& Other Swedish Dream Islands
SEEKING WILD STRAWBERRIES IN STOCKHOLM'S BALTIC SKERRIES
ORIGINALLY APPEARED SPRING, 2012. MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2015 Photo
© HOME AT FIRST
Sweden is very different now. As
a youth of the 1960s, my impressions of Sweden came from pin-up
actresses Anita Ekberg and Britt Ekland, and from the black and white
movies of Ingmar Bergman. Bergman’s films presented a very different
impression of Sweden than the pin-ups provided. The Seventh Seal,
Through a Glass Darkly, and others, portrayed Sweden as no frolicsome
land populated with inviting, oversexed blondes for whom life was an
active, youthful, and intellectually trivial party.
Bergman’s Sweden was shocking,
troubling, unattractive, and disappointing. His films still had
attractive blondes, and sex was a common theme in most of them. But the
films were not frolics. They explored basic questions of human
existence: the whys of life and death, of emotion, of reason, of
religion, and of relationships. They did so with a mixture of stark
reality and starker dreams. Most of them were pessimistic and
My favorite Bergman film is
Strawberries. It’s different from others of his early period. About an
old man coming to grips with the last years of life, the film focuses on
questions of human existence. Dreams and nightmares play important roles
in Wild Strawberries, and troubled relationships, especially between the
sexes and the generations both current and remembered, help propel the
plot. Like many of his films, the action occurs during a journey, a
journey that is both real and figurative, a journey in the present
marked with milestones of the past: memories and dreams. Ultimately the
old man sorts through his troubling thoughts. He comes to an
accommo-dation with the many relationships of his life, complete and
incomplete, that he now accepts even if he can no longer influence them.
Fullness Fullness of life,
The timeless journey from the past to future:
the surreal clock from the opening dream
sequence of Bergman's "Wild Strawberries".
suggests, has more to do with accepting
the journey with all its difficulties and delights than with attempting
to force an outcome.
© HOME AT FIRST
Forty years on I have a very
different view of Sweden. I have had my own journey of wild
strawberries. My son married a Swedish girl. He had met her when they
were both students in London. After graduating from college, he went
back to London to work for a year. He met her again – she was working in
London, too – they fell in love and a couple of years later were married
in her family’s home city,
on Sweden’s west coast. Their wedding was the excuse for my first visit
to Sweden. I stayed on to get to know the country, finishing my trip in
Sweden’s glittering island capital on its
Death does not play chess with knights in modern
Stockholm, where the odds favor life. The iconic
still is from Ingmar Bergman's "the seventh seal".
Baltic east coast.
My youthful impressions of Sweden were partially confirmed:
Swedish women come close to matching their intimidating physical
stereotypes: tall, blonde, fit, and very pretty. But I found scant
evidence of Ingmar Bergman’s Sweden. Twenty-first century Sweden is
obviously prosperous and nearly as attractive as its women. Its cities
may lack the architectural warmth of certain great European cities to
the south, but, despite a certain northern severity, they effuse subtle
wealth, stability, and permanence. Stockholm, especially, laid out on a
pearl necklace of islands straddling the sweet/salt divide between fresh-water Lake
Mälaren at its outlet into the brackish
Baltic Sea, is a model modern city: confident, efficient, interesting,
trendy, walkable, and green. There are no signs of Bergman’s depressing
Sweden here. Conversation laced with laughter, humming as a low-level,
understated form rarely heard in the louder-is-better U.S., plays as the
white noise background along Stockholm’s streets. This is no place for
old men wrestling their demons of depression, old women whose youthful
beauty has not evolved into mature elegance, misshapen, dull-witted
children, or coarse, oafish Vikings. Death does not play chess with
knights in modern Stockholm, where the odds favor Life.
When I learned that Swedes dream
of escaping their modern city lives for a simpler existence in rustic,
rust red seaside cabins, I imagined Bergman’s picnic scenes from Wild
Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. Maybe, I thought, the
Swedish soul is saved beside the sea. I tucked the idea in my memory and
pledged that I would return to Sweden one day to pursue the theory by
exploring Stockholm’s Baltic archipelago.
