MSC SEASIDE - SHIP REVIEW
Recently we took a western Caribbean cruise on the MSC Seaside. Although we had taken 25 cruises, we’d never been on MSC so we were eager to experience the brand. As always we did considerable research so that we’d have an idea of what to expect. What we found was nothing short of amazing. It was one of the most beautiful ships we’d ever cruised on. MSC is an Italian-owned company that has mostly focused on other areas of the globe, but it’s new to the Caribbean. They plan to move 4 ships to the North American market in the next few years, with a focus on Caribbean itineraries. So the newest ships have been designed with that focus in mind.
MSC Seaside is one of their newest mega smart ships, and it is truly a sun-lover’s paradise, with a revolutionary industry-first elegant Miami Beach condo design; specifically designed for warmer climates. She is the first of a new class of ships, designed to bring guests closer to the sea and can carry more than 5000 passengers. The ship has a very open feel and is the first ship we’ve sailed on that has an outdoor seafront promenade. It circles the entire ship on Deck 8. We were amazed at all of the things to do on that deck; places to eat, drink, shop, swim and sunbathe.
From the moment we got onboard we were captivated by the beauty of the immense double deck Atrium that is the center of onboard activity, and the heart of the ship. It stretches over two decks, creating an atmospheric venue for live entertainment with spectacular ocean views.
It is also an impromptu, multi-media, multi-level stage that features a variety of entertainment including, dancers, acrobats, flash mobs, light shows, live entertainment and one of the best DJs at sea. The crowning glory of the Atrium is the staircase where the surface is lit up as if inlaid with sparkling gems.
The interior design of the ship rivaled that of a 5 star luxury hotel. The colors, light and design elements were well balanced. Many of the sitting/lounge areas had great views of the ocean and all were extremely comfortable. Although there were more than 5000 passengers onboard, we never felt cramped or crowded. The entire ship was designed for comfortable navigation on the walking surfaces and even the many staircases were easy to climb – not too steep.
The elevators were smaller than those on some of the other new mega ships and were often crowded. So at times it was easier just to take the steps; great way to burn off extra calories.
ENTERTAINMENT - The entertainment was top level some of the best we’ve seen at sea. With 115 different nationalities onboard they did an excellent job of providing entertainment that everyone could enjoy.
There was a different show in the Metropolitan Theater every night, typically a high-h energy production, covering a variety of musical styles, dancing and acrobatics, and only 30 minutes long. There were 3 performances per night. Shows are free but guests are encouraged to make reservations. Our favorite was Starwalker, a tribute to Michael Jackson where the talent was amazing!
The cruise director and his staff did an excellent job of facilitating the activities and kept a high level of energy. They hosted games shows, and theme nights; Gatsby, 70s night and a white party that began in the Atrium then moved to an outdoor deck where we partied ALL night long.
BARS - There are 20 large bars in various locations throughout the ship; each with a great staff of bartenders and service was great. Robert and I managed to visit them all but we each had our favorites. His was the Sports Bar, and mine was the Venchi Chocolate Bar where they served not only chocolate but also gelato and crepes. We both were pleased with the quality of the wines, beers and liquors.
DINING - We had heard mixed reviews about the dining on MSC ships so we definitely wanted to do our own review. There are 11 dining venues onboard including the main dining room, 2 buffets and specialty restaurants. We only ate in the buffets and main dining room. The food in the main dining room was not as good as food that we’ve eaten on other cruise lines; there were fewer menu choices and the food was somewhat bland. We chose to eat most of our meals at the buffets, where there were more choices. The quality of the food overall was very high – fresh and well prepared without the additives, preservatives and GMO ingredients that are prevalent on many cruise lines. The desserts were exceptional and so was the pizza (to be expected since MSC is an Italian cruise line).
ONBOARD ACTIVITIES - There are so many activities to choose from that we didn’t have time to do all of them. There are 4 pools, 4 waterslides, and several hot tubs. There are also plenty of deck chairs for sunbathing. The zip line is 350 feet – the longest at sea. There are two unique glass-floored catwalks and a 131 ft. high ‘Bridge of Sighs’ where we had a view of the ocean like never before. A waterfront boardwalk, the widest on any ship ever built, wraps around the ship, while panoramic elevators connect everything together. Other activities include trivia, dance classes, Ping-Pong tournaments, scavenger hunts, and art auctions. Extra-fee activities include a self-leveling pool table, an arcade with a Formula One simulator, a 4-D cinema, dual bowling lanes and an air hockey table.
Of course there is a well-equipped casino where we spent quite a bit of time.
The Seaside is designated as non-smoking, except for certain areas, but we never came into contact with any smoke – even in the casino.
The Aurea Spa offers a large menu of services; massages, body treatments, facials, manicures/pedicures, haircuts, color and styling, waxing and men’s grooming. One of the highlights is the thermal suite (available for an extra fee), featuring sensory steam rooms, sauna, aromatherapy, a Thalassotherapy pool and a cold room with real snow. Outside of the spa there is a private sundeck for use exclusively by passengers who have booked spa treatments.
