All posts by Air, Land and Sea

I Added Another Credit Card to my Portfolio

I didn’t think I would.  I told myself I wouldn’t.  But I did.  I added another credit card to my already quite full portfolio of cards.  I wanted to get to a point where I would be below 5/24 for Chase credit cards but I succumbed.  I applied for and was approved for the Citi Rewards+ Mastercard. Screen Shot 2019-02-24 at 9.22.57 PM

I applied and was approved and promptly entered the approval date on my Excel spreadsheet that I wrote about a few days ago.

What made me do it?  This is: Screen Shot 2019-02-24 at 8.23.38 PM

I have other credit cards that give me more points at gas stations but for those smaller purchases, or purchases that makes sense rounding up it would be perfect and give me more points!

Now when I go to McDonald’s to get a $1.00 Coca Cola, Citi will round up my purchase so that I get 10 points instead of one!  The points that this card gives me are Thank You points and they can be redeemed for basically airline points.  For many of them they are airlines that aren’t as easy to find transfer partners.  Follow this link to see the partners.

I have another Citi card, the Citi Premier,  that gives me Thank You points and it will be nice to add to them.

I do not earn anything by writing about which cards I apply for nor do I have a link for you other than a public one. Here is the public link 

Are you thinking of adding any cards?  What are you looking for in your next card?

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Keeping Track of your Credit Cards and your Points

I have a very good memory.  Ask my husband, my friends and they will tell you that also.  It’s at times a little irritating that they will say to me “How do you remember that” and I’m thinking “How do you NOT remember that”.  No special trick.  It’s a blessing and a curse because I just can’t forget, particularly if I have been hurt.

Back to the subject at hand.  When I first began this hobby of collecting credit cards, points, miles I never wrote anything down.  I just remembered when I signed up for a card.  For those that are unfamiliar when you sign up for a credit card you are given so many days in which to do a minimum send to get the points/miles that they are dangling in front of you enticing you to sign up for the card in the first place.  What I didn’t know then was that it was the date you were approved for the card, nor the date you received the card nor the date you activated the card.  Also at that time, if you had closed a card, you could reapply for a new card and new bonus after the card had been closed for a year or two.  This is where I got myself into trouble.

I had an American Express Gold card.  I did the minimum spend, received the points, kept it open for eleven months and then closed it.  A year later I applied again, did the minimum spend and never received the bonus points.  I called AmEx up and asked “What’s up , why no points?”  Turns out that when I reapplied I was ten days short of it being two years since I closed the account.  I was angry but more at myself.  I wasn’t quite still a rookie but just relied on my memory – which let me down this time.  Vowing to never, ever let that happen to me again I knew that I had better come up with a system so I could record everything.

I developed, with the help of Blogger Hubby, an Excel Spreadsheet.  Going down the first row I listed the credit cards I had, the next row over I wrote the date I was approved for the credit card.  I then had the card number, security code and the expiration date.  The next row was in red and it was the close date.  The next rows were the different point currencies I had like UR (Ultimate Rewards), MR (Membership Rewards), UAL, SW, Delta, AA, Alaska, Flying Blue, etc.  I then began with the Hotels like Hyatt, Hilton, Radisson, Marriott, etc.  Finally, it was the credit cards that gave me cash back such as Arrival.  When that section was down for all my cards with the information we did another section for Blogger Hubby’s cards.  We listed his, date approved, card number, etc.  Through the formula that Blogger Hubby came up with excel was able to combine all the UR points that Blogger Hubby and I had individually and together.  The same for the other currencies.  At the far right corner Excel was able to total all the points and miles we have across the board.  I know that Award Wallet can do a lot of it for you but for me this works great.  I can see both of our accounts at once, I see totals for the individual points (like United) as well as the points combined for United.  I also like seeing the combined points that we have for all of our cards and loyalty accounts – makes me feel rich.  Here is part of my spreadsheet with my information deleted (hopefully). 

Never again will I not be eligible for a bonus due to a mistake I made.  What do you do to stay organized?

Which Travel Books Do You Use?

When Blogger Hubby and I begin to travel we use a lot of different resources to help us plan our trip.  Of course, the internet is a big help for us and we rely on it but for some really basic help we use guide books?  Do you use them and if so what are your favorites?

My kids love the Lonely planet and I tried using those books but I just didn’t connect with them.  Must be an age difference between us.  We have found that the Rick Steves series is just perfect for us and our style of travel.  I almost want to call it travel for dummies.

As some of you may realize from reading my blog posts, Blogger Hubby and I prefer to use local public transportation to get around.  While in Copenhagen a few years ago we felt that we needed to get out of the city and there were many places that we were told to visit.  These locations were about an hour or so outside of the city.  We walked to the train station, purchased our tickets and sat back to wait for our stop.  You may wonder why I am telling you all of this when I’m writing about travel books?  The answer is simple.  Reading in the Rick Steves book about the location we were going to, he gave explicit directions.  He wrote that when we walked out to turn left, look for the TI office and then turn left again.  Yes, we could have found it on the map but it was so easy just to read it from the book.

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Mr. Steves gives, in my opinion, very good recommendations on hotels to stay in.  We used one of his in Lyon and we most likely would have never found or considered it but it was perfect.  Great location, friendly staff and clean.  The only slightly negative, and it is really meaningless, is that the furniture was outdated and older.  The price we paid was very good compared with what other hotels were charging and our excellent location.  He didn’t overwhelm us with too many hotel recommendations.

We find the same thing when looking through his tour books for restaurant recommendations.  There are usually so many around that it gets a little overwhelming.  We just turn to Rick.Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 11.24.40 PM

I have seen his travel shows on PBS and before we took our first trip to Europe we went to the public library for some travel books and DVDs.  We brought the DVD home for Germany and it was so outdated and if I remember correctly, it was in black and white.  It was very disappointing to me.  A few years ago on his website and Facebook page, he had a sale of his set of DVDs.  Apparently he was updating them and the sale price was fantastic.  I ended up purchasing and donating a set for our public library. The librarians were delighted to get this addition to their DVD collection.

I have actually sailed with Rick on one of my cruises.  He had never written bout cruising and that fall we did the Western Med on one cruise line and did the Eastern Med on a different cruise line (the one I was on).  He came and spoke to our Meet and Greet with Cruise Critic and was very impressed with our very active Roll Call.  What I remember best is everywhere we went in Istanbul, Rick would show up about 15 minutes later including where we went for lunch.  I knew that day we had hit all the good spots.

Enough about Rick, what guide books do you use?

 

A New Roof Almost Gave me a Round Trip to Europe – My Strategy

I’m always on the lookout to get more points for my husband and I to travel.  My friends good-naturedly make fun of me when I even charge my .99 cent Coca Cola with the credit card that gives me 3 times points for dining.  Rather than get one point, I’ll get three.  I know that doesn’t sound like much but as my grandmother used to say “Watch your pennies and the dollars will follow.”  I feel the same way about my points.

With all the rain that we have had here in the Mid-Atlantic area my roof developed two leaks.  While I was initially disappointed that we would have to spend a lot of money, I decided to turns those lemons into lemonade.  How could I get points for getting a new roof?

All roofers here want cash and I could purchase VISA gift cards and convert them into money orders to pay the roofers but I wanted more than one point per dollar.

I called Lowes to get an estimate of what the roof would cost us.  Since we had two skylights in the roof, we decided that we would replace those as well.  We did that because we learned when a few years earlier that when a skylight on a separate roofline cracked that you have to replace the roof when you replace the skylight.  These skylights on the main portion of the roof are about 20 years old so replacing them seemed like a prudent thing to do.

The estimate came to about eleven thousand dollars. We signed the contact to have Lowes do the roofing and replacing of the two skylights and we added into the contract that we would be paying with Lowes gift cards.

First thing I thought of was my need to purchase as many Lowes gift cards that I could.  I went into my friendly Staples with a bag of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies to give to the store manager.  He knows what I do and does help me.  He gave me all the gift cards he had.  He then offered to stop at another Staples near his home and take what they had and bring them to his store for me to purchase.  These purchases were with my Chase Ink Business credit card which give me 5 times points on anything I purchase at an office supply store and that includes gift cards.

With the gift cards that I had, I was still short about four thousand dollars.  I decided to go to a Staples about 45 minutes away but before I went, I called and asked if they had any Lowes gift cards and how many they had.  The manager said he had plenty and not to sorry about it.  I arrive at that store and went directly to the gift cards.  The manager came over and asked if I was the one he spoke with.  Unfortunately they only had about two thousand dollars worth of gift.  The manager asked why I didn’t just supplement what I needed with VISA gift cards.  When I mentioned that they had a $6.95 activation fee he offered to waive the fee on the remaining amount that I needed.  Wow, I never had that happen before and it was about $70 that he was waiving.

I spent the morning before going in to Lowes to pay, scrapping off the silver strip that covered up the pin number so that would not hold us up at the register.  I had 97 gift cards so that took awhile.

A register was saved to do just my order.  It took about 45 minutes to enter all the gift cards and by the time it came to print out the receipt, the register froze.  Apparently it had timed out.  The poor sales lady had to call tech support and they wanted her to credit back each gift card which she refused to do.  They were able to look further and see in their records that the gift cards were applied and that my sale was paid – they just didn’t have a receipt for me.  I easily solved that by having the store manager write on my order form that my order was paid in full, sign it and date it.

Thought this took awhile, I ended up with 55,000 Ultimate Reward points, almost an economy flight.

I’ve told this story several times and people are amazed at how many points I have and at times they seem envious.  Truth be told, I do put work into getting these points and in this experience with the roof, I spent time going to different stores to get the gift cards, scrapping off the silver strip, and spending about an hour and half at the store paying the the roof.  It wasn’t difficult, it just took time and many people couldn’t be bothered doing it.  If you want options when you travel, if you want free/discounted hotels, free flights, choice of economy or business/first then this is a hobby you should get into or at least a little more knowledgeable when yo make purchases like I did with my roof.  Rather than earning 11,000 points I earned 55,000.  It is relatively inexpensive to do what I do but it does take time – nothing is free and I’d rather spend my time than my money to go where I want and stay where I want.

What are your thoughts?

A Day Visit to Boston

I admit it.  I’m a tourist through and through even when visiting my “hometown” of Boston.  I recently had the opportunity to go back home when I was on a New England and Canadian Maritimes cruise.

When Blogger Friend and I docked in Boston on a warm Saturday morning with bright blue skies we decided to go off on our own rather than booking a tour with the cruise line.   I could do it easily since I was familiar with Boston but really anyone could do it.  For those not familiar with a city they are going to, google top attractions in Boston (for example).

Rather than take a Trolley Tour of Boston as many passengers decided to do, we decided to visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.  We walked out of the terminal and hopped into an awaiting taxi.  Being a Saturday morning, traffic wasn’t that bad.  It is about a $25 cab fare to the Library.  I did try Uber but the driver was unfamiliar with the cruise port and didn’t know where to find it or us.  Since taxis were already there, it was easy to get a ride in one.

The library is located on Columbia Point in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston.  You can get there by subway and shuttle bus but it was much easier and faster taking the cab directly there.

I was eight years old when President Kennedy  was elected and being from the Boston area , JFK was one of  “our own”.  I remember my grandfather writing to the President as one Irish Catholic from Boston to another about what was happening in the country including the KKK, supporting the Freedom Fighters, the bombings, the killings that were in the south and urging him to do something about it.  I remembered the glamor of Jacqueline Kennedy and her tour of the White House.  Of course, being a child myself I remember their children and how exciting it was to have children in the White House.

Walking through the Presidential Library I was overwhelmed by some of the back stories, the memorabilia, the photographs, and the videos.  To me it was particularly moving to listen to his inaugural address and how he brought our country together after what was then the closest presidential election ever.  Listening to the address, those words hold true even more now than they did in 1961.  We could all take a lesson from his speech.

If you are in Boston for a stop on a cruise or in to visit the city, take the time to go to the Presidential Library.  I would give it about half a day.  There is a little cafe that you can grab something small to eat.

Following our visit, I decided to take my friend to something iconic for us native Bostonians – pizza at Regina’s in the North End, the Italian section of Boston.  We Ubered there and immediately jumped into the line that wound outside  the building.  After about 30 minutes we were able to get two seats at the bar.  This restaurant has certainly changed from when I went there frequently while in college.  It now has more booths, tables and younger waitresses.  In my earlier time, the waitresses were old Italian women all wearing black dresses.  There were changes in the almost 50 years from when I began eating there but the pizza was just as good as I remembered.

After filling up on pizza, we needed to walk it off and what was better than walking through the narrow windy streets of the North End.  Of course we headed over to Hanover Street, one of the main thoroughfare of the North End, to purchase our pastries at Mike’s.  If the line is too long there, try Modern, across the street and down a little.  With a wide variety of cannoli, you can almost choose any flavor you want.  I stayed with the original with mini chocolate chips.

From there we headed to the wharf area walking past the Old North Church and the Paul Revere house.  So much history here in Boston.  How could anyone be not know what to do or see – the problem is that there is just so much it is difficult to narrow down what you can do in one day.

We continued walking toward the harbor in fact, it was about a ten minute walk if you aren’t pokey or don’t stop and look around or go into the shops.   Once at the harbor we found benches to sit on.  It is so restful at the harbor looking out at the water, the boats and of course, people watching.  Of course, eating our cannolis made it even better along with the delightful weather and blue sky.

When it was time to head back, we walked through the Marriott on the Waterfront and called another Uber and met him our front.  A quick 7 minute ride back to the ship bringing with me my box of Italian pastry goodies from the bakery.  I’ve certainly missed rum babas, pizzelles and assorted Italian cookies.

One of the places that I love to go in Boston, and didn’t on this trip, was to the Boston Public Gardens.  There they have the famous Swan Boats giving you a ride around the pond in the Gardens.  The island is the middle is where the duck family lived from the children’s classic book, “Make Way for Ducklings”.  Walking around the Gardens, you will come across the Momma Duck and her eight ducklings.  I could go on and on about what to see and do in Boston and perhaps I will in a future post.

For us it was a great day.  In retrospect, I’m glad we did not do the Old Town Trolley as so many others did.  Apparently the Boston roads were gridlocked and no one got off the trolleys fearing they couldn’t get back on.  Those passengers did not have a good day.  Don’t be afraid to go off on your own particularly when you are going away from some of the major tourist attractions or the downtown area.

 

Iguazu Falls – Have you Been There or Heard of Them?

Many cruises in South America begin or end in Buenos Aires and the cruise we took last year was no different.  We built in an extra day in Buenos Aires at the end of our cruise and enjoyed our Food Tour and walking around Buenos Aires.

We wanted to do something different, something more.  We both love the beauty we see in nature and I had heard a few years earlier about Iguazu Falls.  These waterfalls are on the border of Brazil and Argentina though about 80% of the falls are actually in Argentina.

Iguazu Falls are one of the new seven wonders of the natural world as voted by thousands of people worldwide.  The falls are  the largest waterfall system in the world.   They are so large that they are broken down into the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls.  From my experience, the park in Argentina has beautiful views of the Upper Falls as you look down and Brazil has great boardwalks out to see the bottom of the falls.  These falls are often compared to Victoria Falls because of the sheer size of the falls.  Iguazu Falls are wider but since they have so many islands in the river that they break up the water into many smaller falls; they do not have the large amount of water going over the falls at one place.  Instead, Iguazu has about 275 separate falls which, to me, adds to it beauty. The spray from the falls can be seen from quite a distance from the falls and was very visable as we flew to the airport.   In some spots the falls reminded me of waterfalls in Hawaii because of all the green vegetation.  

So how did we get to Iguazu?  We booked tickets on Aerolineas Argentina from the city airport in Buenos Aires (airport code AEP) – not the international airport which is about 30 miles outside of the city.  We booked economy tickets but “bid” on an upgrade to First Class which we received.  A lunch came with our first class seats as well as being able   to have a second piece of checked luggage.screen shot 2019-01-28 at 10.13.12 am

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We arrived into the small airport on the Argentina side – Cataratas Iguazu.  There is another airport on the Brazilian side – Foz do Iguaco.  We originally had booked a driver through our hotel, The Melia, but he never showed up.  We saw passenger after passenger go to a little booth near the exit doors where they booked cabs that were waiting outside.  We ended up canceling the driver and took one of the cabs.  The pricing was the same so if you decide to go to Puerto Iguazu, don’t worry about getting a cab to your hotel.img_4030

As we drove into the National Park, our cab driver dropped us off at the ticket office where we had to pay 500 Argentinian pesos each for our fee to go into the park where our hotel is located.  You also need to bring your passport with you when you go to the ticket office.  Save your ticket in case you go in and out of the park.

