Day 0/1: Istanbul, Turkey
We flew into Istanbul from Houston, enroute to Nairobi, Kenya. We had planned a one-day stopover here so headed straight to the hotel. The hotel was in the middle of the Sultanahmet area which is the heart of ancient Istanbul. We were advised it wasn’t particularly safe to walk around in the evening so after checking out a few shops close-by, having a sumptuous Turkish dinner, we retired early to be able to recuperate for the next morning.
Our last stop for the day was Hagia Sophia, a great architectural beauty and an important monument both for Byzantine and for Ottoman Empires. Once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum at the Turkish Republic, Hagia Sophia has always been the precious of its time. The city today carries the characteristics of these two different cultures and surely Hagia Sophia is a perfect synthesis where one can observe both Ottoman and Byzantium effects under one great dome. A must-see!!
All these monuments are on the European side of Istanbul (Basilica Cistern was an important thing that we did not find the time to see). On our next trip we will cover the Asian side of Istanbul – yes, the only city in the world to span across two continents.
We took the overnight flight onwards to Nairobi, Kenya later in the evening.
Day 2: Nairobi, Kenya & Amboseli National Park
After landing in Nairobi early morning, and clearing the visa requirements, we were picked up our tour guide folks, the wonderful Wildebeest Safaris. We departed in a comfortable 7-seater after our morning breakfast for Amboseli National Park, about 4 hours away, famous for its big game. Amboseli embodies five main wildlife habitats, plus a generally dry lake-bed – Lake Amboseli. Elephants, lions and cheetahs are the main attractions – besides acacia woodland; rocky, lava strewn thorn-bush country; swamps and marshes. It is famous for its huge herds of elephant and sure enough, we saw them aplenty even before we drove into the park. Another attraction was the view of Mt. Kilimanjaro which is the tallest Mountain in Africa.
Since we had landed at Nairobi early in the morning, we had enough time to check into the hotel, rest a bit and then do a long game drive in the park. Saw plenty of wildlife and birds including Maasai giraffe, hyenas, lions drinking water, fringe eared Oryx and several species of birds. Once we got back to the hotel in the late afternoon, some of us had a chance to interact with the Maasai tribe and learn about their astounding culture. The tent lodge was very comfortable with superb service across the board – glamping in style!
Day 3: Amboseli National Park
Started off pretty early in the morning and spent the day on morning and afternoon game drives, crisscrossing the landscape in search of elephants, zebras and wildebeests along the saltpan trails. Opted for a picnic lunch (not a good idea!) to ensure more time for game drives not having to come back for meals.
Once again the animals did not disappoint – saw several Lions, monkeys, baboons, elephants, giraffes galore!
Day 4: Drive from Kenya to Tanzania (Ngorongoro Crater)
After a super-early breakfast, we set off on our drive to Ngorongoro into Tanzania. This included the normal border crossing formalities at Namanga border in Kenya, which took us about an hour. Once in Tanzania, we were able to catch stupendous views of Mt Kilimanjaro from this side.
Stopped for lunch at a hotel in the town of Arusha. Continued the drive after lunch, soaking in the African lifestyle. After about an 8 hour drive, we arrived at the Ngorongoro Highlands at our lodge situated on the rim of the crater. The crater is a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. It is the largest Caldera in the world that has its walls intact. The Ngorongoro Crater floor, a sheer drop of 610 meters below the crater rim, has an area of about 300 square kilometers, with a diameter of 19 kilometers. The sight of the Ngorongoro Crater is simply stunning. Spread over treeless pastures, the animals are displayed in glorious, unobstructed view and can often be seen from the hotel room. We were able to see zebras, buffaloes and hear lions growl. The altitude at the crater rim is about 2286 meters above sea level, and temperature got a bit chilly in the evening – but we enjoyed the delicious drinks and buffet served at the 4* lodge and went to bed early in preparation for the early morning game drive.
