Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I found this article written by Anne D'Innocenzio about her recent river cruise adventure.  It's a great story of what a River Cruise in Europe is like.  Happy Reading!  Let me know when you are ready for your river cruise!

     I've been a land-based traveler for most of my life. Motor coaches and cars have helped me explore everything from Italy's Tuscany region to Ireland's Rings of Kerry. But recently I discovered a love for river cruising.
     After returning from a cruise on the legendary Rhine, I'm happily considering trips to other iconic waterways such as the Danube for next year. Sure, there were a few wrinkles, but they didn't take away from what I found was a charming, intimate experience – with not only the river but the people on the ship. Whether from the deck or the sliding glass door in my cabin, there was always something to see, from steep vineyard hills and medieval castles to industrial plants. I also got to know the eclectic group of 130 passengers on the ship, mostly baby boomers. They included a law firm partner, a teacher, a physics professor on a honeymoon and a priest.
     The small scale of river ships – which typically carry no more than a couple hundred passengers – is a large part of their appeal, in contrast to ocean-going mega-ships that carry thousands. On a river ship, you don't need a GPS device to figure out where the lobby or the dining room is. And there's a sense of intimacy, with plenty of cozy moments. On my trip, some passengers partook in movie night, with popcorn shared in paper bags while watching "Eat Pray Love" on a flat-screen TV in a lounge. I participated in an impromptu mini-Mass with five others in a corner of the ship officiated by the passenger priest. He improvised with that night's dinner bread.
     The idea for the trip started with my globe-trotting mother, who'd taken a trip on a barge on the Seine in the 1990s and had always raved about it. So for $3,100 (per person, double occupancy, excluding airfare), my mother, my sister, a friend and I booked an eight-day trip with Avalon Waterways on the Rhine, starting in Basel, Switzerland and ending in Amsterdam, with stops that included Strasbourg, France, and Heidelberg and Cologne, Germany. Typical of most river cruises, the price covered meals, wine with dinner and most shore excursions.
     While river cruises carry just a fraction of the number of passengers that go on mainstream cruises, the industry has been exploding. The number of people taking river cruises has increased 57 percent since 2008, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. That compares with 23 percent growth for mainstream cruise during the same time frame. European river cruises are expected to carry about 400,000 people next year, according to Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, among the world's five largest river cruise operators.
     "People love it. It's convenient, and visually, you get to see more," says Lanie Morgenstern, the trade group's spokeswoman. The trips are geared to a more sophisticated traveler who wants to mix up the trips for a deeper understanding of the area, she added.
     New river boats also have more amenities than in the past. The vessels must be narrow enough to fit through locks and low enough to pass under bridges that predate large cruise ships, so their cabins are traditionally smaller than on ocean-going ships, with less room for large recreational areas. But river cruise operators are finding ways to add features such as small pools, and they're upgrading in other ways, too, improving menus and decor.
     Still, ahead of my trip, I worried I would get a narrow sense of the region – after all, the itinerary is limited to destinations with river ports and what you can see during a few hours on a port call. I also thought I might get bored on a vessel that lacked the comforts of a big ship. In fact, the fitness room turned out to be the size of a large closet, and there was no swimming pool, just a whirlpool. And while the three-level Avalon Felicity was comfortable, it wasn't luxurious.
     Still, I was pleased with the trip and the at-your-service staff of 40 – a better than 3:1 ratio of crew to passengers. Food was top-notch, with buffets for breakfast and lunch, and more formal sit-down dinners. The only downside: We had all of our meals on board with few opportunities to interact with locals. So whenever I got the chance, I had coffee or dessert in the towns. The good news: next year, Avalon Waterways will offer onshore dining options as part of its overall plan to personalize the experience.
     My cabin, which I shared with my mother, was small but comfortable, with twin beds inches apart. Luggage had to be stored under the beds but there was enough cabinet space to unload belongings. But I spent very little time in my room. Most of my waking hours onboard were on deck or in a lounge looking out.
     The highlight was sitting on the deck with other passengers as we passed by the romantic middle of the Rhine: the 40 or so miles between Bingen and Koblenz, Germany, that define our dreamy notion of the legendary waterway. There, our cruise director Romanian-born Hans Beckert offered a narrative of the string of medieval castles, quaint villages, and fortresses we passed. Not to mention the towering Lorelei rock named after the siren whose beauty distracted sailors. It's where the river is the narrowest and deepest.
     We visited a different port every day, sometimes even two. Sightseeing included walking tours, canal rides and tours of museums and churches. Occasionally the schedule felt stressful, with some departures just a few hours after arrivals. On the day we visited the German town of Mainz, after checking out an original printed bible in the Guttenberg Museum, we ran up the cobbled streets to look at Marc Chagall's stained glass windows in St. Stephen's Church, then sprinted back to the vessel for lunch before we set sail in the afternoon for Rudesheim, known for its wine. But that's the tradeoff with a cruise itinerary: You don't need to worry about getting from place to place, but you have to do it on a set schedule.
     Still, most of the ports were right in town, so once we landed, rarely did we have to take a bus to get to our destination. And most onshore activities were included in the cost of the cruise, though there were a few options for additional fees.
     One of my favorite outings was wine-tasting in Obernai, France. And I fell in love with Rudesheim, where we visited the enchanting Siegfried's Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum that featured self-playing instruments dating back to the 18th century. I also took a cable car to the top of the steep, grapevine-covered hills and enjoyed a magnificent view of vineyards and the Rhine River.
Activities in Amsterdam included a tour of the Van Gogh museum and a canal boat ride. But we also took an optional, 26-euro two-hour chaperoned tour of the city's famous Red Light district. Imagine three dozen tourists – many of them gray-haired retirees – gawking at the bikini-clad young women in the windows. A couple of times we were heckled by rowdy revelers.
     Amsterdam was the cruise's final port. We decided to stay a few days in the Dutch capital for more sightseeing, so we checked into a hotel near the port. I could see the ship from my hotel room's window. Later the next day, I noticed the ship was gone, off with a new group of passengers on another adventure. I felt a twinge of sadness, but knew I would come back to the river again.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Every week I receive tons of information from the cruise lines about exciting new features coming aboard the world's best cruise ships. This week, I thought I'd share just a sampling of some of the cruise line news briefs with you. Did you know...
  • Next June, Princess Cruises will debut a new circuit training program with unique outdoor exercise stations.
  • Viking River Cruises has ordered two additional Viking Longships for 2013, bringing the total to 14 new ships over a two-year period.
  • Ultra-luxe Crystal Cruises has unveiled a new "Magic Castle at Sea," with incredibly entertaining, intimate magic shows.
  • Disney Cruise Line has announced it will begin sailings out of Miami later this year.
  • Royal Caribbean International will be the first cruise line to deploy a new "freestyle" soda machine, with 125 different flavors of soda!
On another note, I always receive questions about cruising that are a little different than the usual.  Here are some examples of questions and answers that you may find interesting:

Q:  Can I order/reorder my cruise photos once I return home?
A:  At this time, cruise lines do not have this as an option.  With each new week bringing on an average of 2500 cruisers per ship, it is difficult to keep these photos.  One cruise line, Royal Caribbean, is in the process of adding photo ordering to its pre-cruise sales.  Also, many cruise lines now have the option to purchase a CD of all pictures taken. 

