Bear prosciutto and cave castles – welcome to Slovenia

A hotel where you can listen to classified recordings of secret agents, the largest cave castle in the world – and bear prosciutto: Discovering why Slovenia is a truly unique destination

  • Built in 1971, Hotel Jama is metres from the entrance to the country’s enormous Postojna Cave 
  • When the property was renovated in 2016, workers found surveillance rooms in the basement 
  • Now members of the public can listen to classified recordings of former government agents there

There can’t be many hotels where guests are required to hand over their mobile phones prior to visiting certain areas of the property. But then again, Hotel Jama, 35 miles south of the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, isn’t your average hotel. 

It’s the only place in Slovenia where members of the public can listen to national archive-owned, classified recordings of former government agents – hence the ban on mobiles.

Built in 1971, Hotel Jama is metres from the entrance to the country’s enormous Postojna Cave, which has attracted various famous visitors, most notably Tito, the controversial former president of Yugoslavia, of which Slovenia was a part for most of the 20th century. He’d often bring high-profile celebrities and politicians for long weekends.

Predjama Castle – the world’s largest cave castle – sits at the entrance of the jaw-dropping Postojna Cave

Built in 1971, Hotel Jama is metres from the entrance to Postojna Cave. Members of the public can listen to national archive-owned, classified recordings of former government agents there

So perhaps it’s hardly surprising that, when the property was renovated in 2016, workers found surveillance rooms in the basement, believed to date back to communist-era Yugoslavia. Dust covered tape recorders and switchboards were inside, all of which can be seen on a new guided tour. Despite its troubled past, this tiny country – half the size of Switzerland – is now one of Europe’s most popular destinations.

But Tito wasn’t the only high profile visitor. Much earlier, in 1883, Emperor Franz Joseph became one of the first tourists to visit the Postojna Cave, discovered in 1818. His arrival prompted the installation of electric lighting – 15 years before it reached Ljubljana. Back then, visitors sat in carts pushed by guides. Luckily, it’s an electric train which takes me to the starting point for my tour, two miles from the cave’s entrance.

I’m shown stalagmites taller than my house, an underground river (which can be explored in a dinghy) and rock formations I’ve never heard of. This includes curtains – paper thin sheets of rock dangling from cavern walls – and pearl pools, formed where raindrops fall in the same spot for millions of years, creating tiny water-filled indentations and slowly wrapping individual grains of sand in white limestone shells.


Predjama Castle dates back more than 800 years and sits in the middle of an 800ft cliff 

Postojna Cave, the country’s second-largest, is full of vast stalagmites and stalactites

But after three hours underground, I’m keen to explore Slovenia’s wide open spaces. It takes just over an hour to drive to the forest-fringed Jezersko valley, a few miles from the border with Austria. My base is the Vila Planinka, a 23-room chalet hotel where a sign in the lobby proudly reveals the water has the highest magnesium content of any water in Slovenia, and is thought to be especially good for the heart.

On the right of the hotel, at the end of the valley, is a towering slab of granite – a snow-dusted mountain separating Jezersko from Ljubljana, an hour’s drive away. On the left is a patchwork of forests carpeting the lower slopes of mountains dividing Slovenia from Austria.

One day I drive towards the Italian border to tackle a mountainous hiking trail. I’m hoping to spot one of the region’s notoriously shy ibexes – twirly horned, sure-footed mountain goats that cling to the wild flower speckled cliff faces. 

Despite Slovenia’s large caves, much of the country is full of wide-open spaces, like Jezersko Valley

Sadly, the goats don’t put in an appearance, but I’m compensated with other weird and wonderful species, such as jet-black mountain salamanders and rare orchids.

I spot hundreds of marmots, and, unlike the rodents in the French Alps, they’re fearless. I eat my picnic lunch yards from a burrow, under the watchful gaze of a mama marmot. I’m disappointed not to spot a bear – Slovenia has Europe’s largest bear population, a fact which helps offset my guilt that evening when I tuck into a plate of delicious bear prosciutto.

