Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Stephanie McDonald’s life over the past year has unfolded like a chapter plucked from Where’s Waldo?
The former strategic account manager for Royal Caribbean left Canada, and the travel industry, exactly one year ago – in March of 2022 – to fulfill her lifelong dream of teaching English and backpacking through Asia.
It was a wild 12 months of thrills as McDonald unlocked some of the world’s most fascinating destinations, from Thailand to Singapore to the Philippines to Vietnam to Laos to Cambodia to Indonesia, sharing incredible moments on Facebook, one country at a time.
Her final stop, in Bali, was meant to last for several months. That is, until an opportunity to rejoin the travel industry – and move back to Canada – came knocking.
Returning to the Greater Toronto Area just this past Saturday (March 18), McDonald is now a business development manager for Greece-based Celestyal Cruises, overseeing sales, partnerships and growth in the Canadian market, PAX has learned.
“I’m excited to be home and get back into an industry that I love,” said McDonald, who was with Royal Caribbean for 15 years before resigning from her role.
Speaking exclusively to PAX on Monday, the travel pro said she “needed a break” from work, which, at the time, had been focused on recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic for two years straight.
Stepping away from the biz for a year to see the world rekindled her love for travel, McDonald explained, saying that she has “evolved” by placing a higher value on destinations and what they can offer.
This, she said, aligns perfectly with Celestyal Cruises, a Greek-owned-and-operated cruise line that offers immersive voyages not only through Greece, but also into Turkey, Egypt and Israel.
“They’re a destination-focused cruise line,” McDonald explained. “Nobody does it quite like the Greeks – it’s literally their own backyard.”
The brand is more about “where we go,” and less about ship amenities, she continued.
“Some lines bring you back on board at four in the afternoon, whereas we stay in port much longer,” she said. “Their onboard employees are Greek, they are able to help guests with what they’ve been growing up with their entire life.”
McDonald officially started with the company on March 9 and immediately got her feet wet, participating in Celestyal’s global summit on board the MS Celestyal Olympia, which sails out of Lavrio in southeastern Greece.
“It was jam-packed,” McDonald said, recalling the summit. “We saw five ports of call in four days.”
Celestyal returns to Canada
Celestyal hiring a dedicated BDM in Canada is an important update for travel advisors.
It’s been several years since the Cyprus-based brand had a rep in Canada, the last being Christine Chiang, who is now a cruise product manager at Air Canada Vacations. In recent years, Celestyal’s Canadian business was being managed by reps in the United States.
Joining Celestyal is also somewhat of a homecoming for McDonald.
She started her career working on ships run by Celebrity Cruises, which was founded in 1988 by a Greece-based company, the Chandris Group, before it merged with Royal Caribbean in 1997.
“I’ve always had an affinity for Greece,” McDonald told PAX. “There was such a large community of Greeks on board [Celebrity’s] ships when I first started out. With Celestyal, it feels like back in the day when I began my career.”
McDonald has visited Greece “a few times” over the years.
“It’s a place where you can sit down at a café, on the waterfront, have some amazing food, and watch the world go by,” she said. “The world slows down in that part of the world. It’s so beautiful.”
McDonald joins Celestyal at a pivotal time as the two-ship company prepares its newly-acquired vessel, Celestyal Journey, which is currently undergoing extensive refurbishments and will launch this fall.
One advantage Celestyal has in Canada – in Quebec, especially – is that its cruises offer different languages (such as French) on board.
“Guests are placed on tours that match their language,” McDonald said.
An adventure of a lifetime
OK, but what about that fabulous year-long trip she took through Asia?
McDonald could write a book. She spent the first six months teaching English to four and five-year-olds at a British international school in Ko Pha Ngan in southeast Thailand.
“It was a completely different experience from what I did before, but I loved it,” she said. “Those kids are near and dear to my heart. I miss them, but dealing with four and five-year-olds is also exhausting!”
Then, she backpacked, heading to the “most expensive” destination first, Singapore, where she walked 32,000 steps on the first day.
Then it was off to the Philippines, where she swam with whale sharks. (“I couldn’t believe how creatures so large could be so gentle,” she said).
Vietnam, her favourite stop, came next. There, she spent 30 days travelling from south to north on overnight sleeper buses. One particular highlight, she said, was the “Ha Giang loop” – a three-day motorbike tour through the north.
Laos followed, and then it was off to Cambodia, which McDonald called an “eye-opening experience” as she learned more about the impact of the Vietnam War.
Her tour wrapped in Indonesia, in beautiful Bali, where she was prepared to hang out for a while until the opportunity to work with Celestyal caught her eye, signalling that it was time to return home.
And she’s happy to be back.
“I’m really excited to see people that I’ve worked with before, and meet new partners, to sell this bucket-list destination,” McDonald said. “If you’re going to Greece, you’ll want to do it fully, and with Celestyal, you have an opportunity to really see what this beautiful country can offer. It’s unbelievable.”
Stephanie McDonald can now be reached at email@example.com.
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