PORTUGAL

10 Days in Portugal: Client Itinerary

For the independent client who doesn’t want to go on an escorted tour but still wants some guidance,  this 10 day itinerary is perfect!  I put together a suggested list of stops along the way, along with my favorite hotel recommendations and personal suggestions.  This itinerary is best done with a rental car,  although almost all items should be able to be duplicated with the good bus/train system. (Just contact me for modification suggestions!)

This fantastic itinerary only took me a few hours to put together because I used to live in Portugal.  My insider knowledge and passion for sharing the fairytale, affordable, and fabulous country of Portugal helps me put together a trip that takes you beyond the rushed tourist traps and helps you dig deeper into the Portuguese culture, food, and sightseeing experience!

Day 1: Arrival from the USA – Stay in Sintra

Sintra, a magical fairytale town set in the mountains above Lisbon, is often a last-minute daytrip by tourists who then realize they should have been spending their whole vacation here. Instead, make Sintra your home base to explore over the next two days, and take the easy 40 minute train into Lisbon for a day-trip. Perhaps today you can visit: the town square, Pena Palace, and the stunning Quinta da Reguleira with its secret passageways and underground lakes.

HOTEL:  HOTEL LAWRENCE, SINTRA

Portugal
The Moorish Castle in Sintra

Day 2: Sintra continued.

Perhaps today you’ll visit the Moorish Castle and Monserrate Palace, or go exploring in the Sintra forest. The Capuchin Convent is also fascinating (it’s made out of cork). In other words, don’t worry about “assigning” activities to these days ahead of time – it will be obvious in Sintra what the different attractions are, especially if you get a tourism bus which does a loop of all the major sites. They have tourist offices there too to explain the different attractions.

Day 3:  Daytrip to Lisbon

It’s an easy train ride down to the vibrant capital, Lisbon – less than 40 minutes. No tours are needed, but Portuguese food and desserts are so yummy that one of those “walking food tours” would be a great way to see the city and to imbibe…

This is normally what I do for first-time visitors to Lisbon with one busy day:

  • Start at Tour de Belem, Monument of the Discoveries, and Monastery of the Jeronomos (this should take all morning) – they are all next to each other
  • Take the public transportation back into the city centre, begin at the Praca Comercio, and then walk all the way up the Avenida da Liberdade to experience the main thoroughfare of the city with its restaurants, ritzy hotels, and fantastic shopping.
  • After a bit, catch either a tram or a bus towards the castle Castelo de Sao Jorge (St George’s Castle). Don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t mind walking up the whole way to the castle! It’s a bigger hill than you think.   (Note: Uber is also popular if you’d like to take a quick car ride.) Lisbon is built on seven hills so keep that in mind! You can catch the right bus at the Praca Da Figueira which is on your way.   There is also a new elevator to the castle, without the need for a bus.

After this busy day,  you may want to stay in Lisbon and eat at one of the many outdoor restaurants in the beautiful squares,  before making your way back to Sintra for your final night here.

Portugal

Day 4:  Cascais to Obidos

Portugal

Check out of the Sintra hotel.   Go to Cascais, a suburb of Lisbon.   Here you’ll see how everyone slows down outside the hustle and bustle of the capital city.   Enjoy the typical architecture, outdoor restaurants, and small beach fronts.

Be sure to visit the Boca d’Inferno (Mouth of Hell), which you can reach by walking or biking. It’s a cave formed by the pounding waves.

You can also go to Cabo da Roca, which is the Westernmost point in all of Europe. It’s a 25 minute bus ride from Cascais or you drive if you have the car.

After your day in the Cascais area, make your way to the walled medieval city of Obidos. The ONLY choice of lodging should be in the castle!  I highly recommend the Cottage Suite,  where I stayed.

Tip: the town itself has narrow and winding roads and the castle hotel is at the top. If you want to park your hotel at the bottom of the hotel and just go up and tell the hotel, they will run down and drive it up for you. 🙂

Obidos is more than just a walled city that the tourists visit for a few hours. You can walk the whole way around it on the ramparts, but you can also go for a little walk in the countryside surrounding it and discover windmills. The town is full of lovely shops that want to pass out samples of the ginga and ginginha, the special liquor that Obidos is famous for.   Take the day here to explore and enjoy the lovely scenery.

HOTEL:  Pousada Castelo de Obidos 

Portugal

Day 5:  Beaches and abbeys

portugal
Nazare

Check out of the Obidos hotel and set off on a full day of sightseeing. Today visit:

  • Nazare (beach town – NO SWIMMING but incredible waves- can have lunch on the beach or rent a bike)
  • Alcobaca
  • Batalha
  • Overnight Coimbra.

Note: it may be worth seeing if there is a guided tour available on demand at the monasteries of Alcobaca and Batalha, there is a lot of interesting history. Yes, you can go inside by yourself but if you aren’t familiar with Portuguese history you will learn a lot from a guided tour of the churches. In Portugal, church and sea are bound up together and cannot be unlinked. The churches’ engravings and tombs will teach you about the seafaring conquests, the kings and queens, and the discoveries and contributions that Portugal has made to the world.

HOTEL:  Quinta das Lagrimas, Coimbra

Batalha Monastery

City of Coimbra

Day 6:  Porto

Checkout of the Coimbra hotel, perhaps after a morning in the town center.   The library at the old University is stunning!   There is also a hop on hop off bus available. Drive to Porto,  2 hours away. Lots of activities in Porto so be sure not to arrive too late in the day!  Porto is the “capital” of the North and has a very proud heritage.  The historical center of Porto is very easy to walk everywhere and you can wander the old streets very happily for a few hours.  Visit some of the stunning churches/cathedrals,  or visit the famous bookstore Livraria Lello where JK Rowling used to buy coffee while writing Harry Potter.

On the other side of the river are the port wine companies and there are lots of wine activities possible if you are a wine enthusiast.

As referenced previously, the walking food tour I did of Porto was awesome. No need for dinner that day!

HOTEL:  InterContinental Porto

Day 7: Exploring Porto and the Douro River Valley

If the weather is nice, take a half-day cruise down the Douro river – wine tasting etc.   OR a small group trip to the vineyards in the valley, etc., with a small van or private driver. You could also drive yourself if you are driving. Note that the roads won’t have good river reviews, but they’ll have good mountain views as you get higher and can see the river from there. The Douro Valley is beautiful and it’s definitely worth a visit.   It’s actually a UNESCO World Heritage site! Or you can take the train down the valley (it hugs the river) and visit some wineries or go for lunch.  (If you are traveling in the colder months,  here’s a trip report I wrote about taking the train down the Douro valley!)

There are also some private “yacht” companies that will cruise you up and down the Douro river, this is nicer as you can instruct them to go up further (into the better scenery )  Mateus Estate is very famous as it produces the Mateus port wine, but there are over 200 estates on the river.

Day 8:  Braga and Guimaraes

Leave Porto – drive to Guimaraes and Braga – overnight in Braga area (note: this is also possible as a day trip from Porto). Or as suggested above, you can also overnight in Guimaraes. The two towns are in the same province and often combined in the same trips.

Guimaraes is known for being an exceptionally preserved medieval town. Portugal’s first King was born here so it is considered the birthplace of Portugal.

Braga, about 30 minutes away, is famous for its religious festivals, and the hillside church of Bom Jesus do Monte is a must-see (pictured below). It also has the oldest cathedral in Portugal, built in 1070.

HOTEL:  Hotel Bracera Augusta in Braga or Pousada de Guimaraes

Bom Jesus

Day 9:  Geres National Park

Visit Geres National Park (40 min from Braga area) – you could stay in Geres , too, all of these places are easy driving distance if you have an afternoon flight from Porto the next day. There’s an old royal hunting lodge there that you can stay at.  Or at the end of the day, do the 2 hour trip back to the Porto area and stay near the airport for your flight the next day (may be easier).

For Geres – you should definitely consider either a walking tour or a driving tour  guide that can help you decide what trails to go on and to maximize your time there.  There are still Iberian wolves hiding there;)

Note:  after publishing this article,  I had the opportunity to go to Geres National Park myself!  You can read about my experience here

You can also ride horses or donkeys to explore the park.

Geres National Park

Day 10:  Departure … time to start planning your next trip!

normandy

A Trip to Normandy with Bayeux Shuttle

Bayeux Shuttle offers a variety of D-Day tour options to suit your needs, including half day options for those already staying in Bayeux overnight as well as tours focused on specific sectors (American, Canadian, British, etc). If you’re interested in extending your stay in Normandy, they also offer tours of the area outside of the D-Day focused tours, including a trip to Mont Saint-Michel.  I recently assisted guest poster Sophia Curcio with her trip to Paris, France.  One of her bucket list items was a trip to Normandy to see the D-Day Beaches.  Here’s her review of her wonderful experience!

Bayeux Shuttle cemetery

A Trip to Normandy with Bayeux Shuttle

Just to clarify, Bayeux Shuttle did not compensate us for or request this review – but we had such an amazing experience, we wanted to make sure your readers knew about them and to encourage them to ask you about making this part of their next trip to France!

We spent a week in Paris for Christmas, and decided to spend a day outside of the city to visit Normandy for the day and experience a D-Day tour. We knew we wanted to do this via a tour, knowing that it would make the history come alive better than a guidebook, but didn’t think the big bus tours out of Paris were really our thing–  it takes longer to drive to Normandy than it does to take the train, and both of us like to be in smaller groups. After some initial research and planning, we booked a tour with Bayeux Shuttle who would pick us up from the train station, and I can’t recommend them enough to you or any of your clients who are also considering this.   

How to get to Bayeux Shuttle

We took the first high-speed train out of Paris at about 7:00 AM (yes, it was a very early day. What I can tell you is that it was so memorable that we never felt tired!). This is a 2.5 hour, comfortable ride straight to Carentan station — Bayeux Shuttle includes directions on how to book these train tickets on their website, and if you book ahead of time, there are discounted tickets available (our tickets were only 70 euros each roundtrip, and we also booked directly through SCNF instead of Rail Europe for some slightly cheaper prices).  From here, Andy, the owner of Bayeux Shuttle, picked us up in a modern, spacious mini-van and off we went!

Although it was “off season,” which also meant limited open restrooms along the way, it also meant that we had a less crowded experience and at many sites had them to ourselves. We lucked out with the weather (this was the last week of December after all), and it was a pretty sunny day despite the chill – nothing a warm coat and some well-planned layers didn’t take care of. (Tip – the weather can be unpredictable and won’t match up to Paris weather if you’re coming from there, so definitely bring layers as recommended on the website!)

A detailed schedule of things you’ll see is available on Bayeux Shuttle’s website, so I won’t reiterate the day minute by minute – you will get to see the “big” items likes Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, but my favorite was actually the small church at Angleville-Au-Plain, where the stained glass windows are now images of paratroopers in gratitude for the stories of courage and humanity that happened that day.

