Travel Blog

Journal of our Journeys

  • LONDON - THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

    5/13/2019 8:26:40 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    destination review, dining, london, shopping

    London is one of the world’s most-visited cities. It’s a 21st-century city whose history stretches all the way back to Roman times. This sprawling metropolis has so much to offer; including theater, food, history, art, literature, and fashion. It is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world encompassing more than 270 nationalities and 300 languages.

    If you’re planning a trip to the UK, here are a few practical things to know before you go:

    PASSPORTS & VISAS – While some countries impose minimum passport validity for arriving passengers, the UK has no such requirement. If you’re an American or Canadian tourist, you’ll be able to travel visa-free throughout the UK, as long as you have a valid passport and your reason meets the immigration rules. For more details, visit these websites: ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk and gov.uk.

    CLIMATE – The weather in Britain overall is temperate. In spring, from March to June, the climate is rainy and the average temperature is between 59 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. From mid-June to August, the climate is hot and humid with temperatures averaging 79 degrees Fahrenheit. In October the temperatures fall between 59-68 degrees and in December temperatures range from 35-48 degrees Fahrenheit.

    MEDICAL TREATMENT – No inoculations are required to visit the UK. It is important to find out if your medical insurance covers you internationally. If not, it is wise to get adequate coverage before you go. If you’re taking prescribed drugs, carry a copy of your prescription, described by the generic name, along with a cover letter from your doctor, in case you need additional supplies.

    MOBILE PHONES – The UK network uses the 900 or 1800 GSM system, so visitors from North America (where the system is 800 or 1900 MHz band) will need to get a tri-or quad-band set. Check with your service provider for details. It’s easier and cheaper to purchase a SIM card locally and top it up with credit.

    INTERNET – Most cities in the UK offer some form of public access to the Internet. Some hotels include free WI-FI with reservations. Free WI-FI can also be found at libraries, pubs, cafes and museums.

    TIME ZONE – There is only one time zone in Britain. In March the clocks change for Daylight Saving and revert back in October.

    COMMUNICATION – The international dialing code is +44.

    CURRENCY – Britain does not use the Euro, the British currency is the pound sterling (GBP). We prefer to exchange currency before we leave the U.S., but you can also do so at banks when you arrive. Many branches have 24-hour ATM facilities. ATM machines can also be found in some supermarkets, post offices, gas stations, train stations and London Underground stations.  If you plan to use credit cards, be sure to notify your bank/credit card company that you will be traveling internationally. This will keep them from placing a temporary block on your credit card if fraud is suspected due to the change in location.

    DINING – Along with the ethnic diversity, London offers a variety of dining experiences. There is much more than roast beef and Yorkshire puddings or fish and chips. Chicken tikka masala is also listed as a national dish. There are LOTS of restaurant choices – from Michelin Star restaurants to street eats.

    My favorite dish was a bowl of Japanese noodles. Visiting the Food Halls at Harrods is a unique culinary experience – offering delicacies from around the globe. I was literally able to eat my way around the world.

     

    Supermarkets are also a good option. We stayed in the Kensington district near a Waitrose market that sold really delicious hot and cold items.

    ELECTRIC EQUIPMENT – The standard voltage is 230 AC, 50Hz. North Americans will need a square, three-pronged plug adapter/converter to use their appliances.

    EMERGENCY – If you need police, ambulance or fire service, find a telephone and dial 999, and indicate which service you need.

    TIPPING & SERVICE CHARGES – Tipping is not always appropriate. If you get exceptional service and want to show appreciation here’s a guide to customary practice:

    Hotels: Most hotel bills include a service charge, usually 12.5%. When a service charge is not included in a hotel restaurant’s bill, it’s customary to tip 10%-15%.

    Restaurants: Service charges are often included. If it is not, it is customary to leave a tip of 10%-15%. Some restaurants now include a suggested tip in the bill total.