We quickly got back into the cab and about ten minutes later we arrived at our hotel, The Melia.  When we booked it, it was The Sheraton but sometime after our booking and before our stay, it was purchased and renamed by The Melia.  I booked it on points and I had received an email a few months prior letting me know about the change of ownership and that my point reservation would be honored.  I had read various reviews on Trip Advisor about the Sheraton but it was the ONLY hotel in the park on the Argentinian side so I knew we wanted to stay there.  The hotel was in a state of remodeling which they needed to update it but it did not affect us.

p1030609The back of the hotel had the most beautiful view of the Falls and the lawn and paths leading to the Falls.  There was also a swimming pool with lounger chairs around it.  A great way to cool down after walking to the Falls.

Our room was ready when we checked in and we wasted no time in dropping off our suitcase and heading outside.  What we liked about staying here is that the paths to the falls were all level and very easy to follow. I would say for the most part other than a few steps here and there that it was mobility accessible.  We didn’t go all the way out but enough of the way to be mesmerized by the volume of all the falls, the noise of the rushing water, the beauty, the rainbows that were over the falls and the many butterflies that were all around. You know those times where you are somewhere and just can’t believe it?  That’s how I felt.  I was in Argentina and at Iguazu Falls.  It was really hot and humid here and after going about halfway, we turned around and walked back to the hotel.

While Blogger Hubby took a quick nap, I got into my swimsuit and went into the lower level of the hotel where there was an indoor pool with about 20 jets all around the pool and they felt wonderful.

Feeling refreshed we went to the bar in the lobby and noticed they were going to be having a tango demonstration.  Lots of little bar tables and chair surrounded the dance floor.  The bar area had delicious bar food, appetizers and burgers.  If you wanted something more, there was a dining room downstairs  where my friends and I ate.  Sorry for the blurry picture below.

This is an unpublicized roof top area.  You have to ask at the desk for the key but going up there, the views are unparalleled.  We brought our drinks there, sat on the few chairs they had and just took it all in.

The next morning we walked out front of our hotel and followed a path to the central train station to board the  Ecological Jungle to take us into the Devil’s Throat area.  I’m told this is the only way to get to this section of the Falls.

Once there we walked on some of the walkways to get so very close to the edge of the Falls.  You will get wet if you walk all the way out but I highly recommend it.

Here are a few pictures.  The one of me is not very flattering but it gives you an idea of the sheer volume of water going over the edge of the falls.

All along the walkway we saw many unique butterflies.  In fact, there were so many that were flying around us, landing on us that at one point we felt surrounded like them and they felt like a nuisance.  Can you imagine anyone feeling that way about butterflies?

We walked back and saw a few animals along the path headed back to the hotel.  We were warned by the hotel to not leave our sliding glass door unlocked because howler monkeys knew how to open them.  We saw birds

After we walked back to The Melia, we packed up and left to go to the Brazilian side to see the falls there.  Since we had very little Argentinian money left we had the hotel call us a cab that would take a credit card.  If you do this, make sure you use a credit card that doesn’t charge you any foreign transaction fees.

Tips for visiting the Falls:

  • take insect repellant – this is a subtropical area
  • bring plenty of water and drink it
  • wear toe enclosed and comfortable shoes.  We stayed on the paths but you might not
  • don’t forget your camera.  I brought my cellphone and a point and shoot
  • if you go out to the edge of the falls you might want to consider a rain poncho
  • sunscreen is a must
  • if you plan on spending a long time, bring snacks with you.  I brought a  few granola bars in my backpack
  • did I say bring water?
  • do not pet or feed the animals.  There are signs posted all around letting you know how dangerous they are.
  • if you have the means, book a helicopter tour over the falls.  You may have to book it early.

Next post – going to Brazil!

Future Cruise – Come Join us in Norway

If you have been reading me for awhile, you know that I love to organize group cruises.  No, I’m not a travel agent nor do I work for one but I do love traveling with people, meeting new friends and saving money.  For that reason I select a cruise that I want to go on and invite others to join me.

As you might have surmised from reading about our South America cruise, we loved it.  What we loved about it were the smaller port cities that we were in, the gorgeous scenery and the cooler weather.  We dislike walking about sightseeing while it is 90 degrees outside.  Wearing a jacket is no problem for us!

Trying to find something similar to that last cruise, yet different, proved to be challenging.  I have found something that we are enthusiastic about – a cruise up the Norwegian coast from Bergen, Norway  to above the Arctic Circle and returning via the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands and Edinburgh, Scotland before docking and overnighting at a port near London.

This is on Viking Ocean Line “Star” ship.  All rooms have balconies and are double occupancy.  I will be upfront and say that it is expensive but the price already includes the port charges and taxes and you get an excursion in every port.  It does not include airfare.  If you book through my group you will receive a $500 per person discount on the cruise – per person, not per stateroom!  There is an included daily excursion at no extra cost with this line.  If you go to the “Day by Day”  scroll down and you will see the first excursion will have the word “included” in it and that it the complimentary tour.  Of course you can add other tours for an additional cost.    On board you will also receive free Wi-Fi, beer and wine at meal time.  Complimentary soft drinks, coffee and tea.  What I really like are the heated floors in the bathrooms – always wanted them.  We are looking at the June 8th, 2020  sailing from Bergen to London.

We are considering flying into Oslo and taking the scenic train to Bergen.  Watch this YouTube video on the train ride.  By the way, it is not just train but train and boat ride to Bergen.  Here is a review on the train ride.

I plan on eating as much fresh crab that I can.

If you are interested in this itinerary, trying out Viking and want to be part of my group in name only or join us in different activities, then please contact our group travel agent, Michelle at McCabe World Travel outside of Washington DC.  Her telephone number is 703-762-5049 and her email address is michelle@mccabeworld.com

Think you might be interested? Please consider joining us.

Did I Enjoy this Cruise? My Personal Opinion

As I have been reviewing what we did on this cruise I had to self examine whether I liked/enjoyed this cruise.  After all, as I have mentioned  previously this was a bucket list trip for me.

I loved going to the Christmas markets and seeing all the decorations and the goods that were in all of the stalls.  I loved the idea of going to the markets at night, having a mug of rouge or blanc gluhwein.  It was like a winter wonderland, without the snow, walking around and seeing all the decorations.  If this didn’t put you into a Christmas mood, I don’t know what would.

There was so much food available to purchase at the markets and I did my eat to try all (not really).  The markets really weren’t that different from each other – some were larger and some were smaller and many had the same or similar items to purchase though some markets had very unique items.   Some had items for sale that were made in China and some were uniquely German.  The decorations were traditional in many ways but also over the top in a good way.  People were outside at night when it was lightly raining, cold, windy and cool all enjoying the atmosphere.  How often do you find a large group of people outside at night in winter?

As I mentioned here  our trip was a little tarnished to begin with.  First we were going, then it was “confirmed” that we weren’t going on the Rhine and then two days before we let we were going on the Rhine again.  For me it was difficult to get the original excitement back particularly since we had already gotten use to a different itinerary and the lure of a free cruise which I had already mentally booked.

Our first night when we met our cruise director I felt an internal disappointment – after all we had been through we now have a rookie who hadn’t been almost anywhere on the Rhine in at least 3 1/2 months,  since the boat had been stranded in Amsterdam due to the low water levels.  He was confusing to listen to and one time the excursion that I signed up for online and had the confirmation, wasn’t even one that he mentioned or had a ticket for.

We did not receive the tour of the Cologne Cathedral because when the ship cancelled the tour, they must have cancelled the reservation for the tour as well.  Another excursions was cancelled in Amsterdam and that was a walking tour of the Jordaan area.

Our room was upgraded from the first room on the 1st level, known affectionately as the Aquarium Class to the 2nd deck but back in the rear.  I would have liked to have been asked if I wanted this change which Im not sure I did.

Our meals were fine, a good size for all the courses we had but the soups did not taste like what they were. In fact, they almost all tasted the same and we were all disappointed with them.  Our bar attendant in the dining room never allowed our wine glasses to be empty.  She was enthusiastic about her job and it showed.  The entire staff was very friendly and helpful and we appreciated all of them.

For the cruise itself, I didn’t like the fact that I felt we were rushed while in port.  Most days we were back on the ship for lunch – only about four hours in port.  Since distances on the Rhine are not that far from each other, why couldn’t we have stayed longer and enjoyed a longer city tour and then have adequate time for the Christmas markets which didn’t open until 11:00 in the morning? I understand we had to leave Heildelberg early so we could sail the Rhine gorge while still light.   We had only one day of German food – why not more since we were in Germany most of the time?  While we were cruising in the afternoons, why not do a German wine tasting?  We did that on our Rhone river cruise and we enjoyed tasting the different wines of the region.

What I did like about AMA, and it goes back to cancellation of our original itinerary on the Rhine, is that they gave us options.  We could either cancel with no penalty and receive all of our money back or we could take the altered itinerary and receive a free cruise within three years.   No other cruise line that I am aware of did that.  Some just cancelled the cruise while others gave an altered itinerary and ship swaps.  When AMA did an altered itinerary the passengers received a very healthy cruise credit.  In fact, the cruise before ours, was suppose to end in Basel but since they couldn’t get up the river, AMA had to provide them flights from Amsterdam to Zurich so they could continue on with their trip or catch their flights home.  Where they failed was lack of information of what was going on even though they had been having this situation for the past 3 1/2 months.  Yes, it was a day by day decision whether there will be rain or not but they should have let us know the current situation and that some changes might be happening and to at least alert us to the fact that there could be changes and what the changes could be.

Would I do it again?  Maybe and I know that doesn’t help you.   I loved going to the different cities and markets and being on the cruise was an easy way of doing it without having to worry about transportation and luggage. I would be more knowledgeable and know that we are rushed and not to expect a lot of time in the markets and would inquire if any of the markets were at night because nighttime is worth seeing.  My advise is when booking a cruise, try to find out how much time you will have after the city tour.  If it is only about 90 minutes from the time the markets open, is that enough time for you.  In the cities like Cologne and Strasbourg, explore on your own – don’t feel that you have to be part of a group.  Look at what you think is important.  Take time, if possible, to eat at a local restaurant and have a mug of Christmas beer…blend in and become local for a little bit of time.

If you haven’t been to Europe, these river cruises are a great introduction as the groups are small enough, at least on AMAWaterways.  Our groups were about 20 people in each group.  We saw groups from Viking that were about40 or more – that is too big for me.

Finally, know that the river levels anytime can change your river cruise to something else, like a motor coach tour,  If you are uncomfortable with a little uncertainty, then river cruising is not for you.  If it is for you, remember that AMAWaterways was the ONLY cruise line that gave options to the cruise passengers on my ship about cancelling or alternate cruise and they did it because we had no sister ship to swap with.  Those that did a ship swap and missed a port did receive a healthy credit good for a future cruise.  It was AMA’s way of making lemonade out of lemons.

I think that I would like to go to more markets but perhaps this time I will take the train.  Some cities I would like to visit are Prague, Vienna, Nuremberg and finally, back to Strasbourg.  What would you like to do and where would you like to visit?

Dusseldorf to Amsterdam

We had tickets for the one o’clock train to Amsterdam and again no reserved seats.  I was the nervous Nelly for this segment though I kept reassuring myself that it was okay if we didn’t sit together or even in the same car.  We would be getting on at a busy city and it would be after the train began in Cologne.

Since breakfast didn’t come with our room at the Radisson Blu in Dusseldorf we decided to go to the train station early to grab something to eat.  We went downstairs to check out and was shocked to see how low the line was to check out.  We couldn’t just leave because when we checked in there was a problem with their credit card machine in paying for our room.  So we waited and was pleasantly surprised that the line moved quickly.

Back to the tram stop and it tram was empty – I guess par for the course on a Sunday morning.  We walked around the train station in Dusseldorf and saw all delicious sandwiches that we could take with us on the train for our lunch.  I then spied a Dunkin Donuts stand and could not resist gett ing a few Bavarian creme filled donuts.  I mean, I was near Bavaria and that is my excuse and I’m sticking with it!

We met an American family who was living outside of Amsterdam and they reminded us we might have problems not having reserved seats.  Nevertheless, we went up to the tracks a little early, followed the overhead signs to see where the second class seats were.  My cruise mate was able to get on first and immediately there were two unreserved seats that she got.  I followed and was able to go a few rows up and put my suitcase in the space between two rows.

We took the train back to the Centraal Station in Amsterdam and from there took another train to Schiphol Airport where we would get a shuttle to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express.

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Centraal Station in Amsterdam

We seemed to wait about 45 minutes for our shuttle and that surprised us but it was extremely foggy out and that may have had something to do with it.  in fact, it was so foggy that they did close down the airport with no take offs.  I do not know about landings though /i would think those would be cancelled as well and all the trans Atlantic would have already landed.  If you want to literally be across the street from the airport, I suggest you stay at the Sheraton.  There was even an elevated walkway from the. airport to the Sheraton.  Sorry for the blurry picture, it was the best I could do.img_2121

Our hotel was further away than we thought and in a business area.  We only saw one restaurant in the area but when we checked with the young man checking us in, he gave us a list and suggested we walk into town.  He assured us it was safe.  We were up for it and it was probably about a 15 minute walk primarily along a major residential street.  We admired the Christmas decorations on the homes we passed and thought that it was a nice community.

We found what was described to us as a bar with pizza but it was so much more.  It was a delicious pizza restaurant that happened to have a bar inside.  We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner and beer. We had an appetizer and for the pizza that we shared it was a four cheese with truffle oil – yum.  There were so many for us to choose from that it was difficult.  We left filled and was once again happy that we walked back to the hotel on this lightly drizzling, foggy night so that we could walk off all that we ate. During dinner we were a bit reflective about the highs and lows of the past ten days.

The next morning we were up, had breakfast at the hotel and took the shuttle back to the airport for our flight on KLM.   Of course, we were there early and we felt it was a good decision.  We had to walk quite a distance to find where checked in and checked our luggage.  The lines were very long.  You know how they say when there is a choice to make whether to go left since it is usually shorter? Well, not this time.  I held my breath when my luggage was being weighed that it was wasn’t overweight and it wasn’t.  I think wearing lots of clothing helped me!

Since I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, I was received as a benefit a Priority Pass which allowed us access to several lounges at the airports.  We found the Aspire Lounge and checked in.  We enjoyed the hot and cold buffet of food, the drinks, nicer lounge chairs and bathrooms/showers.  We hung out here for about 90 minutes.  If you don’t have the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, contact me for all the benefits of which there are many, and I can refer you.  It is one of my go-to credit cards that make traveling much easier in many ways.

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Finally, not knowing each other very well, we felt we were good travel companions.  We had an honesty about us that is sometimes difficult to achieve with friends that you have had for a long time because you worry about hurt feelings.  We were able to work together and divide what needed to be done and trust each other.  We had similar views on public transportation – we liked it and was comfortable using it.  We both enjoyed talking with others and didn’t feel like we had to be with each other 24/7.  I would call this a successful trip.

Coming up – my final review on the Christmas market cruise.  I hope you continue to continue reading this blog.  I will not be posting any further updates to it on Cruise Critic so if you are enjoying it, I recommend that you subscribe.

Dusseldorf, Germany by Train, Tram and Foot – Christmas Market

Saturday morning we finished packing our “stuff” and said goodbye to our cozy room.  We went to the dining room where had our breakfast , said goodbye to staff and friends and then walked to the train station, about 5 minutes away.  Since it was early on a Saturday morning there was no traffic and no bicyclists to worry about.