Angleville-Au-Plain
Angleville-Au-Plain

Why I Loved This Tour with Bayeux Shuttle

We’ve all been on tours where you feel like a herd of cattle… get off the bus, get on the bus, listen to someone droning facts over a crackly microphone, grab a quick photo, move on. Well… this isn’t that kind of tour. Here are a couple of things that set this experience apart:

  • Small groups: the comfortable, spacious mini-van holds only 15 people, and on our tour there were only 9. Private tours are also available as well at reasonable rates, particularly if you have several people in your party.
  • Modern and updated: the tour van was equipped with multimedia and GPS systems, so at different points on the tour, you could see where you were on the map and pertinent videos, interviews, photos, would play automatically as you travelled, bringing the stories and history to life. Honestly, within 10 minutes of first starting, I’m pretty sure we’d all teared up already after watching the first couple interviews of World War II vets talking about their experiences in that very countryside we were driving through.
  • Passionate and exciting tour guides: Andy, the owner of Bayeux Shuttle, spent every minute telling us stories, showing us photos and documents related to that spot, and interacting with everyone on the tour to incorporate things that each person was interested in. It’s one thing to read in a history book the facts about what happened – it’s another to hear story after story of 19-and-20-year olds (and younger!) displaying remarkable acts of courage. Andy is very open in his belief in human goodness, integrity and compassion — his stories and narration never took on a “good vs evil” tone, but rather focused on the stories of brotherhood and bravery that took place on both sides of the war. He made history come alive in a way that us just reading a guidebook and driving ourselves around would not have.
  • Lunch included – this is homemade baguette sandwiches made by Andy’s wife and served in their Normandy farmhouse that is in the middle of being restored to what it was like in the 1940s when it was a cafe used by both German and American soldiers – including artifacts and items from the Normandy Invasion. This is exclusive to Bayeux Shuttle customers and is included in the tour. Realizing that the blankets or army jackets on the chairs are actual articles that were left there 50 years ago is pretty incredible.

.

American Cemetery Bayeux Shuttle
American Cemetery at Dusk

We ended the day at the somber American Cemetery listening to “Taps” as the American flag was lowered. Then we had just enough time to grab some quick dinner on our own in Bayeux before taking the train back home and arrived back in Paris just before 9 pm.

Would I do it again? Yes!

Because we only had one day to spend in Normandy, it was worth it to us to make a day trip and whet our appetite for the next time we come back. It was an incredibly moving experience. When we return, I’d probably take a tour the first day and then spend a night in the gorgeous countryside and return to explore a little more on my own the next day.  Bayeux Shuttle offers a variety of D-Day tour options to suit your needs, including half day options for those already staying in Bayeux overnight as well as tours focused on specific sectors (American, Canadian, British, etc). If you’re interested in extending your stay in Normandy, they also offer tours of the area outside of the D-Day focused tours, including a trip to Mont Saint-Michel. We had a blast with them and when we’re able to return to Normandy won’t hesitate to use them again!

Their website is:  https://www.bayeuxshuttle.com/

Bayeux Shuttle Utah Beach
Handprints of D-Day Veterans frame the entrance to Utah Beach

Note:  all photos are copyright the author.

5 %22Non-Vegas%22 Things to Do in Vegas

5 “Non-Vegas” Things To Do In Vegas [Guest Post]

Guest blogger and client Sophia Curio wrote this trip review of her long weekend in Las Vegas.   (You can read her other trip reviews about Iceland and Anchorage, Alaska here.)  If you’ve ever wondered how to spend a weekend in Las Vegas without even going to the Strip and the casinos, check out these suggestions!

 

A “Non-Vegas” Vegas Weekend!

 

Been to Vegas before and looking for something new? Or perhaps you’re tempted by a cheap flight but not sure if it’s up your alley? On a recent trip to see a friend, we took advantage of a few off-strip opportunities that you may want to consider on your next trip!

vegas1

Valley of Fire State Park

This incredible park is located about an hour outside of Vegas, and it’s well worth renting a car for the day! You’ll see amazing rock formations, layers of multicolored stone and centuries-old petroglyphs. It’s named for the red sandstone formations. We also got to see some Bighorn Sheep in the rocks! There is a visitor’s center with maps and extensive information about the park shortly after you enter. You drive through the park and can stop and explore as you see fit (keeping on designated paths and approved parking areas!). The landscape is stunning!

vegas2

There are different pull-offs throughout the park, and due to the shifting rock types and formations, the scenery can be quite different from the previous spot! We were also lucky enough to spot some Bighorn sheep as well.

vegas5

 

Be prepared and take plenty of water, and if you go in the summer, we recommend early in the morning and perhaps limit yourself to short walks from the car. There are warning signs reminding you to be safe in the heat — you can be affected sooner than you think. During cooler weather, there are longer hikes you can do, but these are not recommended in the middle of summer – the temperature was 103 degrees when we visited ,and can reach up to 120 during that time of year! It was completely worth going though – we got there at 9 and stayed till about 12, and if I did it again, I would get there even earlier to beat the heat and see a little more.

 

The Mob Museum

 

Located in downtown Las Vegas, this fairly new museum is full of information about organized crime in America, including Vegas’ role — in fact, the building itself houses the old courthouse where some of the famous 1950s trials were held by the US Senate against the mafia. We spent a few hours there and learned a TON! There are some pretty graphic crime scene photos, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this with young children, but all four of us enjoyed it immensely and learned a lot! You can see various artifacts, letters, photos, and memorabilia from that time. Tip: buy your tickets online to save $4 off regular admission! Also, there is a “Mob Attraction’ exhibit at one of the casino hotels — they are two separate unaffiliated things so make sure you are checking which one you are buying tickets for!

Photo courtesy of the Mob Museum.
Photo courtesy of the Mob Museum.

Seven Magic Mountains

On the side of the highway just outside Vegas is a 2-year temporary art installation called Seven Magic Mountains. These colorful boulders are stacked over 30 feet high and are a stark contrast to the desert landscape. There’s a small parking lot where you can pull off and park if you’d like to get up close and check out the artwork!

vegas7 vegas8

The Donut Bar Las Vegas

 

Yes, we put a Donut shop on this list. Also located in downtown Vegas, this shop only stays open as long as they’ve got fresh donuts — and if you wait til too late in the day they’re usually sold out. It’s not hard to see why. It’s worth an early morning trek to buy the fresh, oversized donuts — we tried their “French Toast Donut” (complete with powdered sugar and maple syrup) as well as their “Maple Bacon Cinnamon Roll.” I don’t even normally like donuts and I was in heaven. They have a little outdoor area you can sit to enjoy some coffee and your breakfast. Hey, it’s not the healthiest — but it was definitely a memorable experience!

 

The Atomic Testing Museum

We took advantage of a Groupon deal to go — it’s about 10 minutes off the strip, and gives a very detailed overview of the Nevada Testing Site and surrounding atomic testing and development during the Cold War. It can be a little technical, and it doesn’t have the same caliber of exhibits as the Mob Museum, but it was still interesting and wasn’t a bad way to kill an hour or so during the hottest part of the day during an August trip.

courtesy of the Atomic Testing Museum
courtesy of the Atomic Testing Museum

 

Their docents are volunteers who worked on atomic testing themselves, some during the 1950s! It comes with free admission to their “Area 51” exhibit, which is a little sensationalistic, but at least adds some additional exhibits regarding alien life and UFOs, if you’re interested in those kinds of things. If I could only pick one, I’d recommend the Mob Museum over this though.

Other ideas

 

Other items that we considered but needed to save time for on the next trip including Mt Charleston, Red Rock Canyon, and a kayak trip down the Colorado River. Guess we’ll just have to make a fourth trip at some point! After our “non-Vegas weekend” at a friend’s house, we finished with a day and a night on the strip at the Monte Carlo on the strip. We ended up seeing Criss Angel’s ‘MindFreak Live” show (which was mind-blowing!), and finished off our trip with some relaxing pool time as well.

vegas13

 

 

Hotel Tip: For those of you who are Hyatt Gold members, a reminder that you can match your Hyatt status to MLife — we matched from Platinum to MLife Gold and had free parking and access to the lounge at the Monte Carlo, which was great for some coffee and bottled water throughout the day! (Note: The Monte Carlo will be undergoing a massive, 2 year renovation starting in October — so keep this in mind if you are planning on booking there in the near future and check on pool closures, etc).

This was our third trip to Vegas, and we really loved branching out and experiencing some adventure off-strip this time!! Our favorite was the Valley of Fire State Park, so we’re looking forward to returning and checking out the parts we missed!

vegas14

Have you been to Las Vegas and experienced a fantastic time off the Strip?   Let us know any other travel suggestions you have!

 

Why Travel Insurance Is So Important

Over the years, my experience both as a travel professional and as a frequent traveler myself has taught me you never really appreciate travel insurance until you need it.  I’ve seen first hand the benefits of travel insurance, which I’ll share in this article. The key to travel insurance, I’ve found, is to build it into your trip costs ahead of time so that you do not make decisions based on financial cost but rather on the peace of mind and your specific needs.  

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed insurance provider, so all opinions expressed are my own.  Travelers are responsible for reading the Description of Coverage for any travel insurance you wish to purchase and to read the definition of coverages/exclusions.  My examples here do not indicate guarantees of coverage for your specific situation. 

What is Travel Insurance?

Travel insurance is a type of insurance designed to protect your health and assets in the event something goes wrong during your adventures around the world.

Why do I personally recommend travel insurance? Here are tales from the field!

I always recommend travel insurance because I have personally experienced its benefits and seen the benefits for my clients.  It’s the type of thing you may never need, but when you need it you will be so glad you have it (like car insurance!)

  • I’ve had an airline delay my baggage for 24 hours and I was able to receive reimbursement from the insurance company for the clothes and supplies I needed to buy.  I’ve also personally had travel insurance pay my hotel costs when I missed my flight in a connecting airport. 
  • Last year I had a honeymoon couple whose flights were delayed due to weather/hurricanes and they got to their resort two days later.  Travel insurance paid for their airport hotels and also refunded them for the 2 nights they missed out  of their vacation. 
  • A few years ago I had a family going to Ireland. One of their passengers broke their shoulder one week before departure. Travel insurance reimbursed him 100% for the cost of the trip as the doctor did not allow him to travel.  This was a $17,000 multi generational trip and everyone got their funds back!
  • During the Covid-19 & corresponding travel ban crises in 2020, my clients with Cancel for Any Reason supplier insurance were able to get 100% refunds with no questions asked.  These were very expensive trips that would normally have been non-refundable if canceled so close to departure, but because they had the special insurance they had no problems requesting the cancellation.  With the emotional stress and disappointment of canceling a trip, don’t add financial stress to it as well!
  • Some years ago, I had a client doing a self-drive trip in Europe. While they were already over there, a terrorist incident occurred in the city they were due to fly out of.   They changed their plans and drove to a different city and travel insurance paid for the flight change fees so that they could fly home from the 2nd city and avoid the 1st city entirely.
  • Revising this article in 2021, I have to add that with the challenges of travel during the covid19 crisis it is also imperative to make sure you are adequately protected for medical emergencies or quarantine in a foreign country.  The insurances that my clients are purchasing for 2021  trips include coverage for hotels and meals if a traveler needs to medically quarantine in a foreign country if ordered by a physician.  They are also purchasing stand-alone Medical Evacuation insurances that will provide private medical charters to transport them back to a US hospital, even if they aren’t interested in baggage delay or other lighter benefits of insurance.  (Please read descriptions of coverage carefully or make sure you are purchasing the exact coverage you want.)