Q:  Do the cruise lines offer a loyalty card in the casinos?
A:  This is difficult as people cruise on several different ships, but those who sign up for the cruise line loyalty programs do generally receive coupons to use in the casino and loyalty points to build up and use during the cruise week itself.

Q:  Why do New Orleans and Galveston only offer cruise lines other than Carnival during the winter?
A:  Royal Caribbean generally offers cruises out of these ports between November and April.  The rest of the year their ships are operating in Europe.  They simply do not have enough ships to be in both places at the same time.  For a limited time, Disney and Princess cruise lines will also be offering cruises from these ports.

Q:  Why has the muster program offered on the cruise ships changed so drastically.
A:  In the past, guests were required to bring their life jackets to the muster with them, where they were shown how to and were instructed to put them.  The cruise lines do take muster very seriously, and all guests are provided with the location of their muster station and shown how to put on a life jacket.  The cruise lines are certainly tightening up these drills, especially since the unfortunate incident in Italy.

If you have questions, please let me know.  When you are ready to book that fabulous vacation for you and your friends/family, please contact me at mjackson@cruiseholidays.com and/or 210-858-6399.



Michelle

Friday, August 3, 2012

Protecting your Investment

One of the services I provide to my clients is giving them information regarding climate and weather conditions for the destinations they will be visiting.  While some years are fraught with natural disasters, such as hurricanes, the 2012 season has been pretty mild.  That said, there is a storm currently moving into the Caribbean.

Tropical Storm Ernesto went a bit north of the island of Barbados early on Friday and was moving towards the Caribbean, where it could turn into a hurricane.  While it is not expected to hit any Caribbean islands directly, residents and vacationers should expect large waves and 2-3 inches of rain.

Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30.  Cruising is actually one of the better places to be on a vacation during this season, as the ships will use their data to alter course.  This may cause cruisers to miss a port, but the ship's crew works hard to make the alternative plans fun for all.

As we approach the heart of hurricane season, I can't recommend Travel Insurance enough.  If you buy travel insurance after a storm has been named, it is too late.  The insurance companies will not protect you from cancellations or delays. 

WHY SHOULD YOU BUY TRAVEL INSURANCE?

1.  For the time you packed your prescription medications, and your 2 year old helped unpack it.

2.  For the time you land in Portland, Oregon and your bags land in Portland, Maine.
3.  Because food carts in New Delhi are not the same as in New York City.
4.  When you sprint across the terminal, not realizing you left your carry-on behind.
5.  Everyone told you not to drink the water, but you did anyway.
6.  When the woman that offered to take your picture looked honest.
7.  Because you forgot her birthday again.
 
8.  Your cruise ship arrives in the Bahamas and you realize you left your passport in Puerto Rico.
9.  Because that rock looked sturdy enough to stand on.

Facts:
*28% of flights in 2010 were either cancelled or delayed
*Over 2 million mishandled luggage claims were handled in 2010
*Your credit card or personal insurance is usually no good when out of the country.
*Travel Insurance is a small price to pay to protect your investment.

When you book with me, I automatically include travel insurance in your package.  Those who may book their own trips may still purchase travel insurance from me.

Contact me at mjackson@cruiseholidays.com or (210) 858-6399 for pricing and coverage information.



Monday, July 30, 2012

Time for a FREE Cruise!

Who could use a cruise right about now?  Well, here's your chance to get one for FREE.  Contest on my Facebook page starts on August 1st.  You can be ready to register by going to this link and "LIKE" my Facebook page.

http://www.facebook.com/CruiseHolidaysMichelleJackson?ref=hl#!/

Good Luck!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cruise Ships: Your Stateroom Attendant

Throughout the next few weeks, I will be providing information about cruise ships in general.  To start with, how about some information on your stateroom attendant.  What do you expect from a stateroom attendant?

While all the members of a cruise ship crew work hard to assure that passengers experience a wonderful vacation, one crew member in particular is essential to a fine cruise experience – your cabin steward.

Your cabin steward is responsible for cleaning your cabin each day and ensuring that it has everything you need for a comfortable stay. When you first arrive in your cabin, expect your steward to stop by and introduce himself or herself. Remember his or her name – he or she is the person you can count on to bring you extra towels, fresh ice or more shampoo throughout your cruise.

Stewards seem to have built-in radar that alerts them when you leave your cabin in the morning. When you come back, you’ll find that everything is clean and fresh, with beds made and towels back on the racks. While you’re out at dinner, your cabin steward will refresh your cabin once again, turning down the bed, leaving a treat on your pillow and perhaps an adorable "towel animal” on the bed.

On some ships, cabin stewards are responsible for delivering room service to you. They will also collect any clothing that you want to have laundered or dry cleaned, then will return it to you.
Stewards are usually responsible for multiple cabins. If you have a special request, you may be able to find your steward in the hallway or working in a nearby cabin. If not, simply leave a note on your door or bed.

Some cruise lines take steward service a step farther by providing butler service. Butlers do what cabin stewards to, and then some. To provide a few examples, they can pack and unpack for you; make reservations for you in the ship’s alternative restaurants; mix you a perfect martini; or prepare an indulgent bubble bath. Some butlers take care of more than one cabin, but if you reserve a large suite on a luxury ship you might have your very own butler.

Keep in mind that it is an accepted – and in most cases, expected – part of the cruising culture to leave a tip for your steward at the end of your cruise. Cruise Holidays can tell you more about what to expect from your cabin steward or butler and the other helpful crew members on your next cruise.

And, no matter how much you want to bring them home without you, sorry - you'll have to cruise again to receive that kind of service. 


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cruising vs Tropical Storms: What If?...


One of the most common questions I receive as a cruise and travel agent is, "What if there is a storm during our trip?"  As we all know, the weather in the world has been strange and quirky over the last few years, with snow falling in the summer, hurricanes affecting parts of the world, flooding, tornados, etc.  Well, the best thing about cruising is that those ships can move, where as a hotel cannot.  In general, if a storm is seen in the area, a cruise ship will change it's itinerary to avoid the storm.  If a scheduled port has been damaged or is being affected by a storm, the ship will avoid the port.  Sometimes, the ship will spend an extra day at sea, or plan to visit a different port of call. 

Tropical Storm Debby is now affecting the Gulf of Mexico and the east coast of the United States.  Here is an example of how the cruise lines have altered their schedules to lessen the impact on their cruising customers:

The Carnival Freedom skipped Key West and is spending the day at sea.  It will make an unscheduled call in Cozumel on Tuesday.  The rest of the itinerary remains the same.

the Ecstasy called in Nassau on Sunday instead of Key West, but will visit Key West later in the cruise.

No other major cruise lines have report any changes due to the storm.  Fortunately, a travel agent keeps up to date on these changes and then passes that information along to our clients...another good reason to work directly with an agent who has you in mind when these events occur.