    Pubs and Bars: Tips are not expected, but are always appreciated.

    Taxis: 10%-15% of the fare is customary, but it is acceptable to round up to the nearest pound.

     

    Getting the most out of London definitely requires more than one visit. During our visit we did many of the top “touristy” activities; London Eye, Thames River cruise, Tower of London, watching the Changing of the Guard, shopping at Harrods; but felt like we barely experienced on all that there was to see and do. For example, Harrods is the largest department store in Europe occupies 5 acres, has 330 departments and covers 1.1 million square feet. We spent several hours there and didn’t nearly see enough. We look forward to going back to experience more of the diversity and excitement of that vibrant city.

     

     

  • MSC SEASIDE - SHIP REVIEW

    5/6/2019 11:26:43 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    cruise, family travel, msc, 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.

    AUREA SPA

    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?

    9/23/2017 7:37:51 PM Link 2 comments | Add comment

    family travel, group travel, travel agents, Travel Tips

    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.

     

     

  • Cruising 2.0

    8/28/2017 6:38:24 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    casino, cruising, dining, entertainment, family travel, group travel, Travel Tips, vacation

    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.

    World Cruises

    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.

     

  • 10 Things to do in Barcelona

    6/19/2017 12:07:02 AM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    barcelona, gothic quarter, la boqueria, la sagrada familia, las ramblas, montserrat, spain, tapas, Travel Tips

    Barcelona is the largest metropolis on the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the world's leading tourist, economic, and cultural centers. With a population of ~1.6 million people, it is an urban kaleidoscope of culture, entertainment, media, food, fashion and architecture. It also happens to be one of my favorite European cities.  In the last 10 years I have visited it more than 6 times and each time have discovered something new to enjoy. As a cruise port, it is often visited by tourists. But whether you’re in town for a few hours or a few days, there is always plenty to see and do. Here are a few suggestions:

    1. Spend some time on Las Ramblas

    Las Ramblas is a tree-lined pedestrian mall that is popular with both tourists and locals. It stretches for ~1 mile and both sides of the street are lined with shops, restaurants, tapas bars, and hotels. It is a perfect place to stroll, see and be seen – or just sip a little sangria.

    2. Shop around La Boqueria

    La Boqueria is one of Europe’s oldest markets. Since 1217 it has been used to sell meat, fish and many other goods. Although it is a major tourist attraction, it is also frequented by local residents. It’s easy to find since it’s located right on Las ramblas.

    There are so many choices – fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, juices, baked goods, meat (including some of the best ham in the world)that it’s difficult to know where to begin. You can even purchase tapas to eat onsite at one of the many food counters. Everything is artfully displayed, so it is as visually stimulating as it is delicious. Prices are quite reasonable, so it’s a perfect place to eat on the cheap.

    3. Take the hop-on-hop-off bus

    One of my favorite ways to explore a city is by hop-on-hop-off bus and Barcelona offers two companies to choose from; Bus Turistic and City Sightseeing. Both have 3 different lines, so they are the perfect (and affordable) way to tour the entire city. They run frequently, so you can get off and spend as much time as you like in any location. It’s easy to purchase tickets online ahead of time, or just get them on the bus.

    4. Get lost in the Gothic Quarter

    The Gothic Quarter is the center of the city of old Barcelona. Located near Las Ramblas, it is one of the most fascinating areas of the city. It was built primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, but some buildings date back to medieval times. The area is filled with charming narrow streets and alleyways that open onto plazas. It’s a perfect place to wander around and enjoy the many shops, eateries and even churches. On a recent visit our hotel room looked out onto the Church of Santa Anna, a medieval church dating back to 1300.

    5. Eat a sandwich at Conesa

    Barcelona is known for it’s delicious tapas and they can be found everywhere. But there are also other dining choices. I’ve had some scrumptious kebobs at several eateries all over the city. On my most recent visit I discovered Conesa, a sandwich shop in the Gothic Quarter. It’s a perfect place to enjoy a hot, tasty paninni.