Here are my responses to the most common questions about travel insurance:

“Travel insurance seems really expensive and/or travel agents are just pushing it for financial gain.”

Real talk here – as a travel professional, it is incredibly stressful to telephone a client and tell them they are losing money when they choose to cancel.  When purchasing non refundable travel experiences, you are putting your entire financial investment at risk.   There is often nothing I can personally do to ‘force’ a hotel, airline, or cruise line to give you your money back even if there are extenuating circumstances.  Adding travel protection to your booking helps us all navigate emergencies when you realize that for whatever reason you just can’t go on that trip, or you need to cut your trip short.  

I would rather you purchase travel insurance/protection even if it’s not through me, because I take your financial and emotional investment extremely seriously.  I also don’t want to get a call that you’re stuck in a foreign country with mounting medical bills and need life-saving surgery and can’t afford to pay the hospital upfront!  

You don’t have to purchase insurance through your travel professional.  You can do it on your own if you prefer to do extra research. Here are some companies for you to investigate on your own. But, if you’re using a travel professional, ask them to send you a quote as certain insurances have additional coverages only for sale by industry professionals.

  • Roam Right: https://www.roamright.com/
  • Travel Insured: https://www.travelinsured.com/
  • TravelEx:  https://www.travelexinsurance.com/
  • Medjet: https://medjetassist.com/ *This is not an insurance, it provides you with medical and/or security transport back to the USA in case of emergency.
  • insuremytrip.com or squaremouth.com – these aggregate sites will show you several options for you to compare.

Hint:  The insurances linked above will also have a landing page about their special Covid19 coverages.  Don’t assume what is / what isn’t covered, their FAQs are very helpful and may surprise you with some positive benefits!

Also, a word about costs – these vary according to your age and trip costs, so it’s not a one-size fits all.  For supplier insurance purchased directly from your travel provider (let’s say Delta Vacations) it will be a flat fee NOT based on age, so you can sometimes save money that way if you don’t fall in the best age category.  Travel insurance is often not as expensive as expected, depending on the type of trip.


“Why do I need insurance for baggage getting lost? The airlines are obligated to pay for my supplies!”
NOPE. Not always – particularly if flying a foreign airline.  I have personally had my baggage delayed for 24 hours on a Latin America airline and they refused to offer any compensation.  Thanks to my travel insurance, it was wonderful having the financial freedom to run into a mall and buy anything we wanted (my policy will reimburse up to $200 per day) within reason and know we would be reimbursed, and to be able to change into new clothes after being in the same clothes for 24 hours.

“Why do I need delay and cancellation protection? The airlines are obligated to get me to where I’m going if it’s their fault.”

Not always (see above), and also you’re extremely limited if you just rely on the airlines’ goodwill.  And did you know, airlines aren’t obligated to reimburse you if it’s a weather-related delay?!

I’ve been on trips where my 7am departure turned into a 6pm reschedule and I would miss my connecting flights.  My travel insurance offered to search for additional flights for me and assist in finding alternate routes.  They also paid for my hotel overnight in Miami when I got stranded after missing a connection.  

The line to talk to the airlines was over an hour long if you wanted to force the airlines to pay for it!  I simply got in a taxi and went to my hotel and was reimbursed by my insurance.  (Note: always check your limits – in the hotel case above, I am reimbursed up to $150 per night so if I’d chosen to go over that amount I would have been responsible.)

“I know I’m definitely going on my trip so why would I want to protect against cancellation?”

If you don’t want to purchase cancellation insurance,  there are still insurances that will cover you after departure with robust medical insurance, assistant for trip interruptions like needing to fly home for an emergency, or flight delays.  At a minimum, you should always make sure you’re protected against medical emergencies while overseas – most people’s regular health insurance will not cover them at all if out of the country. 

Second of all,  we can all PLAN to go on a trip,  but an elderly family member may pass away unexpectedly,  world events such as terrorism or government unrest may make us uneasy about our travel plans, a travel tour company may declare bankruptcy, or we may fall ill at the last minute and receive doctor’s orders not to fly at all.  Or we could find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic… We just can’t predict the future. I think 2020 taught us all this valuable lesson! 

What are key questions to ask myself when searching for insurance?

  • Are you looking for cancellation coverage for emergencies only (illness, death in the family) or do you need “cancel for any reason insurance” (bad hair day…or a pandemic)
  • Do you want coverage for Cancel for Work Reasons (your boss tells you you can no longer go on vacation)?  Do you want to be covered if your travel supplier or airline goes out of business and stops answering your calls? 
  • How much coverage do you want for emergency medical services?  Don’t skimp here – true medical emergencies are very costly.  Look for coverage around $500,000 to be sure. 
  • Do you need pre-existing conditions covered?  Most insurances don’t cover pre-exisiting personal conditions unless purchased within a certain time frame of your deposit.  Make sure you review your insurance options as soon as possible after booking a trip.  All insurances have their own definition of pre-existing conditions, so as a general overview, this refers to your personal medical conditions that you’ve been treated for in the past 60-120 days (check with your specific supplier).

Things to consider – whether to buy it NOW or wait till right before departure 

Some travelers who have put down refundable deposits wait until just before departure to buy their insurance.  There are some instances where you should buy the insurance much earlier than this – up to 21 days after your first trip deposit for certain insurances, but others can be 14 days or less.

  • Pre-Existing Conditions:  If you or a family member has a pre-existing health condition, most travel insurances will only cover this if you buy the insurance quite early,  soon after deposit.  If you do not purchase within this time frame, pre-existing conditions are not covered.  For example, let’s say you broke your ankle last week before making a deposit on the trip.    You have complications and an infection and in six months, the doctor recommends that you do not travel and should cancel your trip.  In the insurance’s eyes, this is a “pre existing condition” because you broke your leg before you made the reservation for the trip.  It’s possible they will not cover your cancellation fees.  *This varies from insurance. Every Description of Coverage will explain how they define Pre-Existing Conditions and when they are included/excluded. 
  • Cancel for work reasons:  Some insurances will cover your cancellation fees if your employer says that you may not travel at the last minute.  This coverage often must be purchased almost immediately after your first trip deposit.  (There are specific ways this is phrased, so you must read the Description of Coverage to see the parameters.) 
  • Supplier default – if an airline or tour partner goes out of business and does not honor their agreement with you, travel insurance often will cover these losses, but often the insurance must have been purchased within a specific timeframe.

How do I know what my travel insurance covers?

All travel insurances should offer a PDF download called “Description of Coverage”.  This is their Bible and is the legal document they will use to determine your coverage in case of a claim.  If it’s not written there, it’s likely not covered.  It’s extremely important to read the Description of Coverage to know what you’re buying. 

Can I use a credit card insurance?

Some credit cards have quite good travel insurance coverage as long as you’ve paid for the trip with that specific credit card.  You will need to look up your credit card benefits to check and you can compare them with an independent travel insurance quote to see which coverage you like better.  If pre-existing conditions are a concern then you will have to double check that the credit card insurance covers this as it is often excluded.  

Is travel insurance refundable?

No, 99% of the time, travel insurance is not refundable.  Most insurance companies will allow you to change the dates of your trip, however, if you need to move your trip to the following year. 

That was a lot of information to throw at you! I hope your biggest takeaway is that travel protection is something you should seriously consider adding to your vacations moving forward. During our consultant calls when we first start working together, I often bring this up and will quote it during my workflow. If you haven’t reached out yet, contact me today.

new-orleans-993232_1920

Trip Review: Weekend in New Orleans

How to Spend The Weekend in New Orleans

 

One of my most popular posts was “5 Marvelous Trip Ideas from the East Coast” and recently I took my own advice and booked a flight to one of the listed cities: New Orleans!

You can accomplish a lot in 3 days! And we do not even drink – contrary to myth, New Orleans is SO MUCH MORE than Bourbon Street!

So what did we accomplish in 3 days?

  • Having café and beignets… more than once

  • Popping into random restaurants to eat jambalaya, gumbo, seafood, and rice and beans; there was always live music no matter where we went!

  • Walking around the French Quarter and learning about the Creole history

  • Taste testing hot sauces at Hot Sauce Stores – including “the world’s hottest hot sauce” (we had to sign a waiver!)

  • Happening upon a wedding at night exiting the St Louis Cathedral and joining in the crowds dancing behind the marching band

  • Window shopping on Royal Street, in the French Quarter, lined with artists’ shops and galleries

  • Catching a street show of hip hop dancers performing on Bourbon Street at dusk

  • Driving out to the old plantations that line the River Road

  • Spending hours at the World War II Museum

  • Gawking at the Mardi Gras floats and artists at work at Mardi Gras World, a working warehouse where props and floats are designed for movies, companies (Chick-Fil-A!), and of course Mardi Gras

  • Peeking inside the Voodoo Museum

  • Taking one of the famous streetcars – the USA’s oldest operating streetcars – up the main thoroughfares and enjoying the ride

  • Sampling “mufaletta”, the city’s Italian deli sandwich smothered in olive relish

  • Getting caught in a rainstorm at City Park – the equivalent of NYC’s Central Park, where you can rent kayaks or bikes and follow the meandering lakes lined with trees dripping with Spanish moss

And all this in just 3 days! I promise we had plenty of time to sit and people-watch and to enjoy our coffee and non-alcholic beer (Mr TravelObservation does not imbibe).

 

Read on for my 3 Day Guide to New Orleans , tried and tested by me!

 

DAY 1: Arrival in the evening

Last Import - 79 of 253

I took advantage of Allegient Air’s direct, non-stop flights from Pittsburgh to New Orleans – flights leave three times a week, so I flew down on Friday evening and came back Monday evening. The flight time is less than 2.5 hours, so it’s a very easy trip. Of course, Allegient’s super budget policy (paying extra to print out a boarding pass, not having advance seat selection unless you pay, etc) may take some people by surprise, but do the math ahead of time and just know that you’ll be shelling out more money than the initial advertised fares. BUT it still worked out to be 50% cheaper than flying any other competitor airline, AND Allegient is the only airline that flies there direct.