FITNESS - There is a large, well-equipped fitness center with state of the art equipment, heavy bags, free weights, cardio machines and rings. They offer classes like yoga, stretching, spin and Thai boxing as well as personal training (available for an extra fee). There are women’s and men’s locker rooms with showers, changing areas and saunas. Although we work out regularly at home, we didn’t spend much time in the fitness area – but we burned plenty of calories climbing stairs and just walking around that huge ship.
STATEROOMS - We had a mid-ship balcony cabin on Deck 15 and were pleased with the location. The cabin size was good, although there wasn’t much storage/drawer space. However, it did have a bathtub. The linens were high quality and the mattress was particularly comfortable. There were no miniature toiletries, but the soap, shampoo and shower gel dispensers were refilled daily.
Since the Seaside is a smart ship, it offers the latest in onboard technology.
The MSC for Me app is the digital innovation program that uses the latest cutting-edge technology to connect travelers seamlessly with the experiences that matter to them, whether at sea or on land. We downloaded the app onto our smartphones and found that it made it easy to navigate the ship, connect to WI-FI, and book shows. There are several WI-FI packages to choose from, but you’ll get the best pricing by booking online before you sail.
FAMILY FRIENDLY - It is a family-friendly ship and there were lots of children onboard. They were able to enjoy the full-sized bowling alley, a dedicated kids only restaurant, and the most interactive, multi-story water park at sea featuring four different water slides, an AquaPlay™ area designed for tots and an adventure trail. In addition, MSC Seaside boasts colorful kids’ play areas created in partnership with LEGO® and Chicco®. So it’s a great option for a multi-generational vacation.
One of the aspects that we enjoyed most was the international vibe. With 115 different nationalities onboard, there were guests and staff from all over the globe. All of the announcements were given in several languages including Italian, Spanish, English, German, and French. All of the staff that we met was multi-lingual and communicated with guests easily. We were invited to a cocktail party with the captain and his officers and he gave his remarks in 4 different languages. Even passengers who looked like us didn’t necessarily speak English. Some spoke Spanish, others spoke French or Portuguese.
EMBARKATION/DEBARKATION - We found the embarkation process to be smooth and seamless. We decided to arrive at 1:00pm and there were no lines. We got through the process in less than 10 minutes. So we recommend arriving around that time. People who arrived earlier got caught up in the mix of departing and arriving guests. Our staterooms were ready by 2pm and our luggage was delivered before 4pm. The debarkation process was just as smooth.
One of my least- favorite first day activities has always been the safety/muster drill. As a long-time cruiser I have memories of having to don a lifejacket and stand on the deck until the drill was completed. But it was not like that on the Seaside. Our muster station was actually at the Champagne Bar – how good is that? The drill took less than 30 minutes.
CUSTOMER SERVICE - Customer service was excellent; from our cabin steward, to the dining staff, guest relation’s staff - everyone we met was pleasant and efficient.
Other lines that we’ve cruised on connect your credit card to your reservation during the online check-in or embarkation process. However on the Seaside it’s different; there are ATM machines located in various locations throughout the ship where you do it yourself. So if you plan to pay your onboard expenses with a credit card, be sure to do that as soon as you board. It was easy.
In summary, we would definitely sail MSC again, but only on one of their newer ships. As an overall grade, we would give our Seaside experience a B+.
What Ever Happened to Travel Agents?
What ever happened to travel agents, do they still exist? Are they extinct? Absolutely not, they are alive and thriving. Like many other industries, the internet has affected the way that travel advisors work. Years ago trip planning always included visiting a travel agency, flipping through brochures and having an agent book the trip. Now much of the booking can be done online, so many travel agents have closed their brick-and-mortar offices and do most of their business remotely.
When would someone use the services of a travel agent? Some people say always, others say never. In truth, it’s not an always or never situation. It really depends on the type of trip you’re booking. A simple airline ticket, hotel room or even a cruise can be booked online with the click of a mouse. But if the itinerary is more complicated or you’re trying to coordinate group travel, a good travel advisor can save you time – and money. Here are some examples of when you can benefit from using a travel advisor:
- Trip planning: Some people know exactly when and where they want to go. Others have no clue. They may only know that they want to take their family to a warm destination sometime between June and August. A good travel agent uses a survey/interview process to help the client determine what will work best – and will offer several options. They partner with the client to custom design the vacation.
- In recent weeks we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of natural disasters that have resulted in flight/hotel cancellations, cruise ship re-routing and much more. Stranded travelers have had great difficulty getting through to airlines, or the online travel agencies (Expedia, Travelocity, etc) to make adjustments. Many have been kept on hold until their cell phone battery died; then they have to start all over again. Those who had travel agents just had to make one call to let them handle the issues from their office. Agents have access to inside personnel at hotels, cruise lines, etc. who can get much quicker resolutions. They are your best advocates.
Specialty trips: Some trips are lengthy, more complicated and may have multiple destinations or multiple modes of transportation. A travel agent can ensure that all of the connections and fine details mesh.
- Group travel: Have you ever tried to coordinate a group trip or family reunion? It can be like herding cats. A travel agent can serve as the central point of contact and communicate itineraries, payment deadlines and so much more. They also handle all of the accounting – keeping track of who has paid, how much people still owe and what’s outstanding. When a group is small 5-10 people, it’s no problem. But when the group is large, 20 or more, it becomes much more difficult. Group members may be hesitant to give you their credit card information, so it’s much easier to use a trusted travel professional.
