I know that in a previous post I had written about how I am a Hyatt gal and why I am. To add to that, I am also an IHG gal. IHG stands for Intercontinental Hotel Group and it includes other than the Intercontinental Hotels, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn and Suites, Holiday Inn Express, Candlewood, Staybridge, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo and a few more. It seems that wherever I want to go, there is always a hotel that is affiliated with IHG.
When Blogger Hubby and I were in Aruba this past February, we stayed at the Hyatt since I had the two free night certificates but just passed the Hyatt was the Holiday Inn. Of course, we walked around and thought this would be a hotel we could stay at if we returned to Aruba. It was very nice from the outside and the limited view we had of the inside.
When we stayed in Amiens, France, we stayed at a Holiday Inn Express in a great location by the train station and it was the only chain hotel that I saw. during that same trip, we also stayed for two nights in Brugges in a Crowne Plaza in one ofd the most perfect locations for Brugges and since I had their credit card, we were upgraded to a corner suite – and we were using points. Finally, while we were in Prague we stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel in the Old Town, along the river and were upgrade to a junior suite because we were gold as a result of the status we received from having the IHG credit card by Chase.
My son travels to and from Montana for the past three years for his masters degree and I am able to book his hotel rooms on his way there and back from points from IHG. There is always a Holiday Inn wherever we travel.
The IHG credit card has been a staple in my wallet for many years now. There is a $49 a year fee yet I never call and ask for a fee waiver since the fee does give me a free night during the year. I think that is reasonable and I don’t want to argue with something that I think is reasonable.
IHG also has 4 times a year what they call PointBreaks. They list hotels all around the world where an award night is only 5,000. I’ve have not yet booked a Point Break night but hope to do so.
Another reason that I like the IHG Rewards Club is that they are always having promotion where I can earn extra points. Over a year ago I sent in 97 entry cards to receive at a minimum 500 points and many times more than that. They always have a big fall promotion where you get extra points for doing things like booking a weekend stay, making a reservation through their app, booking 5 nights within 3 months. Blogger Hubby and I have been known to make the reservation at the least expensive hotel we can find, check in and not even stay there just so we can earn the extra 30,000 points that completing that requirement would give us.
Currently the IHG credit card will give you 80,000 points when you spend $1000 over three months. In addition, this card has no foreign transaction fees, earning 5 x points when used at one of their hotels, platinum elite status and a free night. I do not earn any money or credit by letting you know about this card and I do think this is one that you should consider adding to your wallet. I know that I am looking forward to my next stay with them at the Crowne Plaza in Santiago, Chile. If you are interested in this card, follow this link.
If you are like me and I think you are since you are reading my travel blog, you tend to be the one that books tickets for yourself, family members and perhaps friends. I don’t mind doing it and I like to feel helpful yet it can be a lot of work looking for different dates, departure airports and arrival airports. I have about 4 airports within 2 1/2 hours of where I live and I feel like I need to check all of them so it does take time.
Since I live near a United hub I find that many of the flights I take are with United than with any other airline.
A benefit that United has for those of us who book for ourselves and others is the United.com Club. For a $25 annual fee, you can earn $5 back on every ticket you purchase at united.com. The money is deposited into your travel bank after the trip is completed and then becomes available to you to purchase travel on United and United Express flights.
This may not sound like much but if I had enrolled the beginning of the year I could have earned $30 so far and I still have 6 more flights to purchase tickets for which would add in another $30. It isn’t a lot of money but as my mama told me, watch your pennies because they can turn into dollars.
For all the fine print, follow this link which will take you to the United.com Club site.
You don’t think I’m just going to tell you off the bad what went wrong, do you? I need to set the stage so you can really understand.
I was traveling with a girlfriend to Cancun for a few days. As we had an early 7:30 AM flight, I spent the night before at her home because I live 125 miles from the airport. Before I left home I checked everything – passport, credit cards, confirmation number for flight, suitcase, etc. I even went back home to make sure I had turned something off before I was too far from home. Perhaps you can already tell where this story is going. We were even upgraded from economy to First based on my newly acquired silver status with United that I had earned less than 48 hours earlier. I was truly excited for this experience.
We got up early (4:30 AM) as she had the spouse of a mutual friend picking us up at 5:00 for our quick 15 minute trip to the airport. Knowing we would have time in the lounge after check in and security, we ate nothing at her house anticipating pastries, fruit and oatmeal at the United lounge.
He dropped us off, we made our way to the International Check in. We were asked for our passports. I took mine out of my backpack and gave it to the ticket agent. She surprised me when she said “is he going too?” HE???? What is she talking about? It was then when I looked inside of the passport that I realized I had grabbed my husband’s passport and mine was 125 miles away at home! Oh no! My heart starting beating fast and I needed to calm myself done and figure how we could solve this problem. Obviously I couldn’t make the next flight which was at 8:30 – I would just be hopefully getting home at this point. After much time searching for the best option for me, the ticket agent found a flight that left at 12:40 connecting in Houston and I would arrive in Cancun around 7:00. instead of the 10:00 AM I would have had. That was the best I could have hoped for and I was extremely grateful that it wasn’t late at night or even the next day. After telling my friend to go ahead without me and that I’d meet her sometime at the hotel we called our friend again and asked him to return to the airport, pick me up, take me to her house and I would be on my way.
Luckily this was a Sunday morning and it was still dark out. Not much traffic for which I was thankful for. Fortunately I have a cousin that lives about 15 miles from my home and is an early riser. I sent her a text message told her I had an emergency but not life threatening. She graciously went to my home, grabbed my passport and met me at a highway exit about 50 miles north of my home. I am forever in debt to her. As I was driving back to the airport I called my son and asked him to locate a shuttle ride for me to the airport – he is a bargain hunter and I knew he would get a great deal for me. I called my daughter and gave her my new record locater number and asked that she check me in. I didn’t want to find out that I had been bumped because I was the last one to check in. Finally, I called the Hyatt Globalist number and asked them to get in touch with the Hyatt ZIVA, where I would be staying, and let my friend know when she goes to check in, that I would be arriving around 7:00. I wanted her to know that I did get my passport and I was ticketed on the flight.
I got back to my friend’s house where I left my car, called my friend for the ride again and was back at the airport and checked in. I now had about 2 1/2 hours before boarding so I went to a United lounge. I told my tale of woe how I had the wrong passport, drove 150 miles to get it, lost my first class seat and now had economy plus. She took pity on me and told me to go downstairs and rest a little.
First thing I did was to get some breakfast, call my family to let them know I was back at the airport and that I was fine. It’s irritating when something like this happens but I couldn’t dwell on it as I needed to keep moving forward. I had checked numerous times that I had my passport – I just had never looked inside to make sure that it was mine.
Meanwhile as I was sitting in the lounge I heard an announcement about a delayed Cancun flight and that when they had more information, they would pass it on. My ears perked up. I went to the desk in the lounge and they said that this was the 8:30 non stop flight (it’s about 10:45 now). When I inquired if there were any seats available I was told “no”. Never one to take the first answer I was given, I decided to walk down to the gate and ask them there.
Luckily no one was standing in line at the gate agent’s desk when I walked up. I again asked if there were any seats available and as he was looking on his computer, I looked at the screen over his head and it showed one seat available. Excitedly I asked if I could have that seat. He looked at my boarding pass and said that it was First Class and I had an Economy Plus seat. I then pulled out my earlier boarding pass for the 7:30 flight that I didn’t take, and showed him that I was originally a First Class passenger. That one available seat became mine but I did ask him to protect me on the 12:40 flight to Houston in case this delay lasts even longer. While he was doing that, he got a call to begin boarding. How lucky did I get!
Once again I called my family to share my great news and let them know what flight I would be on and to change the time of my shuttle from 7:00 PM to 2:30 PM. I called the Hyatt Globalist number again and asked them to send an updated message to the hotel to pass on to my friend who should be arriving within the hour.
I put my seatbelt on, was given a Bloody Mary by the flight attendant when he heard my tale (he thought I needed it) had a fruit breakfast and then slept, and slept and slept.
Going through Immigration and Customs was a breeze. I walked outside and found the Cancun Shuttle representative. This was the shuttle that my son had arranged at $12 for one way. I arrived at the hotel around 3:30, got the key to our room and said a little prayer of thanks that for such a disasterous start to my day, everything fell into place.
I couldnd’t have done this without the help of my cousin Linda, Sue W who was the United ticket agent who initially spent time trying to find me a flight into Cancun, our friend who dropped us off, picked me up, dropped me off to get my car and then picked me up again to take me to the airport, my family for arranging a shuttle for me and checking me into the later flight and finally Hasan S who was the United gate agent for the delayed flight and managed to get me on it.
This was totally my fault. The United employees that I worked with reaslly tried to help me and I think it was because I remained cool, not panic stricken and I didn’t lash out at anyone. I praised them for the help they gave me. Flexibility was the key word for the day knowing that I wouldn’t get the same experience if I had made the earlier flight but with all the changes, I came pretty darn close. I needed to be open to not having a non stop flight as well as having a later one. Finally, I was able to ask for help and everyone that I asked for help was able to help me.
The take from all of this – we have decided to get some painters tape and put it on the outside of our passport and write our first names on it so it is visible from the outside whose passport is whose. Another idea is different colored passport colors. Just something so we know which is mine so this will not happen again. From every experience that we have, we learn something and generally do not make the same mistake twice. You can be sure that I will double and triple check that I have the correct passport – you will never have to remind me.
I’ve written about this previously but was requested to write about it again for a reader and others who shown interest in this cruise.
In the past, I have put groups together for cruising, whether ocean or river cruising because as a member of a group, you get special amenities, special rates and sometimes both! I’ve done it again and arranged special group perks for this next cruise. We have booked a 14 night cruise on Princess cruise line’s Emerald Princess sailing February 14th, 2018 sailing around the southern coast of South Africa from west to east.. Sounds like an amazing gift for your Valentine. We already have 18 in our group and with a group we got special amenities from this cruise line.
Our cruise departs from Valparaiso, Chile but prior to our cruise Blogger Hubby and I will spend a few days in Santiago and then we will be transported, via a few stops at some Chilean wineries, to Valparaiso along the Pacific coast. We already have some tours set up in both cities that you are welcome to join.
Once on board the ship, we can take full advantage of all that the Emerald Princess offers us like the movie screen over the swimming pool so we could watch movies sitting along the pool deck under the southern stars including the Southern Cross. The next day we will be among a small minority of people in the world that will get to see part of the solar eclipse that will be occurring over Antarctica.
In three ports, Ushuaia, Puerto Montt and the Falkland Island I have worked with several tour operators for small group tours (an additional cost but less expensive than what the cruise line charges). Rounding the Cape of Good Hope we will sail through the famed waters that Magellan sailed through. A stop that I am looking forward to is the Falkland Islands where I have hired Patrick Watts to take us in 4 x 4 vehicles to Volunteer Point to see Magellanic penguins, gentoo penguins and a 150 pairs of breeding Emperor penguins.
Ushuaia, another port that I am looking forward to, is at the end of the world, as the locals say. In Ushuaia you have an opportunity to book seats on a boat to go out into the Beagle Channel to view wildlife or go to their National Park or just walk around the end of the world.
Some of the amazing other ports that we will be going to include Punto Arenas, Puerto Madryn, you will cruise Amalia Glacier, spend a day in Montevideo and have an overnight on the ship in Buenos Aires.
One thing that I learned when researching this cruise was that Chile has more glaciers than all of Scandinavia. I just can’t imagine that.
I’ve been on many different cruises. The Eastern Med cruise transported me back into the ancient history class that I took in high school and I loved seeing all the buildings and structures that I had read about or saw pictures of in books or movies. I’ve done the Panama Canal cruise twice and I am always amazed at the engineering skill it took to build the canal over a hundred years ago as I look over seeing the new canal being built. Our Australia to New Zealand cruise was a wonderful adventure and remains a favorite of ours because it was different – a combination of a few cities but mainly it was scenic and this cruise to South America reminds me of that. The only two large cities that we will be cruising to are Montevideo and Buenos Aires. We will be in smaller cities and cruising along beautiful landscapes like Amalia Glacier.
You can be part of our group as much or as little as you want but being in our group, at least in name, will give you extra perks. This cruise does not include airfare but you can purchase it with your cruise from Princess Cruise Line. If you are involved in the point game like I am, and I assume you are since you are reading this blog, please know that I just booked our flight down using AA points on LATAM airline, the national airline of Chile. It is too soon to book award tickets for the return.
Speaking of the return, we are strongly flying from Buenos Aires to Iguazu, Argentina to see the magnificent waterfalls there that straddle Brazil and Argentina. Iguazu Falls is the largest system in the world. If you go to Brazil, you would need to pay for a visa approximately $160 USD. There is, at this writing, no visa needed for US citizens to go into Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. I’ve read numerous articles on visiting the Falls and the consensus is that you should see if from both sides. One article suggested it was like Niagara Falls – Horseshoe Falls is on the US side but can be viewed best from the Canadian side. Our plan is to spend one night on the Argentinian side and the second night on the Brazilian side. From there we fly home via Lima, Peru. All toll for us, this vacation will be about 3 1/2 weeks long. I’m not sure if we ever get back down to this area of South America again so I want to see as much as I can.
We have come to enjoy traveling with others, whether old friends or newly made ones. It’s nice to walk into a large room, pool deck or even Bingo on board and find a familiar face to sit down next to, someone w can ask questions of, compare daily experiences or sit and have dinner or a drink with.
Consider this cruise and if interested, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you. I’ll give you the name of the travel agent who is in charge of our group block – you must book with our travel agent to be part of our group in order to get the extra amenities and pricing.
I recently learned about the Marriott Hotel Challenge. It is an opportunity to earn top elite status provided you stay a certain number of nights within a certain period. Once that is completed you receive platinum status. I had done a Hyatt challenge a couple of years ago and have enjoyed my elite status with them when we have stayed at a Hyatt. Since we were driving down to Florida we knew we would have a few hotel stays and this seemed like the opportune time to begin the challenge.
I already was a Marriott Rewards member so I called them up on the phone and asked to be enrolled int he challenge. I needed to stay for a total of 9 stays over a period of almost 5 months.
Once I had attained the Platinum status with Marriott, I knew that I was eligible then to get silver status with United Airlines by mere virtue of having attainted the platinum elite level. I called up the Marriott Rewards number and explained that I wanted to be enrolled to get the silver status with United. They gave a me a link to which register and within 7-10 days, I will have silver status.
As most of you know, a year or so ago Marriott purchased SPG. I have linked the two accounts together. What this means that that by having Marriott platinum status, I now have SPG platinum status. With SPG platinum status, I am eligible for Delta silver status. All this from doing the 9 stay challenge!
Now that I have my 9 stays completed I’m concentrating on SPG stays since SPG points will transfer over to Marriott points at a 1:3 ratio.
Have you thought of doing the Marriott challenge? Both of these hotel chains are having a summer promotion and I plan on taking advantage of these promotions.
******* It was just mentioned to me that you have to have gold status to first be able to do this. You can get that status by having either a Marriott or SPG credit card. I do not have the Marriott cc but I do have the SPG ad I am not sure how long that card will be around and, as mentioned above, those points transfer 1:3 to Marriott
I find that I NEED to get away for some sun and warmth during the winter months even if it has been a mild winter like this year. It always gives a lift to me since I feel that I have a slight case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. My last minute cruise to the Caribbean didn’t happen this year due to conflicting schedules but I did have my two free night certificates that I earned late last winter from signing up for the Hyatt credit card from Chase. The two free nights could be redeemed anywhere in the world. When Blogger Hubby had this card we used his two free night certificates at the Grand Hyatt Kauai.
I have Diamond status with Hyatt due to them status matching me last year to my Aspire status with Holiday Inn. The status was effective for all of 2016 and expires on 2/28/2017. The Diamond status gave me 4 upgrades and I had used two of them already as I mentioned in the previous blog about me being a Hyatt Gal. With a couple more suite upgrades and two free nights, we decided to go to Aruba for our beach vacation.
Getting There: I already had some points that I had transferred from one of my Chase credit cards that gave me Ultimate Reward points to Singapore Airline’s Krisflyer loyalty program. Knowing that there is an expiration on those points, we decided to book our flight down to Aruba using the points that I had transferred over to my KrisFlyer account. As they are an alliance partner with United Airline, I went to the United website and saw which flights had award availability. I wanted to get to Aruba as soon as I could and from looking at the flights available to me I saw that we would have a connection in Newark. Never having flown through Newark before I wanted to allow myself enough time to get from one gate to another, particularly since I would have to change terminals. I was nervous about that since I had been told to take the train but if I took the train, I would have to go through security again. Instead there is a bus that brought me to my terminal. There was hanging signage so it was easy to find.
The flight down to Aruba was set. For the return flight, there didn’t seem to be any good flights for us without having a long layover in Newark, which would mean we would have to spend the night. I instead began looking at other airlines and found that Delta had a good one that would get us back to our home airport at 10:30 PM. The only concern I had was that there was a one hour connection time in Atlanta. We booked this flight because we also saw that there was ever a little later flight to our home airport in case we should miss ours. I don’t have many Delta miles so we paid out of pocket for this flight. I used my American Express credit card and received 5 x points for this purchase.
HYATT – To add to our two free nights at the Hyatt, we booked three other nights paying cash and points. I was charged $150 per night and 12,500 points per night. I knew that at this point (and it will change as of 3/1/17) that suite upgrades are not given on award stays so I tried to strategize and book the points and cash nights first followed by the free two nights hoping that they would keep me in the suite that I would get from using points and cash. Of course, there was always the possibility that they would have me change rooms after the first three nights and then transfer me to a standard room. I was willing to take my chance but didn’t tell Blogger Hubby about it till we were on the plane.
Flights were fine and before we knew it we were outside the terminal with our carry on only luggage getting into a taxi cab for the $25 fare to where the high rise motels were located on the northwest side of the island.
We pulled up and my breath was taken away at how beautiful the resort was. We went to the reception desk and was helped by Junel. At first we were told that our room was not ready even though I had asked for an early check in (a benefit of being a Diamond member). We started to walk away and he called us back and said that he could give us another suite, a larger one, but only for three nights in the high rise and then go to the regular suite in the low rise for the remaining two nights OR we could wait for the regular suite and stay there for all 5 nights. We chose to go to the larger one that had an ocean front balcony.
A little background on this hotel – there are essentially two parts to this hotel and they are connected where the reception area is located – somewhat like a U shape building. There is the high rise which has 9 floors and the low rise which has 5 floors. The Regency Club is located on the 9th floor of the high rise.
ROOM #1 – We were taken to our suite and it took my breath away. It was huge, at almost 1900 square feet it encompassed the entire back end of the hotel on our floor overlooking the Caribbean. We had 4 sets of sliding glass doors, 4 thermostats, three separate sitting areas, an Apple desktop computer on the desk, a bathroom that would equal my kitchen, a dressing area, 4 sofas and numerous chairs, two refrigerators, 2 bathrooms and so much more. This was luxurious living at its best. I was giddy but to be honest, we really didn’t use much of the room as we didn’t spend much time there. It did make it convenient to go up one floor for the Club offerings and the concierge that was there.
the left side of our large living roompart of our living room and the kitchen area
ROOM #2 – if I hadn’t seen our first room, I would have been thrilled with this room. It was a 2 room suite though the layout and furnishing were either awkward or outdated. The little kitchen area had only a small dorm size refrigerator and a microwave sitting on top of it. There are no glasses, plates, silverware in any of the cabinets in this area. There wasn’t even a sink. What was strange was one of the two closets was in the kitchen and the other in the bathroom. The sofa would convert to a sofa bed but it seemed very outdated. The bathroom counter could have accommodated two sinks but there was only. There were two doors leading into the suite from the hallway – one into the bedroom and the other into the living area. The balcony overlooked the ocean and we enjoyed sitting out at the end of the afternoon sipping our wine and watching the sunset.
GROUNDS – The grounds in the back were immaculate. They had 3 or 4 cages of birds including macaws. In the water feature, there were plenty of koi swimming around, many green iguana, turtles and black swans. Enough there to keep the few children that were staying here entertained not too mention my husband as well!
POOLS – there are really two pools although they are connected. The lower pool has a large very, shallow area for very little ones. This is where I saw the children with their little floaties on their arms. Steps led down to the adult pool where there was a net across for water volleyball. This is the pool that has a swum up bar. Around the corner, but still in the water, is where the water slide ends so be careful of the adults and children who are speeding down the blue water slide. Blogger Hubby went down numerous times and had a great time. The upper pool is is just a pool, although a very nice pool. Behind it, hidden away by the tropical foliage is the hot tub which was very relaxing.
LOUNGERS, UMBRELLAS, and PALAPAS – I found the way that you sign up for a palapa (the palm frond covered wooden umbrellas that are on the beach)and loungers with umbrellas around the pool to be a little difficult but honestly, I don’t know if I could improve it. First of all, you can reserve and rent a palapa, umbrella or one of the few cabanas. The palapas rent for $55 per day or $80 for the cabanas and they can be rented for up to one year in advance of your stay. They have the prime location, closest to the beach. They do have some palapas that are not for rent but in order to reserve them you can either go online at 4 PM the day before or stand in line at the towel hut. I stood in line but to be honest, you need to get in line around 3:30. It goes fast so have an idea of the number of the palapa you want because you are competing with those online. Many people found that the online process didn’t work so I wouldn’t risk it because they can, and do, run out of palapas by the beach or the umbrellas by the pools. If they still have some available, you can go to the Towel Hut at 10:00 AM and sign up for one there. There are usually empty loungers available by the pool though there may not be by an umbrella.
STAFF – we found the staff to be very accommodating and they always seemed to know our needs and our names. The Club has a cooler for water, and soda. I lamented to the concierge that there was no Coke products in the cooler. When my husband went up later, she gave him two cans of Coke’s for us since she keeps some in a different area for those who ask. They have a contract with Pepsi so they wouldn’t put out the Coke products but they still had them for their guests. Every time I walked by the registration desk I was always greeted by name and was always asked if there was anything I needed. At the towel hut, they knew my room number when I would go to borrow a floating pad to lay on in the water. They even knew when we changed rooms. I cannot say enough great things about the staff.