 

Our flight arrived in New Orleans shortly after 6pm and we picked up a rental car to drive to our first hotel.   Renting a car and parking is not really recommended for a New Orleans trip, as you’ll pay very high prices for city parking. But, our first hotel was located in Gretna, right across the bridge from the French Quarter, with free parking, and we knew we wanted to visit the plantations the next day, so our plan was to rent the car for 24 hours only and then move into the French Quarter for the rest of the weekend.

 

For our first evening we stayed at Marriott Courtyard Gretna – I had a free night certificate to use up.   The Courtyard was easy to find, clean, with no issues and free parking

We checked into the hotel, left the car there, and called an Uber to take us across the bridge to the French Quarter to look for food. (Parking in the French Quarter would have been $30 and up!) We had a wonderful Uber drive that took us on a longer route to show us some key points of the French Quarter and who dropped us off at the “end” of the Quarter so we could walk
down the length while looking for dinner.

new-orleans-993232_1920

We ate dinner at The Original French Market Restaurant and Bar and had delicious jambalaya and a seafood platter.   We walked around for a bit afterwards, enjoying popping into some of the open stores (including a memorable taste test at a hot sauce store!), walking along the banks of the Mississippi, and wrapping up the evening with café au lait and beignets – fried pastries – at the iconic Café Du Monde (it’s open 24 hours!). Just go right in and sit down – someone will be around to take your order eventually.

Beignets and cafe au lait (with chicory!) at the iconic Cafe Du Monde
Beignets and cafe au lait (with chicory!) at the iconic Cafe Du Monde

DAY 2: THE PLANTATIONS

Last Import - 36 of 253

The next morning we checked out of the Courtyard and drove down the River Road – the road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is packed with plantations that are still open to the public. There are many tour companies that will take you here, but since we had the car for the day it was much more affordable to just drive ourselves and be spontaneous with our schedule. I picked the most well known plantations, Oak Alley and Lara, to visit.   We probably could have squeezed in a third(we ended up finishing around 2pm) but it’s hot in Louisiana in July, and walking around does take a toll on your energy.

 

I really enjoyed our day exploring the plantations and think it’s a shame that this activity is often tacked on to travelers’ itineraries as something to do only “if you have extra time.” While it’s true that there is a ton of things to see in New Orleans proper, the history and culture of the plantations should not be underestimated. I learned more about the significance of Creole culture by visiting Lara Plantation than I did at any other local New Orleans site.

 

We received significant discounts for entry at all attractions in New Orleans, including the plantations, by using Mr TravelObservation’s military ID – in fact, I would say New Orleans is one of the best cities to visit with a military ID outside of Washington DC.   There were also always discounts for student IDs and AAA as well, so something to keep in mind if you’re hoping to score a bargain.

 

Oak Alley is named because someone planted twenty four oak trees leading up to the house and 100 years later these seedlings have grown to be stunning guardians of the entrance to the plantation.   Oak Alley is a popular plantation because it looks most like what people envision plantations – much more like Tara, from Gone With the Wind, than working farmhouses , which is what many plantations actually were.   Entry includes a guided tour of the house by hoopskirted volunteers, and the grounds are well preserved and contain exhibits and replicas of slave quarters and other buildings. There is also a restaurant and bar on site if you would like to partake in refreshments.

Oak Alley
Oak Alley

Touring inside Oak Alley's dining room
Touring inside Oak Alley’s dining room

Memorial to the known names of slaves on Oak Alley in the replicated slave quarters
Memorial to the known names of slaves on Oak Alley in the replicated slave quarters

Lara, A Creole Plantation (its official name), is just a few minutes’ drive down the road, which is why it’s so often packaged together on the tours. Lara is where history really springs to life. One of the last owners of the plantation left her memoirs and there are also extensive records in France of the plantation business, so the tour guides have an impressively extensive amount of research to draw upon.   The tour guides are incredibly adept at bringing the history of the house alive, and make you become invested in the characters they talk about. They weave a story about the plantation’s history, the matriarchs, the grandparents, the descendants, the slaves, naming each out loud and reminding you from room to room of sleeping arrangements, gossip, political arguments, family feuds, and dynasty arguments. An excellent explanation of Creole culture and the French influence also helped cement a greater understanding of why New Orleans is truly a city slightly apart.   I found New Orleans to almost be a tale of Quebec gone wrong – French language was outlawed in the 1920s and almost no young people speak French today, but our guide told us his grandfather still only speaks French at home and remembers what growing up in a predominatly French Creole Catholic culture was like. Our guide was learning French in order to communicate better with his grandfather and to be able to record more historical memories.

Lara - A Creole Plantation
Lara – A Creole Plantation

 

Moving from the inside of Lara to the outside and the slave quarters
Moving from the inside of Lara to the outside and the slave quarters

 

We left the plantations in the afternoon and drove to the airport to drop off the car, then took a taxi into the French Quarter to move into our new home, the InterContinental New Orleans.

As a Platinum Ambassador I was treated graciously to a balcony room upgrade and free breakfast. The hotel is located just outside of the French Quarter (it’s just a few blocks away from Canal Street, the official border of the French Quarter) and was within walking distance of most attractions, including the World War II Museum. Staff were superb and professional, and I would have no problems recommending this hotel to anyone for their stay.

 

Since we had skipped lunch in favor of returning the car early, we set off on foot to find a late lunch/early dinner.   We accidentally found ourselves on Bourbon Street, and had a delightful meal at Bourbon House – I had an outstanding salad topped with grilled peaches and blue cheese.

Last Import - 75 of 253

Later that evening we returned to the French Quarter to people-watch in the evening – although we were tired from the hot sun during the plantation exploring, we were rewarding by stumbling upon a gorgeous wedding exiting the Cathedral surrounded by a trumpet band and dancing guests. Bystanders even joined in to follow the group down the street.

Last Import - 83 of 253

DAY 3 (SUNDAY)

Last Import - 88 of 253

The next morning after a buffet breakfast at the InterContinental we walked to the National World War II Museum. (It’s actually opposite a little building called the Civil Mar Museum, so if you want to combine these two on the same day that would be a good idea.   We did not visit the Civil War Museum due to time constraints but by all accounts it’s quite an interesting place for history aficionados.)

Last Import - 96 of 253

Millions of dollars have been poured into the War War II Museum and it shows – the museum stretches across four buildings! For instance, after buying your ticket, you’re shepherded onto a realistic looking train platform simulating sending the troops off to war. A short intro video introduces you to the war and the museum, and instructs you how to register your dogtags – throughout the museum, you’ll have the opportunity to touch your dogtag to various exhibits and hear/read the story of the real-life soldier that’s been assigned to you.

The "train station" entrance of the War Museum
The “train station” entrance of the War Museum

Real tanks, airplanes, and other equipments are scattered around the bottom floor.   The Museum has several sections as well as several temporary exhibits – for instance they have permanent exhibits on the Road to Tokyo and the Road to Berlin.   The exhibits are outstanding – for instance, in the section about conquering Berlin, the entire exhibit simulates a bombed city – piles of rubble are everywhere, shadows of broken buildings flicker against the ceiling, and airplane sirens sound overhead .

The Museum website is extensive so I won’t repeat a list of their exhibits, but suffice to say that we spent 5 hours here and still could have seen more.   I recommend purchasing the complete ticket which gives you access to a film narrated by Tom Hanks and a submarine simulation – both are excellently done, although you should be warned that there is simulated gunfire and explosions in both these activities, for those with trauma triggers or sensitive children.

 

The museum has several dining options, so if you need an energy recharge, just have a meal and you’ll feel better in no time!

 

The National World War II Museum was one of the highlights of my visit to New Orleans, and I wouldn’t hesitate to visit it again on a future visit.

 

After our museum visit ended, we decided to visit Mardi Gras World. We did walk there from the Museum (20 minutes), but it’s in the opposite direction of the French Quarter, so you do end up quite far away from central New Orleans.   They have a free shuttle because of this distance (it’s right next to the New Orleans cruise port), but we chose to take an Uber home at the end of the trip which was more convenient.  But if you do wish to visit Mardi Gras World from your hotel, call and ask about their free shuttle or take public transportation – it’s just too hot to really walk for more than 15 minutes or so in the city in July, unless you’re especially brave.

Last Import - 162 of 253

Mardi Gras World was stunning and a great spontaneous find.   It’s one of the 13 warehouses across the city where artists work all year building floats and props for the Mardi Gras parade. The company also makes props for organizations and films – we even saw Chik-Fil-A cows being made!

Last Import - 144 of 253

Entrance includes a short guided tour, and after the tour you’re allowed to wander around the warehouse as long as you like.   There is also a short video (followed by slices of King Cake!) and everyone gets the chance to try on a Mardi Gras costume for photo opportunities! It’s slightly cheesy but all in great fun.   I really enjoyed our visit because we learned so much more about the origins of Mardi Gras and the pride the city takes in this cultural tradition. It made me want to return to experience Mardi Gras myself, when I’ve always sworn that that would be the worse time to visit for a non-crowd-loving person like myself.

 

Since it was Sunday, the warehouse wasn’t very busy, but during normal weekdays you can see all the artists working on the floats.   It was incredible to see the process – from an artist’s sketch to conception.   Huge foam blocks are sculpted into the desired shape, then covered in papier mache and painted. We were also about to see how props can be reused every year if they are repainted and refinished – a prop previously used as Michael Jordan’s head, for instance, was being resculpted into President Lincoln’s head. The entire experience was very colorful and very interesting, and I’m glad we added it to our day.

Street performers on Bourbon Street
Street performers on Bourbon Street

In the evening, although we had sworn to avoid Bourbon Street, a friend convinced us to at least take a stroll down Bourbon Street “just to see.” We went at dusk, so that at least it wasn’t nighttime and fullfledged craziness, and walked down the length of Bourbon Street.   To get to our starting point first, though, we walked down Royal Street – and what a delight it was! Old French buildings with balconies and stunning art galleries, artisan stores, high-end shopping boutiques, and photographers’ studios.   I recommend strolling down Royal Street whenever you want to feel truly immersed in a sophisticated, proud city’s life – it had a wonderful easy going ambience and each store front was just lovely for window shopping and for exploring the different art purchases.      Once we got to the end of Royal Street, we crossed over to parallel Bourbon Street to walk down Bourbon to exit the French Quarter.   We didn’t regret walking down Bourbon Street as we were treated to a live breakdancing show set up in the middle of the street and joined the crowd in applauding some incredible flips and turns.

Last Import - 175 of 253

Dinner was at The Jazz Café, which we had scoped out the night before.   Almost everywhere in New Orleans appears to have live music, so it wasn’t hard to just stumble upon an inviting dining establishment with a vocalist and/or guitarist strumming away.   We had some more traditional fare – I had rice and beans – and listened to a wonderful jazz vocalist.

