visit in themselves are experiences. With limited time in each city, you learn not to waste any single moment, and to keep your senses heightened to soak in every iota of beauty you can while you can. To do justice to the destinations, I will delve more into each city in separate posts.

Another vital part of the Contiki experience is Me Time Optionals. Me Time Optionals are optional activities that you can sign up to take while on tour, though these are not included in the standard fee that you’ve already paid. A tour-goer can expect to have about 1-3 optionals offered for each larger destination they visit, but the price of each optional activity really ranges. There are certain activities like the dinners that are usually about 20-30 euro while there are more expensive options like paragliding (130 euro). Contiki makes all the arrangements for you, so all you gotta do is show up. The fees for this are done via the Tour Manager and his/her trusty card machine if you prefer this route over just paying cash.  My tour, European Escapade, offered about 23 optionals, though 2 of them (white water rafting, bobsledding) were not open due to the season and time I took the tour (April 13- May 7). Payment collection time for Me Time Optionals really depends on the Tour Manager. I read reviews in which the Tour Manager asks for them on their 2nd day on the bus, while ours weren’t collected till about midway through the trip.

I would say of the 23 optionals, there are a handful that are musts, while the others are either enjoyable or totally skippable. Again, in the interest of keeping this at a reasonable length, I will dedicate another post to the Me Time Optionals for a detailed review of them. I know I wish I had the opportunity to know more about each optional before I forked out the cash for each.

I would pay any amount of money to relive this moment, though. Paragliding is a Me Time Optional in Austria!

Why You Absolutely Need to Take This Tour

I remember reading reviews of the tour on their website and one headline that exclaimed “25 DAYS OF BLESS!!!!” I wasn’t sure if this person meant “Bliss” instead of “Bless”, but either one works for me. In my eyes, this tour really is one mixture of bliss and blessings all rolled into one. With every new city you see, person you meet, every laugh shared with your tourmates, you have these moments of pure joy, of being so happy to be in that very moment. As you look on at the waterfalls pouring from the mountains that line your campsite in Lauterbrunnen, or the view that overlooks the Duomo in Florence, you cannot be anything but humbled by the peace that overcomes  you or the finest of happiness you feel.  Your adventure with likely over 35 people, all of the exact same mindset and perspective for those 25 days, will be filled with these moments. We’re all searching for these illusive instants, yet a single one makes any hike, trek or trip worth it. What is a trip worth that has innumerable amounts? 

Take the tour. You won’t ever regret it.

One of our only proper pictures. A truly unforgettable experience with unforgettable people. <3


P.S.
I should probably mention I am not regularly much of a party person. I prefer staying in or having a drink with friends to the all-out balls-out bonanza on the town. So, DO NOT BE DISCOURAGED by Contiki’s rep as nothing but a party tour. I ended up going out quite a bit, because I wanted to experience the night cultures of each city as well, yes. But there is, without a doubt, so much more to this tour than that. No one will force you to come out, or chastise you the next day, if you don’t want to. Just go into it with an open mind, truthful to exactly what you want out of the tour, and have the amazing time you are guaranteed to have.


You can find more information on Contiki through their website:

General website: www.contiki.comEuropean Escapade: http://www.contiki.com/destinations/europe/tours/113-european-escapadeReviews of European Escapade: http://www.contiki.com/destinations/europe/tours/113-european-escapade/reviews

2 comments:

  1. Hey,
    Loves this! I just booked my European Escapade tour for 2016, good to know the tour is worthwhile! I'll be sure to check out your Pt 2 ME TIME optionals closer to my trip.
    Jo

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Jo! Hope you found it helpful and hope same goes for the Part 2! Aaaahhhh I am so excited for you! You are gonna have an absolute blast!!! :D

      Delete