Day 5: Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania and Drive to Serengeti
In the early morning, we descended over 600 meters to the floor of the crater for the game drive. The crater had it all – mighty bull elephants, sour-faced buffalo, beleaguered rhinoceros, lions galore, even a sparkling, flamingo-thronged soda lake. The crater cast a spell of overwhelming tranquility. The rare black rhino was also viewed here, albeit from a distance. We were lucky to even see a cheetah devouring his fresh kill. We explored the forest areas that are inhabited by monkeys and elephants, and the open savannah where the lions hunt for food. Highlight of the day was being caught in the middle go the ‘Great Migration’ with thousands of wildebeests and zebras grazing and making their way to Southern Serengeti. Instead of Picnic lunches, we decided to come back to the hotel and eat…a wise decision.
After lunch, we departed for the drive to Serengeti via Oldupai Gorge, site of Louis and Mary Leakey’s renowned archaeological discoveries. Their findings include some of the man’s earliest known ancestral remains. After a 45-minute lecture and tour there, we continued on to Serengeti National Park, which is Tanzania’s largest park. The park is located some 320 km to the northwest of Arusha, lying in a high plateau between the Ngorongoro highlands and the Kenya/ Tanzania border, and extending almost to Lake Victoria to the west, covering a total area of 14,763 square kilometers.
After settling into the Seronera Wildlife lodge (which is perched right in the middle of the park without any fences), we went for our long-awaited afternoon game drive. This enormous park supports every variety of animal imaginable – from large predators such as lion, leopard and cheetah to the smaller herbivores they prey on, and we were lucky enough to see a wide variety of them, even the elusive leopard with a fresh kill!
Day 6: Serengeti, Tanzania
After an early breakfast, we continued on our game drive for the day. Saw several golden-maned lion in huge prides, unfortunately could not catch them feasting on the abundance of plain grazers. Solitary leopards haunted the acacia trees lining the Seronera River, while a high density of cheetahs prowled the southeastern plains. Almost uniquely, all three African Jackal species occur here, alongside the spotted Hyena and a host of more elusive small predators. Aptly named “endless plains” by the Maasai people, you immediately experience this vastness as you enter the southeastern plains of the park from Ngorongoro.
The principal features of the Serengeti which are the short and long grass plains in the south and east, the acacia Savannah in the central areas, the hilly and densely wooded areas in the north and the extensive woodland in the west. There is a variety of scenery, which include the plains, lakes, hills and the rock outcrops called kopjes were in full abundance. The Seronera valley in central Serengeti, endowed with permanent surface water, attracts a large concentration of wildlife throughout the year. While climbing trees is unusual behavior for most lion prides, it seems to be fairly common and repeated behavior among specific prides and we were lucky enough to witness that. Serengeti is famed for its annual migration, and while the migration was quiet this time of the year, it offered some of the most scintillating game-viewing in Africa: great herds of Buffalo, smaller groups of Elephant and Giraffe, and thousands upon thousands of Eland, Topi, Kongoni, Impala and Grant’s gazelle.
Came back to the hotel for dinner and overnight stay – and heard several stories from the staff about leopards, giraffes and dik-diks coming into the hotel corridors, even the lobby because of the lack of a fence! We even witnessed thousands of animals grazing right outside our hotel room in the early morning hours.
Day 7: Drive to Lake Manyara/Tarangire area
We left Serengeti early morning Drive to Lake Manyara area. Located 125 km west of Arusha town, on the foot of the wall of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Manyara National Park is one of the oldest and most popular sanctuaries in East Africa. However, due to a detour that we had to make to drop one of our party members at the airport, we missed out on going to the park. The whole day was spent driving towards the park, and then onwards to Tarangire Park. We settled down for the night at the Burunge Tented Lodge outside of the park.