For more information and to book your next cruise or land vacation, contact Michelle at 210-858-6399 or mjackson@cruiseholidays.com

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Disney's private isle - Castaway Cay


If you have cruised through the Bahamas, there's a good chance you stopped at a cruise-line owned private island.  They all have one and they are all fabulous.  Disney Cruise Line's private island in the Bahamas is called Castaway Cay.  Besides the beauty and attractions, this is an island of convenience, as the cruise line brings their waiters, bartenders, etc ashore to serve you.

But, the most convenient factor of all...no tendering.  Disney ships dock right at the island, making disembarkation uncomplicated and simple.  This is important for those with small children as well as the older generation, who may be nervous about moving from the ship to a small tender boat, and then to shore.

So what is there to do on this private island?  Enjoy one of these choices:
  • Beautiful, white sand
  • Shops with local vendors
  • Waterview walking path
  • Six Eateries - no charge for food
  • Family beach
  • Serenity Bay - adults-only beach
  • Scuttler's Cove - for young kids
  • Pelican Plunge water slide
  • Hideout - for teens
  • Sports areas (volleyball, soccer, tetherball)
  • Stingray Adventure
  • Boats
  • Snorkeling equipment
  • Bike rentals
  • Covered Cabanas
  • Massage Cabanas
Castaway Cay even has its own post office, where passengers can drop a letter or postcard that will have a Castaway Cay postmark on it.


This is a fun atmosphere, with strategically placed items everywhere, all tying into the Castaway theme.  Come join in the fun!


To book your Disney Cruise, give me a call and I'll help you plan your vacation of a lifetime.  Contact Michelle at mjackson@cruiseholidays.com or 210-858-6399.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Alaska Awaits You and Your Family

A cruise to Alaska is a showcase for the splendor of nature and a terrific cruise destination for multi-generational family groups. Everyone from toddlers to great-grandparents will be awed by the majestic scenery, which ranges from lush coastal rainforests to massive glaciers that send newborn icebergs crashing into the sea. The wildlife is just as impressive: kids, teens, adults and seniors can all delight in watching a family of bears moving along the shore or seeing a herd of whales surface in the water.

And, each port of call in Alaska offers fun activities for a family to share, such as panning for gold, learning about totem pole carving or taking a wildlife tour to see bald eagles, sea lions, seals and sea otters.
 


If your family wants to explore what lies beyond the stunning coastline of Alaska, consider taking a cruisetour. A cruisetour combines a cruise ship voyage with a land-based tour of Alaska’s interior, providing a wonderful way to see more of this vast and fascinating state.

Princess Cruises offers a variety of cruisetours with as much or as little structure as your family wants. For example, The "On Your Own” cruisetour combines a seven-day cruise with a stay at one or more of the Princess Lodges located in Alaska’s scenic national parks; there’s no scheduled sightseeing, so you can set your own daily itinerary. Additional cruisetour options combine a cruise with Princess’ "Direct to the Wilderness” rail service to Denali National Park, with anything from a narrated tour of the park to a fully escorted tour experience in Denali and beyond.
 


The land portions of Royal Caribbean’s Alaska cruisetours are escorted by trained Adventure Specialists who can answer your family’s questions about the amazing sights of Alaska. Royal Caribbean will take you to the interior via deluxe motorcoaches and the Wilderness Express® train, which has luxurious glass-domed train cars that provide an exceptional view of the beauty around you.

Holland America Line provides Alaska cruisetour options sure to suit your family’s schedule, combining three-, four- or seven-day cruises with land tours of four to 13 days. Overland travel is via Holland America’s McKinley Explorer train and luxury motorcoaches, supplemented by water taxis in some locations. Holland America’s cruisetours feature Denali, but include out-of-the-ordinary destinations like historic Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.
 


To explore all of the options available for your family’s Alaska cruisetour adventure, call Michelle for a free consultation:  210-858-6399 or email:  mjackson@cruiseholidays.com.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Are you using a Travel Agent? Time to start!

In theory, travelers today have more information and booking capability at their fingertips than ever before.  So, there's less need than ever to pay someone else to book your trip.  But, with all of this possibility, comes added complication, especially given the dizzying, often counterintuitive ways that travel purchases are made nowadays.

With hidden fees, cancellation dates and penalties, name change fees, etc. there are many hidden pitfalls that travelers may not understand until it is too late.  While some travelers love strategizing and searching endlessly to try to "beat the system:", many understandably don't want to be bothered.

As a travel agent who takes each client on as a personal friend, I strive to make the experience of plannin and researching a vacation stress-free and enjoyable for everyone involved.  With little to no booking fees (based on the clients needs), you can know that I will work hard to cross the t's and dot the i's, while you sit back and plan your packing list.

Contact me for quotes on upcoming travel packages:  mjackson@cruiseholidays.com.

Friday, April 20, 2012

An Unforgettable Vacation Doesn't Just Happen

Although I always say that the vacations my family remembers most are the ones where not everything goes perfectly, I still work hard to try to make that happen.  As an experienced cruise and travel agent, I work hard every day to try to make sure that my clients vacations are full of great experiences and create wonderful memories. 

The following article is made up of stories and pictures from my friends and associates at Cruise Holidays.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so in this post we’d like to let images do the talking. They’re all courtesy of Cruise Holidays travel experts from across the United States and Canada. 

It’s the same reason you ask friends and family if they’ve been to the same place you’re hoping to visit. You want to know where to stay, where the best sights are, and the can’t-miss lunch or dinner spots. Cruise Holidays agents have cruised the world and want to share that type of insider knowledge with you.

Take these three examples:

Money Saving Tips and Tricks – A Whale of a Discount

Breaching Whale
Whale Watching in Cabo

Our experts at Cruise Holidays of Shelby (Michigan) took these whale watching photos during an excursion of a 7-night Mexican Riviera Cruise. The owner, David Rentsch, had done a snorkeling excursion with this tour company in 2011, so when he returned for whale watching this spring, he was able to use the connections he’d made to obtain a discount for the group he was traveling with. These types of connections happen frequently with travel agents.

According to David, it was a trip they won’t soon forget:
“My family and I enjoy whale watching and I have been fortunate to have been on whale watch excursions in Hawaii numerous times, Alaska and now in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I have seen most all of their behaviors like breaches, head slaps, fluke ups, tails slapping, tail dives, and even once saw a humpback whale calf playing with dolphins. What stood out about this sighting is that the whale breached about five times in a row while we were following his movements for about 20 minutes. As you can see from the pictures, it also exhibited almost all of the other behaviors as well.”
David added that they witnessed this activity at the end of March, near the end of prime whale viewing season in Cabo. These are the little details you don’t want to leave to chance, which a travel expert can help you with!


Budapest Parliament
The Budapest Parliament During a Uniworld Boutique River Cruise

On the Forefront of the River Cruising Boom
Several Cruise Holidays experts created a Facebook album sharing river cruise photos through some of Europe’s most beautiful and historic sites. You can enjoy Scenic “Sound of Music” Salzburg, Tulip Time in The Netherlands, and dozens of other inspiring photos from along the Rhine, Danube and more. Each photo contains a link to the travel expert who took the photo if you want to learn more about that destination or river cruise.