When my son, now a father of a 5-year-old boy, invited me to
visit his family in Stockholm, I jumped at the chance, but added that I
would love to go out into the archipelago for a weekend with them. He
answered yes eagerly — he had heard much about the pleasures of the
Swedish island vacation but had yet to experience it. He said he would
do all the planning, using recommen-dations from his Swedish friends and
colleagues at work. All I had to do was pay my share and show up on
The weekend began
Two major passenger lines serve Stockholm's Baltic archipelago, offering
short, medium, and long cruises to the islands as well as specialty theme
cruises for dinner, dancing, and brunch without destinations.
© HOME AT FIRST
taking shape when we agreed on a specific
after consulting the very helpful on-line resource provided on the web
private/public company that operates passenger ferries in the
archipelago, Stockholm harbor, and on Lake Mälaren. I was encouraged by
this paragraph on the website’s destinations page:
we travel through the lush inner archipelago where the islands are
richly forested and, since the end of the 1800’s, lined with
attractive summer villas. At the turn of the last century Stockholm
was quite a grimy city and the idyllic archipelago was a magnet for
those who could afford it. As soon as spring was in the air, estate
owners, general managers, and directors would leave for their summer
retreats built in Old Scandinavian, National Romantic or Swiss
chalet style. Wives and children settled in for the summer while
their men folk commuted to the office on the trendy new steamboats.”
When my son, Jess, emailed me
that his wife, Lisa, would not be joining us because she had friends
coming to visit her in Stockholm that weekend, the nature of the trip
changed. We would now be three generations, father, son, and grandson.
Creature comforts would mean less. Accommodations could be simple. We
could all share one room and one bathroom would be plenty. Activities
would mean more. Shopping would be for food, not for arts and crafts.
Access to nature would be important. Access to civilization would be
less important. We wanted a place that wasn’t in a fashionable resort or
upscale village. We wanted to be able to ride bikes, hike in the woods,
and have a picnic by the water. We wanted comfortable beds, clean indoor
plumbing, a kitchen good enough for us to make breakfast and snacks for
our backpacks. We wanted a good restaurant with a seafood menu available
for Saturday night dinner.
We studied the ferry company’s
destinations page, which
currently lists and describes twenty-two places to visit in the
archipelago. As we independently read through the destinations, Jess and
I made lists of those that looked like possible matches for us. Then we
compared lists. One island that appeared on both our lists seemed
particularly well-suited. Jess, who is Swedish-speaking, took on the
task of finding accommodations information. He found a cabin perfect for
the three of us owned by a couple who also rented bikes to visitors. The
down side of the cabin was its location: in the woods rather than on the
water. Riding heavily in favor of the cabin was its less-than-half-mile
proximity to a highly rated fish restaurant,
one of only two restaurants open on the
island. After a quick transatlantic phone call, Jess called the
cabin-owner back, and reserved the cabin and two bikes (one with a
child’s seat) for the weekend over the week I would be in Sweden. We had
decided on the outer island of
SAILING TO MÖJA
© HOME AT FIRST
We decided to opt for the
convenience (no changes from bus to ferry en route) of taking the fast
ferry operated by
Turism & Sjöfart AB, whose large-capacity Cinderella boats depart from
central Stockholm’s Strandvägen quay for the 2¾ hour cruise to Möja (see
Strömma’s video about Möja).
The spacious, big capacity (up to 450 persons) boats have large
restaurants on two levels, promising to keep a 5-year-old’s interest for
most if not all the trip. We booked our boat immediately after booking
our cabin and the bikes, and then we booked our supper at Wikströms Fish
restaurant. We were ready.
Sunny, warm weather and empty seats aft.
© HOME AT FIRST
The Saturday we sailed to
Möja, we woke to a bright morning and cloudless
skies. We put our packs on our backs and headed for our local
Tunnelbana metro station for the quick ride across the center of
Stockholm to the Strandvägen quay and our waiting boat, Cinderella II.
Jess and Alex and I found seats on the lower back deck, out of the wind
and out of the direct morning sun as we headed east into the
archipelago. We were surprised there were empty seats on this the
morning boat on what promised to be a dry, mostly sunny Saturday.