- Busy professionals: I’ve seen commercials for OTA (Online Travel Agencies) that will allow you to search hundreds of travel websites. In today’s fast-paced world, many people are too busy to search hundreds of travel websites. One call to a travel advisor can simply that process.
The travel landscape is constantly changing. There are daily changes to airline fees, hotel policies, TSA requirements and much more. People who only travel once or twice a year may not be aware of those changes. Travel agents study trends daily and can inform their clients about how the changes will affect them. When is a passport required? Which countries require visas? What regions require immunizations? This is information that a travel advisor can provide. Here are some examples of valuable information:
- Some American citizens don’t feel the need to get a passport since they don’t travel outside of the United States, but that is all going to change in 2018. Starting at the beginning of next year, residents in nine states will need to have passports in order to take any kind of flight, whether it is international or domestic. Those states are: Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington.
- Many countries require that your passport be valid for 6 months beyond your travel date. So even if your passport is still valid, but will expire in 3 or 4 months, you won’t make it through immigration.
- Travel agents can give advice about dress codes and what is acceptable. Some countries require women to cover their heads before entering a church or mosque. In others, showing too much skin is frowned upon – so no tank tops or shorts for men or women. I few months ago I visited the Monaco Casino and they do no allow running/tennis shoes or ripped jeans. I saw several people turned away.
I’ve heard people say, “I don’t use a travel agent, I just book online.” Newsflash, if you book on a website like Expedia, Travelocity or Hotwire, your using an online travel agent (OTA). Often they are in another country, working from home or a call center.
Aren’t travel agents expensive? No. Most of their services are free to clients, since they are paid commissions by the travel vendors (except for airlines, who do not pay commissions). Some agents might charge a service fee for complicated bookings, or airline bookings, but they’ll let you know that right up front. Here’s another newsflash – you pay fees even when you book online since those fees are built into the price. For example, if you ask your travel agent to book a hotel room for you, he/she may find a rate of $199 per night, and the commission will be paid out of that rate. But if you book the same hotel room through an OTA, or directly with the hotel the rate will be the same. You’ll still pay the commission – they just keep it instead of paying the travel agent. You won’t get any additional discount for booking directly.
The same thing happens with cruise bookings. You can book directly with the cruise line. But travel agents often have access to discounted rates and extra perks that the cruise lines don’t tell customers about.
So why not take advantage of the free service offered by the travel agent?
How do you select a travel agent? Are they all the same? No, all travel agents are not “created equal”. Unfortunately, it is a loosely regulated profession. So it is important to shop around and thoroughly vet an agent before trusting them with planning your vacation. Even if someone tells you that they are a “certified travel agent” that’s not enough. They may actually have extensive experience and knowledge – or they may have just paid $99 and taken an online class to get that “certification”.
Here are some guidelines:
- Make sure they have a website.
- Make sure they have a social media presence.
- Get references from past clients, customer reviews, Yelp, etc.
- Make sure that they actually travel – a good travel agent has real travel experience.
- Find one that has knowledge about the destination(s) that you plan to visit and the type of travel that you want to do. For example, if you’re planning a destination wedding, a safari specialist won’t be of much help to you. If you want to cruise, make sure that they can give you information about several cruise lines, ships, etc.
- Find someone with a broad range of travel expertise, in hotels, resorts, cruises and current trends
- Ask them what they specialize in. Although all travel agents have access selling all travel products, most tend to specialize in destinations or types of travel. You’ll get better service when dealing with someone who is a specialist in your desired destination.
Working with a travel advisor is not right for everyone – or for every trip. But working with the right one can be priceless.
Have you been on a cruise lately? If so, you have experienced some of the great new innovations that have been introduced by the cruise lines. Of course cruising is not a new experience; it has been used for centuries to transport people and products. But the invention of the steam engine made the process much faster and the passenger ship industry began to flourish.
If you watched television in the 1970s you’ll remember a weekly series called “The Love Boat” that was set aboard a Princess Cruise ship. Each of the episodes included several story lines that revolved around the cast and crew. It provided an inside look at what vacationing onboard a cruise ship was like. It was also a great marketing tool for cruise lines.
Fast-forward to 2017 and you’ll find that cruising is no longer just a way to travel from point A to point B. The cruise game has changed completely. In the last 20 years cruise lines have continued to build bigger, more innovative ships – they have become floating cities! Onboard activities include IMAX theaters, zip lines, ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, world-class spas, designer shops, waterslides and much more. Here are some examples:
In 2009 Royal Caribbean introduced the world’s largest cruise ships; the Oasis Class. They can carry more than 5000 passengers and 7 different neighborhoods, a 5-deck high Central Park with lush tropical gardens, a boardwalk with a full-size working carousel. Entertainment options are many and besides the usual casino and main showroom, guests can enjoy the comedy club, aqua theater, ice shows, and several nightclubs. Active cruisers can zip line, rock climb, ice skate or hit the waves on one of the FlowRider surf simulators. There is also plenty onboard for the little ones since Royal Caribbean has partnered with DreamWorks so you never know when you’ll run into someone like Shrek or Fiona.