REGENCY CLUB – who needs to eat out when you have such amazing food at the Club. Breakfast dishes always had bagels, croissants, toast, English muffins, cold cuts, smoked salmon, hot oatmeal and then another dish such as pancakes, scrambled eggs and more. Fresh fruit was plentiful and we appreciated the pineapple chunks, in season watermelon, slices of grapefruit as well as apples, bananas and plums. The afternoon was time for sweets such as cookies, nuts and dried fruit and cake. Appetizers began at 5:00 PM and we found that several days that we didn’t need to go out for dinner – that’s how filling and ample the appetizers were.
When we did want to go elsewhere for dinner, we could walk out of the hotel and turn either left or right. I would go to the left (near the Hilton) as there were many good restaurants there. Many of them had outside seating around a small stage where there was live entertainment. We particularly enjoyed the Argentina Grill but we could have easily gone to many of the other restaurants.
SUPERBOWL SUNDAY – We arrived on Superbowl Sunday and in case you don’t know me, although I live in Virginia and have for over 3 decades, I am a Bostonian through and through as that is where I was raised and lived till we moved to Virginia – my accent will testify to that. Well you know who was playing on that Superbowl Sunday and I wanted to watch it. Of course, we had that large television in our living room but Hyatt went one better. They had out in the water a large inflatable screen that they televised the game on. Of course, we could have sat in one of the uncomfortable wooden slat chairs in the sun but we had a better option. Remember we had the entire balcony facing the water. As we had been up way too early, we changed into our PJ’s and sat out on our balcony and watched the game with the audio on in our living room. Great fun.
My goal on this trip was just to sit my bottom in a lounger and read, swim, nap and just relax. We did take a sunset cruise booked from the tent in front of the palapas and we enjoyed it very much particularly since everyone on board was from Boston and they had no trouble understanding me! Blogger Hubby went on a snorkel trip and he thought it was so so. Next time, and there will be a next time, I would rent a car for a day or too which you can do directly at the Hyatt.
I thoroughly enjoyed this mini vacation and this is the only Caribbean island that I would consider coming back to. Most people just know it from a cruise port of call but it is more than just the downtown area that the cruisers know. There isn’t a lot to do (aloe factory tour, feeding ostriches, touring the island and seeing the Old Lighthouse) but I wasn’t looking for anything except pure relaxation and this fulfilled it.
FYI – when you leave Aruba, you go through their customs and security and then you go through US immigration and customs before you get to your gate. If you are leaving on a weekend, particularly on a Saturday, this can take up to three hours so make sure you allow yourself enough time. We had read that and decided to leave on a Friday. It took us about 90 minutes to go through everything.
I’ve often scoffed at bloggers who only stay at some of these higher priced hotels like Hyatt, Ritz Carlton, Westin, etc. I’ve more or less stayed at Holiday Inns, Radisson’s and Hilton’s. They were more moderate and just fine for me. That is until a year ago when Hyatt offered to status match me to the highest hotel elite level that they have. I just happened to have Holiday Inn Aspire level which is their highest level. Believe it or not, based on that Hyatt status matched me to their highest level – I was suddenly a Diamond elite.
My first time staying at a Hyatt (and I did it because their prices were competitive) my friend and I were treated to an upgraded room, and a free hot, order from the menu or buffet breakfast in the restaurant at a the hotel. Other guests were paying about $25 for this meal and we got it free merely by my status.
Second time I stayed using my status was in New York with another friend. This Hyatt had a Club where there were plates of food to help ourselves to. Instead of going out to breakfast, we ate in the Club. Appetizers were in the evening, snacks in the afternoon. There were urns of hot coffee, coolers of water, juices and soft drinks all for the taking. We stocked up! We found that we saved money on food by eating in the Clubs – once, we didn’t even need to go out to eat after munching a few duck quesadillas. Once again, we did pay a little more but we looked at the value we received. Additionally, every time I checked in I was given complimentary points to add to my point balance. I find that when we are going somewhere, I am now looking to see if there is a Hyatt nearby.
With the Diamond status I am given 4 upgrades to suites as long as there is a suite available. I’ve used two of them. The first was in Seattle with Blogger Hubby and we had a high room in a corner overlooking Puget Sound. But before I say more, as we approached our room, there was a doorbell to our room! A doorbell! We entered into the living room, a bathroom larger than my kitchen back home, a huge bedroom with those drop dead gorgeous views. Again, what’s not to like. All I had to pay was for the standard room rate and the upgrade to the suite was free. The second time I was with a friend in Cleveland staying at the Arcade near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Our room was 1200 sq. feet. We had a small kitchen, living room, dining room and another huge bathroom.
I’ve also discovered that I can book a room on points and cash and they will still give me points when I check in. I recently booked a room for another friend – it was 2,500 points and $50 in cash. I booked the room with my points and she paid the cash portion, I received 500 for this booking. Where could I find a hotel as nice as a Hyatt?
When I applied for the Hyatt credit card last year they gave you a free two night stay anywhere in the world. When Blogger Hubby had the card a few years ago we stayed at the Grand Hyatt Kauai and it was luxurious. We could have never afforded to stay there.
I now have the credit card and we are using my two free nights next month when we fly to Aruba and stay at the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort. I have booked 3 nights using points and cash and two nights using my free nights that came when I applied for the credit card. The points and cash are $150 per night and 12,500 points per night. Essentially we will pay $450 exclusive of taxes and 37,500 points for 5 nights on Palm Beach. Go ahead, twist my arm to make me go. Oh, did I forget to mention that I’m using one of my suite upgrades. I can’t wait to see it.
There have been some changes to the program so if you are interested, make sure you read all about it before applying. I do not receive anything from recommending this card but rather to say how much I have enjoyed it and part of that enjoyment is definitely that I have the top elite status. Even without the status, staying at the Hyatt House, a lower tier of their brand, is enjoyable because the rooms are very large, almost like having a suite and you always get a free breakfast buffet at the Hyatt House.
The Hyatt hotels are beautiful and are in some amazing locations around the world. I’ve always had outstanding customer service and at times it has been above and beyond what I have found at other chains. For me I have found that they really believe that the customer is always right.
I’ve some some stays coming up – Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires that have amazing Hyatt Hotels.
At the end of my first year, I’ll have to decide whether I want to pay the annual fee and keep the card (remember every charge on the card gives you points) or cancel it, wait 25 months and reapply to get the two free nights again. If I decide to keep the card I will receive a free night at a category 1-4 Hyatt Hotel. They do have a hotel in the Maldives where I hear the palm tress gently calling my name. But then the hotel at Beaver Creek is beckoning my name urging me to put my ski boots on and swish down the mountain. What would you do?
As a first timer to Paris, there were many places I wanted to visit and some that I would be willing to wait until my next visit. One visit that was not going to wait was my visit to Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny. His impressionist paintings gave a sense of peace and serenity to me, and I wanted to walk in his gardens and see what he saw.
It was easy getting there – remember, for this entire trip we used public transportation. We were able to take the metro to Gare Saint-Lazare. We purchased tickets at the kiosk for the Vernon/Rouen/Le Havre train and getting off the train at the Vernon stop. You do not know before which train track you will be boarding as it is not announced on the departure board till 20 minutes before. We attempted to find out this information a little earlier by going to the information desk/ticket desk but they merely said to wait the 20 minutes. There were plenty of pastry shops at the train station so I passed the time by sampling the chocolate croissants at some of the counters. One thing I found interesting is that many of the train stations that we were departing or arriving in had pianos where passengers could sit and play.
It had been suggested that we take the 08:20 AM train so that we would be at Monet’s home around the time that they opened for visitors (9:30) and before all the tour buses got there. The train trip is about 45 minutes in duration and once you get to Vernon you have a few choices to make as to how to get to Monet’s home. There is a shuttle bus waiting for the train passengers just outside of the train station. The cost, in 2016, was 8€ for the roundtrip. The downside is that you wait for everyone to board and pay and that does take awhile. Other passengers that we spoke with took a cab and a few walked the 5 k to get to the home. In retrospect, we should have taken a cab and found others to share the expensive. We found that after we were dropped off in the bus lot we had a walk to get to the home Those who had taken the cab had said that they were there before too many people had arrived and had wonderful pictures without the hordes of tourist. It seemed like almost all of my photos have people in them.
What was interesting about this morning is that is was misty and a little foggy giving that feeling that you are seeing exactly what Monet saw when he painted his pictures. We were there during the third week of September and the colors were not as bright as they might have been during the summer, but for me bright colors were not reflected in his paintings.
The grounds looked just like his paintings including the old green rowboat, the bridge, the water lilies.
I felt like I was walking through his paintings and walked around the loop through his gardens at least twice. There was a thicket of bamboo and the weeping willow trees that overhung the pond. It was very mythical and ethereal. I didn’t want to let go and leave, I was mesmerized. It was as if I was walking around silently and absorbing all that was Monet.
The crowds and buses had arrived and it was getting crowded so we headed for the tour of his home. His study with his paintings and his kitchen were the rooms that stood out to me. The back of his home had many windows that overlooked the gardens but none had the best views like those from his bedroom and his studio.
What was interesting is that Monet, unlike other artists, did not come upon a scene and paint it. Rather, through his hard work, he created a landscape that he painted. It took almost twenty years for him to create his gardens.
If you want to read more Monet, and his water lily paintings that are, in a sense, his swan song, then please read Monet’s Angels.
We were able to get a train around noon to head back to Paris in time for our tour of the second level of the Eiffel Tower which I’ll talk about later.
I do not receive any compensation for the products that I have described in this post. This are strictly my opinions.
I love food and I especially love cookies and pastries. When I realized that we would be spending a few days in Paris I knew that I would have the opportunity to strike another item off my bucket list. I’ve always wanted to take a French cooking lesson and here was my chance!. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to take all the classes that I would have liked to such as making pastries, croissants, macarons, sauces, entrees and so on.
I needed to focus and decide which one class I was going to take. It actually came down to two – it would be either croissants or French macarons. I had tried baking macarons several times by myself and was never able to master it. I think that was the determining factor in deciding to take a technical class in making macarons and three different fillings.
Like I usually do, I went to Trip Advisor to look at reviews for a cooking class. Some looked really amazing and the price was amazing as well. I found that La Cuisine Paris had very good reviews and they had the macaron class that I wanted on a day and time when we would be in Paris. I was able to sign up on line and was happy to find out that there would only be 8 in our class and that we would leave with a box full of these delicious treats. What could be better?
Blogger Hubby came with me to make sure that I found that facility and since it was near Notre Dame, he would go there during my class. It’s along the river, south of the Louvre. We walked in, signed and and waited for others to arrive. Once four of us arrived, we went downstairs into the kitchen. The other two had called and said they were lost and to stay on schedule, we began the class without them. Our chef was Eric, originally from Southern California but moved to Paris when he was about 8. He worked with some of the more famous pastry chefs in Paris. He was a native English speaker which made it easier for me to understand. He passed out our recipes and asked us to “buddy up” as we would share a Kitchen Aid with our partner.
We first made a vanilla filling made by scraping a vanilla bean and then cooking the mixture on a hot plate. We then made a chocolate ganache filling with chocolate and cream and a little European butter which has a higher fat content. Finally we made a fresh pineapple filling. It was important to make the fillings first so they could cool and firm up. Next we made the first of two different macarons – one that was hot and the other with stiffly beaten egg whites. I learned that most of the pastry chefs use powdered food coloring and a little goes a long way. Once I used it I realized how much easier it was to use than the gels that I had at home. I would order some from Amazon.
We were instructed in the proper piping method as we piped our mixture onto parchment paper.
For those who have made macarons previously, we did not have them sit for 30 minutes to dry. Beautiful trays of macarons came out of the oven and we oohed and aaahed our creations amazed that we made these beautiful cookies.
After they cooled we were allowed to begin filling them with our delicious fillings. We decided as a group to have our boxes that we would be bringing home with us to be a mixture of colors and not just the two colors that we had made. The boxes looked like a pastel rainbow. I did learn that they should be refrigerated after making them for 24 hours and they should be consumer within three days after that.
These macarons looked just as beautiful and delicious as the ones we saw lining shelves in pastry stores.
Both Blogger Hubby and I enjoy taking some type of cooking lesson where ever we travel – cookies in France, a meal in the Czech Republic, a full Italian meal in Florence, and small group cooking lessons while cruising with Holland America.
So much to see and so little time to see all that I want to see, do and eat. That’s how I felt about our time in Paris.
Today I was going through our Paris photographs in preparation for our making our photo album through My Publisher. Looking at the photos brought back such wonderful memories.
After we checked into the Le Metropolitan, a SPG property that we booked on points when it was a Club Carlson property, we immediately left not wanting to waste a minute of our time. We walked toward the Arc de Triomphe. I was giddy with excitement and felt like jumping up and telling everyone that “I’m here, I’m actually in Paris” while I’ was walking around and viewing this landmark at the end of the Champs des Elysees. If you continue walking on the outside, not going into the traffic to get to the Arc, you’ll see a sign directing you to where the tunnel is to walk underground to get to the Arc. The Arc, as I learned through a tour, was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to commemorate those who fought and died for France during the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic Wars. Whenever you think of Arcs, this is the one that comes to mind. The Arc sits in the center of 12 converging avenues that radiate out form the Arc. When we were there there was some type of bicycle event happening and they were at the Arc. Police were there to control the traffic for the cyclists
We walked all around Paris, stopping at an outdoor fruit market where we picked up some delicious fruit to bring back to our room. It was convenient to a small city sized grocery store where we picked up some yogurts, pastries and other items to keep in our room. On our way back to the hotel we passed an Italian restaurant and decided to eat dinner while we mapped our what we would do the next few days. Instead of going right back to the hotel, we continued walking and I saw the Eifel Tower all lit up. We walked to a great viewing spot directly across the river from it, along with a few hundred other people. Vendors were there selling their wares, flashes were going off as everyone seemed to be taking pictures. We caught out breath as we saw the light show on the Eiffel Tower. This was a dream come true a million times over. Instead of walking back to the hotel this time I floated back. Do you ever feel like that?
The next morning we were up and ready to put our plan into action. Since we hadn’t been to Paris before, we thought a great way to get an overview of the city would be to get tickets on the HoHo bus (Hop on, Hop off). Apparently there are several different companies who do HoHo bus tours but the one recommended by our hotel was the L’Open Tour bus.
There was a special promotion on the flyer with the HoHo bus. You could purchase a bus ticket for one day for €33 or, what we did is purchase a 2 day pass that also include a river boat cruise on the Bateaux Mouches for €43. What we liked about the bus we took is that there are four different lines, each going to a different part of Paris. In addition to touring, we used the bus as public transportation. A great map was on the flyer so we knew which colored bus to take and what we would see. There were over 50 stops among all four colored routes.
We decided to do the boat tour first. We walked, and walked, and walked to where the boats were (hint – take the subway, bus, uber or cab). We bought our ticket, stood in line and immediately went to the upper level for viewing. There really are no bad seats there but if I had to suggest a seat, it would be in the rear. You go up and down so if a building is not on your side, wait till they turn around and it will be. We went pass the d’Orsay, Notre Dame and so many buildings. The narrative was good as well. Would I recommend this? Definitely yes. A great introduction to Paris.
After the boat tour, we walked to catch the HoHo bus. Since we had one of their maps, we knew where the stops were and we knew which colored tour we wanted. As we were walking to the stop, we passed by a memorial in honor of Princess Diana that was over the tunnel where her fatal accident took place. Also at the location was a duplicate of the Statue of Liberty’s torch .
When we found our stop and boarded we headed up to the upper level for an unencumbered view of the city. When you board your driver will give you a pair of earbuds to plug into the box at your seat where you can dial in to your language to hear the audio.
We drove through the Montmartre section of Paris and saw the famous Moulin Rouge with their windmills.
A few blocks later we got off and walked uphill with a small crowd to Sacre Coeur. Walking up the hill we passed numerous T shirt shops and other shops selling all types of souvenirs. That didn’t interest us so we kept walking. Once again we passed another carousel. Europeans, we noted, love their carousels and we saw many during our visit to France. We walked left at the carousel and followed the signs to the funicular for the quick ride to the top of the hill where the Basilica was built with an unparalleled view of all of Paris. I certainly enjoy the history and architecture of the many churches we have visited.
Sacre Coeur was built in the 1800’s on the top of the hill in the Montmartre section of Paris. This was the site where the Druids of Ancient Gaul would come to worship as well as the Romans who built their temples to honor Mars and Mercury. There is a very long history on this location. Soon after, we walked down the hill, across the street to catch the next HoHo bus to bring us close to our hotel. We were traveling in rush hour and it seemed to take forever yet on the other hand, we went through the Arc on our way home. We seemed to always pass the Egyptian obelisk that, depending who is telling the story, was either given to the French or the French stole it from Egypt.
My first full day in Paris was wonderful and we had more days to come with more adventures including a cooking lesson for me.
Here are a few more random sights we saw on our travels.
Yes, can you believe that I had never been to Paris before this trip? I was anxiously looking forward to our four days in the City of Lights. I had my list of places I would like to go, and things that I wanted to see. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it all so I gave myself permission to deviate from the schedule I set up. Of course I had to save some things to see and do for my second trip to Paris.
For our hotel stay I made our reservations at the Radisson Metropolitan in the 16th Arrondissement using my Club Carlson points more than a year before our trip. Previously with Club Carlson if you booked a reward stay, your last night was free. In other words, they didn’t even charge you points. Consequently I booked two nights under my name (remember one of those nights was free) and two nights under Blogger Hubby’s account. We would spend four nights at the hotel in total but only paying points for two nights.
Before we went to Paris I found out that SPG purchased our hotel and it would be in their luxury collections. I was concerned that they wouldn’t honor our reservation but they assured me they would.
A month before we left the United States I had made train reservations and purchased our TGV (fast train) tickets to go from Lyon to Paris. I again turned to The Man in Seat 61 to explain the differences between the trains. He had recommended purchasing our tickets through the Captain train website which I did. The Captain Train website has since been taken over by Train Line but it is the same format and I had no problems purchasing and printing out my tickets. If you plan to go to Europe, for many routes it is much less expensive if you purchase your tickets 60 or 90 days in advance. For other smaller, local trains it didn’t seem to matter and we would purchase them at the train station either at the kiosk or at the ticket counter once we knew definitively what our plans were. Track information is not posted until 20 minutes prior to the train’s arrival so no sense in asking people which track you’ll be departing from. Also, since we departed Lyon from Part-Dieu station there was assistance for those with mobility problem as as was the case with our traveling companions. Her husband went into the office, told them where we were waiting and an attendant came out with a wheel chair and took her to the correct track and helped them on. If you need help and it is available, take full advantage of it.
For those who are unfamiliar with train travel in Europe, once you have your ticket, you need to validate it prior to boarding at the machine on the platform. Conductors will still come by and check your ticket to see if it has been validated and if it hasn’t, there is a huge fine to pay.
On the Train Line website, which is in English, you can choose which type of seating you wanted and which class. We traveled first class (wouldn’t do it again), sat in the upper deck for better viewing and chose single seats facing each other. Across the aisle were two seats together either facing forward or facing each other like we were. We had a small table between us with a small lamp.
I emailed the concierge at our hotel asking for ways to get to the hotel from the Gard Lyon, the train station that we would be arriving in. Obviously the options were to hire a driver, taxi, subway or bus. He gave us the prices for these options. We chose to take the bus as it would drop us off about 2 blocks from the hotel and would be inexpensive. We bought a book of ten bus/subway passes called a caret. If you plan on using public transportation, I would recommend buying a caret as it will save you time. For us taking a bus was easy as we only had carry-on luggage (me) and a slightly larger case for Blogger Hubby as we allowed room for souvenirs in his suitcase. The ride took a lot longer than I thought, about an hour, but while we were traversing Paris we got a good orientation to the city and I got my first glimpses of the Eiffel Tower. Blogger Hubby is always a little nervous about making sure we know that we are on the correct bus/train, that we are going in the right direction and that we know where to get off. Fortunately I have no qualms about asking people. I found if you have a smile, and ask if they speak “English” people are willing to help you as much as they can. I’ll tell you this now – we did not get lost once nor did we get on the wrong train or bus or miss our stop.
We got off the bus and headed for our hotel, now called Le Metropolitan, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel. The hotel is shaped like a triangular between two streets. I knew that European hotels were small but when they took us to our room, I couldn’t believe how small it was. Both of us could not be up and walking around at the same time. There was a small chair in the corner but immediately behind it was a floor lamp and if you sat down the back of your head hit the floor lamp. You couldn’t pull the chair out because there was only about a foot’s length between the chair and the corner of the bed. When we asked if there was another room they told us no and that we should be happy as this was an upgrade.
I did not know how we would be able to spend 4 nights in this room. That night I sent a tweet out to @SPG assist, sent them the pictures and told them how uncomfortable it was. Next morning there was a knock on our door and they moved us across the hallway. This room even had a couch in it – certainly not luxurious but a much nicer room. I would stay away from room 226 and instead ask for room 230.
There is a restaurant on the first floor and it looked nice though we didn’t try it. I believe the breakfasts there are about $30 each. Instead we would go to a pastierrie and purchase our freshly made French pastries. Around the corner and down the street from the hotel was a Casino – which is a French supermarket. That’s where we purchased our yogurts, sliced meats, cheeses and wine.
For being branded a “luxury hotel” it did not feel very luxurious to us with the awful royal purple rippled carpeting in the hallway, elevators that didn’t work half the time, the lounge area that had tables where we played cards sometimes and looks better in these pictures than it did in real life. The lobby is very nice and the staff is friendly and helpful and they met all our needs particularly when we asked for numerous directions, which subway stop to use or how to get to train stations.
As you walk out the door and basically walk straight you will see the Eiffel Tower. I gasped when I saw it all lit up in the evening. This is the view as we were about 50 meters from the hotel.
Nevertheless we are very thankful that we had the points to stay here and that we booked it while we were still able to get one night free through the Club Carlson program.
Next post will be our sightseeing adventures and how we saved some money.
I don’t hide the fact, and my accent is a dead giveaway particularly since I live in the South (hey, I consider Virginia the South) that I am originally from Boston – about 14 miles north of the city. You’ll hardly ever hear me pronouncing the letter “r”. It’s just the way it is.
I have had fond childhood memories of being dropped off in Revere at the Wonderland subway station (blue line) to ride the subway into Boston. It is super easy to ride the subway and to get around – you really do not need a car. I have always loved Boston and I really believe it is the best city in our country. More about that later.