Deciding to get to the train station early to make sure we knew which track our train would be arriving gave is a little too much time but we didn’t care.  We went up the escalator to the track and we began to have a few doubts.   We had second class tickets (non-reserved) and how would we know which cars  were second class?  How would we know which seats we could sit in since we didn’t book reserved seats.  I’ve got the answers for you.  When standing on the track look up.  On the electronic sign board they will have an electronic image of a train with letters above it and numbers in the train cars.  The letters above is where the train car will stop on the platform; the number inside the train will have a 1, or  2 for first or second class.  Once inside the train, and underneath the luggage racks, if there is nothing in electronic red letters, those seats are unreserved.  Many seats will have a destination and those have been reserved.  We had chosen to not purchase reserved seats as they cost about $30 more each way.  Since Amsterdam was the beginning of the route, we did not have a problem finding seats once we figured it all out.  As the train got more crowded as we traveled to Dusseldorf we began to rethink our choice of not having reserved seats for our return as we saw people standing in the aisle trying to push their luggage.   Dusseldorf would be after Cologne on our return and it was one of the larger stops on this route.  Like Scarlett O’Hara, we decided we wouldn’t think about it today, we would think about it tomorrow when we were leaving.

When we arrived at the train station in Dusseldorf we went to the train/bus office to buy the tram ticket to go to the hotel.  We made one small mistake at our stop – we didn’t get off.  The tram stopped but we thought it was at a light but it wasn’t – it was our stop that we saw as we kept going.   We decided that our problem was that the doors to the tram didn’t open.  What we needed to do to let the driver know we wanted to get off was push the big button by the door for it to open.  Luckily the next stop was about 75 feet away and we just walked to the hotel from there – the Radisson Blu.  Since my cruise mate had booked the hotel we were going to be given a standard room but when I pulled out my Radisson Rewards (formerly Club Carlson) gold loyalty card at the check in desk, we were upgraded to a business room which was larger.  Even though we were there for only one night and used to a small room, it felt wonderful.  The best part – each of us had a queen bed rather than a very small twin bed from the cruise.

Having these credit cards that give you status in a hotel is really worth it.  The ones I have are Radisson Rewards, IHG, and Marriott.  I did have SPG till the merger with Marriott. Hilton will also give you some status as well as Hyatt.  I plan on applying for the World of Hyatt card this spring since it will be 25 months since I closed my previous Hyatt card.

We spent very little time at the hotel and went to the tram stop where we were given help as to which tram to get on and which stop to get off.  Now we needed to figure out how to purchase tram tickets on the ticket machine at the stop.  After about four false starts, we were successful.

We got on the tram and went about five stops  to get to the market area.  Before we left the tram station, we looked around to get our bearings so we would know which side we needed to get back on and which tram would go near our hotel.  We kept getting ourselves confused and finally a young American student studying in Dusseldorf took pity on us and walked us down to look at the electronic sign board and told us what we needed to look for.  He was very helpful and personable and after we thanked him we found ourselves on the streets of Dusseldorf in all of its Christmas glory.

I think we were in the high end of the shopping district of Dusseldorf.  It was much busier here than we had seen the entire trip but then, it was Saturday afternoon and ten days till Christmas.  We passed by Prada, Dior, Chanel, Cartier and Burberry.

In the grassy area in the middle of the park separating  the north and south lanes of the Konigsallee, was a skating rink.  Along the sides were food vendors.  My friend got a big sausage in a hotdog roll and I , I got the best meal!  It was  cheese wheel fettuccine pasta.  Basically it was cooked fettuccine that was put in a hollowed out center section of a big wheel of parmesan cheese and the cook scraped some of the cheese into the pasta.  Some truffle oil was sprinkled on top and the chef  kept stirring the fettuccine around and around so it would pick up part of the parmesan and blend all the flavors together.  Truly a decadent fettuccine Alfredo dish.  It was so good I wanted to lick my plate.

We kept walking down and around corners finding different markets throughout the city.  We found a large ferris wheel at one of the markets that we had seen from the ship as we sailed through Dusseldorf on the Rhine on our way to Amsterdam.  We  found very few restrooms and went into a large department store.  The line was about 45 minutes long but what choice did we have?

Many of the vendor stalls we saw were very similar to what we had seen at other markets nevertheless, it was fun to look at what they were selling and be part of the experience.

The street decorations were similar to what we saw in other markets but only more of them as this was a large city. 

It quickly turned dark and then the city really shone bright and festive.  In the center of the park was a beautiful water feature with lights at the end that glowed as we walked along the sidewalk to get back to the underground station for our tram. 

Thanks to our student from earlier the afternoon, we found the correct tram going in the right direction and knew when to get off the tram to walk back to our hotel.  It was a long day beginning in Amsterdam leaving the ship, getting to the train station, finding our train, getting off and finding our hotel and then going to the markets in Dusseldorf and finally back on the tram to our hotel.

Tomorrow, we go back to Amsterdam, which will be our last night before heading back to the United States from our journey.

 

Arriving and Leaving Amsterdam – What we did and saw

Friday was our last full day on our boat.  We were still sailing on the Rhine in the morning and as we looked out at the countryside along the river we saw the fog rising up from the ground.  It looked a little ethereal.  There is definitely a different landscape look in Germany.  No mega homes, at least along the Rhine like you can find in the United States.  There were some beautiful homes along the river and we were told that they were purchased by many wealthy Americans and I could see why.  It just looked like a serene life, not much traffic, seemed like there was less hustle and bustle than what most of us American are used to.

We docked within very close proximity to Centraal Station, the main train station in Amsterdam.  We were happy about that since the next morning we were going to go to Dusseldorf and hoped to purchase our tickets sometime today at the station and it would make walking to the station on Saturday that much easier.

After lunch we again were divided into groups to take a bus tour of the city.  To be honest, the bus tour did not show what I think is the beauty of Amsterdam.  We were in some run down neighborhoods and I was glad that I had been to Amsterdam before because if this was my first visit, like it was my cruise mate’s, then I probably wouldn’t come back.

There was a little park that had a windmill so we went there and all had a photo op with the windmill.

Back onto the bus, driving around again and finally let off in an underground garage by the Van Gogh Museum and Rijk museums.  We had about 75 minutes to walk around and then we met again to walk to our canal cruise. 

Honestly, forty five minutes was not enough to go into one of the museums.  It almost felt like a waste of time that they built in.  Luckily they had some stalls selling items but mainly food and beer – similar to a Christmas market and we all walked around and around them.  

These stalls flanked a small skating rink which was fun watching  Some  skaters skated like they had never done it before and I’m sure some of them hadn’t.  

While walking around I was able to go into the combined gift shop for both the Rijk and VanGogh – they were near the meeting spot for our tour guide.  Paramount in my mind was the lack of space for anymore souvenirs – remember I had the reindeer hide from Strasbourg!

Everyone got to the meeting spot early.  We then walked to the canal cruise dock and by the time we got there it was already getting dusky – another reason to me why Amsterdam was not being shown in her best light.  Things I had remembered from before we didn’t see this time  like the large parking lot for only bicycles.  Speaking of bicyclists, there appeared to be fewer than when I was here before.  Of course, being winter and late afternoon could have a lot to do with it.

one of the signs I saw by the stalls

We went through several of the canals on the cruise.  We saw the houses along the Singel Canal that were slanting and crooked due to the rotting piling underneath the homes.  We also went near the Anne Frank house as well as a church with a beautiful steeple.  It wasn’t dark enough to see many of the lights yet it was dark enough that nothing was clear and sharp – just, in my opinion, a not very good time to take the tour.  I believe we could have gotten to Amsterdam earlier in the day, perhaps even in the morning from Cologne.  By car it is about 2 1/2  and if we left Cologne around 2:00 in the afternoon why couldn’t we have gotten to Amsterdam earlier so we could see everything during the day as well as having free time – which we didn’t until 5:00 ish.

Look closely and you can see the houses leaning.

We were disappointed in the day as we had purchased online at home tickets for the Ann Frank House for a 4:30 tour but if we had done the tour, we would have missed the canal cruise which my cruise mate didn’t want to miss and I don’t blame her.  The order for the afternoon was bus tour, free 75 minutes and then the canal cruise.  I wished the free time was at the end so we could have done it all and go to the Ann Frank House but sometimes you just have to make choices and can’t do it all.

The canal boat took us close to our ship.  Once off the ship we decided to walk to Centraal Station and get our tickets for Dusseldorf.  Now I have purchased many trains tickets in Europe from kiosks and never had any problems.  We walked inside the station and see a ticket office.  The manned counters are for local trains/buses only and we were international – going back into Germany.  I found a machine, punched in what I wanted, found the train to and from and tried to pay.  My credit card was declined even though I had been using it throughout the trip.  Luckily I also brought my Charles Schwab ATM card (no money conversion fees and no foreign transaction fees) and was able to use it.  We had a lot of problems with the ticket machine.  We found someone who works for the train company to help us and even he had problems.  The first machine would make our reservations, gave us a confirmation number but never let us actually print the ticket.  We had to cancel out, use the confirmation number and go to another machine.  When we tried the second machine to book my friend’s ticket, it wouldn’t let us do it.  It probably took us, with help, about 90 minutes to book and print our tickets.  The agent was really helpful, told us what track it would be on and pulled up on his phone the stops we would be making and had me take a picture of his phone with my phone.

Our last night we had plenty of time to say goodbye to those we met, exchanged email addresses or FB names for those we wanted to stay in contact with and packed our bags.  Now we were off for an adventure on our own – Dusseldorf!

 

Cologne or Koln

We arrived in Cologne in the early evening and some passengers chose to have their dinner in town as well as walking around. With temperatures around 30 degrees I chose to stay on board and participate in the Christmas activities.

A Christmas tree was brought into the lounge and we were given a box of ornaments to decorate it.  There were two other trees that others were adding to the decorations already on t.  We tried to have fun and sabotage the other trees but no one did it back.  One tree was all white and we would add bright pink ornaments OR put a banana in the tree.  No contest, just a fun activity.  We also, with the crew, sang Christmas carols.  Then, the guest of honor arrived – St Nicholas (Santa Claus) came by.  We all lined up to sit on his lap and receive a gift.  Some of the lap sitters had a LOT of fun on Santa’s lap.  IMG_1873

Up the next morning fortified with my daily oatmeal, juice and tea we walked outside to meet our tour guide.  We were divided for most of the trip into four different groups based on the color ticket you picked up on your way out.  We found that for the most part we were part of the blue group.  With our Whisper Boxes we then held the receiver up to the large lollipop sign that the guides held up high for us to follow.  By touching the receiver to the lollipop we were then on their frequency.

We docked in town so there was no need to have a bus take us to Cologne.  Due to all the changes in this cruise because of the water level we were told that we did not have scheduled a tour of the cathedral in Cologne.  That was a disappointment for us as on this cruise we did not have any tours of any cathedral.

We walked along the river and saw some very old buildings with the dates written on them.  Cologne was originally a Roman settlement and during some of the construction of the city post WW II, many Roman artifacts were found.  Most of Cologne was destroyed during WW II and a master plan was developed for the rebuilding of the city.  With most of the downtown area destroyed, it was easy to lay out a new plan for the city and wider streets for the automobile.img_1655

Wandering up and down some pedestrian streets we saw unique statues including one on the side of a building of a little boy pulling down his pants and “mooning” the church across the park.  Germany was once Catholic but with the reformation many chose the Protestant denomination.  This little boy was protesting something that the church had done.

We walked past an excavation site where they were going to build  however, once they were digging Roman artifacts were found.  They were taken to the Roman Germanic  museum that housed many of these artifacts.  We were able to look into the windows at the museum and could go back on our own if we wanted to.

Before you knew it we were at the Cologne Cathedral.  Due to the fact that there were many changes to our itinerary, the ship somehow lost our reservation to tour the cathedral.  It was suggested by our tour guide that we go in before noon as a service would be happening then.  

We were at the end of the tour and followed out tour guide’s recommendation and visited the cathedral.  I was somewhat upset at how loudly people were talking in the church.  It is a church and a place for reverence.  I chose not to take any pictures inside the church but it was beautiful.  This church was begun in 1248 and continued being built until around 1478 when it was stopped for about three hundred years.  Building began again in 1880.  It is the largest Gothic church in northern Europe.  Unfortunately during World War II the church was hit fourteen times yet it still stood.

Across the street from the cathedral we decided to go into a small restaurant, Cafe Reichard,  to get something warm/hot to drink and use the rest rooms.  Once we sat down we decided we  wanted more and ordered a light lunch.  The soup was absolutely delicious and so was the hot tea.  If you are in Europe and looking for restrooms, always look for the stairs and go down.  Make sure you bring a 50 cent euro piece for admission.

Our tour guide told us about a miniature tourist train that went around the city to four of the eight Christmas markets in Cologne.  It was at the corner where the cafe was. While we waited we looked across the street and saw a fun and unique building.

When the train arrived we boarded quickly and sat down.  Turns out it wasn’t free as we thought but was 10 euros. It was well worth it to be taken to the markets.

We paid and went to our first Christmas market, then our second which was on the river, our third which seemed very popular with the after work crowd and then back again to where we began, the market by the Cathedral.  What the markets carried was very similar as were the prices but there were still somethings that were very unique.


A bar at the market by the river with Santa on the roof

Walking back to the ship we were a little sad as we knew this was our last Christmas market on the cruise.  We knew that the next day we would be in Amsterdam and they didn’t have any while we were there.  We did have our collection of gluhwein mugs as a wonderful souvenir of the Christmas markets.

My cruise mate and I did have another city to look forward to – after the cruise we were going to go to Dusseldorf and was excited about that.

Rudesheim, Germany by Day

Once again the little train was waiting for us as we stepped off the AMAPrima.  We had several options for this morning but we decided to stay in Rudesheim for our tour of Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Museum.  This is a stop for almost all river cruises and one most people would have overlooked on their own.  The building isn’t very large and you can do the tour in about 45 minutes to an hour.

The museum is housed in an old fifteenth century historic building in Rudesheim around the corner from the main street.  This museum was founded by Siegfried Wendel who began collecting and restoring these old mechanical musical instruments.  Some of these instruments were one of a kind and you will not see it anywhere in the world.

Other instruments were one of only several hundred.  People would donate to Siegfried old instruments for him to restore.  For those that he could not restore he saved them so he could use parts from those instruments to restore other instruments that could be salvaged For those instruments, Siegfried was able to take parts and pieces from those that would not be restored and put them in the ones that could be restored.  These mechanical musical instruments were used to entertain people in the 19th century.  You would see these at World Fairs of this time.

As we were taken around by our period dressed tour guide she explained some of these instruments and was able to have a few played for us.  Who doesn’t remember the organ grinder?  Obviously there was no live monkey but we did have the organ and we could take turns “grinding”.  One of their prized possessions is a machine that is a combination of a piano and six violins.  The one that drew me in was somewhat grotesque – it was a machine that had lots of puppets in it and some of those puppets were little monkeys with what appeared to be real teeth in their mouth.  I was mesmerized but repulsed at the same time.There were about 350 mechanical instruments from the small music boxes to these large mechanical instruments.

When the tour ended we were given tickets to ride the gondola up to the a famous statue and a beautiful view of the river.  If you would like to listen to some of the music these machine played, click here and here. We were riding over the vineyards and if it had been earlier in the fall, we would have seen the grapes and the workers harvesting these grapes for the vineyards.  We gathered at the top with our tour guide and began our walk but for us it was too much German history that we were unfamiliar with.  We said goodbye to our group and took the gondola back down and since it was almost 11:00, we decided it was time to stroll through the Christmas market.

If you go on a Christmas Market river cruise, you might want to make your purchases here in Rudesheim.  Items that I had seen at other markets, were here as well but they were less expensive.  Perhaps because it was early in the day as far as the market is concerned, it was not very crowded.  It was a very pleasant experience walking around here. I thoroughly enjoyed this market and other than being in Strasbourg, this was my favorite market.   There was a restaurant where the entrance was lined with about forty Christmas trees.  Christmas trees were all over the place, even leaning against a store on the outside.  We found a Christmas trees made out of crates – you could make a tree out of anything!

We were given the option of walking back to the ship or going to the meeting place to catch “the train”.  My travel mate took the train, I walked back.  The night before in the dark I thought it was going to be a long walk home but in the light of day, it wasn’t.  All I had to do was point my feet downhill and walk to the river and then take a left.

We left around 1:00 in the afternoon so we could cruise the Rhine Gorge while it was still daylight – remember sunset happened around 4:30.  This is the section of the Rhine where there are many castles and the famed Lorelei Rock.