Carnival has expanded their fleet to include activities like an IMAX theater, an onboard waterpark and even flying bicycles.
On the newest ship, the Vistaguests can enjoy SkyRide at SportSquare. It is a twin-track suspended bike course — strap in and race around for the win or just cruise for great views.
Celebrity offers modern luxury cruising and its newest ship, the Edge, is advertised as “a ship to leave the future behind”. It does exactly that with transformative spaces. As the sun sets, the groundbreaking spaces on Celebrity Edge transform to deliver completely new experiences. By day, outward-facing ocean views, ever-changing abstract artwork, and unexpected entertainment create a luxurious resort-style atmosphere. At night, ambient lighting, unique al fresco dining, and live music set the scene for energy, intimacy, and elegance.
Custom-built for the spectacular, the Norwegian Bliss will cruise Alaska and the Caribbean seasonally beginning Summer 2018.In addition to the aqua park you can also burn rubber on the largest racetrack at sea and then challenge your friends or family to some friendly competition on the Aqua Racer. Dare to whoosh over the side of the ship on Ocean Loops before dodging lasers during an exhilarating game of laser tag.
Bellissima is the newest flagship of the MSC cruise line.The two-deck inside promenade features a spectacular 260-foot-long LED dome, and is lined with places to shop, eat and drink. There are 20 bars and 10 restaurants to choose from, including specialty restaurants. For entertainment, you can enjoy 2 brand new Cirque du Soleil® shows designed especially for MSC Bellissima, and relax in the desert themed Water Park - an oasis for kids and families.
Princess, the original cruse line of the Love Boat continues to expand its fleet with its new Medallion class ships. Its latest ship, the Regal Princess will debut in November 2017. Enjoy sweeping views from one of more than 1,400 balconies on Regal Princess or stroll on the SeaWalk®, a glass-floor walkway extending 28 feet beyond the edge of the ship! From the tranquil Sanctuary, a retreat reserved for adults, to the dazzling Princess WaterColor Fantasy light and water show and more, there are diversions for every mood.
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive luxury cruise experience, look no farther than Crystal and choose from 3 different cruise types - ocean, yacht or river cruise. The award-winning Crystal Serenity has a contemporary style with a bright, modern décor. Guests can shop at chic boutiques or dine under the stars at Trident Grill, a light and airy courtyard beneath a retractable glass roof. Most striking is the lush greenery - variegated "living walls" and live olive trees under-planted with lavender.
If ocean cruising is not your thing, consider taking a river cruise. It’s a great way to experience the beauty and scenery along the world’s greatest rivers like the Danube, Rhine, Yangtze or Nile. Traveling by river, beyond the reach of roadways, you’ll discover the true nature of these fascinating lands and the people who call them home. You’ll travel with ease, unpacking just once and enjoying the ever-changing scenery along the banks as you are gently carried aboard an elegant, intimate ship to your next destination.
Disney fans that want a “magic included” cruise experience can find it on one of Disney’s world-class ships. There is something onboard for everyone with activities for children and adults-only areas as well. They even offer convenient Wave Phones that let you call and text your fellow passengers while you're onboard or at Castaway Cay (their private island) so you can always keep in touch.
If time and money are no problem, consider taking a world cruise. Sail from Los Angeles to London (120 days), Sydney to Vancouver (Australia, Asia & Alaska, 79 days), or Athens to Hong Kong (50 days). If you haven’t made vacation plans for 2018, it’s not too late to book the Princess Cruises 2018 world cruise, sailing round-trip from Fort Lauderdale where you can spend 111 days visiting 5 continents and 28 countries. However, the ship only holds 672 passengers, so it’s very likely that it is already sold out.
As you can see, there are LOTS of different cruise experiences to choose from. Cruise ships have become floating resorts. There is so much to do onboard the larger ships, that it can be difficult to experience everything. We have taken transatlantic cruises on Royal Caribbean’s mega ships, the Oasis and the Allure of the Seas and even with 12 days on the ship, we didn’t manage to do or see everything.
It goes without saying that cruising is not everyone’s cup of tea – there is no “one-size-fits-all” vacation. But cruising comes pretty darn close. Here are some of the benefits:
There is something onboard for everyone. Whether you’re a party animal who wants to be in constant motion, or a loner who prefers “me time”, there are spaces and activities for you. Even the ships that carry 5000 passengers are so well designed that there are always private nooks and crannies.
Cruises are a great way for families to travel together. There are age-specific areas and activities for all ages, so it’s a great way to vacation with the kids and still enjoy some “grown folks” time too.
Cruising offers the best value for your vacation dollar. Although many are not all-inclusive (you have to pay for alcoholic drinks, sodas), it’s still a good value. The cruise fare includes unlimited dining (in dining room, buffet and snack areas), 24 hour room service, nightly shows (we’ve seen Grease, Hair Spray and Cats with actual Broadway casts), nightclubs (no cover charge), and of course transportation between ports. The total for those activities for a 7 day vacation would be much higher than a cruise fare.