    6. Take a day trip to Montserrat

    Montserrat is a multi-peaked rocky range located not far from the city, in Catalonia, Spain, so it is a good option for day trip. It is well known as the site of the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat. Located high on a hill, it is impressive, and views of the valley are spectacular. 

    7. Tour wineries in  the Penedes Wine Region

    Located less than an hour from Barcelona, this is another great option for a day trip – especially for wine lovers. It is one of Spain’s best wine-producing regions, particularly known for it’s Cava production. We spent a day touring the Jean Leon and Torres wineries and the Freixenet Cava caves.At each winery we were greeted by a knowledgeable guide and each tour ended with plentiful tasting and tapas.

    8. Eat tapas – lots of tapas

    Tapas are snacks or appetizers that are enjoyed in the early evening. Since dinner is usually served between 9 and 11pm, Spaniards often go “bar hopping” in the hours between finishing work and having dinner. They can be served hot or cold and can include bread, meat, cheese, shellfish, olives, and other delicious fried delicacies. I must confess, that after visiting several tapas bars and enjoying a few sangrias, I’m usually too full to eat a large dinner.


    9. Check out the street performers on Las Ramblas

    The street performers on Las Ramblas are some of the most imaginative that I have ever seen. Their costumes can range from cute, to kitschy to downright scary.

    If you want to take a picture of or with them you’re expected to leave a tip. Each one is unique and puts on a good show.

    10. Visit La Sagrada Familia

    Barcelona is famous for it’s architecture, the city is full of beautiful and imaginative buildings. One of its most famous architects is Antoni Gaudi. One of his most famous buildings is La Sagrada Familia, a large Roman Catholic church. Construction began in 1882 and is still ongoing; with a projected completion date of 2026. It has been called the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages. It is both ancient and futuristic. In a word, it is AMAZING.

    Since it is such a popular tourist destination, it is often crowded and lines can be very long. I definitely recommend purchasing a guided tour with skip-the-line access.

    These are just a few of the attractions available in this vibrant city, with the cool urban vibe. Whether you choose to take tours around the city, or just sit in a plaza and relax, it is a wonderful city.

  • In Wine Country

    4/9/2017 9:14:04 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    grapevines, oenophile, tapas, wine, wine lover, wineries

    dddddddAs I get older, my appreciation for wine has just increased. I fell in love with wine through my travels, but knowing what the wine country is all about definitely makes it my own.
    Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jeffgordon429860.html?src=t_wineJeff Gordon said, "As I get older, my appreciation for wine has just increased. I fell in love with wine through my travels, but knowing what the wine country is all about definitely makes it my own.". I can identify with his comment and during my 30 years of travel I have made a point of visiting wine regions around the globe. Here are a few of my favorites:

    Jeff Gordon said, "As I get older, my appreciation for wine has just increased. I fell in love with wine through my travels, but knowing what the wine country is all about definitely makes it my own.". Enjoying wine has always been part of my travels also and during my 30 years of globetrotting I have had the opportunity to visit some of the world's finest wine regions.

    NAPA VALLEY GRAPEVINES IN JANUARY

    Napa Valley, one of the world's most famous wine regions is only a short drive from my home, so I visit regularly.


    LIVERMORE VALLEY VINEYARDS

    Only a short drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Livermore Valley offers a fine selection of wineries.

    SANTA CATARINA WINERY, PALMA DE MALLORCA

    During a trip to Spain we visited the north coast of the island and sipped vintages at a 500 year old winery.

    MALLORCA GRAPE VINES

    TUSCANY

    During a Mediterranean cruise I made a point of visiting Tuscany. I was amazed at how much the region reminded me of California valleys. I felt right at home.

