Tag Archives: Travel

travelalaska

Discovering Alaska

“The Last Frontier”

by Lydia Brown

The Aleut word “Alyeska” means Alaska, which translates to “The Great Land.” This Great Land was purchased from Russia in 1867 and was awarded statehood in 1959.  Alaska boasts 17 of the highest peaks in the United States (Mt. McKinley being the biggest and most famous). Five percent of the land is covered by glaciers (29,000 square miles) and it has more than 70 active volcanoes!

While oil is the main source of income, tourism has become just as important to many of the towns.  The largest influx of tourists come by cruise ship, including large luxury liners such as Princess Cruise Lines, Norwegian, Holland America, Celebrity Cruises, and Royal Caribbean, to the smaller adventure ships.  No matter what form your trip takes, it’ll be a lifetime adventure. From dog sledding to whale watching, excursions abound. There are no limits in Alaska!

A favorite spot is the Kenai Peninsula in Southeast Alaska.  The Kenai River is turquoise blue like the Caribbean Sea (I am told the color is from the glacial sediment) and boasts some of the finest fishing, horseback riding, hiking tours and wildlife viewing in the world!

Juneau, Alaska’s capital (named for its founder Joe Juneau, an early settler in the 1800s seeking his fortune in gold) will give you the option to board a helicopter and land on a glacier or experience a flightseeing plane over the glaciers with spectacular views.  Whitewater rafting is very popular here as well, and luckily you won’t have to row as they do all the work for you.  You’ll get right up close to the glacier!  Salmon fishing abounds here, canoe trips and kayaking, as well.  If you want to stay landside you can take a cog rail up the side of Mt. Roberts and do some hiking.

Ketchikan is the remnant of a true Indian village….the Tlingits Indians.  Here at the Saxman Village they depict the history with Totem poles and folkloric shows.  You will also find Totem Bight State Park, all of which depict the native culture of the times.  You can see lumberjacks in action and visit Misty Fjords National Park with its two million acres of sheer cliffs and 1,000 foot waterfalls.  Oh yes, and don’t forget to visit the historic boardwalk of Creek Street and its famous “red light” district for a little local color.

Skagway was the gateway to the gold fields for the thousands who flocked to Alaska and the Yukon with the hope of striking it rich.  Skagway was the shortest route to the Klondike, but it wasn’t the easiest.  Over 100 years ago, the White Pass route through the Coast Mountains and the shorter but steeper Chilkoot Trail were used by countless stampeders. In its hay-day, Skagway was Alaska’s largest city with over 20,000 inhabitants. Today there are a mere 1,000 residents.  If you do stop in Skagway, stop by the “Red Onion Saloon” for a pint and some folklore about its days as a “bordello”.

Most folks coming to Skagway arrive by cruise ship and walk across the rail tracks from the dock to board the “White Horse Yukon Railways” and travel over the route followed by the many who sought their fortune in gold.  The train follows the old gold rush route on new tracks but from the viewing platform you will see the original tracks with 2865 foot drops and realize what it took to build this by hand, without the benefit of equipment. This is one of my favorite journeys and I highly recommend it!

Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city is modern and surrounded by spectacular wilderness. Here you can enjoy some world-class attractions, native Alaskan culture, shopping and dining.  The nearest port is Whittier, located about 65 miles southeast of the city.  The old port of Seward used to be home to the major cruise lines but Whittier replaced this about 5 years ago.  The Seward highway links Anchorage and Seward and is a National Scenic byway and of the 15 routes designated as an “All-American Road” in the United States.  Dramatic views of the wild abound.  This area is home to Prince William Sound which has the most tidewater glaciers in the world and boasts a rich marine life due to the depth of the sound.

There are so many ways to experience Alaska and not everyone wants to see if from the comfort of a luxury cruise-ship.  Many prefer the “road less traveled”.  Enter the small ships, able to dock in isolated bays and smaller cities like Petersburg and Wrangell.  They provide a more intense experience.  Life onboard the smaller ships  (about 100 passengers) is far more relaxed. You wake up to the sound of the birds instead of noise from the balcony next door.  Your days consist of kayaking or hiking rather than shopping and taking helicopter tours.  Evenings are spent reading in your room or listening to a naturalist talk.  No need to buy a new cocktail dress, although you may spend as much on outdoor gear.

However you choose to see this vast land it will forever be embedded in your memory. I hope that you will get to experience the beauty of Alaska some day in the near future, so in closing I say to you,  “Go west young man, this is the last frontier!”

