Hotel Review: Hotel Bantu, Cartagena, Colombia

Hotel Bantu, Cartagena, Colombia


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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!)



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.



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!

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.



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.)


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.)



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!


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)


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.

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!



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.



Iceland waterfall

5 Ways to Explore Iceland

Iceland is quickly growing in popularity and I’ve received many client requests on a variety of Iceland trips. I’ve done everything from planning a two-week self-drive around the whole country, to helping to maximize a shorter city visit, to a romantic honeymoon itinerary focusing on the Northern Lights. There are so many options to explore Iceland, so here is a cheat sheet of all the different ways you can travel to Iceland.

  1. Long weekend (staying in one city)
  2. Two weeks or longer trip
  3. Organized tour
  4. Self-drive
  5. Cruises

Visiting Iceland on a long weekend

Many visitors to Iceland are taking advantage of the quick flight from the USA to Iceland and often stay for only four days before heading back – perhaps due to a long weekend or business holiday back home.  Most people choose to base themselves in Reykjavik for these four days and take excursions each day rather than switching hotels multiple times.

Because of Iceland’s compound size, it’s possible to see many of the most famous sights this way, although you probably won’t make it up to Akureyri or the Eastern Fjords as they will be just a little too far.   But you will be able to see a lot more of the country than you would expect,  even though some of the excursions may involve several hours on a coach bus,  so be prepared for long days – luckily,  in the summer there is 23 hours of sunlight,  so you will have plenty of time to get home before dark!

In fact,  I have an article on what to do on a Reykjavik-based trip – I suggest you check it out for a great example of how to spend your time on a long weekend in Reykjavik.

Iceland weekend

With a four-day trip to Iceland,  you can combine a number of Do-It-Yourself activities plus organized day-tours.  You can also rent a car for many of these activities if you prefer to drive yourself.

Some activities include:  

  • horse back riding through lava fields
  • thermal pools at the Blue Lagoon or other hot springs
  • a coach bus trip/tour to the Black Beaches
  • hiking on a glacier
  • cave explorations
  • whale watching and/or puffin watching. 

As you can see,  you can fit a lot into four days!!  So,  don’t avoid going to Iceland just because you “only” have four days.   You won’t regret it for a moment,  and you’ll be surprised at how much you can fit in and how quickly you’ll fall in love with Iceland.

Go to – Iceland Trip Report – based in Reykjavik.

Iceland horse riding
Who else wants to ride the adorable Icelandic horses?!

What to do in two weeks around Iceland

If you have extra time in Iceland,  you can really slow down and appreciate the natural wonders of Iceland.  You can do a combination of things – for instance,  you could book an organized 10 day tour  but add on extra nights before/after so that you do your own thing without the coach bus crowd.  You can consider taking a cruise around Iceland.   You can also book short, three- or four-day trips run by tour companies that will take care of your transportation and lodging to some remote areas. Or you can travel to each of the major cities in Iceland and spend two or three nights in each city,   allowing yourself relaxation time and spontaneous sight-seeing activities. 

Each section of Iceland is distinctively different – from fjords to beaches to lava fields to glaciers,   so you won’t feel like you’re looking at the same scenery all the time.  In fact,  you’ll be blown away by how extreme the scenery can shift even in one day.    

If you’re driving,  you’ll quickly notice that even if on the map two towns are just two hours apart,  it can easily take you double or more the time to drive as you’ll be pulling over to the side of the road to take photos or visit local attractions such as waterfalls along the way.

Iceland farmhouse

With two weeks in Iceland,  your possibilities are limitless – for people who enjoy being busy, you can pack each day full of activities, or for those who enjoy slow travel, you can slow down and enjoy quiet time appreciating the beautiful outdoors.

Taking an escorted tour in Iceland

Organized tour companies are a good option for travelers who want to see more of the country but who enjoy the comfort of a pre-planned itinerary and socializing with other travelers.

The average organized tour is 10 days although there are some that are 8 days.   Most tours include many of your meals,  plus baggage porterage,  all your hotels,  certain activities/excursions,  and the services of a tour guide.   There are different types of organized tours, with different levels of economy, comfort, excursion types,  and schedules,  so make sure you understand the difference between them and know whether you’re comparing apples to apples when making your decision.  (Someone like me can help explain the differences if you’re feeling overwhelmed!)

One of the biggest benefits of escorted trips, especially for last-minute trips, is that they may have availability for specific hotels or activities that are on your bucket list, whereas the ticket sales may have ended previously for independent travelers.

The multi-day organized tours have a variety of travel styles. Some are focused on small groups of less than 12 passengers. Others focus on upscale, luxury unique experiences. Some might include a lot of free time and merely act as your transportation and accommodation organizer. Work with a professional travel advisor who understands the differences between the gamut of escorted tours and can let you know which option suits your personality the best.

Self-Drive Itineraries

Many travelers,  even those who wouldn’t generally consider road-tripping anywhere else,  fall in love with driving around Iceland.   You can do this any number of ways – some remain based in Reykjavik and rent a car to just drive the Golden Circle in one day, while others follow the famous Ring Road to circumnavigate the entire country.

A leisurely self-drive itinerary would be 10-14 days, allowing you to drive the whole Ring Road. For self-drives of 7 days or so, I recommend picking one area of Iceland such as the West Fjords or Southern Iceland so you’re not rushing every day.


Some travelers love this combination of independence + help. My self-drive clients love having the flexibility each day, yet the confidence of knowing that they have maps, GPS, car rental for two people, wifi in the car,  special guidebooks and suggested stops along the way, free cell phone or SIM card for emergencies,  and on-call assistance from the Iceland office if you should have any problems.  We also add on excursions catered to their requests,  such as a special hiking naturalist guide in one of the stops,  a glacier hike,  or whale-watching.

Here is an itinerary of a two week driving tour I’ve designed for clients – we chose this route specifically because it has two or three nights in each location,  so they wouldn’t feel so rushed and constantly unpacking/packing.  You could also design your itinerary by focusing on a theme, such as Game of Throne filming locations, waterfalls & glaciers, or even Fairies and Troll Legends!

You will need to bear in mind that cars with automatic transmission are not the norm – you have to request this specifically, otherwise you will end up with manual (stick) transmission! 

Iceland Cruises

There are some lovely cruise options if you’d like to say you’ve sailed around the whole county! Depending on the cruise line,  even your Zodiac boat expeditions are included,  and you can often see more of the country than on a traditional tour.  You’ll be treated to beautiful coastal scenery as you travel from one city to another,  and won’t have to worry about doing your own driving or getting lost.

Cruise options range from small expedition-style boats, to luxury small ship cruising, to Iceland-owned explorer vessels.

For instance, Tauck Small Ship Ship Cruises feature 8 days of many of Iceland’s top sights.  The only ports they do not stop in are the Eastern Fjords.   The cruise price includes all shore excursions, so you don’t have to worry about being asked for more money once you’re onboard the ship.  All staterooms have windows for ocean views (and 95% of rooms have balconies!).    You’ll tour Reykjavik, Grundarfjordur, Grimsey (where you’ll be able to step across the Arctic circle!), Akureyri, including the Godfoss waterfall, Isafjordur, Heimaey,  the “Golden Circle” tour of Iceland featuring waterfalls, and more.   

This is a fantastic way to see most of  Iceland’s top spots  without constantly packing and unpacking as you move between hotels.  You’ll see puffins and other wildlife up close, and the ship itself only holds 140 guests, so it’s small enough to call on ports that other large cruise ships can’t.

Tauck Iceland Cruise
Tauck’s Iceland Cruise

The “Ocean Diamond” ‘Iceland Circumnavigation’ trip run by ProIceland Cruises features 10 days of Iceland’s most famous cities.    Reykjavik,  Stykkisholmur, Isafjördur, Siglufjördur,  Akureyri (2 days), Husavik, Seydisfjördur, Djupivogur, Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), and back to Reykjavik,  make this a true circumnavational cruise.   All meals are included and all Zodiac excursions are included,  but land excursions are extra.