The cruise was scenic and
Alex had the run of the boat, and Jess and
I took turns keeping him from falling
board. There were a few other families on
board among people of all ages. Those carrying little with them may have
been taking a day-long sightseeing cruise. Some lugged suitcases,
shopping bags full of supplies, bikes, buggies, and carts, obviously
heading for their island homes for a week or more. We weekenders carried
full packs on our backs and a few things in our hands. Otherwise, we
sipped coffee and nursed a pastry each over the journey between
breakfast in Stockholm and lunch on Möja.
Passengers sunning themselves, drinking coffee,
and snacking as we cruise the archipelago.
© HOME AT FIRST
THE BALTIC ARCHIPELAGO:
© HOME AT FIRST
Once beyond Stockholm
harbor Cinderella II made frequent stops, dropping off passengers at the
islands of Vaxholm, Svartsö, Ingmarsö, and Finnhamn before finally reaching Möja.
Several small harbors served each of the last four island groups in
the outer archipelago. Möja itself, about 6 miles long by 2 miles wide,
has six landings served by the Cinderella boats and other ferries. We
arrived at ours, Ramsmora, on time. We disembarked with about ten other
passengers, leaving an almost empty boat behind us.
We walked a quarter mile up a
dusty road from the Ramsmora landing. We found our landlords’ farm
easily: a long row of rental bikes lined the dirt lane in front of their
prim red wooden farmhouse trimmed in white. The landlady came up the
lane from her substantial vegetable garden to meet us, wiping her hands
on her apron. Although she greeted us in English, she was quite relieved
that Jess and Alex speak Swedish. Jess and I selected our bikes. Jess’s
had a child seat already in place. Our landlady put our backpacks and
hand baggage on a cart attached to her ATV. We mounted our bikes and
followed the ATV the half-mile or so up the road to the driveway that
led to our cabin.
Our cabin was, predictably, a
Möja: Jess & Alex on our cabin balcony
with our bikes stowed underneath.
© HOME AT FIRST
building with vertical slats, neatly
painted rust with white trim. What wasn’t predictable was that our
living quarters was upstairs above a machine shop. Parked outside by the
machine shop door were two front-end loaders, like big yellow dinosaurs.
Not for everybody, of course. But for a 5-year-old boy, dinosaur-like
front-end loaders are the perfect accessories to a cabin in the woods.
For the boy’s father and grandfather, comfortable beds, a clean
bathroom, and a usable kitchen trumped the front-end loaders. We found
them to be perfectly adequate. Rated above “adequate” was the sunset-facing balcony that looked
across a fallow field toward the forest. The
warm afternoon sun invited us to languish on the balcony, but, even here,
forced us to rush away.
Quickly we emptied our knapsacks and headed out the door. We
had limited time to get to the nearest store, at the hamlet of Långvik,
about a mile north of us where Möja’s main road ends at the inlet on its
northeastern corner. We arrived at the COOP Nära before 3PM Saturday to
find the store mostly shopped out. But, we did find what we needed for
lunch today and breakfast tomorrow: milk, butter, bread, cheese, coffee,
sugar, eggs, jam, and a couple of pastries. We half-filled our knapsacks
with our purchases and leaned them against our bikes
outside the shop. Alex had found a source of
Möja: The COOP Nära grocery. We filled our knapsacks, skipped some
stones, and rode home on our bikes.
© HOME AT FIRST
skipping stones by the quay across from
store, and we took
five minutes to test our arms on this quiet Baltic inlet.
Back at the cabin we made
Möja: We hopped from boulder to boulder. We would
have swum, if the latitude were not the equal of the
middle of Hudson Bay and the southern tip of Greenland.
© HOME AT FIRST
sandwiches and milk for a late lunch.
Afterwards, we climbed on our bikes again and set off to explore the
island. The first stop was an isolated lake not a couple hundred yards
from our cabin. To get there we rode half-way back to Ramsmora then
turned inland (west) on a rough lane that led past some rental cabins
and an old farm. At the end of the lane, we parked our bikes where a
trail led into a wood. After five minutes of following false trails
leading nowhere, we emerged from the forest to a large clearing at the
southern shore of a lake several acres large. Charcoal circles set among
the grasses and dotted the shore as evidence
of recent picnics. Large, ancient boulders
provided windbreaks at the water’s edge. Almost unnoticeable in the long
grass were the tiny red heads of wild strawberries.