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WaterBungalow

Smart Summer Traveling

Getting organized before you leave can save time and money.
by Lisa Lelas

Mid summer is the time of year most families will be out of town on vacation. Getting away is good for you, actually…a chance to get off-schedule, relax and do some family bonding. If you’ve got travel plans in your calendar this summer, here are some tips to consider:

Traveling by air

Research the area you are planning to visit and get your reservations in order. It’s important to know what the local climate is, how much there is to do in the area, special hotel packages, etc. Keep in mind you are more likely to get better rates by booking your hotel, cruise or air flight significantly ahead of time, but sometimes can benefit from some very last minute travel savings available simply to fill seats or cabins.

Create a Packing List. Jot down everything you need to take with you. Group items into specific categories: clothing, toiletries, financials, etc. Before you leave on your trip, check off all items on the list and enclose the list in your suitcase so you can refer to it once again on your way home.

Don’t put your home address on luggage tags. There is no need to advertise that your house is empty. Name, phone number and email or an office business card will do.

Travel light. Remember that most airlines are now charging additional fees for a second piece of checked luggage and several even charge a fee for your first bag. Keep your suitcase under 50 pounds for domestic travel…or you’ll be charged a separate fee! If you travel a lot, you might consider purchasing a small travel scale and keep it tucked right in your suitcase.

Remember the ‘3-1-1’ rule. When packing toiletries in your carry-on bag, you are allowed just 3.4 ounces or smaller containers of liquid or gel. Contain them in 1 quart size zip lock bag for every 1 person. Be sure to have your clear bag of toiletries out and ready to be placed in the screening bin.

Take an earlier flight whenever possible. There is less chance of delays and more flights throughout the day ahead in the event your flight gets cancelled or delayed. Call ahead prior to your scheduled flight to see if there are any seats left on an earlier flight. If there are, plan to arrive at the airport earlier and book those seats. For domestic flights, you should not be charged any additional fees.

Check airport wait times. Before you leave for the airport, visit the TSA website (transportation Security Administration…www.tsa.gov) which offers wait times at major airport security checkpoints for each hour of the day.

Sit and stretch. If you want extra comfort, be sure to choose exit-row seats (adults only) or bulkhead seats (first row seating, which can accommodate children). These seats typically offer more leg-room than other seats in coach, but most airlines won’t release them until shortly before departure.

Use your phone, not your feet! If you find yourself stuck in the airport when your flight is cancelled, use your cell phone to reschedule a flight or to get waitlisted.

Double up on your drinking water after flying to help alleviate any jet lag.

Blend in when traveling to foreign places. Europeans joke that you can always tell Americans by their white sneakers! Blending in will help you avoid being targeted by pickpockets and unethical taxi drivers. Also, keep your valuables in your front pockets or in a security pouch…and keep a copy of your passport and drivers license back at home with someone who could fax it to you in a pinch.

Call your credit card companies. Let them know when you are traveling so that they do not choose to freeze your account because suddenly the card is being used in China!

Review hotel guidebooks. To find a reliable hotel abroad, read guidebook reviews, look at photos online and ask to see the room before you check in, as sizes often vary in the same price category. Typically, hotel rooms are much smaller abroad than in the US.

Traveling by car

Consider ‘shoulder season’ hotel bookings around the country. Book the shoulder of the summer season (such as very early summer or very late summer/early fall) when possible because hotel rates are cheaper and crowds are much lighter.

Choose kid friendly places. If you’ve got younger kids, make sure you choose a kid-friendly destination. Most family resorts offer excellent children’s programs with camp-like daily activities. Hold a family meeting to get a general consensus of what everyone wants to do, then purchase a guidebook or visit a web site from a place that shares your interest and budget.

Stick to 60 mph. Set the cruise control for long distance traveliung. Cruise control usually increases your gas mileage. U.S. Department of Energy statistics indicate every 5 miles an hour over 60 mph costs an extra dime per gallon used.

Keep your car in tune. Regular auto maintenance can keep from burning excess fuel. An out of tune car can burn 40 percent more fuel than a well tuned one!

So, what are you waiting for? Summer’s here… Happy Traveling!

iStockgardenLarge

Breathtaking Gardens of the World

Floral Masterpieces You Have to See to Believe!
by Lydia Brown

They say you can’t fool with mother nature,  but  you can certainly give her a hand. This is the year of the “Floriade”.  A floral event that occurs only once every 10 years in The Netherlands.  The event is a spectacular display of flowers, that runs from April through October this year. While I have not yet seen the Floriade, in person, I feel blessed that I have been able to view several other of the worlds best gardens.