We had an opportunity to go back “home” the weekend before Thanksgiving to visit some family members. Award flights were non-existent since it was the weekend before Thanksgiving so we decided to drive.
As I was close to requalifying for Hyatt Diamond this year we stayed just outside of the city in Medford. I received the Diamond status when Hyatt status matched to other hotels last December and they matched my Spire with Holiday Inn. I was very surprised that they did it but I will say that I have enjoyed the benefits of the Hyatt program. As they changed the qualifications for the following year, 2017 will be my last year as a Diamond member. The Medford Hyatt Place is about 5 miles north of Boston and you can see the skyline from your hotel window. Medford is also the home of Tufts University and where we lived as newlyweds.
We took the shuttle from the hotel to the Wellington subway station (orange line) and got off at Haymarket which put us within walking distance of the waterfront, the North End and Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market – exactly where we wanted to be.
We walked over to Faneuil Hall and the Quincy Market. Faneuil Hall has such a long history with the city. It had been a meeting place since the mid 1700’s and speeches by many of the early Boston patriots were made in this hall. Three indoor market places are in the location as well; North Market, Quincy Market and South Market. Most Bostonians call the entire area “Faneuil Hall”. Inside Quincy market are stalls of food vendors and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a lobster roll – the kind with mayo in a squared off hot dog roll with some lettuce. That. to me, is the traditional lobster roll though some places now sell it with melted butter in the hot dog roll. Blogger Hubby had a cup of clam chowder (or chowda as I would say it) and a gyro. In the center of the market are benches and table so you can find places to sit and eat. If this isn’t your thing, just before you get to Faneuil Hall there is the Union Oyster House and other great restaurants as well. Blogger Hubby’s favorite is Durgin Park, a favorite of President Kennedy. Communal eating is the style and waitresses back talking to you is the norm. Anyplace you go, you will get a delicious meal.
After eating lunch we walked toward the waterfront and admired the views. It’s always so restful watching boats on water. Along the waterfront there is a Marriott hotel and attached to the outside of the building are restrooms but….if you go inside and up the escalator, you’ll find warm, clean restrooms inside. This is my favorite hotel in Boston since it is on the waterfront and close to many things that I love.
We walked along the waterfront and turned into the North End which is the Italian section of Boston. I went to college and law school about 5 blocks away and would often come down to the North End for great pizza at Reginas where the waitresses are old, heavy, wear all black clothing and are somewhat rude – but it has such character and is an institution in Boston. We walked by the Old North Church (“listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”), and Paul Revere’s home.
My absolute favorite part of the North End are the pastry shops on Hanover Street. There are two pastry shops of note – Mike’s and Modern. They are similar yet they are also different. Here is a link comparing the two. There were so many different fillings for the cannolis but I liked the traditional with the ricotta cream cheese filling with the mini chips on the ends. After eating my cannoli in the shop, I left wishing I had brought a box back to the hotel with me. The great news is that the Hyatt that we were staying in is within a couple of blocks of Modern’s shop in Medford.
Since we had driven that morning from Connecticut and had walked most of the day, we took the subway (locals call it the T) back to the Wellington station. When we got on the T, we called the hotel to have the shuttle head out to pick us up. Within 10 seconds of us walking out of the subway station, the shuttle arrived and took us back to the hotel.
There is so much more to Boston than what I have lightly treaded on. The Freedom Trail is a great start to seeing and learning about the early history of our country. You will go by Old Ironsides (USS Constitution, a ship that fought in the War of 1812), The Old Granary Burial Ground which is the final resting place for Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, the victims of the Boston Massacre, Mother Goose, the parents of Benjamin Franklin, Peter Faneuil and so many more. You’ll also go by Bunker Hill which looks like a miniature Washington Monument. The Old State House and the current State House are also on the tour. Did I tell you the route is about 2.5 miles – very doable and very educational particularly if you are a history buff. If your child is a scout, I believe there is a badge for walking the Freedom Trail.
Spring time you should head over to the Boston Public Gardens and take a ride on the Swan Boats. They operate from mid April till mid September. The boats are built on two pontoons with six bench seats on them and are propelled by the driver in the back peddling. It is a favorite tradition in Boston.
A favorite childrens book of Boston children is “Make Way for Ducklings” by Robert McCloskey and part of the story takes place at the lagoon in the Public Gardens where the Swan Boats operate. If you go there, look for the statues of Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings.
Of course, you can hop on the red line and head over to Harvard and walk around the square and university or go south and go to the Kennedy Presidential Library. We also have the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Science Museum. You can go to the top level of the Prudential Building and get a panoramic birds eye view of Boston. Don’t forget the famous Aquarium – the one in Baltimore is modeled after this one. If you are there in winter, go to the Boston Commons and ooh and aah at the all the Christmas lights. In the summer, take the T to Revere Beach. There is so much to do in this great city and because it is relatively flat, it is a great walking city.
If you are a sports fan, there is no better place to be in the summer than at Fenway Park particularly the the Red Sox are playing against the Yankees. Lots of strong support for the BoSox. Of course, the Patriots, Bruins and Celtics aren’t too bad either.
I truly am skimming the service when it comes to what you can do in Boston and hope that you find time to visit the city.
Our week long river cruise ended in Lyon and one of the things I had read on some travel forums is that many people wished they had more time in Lyon. We booked and extra two nights in Lyon before heading to Paris. Lyon was founded by the Romans and was the capital of the Three Gauls. Lyon is also famous for its silk and the silk workers. I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a silk scarf from a silkmaker while on the AMADagio who came to explain the silk process to us.
On our AMAWaterways cruise, those who were continuing on the post cruise with AMA were going into Lyon for a cooking experience. We asked our cruise director Rachel if we could do it as well and we would be willing to pay for the experience. She graciously allowed us to join the others. Unfortunately that morning, I was not feeling well and stayed behind on the ship while Blogger Hubby went with the others in the first of several groups going over. The group was actually making their lunch to take with them on the train to Paris. Since he had ridden one of the bicycles that AMA has on their ships for us passengers over to Lyon the day before to locate our hotel, he was happy and surprised to find that he were basically around the corner from our hotel. He came back to the ship when he had finished the cooking lesson to pick me up. We eagerly got into a cab that our cruise director had called for us.
Initially we had reservations at the Intercontinental in Lyon but in looking at the map that seemed to be further away from the Old City area where we wanted to be. With that reservation cancelled I needed to begin looking around again. Rick Steves to the rescue! I love his travel books and looked at his recommendation where to stay and double checked with Trip Advisor. Turned out that the Hotel Artistes was a true gem in terms of location, price and the room was fine, a little small but larger than some of the more expensive rooms that we stayed in on this trip. I would highly recommend this hotel if any of you are going to be in Lyon. I couldn’t use points for this hotel stay – the only one of the entire trip but I did earn points by using my Chase Sapphire Preferred card and received 2 times points as it was a travel expense. We were about a block or so from the Rhone River.
Why this was exciting was because they had large Farmer Markets there and since we were there on a weekend, it was great. We chose not to buy the breakfast option at the hotel but instead walked the block to the river and perused all the vendor stalls. Who could resist a freshly made chocolate croissant – certainly not me. I’m a fan of soft, pungent cheese and they had so many for us to choose from. Add a baguette, a sausage and I was in heaven. We enjoyed strolling past the farmers seeing the bright, vibrant colors of the fruits and vegetables in season. Fresh fish were also very popular as well as chickens on a rotisserie. So many different options and I wished I could just sit there and eat. An observation that I made was that the prices in the market seemed much less expensive than our farmer markets that are near me.
Before we traveled to Lyon we happened to watch an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Lyon and learned that a specialized restaurant there is called a bouchan. A bouchan serves traditional Lyonnaise food such as sausages, and duck pate and it is a friendlier restaurant where you can talk and laugh. Of course, we wanted to follow his advice and going to a bouchon was on our list of things to do.
We were able to walk around Lyon, get our bearings and look for restaurants for that evenings dinner. We found that THE place to go was Rue Merciere – a street lined with restaurants and bouchans. So many to choose but having the chalk board outside did help us decide which one to visit. Many times you have a choice of an 2 courses or three with the third being a dessert. With more than enough food being served sometimes I would just order the entre and Blogger Hubby would order the two or three course and “share” with me.
Sorry for the blurry
Other restaurants that we highly recommended to us by locals was Le Petit Garet on Rue du Garet, Chez Hugon on Rue Pizay, Restaurant Chabert & Fils (in Old Town) and as mentioned before all restaurants on Rue Merciere. We particularly enjoyed Bouchon Lustre.
Across the Saone is the funicular to go up to the top to visit Notre Dame Basilica. This basilica is on the World Heritage list and another one that we can check off. European churches are so grand, at least compared to what I’ve seen in the United States and they are also very similar to each other. I think this was the last church that Blogger Hubby wanted to visited on our because he said “after a while they all begin to look like each other” and he does have a point. Nevertheless, we walked behind the church and had a panoramic view of the city of Lyon and the rivers that important to it.
We walked down the hill from Notre Dame and stopped at the Roman amphitheatre. As it oher European cities that we have been in, there was a professional photographer taking wedding shots of a Korean couple for magazines in Korea. I am constantly amazed at the archetecture of the ancient civilizations. What they could accomphlish without the tools that we have now is unbelieveable.
For a foodie like me, we enjoyed going to Les Halles, the famed indoor food market. We were able to sample cheese, wine, sausages, macarons (my favorite). If you enjoy food, I would recommend that you visit this market.
We didn’t do anything special in Lyon but instead meandered around the streets people watching. If food is your thing, make sure that if you take a river cruise you spend extra time in Lyon, the gastronomical capital of France!
One of the tours we were excited about on our Rhone River cruise on AMAWaterways was the visit to a truffle farm. I’ve heard of truffles but the kind I like came from Godiva chocolates and have a filling. These are not that kind but rather the kind that grow underground and are the fruity body of a fungus, something akin to an earthy mushroom They are prized in cooking particularly in French cuisine.
Harvesting of the black truffle takes place from November to March. They grow underground which makes them difficult to find. In years past pigs were used to detect them but now dogs are primarily used because pigs tended to eat many of the truffles they found. The farm that we visited used Labrador Retrievers.
In order to “train” the dogs to find these delectable treats, they would rub a mother dog’s belly as she was nursing her pups. The pups would associate the smell of the truffle with “goodness” as they were suckling. Furthermore, once the pups had been weaned, they would cut up some of the truffles and add them to their food – once again imprinting on them that truffles were good.
Much like animal trainers of seals, dolphins or any other animal rewards their animal with a treat after they have done a trick, the truffle harvester also carries a treat bag wit them when they are out with their dog to give to the dog after the find the truffle and to get them to not eat the truffle.
The truffle harvester walks through a truffle orchard, which is generally a grove of oak trees, watching the dog’s behavior. The dog has his nose to the ground sniffing for that truffle aroma that he has come to know. The dog will either mark the spot with his foot and the harvester will dig it up or the dog will dig it up with its paw. At this point the harvester needs to act quickly to get the truffle before it is consumed by the animal. Once the harvester gets the truffle then the dog gets his doggie treat.
There are a few different types of truffles – black (associated with France) and white (associated with Italy). The white ones tend to cost the most, about $175 per ounce and the black ones about $100 an ounce. As you can tell, harvesting truffles takes lots of time and that factors in to their price.
We found this tour to be excellent. After we saw the dog digging up the truffles, we went inside their “shop” area and was treated to slices of baguettes with truffles and truffle oils on them. They were delicious, so delicious that we purchased a bottle of truffle oil to bring home. This is an ingredient that we have seen in cooking and now we have it to enhance our flavors.
We had one of our first dilemmas on this trip when we arrived in Avignon as to which excursion we should choose? We had our choice of The Papal Palace or Pont du Gard – both of which have the designation of World Heritage sites.
Avignon was once an important center of the Catholic Church . It was so important that the papacy relocated here to Avignon during the 14th century. Six papal concaves were held here and led to the election of Pope Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V, Gregory XI, and Antipope Benedict XIII. I am not Catholic and did not know that there was another location other than the Vatican that was home to several popes. So much history that I could learn but my other choice was…..
Pont du Gard is an aqueduct that’s considered a masterpiece of Roman engineering. Having worked in the school system where I lives, we studied the ancient civilizations and of course, Roman was considered one of the foremost ancient civilization. We taught about the aqueducts but I had never seen one. What finally helped me decide to choose Pont du Gard was that a friend of mine is a teacher and her students were learning about different structures. She had asked if I could send back some post cards for her students to see, ask questions about and learn about different structures.
Obviously with that request I knew our decision was made – this is what we visited:
We are already planning our next big trip. We decided to take 2017 off from a big trip and are focusing on 2018 – February 14th to be specific.
After a false start with Holland America, we have booked a cruise on the Emerald Princess, one of the ships with Princess Cruise Line. We sail from Valparaiso (outside of Santiago) Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina. This cruise will sail for 2 weeks exploring the southern half of South America – a land that I have not been to and am anxious to see. The Chilean fjords are more numerous than in all of Scandinavia, a visit to the bottom of the world when we stop in Ushuaia, another stop in the Falkland Island. We will also stop in Montevideo, Uruguay, Puerto Montt, Puerto Arenas, Amalia Glacier, Puerto Madryn, and around Cape Horn. The scenery will be nothing short of spectacular with mountains, glaciers, wildlife include the Emperor penguins.
What I do when we cruise is find local tour guides to take us around while we are in port. I do this for several reasons. First, I like smaller tours and just hate being on a 44 passenger bus always having to wait for someone who thinks that the time to be back at the bus doesn’t apply to them and I like to customize as much as possible our tour. Finally, the price is general either the same for a smaller, more intimate experience or it is less . Less is always good.
Of course, the price depends on which stateroom category you choose and its location. Yo would need to talk to our group travel agent, Michelle, to get the price.
You may be asking yourself why am I bringing this up now. It’s because Princess is having a special promotion where you get your gratuities free! That’s right and that is a big savings. Also depending which stateroom you choose, you may also receive a discount. This promotion ends on November 16th. If you are interested in being part of my group, getting special pricing and benefits, I suggest you contact our travel agent at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her directly at 703-762-5049
Arles, once a metropolis of Roman Gaul, developed into a symbol of Christianity through the colosseum, amphitheater and the Roman baths that were built there. Bull fighting is held twice a year in the same arena (colosseum) that was the scene of Roman games in the first century. We all know that Van Gogh loved Arles and many of his famous paintings show his love of the area but did you know that Picasso also spent a lot of time in the area? He spent a good part of his life in a political exile in France. He was a Spaniard through and through and, loved bullfighting. The last 12 years of his life were spent in the village near Arles. He would travel with his friends to see the bullﬁghts atthis arena. Many of his later paintings and drawings were inspired by what he saw in Arles. These Romanesque monuments have a UNESCO World Heritage designation. It is our goal when we travel to seek out these sites.
After we visited the quarry featuring the works of Marc Chagall we rode the bus again to some of the Roman ruins and Triumphal Arch near the asylum where Van Gogh lived for a year. I’m still so amazed at these structures and how they were built by hand – no machinery, cranes or other modern day machines that helped build these still standing structures. Our guide told us that the Romans loved arches and would construct them to commemorate victories. This was also the case in St. Remy where these ruins were.
We walked across the street to the asylum where Van Gogh lived for about a year. During the time that he was self committed he painted various scenes all around the grounds of the asylum including the “Irises”, “Starry Nights”, “The Wheat Field”, “Sunflowers in a Vase”, scenes around St. Paul’s Asylum and so many more. What was interesting to me if that they had reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings propped on easels at the spot where he painted the landscapes so you can see what he saw when he painted the pictures. Remember how I spoke of the mistral winds in the Rhone Valley? If you look at Van Gogh’s paintings you’ll see swirling brush strokes which, I was told, represent the mistral winds. When I think of Van Gogh, I generally think of these paintings which are representative of the Provence area. During his one year in at the asylum, he painted 151 paintings.
Hope you enjoy these pictures of Arles, the ruins and viewing the locations where Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works.
For our travels before and after our river cruise on the Rhone on AMAWaterways, we were planning on using public transportation, mainly trains as well as subways and buses. What we found on our train trips last year through northern Italy was that the luggage racks are above your seats and Blogger Hubby was always lifting our fully packed 26″ suitcases up to the racks. He is in his early 70’s and quite fit but I still worried about all that lighting as well as all the stairs we had to climb up and down in some of these smaller train stations. I vowed to pack lighter.
I was determined to fit everything into a wheeled carry-on piece of luggage. I wanted to be responsible for my own luggage. I didn’t want to have to ask for help from strangers and I didn’t want to take only what I could handle. I need to be able to lift it onto a train up the step or two as well as if we went up to the upper deck on the train. If I couldn’t handle it, then I was taking too much. My friends were somewhat aghast that I would be gone for almost a month but you know what….I did it and felt so great.
I brought with me 2 pairs of printed capri pants, one pair of nylon travel capris, a pair of shorts and three pairs of long pants and a dress. I stayed with colors that were blue, white and black. All the tops could be worn with at least three pairs of pants. One of the tops I brought was a tank top that I could wear by itself if it was really hot and conversely I could layer it under long sleeve tops if it were chilly. I brought a white sweater, a long sleeve heavier white top that would be layered, a knit outer layer quarter zipped pullover, a thin nylon raincoat/windbreaker, 3 pairs of shoes, underwear/night clothes, curling iron and a bag of meds. My packing cubes from e-bags helped keep me organized and it made it easier to pack, unpack and repack throughout our journey. In addition to my carry-on, I also had a LL Bean medium size tote bag that I could loops over the handles of the suitcase and I wore a backpack.
I brought my knitting with me, my iPad that held the books I was reading and as a way to get in touch with family through the free wifi on our river cruise ship and the wifi that came with the hotels that we stayed with. With my iPhone, iPad, Blogger Hubby’s Kindle and my camera all needing charging I found it an inconvenience last year plugging items in and then unplugging them to charge other items. I bought for myself on Amazon an Anker 60W/12A 6-Port USB Charger PowerPort so I could charge everything at the same time Here is a picture of it:
I did bring a small purse with me so I would have it when we would go out to dinner rather than bringing my backpack.
With a limited amount of clothing, it was never an issue of what I was going to wear. We did make use of the laundry on the AMADagio before we left to make sure we were leaving with clean clothing. We brought a small bottle of Woolite with us to wash out some things in our bathroom sinks but found we ran out and bought some inexpensive liquid laundry detergent to supplement.
I’ve mentioned how I brought a 22″ carry-on and you are probably wondering what Blogger Hubby brought. He actually brought the next size up though all of his things did fit in a carry-on. He brought the next size along so we would have room for anything we might purchase along the way.
Coordinating colors certainly helped make the packing easier, not caring if you wore the same top twice within a few days, be willing to rinse out some of your items in the sink, and not always having your shoes match your outfit gave us the freedom to move around easier as well as for me, being responsible for what I bring. It truly felt liberating. Try it sometime
I got a little ahead of myself when I spoke about our tour to the Artist Experience. I neglected to tell you about our ship, the Ama Dagio.
We had been on the newer AMA Primo the year before and for the cruise up the Rhone, we were to be on their oldest ship. I had been told that it was in great shape, which it was, but on first glance, it left me a little wanting. Before on the Prima, our bedroom had a small little round table with chairs by the French balcony. Our stateroom on the Dagio did not have that or a mini refrigerator. We had bought cheese anticipating a refrigerator. Also, on the Sun Deck (the top deck) there was a hot tub,not the small pool that we had on the Prima. There was also less furniture and groupings than on the Primo where there were many rattan sofas and chairs as well as loungers and chairs with canopies and screens to shade you. The only seatings under the umbrellas on the Dagio were loungers. We had to move some chairs so we could sit and have shade while we were playing cards. A reoccurring problem for us on the Dagio was the very loud dining room. On our first night we could barely hear our table mates. The Prima had a divider down the middle with booth seating. I think that might have absorbed some of the noise. We found out the next night that if we sat in a rear corner near the doors where the food comes out, that the noise was much more tolerable. That’s where we sat for most of our meals.
What made up for some of these minor problems was the crew. I have never had a better cruise director than Rachel Couto Gomes. Not only did we learn French in an amusing way, we learned a little French etiquette. We all left her daily briefings with a huge smile on our faces. She was really a part of “us” – she participated in the dancing one night, came along to some of the tours, helped with problems that were not cruise related as well as helping with cruise related questions. I would follow her on any AMA cruise and to be honest, before I booked another cruise, I would email her to see what her schedule would be. Every single crew member went out of their way to be helpful to all of us.
On one of our first cruise days I learned why our staterooms were as small as they were – the locks! I could open our French balcony and touch the lock wall. There were no ships on the Rhone that had regular balconies because of these narrow locks. Also, for many of the times that we were cruising during the we were not allowed on the top deck due to the low bridges that we would be sailing under. In fact, while we were on our cruise a Viking cruise line ship’s bridge was not lowered (and no one knows why yet) and it was flatten and torn off the ship with the occupants inside killed. That made our captain’s decision to close off the Sun Deck even more meaningful to us.
Something new on the Dagio from the previous year was when we boarded the ship, our photograph was taken, like an ocean cruiser. Whenever we left the ship, we had our room key card scanned so they could be sure it was us getting off and us getting on. They were increasing the security because of events that had been happening in Europe this past year.
We found the food to be delicious and there was always something that we wanted to eat. What we especially liked was that their food was lighter than our American food. The Fettucine Alfredo’s sauce was delicious and light – unlike the heavier versions that I have tasted. The same with their salad dressings. I asked the Maitre ‘d for the recipes and he complied. I look forward to making some of these recipes.
We did have dinner one night at the Chef’s Table on 3rd deck aft. It was a beautiful view as we sailed down the Saone on our way back from a winery to Lyon. It was a fixed menu and it was received mixed reviews from those on the ship. It was more like a tapas meal, small offerings and there are a few choices you can make. The service was outstanding as they only have a few tables and stagger their reservations. I’m not a seafood fan and felt that there was a lot of seafood. On the other hand, Blogger Hubby loves seafood and pates and he was in seventh heaven and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not sure that I would do the Chef’s Table again though some people did enjoy it. The experience was worthwhile to me. My only suggestion is to look at the menu before you book
I did book myself a massage on the ship and although the massage was fine the room and location where it was done was not good. The hairdresser and the masseuse share a room, a tiny room at the back of the ship. There was no room to change into or out of clothes and barely with the chair for the hairdresser, the room was tight to open up the folding massage table. Throughout most of the 60 minute massage I listened to the boat rattling and the sounds of a ship that was moving. I asked if this was unusual and she replied that it wasn’t. It did distract from the relaxing environment that I had envisioned for my hour long massage. Before I book again, I’ll take a look at the room where is done.