Legend has it a siren was sitting on the rock, combing her golden hair and sailors would be so distracted by her beauty that they crashed into the rock.  Here is a song about Lorelei sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

Rudesheim, Germany by Night

We left Heidelberg and sailed toward Rudesheim, Germany.  After dinner we had a choice of two excursions.  We could go into a wine cellar and have a sampling of some of the fine Reisling wines grown in this region OR we could go to a little restaurant and sample the famed Rudesheim coffee.

You might ask “what is Rudesheim coffee” and I have the answer for you.  It is coffee with brandy, lit on fire and then whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles on top,  though where I am from they are called jimmies. (PS virtual points if you can tell where I am from by the word jimmies – if you know me, please don’t spoil it).

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All Aboard!

Guess which one I chose?  Yep, the wine tasting.  After we finished our dinner on the ship, we put our jackets on and headed for the gangplank.  There, waiting for us on the other side, was a train that would take us near where we were going.

We walked to the wine tasting cave while the other group walked to the restaurant for the coffee.  The wine cave is all that I thought it would be as we walked down the stone steps into the cave.

There were tables with benches that we sat down on and in front of us was a small glass, the size of two shots glasses.  Our host reminded me of the late Robin Williams.  He spoke like him and looked a little bit like him but more importantly he had his sense of humor.  He seemed to have his finger on American foibles and that gave him fodder for humor. We all laughed quite a bit that evening.

We began with a dry Reisling, then a semi-dry and finally my favorite, a sweet.  He told us about ice wines and if they are truly ice wines they cost in the range of a hundred dollars for a bottle about half the size of regular wine bottles.  I think I would really like ice wines but at that price I’m not sure if I will ever get to sample one.  If you wanted to purchase some local wine, our host would certainly sell it to you. I have brought wine home from other countries using these wine skins from Amazon

I never had any bottles of wine broken.  I  made sure that they were secure in the suitcase and wouldn’t move around much.

As a side note, our son  purchased a case of wine from South Africa and checked it as luggage when returning to the US.  When arriving back in the US, he paid the customs tax on it since he was over the tax free amount.  The taxes were not much.  I think we all assume that custom taxes are very high but they really are not!  I believe, and do not hold this as gospel truth, that the duty tax is 3% of your purchase price so for some wines that he purchased at $17 USD he would pay that price plus 3%, much less than the $45 it is retailing for in the US.

Back to Rudesheim, since we were docked overnight in Rudesheim, rather than taking the train back, you could stay in the city.  Our cruise director knew of some restaurants and bars that would be fun.  HE also thought some of the Christmas markets might still be open.

A number of people did decide to stay and then walk back to the boat.  When we took the train up to the wine tasting, it seemed like a long ride – maybe about 15 minutes of weaving in and out of the streets but we were told that the walk back was much quicker and just to point your feet downhill.  We chose to go back to the boat.  I think we were a little concerned about roaming around at night trying to find the ship.  Hearing stories the next day, I’m sure some of the passengers on this ship closed several bars and had a great time.

For those wondering, here is the recipe for Rudesheim Coffee:

Coffee drink  with Asbach Uralt brandy and topped with vanilla whipped cream and grated chocolate.
Servings:
INGREDIENTS
3 cubes sugar
1-2 parts Asbach Uralt Brandy
hot coffee
vanilla whipped cream
grated chocolate
INSTRUCTIONS
Place cubes of sugar in a warm coffee cup
Add Asbach Uralt Brandy, set aflame. Stir and allow to burn 1 minute.
Fill up with hot coffee to within an inch of top of cup. Stir well.
Cover with layer of whipped cream with vanilla, and sprinkle with grated chocolate. 

Next up, our day in Rudesheim.

How I Stayed Warm during Winter Travel

One of my concerns when I chose to go on a December Christmas Market cruise was being able to stay warm.  Being comfortable with the weather is paramount for me and it does determine to some degree, how much I enjoy the trip.

Last February I went on a southern South America cruise and knew that it could be cold.  I try to take a minimum amount of luggage with me and that is a challenge when you are bringing bulky heavy, warm clothing.  I’ll talk about some of the items I brought with me and if you are interested, you can click on the underlined links.  I do not receive anything for recommending what I use.

I purchased from LL Bean an ultra weight down jacket that could be packed in its own pocket.  Since it did pack in its own pocket, I also used it on the airplane as a pillow for the overnight flight!  It kept me nice and warm, had sufficient pockets for me to shove stuff into.

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From LLBean again, I purchased a wool sweater  which was warm.screen shot 2019-01-10 at 11.11.01 am

Concerned that it would be too itchy for me, I also bought a couple of turtlenecks from my local WalMart.  I’m generally not a WalMart supporter but I live in a small rural city and to be honest, it is the only place in my city I could purchase that item.  The other reason was I knew that it would be inexpensive and if my suitcase became too full on the way home, I would not feel too bad leaving the turtleneck behind.  Continuing on, underneath that I wore a camisole.  I did bring two other sweaters with me but the wool one was the one I wore the most.  In hindsight, I just needed two sweaters.

For the lower half of my body I purchased a pair of fleece lined leggings, again at WalMart to wear underneath my pants.  I brought one pair of leggings with me on the trip.  I think the price was 2 pair for about $15 and again, if I needed space coming home i could discard a pair.  They were really the secret to staying warm for me and I would highly recommend them if you are going to be in cold weather.

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I brought three pairs of pants with me – one pair of jeans and two pairs of pants.  If you are wearing fleece under your pants, try them on at home to make sure you can get your pants up with the leggings on underneath.  I did have to stretch out my jeans and since they had some spandex in them it was easier than not.  With the regular pants, I could wear thinner tops at dinner since I wasn’t as concerned about staying warm on the ship.

I did not purchase boots or shoes for the trip and used what I had at home.  I had a pair of thick soled shoes that were perfect.  They were similar to these.

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To keep my feet warm in these shoes I relied on SmartWool socks.  My feet are never itchy in these socks and they keep my feet warm and dryscreen shot 2019-01-10 at 11.23.04 am

A wool hat kept me toasty.  I would suggest getting one that has a fleece band instead around the part that goes around your forehead.  I don’t like wool on my forehead.

I had somewhat of a fail for keeping my hands warm.  I did bring handwarmers with me but they were too large for the leather gloves I brought.  I also brought wool mittens but that didn’t work either.  I had to keep taking them off to take photos.  My travel mate wore ski gloves and she was warm so that is a possibility for next time.

Additionally, I brought a knitted scarf to wear around my neck and over my jacket.  It was particularly useful when it was a little breezey.  This scarf was purchased at TJMaxx and was a wool blend.  Didn’t use it often but I had it if I needed it.

For possibility of rain, I purchased a rain poncho from the Sporting Goods department in WalMart.  I didn’t want one of the very thin ones in the event it rained more than one day.  I found one that seemed a little heavier that seemed to fit the bill.  I wanted a poncho so I could protect my backpack that I wore as well as me!  I did use it one day, was able to refold it and keep it with me till I left and then, like some excess clothes I had, I left it behind.  I deliberately decided not to bring an umbrella hating the feeling of rain running down my arms.

Instead of a purse, I used a hydration backpack.  Mine has a separate compartment in the back (the part of the backpack that is next to your back) where the bladder for the water goes.  Instead of the bladder, that is where I kept my important documents and money think that I would feel if someone was unzipping something that was against my bag – it seemed a little awkward for them to do it.  Not being totally foolish, I did separate my money and put some, as well as an additional credit card and ATM card, elsewhere.

What are your tips for staying warm?

Heidelberg, Germany – our 1st German market

We left beautiful Strasbourg and set sail for Heidelberg, Germany.  The day was overcast and cool/cold depending on how cold you like it.  Once again, if you dress for the weather you’ll be fine.  For us, this was not the time to look fashionable but rather dress for warmth.  We took a bus from the  port up to the top of the hill over looking the Neckar River and the tile roofs on the buildings and homes below us.  I had always thought that the orange terra cotta tile roofs were found in hot, humid areas and not in European countries.  That’s what is so great about traveling – the knowledge you pick up!  The castle dominates the landscape.

Our tour guide was so smart and knowledgeable that we thought he was a little arrogant and obnoxious.

The buildings on the grounds of the castle are beautiful to look at even though they are more ruins than anything else.I think back to when these buildings were built and the sculptures were made and marvel at what they were able to do without modern machinery. Are you sometimes in awe at what was made centuries ago like I am?

We were taken into the lower level of one of the buildings where they had a brewery and a keg that held 60,000 gallons of beer! We were also told a tale of why there is a footprint in one of the stone bricks on the ground. Whether it is true or nor we will never know.

Afterwards we took the funicular down to the street level where we were able to go to the Christmas market which had just opened at 11:00 AM, like all the other markets we had been to.  This town was a little different in that it had a small skating rink where you could rent skates and have a spin on the ice.  At this market is where I had the best crepe that I had during the entire trip – a Grand Marnier crepe with sugar.  It was hot and steamy and had puffed up.  Eating that warmed my insides, of course I ate it with my mug of gluhwein.  What was not to like?

We enjoyed watching a preschool group walking around with their teachers.  The children were so cute and they all wore brightly color vests over the coats so they were quite visible.

There were some public restrooms in a trailer that were very clean and cost about .50 euros.  I don’t mind paying money for a clean restroom.  It seems to me that many European cities of a certain size have a carousel in the center of time because I have seen so many of them.

We met our group at 12:30 to walk to the bus for our return to the ship.  In the evening we would go on a wine tasting in Rudesheim and we were not going to miss that.

During the afternoon cruise, some took naps, some stayed in the lounge to meet gather and snack.  I think I sat in the lounge and fell asleep.  Vacationing is hard work and tiring! We wanted to be well rested since we had an evening tour!

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Strasbourg, France – the Oldest Christmas Market in France

I had been to Strasbourg previously and fell in love with it.  That is why when the cruise line was going to alter our Christmas market cruise because of the low water levels in the Rhine, I was most disappointed.  I needed to go back to the city that I fell in love with.  You may not know it but Strasbourg is like a mini Venice with canals and canal boats for you to view the city.  When I was there previously there were flowers galore, window boxes on many windows adding color to this beautiful, old city.  I loved going into the French patisseries for chocolate croissants – I mean, could anything be better than that?

Before we docked near Strasbourg we had a few choices to make.  We could go into Strasbourg and do the city tour and then on our own go into the Cathedral to see the Astronomical Clock and then take the 12:40 shuttle back to the ship for lunch and then gingerbread decorating OR we could stay longer and take the 2:40 shuttle back to the ship.  For both of these options we could then go to Gengenbach at 4 PM to see their City Hall decorated as an Advent calendar since it has 24 windows.  Our cruise director did not know what the theme was.  The third option was that we could stay in Strasbourg and take another shuttle back to the ship with the last one leaving at 5:40.  I decided that Strasbourg  was important enough for me to stay there as long as I could.  My cruise mate decided that she wanted to do both.

We got on our buses and off we went to drive around Strasbourg while listening to our guide talk about the city especially how old some of the buildings were – older than when settlers came to Jamestown in 1607!

unadjustednonraw_thumb_4aec qeez7lyfq1kxypjvwnis%g_thumb_4af1It was a beautiful day though cold and crisp.  We walked past some of the markets, stores where he recommended fresh gingerbread cookies.  We saw a section where Finland was invited to have s special display and stalls.  We went by where the Finns were smoking fresh salmon.  When we finished our tour he showed us where we would meet a guide who would walk us to where the shuttle bus was parked.  He gave us tickets to get into the cathedral, bypassing the line to view the Astronomical Clock.

I had seen it before on another cruise/tour and our guide at that time explained everything about the clock.  This time it was, for me, disappointing.  First of all there was scaffolding around and over the clock.  We had no tour guide explaining it although there was a screen with a video that we could not see if we were standing in front of the clock.  Although we were there at noon and there was some activity on the clock, it was a let down for me.  What brought it to life before was the exceptional tour guide.  unadjustednonraw_thumb_4b04Additionally, this time, probably because we were on a Christmas cruise and didn’t have time, we did not get a canal cruise.  In my mind, the entire day should have been spent in Strasbourg.  Of course, others had the option of not going to Gengenbach but really, you want to do it all.

I found two couples from our cruise who let me join them for the day.  They were so friendly and inclusive and I appreciated it.  After the disappointing cathedral experience we decided we need to sit down since we had stood on hard stone floors in the church for about 45 minutes.  We found a little cafe where we could get coffee or hot chocolate for me.  Once sufficiently warm up we walked around some more.  We found the restaurant that our tour guide had recommended for lunch.  It was typical French food and it was delicious.  Wondering around we just admired the city, the store decorations and several of the markets we visited.

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unadjustednonraw_thumb_4af7unadjustednonraw_thumb_4abdunadjustednonraw_thumb_4a86With sunset occurring around 4:30 PM, we started back to the meeting place when I spied the Finnish stalls at the market.  What to my wondering eye should appear?  A stand with fur hides and these were not any regular kind of hides like sheepskin or cow but rather (remember this is a stand from Finland) but reindeer hides.  They were beautiful, soft and very unique.  I was told this was what was leftover after the animal was used for food for the people of Lapland.  Hoping that the price would persuade me not to purchase one, it did the opposite – they were so reasonably priced.  The hide is now on one of my floors and it is so soft and warm these winter nights.

With paperwork in hand and the hide nicely wrapped up we continued our walk down the beautifully lit up and decorated streets in Strasbourg.  Each street seemed to have different decorations and lights going across the streets.  It was magical.  At one point looking down a street we saw the cathedral and it front were angels lit up blowing their horns at the cathedral.  unadjustednonraw_thumb_4aacunadjustednonraw_thumb_4ac8unadjustednonraw_thumb_4abcunadjustednonraw_thumb_4ad1unadjustednonraw_thumb_4ab5unadjustednonraw_thumb_4a88unadjustednonraw_thumb_4ad8unadjustednonraw_thumb_4a95

I’m very glad that I stayed to see the city all lit up as all the other markets we saw were int he daylight.unadjustednonraw_thumb_4aaa

The day after we were in Strasbourg is when the shootings at the Christmas market happened.  It feels so strange to know that we were there 24 hours before and that but for the grace of God, we could have been involved in the shootings.  I will not let this stop me from traveling – it can and it does happen anywhere.  I don’t avoid Washington DC, I don’t avoid Charleston, SC; Las Vegas, NV and the many other locations of shootings in our country.  This will not stop me.

 

Riquewihr, France – Our First Christmas Market

Though we docked in Germany, our first Christmas market was in a little quaint village in France.  We did have three other options for our first tour, one being in Freiburg, Germany; the second a bicycle tour in Breisach, Germany and the third was an excursion to the Black Forest.  I was anxious to begin my tour of the markets so without hesitancy I signed up for this tour.

With our Whisper Vox around our neck, our money safely put away, we left around 9:00 for Riquewihr.  A Whisper Vox is a little receiver and earbuds that allows you to listen to your guide without hovering around the guide trying to listen to their narrative.  I think these are the best thing for tours.

It was lovely driving through the countryside.  My travel friend had never been to Europe before and she was interested in how the landscape of houses looked in comparison to our area.  This are of France is in the Alsace region and had gone back and forth between being part of France and part of Germany.  Most people, because of this speak both French and German.  There are many vineyards in this part of France

We arrived in Riquewihr and departed the bus.  Our local tour guide walked around with us explaining about the area, this village as well as answering any questions we might have.  The main street was cobblestone and many of the buildings of this main street were half made of timber.  Near the back of this main street village was the medieval wall around the city.  She showed us some of the older buildings in Riquewihr and some of them were older than our country!  We all took in the decorations on the buildings, the scent of the gluhwein and all the goodies that we could purchase.  We had to remember that this was our first Christmas market and we needed to pace ourselves to be able to have room in our suitcase to bring home what we purchased.

I wandered around, drank my first rouge gluhwein, bought some nougat and a few seasonal cookies.  The day began with sun and many people here.  It was a Sunday and two weeks before Christmas.  People came from all over to go to this market due to the quaintness of this market and village.  It was crowded.

  At the beginning of the tour, it was sunny and cool but it turned into a rainy day.  Luckily for me I had purchased at WalMart in their sporting goods department one of their thicker rain ponchos I could put in my backpack.  I was able to find a spot to get it out and out it on over me and my backpack.  

I think that most of us were ready to leave before the time was up due to the small size of the market, the crowds and the rain.  It was a nice introduction to the markets on this cruise.