For those of you who have ever been in the Netherlands during ‘tulip time’, you have probably been to the Keukenhof Gardens. The endless display of 7 million tulips, alternating with beautiful works of art, can be seen every spring.  Their pride is the Russian black tulip “Baha Yaga”.  So, if you can’t make it to the Floriade this year, you can visit Keukenhof Gardens every spring.

Another must-see garden, in my opinion, is the ‘The Garden of Cosmic Speculation’, a lovely mystical garden in Scotland, not far from Lockerbie, said to have been inspired by the fateful crash of PanAm in 1988.  While Great Britain is home to some of the best gardens anywhere, this is truly an inspiration of science and math!  The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is open to the public just 1 day a year. Quite simply, there isn’t another one like it in the world.  Horticultural displays are 2nd place in this garden….it is designed with ideas of the mind or at least speculation about the very nature of things, but any picture of it speaks a thousand words. Designed by Charles Jencks and his late wife, Maggie Keswick, this garden is one of Scotland’s best kept secrets. It is one of the most important gardens in Europe, but due to a lack of funding, it is only open for five hours each year, on the first Sunday of May.

‘Chateau Versaille’, located in Versaille, France, another of the most famous gardens of the world, was built for Louis the XIV and designed by Andre Le Notre. Building the garden took regimens of people who hand laid the flower beds and transported earth in wheelbarrows to create it. The gardens are only part of the attraction but an added plus to the entire visit.

One of my particular favorites is in the lakes region of Italy,‘Villa D” Este’, in Tivoli. A Renaissance cardinal decided to make life in Tivoli bearable by turning a dilapidated Benedictine monastery into a lovely villa. This was embellished by one of the most fascinating garden and fountain complexes in the world, recently listed by UNESCO as one of Italy’s 31 major historical/artistic sites.

iStockgardenXSmallNot to be outdone, North America has its treasures as well. The most famous of which is ‘Butchart Gardens’ of Victoria British Columbia, Canada. The gardens were originally  limestone mines.  As Mr. Butchart exhausted the limestone in the quarry near their house, his enterprising wife, Jennie, conceived an unprecedented plan for refurbishing the bleak pit.  From farmland nearby, she requisitioned tons of top soil, had it brought to the inlet by horse and cart, and used it to line the floor of the abandoned quarry.  Little by little, under Jennie Butchart’s supervision, the abandoned quarry blossomed into the spectacular Sunken Garden it has become, with some of the most beautiful Rose Gardens I have ever seen.  If you are headed to Alaska on a cruise this year be sure to add this to your post cruise trip.  It’s worth the visit.

Moving over to Asia, there is an incredible park that is situated in Pattaya, Thailand.  It is popular among tourists because of stunningly beautiful landscapes and marvelous views. Everything here seems to be from a fairy-tale. It is full of Thai style houses, villas, banquet halls, restaurants and swimming pools. A vast 600 acres area was bought by Mr. Pisit and Mrs. Nongnooch in 1954. This land was predicted to be a fruit plantation, but, after Mrs. Nongnooch made a trip abroad, she came back with a firm decision to create a tropical garden of ornamental plants and flowers, instead. It opened to the public in 1980 under the name ‘Suan Nong Nooch’.  ‘Suan’ means garden, since it is a place where everybody can get acquainted with Thai Culture and Cultural Shows.  More than 2,000 visitors go there everyday. It is also a conservation place for many plants and palms.

There are many beautiful gardens throughout the world that you should consider adding to your future travel plans. I am always eager to share the beauty of these gardens and check another item off my bucket list.  Happy garden hopping!

travelmandalay

On the Road to Mandalay

Discovering Mayanmar…a New Treasure in Southeast Asia!
by Norma Spadola

The enchanting city of Mandalay has recently opened its doors to visitors, as the country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) lifted its ban on tourism! Mandalay is thought to be the cultural and religious center of Buddhism and remains a timeless gem.

If you ever had the desire to experience Asia in its original glory, without skyscrapers and any sort of modern hustle and bustle, Myanmar is waiting for you! Beautiful colonial architecture, original temples and simple lifestyles drenched in culture and tradition await you for a vacation of a lifetime!

To get to Mandalay, visitors will fly into Yangon, Myanmar’s primary international airport.

What strikes you upon arrival in Myanmar (formerly the country of Burma, nestled between China, India and Thailand) is the sea of smiling faces and warm welcomes by everyone! Greeting you with a melodic “Mingalabar” (pronounced “ming a la ba”), literally translated as “may you have an auspicious moment”.  This gentle kindness permeates this mysterious country that only recently opened its doors to tourists.