Our first night on the ship, we had a very special treat. If you read my previous blogs, you will recall that this weekend was the Festival of the Harvest of the Rice. This area of France, the Rhone Valley, is known for the mistral winds. They are a strong, cold, northwesterly wind that blows from southern France into the Gulf of Lion (a gulf of the northern Mediterranean but can reach about 115 mph. It is most common in the winter and spring, and strongest in the transition between the two seasons. The Rhone Valley is particularly susceptible to these winds and in fact the winds get faster as they go through the valley on the way to the coast. Seems like the mistral winds went through this area on Bastille Day in July and they were not able to have the fireworks for their national holiday.They “saved” the fireworks and chose to combine them with the fireworks for the Harvest of the Rice festival. As it got dark, we all headed up to the Sun Deck (or maybe Star Deck) to grab a chair and watch the festivities. We had the BEST seats in the entire area, at least in my opinion. We were on one side of the river and the fireworks were shot off directly opposite of us. It was amazing and rank up in my mind with fireworks that I have seen in both Boston and Washington DC on the 4th of July.
We looked forward to more experiences and memories like these.
We had a choice of two excursions for our morning in Arles. They were a difficult choice and in fact, I did change my mind. On the AMA Waterways cruises, our choice was either Les Baux and the Olive Farm or Artist Experience.
I had been advised by William, our tour guide from the day before that we did not want to miss the Artist Experience. We drove by the site where this excursion was to take place and it was in a limestone quarry. William wouldn’t tell us anything about this, he wanted us to be surprised.
SPOILER ALERT – I am going to talk about this excursion and if you do not want to know about it, you need to stop reading NOW.
We really did not know what to expect. Our bus took us to les Carrières de Lumières – an exhibition of some of the work of Marc Chagall. We walked into a large cavernous dark area – think of a gigantic , wide open cave. At first it was a little disconcerting as I wasn’t sure if the floor was level or not. Once my eyes got adjusted to the dark, I felt more comfortable. All around us, on all different wall surfaces, ceiling and the floor was works of Marc Chagall in a multimedia show. Some of it was animated, some not but it all seemed to move seamlessly from one picture to another. It was an overwhelming sense of color and movement. We didn’t quite know where to look as many of the “walls” had different scenes than other walls.
We were able to walk around the inside of this quarry viewing different scenes on every surface. There were, we were told, over 100 video projectors and about 30 audio speakers playing a soundtrack specifically chosen to complement what we were seeing.
Most of the artist’s best known masterpieces have been digitized and are screened on the quarry’s walls. This exhibition is called “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and it is in twelve parts and it includes Vitebsk (Chagall’s home town), Life, Poetry, Collages, The War, Stained Glass, The Opéra Garnier, Daphnis and Chloé, Mosaics, The Circus, Illustrations and The Bible showcasing his creativity and many of his sources of inspiration. These themes are displayed here at the Lumieres in all their vibrant colors. A beautiful backdrop for his paintings.
If you are in this area, about 15 miles north of Arles, please stop in. You may not see Marc Chagall’s paintings as they choose a different artist or artists each year. Last year, there were over a half million visitors coming here to see the works of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael in the Giants of the Renaissance. I have no idea who the artist or artists will be next year.No matter which artist they choose, it truly is an experience. If you are on a river cruise, this will be one of your choices for an excursion and I cannot stress enough that you should choose this as your excursion.
As I mentioned before, I turned to Trip Advisor to find a tour guide to take us around Provence rather than renting a car. We were with another couple and decided that we would hire a guide/driver for just the four of us.
One Day in Provence had great reviews and after several emails I knew that we would be in good hands. We were going to do this tour on a Friday, the day we were to embark on our AMAWaterways cruise up the Rhone. I inquired if he could arrange the tour so we would end up in Arles and then drop us off at our ship. He readily agreed. To me, that helped offset the price of a private tour since we wouldn’t have to take 2 taxi rides as well as a train ride from Marseille to Arles. Turned out that this was a great decision since, unknown to us, there was a huge festival that weekend in Arles and we probably wouldn’t have found a taxi.
William, our driver/tour guide, was prompt in picking us up at our hotel in a Mercedes Benz van. As soon as we got into the van, he pulled out his map to review what we wanted to do and to make sure that we were all on the same page. He gave us a few options and explained the pros and cons. We decided to go to some of the smaller villages and around behind the mountains. We did want to go to a winery since we were in the Rhone Valley with all their wonderful wines.
As we traveled along some of the backroads outside of Marseille on our way to the winery, William began telling us the history of France…how it was first settled by the Celtics, then the Greeks and the the Romans. Marseille is the oldest city in France and was an important port during the Roman Empire. He went on to tell us more about the history of the area which we found fascinating. There are four islands off the coast of Marseille and on one of the islands, a fortress turned prison, was built. This fortress was the setting for Alexander Dumas’ story The Count of Monte Cristo.
Just before William turned off the road for the winery, he called them up to let them know we were coming. They were closed since they were in the midst of harvesting the grapes but opened for us. We were able to sample the same wine twice; once in an oak barrel and again in a stainless steel barrel. We all enjoyed the oak barrel over the stainless steel. It was quite and education for us.
On our way to the small village of Lourmarin, we passed by the Pont (bridge) Julien which was built in the 3d century BC. Until recently cars still used this bridge as a means to go over the Coulon River. That information just blew my mind seeing something that old and still in relatively great shape way we passed by. The village is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France.is surrounded by vineyards, olive trees and almond trees. The day that we were there was an French market that all from around the area go to. I’m a sucker for the outdoor markets featuring all different types of foods, clothing, crafts and so much more. One of my favorite foods is cheese, particularly French, pungent cheeses. We were able to get some to take with us on our cruise and since William had a cooler in the back of the car, we knew we could keep it cool till we arrived on board. Walking along the alleys and pedestrian ways, I felt so at home even though I could not understand the French language. I felt like I had come home.After walking through the narrow passageways and back to our car, we set off for lunch. William had a suggestion where we should eat and we let him make that decision. He called ahead to let them know we would be coming. This meal turned out to be the BEST meal we had in all of France. Le Carillon, located in the small main square in Goult, turned out to be a Michelin restaurant. We sat outside and enjoyed the scenery, the entire ambiance of these delicious meal. We had the fixed price meal which included an appetizer, main course and dessert. I had the best beef carpaccio that I ever had with shaved parmesan cheese on top with a few capers. We would most likely have never found this restaurant if it hadn’t been for William. Here we are in a very small French village in the countryside, no traffic at all, sitting outside under an awning eating one of the best meals we have ever had. This is what travel is all about.
The rest of the day was traveling through more little, quaint villages. Another of our favorite was St. Remy which has become quite popular and expensive due to celebrities who live around here. William asked if we liked chocolate. What a silly question to ask us, of course we all do. He took us to a well known chocolatier and even though the shop was quite small, the chocolate had great taste. They had small squares of chocolate and on each top was a letter of the alphabet. This letter corresponded with what type of flavoring it had. One of the flavors was lemon and clove; another was violet. Many were traditional flavors and others were different combination. We were able to hand pick the chocolates that we wanted.
As we were getting closer to Arles, William told us how lucky we were to be here at this time since Arles was celebrating The Festival of the Harvest of the Rice – honest! The next day there was to be a bull fight in the their colosseum, bulls running through the street like in Pamplona and fireworks in the evening. We sometimes “luck” into special events like this and were happy to hear that it would be happening again.
William pulled up to the dock, we hopped out, gave him a hug and a huge thank you for all that he did for us, all that he shared and showed us as well as enriching our experience in Provence. Our vacation continues to get better and better and we are anxious to see what adventures we will have on the river cruise portion of the trip.
NOTE: I know this is a repeat for many of you but a number of people also told me that they never received it. Bear with me while I repost this recent article. New one tomorrow, I promise. Jane
Before we flew to Marseille, we had decided that we would NOT book a rental car to drive around the area. Everyone had recommended that to us but we had a bad memory of a previous European trip when we did rent a car. Driving in cities, finding parking, understanding road signs and getting lost were a few of our problems from before. With the extra money that we received from United Airlines from our trip last year (7 hour delay because of mechanical problems and EU Rule 261) we had the flexibility to book tour guides to take us around.
On my list to see was Aix-en-Provence and on Blogger Hubby’s was Cassis. I was able to determine that Thursday was the day that Aix had their market and I, of course, wanted to go to a French outdoor market. I knew that we would not see the famed lavender plants in full bloom as that happens in July but nevertheless, Provence was a place I did want to see, feel, smell and walk through. Cassis was a seaside city known for its limestone bluffs and best viewed from a boat. I could not get much information online about Cassis but we had spoken to someone who had been there recently and they recommended it to us.
We found a half day tour through Provence Explorer which would take us to both Aix and Cassis. I emailed the company and explained that we had a mobility issue with one of our friends that was coming on the tour with us and would that be a problem as she couldn’t walk far and did use a cane. He had said that it would be no problem. I reiterated it when I paid online.
We went to the designated meeting spot, outside of the Tourist Information office, and arrived about 10 minutes early. We waited, and waited and waited. Finally our driver arrived about 15 minutes late due to traffic. We were also missing 3 others that had booked this tour so we waited again. Our driver had not been told that we had a person with difficult walking. Not her fault but it showed lack of communication with the company and their drivers. Finally we took off without the other three passengers. It was a pleasant drive to Aix. We would ask her questions which she answered. She did not give us any background on where we were going or any background about France. For a driver that is fine but when someone is a tour guide that is not acceptable. You can tell that she was a summer tour guide and not a professional one by the way she handled the tour as well as telling us she was thinking about going back to school to get a degree is tourism.
She dropped us off at the market and told us where to wait for her while she parked the van. We looked around a little bit but needed to be close meeting spot for her to find us. Of course, that took longer than usual because there was no quick parking. Not many things were told to us as we walked around other than the famous cookies that Aix is famous for. My friend and I each purchased some lovely scarves for 5€ each. My friend also purchased some beautiful kitchen linens. Our guide wanted us to walk to the produce section of the market which was way too far for our friend. The guide really had no idea about how far is “too far” when you are mobility challenged and didn’t explain distances to us. Instead our friends went back to the meeting spot where we were dropped off. We quickly went through the produce area, purchased some lavender walked around with her a bit. The driver went to get the car and we went to the spot to meet our friends and to wait again for her to bring the car around. And wait we did..and wait…and wait. We knew another person was joining us who was going to do the Cassis/Marseille portion of the day but when she finally showed up the missing three were in the van as well as the other person that was expected. The van was very tight with 8 passengers and one driver; three had to sit in the front. It was a beautiful day to be outside and Aix is a charming destination spot to be. I’m hoping this will be a place that we return to in the future.
After we got back on the road we made a “pit” stop and our driver was clear in telling everyone to only take 5 minutes so we could leave. Apparently the 3 that were late for the morning and joined us as we were leaving Aix decided to do some shopping at the convenience store where the bathrooms were. Once again, we were waiting. The driver (who looked like Monica Lewinsky) finally went in to get them. Not her fault but it just added to all of our wait time.
We had a pleasant drive to Cassis, again without much of a commentary about where we were going. When we arrived she dropped us off and told us to get our boat tickets and then have lunch. We immediately went to the ticket booth and was told we could not purchase tickets yet since the boat trip before our desired time hadn’t left. We went to have a quick lunch and then we purchased our tickets. When our friends tried a few minutes later, the ship was sold out. Little did we know, or apparently did our driver, that there are only 12 tickets on the 45 minute boat tour. We wished she would have advised us better so the four of us could have gone on this boat trip together particularly since our friends sat and waited in Aix.
I would not recommend this tour company because of the lack of a knowledgable “summer hire” tour guide, and the lack of communication about our friend’s mobility issue and the fact that they didn’t really do anything, other than park the car, to help us. There wasn’t even a bottle of water for us as most tour guides have. There was no consideration of our time as we were at the appointed meeting spot and had to wait (I understand giving a 10 minute window but we were closer to 25 minutes) and as we waited to be picked up at Aix. I learned from this to spend the extra money and get a professional tour guide wth a private tour and not shared. Granted this may have been an off day with this tour company but are you willing to risk it?
I would like to go back to Aix and Cassis. In Aix, I would take a better tour and see more than just the market. In Cassis, rather than the 45 minute boat ride, I would take the longer one along the coast.
In spite of all this, the day was enjoyable, we were outside and were in a lovely part of the country.
Our long awaited vacation has begun! We woke up in lovely Marseille. the start of an almost month long trip to France and Belgium done mainly on points and miles. We did pay for our AMAWaterways cruise but since I got the group together, we did save money with the group rates and a discount for being a past cruiser.
We woke up and glanced out our motel room to see the sun shining over the Mediterranean Sea with parts of the medieval wall in full view. This structure was probably about 600 or more years old. As our eyes wandered, we looked to the harbor and how beautiful it was with the sailboats and their masts. We felt so luckily that we had the Club Carlson points to be able to stay here (Club Carlson brand includes Radisson, Park Inn and Country Inn and Suites).
Breakfast was not included and I did not want to pay 20€ per person for breakfast at the hotel. Blogger Hubby did what he usually does when we are traveling in cities. He finds a local bakery for our pastries and small super-ette for our yogurt. Yummy chocolate croissants were in the bag that he brought back to the hotel.
Blogger Hubby and the husband of the other couple with us chose to do a tour of Marseille on E-bikes. Have you heard of electric bikes. They are not like a motor scooter but instead give you a little kick when you are starting. Here’s his account:
We met in front of the National Theater on the Old Harbor in Marseille; almost next door to our hotel. Our guide, Remy was a young man in his late 20’s who is from Marseille. He spoke very good English, and was very friendly. We walked a short distance to their office and storage area in a parking garage on a back street behind the theater. Each rider was individually outfitted with a bike, helmet and water bottle.
This was my first experience with an electric bike (e-bike). My bike was a regular size bike and wheels. There were some smaller bikes with small wheels and a high seat. I am an experienced recreational biker, and I bicycled before the cruise to make sure I was in shape for bicycling in Europe. I even bought a bright-colored biking shirt with back pockets and padded liners to wear under my shorts. My travel companion and I were the only ones with ‘biking appeal.
I have experience bicycling in Europe having done so on our Danube River Cruise. Bicycling in Marseille was more difficult than my prior experiences, and it is not good for beginners. Most roads we traveled did not have bike lanes, and we had to travel on some narrow roads with parked cars on one side and moving traffic next to us. There were also steep uphill and downhill sections. Nevertheless, we stayed together, went slowly, took back streets to the extent possible, and crossed at traffic lights on busy streets. Only one person in our group had difficulty, and that was because she was not familiar with shifting between low and higher gears.
For me this was one of the best tours I had on our trip. Marseille has a beautiful coastline, many scenic points to overview the harbor and the city, and interesting historical sites and buildings. We got to see them up close and personal. Remy was very personable and low-keyed, knew the city, and shared a lot of stories. At a couple of locations, he stayed with the bikes while we walked around to tour a particular site. During the tour we stopped at a small take-out lunch place in an out of the way neighborhood for lunch that we took and eat on the steps of a museum overlooking the harbor. Bicycling around the harbor on the promenade was a great way to end the tour.
The company was “E-Bike Tours Marseille,” and the tour was the “Grand Tour of City and Seaside.” The tour lasted four hours (10am-2pm), covered 23 km, and cost 52 €. Their website is here. They provide detailed information about the tour and instructions regarding the meeting place on the harbor.
While they were doing that, my friend and I did the HoHo bus tour of Marseille. We found that to be a better deal than the petite train that also took tourists around Marseille. To do all of Marseille like we did on the bus, you would have had to do 2 or 3 different trains. We felt comfortable just sitting in the open air upper deck. We were given earphones that we would insert along the inside of the side of the bus. We were able to have the narrative in almost any language we wanted.
That evening we walked around the city, feeling very safe. We saw that the city had an Eye but to see it in the evening, it really lit up the sky.
There are many restaurants, puns and bars around the harbor and even a few streets back. Once we did go behind the main boulevard there were many, many streets with all different kinds of restaurants. We gravitated toward the pre fixed 3 course dinner. As we were close to many vineyards, we were advised to buy wine that had the AOC designation (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) which means the controlled designation of origin under the auspices of the French government. Those three letter designations helped guide us throughout our journey in France.
We have fallen in love with Marseille. Coming up next our tour in Aix-en-Provence and Cassis.
Excitement was building in our home as we finalized all of our preparations for our AMA Waterways River cruise up the Rhone River. As some of you know, I always invite friends to travel with us so we are in essence “a group” and are entitled to group rates. It was no exception on our AMA Waterways cruise on the Rhone.
Some in my group were doing the pre cruise in Barcelona with AMA while others joined us in Marseille for our own pre cruise. Ito be honest, I wasn’t overly confident about our stay in Marseille and we were only going there for two reasons. Since we weren’t doing the pre cruise, this was the closet airport to Arles where we would board our ship and secondly, we were able to use our Club Carlson points to reserve a room at the Radisson Blu on the Waterfront. I had booked this hotel before their devaluation of points in May 2015. I booked 2 nights under my name and in essence paid for only one night with points with the other night being “free”. We thought that this would be a good opportunity to explore Provence a little with some tours from Marseille.
With that in mind, I began searching through Trip Advisor for tour guides. Being frugal is always our traveling motto though we do not want to miss a unique opportunity for our frugality – it’ s a fine balancing act that we walk. As we were going to be in Marseille with another couple we wanted to do things that all of us could enjoy and do. The husband of the other couple enjoys bike riding as does Blogger Hubby. I knew that they would enjoy going on an E-bike tour while the wife and I would do the HoHo bus around town. My friend has some mobility issues so we didn’t want to be walking all around town. The other two tours we booked were with Provence Xplorer to go to Aix en Provence on market day and spend part of the afternoon in Cassis. The next day we were booked with One Day in Provence to go into the small villages, a winery, St. Remy and what ever our tour guide suggested. For the Provence Xplorer, the 4 of us would be doing a shared excursion, joining others and for the One Day in Provence, the 4 of us would be doing a private tour. More about those later.
We flew Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic into Heathrow and then British Airways to Marseille. A concern we had was that we would have to pick up our luggage in Heathrow and then check them in to British Airways for the flight to Marseille. Luckily when we asked the Virgin Atlantic ticket agent at departure if they could Interline them. He said ” yes” and put a luggage tag on them requesting them to be transferred over to BA. Nevertheless, I took a photo of our bags just in case they should get lost. According to him, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic don’t like to play nice with each other but we had no problem.
I was not overly impressed with the Virgin flight although the flight attendants were very nice, friendly and helpful. The cabin seemed crowded and very little room to move around and, to me, seemed like there wasn’t much storage in our pod. The food, for airplanes, was fairly decent. I had a steak and I actually ate most of it.
With the entertainment system along the wall to my left, I had to pull it out and swivel it to be in front of me. With the food tray fully engaged, if made if very difficult getting in and out of my seat. I also thought the cabin was warm and was glad I wore a tee shirt under my top.
Would I fly VA again? Probably not. It was okay but not the experience I was looking for. I’m not sure what I am looking for and it may not exist on a transatlantic flight or if it does, perhaps I’m too frugal to spend too many extra points for it. Nevertheless, it was fine.
The short flight to Marseille was no different than a domestic flight in the U.S. Once again we were business class but what that means is that you are in a row with 3 seats and they put a tray over the middle seat so you do not have someone sitting next to you To reserve your seats ahead of time, you need to pay $49 per ticket. I did not do that. If you go online 24 hours prior to your flight, you can reserve your seats for free. When I went on, they had the two of us together and in good seats. I made no changes. It was interesting to me that a flight as short as this one we were still able to be served a hot lunch. Why can foreign airlines do this but American Airlines can not? As we were closer to Marseille we could see the Rhone River out the window and then closer to landing, we could view the cliffs and the calanque (a narrow, steep-walled inlet that is developed in limestone, dolomite, or other carbonate strata and found along the Mediterranean coast).
To get to our hotel we could either take a taxi which would cost about 52€ or we could take the city shuttle bus from the curb outside the airport to the central train station for about 8€ each and then either take a cab to the hotel or a bus. The shuttle was perfect and saved us a lot of money. We opted for the cab once we got to the train station since it was very hot and we were tired. The taxi which was about 22€ to go to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Waterfront in Marseille.
As we rounded the bend and got our first view of the waterfront, we were taken back at how beautiful it was. This was not the grimy port city that I was expecting; instead there were hundreds of sailboats of all sizes around this rectangular shaped harbor. Our hotel faced this harbor. After we settled in, we went exploring. Along all 3 sides of the harbor there were restaurants, pubs and shops. Along the harbor, it was an expanded sidewalk that was well lit with dark sky approved lights. I felt very safe. There is even a ferry that crosses the harbor for 1 €.
One of Blogger Hubby’s concerns in traveling to France is that neither of us speaks French. For that matter we don’t speak any other foreign language but his lack of French bothered him. Our first restaurant we had to pull out the English-French-English dictionary but as time went on, we were able to read about half of the menu. Most French people that we met spoke a little English but to me they spoke quite a bit.
The hotel, in addition to the beautiful view, was very nice with a restaurant attached that had good reviews on TripAdvisor. Nevertheless, we didn’t eat any meals there. For breakfast, we were on our own because when we booked the hotel on points it did not include a breakfast. As usual, Blogger Hubby offered to go out early and find a bakery to bring back some delicious just made pastries. Our room overlooked the secluded pool area,and the harbor.
We went to bed a little early so we could catch up on our sleep and be ready to explore Marseille and Provence.
“This land is your land, this land is my land. From California to the New York island.” That song always goes through my mind when I am traveling across our vast country and see the many differences. This is our land and we need to spend time exploring and getting to know it. Foreign travel is exciting but traveling within our own country allows me to see the grandeur of our country and many spots that are very eyeopening and educational. I think that sometimes I have preconceived ideas of what areas should look like or what I will find there. Most times I have been proven wrong. Sort of like judging a book by its’ cover and we all know that we shouldn’t do that.