AMAPrima on the Rhine – our Journey Begins

After taking the tram to the closest location to the ship, we had about a 5 minute walk.  When we arrived at the dock, we  found that we were one of the first guests to board. We booked a room on the first level, known affectionately as the Aquarium Class since most of the room is below the water.  There are large windows on the wall near the ceiling.  Since we thought we would be off the ship most of the day and that it would be winter with no need to open the French balcony.  It was a fine choice for us as well as being less expensive.  We were surprised when we were led to our room on the second level with a French balcony.  Enough people had cancelled this trip when given the chance the week before cruising when we were told we would NOT be sailing on the Rhine.  The cruise line decided to upgrade those on the first floor to the second and third floors and keep the first floor empty.  Now we had a balcony and we did enjoy looking out it though sunrise was late, around 8:27 AM and sunset was early around 4:26 PM.

Since this was a Christmas cruise, the ship was all decked out in decorations.  There was a lighted wreath on all staterooms.  In the reception/lobby area, there was a large Christmas as well as two other ones in the lounge area.  On top of all the windows in the lounge area was garland with ornaments hanging down.

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_49bdThe first night we were all introducing ourselves, finding out where we were from and if we had cruised before.  Of course one of the main topics of conversation had to do with the cancellation then the reinstatement of our itinerary.  Many others felt the same way I did – we were glad to be going but did not like all the changes.  We were putting it behind us and moving forward to begin this cruise that we were excited about.

Before dinner our cruise director, whose job is taking care of us off the cruise, introduced himself and gave us an overview of the week.  Unfortunately for us, he was a first year cruise director and because of the water levels had not been down to this part of the Rhine – he was a newbie like many of us.  This was the first time in 3 1/2 months that the Prima had been in Basel due to the low water levels.  He was very confusing at first and none of us knew what our options were or what he was saying.  Many went to him after his talk to get a one on one with him.  He was a very nice person, just inexperienced and not clear in his presentations.

After listening to the Cruise Director we all left to go downstairs for dinner.  There is one dining time on a river cruise and you can sit wherever you want.  We always seemed to gravitate to a table of six so we could meet other people.  Wine and beer were complimentary and they were very generous with the pours.  We had appetizers, soups, entrees and dessert. Thankfully the size of the courses were modest thought you could ask for more if you wanted.

The sundeck of this ship was lovely though very few of us went up and out due to the temperatures and at times the breeze/wind.  There is also a  heated small pool with bar service on the sun deck.  We used this quite a bit when we were on her on another river cruise.

Keeping with the Christmas theme, we were told one evening that we needed to put our shoe outside our door in the hallway in case St. Nicholas should come to visit.  We awoke the next morning to a chocolate Santa in our shoe.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4b16

Another evening we had a carol sing in the lounge and a surprise visit from the big man himself, Santa.  We took turns sitting on Santa’s lap and getting a gift – one that I had looked at in some of the markets.

IMG_1873Another night we decorated a couple of the Christmas trees as well as having a game of finding the pickle ornament (hint – it was not on any of the trees).  The cruise line and staff did a great job of making this a very festive time for all of us.

Though it can be a difficult time to be away just prior to a major holiday it forced me to be more organized by having my gifts purchased and wrapped.  Being in Europe with all the holiday decorations and a holiday spirit without all the stress and crowding that I feel here was such a wonderful change of pace.  A word of advice – try it, you might like it.

 

Basel, Switzerland – Pre Cruise visit

I have a cardinal rule of cruising and it has nothing to do with a cruise.  I will never fly into a city the day that any cruise is beginning – you just never know what can go wrong.  Also, flying in at least one day before gives you a chance at getting over jetlag.  Following that philosophy my friend and I flew into Basel the day before the cruise was to begin.

We booked our flights with the cruise line – something I never do but their rates were so good.  We had a choice of Delta or KLM and we chose KLM for two very important reasons – EU261.  That’s the EU regulation that protects airline passengers for delay – any delay other than extraordinary circumstances.  I know that weather is a non-covered reason.  Basically if you have a delay of mechanical, etc and are on a European airline flying into Europe you are covered/  The amount depends on the distance you are flying and how long your delay is.  The maximum that you can collect is 600€, even on an award ticket!  The other reason is that European airlines, or for that matter, almost any airline other than American airlines, have better food and nicer/friendlier flight attendants.

We upgraded ourselves with points that I transferred over from one of my Chase credit cards that gives Ultimate Reward points to Premium Economy and that gave us a little bit more room and something I would suggest.  Arriving in Amsterdam we had about a two hour layover.  We then took a regional flight to an airport near Basel, Switzerland.  My trusty travel agent booked us at the Hotel Spalentor, a lovely boutique hotel.  When I wrote to the hotel prior to our arrival inquiring how to get there from the airport, they told me that our confirmation letter was our bus passes.  They gave us easy directions on how to get there.  Luckily my friend had no problem using public transportation.  We went three stops to the train station and changed to another bus, went three more stops and there was our hotel.

Hotel Spalentor, Basel
Across the street from our hotel and where we got on and off the tram.

It was a small, boutique hotel with a large room at least based on European standards.  There was a little bar area as well as a sitting area in the lobby.  The hotel had a very clean exercise room and a game room.  Breakfast was a delicious buffet of hot and cold items.  The staff was incredibly helpful to us particularly in mapping our route to the riverboat.  I would highly recommend this hotel particularly if you are going on a river cruise.  If you are not going on a river cruise, I would still highly recommend it for the location, the size of the room, the buffet and the staff.  Our room also came with a public transportation card that we actually used going to the markets and the ship the next day.  Since I did not use points to book this hotel I made sure that I used the right card for me to pay for it – I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card which gives me three times points for travel and staying in a hotel is travel!

Waiting for our room to get ready, we walked around the area and went to an ATM machine to get a few Swiss francs for the Christmas markets we would be visiting that evening.  Some vendors, we had been told, would only take francs while others would take euros.

Around 5:30 PM we met a family friend at our hotel and took the tram to one of the Christmas markets. As I mentioned earlier, the tram was across the street from our hotel in a beautiful area in front of  “The Gates”.   As we got close on the tram, I could see the storefronts and buildings decorated in bright white twinkling lights, displays in their windows that would put New York windows to shame.  It was festive, bright and very inviting.


One of the store window displays

One of the stores we passed on the tram near the market
Sheepskin blankets to sit on in this enclosed outdoor, temporary restaurant

It was exciting to see in person the lighted pyramids, stalls/temporary restaurants with Swiss raclette cheese melted over potatoes or bread with pickled onions and cornichons. Do you ever get the feeling when you are traveling that you are living your dream?  I certainly felt that way and everything that I thought I would see, I see.  It was like walking in the middle of my technicolor dream. We saw stalls with homemade cookies, gingerbreads, candies, wooden figures, lots of ornaments and cardstock paper stars with a light on a cable in them.


Bought two of these stars to bring home.

I was officially in heaven and overwhelmed with all we saw.  This almost seemed like we were at the county fair with all the great food and some rides for the children.


A miniature ferris wheel for the children

Adults were standing around tall tables drinking their gluhwein and talking with each other after a day at work nibbling on appetizers.  Another market was within a 10 minute walk and we went there as well.  This one was in the main square and had a kinder area for little rides for children.  Walking around we even saw two animated elk above a food stall.  The last time I saw something like this was in Disney World in the Country Bear Jamboree show.

We are glad that we went to this market as this was the location where we would meet our tour guide the next morning.  My heart and my eyes, not to mention my stomach were full from all we had done that day. Neither one of us had problems sleeping.  We were now excited about our week visiting different Christmas markets and seeing the landscape around the Rhine River Valley.

Since we couldn’t get to our cruise ship before 3 PM, I had arranged a Chocolate Tour in Basel.  I needed to find out who had the better chocolate – Switzerland or Belgium.  We booked this tour on AirBnB in their Experience tab.  I had recently learned about these experiences on AirBnB done by local people.  Now who could resist a chocolate tour?  Certainly not us.  To get to these experiences just log into AirBnB and in the bar for the city type in the city you will be in .  The drop down menu will show homes, restaurants and experiences it will show “homes”, “experiences” and “restaurants”.  Click on experiences and then begin looking at all that is offered where you are.

We booked a three hour tour with Stephanie and we were excited.  We had great online communication with her, we exchanged phone numbers in case we got lost in finding the meeting spot.  Since we were at this location the night before for the Christmas market we had no problem walking there.  We could have taken the tram but it really was only about a 20 minute walk and it felt refreshing.  We walked to five different chocolatiers and had samples everywhere we went.  Our first spot, Xocolati,  was similar to a  Fair Trade chocolate store that made the best hot chocolate.  They must have had about 30 choices with many different flavors, some I would have never put together.  It was fun with each of us ordering a different drink.

unadjustednonraw_thumb_4d38 Our next stop was at Confiserie-Schiesser and after looking at the chocolate through the glass at the counter, we went upstairs to what I could call a little tea room for samples.  There was one sample that was filled a raspberry liquor which although strong was delicious.  This chocolatier was directly across the street from Markplatz which has a farmers market every Saturday and it was in full force the day that we were there with many live Christmas decorations (wreaths, trees, flowers) as well as fruit and vegetables.  The city hall was there as well.unadjustednonraw_thumb_4d3a

p1070611Aas we walked from shop to shop we couldn’t help notice how beautifully decorated the shop windows were.  More of a traditional view of Santa than anything modern. unadjustednonraw_thumb_4d40

The other three were very nice but these were my two favorites.  To get to the final shop, we had to take a wooden ferry boat across the Rhine River.  As we were on the ferry boat we saw Santas kayaking on the Rhine.  unadjustednonraw_thumb_4d49This last shop reminded me of a small coffee shop.  It was closed but Stephanie had the key and showed us the seed pod that the cacao grows in.  We sat and listened to her.  Stephanie answered any questions we had about anything.  Since it was  just the two of us on this tour we were able to get to know Stephanie, and get, what I fell was a personalized tour.  At we left Stephanie gave us a goodie bag with different chocolates in it.  I would highly recommend this tour. If you are interested in this walking tour eating chocolates with Stephanie and learning all about it, you can contact her at xocotours@gmail.com.

As we were walking back to the hotel, we even saw a little bar on a “food truck” on the street in Basel.

Finally, to add to my collection of photographs of items hanging above the sidewalks, here is Basel’s version of umbrella hanging over us.

We made it back to the hotel, checked out and with the directions from the front desk, we were able to take the tram to the dock for our ship.

We had been in Basel for about 27 hours and enjoyed every second.  It was fun traveling with someone who had no fears or concerns about walking around at night, taking public transportation and had an adventuresome spirit.

 

 

River Cruising During a Drought in Europe

I love both ocean cruising and river cruising.  Unpacking once is very appealing to me.  With ocean cruising you do make an impact in the port cities you visit particularly if there are more than one ship in port.  With river cruising, typically there are only about 150 people or so on a ship so your impact is much less and you can blend in easier in your ports. Another way that a river cruise is different from an ocean cruise is that water levels DO make difference.  The rivers can be too high to allow sailing under bridges.  Conversely, rivers can be too low to allow sailing on the rivers.  In these cases, your river cruise can change into a bus tour through Europe or even a ship swap – which I will explain in this post.

I have been checking travel experiences and destinations off my bucket list for a few years now.  One that I was particularly excited about was visiting the Christmas markets in Europe.  I could picture myself in a yellow bathed glow of the lights, holding a mug of gluhwein in my hand, admiring the handmade items in all the stalls and streets and Christmas trees all lit up.    This year it came true.  I invited a woman that I didn’t know very well or had seen in decades to travel with me but on I thought she would be a good travel companion.  Blogger Hubby had no desire to go to Europe to shop although it was so much more than that.  She readily agreed when I proposed this trip and before you knew it, we were making plans together, and sharing all the details that make up a trip like this.

We booked again on AMAWaterways since I had such great experiences with them in the past.  Our trip was scheduled to leave Basel, Switzerland on December 8th and arrive in Amsterdam on December 15th.  We added an extra day in Basel prior to the cruise and two extra days in Amsterdam afterwards thinking we’d get out into the countryside of Delft, Gouda and see windmills.

Our original scheduled cruise

Trouble seemed to be looming around the the beginning of November as I read on the “River Cruising” thread on CruiseCritic.com that Europe, and particularly the Rhine Valley was in the throes of a major drought and the river was at historic lows.  It was so low that marine traffic, for the most part, was stopped around the Rhine Gorge area.  Cruise lines were having to do ship swaps – where one ship  goes as far upstream as you can and you meet your sister ship which could only go as far downstream.  You pack your bags and they are then transported to the other ship for your to continue your cruise.  Ship swapping is never desirable but at least you get most of your advertised cruise and the inconvenience of having to pack and unpack again.  Other cruise lines were doing motor coach trips from the boat and that is no fun when you are expecting a river boat cruise and docking near the city you are visiting.  Driving takes some time away from your city.

I kept reading the posts from a contributor who lives in Germany and he kept us all updated with river levels and the weather.   Things were not getting better.  Lots of people who were counting down to their cruise was complaining about ship swap, some cruise lines cancelling, some had entirely different cruises than what was booked.  I wasn’t getting nervous until the middle of November.  I just wanted to know that AMA had a plan.  They never wrote to us as other cruise lines had but they were always receptive when I would call.  Of course, they kept saying things could change last minute but I was skeptical.  The water levels in some spots was only 29 cm!  Our ship had no sister ship to swap with.  I called AMAWaterways several times to see what would be happening with my sailing on the Prima.  Of course I got the “we are monitoring the situation” which wasn’t good enough for me.  I had read on CruiseCritic.com from past passengers that compensation would be decided AFTER the cruise.

After several telephone calls and writing on their Facebook page, which I don’t think they cared for, I found out that if our cruise was going to be  a substantial deviation from what we booked we could either cancel and get all of our money back and no penalty OR we could go on the altered cruise AND receive a credit for the full amount that we paid for the cruise applied to another cruise in three years time.  The altered cruise would be the Tulip cruise but without the tulips – we would be cruising through Belgium and the Netherlands.  This was not public information but shared with me because I felt like I needed more information.

Ten days before our cruise all of us passengers on this sailing received our first communication from AMAWaterways stating that we were “confirmed” that we would not be sailing on the Rhine and that we had the two options I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  I feel that what they offered was very fair.  Some cruise lines just cancelled and those who independently purchased their airfare were scrambling for something else to do.  Others were very upset when some cruise lines did bus tours and they missed some of the very important port cities they were looking to do.  In fact one cruise on AMA didn’t even go into Germany for the Christmas markets.  They were driven in coach from Basel to Amsterdam where they did the altered itinerary.  What they were offering us gave us a choice.  That was very fair of them.

One cruise didn’t even go into Germany but instead went by motorcoach to Antwerp where they would meet their ship.

My friend and I decided that we would do the altered itinerary with the free cruise to use later.  We began researching some of the new cities we would be sailing into.  We decided that we would take the full day tour to Bruges which was exciting to me – a city that I really liked and wanted to show my friend.  Blogger Hubby and I were deciding where we wanted to go on my free cruise – we had decided on the Bordeaux region of France.  This trip, although not what we had booked, began to get a little exciting.  Yes, we were going to miss Strasbourg, Cologne, Heidelberg but we would go to the area of windmills in the Netherlands, we would go to Bruges, Rotterdam and other places in the lowlands that I had never been.

Our altered itinerary was similar to this, excluding Hoorn

Two days before our departure we received another email telling us that the original cruise was back on, the offer of a free cruise and the altered itinerary was rescinded.  It had rained sufficiently that marine traffic had resumed on the Rhine .  WOW, I felt like the little girl in the Exorcist with my head spinning around.  I had lost the free cruise, the windmills, Bruges and now back to the original itinerary that I was originally excited about but now, it seemed like the glow and sparkle was quite a bit tarnished.  My friend and I decided that there was some mourning naturally but by the time we would get to the airport, we would be excited again.  We felt bad for those who had taken the option of canceling the cruise.

Wrapping this up, don’t rely on the cruise lines to to you up to date.  Join CruiseCritic and go to the river cruising thread.  You will be educated more than you probably wanted to be.  When booking your cruise, look to see if there is another ship with the same line leaving on the same day as your cruise but from the port city where you would be disembarking from.  I say that because it could allow a ship swap if there is low or high water.  Our ship had no “sister” ship with to swap so we were offered the alternate itinerary.  Some cruise lines would cancel this sailing but AMA offered something else.  How comfortable are you with this.  Finally, AMA did it right – rather than cancelling, they offered the altered itinerary.  For those that just wanted the Christmas markets and nothing else, they allowed them to cancel with no penalty.  They are the only cruise line that gave us choices and that means a lot to me.