Ever since the romance and exoticism of the once capital of Burma was eloquently portrayed in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Mandalay”, this exotic land had intrigued many of us. When I visited, its  ancient charm impressed me.  It remains similar to early China, before the boom of development overshadowed China’s innocence and authenticity.

Myanmar (still also known as Burma since the days of British occupation) remained isolated from the modern world since the late 1940’s. However, when the military junta was dissolved in 2011 and the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to local recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy lifted the ban on tourism. Since Myanmar opened its doors to tourism, travelers seeking one of these “last frontiers” have rushed to re-discover this simple land steeped in culture and tradition.

Yangon was once the capitol of Burma but in March 2006, the capital was relocated to Naypyidaw. However, Yangon remains the starting point for visitors to Myanmar since the country’s primary international airport is located here, welcoming flights from most major Southeast Asian cities. Magnificent colonial architecture that has all but disappeared in most other Asian cities is still found here.  Skyscrapers are noticeably absent while tree-lined boulevards, parks, and temples are abundant. The magnificent 2,500 year old Schwedagon Pagoda is one of the wonders of the religious world and a most sacred site for the people of Myanmar, as well as being a focal point in the city. The glimmering gold stupa whose top is encrusted with emeralds, rubies and diamonds (4531 to be exact!) will leave you awestruck.

A visit to Scott Market (renamed the Bogyoke Aung San Market) is a must do! Akin to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, hundreds of antique shops line covered cobblestone streets selling local handicrafts, jewelry, hand-woven fabrics and Burmese rubies and jade.  ‘Longyi’, the traditional sarong like garb worn by both men and women proved to be a useful purchase. They are versatile and suit the hot climate. Since it is respectful to cover one’s legs when visiting the many temples, they are also quite practical.  While primarily made of cotton, for special occasions, silk, crepe, and Indonesian batik are favored. Bargaining is expected and cash preferred.

inlelakefishermenMyanmar’s 11th century capital is the ancient city of Bagan. Once boasting over 10,000 temples, the remains of some 3000 pagodas dot the landscape like mushrooms on the flat plains. Hire a horse drawn cart to take you to the temples at dawn and witness sunrise over the temples or float above the stupas by hot air balloon for a breathtaking panoramic view.  Recently opened luxury hotels like the Bagan Lodge and the Aureum Palace are nestled amidst the sea of temples in the Bagan Archeological Zone.  For shoppers, a visit to a lacquerware factory here should be included on your “to do” list!

Mandalay, the last royal capital of Burma, is considered the cultural and religious center of Buddhism in Myanmar. Situated along the Irrawaddy River, which flows some 1,350 miles from North to South entirely within the country, it is a very important commercial waterway for Burma. Orient Express operates 4-5 day cruises on their small luxury boats, the Road to Mandalay and Orcaella between Mandalay and Bagan. Close by in Amarapura, the U-Bein Bridge, the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world often serves as a frame for some fantastic Burmese sunsets.  Puppetry is a popular entertainment tradition here and beautiful handmade puppets that are found in local markets are wonderful souvenirs of Mandalay.

Spiritual and tranquil Inle Lake, home to the Intha people, is a peaceful land where time seems to have stood still.  Bamboo and wooden houses on stilts line the shore in villages that are home to fisherman known for their distinctive one-legged rowing style. The lake is covered with floating tomato gardens, water lilies, reeds and floating plants that locals zip through on outboard fitted long boats. Relax and enjoy lunch in the Bamboo Forest amidst the towering bamboo trees!

With all that Myanmar offers travelers, the Burmese are truly manifesting their future!  n

travelDivingAdventures

Escaping Winter

As easy as A-B-C!  Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao.
by Lydia Brown

Now that the weather has turned cold with a daily chance of snow…you are probably already thinking that by January you just might be ready to escape and exchange it all for a stretch of warm sun, sand and tropical breezes, holding your Kindle for a fun beach read.

To make your decision easier, I have compiled an escape list to guarantee you a warm getaway this winter! If you are planning to travel right after the holidays or some time in January/early February, you definitely have to consider a few specific islands. The Bahamas, Bermuda and some of the Western Caribbean can actually be cold in January. I have been to Freeport in the Bahamas in January when they saw their first snowfall and sat with my sweater on in Nassau during April. Early January in Cancun can actually be 65 degrees!

So where do you go?  You head south to the ABC islands of the Leeward Antilles (southern chain of the lesser Antilles) comprised of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire. The islands are affiliated with the Netherlands but self governed for many years now.  You are pretty much guaranteed 80 degree weather or better, warm water, white powder beaches and a variety of hotels and resorts ranging from bed and breakfast and boutique to all inclusive resorts. The island of Bonaire is known for its reefs and therefore is a perfect place for diving, whereas Curacao, has some diving and beaches but is more known for a great European flare in its downtown area of Willemstad and some fabulous restaurants. Aruba (the most visited and Americanized island) boasts white sand beaches and comfortable trade-winds that never stop making it truly inviting.