We hopped from boulder to
boulder. We skipped more stones. We would have swum, if the latitude
were not the equal of the middle of Hudson Bay, the southern tip of
Greenland, or Yakutat Bay, Alaska. Instead, we got back on our bikes and
south to see that end of
We arrived at the village of
Berg, principal habitation of Möja, big enough for a restaurant, bakery
& café, hamburger bar, a village shop, the island’s heritage museum,
handicraft center, fire house, helicopter pad, a ferry landing,
boatyard, a number of permanent residences, several vacation houses, and
Möja’s only school and its only church. About 300 persons live
permanently on Möja. Berg is the center of their community, the closest
thing residents have to a town. Unlike the nearly empty hamlets we had
seen at Ramsmora and Långvik, Berg was busy: its boatyard was full of
visiting craft and their sailors, its restaurant and café hummed with
patrons, a group was readying the pavilion for an evening dance. We
heard laughter and the music of glassware. We heard the percussion of
hammers in the boatyard. A pen of sheep and goats bleated their tuneless
song. Atop a hill on the southwest side of Berg overlooking the village
from a grove of trees is Möja’s elegant wooden church. Built in 1768, it
replaced an earlier church that was the only building on the island
spared the torches of marauding
Möja: Atop a hill overlooking the
village of Berg is Möja's elegant
wooden church built in 1768.
© HOME AT FIRST
Russians in 1719. Swedes, as a rule,
do not regularly
attend church. Nor do I.
But, had I the chance, I would have gone to services here. Churches
serve well remote populations at the mercy of the weather, the sea, and
We cycled home from Berg, and
Möja: The wooden, utilitarian, dining room,
rustic, traditionally Scandinavian,
could have once
been a one-room school
or a country meeting house.
© HOME AT FIRST
got cleaned up for dinner at Wikströms
Fisk. With Alex along, we had made reservations for 6PM, and were not at
all surprised to be the first and only customers. The wooden,
utilitarian dining room, simple and rustic, traditionally Scandinavian,
could have once been a one-room school or a country meeting house. Our
waitress, a pretty blonde in her early 20s, seated us and made sure Alex
felt at ease by bringing him books and toys. The next diners did not
arrive until our food had been served, but suddenly the dining room was
all but full. Sunset filled the room through uncurtained window panes,
wooden walls and floor glow. The ringing
of crystal, silver, and china accompanied a steady murmur of conversation, in
Swedish except at our table.
WILD STRAWBERRIES AT
PART COMES WITHOUT ILLUSTRATION —
Across the room two places at
one table remained unoccupied. The entry door swung open. Two people,
two final diners, entered the room and made their way to their places.
The man, perhaps 30 and lumberjack husky, a strawberry blonde with a new
beard and a red face, wore a blue shirt, black pants,
and black suspenders. The woman, avian thin, wore a black dress – not
fashionable, but antique, like a wispy Queen Victoria mourning dress –
that covered to her ankles leaving visible what we would have called
“grandma’s shoes”, and a cap of white gauze lace, with untied white
strings. Were I Swedish, I might have thought two characters from
Bergman’s medieval Seventh Seal had joined us for dinner. But the
Swedes, rarely anything but decorous, seemed not to notice. But I’m from
Pennsylvania, and I became instantly restless.
they’re Mennonites! How can it be?! What are they doing here?!”
But my son
doesn’t really know much about our Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, and
probably would have to study a little to see a difference in appearance
between Mennonite Christians and certain Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects.
But I know enough. My dad grew up “plain” in a similar Anabaptist sect,
and I still have relatives who keep certain of the customs and trappings
of “plain” dress and culture. Over the conversations in Swedish I
strained to hear the language of the most recent guests. Were they
Americans? But I couldn’t hear them, as plain people extend their
modesty to their speech volume, too. When their turn came to order
supper, the volume of their speech increased. I heard their language:
American; and I heard their distinct accent, too: Pennsylvania Dutch.
Two of the four family paths of my grandson Alex – Swedish maritime and
Pennsylvania Dutch – were sharing space and time in this
I’m not especially brazen, but
neither am I shy, especially when I travel. And I had to know what these
severely dressed countrymen of mine were doing on Möja. Because we were
the first-come and first-served, we were also first-finished. We paid the
bill and Jess and Alex headed for the exit, but I headed across the room
for the Mennonites.