This cruise even provides you with your own windjacket to protect against the elements – it’s yours to keep afterwards!   The rooms are comfortable and adequate – this cruise is focused on the destination and activities,  not on over-the-top luxury, so it’s a good fit for many travelers.   (However, you may end up with a hefty bill after booking shore excursions,  so it’s important to mentally budget and prepare for that or make sure your travel advisor shows you the excursion options in advance.)

ProCruise’s trip around Iceland

There are many other cruise lines that are not round-trip Iceland but that feature Iceland for a large portion of their cruise.  This can be a good option for travelers who wish to see additional sights in Europe or who want to have a more traditional European visit.

For example, Azamara’s 12 Night  “Fjord, Iceland, and Fairy Islands” Voyage starts in Denmark,  goes to Norway, Shetland Islands, Iceland (3 days there),  and the Faroe Islands before returning to dock in England’s Southampton port.   Azamara includes foods, drinks (including alcoholic beverages), tips, gratuities, and an AzAmazing Evening (all inclusive port excursion free for all passengers).

For more on Azamara, read my blog post here. 

Viking Cruiselines has a special ocean cruise called “In the Wake of the Vikings.”  It’s a special 15 day cruise that begins in Norway and ends in Montreal, Canada.   Along the way,  you visit Norway, Scotland, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada.


As you can see,  there are many ways to see Iceland.  It’s a short flight from the USA – it’s actually only five hours from Boston,  barely enough time for a nap! – and flights are often economically priced compared to other destinations in Europe.   Whether you wish to cruise, tour, take a long weekend,  or spend two weeks seeing the entire country,  there is an Iceland vacation that’s right for you!

Planning Tips for Your Iceland Trip:

  • Please note that Iceland is very popular – many people book a year in advance!  Especially for summer trips, you should try to plan ahead as much as possible to get the best options for lodging and for your budget.
  • You can visit Iceland any time of year, and it is a great destination for a winter visit.  However, if you definitely want to drive yourself, the non-winter months are recommended.  In winter, plan on city stays with day-excursions or paid transfers between towns.
  • Bring waterproof shoes and even waterproof pants for outdoor activities in the cooler months – keeping dry goes a long way in keeping you warm.
  • Layers are important even in summer – a windbreaker/rain jacket, a pair of dry socks, a long sleeved fleece, and a hat will all come in handy.
  • Credit and debit cards are used almost everywhere – even to pay for their famous hot dogs.  You won’t need to withdraw cash upon arrival at all.

Need assistance in planning your Iceland trip?  Head over to my Services page!


Guest Post: Trip Review – Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos

I worked with the DeCrosta family to decide whether to stay in a boutique hotel or an all-inclusive resort during a family vacation to Los Cabos, Mexico.  After comparing the options and considering their multi-generational family trip,  they decided to try their first all inclusive resort. Here is their report back!  Thank you for sharing!


All text and photos copyright Joe DeCrosta.

All-Inclusive Convert:  Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos

My wife and I have never really been all-inclusive type travelers, but we thought we would take a chance this time traveling with our family on a rather modest budget. The Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos has converted us.

I can’t say enough about this place. Not only is it beautiful, but it is well run and filled with kind, helpful employees. Our room (two-bedroom suite) was well designed, very clean and very large with beautiful vistas of the pools and ocean- perfect for our family of four.

Amenities are top quality and food is delicious. There are five a la carte restaurants – French, Spanish, Asian, Italian, and Argentine Steakhouse – with full menus and two buffets – Mexican and breakfast foods. The all-inclusive package also included free 24-hour room service with a limited menu. They also served Mexican food at the Snack bar at the pool, and their were typical Mexican snack carts and fajita/paella preparation on the pool deck everyday.

There are also several pools (5 I believe), the largest is not heated, but on warm days it was fine, and the infinity pool was warm and included a swim-up bar and two hot tubs. They also offer Swim-Up Suites that are located along two of their smaller pools where you have access to these pools from your balcony – very unique. There is an adults-only pool as well as a kids’ swim area. The Spa area is beautiful as well and includes several types of tubs and therapeutic pools.

The nightly entertainment was a lot of fun and included, dancing, singing, and a magic show.


Every single employee at this property was courteous and friendly. We ran into a situation where my children were locked out the room, and the staff resolved the issue in no time and with good humor. Every employee was willing to share their story and talk about their life in Cabo.

Overall, I would not consider this property to have many drawbacks, but I think it would be helpful to point out a few things to travelers considering this property:

1. If you are looking to swim in the ocean, this properly is not the best one for you. The water in Cabo San Jose on the Sea of Cortez and quite rough and guests are prohibited from swimming there. Of course, guests are able to bask on the beach, but the pools will be your only option for cooling off. Nice strolls at the water’s edge were certainly possible.
2. This property is not in Cabo San Lucas, it is Cabo San Jose about 20 minutes east of San Lucas. Cabo San Jose is actually a lovely town and much nicer for a family vacation, in my opinion. There is a wonderful historic center where you can walk around and enjoy shops, but you would have to take a public bus or cab to get there easily. If you are looking for more or a “party” atmosphere, Cabo San Lucas might be more your speed. We took a public bus to visit Cabo San Lucas and Los Arcos one day.

3. This hotel tends to host a number of large conference groups. When were were visiting there was a group of 1200 Mexican women attending a sales conference for a Latin American cosmetics company. As a result, there was an enormous stage set up along the beach and there were loud concerts a few of the nights. We actually enjoyed much of this since we really got a flavor for Mexican culture, and some free entertainment was provided from afar!. I only bring this up to advise potential travelers to find out about large groups that may be staying at the hotel and the nature of their program if you think it might encroach on your experience there.

These drawbacks are minor in my opinion, and I would book this place again in a second.


Bravo Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos!
And thank you in particular to Angelo in Entertainment, Emma in the Plaza, Daniel in Guest Services, Rodrigo in Excursions, and Jose in the Club Level.



If you’d like to stay at Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos or are considering a Mexican vacation, contact me for travel consulting services.  My client above had never been to an all-inclusive, and ended up loving it after I explained why it was a good match for his wishlist and his specific needs for this trip.


Trip Report: Staycation in Pittsburgh & Hotel Review: The Renaissance


With Mr TravelObservation’s professional commitments,  it looked like a winter break away from home was out of the question.  So what better way than to enjoy ourselves than to be tourists in our own city?

Many people think that travel must mean expensive trips and out-of-this-world experiences. But did you know that research has shown that the good feelings you get from vacation actually don’t differ between a long three-day-weekend trip and a month long trip? What’s important is that you travel, experience new things, and reset your brain.

We can get caught up in thinking that Traveling Luxuriously means posting exotic photos of unbelievable experiences, and partaking in food and experiences we wouldn’t normally budget for.   But for me, traveling luxuriously is all about the experience of spending time with the people I love and relaxing in beautiful environments that soothe me and “resetting” my brain with new adventures both near and far.  You can accomplish this from any location, if you just know how to go looking for it!

We split our staycation into two parts – the first with a stay in Downtown Pittsburgh at the lovely Renaissance Hotel on Christmas Eve-Eve, and the second with a two-night stay at Hotel Monaco. I’ll be posting Part II separately.

Staycation Part I:  The Renaissance Hotel & The Christmas Market

I chose December 23 for our stay in Downtown Pittsburgh as this was the last night of the Market Square Christmas Market.   Of course, we were also fortunate that this past December was unusually mild – I’m not even wearing a scarf in my photos.

We drove to the Renaissance Hotel and parked our car in the garage opposite – they have valet parking, but the self-park garage is directly opposite and it seemed silly for two able bodied people to pay $35+ for someone to park their car. But for future reference – or for bad weather or sporting events days – there is valet parking.

The entrance to the Renaissance is quite unassuming (it’s right next to the Byham Theatre) and when I entered I had the reaction, “Wow I didn’t know all this was hiding inside.”   Their lobby has a beautiful grand staircase and there was a wonderful Christmas tree right when we entered.