 

DAY 4 – MONDAY

Entrance to City Park
Entrance to City Park

As our flight didn’t leave till the evening it was great to know we still had a good point of time to keep exploring the city. We took the streetcar to the end of the line to City Park,   New Orlean’s 1,400 acre equivalent to NYC’s Central Park. This was a wonderfully relaxing excursion, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The City Park is also where New Orleans Art Museum (NOMA) is located, if you’re so inclined. There’s a free sculpture garden affiliated with the museum that we walked through, and it was so beautiful to see the winding little lakes and waterways that visitors were kayaking through as way to see the park (bikes and kayaks are available for rent). The park has many old trees covered in Spanish Moss, trailing their branches in the water, and there’s a sense of peace and calm. The park also has an utterly delicious café, so we sat and had beigets and café au lait one more time (I would say these beignets were even better than Café Du Monde’s, as I liked that they did not come smothered in powdered sugar). We also tried mini muffaletta, another New Orleans original – sandwiches with Italian meat fillings smothered with olive relish.

Last Import - 240 of 253 Last Import - 193 of 253 Last Import - 204 of 253 Last Import - 221 of 253 Last Import - 198 of 253

We were going to visit one of the famous graveyards next, as it was close to City Park, but after some discussion found that neither of us really wanted to see them aside from being told “it’s necessary to do it on the trip” by others. We decided to leave the graveyards to another time, and took the streetcard back into the French Quarter, where we visited the Voodoo Museum.

 

The Voodoo Museum is quite small – only about two rooms in what may be someone’s living quarters, but it’s stuffed to the gills with various objects and paintings and signs. It was almost a bit too stuffed, as I would have preferred a person telling me information rather than trying to read the hundreds of tiny signs scattered around, but it was still an interesting stop. Having lived in West Africa I was mainly interested in finding out what beliefs had crossed over from Africa to New Orleans; while Mr TravelObservations was fascinated by the very real influence on the city’s history.   On the plane ride home, I did read a book about New Orlean’s voodoo, and I found this helpful to put into context many of the characters’ names the Museum signs referenced.

At the Voodoo Museum
At the Voodoo Museum

We also had wanted to visit the Presbytere, where a small exhibit about Hurricane Katrina exists, but it was closed on Mondays. Note to self, check museum times if there is something you absolutely want to see!

 

We ate our final lunch at Pere Antoine, where I had my first Pimms Cup drink (it was delicious!) and ate jumbalaya one last time.  Then it was back to the hotel to collect our luggage and take a taxi to the airport.   After such an exciting weekend, it was nice to have a short, direct flight from New Orleans straight to Pittsburgh!

 

CONCLUSION

 

We managed to see quite a lot on our three day trip to New Orleans – and there’s still so much we didn’t do, such as a bayou tour, the Presbytere museum, multiple jazz performances, the Audubon zoo, a graveyard tour, and more. New Orleans far exceeded our expectations, and we certainly had a wonderful long weekend there. The people-watching, the joie de vivre, the delicious food, stunning old architecture, historical plantations, and complete differentness from any other city we’ve visited in the USA makes New Orleans a great destination if you’d like a weekend getaway!

Azamara Russia

Azamara: The cruiseline for those who love to travel

I have one of the best kept secrets in the cruise industry to share with you – Azamara Cruises.

99% of Azamara business comes from travel agents (like myself) who recommend it to and book it for their clients.  While Azamara does have some TV spot commercials,  you won’t see the heavy advertising online and on television that you find with more mainstream cruises.  Instead,  Azamara carefully invests in travel agent training and in customer satisfaction to rely on word-of-mouth marketing.

Let’s get down to what makes Azamara stand out!

Azamara’s tagline is “The cruiseline for those who love to travel.”

Who are the perfect passengers for Azamara?  Travelers who desire destination immersion!  You want longer stays, more overnights, and night touring.  

A sample port time is often docking at 8am and not leaving again till 10pm –  an entire day and evening in the port, allowing passengers to truly feel relaxed and to explore the city.

Traditional cruiselines often spend only about 63 hours in port on a typical itinerary – yet Azamara spends an average of 123 hours in port!  That’s practically twice as much port time as any other ocean cruise.

So, if you’re considered a different cruiseline,  remember to carefully look at the itinerary and add up the time you’ll spend in port.  You’ll often find that Azamara offers the superior value after doing these calculations.

Azamara offers a complimentary curated excursion each voyage

Almost every voyage also includes one wonderful “AzAmazing Evening” – a port excursion especially designed for their passengers.    Examples of this complimentary evening include:

  • going to the Russian opera
  • visiting Liverpool’s majestic Anglican Cathedral
  • a nighttime visit and cocktail reception at the Monte Carlo museum
  • a cello concert in Dubrovnik, and more.

No other cruiseline offers a complimentary, curated event such as this! It’s their way of providing incredible access and VIP treatment to their guests, just for sailing.

Azamara is all-inclusive luxury 

Azamara is a premium product for discerning travelers,  and when you think about the “extras” you spend onboard for a regular cruise,  you may be surprised at what a great value you gain from Azamara.

INCLUSIVE AMENITIES FOR ALL GUESTS

  • Complimentary AzAmazing Evenings event on most voyages
  • Select standard spirits, international beers, and wines complimentary
  • Prepaid gratuities included
  • Complimentary bottled water, soft drinks, specialty coffees and teas
  • Self service laundry
  • Where available, shuttle service to/from port communities even if you’re not taking an excursion
  • Concierge services for personal guidance and reservations

AND FOR SUITE GUESTS, SO ARE THESE…

  • English butler service
  • 235 complimentary Internet minutes, per guest
  • One free bag of laundry service per suite, each seven days
  • Complimentary seating in specialty restaurants
  • Afternoon tea service in-suite
  • Complimentary in-room spirits
  • $300 in Onboard Credit per person (Club World Owner’s Suites, Club Ocean Suites, Club Spa Suites categories only)

Azamara’s “Destination Immersion” focus

  • Late nights/ overnight stays. A vast majority of Azamara’s itineraries have overnight stays in port,  so you can really immerse yourself in the nightlife and culture.  Even if there isn’t an overnight stay,  the ship is often docked for more than 12 hours,  so you have plenty of time to have dinner on shore if you wish.  While many cruise ships are pulling up anchor around 4pm or 6pm,  Azamara may be pulling up anchor at 10pm.   This is a fantastic option for those want to combine cruising with “immersion travel.”
  • Night touring.  These are fantastic excursion options that take you into the heart of the port’s nightlife  – “a showcase of local culture that will dazzle you after dark.”  When sailing in Bangkok, attend an ancient water prayer ceremony on the river,  or in Hong Kong admire the stunning views with a cocktail at the One Peking skyscraper.
  • Shore excursions, which Azamara calls “land discoveries” –  they try to have land discoveries that aren’t Googleable! ( In Sicily, guests are treated to a stunning opera and fireworks red carpet evening. ) Any excursion that’s marked Insider Access won’t have more than 15 guests, either.
Azamara Russia Tour

Azamara now has an enhanced portfolio of over 180 land programs spanning across 40+ countries, now the largest selection of pre- and post-voyage programs in the cruise industry. Every sailing will now offer a selection of land programs, each led by a reputable independent travel expert, including the renowned Cox & Kings, Micato Safaris, and Belmond, to name a few.

Azamara is true small ship ocean cruising

Azamara only has four ships in its fleet: the Azamara Journey, the Azamara Quest, the Azamara Pursuit, and the Azamara Onward.   They carry at maximum 690 passengers, with 497 crewmembers.   Staff onboard Azamara are trained to make every passenger want to return – they have a “can-do” attitude similar to those of the Ritz-Carlton staff,  and passengers will return feeling impressed and looked after.

Special Events

If you’d love to combine travel, cruising,  and a special event,  look no further than Azamara. Azamara has carefully selected itineraries and activities to coincide with major events such as

  • Festivals
  • Golf tournaments
  • The World Cup in Russia
  • New Years Eve
  • And more!

So you don’t have to waste time trying to figure out how you can take advantage of these global events while on your cruise – Azamara already has it all figured out!  For example,  in June 2018,  travelers took part in Azamara’s 12 Night Baltic and World Cup voyage!  Or visit the Redentore Festival in Venice, Italy.  Watch the Monaco Grand Prix,  or the British Open golf tournament.    It’s all included – and made possible by Azamara’s commitment to overnight and 2-day stops at their ports!  You can take part in these amazing festivals/sporting events and still have time to sightsee.  Let your travel advisor know if you’d like to find a voyage that features these types of sporting events.

Azamara’s Itineraries 

Azamara only has sailings departing from the USA just a few months out of the year; from the USA, they have itineraries focused on the West Indies, Panama (from Miami to California!),  and Mexico.  It’s important to plan ahead as since these American itineraries are limited, cabins will sell out.

So, Azamara’s most popular journeys are in Europe and in Asia.    I love Azamara’s commitment to choosing less-known ports and incredible destinations – for instance,  on a trip to Italy,   the ship will often dock right at the magical island of Capri,  rather than the busy, more distant port of Naples so many other larger mass-market cruiselines will choose.  (If you have a specific destination in mind,  just let me know,  and I can send you the best itinerary.)

Portugal

Azamara Booking Tips

  • Azamara, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity are all sister companies, and if you are a frequent cruiser with RCCL or Celebrity, Azamara will do its best to recognize your loyalty status.  In fact,  you can even earn points for Celebrity  as the frequent cruiser membership number is the same for both brands.
  • There are no kids’ programs at all on Azamara. While children or young adults are not forbidden,   it’s important to take this into consideration and to make sure that you understand there are no entertainment options for young children onboard.  Be aware there will be no special activities for them onboard.
  • The average age of an Azamara cruise passenger is 45 years old. Younger passengers are becoming more prevalent,  so Azamara is trying to introduce shorter (7 day) voyages to accommodate younger professionals’ schedules.

 

Azamara Ship Dining

So,  are you ready to sign up for an Azamara cruise? Are you intrigued by this “best kept secret” of small ship cruising?  Send me an email and let me know what you think, or let’s start the process of getting you booked!

2018 Advisor Contest

How to Visit the Galapagos Islands

I’ve planned several trips to this destination for my clients and the most commonly asked question is first, “How to visit the Galapagos Islands?” The second question is, which way is best? There is no right answer, although I work with you to pick the best travel style for your needs, so I’ve assembled a few highlights of my favorite cruises and hotels to share below. This can be an incredible itinerary for travelers who wish to experience nature and exploration at its finest.  If you’ve already done an African safari or an Alaskan wilderness cruise, consider adding the Galapagos to your bucket list!  