Cruising also offers an element of safety. A solo traveler who might be hesitant to stroll around a big city after dark would be perfectly safe going to dinner, a show or nightclub on a ship.
Are all cruises wonderful? Absolutely not! It is important to choose the cruise line and itinerary that fits your travel style and budget. As you can see from the list of ships and activities they are all very different. The experience depends on the ship and the itinerary that you choose. I’m not a fan of old or small ships, so I don’t book cruises on them. It’s also important to book the right cabin. I’ve heard people say that the cabin doesn’t really matter since you don’t spend much time there. Maybe it doesn’t…..to them. For me the cabin is a very important part of my cruise experience. So I want to be as comfortable as possible. I’ve heard people say that they don’t want to be “cooped up” on a cruise ship. That can happen if you’re in an inside cabin with no windows or outside light. But a cabin with a balcony provides an entirely different experience. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the beauty of the ocean in complete privacy, and enjoy beautiful scenes like this
If your idea of a vacation is a nonstop pool party, I wouldn’t recommend taking a river cruise – they tend to draw a quieter, more elderly crowd (#no turn up). Or if you are a senior who prefers to vacation with people in your age group, a spring break Caribbean cruise would not be the best choice for you.
What’s the best way to decide? Talk to an experienced travel advisor who has cruised and is familiar with all of the cruise lines. They can help you make the best choice.
The cruise industry continues to innovate and re-invent the cruise experience. It’s a great way to vacation and a great way to see the world.
- Waking up at a campsite to the delicious aroma of bacon frying and seeing the morning rays of sunshine filter through the redwood trees
- Being fascinated by the exhibits and immersive experiences at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry
- Taking in the wonders of the Grand Tetons, Mount Rushmore and Old Faithful during a summer road trip
All these are fond memories from traveling with my family as a child – and all occurred before I even turned 16. My parents didn’t have much money for travel, but they planned strategically and exposed my siblings and I to some memorable experiences.
With my brother and sister in Washington, D.C.
Dad was an amateur photographer, and this was long before digital photography, so his camera bag, stuffed with film, lenses and several cameras, always laded him down. He took beautiful pictures and we made beautiful memories.
Golden Gate Bridge
We lived in the San Francisco Bay area, so many of our journeys were road trips around northern California. We’d ride up into the redwoods, or drive to the coast and dip our toes into the chilly Pacific Ocean. Anyone who visited San Francisco in the 60’s may remember Playland and Ocean Beach. It was an amusement park located along the Great Highway in what’s now known as the Richmond District. It closed Labor Day weekend in 1972. I can still remember the Funhouse with its mirror maze and it’s Barrel of Laughs (a rotating walk-through wooden barrel).
And I can still hear Laffing Sal, the automated character whose cackle echoed throughout the park. In those days the attractions were much simpler than those in today’s high-tech amusement parks. I’ll admit that my 7- year -old mind was convinced that Laffing Sal just might be real (scary thought). But we had great family fun there.
Travel provides the perfect way for families to explore, enjoy and make memories that will last a lifetime. However, one primary consideration is always cost. Years ago a trip to an amusement park like Disneyland was fairly affordable, even for a family with several children. Now that same trip to the Magic Kingdom could easily cost a king’s ransom just for entrance to the park – and that doesn’t include any meals or souvenirs.
However, cost doesn’t have to prevent families from traveling together. They just have to be creative about how and when they do it. A family vacation doesn’t have to be a round-the-world trip in a private jet. It can be as simple as a short road trip to a neighboring city. The goal isn’t so much about racking up miles as it is about spending quality family time. That camping trip might be just an overnight campout in the backyard. As long as everyone is there and there are some good eats (and hopefully no cell phones), it can be a memorable experience. Children don’t ask for much – just their parents’ attention.
Not all of my childhood family vacations were cross-country journeys. Some of those “trips” were really only daylong road trips with a picnic lunch. But I have such fond memories of the times that we spent together.
It is important for families to travel together. Not only is it a great way to bond, it’s an opportunity to expose our children to other cultures and ways of life. It also teaches them basic social skills like how to go through security at an airport or how to order in a restaurant. Our son was 11 months old when we took our first family vacation. We stayed at a vacation rental in Nassau, Bahamas. We enjoyed the convenience of having a little kitchen and other home comforts with our toddler.
When he was a little older we began to cruise and took several Caribbean, Hawaiian and Mediterranean cruises. It was great since there were always activities onboard for his age group and lots of other children his age; and my husband and I were always able to enjoy some “grown folks” time.
Lee Family onboard Majesty of the Seas 1995
Since dinner in the main dining room is always a fine dining experience, he learned to order from the menu and use the correct silverware for each course of the meal. But there were always foods that he could enjoy during his “I only want burgers & hot dogs” phase. One of the ports of call on our Hawaiian Island cruise was one of the islands of Kiribati. It was a beautiful island that evoked memories of the Swiss Family Robinson. There he observed the simple way that the island children lived with no video games or fancy toys.
He was in high school when we took our first Mediterranean cruise. Visiting the Acropolis in Athens brought his world history lessons to life.
Lees Family on the Amalfi Coast 2005
Now he’s all grown up, on his own and a serious globetrotter. But he still loves to travel with us when his schedule allows. Our latest family trip was to China where we climbed the Great Wall of China together.