Aruba is the most popular of the three islands and becoming very congested.  The first time I visited Aruba in the 1970’s, there were only 4 hotels. Today there are more than 25 resorts strung across Eagle and Palm Beaches. The downtown area of Oranjestad is like a mini Miami Beach, with great shops and restaurants.  I can almost guarantee you will come back from Aruba with a tan. Aruba is a desert climate and rarely sees rain. There is a hotel for everyone: the new Riu Resort is the ultimate “all inclusive experience” while one of the original properties, the Divi Divi  (low rise on Eagle Beach) gives a true island experience.  Aruba has many time-share properties as well as the high-end resorts (Hyatt, Westin and Marriott) so there truly is something for everyone here. It’s not a sight-seeing island, per se, but rather a place to really relax. It’s got warm sun, beautiful water, a very educated populous, and all the amenities you could ask for: golf, world class spas, casinos, fabulous shopping, great dining, excellent water sports and incredible deep sea fishing. The natural trade-winds also make for some of the finest sailing in the Caribbean, as well.  Aruba truly has something for everyone.

 

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Bonaire is the smallest of the three ABC islands and is the island that is most known for its scuba and snorkeling.  Bonaire’s economy is mainly based on tourism. There are few sandy white beaches as the island is surrounded by reefs that are easily accessible from the shore.  When you see white, its actually not sand but salt!  It is renowned for being one of the top scuba-diving locations in the world and rightly so.  Bonaire’s license plates carry the logo Divers Paradise (in English). Bonaire is also consistently recognized as one of the best destinations for snorkeling. Wind-surfers also make up a strong group of island tourists, as the east side of the island (facing the Caribbean Sea) has the large waves and wind gusts needed for windsurfing. Lac Bay, in the southeast is shallow yet windy, and hence is considered an excellent place for intermediate sailors to improve their skills. There are mainly time-share resorts here and a few small bed and breakfast properties, so if you are more into five-star resorts, this island is not for you. Most resorts here have on-site dive shops and the rest are affiliated with a dive operation.

Alas, you will need a passport to fly to the Caribbean these days (only the U. S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are exempt from the passport requirement) so update your current one if needed. Don’t be left unprepared if you suddenly want to escape!

Curacao is a medium-sized island with a focus beyond tourism. The main city of Willemstad has a justifiably famous, beautiful and historic harbor with its European influence and pontoon bridge.  Isolated beaches scattered around the island offer some of the best snorkeling and diving anywhere. It’s a good island to explore by jeep, as well.  While the beaches are smaller, the weather is still lovely and it’s a bit more intriguing to me than Aruba, since I am not really a beach person. Curacao was chosen as one of the best 3 locations for snorkeling and diving and macro-marine life by the readers of Scuba Diving Magazine last year.  The people are charming and well educated, offering visitors an enjoyable visit.

travelsouthamerica

Sensational Spots in South America

Discover the beautiful land way south of the border!
by Norma Spadola

Chances are, if I were to say “south of the border”, images of Tijuana or other Mexican border towns may come to mind.  But think big and remember South America!  Our neighbors in many of these southern countries have so much to offer travelers seeking excitement, ancient cultures, exotic flora and fauna, incredible natural wonders and breathtaking scenery, world class wines and cuisine, nightlife, shopping and so much more. Here is a sampling of what you can find in my favorite South American countries:

Ecuador
With only a variance of 2 hours plus or minus our local time, travel to South America means eliminating much of the jet lag we sometimes can experience when traveling.  Ecuador is a great choice for families with its exclusive treasure… the Galapagos! This archipelago of islands, 600 miles off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, was created by undersea volcanic activity some 6 million years ago. It is protected as one large National Park, comprised of 13 major islands and 6 smaller ones.  Visited in 1835 by the English naturalist, Charles Darwin, his findings inspired his writings on the theory of evolution. Many species of wildlife, like the blue-footed booby, is found here and nowhere else on earth. It is like exploring a living laboratory.  And did you know that the Panama hat actually originated in Ecuador? While good weather conditions exist year round, the prime time for travel is normally December to May.