Things to consider when choosing a trip to the Galapagos Islands:

  • A land trip will generally have you stationed on 3 different islands through the course of the tour.   You travel by speedboat between the islands and/or for day excursions.  Please note each boat ride is 2-3 hours ride and is on a speedboat so if you don’t like those types of rides, take this into consideration.  With a cruise,  you sleep on the boats but you often wake up at each island already and the boat only moves at night to maximize travel time.
  • Because you are limited to islands close by when staying at a lodge on a land-based vacation, you may not be able to visit the further islands or see certain species, but all lodge-based vacations will still offer access to landing sites near Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal.
  • There is no way to have a 100% land-only experience,  you will always need to take some type of water transportation since you’re on an island.
  • Choose at least an 8 day cruise for the most varied number of islands and wildlife species.  Some travelers also love the 14 day itineraries (which doesn’t have any repeat stops!).
  • The “largest” cruise ships here are still only about 100 passengers, and to go ashore you must always be in groups of 16 people or less.
  • Your guides and naturalists will form a big part of your experience, so don’t choose your package based on the price tag alone – ask your travel agent for recommendations for reputable guides and sustainable travel operators.

Things to know about cruises:

  • Cruise itineraries are strictly monitored by the National Park Service, and daily excursions often start early in the morning from the ship.    You’re not obligated to go on any excursions, however, so you can still get a chance to sleep in.   But definitely remember that the Galapagos attract a far more adventurous and active type of traveler due to the opportunities for Zodiac wet and dry landings, hiking, and explorations.  Due to strict ecological rules to preserve the national parks, cruise ships aren’t allowed to visit the same site twice in 15 days, which is why you will see a variety of itineraries or some re-arranging of back-to-back stops.
  • Each island is different which means you won’t get bored on your cruise! Some of the highlights may include giant tortoises, sea lions, iguanas, volcanic lava flows, red sand beaches, flamingoes, albatrosses, Zodiac (boat) excursions, glass-bottomed boat expeditions, snorkeling, diving, and more.

When to go: Cruises to the Galapagos are available year-round. High season, reflected in prices, is June-September and December-January.

What to pack: Casual wear!   Good hiking shoes and hardy sandals are appropriate, as is a hat for the equatorial sun.  And don’t forget a camera for your animal encounters!

How to book:   Let’s set up a consultation call to discover which one of these options would suit you best! Contact me here.

How to visit the Galapagos Islands: Finch Bay Eco-Hotel

Explore the islands by day and stay in a luxury lodge by night!

A visit to this stunning eco-lodge is like walking into a paradise that’s home to fearless wildlife that roams along the surrounding beach just outside. And it’s more than that, too – the Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel is incredibly well-connected to the Galapagos National Park, meaning guests can look forward to an experience that puts them at the forefront of virtually everything that the Galapagos Islands has to offer, especially when it comes to fascinating wildlife and otherworldly landscapes.

Your stay at the Finch Bay is also an experience that’s complemented by exceptional hospitality, a Cordon Bleu-certified gastronomic director, its very own Sea Lion Yacht, a plethora of excursion options, beachfront living, a swimming pool, and plush beds with fine linens. All of this makes for a truly unique way to savor your Galapagos Islands experience.

Located on the island of Santa Cruz, it’s part of the Galapagos archipelago’s central islands, which means that most of the National Park’s most important visitor sites (Bartolome, North Seymour, etc.) can be easily reached as part of the Day Tours aboard the Sea Lion Yacht. The hotel is both close and yet separate from the town, too, meaning guests can enjoy peace and tranquility while still having the urban center nearby.

Kayaking, wildlife viewing, exploring on day excursions on the yacht, hiking, exploring lava tunnels, snorkeling, scuba, and more are all available from the hotel.

 

How to Visit the Galapagos Islands: Celebrity Cruises

Highlights:

  • Almost everything is included, including alcoholic drinks, excursions every day on the islands, gratuities, naturalist guides, and national park entry fees.
  • Celebrity Cruiselines, a sister company to Royal Caribbean and Azamara, takes its special boat, the Xpedition, to the Galapagos 365-days a year! This boat holds only about 48 guests, so it’s a quite different feeling from Celebrity’s other sailings.   Indeed, Celebrity itself refers to Xpedition as a “mega-yacht” rather than a ship.
  • Their newest ship, the Flora,is the first ship of its kind to be built especially for the Galápagos Islands. This 100 passenger all-suite mega-yacht features their innovative outward-facing concept—designed to ensure the destination remains the center of attention during your sailing. To bring you an even more in-depth experience, certified naturalists from the Galápagos National Park are on board to guide the journey. Proving you can practice responsible tourism and deliver ultimate luxury at the same time, Celebrity Flora was built with the latest environmental technologies. The dynamic positioning system allows the mega-yacht to remain on station without dropping anchors, protecting the seabed—and the solar panels supplement electricity, reducing emissions. The result is one of the most eco-friendly ships sailing anywhere—just one reason Celebrity Flora was voted “Best Overall Cruise Ship” in 2019.

 

Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruiseline.
Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruiseline.

 

Guests who already sail frequently on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity may prefer this sailing, as they will continue to earn frequent cruiser points and/or apply their current status for perks.    The atmosphere is casual, as are most Galapagos cruises – the proximity to nature naturally attracts easy going conversations about the day’s activities and sights. Dining is open-seating (you pick who you want to eat with) and often features fresh-caught fish from the local fishermen!

Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruiseline
Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruiseline

 

Celebrity offers packages featuring 7 night sailings with 2 or 3 nights in Quito on mainland Ecuador.   I highly recommend this option as Quito is one of my favorite cities, and you’ll be flying to Ecuador anyway as this is the only gateway to the Galapagos. You may as well spend a few days before or after cruising getting to know this fantastic city. Celebrity Xpedition operates an exclusive, non-stop flight from Quito straight to Baltra, Galapagos.  It’s great to travel with a company like Celebrity that charters its own flights, as the commercial airlines sometimes cancel their own flights to Baltra due to weather if you’ve made your own arrangements.

All-Inclusive Value: Although its other sailings in the Caribbean and Europe don’t always offer all of the following options, Celebrity’s Xpeditions sailings include the following values:

  • (10- and 11-day sailings) 2-night pre-cruise and 1- or 2-night post-cruise hotel accommodations, meals, tours, and beverages during meals. VIP check-in/check out services at the JW Marriott hotel. Luggage service including mandatory agricultural inspection of all luggage at the hotel pre-departure.
  • Full-day guided tour of historical Quito, including a visit to Middle of the World Park and the Colonial City Center.
  • Round-trip airfare Quito-Baltra-Quito, on exclusive non-stop flight, with meet-and-greet services by Celebrity Xpedition® Naturalists, all airport transfers and pier-to-Zodiac transfers.
  • 7-night all-inclusive Celebrity Xpedition cruise (including all gratuities, shore excursions, open bar, Internet service, )
  • Park entrance fee and Galapagos Tourist Card fee

Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruiseline
Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruiseline

As in every Galapagos sailing, it’s best to book early as cabins fill up quickly.

 

 

How to visit the Galapagos Islands:

National Geographic Expeditions / Lindblad Expeditions

National Geographic partners with Lindblad for its Galapagos trips.   Prices are the same regardless of which vendor we book with. 

Photo courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions
Photo courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions

 

On these Galápagos cruise itineraries, you’ll be snorkeling, hiking, paddleboarding, and cruising by Zodiac. You’ll encounter animals unafraid of you. Accompanying each expedition is a diverse team of experts — from naturalists to regional specialists — who will share their knowledge and insights on the wildlife, landscapes, and local culture.

Join Lindblad Expeditions to get everything their more than 50 years’ experience in Galápagos Islands cruise has to offer, aboard the 96-guest National Geographic Endeavour II or the yacht-scaled 48-guest National Geographic Islander. Since the first international tourist expedition cruise to the Galápagos Islands in July 1967 with Lars-Eric Lindblad, they’ve introduced generations of guests to these strange and wonderful islands, the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sailing twice weekly, all year round. They even offer special family sailings!

Photo copyrighted by National Geographic Expeditions
Photo copyrighted by National Geographic Expeditions

You’ll be able to snorkel nearly every day, sometimes twice a day. And advanced scuba divers are invited to dive incredible sites of stunning biodiversity over two days at an additional charge. For those who prefer to stay dry, there’s the adventure of Endeavour II’s glass bottom boat. And each day you’ll have the option to walk, hike, kayak, paddleboard or Zodiac cruise, and to join a different naturalist as you choose: there are no assigned groups for your Galápagos adventure travel.

Explore under the sure guidance of an expedition leader, four handpicked naturalists, including a Lindblad-National Geographic certified photo instructor and an undersea specialist, plus a wellness specialist. Their knowledge and passion for the islands is the key to your once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 

How to visit the Galapagos Islands
Photo courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions

 

How to visit the Galapagos Islands: UnCruise Adventures

UnCruise is a fantastic option for travelers wishing to see the Galapagos by ship but who wish an alternative to traditional cruising.   UnCruise offers 8- and 9- day itineraries, both departing on charter air from Quito, Ecuador.

UnCruise charters the yacht La Ptina from Metroplitan Touring who is an absolutely fantastic partner for Ecuador and Galapagos travel, and I have had clients travel with both companies. I can discuss further with you when to book directly with UnCruise and when to book with Metropolitan Touring.

how to visit the galapagos islands La Pinta

Yacht La Pinta offers a completely safe travel experience aboard a Galapagos Expedition Yacht in the Enchanted Isles. Each cabin provides not only ample space and comfort but a spectacular view of the Galapagos Islands’ unique landscapes. The ship’s modern feel extends to its hot tub, cardio gym, and sundeck. Land and aquatic activities – from hiking and coastal exploration to kayaking, snorkeling, and even paddleboarding – are complemented by a glass-bottom boat option for curious guests wishing to remain dry. A splendid dining experience featuring delicious, healthy, and top-quality food along with tasty bar options makes the experience all the more enjoyable, whether traveling with friends, family, or by yourself.

  • 84% of the sites visited aboard Yacht La Pinta are not shared with any other ship. 
  • In the Galapagos Islands, the average ratio of an excursion group is 16 guests per guide. La Pinta offers a more comfortable average of 12 guests per guide
  • Yacht La Pinta’s itineraries offer a unique balance of experiences in some of the most important and not-to-miss places in the archipelago.

 

How to see the Galapagos Islands
Photo courtesy of UnCruise Adventures.

 

 

Included highlights in an UnCruise package:

  • Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Galápagos Islands and Quito’s Colonial city center
  • Two nights at Quito’s historic Casa Gangotena
  • Six-night Galápagos cruise aboard La Pinta
  • A private dinner at Quito’s premier view restaurant
  • Set foot on seven islands and islets
  • Nesting birds and wildlife in their natural habitat
  • View marine life by snorkel and glass-bottom boat
  • Charles Darwin Research Center
  • Certified guides escort small groups of 12
  • Roundtrip air between Quito/Galápagos
  • Alcoholic beverages on La Pinta

UnCruise’s mission is: “To provide our guests an enriching adventure travel experience and inspire an appreciation of local cultures and the natural world.”  Guests come back raving about the quality of the staff,  the “un-cruiselike” atmosphere of the adventures,  and the company’s emphasis on small ship cruising and sincere interaction with cultures. (If you’d like to read about my experiences on UnCruise in Alaska, click here.)