Curious About a Ship? Ask Us.

Finally, with more than 200 Cruise Holidays locations across North America and even Great Britain, there’s a very good chance that they’ve been on the ships you’re most curious about. They frequently are among the very first people to experience and inspect new ships, so they can better educate their clients which ship is right for them. On any given day, they might be on a ship you’re curious about. Here are a few photos recently taken by Cruise Holidays of Calgary aboard Celebrity Eclipse, a ship that debuted in 2010 and is very popular for those who are looking for an upscale, contemporary cruise experience.

Celebrity Eclipse Pool Deck
Celebrity Eclipse Pool Deck

Don’t miss out on the insider expertise that can take your trip to the next level.

The next time you’re curious about a ship or destination, contact Michelle Jackson - Cruise Holidays Maricopa - mjackson@cruiseholidays.com OR 210-858-6399. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

A New Face of Rhapsody

      One of Royal Caribbean's oldest ships, the 1,998-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas, has emerged from a month-long, $54 million makeover that the line says has transformed it into a "virtually new" vessel.
The top-to-bottom overhaul in a Singapore shipyard brought the 78,491-ton Rhapsody of the Seas a number of new venues that have debuted on newer Royal Caribbean ships including five of the line's most popular restaurant concepts and a nursery for babies as young as 6 months old.
 
     The line also added the infrastructure needed to support a new aerial show in the ship's five-deck-high Centrum atrium; a new Diamond Lounge for Crown & Anchor Society loyalty members; a Concierge Lounge for suite guests and top-tier loyalty guests; shipwide Wi-Fi; and an outdoor LED movie screen on the pool deck. In addition, all cabins were completely refreshed and received new flat-screen televisions.

     The new eateries include Italian trattoria Giovanni's Table and Izumi Asian Cuisine -- both concepts that first rolled out on Royal Caribbean's Oasis class ships. Also new is a Park Cafe deli-style restaurant (another Oasis class innovation), a Chop's Grille steakhouse and a 14-passenger Chef's Table. All but the Park Cafe come with an extra charge.

     The makeover also brought a new atrium bar concept called R Bar first introduced onboard Royal Caribbean's Splendour of the Seas, and the line also overhauled the ship's iconic Viking Crown Lounge.
Rhapsody of the Seas this week will embark on a 15-night voyage from Singapore to Sydney before sailing across the Pacific via Hawaii to Alaska for the summer season. In Alaska, Rhapsody of the Seas will sail every Friday on seven-night, round-trip cruises from Seattle, calling at Juneau and Skagway, Alaska, and Victoria, B.C.

     Built at the Chantiers de L'Atlantique shipyard in St. Nazaire, France, the 14-year-old Rhapsody of the Seas set sail on its maiden voyage on May 19, 1997.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Treasures of Machu Picchu

As many a Peruvian traveler can tell you, climbing Machu Picchu is easy, especially if you take one of those tourist buses that do most of the work. It's embracing Cuzco that can be hard.
Cuzco (often spelled Cusco) usually is the Peruvian city you fly into before catching the train through the Sacred Valley to those famous mountaintop ruins at Machu Picchu. But Cuzco is much more than a gateway.
In the 15th century, it was the capital of the Incan empire, a wealthy city whose stone buildings, which still form the skeleton of the city, were chiseled and placed with astounding precision. Then in 1533, with the Incas weakened by civil war, Spanish soldiers showed up with rifles and horses to grab the gold and silver and slay those who resisted. They built a colonial capital atop the Incan city, constructing Catholic churches over the most revered Incan temples. Spain ruled until Peru won independence in the 1820s.
Nowadays, the city's population is 300,000 to 400,000, a blend of Spanish and native Quechua bloodlines, and Cuzco's stone skeleton is enveloped in one of the most muscular tourist economies in all of South America. Catering to jet-setters and backpackers alike, the city hums with swishy restaurants, cheap hostels, upscale boutiques, tacky souvenir shops and hundreds of posh hotel rooms, yet you still see campesinos bearing sheaves of barley or peddling embroidery on street corners. When the Southern Hemisphere's winter solstice arrives each June, revelers take to the streets for the Inti Raymi festival, a scene that looks like Mardi Gras with llamas.
Cuzco is not for the faint of heart or lungs, nor for the traveler who wants everything easy, tidy and genteel. Not only does it stand between you and that beloved Incan mountaintop, but it also stands about 11,000 feet above sea level — about 3,000 feet taller than Machu Picchu — because of the tilt of the Sacred Valley.
"That causes a very interesting situation in your body," guide Enrique Medina reminded me soon after my arrival in May. "Take it easy, have a coca tea and drink a lot of water."
And while you're at it, tune out the fast-talking touts and peddlers who will otherwise mar your views of native Cuzco, colonial Cuzco and even crossroads Cuzco.
This was my third visit to Cuzco in 24 years. I came home with these lessons in mind.
The streets and the museums deserve equal time.
History is so alive in the city's streets, among the throngs at the San Pedro Market and at the sprawling Sacsayhuaman ruins, it might seem a shame to spend too many hours indoors. But especially when Cuzco gets cold, you can't ignore Qorikancha (also spelled Coricancha), the former Incan headquarters that was later converted into the Convento de Santo Domingo de Cuzco or the Monastery of Santa Catalina, whose 13 remaining nuns may be outnumbered by the mannequins on display.
The same goes for the elegant Museo de Arte Precolumbino, or MAP, and the larger but humbler Inka Museum. Also, authorities last year announced plans to display hundreds of Machu Picchu artifacts, collected by explorer Hiram Bingham, in the Casa Concha mansion on Santa Catalina Ancha Street, but the timetable remains unclear.
Eat your potatoes.
Nobody knows more than the chefs of Cuzco about potatoes, corn, alpaca or cui (a.k.a. cuy, a.k.a. guinea pig). On the courtyard of the Pacha Papa restaurant, you listen to a harpist while digging into an alpaca brochette.
At the MAP Café, the kitchen mixes traditional and molecular cuisine, which in my case resulted in too-sweet gazpacho followed by a tasty salmon main course. At Chicha, a pricey, busy upstairs restaurant opened in 2009 by Peruvian celebrity chef Gaston Acurio, great pork medallions await.
See Barrio San Blas, and think about sleeping there.
Stand in the Plaza de Armas. Turn toward the nearest hill and march past the cathedral and up the narrow, cobblestoned street. For a hearty breakfast or lunch in the company of backpackers from around the planet, pause at Jack's Café on Choquechaka Street.
Then continue, and in no time you'll be in San Blas, a hillside barrio that spills down to the plaza and where global visitors mingle with Cuzco's artistic types. Grab a snack at the tiny, orange-walled Café de Mama Oli (199 Plazoleta Nazarenas), and peek at the lobby of the Hotel Monasterio, where rates routinely run $400 and up a night. This old monastery, built in the 1590s, was converted 47 years ago into a lodging with two courtyards and museum-worthy art. (If you go in March, stay three nights and pay upfront, you can get rooms here for as little as $235.) Then have a look at the Amaru Hostal, a block away, with pleasant, modest rooms for about $50 a night. (I wish I'd slept there instead of at the Andina Classic Cuzco Plaza, where I paid about $140 for a tiny room.)
Beware the plaza, behold the cathedral.
In pictures, the Plaza de Armas looks great — a big sun-splashed rectangle with fountains and grass and strolling vendors and benches for weary travelers. Up close, it's just as pretty, but it can be a sort of battlefield. To cross it, you'll need to fend off the school-aged girls selling woven goods and massages, school-aged boys shining shoes and forcefully hawking little paintings that will never hang in the Hotel Monasterio. If you don't want to buy, avoid eye contact and get into that big, brooding building with the green doors, the cathedral.
Begun in the 1550s and completed in the 1660s, it includes a 25-foot-high "Last Supper" painting by Marcos Zapata behind the main altar. Look closely and you'll see Christ and his disciples sitting before plates of roasted vizcacha (comparable to chinchilla). You'll also see a chapel dedicated to Our Lord of the Earthquakes, not a surprise, given that major quakes struck the city in 1650 and 1950