UPDATE:  I “guessed” at the email address of the owner of AMAWaterways and told him how disappointed I was in AMAWaterways for the lack of communication with us and how the excitement of the trip was very diminished.  He wrote back and asked how I would have handled it and I told him.  One of my main points is when they sent us the letter “confirming” we would not be sailing on the Rhine they did not reserve the right to go back to the original itinerary if conditions changed – which they did.  To me, that was a sticking point and it caused a number of people to cancel and then some who had cancelled decided to rebook, again at the last minute, to do this cruise.

 

What to Do in Montevideo

So many questions have been asked on CruiseCritic.com about what to do in Montevideo and I’ll admit that for most of my pre cruise planning, I didn’t have any plans.  Of course, I did make some plans within a couple of months of departure but first let me tell you a little something about Montevideo.

Montevideo is an industrial port yet it is very convenient to leave and return to the ship.  The ship docks in a very convenient location to the downtown area so you can just get off and walk and I think that was the consensus of what many passengers were going to do.  I do know a couple who arranged a winery tour as well as others who went to Colonia to take the ferry across the Rio de la Plata river, which some consider being the widest river in the world while others consider it to be an estuary or bay.

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The busy port of Montevideo.

I decided about two months prior to our arrival to organize a city tour of Montevideo.  The tour was scheduled to be about 3 1/2 hours long and I was quoted a price of $40 per person but the price would go down as more people signed up for it.  I listed it on our Roll Call excursion sheet and I quickly found others were looking for something to do too.  I quickly closed the group at 20 participants and the price went down to $25 per person due to the number who had signed up and I went free as I organized it.   I don’t remember the tour company but I made the arrangements through reservas@uruguias.com.uy

This company was very flexible as I had to send a message the morning of the cruise that our ship would be delayed and gave a time we could meet them.  I hoped they would get the message and would be available at the new time.

Once we arrived I had a few hours before our appointed time for our tour and I took advantage of this time to do some shopping.  If you walk off the ship to the end of the dock and then turn left toward the town, cross over the street and you will see street vendors.  I purchased some beautiful wraps to wear, mittens, hats and a few trinkets.  Running through my head was “how can I pack all this in my suitcase?”  Nevertheless, I persisted in purchasing mementoes of this trip.

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Our welcome sign near the entrance to the port
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Lots of vendors selling their wares to us.

At our appointed time and location,  a beautiful air conditioned bus arrived and with only twenty of us on the bus, we had plenty of room to move about.  Our tour guide was a little nervous since we were what he called a large group but since we were quite familiar to each other at this time having been on numerous private excursions as well as seeing each other around the boat, we ended up being a very easy group for our tour guide.

As we traveled throughout the city of Montevideo our guide told us the history of his country and also of the lawsuit filed by Philip Morris against the President of Uruguay.  This is a very modern country which ranks first in Latin America for democracy, low corruption and peace as well as first in prosperity.  One interesting piece ofd information our tour driver told us was that a former president of the country who was also an oncologist, enacted strong anti smoking legislation.  Phillip Morris International filed a twenty five million dollar claim against the president claiming that the legislation devalued its cigarette trademarks and investments and  sued Uruguay for compensation in the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a part of the World Bank.  After six long years, the World Bank ruled in favor of Uruguay and Phillip Morris had to pay the defendants and the court their costs plus seven million dollars to the country for judicial expenses as well as other expenses.  Uruguay is a leader in the world in it campaign against smoking.

On our tour we drove through the Old City, Independence Plaza, their famous Metropolitan Cathedral, the covered market area, the soccer fields, the Japanese Gardens, the beachfront where the large MONTEVIDEO sign is located and so much more.  I felt like Montevideo was more of ann European country with the plazas, tree lined streets, and cafes.  I really enjoyed the sculpture of the covered wagon with the oxen pulling it depicting how the settlers arrived.  We really packed in what we saw in the 3 1/2 hour tour.  Hope you enjoy these pictures.

Coming up sometime next week is Buenos Aires and also Iguazu Falls both in Argentina and Brazil

 

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One of the shady plazas throughout the city

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Japanese Gardens

Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Sorry for the delay in writing about the rest of the ports of call on this cruise.  We had our young grandchildren come stay with us and for any of you who have young grandchildren, you can probably guess that I went to bed right after they did.  Fun times, great memories coupled with exhaustion.

Puerto Madryn was the other port we weren’t sure what to do.  We had just taken a wonderful tour to see the penguins in the Falkland Islands which included a two hour drive to the penguins and then another two hour drive back.  Many of the tours that were offered in Puerto Madryn, also entailed about a two hour journey. to and from the site.  We planned nothing and was going to wait and see.  We really didn’t want to have another four hour journey day.  Remember, I said we planned nothing but as you know the best laid plans of mice and men go awry and so did mine.

The two excursions that I had been thinking about was Punto Tombo and Peninsula Valdes.  On one hand I wanted to see all the wildlife that was available for viewing during this cruise and in my mind, if we were not able to make it to the Falklands then this would be the next spot.  On the other hand, it would mean two long days.

With a friend cancelling out of her Peninsula Valdes excursion, I decided at the last minute (as we walked off the gangplank) that I would take her spot.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and I find that I’m drawn to them.  Since they have that designation they must be worthwhile.  The mainly barren peninsula covers almost 900,000 acres  of “headlands, salt water lakes, depressions and rocky cliffs jutting 30 miles into the Atlantic” (Princess excursion description).  Blogger Hubby decided he would stay in port, take a walk around the beach and just explore on his own.

Friends and I  were looking for the tour guides from the company that this excursion was booked with as they were holding the blue balloons – a very good visual for us finding them as the dock is quite congested.  We all got into a mini bus and out the city we went.  We passed desolate looking areas with  very few homes.  Very little in the way of services here.  It reminded me of a desert area with some brush vegetation.  We did spot a few guanaco herds that to me reminded me of alpacas though I think I read somewhere that they are in the camel family.  We did stop in a Visitor Center and looked around at the exhibits that they had and purchased a few items in their small gift shop.

This was probably, for me, the most disappointing excursion that I had taken on this cruise.  To be fair, I think any of the excursions would have been a disappointment after the penguin experience we had in the Falkland Islands.  I found that the few penguins we saw, perhaps four, were behind a divider, which is not a problem.  The other wildlife was so far away I had to use a zoom lens to try to see them.  That was what was disappointing.  The scenery along the coast was beautiful with bluffs that we looked down to the Atlantic Ocean.  There was one area where we had a boardwalk but again, the animals were quite a distance away.  

As you look through some of these photos that I took, you’ll see how high the bluffs are and where the wildlife is around the shore.  In one spot, there were a lot of young sea lions and a few adults around a little tidal pool.  We jokingly thought it was a sea lion day care center and the pups were learning how to swim in this tidal pool.

After our time here we had some time left over and we went to the little seaside town on Puerto Piramides to use the restroom, buy some ice cream or just stretch our legs.  There really wasn’t much to see or do.  Probably a 10-15 minute stop, if at all, would have been plenty.  Following the stop we drove back to town.  

By this time the wind was picking up somewhat and we weren’t surprised to hear that we wouldn’t be leaving on time.  Even though our ship was tied up, the way the wind and water were moving, we kept hitting the dock.  Eventually we left 7 hours later.  With the late departure, we would have a later arrival in Montevideo, our next port of call.

The Falkland Islands

This is it…THE port I was waiting for.  I put a lot of time and preparation leading up to our private excursion and I was so excited.  This was a place that was off the beaten path, a location that none of my friends had been to.  All of this would be new to me.

Deciding what to do was easy for me – I wanted to, make that needed to see the penguins.  Sure, I’ve seen them in aquarium shows and at the zoo but seeing them in their natural habitat is something else.

I spent a lot of time researching which company to go with.  I read countless reviews and settled upon Patrick Watts.  I began writing to him about 14 months prior to our cruise.  I wanted in with his group.  As I mentioned before, I took a group of friends with me so automatically he would have sixteen reservations.  I wrote to him about concerns with one in my group who had mobility issues?  How bumpy would the ride be when we are off roading?  He was patient and told me that yes, it would be bumpy but not awful as his drivers take time and do not race across the roadless land.  He would work with the person with mobility issues – just keep him apprised of her needs.

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On the hill in the entrance are names of British ships sent to protect the Falklands. They are written in white stones.

I posted about this excursion on my Cruise Critic Roll Call and said I had seats open. People started signing up and then I would send the names to Patrick.  We each had a list of who was coming through the Roll Call.  About seven months before our excursion Patrick notified me that the landowner was cutting down on the number of visitors to her property where the penguins lived.  That meant that the daily limit was plummeting from about 120 to 60 with his group, and his group was the largest .  I was already at 48 and he had 12 that wrote to him outside of the Roll Call so that was it.  We couldn’t take anymore.  I’m telling you this because if you plan on doing it with Patrick, you cannot wait to book your trip with him.  Princess offers one tour with a maximum of four people at a cost of around $375.00. Patrick’s fee for my group, which received a discount was $170 but for most other groups it was around $200 – quite a savings.

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Meeting on the dock in front of the Visitor Center

It was important to Patrick that my group all try to be on the first tender so we have more time.  I called everyone while on the boat and told them to be in line for the tender tickets about 30-45 minutes prior to them opening up the tender lines.  Everyone did as asked and we were congratulated by Patrick.  He said my group was the only one ever when we all got off the same tender.  Due to my organization with Patrick, keeping him updated on cancellations/talking with him for additions he gave us the lowest rate of any group and discounted my ticket and my husband’s.

By the way, Patrick has some fame in the Falklands as he was the radio station manager when the islands were invaded by Argentina and began the Falkland Island Wars. He had learned about the impeding invasion the day before it occurred and  stayed on the station giving information to the islanders without frightening them too much.  The next morning the Argentinian soldiers arrived and forced him with a gun to his back to go on the radio and deliver the Argentinian propaganda, tapes and music that they wanted him to play.

We met Patrick on the dock when we got off the tender and he took roll call.  He began by assigning passengers in groups of 4 to a driver in a 4 x 4 and off they went.  It took us about an hour on road to reach the spot when the landowners property began and we were off the road.  There were bathrooms for our use at the mid way spot.  After that, although we were only going about 7 miles it took an hour.   There literally was no road.  We’d go up hills, down hills, over ruts in the property.  At one point the driver got out of the car and put two pieces of wood across the gully and we drove across it.  Sometimes we couldn’t believe what we were driving on as well as how long it took – be prepared.

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This is the halfway spot where we could stretch our legs and use the restrooms
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photo courtesy of Stan Ellison

As we drove along our driver told us that most of the settlement on the East Island, where we were, was along the coast.  Many sheep farmers would wait for the boats to come and pick up the sheep fur (shearing?) and sell it for them.  Once the war came, they realized that they had very few roads, particularly inland.  After the war, they set about building roads, although there are still few roads.  We learned about their health care, their education and so much more about life as an islander.

We pulled up to the spot and couldn’t believe all the penguins.  They have three types of penguins here at Volunteer Point; the stately King penguin, the gentoo penguin and the Magellanic penguin.  There were about 1,000 penguins here and when we got out of the vehicle we could hear them and smell them.  Yes, there was an odor and although it was always there it didn’t bother most of us as much as when we first got there.  We got used to it.

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There is a large white rock circle where many of the King penguins seems to stay in.  The Magellanic penguins had the burrows in the sand by the beach since they are burrowing penguins.  The gentoos were off to the side of the Kings and it seemed like the groups of penguins did not intermingle.  We were not allowed to enter the white rock circle – off limits to humans- nor were we encouraged to reach out to the penguins.  We could sit and wait for them to approach us which they would do sometimes since they were curious.P1060190IMG_3864P1030214

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Egg on the penguins feet keeping it warm
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Can you see the bump at the bottom? That’s the egg being carried on the penguins feet.

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Looking at the Kings we could see many chicks being fed by their parents as well as eggs on the feet of their waiting to crack open.  Many of the gentoo penguins were molting and you could see fluffy down all around.

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Gentoos molting – feathers everywhere
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A young chick being fed by his parent.

After we spent several hours marveling at all these penguins, it was time to get back into our 4 x 4, eat our sack lunch that we were given by our driver and head back over the bumpy land, go to the halfway station, get on the paved road and go to town.  Our driver began telling us about his personal life, took us by his home.  He drove us by the school where his children attend school and his wife works.  Great Britain is very supportive of these families that live in the Falkland.  If they need more medical care than what they can get on the islands, they are flown for free to Great Britain and are given lodging while they seek treatment.  The Islanders that I spoke with are very resentful of Argentina and they were very frightened when they were invaded, particularly those in Port Stanley, the largest city.  They have erected a sculpture of Margaret Thatcher for sending the British navy to the Falklands to protect it and keep it under British rule.P1030229P1030239P1030237

Hope you enjoyed my visit to the Falklands – a very unique and friendly place to visit.  If you want to book with Patrick here is his email:  pwatts@horizon.co.fk

I received no compensation for mentioning the tour or Patrick’s name.  I just had such a great time that I wanted to share it.  This is true of my entire blog – I have not received one penny from writing about my experiences – they truly are my opinions and my opinions only.

Glaciers, Fjords and Cape Horn

WARNING:  This post has many photos of Cape Horn and cruising the fjords of Chile.

When I began researching the trip I had read somewhere that there are more glaciers in Chile than all of Scandinavia.  I haven’t been to Glacier National Park yet to see those glaciers but have been on an Alaskan cruise and saw my first glacier there.  Here was an opportunity to see glaciers again – while there are still some on this planet of ours.

As like other important “must see” events on cruises, this occurred before breakfast with the sun barely risen over the Andes Mountains.  We dressed warmly and headed outside to view the glaciers.  Hats and mittens kept us warm with mugs of steaming coffee or tea.  On my Alaskan cruise we were met outside with Irish coffee but that was not the case on this ship.   Although you could see the glaciers from  your balcony,  you just didn’t experience the sense of seeing them all around you – just the forward view and a little to the side.  We HAD to go outside to experience them.  The local lecturer, Julio,  was on the speaker though it was a little difficult to hear as the speakers, in my opinion, were not strong enough to carry along the top open air decks.  Additionally he spoke in English and then also in Spanish.  I didn’t know when to make sure I was listening to him.  In my opinion, it would have been better to have two speakers with distinctive voices so you knew who and which language you were listening to.

With the sun not quite out and the tall, grey stone mountains blocking them made it  difficult to get good pictures.  Eventually it cleared but for the most part we were past the glaciers.

Some people missed the opportunity to see Amalia Glacier and the other glaciers  because they didn’t read the Princess Patter (the daily calendar of activities) and know what time we would be passing by.  Make sure you read your daily activities newsletter!

CAPE HORN – To begin with, we never cruised around the island which was a disappointment for me.   Supposedly it was rough on the other side though the waters we were in, in my opinion, was not very rough.  I have been in rougher waters – the west side of New Zealand as winds came whipping up from Antarctica.  I also took a cruise in the fall where we going up to New England and hit the remnants of Hurricane Jose on the way up and the remnants of Hurricane Maria on the way back.  I had heard that only one cruise went around the island and that is when this captain was not on the ship.

During one of the onboard lectures were we shown photographs of Cape Horn with the military building on it and the well known sculpture of an albatross which is a memorial to all sailors who were lost at sea in the Cape Horn area.  If you bring your binoculars like we did or have a strong zoom lens on your camera you will be able to see it.  On Cape Horn is the lighthouse warning ships about the rocky islands as well as a station of the Chilean Navy.  Living in the lighthouse is lonesome and if I remember correctly they rotate about every 6 months with new lighthouse keepers.  Some small expedition ships will launch zodiacs and get you to Cape Horn, climbing up the many, many steps to the top and down the boardwalk to the albatross memorial.  Not sure if I would want to do that though obviously they wouldn’t go in bad weather.

Many of the Cape Horn photos are courtesy of Lea Ann Sugg

Ushuaia – Southernmost City in the World

There were several ports that I was excited for different reasons to visit and Ushuaia was one of them.  This is the southernmost city in the world and the furthest from the equator I have ever traveled.  Years ago I sailed around the South Island of New Zealand and thought that I was really south then but this is so much more.