The foyer of the Pittsburgh Renaissance Hotel


We checked in and discovered as Marriott Gold members we’d been upgraded to a beautiful corner room overlooking the river, with huge windows on a full two walls. The hotel had also graciously left us champagne and strawberries, since I’d tweeted them ahead of time that I was planning a staycation. It was a delightful and well appreciated welcome ~ and makes me want to start planning my next stay as soon as possible!


We stopped by the executive lounge to partake in some snacks and drinks (snacks are complimentary – drinks are on the honor payment system) before heading to Market Square. There was a reasonable selection, especially for a US hotel (international travelers will notice a difference as overseas executive lounges go quite overboard!).

The view from the Renaissance Hotel executive lounge


After our appetizers we headed out to Market Square, just a short walk away.   The Renaissance is a great location because everywhere in downtown Pittsburgh is actually close, and there are many theatres and restaurants just a stone’s throw away. In fact, Pittsburgh has the highest ratio of cultural events/buildings in a city after Broadway in NYC.

I should explain for non-Pittsburghers that Market Square is a plaza in downtown Pittsburgh, where cars are limited and restaurants form four sides of a square. It’s a popular space for events and nightlife – I even watched a live US soccer match during the World Cup here, as the city put a huge inflatable screen in the center of the square.

Browsing the stalls at the Christmas market
Browsing the stalls at the Christmas market

In Market Square, the Christmas market was buzzing.   I’d never really gone to the Christmas night market as an actual activity, but rather passed through quickly on the way to restaurants. So it was delightful to take my time to explore the various stalls set up. There is a little stage with musicians and the stalls are well lit with artisanal crafts, food, hot drinks, Christmas gifts, and beautiful decorations and lights. (Mr TravelObservations in particular was pleased with a box of sugar cookies he bought.) There are also light shows every half hour set to Christmas music.

To my delight, there was an actual store, “Kathe Wohlfahrt” that I’ve personally visited in Heidelberg, Germany! Although a fraction of the size (I spent hours in the real store in Germany), it was set up in the same way – you enter through a certain door, get a basket to hold your purchases while browsing, and only walk in one certain direction to avoid bottlenecking the narrow aisles.   Those who want to pick up amazing Christmas decorations from Germany without buying a plane ticket should take advantage of this amazing opportunity.   I did not buy anything from Market Square, since I’d just returned from the same store in Germany a month earlier with several purchases!)


There are free trolley rights and horse carriage rides, although they were not available the night we went. But the city of Pittsburgh does an excellent job of announcing all scheduled and special activities during the Christmas market, which lasts the entire month of December, up till the 23rd.   There are free maps of the trolley route and/or suggested walking routes to see the Macy’s Christmas windows and other holiday themed site-seeing.  Just look up “People’s Gas Holiday Market” if you’re curious – by the way, official information is normally located at .

The ice skating rink at PPG Place

From Market Square we headed to PPG Place where there is iceskating during the winter months.   Because of the beautifully mild weather there were many people out and the entire atmosphere just seemed so festive and so happy.   Right next door to the PPG ice skating rink was the Wintergarten (Winter-garden).   An amazing exhibit of gingerbread houses built by individuals, families, schools, and organizations all over Pittsburgh. Some were traditional and others were quite original, such as the Millennium Falcon (from Star Wars) made out of graham crackers.   The gingerbread houses were mixed into with a stunning model train display that wound itself around a tall Christmas tree. Scattered around the space were huge, larger-than-life statues that represented all the different Christmas “Santa Claus” figures from all over the world, explaining each country’s specific Christmas tradition and legends.

From the Wintergarten we took a bit of a walk to the US Steel Plaza Nativity display – it’s life size and quite impressive although it’s set apart from the festivities of Market Square, but I would imagine that it has more visitors during specific nights such as opening night or special concert nights.  It’s the only authorized replica of the nativity scene in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.

The Nativity Scene at Steel Plaza
The Nativity Scene at Steel Plaza

Having completed our Christmas circuit of downtown we walked back to Market Square for dinner. We chose New Orleans-themed restaurant “Nola” and as we walked in, live jazz music was just setting up, which Mr TravelObservations really appreciated.   We shared appetizers and a generous portion of jambalaya, which was big enough that I was able to share with Mr TravelObservations after he had his portion of fried alligator. I also had a delicious glass of cabernet and he had a bottle of non-alcoholic beer.   I had never been to Nola and I thought the food and atmosphere was just what we were looking for – fun, bustling, and unusual food,   but not overcrowded with the college crowd (since most universities in Pittsburgh had already closed for break).

Once back at the Renaissance,   it started to rain, which made for some stunning views of the city through the windows. Our room looked out over the river and we had a beautiful view of some of the bridges and the baseball stadium as well. The view itself made the staycation perfect.


The Renaissance is housed in the historic Fulton Building and has quite an iconic architectural design – it’s shaped like an upside down U and so from the river or the road across you’re able to spot this unusual building quite easily.  I should mention that there are 2 restaurants available in the hotel itself, although we did not partake simply because of our planned walk to Market Square.   I’m looking forward to trying the restaurants soon one day, however.

In the morning, we partook of breakfast in the executive lounge – again, quite good, and it was nice to talk over coffee and relax a bit before checkout.


We checked out quite regretfully in the morning, wondering why we’ve never thought to really embrace all the activities our city has to offer and the beautiful hotels that are available to us.   We know we will back at the Renaissance quite soon! Thank you for a delightful stay!

If you ever have a chance to take a staycation I highly encourage it. Even just one night in your own city, giving yourself permission to relax and to explore interesting activities and events,   can rejuvenate you. You don’t have to spend money on transportation and getting a sitter for your pets – just pack pajamas and a toothbrush and plan a nice dinner and special activity out.  

About a week later, we launched Staycation Part II! My post and review of Part II: Hotel Monaco will be posted soon.


Taking the High Speed Train from Beijing to Shanghai


Here’s a clue as to how the train ride has been so far..They just walked through the carriage selling (or giving away?) Haagendaas icecream.

I had the delightful treat of taking a business class train ride to Shanghai – five hours of incredible speeds of up to 300 km per hour.   Here’s how I did it.


I was staying at the Renaissance Hotel Wangfujing.  This was a great location and the staff were very helpful throughout my four nights there. I bought train tickets twice – once with the help of their concierge, who ordered them online, took my cash,   and then delivered the tickets straight to my hotel room door within an hour of buying . The second time, it was quite late at night so using the concierge wasn’t an option, and I had decided to go to Shanghai at the last minute.


I used which was quite easy. I’ve also used Ctrip for hotels and flights, so I feel confident in saying it’s a great, English-speaking site for your China travel needs. (Click the US/UK flag at the top to change to English.)


Because it was after 10pm, picking up the tickets from the train station was the only option, rather than asking them to deliver.   (Because any sales after 4pm are processed the next day for delivery.)   I carefully wrote down my ticket number – it starts with “E”, and I took a screenshot of the ticket booking email, just in case.  It was easy to use my foreign credit card (MasterCard) on the website.


My train only left at 10am,   but the concierge told me that in the morning there may be some road closures, and he couldn’t guarantee that the 30 minute taxi ride wouldn’t turn into 90 minutes.   Because I also knew I had to figure out how to collect my ticket, I decided to give myself a lot of time, and leave at 7:30am.


In the morning when I was checking out and mentioned I needed a taxi to Beijing South Railway Station, the hotel staff was very concerned and said, “You better hurry and leave now, because it’s about to be traffic hour.   We’re worried about how long it’s going to take.”


Well,   I must have just missed the magic hour of traffic jams, because it took me less than 30 minutes to reach the station! I’m always glad to be better safe than sorry, however.    So lesson one: Always prepare for the worst, and also always ask hotel staff – don’t assume by looking at a map that you know how long it will take to get there.