Day 8: Tarangire National Park, Tanzania & Zanzibar, Tanzania
As had become a habit over the last few days, we set off on an early morning game drive into Tarangire after breakfast. While it boasts of very beautiful scenery, there was nothing truly spectacular in terms of the animal concentration. Having been doing this for the last week, it was largely a feeling of been-there-done-that! Saw the usual elephants, giraffes, zebras, monkeys, hippos et.al. and then proceeded on to the Arusha airport to catch our flight to the Zanzibar islands.
We departed after lunch arriving Zanzibar after a short 1-hour flight. We were met upon your arrival by the tour company and then transferred to the Zanzibar Beach Resort. Set on the Indian Ocean, the resort boasts of easy beach access, lovely sunsets, awesome foliage and a spectacular view of the ocean! Spent most of the evening relaxing and swimming out there, in preparation of the next day.
Day 9: Zanzibar – Mnemba Atoll Snorkeling & Northside Nungwi Beaches
Leaving at leisure this morning for a change, we were lucky enough to witness the beaming sun out with a cool breeze. We took about an hour long car ride to the east side of the island after an hour’s drive, to reach the outfit which would take us snorkeling to the famous Mnemba Atoll. The shop required us to wear wetsuits in order to protect from plankton and the transparent clear little jellyfish that swim in the gorgeous waters there. Upon reaching the shop, the helpers there took very good care of us providing us with all our necessary gear and ensuring we are comfortable with our suits. A little speed boat was ready to take us all to the atoll (Water body surrounded by land in the ocean), a captain and guide accompanied us on the 1-hour ride. The ride was very enjoyable for the kids given all the choppy waters and fast speed, once we reached the reefs the ride became even more choppier. We weren’t able to get off at the actual Mnemba Island because it is private property. However we snorkeled in the water surrounding it and it was one of the best snorkeling ever!!
The captain stopped in an area where the guide was well aware of the surroundings to ensure we enjoyed a variety of fish. It was just awesome! Some parts were so deep that we couldn’t even see the ocean floor but the multitude of fish was just incredible. We were lucky enough to find a family of 9 dolphins swimming alongside with us. Our captain brought us back on to the boat and pulled up really close to them; we were able to jump off again and actually swim with them. It was heavenly watching them twirl and get really close to us as well. It was just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with bottlenose dolphins in the wild! After our about 2 hour snorkeling trip we headed to the north side with these gorgeous white sand Nungwi beaches. We were lucky enough to eat scrumptious food at a seaside restaurant on the beach and catch the sunset!! A beautiful end to a beautiful day before the 1 hour drive back to the hotel.
Day 10: Zanzibar – Zanzibar – Prison Island, Stone City & Spice Islands
This was our last full day in Zanzibar so we spent the whole day touring the island. Our first stop was Prison Island known for their population of giant tortoises. We took a 45-minute ride on a slow boat to get to the island in the calm waters, quiet unlike the one from yesterday’s. Upon entering the island surrounded by splendid blue waters, we were greeted by some beautiful peacocks roaming around! The tortoises however were old and massive (the oldest one was 193 years!) but quite cute.. you could feed and touch them and they were very friendly with humans. We were also able to walk around the island and learn the history about the “prison” this island was once used for.
We then headed back to shore on the boat to the actual Stone City. Our tour guide led us through the city showing us how much history lay in in the town, even though it was a 110 degrees outside!! It was a very interesting experience from a historical perspective. Right after the tour, we stopped for lunch at an Indian restaurant (Spice Route) and it was just fantastic. The food there immediately became number 1 on our list for Indian food and the sullen mood because of hunger & heat vanished in 10 seconds.
Our next stop was the Spice Island which was 45-minutes to the east of us but well worth the drive. The tour guides there were super interactive and really funny. They took us through the multitude of spice plants, allowing us to taste or smell whatever we were given. They even made the ladies some coconut leaf jewelry as we enjoyed the tour of the plantation. At the very end they even climbed up the coconut tree, brought us coconuts and we were able to have fresh coconut water and fruits grown on the farm. It was a memorable experience, great way to end the day before we headed back to our hotel!