There were many good excursion opportunities here and yet, we could only do one.  Should we do the train to the end of the world?  Take a tour in Torres del Paine and see the national park.  They were all so tempting but what I did was to rent a 26 passenger boat through Patagonia Adventure Explorers.  I rented the entire boat!  I ran the Roll Call on Cruise Critic for this cruise and I knew that I could fill all those seats and I did, very easily.  The price was $1350 AR (about $70 USD) and you could pay by credit card or cash at their stand by the dock.  I did have to pay a deposit of $25 per person and every single person paid me back.  For several, they paid me on the cruise which we had pre-arranged since they lived either in Canada or the UK and couldn’t easily send me the money in US dollars.  For those who read my blog for credit card point advice, paying the $25 pp deposit  with my credit card gave me three points per dollar spent with the credit card I used as it was coded “travel”.  Back to the story.

The departure was at 3:00 in the afternoon which gave us time after we docked to walk around the area, go to the local crafter’s market (walk to the left of the cruise ship), take photos of the Andes overlooking the town, purchase some postcards and stamps.  Stamps are very expensive – I think for six postcards and stamps it cost us about $60 USD.  There is a mail drop as you walk back to the ship on the pier.  Ushuaia had more shops than I thought they would as well as hostels for those exploring Patagonia.  There was even a Hard Rock Cafe.

TIP –  Across from where the tour vendors have set up shop is an information office.  If you go inside you can ask for a certificate that you went to the End of the World. I’m glad we did because the ship did not give us anything – either going to the end of the World or going to Cape Horn.  Make sure you bring a folder to put this full size certificate in.  While you are there, consider making a small donation to the Tourist Information Office.

We boarded the ship and off we went.  Since it was filled with people  in the Roll Call and we had met a few days earlier at the Meet and Greet, we all felt like we knew each other and it made for a fun time.  Going out in the Beagle Channel on a small boat enabled us to get up close to some of the Channel island where some of the wildlife live.  We were able to get up close and personal.  Once again, the weather favored us with smooth water, very little wind and brilliant blue skies – what could be more perfect.  You could sit inside, outside or on top!  There was plenty of room for us to move around on and for all of us to get the photos that we wanted.  We had a wonderful tour guide who grew up in Ushuaia and knew all about the history here, climate and change that has been happening in the Ushuaia area with tourists and cruise ships.

The first island we went to we all thought was inhabited with penguins but they were in fact cormorants – thousands of them.  Lying  in the middle was a big old sea lion.  Speaking of sea lions, do you know how to tell the difference between a seal and a sea lion.  Seals have ear holes with no flap covering their ears; small flippers and wiggle on their bellies to get around.  Sea lions have ear flaps, and much larger flippers which they use to walk on.  So, if you see one walking on its flippers, you know that it is a sea lion.

On some of the other islands, we would see the sea lions lazily resting on these hard rock surfaces.  I have no idea how they could get comfortable there but they seemed to be.  Some of the sea lions even appear to be posing for us.

We circled around the Lighthouse at the End of the World, also known as Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse which is on one of the northeastern-most island of the five or more Les Eclaireurs islands in Beagle Channel.As we were sailing to another island where we would get out and take a hike, we went inside and was served a local liquor with biscuits to eat.  As we were eating and drinking our guide held up a map and told us stories about where we had been and where we were going.  He also told us about the native population and how there are only a few  true natives left.

We got to the island, stepped out and given a short lesson on the fauna and flora of the island.  It was windy here on the island.  It had a short easy hike to the top or, you could have stayed on the ship as a member of my group did.  

Even though we were going to be spending 14 days at sea, taking a small boat excursion in the Beagle Channel brought up closer to the wildlife than we would get on almost all of our excursions.  Learning the history of the area from our guide added to our learning about this area.

I highly recommend you join your Roll Call on Cruise Critic to find opportunities like this that others have organized or organize one yourself like I did.  The great part about that is you get to set the agenda and decide what your group will see and do.

Next:  Glaciers and Cape Horn

 

Punta Arenas, Chile

One aspect of the Emerald Princess that I really enjoyed on this South American cruise was the, for the lack of a better word, a lecture series.  One of the lecturers was from South America and he would give a port talk each day.  Having been on many other cruises and cruise lines, that usually translates to port shopping.  You know where they tell us to shop at Diamonds International or purchase a shirt from Del Sol.  I stay away from those talks like the plague – just my opinion.

With that being my impression I actually skipped the first port talk – BIG mistake.  Blogger Hubby went and reported back that it was very interesting and it was actually about the city we were docking in and what was around it, what we should see and do.  There was no talk of selling excursions or which one you should take.  It was information, imagine that!

With that in mind, I did not miss the next one which was on Punta Arenas, Chile.  This was a port that we had nothing planned and was going to just wing it.  After showing us photos of the town and what laid just outside the town we felt more confident in our decision to just walk around.  Punta Arenas is on the Strait of Magellan which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean.  It is a beginning point for many expeditions into the surrounding area of Patagonia as well as a jumping off point for travel to Antarctica.


Standing alongside the Strait of Magellan

As we disembarked from our tender, we notice a small terminal building where we could make purchases but for us we decided to look in town.


Terminal Building in Punta Arenas

This sprawling city was just a 10-15 minute easy walk from where we were docked.  After wandering and poking in stores a little bit we finally made it to the town square where there was a large monument of Ferdinand Magellan.

In South America, one of my goals was to buy alpaca yarn to bring home and hopefully knit some socks, a hat or a sweater.  As you are entering the town square coming from the dock go up the street to the left of the monument and in the second or third block there is a store that has lots of hats in the window.  The store doesn’t look like much but don’t let that deter you from going inside.  Their hats and sweaters were made and knitted in the style of traditional patterns.  They had ponchos, jackets, mittens, etc.  I found was able to purchase a beautiful hat and some yarn to bring home.  Yarn can be bulky but it weighs next to nothing.

Following our lecture’s advice, we hailed a cab and had him take us to the Nao Victoria Museum where they had replicas of famous ships.  It was about $8 and when we got there he had another driver ask us if we wanted him to stay there and wait for us – price would be $15.  We quickly said yes as we were about 8 km from town.

Magellan’s ship – Victoria
full view of Victoria

At the outdoor museum there was a replica of Ferdinand Magellan’s ship, The Victoria.  When you see the size of it and think about his journey about the world it is just simply amazing.  There is no other way to describe the small cramped quarters, this small ship that sailed down the western coast of Africa, crossing  the Atlantic Ocean, through the treacherous Straits and other bodies of water as he was looking for a westward route through South America, across the Pacific and Indian Oceans and up the west coast of Africa again.  What these explorers did with 16th century navigation and tools is astonishing tome.

The life boat used by Shackleton to get help for his crew

The museum also houses the James Caird lifeboat of the Endurance, which sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed 1916 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The feat, considered by many to be the most impressive of all global navigation, has gone down in history and is brilliantly recounted in Shackleton’s personal account, South: The Endurance Expedition.  Angela, the other lecturer on board the ship, gave a presentation on Ernest Shackleton as well as the expedition.  Seeing the boat and knowing the conditions that these men sailed in to find help for their crew mates is astonishing.

The other ship that we looked at was Charles Darwin’s Beagle.  The first voyage of the Darwin saw it conducting a survey around Tierra del Fuego.  Charles Darwin wrote his diary on the second voyage with illustrations and notes about what he saw. 

This outdoor museum is well worth the time and money to visit.  As I mentioned, it cost us about $5 USD for our cab driver to take us there, wait and then take me to a grocery store to purchase some wine to bring on board and take us back to the dock.  In my mind, that is quite affordable.  Unfortunately I do not remember the price to get into the museum.  I would say to spend less than an hour here.  For me, it was exciting to stand along the Strait of Magellan – I mean, I remember learning about this strait that connected the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean with Magellan being the first European to sail it.

As a side note:  do you know what Tierra del Fuego means?  Land of Fire.  The native population of Tierra del Fuego wore very little clothing and when you think of the terrain you’ll know why.  To keep themselves warm they would have many little fires all around.  The Europeans when they came to this land would see the flickering light at night and it became known Tierra del Fuego – Land of Fire.

Although I wore my packable down jacket with a sweater underneath, it was never zipped and half the time I took it off and put it in its bag.  I think instead I cold have worn a wind breaker.  We were extremely fortunate with weather during this cruise – we never had rain, or extreme cold. The most we had was cool/ very cool and windy (Falkland Islands) but not knowing what the weather is like you will have to layer and be prepared.  The Emerald Princess did sell some reasonably priced jackets if you needed something more than what you brought with you.

Next Up – Ushuaia, Argentina

Puerto Montt, Chile

Excursions in General – my viewpoint

For us one of the most challenging aspects of cruising is finding the perfect excursion at the price point that you want and the number of people that you are comfortable with.

There are what I call two schools of thought on excursions. Some cruisers will only go on cruise line excursions thinking that if they are late the ship will wait for them and they feel safe with that knowledge. Others feel that cruise line excursions are over priced and large.

Let me first debunk the thought that the cruise line will wait for you. They will TRY to wait if they are able to but there is NO GUARANTEE. What a cruise sponsored excursion will do is to get you to your next port of call with no expense to you. Cruise sponsored excursions tend to use 45 passenger buses and what I have found the few times that I have used them – there is ALWAYS some person who thinks that the time to be on the bus does not apply to them.

From my experience of probably taking 25 or more cruises and excursions, I have never once been late or had to run to get up the gangway before they pulled it inside. To me, I have a few rules – I always tell the tour company/driver a time that I have to be back about 45 minutes to an hour before I need to be. giving myself a cushion just in case there are problems.  Secondly, I read reviews of tour operators both on the Cruise Cruise Ports of Call thread as well as Trip Advisor tours/guides. I also correspond with the tour guides well in advance of our trip making sure that we are on the same page, and going over the time we need to be back. Again, earlier than I need to be.

As you might be able to tell, I enjoy booking my own excursion so I can see or do what I would like to. I feel fortunate that I am able to share these private excursions with my cruise’s Roll Call found on Cruise Critic. They tend to be like minded people who also want a smaller, more intimate experience for either the same price or most often, a less expensive price. The excursions that I will be writing about will primarily be ones that I booked and for the one that I took that was a ship’s excursion, I will identify it.

Puerto Montt
Our first stop after departing San Antonio was the city of Puerto Montt. There was no one thing that I wanted to see here but more of an overview of this part of the country. I worked with Patagonia Austral in booking a 45 passenger bus but limiting it to 35 passengers. Our itinerary was to visit Petrohué Falls & Todos los Santos Lake and the city of Puerto Montt. The tour left Puerto Montt toward Puerto Varas, known as the City of Roses, and stopped at the main square to view Lake Llanquihue with a photo opportunity of the Lake and Osorno Volcano.

The volcano was a beautiful snow capped mountain overlooking the lake. We kept taking photos through the bus window since it was so serene and scenic.  We then continued to Ensenada, stopping at the lookout “Los Riscos” on Lake Llanquihue to view Osorno Volcano and more photo opportunities.

We then proceeded to the Crater “Green Lake” before returning to Ensenada to enjoy the included buffet lunch.

photo courtesy of Stan Ellison

South Americans love their barbeque, even more so than many Americans do and their assortment of grilled meats was almost never ending. In addition, long tables of many different salads for us to eat. Finally, the desserts…oh my! There were so many, all different. Nobody’s sweet tooth went unanswered.

location of our luncheon
meat on the spit
salads and side dishes
Sweets

After lunch we went to Petrohue Falls in the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park. We walked along the path with our tour guide telling us about the area. We saw some beautiful but small waterfalls and rushing waters. This park was Blogger Hubby’s favorite since it was one of their national parks.

We had some extra time since my group was very good at getting back to the bus on time so our guide had the driver take us to Puerto Varas for some shopping time, walk to the Lake or just wander around for a little bit.  Women had alpaca and jewelry on their minds while the men held the bags and hoped that they weren’t spending too much this early in the trip. They had some very nice things in these stores and I wished I hadn’t waited to see what else there would be further along in the trip. Chile is where you can get alpaca products so purchase in Chile and not try to find something in Argentina at the end of the trip (side note: we were cruising from the west coast to the east coast).

the lake at Puerto Varas

In the square the musicians were playing traditional music as they tried to sell some of us their CD’s. We found a park bench, listened to the music as we looked over the lake – certainly a peaceful feeling in a picturesque part of Chile. I would definitely go back to Puerto Varas along the lake for a short vacation if I was to return to this part of Chile.

The tour was $70 per person. Our tour guide gave us all a bottle of water and maps of the area. Since I organized the tour and filled the bus, my husband and I were given discounts. I found them easy to work with and we stayed in good communication with each other. For payment, they, like most of the other tour vendors on this trip wanted US dollars in large denominations that were clean, unmarked and no folds to them. Apparently their banks will not accept the bills that way. I did have to provide to them a list of those going on this tour, their nationality and their passport number. I found out later as I was working with other tour operators that this is not unusual in Chile.

I did not receive any payment from Patagonia Austral for this blog post. These are strictly my comments. I would recommend them if your cruise stops at Puerto Montt.  You can reach them at :

www.patagoniaaustral.cl 
P U E R T O  V A R A S  –  C H I L E

As I mentioned above, the tour cost us $70 and the Princess cruise that was most like this charged $159. We got back in plenty of time to stand in line to take a tender back. While you are in the terminal building, look around at craft items that locals are selling.

The Emerald Princess

If you read my previous blog post, you are aware that we took a two week South American cruise.  I have cruised quite a bit but this was only my second time with Princess and the first in sixteen years. I will say I was a little apprehensive about the cruise line and the ship.  Would I like it?  How would it compare to the other cruise lines I have sailed on?  What would the food be like?  I’ll address all those questions as we get further into future blog posts but for right now, I’m going to share some photos that Stan, a member of my group took of the Emerald Princess.  Hope you enjoy and if you have any questions, please feel free to make a comment and I will reply on the blog.DSC00463

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Beginning our Pre Cruise tour of South America

This past year Blogger Hubby and I went on a Princess Cruise around the southern tip of South America.  We have been to the other famous cape, Cape of Good Hope and now we wanted to see Cape Horn – the infamous cape that stories have been written about.

We like traveling with friends in a group and I like to organize trips and excursions so I opened up our vacation and asked friends to come with us.  My travel agent, Michelle, took care of all the group details.   For this trip there were a total of 16 of us and everyone had a connection to someone else.  A few in my group did the pre cruise with Princess, others went off on their own and a few did what Blogger Hubby and I did.  We were all looking forward to catching up with each other on the ship.

Our cruise was initially embarking in Valparaiso, Chile but was changed a few months prior to our cruise as did many other cruise lines.  The new port was in San Antonio and was a working, industrial port.  They were not really set up for overnight guests though there were a few two star hotels located there.  Nevertheless, our plans were already in place and since we had invested so much time and effort in planning our pre cruise time and excursions.

We began our pre cruise land tour in Santiago, Chile and other than a pre arranged bike tour of the city, we did the city on our own.  We rode through the city and spent time in their market.  Ten of us stayed at the Crowne Plaza which was very central for us and I would recommend it.  We had very good breakfasts there and a nice size lounge area near the bar where we could sit and talk about our plans for the day/evening.  We rode the HOHO bus (Hop On Hop Off) and got an overview of the city.  We paid extra to include the funicular and tram to the HOHO bus ticket which afforded a beautiful view of this city that is trying to modernize as well as the rugged Andes Mountains.  We were really in South America – a trip we had been planning for about 18 months!P1050997

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It was recommended by staffers at the hotel that we eat in the Patio Bellavista area which had many restaurant in this courtyard type setting.  This is where we had our first Pisco Sour as well as mint mojitos.  For food was delicious with flavors of this country.

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We had made arrangements months prior to our arrival for a transfer to Vina del Mar that included a tour of the area as well as visiting several Chilean wineries, Valparasio and then Vina del Mar which loosely means Gardens by the Sea.  There were eight of us in the mini bus which transported us from location to location along with a driver and a tour guide.  We went through Guides Chile to book this tour.  The first one was an organic winery but they did not bottle wine.  Instead they sold their grapes to other wineries.  It was very interesting to hear the story of how their grapes were organic, the use of flowers and bees and why they plant certain flowers around certain varieties of grapes.  The second winery was more of the traditional one that you may be use to.  The best part about this stop is that we had our lunch here.  Our guide was so good that we went in as a group and paid for his lunch.  Speaking of the lunch, it was delicious.