The train station was quite large but very clearly labeled; there were plenty of shops and restaurants (including Western options such as Starbucks and Pizza Hut). I had packed a lunch from the hotel at breakfast, because I’d heard that the food options onboard the train were not very appetizing.   I made myself a lovely little butter and cheese sandwich,   but I know my hotel would also have packed something to go from their restaurant, so make sure you ask ahead of time for your hotel to arrange this.    Or, if you get to the station super early like I did, you can just buy something there to take onboard.


When you enter the train station, right away you will have to put your luggage through a scanner and walk through a metal detector.   There was also a cursory passport check, but, as at almost all the other train stations I’d been in, as soon as they saw a US Passport they waved me on, since they couldn’t read it.


Security check complete, I headed over to the ticket office….


…Which was closed.


I tried to figure out from the Chinese characters anything about “We’ll open at..” but nothing seemed obvious. Then I tried the automatic ticket machines, but there wasn’t an English option, and I couldn’t figure out where the “Retrieve bought tickets” button was.   I think if you were trying to use the machines to buy a ticket right then and there, you would be able to figure it out,   as there were buttons for train time, destination, etc.   I did hear , however, that you need a Chinese ID card (it’s scannable) to retrieve your ticket. So these machines clearly weren’t going to be useful.


I walked back to the ticket counter and it still wasn’t open. I noticed that it said “Ticket Office No. 2.” Surely that must mean there was a 1 or 3?   So I kept walking in the opposite direction, and eventually found another ticket office, which was open! It was right next to the business class lounge, too, which was nice.


Here’s where things got tricky.   There were a bunch of different lines, all very long, and with people jostling for the next postion, with different signs, but nothing in English.   I had taken a photo of a useful page on Ctrip, that showed the Chinese characters for picking up online tickets, but I wasn’t able to discern them individually on the signs. So I jumped in the shortest line possible and when I reached the front,   I showed my ticket voucher to the lady. She pointed to another line.


I say “another line,” but I have no idea what line she was pointing to. I tried to clarify and she just pointed again.   She wasn’t really interested in giving me details, so I got into another line.


This happened three more times.


By the fourth time I was getting frustrated at the refusal to do anything else other than point over my head in the general direction of the other lines,   but I knew that I had to succeed somehow.   Or live the rest of my life in this train station.


So I guess it was good that I got to the station so early! All in all, over 45 minutes had passed by now.


Finally, I handed my ticket voucher number (you don’t have to print it from Ctrip, I just wrote the voucher number down) to the fourth ticket agent. He held out his hand for my passport. Success!


A few minutes later and I had my business class ticket firmly clutched in my hands.


The business class lounge was just next door, so I decided to check it out.   It wasn’t anything too fancy, but it was a much quieter place to relax, than the crowded train station.   I gave the ticket and my passport to the ladies at the door, who scanned it to verify its authenticity, and then added my name to the list so they could watch for my train’s status.

The lounge for travelers with business class tickets
The lounge for travelers with business class tickets

I waited for about an hour (I briefly was able to find a WiFi signal, but not sure if that was an errant signal or specifically for the business class lounge). There were some small snacks and drinks and hot beverages, if you wanted them.   There are no bathrooms inside the lounge, they are right next door and are the general public station toilets. They are not that bad, but remember to always carry your own tissues with you. This particular bathroom had a roll of toilet paper at the entrance for you to take your own,   but many bathrooms in China do not restock these public dispensers. The bathroom next to the business lounge had squat toilets; I’m not sure if they had Western toilets, but they did have labels on the doors, which leads me to believe some doors must have been hiding some Western toilets.


Boarding is exactly 30 minutes before the train leaves. No need to worry about this – right on the dot, the business class lounge staff came over to me and told me the train was ready.   Then they escorted the business class passengers across the train station, straight to the boarding gate, where they presented the tickets to the security guards and let you cut the line.   This was very helpful and a great service.


However, if you don’t have this option: Look on your ticket in the upper right hand corner, this will say the track it’s boarding from, or consult the monitors. My train, for instance, said it was leaving from tracks 6-7 on the monitors, and my ticket had a 6 on it.   It will not be possible to go to the track more than 30 minutes before, but you can hang out in the gate area.


Chinese train travel has three classes: Second, First, and Business. Note that unlike a plane,   Business is higher than First.   And let me tell you, there is a huge difference between Business and First. If your budget permits it, I highly recommend this wonderful and relaxing way to travel. (Just don’t travel Second.   It’s the opposite of relaxing.)


Your train ticket will have two numbers on it: For instance 3 03F.   This means you are in Car #3, Seat 3F.   The train itself is fairly well marked on each carriage’s door , so you know what number car to enter.

My window seat (the only one in its aisle!)
My window seat (the only one in its aisle!)

I got into my business class car. What a sight for sore eyes! Each business class seat is enclosed within its own pod, and the seats fully recline to turn into beds.     Everyone receives tea, juices, blankets, slippers (and yes, everyone put on the slippers immediately!), and a little boxed snack.   Later they passed out trays of Chinese food, which I took in order to taste a little, but I mainly munched on the rice and some of the meat before handing it back. It’s basically the equivalent of “airplane food” on a train, so most other people also bring their food as well.

The seat lays flat completely so you can get some sleep!
The seat lays flat completely so you can get some sleep!

The train is five hours,   and if you leave early in the morning like I did you will get hungry, so do plan your snacks carefully.

You should bring your own food - almost everyone else on the train did!
You should bring your own food – almost everyone else on the train did!

The seats have enough space in front of them that you can put your large suitcases right in front of your feet (and you can still lay the seat flat!) and your little suitcases on the shelf above your head,   although some train riders did put the luggage in the back or the front of the carriage.   Most people seemed to want to keep an eye on their belongings, however,   so another great benefit of riding business class is that you can keep your luggage with you (as opposed to First and Second where you shove your luggage in a pile at the front of the carriage).


Each seat had power outlets so I could use my electronics with no problem
Each seat had power outlets so I could use my electronics with no problem



Note:   Even in business class, most Chinese are very comfortable talking on the phone loudly,   watching a movie without headphones,   and keeping ringers on. Bring your own headphones to make yourself more comfortable.


There is supposedly WiFi on the train, but I couldn’t connect either my laptop nor my phone to it.


I passed the time by reading, writing this blog post, and finally sleeping. The train was incredibly smooth. They had placed a cup of tea on the windowsill and it sat there the whole time and the liquid inside barely even moved.   The very slight swaying was very soothing and put me to sleep in no time.


Note that a little bit after leaving Beijing station you’ll need to show your ticket to the conductor, so keep it somewhere handy.  You will also need it to exit the train station in Shanghai!  In other words, don’t lose it!


Not much English is spoken on the train, but you’ll be able to get the idea. The staff were kind enough to try to speak some words such as “Chicken?” or “Hot Water?” The station announcements are in both Chinese and English.   The train is very punctual.


There is a dining car (and my car had arrows showing in which direction to walk), but I forgot to go explore it to see what it was like.   They also passed through the car periodically with boxed fruit and other items for sale.   There are also bathrooms,   and the bathroom outside the business class car was clean and had a beautiful sink, although it was a little smelly. But,   I’ve seen worse! So no worries on that regard.


The train only stops for a few minutes at each station, so don’t dilly-dally in getting off.


My business class ticket was the same price as flying economy to Shanghai,   and even though it is five hours, one could argue that it would have been the same amount of time to go out to the Beijing Airport,   go through security, deal with possible flight delays,   and then take a taxi into the city from Shanghai Airport.  I consider the train to be a much more efficient, safer, and reliable form of transportation.

307 km per hour!

The scenery is not particularly interesting, except for this section of steppes
The scenery is not particularly interesting, except for this section of steppes

The train arrives at Shanghai Hongqiao station, which is connected to the smaller, local airport. The station is quite large and there is signage everywhere. I wasn’t sure which taxi door, “North” or “South” to choose from, so I chose North. The line was tremendous,   but it shuffled along rather quickly and it took about 20-25 minutes of actively shuffling to get to the front of the line.   But at least it was moving. Note:  On a second train ride later in the trip,  I requested a pickup by the hotel.  This was a great idea,  although more expensive than a regular taxi,  because that taxi line was also very long,  and it was already 11pm at night.  It would have been another 30 minutes at least just to get a taxi,  with another hour drive to my hotel,   so if you can arrange someone to meet you and pick you up at the train station,  this is also a good option. 