Day 11: Zanzibar to Nairobi
A brand new experience awaited us at the Zanzibar airport as we set off early morning to catch our flight to Nairobi. Mismanagement at the Zanzibar airport was evident as at the check-in counters…all work was being done manually…no computers were being used to check in passengers. We were happy to be able to use the small but clean lounge at the airport. The lounge spared us from the cramped crowded space filled with people and hot & humid air. The lounge offered snacks and drinks and most importantly a place to relax while waiting for our flight. We walked to the airplane and boarded the tiny plane for Nairobi. Once the flight took off, Zanzibar and the complete coastline looked beautiful with its pristine clear blue waters. From the plane the coastline looked beautiful.
At Nairobi airport (via Mombasa), we met the tour company driver who drove us through some of the expensive areas of Nairobi, where the rich built mansions to the amazing Nairobi Giraffe Center, a sanctuary right in the idle of the city (different from the Giraffe manor next door wherein you could stay with the giraffes – way too expensive though!). We managed to feed, pet and even kiss the giraffes… ugh!! Attended a small interactive presentation by the guide about the giraffes.
Our driver was able to find another great Indian restaurant “Handi” for us in Nairobi for dinner. The restaurant served awesome North Indian cuisine and their food was flavorful and spicy. The chefs were surrounded by glass walls so we could look inside while they prepared the food. Finally we set off to our hotel (Zehernia Portico) in the heart of the city, not too far from the restaurant after a long and tiring day to get ready for the early early morning flight!
Day 12: Nairobi to Istanbul to Athens
We flew out of Nairobi early morning and arrived in Istanbul, Turkey. As our flight for Athens was later at night (9-hour layover), we decided to venture out in Istanbul on our own. Took a train from the airport to see the city of Istanbul that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosporus Strait. We crossed over to the Asian side and managed to touch another continent on this trip. Not very different from the European side, it still carried a flavor of it’s own.
On our return back to the Eurpean side, we crossed the straits on the Galata Bridge which spans the Golden Horn in Istanbul. The whole pathway is replete with restaurants and shops on both sides. We stopped on the way to have some awesome Turkish dinner that gave us the energy to walk up several steep steps to the famous Galata Tower. The line outside was too long, otherwise we would have gone up to see that too. The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are held not too far from this bridge. The whole area was abuzz with sounds from people, cars, buses, fish market and prayers at the mosques – a signature of the Turkish lifestyle.
We took a taxi from there for the airport after some bargaining. To our dismay the taxi driver yelled at someone throughout the way on his phone in Turkish, unnerving us no end! It was a relief to reach the airport and get off the taxi to catch our flight. The Istanbul Airport Lounges are quite impressive and we received some peace and quiet once we got there to get the flight to Athens, Greece.
We had a nostalgic feeling landing in the historical beautiful city of Athens in Greece. Our tour company driver picked us up from the airport and took us to our quaint hotel in the heart of Athens. Athens looked beautiful at night as all the historical monuments were lit up.
Day 13: Santorini Islands, Greece
No trip to Greece is complete without a trip to the gorgeous Santorini Islands!! There are several islands to choose from there, each with its own flavor (Mikonos, Rhodes, Crete etc.) but we chose Santorini for the picturesque settings. It is the largest island of a small, circular archipelago which bears the same name and is the remnant of a volcanic caldera. After a quick 1-hour flight from Athens, we landed at the airport and were picked up by our tour driver. Since it was early January, the island was quite dead but still gorgeous! There were blue-top churches galore in the Catholic Quarter of the island!
Fira and Oia are the two main villages there at opposite ends of the island, which is really a lagoon of water surrounded on three sides by sloping cliffs. Besides the multitude of shops, gorgeous homes along the winding paths, it had the wonderful Red Sand Beach and Black Sand Beach, both true to their names. There is plenty to do there in terms of foods, wines and shopping, but we managed to finish it all in a day since it was all so dead as everyone was off to Athens for Christmas vacations. One of the key highlights we enjoyed was the several donkeys trailing along the narrow streets carrying building materials! The food there was to die for though!!