    TUSCAN VINEYARDS

    FREIXENET CAVA CAVES

    While spending time in Barcelona I ventured out to Penedes, Catalonia's premiere wine region, where I visited several wineries, beginning with Freixenet. In addition to touring the underground caves, I sampled some excellent sparkling wines.

    JEAN LEON WINE BARRELS

    During the day trip I also toured the Jean Leon winery.

    TORRES WINERY GRAPEVINES

    At the Torres Winery I even had the chance to wander out into the vineyards.

    TAPAS

    Each winery offered a fine array of delicious tapas along with generous portions of their vintages.


    MAUI'S WINERY

    While visiting the island of Maui I took the Road to Hana tour. One of the highlights of the tour was tasting at Maui's Winery.

    One of my travel goals is to eat my way around the world, and that also includes tasting the world's finest wines. It's a tough job, but well worth the effort. Cheers!

     

    As I get older, my appreciation for wine has just increased. I fell in love with wine through my travels, but knowing what the wine country is all about definitely makes it my own. Jeff Gordon
    Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jeffgordon429860.html?src=t_wine
    As I get older, my appreciation for wine has just increased. I fell in love with wine through my travels, but knowing what the wine country is all about definitely makes it my own. Jeff Gordon
    Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jeffgordon429860.html?src=t_wine
    As I get older, my appreciation for wine has just increased. I fell in love with wine through my travels, but knowing what the wine country is all about definitely makes it my own.
    Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jeffgordon429860.html?src=t_wine
  • Our Trip to Turkey

    4/2/2017 11:18:01 PM Link 8 comments | Add comment

    blue mosque, canakkale, ciragan palace, ephesus, food, hagia sophia, history, istanbul, kusadasi, pumakkale, trip review, turkey

    My husband and I just returned from a trip to Turkey and we can’t say enough about how much we enjoyed it. We’d visited Istanbul briefly during a pre-cruise stop in 2011 when we’d only had 3 hours to pay short visits to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. That whirlwind tour whetted our appetites and we knew we wanted to return to experience more of that vibrant city. Recently we had the chance to do just that. I could use so many superlatives to describe the trip – awesome, incredible, wonderful, marvelous, memorable – but the word that came to mind most often was WOW and that was from the first day to the last. This “cultural baklava” offers layers of culture, history, delicious food, warmfriendly people. Here are a few the things that we recommend:

    BLUE MOSQUE

    The 400 year-old Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), with its six minarets, is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable structures. Although we had been there before, we were again captivated by the beauty of the blue tiles and the lush red carpet. Even though it is a popular tourist site, it  continues to function as a mosque today.

    HAGIA SOPHIA

    Located very near the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia is another awe-inspiring must-see mosque. It was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 so it is also rich in history. As one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, the interior is decorated with beautiful mosaics, marble pillars and elegant chandeliers. It is currently under renovation, so large areas were obstructed by scaffolding, which took away from the majesty of the interior.

    TAKE A CRUISE ON THE BOSPHORUS

    One of the highlights of our trip was taking a cruise on the Bosphorus, the beautiful waterway that divides Istanbul since it sits on two continents, Europe and Asia. It isone of the world's most strategic waterways, connecting the Black sea to the Mediterranean. One of it’s most iconic sites is the Bosphorus Bridge, a beautiful suspension bridge that reminded us of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a busy waterway that offers several sightseeing options including ferries and dinner cruises. We chose to take a small yacht and spent several hours admiring the spectacular buildings, palaces and scenery.

    WATCH THE SUN RISE OVER THE BOSPHORUS

    In Istanbul we stayed at two different hotels and both had rooms facing the Bosphorus. Sitting on a balcony, sipping tea and listening for the call to prayer was a great way to begin a day.

    VISIT A BAZAAR

    No trip to Istanbul would be complete without spending time in the Grand Bazaar. Built nearly five centuries ago, with more than 4000 shops, it is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Originally built to sell textiles the offerings have expanded to include a myriad of other goods includingjewelry, hand-painted ceramics, carpets, embroideries, spices, antiques shops and many other Turkish delights. Visited by between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily, it is the ultimate shopping experience. Before entering I wondered how pushy the vendors would be. They were definitely insistent, but not overly aggressive.