It’s served by a waiter who tells me this part of Slovenia has so many bears that, as a child, he’d roll his eyes when he saw his mother heading out with her shotgun, knowing bear was on the menu again. Slovenia’s bears might have eluded me, but its jagged mountains, river-carved caves and marmot- dotted valleys have more than made up for their absence

TRAVEL FACTS 

EasyJet (easyjet.com) London to Ljubljana from £69 return. Doubles at Hotel Jama (postojnska-jama.eu) from £72 and at Vila Planinka (vilaplaninka.com/en/) from £185 per night. Find out more at slovenia.info. 

 

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Airlines and hotels are still booking travel months away, but experts caution against making any reservations you can't cancel



a person standing in front of a mountain

  • All non-essential travel is off the table for now, but airlines and hotels are still accepting reservations for the future – often at deeply discounted rates.
  • If you’re considering booking travel for several months out, consider sticking to refundable tickets and reservations made with points or miles so there’s less risk of losing money if your plans need to be canceled.
  • You should also prioritize having an emergency fund of savings over booking a future vacation.
  • If you’re in good financial standing, you could open a new rewards credit card now and earn its welcome bonus so you have a stash of points ready to go when you’re ready to book a trip.
  • See Business Insider’s list of the best travel rewards credit cards.

As a result of the coronavirus, our lives have become very small in scope. If you haven’t had to cancel an upcoming trip, at the very least the current situation has likely put your vacation plans on hold. But while the world is largely housebound at this time, travel brands continue to sell flights and hotel rooms for dates in the future, and prices can be extremely low.

With airlines and hotels offering cheap rates and carriers such as JetBlue letting you book as far out as January 2021, you may be wondering whether it’s worth jumping on any of the current travel deals to book vacation in the future. If you’re considering pulling the trigger on a cheap flight or hotel room now for travel dates in the future, here’s what you need to know.

Booking a trip for the early fall may seem like a safe bet now, but no one knows when life will be back to normal. Given this uncertainty, you’ll want to treat any travel reservations you make as subject to change.

Many travel brands have released customer-friendly change and cancellation policies. For example, American Airlines will waive change fees for travel through May 31, 2020, and it will waive change fees for travel booked by April 30, 2020.

Hotels generally let you cancel a few days before check-in without any penalty, but be sure to double-check a property’s policy before you make a reservation.

Zach Honig, Editor at Large at travel website The Points Guy, recommends steering clear of nonrefundable tickets and hotel stays. “Personally, I’m not purchasing any nonrefundable travel right now, though I have booked several award flights that I hope to take, since I’ve found business-class availability to be outstanding, for travel later in the year,” he tells Business Insider.

Refundable tickets and hotel stays are often more expensive than their nonrefundable counterparts, however, which leads us to the next point …

While most travel brands have adjusted their cancellation policies for paid reservations, if you have points or miles, consider booking any speculative flights or hotel stays with your rewards.

It’s usually easier to cancel award tickets than cash reservations, and Honig notes that United is waiving award redeposit fees for the rest of 2020 as long as you cancel more than 30 days before departure. If you’re looking to book through another airline program, check to see if they’re offering award redeposit fee waivers as well.

If you can’t resist pulling the trigger on booking an expensive trip for the future, buying supplementary travel insurance could be a smart idea. While travel rewards credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, and the Platinum Card® from American Express offer strong travel coverage, including trip cancellation and interruption insurance, their coverage limits the reasons for which you can cancel and receive a full refund.

While the urge to book travel is understandable given that we’re all cooped up at home, it’s wise to balance that wanderlust with the need for financial security.

GALLERY: How to cancel your trip during the coronavirus pandemic 

a person in a blue suitcase:   Airlines are waiving cancellation and rebooking fees, but  getting a full refund is unlikely.    Amtrak train tickets are refundable, but canceling without a  fee requires speaking with an agent.    Many hotels are waiving cancellation fees and refunding  trips, and Airbnb is fully refunding reservations made before  March 14.    Many rental car companies are waiving change and cancellation  fees, but there are some restrictions.    Most cruise lines have suspended all upcoming trips and are  offering different refund and credit options.       Visit   Insider's homepage for more stories.     The coronavirus  pandemic has devastated the travel industry and upended  travel plans for people around the world. Whether you were set to  travel for vacation, an event, or to visit family, chances are  you've had to rethink your itinerary.   Here's how to adjust your travel plans with minimal financial  losses.