If you have the chance to take a high speed train in China, I highly recommend it! It’s a marvelous opportunity to appreciate the wonders of engineering . I also highly recommend the business class ticket. It was worth every penny, and it was the perfect anecdote to a long week of work and travel challenges.


Have you ever taken a high speed train? What was it like ?


uw_qi_exterior_9745_1 1

Why I’m Loving UniWorld River Cruises

UniWorld River Cruises – A Touch Above the Rest

UniWorld River Cruises is an amazing product rooted in the boutique hotel industry – they want you to feel that you’re on a floating hotel and not a mass-market ship.  It’s often the perfect choice for my discerning travelers who want a culturally immersive trip full of thoughtful details.

If UniWorld hasn’t been on your radar before, let me tell you why it’s one of the top choices for a truly all inclusive experience.



Heart of the destination:

With traditional ocean cruises and sea cruises, ports are often located an hour or more away from the main cities. Passengers have to disembark and then take taxis or coach buses to see the main attractions – wasting time that they could be spending exploring a new destination. Yet, river cruising puts you right in the middle of the town, often allowing you to just step off the boat and within five minutes you’ll be immersed in a cultural experience.


Pack and unpack once:

With traditional land tours, passengers are often shuffled to a new hotel each night, requiring them to repack their suitcase every evening.   Passengers on river cruises, however, can unpack just once and never look at their suitcase again for the duration of the trip.


Intimate ambiance

River cruising ships can never be as large as the massive ocean cruisers we’re so used to seeing in the Bahamas or Mexico. 443 ft long is actually the maximum that any river ship can be in length. Uniworld puts approximately only 140 guests on these ships (some other companies put 190), attaining some of the highest staff-guest ratios in the industry.

Smooth waters

River cruises are a perfect option for those nervous about open waters or seasickness.   No seasickness on river cruises = a happy traveler!

UniWorld is value packed even for premium prices:

UniWorld is a truly all-inclusive experience. You can pay once and confidently know that you’ll only be charged for spa or salon services, or some optional extra excursions. Here’s what’s included:

  • All gratuities – no extra “mandatory” charges for shipboard service
  • Transfers from the airport to the ship, even if you don’t purchase airfare from UniWorld!
  • Beverages such as spirits, wine, specialty coffees, mineral water, and so forth – all day, not just at meal times!
  • Shore excursions – tours and activities in port to show you around, with multiple options per day
  • Entertainment and cultural activities onboard the ship
  • Internet (wifi)
  • Laundry facilities
  • Bicycles onboard the ship for you to explore the countryside on your own if you wish

Speaking of excursions, UniWorld tries to think outside the box and offer the luxury of choice.   They are keenly aware that many of their clients are repeat travelers, and so they designed additional excursions to offer well-traveled guests the opportunities to explore their host city beyond the standard first timers’ tourist sites.

There are different themed excursions at every port, including Gentle Walks, Do As The Locals Do, Exclusive, (activities you won’t be able to book anywhere else!) and Go Active.  You’re are always free to forgo excursions and to strike out on your own, including returning to the boat for lunch and then coming back on shore.

River cruising can be as active or as independent as you like – you’re never obligated to join the shore excursions, although visiting with UniWorld often gives you extraordinary access to some incredible experiences, such as high tea with a duchess or a private concert in a castle.

UniWorld is True Boutique River Cruising

UniWorld prides itself on the fact that it is a floating boutique hotel. Some of its ships, for instance, have over the top décor – one even has an Andy Warhol painting in a gentleman’s restroom! Their land partner is the prestigious Red Carnation Hotel brand,  and you will see several similarities between the hotel rooms and the ship rooms.

Like a boutique hotel, however, UniWorld is not stuffy – but it’s designed to cater to travelers who like thoughtful details.   In fact, UniWorld staff members refer to “TNT” – Tiny Noticeable Touches; which range from bringing local wines, cheeses, and fruits onboard at each port, or having a surprise chocolate tasting after a day of excursions,   or pointing out a chandelier that hangs in the ship’s foyer as once belonging to the company’s owner.

UniWorld’s décor looks formal, but it’s not – no ties are required at dinner, for instance.   It’s closer to country club chic onboard, rather than black tie stuffiness.

Where does UniWorld sail?

Some of their most popular journeys in Europe include, “”Castles Along the Rhine,” “Enchanting Danube,” “Burgundy and Provence,” “Paris and Normandy,” “Danube Discovery with Prague,” and “Portugal and the Douro.”

These are just some of their most popular itineraries. Non-European itineraries include Egypt, India, Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China, for those of you who want to experience a luxurious cruise in exotic locations.


Photo courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.


Special Programs

UniWorld also offers special sailings for the Connoisseur Collection, particularly in France and their Food & Wine Collection.   For instance, although the itinerary may be the same as other sailings, extra attention and perks will be added to these sailings – perhaps bringing a local chef on board to run a cooking class, or taking cruisers to the vineyard where the ship’s wines come from.

UniWorld is also one of the few river companies to offer children’s programs on select sailings.

In fact, UniWorld has been rated the “Best MultiGenerational Trip Offerings” by   River cruising is a great option for multigenerational families with children who will consider the whole thing a spectacular, grand adventure.

UniWorld goes above and beyond to create memories your family will love. On family-designated sailings, children sail for 50% off the adult price, and single supplement fees are often waived.   There are additional excursions added to the sailing, catered especially towards young curious minds (hawking lesson at a castle, anyone?), and there are additional activities onboard to enrich your children’s cultural experience.


UniWorld staff say these sailings are some of their favorites as they watch grandparents, parents, and children discover the wonders of Europe and other destinations together.   (The most popular age range for these cruises tends to be ages 8 – 13, but 18 year olds and below qualify for the 50% discount.)

The list of benefits with UniWorld just goes on and on.   They have special promotions for solo travelers, where there is no penalty for only having one person occupying a cabin. This is great news for friends in sets of three who felt restricted in their travel options.  UniWorld also periodically runs special airfare promotions or special savings promotions.

Want to see why river cruising’s upfront pricing is a better value than piecing it together yourself? Read my comparison of how a river cruise can be value-packed at this article.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.

Confused about UniWorld or perhaps a different river cruise brand?

Here’s where I come in.  I’m not only a UniWorld River Cruise Specialist, with a proven track record of designing wonderful luxury trips for my clients, but I am also certified in several other river cruise brands.  I’ll talk to you about what inclusions are important to you, which atmosphere on which ship suits your personality, and which specific river cruise route ticks all your boxes.  A 30 minute complimentary consultation call will save you hours and hours of research – I already know all the insider tips as to which river cruise you should choose!  So go ahead and contact me today if you have any questions about UniWorld and let’s start putting together your perfect cruise!





How to Take the Train in the Douro River Valley in Portugal

During my stay in the delightful city of Porto, it was highly important to me that I get to go to the Douro River Valley, the world’s first demarcated wine region, and literally called the River of Gold both for its stunning aesthetics and for the incredible wealth it has produced in wines. But with a limited amount of time and with a desire to see the prettiest scenery possible, our options were a bit limited in late October. If you do a cursory search, our trusty friend, the Internet, won’t be very encouraging. It’s often assumed that the only option tourists would be interested in is a day river cruise. But, many short river cruises don’t seem to run during the later fall months, and they only go about halfway to Pocinho. Even if they do have scheduled departures, the real scenery arguably starts after Pinhao.  Here’s how you can take the train to the Douro River valley to maximize your time in Portugal.



How to take the train along the Douro River in Portugal

If you’d like to see as much of the Douro as possible, and want to take a beautiful scenic train ride along one of the most stunning vistas in Europe, here’s how you do it!