As we sat by the window traveling through New Mexico it somewhat reinforced in both of our minds what we thought the landscape of New Mexico would be – somewhat flat with mesas, buttes, orange/red soil or clay and small little bushes popping up here and there.
When we arrived in Albuquerque, ending our epic Train Trek, we took a cab to pick up our rental car at at the airport, then we got some lunch (at Twisters – a delicious semi-fast food restaurant) and then began our drive toward Santa Fe for our first of five nights in New Mexico.
We had been told that there are two ways to drive to Santa Fe and we chose the more scenic route which is known as the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway. This is off the main highway and takes about an hour to travel between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. This trail was well known as a site for the rich deposits of turquoise, gold and iron ore. You can find in this area the rare blue green turquoise names after the town of Cerrillos. There are a few towns on the Turquoise Trail and they tend to be more artist’s havens. Stop in some of the cafes along the trail for a bite to eat, go in the gift shops and look at the silver and turquoise jewelry. One shop that we stopped in at Madrid had turquoise that the elderly owner mined herself. How many shop owners can say that?
Santa Fe has some wonderful restaurants restaurants and a preacher on our train from Albuquerque advised us to eat at Tomasita’s for authentic New Mexican food that is family run. Of course we had to obey the preacher. Fairly easy to find and like all good restaurants, there was a line. Food was delicious though it was a bit hot for this northern girl – even the green salsa. They waiters wanted to make sure that I enjoyed this experience and with their help, I did.
Santa Fe has the most charming plaza of all of the cities that we visited. I had looked forward to the Georgia O’Keefe museum which is only a couple of blocks from the center of the plaza. I was able to get the last ticket to go on a docent led tour of her work and learned about her background – fascinating. I think we all know her for her famous red poppy painting (which is only about 7 inches) but did you know she was also an abstract painter? She painted many landscape scenes though they were of two themes familiar to her – the area around Lake George area where she would spend her summers with her husband and those of Texas and New Mexico with the beautiful colors of the mesas and skies that she grew to love. Her personal story is very compelling as well and you learn about her personal life at the museum. I would highly recommend this museum.
Walking to the Georgia O’Keefe museum we passed by shops that had animal sculptures along the street. Blogger Hubby and I loved whimsical and fun sculptures. What do you think of these?
The Palace of the Governors is within the Santa Fe Historic District along the plaza downtown and it served as the seat of government for the state of New Mexico for many centuries. The Palace of the Governors is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Outside the building on the portico you’ll find native Americans selling their pottery, jewelry, metal work, drums, leather items, drawings, paintings and so much more. My word of advice, if you choose to purchase, which I did, pay in cash and do not bargain – it is an insult to the Native American vendors whose prices are very fair and less than what you would pay in one of the shops along the plaza. They also have exquisite workmanship on all the wares that they sell.
We also went to the State House, a few blocks from the plaza area. This is the only state house that is round. It also has four wing entrances, designed after their state flag. The four wings represent the four cultures in New Mexico – Angelo, Spanish, Mexican and Native American.
Across the street from the State House was a sign telling us about the Santa Fe Trail and how it was a main thoroughfare .
We stayed outside the downtown/plaza area at a Holiday Inn using our points. It was fine – nothing special. In hindsight, I would have preferred to have stayed along the downtown plaza area. There is a lot of traffic in this area, parking is tight and it is just a vibrant place to walk around and be. We would have gone there our first night except for all the traffic. Learn from my mistake and stay by the plaza.
No issue brings us as much angst as the question as to whether we are going to insure a trip.
We used to always purchase travel insurance and yet when we did, we were never sure if it was a good policy or not. You really have no way of knowing till you have file a claim, or someone you know, and how their claim was resolved. The other part of this equation is, if their claim was not paid, was it because the claimant didn’t follow the rules. Perhaps they didn’t notify the insurance company and make a phone call before seeking out medical help first….or save the receipts…go to an authorized physician or facility. Just because it was denied doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good company, it could be as I have alluded, that it was the fault of the insured. But then again, maybe it just wasn’t a good company.
Let’s go a step back and talk a little bit about travel insurance. I’m no expert and I don’t hold myself up as one but if you are going to purchase travel insurance make sure you ask questions and compare policies before you purchase. If you are purchasing through your travel agent, they are not the ones to ask questions of. They are not insurance agents but merely passing on to you the travel insurance that their agency sells. It may be a good policy but ask questions of that insurance company. Some questions to ask: are you looking for a cancel for any reason insurance policy? cancel for health or death in your family? how close must the family member be? do you want your pre-existing medical conditions covered? do you want medical evacuation? medical coverage? if you have several trips do you want year long coverage? Lots of questions to consider and to ask. One thing that I will say about having your pre-existing medical condition covered, you generally need to purchase your travel insurance within 14-21 days of putting down your deposit on your trip.
If you are looking to compare different policies, I recommend you going over to the Insure My Trip website. You can check off what you want in your policy and then compare them. If you are more comfortable, give them a telephone call and tell them what you are looking for. They will be able to guide you.
Another option for you to look at is your credit cards. Chase Sapphire Preferred has primary rental insurance for your car rental. In addition to that they also have Trip Interruption/Trip Cancellation coverage of up to $10,000 per trip; Baggage Delay insurance of 5 days at $100 per day. Make sure you save your receipts to get the reimbursement. Finally, they have Trip Delay coverage. You need to have purchased your tickets using your Chase Sapphire Preferred card which you should be using since you do get 2 x points on travel.
You should check with your health insurance company to see if you are covered overseas. I do not believe that Medicare covers you overseas but my military health insurance, Tricare does. It is called Tricare Overseas and if you do have Tricare and find that you need medical care while overseas, call their telephone number for the region that you are in. Wondering how I know that? When we were in Denmark I did have an accident – I fell out of a very tall bathtub while attempting to take a shower because there was no mat and the tub was very slippery. I cracked my head open on the toilet and was laying on the bathroom floor bleeding profusely from the back of my head. All I could think about was that we didn’t get health insurance. Visions of the English actress Natasha Richardson with her head injury from her fall kept going through my head. Tricare Overseas was called and off to the hospital we went. But you know what? Since Denmark has socialized medicine, there was no charge to be seen, for the tests, for the suturing of my head or for the two bags of medicine they sent back with me to the hotel.
Right then and there it had reaffirmed my decision that if I was traveling in a country with a western culture and socialized medicine, I would forego travel insurance for medical purposes.
The next issue we consider is whether we would cancel due to a death in the family. My husband’s father is still alive at age 90 and is quite healthy but we know that things can happen. If something did happen, would we cancel the trip or would we need to return? We discussed different scenarios and made the decision that works for us.
Using our points for our airfare and hotel stays, we are able to cancel and get the points, sometimes with a small fee, redeposited to our account. When estimating the cost of a trip, I have to exclude those arrangements that we are not paying for and that are refundable.
For our cruise to South America that we just booked, we did decide to get travel insurance. We figure that being at the bottom of South America, medical care may not be readily available if something serious was to happen. The insurance covers medical evacuation up to $500,000 if I should need to leave the area. It’s been years since we purchased insurance but at our age and our destination, we feel that we are being prudent in purchasing it.
For those who know me and ask my opinion about which river cruise line to choose when sailing through some of the European rivers, I’m quick to say “avoid Viking”. I know, many of you have had wonderful experiences on Viking and when things go right, then they have many satisfied passengers.
The problem in my mind is when things do not go right, how does each river cruise line handle it. After all, high water or low water affects all the cruise lines and they handle these problems differently.
Last year when there was low water on the Danube and a few other rivers, most of the cruise lines let their passengers know ahead of time. Some of their passengers had “cancel for any reason” travel insurance and they were able to cancel their trips rather than be docked for most of their river cruise and be bussed to their ports. These passengers said that they paid for a river cruise, not a bus trip. From my understanding after reading all the different threads on Cruise Critic – River Cruising thread, is that Viking did not alert their passengers to the potential that they would have a bus trip or have to switch ships halfway through their journey.
Another reason, particularly when the rivers are low, that I do not like Viking is that their ships have a lower draft to them and therefore are deeper in the water. Last summer when their was low water levels in the Danube, Avalon, AMA Waterways, Uniworld and other lines were able to complete the majority of their cruises without interruption but not Viking.
Viking is the largest provider of river cruises in Europe and you will hear more negative reports about them. It seems that some of the common themes is lack of communication to their passengers alerting them to a problem or the potential of a problem. Having high water (like currently in Europe) or low water (like last summer) is nothing new and all the cruise lines should have some notion of what to do and have alternate plans in place. They generally do a good job except for Viking.
Found this article about the high water that is affecting many of the central European rivers. Which which cruise line is having to make alternative itineraries and which ones are not.
I have cruised both Avalon (Rhine River) and AMA Waterways (Danube and shortly the Rhone) and I feel that they are both excellent cruise lines with very good reputations.
Have you done a river cruise and which cruise line did you sail on? What was your experience? Were you sailing during a “normal time” or one when there were problems with the water levels? I’d love to hear your opinion.
We were finally on the last leg of our three part train trek around parts of America. We enjoyed almost all aspects of the trip so far, perhaps with the exception of one of us having to climb into the upper, narrow bunk bed and the train whistles at night when going pass a crossing. The South West Chief was originally operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway until AMTRAK took over passenger rail service in 1971.
Los Angeles, along with Chicago, has a lounge of first class passengers and we took full advantage of it. When you enter the front of Union Station, walk straight back and near the rear, turn right and then go up the escalator. There are chairs, a few tables and chips and soft drinks as well as coffee. There is an attendant sitting at the desk to help us with any questions you might have.
As lounges go, or at least as compared to airline lounges, this wasn’t too much but it was a nice place to hang out and eat the few snacks that they had. Because of the way that the station and tracks are laid out, when it was time to go to the track to board our train, we were driven there in multi-row golf carts. If we had chosen to walk, we would have had a long way to go including going under a tunnel to get to the other side of the tracks.
We weren’t sure if we would get dinner since we weren’t scheduled to leave Los Angeles till 6:15. As we boarded we found out that we would get dinner and as the attendant came around, we signed up for one of the first sittings at 7:00. Same menu that we had on both the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight. Blogger Hubby was quick to let our table mates know how good he thought the seafood cakes were, which he had again!
We went to bed early because one of the stops in Arizona, early in the morning around 5:45 AM was Winslow, Arizona. It seemed like I was humming the Eagles song” standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” all night while I was trying to sleep. Unfortunately, I woke up about 5 minutes after we passed it. At breakfast we met a couple who had just gotten on the train. The did the option of going to the Grand Canyon through the Grand Canyon Railroad. Although they had a good time, they were exhausted because they had to leave their hotel at 3: AM to be at the train station at 4:00 AM – unfortunately, the train was late and they had to wait about an hour for the South West Chief to come by. Although they loved the canyon, they wouldn’t recommend going by train other than the convenience of being very close to the rim.
For us, we enjoyed seeing the change in scenery across America. Here are a few scenes that we passed on our last day on our train trek.
As I mentioned, our train, unbeknownst to us, was running late but what we found out on every line is that they build time into the schedule so they very rarely arrive late at the station at the end of the line.
Our final stop was Albuquerque. Our train trek was over but now our New Mexico part was beginning. It was 11:00 in the morning, the sun was shining and we were excited. We gathered our bags, left the train and walked out front to get a taxi to the airport to get our rental car. Problem was – there were no cabs. I tried calling one cab company but no answer. I tried Uber but it was surge pricing very high. Finally got a cab company who would send a cab out to the train station in 10-15 minutes but no guarantee that we would get it. After half an hour, one came but there was a little disagreement on how got to ride. The other couple and us came to an agreement that we would share it since we were both going to a car rental at the airport.
We closely examined the car, loaded our bags and headed north to Santa Fe.
Would we do this again – yes! We’d like to do the California Zephyr route which is San Francisco to Chicago traveling through scenic Colorado and the Rockies.
This entire train trip took 65,000 of my Ultimate Reward points that I had transferred over to AMTRAK (no longer available to do it) and remember, traveling first class included all of our meals. I used points to stay at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Chicago the night before our train trip, also for the Weston Bayshore in Vancouver, points for our night at the Hilton Doubletree Checkers hotel in Los Angeles. We paid for our night at the Seattle Grand Hyatt and used a Diamond upgrade for our Emerald Suite.
Up next, Land of Enchantment – exploring Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque and its environs.
REMINDER: I’m getting together a group for a cruise around the southern tip of South America.Come join us on March 5, 2018 (that’s right – 2018) on Holland America’s Zaandam, a vessel with about 1450 passengers as we board in Valparaiso, Chile as we cruise among the fjords, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, visiting the southernmost town in the world, Montevideo, Paraguay and disembarking in Buenos Aires, he home of fine leather and the tango. With a group, basically in name only, we received the lowest rates and amenities. . Leave a comment and I’ll respond privately to you about this cruise or contact my travel agent, Michelle, at email@example.com and tell her you are in Jane’s group!
I cannot say enough GREAT things about this seminar – which I have absolutely no affiliation with other than being a very happy attendee. This will be my 5th year in attending and each year I come away with more confidence to broaden what I do. The seminar was begun by Rick Ingersol of Frugal Travel Guy and taken over by Howie Rappaport. If you have a chance, go on over to Howie’s blog.
First of all, this seminar is, in my opinion, very, very affordable. The entire weekend of seminars beginning Friday late afternoon to late afternoon on Sunday and including your lunch on both Saturday and Sunday is $105.00. The event is at the Elk Grove Holiday Inn, a short shuttle stop from O’Hare Airport. If at all possible, try to stay at the host hotel but if not, book a room at one of the overflow hotels where shuttles will run you back and forth to the event. If you are in an overflow hotel, keep checking back at the host hotel because there are ALWAYS last minute cancellations, even the day the seminar begins. I would go to the host hotel first and see if there were any openings before checking into the host hotel.
Most times there are two concurrent seminar topics running in adjacent rooms. Tough decision which to choice or better yet bring a friend, spouse or find a friend and offer to share notes.. Bring a sweater too – some rooms are very cold, others just right or hot. You just never know.
Bring your laptop (I do), a notebook for jotting down information, your iPhone to take pictures of the screens to help you remember. The main thing that you should bring with you is a willingness to meet people, include others in your conversations, share and to ask questions. So much of what I have learned has been in the lobby between classes, or over a beer in the connected restaurant or over a meal with a newfound friend.
You may ask why am I attending for a 5th time. Well, as most of you know, I am a YOUNG senior and although I have plenty of free time (ahh, retirement is grand) I do sometimes take a little longer to “get it”. My first time attending I felt overwhelmed and that everyone was speaking a language that I didn’t get and I felt too embarrassed to ask any questions. I hid out in my room some of the time though I did have a great excuse of my broken foot in a cast and needed to elevate it. The second time I had taken a couple of trips, knew the words but still a little unsure of the strategies. I spoke more, sat with strangers and involved myself in the conversations. I knew what to expect the second time and even spent an extra night (Sunday) so I wouldn’t miss Sunday afternoon and wasn’t as rushed. The third time was really the charm for me. I met a great group from Boston and a really nice woman from Texas. She and I have stayed in contact passing on deals to each other. We joined a large group for dinner and had so much fun. Last year, I felt like one of the more veteran attendees and it was answering questions from newbies, encouraged those who stayed outside of circles to join us.
No matter what your level or expertise in this hobby is, I know that you will take home a new trick as well as new friend.
Here is the link to the registration form Please consider attending, you will not regret it, I promise
As most of you know by now, the majority of our travel is from earning and burning points and miles from our various credit cards. We don’t earn too many of them from travel but rather from strategically using our credit cards as well as credit card sign ups.
As I have mentioned in the past, one of my favorite combination of credit cards is the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card with the Chase Freedom card. The Freedom card by itself is a money back card but if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or one of the Chase Inks (business cards) then the Freedom card will earn the Ultimate Reward points that can be transferred to airlines and hotels and formerly AMTRAK.
What is unique about the Freedom card is that they have different category spending per quarter. The second quarter of this year is 5 times points at grocery stores and big box stores like Sam’s Club, BJ’s Warehouse, Costco, etc.
I need to have a few windows replaced and had Lowe’s come over and give me an estimate for the window replacements – over $2,000.00. Hmm, my local grocery stores sells Lowe’s gift cards and if I purchase them this quarter, I’ll get 7,500 ultimate reward points rather than just the 2,000 points from paying Lowe’s directly. Note: you are limited to spending $1500 per quarter to get the bonus points. Do I hear a Cha Ching!
That got me thinking. What else do I ordinarily spend money on that I could purchase a gift card for during this quarter? I always need gas so a few BP gas cards went in my basket as well as a few restaurants gift cards and movie theatre gift cards and of course, those lovely and ever so versatile VISA $500 gift cards. Luckily, Blogger Hubby also has a Freedom that that we can use for all these extra points.
This should be a banner month for me with it all ending on June 30th. I hope you have the Freedom and and have taken advantage of this quarter’s bonus categories. If you don’t have it and are interested in one, please leave me a message in the comment section.
UPDATE: Mommy Points has just written that Chase Freedom will continue to pay 5 x points when used at wholesale club stores through the end of the year. You can read her post here.
Yes, I admit it…..I’m a planner. I like to have a goal, or trip in mind so I can have fun researching, planning and of course saving for it. Blogger Hubby and I have looked at our bucket list again, re-prioritized it and found what we want to be our next trip. Since we are taking off next year from big travel (putting money into our house) I had to begin looking at 2018. I know, I know – that’s a L O N G time off but because it is a long time off, I was able to get a really great deal. The best deals for trips are really far out or last minute.
One cruise that we have wanted to do for about 5 years now is the cruise around South America and Antarctica. Having Antartica as part of the trip added on about a week and several thousand dollars more to the. Regretfully, I let go of that dream.
My next decision was when to go. Obviously, their summer was the best time or was it? Summer is considered the rainy season, not like monsoons but more like here where the heat of the summer will cause afternoon thunderstorms. I’ve also become sensitive to the heat and that needs to be taken into consideration. Last year’s trip to Europe, where it was in the high 80’s and low 90’s almost every day was a major drain on my energy as well as how much time we spent out of doors and waiting in long lines. I read that the early fall is a wonderful time to visit – think of New England in the fall. From what I read, drier air will move up from Antarctica and will give us those azure blue skies that we see in the spring and fall.
I have been on Celebrity, Princess, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Holland America as well as two river cruise lines. I fee like I have a taste of their personalities and know what to expect from the ships. I chose Holland America (HAL) because of what it offers me. I really enjoy their Culinary Arts Kitchen where they will give you small group cooking lessons, large group demonstrations, the rocking and rolling Piano Bar, easy access to loungers and tables around the pool, entertainment that we enjoy. With all this information in hand, we chose to begin our cruise on March 5, 2018 on Holland America’s Zaandam.
We begin our cruise outside of Santiago, Chile and sail past beautiful, green and lush forests and lakes, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, seeing many glaciers. Did you know that there are more glaciers in Chile than in all of Scandinavia? We will go to the southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. We will enter Glacier Alley and stand at the front of the ship with warm beverages in hand as we gaze at the glaciers that may be gone in our grandchildrens time. Have you ever seen a glacier calving – that’s when a chunk breaks off and falls into the water and hear the noise they make? We will see penguins in their natural habitat and so much more. But it’s not all scenery. We’ll spent a day in Montevideo, Uruguay and overnight in Buenos Aires. I’m planning on having a custom made leather jacket made for me in Buenos Aires. We’ll also stop in the Falkland Islands and be able to have a spot of tea, British style.
While in are in South America, this would be an opportunity to visit Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the Galapagos, or Iguazu Falls
My fantastic travel agent, Michelle, of McCabe World Travel outside of Washington DC, will be coordinating the group travel. She has been able to lock in for our group the lowest prices for us. In addition to the lowest prices, there will be amenities for our group. I’ll try to arrange some excursions that are more personalized and smaller than what the ship offers though you are free to do what you want. Remember, we are a group in name only so we can get the best prices. Of course, we are all a friendly group and it will be run to see each other and share stories. Don’t you want to be part of this great group?
Traveling by train is not quick. You will not get to where you want to go fast. Train travel can be expensive but for some of these routes, it is much less than airfare for these remote locations. Train travel is a lazy, relaxing way to sit back, and watch the scenery go by while you are going to your destination and enjoying the ride. That’s something that most people don’t say about airplane travel. You have the opportunity to meet people, share travel stories, get recommendations if you are stopping in their hometown. Train travel is almost a luxurious way to travel because you are not rushing. It’s a throwback to other times for most of us. Rooms are small, even the large bedroom that we got very very small.
We began the second leg of our Train Trek across America in Seattle when we went to Seattle’s King Street AMTRAK station to board the Coast Starlight. We had heard so much about this leg of our trip that I wondered if it lived up to the hype. After reading this, you be the judge. If you missed our first leg, you can read about it here.
At the King Street Station, there is no lounge. Like airports, there is a dedicated line waiting to board for first class passengers. You need to look at your ticket for it to tell you which car you are on and which room. Our ticket said 1130 D which translates into train #11, car 30, room D. You need to remember this information because you will use it in the dining room to charge your meal to your room (remember, your meals are included if you are a first class passenger).
We settled in and went exploring. We had heard that this train was different and we wanted to find out how it was different. One car behind us was the Parlor Car which I don’t believe any other long haul train has. This is exclusively for first class passengers and it has padded, swivel chairs so you can look our the windows. This is similar to an observation car with the windows at chair level and on top as well. There are 12 of these chairs as well as about 8 tables.
You can make meal reservations in the parlor car and they have a different menu that what we had on the Empire Builder or what we would have on the SouthWest Chief. Excited that we would have something different, I quickly signed us up for lunch. BIG MISTAKE. Nothing is prepared fresh, or at least as fresh as it could be on the train. I ordered a salad which was mainly arugula and sliced red cabbage with a salad dressing that was not to my liking – and I like most salad dressings. Blogger Hubby had the chicken salad sandwich and he said it was a “nothing kind of sandwich”, pre-made who knows when. There was another choice and it too was a sandwich. Lesson learned – eat meals in the dining room.
The parlor car is also where they have wine tastings for $7.50 for three tastings and an offer to buy a cheese platter for $10. The first day it was 2 wines from Washington and one imported wine from Argentina. The second day it was 2 wines from California and the same imported wine from Argentina. Although it was nice to do this, it could have been presented and run better. After we were served our wine, the parlor stewart disappeared. Sometimes there were long waits before pours. You decide whether you want to do this or not.