“Given the vast amount of uncertainty that we’re dealing with at this moment, my advice as a financial planner would be to focus on what you can control,” says Eric Roberge, CFP and founder of Beyond Your Hammock. “Right now, that comes down to your personal saving, spending, and investment contributions.”

“My priorities before spending on travel would be to pad my emergency fund (even if it was ‘full,’ having a little extra cash right now only adds security and stability), maintain or even increase my investment contributions, and do what I can to support others in my local community who may be struggling,” Roberge continues.

That’s not to say you can’t book future travel and save money, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of being financially prepared for any unforeseen circumstances during this uncertain time – especially as unemployment claims continue to skyrocket. 

If you have travel points, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards, keep in mind that you can redeem them for cash back. This won’t get you maximum value in most cases, but if you’re short on cash, this is an option for building your emergency fund.

 

You don’t have to stop dreaming about an exotic vacation, even if you ultimately decide to hold off on booking future travel for now.

In fact, this is a great time to start earning points and miles so you’ll be ready to go whenever we return to normalcy. Signing up for rewards credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card and earning their welcome bonuses will put you in a perfect position to book award travel in the future.

Consider cards that earn transferable points (like Amex, Chase, or Citi points, or Capital One miles) as opposed to those that earn rewards with an airline or hotel program, so you’re not locked into just one option for redeeming them. And remember that many cards offer bonus rewards on purchases such as online shopping, food delivery, and groceries.

WATCH: What will it take to get cruises sailing again? (Provided by Travel + Leisure)


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    The cruise line industry has taken a major beating due to covid-19, still analysts say the number of bookings for 2021 cruises have increased since this time last year.

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A Land and Sea Journey Through the Vibrant Islands of the Galapagos

The giant curious eyes studied me with a disarming warmth and total lack of fear. They surveyed my snorkel mask and flippers with wide-eyed wonder and an engaging playfulness that instantly became a language of its own between us.

First there was one set of eyes, and then another, and finally a third.

Together we floated back and forth on the warm current, this trio of inquisitive baby sea lions and myself, just a few feet away from each other near the shoreline of a tiny Galapagos island.

The sea lions darted as close to me as their bold courage allowed, taking in this strange creature in front of them. And then just as quickly, dashed away to the safety of a nearby crop of rocks at shore’s edge, peaking furtively from around a corner.

Moments later, they were back again, tumbling through a series of exuberant underwater acrobatics as they approached, twisting and turning effortlessly around each other’s sleek gray-brown bodies in harmony like a trio of boisterous children tumbling across a rug until they were no more than a foot in front of me once again.

This playful game continued for 20 minutes punctuated every so often by the trio of sea lions swimming even closer to me so that we could stare directly into each other’s eyes and bask in the glow of our mutual curiosity.

The snorkeling outing was one of many unforgettable highlights from my journey earlier this year through the Galapagos Islands with Exodus Travels, an experience that was as pure an encounter with nature as I’ve ever had during many years as a travel writer.

The trip seems a distant dream now that life around the world has been upended by the struggle to contain the coronavirus. And as I reflect on the vibrant, soul-enriching days of my visit, made up of hiking, sailing and snorkeling, I’m suddenly even more aware of how special the trip was and immensely grateful to have had the experience when I did, mere weeks before the global travel industry would come grinding to a halt.

I traveled to the Galapagos curious about the impacts of overtourism and the plastic waste problem plaguing so much of the Earth and many of the destinations I’ve written about in recent years.