CHILE
Chile, known as the “Land of Fire and Ice”, offers huge geographical and cultural diversity along with a climate perfect for year round travel. Santiago, blessed with a cool Mediterranean climate, lies close to vineyards, ski resorts and the coast.  In contrast, Atacama on the Pacific coast is the driest desert in the world.  The amazing and mysterious Easter Island or Rapa Nui is the world’s most remote island with its massive Moais, huge carved stone figures whose presence remains an enigma.  Some of the finest fly-fishing waters in the world can be found in the Lake District of Chile.

The untamed land of Patagonia, near to the southern tip of Chile, is home to Torres del Paine National Park and Cape Horn and perfect for adventure seekers.   Nomads of the Seas, a small luxury expedition vessel, with its two helicopters, can take you to places that would otherwise be unreachable. Shopping in Chile won’t disappoint either. Chile is one of two countries in the world where lapis lazuli is mined, so be forewarned, the unique jewelry found in the shops may be tempting!

travelsouthamericaARGENTINA
Argentina, the 8th largest country in the world is “The Land of the Gaucho”. Begin your travels in Buenos Aires, known as the Paris of South America, a sophisticated city, rich in European culture. Explore some of the 48 barrios (neighborhoods) like the colorful and artsy La Boca, or treat yourself to a private tango lesson!  Fashionistas flock to the elegant avenues of Recoleta where toney shops and hip boutiques abound.  From there, on the eastern side of the Andes, in a region of foothills and high plains, lies Mendoza, the largest wine producing area of Latin America.  At the end of a day filled with sightseeing, enjoy a world class Malbec with some fine Argentine beef at chef Francis Mallman’s Restaurant 1884. Opening soon in the area is the new Vines Resort and Spa and a “must stay” for wine lovers!  In San Carlos de Bariloche, a 2 hour flight south of Buenos Aires, in the Lake district, world class skiing can be enjoyed. With seasons reverse to ours, avid skiers flock there to follow their passion. Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, is regarded as the world’s most southernmost city so you may wish to check that off your bucket list too!

Too many countries, so little time (and space) but clearly, “South of the Border” means a wealth of great travel experiences await!

travelhavana

Beautiful Havana

New Ways to Visit Cuba Legally
by Lydia Brown

In order to understand the importance of Obama’s lifting the travel ban to Cuba, we need to go back to 1960 when the U.S. government imposed an economic and financial embargo against Cuba (two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban Revolution). It was finally enacted in February of 1952 when Cuba nationalized the property of American citizens.  It was titled the “Cuban Democracy Act” and its sole purpose was to maintain sanctions on Cuba as long as the Cuban government continued to refuse to move toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights.”

People have been traveling to Cuba for many years, through the “back door”, if you will,  via the Bahamas, Mexico and Canada.  It entailed taking two flights.  One from U.S.A. to a foreign destination and then from there to Cuba with no “stamps” put in U.S. citizen passports. The embargo did not allow Americans to spend money in Cuba so they had to be sure they did not show an entry stamp on their passports.

Today, the “people to people” movement allows licensed vendors to set up tours that allow Americans to travel legally to Cuba.  The tours must have a full schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between travelers and individuals in Cuba.  The trips can range from a long weekend in Havana to more than a week on the island, usually including visits to historic sites like Old Havana or for the longer itineraries a visit to Cienfuegos, a picturesque city in the South.

Demand for these tours are strong and many tour operators already have long wait lists.  After all, the “forbidden” has always intrigued us and we have been waiting for nearly 50 years to get the opportunity to visit Cuba.

Stepping into Old Havana “ La Hababa Vieja” is like stepping back in time.  It’s a virtual time machine.  Plaza de Armas (oldest square in Havana)  has the oldest neo-classic building in  Havana,  the El Templete.  Casa de la Obra Pia’s notable curvaceous baroque portico was carved in Cadiz in 1686.  Today it is home to an 18th century furniture museum and the Covento de Santa Clara (a pre-baroque nunnery with rammed-earth walls and a beautiful cloister) which are just a few of the sites within a short walking distance of the square.  It’s like time stood still here and someone just replaced the battery.

Museums such as the Muse Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) re-opened in 2001 after having been closed for 5 years. The art is divided into two buildings:  The Cuban Art collection  and the International Art collection…..the main attraction here is not the art but the building itself.  Magnificent.

If you have never tasted a traditional Cuban dish of “chicken stuffed with rice and beans” you are in for a treat. Authentic Cuban cuisines should not be missed.  I would try the  La Cocina de Lilliam or La Esperanza….fine Cuban cuisine.

travelhavana2What ‘s a trip to Cuba without a visit to a real Cuban bar! Check out one of Hemingway’s haunts, La Bodeguita del Medio (not really frequented by locals but a great photo op!). You can even tour the city in a 50’s Classic car or listen to the Cuban music and dance at a cabaret or club. The primo club is the Tropicana Cabaret  where the finest groups perform.  It’s an outdoor theatre that seats 800 and is packed on the weekends or you can try the Copa Room at the Hotel Riviera to see real Cuban musical groups perform. Music abounds in this country – it’s a real love affair.