We left Seattle about an hour and more late. They had to put sand on the train for us to spray in the tracks where we would potentially have problems climbing elevation and possibly slippery tracks.
Once we started moving we were glad that we were in the comfortable parlor car seats as we admired the beautiful scenery that was unfolding before our eyes. We crossed smaller rivers, traveled along the Columbia River, climbed mountains, saw Mt. Shasta and just took in the sights. We certainly understood why Oregon is called the Evergreen State as we traveled southbound. What surprised both of us was that there was still snow on the ground.
On all of the trains, there are some longer stops where you can get off the train, go in the station or just stretch your legs on firm ground. Here we are in Eugene, Oregon where the waffle sole was invented and Nike was begun. The longer stops are called “smoke stops” as there is no smoking on the train.
As we traveled through California we stopped at Salinas which is nicknames “America’s Salad Bowl” and marveled at all the rows and rows of crops that were growing and being harvested. We could quickly spot the red strawberries that were growing on the plants and wished we could have reached out the train window to grab some.
Further down the coast, south of San Luis Obispo, came the sheer beauty of this coast. There was nothing between us and the shore. With colors ranging from deep green to tans and browns, it was breathtaking and made us glad that we were seeing this from the train – we could have never done it by automobile as there were no visible roads to our eye. Mountains in the background, sand and ocean in front of us as we were zipping along on this stretch of track that this train route is noted for.
There is one point in this section that you go around a curve and can see both the front of the train as well as the back of the train at the same time. Of course, I wasn’t able to photograph it but here is the front of the train.
Every train has a different personality with different crew. Also, each of the trains we rode had the same menu yet with different cooks, the same food was different on the trains. Blogger Hubby loved the seafood cakes which were a combination of shrimp and crab meat. He thought that was the best on the menu. I had the signature steak on al three trains and the Coast Starlight had the best steak by far. Salisbury Steak, the special on all the trains, was hit or miss. We didn’t try the pasta with the overcooked veggies. The herb chicken was also good.
We arrived in Los Angeles around 9:00 PM and took a cab to our hotel with an attitude from our cabdriver since our hotel, the Hilton DoubleTree was only a few blocks away.
As a reminder, everything on this trip with the exception one hotel night was booked using points. Your meals on the train are included in your first class fare/miles.
Leg two of our epic train trek was now in the books. Next up, what to do near the train station during the day.
As part of our Empire Builder train trek, we were allowed to add on to our trip an extension to go up to Vancouver. I had done research as to which mode of transportation through AMTRAK that I wanted to use. Research aside, it came down to our schedules. To go north, we used the AMTRAK bus that was scheduled (was being the operative word) to leave the King Street AMTRAK station at 1:45. Now if you choose to use this method, go out the front door of the station and turn to the left, the far left and wait there for the bus. There isn’t anyone outside to tell you this.
After standing in line and dropping our luggage off near the luggage compartments of the bus, we boarded and chose whatever seats we wanted. The seats are close together, my knees actually touched the seat in front – similar to that if an economy seat on an airplane.
The bus driver had a problem with the tickets and passengers not matching up, a broken water bottle that was full and a few other problems. We left about 35 minutes late. We were advised that because of this we would be in the middle of rush hour traffic. Delightful!
Once we reached the Canadian border our driver instructed us that we needed to get off the bus, claim our luggage and go into the building where we would be interviewed by Immigration. That took almost an hour with a full bus. Border Control would then inspect the bus. When this was completed we could recheck our luggage and get back onto the bus.
What was another surprise to us is that the bus didn’t go straight to Vancouver but instead made two stops at hotels. The first in Surrey and the second in Richmond. Since we were stopping in Richmond, we tok a different route into the city. We finally made it to Vancouver at almost 7:00 PM – about a 5 hour and 15 minute trip.
With cabs being inexpensive in Vancouver and with the conversion factor in our favor, we took a quick trip to our hotel, the Weston Bayshore.
For our return we needed to leave on Sunday as the train on Monday morning would arrive too close to our scheduled departure on the Coast Starlight. So that we would have some time in Seattle, we took the 6:30 AM train – being still on East Coast time, that was no problem for us. You need to arrive at the train station about an hour before departure in order to fill out the forms needed for entry back into the United States.
We stood in the line, received our seat assignments and then proceeded to be cleared through US Customs and Border Control right before we boarded. We were also told that that Customs and Border Control would go through the train car by car and we needed to stay in our seat. They would even check the restrooms if someone was in there. Doing this at the station and on the train saved us some time but the route we took, along the coast, was longer than the road that the bus was on. We also had much more room on the train and we were comfortable.
We left Vancouver at 6:30 and arrived at the King Street Seattle station at 10:55 a total of 4 1/2 hours.
It’s your choice which you choose but if I were to do it again, I’d take the train – more comfortable and a much more scenic route.
We chose to continue our trip after we got off the Empire Builder and took the AMTRAK bus to Vancouver. We had about 4 hours between our arrival in Seattle and our departure. Not one to miss an opportunity to explore, we were off.
In the terminal in Seattle, if you go to the ticketing counter, they will help you in holding your luggage. They do this because the room where the locker is store is not always manned. The cost is $4 per piece .
We left the train station and walked down to Pike’s Public Market. We were so hungry because that morning on the train, the breakfast was open from 5:30 AM till 7:00 AM. With all the time changes, it was not a problem getting up for breakfast at that time.
What I love about Pike’s Market are the flowers that they sell and have arranged in bouquets. They are so fragrant, so colorful and so inexpensive. One of my favorite flowers is the peony and you could get a beautiful arrangement with white peonies, dark purple irises, purple delphiniums and other beautiful filler flowers for $10!
Pike Market is known for a fish stall that throws the fish to the wrapper once you have selected your piece to bring home. It gets very crowded and when a fish is thrown, loud applause follows in appreciation. It is a sight to behold and if you haven’t seen it, look for a crowd around a fish stall.
We found Pike Barbeque inside the market – only 7 stools but worth waiting for a stool – do not attempt to eat this sandwich on your lap. It is juicy with lots of sauce on it. In fact, they dip the top bun in sauce before putting it on the sandwich. Being from Virginia, I am somewhat of a barbeque snob but this was very, very good. We shared the brisket sandwich and I was licking my lips and fingers afterwards. If barbeque is not your thing, go downstairs and you will find a restaurant that serves local fish as well as Dungeness crab. There are many other choices for lunch so walk around first and find what you want.
What I like about this area is the complete diversity of shops although many are associated with food in some ways. There was a Russian restaurant, Turkish, cheese making, a pear store, hot dogs and so much more. I wish I had a larger stomach and larger clothing so I could have a sample of all of these tempting tasty treats.
For those that may be coming to Seattle for the first time and have a little more time, please allow me to make recommendation – go down along the waterfront and take the cruise to Tillicum Village on Blake Island for the Native American Dinner Show. The ferry ride out to the island is beautiful and the native story and the salmon dinner (you can request chicken at time of booking) is delicious. Walk around the island before or after the show. This will be one of your highlights of your trip.
We walked back to King Street Station in time for our bus to Vancouver. Since we took the bus up to Vancouver and the train back to Seattle, I’ll write a blog post comparing both means of travel.
This trip was booked last December transferring points from my Ultimate Rewards account to AMTRAK. This is no longer available. You can read about it here.
We left the Holiday Inn and Suites and walked directly to Union Station going in the entrance that I described in my previous post. Inside the lounge is a checked bag room where we ditched our bags so we could still walk around the city and get some breakfast. You do need to show your ticket once you enter the lounge.
The lounge that we used will be closed in a few weeks and a new lounge will be opened, probably around the second week of June. The new lounge will have showers, more seating, and will be located in the Great Hall. In the lounge were hot and cold drinks and snacks like potato chips, pre-packaged breakfast rolls and nachos. Here is a link to the new lounge.
After checking our bags, we left the station and headed to the French Market which we had discovered the day before. I had one of the best breakfasts that I’ve ever had – a freshly made crepe filled with fresh strawberries, crème fraiche, and almonds. Delicious ! Blogger Hubby had the crepe with lox, cream cheese, tomatoes and red onions. There were tables at the back of the market and outside for you to sit and enjoy your food.
With no bags and still a few hours before we needed to be back at the station, we walked around the city more. We walked over the to canal where tourists boats took passengers on a city tour.
We found the Chicago Cultural Center and went in – free admittance is always an incentive. They have two beautiful rotundas and one was by Louis Tiffany. This building was the former Chicago Public Library.
Close by was Millenium Park and the Chicago Art Museum – both worth walking to and through. Throughout the park we saw a number of fountains, sculptures that we found very unique.
Did you know that the famed Rt. 66 begins in Chicago?
Throughout the city were beautiful tulips in bloom as well as other sidewalk arrangements in concrete planters – some with pussy willows which I hadn’t seen in a long time. Another building that we saw was the Board of Trade building – very unique with huge eagles at the top corners of the building almost looking like gargoyles.
When we returned to the lounge, it was crowded and difficult to find seating. There are two screens on the walls – one for arrivals and one for departures. You will see the same name of trains so be sure you know what you are looking at. For example our train, The Empire Builder was arriving at 3:00 yet our train, the Empire Builder was leaving at 2:15.
Traveling in a sleeper, we had priority boarding. They will call you and open the door to the track. Everyone stops at the first car to see if it is theirs. If you are going to Washington State, keep moving. Our train splits in Spokane during the – the cars at the end are going toward Portland and the cars in front of the dining car are going to Seattle. That clue will tell you where your car will be.
Our Room – To get to our room, we entered the train and had to walk up a narrow stairway. If you have a large suitcase that you won’t need in your room, you can leave it on the first floor in the luggage area. We had the larger bedroom and they were denoted with a letter – we were in “D”. The smaller rooms had numbers. That tip might get you in the correct corridor since you can go left or right at the top of the stairs.
The lower level had rooms as well though I think they were smaller rooms, community showers and extra toilets (we were warned that there is no ventilation in the community bathrooms). Yes, train bedrooms are small. We knew that and expected it. The bathroom is a combination toilet/shower. To take a shower, put down the lid on the toilet and turn the water on. Since there is a lip to get into the bathroom, the water stays in the bathroom. You do have the option of using one of the community showers if you want something larger. Tip – put down the lid to the toilet to prevent it from crashing down in the middle of the night when you hit a rough patch of tracks. We propped open the bathroom with a backpack so we could see the blue nightlight in the bathroom. Again, we didn’t want the door slamming in the middle of the night. To get more air or less air, look to the ceiling to open or close the vents.
Tip: If you are charging electronics, you might want to bring an extension card as one outlet is on the wall by the sink mirror and the other is on the wall by your head. You don’t want your electronics dangling as you recharge them.
We didn’t sleep well the first night because the train was always blowing their horns due to all the train crossings that we were passing. You’ll get to know the whistle – 2 long, 1 shorter and 1 long. Sometimes it seemed as though when the first set of whistles ended, the next one began.
The top bunk, which I had, was doable. In the fact that there isn’t much turn around in and the ceiling was about 2 feet (or a little less) from my bed. Getting up wasn’t a problem but getting down was (for me) as trying to turn around to come down the ladder was difficult since there wasn’t much room to turn around in. I ended up putting my foot on the corner of the vanity and then the other on Blogger Hubby’s bed. Not pretty but I did it.
We both brought carry-on luggage and a backpack. I would not bring anymore than that as they only place to store the luggage is under the bench sofa and chair in the room and a very small shelf above he chair. The rooms are small and compact and for just two nights on the train (or longer for us since we are continuing on) you really don’t need much. My concern in packing is whether the train ran hot or cold – I found this particular car on this particular day ran right in the middle. I have on a sleeveless top with a lightweight sweater and long pants though in the evening it did get a little cooler but never, in my mind, cold. We’ve been told the Super Chief runs very cold.
OBSERVATION CAR – had both seats and booths with a table. Downstairs was a lounge car where you could buy snacks as well as sit at one of their few tables. On our train were two Park Service Trails and Rails volunteers that gave a small narrative when we were going by a few things. If you brought your National Park Service passport book, they will stamp it for you (I had mine). Tip: there are some seats with 110 volt plugs so you can charge your electronics there as well. TIP – I turned on my Google Maps app while in the observation deck to see where we were and what we were passing. There is no train wifi so I was careful how much cellular data I was using.
DINING CAR – When you first board, stay in your room because a dining steward will come by and you can make reservations for dinner. Dining is about on par with airline food. For dinner I had the signature steak which was okay, baked potato and very overcooked medley of veggies. The salad was very fresh and served with packets of Paul Newman salad dressing. Second night I had the herb chicken which was much better and Blogger Hubby had the seafood shrimp/crab cakes and he thought they were very good. Dessert was a good portion, neither too large or too small. All of this is served on plastic plates rather than the china that AMTRAK used to serve food on. Your first class accommodations include your meals on board and a drink. Beer and wine are a separate charge and they are available in the dining car. One thing to remember, although your meals are included in your accommodation if you are a first class passenger, you need to remember to tip the wait staff in the dining room. It also appears that the menu is the same on all the trains with a dining room. TIP: your first night when you leave Chicago, sit on the right side of the dining car as you are going forward and sit so you are facing forward. We had the 7:15 dinner and you could see the sun setting over the Mississippi – a bright orange ball and it was beautiful. Unfortunately we were not sitting on the correct side or facing the correct direction to get a picture but it was beautiful
Two rules that are strictly enforced on AMTRAK – no smoking and you always must wear shoes when walking around the train.
NOTE: If you do plan to experience the Empire Builder, I strongly encourage you to download this PDF of the train route. It gives you information on the train as well as the stops that it makes. It’s interesting to know a little information about the cities that you are stopping or passing through.
We have met very interesting people on this journey so far either at meal time (4 to a table) or in the observation car. We were the only ones doing a train trek. Many were going to or from vacation, family celebrations or just as a means to travel. I was very pleasantly surprised at how much room there was in the coach section with leg rests and room between the seat in front of you – so unlike air travel.
More to come tomorrow. If you have any particular questions, drop me a line and I’ll try to answer as soon as can.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things.” That’s my idea behind this blog – sharing what I’ve learned and learning something from you, my faithful readers. I’ve got some sharing to do today and hopefully, if I have wifi, I’ll be doing it for a few days, week or more!
For those who have been with me for 6 months or longer, you may recall that Blogger Hubby and I booked a trip on AMTRAK for a transcontinental train trip – an epic trip by our standards. This was accomplished by transferring some Ultimate Rewards from my Chase credit cards to AMRAK (no longer a transfer partner) and it was before AMTRAK changed their miles program requiring more miles rather than the zone based award chart that I used.
Today we positioned ourselves to get ready to board our train tomorrow. Blogger Hubby was in Michigan, I was in Virginia. We both arrived in O’Hare about 30 minutes apart from each other. It was nice to see his smiling, welcoming face as I left the plane. That was our first hurdle – be able to meet each other though contingent plans were in place if either one of us was delayed. By the way, neither one of us had problems with TSA though we were not at major city airports.
We had made reservations to spend the night at the Holiday Inn and Suites on West Harrison Street in Chicago. We used the points that I had been accumulating for quite awhile through nights that I’ve stayed, promotions for stays as well as filling out 97 index cards to enter their winter promotion “The Endless Surprise”.
Getting to this hotel was much easier than I had expected and glad that I had done some homework. At O’Hare we were able to catch the CTA Blue line train in the direction of Forest Hills (tip – they all head for Forest Hills at O’Hare since O”Hare is at the end of the line). At the train station, you go to the kiosk and purchase a single ticket which costs $5, tap it at the turnstyle and then go down the escalator to the tracks. It took about 45 minutes to get to our stop – Clinton. We walked out to the right, up the stairs and in complete view of the Holiday Inn.
Walking in to the Holiday Inn and Suites we were warmly greeted – the warmest greeting I’ve ever had at any Holiday Inn. We were given tickets to a complimentary glass of wine in the attached restaurant, two bottles of water, 500 welcome points and a typed but had signed note from the Front Desk Manager welcoming us. We went over a few questions we had about where to eat lunch, dinner, where Union Station was, etc. A local map was given to us and they circled where we needed to go, including a grocery store and liquor store to purchase a bottle of wine to bring on board the train.
We were upgraded to a suite with two double beds, and another room with couch, chair, television, refrigerator, microwave and more. The view was not much, a ramp going up to the highway.
I mentioned that I wanted Chicago pizza for lunch and they quickly directed us to Giordano’s, about a 7 minute walk from the hotel. One of the specials was a personal size pizza with soup or salad and a soft drink. This was perfect for what we needed. Not sure if I liked this pizza – it almost seemed like an upside down pizza with pepperoni on the bottom, then the cheese and a layer of sauce on top. Like a pie, the crust came up the sides to the top. Unfortunately for me, it seemed almost too hard, not the softer crust that I was used it. It’s probably just a matter of preference .
We continued our walking tour of Chicago, or at least of our neighborhood. Just up a block from the restaurant was the Hellenic Museum. Neither one of us is Greek but we did go to Greece a few years ago and I always enjoyed ancient history. The price was $10 each or $8 for seniors! They had a special art exhibit on the work of the actor Anthony Quinn. He had a special affinity for anything Greek since he was in Zorba the Greek. We found his paintings, his sculptures and his story extremely interesting. Upstairs were two more exhibits – one of the modern Olympics which began in Athens in 1896 and the other on the Creation of the Aegean Archipelago. The few personal stories that we read about American competitors were very inspiring. Since the Olympics were new, there was no American organization to sponsor them and many people had not heard of them. There were some competitors who were studying at Harvard who had to quit school in order to compete. If you go to this museum or are interested in this story, I’m sure you can google the information.
As you might be able to guess, the Hellenic Museum was in Chicago’s Greek Town. The restaurant that had been recommended to us was Greek Islands. We went there to “scoped” it out. The menu looked authentic and the prices weren’t bad. We planned on eating dinner there till we hit a brick road in being very tired and ended up eating instead at the Holiday Inn restaurant. (It was so-so).
We continued our walking of Chicago finding the French Market, which have many different types food stalls in a converted warehouse. The sights, the smells, the French macaroons (my favorite cookie) and the cheeses all delighted our senses and we decided this was where we were going to eat breakfast the next day since the hotel did not have complimentary breakfast. I highly recommend coming here. When we came back the next morning, my breakfast was at the Crepe stand – freshly made crepe filled with strawberries, almonds and crème fraiche – what could be better. Blogger Hubby had the crepe that was filled with lox, cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes and spinach.
Evening at the hotel – although I had indicated that I liked our hotel, how easy it was to get there on the train from the airport as well as to other places, what I didn’t like was the street noise. In part that may have been because we were on the second floor, not that far from the trucks and cars on the ramp going to the expressway. If you decide to stay at this Holiday Inn, ask for a room on a higher floor – you’ll thank me for your good night sleep. We did wonder as we got into bed if noise was going to be a problem when we saw ear plugs on our nightstand. We were so tired that nothing kept me awake.
Union Station – there are multiple entrances to Union Station. What we found for this journey was to not go into the iconic building with Union Station lettering on it. You will do a lot of walking inside if you are looking for the passenger assistance counter, the ticketing office or (for at least a few weeks) the lounge. Instead, go across the street where there is a black office building that houses the FTC (Fitness Training Center). Just after the FTC, you’ll see a sign for Union Station – go in that door, go down the escalator and you’ll find all that you need there. Since we had our confirmation number but no tickets we went to the ticketing counter the day before – we like to be ready and still remember last year’s misadventure when we were at the wrong train station in Budapest With ticket in hand we were ready to begin our traveling train adventure the next day.
An event that we look forward to every year is the Daily Giveaways for four weeks sponsored by the US Travel Association. Each workday for two weeks, beginning today April 4th promptly at 1:00 EDT, you have the opportunity to (attempt) to purchase one of their daily specials. Some days are better than others but there is usually something for everyone during this four week period. To purchase, click on this link.
I have purchased points from Club Carlson, IHG as well as a few other vacation goodies to bump up my point totals when I had plans to use them.
What I like about the first week of daily getaways is that they are family friendly. You can be one of the few to buy points from IHG (Holiday Inn, etc), Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn and a few more. Want to go to Busch Gardens with discounted tickets or planning a trip to Vegas. You might try getting a great deal through the Daily Getaways. Here is what is planned for next week:
There will be more goodies the following week and that is the end till next year.
Looking at what is offered for this coming week I might consider the Busch Garden tickets since our daughter lives fairly close to one of the Busch Gardens – or I might just get them and give to her. They like to go when it is Howl-o-ween at Busch Gardens. They took their 2 year old this fall and he loved it! I might consider some of the IHG points since I have just used up a couple of hundred booking our trip in New Mexico/France and Belgium.
Remember, it begins at 1:00 Eastern time and they are very limited so if there is something you want, get the correct time and jump on it as soon as you can. Some daily giveaways have more opportunities to purchase than others. Post here if you are able to purchase anything so we can all congratulate you!
There have been so many ways in the past few years to manufacture spend in order to meet the minimum spend requirement for new credit cards or just as a way to get points to your point/loyalty program that you need more points in. It can be overwhelming trying to keep track of it all.
We have done the Vanilla Reloads first from Office Depot/Staples then they stopped selling them. Later CVS began selling them and that was very convenient for most of us. That lasted for about 8 months. We had BlueBird that we could load our gift cards to that was sponsored by WalMart and American Express. Then we had the Target Prepaid Debit Card, affectionately known as Redbird, that we could load money directly on it from our credit cards – no fees and too easy. There are other “ways” out there – Serve, GoBank and a few more.
I have not done Serve, Go Bank or some of the others. Once Redbird flew away I began doing money orders. I would purchase $500 VISA gift cards either at some of the grocery stores that I frequent, 7/11’s or at two of the Simon malls that are about 30 miles away. In the stores, generally the fee is $5.95 however at the mall offices, it is $3.75 or $4.25. I have found that in the recent few weeks that two of the grocery stores that I was able to purchase them no longer sell them when you are purchasing with a credit card.
What to do, what to do! I had read in Frequent Miler’s blog about purchasing gift cards through iConsumer and then going through the store called giftcard.com I decided to try it out.
After I logged in and was redirected to Giftcard.com, I was notified that I would receive a total of 1.5% back by purchasing through them. I planed on purchasing $2000 in VISA gift cards and my cash back would be about $30. That would take care of the fee that comes with each card as well as the shipping. By not having to pay for the fee, I feel like I am coming out ahead of the game by being even! It took almost a week to get my cards.