We looked online to see the train schedules.  The Portuguese train schedules can be found at

It was important to us that we get a train direct to Pocinho to avoid any switching or waiting at stations.   Because the trip is around 3 hours one way, we chose an early morning departure, to give us enough to get there and back and have evening time to spare for dinner in Porto. We decided upon the 9:15am departure, which arrives in Pocinho around 12:40 pm; and the next return departure leaves at 1.26pm and gets back to Porto at 4:35pm.

train douro river portugal

There are two main train stations in Porto, and luckily the Pocinho train left from the one closest to our hotel – the station called Campanha (not the central station, Sao Bento). It was barely a five minute taxi ride. (Note: the train does stop at Sao Bento, so if you’re staying in the central historic area of Porto, you’ll be able to take this ride as well.)

We didn’t purchase our tickets ahead of time, but simply purchased them at the train station. I believe they were 13 euros…. A fantastic option if you don’t want to spend over 100 euros on a river excursion and you get to go even further!

train douro river portugal

There was a little café at the Campanha station and we each had a galao coffee drink and a pastel de nata.   Being raised in Portugal, we consume these items pretty much every few hours when we return to Portugal. We have to stock up before we head back to the USA and are deprived!

train douro river portugal

The train arrived and we grabbed window seats.   Start by sitting on the right side of the train, if you are facing forward. The river will be on that side for about half of the trip; about halfway through (after Regua and then Pinhão, where most people got off anyway), you can switch to the left side as the river bends and you will have great views on the other side as well.


The train was full of regular Portuguese people making their way to families’ homes for the weekend or returning from a business appointment; it also had several British and European tourists on it dutifully armed with maps; I thought at first they had the same idea we did, but most of them ended up getting off at Pinhão,   most likely to have lunch and do some possibly wine tasting. They got back on the train when we returned,   so if you’d like to do this, it is possible to go to these towns for lunch and some pretty views. But, the scenery really is the most stunning after Pinhão;   so I do encourage you to try to do the whole trip because eventually the tracks go into areas without even roads, so you wouldn’t be able to follow this path even with a car.

It was also the end of October, so we had our coats and scarves with us. I’m sure that also impacted the lack of crowdedness on the train. The sky was a bit bleak and grey, so I can only imagine how much more stunning the vistas must be in the summer or spring!

In full disclosure, I’ll say it again: yes, it is a three hour train ride, one way.  So six hours roundtrip.  But we knew this and we were so tired from the previous day’s activities that we made the conscious decision that we wanted to just sit and hang out on a train all day. In fact my traveling companion took a nap at one point. I read a book for the first hour,   but once the scenery started to change the time seemed to pass very quickly as we watched out the window and took photos.


The train stops at Peso da Regua, Pinhao, and other fairly popular stops on bus tours and boat tours. You’re able to reach wineries and vineyards from Pinhao, although for a longer immersive stay in the Douro area I would recommend a car or private transportation so you’re not limited to the wineries close to stations. I can definitely see the appeal of stopping to have lunch here, though. We resisted the temptation and soldiered on!

After Pinhao, the roads and cars disappear and the train is rushing through stunning valley gorges.   At one point, one side’s windows showed us a sheer cliff-face, and the other side was the gorgeous, languid Douro. I took photos at every turn, trying to avoid the window glare. On the sides of the valley’s vineyards were emblazoned the names of Portugal’s best known vineyards and wine cellars. It’s said that the train ride is 160km and goes through 20 tunnels, under 30 bridges, and passes 34 stations. It’s truly an adventure!

Keep an eye out for the Pinhão station, which is postcard-famous for its azulejos tiles.

train douro river portugal

Around three hours after we left Porto, we pulled into Pocinho. I’m not sure about the village itself, but the train station isn’t much. It didn’t even have a ticket office open (we ended up just buying the return tickets on the train from the conductor, because we hadn’t want to buy a roundtrip in Porto in case our plans changed). The point of the trip was the train ride, not the station, so just bear this in mind.


The train will rest here for about 40 minutes and then turn around and start back along the same route. If you miss it, it will be several hours before another comes back, so don’t miss it!   We found a very small café just up the hill from the station (when we came out of the station we turned left) and asked the delightful lady if she had any food. She made us the best ham and cheese sandwich ever! We had another coffee, and walked back to the station to give ourselves a few minutes’ cushion as we did not want to be stuck there!  Perhaps consider bringing some picnic supplies with you to make your own sandwiches and snacks if you prefer.


We boarded the train and sat on the opposite side this time, and enjoyed the fabulous scenery all the way back. Again, once we got closer to the more well-known towns, more people got on the train and it got a little more crowded. We got back to Porto around 4pm, in time to go back to our hotel, start packing, and enjoy a last dinner before heading home.

Our train ride was one of my highlights of Porto, and was a great way to get a taste for the Douro River as we didn’t have time to spend an extra night there.  Of course, if you have more time, I would recommend staying at a quinta for one or two nights (I’m already planning my next trip!); but if you want to say you’ve ridden on this beautiful little train ride, take advantage of the easy and inexpensive opportunity!

Note:  there is also a luxury train ride & a special tourist steam train route with limited departures that follows the Douro River during specific times of the year, so if you’re interested in train travel with a little bit more pizzaz, let me know.  This article describes how to take a train in the Douro River valley using the public trains without extra amenities or tours included.

Are you planning a trip to Portugal?

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iceland waterfall

What to do in Reykjavik, Iceland in 6 days

Iceland is such an amazing destination and due to fantastic non-stop flights from certain US airports, many people are able to experience it in a relatively short amount of time. I helped a client plan five nights there, using Reykjavik as a base to explore many of Iceland’s must-sees for first-timers.  She loved her trip and graciously wrote up this trip report as a way to help others who may be planning the same vacation. These travelers chose not to rent a car, so this is the perfect itinerary if you’re looking for mini-tour suggestions. Read on for tips on what to do in Reykjavik, Iceland!

Itinerary Overview

  • Sunday morning – arrive early and eat breakfast in airport before heading to the Blue Lagoon. In the afternoon, checked in at Hotel Klopp, and picked up some food items for the week at a local store.
  • Monday – Golden Circle Tour during the day (about 8 hours), Northern Lights tour at night
  • Tuesday – sleep in after late night seeing the Northern Lights! Explored Rekyavik and its main plaza, as well as visiting museums and landmarks.
  • Wednesday – South Shore Tour and Glacier Hike
  • Thursday – half day Icelandic Horseback riding at Íslenski Hesturinn!
  • Friday – sightseeing around Reykjavik and souvenir shopping before 2 pm departure for airport

What it’s like flying with Iceland Air

Although a lot of websites describe Iceland Air as “basic” I enjoyed flying with them – we received fresh “Iceland Glacier” bottled water the second we stepped on the plane, the blankets were super comfy, etc. Each plane is named after a volcano and each seat has an Icelandic saying on it which is fun too!

The Blue Lagoon – Reykjavik, Iceland

Blue Lagoon Reykjavik
The Blue Lagoon

I definitely recommend going right from the airport as it was perfect to wake yourself up, also since we were there a few minutes before it opened, we got a good spot in line and managed to grab some of the bigger lockers for our luggage. By the time we left (around 2 pm) it was getting crowded so I definitely enjoyed the fewer crowds in the morning.

Using Bus Travel (they offer an airport pickup service with a stop at the Blue Lagoon) meant a smaller group arriving – right after us came big busloads so it was nice to get there ahead of them. (The Blue Lagoon now requires buying timed tickets in advance to alleviate some of the crowding issue.)

The lagoon itself is super duper relaxing, amazing and iconic of course. There are steam baths and saunas to the side you can go to as well (no extra charge) when you want a break from the water. There is silica mud you can put on your face and also waterfalls which massage your shoulders. There is a café with prepackaged sandwiches as well as a more expensive, upscale restaurant.