Let us not forget Americans’ favorite pasttime… baseball. The Cubans have an obsession with this sport. You can visit the Cuban ballpark during Serie Nacional de Beisbol,  October to April. The Cubans have two teams: Sierie Nacional Metropolitanos and Industriales (or Los Azules, the Blues).  If you visit Parque Central on the edge of Old Havana you can witness an unofficial game and see how seriously Cubans take this sport!

While Cuba is beautiful and interesting and I have had many requests from clients to book Cuba, the price of the tours can be a deterrent. The official packages are not inexpensive and do not include the airfare!. A 3 night package in Havana starts at $2,095.00 per person based on double occupancy and up to an 11 night tour for $4,295.00 per person double occupancy. So, suffice it to say, you have to be serious about seeing Cuba! If you are looking for a beach weekend, you better stick with the Caribbean!

For information on People to People travel to Cuba please contact me at lbrown@sanditz.com

travelantarctica

Antarctica

The Adventure of a Lifetime
by Norma Spadola

If  you asked people what their “dream” destination would be, their responses might be predictable, ranging from the romance of cities (London, Paris, Rome) to idyllic or remote islands (Tahiti, Capri, St Bart’s ), or exotic cultural destinations (India, Africa, South America and Southeast Asia).  So, it may surprise you to know that one of travel’s hottest “dream” destinations in recent years is in fact… cold!  Would you have guessed Antarctica?

Considered a desert, it is the coldest, driest and windiest continent on earth! When the 2007 movie, “The Bucket List” featured Antarctica, the interest and demand by travelers of all ages to visit the “White Continent” seemed to skyrocket. Perhaps for some, it represents the challenge of conquering a land of unimaginable extremes, or maybe being part of the growing sustainable tourism effort, while for others, it was merely a way to mark a significant birthday milestone in a unique and memorable way.

One frequently asked question is “when is the best time to go to Antarctica?” The answer depends upon your expectations of the experience. The beginning of the season is considered late October until early November, when ice pack is thick and pristine, affording photographers extraordinary opportunities for breathtaking landscape shots.  The penguins are courting and mating. Peak season runs from late December until the end of January, when daylight lasts for 20-24 hours and the weather is warmest. During late summer (February-March) whale watching is at its’ best and the penguin chicks begin to sport their feather coats to face the pending winter on their own while the adult penguins shed their coats.

A friend once described this experience as a cold weather safari!  Wildlife on land, in the air and in the sea surrounds you. Most prolific are the penguins, with each region of the Antarctic Peninsula boasting a different species.    The South Shetland Islands are home to the Chinstrap penguins, so named for the distinctive black stripe under their chin.  The largest colony of Gentoo penguins can be found nesting in the islands of and around the Antarctic peninsula.  Adelie penguin rookeries are found on Paulet Island, also home to the predator leopard seal.  The Falkland Islands, most memorable to the American market for the war in 1982, is home to the Magellanic and Rockhopper penguins.

South Georgia boasts the King penguin, along with the unique South Georgia pipit, the only songbird found in Antarctica!  Here, too, one finds the southern Elephant seals (half of the world’s population) as well as 95% of the world’s southern fur seals.  Minke, Humpback and the incredibly huge Blue whale abound in these waters.

travelantarctica2While ‘inexpensive’ is not a word to be used in the same sentence when considering a journey to Antarctica, the investment in this adventure of a lifetime is warranted. Since the season to visit is a mere 5 months long, advance reservations are mandatory. Travel by ship is the most popular way to visit Antarctica, but understand that ships carrying more than 500 guests are not allowed to land passengers in these waters.  As a result, a true Antarctic experience can only be had traveling on smaller expedition ships where you will enjoy a real “up close and personal” experience with the wildlife . By law, only 100 passengers are allowed to step foot on Antarctica at any one time.  Safe and stable transfer from the ships is made by sturdy Zodiac boats. Accommodations aboard small ships range from “bare bones” ice breaker research vessels to luxury small cruise ships, featuring gourmet cuisine and the services of your own personal butler!

For the extreme adventurer, tour companies like Abercrombie and Kent offer unique opportunities to begin a trek from Elephant Island to the “final degree”- the last 70 miles of the Antarctic desert before the South Pole!  A true test of body and mind, you can cross country ski and sled over the blue-white snow and ice in a land of 24 hour sunlight- before making camp on the ice each day.