Once you receive them, call the number on the front of the cards and they will give you the pin number, which I write on each card with a Sharpie. What I like about these cards is that they are embossed with my name on it so it looks like a debit card from the bank. I’ve heard stories, but have not experienced it myself, that when purchasing money orders at WalMart, that they cashier wants to look If you are interested in going through iConsumer, please consider using my link – I thank you.
I then take the cards, pin activated, and purchase money orders at WalMart (.79 for $1000 money order), Kroger grocery store (.79 per $750), Food Lion (.46 for $500). I felt “funny” when I went into my bank to deposit these money orders. To avoid suspicion cast on me (call that my active imagination) I spoke with a branch manager and told her what I was doing. Her response was “can you come to my house for dinner and explain it to my husband – he would love it”. She brought into the office another branch manager who inquired how much I was going to do each month. I told them about 5k- 8k. I was told that they would be recorded like checks and that there would be no problems. I felt so much better talking to them. I know with our hobby we are suppose to fly under the radar and not bring attention to ourselves, but for me, being honest so that no suspicion would arise, works.
Another site to consider is Yazing. Remember to purchase from Giftcards.com and not Giftcardmall.com as not all the cards from Giftcardmall.com is PIN enabled.
Remember, to do this you do not want your credit utilization on this card to go above 50% of your credit limit AND you want to mix up your spending so that you have normal everyday purchases as well as manufactured spending. Ramp it up slowly as well/. Don’t go from having a $500 monthly spend to $5000 in one month. Also, once you have liquidated the money orders, wait a couple of weeks before you make a payment to your credit card. Be smart about this so you don’t get shut down by your credit card – I never have because I don’t go overboard.
Do you purchase VISA gift cards? How do you liquidate your money orders? Would you consider ordering them online like I did?
Our hearts go out to citizens of Brussels as well as the rest of Belgium. We are still reeling from what happened in Paris last Fall. It’s made some of us question our travel style and whether it will make any impact on our desire to travel.
This past June, we flew out of the Brussels Airport and we are scheduled to fly out of it this Fall. Will the events the other day make me change my mind about flying out of this airport? Absolutely not.
After our river cruise in the early fall, we’ll be in Paris, riding the metro, going to high visibility tourist attractions. We are not renting a car but rather doing our touring through public transportation. Will I worry and wonder if something will happen…..probably. Will it stop me – not at this time. We may alter when we do certain activities. Perhaps go to the Eiffel Tower very early in the morning or very late at night. Instead of the metro, maybe we’ll take buses. We’ll also be in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels. France and Belgium, at least this year, seem to be the “hot spots” for terrorism.
I find that a lot of people ask me if I worry about terrorism when I travel and honestly, up to now I haven’t. Blogger Hubby and I were planning our first European vacation for June 2002 but then 9/11 happened and I got very nervous. Living outside of Washington DC I had conjured up so many different scenarios that I wasted a lot of time worrying. I packed an emergency bag for school (I worked in an elementary school) in case we got stranded there due to attacks, I had an emergency bag in my car and I had a big emergency box at home. I made so many preparations just in case. I felt uncomfortable going to Europe so instead we did an Alaskan cruise. Nothing did happen and I missed out on an opportunity. That missed opportunity taught me to not do something because “something” could happen.
We will continue to make plans for our trip, try not to let the world events affect us but yet be so ever vigilant and, to a due, cautious and aware of our surroundings.
Last year I mentioned that both hubby and I were given 600 euros each when our award flight from Brussels was delayed seven hours due to mechanical trouble in the United States. We received the money in the form of a pre-paid debit card. Here is the post in case you missed it
With our trip to France on our mind, we planned on using the using the “extra” money to do some activities or dining that we wouldn’t ordinarily do – something extra and unique for us. Now Blogger Hubby is suggesting that we use this extra money and apply to our normal type of trip so that we have less out of pocket expenses and not do the extra events that we would have done with this free money
That’s led to a debate between us. Both are rational ideas and have merit to them and we aren’t sure what to do. I’m sure it will be somewhere in-between; some money for extras we wouldn’t have done and the rest toward our trip.
In my last blog post I wrote about Chase’s upcoming rules as it relates to their co-branded credit cards. As I mentioned in this post, I already have 5 personal Chase credit cards and didn’t think that I would qualify for anymore. In addition to that, I was debating whether I wanted to apply for the Hyatt credit card or the Marriott credit card from Chase . This would only happen IF I closed one of their credit cards.
Coincidentally, Frequent Miler wrote a blog comparing and contrasting both the Hyatt and the Marriott credit cards. What do they say about great minds thinking alike? I glanced at his post but needed to make up my mind as to what would work for me.
I just received Diamond status from Hyatt when they matched the status that I have with IHG in December. I do not often stay with Hyatt because it generally is more expensive than what I want to pay. I’ve been happy staying at Holiday Inns or Radissons yet when I stayed at a Hyatt in Fort Lauderdale last month, it was really nice being upgraded to a nicer room with a nicer view and a very nice breakfast. Blogger Hubby does feel a little out of his element in some of the higher end hotels. He’s more comfortable in the moderate priced hotels and that is where we stay most of the time but it sure is a treat for me when we do stay at the higher end hotels
Marriott would meet his need for moderation. I have no status there and probably would not qualify to get it. For whatever reason I have never been a Marriott fan and I don’t know why. With their buyout of Starwood, will that change? Who knows.
I thought more about closing my Freedom and having my husband apply for one but he doesn’t have another Chase card to get the Ultimate Reward points. We had closed out his CSP thinking he would reopen it 25 months after closing – you know what they say about the best laid plans – and then Chase changed the rules.
I read another blog about a woman who also had 5 Chase personal credit cards and she decided to try for the 6th. After she was told that her application was “pending” she called up the reconsideration telephone number, moved some credit around and was able to get her 6th.
I thought that I would do the same. I filled out the application for the 6th card and after I filled it out, I too was given the “pending” status. I waited about fifteen minutes and then called the Chase reconsideration telephone number (888-245-0625). They asked a few income questions, how much was my mortgage, gave me my existing credit line and asked if I would consider moving some of credit from one credit card to the new one. I agree and before you knew it, I received my 6th personal Chase credit card.
Are you wondering which card I chose? Here it is:
Now where am I going to go to use my two free nights?
I receive no compensation of any type from JP Chase – in fact, they probably don’t know anything about me. The views below are mine entirely.
Chase is tightening up their rules for obtaining one of their credit cards. This past summer/fall, they began implementing the 5/24 rule. If you opened 5 credit cards from any bank within twenty four months, you would most likely be declined for any of Chase’sown credit cards. This was exclusive to their own credit cards such as Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Freedom card and any of their cards that are not co-branded with another company such as Marriott.
If you are new to credit card churning, then I would suggest before you get to the 5 card you apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, one of my favorites of all time. I do not have an affiliate link as I do not have a business relationship with them but if you are thinking of getting their card, I would receive 5,000 Ultimate Reward points if I refer you. If interested, just drop me an email and I’ll begin a dialogue with you. If not, I still HIGHLY recommend this credit card because of its flexible Ultimate Reward points.
Now Chase is changing the rules AGAIN! Their co-branded cards will follow the same 5/24 rule sometime in April. If you are on the fence or thinking about applying for one of their co-branded cards, my advise is to do it within the next month to six weeks. In fact, I would do it sooner than later. Some of their co-branded cards include British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, Ritz Carlton, Disney, Southwest Airlines and United Explorer.
I have been thinking about getting both the Hyatt card and the Marriott card but my problem is that you can only have five personal credit cards from Chase. Which card to close is my dilemma. I already have the United Mileage Plus Select card (a co-branded card) which is my oldest credit card dating back to the early 1990’s. It is a card that is no longer available and for those of us that have it, it makes it worthwhile to keep it. I certainly do not want to close that card out since I have had it as long as I do – always keep your oldest card!
I also have the IHG card ( a co-branded card) which gives me Aspire elite status with IHG (Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, etc) and I do participate a few times a year with their promotions and there ALWAYS is a step that has you paying with your IHG credit card. Also, this card gives me one free night a year and the annual fee is only $49. I have only had the card about ten months now and do not mind paying the $49 for the one free night, which we will use in Brussels.
I currently have the Freedom (one of Chase’s cards, not co-branded) which I do love for the revolving quarterly bonus categories. It has been particularly useful to me before the holidays as Amazon has been one of the bonus stores. That might be the one that I will consider closing and perhaps my husband could get it instead.
In December I applied for and one month later approved for the United Explorer credit card which gives me free checked bags when I fly on United. Since I tend to fly United the most, that will be particularly useful to me. Since I have had that card only about a month, obviously I do not want to close it.
Finally, I have the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Thinking that I might never be approved for it again, I’m keeping it. I love the Ultimate Reward points and since am boosting my United points with my new Explorer card, I can use those UR points for other airlines, like Singapore Airlines.
So if I want the Marriott or Hyatt card, I’ll have to close one of my Chase cards and it will probably be the Freedom, much to my chagrin.
Have you thought about applying for any of the Chase co-branded cards before the 5/24 rule takes effect? Are you having the problem that I am as to which card to close?
Having never been to Bonaire I was super excited about this stop. Bonaire is part of what is known as the A, B, C islands which lie about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao make up the A, B, C islands and are all part of the Netherland Antilles. They generally do not get hurricanes because of how far south in the Caribbean they are and are in a perfect location if you want a fall vacation and want to stay out of the paths of hurricanes.
I knew that Bonaire was considered a diver’s paradise so I thought it would be great for snorkeling since I am not a diver. I have gone snorkeling several times with Blogger Hubby but, this is confession time, I am not a confident snorkeler. On this cruise I wasn’t traveling with my husband but rather a friend and she was not a snorkeler. I put on my Big Girl panties and decided to do a snorkeling trip by myself (of course there would be others on the boat).
After a recommendation from a couple on my Cruise Critic Roll Call (thank you Lisa and Travis) I booked with Woodwind on their catamaran.
I have never had such a positive snorkeling experience. Sitting on their catamaran as we sailed around the harbor and island near the capital city in Bonaire, it was a very peaceful and serene experience. There was no music blaring, no racing to see who could drink the most in the shortest amount of time. It was almost as if we were communing with the water. There were about 16 of us on the cat and the two guides gave each of us their utmost time and attention. They went to each of each to see if we had any concerns or fears and whether we had snorkeled before I had told that that I had but was more of a tentative and nervous snorkeler. When they asked what my concerns were, I told them and they assured me that I would be fine after listening to me. Our guide actually stayed very close by two people who had never snorkeled before.
Additionally, they told us that they had full face snorkel mask if anyone had problems breathing out of their mouth. They also had about 4 pairs of prescription masks for those who wear glasses. Clothing – they had plenty for us to borrow. I put on a pullover top so I would not sunburn my back as I snorkeled. The woman next to me, who was fair skinned, put on one of their skins, like a diving suit only thinner. I borrowed a hood to put over my hair and to keep it from flowing into my face. Fins were optional. She had float belts, vests and noodles. We didn’t need to bring anything – they had it all and much more!
What surprised me was that the guides got into the water with us and stayed with those who had never snorkeled before and helped those of us who felt like we needed reassurances. Our guide pointed out fish, two different types of turtles as well as different corals and sponges that were below us. She would give us the hand signals that we learned before getting in the water checking to see if we were okay. We had a full 90 minutes snorkeling and it was wonderful. We saw two different types of turtles, brain sponge, needlefish, lion fish and so many more tropical fish that I do not know the name of.
We all got back on board our boat and as we were heading back to the dock we were served a hot dinner – noodles, spring roll and of course Rum Runners. It was delicious and I had no idea that I was even hungry.
Before we got to port, the guides came around to collect their money – either by credit card or cash. For my tour, it was $55 US dollars.
One little antidote, as we were looking for a place to get into the water, our guide and our captain noticed another boat “The Coral Buddy” and our guide did not like what they were doing. Some of their passengers were in the water standing on coral, they were anchored in a coral restoration area. There were words in Dutch and strong feelings on the part of our crew. I appreciated their feelings about coral restoration and doing no damage to the sensitive coral. We all felt like we made friends with our guides.
To get to Woodwind, as you leave the port, bear to the right. At the main street, turn right and you will see a casino sign. Go through the gate and through the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort. Woodwind is all the way down the sidewalk, past the swimming pool. If you are with someone who doesn’t want to snorkel, the resort offers a day pass for $15 though when I walked through, there was no one collecting and I just sat down on one of the loungers and went swimming in the pool before my snorkel trip.
To reach them before your trip, you can call them at 599-786-7055 or go to their website. I do not receive any compensation for endorsing this group nor was my trip paid for by them. I paid for it myself.
If you have been reading me for awhile then you may remember that I try to never book an excursion with the cruise line when I am in port. There have been a few exceptions when I have had no choice – I’ll get to those later.
You may wonder why I would book non-cruise line tours. Doesn’t the cruise line try to get me paranoid about arriving at the pier late from a private excursion and standing on the dock watching the ship sail into the colorful sunset. I mean, I have heard many people tell me that if you are on a ship’s excursion and are running late then they will wait for you. Isn’t this all true? NO, it is not.
The main reason that I book private excursions is that they tend to have fewer people on them and that they are less expensive and more interesting. Do you enjoy being herded by cattle onto a bus that seats 44 people generally waiting for one or two who don’t feel that they need to be back at the same time as others on their tour? If you found something interesting, wouldn’t you like the option of staying a little longer?
I have found that when I am on a private excursion in a foreign country (and I am excluding the Caribbean countries here since most of them take the American dollar), then you can pay in local currency which may have a better exchange rate for you than paying the cruise line in US currency. Case in point: when we were in New Zealand, the excursion that I booked was $135 NZD which equalled about $83 USD. The ship was charging for a similar excursion $150 USD.
With all the cruises that I have been on as well as the number of private excursions, we have never been late to the ship, not even close. For me, I always inform my tour guide that we need to be back earlier than what we need to be. I also look around as we are leaving the port city to see if there is construction or some problem that would take extra time in returning to the ship. On one excursion a few years ago we were with passengers from another ship and we had a much earlier departure. Our tour guide called a taxi to meet us and return us to the ship so we wouldn’t be late. How is that for service!
Finally, the cruise line is not guaranteeing you that they will wait for you if you return late. They will certainly try to but it is not guaranteed because they pay for their berth at the docks. If it is too expensive to wait or if there is another ship coming in, they will leave. However, they will get you to your next port of call. If it is a large group, you all may not be able to get on the next plane; after all, most of the islands are connected by small island hopper planes. This hardly ever happens so I would not worry about it but if you are concerned, bring your passport with you and a credit card. That way if you need to get to another island, you will be able to.
Now that you have made the decision that you would like to try booking a private excursion, I’ll give you my trade secrets though they are not that secret. I simply google “shore excursions in ____”. I’ll also go to Cruise Critic and find their Ports of Call thread and look for my port of call. I’ll read what others are saying about their tours. I will also go to Cruise Critic’s Roll Call where I find my cruise line, my ship and my sailing date. Often times others in your Roll Call will organize a private excursion and are looking for others to join them.
Finally, I go to Trip Advisor and enter in the city/island that I will be visiting and then I enter “Tour Guide” or “Things To Do” in the search box. Make sure you read all the reviews. I tend to ignore the very best and the very worse and focus on what the majority are saying.
I’ll email the tour operator with any questions I may have. During the busy season, I’ll give them about 3 three days to get back to me.
I mentioned earlier that several times I have had to take the cruise lines excursions. While on Half Moon Cay, the private island that the cruise line owns, rather than just spending time at their beautiful beach, we elected to take a Tram Tour of the island. It was very interesting and something that I had never done. I saw where they kept the horses for those who wanted to go horseback riding, Sting Ray City where the passengers feed the sting rays (that was amazing), the airport on the island (actually where seaplanes land in case of emergency), where 40 staff members live, desalination plant converts salt water to drinking water, power generators and so much more. The other time I had to take a ship’s excursion was last year when we were docked in Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal. The only way we could get to land was to book an excursion.
I have had fantastic experiences, met some wonderful people who happened to be my guides and have no qualms about recommending them or their tour. Everyone has different expectations of what they want on their tour and emailing your tour operator to express what you are seeking is a great way of ensuring that you have the right tour for you.
Don’t let the cruise lines get you scared or nervous. Wouldn’t you rather have a tour more geared to you and your needs than a vanilla type tour where you are just a person in a seat. A few days after I returned from my cruise I received a survey from Holland America. Some of their questions had to do with excursions and they wanted to know how many I had booked with them and how many I booked independently. they also wanted to know “why”. I think they are finally getting the idea that many of us are going the independent route. Hopefully they will make some changes but until then, I’m booking my own private tours and I hope you will consider them as well.
I was surprised to find that I couldn’t find any direct flights from Washington Dulles (IAD) to Fort Lauderdale on United for our cruise. Perhaps since I had booked the cruise about 3 weeks prior to sailing, they were all filled. Nevertheless, we found flights that would take us from IAD to Tampa. Another choice was going to Newark but my rule in the winter is to never fly north for a connection – they may be having weather that we would not get. Flight was easy, nothing remarkable. Apparently we arrived in a small terminal in Tampa and if we wanted to go to the main terminal, we would have to go outside to get a shuttle and then we came back from the main terminal, we would have to go through security again. One of the reasons that people go to the main terminal is for the restaurants. It was lunch time and we decided to stay where we were. The Green Iguana was fine – real dishes but plastic utensils, styrofoam cups for soup but it was better than Pizza Hut or Quiznos for us.
Our connecting flight was with Silver Wings that we booked through the United website. These are prop planes that go to various different cities in Florida as well as to some of the Bahamaian islands. We were a little delay getting on the plane and when I inquired why to the gate agent she said that they were waiting for “catering”. Believe it or not, “catering” consisted of a small bottle of water or juice!
After we grabbed our bags, we headed outside to use Uber. This was Blogger Friend’s first time using it. Within 4 minutes we were picked up and taken to the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale. Uber cost us $13.40 to go to our hotel, less expensive than what it would cost us if we used a taxi. It is easy to use. Just download the Uber app, associate a credit card to your Uber account. When you open your app, it knows where you are and it tells you how close an Uber driver is to you. After I push the black bar to call a driver, it then sends me a photo of the driver, his license plate and what his car looks like. He then called me and I told him that we were standing under the sign so he could readily find us.
One quick point about Hyatt. The night before we checked in, they sent me a text asking if they could do anything to make my stay more enjoyable. I had asked them to have for us extra shampoo, conditioner (hey, two ladies cannot share one small tube of shampoo), extra bath towels and to have one bed with feather free pillows. Upon checking it, I reconfirmed and showed them my text message. We were pleasantly surprised that we were upgraded to one of the Junior Executive Suites in the Tower because of my newly gained Diamond status. TIP: There are 2 junior executive suites on each floor in the Tower. If the room ends in “60” that is the first room from the elevator and you get a view of the grounds, the canals and Inter Coastal Waterway and partial view of the ocean. If the room ends in “70” or “71” then those rooms are next to the room that has the ice machine and the service elevator which makes constant noise – almost like a gear rolling noise. You get a view of the ocean and Port Everglades which is really interesting when ships are leaving port. Neither of the locations, in my mind, are great locations for suites. The hotel has no airport shuttles and that is why we used Uber though they do have a port shuttle for about $7 per person but we took a cab for $10.50 split between the two of us for $5.25 each and we didn’t need to wait for more people to join the shuttle or to drop them off at other ships.
When I checked in I was offered an amenity gift, mainly food but I chose the 1,000 points instead. I also reminded them of my text asking for extra shampoo, conditioner, towels and feather free pillows. They told me that they would remind housekeeping.
We walked around the resort and as nice as it was, I wondered why anyone would stay here if they weren’t associated with a conference at the hotel or going to the port or returning from the port. There is the Tower where there are about 12 rooms per floor and a restaurant at the top. You access the elevator for the tower rooms in the lobby where there is a nice bar, business office and a shop with shirts, hats, and various sundries. The lanai rooms are accessed by going outside of the lobby. They are in two story buildings around the pool and grounds. If it is rainy or bad weather, you do have to do outside while you do not if you are in the Tower rooms.
We were the on a Thursday and from 4:00 to 5:00 they have free wine and cheese sampling in the bar area. They also on one ofd the weekend mornings have Bloody Marys for their guests. This was where we sat when waiting for our room to be ready.
There are restaurants at the Hyatt Pier 66 but after reading reviews on Trip Advisor, we decided to eat elsewhere. We took a cab that was in front of our hotel to Carrabas for dinner. Since we knew that we would need a cab to go back, we asked for and received our cab drivers telephone number. After eating we walked to the next little shopping center , Harbor Shops, where they had a Publix for some last minute items to bring on our cruise (wine, sunscreen, etc). After finishing, we called our cab driver and he was there in about one minute.
Bed time came early for us as we had been up and at the airport early. However, there still were no feather free pillows or extra shampoo and conditioner. I was the first to shower the next morning and while I was in the shower my roommate when back downstairs to ask for shampoo and conditioner so she could use them for her shower. Guess what – they never came. As we were leaving to go to breakfast, I texted back to the hotel expressing my disappointment with their lack of follow through, particularly when they initiated the discussion. Soon a phone call came asking if we had received all that we asked for. Of course my response was “no” and they offered us breakfast menu tickets of which I already had since I was a Diamond Member. Then they asked me to stop by the desk after breakfast.
I had the ticket to order off the menu but felt that there was no need to since it was quite an extensive buffet. After breakfast, I stopped by the desk and was awarded 5,000 points for their failing to give us the items that we requested. I’m sure that I received this due to the Diamond status that I have. SCORE!!!
With excitement mounting, we took a cab ($10.50) to the port. There was very little traffic as we were the only ship in port. With more ships, it would most likely be more expensive because of the increased traffic). This was less expensive than taking the shuttle ($7 each) and it would take us directly to our ship.
We went right in to the terminal building, went through the scanner, filled out the Public Health form that we were not sick and then went upstairs to check in. We were handed card #3 for boarding, had our photo taken for our Ship and Shore card, received our deck plan of the ship and then sat and waited. I always look around the room seeing if there is anyone that I know, anyone familiar. I really get so excited wondering who among this group will I get to know, will sit with us at dinner, be on my Team Trivia team. I really enjoy cruising and the social aspect of it. I’m generally the one introducing myself asking where you are from, if you have cruised before and what is your favorite cruise.