“Excuse me,” I started, “but I heard you speak and thought you
might be from Pennsylvania, where I’m from.”
The man, not quite looking me in
the eye, replied cryptically, “Yes, partly.”
I thought that I was annoying
him, and I was sure that he wished I would go away, but I also knew he
had no idea that I suddenly found myself in this Ingmar Bergman movie
and had to learn more.
“Partly?” I responded.
“Yes. We come from Pennsylvania
but are moving to Ohio.”
Again his eyes never quite rose
to mine, and his presumed wife did not so much as turn toward me. All
around us the Swedes had become still, straining to hear the
conversation of these two very different looking Americans in their
midst. I assumed the Swedes were not much curious about me, but very
eager to have me serve as their interlocutor.
“Ohio? I hear there is some
great farmland in Ohio.”
“We are not farmers. We are
moving to Columbus.”
“My father farmed as a boy. He
grew up on a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.”
The woman turned to me for the
first time. I think I saw curiosity replace the shyness on her face. “We
are from Lancaster County,” she offered straight-faced, bravely.
“My father’s family farm was
near Manheim, near Sporting Hill on the Chiques Creek,” I offered,
hoping they might know the local geography enough to consider me
something more of a neighbor than a nuisance.
She brightened into a big smile.
“I teach at Sporting Hill
School,” she said. “What’s your family name?”
“Fahnestock,” I volunteered,
but, because we’re not Mennonites I expected no recognition. Any
Fahnestocks would have gone to the local public school. (I learned later
the local public elementary school had closed in 2007. To avoid bussing,
my distant cousins may very well have enrolled in the local Mennonite
school once the public school closed.)
“We have had some Fahnestock
children,” she said. “Did you know the school has expanded to two
She had accepted me. But she
suddenly became sad.
“Well, I don’t teach there any
more. We’re moving away to Ohio once we return home.”
I took a chance: “Are you
“Yes,” she said. A trip to
Sweden and the stay on Möja must be their honeymoon. But how did they
know about Stockholm’s Baltic Archipelago? Why would they come to a
place with little connection to their culture, their ancestry, their
religion, their way of life?
“What will you do in Ohio?” I
“I have taken a job teaching at
Ohio State University,” her husband replied, not offering details.
“At their agricultural school?”
I pressed, assuming the Pennsylvania Dutch stereotype.
“No, Cultural Anthropology.”
I swallowed my next question:
“Do Mennonites do that?” and congratulated them instead on their
marriage. I apologized again for interrupting them, wished them a good
dinner, and hurried out of the dining room to join my son and grandson.
Maybe some of the Swedes in the room understood the conversation, but I
doubt any understood the context. I am sure I did not.
© HOME AT FIRST
I slept well that Saturday night
in the cabin. It was chilly we we awoke, but hot coffee and hot
chocolate coaxed us all out of bed. Our boat didn’t leave until
afternoon, so we continued our bicycle exploration of Möja, cycling for
about an hour before packing up and making our way to the Ramsmora
landing. We dropped our bikes and turned in our cabin key at our
landlady’s farm; she bid us a heartfelt if somewhat shy good-bye.
We were first at Ramsmora, and
had time to skip more stones into the Baltic. As we did another
two-dozen or so passengers arrived to wait for the boat. A few were
weekenders like us, but most were carrying sufficient belongings to last
a week or more: suitcases, bedding, wheeled carts, their own bikes.
Among the weekenders was the Mennonite couple. If they saw us, they
didn’t acknowledge us in any way.
The Cinderella I arrived
on-time. Ramsmora was one of its first stops on the return trip to
Stockholm, and the boat was largely empty. But that soon changed. At
each landing along the way people laden with belongings waited for the
boat, like so many refugees on an exodus. Cinderella I was already full
to the gunnels before we reached the islands of the Inner Archipelago,
with passengers and baggage blocking aisles and gangways, sitting on
stairs and pressed against bulkheads. During the last hour of the trip
it was no longer possible to get to a bathroom. The day turned gloomier
each mile closer to Stockholm we traveled. Drizzle evolved into a steady
rain, driving all indoors. The crew made room in the boat’s two cabins
by piling non-perishable belonging like bikes and buggies on the exposed
fore and aft decks. Windows fogged. Children, already restless and
bored, began to whine at being hemmed in by adults. The trip ended
mercifully on central Stockholm’s Strandvägen quay on-time. Alex, Jesse,
and I ran through the raindrops to the subway and were home early for
and PROP WASH
© HOME AT FIRST
I went to Möja intent on
discovering a Sweden I had seen in Bergman’s films and imagined from
histories, fictions, and travel articles I have read. I wanted to come
to know the Swedes, the people my son married into and that my grandson
is half biologically and nearly 100% culturally. I believed I had a
better chance of learning these things on Möja in Stockholm’s Baltic
Archipelago because I was sure I would find quintessential Sweden
skipping stones along the rocky inlets and picking wild strawberries in
meadows by the forested lakes. In part I did.