Investing in proper attire is essential when planning a trip to this region and will ensure your comfort on the journey. Most upscale tour operators and cruise lines will provide the necessary parka, complimentary, as part of their package.

While this might be one of life’s most spiritual and challenging travel experiences, providing the ultimate in bragging rights, don’t forget to mail a few postcards home to friends and family that boast the rare Antarctic stamps or, as a dear friend once did, make a “snow angel” to celebrate your travel achievement!

travel-allinclusive

All Inclusive Travel

Traveling the “All-Inclusive” Way – Today’s traveler wants value and more!

by Lydia Brown

 

The concept of an all-inclusive resort has existed in one form or another for many years, but the metamorphosis started to take shape during the 80s in Jamaica. In 1950, the first

Club Med Resort opened on an island off Spain and the first all- inclusive was born.

For one fee you get your room, meals, wine, beer, soft drinks and most sports activities.

The idea took off, but it only became popular with young singles. With today’s reinvention of the all-inclusive resort, the concept has transformed travel. Today, the modern traveler looking for an inclusive resort is not only looking for value, but also looking for more. More luxury, spas, golf courses, adventures like zip lining, and rock climbing, fine dining, fine wines, cooking classes, tennis, children’s programs, etc.

Travels to all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, along with cruise vacations, are now the hot sellers. Travelers today want to control their travel costs and know what they are getting for their dollar, so it’s no surprise that when companies like Club Med, Sandals, Beaches, Secrets, Dreams Resorts, Iberostar, Riu Hotels (just to mention a few) came into existence, they became instant hits. They took the all-inclusive to a new level.

The onset of cruise vacations started in the late 1960-70s(which is somewhat inclusive). Before then it was simply a mode of transportation, only available to the rich and famous. Now cruising is available to all levels of travelers. Things have changed. While not all cruise lines include alcohol or gratuities, they do include tax, cabin and meals. There are cruise lines that are basically all inclusive, such as Regent, Silver Sea, etc., but these are the more deluxe lines. Your basic cruise line, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival, Celebrity, etc., include your accommodation, meal plan and taxes with options to prepay gratuities and drink plans.

River cruises have become the ‘inclusive’vacation in Europe this year. They include accommodations, meals, wine with lunch, dinner, and shore excursions, local entertainment on board, taxes, pre and post hotel packages, etc.

Keep in mind, not all ‘all-inclusives’ are created equally. Many have gone viral with luxury offerings such as concierge and butler services, private plunge pools, Jacuzzi ensuites, Red Lane Spas and golf, in an attempt to tap the upscale luxury and honeymoon market. Many travelers, once leery of the of the old ‘inclusive’ concept of Club Med with its buffet dining and no frills accommodations, are now on board and won’t travel any other way. The ‘inclusive’ fever is growing and there are strong indications that we will see more inclusive resorts sprouting up in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland very soon.

(We have a few, but they are limited).

It’s odd that while the inclusive concept is growing in the Caribbean, the traditional escorted tour in Europe is shrinking. Your basic tour was an inclusive of sorts and kept costs down, by virtue of the larger numbers. The trend in the European market is changing. Where Americans once took escorted tours they are now booking independent travel to Italy and France, Great Britain, etc. They are renting cars and doing self-drive vacations. One of every 10 bookings I plan to Europe is an independent vacation: no bus, no tour escort, no luggage out the door at 6 a.m. and no changing hotels every night.

Most spend at least 2 to 3 nights in a city before moving on. Travelers are getting off the bus and getting on a bike or a barge and going to cooking classes, wine tastings, hiking and walking tours as well as even exchanging homes and living like locals. The escorted tour companies, in an effort to maintain a share of the market, are shortening their tours and making them more flexible to allow more free time, thus creating 3 and 4 night modules in many cities that can be combined.

So, whatever your preferences, whichever way you want to travel, remember, not all ‘all-inclusives’ are created equally. While they are a good value, you should ask what is included and what is not included. Read reviews from other travelers and remember not everyone is meant for an inclusive resort and not all destinations should be experienced that way. I can’t imagine going to Italy and eating in the same hotel every day. While I have no problem with the inclusive plan, I think it has a purpose, which was created in the Caribbean to fill a void in places where there were no restaurants in remote areas or it was unsafe to venture far from the hotel. Not every one is a fan of the inclusive resort but no matter what your travel preference, what matters is that you get out there and travel. Experience the world in any way you feel comfortable!

Contact information for Lydia Brown: lbrown@sanditz.com, Sanditz American Express

Travel, West Hartford, CT. (860) 523-5224.