How to visit the Galapagos Islands on a luxury sailing: Silversea

If you have always wanted to visit the Galapagos but want to have a luxurious and elegant experience, consider Silversea. Their fares include your international flights to Ecuador as well as the air between the mainland and the Galapagos; 2 nights in Quito; transfers; and shore excursions.

  • Butler service in every suite – all guests are pampered equally
  • Open-seating dining options – dine when and with whomever you please
  • Beverages in-suite and throughout the ship – select wines, premium spirits, specialty coffees and soft drinks, plus your own tailored mini-bar
  • In-suite dining and room service – available 24 hours aboard Silver Explorer, and from 06:00 to 23:00 aboard Silver Galapagos and Silver Discoverer
  • Enrichment lectures by a highly qualified Expeditions Team
  • Guided Zodiac, land and sea tours, and shoreside activities led by the Expeditions Team
  • Gratuities always included in your fare
  • Roundtrip Economy Air between Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands
  • Two-night pre-cruise hotel stay with breakfast at the Quito JW Marriott
  • Post-cruise hotel day room at Hotel Oro Verde in Guayaquil (for guests with flights after 10pm)

Silversea’s oceanview suites are some of the most spacious in luxury cruising. All include the services of a butler thanks to the highest service ratio at sea and almost all have a private teak veranda so that you can breathe in the fresh sea air by merely stepping outside your door.

The most elegant ship ever to sail the Galapagos.
The first destination specific ship built by Silversea, Silver Origin is the height of experiential travel in the Galapagos. Never before have the islands been so superbly presented: a team of Ecuadorian national expert guides, the highest crew-to-guest ratio in the Galapagos, 8 Zodiacs, seamless hybrid spaces that offer an extraordinary voyage – for extraordinary people. All-suite accommodation, Horizon Balconies, butler service, sophisticated interiors, interactive basecamp, Ecuadorian inspired cuisine … no aspect of Silver Origin has been left to chance. The most environmentally conscious ship we have ever built, take a vertical leap and transform your idea of travel with Silver Origin.

Silversea how to visit the Galapagos Islands

Are you ready to visit the Galapagos now?

This is a thrilling destination perfect for any adventurous traveler!  Don’t waste time or get overwhelmed searching through all the options. As a professional travel advisor I can help you choose on how to visit the Galapagos Islands.  I can take your budget, travel style, “must see” wishlist, and schedule and present you with a proposal that matches your travel personality. If you’d like to book a trip to the Galapagos, contact me today! Or learn more about my services here.

6 Trip Ideas for Discerning Travelers from the East Coast

6 Marvelous Trip Ideas from the East Coast

I have a long time client, who trusts my travel style, who emailed me and asked for trip ideas. Here were the parameters: something reasonable from the Pittsburgh area (no 12 hour flights, but plane rides are still acceptable); something a little unusual (“I don’t want a three day cruise to the Bahamas”); and must expose his family to new cultures and sightseeing.

Here are some fabulous suggestions I came up with. What do you think?

Taking the Canadian across the Rockies

This is always one of my top suggestions to clients who enjoy train travel.   This train is so famous, called The Canadian, that it features on Canadian currency!

Photo courtesy of viarail.ca
Photo courtesy of viarail.ca

If you choose to do the whole trip, you start in Toronto (an easy drive from Pittsburgh) and end in Vancouver. This is not just any train ride.   It rolls through some of the most stunning scenery in North America. You could even book individual legs if you wanted to stop in some of the towns and stay in a hotel for a night or two,   or you can choose to just book it the whole way through.

There is a dining car onboard and travelers in sleeper car class or above automatically get all their meals included for free.   Dine on china and white tablecloths with freshly cooked meals and Canadian specialties.

Jasper National Park

This is no ordinary train ride.   In your spacious sleeper cabin, room attendants will make your seats into comfortable double beds in the evening. Room service and concierge service is even available for certain classes of travel.   Park rangers get on and off the train periodically, making announcements when wildlife can be seen from the glass-domed observation cars.   You’ll pass through prairies, plains, snow capped mountains, stunning lake vistas, and more.

Bermuda

bermuda-207440_1920

Bermuda is less than 2 hours from the East Coast. There are direct flights from Washington DC, Newark, JFK-NYC, and Philadelphia.   You can either fly from these cities to begin with or take a flight from Pittsburgh and connect through these cities. Even with a connection, you’re likely to be in Bermuda within 5 hours of leaving Pittsburgh – and there isn’t much of a time difference (1 hour) so there’s no jet lag! You can also take a cruise out of Baltimore and other East Coast ports, but if you’d like to spend the maximum amount of time on the islands, flying would be your best option.

Bermuda is often overlooked due to the cruise industry monopolizing advertisements for the Caribbean, but it’s a stunning destination. A recent friend who returned said, “East Coasters who dread the time and financial commitment of flights to Hawaii should really consider Bermuda!”

In 2015, Conde Nast Traveler Magazine named Bermuda one of the top 5 islands in the world!   It’s safe, friendly, and stunningly beautiful.   There is also a variety of things to do – not just its beautiful pink sandy beaches, but forts, museums, yummy food, water sports, aquariums, whitewashed houses, golfing, hiking, and so much more!

Quebec City

quebec-1001798_1920

Quebec is one of the most underrated cities in North America – it’s only a 12 hour drive from Pittsburgh (I know this because I drove it!) OR what I would suggest is flying as you will then get more time actually in the city if your time is limited. There are flight sales periodically with a short layover in Toronto, for around $100 one-way,   and even with a layover in Toronto you will still arrive in Quebec around lunchtime if you leave the airport early in the morning.

In Quebec, you’ll be surrounded by stunning architecture, incredible food, friendly people, and a wonderful culture that has made many travel writers note, “This is the closest you’ll get to Europe without leaving North America.” On my trip to Quebec, we wandered the narrow streets of the old city, drove to Montmorency Falls which are 1.5 times higher than Niagara Falls (they are within the city limits – just a 15 minute drive from the old city), explored old forts, and tried to go dog sledding (the snow was too slushy, hence the “tried”).   If you have access to a car or want to venture out even deeper into Quebec province itself, not just Quebec City, you can be exposed to some top ski resorts, mountain homes, and amazing outdoor activities no matter what the season.

Francophiles will be happy here because although many Quebecois do speak English and are bilingual, French is still very much the preferred language and those wish to practice their French will be congratulated and gently encouraged.

You can also combine your trip to Quebec City with a stop in Montreal, which is about three hours drive away. This is what we did and the two cities are very different, so it’s good to get a feel for both.   However, if you can only choose one, and you love the old Europe feel of winding streets, French language, Canadian hospitality, and historical buildings, I’d recommend Quebec for your first foray into this part of Canada.

New Orleans

railroad-557465_1920

There are now direct flights from Pittsburgh and other East Coast cities to New Orleans, and hear me out – there’s much more to see in Nola than just a mardi gras parade! (Don’t go during the summer months, however – it’s swampy, humid, and hot.) Historical plantations, Creole and Cajun food, museums (example: The National WWII Museum), Southern architecture, walking tours, exploring bayous and protected swamplands, jazz and musical performances… you’ll be guaranteed to have enough activities to keep you entertained.   Packaged flight + hotel deals make this a great destination for the weekend.  (Here’s my trip report from a long weekend in New Orleans.)

National Parks

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

You don’t have to leave the country to see amazing things.   The USA is so large it has some of the most varied scenery in the world.   Why not explore “from sea to shining sea” by exploring some of the stunning National Parks?

There are a variety of ways to do this – organized tour, train travel, self-drive.   It’s so hard to pick the “best” national parks, so you’re only limited by time and budget – you’ll be sure to appreciate different things about each of our 58 National Parks. Some of the top visited parks include Yosemite in California, the Grand Canyon in Arizona (you could combine this with a trip to Vegas), Glacier National Park in Montana, Denali National Park in Alaska (you can also visit this on a cruise + land tour), Chaco Culture Park in New Mexico, Acadia National Park in Maine, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Olympic National Park in Washington, and Grand Teton in Wyoming. As you can see, you can find national parks in almost every corner of the USA!

Yellowstone Park
Yellowstone Park

We could do multiple blog posts on the National Parks, so we’ll just consider this a whetting of the appetite.  (Check out 5 Reasons to Visit Glacier National Park here.) Amtrak Train Vacations offers some great package deals as well as some organized tours and packaged deals that allow you to see multiple parks in one visit. Or choose one park in detail and explore it to your heart’s content – you can easily spend multiple days in Yellowstone (and you can even visit Yellowstone in the winter and go on guided “Search for Wolves” walks and other fantastic explorations!).

A Fall Foliage Cruise

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 12.03.03 PM
Photo courtesy of Princess Cruise lines

Although I initially didn’t want to include cruises on this list, these are so relatively few and unusual that it’s worth a mention. Just a few times a year, major cruise lines announce New England and Canada itineraries.   Almost all of these are in September and October to coincide with incredible fall foliage – “leaf-peepers” will delight in this opportunity to see gorgeous colors along the coast.   There are also some cruises that extend even further south – for instance, I found one that goes from Quebec City, along the coast of New England, and ends in Fort Lauderdale (perfect for snow-birds who have a winter home in Florida anyway!).   You can also do 5-7 day roundtrip or one-way cruises out of New York and other gateways. Itineraries for New England and Canada vary – but some common ports of call include:

Quebec City, Quebec | Ville Saguenay, Quebec | Gaspe, Quebec | Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada | Sydney, Nova Scotia | Halifax, Nova Scotia | Saint John, New Brunswick (for the Bay of Fundy) | Bar Harbor, Maine | Boston, Massachusetts | New York City (Manhattan or Brooklyn), New York

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 12.04.14 PM
Photo courtesy of Princess Cruiselines

Lengths of cruises can vary from 5 days to 14 days, within a wide variety of budgets, so contact me if you’d like me to give you more information about these.

I hope you enjoyed this list of trip suggestions! As you can see, there are many amazing places for you to explore if you’re based on the East Coast.

Contact Me

Discover My Services

IMG_0938

Hotel Review: Hotel Bantu, Cartagena, Colombia

Hotel Bantu, Cartagena, Colombia

IMG_0894

When visiting Cartagena, nothing compares to the experience of staying inside the walled old city, rather than in a modern section.   “Inside the walls” means you will be surrounded by colonial architecture and the vibrant, electric atmosphere of a city that never seems to sleep, yet manages to feel languid and carefree at the same time.    Plazas appear at the end of narrow streets overlooked by carved balconies overhung with geraniums, and at nighttime folks old and young spill out of restaurants and toss coins at performing singers and carriage drivers.   There are modern, name brand hotels in Cartagena such as Hilton and InterContinental, but these are located in the skyscraper section of Cartagena; you wouldn’t even know that the walled city exists if you wandered those streets. But Cartagena the Old City is made for wandering.