Monday, March 19, 2012

Alaska and Disney - What a Team

Alaska is one of the top destinations for cruisers.  Families are becoming increasingly popular in a region that in the past has shown a majority of older, more established couples.  Disney Cruise Line will be joined in Seattle by Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises. Don't be surprised if you now start running into Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse on the Seattle Waterfront.  But, enjoy it while you can - next year, Disney will move to Vancouver.

Disney will offer 15 sailings this summer from Seattle with stops at the Tracy Arm Fjord, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, as well as the Canadian city of Victoria.  Disney will be offering some fun extras this year as well.  Kids can pan gold with Donald Duck in Ketchikan, soar over the Juneau Ice Field by helicopter, land on a glacier, and help prepare the sled dogs for mushing.

Whether you are aiming for a high-adventure, fun-filled cruise or a relaxed and luxurious experience, I can help you cross this fabulous destination off of your bucket list.

Contact Michelle at 210-858-6399 or mjackson@cruiseholidays.com.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Alaska - The Last Frontier


I cruise to Alaska every summer and it has become the highlight of my year.  Some people think once you've been there, done it - why go again?  I can honestly say it is the most relaxing, beautiful and exciting cruise destination I have been to - and I cruise several times a year.

While Alaska has approximately 300 days of rain per year, the summers in this beautiful region are perfect to me.  The weather can change in an instant, from rainy and chilly to sunny and warm.  My best advice?  Dress in layers!

Eagles are plentiful here.  Look at the trees and if you see a golf ball, that's an eagle.  It is so wonderful to see them sitting together in pairs, or protecting their nests.  When they soar past the ship, they are definitely a sight to behold.  I've also seen whales, dolphins, salmon, sea otters, sea lions here.  Sadly, I've not yet seen a bear, although many people have.  I just never seem to be looking in the right direction.

Another amazing thing in Alaska is the glaciers.  I've flown over them, landed on them, walked on them, and seen them from a ship.  No matter how I see them, they are glorious and fantastic.  Hearing the crackling sounds and watching them break off and fall into the waters below.

I will return to Alaska in a few short months, happy to leave the 100 degree temps behind and welcome the beautiful natural scenery of the Pacific Northwest.

If you would like to join me in Alaska, or go on your own, please let me know.

Michelle Jackson - Cruise Holidays
(210) 858-6399
mjackson@cruiseholidays.com


Thursday, February 16, 2012

River Cruising - Another way to travel!

River Cruising is the up and coming way to travel.  There are many great companies out there, each with their own plethora of amenities and benefits.  So, what is so "HOT" about River Cruising?


River Cruising is a much more relaxing and calm atmosphere as opposed to the activity, fun-filled ocean liners.  Both are great vacations and can be enjoyed by everyone.  River ships provide an intimate atmosphere with a huge amount of culture.  Most river cruise passengers have and still do sail on ocean liners.  River cruising provides them the opportunity to cruise on a smaller ship, usually carrying less than 200 passengers, as well as pulling right up into the port of small European towns.

One bonus of river cruising is that shore excursions are most often included in the price, including an experienced tour guide.

River ships are limited in their height due to the locks and low bridges they encounter along their journey.  But, every cabin has a view and in fact, most new ships are offering larger cabins with balconies and suites. 

In comparison to the large ocean liners, which host rock-walls, several swimming pools and whirlpools, etc., river ships have limited public space, but still provide some areas to hang out indoors and out on the sun deck. 

The most popular river cruising is in Europe, especially the Danube and the Rhine.  Other popular destinations include Russia's Volga, China's Yangtzee, and Egypt's Nile.  The Mekong, between Vietnam and Cambodia, is increasing in interest and the Mississippi River Cruises will begin again this year.

The new river ships for 2012 are:

Viking River Cruises:     This cruise line is debuting four innovative, energy-efficient "Longships" beginning in March.  These ships offer suites with separate bedrooms and living rooms; 3/4 of the cabins have full balconies or French balconies, or both.

Uniworld:   The new 60-passenger River Saigon began  operating on the Mekong in January.  This ship features 30 cabins, all with French doors that open onto a spacious promenade, with a pillow menu and massage room.

AmaWaterways:  AmaWaterways will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year with the debut of the 164-passenger AmaCerto in April.  Most cabins will have Twin balconies, which is a combination of a French balcony and a step-out balcony.  This ship also features a pool with "swim-up" bar.

Avalon:  In March, we will see the new 166-passenger Avalon Vista and the 128-passenger Avalon Visionary.  Both are "Suite Ships".  These ships will sail the Danube, Rhine and Main Rivers.

American Cruise Lines:  The new 140-passenger Queen of the Mississippi is currently under construction and will debut in August.  This ship will be a sternwheeler and will take us back to the Victorian splendor of past Mississippi riverboats.  The ship will sail up the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, with fabulous stops in ports such as Memphis, St. Louis, and New Orleans.

If you are interested in more information regarding River Cruising or any other travel related options, please email me at mjackson@cruiseholidays or call me at 210-858-6399.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Best Cruise Ships of 2012

As you prepare to cruise in 2012, read about the top rated ships for the year - rated by Frommers.  Which will you board?

Ships of the Future:     Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class

Royal Caribbean's 5,400 passenger sister ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas are more than just the biggest cruise ships ever.  They're also the best designed, most imaginative, most experentially diverse, and most forward-thinking megaships out there - they're living up to the cliche of being "cities at sea".

Beauty Queens:     Celebrity's Solstice Class

Introduced in consecutive years, from 2008 to 2011, the 2,850-passenger Celebrity Solstice, Equinox, Eclipse and Silhouette are the most stylish megaships ever built.  Outside, their form is both massive and sleek, while inside a unifying high-end aesthetic ties the many moods and experiences of their public rooms into a satisfying whole. 