I gave my family the link to the webcam so they could watch us depart and listen to the ship’s horn “toot” as we left the port. If you are interested, here is the link to the Port Everglades webcam.
We sat down next to a really nice couple, and actually they became our “cruise best friends” as well as members of my Team Trivia. As soon as we were allowed onto the ship, around 11:30, my roommate and I split up. Since we had booked it last minute we had the Anytime You Wish dining. I had remembered that you could make reservations so my roommate went to find where you make the reservations for dinner (5:15 and 5:30 or 8:00 and 8:15). We were hoping this would be easier than just showing up to get seated.
On the first day is the time for us to begin planning what we wanted to do on the ship. We made appointments for the Spa and if you are going to the spa the best deals are offered on the first day though you do not have to do them on the first day. Also they have daily combination specials which are very good as well. I booked a cooking lessons with one of the chefs in a group of 12 passengers. Our luggage was delivered and it was time to unpack and get settled into our upgraded room. I love the location of being on Deck 8 since we are one deck below the Spa, Lido Buffet and the Lido pool and the Seaview pool. Our room happened to be below the changing rooms in the spa so we had no noise at night.
We found out that on our ship was a group of about 375 people with JazzSea. There were those who were musicians and brought their instruments, two bands were there to perform for their group during private functions. Many people cringe when they find out that there is a group on board. Did it impact us – yes, but very little. They had the Crows Nest every night for their music, the Piano Bar during the day, function rooms for jam sessions, etc. However, they also brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the ship.
After going to the show lounge, meeting the staff and playing the penh slots for a little bit, we went to bed. The next morning was our beach day at Half Moon Cay. We were both looking forward to getting into the water as well as some time in the sun and for taking our tour of the island, the only Holland American excursion that I booked.
I find that I have started many posts but have found with the holidays, sickness and lack of time I never completed them. I’m truly sorry about that. My New Year’s resolution is to do a better job in 2016! Hold me accountable and we’ll review it at the end of 2016.
Some of you may remember that last year a friend and I took a last minute cruise on Holland America to the Panama Canal. We enjoyed it very much and decided then that we would try it again this year.
I had been watching a cruise that I was interested in, eleven night Southern Caribbean, but it was too expensive, even at last minute – $1700 for an inside stateroom. Nope, not going to do that. Part of the reason for last minute was the less expensive staterooms. We knew we wouldn’t get the best room however we knew we wouldn’t be in our room often. Last year we received a partial obstructed stateroom with floor to ceiling windows and only half the window was blocked by a lifeboat.
We found a cruise that we both liked about 3 weeks before sailing on Holland America again. We will be sailing 10 nights to sunny and warm locations in the Caribbean. We will be going to Samana, Dominican Republic (a new port to me), Aruba, Bonaire (another new port), Curacao and Grand Turk. With taxes, port charges and our stateroom it will cost us about $1000 each.
In additional to that, since I own 100 shares of Carnival Cruise Line (the parent company of HAL) stock, I will receive a $100 On Board Credit (OBC) by faxing in a statement from the past six months that shows that I own the stock. I know that we will get an OBC from our travel agent as well. Those credits will help to offset the gratuities that we pay to all the works and is charged directly to our stateroom.
With the room all booked, it was time for the flights and the hotels. Since my friend lives very close to IAD, we will be flying out of there. I couldn’t find a roundtrip flight that was just what I wanted or the price that I wanted. I found we had a better selection of flights and prices if we booked two one way tickets. In reviewing the flights and prices, I found higher prices on the day the cruise ended since it is MLK Day. Rather than paying an extra $170 each, we decided to extend our vacation and go home the next day. Even with the hotel and meals, it will be less expensive.
Airline Travel Tip– I went back and forth on United’s site hoping to find something a little less expensive. When I found what I wanted to book, after checking with my friend, I found that the price was no longer there – it was more expensive, really! And it was only a matter of minutes. I tried a little trick that someone told me. Rather than going straight to the United site using my regular browser, I went to “private” or incognito” browsing. That way they had no history of me looking at those flights and the lower price was there. Tuck that tip away in your arsenal of finding less expensive flights.
A few weeks ago, Hyatt had a promotion that if you proved that you had status with another hotel chain, they would grant you their top Diamond status. I actually have Spire Elite with IHG which is their top elite status. I sent them proof of my IHG status and proof that I had stayed with IHG within the past few months (remember my road trip) and was awarded Diamond status. Their Diamond status means more at certain hotels than others.
When I have cruised out of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, I have stayed at the Hyatt House in Fort Lauderdale (17th Street/Convention Center) because of its proximity to the Harbor Shops shopping center even though you don’t get any perks at the Hyatt House. I like staying there because we are within walking distance of all the stores and I often have to run into Publix to get last minute items or a bottle of wine to take on the cruise with me. I decided that I would try another Hyatt – the Hyatt at Sixty Six Pier, just down the road, adjacent to the marina. To get to the shops, we could take the Sun Trolley for $1 or use a cab or Uber. This hotel was also less expensive than the Hyatt House. Worth a try. The ground on their web site look amazing. I’ll report back on the hotel with my impressions of it. We will also be staying here after the cruise unless I dislike it so much that it would be better to go elsewhere. As it was getting closer to our departure I began doubting myself that this was the BEST hotel that I could find. I went back and double checked other hotels. Though some did have shuttle service from the airport and to the cruise ship, It was $80 more – didn’t need that. Other hotels were about $150 more that what we were paying. I guess I did make the correct decision.
Now my time was t be spent looking for excursions that were not ship related, as I really don’t like to be crammed into a bus of 44 people where someone or a few always run on their own time. I’ll report what I found.
Have you ever booked a last minute trip in an attempt to get something less expensive?
I have a confession to make. I am not a country music fan. I blame that on not being exposed to it while growing up. I mean, back in the days when I grew up in Boston we didn’t have a country music scene. We had one place in Boston called Hillbilly Ranch (true name) and it was somewhat of a joke. Even its location was a place that you didn’t want to go into – The Combat Zone.
While I was in college, we were all listening to the current pop music. Then I moved to Virginia and there was a lot of bluegrass music which was too twangy for me. Honestly, I didn’t know the difference and thought it was all country music. So I shied away from that genre of music and stayed away. I just was never interested in it.
You’re probably wondering why I am telling you all this and it’s easy. I was going to visit Nashville – home of country music – on our Road Trip. We would be arriving on Halloween and wondered what we should do on that night. There was only one answer – go to The Grand Ole Opry. Yes, I was going to listen to country music. We looked at the schedule and believe it or not, I had actually heard of some of the performers like Vince Gill, Charlie Daniels and his band, and the Gatlin Brothers were the main performers with others also on the show.
We first called the Opry box office ten days before we would arrive and realized that the only tickets left were behind the nose bleed sections. Not what we wanted to hear. We put our two great minds together and we came up with an idea. What if we called the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and inquire if they had any packages that included tickets. Gaylord hotels are part of the Marriott chain and although I did have a few points in my account, they weren’t enough to get us anything. The operator found what we considered very good tickets, on the floor, off from the center a little bit and on an aisle. Cha-ching. We booked the package even though it was expensive but we figured that it was a unique experience.
After we made the booking we heard from several different people what a fantastic property it was – large, gardens, a river runs through it and that it would take us a few days to go all through it. In my mind, it just didn’t make sense that this large hotel that would be minutes from the Grand Ole Opry because in my mind the Opry is in downtown Nashville. Confusion reigned as we drove up this long driveway in the outskirts of Nashville. We pulled in at 5:30 and elected to do valet parking at $32 per day (yikes, don’t tell Blogger Hubby) because we needed to get to our room, do a quick shower and be at the appropriate door to ride the shuttle to the show. Still thinking that the Opry was in downtown Nashville, we knew we had to hurry or we’d miss the shuttle and we didn’t know how expensive a taxi would be. The show began at 7:00 and here it was at 5:30 and we had to be at the door at 6:00. First tip if you are going to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel: unless you are with a convention, ask to be in the Cascades section of the hotel. We were initially booked by the desk clerk in Magnolia, next to the Convention Hall on the opposite side of this large hotel even though she knew we were in a rush. That is one heck of a long walk; same goes for Delta. Our bellman, seeing that we were in MagnoliaCascades was able to change our room to make it easier to reach. Cascades, where we ended up, is where the main lobby is, where the concierge is where you are parked, and where you get your car from valet parking.
We met our shuttle and had a 3 minute ride to the Grand Ole Opry – not downtown but very close by. We knew where to meet the shuttle for the ride home. We walked in, and since we hadn’t had dinner, we were able to get drinks and popcorn to bring into the theatre with us. Great seats awaited us.
There was an Mistress of Ceremony warming up the crowd but shortly the show would begin. We noticed there was a large screen over the stage of the Opry as well as a few other screens throughout the theatre. As we were reminded, this is a live radio show and there are commercials about the sponsors of the Opry with the announcer standing near the edge of stage left.
The show was divided into four acts with each act having their own Master of Ceremony who would introduce the performers in the acts. Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers opened up the show welcoming us and then proceed to sing.
The second act was a led by a substitute MC – Jeanne Seeley. She was the only one dressed in a costume with a boa of dollars bills over her witch’s dress. She characterized herself as a Rich Witch. Singing during this act was Ricky Scaggs.
A surprise guest during this time was Florence Henderson aka “Carol Brady”. The third act was MC’d by Charlie Daniels and his band and boy, can he fiddle. We overheard from the row behind us that they had just heard him about a week or so before and he was really putting on a performance this night. Charlie was given a standing ovation after singing and playing “Devil Went Down to Georgia”. It went something like this.
The evening ended with Vince Gill and a clip of him during his early years playing at the Opry, or as he liked to call it – 50 pounds earlier. Also performing in the final act was Mel Tillus. It was a country music star studded evening – what a way to spend Halloween night!
We really enjoyed our Halloween night at the Opry and I hope to enjoy a repeat visit to this house of music.
BTW, the Grand Ole Opry was downtown Nashville in the Ryman Auditorium but moved out to its present location in 1975. If you are interested in tickets, follow this link.
As some of you may remember, I attended the Chicago Seminars last month. One of the seminars that I sat in on was a talk by Bike Guy who told us about the trip he and his family did on points. Now, that’s not unusual at all, particularly with this group of travelers, but how he did his trip was – by using points to book his trip on AMTRAK. He was able to get AMTRAK points by transferring points from his Ultimate Rewards account (points you receive by using your Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink ) to his AMTRAK account.
This sounded interesting to me since we had done some train travel this summer while in Italy and we were anxious to try it here in our country. I had done a fair amount of long distance train travel when I was twelve years old and younger but not much since there. I was even more excited about a possible trip when we found out that there would be changes to the AMTRAK reward program as of January 24th When changes come to reward programs they are usually never for the best and this one is the same. Additionally, the last day to transfer points into my AMTRAK account is December 7th. Luckily Blogger Hubby and I work well together in planning a trip with each of us working on different aspects and then coming together with a plan.
To explain what is happening in case you also want to take a trip, let me explain what the reward program is now. Currently, the United States is divided into three zones and there is a redemption fee for traveling within the zones. Traveling in one zone is 20,000 points for a bedroom for 2 people. The points are for the accommodation and not per person. The change will be that no longer will AMTRAK have zone based redemptions but rather based on ticket price. What we were planning to to book would require almost double the points after January 24th. We knew we needed to act fast. Here is a link to the current redemption rates.
First of all, we needed to determine what kind of accommodation we wanted on the train. You could travel coach (not for me for this distance); roomette with two seats during the day (size is 3.6′ x 6.6′ ); bedroom with a couch and a chair in the day (size is 6.6′ x 7.6′); a bedroom suite which is two bedrooms opened and combined ; or a family bedroom (size 5.2 ‘ x 9.5’). We knew we wanted the bedroom as it was a little larger than the roomette and had the toilet and shower within the room. All tickets booked with sleeping accommodations include all your meals while you are on the train.
Now that we knew what our accommodation need was, it was time to plan our itinerary. As you look at the map, you’ll see some cities are on the border of two zones. You can use those cities to your advantage and they will be in whatever zone helps you the most. Some of the cities are Detroit, Toledo, Atlanta, Denver, Albuquerque, El Paso, Wolf Point, Port Huron and Cincinnati. Knowing that, we planned our trip to take advantage of those cities where it was practical for us.
After a few itineraries, we came up with the one that we liked. Blogger Hubby is going to fly to Chicago from our summer home in Michigan and I will fly there from our home in Virginia. We’ll get in the night before just to give us some peace of mind. I don’t want to worry about delays, etc that would prevent us from boarding our train. From Chicago’s Union station we will take the Empire Builder train through the northern part of our country through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana including through Glacier National Park, Idaho and Washington. We’ll travel along major portion of the Lewis and Clark Trail.
Not content to end this portion of our trip in Washington, we will continue on using AMTRAK bus to Vancouver, British Columbia. Using our Starwood points, we booked a Westin Hotel along the seawall and opposite of Stanley Park, the 1100 acre park that cruisers see when they are entering the harbor in Vancouver. Following two nights in Vancouver, we will get ourselves down to Seattle to spend a night there before boarding our next train. We could have used the AMTRAK bus again but that only gave us 35 minutes between the bus’ arrival and the departure of the train – too close for me.
AMTRAK has a partnership with the National Park Service and on select routes and select day they will have a ranger on board presenting different programs depending on the day of the week. I wanted to ensure that we would have a ranger on our train but the 2016 schedule had not come out yet. Even though we are going to travel mid May, that might be too early or we may be just in time.
Once we get back to Seattle we’ll board the Pacific Coast Starlight train to Los Angeles. AMTRAK states that it is “widely regarded as one of the most spectacular of all train routes, the Coast Starlight links the greatest cities on the West Coast”. We’ll go along the Pacific Coast during a stretch while in California. Again, this has the ranger program and we will find out later if we are in time for this program as well.
When we reach Los Angeles we’ll have a overnight before boarding the Southwest Chief train the next morning for Albuquerque. We chose Albuquerque since it is on the divide between two regions and it only costs us 20,000 points since it is in one region. I’ve also never been to Albuquerque so it seems like a great place to spend a few days. Perhaps Blogger Hubby will get me up in a hot air balloon – you never know.
All this, not including our hotels and meals while not on board the train, only cost us a total of 65,000 points. This is a great redemption of our points. If we had to pay for our fare, this is what we would have paid:
Is this something you are considering? Would a cross country train trip entice you? Obviously it does us and we are very excited about this very relaxing, unplugged time viewing the majesty of our country from the comfort of our room and observation car.
I love children books – particularly well written ones that tell a good story. One author, Patricia Polacco, moves me with the way she tells a story, usually based on her family but not always, as well as with her illustrations. When I worked in the school system (upper elementary grades) I always seemed to gravitate toward this author’s books and I was always surprised that a few of my special ed students “got it” – the subtle meaning of some of her books. One of her books, John Philip Duck, told the story (fiction based on fact) about how the ducks came to the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Since reading the story I have wanted to go see the ducks walk to the fountain or from the fountain back to the roof where they resided. The ducks come down at 10:00 and return at 5:00.
Knowing that, going to the Peabody Hotel in the morning became our first priority. We were shocked that parking was very easy to find and relatively inexpensive in Memphis as was the hotel. We entered the lobby at 9:35 and already people were lined up along the velvet roping to view the ducks. Children were sitting on the floor along the red carpet so they could have an unemcumbered view. Hotel guest were fortunate that they, and only them, could sit in the lounge around the duck fountain to view the duck walk. Excitement was building and then the elevator doors open. Led by the Duckmaster, the 5 mallard ducks (one male and four females) waddle on the red carpet to the fountain, walked up the ramp and plopped into the water where the swam around. A few minutes later, the Duckmaster approached the fountain with a silver tray and on it was a silver bowl of duck food. It was all over in about ten minutes.
We then walked down to the Cotton Museum. It was okay and nothing memorable in my mind. The museum was basically one room in a large building. My recommendation would be to skip this museum and save your time for the Civil Rights Museum.
Before we visited the Civil Rights Museum we decided that it was time to have lunch and nothing would satisfy my craving other than Memphis style barbecue. Everyone gave us their recommendations. Some were too far outside the city, one location – The Rendezvous had been highly recommended but a local woman told us that it wasn’t very good anymore because the owner sold the restaurant and took his recipes with him. With that little bit of local information and the fact that we were starving, we ate at a BBQ restaurant behind the Civil Rights Museum – Central BBQ.
All I can say is WOW – probably the best bbq that I have ever had. The ribs, which we had half wet and half dry, were very nicely charred and the meat pulled from the bone. The pulled pork sandwich was just as delicious, nicely smoked and flavored. On the counter were various different bbq sauces though my favorite was the vinegar sauce. Cole slaw was on the side as was the crispy onion rings. I kept repeating during this lunch how delicious the food was. If you find yourself in Memphis – do yourself a favor and eat at Central BBQ.
As soon as you finish eating, walk around a very short corner to the Hotel Lorraine. The Civil Rights Museum is inside the gutted hotel.
I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was much more than what I did expect. From the capture of Africans to be brought to the Jamestown Colony in 1619 through the current day, you see the struggle of the black population in our country. The most memorable part for me was the early sixties as I remember watching events unfold on television – the KKK, the lynchings, the Freedom Riders, bombing of churches, Martin Luther King and his famous “I Have a Dream Speech”.
I remember my grandfather writing a letter to President Kennedy as one Boston Irish Catholic to another about how he needed to bring in the military to stop all the killings. I probably was ten at the time and it still leaves a very strong memory. Visiting the museum was a very emotional and at times I felt like I was on information overload since there was so much reading in the exhibits as well as emotions for such a dark period in the history of our country and in some respects probably still exists. I had wished that they had a small cafeteria where we could take a break. Do not miss this museum – one of the best that I had been to including the Apartheid Museum that I visited in Johannesburg. On our way out, we went by the room that was occupied by MLK, Jr when he was assassinated. We could not go in but we could view inside the plexiglass wall to see the room just the way it looked in 1968. Afterwards we walked across the street for more of the museum staying only about 10 minutes.
As we crossed the street to walk to our car, we noticed a very small crowd as well as two black SUV’s with door open. As we approached, we saw that it was Dr. Ben Carson. I approached him and asked if I could have my picture taken with him. He quietly agreed and I now have a picture of he and I. After our picture he got into the car and took off.
Reflecting on our day, we came to the conclusion that it was a wonderful day. From seeing the ducks, barbeque, the Civil Rights Museum and someone trying to win their party’s nomination for President. This is why I love Road Trips – you just never know what you are going to do or see and we were very open to just let things happen.
We left our hotel that was just outside of Memphis to head to our number one destination – Graceland.
Yes, we were going to Elvis’ home. I loved listening to Elvis when I was younger and even more so now that I have gotten older. I cheered his comeback in the late 60’s and early 70’s and I was sad when he died while I was on my honeymoon in Ireland in 1977.
Many people have told us that they thought Graceland was overrated, it was small but others have told us how much they enjoyed it. Whether we were going to like it or not didn’t matter – we needed to go.
The night before our trip we went on the Graceland website to review the ticket choices – that’s right you have a choice of 5 different ticket options. We chose the Platinum tour that comes with an interactive iPad with the narration of the house by John Stamos as well as entry into his automobile museum and a few other locations. We did not have the airplanes as part of our tour. After we received our iPads and headsets we boarded a trolley to take us across Elvis Presley Blvd to the mansion.
We toured the first floor and the basement – the upstairs private rooms were not part of the tour. The decor in some rooms was very nice for the time period; other times it was a little garish. Walking into the dining room we saw a touching photograph of Priscilla and Lisa Marie on the wall.
The kitchen seemed out of a time capsule. Then there was was the talked about “Jungle Room” The basement looked like a bumblebee to me with the black and yellow decor. Also in the basement was a pool room.
In one of the hallways was a collection of his gold records.
We then went outside to see the back of the home, the building where his offices were, saw the pasture for his horses.
His racquet ball building which was turned into an area where some of his stage costumes were as well as several screens that played some of his concerts and television appearances.
For some reason that I certainly didn’t expect, I found that it was very moving and there were tears in my eyes. I loved listening to his voice singing some of the ballads that he was so good at and were so familiar to me. Maybe it was from sadness of seeing what drugs could do to a person. I don’t know except that it was very emotional to me. Exiting the building we walked over to the area where he was buried next to his parents and grandmother.
After touring the house, we took the trolley back across the street and went into the automobile museum. The number of cars that he had, how he customized many of the cars was amazing. Also in this museum were some videos of Elvis in clips from various movies where he is in some of these cars.
We had lunch at the Chrome Restaurant and I would not recommend it. Bring a snack, eat before or after but just don’t eat there. It wasn’t that bad but in my mind it wasn’t that good.
After doing a little shopping at the gift shops (some CD’s to play, postcards, etc) we left to continue our first day in Memphis. Overall, we were not surprised to find that it was not a huge mansion. We felt that it was more of a family home where he and his wife (later his daughter) could live with additional room for his parents. This could have been considered a “mansion” at the time it was built by Memphis standards. We were happy with our stop at Graceland.
As we drove along the river in Memphis, it was our goal to drive across the “Dolly Parton” bridge, so nicknamed because of the shape of the bridge, into Arkansas, a state I had not been to but I missed the turn. As I was driving up, I spied in front of us a tall pyramid.
This was the new Bass Pro Shop that I had heard about. We quickly found parking and walked inside. We purchased tickets ($10) to ride the 28 story freestanding elevator to the tip of the pyramid where there was a bar/restaurant and an outdoor observation deck.
This blogger is afraid of heights but I did go out, just not on the glass part. I did hand my camera over to a braver soul than me to take photographs of Mud Island, the bridge and Arkansas.
After we had our snack we went back down the elevator and was able to really look around.
The interior reminded me of a Louisiana swamp town. There were alligators, “Bait Shacks”, little shops filled with outdoor gear. I would recommend to anyone in Memphis in taking a drive over to the pyramid and looking around. It was fun.
We were going to try again to cross the Mississippi River into Arkansas and we were successful. We went one exit, turned around and drove back into Tennessee. Isn’t that what you do on Road Trips?
Tomorrow we are planning on going to The Peabody to see the famed ducks as well as the Civil Rights Museum and to find good barbeque!