While looking for Sweden I
encountered my own heritage, cultural and biological: visions of my
father’s past, my son’s present, and my grandson’s future, all appeared
to me like Bergman apparitions just as real and unreal. In Wild
Strawberries the old man comes to an accommodation with the many
relationships of his life, complete and incomplete, that he now accepts
even if he can no longer influence them. Fullness of life has more to do
with accepting the journey with all its difficulties and delights, all
of its mysteries and uncertainties than with attempting to force an
IF YOU GO
Baltic Archipelago: Ingmarsö Island landing.
© HOME AT FIRST
Archipelago extends east from
some 70 miles into the Baltic Sea. The
island of Möja is thirty miles ENE of Stockholm and
is one of the closest of the outer islands of the hundreds of
islands and islets that make up the archipelago.
HOME AT FIRST
Lodgings are located in downtown Stockholm.
into the Archipelago:
Several companies offer boat transfers from Stockholm to islands
of the archipelago. Two principal companies run scheduled public
ferries and excursions through the archipelago using sizeable
boats on a large scale:
Strömma (Cinderella Boats)
We Have Limited
Time. Can We See the Archipelago in One Day? Yes. Both of the
above-listed ferry companies offer a wide variety of day,
part-day, and evening cruises. Some cruises make stops that
permit short visits on certain islands. Others are themed brunch
or dinner cruises, some with entertainment on board. See their
websites for a complete listing. Because you will want to decide
on which day-cruise works best for you — based on the weather,
your energy levels, the amount of time you have, and activities
competing for your limited time in Stockholm — you should
arrange your own day sailings once in Stockholm. Stop at the
boat operators' offices at the piers or in the Stockholm Tourist
Center at Vasagatan 14 across from Stockholm's Central Rail
Will Home At First
Organize Overnight Trips for Us? Yes. As part of your
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Scandinavian itinerary, we will arrange overnight accommodations
plus appropriate boat reservations/tickets to the island
destination of your choice. We charge no service fee to arrange & manage the booking for
Who Can Do This
The overnight trip to Möja requires reasonable fitness
and competence riding bicycles as both walking and
cycling are necessary. There are no strenuous hills,
traffic is minimal, and walks and bike rides need not be
longer than 25 minutes one-way.
Other island destinations
require less energy, as ferry landings are at villages
where lodgings, restaurants, and shops are clustered.
at Stockholm's Strandvagen quay
awaiting passengers for
the Baltic Archipelago.
Photo © Home At First
When to Go:
Many islands of Stockholm's Baltic Archipelago are accessible
year-round and ferry services operate except during harsh winter
weather. However, much of the lodging and dining infrastructure
is seasonal, operating May through September only. Most popular
mid-June through mid-August. Best time to go when the weather may be excellent and trail
crowding minimal: mid-May to mid-June and late-August. Rain comes
frequently to the Baltic, and, while there is no official rainy
season, May-June receives less rain than July-August.
Scandinavia offers a
smorgasbord of landscapes, cultures, and experiences.
Home At First offers lodgings
in regions throughout Scandinavia.
Guides" provide hundreds of suggestions for
things to see
do when you travel with Home At First
HOME AT FIRST
offers travel to at least 16
Scandinavian regions using friendly inns,
lodges, upscale bed & breakfasts, and
small hotels to insure your comfort and
provide the ideal base from which to discover each region. See all the sights,
and add activities of your choosing, like overnighting in
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design the Scandinavian itinerary
ideal for your interests, your pace, your lifestyle, and your budget.
Trip Itinerary Proposal by phone or
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