The Blue Lagoon has smaller lockers in the shower room that you can store your personal items in. We were glad we brought our own towels since it would have been annoying paying another 5 euro to rent them. You get an electronic bracelet that then is your key to your lockers, keeps track of your drink orders, restaurant spending, etc then you pay at the end. Super convenient!

There are “open” showers and locker rooms (separate for boys/girls though) but it wasn’t a big deal to grab one of the private stalls to shower/change since we were there early. I could see how it would be a longer wait if we were there later.

Hotel Klopp in Reykjavik

The hotel was a great location  – in the middle of everything so SUPER walkable and we didn’t have to worry about buses etc. Definitely worth staying in the city center. Everything is much closer than looks on the map though so most places would be considered in the “center.”

I would definitely say the hotel is “basic” compared to budget American hotels. For example, not a lot of storage in the room (no dresser etc), small bathroom with just washroom-style shower so the whole floor gets wet when you shower. If you are a more discerning traveler you may want to look at some of the higher-end hotels, but given that we were never even in our hotel except to sleep, it was fine for our first trip.

The free breakfast was great though and we would fill up before we left each morning. Toast, coffee, lunch meat/cheese, granola and Skyr, etc.  Basic but filling. Icelandic butter and jam was soo good on the toast each morning. Iceland can be expensive, so the included breakfast was key here!

The view of the bay from our hotel

The view of the bay from our hotel

Golden Circle Tour from Reykjavik (Bus Travel) – Monday

It was nice to see this right when we arrived, it was also an incredibly nice day with clear weather so we were lucky. Bus Travel picked us up on time and took us around, about 7 people total including us which was nice. I could definitely see how it would be easy to drive on your own, but Bus Travel did a good job giving you enough time at the different stops without giving you too much time.

Our bus driver was friendly and gave us good info. He did a good job getting us places ahead of the giant tour buses, and changed the scheduled slightly when needed.

Golden Circle Tour Reykjavik
Crater Kerid on the Golden Circle tour


Northern Lights Tour from Reykjavik

Northern Lights tour Reykjavik

Northern Lights

Seeing the Northern Lights is definitely a must do if you’re there during the right time, but keep in mind that it’s nature (so not guaranteed) and it will probably be cold. Plan accordingly! There are so many providers offering this experience, it’s probably not necessary to book ahead of time in my opinion.

Our hotel booked this for us Monday night, we ended up with Reykjavik Excursions. It wasn’t the biggest deal b/c it was a cheaper price, but they are a big bus company so you end up doing a lot of waiting to transfer into a big coach, travelling with a lot of people, etc. I could see how a smaller tour would be nicer if you want to get the personal touch or talk to the guide, but we basically just waited out in a field with them for hours. The Northern Lights came out right when we were about to leave and we watched them for about an hour.

I was glad I wore my waterproof pants as I just sat on the straw and didn’t feel too cold except my hands when I was taking pictures. We didn’t go to bed until 3 in the morning so we slept in that next morning!

Reykjavik Sites and Restaurants

Walking around in Reykjavik
Walking around in Reykjavik

The Pearl – we walked from our hotel, but it took a little bit of time, so keep in mind location if the weather’s bad. We went to the observation deck for the view, but didn’t eat at the revolving restaurant as it was pricier.  Instead we went to the Saga Museum which is in the Pearl – it is a history of Iceland basically with wax figures – it only took us 30 minutes to go through so it was nice to do having walked all that way.

Walked to the harbor when we got back to try Icelandic Hot Dogs – very yummy and at $11 for 4 of us, definitely the cheapest thing in Iceland! We got these a couple of times during our stay – you can’t miss out on trying them!!!

Exercise – there are running paths by the bay and through the town which was nice if you wanted to go for a run.

We discovered the “Plaza” which is also in the center of town, with hotels and lots of restaurant options. Looked like a fun place to stay in general – we ended up eating at a pizza/hamburger place as it was cheaper here.

We also went to “Settlement 871 +/-2” which is near the plaza, we also had a small coupon for this which was at our hotel. It is an exhibition about the longhouse they excavated in Iceland, and was a pretty good exhibit and good way to spend an hour or so.

We planned to go to the National Museum of Iceland but never made it – however the brochures looked awesome so I would have definitely gone there if we had had more time. Looked like it was much bigger so could have been at least a half-day or more there.

View of the city from the top!

Went to dinner at “Tapas Barrin” because saw they had a 7-course tapas menu with Icelandic specialties (puffin, whale etc). Our hotel called ahead and made reservations for us. We also had a 15% coupon from one of the visitor’s guides (we used coupons a lot when we could find it). This was pricier – about $50/person but we wanted to try the specialties.  It caters to tourists in this regards, so there wasn’t a ton of local atmosphere. Everything was good but in retrospect I probably would have just ordered the separate Tapas individually and we could have shared as a table as the portions would shareable (a couple bits per person) so then we could have gotten specific things we wanted in addition to the more exotic things on the pre-fix menu). The service was also “eh” – they were bringing out 2-3 courses at a time so it felt kind of hurried. And yes, puffin/whale/horse are all on the menu – be prepared!

Another dinner was at “Vegamot” which was a cool restaurant (also had a coupon) and not too expensive. I ended up having lobster soup which was amazing, and we ordered nachos for the table based on Tripadvisor reviews and they were sooo good. (DUCK NACHOS!!)

Spent an evening at Volcano House – they play a movie on the hour every night til 9 PM so we went there our last night, it is 53 minutes long about different volcano explosions (including the famous one) and you can drink beer while watching it.  They also have a small (really small) geological exhibit and a little café so it was a nice way to finish off the night.

South Shore and Glacier Hike from Reykjavik

Iceland glacier hike

Glacier hike – a must-do!

Iceland Guided Tours was awesome – nice mini-coaches, super friendly guide, on time and very positive overall. I would definitely recommend using them again. In fact we booked our horseback riding through them – just popped into the office and asked them to book it for us when we confirmed our glacier hike for the next day. They even tell you which rest stop to buy your lunch based on the prices and convenience!

During the trip, they pass you off to the glacier hike guides and then come back for you – the other people on the bus go to Vik and see some other sights for a few hours. When we first booked I was worried about missing stuff but I am glad we didn’t book the other tours that also then continued on after the hike – we were really tired afterwards!

The glacier hike was awesome and a must-do in Iceland!!! One of our most memorable days.  Our guide, Tomas, was hilarious and also very educational, making sure you understood the nature part and not just the “cool” part. He also made us feel pretty safe – marking spots we shouldn’t walk etc.

When we were up there we saw tourists going up with a guide with no crampons, helmets, etc, and he was very indignant about it.  We were also a group of about 10-12 which was perfect – I saw bigger tours with 30 people in a line and that would have been so annoying. When we got to the top it started to snow and he let us stay up for a bit and took our pictures before leading us back down. I would definitely recommend this for anyone going to Iceland as it felt like it encapsulated the whole experience.

On the way back, IG Tours stopped at the two waterfalls, one of which you could walk behind which was fun. By that time it was raining so I was just cold and tired from the hike, so they were good photo opps but then we would get back on the bus to each our lunch and wait for other people.

Horseback Riding

Life goals!

Life goals!

We were gone from about 9am-1pm and it was AWESOME. I would do this again in a heartbeat.

We booked through IG Tours, which uses “Íslenski Hesturinn – The Icelandic Horse” so we probably could have booked directly as well.

The couple who owns the horse fun were SO MUCH fun to be around. They took an hour to talk to us first about Icelandic horses, how to ride, the tolt, and so on. Totally different from American horseback riding tourism stuff where they just throw you on a sleepy animal and you slowly plod along. They match you up with your horse based on your riding experience and have you hang out with it for a few minutes to make friends before getting on. The horses are small but with lots of personality so they are so fun to ride.