My visit left me awed and humbled by the efforts of the Ecuadorian government to protect this incredibly special corner of the world. Not once during seven days of sailing from island to island in the Galapagos did I observe a wayward piece of trash or plastic, either on land or in the ocean. What’s more, only on rare occasions did we even encounter other groups of tourists as we explored land and sea.

Perhaps more importantly, I won’t ever forget the incredibly rich interactions I had with all manner of wildlife in a place where so many animals exist free and in the wild, largely unharmed by human beings and more vibrant thanks to the ability to live unhindered. During a week of explorations, I experienced nature in ways I never would have expected and that will remain with me for a lifetime.

The Journey Begins

It is said that Charles Darwin’s initial impressions of the Galapagos, which he visited in 1835 on the HMS Beagle, were not exactly favorable. But it wasn’t long before the famed naturalist and biologist’s opinion of this stunning archipelago changed and its importance to his theories about evolution became abundantly clear, ultimately making history.

My own exploration of this bucket-list destination began with a commercial flight from mainland Ecuador to San Cristobal, one of the oldest of the Galapagos islands. The plane landed on a tarmac alongside San Cristobal’s small, single-story airport, a building surrounded by flat, mostly colorless and largely unremarkable landscape.

From the airport, there was a brief bus ride to the docks of San Cristobal where a small panga (boat) waited to take about two dozen passengers out into the turquoise-colored bay where we would board the M/V Evolution. A 192-foot, 16-cabin luxury yacht built to accommodate up to 32 passengers, the Evolution would be our home base for the journey ahead.

During the course of the coming week, we were to navigate some 400 miles, exploring the northern and central islands of the Galapagos, crisscrossing back and forth across the equator as we sailed.

Visionary Island Management

During our first afternoon on the M/V Evolution, we’re briefed about appropriate behavior for the week ahead. It was a talk I’d been eager to hear in order to learn more about the measures currently in place to protect this fragile environment and ecosystem.

The rules we were given included remaining on marked trails and being careful not to step on vegetation; as well as not touching, handling, or petting anything, and leaving everything exactly as we found it.

It was also comforting to learn that Ecuadorian officials have established a strict limit of only 100 tourist boats in the Galapagos park at any one time in order to minimize crowds and the impact of human visitation on wildlife and the environment. In addition, each tourist boat plying the waters here must follow a slightly different itinerary, visiting islands in a different order than the other vessels. This is another measure designed to minimize human disruption of the environment, ensuring that any single island is not burdened by too many tourists at one time.

“The environmental laws here are serious and many people are willing to enforce the laws,” 51-year-old, Bolo Sanchez, our group leader and naturalist, informed us.

Sanchez, who has been working in the Galapagos for 25 years and first began visiting the region as a child with his father, later explained to me that there’s a very strict management plan in place that was developed long ago by government officials. The plan dictates how many tourists can visit each site within the Galapagos archipelago and those limits are based on environmental factors, topography, wildlife and more.

“This is what made a difference, the management plan,” says Sanchez. “It’s an old plan, but it has been improving. And it was visionary for a small, poor country with an unstable democracy to develop such a plan.”

A Week of Island Hopping: Life in All Shapes and Sizes

The tortoises, iguanas, snakes and lizards that are native to the Galapagos arrived millions of years ago thanks to their ability to survive for long periods of time without water and make sea crossings. After arriving in the Galapagos, such creatures were able to persevere in the often unwelcoming, stark, lava-covered landscapes that dominate so many of the islands, where little more than cactus and scrub brush grows.

Now, iguanas are among the most commonly sighted creatures on these desolate islands, perhaps second only to the ubiquitous sea lions we encountered day after day or the dazzlingly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs.

Darwin once described the marine iguanas of the Galapagos as “a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in its movements.”

It’s an entirely unfair and undeserved description really. Both the marine and land iguanas that inhabit the Galapagos are fascinating not only for their sheer variety of colors and sizes, but they ooze character as well.

We became acquainted with these quirky ambassadors of the Galapagos during one of our first outings, a walk on South Plaza Island. As we stepped from a panga onto the shore, we were surrounded by at least half-dozen iguanas sunbathing languidly or sitting practically motionless on rocks like the subjects of a still life painting.