That’s an experience that we’ll never forget.
I advise everyone to get out and discover what the world has to offer…as a family. Whether you go near or far, you’ll make lasting memories.
10 Ways to Play Around the Bay
There is no city quite like San Francisco. As one of the world’s top tourist destinations, it welcomes an average of 24.6 million visitors each year from all around the globe. With all of the activities, beauty, culture, shopping and dining that the city has to offer, it’s easy to see why Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. However, those who venture out side of the city will find that there’s even more to see and enjoy in the surrounding areas. Here are just a few options:
1. VISIT WINE COUNTRY - The word “Napa” evokes visions of vineyards and scenic wineries. However, there are many more wine regions to enjoy without venturing very far from San Francisco. One of my favorites is the Livermore Valley Wine Region. Located just a 49 minute drive away, this picturesque valley is the perfect place for wine enthusiasts to taste, tour and spend the day.
2. EAT DRINK AND BE MERRY - To say that the Bay Area is a foodie’s paradise would be an understatement. There are literally thousands of restaurants, serving every type of cuisine imaginable. The freshness of the California produce and the cultural diversity combine to make eating around the Bay Area a true culinary adventure. Whether you favor fine dining, or just want to grab a bite from a food truck you won’t be disappointed.
3. GO TO A GAME - No matter what the season, sports fans can always find a game to go to since the Bay Area is home to teams like San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s (baseball), Golden State Warriors (basketball), Raiders and 49ers (football), Sharks (hockey) San Jose Earthquakes (soccer). Just pick a season, grab a ticket, and go.
4. CATCH A WAVE - The northern California coastline is called the “Frontier of Surfing” and surf spots are scattered northward along the coast. Some of the most popular are Ocean Beach (San Francisco/Marin), Salmon Creek (Sonoma) and Point Arena (Mendocino). It’s not recommended for beginners since Northern California’s water is cold, rugged, and sharky, so be prepared to battle against big waves and strong winds. It is also the home of Mavericks, a winter destination for some of the world's best big wave surfers. An invitation-only contest is held there most winters, when the waves come.
5. SHOP TILL YOU DROP - Shopaholics can definitely satisfy their shopping cravings at designer boutiques, humungous shopping malls and outlet malls. For high end shopping try Stanford Shopping Center (Palo Alto), Santana Row and Valley Fair (San Jose). Premium outlets can be found in Livermore, Vacaville and Gilroy. If you’re in the mood for haggling, try the Berryessa Flea Market (San Jose) with more than 2000 vendors selling arts & crafts, clothing, produce, furniture, tires, bicycles and much more. It is a bargain hunter’s paradise.
6. CATCH A CONCERT - The Bay Area is an entertainment mecca where every musical genre and the world’s top performers can be enjoyed indoors and outdoors. Larger venues include the Oracle Arena, Levi Stadium and the Shoreline Amphitheater. There’s nothing quite like taking in a concert under the stars at the Mountain Winery or the Montalvo Arts Center. For more intimate performances try a venue like Yoshi’s (Oakland).
7. MONTEREY/CARMEL - No trip to the Bay Area would be complete without spending time in Monterey. Only 2 hours (possibly 3 depending on the traffic), the beautiful coastal scenery of this region is not to be missed. There are jaw-dropping coastal vistas on the way and especially along the 17 Mile Drive, location of Pebble Beach. Pebble Beach is a resort destination and home to the famous golf courses of Cypress Point Club, Monterey Peninsula Country Club and of course the Pebble Beach Golf Links. Spend a few hours strolling around Carmel a charming city - more like a picturesque village – and enjoy world-class restaurants, quaint boutiques and art galleries.
8. GO SEE THE REDWOODS - Some of the tallest trees in the world are located in northern California. With a million visitors per year, Muir Woods is the world's most-visited redwood park. Since it's just a 30-minute drive from San Francisco, visitors to the city can drive here, experience a little of California's unique natural beauty, and be back in time for lunch.Then there’s the Avenue of the Giants, a scenic 31-mile drive with 51,222 acres of redwood groves. Imagine the picture-taking opportunities.
9. GO BACK TO SCHOOL - Pay a visit to one of the beautiful college campuses like Stanford, Santa Clara or Berkeley. Stanfordis a thriving residential campus and community sitting on 8,000 acres of gorgeous foothills and flatlands. You can even take a free student-led walking tour of the central campus. Berkeley and Santa Clara also offer campus tours.
10. GO FOR THE GOLD - California is called the golden state for a reason. Even though the original California Gold Rush is over, you can still try your luck at gold panning and prospecting. Places like Murphy's, Angel's Camp, Sonora, Calaveras, and Sutter's Mill all have places where you can pan for gold. Many of the small towns' hardware stores sell basic gold panning supplies if you want to hike into the hills and give it a try in a stream.Who knows, there still might be some gold in “them thar hills”.
So the next time you visit San Francisco, take time to get out and enjoy what the rest of the Bay Area has to offer.