We purchased a few bottles of wine to take with us on our ship, Princess Emerald.  Princess and many other cruise lines allow you to take one bottle of wine per person with no charge.  We had decided that we would purchase our wine before and during our trip and then pay the $15 corkage fee so that we could take the wine into the dining room on the ship with us.  We found it to be less expensive than purchasing overpriced wine and we knew what we were ordering and had tasted and like it.  This was our preference though of course you can do what you prefer.

We continued our tour and stopped at an open air market overlooking the coast in Valparaiso.  I wish we had more time there as they had beautiful lapis lazuli, alpaca wraps and so much more.  Our guide heard us speaking of the lapis and he said he would take us to a place that guaranteed that we were getting the “good lapis.  He ended up taking us to a jewelry store where he knew the owners. Of course I’m sure he got a “cut” for taking us there but nevertheless they did have some beautiful stones and many of us made a purchase there.

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We all had booked rooms with points at the Sheraton Miramar in Vina del Mar.  I would highly recommend this hotel as it was the only one that I could see that was on the beach.  It was around the corner from their famous giant floral clock.  As I was Platinum with the hotel chain, they sent up to our room a bottle of Chilean wine and a charcuterie platter.  We enjoyed nibbling on this for the three nights were were there – though to be hoest in was just about gone within a day.  We were able to rent bicycles through the concierge and have them delivered to the hotel for out use. They have an outside patio where we would sit and have afternoon drinks, lunch and even dinner one evening.  We would walk during the day stopping at restaurants along the coast that our concierge had recommended.  One evening we took several cabs to a small local restaurant and had traditional Chilean food.P1060029P1020939P1020924

As you recall, our port of embarkation changed and I needed to find a way to get many of us from Vina del Mar to Port San Antonio – about 90 minutes away.  There were at this time about 12 of us.  I ended up chartering a bus – yes, a full transit bus for the 12 of us.  It cost us $40 each, far less than the transfer that Princess was offering from Santiago, about the same distance away.  The other benefit is that we knew that all of our luggage would fit – some people pack more than others and we did not want a mini bus where some might have to have their luggage on their lap the entire way.  The Sheraton Miramar had no problem with the bus picking us up – took about a total of 15 minutes to get us and our luggage on the bus.  We did ask their permission prior to booking the bus.  We felt like we arrived in style with our own bus.IMG_3485

Traffic in San Antonio – glad we had a driver

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Checking in and getting our room key was quite easy.  By this time we were hungry and headed for the buffet – of course we had to find it first.  After eating we began our tour of the boat, seeing similarities and difference from our ships we have been on.  This was my first time on Princess in 16 years and only the second time I’ve been on Princess.  Almost all ships have something I like, something new to me and some things I don’t care for but flexibility and the willingness to try new things will make your cruise a much better one than endless complaints.

Coming up next, what we did in the ports and how soon you need to book your private excursion.

 

Safety for your Money and Credit Cards while Traveling

One query I get asked often is how do I secure my valuables while shopping or traveling abroad.

I’ve done things like put my cash inside of my shoes.  My son, who I was traveling with, laughed about the poor person who was getting my cash.

I have had the money belts that are worn under my waistband of pants.  They are fine but I find it can be difficult to stand there, pull out the pouch and then look through it to get the credit card or cash that I need.  Finally, I need to tuck it back in under the waistband.  I’ve done the money belt worn under my top garment and it is similar to the waistband pouch. We have purchased pants for my husband that has inside zippers and he supplements that with a rubber band around his wallet.  Our last trip we used a wallet with fake money inside of it.

Other travels  have tried the womens boxers that have a secret compartment that is good for keeping things safe but difficult to get money out when you need it.

A friend of mine introduced me to her scarf that has a zipper in it.  She wears the scarf and keeps money, credit cards and a copy of her passport in it.  She found it in a little shop out west.  Imagine my surprise when I saw it on Amazon.  Screen Shot 2018-06-17 at 3.45.17 PM.jpg

They have it in many colors and different designs. Screen Shot 2018-06-17 at 3.52.11 PM.png

Here is a link to some of these scarves.

What do you use to keep your money and credit cards safe while traveling?

I do not receive a commission or any benefit from writing about there scarves.

Foreign Currency – What’s in Your Wallett?

When Blogger Hubby take a trip, we usually order some foreign currency for us to take at a local bank.  I had an experience where I relied solely on the ATM at the airport and had a problem.  Lesson learned – for us, always travel with some local currency.

That has served us well until now.  With a trip planned to several countries in South America, I was attempting to obtain some Argentinian pesos.  My bank, through their third party foreign currency vendor, was unable to get any currency.  The peso from Argentina is very volatile and no one wants to be “stuck” with them.

10000 pesoNormally I wouldn’t be worried but on this trip I am getting off the cruise ship in a port and getting on a small boat for a harbor tour.  The small boat requires Argentinian money in cash for port charges.  This stop is the first port in Argentina so I don’t have an opportunity to go to an ATM machine prior to this stop.

Fortunately for me, another passenger who is a Canadian resident that I have met through our Cruise Critic Roll Call, was able to get me some money at a currency exchange in Canada.  That will ease my mind.  I think it is going to feel strange to walk around with several $10,000 AR in my wallet – too bad it wasn’t US dollars.  As we travel through Argentina we need to be aware of how much money we get as we don’t want to come home or “be stuck” with any of their currency.  We found that many of the tours that I have booked prefer to be paid in US currency and they want it to be clean, no rips, bends or fold in higher denomination.  Once again, I called the bank and they began holding some currency for me that met the tour operator’s requirements.

When you travel, do you wait till you get to your destination to get money from the ATM machine?  Do you pre order it or do you get it from the airport?  What do you do?  What’s in your wallet?

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Staying at a Hotel during a Special Occasion?

We recently took a trip to Maui and had made reservations to stay at the Hyatt Regency in Maui using points and miles.  This stay was for the four days leading up to a big birthday for me.  Although I wasn’t at the hotel the exact day of my birthday I still wanted to celebrate while there.  Not being home I knew that I wouldn’t have any cards or cake which was fine but I still wanted to celebrate it.

It was suggested to me that I let the hotel know.  To do it, I first googled the name of the general manager and knew that for Hyatt employees their email address is first name.last name@hyatt.com.  I wrote and told them it was my birthday trip, that it was a difficult birthday for me and wondered if they could do something to make it memorable for me. I gave them my dates, my booking number and my Globalist number.  I didn’t ask for an upgrade or anything special other than perhaps a note welcoming us to the hotel.

A few days later I had a response from the assistant to the general manager that they would take care of us.  I was anxious to see what this would mean.

When we arrived we were upgraded to a ocean view corner suite with two balconies.  There was a bottle of champagne in the mini refrigerator, and a gift basket on the console as well as a birthday card signed by about twelve employees.  In the basket was a jar of macadamia nuts, a large box of chocolate covered macadamia, 2 boxes of popcorn with macadamia nuts, 2 cans of tropical juice, a box of cookies, a bag of Maui potato chips.  There was also a platter with four delicious and flavorful cupcakes on a platter that had Happy Birthday written in chocolate with a raspberry jam filled heart.  What a wonderful welcome to Maui. I promptly wrote a thank you to to the woman whose card was in my basket.  I also went to the front desk to see if I could personally thank her and although she was not able to come to the lobby, I did speak with her by telephone to express my surprise and thanks.

While we were making plans for our trip to  Maui our oldest son and his wife were doing the same thing during the same time period only they were going to Kauai.  They too were staying at the Grand Hyatt there.  This is the first time they have been away without their two children.  To mark this special occasion I wrote to the general manager of the Grand Hyatt Kauai.  I explained how it was special for them and could he do something memorable for them.  My son has no status at all yet the general manager reached out to  them with a platter of cheese, crackers, fruit and a bottle of  wine.

From Maui we flew to San Diego and stayed at the Manchester – Grand Hyatt in San Diego.  I had also written the General Manager there as well since I would be arriving on my birthday.  They outdid themselves.  We were upgraded to an extremely large suite with a small kitchenette, a dining room, living room and our bedroom.  The room had floor to ceiling windows and we were overlooking the bay and the Coronado Bridge.  About an hour after we checked in the doorbell rang (yes, we had a doorbell) and there was room service holding a large tray with a bottle of champagne, and the most beautiful cake I had seen in a very long time.  The cakes was three layers covered in whipped cream with fresh fruits and fresh flowers on top.  A white chocolate “plaque” was in front and it said Happy Birthday.  On the tray was candles, matches and a cake cutter.  It was truly amazing.

 

Hotels want to please their guests particularly when they are celebrating something special.  Let them know about your special day, just not the day before, and I’m sure they will do something special for you.

Car Rentals in Hawaii – a Great Discount Site

Most everyone who flies to Hawaii rents a car.  With it being a popular destination, I have found that prices for car rentals can be very expensive.

With our recent trip to Maui, we needed a car to drive from the airport to our hotel and around the island, particularly the Road to Hana.  I had checked prices with Auto Slash and had booked a car with them.  I did get updates if they found a less expensive price.  Then I remember what we did a few years ago when we were last there.  We went through Discount Hawaii Car Rental.  We had a mid size car for 4 days for $123.  I thought that was a great price and we made our reservation.  Like Expedia, Orbitz they are third party intermediaries and our car rental actually was with Thrifty.  When I checked a few weeks before our trip at Costco, the same car was about $450 which reinforced the idea that I got a good rate.  I did book it about two months prior to our arrival.

Where do you rent a car from when in Hawaii?  Do you have a special strategy?

 

Global Entry – An Easier Way to Schedule Your Interview

Many of our friends were surprised that we did not have global entry and to be honest, so am I.  Not living in close proximity to an airport where you could schedule an interview seemed to be my main obstacle.  Yes, we do go to the metro DC area and could schedule one at either Washington Dulles or National Airport but I just never did.  Everything that I had heard about these airports was that they had long waits for interviews – months and months long.

I was speaking with my stepson earlier this month and he was flying to another location to get his Global Entry rather than his home airport.  That gave me an idea and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.  Why not just go to another airport.  As we go to northern Michigan once a year  I knew I would be driving past Detroit Metropolitan Airport on my drive.  I called the contact telephone number at Detroit and they told me that I had to first fill out the application online, a background check would be conducted and that would take about 3 weeks.  Once that was completed, I could call them and set up an interview which could take place about a week later.

Feeling gleeful with this news, I quickly filled out the Global Entry application and my husband did his as well.  Imagine my complete surprise when we were notified four days later that we could go ahead and make the appointment for our 15 minute interview.

We sat down at the kitchen table today to look at our calendar and see when a good date would be to set up our interview.  As I went back online to find the photo number of the office at the airport, I happened to scroll a little further down the screen.  I found that they had a NEXUS office in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan which was a lot closer to us.  I called them up and they gave us an appointment for the next day!  This isn’t even an airport but is by an international bridge into Canada.  From filling out the application to scheduling the appointment, it was been nine days.

I know that most of you are not going to be near an international bridge but if you live near one, see if they can give you an interview faster than at the airport.

We did drive up to Sault Ste. Marie, went into the office and had our “interview”.  It was extremely easy and I am kicking myself that I didn’t do it earlier.

At the Chicago Seminars that I attended  in October, I was sitting at breakfast with Greg, known as the Frequent Miler who writes a great blog on our hobby.  I was telling him about our experience at the bridge at the Soo.  He wondered if they had one in the Buffalo area as he was going to help his niece get her Global Entry.  I looked it up and quickly found that there were two – one in Buffalo and one in Niagara.  To be honest, these locations are not where you would expect them to be.  Most people go here to find locations but I found the other locations by going here.

If you decide to get Global Entry, which also gives you TSA Pre check, look beyond airports particularly if you can get to a state that is bordering another country – it just might be faster.

IHG Pointbreaks – Act Now!

I’ve often written about the IHG brand of hotels and how we are always able to find them wherever we travel.  Although I really like Hyatt, I can’t find Hyatt in many of the locations that I travel to.

The other week I had also written about the 80,000 points for a sign up bonus if you applied for the IHG credit card.  For those that do not remember, IHG hotels include Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Holiday Inn Suites, Staybridge, Candlewood and lots more.

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In addition to their large footprint across the world, they do something else which does help stretch my points.  Once every quarter they “mark down” some of their hotels to just 5,000 points per night.  This is called Pointbreaks.

IHG has just released their list of Pointbreak hotels for this quarter.  They go quickly so if you are interested, I would go to the link,  look at the list and make your reservations now if you find a hotel close to where you will be.

If you do not have any IHG points you can transfer some of your Ultimate Reward points (UR), or purchase some points from IHG.

If you aren’t a member of the IHG Reward Club, I suggest you sign up for it so you will be ready in case you need to transfer points, buy points or get points from a stay.

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The IHG Credit Card, Reward Club and Benefits

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.

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Booking United Tickets for Yourself and Others

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.

When something went wrong at the Airport for Me!!

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.

 

South America Cruise – Come Join Us

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.

 

My Marriott Challenge and What it Gave Me

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

Hyatt Regency Aruba – a Winter Getaway

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

we were the next to the top balcony and the little balcony to the right.

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.

The towel hut and those in line at 3:30 waiting to sign up for a palapa at 4:00
If you want service, turn the 2 color block so green is up; no service, keep the red up

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 Think I’m a Hyatt Gal and Here’s Why

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.  screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-2-02-55-pm

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. screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-2-01-22-pm

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.screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-1-58-39-pm

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?

A Morning in Giverny

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.p1060826

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.

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The grounds looked just like his paintings including the old green rowboat, the bridge, the water lilies.

p1060860I 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.  p1060839

img_1696The 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.p1060881 p1060879 p1060878 p1060870 p1060877

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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.p1060838img_1686p1060837

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.

 

A Cooking Lesson in Paris

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?

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p1060713Blogger 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.

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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.

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p1060722We were instructed in the proper piping method as we piped our mixture onto parchment paper.

p1060729For 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.

p1060734After 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.

p1060738These 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.

 

A First Timer’s Experience in Paris

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 cyclistsp1060558

p1060548We 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?p1060575

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.

p1060637There 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.img_1657

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.p1050103

 

img_1666After 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 .p1060635

p1060633When 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.

p1060648A 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.

funicular going to Sacre Coeur
funicular going to Sacre Coeur

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p1060663Sacre 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.p1060709

 

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.

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Getting to Paris via TGV and our Hotel, Le Metropolitan, a Tribute Hotel from SPG

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.  p1070049

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.

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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 wall about 12 inches from the other side of the bed. If I sat in the chair, you couldn't get past my legs and feet.
There is a wall about 12 inches from the other side of the bed. If I sat in the chair, you couldn’t get past my legs and feet.
If we pulled the bench out to sit on it, so one could get by as we would be blocking the narrow passage
If we pulled the bench out to sit on it, no one could get by

 

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. img_1655 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.img_1654

We would walk down two flights of stairs to go down and everyday we had to walk around the housekeeping cart right by the stairs and the elevator. A little awkward.
We would walk down two flights of stairs to go down and everyday we had to walk around the housekeeping cart right by the stairs and the elevator. A little awkward.

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.img_1649

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.

What to do in Beantown, err I mean Boston

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.img_1947

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.

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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.

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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.  img_1963

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.

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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.img_1962

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.screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-9-42-38-pm

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.

 

 

Lyon – The Gastronomical Capital of France

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.

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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.

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Breakfast room at the Hotel des Artistes. At night it became our card playing area
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Looking out my window at the Hotel des Artistes and seeing 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.

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An antique flea market with Notre Dame on the top of the hill.  About a block down is where we got the funicular for the ride to the top.

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.

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.img_1628

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.p1060529

p1060508We 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.

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p1060523For 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!

 

Truffles Anyone? Visiting a Truffle Farm in the Rhone Valley

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.

smelling the area for that distinctive smell of truffles
smelling the area for that distinctive smell of truffles
staying close to the dog to be able to get the truffle
staying close to the dog to be able to get the truffle

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the size of a truffle
the size of a truffle
in the shop area where we were treated to truffle products