The marine iguanas are distinct thanks to their darker skin, which is often decorated with flecks of color that allow them to blend in with the plants and rocks along an island’s shoreline. They’re also the only iguanas in the world that have learned to feed exclusively from the ocean, hardly the characteristic of a stupid animal.

Land iguanas meanwhile, typically can be found sitting majestically on a well-placed rock further inland. They exude the air of regal kings surveying their kingdoms. And their scaly skin, a canvas of varying shades of yellows, browns and oranges, provides a vibrant splash of color in what is often an otherwise dull, dry landscape.

On still other islands, we spent time watching the famed and beloved blue-footed booby engaged in mating rituals. And on Santiago Island we came across tiny, comical finches that boldly landed on our camera lenses and cell phone screens to stare at their yellow and brown feathered bodies in the reflection.

Halfway through the week we sailed six hours during the night as we slept, crossing the equator to awake anchored off of Genovesa Island. As the sun rose, the sounds of a cacophony of birds floated across the bay into the cabins of our boat.

Often referred to as bird island thanks to the vast number of seabirds that come to nest on its shores (as many as 10,000), remote Genovesa remains one of the most pristine patches of land in all of the Galapagos.

We spent a remarkable few hours here spying baby boobies in their nests, adolescent boobies and all manner of adult boobies. Many of the birds were nesting on the ground among the large white rocks, while others were perched in nests at eye level, making them easy to spy.

During one afternoon stroll along the beach on another island, as I walked along peacefully taking in the sounds of the crashing waves, I suddenly heard an angry chirping growing louder and more insistent. It seemed to say “Heyyyy. You!! Do you see us down here?” rousting me from my thoughts.

I look down and just a few feet ahead were two adult Oystercatchers fiercely guarding a cluster of fuzzy, newborn babies that were ambling right toward me. As I took in the scene, I found myself stunned once again by the variety of life here at every turn. Every phase of life is on full display.

Indeed, on multiple occasions I walked back toward our waiting pangas after a hike marveling at just how remarkable this place is where animals live and roam peacefully, yet boldly, fully confident in the knowledge that this is at least one corner of the world where they remain largely in charge. The Galapagos continues to be very much their home, and humans are merely visitors passing through.

The Colors Beneath the Sea

The color that the lava covered Earth lacks above ground in the Galapagos can all be found beneath the sea.

Our daily snorkeling excursions exposed us to such a diversity of life that all else seem suddenly and especially barren by comparison. We swam past great shimmering schools of sardines and alongside groups of dazzling angelfish that range in color from blue to brown, with splashes of bright yellow and peach on their fins.

On the seafloor beneath us there were often clusters of chocolate chip starfish that looked very much like their name implies with giant brown dots.

The parade of marine life also included Moorish idols (which are believed to be a harbinger of happiness), blue tangs, sergeant majors, yellow surgeonfish and cardinal fish that looked like small red flames passing through the water.

From the blue murky depths fish of all shapes and colors emerged one by one or in clusters, coming into focus like shimmering orbs of light, each a magnificently different array of luminous colors.

On one memorable afternoon we snorkeled above a half dozen hammerhead sharks. On other days we spied white-tipped reef sharks tucked into dark alcoves resting. Moray eels poked their heads from underneath coral as we passed above and we observed Panamanian sea stars that look as if they’d been crocheted from orange yarn.

Streams of fish often swam below us, two by two, as if on some sort of fish highway. And on rare occasions, we even came across the magnificent Spotted Eagle Ray.

“The Galapagos is all about marine life,” Sanchez tells me one afternoon as we head back to the Evolution on the panga.

Yes indeed, I thought. During our daily snorkeling outings, I enjoyed a profound sense of peace swimming among this vibrant display of life and color, mesmerized by the panoply of turquoise, lavender, silver, yellow, orange and the deepest of blue.

One Final Swim

On one of our last days in the Galapagos we did a brief snorkel from the beaches of Floreana Island. With the trip nearly over, I had one more item on my Galapagos bucket list—swimming with a sea turtle.