    We also spent time at the Spice Bazaar the second largest covered shopping complex after the Grand Bazaar. It has a total of 85 shops selling spices, tea, Turkish Delight and other sweets, but also jewelry, souvenirs, dried fruits and nuts. The sights, sounds and aromas are truly intoxicating. The spices we brought home have definitely enhanced the meals we cook. .

    EAT, EAT, EAT

    Delicious, delectable, delightful, divine…these words only begin to describe how good the food is – all over Turkey. As a foodie, I made a point of sampling culinary delights all over the country; From Istanbul to Kusadasi to Canakkale, to Pumakkale. From fine dining, to street food everything we ate was fresh, well-prepared and delicious; much of it organic and locally sourced.  Everywhere we went there were street food options – roasted chestnuts, roasted corn on the cob and my favorite was in Canakkale. We’d just finished seeing the Trojan Horse when we came across a cart that sold cups of roasted, buttery corn kernels. Hot, tasty and delicious.

    On our last night in Istanbul we had the fine dining experience of a lifetime at the imperial palace section of the Çiragan Palace Kempinski., a 5 star hotel that is absolutely regal. It was built in 1863 by Ottoman Sultan Abdülazizand it still reflects the ultimate luxury of a genuine Ottoman Palace. We dined at the elegant and award-winning Tugra Restaurant, located on the first floor of the historic Palace, and had the ultimate Ottoman dining. Each delicious course, work of art, was presented with a descriptive introduction and all the pomp and circumstance befitting sultans and their guests. We dined like royalty.

    Although one of my travel goals is to eat my way around the world, I may not be able to circle the globe without returning to Turkey.

    VISIT A RUG FACTORY

    Carpet weaving represents a traditional art, dating back to pre-Islamic times and some of the finest examples can be found in Turkey. So visiting the Sultanköy carpet gallery was a real treat. In addition to admiring the beautiful carpets we had the opportunity to learn about their production, including dyeing and weaving techniques. We’d visited a similar factory in Selçuk during our 2011 visit, so we knew what to expect. We also knew that we did not want to go home empty handed, so after an intense round of bargaining, a purchase was made.

    DIG INTO THE HISTORICAL SITES

    We expected to visit sites like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Grand Bazaar  - and all were amazing. But they were only the beginning.  Each of the historical sites/ruins revealed layer upon layer of civilizations past, complete with massive theaters, towering columns and even latrines. It really felt like we were walking back in history. Since none of them were very crowded we were treated to what felt like private tours. That was definitely the case at Alexandria Troas, where the site was opened up just for us; talk about VIP treatment! My husband and I had visited Ephesus in 2011 (with throngs of other tourists), so we knew what to expect. But on this visit we could see how much more of the ancient city had been excavated.

    Visiting the sites requires lots of walking – up to a mile or more - and a pretty high level of fitness since much of the terrain is uneven.  The fact that many of the sites had added wooden walkways made it easier to get around. But be sure to wear sturdy walking shoes.

    MAKE A FURRY FRIEND

    Everywhere we went there were LOTS of dogs and cats. In the city, in the countryside and even at the historical sites animals were everywhere! They were domesticated, healthy, well fed and quite friendly. Turkey is definitely a nice place for animal lovers.

    FEAR FACTOR

    Like many countries around the globe, Turkey has been affected recently by several violent events.  So some tourists have taken it off of their travel destination lists. Some of our friends and associates questioned our decision to visit. However, we found no reasons to be fearful and felt completely safe at all times. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a reckless traveler and would not venture into a dangerous situation. But we didn’t feel any more at risk than we’ve felt at home in the U.S. It is still high on our list of favorite destinations and we plan to return in the very near future.

     

  
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