Best for Families:  Disney Cruise Line's Disney Dream & Disney Fantasy

Disney Cruise Line's 2,500 passenger Disney Dream (launched in 2011) and her soon-to launch sister ship Disney Fantasy (debuting in February 2012) are the first new ships Disney  has debuted since 1998's Disney Magic and 1999's Disney Wonder - and they're totally worth the wait.  As elegantly designed, entertainingly whimsical, and functionally practical as their older fleetmates, they also offer to raise the bar with more space (they're about 50% larger, more and larger kids' facilities, more dining options, more adults-only retreats, more high-tech wizardry, while still retaining that classic Disney mix of old-time nostalgia and wide-eyed, childhood wonder, all wrapped up in an operation that ticks like a Swiss watch.

Bringing Back the Mississippi:  Great American Steamboat Company's American Queen

Beginning in mid-April 2012, the 436-passenger American Queen will be again sailing the Mississippi River. American Queen is the largest stern-wheeler ever built - a grand wedding cake of filigree and curlicues crowned with two huge fluted smokestacks.  Ornamentation and decoration are everywhere, framing an assortment of vintage period furniture and antiques.  She looks so authentically 19th century that it's hard to imagine she was actually built in 1995.

Refined Relaxation:  Seabourn's Odyssey Class

The 450-passenger sister ships Seabourn Odyssey (launched in 2009), Seabourn Sojourn (2010) and Seabourn Quest (2011) update the classic Seabourn experience, whose watchwords have always been calm, relaxing, smoothe and uber-professional.  Like all the Seabourn ships (and all true luxury ships), they're less about knocking passengers over the head with gimmick and nonstop activity.  Instead, the Seabourn experience is more about providing a relaxing venue as staff members scurry around bringing you things:  a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich in the afternoon, suntan lotion while you're out by the pool, a drink when you want from the bar (gratis), and even a moist wipe for your sunglasses, if a server spots a smudge.

The Entertainment Ship:  NCL's Norwegian Epic

Though not even close to being a perfectly conceived and executed vessel, the 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic makes this list for three reasons:  1)  Along with Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, she's the best ship at sea for entertainment, featuring innovative production shows, fantastic music, and best of all, performances by the Blue Man Group; 2)  she offers NCL fun, casual, unconventional experience; and 3) she's the best ship today for solo travelers (128 super-mod cabins are designed for hipsters traveling alone).

Midsize, MidMarket Luxury:  Oceania's Marina Class

We live in the era of the super-megaship, with new vessels carrying 3,000 or 4,000 passengersand drawing crowds through big-budget wow.  Oceania's 1,250-passenger Marina (launched in early 2011) and upcoming sister-ship Riviera (launching in May 2012), on the other hand, hark back to an earlier era of cruising, when you could walk from bow to stern without breaking a sweat and where the vibe was more quiet romance than blockbuster adventure.

The Finest of the Fine:  Silversea's Silver Spirit

Launched in December 2009, Silver Spirit was Silversea's first new ship in nearly a decade.  And like Seabourn's Odyssey-class ships, it represents a refinement of the line's already refined experience.  She's 27% larger than Silversea's previous generation of ships, and the luxury line has taken advantage of this space to add new dining options (six restaurants in total, including a supper club and a Japanese venue), an 8,300 square-foot spa, a greater percentage of stateroom verandas (95% of the ship's staterooms have 'em) and new lounges - all while giving passengers a huge amount of personal space.

Casual Luxury:  SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream I & SeaDream II

If Seabourn and Oceania are the Fortune 500-style of luxury cruising, SeaDream represents the Steve Jobs model in a turtleneck-and-jeans kind of way.  Dress codes on SeaDream I and SeaDream II steer clear of the traditional tux and sequins dress up night by favoring "yacht casual wear" - jackets for men, perhaps, but never ties.  Itineraries are designed to favor small yachting ports, and the ships often stay late or overnight in port to give passengers an opportunity for nightlife.

Mass-Market Fun:  Norwegian Cruise Line's Jewel Class

The 2,390-passenger Norwegian Jewel, Jade, Pearl and Gem - some of today's most fun and contemporary ships at sea - are the ideal megaships for Generations X and Y.  Each ship has a super-social atmosphere, creative decor, 10 restaurants (from teppanyaki to Tex-Mex), and music and pop culture references tailored to a surprisingly youngish demographic.

Fun Ship 2.0:  Carnival's Carnival Breeze

The third of three sister-ships, the 3,646 passenger Carnival Breeze will stand out by being the first Carnival vessel purpose-built to showcase the line's new "Fun Ship 2.0" initiative, which aims to transform its onboard experience for a new era of mass-market cruising.  Fun Ship 2.0 will add a poolside burger joint created by spikey-haired restaurateur and Food Network star Guy Fieri; a sports bar created in partnership with videogame maker EA Sports; a Mexican Cantina bar; a comedy club concept created with comedian and TV personality George Lopez; a pharmacy-themed bar prescribing cocktails custom-made for what ails ya, and more.

A New Lease on Life:  Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas

Launched in 2001, the 2,100 passenger Radiance of the Seas has always been a particularly good-looking ship, with an open, airy feel that belies her relatively large size.  Still, an 11-year old vessel normally doesn't make a best of the year list - and this one wouldn't have either, had Royal Caribbean not sent Radiance to British Columbia's Victoria Shipyards last summer for a nearly tip-to-toe rebuilding so radical that it practically amounted to a relaunch.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Safety on the Seas

With the tragic events that occurred off of the coast of Italy this past week, all of the major cruise lines are reviewing their training and emergency procedures.  Here are a few quotes from a few of them:

Royal Caribbean:    
By coincidence, half of our Captains and most of our Hotel Directors arrived in South Florida for our annual Fleet Operations leadership conference over the weekend. This gave our Chairman Richard Fain and me a timely opportunity to underscore both our excellent 42 year safety record and more importantly to emphasize the imperative of keeping our record intact into the future. 

In the upcoming weeks we will communicate by text and video about many of the key elements of safety. Many readers who know us well will not be surprised by our focus on and commitment to safety.  Those who have less experience with us should learn some interesting and compelling facts about how we prepare our ships and crew for safe operation every day.   For example, the rigorous preparation and ongoing training that every Captain in the Royal Caribbean International fleet must undergo.

Norwegian:
We operate all of our vessels to meet and exceed the requirements of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention and the International Safety Management Code maritime standards, the international safety requirements which govern the cruise industry.  Our Captains are experienced seafarers with an average of 33 years at sea.  We further ensure that our Captains regularly undergo rigorous simulation training on navigation and bridge operations.

Carnival Corporation (Carnival, Princess, Holland America, Costa):
This is a terrible tragedy and we are deeply saddened. Carnival Corporation & plc offers our sympathies and heartfelt condolences to all of the Costa Concordia guests, crew members and their families.  Carnival Corporation & plc and Costa Cruises are committing our full resources to provide assistance and ensure that all guests and crew are looked after.  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Carnival Breeze - 5D Theater

Just when you think that the cruise lines have thought of everything, you find out - there's more! 

     Carnival Breeze, the cruise lines newest ship, will feature a 5-dimension movie theater.  WOW!  This will be similar to what you can find at an amusement park.
 
     According to Carnival, the theater is built on a 3-D projection system, which requires the audience to wear special glasses. The "fourth dimension" comes through special effects like squirting water and bubbles, and other enhancements that will tickle guests' legs, blow air on their necks and poke them in their seats – all timed to the action on the movie screen. And the "fifth dimension"? Carnival says it's provided by the seats themselves, which will vibrate and shift in time to the movie.