IMG_0884

The only proper choice, then, for accommodations, is one of the delightful boutique hotels that are tucked away next to cafes and churches.   Yet many of these hotels are wonderfully deceptive – open the imposing wooden doors and most of them reveal beautiful courtyards and pools hidden from the rush of the busy streets.

IMG_0900

Hotel Bantu is no exception.   It’s located in the San Diego section of the walled city, easily found by taxi and just off the plaza.   Although enlarged maps can make the walled city look big, everything is walkable and never more than 10-20 minutes stroll away, so don’t worry about the specific location. It’s impossible to move quickly in Cartagena – not just because of the fierce heat (wear sunscreen at all times – the back of my neck was burned on an overcast cloudy day taking taxis to meetings), but also because of the many storefronts, ice cream shops, specialty coffee stores, artisanal craft sellers, and grouchy old men selling fresh coconut water (highly recommended for its anti-heat electrolytes).

The outdoor library by the second courtyard
The outdoor library by the second courtyard

We arrived late at night, after 11pm, and were greeted by the night watchman who said, “Welcome to your house.” This set the tone for the rest of our stay; the staff was always smiling and so convinced that of course you must love it here that their joy was infectious. From answering our questions, making an unforeseen needed photocopy, greeting us smilingly at breakfast, arranging a sightseeing tour, and bidding us goodbye at the end of our stay, the staff’s unwavering commitment to our satisfaction shone through.   Although we spoke mainly Spanish to the staff members, they did understand and many also spoke English,   and we saw other Americans there who had no problems communicating their needs.

Tado the Toucan
Tado the Toucan

Perhaps the most important staff member of the hotel is the most famous. Tado the Toucan was undoubtedly the star of the show.   He generally joined us in the first courtyard, although a plate of papayas set out every day demonstrated that his home was also in the second courtyard.   He is clearly held in great affection by the staff – at one point he was following them around veritably purring and clacking his beak as they let him nibble on their uniforms.   If you stay here for no other reason, stay for the toucan!

IMG_0966

Hotel Bantu is built out of a colonial mansion several hundred years old.   As such, you must embrace the boutique hotel concept and recognize certain architectural limitations. For instance, our room did not have an overhead light and made use of several strategically placed lamps, but its one window did not let in a lot of light, which did provide a challenge when getting ready for meetings. The bathroom also relied on artificial light.   This did not bother us (having a toucan makes up for a lot of limitations) but you must bear this in mind if you are used to staying in very modern hotels.   But most people don’t come to Cartagena to spend a lot of time in their rooms.

IMG_0886

The first and second floors of the hotel have hotel rooms, all with doors leading from the central courtyards. The hotel never seemed crowded, although I am not sure how many guests were actually in residence, but I don’t think there are more than 15 rooms or so at Hotel Bantu – possibly less, although I forgot to count the doors.

IMG_0892

Our room was one of the few with double beds and was quite large – I had thought , since we booked the cheapest room available, that we’d be crushed together in a cruise-ship-sized bedroom, but our room was big enough for two queen beds, a wardrobe, a small table, and suitcase holders. The room was tastefully decorated with some local items that were also available for purchase such as coffee or artisanal weavings. The bathroom had a sink and a shower – I thought the rainfall shower was great and the water pressure was perfect.

 

The third floor was the rooftop pool.  Many hotels in Cartagena have pools, and although I don’t make pools a priority at modern hotels, it was lovely to take a dip at the end of a long day walking in the muggy humidity and strong sunshine. They also offer rooftop massages at the “spa” for the equivalent of $35 for one hour. I did not test it out, but a friend reported that it was well worth the money! There is also a bar by the pool, although it wasn’t staffed when I was there; I am sure during a more busy tourist season they would open it.   The rooftop has lounge chairs and places for socializing and watching the city’s cats jump from chimney to chimney.

In the second interior courtyard of the hotel.
In the second interior courtyard of the hotel.

Breakfast was included in the rate and consisted of a small buffet, along with eggs made to order.   (There were also hard boiled eggs and a Spanish tortilla / omelet on the buffet.) The first day we ate the best mango I have ever had! Alas, no more mango the following mornings, but the pineapple, papaya, and melon were also outstanding.   Fresh breads, sausages, local Colombian fried delicacies, cereal items, eggs, cheese, fruits, coffee, and juices formed the majority of the breakfast items.

Breakfast!
Breakfast!

The hotel has its own restaurant for lunch and dinner, but there are so many additional scrumptious restaurants around the city that we chose to dine out for our meals.

Wifi is free and there is air conditioning in the rooms,  but not the outdoor courtyard areas, obviously.  Breakfast is in an enclosed area of the courtyard, however, so you remain cool. The air conditioning in the room was actually perfect,  at the right temperature,  and offered a wonderful relief from the midday sun. (I normally turn off air conditioning in my hotel rooms as I find it too cold,  but this was set at the perfect temperature!)

 

IMG_0938

Taxis were easy to find and when we had to leave at 7am on a Sunday, the hotel just telephoned for us and a taxi arrived in less than 10 minutes.

IMG_0926

 

Some say “a hotel is just a place to sleep,” but I maintain that staying in the right hotel can enhance and complement your travel experience! Hotel Bantu did exactly that.   The friendliness and helpfulness of the staff, its wonderful location in the old city, beautiful courtyards, rooftop pool, and of course Tado the Toucan all combine to offer an extraordinary experience in the Old City.   I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this hotel to any of my friends, family, or clients.

Dreaming about fresh coconut water and the refreshing pool at Hotel Bantu!
Dreaming about fresh coconut water and the refreshing pool at Hotel Bantu!

alaska5

Anchorage: What To Do Before Your Alaskan Cruise

Thank you to Sophia Curcio who submitted this trip report about her pre-cruise stay in Anchorage. 

Thanks so much for helping to plan our Alaskan cruise last year! I thought you might like to know some of the things we did in Anchorage before our cruise. We had decided to save Denali for another visit, so wanted to add on an extra night in Anchorage to get used to the time change and see some sights in Anchorage.

 

We arrived in Alaska on a Thursday night – my birthday! – and picked up our rental car before heading to our hotel. We were there in June, two days before the summer solstice, so the fact that it was still light out at 11 pm was definitely a strange feeling at first! The nice thing though is that a lot of outdoor activities also stay open late so you can really enjoy every second of your time there. Having flown from the east coast that day, we were pretty tired and headed straight to bed after a quick dinner. We had rented a car for our time in Anchorage, so we stayed at the Holiday Inn on points (an easy ten minute drive away from downtown), but for those looking to stay carless, there are hotels right downtown as well.

 

alaska2

Bike riding the Coastal Trail

On our only full day in Anchorage, we rented bikes to explore the 11 mile Tony Knowles Coastal trail in the morning. There were plenty of people out, walking, running and biking this trail, which hugs the coast around Anchorage. The trail provides extraordinary views of downtown Anchorage, the Chugach Mountains, Denali (Mount McKinley), Mount Susitna (Sleeping Lady), and Fire Island. It was a gorgeous way to get our first taste of Alaska! (There are often moose sightings along the trail, but sadly we did not see any.)

alaska1

We biked most of the trail (it’s paved the whole way), but many people just bike or walk as long as they want and then turn back – I believe there are multiple places you can pick up the trail – I recommend it even just for an hour or two. Make sure you pause as you circle around the back of the airport, as you’ll get a great view of planes landing!

 

Visiting the Musk Ox Farm

After biking and lunch on the first day, we headed about 45 minutes outside of Anchorage to Palmer and visited the Musk Ox Farm. It was really interesting to learn about the origin of Musk Ox in Alaska (did you know they are not native to Alaska and as well as learn more about qivuit, a fine wool which is more expensive than cashmere and is made from the Musk Ox’s inner wool. Although you can’t pet the Musk Ox, you can take a tour and feed the babies if you’re lucky 🙂 It was a nice way to spend an hour and we really enjoyed it. (Note: we also headed to the nearby Reindeer Farm, but did not enjoy it as all – it was basically a petting zoo where reindeer mobbed you for the treats you were given for them. It all felt a little overly commercial and sad, so we were glad we did the Musk Ox Farm first as we probably wouldn’t have gone after our not great experience with the reindeer.)

alaska3

 


Beer Tastings

For dinner that night, we tried Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewery – they had flights available to try all their unique local flavors of beer. A word to beer lovers, Alaska was full of microbews and brewpubs and I highly recommend trying one or two on your trip. We really enjoyed finding new breweries in pretty much every port we visited and trying new beers – the food was usually excellent too! It was definitely a highlight for Chris!

alaska4

The Anchorage Museum

On our last day in Anchorage, we had planned to hike Flattop Mountain Trail but since we had biked the day before, and it was raining a little anyway, we decided to instead spend our morning at the Anchorage Museum. It was a wonderful way to spend a few hours actually – a ton of history and information about the state, its indigenous people, the explorations of Captain Cook (I had NO idea he made it to Alaska before I visited!), as well as a special exhibit that Chris really enjoyed – baseball in Alaska! I

 

The Road to Whittier (to catch our cruise ship)

alaska5

To get to Whittier from Anchorage, we chose to book a shuttle that would provide some sight seeing opportunities for us along the way – it picked us up at the airport at 3 pm (so we dropped our rental off after the museum) and got us to the cruise ship around 5 or so. (Note – it’s also possible to just get a one way rental car, but to be honest the price difference is pretty significant unless you book way in advance!) We got to stop for some photo opps at Turnagain Arm (keep an eye out for Beluga Whales!), Portage Glacier, saw some wildlife with some time at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and then made our way into and through the infamous Whittier Tunnel (built for WW2, it requires alternating traffic as there is just one lane through the 2.5 mile long tunnel!) to our Princess cruise.

alaska6
Overall, I really liked having an extra day in Anchorage to start relaxing and get a small taste of the area before our cruise, and I would recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether or not you are also visiting Denali before your cruise. Although we didn’t squeeze them into this trip, there are a variety of other things we could have done, including a trip to Aleyska Ski Resort, a cruise on Portage Lake, a trek on Matanuska Glacier, and even booking a charter tour to see Denali via plane in one day! If we had more than 2 days, I wouldn’t choose to stay the whole time in Anchorage, but for one extra night, it was a great beginning to a wonderful trip!

alaska7


 

If you enjoyed this post,  be sure to check out Five Ways to Visit Alaska for more ideas.  Or if you’d like to work with a certified Alaska expert on your exciting getaway, learn more here.