Witnessing the sunset there is a must and we were lucky enough to catch it before we took off for our flight back to Athens.
Day 14: Athens & Meteora
We started the morning with an early early visit to the Acropolis to catch a glimpse of the Acropolis, the citadel of Ancient Greece built on a hill. It houses the remains of several ancient buildings of great historic significance including the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion & the Temple of Athena Nike. While most of them are quite damaged due to the 1687 siege by the Venetians, you can just feel the history there!!
One of the things that pleasantly surprised us in Greece was the overall Infrastructure, the gorgeous wide roads, comfortable vehicles and the availability of all kinds of amenities along the way. The 4-hour drive to Meteora was a pleasure with all these comforts, with spectacular scenery and some awesome views of Mt Olympus, the highest peak in Greece.
Meteora is a rock formation in Central Greece hosting one of the largest precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries. There are six of them that are built on immense natural pillars and hill-like rounded boulders that dominate the surroundings. Kalambaka is the closest town to them. The Great Meteoron Monastery is the biggest and most visited monastery. Set in a glorious setting with fine views across the surrounding landscape, it was founded by Athanasios the Meteorite in 1356 and enlarged in the second half of the 14th century by his disciple and successor Ioasaph. There is a 3 Euro entrance fees for most of them but it is well with the price and the trouble of walking up/down as you soak in the history and the beauty of the insides. The closest monastery to the village of Kastraki (one kilometer away), St. Nicholas is approached up a rather steep hill, followed by a flight of steps. Founded in 1368 and enlarged in 1628, it is much-loved for its tiny church decorated with incredible frescoes, painted by the Cretan artist Theophanes in 1527.
Lunch was an hour away from the monasteries because of the Holiday Season rush – by the time we were served and finished that, it was dinner time. Rest of the time was spent enjoying the 4-5 hr. drive back to the hotel. The day closed with some souvenir shopping very close to the hotel and a sumptuous authentic Greek dinner!
Day 15: Home
Finally it was time again to head home. The flight from the Athens airport (lovely airport by the way!) to Turkey and then onwards to the US was pleasant, thanks to Turkish Airways!
- Turkey: Basilica Cistern – largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul.
- Turkey: Bosporus Tour – Boat ride that takes you between the Asian & European side of Istanbul, on a guided boat tour.
- Greece: Delphi – famous as the ancient Greek sanctuary and considered the navel (or center) of the world by the ancient Greeks.
- Kenya/Tanzania: Safaris – Animals making a kill and a giraffe drinking water!!
- Turkey: Do not try the ‘Tavuk Gogsu’, a ‘so called’ dessert! It is a white pudding with an outer covering of burnt milk and chicken, yes you read it right, chicken inside!!
- Turkey: Remember to cover your head with scarves etc. and anything that shows legs is not allowed for the ladies.
- Kenya: We got the via in advance but the lines were so mis-managed at the airport that people who got it at the airport directly managed to get out much before us!
- Tanzania: The Serengeti Lodge has no fences and the animals (yes lions, leopards) can wander in as they please! I took it lightly and got yelled at majorly by the ranger in the middle of the night who was obviously very scared for his life too at that point! Please pay heed to them.
- All Safaris: Is you can avoid it, do not take packed lunch unless the game drive is so enjoyable! We preferred to come back and have fresh food at the hotel itself.
- All Safaris: The game drive can be full of dust as you are out all day, most vehicles are not Air-conditioned unless you go with the really high-end safaris. Also, evenings can be mosquito-ridden, ensure you wear long sleeves, carry mosquito spray and take malaria medication.
- Kenya/Tanzania: They will not leave you leave the country unless you have taken the Yellow fever shots in advance in your residence country.
- Turkey: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia
- Greece: Athens, Santorini
- Tanzania: Ngorongoro Crater
- Zanzibar: Snorkeling with the dolphins
- All Safaris: Animal watching in general