     The theater will feature shows such as Happy Feet 4-D Experience, Speed Racer 4-D Adventure or during the holiday season, The Polar Express 4-D Experience. The attraction will be located on the Deck 4 promenade next to the conference center.

     The Carnival Breeze is scheduled to debut June 3 with a 12-day cruise from Venice. It will sail this summer in the Mediterranean out of Barcelona, and then begin a Caribbean itinerary out of Miami on Nov. 24. A virtual tour of the ship is available at carnivalbreeze.com.

     The cruise line is promoting the new ship and theater with a Facebook movie contest based on the Hasbro game Trivial Pursuit.  Until Jan. 13, contestants who correctly answer three daily trivia questions will enter a prize drawing for a 50-inch 3D Plasma HDTV, 3D phone, HD camcorder and a $250 movie theater gift card. Other prizes, including an Xbox 360 gaming console, will be given away throughout the contest period.

     What do you think?  What would you like to see on a cruise ship in the future?  How far can we go to making our own little piece of "Water World" out there?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Top 10 Cruise Itineraries in 2012

Here they are:  the best places to cruise this year.  Which one is right for you?

The forecast for 2012 is that over 20 million Americans will take to the high seas on a cruise.  Many of those will skip the "cookie-cutter" itineraries and will set their sights on some new horizons.  Check these fun ideas out:

*Best Cruise Itinerary for Adventure Seekers:  Sea Voyager Expeditions

     This is a brand-new cruise line for 2012.  They will be offering expedition sailings to some of Latin America's hottest ecotourism destinations.  Their first sailings are scheduled to begin in April with destinations in Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Ecuador.  Cruisers will love the flexible itineraries, off-the-beaten path villages and indigenous people.  Each sailing is escorted by experienced naturalists and guides as well as excursions like rain forest hiking, kayaking in hidden bays, bird-watching and snorkeling.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Culture Vultures:  Star Clippers

     Star Clippers has been sailing between the European cultural capitals along the Baltic Sea for some time, but starting in May, cruisers may climb onboard the new Star Flyer - a tall sailing ship, with 3 different itineraries featuring Sweden, Russia and Finland.  Cruisers will enjoy visiting smaller, less-visited ports and will be immersed in the best of the Baltic lands of the Vikings and the Eastern Empire of the Tsars.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Families:  Disney Cruise Line

     March 2012 will be the maiden voyage of Disney's newest ship, the 4,000 passenger Disney Fantasy.  This fun ship will feature the AquaDuck (water coaster at sea), new pool deck features, elaborate stage shows, and ship-wide interactive, state of the art technology.  The ship will sail the Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries, visiting the ports of St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Grand Cayman, Costa Maya and Cozumel as well as a stop at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.  Families will love the Muppets-inspired adventure game and an animation-themed dinner show.  Kids will go crazy for the 1,800-square-foot Aqua Lab water play area, while parents can seek out serenity at the adults-only Satellite Falls splash pool on the deck above.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Foodies:  Oceania Cruises

     The new 1,250 passenger Riviera - launching in April 2012 - is poised to raise the bar on the epicurean experience at sea.  She is scheduled for a series of Mediterranean sailings through the fall, followed by a repositioning to the Caribbean for winter.  Watch for the 10-night October themed sailing, "Bon Appetit Wine & Food Festival", from Athens to Rome, with port calls in Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and Monaco.  Cruisers will love the 10 dining venues (eight of which are inclusive) as well as the opportunity to practice their kitchen skills in the hands-on Bon Appetit Culinary Center.



*Best Cruise Itinerary for History Buffs:  Deep Ocean Expeditions

     2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and what better way to remember this event in history than by boarding the R/V Keldysh (a vessel chartered from an oceanographic institute).  A maximum of 30 cruisers will set out on these 2-week expeditions, which includes an 8-10 hour dive to the shipwreck site in a 7-foot wide Russian Mir submersible, designed for three passengers.

     For a less extreme cruise option, choose from Fred Olsen Cruise Lines 1,309 passenger Balmoral, which will trace the Titanic's original intended route from England to NYC, or the 694-passenger Azamara Journey, slated to travel round-trip from NYC, with a stop in Halifax (the resting place of many of the Titanic's passengers who did not make the trip).  These cruises will feature onboard lecturers and historians, wreck experts, authors and relatives of Titanic survivors.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Nature Enthusiasts:  Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

     Head to the furthest reaches of the wilds of Russia.  Cruisers can set sail to circumnavigate the Sea of Okhotsk) in style, aboard the world's only 5-star expedition ship, the 184-passenger MS hanseatic.  Excursion highlights include zodiac runs to the tiny unpopulated islands of Iony and Tyuleny, and the wildlife-rich Shantar and Malminskie Islands; hiking across the grassland tundra of Talan Island; and brown bear viewing on a zodiac ride from Cape Utholoskiy.  Cruisers will be presented with a dizzying array of pristine landscapes, defined by volcanoes; coniferous forest-blanketed mountains; tundra, glaciers and geysers, and numerous types of wildlife.


*Best Cruise Intinerary for Nostalgia Lovers:  Great American Steamboat Company

     2012 marks the return of the Mississippi River Cruise, beginning in April.  The Great American Steamboat Company's 436-guest American Queen is billed as the largest and most lavish paddlewheel steamboat ever built, with a savory Southern-inspired menu led by top Mississippi chef Regina Charboneau.  Choose from the many different themed sailings, such as the Jazz Lovers, Civil War and Holiday cruises. 

     American Cruise Lines 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi will debut in August, featuring Dixieland bands, Mark Twain impersonators and other fun activities.  Both cruise lines will visit ports such as Cincinatti, Louisville, Memphis, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Off-The-Path Explorers:  Avalon Waterways

     Top-of-the-line river cruise operator Avalon Waterways is not only launching an intimate new luxury vessel in 2012, but is also debuting on the first-ever Mekong River cruise itinerary between Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The 32-passenger Avalon Angkor features 16 spacious staterooms, complete with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and balconies.  This will be the first time that cruisers will be able to transit this particular route almost year-round.  Cruisers will explore virtually untouched villages of Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as the more popular cultural and historic cities along the way.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Partiers:  Crystal Cruises

     If attending Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is on your bucket list, Crystal Cruises' brand-new "Samba Serenade" itinerary is the way to go.  The itinerary will feature five ports of call in Brazil (Buzios, Ilha Grande, Paraty, Sao Paulo, and Itajai), departing from Rio during the height of the Carnival festivities.  This cruise line can custom tailor your experience at Rio's Sambadrome, from grandstand seating to luxury VIP sky box suites to even marching in the parade (fully costumed).


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Romantics:  Windstar Cruises

     These dreamy yachts are outfitted with billowing white sails and hold a maximum of 312 passengers.  Windstar is offering a brand-new 2012 "Islands of Italy" itinerary that couples classic Italian sites (Rome and Pompeii) with exclusive and often overlooked Italian islands, such as the lush volcanic island of Ischia; the active volcanic island of Stromboli; and glamorous Porto Cervo on Sardinia.


