Both my mother and father hail from Western Ukraine. They grew up in different villages about 120 kilometres apart near Lviv, Ukraine although they met and married in Canada. They are both gone now but it has always been my dream to go to Ukraine to the villages where they lived and to take my wife and grown kids along so we could experience it together.
Our friends and family were worried that we were taking a chance going to Ukraine right now as there is conflict in the eastern part of the country. We can tell them now that Western Ukraine is safe and very tourism friendly -- especially in the larger cities. The infrastructure is in place with the exception of small villages. The small village folks are friendly but you really need the language skills and driving skills to access them.
Enter JC Travel Ukraine!
We were able to put together a custom tour with JC Travel Ukraine for just the 4 of us. We could not have been happier to do so. From the first email contact to the end of our tour, we had nothing but smiles and thumbs-up!
Our tour was loosely based on their Fantastic Western Ukraine offering but we customized it to our liking. Probably 50 emails back and forth with owner Julia Kulik got us to exactly the destinations we wanted including an extension to Odessa. She helped us pick hotels, sights and even figured out how to fit in the local villages we wanted to visit on a tight time schedule.
You can see recent reviews for them here on Tripadvisor. We had to admit we were suspicious of only "Excellent" reviews for them (been doing the review analysis for travel companies for quite a few years and someone always complains, right) but after having dealt with them we now understand that they are just that "Excellent"!
Before we left Canada, we received a WhatsApp group invite from Lina at JC Travel who would be our first line of contact from start to finish on our tour. She was responsive at all hours of the day and really was a touch-point we appreciated the whole time we were there.
We started out with tour manager and guide, Stacy Lazo who was with us in Kiev through to Lviv. Stacy was not just knowledgeable about what we were seeing and doing (I'm sure lots of guides know "the facts"), she quickly figured out our preferences and personalized our tour with places and information just for us. It was apparent from our first day in Kiev where she shared with us her personal connections to the terrible tragedies of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, that she loves her country and treasures it’s independence.
We met our driver Sergei the next day who took us to Kamianets-Podilsky where Stacy introduced us to Max, our city guide. Max literally took us back in history with his stories of the city and fortress in Kamianets-Podilsky and, the next day, the Khotyn fortress. Not only is Max knowledgeable but he is personally just one of the funniest and nicest guys ever. He knew how to bring ancient history to life for us.
From there, we arrived in the breathtaking Carpathian Mountains and the lovely Koruna resort. The next day Sergei was somehow able to navigate his van through the challenging roads up the mountains so we could visit two Hutsul homes. The first was to visit a lovely woman named Helinka who has an embroidery museum. She dressed us in traditional Ukrainian costumes and explained the significance of their designs. Then we were off to visit Mykola who is a wonderful musician and has a traditional Ukranian musical instrument museum. He is knowledgeable and funny and he and his wife fed us one of the best Ukranian meals we have ever had. He also drives a mean Soviet-era jeep up the mountain to his house and back down again. Before we went, we thought these visits would be kind of awkward the way some tours are to “authentic village life”. Not so – Helinka and Mykola and his wife made us feel welcomed and comfortable. Good choices, JC Travel.
We were sad to say goodbye to Stacy and Sergei in Lviv. We traded contact information and thought how lucky we were to have been guided by these wonderful people.
The next morning, we met our Lviv guide, Julia Kardash. Of course we were impressed and loved her guiding in Lviv. The city is as beautiful and cosmopolitan as any other European city we have visited. However, where Julia really showed her stuff was the next day when we piled in with driver Maxim to go to the family villages of Budyliv (for my father) and Zhovtantsi (for my mother). We had had no real contacts in either of those places – family members who could have provided names were long deceased – so we thought a visit to the local church and cemetery and some pictures were all we could expect.
Well, Julia worked miracles! In those villages, she acted as our personal family heritage guide and interpreter. We will forever be in debt to her for her determination in making the connections required to uncover long-lost relatives in places we never would have reached on our own. In Budyliv, she and the local babushka ladies helped find my aunt’s husband – who just happened to be the oldest man in the village -- and his family. It was a surprising and touching meeting. Julia arranged contact information for extended family who could speak English that we could contact after the trip. Then in Zhovtantsi, she got the name of the parish priest of the church where my grandparents were married and my mom and her siblings were baptised. That parish priest gave us a wonderful tour of the church and has promised to find records we never thought we would have access to. We have people now that we are already in contact with in the hopes of building a family tree with new-found family members. Julia went over-and-above her role as guide that day.
After an exhausting day, Julia hugged us goodbye and Maxim took us to the train station for the overnight train to Odessa that had been perfectly pre-arranged by Julia (Kulik). Everything went off without a hitch.
After a transfer to a lovely hotel in downtown Odessa, we met the next morning with Natalia. Believe me when I say that she was dealing with 4 very exhausted tourists that day. She pulled it all off beautifully! Odessa is a beautiful city with lots to see and she was able to wonderfully tailor our experience to our tired feet and minds. She left us with wonderful restaurant suggestions and a walking map to the beach. Just what we needed.
All these guides are self-employed and contract to JC Travel Ukraine on a tour-by-tour basis and you would be fortunate to have them guide you through this beautiful and friendly country. Julia really knows how to find and retain only the best guides and drivers for her clients.
So, you can see why we give an excellent rating to Julia Kulik and her team at JC Travel Ukraine. We have already recommended them to friends.
Thanks for filling our Bucket List, JC Travel Ukraine.