Meet Elizabeth Kester

Elizabeth Kester with pink car in Cuba

Elizabeth in Havana, Cuba

Elizabeth Kester joined AAA in 2012.  Beginning as our Office Manager, she soon climbed the ranks and now manages our team of Tour Coordinators, who advise our travelers and spread the word about our trips.

What is your hometown?

New York, NY.

What city do you most recommend to friends?

I studied abroad in Madrid, have wonderful memories of my time there, and generally love Spanish culture. Madrid, Granada, Santiago de Compostela, Seville— the list goes on! I also love Havana, which is endlessly fascinating and enjoyable. I traveled with two friends from Chilean Patagonia up to the Atacama Desert and was particularly charmed by Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city and a former penal colony, as well as Valparaiso.

Which city would you drop everything to see?

This seems to be a popular answer, but Istanbul, both for its historical significance as the gateway between East and West and because of my preteen obsession with Agatha Christie novels. Also, my maternal grandparents and everyone of their generation on that side of my family were from Berlin.  A family trip has been in the preliminary planning stages for a while now.  Perhaps this blog post will nudge it forward!

Elizabeth Kester and Ute in Spain

With colleague Ute in Cape Finisterre, Spain

What do you enjoy working on the most at Academic Arrangements Abroad?

I’ve especially enjoyed working with travelers on our new Camino de Santiago programs as the idea, development, coordination, and execution of those trips has spanned my time at the company.  My friend and colleague Ute Keyes put together a unique and exciting itinerary. We led the inaugural trip together, which was a truly special experience!

Who would play you in a movie?

I’ll go with Julie Delpy.

What are some of your favorite travel books?

One of my favorite authors is Somerset Maugham, and Pico Iyer put together a collection of his best travel writing called The Skeptical Romancer.  Although I wouldn’t place them in the category of “travel” per say, I’ve come down with Ferrante fever and am a devoted fan of the Neapolitan Novels. I also like Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald for its descriptions of the French Riviera.

Do you have any special skills?

I’m a great fly caster.  My dad taught me well.

What are your most visited websites?

 New York Magazine, The New Yorker, Slate, Quartz and Puck Daddy.

What is something about you that surprises people?

I love anything on ice or snow. There is nothing better than the Winter Olympics.

What are three things you can’t travel without?

A book, my iPhone (loaded with music and podcasts), and a big scarf for the plane.

How many Arrangements Abroad trips have you traveled on?

Come January, I’ll have been on six trips with Arrangements Abroad as a Tour Director: three to Cuba, two to Costa Rica and Panama, and one to Spain.  Many of them have been conveniently timed for when it gets cold in New York!

Elizabeth Kester with glacier

Elizabeth at the Viedma Glacier in El Chalten, Argentina



Meet Erin Sorensen

Erin Sorensen at Great WallErin Sorensen started working at Academic Arrangements Abroad in September 2003.  She’s held a number of different positions at the firm throughout the years and is currently a Vice President in the Operations Department, developing and booking programs and managing trip logistics.

Erin at AAA holiday partyWhat is your hometown?  I moved every two to four years growing up, around the country as well as some time in England, but I now call New York home.  I’ve lived here much longer than anywhere else!

What is your favorite travel book?  Hmm, I could never have just one.  I love to read!  I organize our office book club, for which we read books set in or about different parts of the world.  Some of my favorites of the books we’ve read are:

Agent Zig Zag – Ben MacIntyre

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway

Country Driving – Peter Hessler

A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler – Jason Roberts

A couple of years ago I decided to read some Scottish books in preparation for a trip there and discovered I love Ian Rankin’s detective novels.

Erin Sorensen Easter IslandCity you most recommend to friends Vienna. I’ve only been there once, but it seems to have something for everyone – art, music, architecture, design, food, shopping. The countries I often recommend are Chile and Jordan, because they are amazing but underrated.

City you would drop everything to see I currently have two: Barcelona and Istanbul.  I can’t believe I still haven’t been to either, but it’s only a matter of time…

Erin in ArlesWhich AAA programs do you enjoy working on the most? Land programs with specialty themes (like the Mozart and Jane Austen programs planned for 2014). I can learn a lot about a specific subject or person as I work on the itinerary and organize the visits, and we get to take people somewhere they may have been before but with a different spin that keeps it new.

Special skills I love to cook and bake and have a good memory for useless pop culture facts.  I also speak French and hope to someday learn another language or two.

Your most visited websites  Probably Google Maps, Expedia and The New York Times for work purposes.  And NYPL, NPR and Amazon for other needs!

Something about you that surprises people I’ve lived in Madagascar and Mauritius. And I am left-handed.

Three things you can’t travel without A book, my camera and some kind of plan for my trip.

Number of trips traveled on  I’ve traveled for AAA about 25 to 30 times – either with groups as a tour director, or for inspection trips and travel conferences.  It’s a great learning experience every time. I also try to take an international trip as vacation about once a year if I can.  Travel is good for the soul!

Erin in Goa

Book Club Selection for January

House of the Spirits coverOur next book club selection is The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.

Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel Allende is considered one of the first successful women novelists in Latin America. She is the author of eight novels, a collection of stories, three memoirs and a trilogy of children’s books. She writes in the style of “magical realism.” Allende’s works have been translated into more than 27 languages and have become bestsellers across four continents. In 2004 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

According to one review, “The House of the Spirits is an enthralling saga that spans decades and lives, twining the personal and the political into an epic novel of love, magic, and fate.” The novel tells the tale of Chile’s 20th-century history through three generations of the fictional Trueba family.

Our discussion will probably be in late January.  Happy reading!


Amazing Accommodations for Stargazers

Do you love looking at the stars? Luckily, lots of hotels (and certain cruise ships) cater to people who enjoy gazing at the night sky. Here’s a round-up of some of our favorites around the globe.

Elqui Domos in ChileThe Elqui Domos in Chile, surrounded by the peaks of the Andes, has almost no light pollution. This makes it one of the best places in South America for stargazers. The hotel has geodesic dome rooms, which sleep up to four people, as well as observatory rooms, which are wooden cabins with three levels of living space. A brand new observatory has two electronic telescopes, used in Elqui Domos’ astronomy tours. The hotel also offers starlit, guided horseback rides through the arid Elqui Valley.

Located high in the mountains, Italy’s Carlo Magno Hotel Spa has an astronomical observatory that lets guests “peer into the depths of the cosmos.” The resort also offers an “astronomy special” for travelers who are especially passionate about the stars, and “Astronomy week” in September features guided observations and presentations held by top Italian astronomers.

Hawaii is usually associated with the sun rather than the stars, but the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa has a “Tour of the Stars” program led by the resort’s director of astronomy. The rooftop program costs $25 for hotel guests and is limited to 14 stargazers. There’s also a romantic couples version of the astronomy program that features chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne ($40 per person). If you’re not staying at the hotel, you can still participate—it just costs an additional $5 per person.

The Varsity Hotel & Spa in Cambridge, England, has astronomy master classes on different dates throughout the year. Held in the hotel’s rooftop garden, the classes let attendees enjoy unparalleled views of the night sky over Cambridge. Each class, which includes a two-course dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, can be enjoyed by visitors and locals alike and costs £49.

On the shores of Lake Wanaka, New Zealand’s Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet has comfortable rooms, outstanding cuisine and a powerful telescope. An astronomer is available to explain the skies of the Southern Hemisphere.

Host at Tree Pod Dining in ThailandThe Soneva Kiri on the island of Koh Kood in Thailand has a state-of-the-art telescope. Guests can learn about the stars from “hosts trained by professional astronomer Dr. Parag Mahajani.” The resort also has an outdoor cinema, where films are accompanied by nibbles such as homemade popcorn, and treetop dining, where waiters arrive by trapeze to serve dishes.

In Finland, the Hotel Kakslauttanen  has unique glass igloos. Although they don’t offer much privacy, they do give visitors a wonderful opportunity to admire the stars as well as the Northern Lights. The hotel’s wintertime activities include ice-fishing safaris, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and dog sled adventures.

Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Primland has a powerful Celestron CGE Pro 1400 series telescope in the resort’s Observatory Dome. Guests at the hotel can tour the observatory, and they can schedule presentations with resident astronomers during their stay. Throughout the year, the resort also plans special “star master weekend programs,” which offer a more in-depth look at the night sky.

Sea Cloud II masts at night by Daniel KuklaSome cruise ships also offer great opportunities for admiring the cosmos. “I remember stargazing on the deck of Sea Cloud  in the middle of the Mediterranean,” says Gloria De Luca, Vice President of Communications at Academic Arrangements Abroad. “Pretty amazing as it was a moonless night and most of the deck lights were off. And if a knowledgeable crew member happens to be on board, they will give you a guided tour of the sky.” Luxury sailing yacht Sea Cloud II, pictured above, also offers incredible views of the stars.

Looking for something even more outdoorsy? Check out this great article about hotels where you can slumber directly under the night sky.

Meet Chelsea Bryant

Chelsea at VersaillesChelsea Bryant began working at Academic Arrangements Abroad in July 2012. As an Assistant Tour Coordinator, she focuses on facilitating reservations and helping passengers on the firm’s travel programs. 

Right now, she is working on programs to Thailand and Cambodia, Chile, and the Baltic capitals, among others.

Hometown: Amherst, Massachusetts

City I would recommend to friends: I know the most about Madrid as I lived there for several years, but I highly recommend Lisbon, Portugal, as well.  I didn’t know what to expect when I first went, but it enthralled me–the scenery, the food, the people.  It’s relatively cheap, many people speak English, and the Pastéis de Belém (egg tarts) are to die for.

City I would drop everything to see: Tokyo, Japan.  It’s #1 on my list!

Most recent tour: I traveled to Cuba in January 2013.  My next trip with AAA will be a cruise on Sea Cloud II from Rome to Naples in May.

Special skills: Playing the piano and speaking Spanish

Favorite travel book: It isn’t a travel book per se, but I love Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.  His stories about living abroad and learning a new language are hilarious, and I really identify with them, having gone through a similar situation.

Most visited websites: Tastespotting (looking for recipes is my guilty pleasure), Pinterest for inspiration, Buzzfeed for sloth-related posts.

Chelsea at Zion National ParkSomething that surprises people: I did not own a smart phone until three months ago.

Three things I can’t travel without: snacks, a journal, iPod

Number of trips: Many, especially in Europe, but there are large areas of the earth I have yet to cover…