Actual riding time is 1 hour – 1.5 hours and you get to tolt which is so much fun.  The tolt is a special gait like a smooth fast jog by the Icelandic horses.  They had riders of all experiences with them and it seemed like everyone was super comfortable. You ride in a park next to the farm and they even take pictures for you – they email them to you a week or so later so you have great pics from your trip!  (They don’t “ban” cameras on the trip, but they do point out that you should probably pay attention to riding and not photos for safety reason.)

Tips about visiting Reykjavik

The cheapest place to get wool sweaters was the Handknitting Association of Iceland direct stores – still expensive of course but better prices than some of the other wool stores. Supposedly there is an outlet outside Reykjavik if you have a car. Also, the flea market on the weekends is supposed to have the cheapest stuff but since we go there Sunday afternoon we ended up not going. Other than that, there are souvenir places all over Reykjavik, with varying prices for the same stuff over and over again. But they are known for their wool so I suggest investing in some warm sweaters!

There were also several museums and exhibits that we never went to, so there was plenty left for us to do – maybe one more day would have been fine (I guess if we hadn’t slept half the day on Tuesday then that would have sufficed).

We definitely packed the perfect types/amounts of stuff – we were pretty casual and just did jeans the whole time and didn’t feel out of place in restaurants (probably the Pearl would have been dressier if we’d gone).

Waterproof pants were a bonus during the glacier hike and walking behind the waterfall since they also block the wind, and my winter jacket held up nicely – definitely I do not recommend going with just a wool jacket as the weather really does change every ten minutes. We always had hats/gloves just in case and would always use them at some point during the day.

I am glad I had bought a little “waterproof” camera I bought in addition to a nicer camera – it was nice to have a small camera in my pocket at all times and also not worry about it getting wet, etc., if the weather was rainy.

My snowboots were nice and warm for glacier hiking and I had bought another separate set of ankle boots for horseback riding and walking around – also waterproof. Basically I can see why this is the number one thing – definitely paid off to be waterproof!!!

Reykjavik Iceland geyser

You will never know what an Icelandic Kroner looks like because everyone – right down to the hot dog stand – uses credit cards. Seriously, we never withdrew cash once.

Every single person speaks perfect English too, so it was fine getting around. There are maps, visitors books, and some coupons available mostly everywhere too so we would find random stuff to do just by looking through the information.

Overall, we loved our trip to Iceland and would love to go back – there was so much we didn’t do, as well as other opportunities that are only available during the warmer summer months.  Thanks for your help in booking!

[Photos and text copyright 2016 Sophia Curcio]

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Pony Trekking Through A Volcano Crater in Ecuador

Once in a while you get an opportunity to do something so amazing, you can barely believe it was real!

If you want to literally go off the beaten path, consider this horse trek through the Pululahua volcano crater in Ecuador, two hours from Quito (the ranch will come and pick you up near your hotel in Quito).

Scroll for more information about how we did and what it was like riding in a volcano crater!


I’d heard of Green Horse Ranch for a few years during my travels to Ecuador,  but never had an opportunity to experience this magical adventure until last year.   You can read their TripAdvisor reviews here and their business website is:

Green Horse Ranch offers full day horse riding excursions as well as longer treks across the country – up to 8 days longer!  It’s run by a German family,  so English, Germany, Spanish, and even other languages are all featured on their website and spoken by their staff.

The ranch is inside the National Reserve of the Pululahua Volcano Crater – one of the only two inhabited craters in the world,  and the biggest crater in the Americas!

The crater is about 25 miles north of Quito,  and your riding package includes roundtrip transport from Quito.

When I booked it (and I don’t think this has changed,  but they’ll inform you through email), the meeting point was at 9:00 am at Café Magic Bean on street corners Foch and Juán León Mera in the new town center – this was very close to many guest’s accommodations,  and was less than a 5 min taxi ride from my hotel.

We got there at 9am and were greeted by the van driver.  We took a taxi to the café because it was raining that day and we weren’t sure of the walk.  Speaking of rain,  the Ranch doesn’t offer a cancelation policy due to weather.  This is because the weather in the crater can be completely different from the weather in Quito,  so even though it was raining when we left our hotel,  it stopped by the time we reached the ranch.

Layers are very important.  I wore cargo pants, a long sleeved shirt, and a zipup hoodie, as well as a scarf. (Ecuador has very variable temperature changes!) Throughout the day, I sometimes just wore my lightest layer (but beware – the sun is quite strong – even if it’s cold, wear sunscreen) and other times I put my top layer back on.

Our hosts gave us rainboots to wear, which was great and protected our legs against the brush and thorns in some places.   They also gave us pouches to wear around our waist, to put anything in that we needed close at hand (sunglasses, camera, etc);  you can put anything else important (extra bottle of water, etc) in the horse’s saddlepack,  but you can’t get it unless you stop and dismount.   They also pack extra ponchos for all the riders,  which came in handy for the last twenty minutes of our ride when a storm broke.

The ranch also offers overnight accommodations, so we were joined on our ride by a young mother and son who were staying there for a  holiday for a few days and were going on daily rides.

All the horses at the Ranch are named after characters from Lord of the Rings! Mine was named Boromir,  and my friend’s was named Gimli.

The horses are all carefully selected based on your riding ability.  When you book your riding adventure,  they will email you a form for you to fill out explaining your horse back riding ability,  your dietary restrictions, and other pertinent information.

The drive to the ranch is deceivingly nondescript.  You actually start to wonder if this is the type of scenery you’ll be trekking through,  and if so if it’s worth the money.  Then,  you’ll turn up a winding dirt road,  and come to a park office (your driver will pay the national park entrance fee for you – it’s included in the ride).  All of a sudden,  the road slips through an keyhole opening in the mountain side,  and you’ve stepped into another world!

The huge volcano crater, vibrant and green from the rain,  stretched out below us! We could see rainforest, a few buildings/farms, and the mountains making up the sides of the valley.   It was stunning.

The car began the long trek down to the bottom of the crater.  The hills are so high and the switchbacks are arduous, so it probably took another 40 minutes just to drive to the bottom!  We were passed by mountain bikes pedaling down at full speed (but I wouldn’t want to pedal up!)

Finally,  we came to the Green Horse Ranch,  where we met the owner, Astrid,  and her staff.  She paired us up with the appropriate horses and gave some feedback to the beginners.  And we were off!

The ride was 3-4 hours (note:  I do ride horses,  but this was a long time! I was definitely sore and stiff and tired by the end!) and we covered all types of scenery.  First we started out in the bottom of the valley,  passing farmers in the fields or looking at local flora and fauna.  At one point,  we were on a dirt road that was on a ridge above the crater,  so we could see stunning views of the crater.  Then we would alternate between following our leader down into the wooded valley or climbing up the mountainside for more views.

At times there were quite some perilous drops down a cliff-face,  and I had to remind myself that clearly,  these sure footed ponies from the Andres knew what they were doing and the ranch has never had a horse fall down the mountain!  When hesitating,  it’s best to let the horse pick its way down the mountain and try not to imbalance it or shift your weight around.  My friend had never been on a horse before,  and I did feel that some of the paths we went on were a bit scary even for me as an intermediate rider,  so I encouraged her as much as possible.  (But I’m still glad we did it!)

Lunch was included as part of the ride,  and it felt like we were eating at the top of the world!  For lunchtime,  we climbed to the top of a mountain range on the ponies,  then let them eat grass while we sat on blankets,  stretched our legs,  and ate delicious sandwiches, pasta salads, fruit, and chips brought by our hosts.

Then after lunch,  it was back onto the horses and continued our trekking adventure.  Those of us who were a bit more knowledgeable did get to trot and canter at times,  and the ranch staff was very good about making sure the beginners did not join in or feel uncomfortable.

Towards the end of the ride,  the storms did roll in,  and we were glad of the ponchos in our horses’ saddlepacks.  We arrived back at the ranch exhausted but exhilarated!

The driver then returned us back to Quito, safe, sound, tired,  but so happy at the magical memories we had created that day.

If you have any interest in horses and some riding experience,  I highly recommend this fantastic opportunity to explore the Andes on the back of a horse!