There was a giraffe standing feet away from Toli and Nicole Kanaris, just as the African sun was setting on their perfect picnic scene. They couldn’t believe it. They could have reached out and touched it. Earlier, a trio of elephants bathed in front of them, and they thought it couldn’t get much better.
“It was something I’ve never seen so close, and I live in Africa, so even for me this was something unique,” says Marriott Rewards member Toli Kanaris. “I was just blown away by it, really — so special.”
These are moments the down-to-earth Johannesburg couple never imagined experiencing when they were asked to appear in the Marriott Rewards “You Are Here” television campaign. The parents of twin five-year-old boys say they work to travel — Kanaris in mobile telecommunications; his wife Nicole as an aesthetic doctor — and they live for the unexpected moments that travel can bring.
“Growing up, my mom used to work in the airline industry, and I think she instilled that culture of get out and see the world,” Kanaris says. “I learned a lot; then when [Nicole and I] met and got married, we traveled, as well. I just want that for my kids, as well. There’s a whole world out there.”
Seeing the world happens to feed another passion for Kanaris — photography. Luckily the family has Kruger National Park practically sitting in their backyard. Less than an hour flight from cosmopolitan Johannesburg, Kruger offers more than its share of photo ops and unexpected moments. The park sprawls across nearly 5 million acres of savanna and woodlands and is home to hundreds of animal species, including the big five — African elephant, African lion, Cape buffalo, African leopard and rhinoceros.
Kanaris tried to capture them all on camera during their game drive, coordinated by a safari enabler, or concierge, at the Protea Hotel by Marriott Kruger Gate. He says his favorite sighting may have been the leopard, one of the most elusive animals in Kruger. This one happened to be up in a tree feasting on an impala.
“Being an avid photographer, I like to get the shot. There’s always the money shot,” Kanaris says. “You got your zoom lens, and you see the animal, and you just [have] to get that perfect shot. For me, still, that leopard was magic; to actually get sight of it and get a picture of it was great.”
And while the couple has been on safari before, they say you never know what you’ll see, and the incredible proximity to wild animals never ceases to amaze. Nicole Kanaris says their encounter with one elephant eating during a much-needed rainfall in Kruger was one of her favorite moments.
“We stopped by the side of the road, and there was an elephant literally as close as you are to me, and he was digging up all the roots,” she said. “We just sat there for about 30 minutes in the car watching him eat the roots. Digging them up, using his trunk. His fine motor skills were amazing, actually. It was an unbelievable experience for me.”
But each animal encounter had the couple thinking about their boys, who they say are obsessed with animals; they vow to bring them back to see for themselves. In the meantime, Kanaris will tell the story through his photos.
“I’m excited to get back to do the editing when I get home. I can actually see what I’ve shot on the big screen and see what I can blow up and put into my little memorabilia book,” he says. “I’m more excited, though, to show my kids. I’ve got some good footage of the animals. They will be very excited to see what we saw.”
While the couple didn’t take the kids on this adventure, the whole family recently traveled to Orlando for a two-week vacation to Disney World, staying at Marriott’s Cypress Harbour Villas, which they described as the perfect place to entertain the kids. The Kanaris family also took the kids on a work trip to London.
“I just think it’s so important for the kids to grow up and experience different cultures and see different countries, and they saw the Big Ben that they hear in songs and they learn about at school.” Nicole Kanaris says. “There’s no education like that in the world. For me, traveling is an education.”
The family takes at least three international trips a year, and anything can inspire a Kanaris journey — visiting family in Greece, shopping in Dubai. Generally, they are the kind of people that travel spur of the moment. Like the time they took off to see the 2014 World Cup Final in Brazil. No itinerary. No game plan. They just hopped on a plane.
“We’re probably the most unorganized travelers around. All our trips are last minute, and I think we have the most fun when we don’t plan,” Toli Kanaris says.
The only plan they have when they hit the ground in a new place is to ask the locals where to go, especially where to eat. While in Brazil, they visited a neighborhood market and tried local grilled meats and took a recommendation to visit the Brazilian beach town Buzios, where they ate oysters fresh out of the sea.
“That’s why I don’t like to heavily plan. I know there are holidaymakers that have everything planned, detailed to the T,” Kanaris says. “I can’t because if you had planned that, you wouldn’t have had that option to try something or do something. All you need to know is when you get there, when do you leave, and then fill in the gaps in between.”
For Toli and Nicole Kanaris, traveling in this authentic way might be the definition of “You Are Here.”
“The ‘You Are Here’ campaign to me is, basically, just take in the moment that you are in,” Kanaris says. “Stop worrying about everything else. You’re here now. You’re here for the moment. Take it all in and enjoy it for what it is. Don’t sit here and worry about what’s going on in the office. Don’t sit here worrying about what’s going on elsewhere in the world. Make the most of it.”