Vegas Your Way
Las Vegas….Sin City….Entertainment Capital of the World…..whenever it’s mentioned it evokes strong emotions. People either really love it or really hate it. I’ve heard people make statements like, “I don’t like Las Vegas because it’s so smoky”, or “I don’t like Las Vegas because I don’t gamble”. Apparently they believe that smoking and gambling are all that Vegas has to offer. They couldn’t be more wrong.
I happen to be one of those who really love that city – especially the Strip. I’ve been going there for the last 26 years and often go several times each year. I’ve watched the Strip reinvent and redefine itself continuously. Believe me, there’s much more to do than smoke and gamble.
There’s a world of activities, attractions and entertainment to enjoy. Here are just a few:
If there ever was a foodie’s paradise, Vegas is it. Gone are the days of the cheap buffets and $2.99 breakfasts. Many of the world’s top celebrity chefs have opened restaurants in the major hotels and they offer world-class dining experiences. That list includes Joel Roubuchon, Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck, Giada De Laurentis, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and Bobby Flay. Many of them have more than one, and they offer a variety of dining experiences. For an unforgettable French dining experience I recommend Joel Robuchon, a 3 Michelin star restaurant located inside of the MGM Grand hotel/casino. On the other hand, if all you really want is a hamburger, you can’t go wrong with Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace.
Located right on the Strip in front of the City Center, I discovered this gem during a recent stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The burgers were so good that I had to eat there twice. Even the service was exceptional; I’ve never been served so well in a casual dining establishment.
If you have a sweet tooth I highly recommend Buddy V’s at the Palazzo and Jean Philippe at Aria.
The Las Vegas buffet scene is still alive and well and I’ve had some unbelievably delicious buffet experiences at Bacchanal (Caesar’s Palace), The Wynn Buffet and The Wicked Spoon (Cosmopolitan).
Many of the world’s top designers have opened shops in the major resorts and shopping centers like Crystals in the City Center and the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian. Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin, and Prada are just a few of the shops that I visit when I need to get some “retail therapy”. The Fashion Show Mall has more than 250 stores and offers a nice shopping experience. For discounts and deals I always visit the Las Vegas Premium Outlets or take a drive out to the Primm Outlets.
At just slightly over 4 miles long, the Strip has more entertainment venues than anywhere else that I can think of. It has always been home to world-famous entertainers, showrooms and lounges. But today’s choices are absolutely mind boggling. In addition to the world-famous headliners, there are several Cirque du Soleil shows, magic shows, comedians, burlesque shows and so much more. During my recent trip I went to see Legends in Concert, one of the longest running hit shows where the super-talented cast members play well-known entertainers like Prince, Lady Gaga and Whitney Houston. It was great! The nightclub scene is phenomenal and some of the resorts even have day clubs. Marquee Day Club at the Cosmopolitan had a very long line….at noon. It spans 22,000 square-feet and boasts two pools, several bars and a gaming area. Programming throughout the season is highlighted by Marquee Nightclub & Dayclub resident DJs encompassing the world’s premier electronic music talent.
You can always find discount (often half price) show tickets at one of the many Tix4Tonight locations.
For those seeking action or adventure, there are lots of choices. Las Vegas Valley has golf courses and packages for every skill level. You can take a flying leap at Vegas Indoor Skydiving. You can satisfy your need for speed by taking a spin around a racetrack in an exotic car like a Ferrari 488 GTTS or a McLaren 570S. You can soar above the Strip in a helicopter, or fly to the Grand Canyon.
Amusement park lovers have a variety of attractions to choose from. The High Roller at the Linq, a 550-foot tall observation wheel (similar to the London Eye) allows riders to enjoy the view of Las Vegas in comfortable glass-enclosed cabins. You can even have open bar.
The Roller Coaster on top of the New York-New York Hotel & Casino features towering drops, multiple loops and stunning views of the Strip. When it was first built I agreed to ride it with my son. From the ground it didn’t look too rough…boy was I wrong. That’s one hair-raising ride!
If you’re really feeling daring, go to the Stratosphere to try the world’s highest thrill rides.All rides are at the top of the Stratosphere Tower, over 900 feet high. The four extreme thrill rides are The Sky Jump, the Big Shot, the X Scream, and Insanity.
Spas in Las Vegas offer a variety of specialty treatments and wellness services that aren't offered in your neighborhood back home. Some of my favorite places to be pampered are Spa Mandalay (Mandalay Bay Hotel), the Mandarin Oriental Spa, and Qua Roman Baths and Spa at Caesars Palace.
FREMONT STREET EXPERIENCE
Downtown Las Vegas is home to the Fremont Street experience a pedestrian mall covered by a barrel vault canopy where light and sound shows are presented nightly beginning at dusk on the Viva Vision video screen. For a real rush, try the Slotzilla Zip line experience.
If you happen to blow your budget before you leave, not to worry. There are plenty of free attractions to enjoy. The Bellagio Conservatory is a beautiful place to enjoy elegant arrangements of plants and flowers. Circus, Circus has free shows featuring jugglers, unicyclists, trapeze artists and acrobats perform death-defying stunts and exciting acts every half-hour at the World's Largest Permanent Circus. One of my favorites is the free Fall of Atlantis fountain show that entertains audiences with special effects and animatronic figures who recount the myth of Atlantis. I especially enjoy watching the Fountains at Bellagio, a combination of music, water and light; it is a spectacular audiovisual performance with its majestic fountains.