Time to get started on your 2012 Bucket List!  Where would you like to start?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Barbados

One of my favorite islands in the Caribbean is Barbados.  Beautiful scenery, comfortable weather, friendly people - what more could you ask for?  I've included some of my pictures from my past trips to this beautiful island.

Please enjoy a portion of an article written for The Telegraph Travel Magazine, by Claire Wrathall.

Most visitors to Barbados stay on the west coast, never venturing to its wilder, Atlantic side. Some don’t even make it to the capital. They’re missing out, says Claire Wrathall.

Bathsheba

Chattel House

Sugar Windmill

Jacquelyn and Michelle at Bathsheba

Rum Factory

This is the time of year when paparazzi shots of the bronzed and the beautiful at play on the beach at Sandy Lane are splashed all over the papers and gossip magazines, portraying Barbados as a hedonistic island of rarefied pleasures. A place where an eight-ounce steak and chips can set you back more than £240 (admittedly that’s the cost of a Greg Norman Wagyu tenderloin; there are steaks on offer for, oh, half that amount), and a green salad is priced at almost £30.
But there is another side to Barbados, culturally rich and a lot less expensive, that its celebrity visitors mostly never see. Venture from the intensely developed, largely luxurious west, or “platinum”, coast, to the barely built-on east – where Bajans tend to spend their holidays – and it’s almost as though you’ve alighted in another country. With dramatic limestone cliffs, staggering rock formations and high waves, the uncrowded beaches look very different.
Barbados’s tourist industry actually originated on this wilder Atlantic-whipped seaboard, back in the 1880s, where cool sea breezes held greater allure than calm Caribbean waters, and a railway was built from the then-fetid capital, Bridgetown, to airy Bathsheba. Though the track was barely 23 miles long, the journey took two hours, assuming the train didn’t break down, which it was inclined to do.
“The passengers in the third-class carriages would have to get out and push,” said a volunteer at the excellent Arlington House Museum in Speightstown. “Those in second were allowed to walk alongside. And the nobs in first class just stayed put.”

Inevitably, guesthouses began to open, including the now venerable Atlantis Hotel, established in 1883 above the beach at Tent Bay near Bathsheba. Over the years it became an institution, if an increasingly eccentric one, but three years ago it was sold to two local families, the Kirbys and the Wardens, owners of Little Good Harbour (and its fine Fish Pot restaurant) on the west coast. They closed it, renovated it and in December 2009 reopened it as a very attractive hotel of eight simple, uncluttered but comfortable rooms with the feel of a New England beach house – lots of whitewashed tongue-and-groove panelling, louvred shutters, muslin-swathed beds and rocking chairs on the balconies.
They also revamped the terrace restaurant, introducing a menu that makes a convincing case for Caribbean classics: Bajan fried chicken, conch fritters, jerk pork, curried yam (or goat), rotis, pepper-pot stew and fried flying fish, served in cutters (giant sandwiches) of home-made saltbread. The presence of sea cat (“pickled, on a salad of avocado and tomato”) and “whole-baked dolphin” may seem disconcerting, but they’re the local terms for octopus and mahi-mahi.
In heading east, the first holidaymakers were following in the footsteps of the wealthiest of the early plantation owners. Look at a map, and many of the most spectacular Great Houses were built on this cooler side of the island: Sam Lord’s Castle, a magnificent Regency Gothic mansion, complete with crenellations, that burned down in 2010; Easy Hall, which has just been sold for $6 million (£3.9 million); and Farley Hill, now a ruin, though its grounds are a national park with fabulous views across the area known as the Scotland District, so called less for its scenery, which is scarcely Scottish, than the fact that it lies within the parish of St Andrew.
Only a few, however, are open to the public. There is Sunbury, with its red corrugated iron roof, abundance of old mahogany furniture and Victorian interiors. Or Fisherpond Great House, a handsome antique-filled mansion on an estate dating back to 1635, which owners John and Rain Chandler open to the public for a delicious twice-weekly buffet lunch. You can walk it off afterwards in nearby Welchman Hall Gully, an area of luxuriant rainforest with a half-mile long trail, from which you’re likely to spot one of the island’s 5,000 or so green monkeys, as well as ficus, ginger lilies, tree ferns and other verdure.
But the most beautiful remains St Nicholas Abbey, a small (seven-bedroom) exquisitely restored Jacobean house built in 1660 and set amid towering mahogany trees a few miles inland. Its interiors are every bit as splendid as its gabled façade, with an intricate Chinese staircase made by Chippendale and a Sheraton sideboard in the dining room, as well as an exquisite Coalport dinner service laid out on the table.
Yet for all its grandeur, it feels more like a home than a museum. During my visit, a cat dozed undisturbed on an 18th-century cane-and-mahogany armchair in the drawing room. The gardens are remarkable too, especially the trees: towering cabbage palms, kapok trees and a giant spike-trunked sandbox tree, said to be four centuries old.
But back on the east coast, moments from Bathsheba, the six-acre Andromeda Botanic Gardens are finer still. Established in 1953, they’re an enchanting place of palms, cacti, orchids, ferns and other exotica, most memorably a ghostly Ficus citrifolia, from whose vast canopy of branches descend tangles of aerial roots, thought to have been the “beards” after which the island is called because these trees were once so abundant.
For all its many attractions, you probably wouldn’t want to spend an entire holiday on the east coast, not least because Atlantic currents make bathing hazardous, and the ocean is a whole lot chillier than the Caribbean. But hire a car and a tour of the east coast works as a day trip from the west.
Indeed wherever you’re staying, it would be a shame not to spend at least an afternoon in the capital, Bridgetown, in the southwest corner of the island, where the area around the Garrison Savannah, two miles southeast of downtown, was named a Unesco World Heritage Site last summer.
With a military parade ground, now the site of Barbados’s racecourse, at its heart, it has the island’s largest concentration of elegant Georgian buildings, the Main Guard and its clock tower in particular.
The former prison, now the Barbados Museum, is an exercise in 19th-century colonial neoclassicism. And Bush Hill House, where George Washington spent seven weeks as a 19 year-old in 1751, contains exhibitions that commemorate not just his visit but, more searingly, the horrors of slavery. The first president of the United States, it reminds visitors, was himself a slave owner and though he sought to liberate them, one caption reads: “It would have cost nearly £6,000 to free them all [and] his plantations made only £900 a year.”
Bridgetown is also home to one of the oldest synagogues in the Americas, founded in 1654 by the same group of Brazilian Jews as are believed to have brought sugar to the island. Natives of Recife, they’d been persecuted by the Dutch colonists – hence the design and eventual construction of 500 windmills on the island, one of which, Morgan Lewis, stands above a magnificent and usually deserted beach of the same name.
That it still has functioning sails is thanks to the Barbados National Trust, which has done sterling work in preserving the island’s heritage and making it accessible. For nowhere in the Caribbean seems to resonate with history quite like Barbados. It may be a stretch to rouse yourself from your sunlounger, but a day or two exploring certainly lingers longer in the memory than just another rum punch by the pool.