Within minutes of entering the water my wish was granted. Our group came upon a large sea turtle right near the shore that was foraging. I spent a few minutes observing this brilliant creature and then turned and headed back toward land satisfied with my swim, as the rest of the group snorkeled on.

After a few minutes of swimming alone, I came upon an even larger and more magnificent turtle. The current moved me right toward him, less than a foot away. If I reached out my arm I could have touched him. I remained gliding along quietly beside him for about 10 minutes, enjoying this peaceful moment with just the two of us, letting the current carry me along instead of continuing to paddle my fins.

I watched as the turtle poked his head under rocks taking bites of seaweed here and there while clusters of colorful fish hovered above him and beside him. He seemed totally oblivious to my presence, though I was entirely fascinated by his.

At one point an incoming wave pushed me to within just a few inches of him, making me feel as if I was invading his space far too much and I decided it was time to leave and let him glide on in peace.

The Land Where Time Marches On

At the beginning of my journey in the Galapagos I sat in my cabin reading a book that describes this place as “the land time forgot.” Each day as we explored, that description was never far from mind. I was continually mulling over what the author meant.

During the days I spent here, I witnessed a place where life very much marches on despite the forces of climate change plaguing our modern era and the many other challenges facing the planet including pollution and countless threats from the human race.

I saw a place that in many ways remains pristine and where it’s still possible to truly escape and immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, forgetting for a brief time that so many places on Earth have not fared nearly as well, or remained quite as well preserved.

That’s not to say the Galapagos doesn’t face its own pressures and threats. There are indeed plenty of them.

Still, time does not seem to have caught up with the Galapagos in the same devastating way that it has other destinations around the globe. The Galapagos I will hold in my mind’s eye remains a shining example of a time when the Earth was a much purer place.

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St. Kitts and Nevis Shuts Borders in Advance of COVID-19

Dual-island nation St. Kitts and Nevis is the latest Caribbean country to close its borders in an attempt to stem the COVID-19 virus’ spread. Beginning at 11:59 p.m. on March 25, all commercial flights to the nation will be banned through April 7, said government officials in a statement.

St. Kitts and Nevis officials have further stipulated “nationals and residents overseas who cannot return by the deadline will need to remain offshore until the border closing is lifted.” The county currently reports no confirmed coronavirus cases.

The Caribbean nation is allowing medevac and medical emergency flights “should the need arise.” Also permitted are international air and sea cargo shipments to the islands “in order to maintain connectivity that enables the Federation to import needed commodities such as food, fuel, medical supplies and equipment.”

“Testing is being done, and thus far we are grateful that ale results obtained have been negative,” said Mark Brantley, St. Kitts’ minister of foreign affairs and aviation and Nevis’ premier, in a March 19 address to the country. “However while we pray that continues, we continue to prepare for the real possibility that we may develop cases here in Nevis and in the wider federation,” he said.

“As such, my government continues to take every prudent measure on the advice of the chief medical officer and the federal task force, as well as the head of our local effort, Dr. Judy Nesbit.”

Officials are advising travelers scheduled to visit the country in the coming weeks to “contact their travel advisor, travel provider, hotel and/or airline for information about fees and policies for rescheduling or canceling trips.”

As in other tourism-reliant Caribbean destinations, the border closure will have a profound impact on the St. Kitts and Nevis economy. The island had already suffered the impact of canceled bookings at its signature luxury resort, the Four Seasons Nevis, earlier this month as the virus began its global spread.

In a Tweet, Brantley said the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank pledged to provide loan relief for Nevis commercial customers, including “no loan payments for six months and no late charges or fees.”

“We look forward to welcoming everyone to our twin-island destination once again when this time of uncertainty is behind us,” the government statement reads. “In the meantime, we ask all persons to stay informed about the latest news and developments relating to COVID-19 and to take all recommended precautions including preventative actions to stem the spread of the virus, including frequent handwashing and social distancing.”

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