Hotel/resort choices are many and there are options for every budget. During my 26 year love affair with Las Vegas I have stayed at most of the major resorts on the Strip and each one delivers a unique, experience. I have several preferred properties, and my newest is the Mandarin Oriental. It offers a 5-star luxury experience in a non-smoking, non-gaming environment. It is an oasis of tranquility in the middle of the non-stop energy of the Strip.
Whatever your preference, Las Vegas is what you make it – and you can do it your way.
Sailing Takes me Away.......
“Sailing takes me away
To where I've always heard it could be
Just a dream and the wind to carry me
And soon I will be free”
These lyrics are from the song “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. When he wrote it back in 1980, I don’t know if he was referring to cruising as we know it, but it serves as a nice cruise reference. Cruising happens to be one of our favorite ways to travel. We started in 1988 and since then have taken 18 cruises in locations all over the world. The cruise industry has evolved quite a bit since then, but it still remains one of the best values for the vacation dollar.
Here are some of the benefits.
Cruising is a great way to enjoy several destinations in one trip. For example, on Mediterranean cruises we’ve visited Venice, Dubrovnik, Naples, Florence, Athens, Santorini, Monte Carlo and Barcelona. We were in each city 1-2 days, so it was a good way to get introduced to those cities and decide if we’d like to go back and spend more time there. If we had booked flights to each of those cities the trip would have been REALLY expensive.
Cruising is great for family/multi-generational travel. There are activities onboard for every age group – from infants to toddlers, to children, teens, adults and senior citizens – everyone can find something that interests them.
Cruising is great for group travel. There are even themed cruises that are targeted to specific affinity groups: jazz cruises, blues cruises, crafting cruises, singles cruises, adventure cruises, Disney cruises…. the list goes on and on. So chances are there’s a cruise that caters to your interests….whatever they may be.
“It's not far back to sanity
At least it's not for me
And if the wind is right you can sail away
And find serenity”
This verse from Christopher Cross’ song speaks directly to one of the best benefits that cruising has to offer….relaxation. The sea rocks you gently to sleep each night. And there is nothing quite as peaceful as sitting on your balcony watching the waves gently roll by. A cruise is a great place to refresh and renew.
Cruise ships offer a variety of dining options. The main dining room offers a fine dining experience every day. But there are also buffets for those who prefer a more casual atmosphere. And there are many other options like burger spots, pizza parlors and so much more. Of course there’s always 24-hour room service available, so you can just pick up the phone and order whatever you like. The price of unlimited food is always included in the cruise fare. Many ships offer specialty-dining venues where, for a small cover charge you can enjoy an exceptionally fine dining experience with impeccable service. I’ll admit, I was doubtful that the specialty restaurants could be better than the main dining room….until our last transatlantic cruise when we decided to try it. It was FABULOUS!
Cruises offer so much for one price. Unlimited food, excellent stage shows and Broadway caliber, entertainment, nightclubs, state-of-the-art gym facilities, designer shopping, duty-free shopping, beautiful swimming pools and Jacuzzis, housekeeping services from your stateroom attendant who will clean your cabin 2-3 times each day and turn down your bed every night.
Is cruising right for everyone? Of course not. There is no one travel style that fits everybody – but cruising covers quite a few of the bases that make a vacation enjoyable. However, it’s important to remember that all cruises are not created equal. It is important to choose a cruise that fits you and will deliver what you want from your vacation. So here are a few tips:
- Consult a travel professional who is familiar with cruising and can help you plan your cruise vacation.
- Choose the right cruise style. There are huge ships that can carry in excess of 5000 passengers, and very small ships that only carry a few hundred people. There are ocean-going ships that sail on the open seas and there are river cruises that only sail up and down rivers. There are smaller vessels that do adventure cruises down the Amazon or to the Galapagos Islands. There are cruise lines that cater to young people and others who cater to an older crowd. There are Disney cruises So it is very important to choose the ship that fits you best. Choosing the right ship can make or break your cruise experience.
- Cruise at the right time of year. Be sure to research weather patterns in the region that you plan to cruise. For example, hurricane season can hit the Caribbean anytime between July and September. The Alaska cruise season goes from May through September.
- Choose the right cruise length. There are cruises as short as 3-4 days. FYI, the cruise lines tend to use their older ships for the short cruises, so they can be more worn and not have all of the modern amenities of the newer ships. But they are a great choice for a long weekend or an introduction to cruising. On the other end of the spectrum there are also world cruises that last from 89-132 days and visit some of the world’s most iconic destinations.
I have logged quite a few travel miles during the last 30 years, and I’ve traveled by land, by sea, by air and by car. But cruising is still my favorite way to go……sailing takes me away.
- adventure travel
- blue mosque
- book review
- ciragan palace
- destination review
- family travel
- gothic quarter
- group travel
- hagia sophia
- la boqueria
- la sagrada familia
- las ramblas
- Las Vegas
- montego bay
- ship review
- super bowl
- travel agents
- Travel Tips
- trip review
- United Arab Emirates
- wine lover
- zipline canopy tour